On Conspiracy Theories and Christianity: Part 5, God's Providence and Plan

In my Facebook Live chat with my friend Mark Love he discussed another feature of evangelical theology that affects belief in conspiracy theories.

Mark's observation was that when we view God's providence through the lens of power we are forced to discern "God's plan" in all things. Some have called this micromanaging view of the cosmos God's "omnicontrol." Nothing acts in the world, no drop of rain or falling leaf, without being the will of God and a player in God's overall plan. 

God's power, sovereignty, and providence in the world is a snarly theological problem. And this post is not place to wade into those waters. All I want to do is draw attention to Mark's point that if you're spiritually formed to discern "God's plan" in seemingly random life events you're predisposing yourself to conspiratorial modes of thought. Because the heart of paranoid thinking is seeing meaningful connections between events where none exist. Some events are just random. That, or the explanations and causes illusive or forever outside of our ability to grasp.

More, there's an emotional aspect here as well. We're comforted by causal explanations. Randomness spooks the brain and makes us anxious. We hunger for a orderly, predictable world. So making connections between events soothes and puts us at ease. So, there is solace to be found in facing a trauma or failure knowing that somehow, someway, this is a part of God's plan. 

But here is the critical issue. There is a vast epistemological and emotional difference between knowing that a plan exists and knowing exactly what that plan is in a given circumstance. This is a fine line, but people do cross it. Something happens and people step up to explain exactly what God is doing in this circumstance. What is mysterious and hidden to us is clear and explicit to these people. 

All that to say, this isn't a broadside against Reformed theology, with its high view of God's providence and sovereignty. I am, though, expressing a worry about crude, simplistic versions of Reformed theology, especially when it's combined with overly confident prophets among charismatic believers, those who declare insight into God's plans. We saw a lot of failed prophecy on election day and during the inauguration when conspiracy-fueled Christians predicted a Donald Trump victory and mass arrests of Democrat leaders as all "God's plan." 

In the midst of our pain and confusion many of us take comfort in knowing God has a plan. Nothing is wrong with believing that God is a work. Mysteriously at work, but still, at work. God is sovereign and still in control. God has a plan for us, to do and be good to us. What tips us toward conspiratorial thinking is when we think we can see that plan clearly and make a habit of having too much confidence in that judgment. 

Phrased differently, lament is the opposite of conspiratorial thinking. 

On Conspiracy Theories and Christianity: Part 4, Cracking the Bible Code

In Part 2 mention was made of the Scofield Bible and the role it played in promoting dispensational beliefs. But beyond the end times beliefs themselves, the Scofield Bible illustrates a particular way of seeing, using, and coming to understand the Bible. This view of the Bible and method of biblical study also promotes belief in conspiracy theories by turning the Bible into a puzzle that needs to be solved or a code that needs to be cracked.

As Mark described in our Facebook Live chat, scholars describe the approach illustrated by the Scofield Bible as a "flat hermeneutic," a way of reading the Bible that is common among evangelicals. A flat hermeneutic ignores Biblical genres (like how poetry is different from history or law or gospel or apocalypse or epistle) and the textual context of Biblical passages, smoothing out the textures of Scripture to treat every Bible verse as equal in import and value. This leads to an "atomization" of Scripture, where individual Bible verses are isolated to stand on their own, each verse a bit of data to be accounted for, a puzzle piece or clue. Making sense of the Bible then becomes arranging these verses or making connects between them until a pattern or picture emerges. Bibles like the Scofield Bible aided in this as Andrew Gardner apty summarizes:

Resources like the Scofield Reference Bible allowed Christians to search out connections between Bible verses with similar themes through “cross-references.” Reading Scripture and unlocking its secrets became an intricate quest as passages from one book of the Bible were sought to provide clues for understanding other passages.
Bible study became sifting through and making connections between seemingly disparate Bible verses, a verse from the book of Daniel the clue used to unlock a puzzle in the book of Revelation. Approaching the Bible in this way became an exercise in code-breaking. Students of the Bible were to follow the clues, hopping from verse by verse, until the puzzle was solved. I'm reminded of the scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind, about the mathematician John Nash and his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia, when Nash's wife enters his office to find it full of magazine articles linked by threads illustrating the paranoid "connections" he'd made between news events. The cross-referencing of the Scofield Bible was just like those threads in John Nash's office. 

That analogy illustrates how a "flat hermeneutic" promotes conspiratorial patterns of thinking and modes of perception. If you're unfamiliar with QAnon, the anonymous Q's postings on the internet are enigmatic, open to a wide variety of interpretations. After a Q "drop" followers begin to crack the code, looking for connections and threads of association between Q's cryptic, gnomic statements and world events and news, especially the actions of Donald Trump. When connections with a Q drop are discovered they are shared by YouTube personalities, called QTubers, who have huge followings. Each QTuber is their own Scofield Bible, sharing cross-references between Q's statements and world events. 

Now, here's the point. To outsiders, it might seem that hunting down Q's clues to uncover "the truth" would seem, from an epistemological perspective, a wholly bizarre means of discovering truths about the world. And yet, for evangelicals raised on discovering the truth by solving the puzzles of the Bible and linking them to news headlines, this process of discovering the truth in QAnon wasn't bizarre at all, it was a strategy that was familiar, tested, and trustworthy. When you've spent your life cracking the Bible code cracking the codes of QAnon comes naturally. 

On Conspiracy Theories and Christianity: Part 3, Christian Nationalism

In addition to dispensationalism among evangelicals, there is also Christian nationalism. The two are related, but distinct. You can be dispensationalist and not a Christian nationalist. And you can be a Christian nationalist and not a dispensationalist. But the two often go hand in hand.

I think most readers know what Christian nationalism is, but if you don't, Christian nationalism is the belief that America was founded as a "Christian nation" and that, because of this, America has a divinely ordained role to play in world affairs. However, America's Christian identity is currently and constantly being attacked and undermined by godless and secular forces, threatening America's ability to fulfill God's purposes. Consequently, Christian nationalists feel called to "do battle" with these anti-Christian forces to restore America as a "Christian nation." "Making America Great Again," in this view returning us to our Christian foundations, will allow America to to fulfill God's providential plans for our nation and the world.

When combined with dispensational thinking Christian nationalism sees the rise or fall of a "Christian America" as a central player in end times scenarios. Consequently, political events in Washington have enormous eschatological significance. Each election, each political win or loss, each headline, is an end times sign or portent. For example, there were evangelicals who believed that Barack Obama was the Antichrist. And there are evangelicals who feel that Donald Trump is battling the forces of the Antichrist.

Along with Christian nationalism, the state of Israel also plays a key role in many dispensationalist systems. Thus, how American foreign policy affects the state of Israel has great eschatological significance for evangelicals. For example, when Donald Trump moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem his reason was, in his words: "And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals.” Why? Because recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has enormous end times significance for dispensationalist evangelicals. Consequently, by making policy decisions conform to dispensationalist expectations Trump solidified his position as "savior" in the minds of many evangelicals. For evangelicals, moving the embassy to Jerusalem might have been Trump's most momentous decision, getting us one step closer to the end times.

It's this combination of Christian nationalism with dispensational thinking that gets evangelical Christians involved with QAnon, the conspiracy theory focused upon the heroic actions of Donald Trump in fighting evil cabals seeking to destroy America. To be sure, QAnon isn't an "end times" conspiracy theory. But given how Trump's actions are interpreted by dispensational Christian nationalists, Trump's actions, as revealed by Q, are given eschatological significance. QAnon helps dispensational Christian nationalists read "the signs of the times." 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 12, We Wander About In Times That Do Not Belong To Us

47.

We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that to not belong to us, and do not think about the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight  because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away...

We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present our our means, and the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

///

My goodness, I don't have really anything to add to Pascal here. He wrote this four-hundred years ago, and it may be truer now than it has ever been. In many ways, our neuroses are diseases of time. Depression, regret and guilt are diseases of the past. Worry, anxiety, and fear diseases of the future.

Emotionally, we wander about in times that do not belong to us. And because of this, we never actually live.

On Conspiracy Theories and Christianity: Part 2, Turning the Return of Christ into a Grand Conspiracy Theory

In their 2014 study of conspiracy theories--"Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion" in the American Journal of Political Science--Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood identified belief in "end times" theology as the most robust and significant predictor of belief in conspiracy theories. 

Oliver and Wood assessed end times belief with the item "We are currently living in the End Times as foretold by Biblical prophecy." Among all the variables they looked at--from ethnicity to education to political beliefs to beliefs in the paranormal to religiosity--Oliver and Wood concluded: "The strongest predictor of conspiracism is agreement with the End Times statement."

Perhaps the biggest driver of belief in conspiracy theories among evangelicals is dispensational theology. In the words of Andrew Gardner, dispensationalism "turned the return of Christ into a grand conspiracy."

Dispensationalism, which emerged among American evangelicals in the early 1800s, did this by weaving a predictive tapestry from apocalyptic material found in the book of Daniel, the Synoptic Gospels, and the book of Revelation--from the rapture to the thousand year (millennial) reign of Christ to the Antichrist to the Battle of Armageddon to the Second Coming. Study Bibles, with extensive cross-referencing, like the popular Scofield Bible, helped readers follow the predictive thread running through Scripture. With this prophetic system worked out, dispensationalists could read current events looking for signs of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the Second Coming of Christ. In more recent memory, dispensationalist thinking broke into the mainstream with the best-selling Left Behind series. 

The are many different varieties of dispensationalist thought, but taken as a whole one can appreciate Gardner's point that dispensationalism turned the return of Christ into a grand conspiracy theory. To start, as pointed out in the last post, dispensationalism posits a Manichean battle between Good and Evil, the forces of Christ warring against the forces of the Antichrist. But dispensationalism goes further and asks its adherents to read into "the signs of the times" meaningful, and ominous, connections. This is the very stuff of conspiratorial thinking, making causal connections between disparate and unrelated events as evidence of unseen and malevolent forces at work on the world. In short, as training you in a habit of thinking and seeing the world, dispensationalism is what spiritual formation looks like if you want people to endorse conspiracy theories. 

This explains why Oliver and Wood found that end times belief was the #1 predictor of conspiracy  theories. Dispensationalism is a school of conspiratorial belief.

On Conspiracy Theories and Christianity: Part 1, Good Versus Evil

Yesterday, my friend Mark Love and I had a discussion on Facebook Live about conspiracy theories, psychological perspectives but with an eye on how Christianity can be implicated in believing in conspiracy theories. Obviously, with the rise of QAnon among evangelicals, this is a timely subject. So, a series sharing some of my thoughts and insights on Christianity and conspiracy theories. 

Let's start with affective polarization. 

Affective polarization has to do with the feelings and attitudes we have toward political opponents. The issue here is less our policy disagreements than how we regard about political opponents as human beings. Are people in the other political party good people? Are they honest? Are they trustworthy? 

Over the last twenty years political scientists have been tracking the rise of affective polarization. Increasingly, we are viewing political opponents as "bad people," even as evil. And this affects political paranoia and conspiratorial thinking.

In a 2014 study by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood published in the American Journal of Political Science entitled "Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion," they found that a "Manichean" view of the world was a robust predictor of belief in conspiracy theories. A "Manichean" worldview involves seeing the world as a struggle between Good versus Evil, and was assessed in Oliver and Woods's study with the item, "Politics is ultimately a struggle between good and evil."

Given this finding, it should be obvious how a rise in affective polarization, seeing political opponents as "evil," would promote increased beliefs in conspiracy theories. 

And religion may fuel this trend. Christians are prone in viewing the world in moralistic, black and white, terms. 

Oliver and Wood noted that conspiratorial thinking was observed at roughly the same levels among both liberals and conservatives, observing that, "conspiratorial reasoning is not simply a style of one political group but is evident across the ideological spectrum." However, they did observe that religiosity was predictive of a "Manichean" view of the world. That is to say, insofar as your Christianity is causing you to see politics and the world as a struggle between Good and Evil your beliefs are predisposing you to conspiratorial thinking. 

However, a Manichean worldview wasn't the strongest predictor in Oliver and Wood's study in predicting endorsement of conspiracy theories. We'll turn to that, the strongest predictor, in the next post.

Email Subscriptions and Experimental Theology on Substack

My apologies for some house business today.

Blogger notified users that its email subscription widget is no longer going to be supported, ending at the start of July, a few weeks away. This will obviously affect readers who follow the blog through their Inbox rather than coming here directly.

Pondering what to do for those readers, I've started copying the blog onto a space I made on Substack. To be clear, as long as Blogger keeps chugging along I'll still be right here. But Experimental Theology can now also be found on Substack.

The reason for this is that Substack has an easy email subscription system. Plus, Substack has two things I value in my blogging platform: 1) I can post there for free, and 2) you are not exposed to advertisements. 

Also, while many writers have subscribers pay for content on Substack I won't be doing that. If you subscribe to the blog on Substack all the content remains free just as it is here.

So, if you are a reader to follows the blog through your Inbox with an email subscription, or would like to start doing that, please head over to Substack and subscribe. Tomorrow Experimental Theology will start (or continue) to show up in your Inbox.

One caveat about the timing about when the posts will hit your Inbox. Since I'm running now two sites, what I do each morning is copy and paste the post from Blogger into Substack. When I get to that depends upon my morning. Most of the time I re-post on Substack before 10:00 am CST. All that to say, for Substack subscribers my posts will show up in your Inbox daily, in the morning, but with a little and variable time lag from when they appear here.

And for everyone who comes directly here to the site, nothing will change.

So, for those following or who would like to follow via email, head on over to Substack and subscribe. I'll see you in you Inbox tomorrow morning!

Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up!: Part 5, The Prophetic Imagination

Last post in this series. 

How do you know when Christianity is good or bad? 

And how do you know if the bad Christianity isn't the real Christianity?

In my own faith journey one of the most important books I've ever read, and one I keep going back over and over again, is Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. I was once visiting with Walter about the influence of this book on my life and he quipped, "I've only ever written one book, The Prophetic Imagination. Everything I've written since has been just repeating that book." Walter was joking, but the grain of truth in the joke is how "the prophetic imagination" has been a central, guiding, recurrent theme in his work. 

What is the prophetic imagination? In my book The Slavery of Death, I describe the prophetic imagination this way. The prophetic imagination is the capacity to imagine that God can speak--and is speaking!--a word of indictment against you. 

When we lack this capacity God is "captured" by the status quo. God comes to endorse, baptize, sacralize, legitimize, and spiritually underwrite your political party, church, tribe, social position, and nation. This is how, for example, Constantinianism leads to idolatry. An identity relationship is formed between God and Country. Speak against America and you're speaking against God. 

The prophetic imagination, by contrast, is the capacity to imagine that America stands under God's judgment. It's an imagination that has some moral daylight between God and your nation, the ability to weigh your country in the moral balance and find it wanting. And beyond your country, the ability to weigh yourself, your tribe, your church, and your politics and declare it all broken, wrong, and failing. 

Basically, the prophetic imagination is the ability, in the language of the Twelve Step program, to take a "searching and fearless moral inventory" of our lives, our politics, our churches, and our nation. 

This isn't the post to walk through all the evidence that the prophetic imagination is a central, defining aspect of both the Old and New Testaments. Moral self-criticism is Holy Writ. Suffice it to say, I think the prophetic imagination is, perhaps, the key feature that separates good versus bad Christianity. When "Christianity" is behaving badly the prophetic imagination has been lost. What you see is group of Christians who think they are speaking for God. That God is 100% on their side of an election. That God legitimizes a social hierarchy that keeps me on top. That God loves my nation above all others. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, to wrap this series up, what is the real Christianity? And how to you separate the good from the bad? I think a central thing to attend to, along with everything else mentioned in this series, is the presence of the prophetic imagination among a group of Christians, the willingness or unwillingness to see ourselves as standing under the judgment of God. Is the prophetic voice speaking against you confessed as the Voice of God?

Or, stated concisely, are we capable of damning ourselves?

Pascal's Pensées: Week 11, Let Us Both Love and Hate Ourselves

119.

Let each of us now judge our own worth, let us love ourselves, for there is within us a nature capable of good; but that is no reason for us to love the vileness within ourselves. Let us despise ourselves because this capacity remains unfilled; but that is no reason for us to despise this natural capacity. Let us both hate and love ourselves; we have within us the capacity for knowing truth and being happy, but we possess no truth which is either abiding or satisfactory. 

///

I can't remember when or where I had this conversation. I think it was face to face and not on the blog. I was sharing about the power of the practice of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Hearing this a person shared, "I like that prayer, but I don't like that last part--'a sinner.' So I leave that out."

Well, of course you do. Heaven forbid we own up to the harm we do in the world. How worrisome.

One of the reasons I've moved on from progressive Christianity into a post-progressive space is that, by and large, progressive Christianity has lost any ability to talk about sin. We can't see or describe ourselves as sinners. We leave that part out.

Of course we know why this is often the case. Many progressive Christians are ex-evangelicals and ex-fundamentalists and so have been on a journey toward grace and away from guilt, shame and "sinners in the hands of an angry God." And so, Pascal's call to "hate ourselves" is going to sound pretty toxic.

And yet, Pascal's balance here, to both love and hate ourselves, is the same sort of balance that keeps me separate from both evangelical and progressive Christians. I do hate myself, but I don't hate all of me. I confess I'm depraved, but I'm not totally depraved. I agree with Pascal's very humanistic belief that there exists within each of us a natural capacity for good. Because of this humanism I resist a lot of what I hear in evangelical spaces about a wholly corrupt human nature.

And yet, at the same time I find progressive Christians insufferable in their inability to own a word like "sinner." Because are two truths I know with absolute certainty. First, that God loves me unconditionally. Second, that I am, most definitely, a sinner. 

But do I hate myself? Yes, I do. And before you take to the comment section to worry, because we all love worried comments, let me put before us the dictionary definition of hate: "an intense dislike for something or someone." So, are there parts of myself and my behavior that I feel "intense dislike" for? Ummm, yeah. Most definitely. Don't you?

But again, following Pascal, this intense dislike is only for parts of me. I also love myself. I love myself great deal, in fact. I think I have a lot of wonderful qualities. I feel pride and satisfaction in being a good husband, father, co-worker, neighbor and friend. I think I've done a lot of good in this world. Any intense dislike I have for myself is precisely because I want to do good, and more of it, in this world. 

Yes, of course, intense dislike for our failures can become morbid and unhealthy. As psychologist, you don't need to remind me that depression exists. I'm aware. But any charitable reading of Pascal can see he's not talking about self-loathing or a morbid self-esteem. He's talking about honesty and balance in how we take a moral inventory of ourselves. 

Perhaps the word "hate" isn't the best word to use here, and I've wasted our time defending a poor word choice. Still, I enjoy provocations. They wake me up. Good morning everyone! But again, I think all Pascal is saying is that we're mixed bags and that we should admit it. The good and the bad. Full of kindnesses and grace, but prone to darkness as well. This seems to me to be obvious and banal. And I think that is why I'm showing all this prickly irritation. Christianity has lot its ability to say commonsensical things.

Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up!: Part 4, All You Need Is Love

Summarizing the last two posts, I think there is a clear and strong case that "real" Christianity is separate from empire and war, separate from power and conquest. True, "Christianity" was used to sacralize all these things, but we stand on firm ground in condemning them as heresies, as perversions of the New Testament and the witness of the early church.

Still, a critic will retort, there are some pretty sketchy things within the Bible itself, in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is regularly scolded and criticized for its witness regarding slavery, gender roles, and sexuality. And it seems hard, our critics will point out, to avoid the conclusion that those morally dubious teachings are, well, actually in the Bible. So while it might be easy to separate empire and killing from the New Testament, it's harder to put daylight between the faith and the Bible's teachings about slavery, gender, and sexuality. Aren't seeds of intolerance found right there in the Bible?

Libraries of books have been written on all these subjects. And critics will vary to the degree to which they find any of these arguments persuasive. For this post, I just what to share three observations. 

First, let's play fair. It's stupid to blame Christianity for something like patriarchy, prejudices against gays, or slavery. Regarding gender roles, for example, rarely do you see ex-Christian podcasters and writers railing against the Jewish people or Muslims. Why? Because that's not politically correct. In addition, this isn't just about monotheism. Indigenous and pagan peoples throughout world history have been bastions of patriarchy, slavery and bias against sexual minorities. Indigenous people also built empires using slaves. Lastly, in the East, for example with Confucianism and Hinduism, we also see a history of patriarchy, slavery, and anti-homosexual sentiment. 

My point is that it's a regular move among ex-Christians to lay the blame for all these social ills at the feet of Christianity. But the truth of the matter is that these social ills are world-historical, they have a deep history and are found cross-culturally in pre-colonial pagan, Eastern, and Western religious traditions. 

Which brings me to a short second point. Why, then, do we see so many ex-Christians lay the sole blame for these social ills upon Christianity and Bible? The answer, by and large, is Oedipal, the child striking back at the parent. Ex-Christians see themselves as having undergone a journey from an intolerant, conservative, fundamentalist, judgmental Christian upbringing to a tolerant, inclusive, unjudgmental, progressive humanism. So they blame their formerly held views upon Christianity rather than upon world-historical forces. They mistake the personal and biographical for the global and historical, assuming that Christianity, since this was the case in their life, just has to be the source of patriarchy throughout all the world and history. Even though patriarchy pre-dated Christianity by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

Which brings me to my third point. 

If we face the deep and wide world-historical scope of things like slavery, patriarchy, and anti-gay prejudice, we can ask the question, "What has been responsible for our conversion here in the West to love, equality, and tolerance?" And the answer, in a case that has been repeatedly made by multiple historians, is clear: Christianity taught the West how to love. 

Read a book like Tom Holland's Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, and you can see the straight line that goes from the New Testament to John Lennon.  How did the West get the idea that "all you need is love"? We got that idea from Christianity, and we've been slowly working out the implications ever since. Modern liberal, woke, progressive, humanism is the child of Christianity. 

And here we find another interesting Oedipal dynamic, how the "woke child of humanism" seeks to kill the "Judeo-Christian father." Specifically, the moral vision bequeathed to us by Christianity (woke progressivism) is used to morally indict the foundation and source (Christianity) of that moral vision. The Oedipal child rises up and slays the parent. 

The point to be observed here should be obvious. The progressive who morally indicts Christianity is doing so with the moral code they inherited from Christianity. As Jesus taught John Lennon and the West, all we need is love. 

Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up!: Part 3, Killing and War

Related to the Constantinian heresy is the Christian relationship to killing and war. 

Specifically, if we're looking for the "real" Christianity, to see if the taproot of the faith is good or bad, then we have to examine the earliest centuries of the church, from the New Testament writers up to Constantine. And what did these, the earliest Christians, teach about killing and war?

The church historian Roland Sider has complied the evidence in his book The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook On War, Abortion, And Capital Punishment. In summarizing all the historical evidence, Sider concludes that "every extant Christian statement on killing and war up until the time of Constantine says Christians must not kill, even in war." In fact, the common practice for Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity was for them to leave the military.

Now, the point I want to raise here is historical, rather than political or moral. That is, we can debate the issues of self-defense, just war, or Christians serving in the military. But I want us in this post to focus on the question of this series: Are "bad Christianities" heretical aberrations? Or is Christianity itself intrinsically bad? What is the "real" Christianity?

Personally, I think the pacifism of the early church is helpful in answering such questions. Perhaps, as many argue, Christians can be involved in killing, especially after Constantine when Christians began to serve and rule within nation states. To be sure, that's a furiously contentious debate. Regardless, the history is clear that the origins of Christianity were not bound up with killing. The norm within early Christianity was non-violence.

It's undoubtedly the case that Christians have been involved in killing, war, crusades, and inquisitions throughout history. But that violence can't be traced back to ethic of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the witness of the early church. The blood started flowing with Constantine, not Christ. 

Now, does that mean that Christians can't be involved in things like self-defense or a just war? Again, those are debated questions. My point for this series is that it seems pretty clear to me that Christianity starts going off the rails whenever it is working hard to accommodate killing, and that bad Christianities are produced by just that sort of labor. 

Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up!: Part 2, When Christians Became Patriots

Before I start, take a minute to read through the comments to Part 1. Some very reflective and thoughtful observations. Thank you those who shared. You may or may not know this, but I blog about three months out in front of myself. So any feedback I receive happens three months too late. All that to say, if it looks like I took a tack in this series that you warned against, don't take it personally. These posts were written three months ago. 

Now, back to what I was thinking three months ago...

Back in the early days of blogging George W. Bush was president and we were fighting a war in Iraq. The "golden era of blogging" began in 2003, at the start of the Iraq War, and went through 2009, just after the election of Barack Obama. 

During the years of the Iraq War and during the 2008 election, Christian blogs spent a lot of time writing about Constantinianism in voicing their opposition to the war in Iraq. Christian blogs were very Anabaptist during the golden era of blogging. Not so much anymore.

Why the change? 

My argument, made in 2016, is that the post-evangelical Christians who inveighed again Constantinianism during the Bush years weren't really Anabaptists. They were, rather, Christian realists in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr. That is to say, progressive Christians, as witnessed in the 2008 election of Barack Obama, actually wanted and desired to win and weld the power of the nation state. You saw this hypocrisy in how post-evangelical bloggers hammered Bush with Constantine but said nary a word about Obama's drone war. Turns out, it's okay to pull the trigger when it's your guy holding the gun. And we saw again the thirst to win back and weld power among progressive Christians in the election of 2020. 

All that to say, it's hard to decry Constantinianism when you're trying your damnedest to win every election.   

The other reason we don't hear much about the Constantinian heresy today is that the theologian most associated with exposing this wrong turn in Christian history was John Howard Yoder. During the Bush years, Yoder was a ubiquitous name on Christians blogs condemning the Iraq war. But after the exposure of Yoder's sexual abuse of women his name has vanished, and along with that a decline in conversation about the perils of Constantinianism.

So this post is a bit of a throwback, harkening back to the Bush years where talk of Constantinianism was common on Christian blogs. 

If you don't remember those years, the Constantinian heresy refers to when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The heresy was in fusing Jesus with empire. 

Again, this was a point that was frequently raised during the Bush years, and while it is less common to find a conversation about Constantinianism on Christian blogs and Twitter today, I think it's still the place to begin when looking for the "real" Christianity. Specifically, what poisoned the well of Christianity, then and now, was the marriage of the gospel with empire, the cross conflated with the nation state, the church sacralizing national ambitions. The great heresy of the faith was when Christians became patriots. 

I know Yoder is a problematic figure, but he was exactly right in pointing out that the great heresy of Christian history, the demonic taproot of "bad Christianity," is the Constantinian heresy, the mixing of "God and country." 

Will the Real Christianity Please Stand Up!: Part 1, Good versus Bad Christianities

Over the last few years I've noticed an increasingly common criticism of Christianity, a very potent one, that I'd like to reflect on a bit, for my own benefit.  

The criticism is this. We've all seen Christianity behaving badly. In both history and in contemporary society. For example, in history we Christianity used to justify things like slavery. And in contemporary society we saw Christianity used to justify storming the US capital on January 6th. 

When we witness these horrible things, Christians like myself rush to argue that slave-holding Christians or QAnon Christians are "bad" Christians. That is, we argue that these bad actors have distorted or twisted the "true" Christian message. 

The criticism here, one you've likely come across, is that Christianity needs to start owning its whole history, the good, the bad and the ugly. Critics argue that when we rush to judge other Christians as "bad Christians" we're avoiding the work of taking a hard moral inventory, too-quickly absolving ourselves of any blame. Perhaps, the critics argue, those bad Christianities are the real Christianity. 

Obviously, as a Christian, I don't believe that to be the case. But as a Christian, I do want to take this criticism seriously. I think we "good" Christians can be too quick in distancing ourselves from both our history and our badly behaving brothers and sisters. Because if there were something rotten at the heart of the faith I think and honest person would want to face and own that. 

So, some posts reflecting on good versus bad Christianities, and the quest to identify the "real" Christianity. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 10, A Thinking Reed

200.

A human being is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but we are a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush us: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill us. But even if the universe were to crush us, we would still be nobler than our slayer, because we know that we are dying and the advantage the universe has over us. The universe knows nothing of this.

Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.

///

Given all the posts this week about human subjectivity and consciousness, I thought this a fitting pensée for this Friday. There is a physical frailty to human beings, the coronavirus showed that to us. We are a weak reed, prone to breaking. But we are, curiously, a thinking reed. And that power of thought sets us apart within the created order. 

There's a modern, scientific tendency to displace human being from the center of the cosmos. We're told that we exist in a small, unremarkable part of a vast universe, orbiting a minor star. Point taken. This displacement, though, isn't foreign to Holy Scripture: "What are are human beings that you are mindful of them?"

Still, why not put human being at the center of the cosmos? The universe might be vast, but it is cold and empty. Yet here, in the midst of that vast icy silence, exists a hot, burning flame. You are a candle in the darkness. Incandescent. More mysterious and remarkable than anything revealed by astrophysics. 

True, given the vastness of the universe, there may be other candles burning. But wherever that flame burns why shouldn't that be the center of it all? 

Let us not point to the darkness to shame the light.

How to Think about Neuroscience

Thinking back over my recent posts about science and subjectivity I wanted to just share a brief comment about how to think about neuroscience.

It drives me crazy how people think neuroscience has illuminated anything about human consciousness. So here's my comment:

Don't mistake correlational science for explanatory science.

When it comes to consciousness, neuroscience is wholly correlational. 100% It doesn't explain anything

Ponder the basic datum of neuroscientific research: "When we observe brain activation at location X, we observe psychological Y." For example, a classic finding: Aphasia is associated with damage to Broca's area. 

Now notice: That observation is wholly correlational. When we see X, we see Y. X and Y regularly, even lawfully, co-occur. And yet, we have no idea why this location in the brain is associated with language. Nor do we know how neurons in this part of the brain create language problems rather than, say, sensory hallucinations. The mechanics of neuronal transmission are identical across the brain. The laws of chemistry are universal and invariant. And yet, the identical chemical mechanisms of neuronal transmission produce radically different subjective experiences. How? Why? Because those neurons are here rather than there? Give me a break. Neuroscientists have no clue how to answer any of these questions. All we have are correlations, zero explanations. 

And yet, it's a pervasive problem with neuroscience that people mistake correlations for explanations. Because we have brain scans, it's assumed, there's nothing more to explain. The truth is, nothing has been explained. Correlations are not explanations. Yes, such regular and lawful correlations presume some causal explanations. But let's be clear, we don't have that, not even close. The fundamental truth about our lives remains a baffling mystery. 

An Observation About "Christian Nationalism"

I've been reading through 1 and 2 Samuel. What a mess. The reigns of both Saul and David are just disasters. And right at the start, Samuel predicted they would be, along with all the subsequent kings. 

It seems that the Bible has a very dim view regarding the fusion of faith and politics.

This made me wonder about the aspirations of "Christian nationalism," the utopian belief among many evangelical Christians that if we can just get Christians into political leadership that America will enter into a season of peace, justice, and prosperity. 

Where do people come up with these ideas? Have evangelicals not read the Bible? Just read 1 and 2 Samuel. Human governments have always been disasters, bastions of moral chaos, corruption and oppression. And if this was the case with David, the God-fearing ruler of Israel par excellence, what makes us think any "Christian nation" we might construct would be any better? 

I think it's very clear in the New Testament that Jesus eschews any attempt at establishing a "Christian nation." The devil gives Jesus that option right at the start of the gospels. And Jesus flatly turns the offer down. Evangelicals, listen to that, read the Bible: Jesus flatly turns the devil down. And I think Jesus does so for many of the reasons we see in 1 and 2 Samuel. The reign of God just can't be established via a nation state.

The Scientific Gaze and Mental Health

One more reflection continuing with my recent posts on the scientific gaze and nihilism.

The issues regarding science or, more properly, scientism and nihilism are not merely philosophic, they profoundly impact mental health as well.

Again, from my last post, the "scientific gaze," viewing life in wholly materialistic terms, bleaches the world of meaning and value. And as should be obvious, a world devoid of meaning and value is going to negatively affect one's mental health. The scientific gaze causes mental illness. 

This is true. For example, as a progressive Christian blogger who became known as one of those those who welcomed and embraced doubt and deconstruction, I have routinely received over the years emails and requests for conversation from believers who had, on their own journey of doubt and deconstruction, given themselves over to the scientific gaze. They had read so many popular science books and New Atheist books that they had come to view life in wholly materialistic terms, existence reduced to the laws of chemistry and physics. And what these people shared with me, as a result of this journey, were mental health problems. Life now devoid of meaning, they had become depressed and suicidal. Some, in coming to view themselves as a biological machine, came to the conclusion that they didn't have free will and lost a sense of self-agency and self-authorship. As a result, they started to have panic attacks.

As I described in the last post, the scientific gaze had bleached their world of value and meaning, even of their own agency. The world had become a machine, and they became machine within it. And looking into that cold, deterministic clockwork they had become psychologically unmoored. They were no longer human. They became depressed, suicidal, and alienated from themselves, their loved ones, and the world. The scientific gaze had caused mental illness.

Cracking the Egg of the Cosmos

I want to revisit the post from last Thursday regarding "the scientific gaze," how when we view life in wholly materialistic terms it bleaches the world of value and meaning. 

In that post I shared how a human person looks in wholly materialistic terms, reducing a human body to its chemical elements. For example, here is a picture of you:

And here's a picture of your mother:

Here's a picture of your spouse:

And here's a picture of your child:


You get the idea. 

Viewing a human life in wholly materialistic terms, reducing someone you love, or anyone for that matter, to their chemical compounds strips their life of all those subjective aspects that makes life a human life. Our loves, hopes, and dreams. Our joys and sorrows. Our regrets. The transcendent values that guide our lives and ground them in something bigger than ourselves. None of this is captured by materialism. The scientific gaze just bleaches it all out. 

Which means that materialism is akin to madness. That is to say, materialism is blind to the most obvious fact about our lives, that they are chockfull of meaning and value, stuffed with meaning and value. Life is a cup full to overflowing with meaning and value. And to be unable to see this is a form of insanity. 

The trouble is that meaning and value are entirely in a subjective register. And the scientific gaze, which can only speak about the objective, factual, empirical aspects of reality, cannot penetrate into this mysterious realm. Which means that when we reduce "truth" and "reality" to the material we effectively ignore that which is most obvious about human life: That life is FULL of meaning and value. 

Here's how Teilhard de Chardin described the situation. The universe has both an outside and an inside. The outside of the universe is the objective and empirical shell of the cosmos, the thin shell, like that of an egg, that science can minutely investigate and describe. But there's also an inside aspect to the universe, the part of the universe that throbs with meaning and value, the yolk of the egg if you will. Science speaks about the shell of the cosmos, the empirical outside. But science cannot speak about the life of the cosmos, the subjective inside where we experience the fullness of meaning and value. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 9, Madness and Sanity

 412.

Humanity is so inevitably mad that not to be mad would be to give a mad twist to madness.

///

I take Pascal's point here to be that sanity in an insane would would appear to be insane. 

Recently, I read Frank Sheed's book Theology and Sanity. It was the title that got me. For the most part, Christians tend to view the world in moralistic terms, the good and the bad, the saved and the lost. But what if the main division in life was sanity versus madness?

Here's Sheed, from early in his book, wanting to talk less about sanctity than about sanity:

[I]f we see things in existence and do not in the same act see that they are held in existence by God, then equally we are living in a fantastic world, not the real world. Seeing God everywhere and all things upheld by Him is not a matter of sanctity, but of plain sanity, because God is everywhere and all things are upheld by Him. What we do about it may be sanctity; but merely seeing it is sanity. To overlook God's presence is not simply to be irreligious; it is a kind of insanity, like overlooking anything else that is actually there...

God is not only a fact of religion: He is a fact. Not to see Him is to be wrong about everything, which includes being wrong about one's self...

...We live, indeed, in a vast context of things that are, events that have happened, a goal to which all is moving. That we should mentally see this context is a part of mental health. Just knowing that all things are upheld by God is a first step in knowing what we are, so a clear view of the shape of reality is a first step toward knowing where we are. To know where we are and what we are--that would seem to be the very minimum required by our dignity as human beings.

Bleaching the World of Meaning and Value

Reflecting a bit on yesterday's quote by Viktor Frankl. 

It might be a bit of stretch to lay the Holocaust at the feet of "nihilistic scientists and philosophers." But I do see the point Frankl is making about a materialistic view of humanity producing nihilism.

If you've gotten a chance to read Hunting Magic Eels you'll know I raise this point in the book. Specifically, at one point in the book I describe the "scientific gaze," where we view life in wholly materialistic terms, as "sociopathic." 

Admittedly, that's strong language, but I think Christians need to recover some courage in the face of science. So some boldness is necessary. As Flannery O'Connor has said:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
If you haven't noticed on the blog, I'm starting to shout more and draw larger, more startling figures. This blog used to be cozier. I'm starting to throw more cold water. And to be clear, I'm not describing science as sociopathic. Science is a blessing and a gift. What is sociopathic is "the scientific gaze," what is often described as "scientism." 

Since the publication of Hunting Magic Eels, I've started making this point with my students by describing how "the scientific gaze," reducing life to chemistry and physics, "bleaches" the world of meaning and value. For example, when a human being is viewed in wholly materialistic terms, we get something like this (from Wikipedia):


And while there is a "truth" here to such a description of a person, if this is the sum total of how you view humans, well, that's sociopathic. All that is human in humanity has been bleached out. 

On Nihilism

If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone.

I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment...I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.


--Viktor Frankl

The Book of Ruth: Part 3, Gibor Hayil

My friend, the late Rachel Held Evans, popularized the Hebrew phrase eshet chayil, from Proverbs 31, translated as "worthy woman" or "woman of valor." In the Jewish tradition it is great praise to call a woman eshet chayil. And because of Rachel, many women began to praise each other with those words. 

As noted in Part 1, it's noteworthy that Ruth, a non-Israelite, is the only woman called eshet chayil in the Bible. And of interest for this post is that Boaz is a described as a match for Ruth. Where Ruth is described as an eshet chayil, a woman of valor, Boaz is described as a gibor hayil.

As Robert Alter notes in his commentary of the book, the original meaning of gibor hayil was "warrior of valor." But in the context of the book of Ruth, gibor hayil functions as the masculine equivalent to Ruth's description as a "woman of valor." Thus, Alter translates gibor hayil as "man of valor."

So, eshet chayil is a "woman of valor," and gibor hayil is a "man of valor."

I highlight the parallel because it has become difficult and treacherous, for a variety of reasons, to speak positively and affirmatively about masculinity, about what it might mean to be a "man of valor." In fact, the very descriptions "woman of valor" and "man of valor" will be deemed problematic by some as it reinforces a gender binary.

And yet, women thrill to calling each other eshet chayil. Would it be similarly appropriate, then, for men to call each other gibor hayil when they see a man behaving as we see Boaz acting in the book of Ruth? 

Of course, feminist scholars could do a number on Boaz, describing his benevolent sexism and paternalism. The gender norms of ancient Israel are not our gender norms. And yet, Boaz is a man who places his influence, privilege, and power on the side of the vulnerable. And as fraught and problematic as it might be for me to say, that seems to me to be a good thing. And after the #MeToo movement don't we want to see more men acting like this? And if were to see such a man, or a woman, it seems proper to cry out Eshet chayil! Gibor hayil!

The Book of Ruth: Part 2, Be the Wings of God

One of the most powerful aspects of the book of Ruth is the opening line:

In the days when the judges ruled...
If you know the book of Judges you know it was a time of moral, social, and political chaos. Read the last few chapters of Judges. It's not a pretty sight.

And there, in the midst of that shitshow, in the days when the judges ruled, we have this moving story of small acts of fidelity, protection, and care. First, we see Ruth taking care of Naomi. Later, Boaz taking care of Ruth. 

This care and protection is beautifully captured in the imagery of God's covering "wings." When Boaz first meets Ruth he says:
"May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
Later, Ruth refers back to this imagery of God's protective wings when she asks Boaz to act as the family redeemer:
Boaz said, “Who are you?” And Ruth answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
I'd like to make two points.

First, most of the time, let's admit it, the world is a shitshow. Just like we see in the book of Judges. We live in a time of moral, social, and political chaos. But that doesn't mean we can't make a meaningful difference. The scale of our action is simply the scale of the action in the book of Ruth. Personal, face to face, direct. We often despair because we're looking at the chaos all around us and taking our eyes off of that vulnerable person within our reach. 

Second, we are the wings of God. Boaz praised Ruth because she sought protection under the wings of Israel's God. And Boaz became those very wings. 

So, be the wings of God. Even in, especially in, the days when the judges rule.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 8, Affective Forecasting

 401.

We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty.

We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death.

We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness.

///

In psychology there's an area of research on what is called "affective forecasting." Fancy name for something we already know. Specifically, when facing decisions we make them by forecasting how we think we'll feel after choosing X. If I choose X will that make me happier? Or not? That is affective forecasting. We make choices by predicting how we'll feel after we make a choice. We try to choose happiness.

The affective forecasting research is interesting because one of its main findings is that we're pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy. We think X will make us happy, but it doesn't. 

A few years ago I was the commencement speaker for my son's High School graduation. During the talk I made a very uncommencment like observation. I said, "During commencement addresses you're supposed to tell the graduates to 'follow your dreams.' But if the research is to be believed, that is bad advice. What we dream for often doesn't make us happy."

I think Pascal would have approved of that sentiment. We are the freest and wealthiest people in the history of the world. And just look at us. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, we're lost. Mental illness statistics are skyrocketing. Loneliness is a scourge. We desire both truth and happiness, but are incapable of finding either.

In this modern world we are the captains of our own ship. 

Too bad we're so awful at navigation.

The Book of Ruth: Part 1, A Charm Offensive

I've just read through the book of Ruth in Robert Alter's translation and wanted to gather here a few observations.

As Alter notes in his introduction to the book, the consensus of biblical scholarship is that Ruth was written as a polemic against Ezra and Nehemiah's fierce prohibitions and opposition to intermarriage with Israel's pagan neighbors, the Moabites in particular. It will be recalled that the Moabites were considered to be among the most toxic of Israel's neighbors, a most loathsome and despised people.

In light of that prejudice and the prohibitions against marrying Moabites, the polemical nature of the book of Ruth should be clear: Here's the story of a courageous and loving Moabite woman who is married by an Israelite and who becomes the great-grandmother of king David. 

This much has been noted before, the tension between Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah. But Alter goes on to make an observation about the particular style in which Ruth makes its argument. Alter observes:

It is remarkable that a story in all likelihood framed for a polemic purpose should be so beguiling. Charm is not a characteristic that one normally associates with biblical narrative, but this idyll is charming from beginning to end, understandably making it one of the most perennially popular biblical books.

As Alter continues, in "[setting] out to make Ruth the Moabite a thoroughly good person" the author of the book makes "his argument for openness to exogamy," marriages between Israelites and Moabites. 

This is an utterly fascinating observation. Polemical arguments need not be raging, harsh, and cutthroat, a winner take all rhetorical combat. We can persuade through charm. We all know the saying, how we can catch more flies with honey rather than vinegar. 

But it's more than just charm. The polemic of Ruth is rooted in her very good character. In the story this Moabite women is described as eshet chayil, a "worthy woman" or a "woman of valor" from Proverbs 31. In fact, Ruth, a Moabite, is the only women named in the Bible as eshet chayil.

Basically, the polemic of Ruth is an argument from character. Legally, reasoning solely from the texts of the Law, Boaz shouldn't marry Ruth. Ezra and Nehemiah have the better biblical argument. But Ruth's character, her being an eshet chayil, argues for her inclusion into the People of God.

You Have to Practice God

Quote from Toni Morrison's novel Paradise:

Let me tell you about love, that silly word you believe is about whether you like somebody or whether somebody likes you or whether you can put up with somebody in order to get something or someplace you want or you believe it has to do with how your body responds to another body like robins or bison...

Love is none of that. There is nothing in nature like it. Not in robins or bison or in the banging tails of your hunting dogs and not in blossoms or suckling foal. Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God. 

You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn--by practice and careful contemplations--the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it. Which is to say you have to earn God. You have to practice God. You have to think God--carefully. And if you are a good and diligent student you may secure the right to show love. Love is not a gift. It is a diploma. A diploma conferring certain privileges: the privilege of expressing love and the privilege of receiving it. 

How do you know you have graduated? You don't. What you do know is that you are human and therefore educable, and therefore capable of learning how to learn, and therefore interesting to God, who is interested only in Himself which is to say He is interested only in love. Do you understand me? God is not interested in you. He is interested in love and the bliss it brings to those who understand and share the interest...

Such a bracing, fascinating passage. Of course, there are lines we'll find utterly objectionable. That we don't deserve love. That you have to earn God. That God isn't interested in you. 

The quote comes form a sermon in the novel, so its narrative context has to be taken into consideration. Still, there's a lesson here. The Bible says, "faith without works is dead." The same is true about love. Love is a diploma. Love is not natural and it's hard. Love, as a capacity, has to be earned. You have to practice God. 

I appreciate the quote because we all want love, to give and receive it. But how many of us have put in the work? Few, I think. So while I wouldn't defend every line of this quote, I appreciate the call it is putting on my life. Today I want to practice God.

On Job: Speaking About Versus Speaking To

I came across this very interesting take on Job by David Burrell. It's a contrast between speaking to versus speaking about, the difference between explaining versus seeking a relationship.

Here's Burrell making the contrast between Job and his friends:
Speaking about something veers toward explaining, while speaking to someone can engage both in a relationship of exchange open to yet other forms of understanding. Indeed, what is most telling, structurally, in the book of Job is that the creator-God does not answer Job's extended complaints. Yet those looking for an explanation will find themselves scrutinizing what the voice from the whirlwinds says, while the dynamic of the unfolding relationship should lead us to what is most startling of all: that God responded to him.
All through the book Job's friends speak about God, from an intellectual remove, offering explanations for Job's suffering. Job, by contrast, keeps speaking to God, addressing God directly, seeking a face to face encounter.

And in the end, that's what Job gets in the whirlwind. No explanation, but the encounter. Job doesn't get a theory, doesn't get a theological answer, a satisfactory theodicy. Job receives what he asks for, God Himself. Job gets the relationship.

Prison Prayer Request

As I've shared, after a long absence due to COVID, chaplain volunteers have recently been allowed back to the unit on Sundays to participate and preach in the prison worship services.

I preached in two services yesterday. In one of the services, we had a moment where the men could come forward for prayer. Three men came to me and we shared in a time of prayer.

The request that struck me was from Robert. Robert was heavily tattooed, even on his eyelids. Obviously, an intimidating appearance. But as Robert shared his prayer request, tears started to fill his eyes.

Robert was a stutterer. And he wanted prayers for his speech. When he's anxious or emotional, he can't express himself. What he carries on the inside cannot make it to the outside. In fact, Robert shared that the reason for all his tattoos is that they communicate the important things that he cannot. He has etched his heart on his skin.

I prayed. For the healing of Robert's speech, but mostly for his pain, his frustration, his embarrassment, his shame. 

I left the unit thinking about Robert. We're all carrying on the inside some fragile thing, our external facades masking some shame or deep frustration. Looking at Robert, you wouldn't know the pain he carried. When we gaze at each other we can't see what is hidden on the inside. Like Robert, we're all carrying, even hiding, some private fragile thing. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 7, The Great Mending

869.

To make a man a saint, grace is certainly needed, and anyone who doubts this does not know what a saint, or a man, really is.

///

I lament here the gender-specific language of "man." I couldn't figure out a way to make it more inclusive without it sounding a bit off.

Regardless, by "man" we mean "human being." It takes grace to be a human being. 

I can't recall who once shared shared this with me, but I was speaking at a church and visiting with my host in his kitchen. He was talking about his relationship with his father. That relationship hadn't been very good in the early years. But late in life, in his final years, the father had undergone a change. He'd softened. Become more vulnerable. More gentle. Kinder. 

And in describing this, my host shared, "It takes a lifetime to become a human being."

I've never forgotten that line. It takes a lifetime to become a human being. 

Doesn't it? And even then, many of us don't get very far on this journey. 

Much of this journey, in my estimation, goes to what Pascal notes above, the role of grace. Our need to give grace, to ourselves and others, and how we can't become human without relying upon grace. Grace is the only power that humbles us, breaks us, heals us, and reconciles us. Grace is the Great Mending of all that we've broken and torn.

Save Me From Myself

Lord...

I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself — and that I am still afraid of You.

Take my life into Your hands, at last, and do what ever You want with it. I give myself to Your love and mean to keep on giving myself to Your love — rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me. It is enough for me that You have glory. Everything You have planned is good. It is all love.

The way You have laid open before me is an easy way, compared with the hard way of my own will which leads back to Egypt, and to bricks without straw. 

If you allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If you allow them to blame me, I shall worry even less, but be glad. If You send me work I shall embrace it with joy and it will be rest to me, because it is Your will. And if You send me rest, I will rest in You.

Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything You have ordained.

Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for your glory. This is what I live for. Amen, amen.

--Thomas Merton