Journal Week 33: The Last First Day of School is Hard on the Heart

My university ACU is starting the year off with 40 days of prayer. As a part of this season, I was asked to select a text, share a devotional thought, and offer a prayer. The topic of my day was praying for parents sending their children off to college, specifically how hard and scary that can be.

Here was my reflection:
Today we pray for parents as they watch their students become independent adults that they may let go and entrust their children to God.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ ” – Luke 2:34-35

Devotional Thought
When the infant Jesus is presented at the temple, Simeon has a specific prophetic word for Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Being Jesus’s mother will bring fear, confusion and suffering into Mary’s life.

Every parent can identify with Mary. There is great joy in becoming a parent, but having children makes us vulnerable to heartache. The successes and victories of our children become our successes and victories. But their pain and sorrow also becomes our pain and sorrow. When our children hurt, a sword pierces our heart as well.

The burden of this vulnerability can overwhelm us with fear, especially during times of letting go when our children step away from the protective, caring space of home. Wildcat Week is a joyous time, but it’s also a time of great sadness and anxiety for the parents of our ACU students. Love has a cost, and it’s often paid with tears and sleepless nights.

Today’s Prayer
Our Father in Heaven, a sword also pierced your heart when you gave your Son to the world in love. We, however, are but dust. Our fears as parents can overwhelm us with worry. And the sorrows of our children can cripple us with grief. So today we pray for the parents of our students as they let go of their children during this season of life. We ask that you replace any fear and anxiety they may have with peace, courage, comfort, trust and joy. Give our ACU parents – give all of us – the power and courage to fearlessly carry the burden of love. Amen.
This reflection settled over me this week. Our youngest son Aidan's first day of school was this week. It's Aidan's senior year in High School. So this was Aidan's last first day of school.

As you can imagine, it's an emotional time for Jana and I. We remember all the feelings from Brenden's senior year, and we're about to do it again.

Love is a mystery, how if you love someone your heart becomes exposed to sadness and worry. And there's really no escaping it. Nor would you want to. Hurt goes with love. The only alternative is detachment and numbness. That might be safe, but it's not a human way to live.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons I'm a Christian, how the cross stands at the center of our faith.

The cross is an outpouring of love, and the cross is also very, very sad.

And to me, that is the truest thing in the entire world.

Progressives On Judgment and Hell: Part 2, The Jesus Problem

It's often said that if progressive Christians love one thing about Christianity it's Jesus.

Progressive Christians might not like the Old Testament, or Paul, or the organized church, but they tend to love Jesus.

The trouble is, Jesus was a pretty judgmental dude. As any superficial reading of the gospels will reveal to you, Jesus talked about damnation and hell all the time. Here's Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
All that to say, if progressives want to align themselves with Jesus they have to do the work to enter into Jesus's moral universe.

But again, as I pointed out in the last post, this shouldn't be too hard for progressives. Still, you see a lot of progressives struggle with this "Jesus problem."

I think this is mainly because progressives tend to cast Jesus as a Zen, non-dualistic thinking, hippie, flower child than as a prophet standing within the Hebrew prophetic tradition.

Yes, Jesus welcomed tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes, but his radical hospitality had a harsh, prophetic, and apocalyptic edge. Just ask the Pharisees.

In short, Jesus was a lover, but he was also an apocalyptic prophet of doom. And yes, it's hard to fit those pieces together. But if progressives want to lay claim to Jesus, they need to lay claim to the whole of him. 

Progressives On Judgment and Hell: Part 1, A Fondness for Hell

Progressive, liberal Christians like myself generally struggle with the language of hell and judgment in the Bible. For at least two reasons.

First, many progressive Christians espouse a hopeful, universalist eschatology, and many progressives find it hard to fit the harsh language of hell and judgment into that scheme.

Second, harsh language of hell and judgment is also, well, a wee bit judgmental, and that undermines the welcoming, hospitable, and tolerant posture most progressive, liberal Christians wish to embody in the world.

Then throw into the mix the fact that many progressive Christians are post-evangelicals, squeamish of any theology that smacks of religious conservatism and fundamentalism, and you're left with a lot of hand wringing in progressive circles about Judgment Day and hell.

And yet, the Bible is full of harsh, judgmental language with threats of hell. So what do you do with that? I'd like to share three thoughts over three posts.

For today, an obvious point.

Basically, it's a bit odd that progressive, liberal Christians are squeamish about the judgmental language in the Bible when they tend to be, almost to a person, a pretty judgmental group of people. And I'm looking in the mirror on this one. Did you notice how progressive Christians reacted to the election of Donald Trump, and how they have behaved since? Have you paid attention to progressive social justice warriors on social media? Harsh, judgmental language calling out moral evils isn't something progressives shy away from.

Plus, progressives tend to align themselves with the biblical prophets, and yet that speech is generally the speech of judgment, hell, and damnation.

My point in making this observation isn't to sacralize progressives who damn others. My point is just the simple observation that the moral sensibilities of progressive Christians, especially in how they embrace the biblical prophets, are actually quite at home in and fond of the moral universe of the Bible, even with the language of judgement, damnation, and hell.

Mark 5.1-5

This is a bleeding,
infected, festering madness,
a fevered, hot howling darkness.
A haunted, hollowed house
torn and swept through
by cold, murmuring winds.
Chattering broken voices echoing
down the empty alleyways of the mind.
This is lost,
and pain,
and hell.

And then a burnt moment,
sizzling ozone like lighting,
rivening with a crack.
But also something more tender, easy
and gentle:
the cooling of the rain,
the tendrils of dawn
caressing the sky,
the kiss of a flower brushing your cheek.

This is a power and force
that overwhelms in the tenderest
loving touch.
A calamity
of quietness and rest,
bringing a revelation:

This is found,
this is peace,
this is coming home.

I've always wanted to write a poem about Jesus' exorcisms. This is the attempt.

Journal Week 32: A Unique Approach to Paddle Boarding

I'm in Erie, Pennsylvania visiting my family.

One of the things I've gotten totally addicted to over the years when visiting Erie during the summer is paddle boarding. I love renting a board and taking it out on Lake Erie.

My approach to paddle boarding is a bit unique, however. Most people do a lot of paddling while paddle boarding. They get the board and paddle around.

Not me. Most of what I do with a paddle board is sit.

Here's what I do. I get a board and then paddle it far out from shore. Once I'm out in deep water with the noises of the shore far behind me, I stop and then just sit on the edge of the board (like the picture here). And I'll just sit for hours out there. Nothing but me, the water, and the sky. Sometimes I'll lay down, stretch out, and close my eyes. The peace and quiet I find in those hours is deeply spiritual and profoundly healing.

A quiet seat out on deep water.

That's all I want out of a paddle board.

As Long As a Single Person Is Lost, I Am Lost

As long as a single person is lost, I am lost. To try to save myself by getting free from the mass of the damned (Augustine’s massa damnata), and becoming good by myself, is to be both damned and absurd—as well as antichrist. Christ descended into hell to show that He willed to be lost with the lost, in a certain sense emptied so that they might be filled and saved, in the realization that now their lostness was not theirs but His. Hence the way one begins to make sense out of life is taking upon oneself the lostness of everyone...

--Thomas Merton

Being Responsive to Correction

Here's another counter-cultural message in the book of Proverbs: listening and being responsive to feedback, advice, and correction.
Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life,
but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.

Mockers resent correction,
so they avoid the wise.

Plans fail for lack of counsel,
but with many advisers they succeed.

Whoever heeds life-giving correction
will be at home among the wise.

A rebuke impresses a discerning person
more than a hundred lashes a fool.

To answer before listening—
that is folly and shame.

The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge,
for the ears of the wise seek it out.
This is such a counter-cultural message right now because, I don't know if you've noticed, you can't tell anyone anything anymore.

In an age of radical individualism and living your "own truth" we've lost the personal and cultural capacities to listen, accept correction, and seek wise counsel. And we're extraordinarily fragile in the face of receiving even the slightest bit of negative feedback about ourselves. We bristle or fall to pieces if corrected or critiqued. 

Speaking Truth

I've been reading through the book of Proverbs.

What struck me reading the book is how many of its wisdom sayings have to do with speech. A huge theme in the book of Proverbs is speaking the truth:
Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips
and spreads slander is a fool.

The plans of the righteous are just,
but the advice of the wicked is deceitful.

Evildoers are trapped by their sinful talk,
and so the innocent escape trouble.

An honest witness tells the truth,
but a false witness tells lies.

The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil,
but those who promote peace have joy.

The Lord detests lying lips,
but he delights in people who are trustworthy.

A wicked messenger falls into trouble,
but a trustworthy envoy brings healing.

An honest witness does not deceive,
but a false witness pours out lies.
I know Proverbs can be a bit moralizing, but my goodness, the world needs to hear this message.We are lost in a sea of lies, spin, half-truths, and propaganda.

Let us speak truthfully.

Journal Week 31: Happy Reunions

Out at the prison on Monday I got to be with the men in our Monday night Bible study for the first time in over two months. Two months!

In fact, it was the first time the entire study was together in over two months. So it was a very, very happy reunion for everyone.

The first month I was gone, teaching abroad in Germany. Normally, my co-teacher Herb would have kept the class going in my absence. But the prison started a month-long renovation of the chapel we use. I have fond memories of winter evenings in the chapel, with no heat and my chair in a puddle of cold water. So the renovation was a happy thing. But it meant no classes for a month.

And then, when I returned, the bi-annual shakedown happened. The unit was locked down for an entire month while cell-to-cell searches for contraband were made. I was back in the States, but had to wait a whole other month.

So on Monday we finally were able to have the study again. The lockdown over and we had a new chapel.

It was wonderful. Like a family reunion. So much to share and catch up on. I told stories about Germany. We had a lesson and discussion from the Gospel of Mark (the Parable of the Sower). And we sang all our favorite hymns. Our harmonies were a bit shaky at first, but by the time we ended with "I Come to the Garden Alone" we were sounding like ourselves again.

Exorcism and the Gospel

One of the arguments I make in Reviving Old Scratch is how central Jesus' ministry of exorcism was to his gospel proclamation, that the "kingdom of God is at hand."

A quote from Ernst Käsemann making this point:
The One who must determine our path and goals is the One who called us into life, preserves us by his grace, and bursts the fetters in which we continually enchain ourselves...For this reason, exorcism is unavoidably connected with the gospel. Since Adam's fall we need liberation from the power of darkness. There, according to Romans 1:18, the truth is held down demonically, so that we no longer know to whom we alone and forever belong. To sum up, healing of the possessed determines the history of salvation. Under the promise and summons of the first commandment, it actualizes the humanization of fallen humanity, and in the midst of the inferno of our world, founds the kingdom of the beloved Son.

The Christus Victor Prayer

If you've spent any time at all in evangelical circles, you've heard of the Sinner's Prayer, the prayer you say to receive Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior. An example of the Sinner's Prayer, from Billy Graham, is this:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.
The go to text for justifying the Sinner's Prayer is Romans 10.9:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
But notice some contrasts between Billy Graham's Sinner's Prayer and the saving prayer of Romans 10.

In the Sinner's Prayer a person confesses sin and acknowledges that Jesus died for your sins. In short, the Sinner's Prayer is working within the framework of penal substitutionary atonement.

But none of that is found in Romans 10.9. There is no mention of guilt, no mention of an atoning sacrifice. In Romans 10.9 the belief isn't that Jesus died for our sins, but that Jesus rose from the dead. And the confession that is made isn't "I'm a sinner" but that "Jesus is Lord."

In short, most versions of the evangelical Sinner's Prayer are prayers about penal substitutionary atonement, a prayer about sin and forgiveness. But the prayer of Romans 10.9 isn't that at all.

Romans 10.9 isn't a Sinner's Prayer.

Romans 10.9 a Christus Victor prayer.

The Question of God's Existence

Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found...

God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for photons and (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him, or at least find out his address.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

--David Bentley Hart, from The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss 

Non-Dualistic Thinking and Apocalyptic Theology

Many progressive Christians talk a lot about a spirituality that prizes non-dualistic thinking. This emphasis on non-dualistic thinking comes from contemplative Christian traditions that have been in conversation with Eastern spiritualities.

Confession time. I struggle with the non-dualistic take on Christianity.

Some of my issues are logical. For example, here's a joke I made up.
There are two kinds of thinking in the world.

Dualistic thinking and Non-dualistic thinking.
(Do you get it? Any mention of "non-dualistic" thinking creates a dualism.)

I also find the talk of the "true self" versus the "false self" in non-dualistic circles to be, well, sort of dualistic.

To be clear, these are superficial critiques, and the best of the contemplative tradition is not so easily criticized. But pop-contemplative theology is often superficial and dualistic in just these ways.

That said, my deepest reservation about non-dualistic theology is that it clashes with the apocalyptic theology of the New Testament.

As scholars will tell you, both Jesus and Paul where apocalyptic thinkers. And an apocalyptic worldview is rooted in dualisms, the "apocalyptic antinomies": Christ/Adam, Old Creation/New Creation, Light/Dark, Old Age/Age to Come, Death/Life, Christ/Anti-Christ, Spirit/Flesh, Grace/Law.

More, the apocalyptic worldview is rooted in a vision of struggle and warfare between these dualisms, the Christus Victor themes of God liberating us from the dark, enslaving forces of Sin, Death and the Devil.

All that to say, I struggle with non-dualistic theology because my theology has been so shaped by the apocalyptic imagination of the New Testament. I work really hard to see the world the way Jesus saw the world, and Jesus parsed the world with apocalyptic dualisms. Jesus saw himself as casting out Satan, the prince of this world. Jesus preached a message of repentance, not contemplation. Jesus threatened and warned. His vision of the kingdom of God was framed by two apocalyptic destinations, a festive wedding banquet versus the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Broad is the way, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, that leads to destruction.

This is, by the way, why I've become so taken with the work of Flannery O'Connor. As a progressive Christian I'm always tempted to turn Jesus into a non-dualistic contemplative guru of tolerance. Flannery O'Connor helps keep the apocalyptic Jesus of the gospels ever in front of me--the disturbing, strange, unsettling Jesus. The stinking, bleeding, mad shadow of Jesus.

In short, I suspect that a lot of Christians espousing non-dualistic thinking would have a hard time enjoying a conversation with Jesus. To say nothing of Paul, the prophets, or John the Baptist.

Journal Week 30: Finished!

First off, an update on Jana and her nurse.

Thank you for your prayers. Jana's doing awesome, healing, and getting better every day. And her nurse, Jana's informs me, is going great. It's actually been a very sweet time for us together.

Most of what I've been doing, as Jana has slept and rested, is work on my Johnny Cash book, tentatively titled Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. I'll write a few pages, then read them to Jana, write a few more pages, then read them to Jana.

And last night, I read her the final pages. The book is all done! All done in first draft form. So now I have to go back to the first page and start cleaning it all up. Tightening up the writing, making sure the chapters hang and flow together, and pain of all pains, the detail work of getting all the bibliographic info done for all the footnotes. All that will take a few weeks, and then I'll send the manuscript in.

I'm really excited about this book. After Reviving Old Scratch and Stranger God I think I've really learned a lot about how to write for a popular, general audience. I even have developed a theory about how to write "the perfect chapter." So no matter if you're new to Johnny Cash or a lifetime fan, I think you're going to enjoy this book!

Contemplative Driving

Few go slower
than the allowed speed
on old country roads.
But the soft honey
sunset interrupts, painted
over the dirt and swaying stands
of gnarled mesquite
rimmed in prickly pear.
And the shock of beauty in barbed wire,
rusty against the green shoots
washed across the spring fields.
I know this maximum of hurry
is efficient in deadlines and destinations,
but the pace gnaws
as irreverent and misplaced.
I lift my foot
to a prayer.

The Book of Job

One of the scholarly consensuses about the book Job is that it's interrogating the theology behind the Deuteronomic covenant.

The theology behind the Deuteronomic covenant is one of "just deserts." The good and faithful receive the blessings of God, while the wicked and unfaithful fall under the curses of God.

On the surface, this covenantal arrangement makes sense, God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. But upon deeper reflection there's some problems with this system, for both God and humans.

For God, the deep motivations of humanity are obscure under the Deuteronomic covenant. Are we obeying God freely and with love? Or are we obeying God for the rewards? The debate between God and Satan isn't a historical event, it's a dramatization of the question Heaven is asking of humanity.

For humanity's part, how can we trust God when good people suffer? Has not God, in those instances, broken the agreement? Per the Deuteronomic contract, is not God in the face of suffering to be considered untruthful, untrustworthy, and unreliable?

The point of all this is to say that Job isn't really about theodicy, about why good people suffer. The question at the heart of Job is if a relationship with God can transcend a punishment/reward system. The conclusion at the end of the book is that such a relationship is possible. It's hard, confusing, and painful, but it's possible. Job demonstrates before the Heavenly Court that our fidelity to God can transcend punishments and rewards. And God appears to give an account to humanity about what it's like running the cosmos. Good people may suffer, but God has not ceased sustaining, loving, and caring for the earth. There are aspects of God's covenantal fidelity to creation that we barely comprehend.

And thus, an understanding is reached between heaven and earth, a relationship emerges that moves beyond the Deuteronomic covenant.

Welcome to the United States of America

In his NY Times piece excoriating the NY Yankees and what they represent, especially about America, theologian and Baltimore Orioles fan David Bentley Hart offers this prophetic critique of America:

"America — with its decaying infrastructure, its third-world public transit, its shrinking labor market, its evaporating middle class, its expanding gulf between rich and poor, its heartless health insurance system, its mindless indifference to a dying ecology, its predatory credit agencies, its looming Social Security collapse, its interminable war, its metastasizing national debt and all the social pathologies that gave it a degenerate imbecile and child-abducting sadist as its president — remains the only developed economy in the world that believes it wrong to use civic wealth for civic goods. Its absurdly engorged military budget diverts hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the public weal to those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Its plutocratic policies and libertarian ethos are immune to all appeals of human solidarity. It towers over the world, but promises secure shelter only to the fortunate few."

--David Bentley Hart, "The New York Yankees Are a Moral Abomination"

An Inspector Calls: On the Little Way and Social Justice

Much thanks to my friend and colleague David for introducing me to the BBC movie An Inspector Calls. I was able to stream the movie on Amazon Prime, not sure where else you might get access to it.

I don't want to give any spoilers, but just let me say three things.


Second, what is the movie about? Let me describe it this way. An Inspector Calls is a classic English parlor room Who-Done-It? with a religious and social justice twist. Again, just watch it.

Third, one of the things I really loved about the movie goes to a point I try to make in Stranger God. Specifically, whenever I talk about the Little Way a lot of the progressive justice warriors in the room are less than impressed. Small practices of kindness, it seems, just aren't big, political, or substantial enough to change the world.

Well, An Inspector Calls is the best illustration I've seen about how kindness connects to social and systemic justices and injustices. Seriously, I think An Inspector Calls is as accurate a diagnosis of what's wrong with the world, and how we might change it, as I've ever seen.

As I say in Stranger God, kindness is the revolution we've all been looking for. Even the social justice warriors.

Just watch An Inspector Calls and let the movie show you.

Journal Week 29: Nursing and Love

If you've read Unclean you know that I'd think nursing a person through illness is, perhaps, the quintessential expression of love. Parents understand this, given how much of their time is spent nursing sick children. But we've all had to, at some point, nurse another person.

The focus on Unclean is how nursing brings us into radical contact with another person's body when that body isn't at it's most lovely and attractive, to put it nicely. Things about bodies that we'd typically lean away from, in a neutral setting, are ignored or not even noticed in order to move close to take care of the person we are nursing.

But nursing isn't just about overcoming body-related sensory triggers. Nursing is the quintessential expression of love in that it makes you radically available to the other person. By definition, nursing can't be selfish. Your focus is wholly upon the needs of the person you are caring for. It's this radical availability and other-orientedness that makes nursing such an example of self-giving, sacrificial love.

So, what's the reason for why I'm writing about nursing?

I get to be a nurse for the next few weeks!

Jana had some surgery this week (nothing life-threatening) that requires me to be a pretty attentive and devoted nurse for the next two weeks. Since the surgery was planned, I knew this season was coming, and I've been looking forward to embracing it. Beyond Jana's health and happiness, my biggest focus has been on meeting the challenge of being a good nurse.

So please say a prayer for both of us.

Getting Stuck On Loving God

I want to connect two points, one I make in Reviving Old Scratch and one I make in Stranger God.

These observations are about the relationship between the two Greatest Commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor.

In Reviving Old Scratch I raise the issue about if the Greatest Commandments are referring to two separate loves--a love toward God and a second love toward our neighbor--or a single, united love. I make the argument for a "one love" interpretation, that loving our neighbors is how we are to love God. This interpretation, I argue, prevents conflict between the Greatest Commandments, situations where our love of God is used against our love of neighbors.

In Stranger God I make the point that most of our spiritual formation efforts are aimed at better loving God. Few spiritual disciplines are directly aimed at better loving our neighbor. Prayer, Sabbath, fasting, Bible study, and silence, for example, are all aimed at loving God rather than loving our neighbor.

Now here's the common objection you hear about what I just said. When we come to love God more and more, it is argued, this will naturally flow over into loving our neighbors more and more.

Theoretically, I agree with that. But far too often in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, I see Christians getting stuck on loving God without that translating into loving their neighbors.

All that to say, I just don't buy the notion that spiritual disciplines aimed at loving God have this automatic, trickle-down effect into loving neighbors.

I think the norm is people getting stuck on loving God and never getting around to loving their neighbors.

Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 2, How Jesus is Lord in a World Come of Age

I don't want to suggest that I'm offering anything new in this post as a way to think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity." It's mainly a way to think about and discriminate between rival interpretations and misinterpretations of religionless Christianity, about what it is and what it is not.

Again, if you're not very familiar with all the issues here, let me suggest you read my series "Letters from Cell 92."  There you can read the relevant passages from Bonhoeffer's letters and learn about the phrases "religionless Christianity," "the world come of age," "the arcane discipline," etsi deus non daretur (living "as if there were no god"), and "non-religious interpretation."

So, assuming some familiarity with the presenting issues, let me get right to the point.

There has been a tradition of interpretation regarding religionless Christianity that has used Bonhoeffer as a resource for doubt and deconstruction. For example, religionless Christianity was an inspiration for the death of god theologies that proliferated in the 50s and 60s. In this stream of interpretation, religionless Christianity is about belief and metaphysics. In this view, religionless Christianity is a Christianity that eschews metaphysics, a Christianity that discards or marginalizes creedal orthodoxy and privileges doubt, agnosticism, and even atheism. This is a "Christianity" that focuses less on belief than upon praxis.

This take on Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity is still popular. For example, this is how Peter Rollins uses Bonhoeffer for this project of pyrotheology.

The criticism of this line of interpretation, as a reading of Letters and Papers from Prison makes clear, is that Bonhoeffer didn't give up on Christian metaphysics, the creeds, and the gathered assembly of worship and prayer.

To be sure, Bonhoeffer was radically thinking through the relationship between the church and the secular world ("the world come of age"). More on that in a bit. But what seems clear, from Bonhoeffer's own faith, is that religionless Christianity and living in the world etsi deus non daretur isn't about doubt, agnosticism, and atheism, even if presented in Christian guise.

But if it's not that, then what is religionless Christianity all about?

Here's my take, stated concisely: Religionless Christianity isn't about belief, religionless Christianity is about lordship.

Specifically, it's a mistake to think that Bonhoeffer was using religionless Christianity to deconstruct Christian belief regarding the existence of God. Religionless Christianity is about how Jesus is Lord in a secular world come of age.

This observation should be obvious when we read the very first letter from prison where Bonhoeffer begins his inquiry into these issues. The question that motivated religionless Christianity was Christology, specifically how Jesus is Lord of a secular, non-confessing, non-religious world. Here's that very first letter, where Bonhoeffer sets out his questions, the relevant passage are highlighted and underlined:
April 30, 1944

To Eberhard Bethage:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by "religious."

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the "religious a priori" of mankind. "Christianity" has always been a form--perhaps the true form--of "religion." But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless--and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any "religious" reaction?)--what does that mean for "Christianity"? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our "Christianity," and that there remain only a few "last survivors of the age of chivalry," or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is a religionless Christianity?

...The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God--without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about God? In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? 
Bonhoeffer is obviously wrestling with faith in a post-Christian context, a secular "world come of age." Many quibble with Bonhoeffer on that point, about if his diagnosis of a "world come of age" was accurate or justified. Regardless, we can see the issue Bonhoeffer was struggling with: How is Jesus "the Lord of the world" when most of the world aren't confessing Christians? Bonhoeffer states the issue quite clearly:
How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well?
Again, to restate my point, the issue about religionless Christianity isn't belief, but lordship. How is Jesus "the Lord of the world," even "the Lord of the religionless"?

In short, religionless Christianity is about how Jesus is Lord of the entire world, even the faithless, non-believing, non-confessing, religionless, secular world.

Now, the historical, traditional route to establishing Christ's lordship over the world was through power and coercion, the Constantinian, theocratic approach. Bonhoeffer sees the era of establishing that sort of lordship via a "Christian nation" as a part of Western history that is not coming back. Maybe so, maybe not. Regardless, the deeper problem here isn't a "world come of age" after the Enlightenment. The deeper problem with the coercive approach to lordship is that it builds its vision of lordship upon a flawed Christology. That's the key issue that preoccupies Bonhoeffer.

According to Bonhoeffer's Christology, on the cross Jesus is revealed to be "the man for others." Jesus establishes his lordship over the world through the weakness of the cross. As Bonhoeffer writes later on in his prison correspondence: 
July 16, 1944

To Eberhard Bethge:

...And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [translation: "as if there were no God"]. And this is just what we do recognize--before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Jesus establishes his lordship over the religionless world by weakness, as the self-giving "man for others." Jesus doesn't rule from the top down in a coercive way. Rather, Jesus allows himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross.

Notice a few things here.

First, and this really is a bold move, notice how Bonhoeffer's theology of weakness, his theologia crucis, creates and gives rise to the secular! The secular "world come of age" is created by Christ's lordship! That is truly a radical idea. My head spins. Since Christ rules via weakness, the world becomes religionless. The world is "secular" and "godless" because Christ rules from the cross.

In short, we live in a "godless" situation in the secular age not because of disbelief, but because of Christ's lordship being expressed in weakness. Christ is Lord of the entire world, even the religionless world, because Christ allows himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.

And that, of course, changes how the church should relate to the world. If the godless, secular world is tightly intertwined with Christ's ruling from the cross, then it is inappropriate for the church to try to establish Christ's lordship over the religionless via power or propaganda. Bonhoeffer talks a lot about this in his letters. As "the man for others" Christ isn't Lord of the world by making the world serve him in a "religious" manner. Consequently, the church establishes Christ's lordship over the world by conforming the pattern of the cross: following the "man for others" the Christian community becomes "the church for others." As Bonhoeffer writes:
The church is the church only when it exists for others...The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.
There is much more to say, but I've set the basic idea before you.

Religionless Christianity isn't about deconstructing religious belief, doubting or denying the existence of God. Religionless Christianity is about lordship, about how Jesus is Lord of the entire world, even the Lord of the religionless, secular, post-Christian world.

Phrased differently, religionless Christianity isn't about doubt, it's about the cross.

And there's some radical stuff here, how a theologia crucis--God ruling the world in weakness--creates a "godless," secular world. Still, the godless situation, living in the world without God as the deus ex machina, isn't about God's non-existence, but about the shape of God's power in the world. Again, the issue isn't doubt, but the cross.

Jesus is Lord of the entire world, of the religion-filled and religionless, because Christ rules from the cross. Jesus is Lord as "the man for others," a lordship established in loving self-donation.

And the church that confesses "Jesus is Lord" follows her Lord. This church exists for others. This church does not dominate the world, but helps and serves the world.

Thoughts on Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity: Part 1, The Issue of Consistency

I'm back home now. We had a great month in Germany as I was leading a study abroad experience for our ACU students.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was reading Eberhard Bethge's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during our time in Germany. I was reading the biography because I was kicking around an idea I had about Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity."

Before I get to religionless Christianity, I want to say what a profound spiritual experience it was reading Bonhoeffer's story while following in his footsteps in Germany. As I wrote about recently, I visited Zion Church on my birthday, the church where Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class. We visited Humboldt University (then University of Berlin) where Bonhoeffer studied and taught. We visited the Topography of Terror where the Gestapo headquarters once stood and where Bonhoeffer was interrogated and imprisoned after the failed plot on Hitler's life. We stood in the basement of the building in Buchenwald concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was held the weeks before his death. Even when we were in Leipzig, where the ACU villa is located, we were close to Bonhoeffer as his brother taught in Leipzig during the war years.

It all had a deep spiritual impact on me. I'm still processing how I've been affected and changed.

Having shared that, let me turn to the theological issue I was pondering during those days walking in the steps of Bonhoeffer. The issue has to do with the perceived consistency or inconsistency between the "early" and "late" Bonhoeffer, between the Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship and the Bonhoeffer who wrote Letters and Papers from Prison.

If you're not familiar with Bonhoeffer and these works let me try to summarize the issue. The early Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship appears "conservative" in how he pits the church strongly against the world. By contrast, in Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer appears "liberal" in how he embraces the secular world. In Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer rejects a church that is pitted against the world.

This switcharoo poses problems for interpreters of Bonhoeffer. The inconsistency seems to be so great that many simply reject the Bonhoeffer they don't like. Conservatives like The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer and tend to dismiss the Letters and Papers from Prison as too fragmentary and experimental. Plus, Bonhoeffer was in prison and under great psychological strain. Consequently, the provisional thought-balloons of Letters and Papers and Prison can't be taken too seriously. Karl Barth, for one, took this view.

Liberals, by contrast, see the theology of Letters and Papers of Prison as expressions of Bonhoeffer's mature theological thought. In this view, the conservatism of The Cost of Discipleship was simply a phase and season that Bonhoeffer grew out of and left behind.

And so, there are two Bonhoeffer's. Pick the one you like.

There are others, however, who make the argument for continuity between the early and late Bonhoeffer's. Conservatives tend to miss, it is argued, the liberal impulses in Bonhoeffer's early writings, lines of theological inquiry that the church struggle interrupted. Liberals, by contrast, tend to miss Bonhoeffer's emphasis on the "arcane discipline" in Letters and Papers from Prison, focusing too narrowly on, and thereby distorting, "religionless Christianity."

Eberhard Bethge, the man who knew Bonhoeffer best, makes the argument for consistency in his biography of Bonhoeffer. If you'd like a summary of this argument read my six-part series on Bonhoeffer "Letters from Cell 92."

All that to say, this was the issue I was pondering last month in Germany. Is it possible to reconcile the early and later Bonhoeffer? More specifically, what did Bonhoeffer mean by "religionless Christianity"?

I'll share the idea I was kicking around in the next post.

Journal Week 28: Peeing on Flies

One of the funny things for me about being in Europe are the fly etchings in men's urinals.

You don't see this much in the United States, but in the UK and Europe a lot men's urinals have flies etched in them. The picture here, one I took, is an example.

(Yes, I snapped pictures of urinals in Europe. The collection of images in my camera roll is pretty odd. Virgin martyrs. Flies in urinals. I have an unusual eye.)

The logic of the fly etching is that it grabs your attention and makes you pee toward or on the fly, thereby reducing the messes made in men's bathrooms by a lack of focus on the business at hand.

So, why is this of interest to me?

Well, as a psychologist, it's just a brilliant bit of design psychology. Bravo!

But the real reason I'm amused and taking pictures of urinals is that, as long time readers know, I once used these fly etchings in urinals as a sermon illustration (about the importance of paying attention).

It was, simultaneously, perhaps the most infamous and memorable sermon illustration ever used from the pulpit of our church. Infamous because I was banned from preaching for a season after that sermon. (Apparently, some people don't enjoy urination illustrations in their sermons.) And memorable because people still remember that sermon and illustration. Over fifteen years later, people from my church take pictures of these urinals when traveling abroad to show me when they get back home.

Respecting the Infant of Prague

Good news, no more virgin martyr posts from our visit to Prague!

But before leaving Prague, I did want to share about our visit to the Infant of Prague.

In the Catholic tradition, various images, statues, and locations become objects of devotion, veneration, intercession, and pilgrimage. There's a sort of feedback loop that makes this happen. There might be, for example, thousands and thousands of statues and images of Mary, let's say. But one particular statue of Mary in a particular church becomes associated with an answered prayer or a vision. This attracts attention and visitors who also pray. If another prayer is answered, the stories continue to spread, drawing in more pilgrims. More stories then accumulate, and the statue gets a worldwide reputation.

The Infant of Prague is one of those objects of veneration and pilgrimage. The Infant is a small, 19-inch, 500-year old, wax-coated wooden statue of the infant Jesus that has been associated with many miracles and answered prayers. The Infant is tended and cared for by the Carmelite sisters at the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. Specifically, the sisters dress the Infant in fine, jewel-studded royal regalia, along with a small, jeweled crown. In the Church of Our Lady Victorious there's an exhibit of many of the robes and crowns that have been given to the Infant from around the world. Pope Benedict brought the Infant a crown in 2009.

Regarding veneration and devotion, the Infant of Prague is one of the most famous Divine Infant and Infant King statues in Catholicism. There are others, like the Santo Niño de Cebú. When we visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious there were many people fervently praying in the church. And while Protestants might find such prayers strange and perplexing, I was deeply moved watching those who were praying. You knew each person with a bowed head and rosaries in hand was carrying some worry or heartache. So our visit seemed less like a tourist stop, and more like standing on holy ground.

To be sure, again, Protestants will find veneration and devotion to the Infant of Prague strange and bewildering. But one of the things I like about the Infant of Prague, and devotions like it within the Catholic tradition, is the materiality of the devotion.

This struck me as I was looking at all the clothing and crowns that the Carmelite sisters use to dress the Infant. The Infant of Prague may be the most lavishly dressed doll in the world. But the spiritual genius at work in dressing the Infant is how it forces you to express your love and devotion to God materially, through physical objects and actions. This is an example of the sacramental ontology at work in Catholicism, how the spiritual is expressed in and mediated through the material.

There's always a Gnostic temptation at work in Protestantism, the conceit that spirit can connect directly to spirit leaving the body behind, ignored and superfluous, perhaps even dangerous. In the Catholic imagination, by contrast, we connect with the Spirit through the material world. The body is essential, inescapable. God comes to us through the material world, and we connect with God through the material world.

True, that imagination makes Catholicism vulnerable to superstition and magical thinking. If Protestants are tempted by Gnosticism, Catholics are tempted by paganism. Regardless, if you understand the role of materiality in Catholicism in mediating the spiritual, the Infant of Prague makes more sense. The clothing and the dressing of the Infant are material expressions of spiritual devotion, materially mediating our love for Jesus toward Jesus. Properly understood, the Infant of Prague isn't an object of devotion, it's a means of devotion, a material object that focuses and directs our affections toward the spiritual source of our love.

Still, if visiting and praying to the Infant of Prague seems a bit much for you, fine. And yet, as I've argued for years on this blog, we need something like this devotion in our lives. We need to fill our spaces with material objects--from candles, to icons, to prayer beads--to re-enchant lives that have been stripped of material reminders of spiritual realities.

Look at your living room, office, and bedside table. Is there anything there that points you toward God? Is your life filled with material reminders of your truest, deepest love?

If not, then I wouldn't scoff in the Church of Our Lady Victorious.

I'd suggest you show the Infant of Prague a little respect.

Saint Wilgefortis

Yes, it's virgin martyr week here on the blog. I like to keep the content eclectic.

While in the Loreto in Prague, Brenden and I came across a third unusual sight.

After spending time in the church, where we encountered St. Apollonia and St. Agatha, Brenden and I investigated all the little chapels off the Loreto cloister. In one of these chapels we found Jesus upon a cross.

But Jesus was wearing a dress.

Obviously, that confused us. But a bit a research revealed our mistake. We weren't looking at Jesus upon a cross, we were looking at a woman upon a cross. St. Wilgefortis.

So, why did we initially think St. Wilgefortis was Jesus? Because St. Wilgefortis has a beard.

Her story goes like this, per the Wikipedia entry:
According to the narrative of the legend, sometimes set in Portugal and Gailcia, a teen-aged noblewoman named Wilgefortis had been promised in marriage by her father to a Muslim king. To thwart the unwanted wedding, she had taken a vow of virginity, and prayed that she would be made repulsive. In answer to her prayers she sprouted a beard, which ended the engagement. In anger, Wilgefortis's father had her crucified. 
So what Brenden and I saw wasn't Jesus in a dress, but a bearded woman.

It was another virgin martyr in the Loreto, St. Wilgefortis. St. Wilgefortis has been venerated by those seeking relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated from abusive husbands.

Saint Agatha

Continuing my post from yesterday about my visit to the Loreta in Prague...

While I was puzzling over the cherub holding the pulled tooth aloft to the left of the altar, my son Brenden was puzzling about a cherub to the right of the altar.

After having drawn Brenden's attention to the pulled tooth Brenden said, "I think I got you beat. Look what's on that platter the angel is holding over there."

Opposite the cherub holding St. Apollonia's pulled tooth, there was a cherub holding a platter. I inspected what the platter was holding.

"Are those two breasts?" I asked.

They were.

We were looking at iconography associated with St. Agatha. And her story is very horrific.

Agatha was an early Christian martyr, dying in 251 AD.

Agatha had dedicated her life to Christ at the young age of 15. But Quintianus, a Roman official, fell in love with Agatha, and he tried to force her to marry him. Refusing to break her vows of chastity, Agatha said no.

Infuriated, Quintianus had Agatha imprisoned in a brothel where she suffered sexual assault and rape.

After a month of this, Quintianus brought Agatha back, confident that her month in the brothel would have destroyed any aspirations to sexual purity she might have harbored. Quintianus again demanded that Agatha marry him. Agatha again refused.

So Quintianus had Agatha tortured. She was stretched on the rack, torn with hooks, whipped, and burned with torches. And she had her breasts cut off.

Agatha became one of the most venerated saints in the Christian tradition, and a part of her iconography is a platter that holds her two breasts.

Movingly, Saint Agatha has become the patron saint of breast cancer survivors, rape victims, and torture victims.

Saint Apollonia

During our time in Germany our family took a weekend trip to Prague. Being Becks, we visited churches. One of the churches Brenden and I visited was the Loreta. The Loreta is a famous pilgrimage site.

While Brenden and I were sitting in the Loreta sanctuary looking at the altar I noticed a cherub to the left, holding something aloft.

I peered at the object. Is that what I think it is?

It was.

A pulled tooth.

And the little angel was holding some tongs as well.

What, I wondered, was an angel doing with tongs and holding a pulled tooth aloft?

A little Internet research when we got back to the hotel gave us our answer. The angel was in front of a picture of St. Apollonia.

According to tradition, St. Apollonia was a third-century virgin martyr. Prior to being killed, St. Apollonia was tortured, and a part of her torture involved having her teeth pulled out.

Consequently, iconography of St. Apollonia often has her with tongs holding one of her teeth. As in the picture above.