The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 38, The Transfiguration of Mithrandir

I hope you've read The Lord of the Rings before reading this series, or at least seen the movies. Otherwise, today's post is a pretty big plot-spoiler. I still remember the moment when I was in high-school reading the books.

The old man in Fangorn who approaches Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas isn't Saruman but Gandalf, miraculously back from the dead. 

Back, but also changed. 

As Fleming Rutledge observes, and I agree, many readers have too quickly made Gandalf the Christ-figure of the story due to this resurrection event. But there is no single Christ-figure in the story, there is, rather, Christlikeness found across the many characters as the drama unfolds. Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and the others, all step into the spotlight at points to display Christlike virtues or motifs. And Gandalf's return is one of those moments. 

And yet, other than being back from the dead, there is little in Gandalf's return that echos the resurrection of Jesus. At this point in the story the battle against evil is really just starting to ramp up, touch and go from here on out, the whole enterprise precarious. Gandalf has been sent back not in final victory but to keep the fight from faltering. From here on out, there's a swiftness and urgency to all his actions. The battle isn't won with his return, the battle is engaged.

And so, I think Rutledge is right to see the return of Gandalf as less a resurrection event than a transfiguration:

"Mithrandir!" [Legolas] cried. "Mithrandir!"

"Well met, I say to you again, Legolas!" said the old man. 

They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.

At last Aragorn stirred. "Gandalf!" he said. "Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!" Gimli said nothing, but sank to his knees, shading his eyes.

This transfiguration echos the transfiguration of Jesus. But also, Rutledge points out, other transfigurations in the Bible, like Moses' face glowing before the people of Israel. 

And the point, obviously, is that this story isn't simply a story of human actors (well, humans plus dwarves, hobbits, and all the other physical creatures of Middle Earth). The drama has a metaphysical backdrop that here breaks into the story. There are deep supernatural (if we can use that word) forces at work, and here, with the return and transfiguration of Gandalf, they make their most visible, dramatic, and decisive appearance. An in-breaking that can only be described as one of grace, impossible hope, and joy. As Aragorn says, "Beyond all hope you return to us in our need!"

The Teleological Gaze: Part 3, After Virtue

My first insight regarding the need for a teleological "gaze," looking at life in light of purposes, goals, reasons and ends, came from reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

MacIntyre's point in After Virtue is that virtue requires a teleological gaze. We can think of virtue as the art of living. This goes back to the Greek idea of arete, which means excellence of any kind, and when applied to living well can be translated as "virtue." The key insight is that virtue requires a teleological understanding of life. We can't live artfully, excellently, or virtuously unless we know what life is for, its purpose or telos.

For example, we can't judge an excellent guitar or guitarist unless we know what a guitar is for--its purpose or telos--and what a guitarist is for. A guitar, for example, would make a poor hammer. Hammering isn't what a guitar is for. In short, we judge the "excellence" of something in relation to how it fulfills its purpose. Same goes for a musician like a guitarist. A musician would make a poor accountant as a musician. Musical skill and art isn't meant for accounting (though one could be skilled in both areas). Judging excellence in music requires knowing what music is for as separate from knowing what accounting is for.

So when we step back and ask questions like "What makes an excellent society or human being?" we have to hold in hand a teleological account of what society and human life is for. Without knowing the telos we can't assess virtue.

MacIntyre's point in After Virtue is that when the modern world turned its back on teleology it turned its back on virtue. The modern choice of causality over teleology, as we discussed in the last post, made sense in the realm of science, but it's proven to be a mess in the realm of morality and ethics. Since the modern world lacks a teleological account of life, we can't agree on what society or human life is for. Consequently, we have no way of judging a good or virtuous social contract or a life well lived. True, MacIntyre points out, we have lots of competing opinions about what is or is not good or bad, right or wrong, but no way to resolve our disagreements when diverse moral and ethical positions come into conflict.

The ethos of the morality of the modern world can be reduced to two basic ideas. First, maximize freedom. Second, do no harm. Basically, as long as you don't hurt anyone you can do as you please. But in such a world we have no idea about how to live well. No clue about what flourishing should look like. So most of us just default to some form of benign or enlightened hedonism. We spend our lives watching Netflix. Trapped in either mindless or addictive routines. 
And while we sense that this is a waste of life, without a teleological perspective we can't say exactly why or how we are wasting it.

The Teleological Gaze: Part 2, Manipulation and Meaninglessness

As noted in the last post, causal stories and teleological stories are very different. In fact, this is one way to distinguish science from religion. Science tells a causal story and faith tells a teleological story.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the stories we told about nature and ourselves were teleological. Existence had purpose. And this wasn't just the case in the realm of religion. Pre-Enlightenment science was teleological. The world moved and changed as the objects and creatures in the world sought their proper goals and ends. As Aristotle taught in his physics that governed the Western world, the best way to understand why things are the way they are is to understand what purpose they were designed to serve.

This teleological gaze was killed off by the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. You could argue that this teleological-to-causal shift was the fundamental change that gave rise to the modern world, and represents the critical imaginative difference between "science" and "religion."

Darwinian evolution is Exhibit A of the teleological-to-causal shift. According to a teleological account of biological life, the various evidences of "design" we found in nature pointed toward purposes, toward a telos. This "fit" between design and purpose was evidence of a divine intelligence or rationality (logos).

But where teleology looked forward toward a telos--a goal, reason, end, or purpose--the story Darwin told looked backwards at antecedent causes. Darwin pointed out that "design" could be produced through dumb and random processes. Genetic variation coupled with natural selection ("survival of the fittest") could mold phenotypes over time, fitting them to ecosystems and thereby creating the illusion of "design." Under the teleological gaze, cats have claws so they can catch mice and humans have opposable thumbs so we can make tools. But after Darwin, these teleological accounts were rejected. No purpose or telos drove the evolution of claws or thumbs. These arose through random genetic variation and the culling of natural selection.

Obviously, a causal approach to the natural world has yielded great fruits. Our capacity to manipulate the causal fabric of the world has given us enormous technological power. But the demise of the teleological hasn't come without a price. Specifically, we've traded meaning for manipulation.

The causal gaze gives us the ability to manipulate the physical universe, but at the cost of meaning. The causal gaze strips existence of purpose. Again, Darwin is a good illustration here. Why do we exist? Because of dumb, random physical processes. There's no "reason" behind our existence beyond luck, and we might just as well have not existed. In short, the causal gaze gives us great technological power but its pricetag is nihilism. We have material mastery but spiritual incompetence.

As the atheist and Noble Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg summed up, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

The Teleological Gaze: Part 1, Definitions

I've had a few stray thoughts that I want to try to gather here in some posts. I don't know if they will be coherent or add up to anything, but it's a thread I want to try to pull on.

Over the last year, various things I've read kept pointing out the vital role teleological metaphysics plays in many areas of life. It's made me wonder if one of the primary ways religious belief helps us is how it provides us with a teleological perspective and framework when thinking about life.

Since the words telos and teleological aren't commonplace, let's start off with some definitions and descriptions. 

The word telos comes from the Greek word telos, which literally means "end." A telos refers to an ultimate object, purpose, goal or aim, the end you are pursuing or heading toward.

The word teleological is mainly encountered in philosophical circles and it names how we consider things in light of their ultimate aims or purposes in contrast to their originating causes. When it comes to explanation, where causality looks backwards teleology looks forwards, toward a goal or purpose. Why, for example, do you exist? The causal explanation for your existence is very different from the teleological explanation, dumb and random physical antecedents versus purpose and your "reason" for being here. Causal stories and teleological stories are very, very different. As you can see in the contrast, looking at life teleologically imbues the world with mind, meaning, and purpose. This is the great contrast between religion and science, how the religious gaze is teleological and the scientific gaze is ateleological.

So, as we start, a series of reflections on how the teleological gaze--which may be the quintessence of religious belief--is necessity for a meaningful and flourishing life.

You Cannot Serve Both God and Twitter: Social Media and Spiritual Formation

When it comes to moral and spiritual formation, churches are fighting a losing battle with social media. We just can't compete. Job #1 for church leaders is getting their people to unplug. Because if your people are plugged in they will never, ever listen to you. Social media is drowning you out.

This from Andrew Sullivan, speaking about our current political situation this election year:

[W]e will be lucky if the country doesn’t erupt in large-scale civil violence by the end of all this.

And the reason this dystopian scenario is so credible is not just the fault of these political actors. It’s ours too — thanks to the impact of social media. I think we’ve under-estimated just how deep the psychological damage has been in the Trump era — rewiring the minds of everyone, including your faithful correspondent, in ways that make democratic discourse harder and harder and harder to model. The new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, is, for that reason, a true must-watch. It doesn’t say anything shockingly new, but it persuasively weaves together a whole bunch of points to reveal just how deeply and thoroughly fucked we are. Seriously, take a look.

The doc effectively shows how the information system necessary for democratic deliberation has, in effect, been jerry-rigged in the last decade to prevent any reasoning at all. It’s all about the feels, and the irrationality, and the moment...And what’s smart about the documentary is that it shows no evil genius behind this unspooling, no sinister plot deliberately to destroy our system of government. One of the more basic motives in American life — making money — is all you now need, the documentary shows, to detonate American democracy at its foundation.

For Facebook and Google and Instagram and Twitter, the business goal quickly became maximizing and monetizing human attention via addictive dopamine hits. Attention, they meticulously found, is correlated with emotional intensity, outrage, shock and provocation. Give artificial intelligence this simple knowledge about what distracts and compels humans, let the algorithms do their work, and the profits snowball. The cumulative effect — and it’s always in the same incendiary direction — is mass detachment from reality, and immersion in tribal fever.

With each passing second online, news stories, graphic videos, incendiary quotes, and outrages demonstrate their stunning utility to advertisers as attention seizers, are endlessly tweaked and finessed by AI to be even more effective, and thereby prime our brains for more of the same. They literally restructure our minds. They pickle us in propaganda. They use sophisticated psychological models to trap, beguile, outrage, and prompt us to seek more of the same.

Alternative views, unpleasant facts, discomforting arguments, contextualizing statistics, are, with ever-greater efficiency, filtered out of what our eyes can see and our minds absorb. And what we therefore believe becomes more fixed, axiomatic, self-reinforcing, and self-affirming. We become siloed into two affective tribes, with dehumanization of each other deepening with every news cycle.

I couldn't agree more.Things have gotten to such a point that I'm just about convinced that you can't be a Christian and be involved with social media. 

You cannot serve both God and Twitter.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 37, Watch and Wait

As Merry and Pippin come under the care of Treebeard, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli track the pair into the forest of Fangorn. There, the three see an old man approaching. Fearing it might be Saruman, Gimli tells Legolas to shoot the old man dead before they can be attacked with a bewitchment.

And here in this moment Fleming Rutledge's close reading of the text picks up another hint of the deep narrative of story:

Legolas took his bow and bent it, slowly and as if some other will resisted him. He held an arrow loosely in his hand but did not fit it to the string...

"Why are you waiting?..." [hissed Gimli].

"Legolas is right," said Aragorn quietly. "We may not shoot an old man so, at unawares and unchallenged, whatever fear or doubt be on us. Watch and wait!"

We've frequently highlighted the deep narrative, so the point should be obvious by now. Legolas doesn't quickly shoot the old man, he acts slowly "as if some other will resisted him." It's another subtle line about the "something else at work" that, when traced by Rutledge's close reading, shows up over and over again in the story. 

Rutledge also examines Aragorn's actions in this moment as well. 

First, we see a "habit of mercy" reappearing in the story, a habit that will return again and again in the drama to come, a habit that will in the end prove decisive. 

And second, the call to "watch and wait," a richly biblical motif, mixes with the deep narrative in highlighting the complementary nature between the "other will" and the choices of the characters. The "other will" doesn't override or bully. Rather, it creates a space for wise discernment and reflection. The "other will" doesn't coerce, it makes room, creating a capacity for choice.

Reading Romans Backwards: Don't Be Arrogant

One of the benefits of reading Romans "backward" is how it helps solve some of the puzzles when we read Romans "forward."

For example, when we read Romans forward we tend to think Part 1 of the book is Chapters 1-8, where Paul's does heavy theological lifting to show how we are made righteous by faith. Part 2 of the book is Chapters 9-11, where Paul seems to take a detour about unbelieving Israel, before turning to practical exhortations and church matters in Part 3, Chapters 12-16.

Read forward in this way, Chapters 9-11 don't seem to fit well with the whole. Consequently, what Paul is doing in Chapters 9-11, and why he takes so long to do it, has struck many readers of Romans as a bit of a mystery. Sermons you've heard from Romans bear this out. I expect most of the sermons you've ever heard from Romans have come from Chapters 1-8 or 12-16. For the most part we leave 9-11 alone.

But when you read Romans backwards, following Scot McKnight, the logic and purpose of Chapters 9-11 become perfectly clear.

Recall, the "strong" and "powerful" in the Roman churches were the Gentiles. And this group was despising and disparaging of their "weaker" Jewish brothers and sisters. Given this hostility and pride Paul spends time in Chapters 9-11 to put the Gentiles in their place.

You see this most clearly in Chapter 11, where Paul reminds the Gentiles that the Story that has saved them was not their Story, it was Israel's story. Using a horticultural metaphor, Paul explains how the Gentiles are not the natural root of the Story but must be unnaturally grafted in:
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
Notice how Paul is humbling the snobby Gentiles in their treatment of their Jewish brothers and sisters: "Do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches," "You do not support the root, the root supports you," and "Do not be arrogant, but tremble."

When we read Romans backwards, keeping Paul's pastoral concerns in view, the mystery of Romans 9-11 evaporates. We see how Romans 9-11 isn't a mysterious detour at all, but a key and central part of Paul's pastoral goal to address the Jew/Gentile conflict in the church.

Reading Romans Backwards: Yielding Power

An insight I picked up from Scot McKnight's book Reading Romans Backwards concerns the relationship between the "strong" and the "weak" in Romans 14.1-15.13.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, McKnight identifies the "weak" with the Jewish members of the church who, upon their return to Rome, found themselves displaced and marginalized among the Gentile house churches. The Gentile leaders of the Roman house churches were in the position of the "strong."

Many have tended to read "strong" versus "weak" in Romans as a contrast in conscience, stronger versus weaker consciences. In this instance, the Jewish members were offended by Gentile practices in relation to food. But in McKnight's analysis, the contrast here wasn't simply one of conscience, it was also one of power.

McKnight illustrates this by looking at how we translate "strong" and "weak." Specifically, the Greek word for "strong" is dunatoi, from the Greek root dunamai meaning "to be able" and "to have power." The "weak," by contrast, are adunatoi, without ability or power. So the issue isn't solely one of conscience, there's a power asymmetry at work as well. Consequently, McKnight likes how the CEB translates texts like Romans 15.1:
We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves.
Clearer translations here get to the heart of Paul's pastoral recommendations. Paul isn't saying that the most offended person in the room gets their way. Which is how many churches have interpreted the text, that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease. Of course, if someone is offended we shouldn't blow that person off. But what Paul is talking about is more complicated than flat differences of conscience. Paul is talking about asymmetries of power, and he's asking the powerful to yield power in deference to those who have less power. Yes, the conflict between those who had power and those who did not was an offense being caused by the food that was on the table, but the deeper issue had to with who had the power to set the table in the first place. Who had control of the house and space. Who could dictate to whom. And Paul looks at those people, the powerful, and asks them to yield to the less powerful.

Reading Romans Backwards: Solving Conflicts Christologically

During the summer I was leading a Bible class at church using Scot McKnight's book Reading Romans Backwards.

McKnight's argument in the book is that when we read Romans "forward," starting in Chapter 1 and going through to Chapter 16, we are often tricked into thinking that Paul wrote Romans as a treatise on systematic theology. What we miss in this reading, argues McKnight, are Paul's acute pastoral concerns. If we read Romans "backwards," starting with Chapters 12-16, we come to appreciate how Paul's theological discourses in the early parts of Romans are setting up Paul's pastoral vision for the Roman household churches.

What were the pastoral problems in the Roman household churches?

Not surprisingly, there were conflicts in Jew/Gentile relationships, the issue Paul was dealing with in almost every church he planted. The specific issue in Rome seems to be that the early Jewish converts in Rome had been expelled by the emperor Claudius (see Acts 18.2). In their absence the Gentile converts began to assume control over the house churches. When Nero allowed the Jews to return, the Jewish Christians came back to find themselves marginalized and displaced, and also very uncomfortable with a Gentile church life that had eschewed Jewish customs, traditions, and observances. You see this conflict in Romans 14.1-15.13 when Paul discusses issues related to food and the celebration of holy days.

What Scot's book brought home to me was how Paul approaches these conflicts. Specifically, Paul solves the conflicts Christologically rather than Biblically. Paul doesn't make a Biblical argument to settle the differences between the two groups, setting out who was "right" and who was "wrong." Rather, Paul lets the groups keep their different opinions but asks them to adopt a Christlike posture, and it's this posture, rather than a Bible verse, that resolves the conflict. Disputes are resolved relationally rather than doctrinally.

This Christological approach to resolving conflicts is summarized in Romans 15.7: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you."

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 36, Caring for Growing Things

Before moving on, let's sit one more week with Treebeard's assessment of Saruman: "He has a mind of metal and wheels, and he does not care for growing things."

In the story, the forces of good are those who care for growing things. The Hobbits of the Shire, Tom Bombadil, the Elves, Treebeard. The forces of darkness, by contrast, are those with minds of "metal and wheels," those who do not care for growing things.

This is not a novel observation. One of the most widely observed features of The Lord of the Rings is how it functions as a parable standing against industrialization and the destruction of nature. 

But there's a peace witness at work here as well, as it's the making of war machines that causes the most devastation in the story.

The dark shadow of World War I is very clear in The Lord of the Rings. You can see how the young Tolkien, looking out over No Man's Land, the wasteland stretching for miles and miles between enemy trenches, that place where any hint of green was a sign of divine grace, came to see that vision as the very picture of darkness, evil and hell.

Shocking Apologetics

We've all read the statistics about the younger generations drifting away from Christianity. As a college professor, I have a front row seat for this trend, so I often find myself engaged in apologetics with my students, making an appeal for the faith.

In these appeals, I've noticed something about my strategy. It takes a cue from Flannery O'Connor.

O'Connor used her novels and short stories to communicate spiritual truths and realities, but her stories where often violent, shocking, and disturbing. People would question and push her on her method, and she once shared the logic of her strategy:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways 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.
I've noticed with my students that in my conversations about faith I tend to draw "large and startling figures." I tend toward exaggeration and farce. I'm not saying this is wise or effective. It's just what I've found myself doing.

An example. I'll be in a statistics class. The students are on computers following along with what I am doing projected on the big screen. As you might expect, most students stay with me but others get lost and fall behind. So as we get started, I'll go on a long, comedic, come-to-Jesus sermon, pretending to be some revival preacher, about how we need to look to the left and to the right, noticing when our neighbors are struggling and falling behind. When you seen your neighbor falling behind, what would Jesus do? Jesus would lean over and guide his neighbor, getting them caught up. "THIS IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD, PEOPLE!!!" I'll shout (seriously, I really shout) "WE DON'T LEAVE EACH OTHER BEHIND!!!! Sure, you can just look at your own screen, not caring about anyone else in this world but yourself. You can be selfish! God will turn you over to your depraved mind. BUT IF YOU REALLY LOVED JESUS, you'd lift your head and look around for the people who need some help!!!!"

All this is said with great comedic exaggeration. I'm playing a character. A tent-revival preacher making an altar call, baptizing down by the river. Farce, exaggeration, and clowning.

Like I said, large and startling figures. Something small and minor is turned into this huge, momentous thing. All to make a point about Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Abba Joseph and the Demon

With the Sign of the Cross, the old monk Abba Joseph trapped in his cell a dark and miserable demon who had come to tempt him.

“Release me, Father, and let me go,” pleaded the demon, “I will not come to tempt you again”.

“I will gladly do that, but on one condition,” replied the monk. “You must sing for me the song that you sang before God’s Throne on high, before your fall.”

The demon responded, “You know I cannot do that; it will cause me cruel torture and suffering. And besides, Father, no human ear can hear its ineffable sweetness and live, for you will surely die.”

“Then you will have to remain here in my cell,” said the monk, “and bear with me the full struggle of repentance.”

“Let me go, do not force me to suffer,” pleaded the demon.

“Ah, but then you must sing to me the song you sang on high before your fall with Satan.”

So the dark and miserable demon, seeing that there was no way out, began to sing, haltingly, barely audible at first, groping for words long forgotten. As he sang, the darkness which penetrated and surrounded him began slowly to dissipate. The song grew ever louder and increasingly stronger, and soon the demon was caught up in its sweetness, his voice fully lifted up in worship and praise. Boldly he sang of the power and the honour and the glory of the Triune God on High, Creator of the Universe, Master of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible. As the song sung on high before all ages resounded in the fullness of its might, a wondrous and glorious light penetrated the venerable Abba’s humble cell, and the walls which had enclosed it were no more. Ineffable love and joy surged into the very depths of the being of the radiant and glorious angel, as he ever so gently stooped down and covered with his wings the lifeless body of the old hermit who had liberated him from the abyss of hell.

--H/T to Eclectic Orthodoxy where I first saw this. There's doubt about if this is an authentic desert father story. But it's still a good story.

Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 6, The Paternalistic Threat

This last threat might not warrant addition to the list, but I'll float it here for consideration. 

By paternalistic threat I mean a stratified society where a handful of elites manage and look after the masses. This is a species of the Nietzschean threat, but I think it stands separately because there is a benevolent and prosocial aspect in play here. 

Again, one of the political implications of human dignity is that governments must treat people with care, especially those who might be ranked at the "bottom" of some social metric. And while social hierarchies can tip toward domination (what I've called the Nietzschean threat), they can also take on a paternalistic aspect. The goal here isn't domination as much as benevolent management. Since the unenlightened masses don't know what is best for themselves, an enlightened elite makes those decisions for them and engineers society accordingly. 

Paternalism is also different from uptopianism. Utopian visions of society tend to be idealistic, whereas paternalistic visions tend to be more pragmatic. Though the two often blend together. The revolution might be driven by utopianism, but that idealism is hard to sustain given subborn realities, and so it eventually gives way to a totatarianian paternalism. 

The reason this paternalistic stance is a threat to human dignity, despite its goal of care, is that, once again, it is introducing a ranking of value and worth between the "parents" and the "children" of society. Care is being mediated through a hierarchy of worth. 

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 35, The Treebeard Option

After escaping from the orcs, who were rushing to take them to Saruman, Merry and Pippin meet one of the most remarkable and surprising characters in the tale: Treebeard, the great caretaker and shepherd of the forest of Fangorn.

After interrogating Merry and Pippin, Treebeard comes to realize that Saruman has become a threat to Fangorn and the whole of Middle Earth. The news isn't wholly unexpected, as Treebeard has been watching and worrying about Saruman for quite sometime. But the tipping point has come, action must be taken. Treebeard concludes:

"I cannot overlook him. I must do something, I suppose...I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels, and he does not care for growing things...And now it is clear that he is a black traitor."

Fleming Rutledge makes a contrast here between Tom Bombadil and Treebeard. Recall our WILDLY CONTROVERSIAL Week 7 post on "the uselessness of Tom Bombadil," where, in contrast to Rivendell, Rutledge criticizes Bombadil for not caring about or participating in the struggle against Sauron. Many didn't like Tom being called out, arguing that Tom's work in caring for his patch of the world is a form of resistance. Alan Jacobs even speaks of us choosing the "the Bombadil Option."

All of which is very well argued and observed. Resistance can involve withdrawing from the larger fight to control history to care for the particular and the local. And yet, in the middle of that debate we find Treebeard, who seems to embody the best of both Rivendell and Bombadil. Like Tom, Treebeard is a caretaker and steward of the local and the particular. And yet, while slow and deliberative, Treebeard can be roused to take action against evil, joining Rivendell in the fight. 

I know, I know, of the making of "Options" there seems to be no end. But our choice isn't just the Rivendell Option or the Bombadil Option, choosing, for example, between social justice warriors and the withdrawl of the Benedict Option. Between involvement in history versus care of the local and particular. There is a middle path here. There is the Treebeard Option. A preference for the local and the particular. A slow, considered, deliberative, wise and watchful approach to "getting involved." No emotional hot takes from the Ents! But also a capacity to be roused and get involved "for such a time as this." 

For even the Ents, slow and patient as they are, get to a point where even they have to say, "I must do something."

Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 5, The Utopian Threat

I didn't know what to call this threat to human dignity, I could have went with ideological, collectivist, communist, totalitarian, or revolutionary threat. But I landed on utopian threat.

The threat here is how a collective, utopian vision of the good--the Cause or the Revolution--becomes the altar upon which people must be sacrificed. You got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. It's okay to trample over human rights and dignity if that's what it takes to build a better world. The ends justify the means. There are sacrifices--human sacrifices!--that must be made for the greater good.

Utopianism is a threat because the Cause is very compelling, it's a vision of the good that is really, really attractive. Evil results because you're pursuing the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is a historical case study of how a uptopianism, especially a godless, materialistic uptopianism, comes to erode human dignity.

Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 4, The Transhuman Threat

A simple way to state the Nietzschean threat from Part 2 is that it's perfectly reasonable to use hierarchy to organize social life, ranking people by worth, endowment, or ability. Human nature even seems to push us toward just such evaluations and rankings. That we resist and recoil at this vision, however, reveals just how Christian our social and moral imaginations have become, believer and non-believer alike.

But what if abilities and endowments could be changed or modified?

As discussed in Part 1, one reason we need human dignity is because it secures human worth and value irrespective of talents or abilities. You must be treated with love and care no matter your IQ, high, medium, or low. A Nietzschean world would rank you, but a Christian world would not. This was the Great Conversion of the West, how Christianity dismantled and replaced the Nietzschean ranking that governed Greek and Roman morality and political theory.

In short, dignity is necessary because talents and abilities are various, tempting us into rankings of worth. But what if talents and abilities could be changed?

I'm grouping that prospect under what I'll call the transhuman threat. But included here is also the eugenic threat, along with all types of radical human enhancement.

What if, for example, we could pick the IQ or beauty or athleticism of our children? What if, in some future world, physical and mental augmentations become available and able to improve your IQ or physical abilities?

This might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but it's closer around the corner than you'd think. The world is already divided in who gets access to certain medical procedures, prosthetics, psychotropic medications, and other technologies (think Stephen Hawking's speech software), all of which enhance psychological and physical functioning. During COVID-19 we've lamented how some school children didn't have access to technological resources as much as their richer peers. A smartphone in your hand isn't a chip in your head, but it's close and getting closer. Genetic testing and engineering is already here and growing fast in its capabilities, too fast for our moral and political debates to keep up. Aborting babies with disabilities, eugenics-lite, is becoming standard practice in some nations. 

The point to be observed in all this current and future technology, the prospect of human enhancement, is that it brings the Nietzschean threat in through the back door. We're not ranking human persons in a crude sort of way, dumb people to the left, smart people to the right. We are simply making people "better." And who doesn't want to be better? But "better" implies "worse," a ranking of worth. An enhanced human being, a transhuman or a post-human, is better than a mere human, especially if that mere human is disabled or lacking in some natural endowment or ability.

We can even envision all this playing out in the domain of fashion and preferences. Blue eyed children are all the rage this year, because that's what the celebrities are choosing down at the Birth Store.

Basically, when the human person becomes modifiable they will be judged by what they "could be," rather than what they are, warts and all. And the greater the enhancements the greater the contrast and rankings. The supersmart will outpace the dull and adopt an increasingly paternalistic attitude toward them, if not outright hostility and loathing.

None of this will happen quickly. It'll be a slow burn, each advancement seen as good and welcomed at the time, a contribution to greater human flourishing. Like switching your glasses for contact lenses. But the journey will involve a gradual introduction of a ranking of worth, the slow dismantling of human dignity, the Christian belief that, no matter your innate endowment or abilities, you possess inviolate and inestimable value and worth. No enhancement or loss of IQ, beauty, or physical ability makes you better or worse than any other. Human dignity is metaphysically secured, immune from any transhuman or eugenic metrics.

Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 3, The Utilitarian Threat

The belief in human dignity is so widespread it might be assumed there just isn't any other plausible foundation for secular, humanistic morality and politics. But there is.

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory the main premise of which is that the right/moral course of action is the action that produces the most good. This criterion of the maximization of the good makes utilitarianism a brand of what is called consequentialism in ethics, where the "right" course of action is determined by its outcome or consequence. By contrast, the reigning moral consensus of Christianity and humanism is deontological rather than consequentialist. In deontological ethics, an action is right or wrong because it is following some moral law or rule. For example, the moral rule "treat human beings with care," because they posses "rights" or are bearers of the Image of God, is deontological rather than consequentialist: the focus is upon upholding a moral rule and commitment rather than weighing or measuring the outcome of implementing that rule.

The point here is that there are other ways or ordering our moral lives that aren't rooted in human dignity. Other moral worlds are available to us.

Now in practice these worlds tend to blend together in our lives. Sometimes our moral thinking is deontological. We follow a moral rule like "It's wrong to lie." And sometimes our thinking is consequentialist, "I told a lie in this instance because telling the truth would have made things worse."

Ethical theories can also be hybrids. Throughout its long history, utilitarian ethics has been built atop the deontological, Judeo-Christian foundation of human dignity. "Maximizing the good" has generally been assumed to mean "maximizing the human good" or "maximizing the good of human persons." In such understandings of utilitarianism, Christian thinking is being smuggled into the consequentialist system. Because of this, there have been utilitarian thinkers who have tried to expunge human dignity from the theory to create a pure consequentialist framework.

An example of this is the work of the famous utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. The most noteworthy aspect of Singer's ethical thinking is that he doesn't put human dignity and value at the center of his moral reflections. Singer rejects what is called speciesism, discrimination based on species membership, were the members of our species are considered to be morally more important than members of another species. For example, if a house was burning and you ran in to rescue the baby and not the dog, because you believe the baby to be morally more valuable than the dog because the baby is a human being, that choice is a form of speciesism.

Speciesism, as an ethical problem, plays a huge part in Singer's seminal work Animal Liberation, a classic, ground-breaking work in the animal rights movement. 

Singer replaces "human worth" as the ground of ethical reflection with a consideration of suffering, human and animal. Since animals can suffer, their pain must be included in our ethical considerations. This seems both humane and reasonable. And yet, some snarly questions quickly follow. Suffering is not uniform. So if you're not going to draw a line between human suffering and animal, what criterion are you going to use to measure the amount of suffering a given ethical choice might produce? Singer answers that question by turning to the issue of cognitive and emotional capacity. Generally speaking, human suffering is "greater" than animal suffering because our inner lives are fuller and richer. A greater cognitive and emotional range creates a greater capacity for suffering. Notice here how species membership is being rejected as the ground of ethical thinking and is being replaced with a ranking of mental and emotional capacity.

So far, so good, until you press on to note that there are instances where it seems that animals have a greater capacity for suffering than certain human beings, and therefore should rank higher in our moral considerations. Some humans, due to age, damage, illness, or disability, have diminished mental capacities, lowering their capacity for suffering in the form of mental and emotional anguish. Thus, their suffering is weighed less in Singer's system.

Working through Singer's pure, consequentialist logic brings us to some of his most notorious and controversial conclusions. For example, in his classic book Practical Ethics (Second Edition), Singer takes up the issue of infanticide, with a particular focus on children born with serve abnormalities. Since these persons are both 1) babies and 2) possessing severe abnormalities, an ethical case can be made for killing them. This outcome is reached because the criterion being used is a capacity for suffering rather than a prior to commitment to human dignity, no matter how diminished and degraded in the eyes of others.

And simply being a baby makes a difference, even if born healthy. Since babies lack the mental and emotional capacities of adults and other animals, babies rank lower on the suffering metric, and therefore lower in our moral considerations. It's simple logic once you accept the premises of the system. And it's this utilitarian approach to infant suffering that allows Singer to write:
No infant - disabled or not - has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.
Now, let me pause and say a couple of things here.

First, there is much in the work of Peter Singer that I admire. His work on animal rights and effective altruism are laudable. 

Second, I'm not necessarily criticizing Singer's ethics or utilitarianism in this post. You might be a utilitarian and want to defend Singer. Fine, but I don't really care.

My point in this tour of utilitarian ethics is to illustrate a couple of things.

First, human dignity isn't an empirical fact. Due to the Judeo-Christian tradition, belief in human dignity is so widespread it can seem like a fact. We tend to assume that no sane person could even question it. Doubting human dignity seems like doubting gravity. But, as Singer's work illustrates, people have and do doubt human dignity. Dignity is very contestable and is, in fact, contested.

There are non-Christian readers who are so thoroughly christian in their worldview who will think my concerns in this series about human dignity being "vulnerable" is just so much hysteria and alarmism. Dignity for these non-Christian christians is as solid and as empirical as rocks and trees. Who could possibly doubt it? So all this worrying and pearl clutching about human dignity being vulnerable because the metaphysical foundations of Christianity have been rejected is just nonsense.

But as Peter Singer's work illustrates, it's not nonsense. There are other moral worlds we could inhabit, worlds where human dignity is quite purposefully banished from consideration. There are worlds where no infant, disabled or not, has a strong claim to life. Such worlds are out there on the horizon of possibility. And one of the noteworthy features of Singer's ethics is how intentionally and ruthlessly secular it is, which suggests that the appeal or these sorts of moral worlds will only grow over time as our post-Christian world walks further and farther away from Christian metaphysics.

Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 2, The Nietzschean Threat

Having set out the history of human dignity in the West, as it grew out of the metaphysical worldview of Judeo-Christian tradition, I want to devote a few posts to how dignity is vulnerable when it eschews metaphysics and rests solely upon sentiment, broadly shared feelings of fellow feeling.

The first threat we'll look at is the Nietzschean threat to dignity. And Glenn Tinder's Atlantic article also does a great job in summarizing this threat.

Specifically, the Christian belief, rooted in the Imago Dei, that each of us have been created in the Image of God and therefore imbued with equal value and worth, isn't an empirical fact about reality. As Tinder pointed out in Part 1, we can rank people from "better" to "worse" to "more useful" to "less useful" across a host of metrics. Intelligence. Beauty. Talent. Achievement and attainment.

In addition, this social ranking seems to be hardwired into our psychology, rooted in the dominance hierarchies of an evolutionary past. Because of this, social ranking can feel both more "natural" and more "moral" to us. There is an intuitiveness to a hierarchy based upon worth. And such hierarchies point to social alternatives in contrast to the metaphysics of Christian egalitarianism. 

As Tinder and many others have pointed out, no one saw this more clearly than Nietzsche. Nietzsche saw that if Christian metaphysics was rejected we were open to just this sort of social ranking and hierarchy. This ranking of value was, for Nietzsche, preferred over the egalitarianism inherent in the Christian metaphysics of the Imago Dei. Tinder summarizing:
Nietzsche's thinking was grounded in a bitter repudiation of Christianity, and he devoted much of his life to scouring human consciousness in order to cleanse it of every Christian idea and emotion. In this way his philosophy became a comprehensive critique of Western civilization, as well as a foreshadowing of an alternative civilization. It is, as practically everyone now recognizes, remarkable in its range, subtlety, and complexity; Nietzsche is not easily classified or epitomized. It can nevertheless be argued that the dramatic center of his lifework lay in the effort to overthrow the standard of Christian love and to wipe out the idea that every human being deserves respect—leading Nietzsche to attack such norms in the field of politics as equality and democracy. If Christian faith is spurned, Nietzsche held, with the courage that was one of the sources of his philosophical greatness, then Christian morality must also be spurned. Agape has no rightful claim on our allegiance. And not only does agape lack all moral authority but it has a destructive effect on society and culture. It inhibits the rise of superior human beings to the heights of glory, which, we realize at last, are not inhabited by God. By exalting the common person, who is entirely lacking in visible distinction and glory, agape subverts the true order of civilization. The divine quality that Nietzsche claimed for humanity was power—the power not only of great political leaders like Julius Caesar and Napoleon but also of philosophers, writers, and artists, who impose intricate and original forms of order on chaotic material. Such power, in the nature of things, can belong only to a few. These few are human gods. Their intrinsic splendor overcomes the absurdity that erupted with the death of the Christian God, and justifies human existence.
Dignity has to be secured metaphysically because there are other very plausible and compelling ways to order human society. Currently, in our post-Christian world, dignity is only secured sentimentally, as a broadly shared feeling that people are "equal," a feeling we've inherited from our Christian past. But feelings can change, making dignity vulnerable to other ways of thinking about human worth and value.

And lest we think the Nietzschean threat to dignity overblown, it's actually everywhere you look. Anyone ever read Ayn Rand? You see the Nietzschean threat in the very fabric of the American Dream, the meritocracy which weeds out the dumb, talentless, and ugly from the intelligent, gifted, and beautiful. And this ranking of value feels "moral" and "right" to us. The winners should rule.

All that to say, sentimental dignity is vulnerable in the face of the Nietzschean threat. Dignity has to be secured metaphysically.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 34, Confession, Absolution, and Victory

The Two Towers opens with the death of Boromir and the abduction of Pippin and Merry. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come to the spot where Boromir defended the two hobbits to the death, leaving numerous dead orcs around him.

Aragorn goes to Boromir and hears his dying confession:

"I tried to take the Ring from Frodo," he said. "I am sorry. I have paid..." 

Hearing this, Aragorn offers absolution:

"No!" said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. "You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!..."

But how has Boromir conquered? He clearly lost the fight with the orcs, the hobbits captured and himself mortally wounded. Are Aragorn's words a comforting lie to console a dying man?

Interpretations may abound here, but I think Tolkien intends us to see victory in Boromir's confession and repentance. I think the drama of the story makes it clear that after Boromir stumbles badly with Frodo, he finds himself again in loving sacrifice, in giving his life away to save others. In taking that moral journey, from grasping at power to sacrifice, Boromir finds his way back into the light. This is his victory.

Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 1, Human Worth and Christian Metaphysics

In a recent series I described the values of secular liberal humanism as "lazy sentimental christianity."

Regarding the adjective "christian," I used lower-cased c to describe how secular liberal humanism is founded upon the idea of "universal human rights," and how that idea is borrowed from Judeo-Christian metaphysics.

A beautiful exposition of this can be found in Glenn Tinder's 1989 essay in The Atlantic, "Can We Be Good Without God? On the political meaning of Christianity."

The question Tinder is exploring is if the values modernity inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the value of universal human dignity, can be sustained going forward without the metaphysical worldview that gave birth to those values. As Tinder asks at the start of his essay, "Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing?"

Tinder's question goes to why I described liberal humanism as both "lazy" and "sentimental." "Sentimental" as it has jettisoned the metaphysics that made dignity durable and sturdy and is now reliant upon (thankfully) widely shared feelings regarding human worth. And "lazy" as it is parasitically living off moral inertia, tradition, and custom rather than doing the hard work of making it's own case regarding the warrants for its inherently christian moral assertions. 

In this series of posts I want to describe why I think Tinder is right to worry that humanistic values, rooted in sentiment rather than metaphysics, are vulnerable.

But before we get to those vulnerabilities, I want to share a bit more from Tinder to illustrate the connection between dignity and Christian metaphysics.

Tinder begins this treatment with the Christian notion of agape, and how love creates the building blocks of human dignity:
Love seems as distant as spirituality from politics, yet any discussion of the political meaning of Christianity must begin by considering (or at least making assumptions about) love. Love is for Christians the highest standard of human relationships, and therefore governs those relationships that make up politics...

The nature of agape stands out sharply against the background of ordinary social existence. The life of every society is a harsh process of mutual appraisal. People are ceaselessly judged and ranked, and they in turn ceaselessly judge and rank others. This is partly a necessity of social and political order; no groups whatever—clubs, corporations, universities, or nations—can survive without allocating responsibilities and powers with a degree of realism. It is partly also a struggle for self-esteem; we judge ourselves for the most part as others judge us. Hence outer and inner pressures alike impel us to enter the struggle.

The process is harsh because all of us are vulnerable. All of us manifest deficiencies of natural endowment—of intelligence, temperament, appearance, and so forth. And all personal lives reveal moral deficiencies as well—blamable failures in the past, and vanity, greed, and other such qualities in the present. The process is harsh also because it is unjust. Not only are those who are judged always imperfect and vulnerable, but the judges are imperfect too. They are always fallible and often cruel. Thus few are rated exactly, or even approximately, as they deserve...

Agape means refusing to take part in this process. It lifts the one who is loved above the level of reality on which a human being can be equated with a set of observable characteristics. The agape of God, according to Christian faith, does this with redemptive power...Agape raises all those touched by it into the community brought by Christ, the Kingdom of God. Everyone is glorified. No one is judged and no one judges.
Agape, then, provides the foundation for universal human dignity. When we look on others with love we ignore all observable metrics of worth, of aptitude, achievement, or endowment. We refuse to judge or evaluate others using criteria of worth. When we love these metrics of worth are ignored as we embrace the inherit value of the other person. Christianity universalizes this vision, demanding that we love all people. We refuse to apply criteria of worth to other human beings.

Love creates, according to Tinder, the Christian vision of what he calls "the exalted individual." Tinder describing this:
To grasp fully the idea of the exalted individual is not easy...It refers to something intrinsically mysterious, a reality that one cannot see by having someone else point to it or describe it. It is often spoken of, but the words we use—"the dignity of the individual," "the infinite value of a human being," and so forth—have become banal and no longer evoke the mystery that called them forth. Hence we must try to understand what such phrases mean. In what way, from a Christian standpoint, are individuals exalted? In trying to answer this question, the concept of destiny may provide some help.

In the act of creation God grants a human being glory, or participation in the goodness of all that has been created. The glory of a human being, however, is not like that of a star or a mountain. It is not objectively established but must be freely affirmed by the one to whom it belongs. In this sense the glory of a human being is placed in the future...

Destiny is not the same as fate. The word refers not to anything terrible or even to anything inevitable, in the usual sense of the word, but to the temporal and free unfoldment of a person's essential being. A destiny is a spiritual drama.

A destiny is never completely fulfilled in time, in the Christian vision, but leads onto the plane of eternity. It must be worked out in time, however, and everything that happens to a person in time enters into eternal selfhood and is there given meaning and justification. My destiny is what has often been referred to as my soul...

The agape of God consists in the bestowal of a destiny, and that of human beings in its recognition through faith. Since a destiny is not a matter of empirical observation, a person with a destiny is, so to speak, invisible. But every person has a destiny. Hence the process of mutual scrutiny is in vain, and even the most objective judgments of other people are fundamentally false. Agape arises from a realization of this and is therefore expressed in a refusal to judge.

The Lord of all time and existence has taken a personal interest in every human being, an interest that is compassionate and unwearying. The Christian universe is peopled exclusively with royalty...
According to Christian metaphysics everyone has a destiny. Our life has a "plot," giving it purpose and meaning. And this story is a story of glory, no matter how small or ignoble our lives might be judged by others. Our destiny makes our life, and every life, "count."

Given this metaphysical vision of the exalted individual, Tinder turns to unpack the political implications:
What does this mean for society?

To speak cautiously, the concept of the exalted individual implies that governments—indeed, all persons who wield power—must treat individuals with care. This can mean various things—for example, that individuals are to be fed and sheltered when they are destitute, listened to when they speak, or merely left alone so long as they do not break the law and fairly tried if they do. But however variously care may be defined, it always means that human beings are not to be treated like the things we use and discard or just leave lying about. They deserve attention.
Tinder goes on to say much more about the political implications of Christian metaphysics. But this is enough for today.

The point to be taken is how the heart of humanistic morality and liberal political theory--that every individual must be given attention and treated with care--flows out of Christian metaphysics.

And given that situation, Tinder wants to ask the question, "Without the metaphysics, can the morality hold?"

In this series, I'll be arguing that it can't. We need the metaphysics. We need human dignity beyond sentiment.


I've been on silent contemplative retreats before, but I'm not a very silent person. If I'm not talking, I'm reading or writing. My mind is a general buzz of activity.

I recognize the need to quiet that buzz, but more and more I'm praying for more silence in my life for interpersonal reasons.

It seems to be a mathematical law that the more words you say the more likely you're going to say something stupid or hurtful. It's just a matter of volume. The more words the more risk. It's a direct correlation.

Consequently, I spend a lot of my day feeling regret for something I've said. I'm always kicking myself with, "I wish I hadn't said that." To be clear, I'm not a mean, abusive person. But very often, my opinions get too strong, my jokes too cutting, my judgments too dismissive. And sometimes it's just the problem that I need to stop talking and listen more.

And so I pray for more silence, for less words in my life. Less talking, more listening. For fewer, slower, more careful words.

The Spirit Comes Gently

The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance.

He is not felt as a burden, for he is light, very light.

Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as he approaches.

The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, to console.

The Spirit comes to enlighten the mind first of the one who receives him, and then, through him, the minds of others as well.

As light strikes the eyes of a man who comes out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of the man counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.

--Cyril of Jerusalem

Church is Gross

Today, I'm delighted to share this guest post from Kevin Makins author of the new book Why Would Anyone Go to Church?:

"Church is Gross" by Kevin Makins

Like many of you I am a part of a local congregation which can no longer meet in person. When the COVID reality first impacted our services I assumed it would be a few months before we were all gathered together again, breaking bread and bouncing babies.

But I was an idiot.

Nearly six months later we are still logging onto Youtube and the occasional zoom gathering. Sometimes we meet outside in groups of less than ten, socially distanced at the park while off-collar dogs interrupt the prayers of the people.

As a pastor in our community I’ve spent a good chunk of my summer reflecting on how we can re-gather safety this fall. Our church board has poured over the government’s safety rules and recommendations, and it’s lead me to a conclusion:

Church is gross.

Revisit it in your mind: People from all over town meeting in a small room to sing their spittle into the air. Children running up and down aisles, hugging the elderly and leaving snot on their finest Sunday dress. We literally have a part of the service where everyone shakes hands and passes around their germs (the person with the mic cheers them on: “Make sure to greet everyone!”)

Introverts rejoice: Pass the Peace is dead for a while.

Perhaps there is no moment less sanitary than communion. In our church this looks like congregants of all ages and backgrounds, as well as the occasional stranger from off the street, bumping shoulders as they move toward a single loaf of bread. Each person rips off a piece before passing it down the line. Over a hundred saints dip chunks of bread (and the occasional finger tip) into a common bowl of juice. The last to arrive will be greeted by a purple stained table and a common cup filled with floaties.

In a COVID world this might as well be a slasher film.

Singing and hugs, communion and laying on hands: All of my favourite parts of church are disgusting.

Anyone else feel this way? Since you’re reading this on Richard Beck’s blog, I assume the idea of church being “unclean” also appeals to you. And if that’s the case we have a new question:

“What do we do with this revelation?”

There is a human desire to respond in one of two ways.

The first is just to be nasty anyways: Fill the sanctuary Sunday morning. Ignore health regulations and rules. Abuse our freedom in Christ to put our most vulnerable at risk and participate in spreading a virus which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. This, to me, is not a Christian option.

On the other hand, we can do what some churches have been doing for decades: Spin it into a positive: Come on back to church everyone! Sad about what we’ve lost? Don’t worry about it. We’ve still got a rockin’ band (please don’t sing along), you can greet one another with the peace of Christ (six feet apart please), and don’t forget about communion (you’ll find the pre-sealed container under your seat).

This sort of hype machine might successfully trick people into acting positive, but it utterly fails to represent reality in an honest way.

Perhaps the only faithful way forward is to do something the church hasn’t always been great at: Confess our disappointment.

Whether we are gathering responsibly in a building, in smaller backyard groups, or online in zoom calls, it is possible to say “I wish it didn’t have to be like this” and “I miss how our gatherings used to feel” while still being grateful for the expression we do have.

It may be uncomfortable for us brittle North Americans, but these wilderness seasons are a part of our Christian tradition. What we can’t lose is our memory. “Remember” is an often repeated command in the Old Testament. Our temporary reality will not last forever, and so we have to remember what things used to be like, how beautiful, embodied, and disgusting church was, and one day will be again.

I guess at this point I should say that Richard invited me to write a blog post to promote my recently released first book: “Why Would Anyone Go to Church?” It tells the story of a young community trying to reclaim church for good, despite all the valid reasons one could walk away.

There is a certain irony in releasing a book about going to church during the only time in human history when literally no one is allowed to go to church. But it’s had an unexpected effect: I receive emails every week from people who, after reading it, tell me the stories in the book help them time travel back to a world of potlucks and small talk over mediocre coffee.

It helps them remember why church mattered, and why she still matters.

If you, like me, need some help remembering these days, perhaps it can be a companion to you as well. I pray the Spirit uses it to help you through this wilderness season, and even helps you laugh a bit.

Laughter is cathartic. And sort of gross.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 33, "But Not Alone"

Frodo takes off the Ring and escapes the great, grasping Eye. For the moment at least.

At this point, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, Frodo makes a decision based on "two factors, one wise, one not so wise."

The first factor is wise in that Frodo is correct in seeing, given what happened to Boromir, that "the evil of the Ring is already at work in the Company, and the Ring must leave them before it does more harm." 

The second factor is not so wise, as Rutledge points out, for Frodo is "wrong to think he can go alone."

Yes, Frodo is wrong, but how many of us haven't done exactly what he does here? When we're facing the moment of crisis we cut people off or out and try to go it alone. Later, when it all crashes and burns, our friends and family look at us and ask, "Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you ask for help?" And we just hang our heads in shame and reply, "I have no idea. I didn't want to bother or burden anyone. I thought I could handle it on my own. "

But grace comes to Frodo in the person of Sam. And for my part, this is the moment where Sam really comes into his own as a hero of the story. From here on out, Sam's fidelity to Frodo begins to shine as the force that is going to get the pair to slopes of Mount Doom.

As Sam shows us, we need each other. A quote I've shared before from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

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.

Help comes to us from the outside. Like Sam. Sam chases Frodo down, swimming after him and almost drowning as Frodo tries to slip away in a boat. Pulling Sam back to shore, Frodo tries to dissuade Sam, but Sam is having nothing of it:

'Now, Sam,' said Frodo, 'don't hinder me! The others will be coming back at any minute. If they catch me here, I shall have to argue and explain, and I shall never have the heart or the chance to get off. But I must go at once. It's the only way."

'Of course it is,' answered Sam. 'But not alone. I'm coming too, or neither of us is going. I'll knock holes in all the boats first.' 

Frodo actually laughed. A sudden warmth and gladness touched his heart.

As Rutledge comments, "As we shall see, laughter in The Lord of the Rings almost always signifies an incursion of divine grace."

And I just love Sam's words: "But not alone." 

As we face hardships and obstacles, and journey through the dark valley, may we speak these words to each other, over and over again: 

"But not alone."


And here, dear friends, is the end of The Fellowship of the Ring

Next week, The Two Towers.

Lessons from the Scattered, Persecuted Church

Thinking about the impact of COVID upon the church, yesterday I suggested that during this season we're being called to a more solitary, monastic journey. For most of our lifetimes, our Christianity has been primarily focused upon large gatherings in large rooms. But during this season the demand is for monastic practices where we meditate, worship, and pray alone. Less singing and talking and more silence and prayer.

Relatedly, COVID has scattered the church. Unable to gather, we are distributed. And the church has gone through seasons like this before. I'm put in mind of the events in Acts 8:
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
"Those who were scattered."

Obviously, we've been scattered for different reasons, and opportunities for evangelism might be hard with a mask on and standing six feet away from people. My point is simply that, throughout history, the church has been scattered. And I have to hope, as in Acts 8, that these seasons, while hard, are also opportunities. 

For example, churches scattered or forced underground by persecution have tended to live, thrive and grow in distributed cell-based networks. In persecuted contexts, the church cannot show up in large numbers in a large building. So networks of smaller house-church gatherings are necessary. 
During a pandemic, the reasons are different for why we can't gathering in large numbers, but it creates the same challenge that suggests a similar solution. Not to say that when we get a vaccine that churches can't return to "normal" with big gatherings in a big buildings. But the fragility of that "big box" expression--church as WalMart--has been exposed. Consequently, even if we get back to "normal," churches would be wise to look toward the persecuted church for inspiration and guidance to invest in creating a more distributed, cell-based infrastructure. Such an investment would build in some structural resiliency out in front of the next pandemic.

COVID, the Church, and Spiritual Formation

COVID has created so many challenges for the church. Gathering is a problem. Embracing and hugging is a problem. Singing is a problem. And for so many of us, these are the things have been vital for our faith walk. Being together. Holding each other. Singing together. Suddenly, it's all gone.

What is church supposed to look like in this season of COVID? What happens to Christianity in an era of germ theory, where keeping our distance is how we care for and protect each other?

Like you, I've wrestled with these questions. And no great answers have come to me. But large gathering, big auditorium, event-driven church expressions have been revealed to be very fragile during seasons of pandemic. Consequently, one thing seems clear: we are being called to a more solitary, contemplative, and monastic journey.

Specifically, we can't rely upon a church staff, a large building, and a large gathering to organize our faith experiences. Yes, we can get some things online from our churches, but this season demands that we take increased personal responsibility for our own spiritual formation. And by and large that means turning toward spiritual routines, rituals, and practices that shape our hours, days, and weeks. That is what I mean when I say we're being called to a contemplative, monastic journey. Deprived of large gatherings focused on sermons and singing, we have to lean into rhythms we practice in solitude or with a smaller group.

Lazy Sentimental christianity: Part 4, Lazy

You can't get an ought from an is.

Hume's dictum haunts our secular world and humanistic morality. You can't squeeze values out of a scientific, materialistic description of the cosmos. The more and more you lean into scientific description, the more the cosmos is emptied of value. As the atheist, Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg said, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." The scientific gaze strips the world of value.

True, as noted in the last post, people still try to ground values, ethics, and morality in science and materialism. But those efforts have proved futile. James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky's book Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality is a nice critical survey of these attempts. Hume's dictum still haunts.

And once again, the mere fact so many atheists even attempt this account points to how christian they are. There's an urgency to provide some non-theistic account of the good, the good as we've understood it in the West, the good we've inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Which brings us to our last description of secular, humanistic morality. It's lazy.

Humanism, as we've pointed out, is riding on the coattails of the Judeo-Christian tradition, jettisoning its metaphysics but keeping its moral content. Humanism is christian. And by rejecting Judeo-Christian metaphysics, humanism is also sentimental, reliant upon universally shared feelings and sensibilities in the West about "the good," feelings and sensibilities that we inherited from Christendom.

All of which highlights the laziness of the humanistic enterprise, how it borrows someone else's work and presents it as its own. Without an appeal to metaphysics humanism can't give an account of the good, but it doesn't really need to try as Christendom has already done the hard pedagogical work. Humanism just swoops in to enjoy the fruits of someone else's labor and toil. And that's lazy.

To be fair, there are many, many humanistic attempts to create a non-Christian grounding for the moral vision of the West. And those efforts seem to count as work. But the laziness here doesn't show up in the private, personal labor to come up with some non-theistic account of morality, but in the fact, since you don't need to create a shared consensus about your work, that you can forgo any pedagogical labor beyond convincing yourself. Christianity already did the heavy lifting in the West, so you can pursue your moral explorations as a hobby, with no pressure to convince anyone other than yourself. Do you like evolutionary accounts of morality? Hooray for you! Don't dig evolution but like utilitariansim? Fantastic, good for you! Rather opt for John Rawls' veil of ignorance? Wonderful choice, all the rage today! Want to talk hours and hours about the Trolley Problem or the Prisoner's Dilemma? How delicious!

No matter what you choose, you can pretend in social media debates that YOUR theory is THE theory that grounds morality. Never mind that hardly anyone agrees with you, or cares what you think. Pedagogy doesn't matter. And securing this account universally doesn't matter either. All that hard work has already been done. All you need to do, your one job, is convince yourself that you are being "rational" in espousing the Judeo-Christian ethic. 

Humanistic morality is lazy because, in the final analysis, it's really just a game for ethical hobbyists.

Lazy Sentimental christianity: Part 3, Sentimental

Last post we observed that the content of our modern, secular, non-theistic, and humanistic moral consensus is borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In our moral sensibilities the West is christian. Small c christian as the West is, metaphysically, post-Christian. The metaphysical beliefs of Christianity are slowly eroding, leaving behind a moral residue.

Which raises the question. Can the moral vision of the West hold once it has been separated from the metaphysical worldview that justified and undergirded it?

That's a live question right now. As I pointed out in the last post, much of the humanistic and atheistic moral project in modernity has been to show that the Judeo-Christian moral consensus can be supported, nurtured, and sustained with a non-theistic structure.  Others--Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and the Marquis de Sade come to mind--disagree. Strip away the metaphysics and there's nothing supporting the moral vision of the West.

For my part, I'm with Nietzsche on this. The moral consensus of the secular, humanistic, post-Christian world persists because of inertia. We're not anti-Christian, not yet at least. We're post-Christian, still haunted by Christ.

But without the underlying metaphysical commitments, the moral consensus of the West stands upon nothing solid. The humanistic and non-theistic moral vision is fundamentally sentimental, dependent only upon a broadly shared feeling that human beings, every one, possess inviolate dignity and worth. But that notion, without any metaphysical and ontological warrant, can only be asserted, and rallied to by appealing to fellow-feeling. In short, our most cherished ethical commitment, the linchpin of secular, humanistic morality stands upon nothing more substantial than feelings. Broadly shared feelings, yes, but feelings nonetheless.

A great read on the sentimental nature of modern, humanistic morality is Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Again, Nietzsche saw all this very, very clearly. So did Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment. Kick out the metaphysics and the moral vision of the West becomes fundamentally sentimental, reliant upon emotional appeals for good will. Non-theistic morality is entirely a game of feelings:

Sentimental christianity.