Metaphysics and Emotions

Many scholars and historians have made the argument that the modern West is living on moral currency that it did not earn. Specifically, the modern West subscribes to the moral vision of the Judeo-Christian tradition but has jettisoned the metaphysics that once justified that vision. I've made this observation many times before in this space, so I don't feel I need to rehash it now. 

But lately I've been wondering about the relationship between metaphysics and emotions. Beyond a moral vision, we also inherited emotional inclinations and biases from the Judeo-Christian tradition. These emotions were rooted in a metaphysics. And similar to morality in the modern West, we've retained these feelings but rejected their metaphysical source and rationale. The problem with this situation is that these emotions, without their associated metaphysics, are becoming unsustainable. We find these emotions increasingly exhausting or incomprehensible. 

Consider emotions associated with hope. Christian hope flows out of Christian metaphysics. The metaphysics justifies and sustains this hope. But when you drop the metaphysics hope becomes unsustainable and unjustifiable.

So it's no surprise therefore to find the modern world struggling to sustain hope. We've rejected the metaphysics that made hope possible. Stripped of its metaphysical support and justification, hope is just a feeling we conjure up for ourselves, over and over again. This effort is exhausting. More, we feel a certain falseness in the effort, forcing this made-up feeling, a feeling we feel we're supposed to have but have no idea why. 

We are hope sick and hope weary because we no longer possess the metaphysics that once made hope real and sustainable. We know we should be hopeful, but can't say why anymore.  

On the Shape of Christian Politics

Let us say that the shape of Republican politics and the political right is a round hole. 

And let us also say that the shape of Democratic politics and the political left is a triangular hole. 

Given these geometries, the shape of Christian politics is a square peg. 

When you try to fit the square peg into the circular hole there is quite a bit of overlap. But there is also friction. You can't, ultimately, fit a square peg into a round hole. 

When you try to fit the square peg into the triangular hole there is also quite a bit of overlap. But there is also friction. You can't, ultimately, fit a square peg into a triangular hole. 

Before Roe was overturned the shape of our politics was triangular. Now the shape of our politics is round. What's the Christian view of this new circular arrangement? 

You still can't fit a square peg into a round hole. 

Stated less metaphorically, the Christian political witness is always one of prophetic critique. All politics participates in the Fall and cannot escape vociferous Christian criticism. As we learn in the Old Testament, every new political regime, every new king, gets a prophet. Every David gets a Nathan saying, "You are the man!" Every Ahab gets an Elijah indicting, "You are the troubler of Israel!" Every Herod gets a John the Baptist calling him, "You fox!" Every Nero gets numbered 666. And every nation gets named as a vassal state of Babylon, "the great city that rules over the kings of the earth." (Rev. 17.18)  

The shape of the political holes come and go, none of them fit the square peg of the Christian political witness.

When the shape of politics changes, say from triangular to round or round to triangular, prophetic criticism doesn't go away, it just changes shape. Points of friction that existed between the square peg and the triangular hole might be ameliorated, but this is immediately replaced by different points of friction between the square peg and the round hole. 

Christianity creates prophets, not partisans. The geometries of politics and laws change across time and place, but Christians stubbornly remain square pegs, consistently angry, just differently so, depending upon the shape of the hole they are facing.

The Imperative to Virtue Gap

As I teach and train about spiritual formation one of the things I talk about a lot is what I call "the imperative to virtue gap."

Specifically, when it comes to spiritual formation we tend to traffic in imperatives: "Do this. Be that." We want people to be more kind so we tell everyone, "Be kind." We want people to stoping stressing out so we say, "Don't worry." We want people to love more and say, "Love others." All we do is push imperatives. Do this. Be that. 

But as you know, when you lack the capacities for a particular virtue--from kindness to staying calm--it's pretty impossible to obey the commands. We're expecting performance where there is no skill. We are demanding results where there has been no practice and training.

This is why spiritual practice, formation, training, and discipline are critical. Virtues are habits we acquire, not choices we make at the point of a command. Trouble is, we tend to get stuck on the commands. We tell people how they should think, feel or behave but never get around to the practices that turn these imperatives into virtues.

Show Me Whether the Eyes of Your Mind Can See

A running theme in my reflections over the last few years, summarized by much within Hunting Magic Eels, is the role of perception in encountering God. 

In light of that interest, I came across this quote from Saint Theophilus of Antioch:

If you say, “Show me your God,” I will say to you, “Show me what kind of person you are, and I will show you my God.” 

Show me then whether the eyes of your mind can see, and the ears of your heart can hear. It is like this. Those who can see with the eyes of their bodies are aware of what is happening in this life on earth. They get to know things that are different from each other. They distinguish light and darkness, black and white, ugliness and beauty, elegance and inelegance, proportion and lack of proportion, excess and defect. The same is true of the sounds we hear: high or low or pleasant. So it is with the ears of our heart and the eyes of our mind in their capacity to hear or see God. God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open. 

All have eyes, but some have eyes that are shrouded in darkness, unable to see the light of the sun. Because the blind cannot see it, it does not follow that the sun does not shine. The blind must trace the cause back to themselves and their eyes...

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 26, The Harms of Ideology

In Peterson's long reflections on concentration camps in the final chapter of Maps of Meaning he turns to speak about how ideology thwarts healthy adaptation.

According to Peterson, ideologies block us off from the facts and truths of life, and this rejection of reality interferes with our ability to cope and adapt. Peterson writes (emphases are his):

Ideology confines human potential to a narrow and defined realm. Adaptation undertaken within that realm necessarily remains insufficient, destined to produce misery--as it is only relationship with the transcendent that allows life to retain its savor. Ideology says "it must be thus," but human behavior constantly exceeds its realm of representation; such capacity for exception must therefore be denied, lest faith in ideology vanish, and intolerable chaos reappear. The ideologue says: anomaly means dissolution, dissolution means terror--that which frightens is evil; anomaly is evil. It is not the existence of anomalous information that constitutes evil, however--such information rejuvenates, when properly consumed. Evil is the process by which the significance of the anomaly is denied; the process by which meaning itself--truth itself--is rejected. This rejection means, necessarily, life is rendered unbearable, hellish...

The fact, regardless of content, is not evil; it is mere (terrible) actuality. It is the attitude to the fact that has a moral or immoral nature. There are no evil facts--although there are facts about evil; it is the denial of the unacceptable fact that constitutes evil--at least insofar as human control extends. The suppression of unbearable fact transforms the conservative tendency to preserve into the authoritarian tendency to crush; transforms the liberal wish to transform into the decadent desire to subvert. Confusing evil with the unbearable fact, rather than with the tendency to deny the fact, is like equating good with the static product of heroism, rather than with the dynamic act of heroism itself. Confusion of evil with the fact--the act of blaming the messenger--merely provides rationale for the act of denial, justification for savage repression, and mask of morality for decadence and authoritarianism. 

Here we're bumping into material in Maps of Meaning that has made Peterson such a controversial figure and a hero among free-speech absolutists, the Alt Right and the Intellectual Dark Web. Peterson rose to prominence for his public refusal to comply with Canada's Bill C-16 regarding the use of preferred pronouns for transgender persons. Peterson's public stand against "political correctness" made him both famous and infamous.

On the left, Peterson's "free speech" stand regarding Bill C-16 is considered to be an example of bigotry. But in the passage above, we get a window into Peterson's defense of his actions. 

Peterson's concern regarding Bill C-16 is that if the state begins to control speech--telling us what words we can or cannot use--this will interfere with our ability to seek and speak the truth. Recall in the quote above that Peterson is reflecting on the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia and the Gulag. To be sure, we can debate if Bill C-16 is a form of "soft totalitarianism," as Rod Dreher would argue, or a step toward a more civil and tolerant society, especially for transgender persons. Regardless, the phenomenon Peterson is describing, how ideology refuses to face inconvenient truths, is legitimate. I'm reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed (also titled The Devils or Demons) where we follow a group who become demonically "possessed" by their ideologies, leading to bad ends. It's hard not to look at Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as Peterson does in Maps of Meaning, along with other totalitarian states and revolutionary movements, and conclude that political and nationalistic ideologies have been the greatest source of evil in the modern world. 

My point is that, while it might be hard for some to separate Peterson's actions regarding Bill C-16 from the point he is making, I do think he is making a legitimate argument. Ideological systems do deny reality, making it difficult to adapt successfully to the realities of the world. And to see this, it might be helpful to spread the love around. There are ideologies aplenty. 

For example, just look at free speech and Second Amendment absolutists. The word "absolutist" should be a red flag. "Absolutist" movements are ideologies, people committed to an idea no matter the human cost or toll. In short, many of the people on the right who are huge fans of Jordan Peterson are just as ideological as the people on the left. For every totalitarian on the left there is a fascist on the right. 

Consider, as a different example, my recent post about the Southern Baptist Convention report on sexual abuse. In that post I made the argument that patriarchal power arrangements are unsafe. Following Peterson's quote above, those are the facts. The SBC's own report is evidence of those facts. So why do many Christians groups persist in perpetuating gender hierarchies in denial of those facts? Answer: Ideology. A reading of Scripture is taken as "the truth," in an absolutist way, walled off from and imposed upon human experience, no matter the human cost or toll. This is why I suggested in my post that the SBC spend some time in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, to reflect upon how their hermeneutics intersect with human suffering. As Peterson writes above, it's hard to face up to those facts, but that courage opens us up to more healthy and adaptive choices. Refusing to attend to those facts, however, continues to perpetuate suffering and evil. As Peterson comments, facts aren't evil, it is our "attitude to the fact that has a moral or immoral nature." That's the choice facing the SBC, their attitude toward the facts. 

My attention to the facts of human experience in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is why my theological positions tend to tip toward the progressive, even as I try to distance myself from the various ills and ideologies now "possessing" the progressive Christian camp. Maybe it's because I'm a psychologist, but I constantly attend to the intersection of hermeneutics and harm. To be clear, I don't think this attention destines one to become a "liberal" or "progressive." I just happen to think harm is a useful tool for Biblical discernment. I have crazy ideas like that. And attention to the intersection of hermeneutics and harm, allowing the facts of human experience to affect how you read the Bible, will push you away from ideological readings of Scripture.

Let Me Hold To the Better

“Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. And if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further, and say I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live forevermore believing as those that deny Him.”

--George Macdonald, from the novel Thomas Wingfold, Curate

This is Prayer

The other day when I began to pray I had a mystical experience. 

I say "experience" because it was part sensation and part vision in my mind.

In the vision I was falling, because I had tripped and lost my balance. I saw this, but also felt the sensation of falling. And in the vision I instinctively reached out my hand, as you do, to catch and steady myself. I needed to make contact, immediately, with a chairback, a wall, a handrail. Contact with anything sturdy to prevent my fall. I needed to grasp ahold of something more solid than myself. 

That was the vision/sensation, a flash of feeling and seeing--falling, panic, the urgent need to reach out, extending my hand, making contact, relief.

And then the final part of the experience, a coda, a voice that said, "This is prayer."

Law and Metaphysics: Part 2, Chasing the Horizon

In my discussion with my colleagues, two lawyers and a bible scholar, about metaphysics and law we eventually turned to the issue of natural law.

To catch everyone up, the idea of "natural law" within Christianity comes mostly from the Catholic tradition, Aquinas most especially. The notion here is that human reason can discern certain moral truths through reflection upon the natural world. For Christians, "natural law" is an attempt to perceive God's divine plan within the design of the created order. Many who espouse natural law turn to a passage in Romans 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1.18-20)

In this famous passage St. Paul appears to hold Gentiles morally culpable for failing to obey a moral code which should have been "plain to them" given that God's "invisible qualities...have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made." 

Against this view, Karl Barth famously said "No!" to any sort of natural theology or law, arguing that any knowledge of God that doesn't first and primarily begin and end with God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is illicit and out of bounds. Personally, I lean toward Barth on this. I think it is very hard to read any moral code off of a physical description of the natural world. Further, I think the noetic effects of sin are profound enough that, even if there were a moral logic to be observed in the world, our blinkered and sin-warped minds would fail to read the message plainly.  

All that to say, in my conversations with Andy, Chris and Cliff about law and metaphysics I pushed away the idea that human laws could be critiqued as "unjust" from the position of natural law.

What I argued for instead of natural law is what I'll describe as "meta-law," borrowing an idea from cognitive psychology. In cognitive psychology there is a notion called "meta-cognition," our ability to reflect upon our thoughts in a recursive fashion. The idea is simple enough. You can think about yourself thinking. You can reflect upon your reflections. You can observe yourself observing. And so on, recursively, like a collection of nested Russian dolls. This ability to observe our own thinking is called "meta-cognition," and psychologists think it's at the heart of higher mental function, this ability to "stand back" from our own thoughts in a self-reflective, self-observing manner.

I think something similar is going on with metaphysics and the law. It's not that we can read, transparently and concretely, the Moral Law written on heavenly clouds. We don't see this "higher law" so clearly or crisply. Rather, as with meta-cognition, we tend to assume that law has as a meta-framework. We can step outside of the law to adopt a meta-legal posture of evaluation. 

However, the question soon comes: Where do we find this meta-legal "perch of observation"? Here is where the metaphysics shows up. When engaged in meta-legal reflection, pondering if a law is unjust, we attempt to adopt the vantage of the transcendental notion of justice. To be clear, as noted above, justice, as a transcendental notion, is not clear or transparent to our finite minds. Justice is, rather, a horizon our minds are straining toward, provisionally and experimentally. And crucially, that we cannot reach the horizon doesn't mean the horizon doesn't exist. To engage in meta-legal reflection, therefore, is to push toward this transcendent horizon, asking what justice, as a transcendent ideal, demands in light of current legal arrangements.   

Again, to restate the point, this attempt to push toward the transcendental horizon is experimental and error-prone. We don't see very clearly. But we can assess the fruits of any given meta-legal conclusion. Is the new legal arrangement more or less rational, intelligible, and universal? Pragmatically, what are the effects of the new legal arrangement upon human flourishing? And so forth.

But if that's the case, why do we need recourse to metaphysics at all? Could we not be completely pragmatic about the law, simply adopting better laws to promote flourishing? Yes, of course, one could be wholly pragmatic about the law and ditch the metaphysics. Many legal theorists and lawyers are pragmatists. But for my part, I'd simply suggest that pragmatism isn't wholly satisfactory in light of the issues I raised in the last post. I'd argue that, when push comes to shove, most legal pragmatists are functional Platonists. If fact, most people, if you inquire about justice and the law, are Platonists. The human mind possesses a deep intuition that laws must be evaluated from a transcendental perspective. Not, as I've pointed out above, God writing morals in the sky for us to read, but, rather, the Platonic notion of a transcendental horizon that we cannot reach but are always chasing. 

Law and Metaphysics: Part 1, On Unjust Laws

On a spring break backpacking trip with my colleagues Andy, Chris and Cliff, two lawyers and a Bible scholar, we had a chat about law and metaphysics.

I am fascinated by the relationship between law and metaphysics. Specifically, how is it possible that a law can be called "unjust"? 

Three examples Andy, Chris, Cliff and I talked about. 

First, the Nuremberg war crime trials. How is it possible for one sovereign nation to call into question the laws of another sovereign nation? What is the legal justification for a "crime against humanity"? That is to say, why were the Nuremberg verdicts morally "right" in a way that transcends the criticism that the winners get to write the history books? More simply, were the Nazis "wrong" simply because they lost? Who gets to decide when two nations disagree about some moral truth? 

Second, Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" where King calls attention to the injustice of Jim Crow segregation laws. In the eyes of the law, King was a law-breaker. And yet, we consider King righteous even though he sat in jail. The criminal can be morally correct.

Lastly, the "Higher Law" and the American abolitionist movement. Slavery was enshrined in the US Constitution. And yet, the American abolitionists pointed to a "Higher Law" that stood above and called into question the moral integrity of the Constitution. The US Constitution was morally wrong.

There are many other examples, but these cases illustrate the main point. There exists some moral vantage "beyond" the law that creates an ability to level moral criticisms against current legal arrangements, both within nation states and between nation states. There exists a transcendent vision of justice that cannot be reduced to the sovereign fiats of nation states. Laws can be unjust. The founding documents of sovereign nations can be morally wrong. Victory or loss in war doesn't give you the right to determine what is or is not a crime against humanity. 

In short, we all live with the understanding that there exists a metaphysics of justice that transcends the law.

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 25, The Gulag Archipelago

Having described the Satan archetype, Peterson turns in Maps of Meaning to reflect upon a case study of "the adversary in action." For Peterson, the prime twentieth-century example of the satanic at work in human affairs is the concentration camp. Peterson writes:

The invention, establishment and perfection of the concentration camp, the efficient genocidal machine, might be regarded as the crowning achievement of human technological and cultural endeavor, motivated by resentment and loathing for life...[The concentration camp is] the perfection of the factory whose sole product is death...Such enterprise constitutes, perhaps, the prime accomplishment of the cooperative bureaucratization of hatred, cowardice, and deceit. Tens of millions of innocent people have been dehumanized, enslaved and sacrificed in these efficient disassembly lines, in the course of the last century, to help their oppressors maintain pathological stability and consistency of moral presumption, enforced through terror, motivated by adherence to the lie.

Peterson's reflections upon the evil of concentration camps in Maps of Meaning is extensive. And those who follow Peterson know how important Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago are to his thinking. Peterson quotes Solzhenitsyn extensively in Maps of Meaning.

The centrality of the concentration camps to Peterson's thinking is distinctive. Not many public intellectuals focus so relentlessly upon this depravity. Some might take this to be a morbid fascination in Peterson's thought. I happen to think it is a virtue, and it explains a lot about Peterson's distinctive location in the intellectual ecosystem. 

Simply, Peterson is no liberal humanist. Any optimism we might have entertained about humanity should have died, according to Jordan Peterson, in the ovens of Auschwitz and the snows of the Gulag. I agree with him. When you listen to Peterson talk about The Gulag Archipelago your are hearing sermons on Original Sin and Total Depravity. This pessimistic view of humanity is another reason why Peterson is a conservative thinker, and why many Christians find him a sympathetic conversation partner. 

Additionally, the concentration camps are modern evil. These are atrocities committed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and in the case of the Gulag justified by a materialistic metaphysics. The Gulag Archipelago is a key reason why Peterson won't let atheists wag a moral figure at Christianity.

Finally, at the start of this series I shared that one of the reasons Peterson is such a compelling thinker is that he's playing a high stakes game. Jordan Peterson isn't giving you a TED Talk, sharing a life hack or business tip. Jordan Peterson likes to talk about torture and the gas chambers. Human evil is central to this thinking. And that preoccupation with evil is what makes Peterson a religious thinker.  

Performing the Self

In Hunting Magic Eels I describe what I call "the Ache," the suite of dissatisfactions and emotional ailments we experience in a secular, godless, post-Christian world. As I say in the book, "God may be dead but we sure do miss him."

Since the publication of Hunting Magic Eels I've come to ponder more and more a particular aspect of the Ache, what I'll call "the performance of the self." 

Here's how Matthew Crawford describes the performance of the self in his book The World Beyond Your Head:

Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: the feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one's character...[Today] the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like Kilowatt hours--the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness--weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self. We call this depression.

Alain Ehrenberg describes this as "the weariness of the self," how the performance of the modern self is an exhausting and depleting project. Ehrenberg writes, "Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself."

Summarizing, what I'm describing as "performing the self" is, in the words of Crawford, "the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self" which leads to "the weariness of the self," chronic fatigue at "having to become oneself." 

This modern ailment--performing the self--is one of the reasons mindfulness meditation is experienced by many as such a relief. In practicing mindfulness my ego rests in a non-performative space. I am no longer performing the self, my self is simply present. In Christian contemplative prayer, we practice a similar type of rest. Contemplative prayer is learning to hold the self before God in a non-productive posture. Sabbath is a similar type of non-productive experience, where productivity is set aside for the enjoyment of God, life, and relationships.

The Ambivalence of Solomon

As a part of my annual Bible reading plan, reading through the Bible during the year, I've been in 1 Kings. What struck me going back through the story of Solomon once again was how deeply ambivalent a character Solomon is in the history of Israel.

Mostly, when we think of Solomon, we think of the good stuff. Namely three things. First, his humble request for wisdom in leading Israel. Second, his building the temple. And third, his leading Israel to its geo-political and economic zenith. 

For the first ten chapters of 1 Kings Solomon goes from one positive to another. And then--Bam!--a huge twist in the story comes in Chapter 11. In a few short verses we're told that as Solomon grows old his many foreign wives turn him toward idolatry. And not just any old idolatry, some pretty hard core stuff. For example:

So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.
Molech, you'll recall, is the god to whom the Israelites sacrificed their children to in the Valley of Hinnom (also called Gehenna). Molech worship, with its child sacrifices, is the worst case of idolatry recounted in the Old Testament, and its origin in Israel starts with Solomon. And because of this idolatry, at the end of Solomon's life, God declares that he will divide the nation. This divided kingdom, Israel to the north and Judah to the south, will pave the way to the final exile of both kingdoms. And it all traces back to Solomon. 

So, was Solomon a good king or a bad king?

The stories we tend to tell about Solomon are the ones suggesting that he was a good king. But Solomon's legacy, specifically his introduction of Molech worship into the life of Israel, seems to, at least in my eyes, wipe all that away. Solomon was a bad king, perhaps even the worst king of Israel.

What is curious to me is how 1 Kings is sort of mute about all this. Very little by way of explanation is given. The prolonged, ten chapter narrative of Solomon's rise to glory is followed by a very perfunctory and terse accounting of Solomon's fall in Chapter 11. It reads like an embarrassing coda. I'm sure the historical-critical scholars have had tons to say about all this, but I'm reading the story here canonically, listening for a word from the Lord. What's the take home message of the story of Solomon? Solomon's fall from grace into Molech worship seems so egregious as to call his entire legacy into question. And if it does, Solomon's whole story--from the request for wisdom, to the building of the temple, to his great wealth and power--has to be read as a very tragic and cautionary tale. 

Is Solomon's fall a sad ending to an otherwise glorious story, or a shadow that falls across the entire story, and even upon the legacy of the temple itself?

Mediating Mattering

As I share in Hunting Magic Eels, psychologists have recently come to highlight the impact of mattering upon mental well-being. Mattering, sometimes called "significance" or "existential mattering," is the conviction that your life matters, that it counts, that your existence has significance.

Obviously, you can see how mattering, especially if it is a durable conviction, would support emotional health. Lots of data show this association. But it should also be obvious that mattering is hanging in metaphysical thin air. Why, exactly, do you matter? And if you don't feel like you matter, how can you come to believe it?

Left to ourselves, mattering is hard to come by. Telling yourself you matter will only get you so far. Mattering has to be mediated, has to come to us externally, from others. That is the point of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer's quote that I've shared many times before:

Help must come from the outside...God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth...The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure.
We mediate mattering for each other. When our hearts are uncertain we speak life into each other. Help comes to us from the outside. Mattering is spoken into us. In our homes, with our friends, in our churches. Mattering should not be reduced to solo self-talk, for it most powerfully resides in relationships of care and love, relationships that convince us that we matter.

A Long Hot Summer: On Suffering and Love

You might have noticed the heat wave here in Texas. The highs over the weekend here in Abilene were around 108 and 109 degrees. Today the predicted high is 104. I'll be out at the prison tonight.

Last Monday the high was 106. The prison is not air-conditioned. This wasn't a problem in the past. Before COVID, our classes were held in the chapel, which is located in the administration building. The administration building does have AC. So our class was cool during the Texas summers, and a welcome relief from the heat for the men attending the study.

But having started back up after COVID, due to understaffing, our study is no longer in the chapel but in a multipurpose room in one of the inmate buildings. Like the entire building where the inmates live, the multipurpose room has no AC.

I hoped that we would have had more time. Last May and June was wet and cool. But this year, summer heat arrived early and with a vengeance. Record setting temps almost every day. 

Last week, given the heat, I faced a tradeoff. There is a massive fan in the multipurpose room, so large it roars like an airplane. But the fan helps move the air and is the only tool we have to fight the heat. Trouble is, with that roar you can't hear anyone speaking in a conversational voice. You have to practically yell. And the class is two hours long. More worried about the heat, I said let the fan rip and I'll yell. So I yelled through a class studying the book of 2 Corinthians. I yelled myself hoarse and left the study dripping with sweat.

Tonight will be exactly the same, and won't change much at all until September. 

My theology is weird enough that I'm sort of grateful for having this experience. I feel like, in a small way, I'm sharing in the suffering that the men experience every minute of every day. My raw, rasping voice and shirt soaked in sweat is a participation in the sufferings of Christ. Christians used to think like that. I think that is what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians, in a text I yelled about last week:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
I'm not completely sure what Paul is saying in this passage, but I think he's talking about the cost of love. When we love we suffer to give life to others. I know that notion will seem deeply problematic to many, very medieval and masochistic. But I'm not talking about suffering for the sake of suffering, or the suffering of abuse victims. I'm talking about why Jesus suffered. Why Paul suffered for the church he planted. They suffered because of love. Death was at work in them to give life to others. I think that is what love does. And if you have loved, I think you know what I'm talking about. 

But if that is not your truth, hey, that's fine. It is my truth. My truth this evening, and every Monday evening during a long hot summer.