Psalm 39

"O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!"

Much of Psalm 39 echos Ecclesiastes. In verse 11 of the poem we even hear the word "hebel," which is so central to the thoughts of Qoheleth: "every human being is only a vapor [hebel]."

Human life is vaporous and fleeting. And reflecting on this fact, according to Scripture, is the path to wisdom. 


Lots can be said here, but I think one of those things is that it is important to know exactly what you are. We can be self-forgetful, even delusional, in our perceptions of ourselves. We can forget what we are. Or think we are something different from what we are.

And what are we? We are creatures. We are haunted by finitude. We don't have unlimited energy or capacity. We don't have unlimited time. We have needs. We are vulnerable to damage, harm, injury, death and disease. We are not bulletproof. We are fragile and breakable. We come up against our limits. We cannot hold ourselves in existence.

Knowing this about yourself, knowing what you are, creates capacities. Capacities for self-care and self-compassion. Compassion, also, for others. Knowing you're a creature, that life is fleeting, also creates capacities for investment and intentionality. Each day is precious, so lean in and be present. 

Knowing you are a creature also means understanding that loss and grief are the shadows cast by joy and love. Creatures know they walk this dappled path. 

And lastly, knowing you are a creature means embracing your dependency. As creatures, we are not the source of our own being. We are held in our Creator's hands. The foolish forget this, or delusionally deny it. The wise walk humbly with their God.

"God Is...": Part 1, God is Spirit

There are three "God is..." statements in the Johannine corpus, the Gospel of John and the epistles 1, 2, and 3 John.

God is spirit.

God is light.

God is love.

Spirit, light, and love. These are some pretty deep and mystical confessions. And it's not surprising these statements are found in the Johannine texts, given their distinctive spirituality. 

The claim that God is spirit, pneuma, comes from the Gospel of John, in Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman. The woman asks Jesus, "Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” In response, Jesus says that a time is coming where "you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" because "God is spirit." Consequently, the true worshippers of God will worship God "in spirit and truth." 

The mystical notion here is that God can't be physically located, neither found here or there, on this mountain or that mountain. This seems rudimentary to us, but it would have been quite the revelation for peoples whose worship of the gods was tied to physical locations. A transcending of paganism is taking place here. We take it as a truism that God is omnipresent, at large in the world. But this would have been a big paradigm shift for peoples whose cultic practices associated the worship of God or the gods with temples and shrines.

Even more, there is a wildness, unpredictability, and uncontrollability about this new reality. Just a chapter earlier in John, in describing those who have been "born of the spirit," Jesus says, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the spirit." This mystical birth--being "born again" in the spirit--extracts the spiritual life from institutional and cultic control. Nicodemus, who represents the ruling Jewish elites, has difficulty imagining how the spirit moves--like the invisible force of the wind--beyond the known and established boundaries demarcating the activity of God.

To be sure, all this is catnip for our "spiritual but not religious" world. And yet, as Bible scholars all know, and will tell you, the Johannine texts are among the most mystical and spiritual texts in the New Testament, even proto-Gnostic. I think this mystical aspect remains important to remember as the institutional forces that seek to tame, corral, control, delimit, capture, and localize God remain at work in the world. One is put in mind of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor. Yes, there are temptations to a "spiritual but not religious" posture. But religion itself has its own temptations, abuses, and lusts for control. 

Contemplative Elitism: Part 3, Enlightenment is Not Salvation

New readers might think from this series that I don't practice contemplative prayer or engage with other spiritual disciplines. But I do! I love and embrace the contemplative Christian tradition. I wrote a whole chapter about the riches of the contemplative tradition in Hunting Magic Eels. And I wholly agree with Karl Rahner's belief: "The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’—someone who has ‘experienced something’—or will cease to be anything at all."

Given this, one might wonder why I'm poking at contemplation within Christianity. Well, for my own benefit. I'm monitoring temptations and concerns in my own spiritual walk as I engage with contemplation and mysticism.

Here has been my biggest concern about contemplative practices within Christianity: Enlightenment is not salvation.

Let me share a story to illustrate this.

As you know, I'm a prison chaplain. Related to this, it was once shared with me how a popular contemplative author and teacher struggled, by his own admission, to get a message about "non-dualistic thinking" across to prison audiences. Inside prisons the thinking was too "dualistic," in his experience, too black and white for the message. Perhaps this was due to a lack of formal education among the incarcerated, or some issue related to cognitive styles. But whatever the issue, prison populations weren't "getting it." 

When I heard this story a lot of my personal concerns about "contemplative elitism" crystalized and came into focus. Simply put, if salvation is reaching some sort of contemplative enlightenment, like embracing non-dualistic thinking, then the men I work with in prison are left behind, not capable enough (in the estimation of the non-dualistic teacher) to ascend the mystical ladder toward God. 

I have similar concerns with things like Spiral Dynamics, which is faddish in some Christian circles, the theory that human thought is evolving and transcending primitive modes of thinking. In this view, dualistic thinking is rudimentary and primitive, caveman thinking, and non-dualistic thinking is advanced, sophisticated, and mature thinking. And here's the thing, there really are huge problems with dualistic thinking. Spiritually, morally, and psychologically. People do get stuck in rigid, dichotomous binaries in viewing themselves, the world, and God. And yet, I squirm to think that achieving or reaching some stage of superior cognition is the ultimate goal of the Christian faith. Because enlightenment, as I said, isn't salvation.

What I mean is that salvation, in the Christian imagination, isn't the result of human striving and effort, not even contemplative effort. Salvation isn't a cognitive or contemplative accomplishment, some "breakthrough" we make after a long struggle and deep soul work. Salvation isn't our achievement. 

This is my deep worry about contemplation, in my own life, how its pursuit can smuggle in its own version of a "works-based" righteousness, some path that we have to climb upward toward God as an accomplishment. 

To be sure, contemplative practices and spiritual disciplines are vital for spiritual formation, deepening the virtues, maturing faith, and sanctification. But if we're not careful--well, if I'm not careful, so I'll speak for myself here--we can be tempted to think that salvation is a form of enlightenment open only to the few, to a spiritually enlightened elite. 

So, yes, let's engage with contemplation. Please don't hear me saying otherwise. But let's not be tempted to think that it is our job to contemplatively climb to toward God when it is God, in Christ, who came down to us, to the dualistic and non-dualistic thinkers alike. 

Contemplative Elitism: Part 2, There Is No We, Just Me

A standard criticism of evangelical piety and soteriology has been that it is too individualistic. Regarding salvation, for example, the sole focus is upon my relationship with God, being forgiven. The social and political of aspects salvation tend to be downplayed, marginalized, and ignored. Relatedly, a lot of criticism has been directed at the self-centered focus of modern praise music. The first person pronoun "I" predominates over "us" and "we." 

These criticisms are legitimate. And yet, you rarely hear anyone level similar criticisms at contemplative practices as used by many Christians. 

For example, one of the longstanding concerns of contemplative practices within Christianity, especially from within Catholicism, has been that contemplation provides unmediated access to God. You see some of this concern, for example, in the worries the church expressed about the teachings of Meister Eckhart. In his contemplative teachings about the Son of God being birthed within our hearts and "breaking through" to the ground of being where God and the soul "share the same ground," Eckhart appeared to marginalize, if not outright dismiss, the role of the church in mediating grace via the sacraments. To this day, such teachings make Eckhart, along with other contemplatives within the Christian tradition, very popular with the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. If the soul can have direct, unmediated access to God, then "organized religion" is superfluous. The church is irrelevant. The Bible a nuisance. For the Christian contemplative, nothing stands between the soul and God. And while there is promise, freedom, and adventure here, there are also some temptations. 

The point I want to observe here is that, as individualistic as evangelical piety might be, at least you have to go to church. The "spiritual but not religious" contemplative Christian, by contrast, can ignore the gathering of the saints, along with other corporate sacraments like the Eucharist. No one is needed beyond yourself. All one needs to make contact with God are a few contemplative practices you can engage with all on your own. There is no we, just me.  

To be clear, this isn't an indictment of Christian contemplation wholesale. This is simply the observation that, as practiced by some, contemplative practices can devolve into spiritualized individualism. Worse, it can produce an elitist autonomy, instilling the belief that you don't really need other people and can pursue God all by yourself. The messy and hard work of Christian community can be completely sidestepped.  

And related to my last post, this sort of autonomy is perfectly suited to a bougie, self-care approach to contemplation, similar to how mindfulness practices have been extracted from their Eastern religious context and repackaged as Western self-help techniques. Call this the consumerization of contemplation. 

Contemplative Elitism: Part 1, A Bit Too Bougie

I think I'm going to offend some people in this series. My apologies ahead of time. 

In my defense, I can only share that my concerns are sincere and flow out of my own experiences, both personal and pastoral. I've had a niggling concern about contemplative practices in Christian spaces that has been bothering me for some time. In this series those concerns will get a public airing.

What I want to suggest is that contemplation, as practiced by many Christians, is haunted by elitism. Not all of it, but some of it. How much I'll leave for you to decide. At the very least, contemplative practices are tempted by elitism. I have three observations I'll share to make this point. Today is the first.

This first observation is the most debatable. I feel much more confident in my second and third observations that I'm standing on solid, albeit contested, ground. But this first observation is built around personal impressions, and personal impressions are highly selective. I can only see the world out of my own eyes, but my view is bounded and limited by my experiences. My view is only the smallest of slices of what is going on in the world. 

In short, I'll share here my limited perspective knowing full well that your experiences might prove to be very different. I could be wrong in what I'm about to share.

Here's the observation: There is a bougie element at work in contemplative Christian circles. ("Bougie" or "boujee" being slang for bourgeois.) 

What do I mean that Christian contemplative practices are bougie? I mean that, in my experience, Christian contemplative practices seem to thrive in elite, college-educated, and wealthy spaces. 

For example, if a person is talking to you about "non-dualistic thinking" or dealing with "the false self" or about their recent experience at a retreat center, there is a high degree of probability that this person is college-educated and middle- to upper-class. To be clear, this isn't a damnable offense. I'm just saying that Christian contemplative practice has this bougie element. 

The bougie contemplative retreat is a giveaway here. One has to have some means to afford the contemplative retreat, and some of these retreats cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Sometimes this is because the retreat features lovely, manicured grounds, good food and wine, and musical or visual artists. There is time for yoga and hiking. You can get a massage. And finally, there is a celebrity author who is the featured retreat leader. Books are for sell after the talks. 

I've been on retreats like this, and I love them. Who wouldn't? And yet, all a little bougie.

And even when the experience itself isn't bougie, being able to have the experience is bougie. Consider, for example, walking the Camino de Santiago. You can make that journey very frugally. But online cost estimates for walking the Camino, which involves airfare to Spain, range from $2,000 to $4,000. The examples abound, from walking in the footsteps of St. Francis in Italy to hanging with the Celtic saints in Ireland to visiting the Holy Land, these experiences of contemplative world travel are all pretty bougie. 

Again, let me be very clear, none of this is damning. Wealthy people are allowed to pursue contemplative experiences around the world. And yet, I have this nagging concern that if contemplative experiences cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, some bougie capitalistic element is darkly encroaching. If you're paying a celebrity to draw people to your retreat center, is that a good idea? If you have to travel internationally to experience spiritual transformation, is that worrisome? Are the wine, cheese, yoga, and featured artists helping or hurting?

How much of Christian contemplative practice is captured by this description of mine? I don't know. And again, my experiences are narrow and limited. But I expect you've seen this bougie element at work as well. 

Now, if this was all had to say, I wouldn't have said anything. But I have other, related concerns as well.

Psalm 38

"I confess my iniquity; I am anxious because of my sin"

Two weeks ago, with Psalm 36, I mentioned how Lent is a penitential season, but that low-church Protestants don't have a category for penance. Consequently, they don't really know what Lent is about, even though they attempt its observance. 

Penance, taking action to restore oneself to spiritual health and repairing harms done to others, begins with contrition and confession of sin. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, contrition "is sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution to not sin again." Psalm 38 is a penitential psalm, full of confession and contrition, and thus timely for this season. 

In my own prayer life, I've been using a collection of Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. Since these prayers were penned by Puritans they focus a lot on human sinfulness and depravity, strong Calvinist stuff. Consequently, I wouldn't recommend The Valley of Vision for everyone. But these prayers are, given their theological worldview, wonderful for contrition and confession. Here is one entitled "The Dark Guest":

Bend my hands and cut them off,
for I have often struck thee with
a wayward will,
when these fingers should embrace thee by faith.
I am not yet weaned from all created glory,
honour, wisdom, and esteem of others,
for I have a secret motive to eye my name
in all I do.
Let me not only speak the word sin, but see
the thing itself.
Give me to view a discovered sinfulness,
to know that though my sins are crucified
they are never wholly mortified.
Hatred, malice, ill-will,
vain-glory that hungers for and hunts after
man’s approval and applause,
all are crucified, forgiven,
but they rise again in my sinful heart.
O my crucified but never wholly mortified
O my life-long damage and daily shame!
O my indwelling and besetting sins!
O the tormenting slavery of a sinful heart!
Destroy, O God, the dark guest within
whose hidden presence makes my life a hell.
Yet thou hast not left me here without grace;
The cross still stands and meets my needs
in the deepest straits of the soul.
I thank thee that my remembrance of it
is like David’s sight of Goliath’s sword
which preached forth thy deliverance.
The memory of my great sins, my many
temptations, my falls,
bring afresh into my mind the remembrance
of thy great help, of thy support from heaven,
of the great grace that saved such a wretch
as I am.
There is no treasure so wonderful
as that continuous experience of thy grace
toward me which alone can subdue
the risings of sin within:
Give me more of it.
That's such a lovely final petition. 

"There is no treasure so wonderful as that continuous experience of Thy grace. Give me more of it."

The Most Controversial Verse in the Bible: Part 3, For All Find What They Truly Seek

As described over the last two posts, Amos 9:7 has us imagine Israel's pagan neighbors rescued by God under the name of a pagan deity. This is doubly shocking. 

First, it's a shock that God had rescued Israel's enemies in their own experiences of exodus. But it's also shocking that God would have been acting under the name of a pagan deity. As we know, these pagan deities were considered to be demonic in the eyes of Israel. How could such a thing even be imagined?

Well, for fans of C.S. Lewis our imaginations go to the The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia

I'll try to keep spoiler alerts to a minimum if you haven't read the book. The scene I'm referring to comes toward the end of the story. Narnia has been invaded by its pagan (in the Narnian imagination) neighbor, the Calormenes, who worship the god Tash, a malevolent and demonic deity. Among the invading Calormenes is Emeth, a Calormene solider. Emeth is a just and righteous man and is a devoted worshipper of Tash. In the eyes of Emeth, it was Aslan, the deity of Narnia, who was demonic and wicked. 

Because of details I won't share here, Emeth finds himself in Aslan's country. And there, waking through its beauty, Emeth comes face to face with Aslan, the god of the Narnians. Emeth quails, expecting Aslan to kill him for being a follower of Tash. Instead, Aslam welcomes him as a son. This confuses Emeth. How can a loyal follower of Tash be a son of Aslan? Aslan explains it to him.

Later, the Pevensie children come across Emeth, and he shares his story and Aslan's explanation: 

So I went over much grass and many flowers and among all kinds of wholesome and delectable trees till lo! in a narrow place between two rocks there came to meet me a great Lion. The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size as an elephant’s; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes like gold that is liquid in the furnace. He was more terrible than the Flaming Mountain of Lagour, and in beauty he surpassed all that is in the world even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert.

Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.

Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless they desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.
Is this a possible entry point in exploring the imagination opened up by Amos 9:7?

If I attempted to describe what The Last Battle imagines here--and let's be clear, this is a children's story--it would be a contrast between the linguistic and the moral. Confessionally, Emeth names Tash as his god. "Tash" is the linguistic tag he uses. Aslan, though, pushes the linguistic tags to the side to focus upon the moral content of Emeth's actions. The moral content of Emeth's life points toward Aslan, and not toward Tash. 

The linguistic tags of Emeth's life were backwards, "Tash" tagging goodness and "Aslan" tagging wickedness. But Emeth's life had always been oriented toward the true, the beautiful and the good. Emeth had always been a son of Aslan. Conversely, any evil deed tagged with "Aslan" is actually directed at Tash. 

Might something like this be used to understand Amos 9:7? 

Perhaps...but not without a lot of controversy.

C.S. Lewis is often lauded as an "evangelical saint." Evangelicals love Lewis. And yet, I find it very odd that Lewis is not dinged more by evangelicals for the heterodox ideas he floats in books like The Great Divorce and The Last Battle

The Most Controversial Verse in the Bible: Part 2, God is Odd

As I mentioned in the last post, Walter Brueggemann describes Amos 9:7 as imagining "Exodus in the plural." In his essay of that title, Brueggemann offers these observations about "the most controversial verse in the Bible": 

There is to Yahweh, in this imaginative reading [of Amos 9:7], an identifiable core of coherence. Yahweh's self-presentation is everywhere as an exodus God. That is who Yahweh is, and that is what Yahweh does. 'History' is a series of exodus narratives of which Israel's is one, but not the only one.

As I said in yesterday's post, God is an exodus God--that is who God is and what God does. And history, as imagined in Amos 9:7, is a series of exodus events, not just the one we read about in the Bible. Brueggemann continues:

Beyond that powerful mark of coherence as a subject, everything else about Yahweh, in this brief utterance [of Amos 9:7], may take many forms, so that Yahweh may be a character in Philistine history or in Syrian history, surely a treasonable shock to those in the mono-ideology that Amos subverts. Moreover, this action of Yahweh, from what we have in this utterance, did not convert these people to Yahwehism, did not require them to speak Hebrew, and did not submerge their histories as subsets of Israel's history. The liberation wrought by Yahweh left each of these peoples, so much as we know, free to live out and develop their own sense of cultural identity and of freedom. Thus it is fair to imagine that Yahweh, as the exodus God who generated the Philistines, came to be known, if at all, in Philistine modes. And Yahweh, as the exodus God who evoked the Syrians to freedom, came to be known, if at all, in Syrian modes. Beyond the coherent, pervading mark of exodus intentionality, we may as a consequence imagine that Yahweh is enormously pliable and supple as a participant in the histories of many peoples, not all of which are exact replicas of Israel's narrative or subsets of Israel's self-discernment.

Here Brueggemann unpacks the shocking, even "treasonable," implications of what Amos 9:7 imagines. Specifically, if it is true that God effected exoduses for the Philistines and the Syrians, those peoples did not name their exodus God as "Yahweh," nor did they convert to Judaism. The Philistines remained Philistines and the Syrians remained Syrians. The shocking implication here is that Yahweh liberated these peoples under the name of a pagan god, and has been worshipped accordingly. If this is so, as Brueggemann describes, God is "enormously pliable and supple" as God is "a participant in the histories of many peoples, not all of which are exact replicas of Israel's narrative."

I expect you're starting to see why I've described Amos 9:7 as "the most controversial verse in the Bible."

Brueggemann continues his reflections, noting how the imagination of Amos 9:7 pushes back upon our attempts to lock God inside a theological, doctrinal box:

Amos resituates Israel, Yahweh and the nations by asserting that what is true concerning Yahweh cannot be contained or domesticated into Israel's favorite slogans, categories, or claims...

If such a quality in Yahweh's life be embraced it may be that our preferred theological formulations, liturgic inclinations, and cultural assumptions may be incongruous with the oddness of Yahweh, whose liberating intentions may be allied with and attached to many forms of human life other than our own. The mono-propensities that sound most orthodox may be desperate attempts to reduce Yahweh to a safer proportion.

God cannot be "contained or domesticated" by our "preferred theological formulations" which reflect "desperate attempts" to reduce God "to a safer proportion." Because God is odd. 

God is so odd, in fact, that it is treasonous to even imagine it.

The Most Controversial Verse in the Bible: Part 1, Exodus in the Plural

A few months ago our Bible class at church was finishing up a study of the Old Testament book of Amos. Amos, you may know, is beloved by social justice warriors for stirring lines like these: 
Let justice run down like water,
And righteousness like a mighty stream!
In Amos' indictments of Israel, along with Judah, he consistently attempts to confront Israel's sense of specialness, to undermine Israel's self-satisfied moral smugness in relation to the nations.

For example, at the start of the book, Amos blasts Israel's pagan neighbors, calling down judgment upon Israel's enemies, nations like Moab, Edom, and the Ammonites. As this is happening, you can imagine the Israelites cheering Amos on. Go, go, go! But then, suddenly, Amos turns to point a finger directly at Judah and Israel. That Amos includes Israel in this Hall of Fame of villains is a surprising and unexpected turn:
I will not relent from punishing Israel
for three crimes, even four,
because they sell a righteous person for silver
and a needy person for a pair of sandals.
They trample the heads of the poor
on the dust of the ground
and obstruct the path of the needy.
A man and his father have sexual relations
with the same girl,
profaning my holy name.
They stretch out beside every altar
on garments taken as collateral,
and in the house of their God
they drink wine obtained through fines.
But the most provocative moment in Amos' attempt to undermine Israel's felt sense of specialness in relation to the pagan nations surrounding her comes from the final chapter of the book. In our Bible class at church I described Amos 9:7 as "the most controversial verse in the Bible": 
Israelites, are you not like the Cushites to me?
This is the Lord’s declaration.
Didn’t I bring Israel from the land of Egypt,
the Philistines from Caphtor,
and the Arameans from Kir?
To be sure, calling Amos 9:7 "the most controversial verse in the Bible" is a bit of a hyperbole. But I hope in this short series to explore the shocking provocation and controversial implications of Amos 9:7. To do that, let's wrap our heads around what is so surprising and startling in Amos 9:7.

Let's back up and ask the question: What made Israel feel so special? Answer: They were God's chosen people. Among all the nations, God had chosen them. And the defining event in this choosing was the Exodus. In the Exodus experience Israel stepped into history as a nation.   

In short, the Exodus is what made Israel Israel, what made them distinct and special. Consequently, the provocation of Amos 9:7 is its attempt to to relativize, undermine, and marginalize Israel's specialness by relativizing, undermining, and marginalizing the Exodus

Let's see how Amos does this.

To start, God, through Amos, asks Israel a question: "Israelites, are you not like the Cushites to me?"

The obvious answer is, "Of course not! We, the children of Israel, are not like the Cushies. We are Israel, the chosen people."

But Amos' question is a set up. Having tricked Israel into her initial answer, Amos leads them further into the trap with a follow-up question:
Did I not bring Israel from the land of Egypt?
And the answer is, "Of course! The Exodus is what made us God's chosen people."

And at this moment--Israel re-convinced of her specialness in light of the Exodus--Amos springs his trap:
...and the Philistines from Caphtor,
and the Arameans from Kir?
What we have here, in the words of  Walter Brueggemann, is "Exodus in the plural." Amos suggests that Israel's Exodus wasn't so special after all. Apparently, God performed an exodus for both the Philistines and the Arameans. What Israel thought made them unique and distinctive is something God had done for others. There wasn't one Exodus, but many. Exodus in the plural.

The implication of this news is deeply destabilizing. We can see why Amos dared to say or imagine such a thing. Amos goes at the source of Israel's self-identity, the foundation of her specialness, and attempts a denotation. The Exodus, Amos declares, isn't quite so special. This is something God has done for others. 

And not just for others, but for Israel's enemies! Amos 9:7 destabilizes and disrupts how Israel conceives of God's saving and liberating actions in the world and within history. That God had saved and emancipated Israel's enemies, that God was their Exodus God as well, has to come as a moral and theological shock. Perhaps as the most shocking suggestion in the whole of the Old Testament. 

The Tensions Between Christianity, Capitalism, and Liberal Democracy: Part 3, A Critical and Prophetic Relationship

Today we wrap up this series by looking at the tensions that exist between Christianity and capitalism:

Again, I claim no originality in the points I'm about to make. These are observations that have been made by many people over many generations. The contribution of this series is introducing the "axes of tension" triangle to highlight and disentangle issues in political theology, especially in America. The big obvious point the triangle makes is that Christianity, capitalism and liberal democracy don't easily co-exist. There are tensions along all three sides of the triangle that have to be attended to and redressed. 

That there are tensions between capitalism and Christianity is an easy point to make.

To start, there are the cogent and persuasive arguments that varieties of socialism, in providing a greater social safety net for the most vulnerable within a nation, better embody the Christian values of care and love than does capitalism and free market neoliberalism. (That socialism can embody Christian values is going to be an absolute shocker to many evangelical readers. But this is a banal observation. Just have a chat with Christians from the UK and Europe. Regardless, that we can weigh both socialism and capitalism on the balance of Christian values to discuss their relative merits illustrates the point I'm making.) Further, even within capitalistic economies, there are perennial calls in the name of Christ to redress, with policies and programs, the failures of capitalism to provide economic security for vulnerable populations. 

Further, Christianity has stood in a critical and prophetic posture in relation capitalism for generations. Some representative examples:

First, from Catholicism there are the social teachings of the Catholic church. Also coming from Catholicism is liberation theology and its "preferential option for the poor." There are Catholic witnesses and movements like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. There are the encyclicals of Pope Francis.

Within evangelicalism, there is the "road not taken" generation seen in the work of Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo's "Red Letter Christians."

There was, and is a still lingering, New Monastic movement associated with people like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove.

And finally, there are all the criticisms of capitalism from Christians inspired by the work of a diverse collection thinkers who have been critical of capitalism, from Wendell Berry to Jacques Ellul.

Again, this is just a selective list to make the obvious point: Christianity and capitalism do not comfortably coexist. Christianity has a critical and and prophetic relationship with capitalism. 

Psalm 37

"Refrain from anger and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil."

Goodness, it's an election year. How much fretting is going to lead to evil? How many followers of Jesus are going to refrain from anger and forsake wrath?

I would never use Psalm 37:8 to shush a prophet. Righteous anger is necessary and needed. But a diet of anxiety and anger is corrosive. So much of the spiritual life is learning to keep anxiety and anger in their proper places. 

And step away from politics for a moment to look at the skyrocketing anxiety among our young people. They are a fretful generation, and it's not taking them anywhere good.

Personally, I have a lot of feelings about a lot of things. Consequently, much of my spiritual life is experienced within this emotional sandbox, battling with my strong emotions. But one of the reasons I'm a Christian and not a stoic is because Christ calls us to emotional investment. Christianity, unlike Eastern religions, is an inherently emotional faith. But caring, this is hard. Caring comes with feelings. And these same feelings, preaches Psalm 37, can lead to evil. This, as best as I can see, is the ballgame. Learning to love, learning to care, learning to be emotionally invested, learning to have all these feelings, yet keeping these feelings managed and appropriately directed. 

Loving fiercely, but not letting my emotions lead to evil.

The Tensions Between Christianity, Capitalism, and Liberal Democracy: Part 2, A Relationship that is Tense and Conflictual

Having discussed the tensions between capitalism and liberal democracy, I want to now turn to the tensions involving Christianity. In this post, we'll look at the tensions between Christianity and liberal democracy:

There are two tensions between Christianity and liberal democracy that I'd like to highlight.

Both tensions concern how liberal democracy adopts a neutral posture toward values, beliefs, and lifeways. In liberal democracy, so long as you don't harm your neighbor, you are free to believe anything you want and pursue happiness as you think best. In America the most visible example of this is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In light of this posture, political theologians on the religious right have made strong and cogent arguments that liberal democracy has pernicious and corrosive effects upon religious belief. To be sure, freedom of religion is lauded, but faith is hard to grow in the soil of liberalism. For my part, the most thoughtful critiques making this point take a cue from Alasdair MacIntyre and his book After Virtue. Specifically, the pursuit of flourishing for a nation, and among those within a nation, demands a teleological vision of the good. What determines a good human life? What makes for a good business? What is our vision of the common good? We need to ask and answer teleological questions about a host of pressing social issues. For example, are marriages good? Are families good? If so, should the state protect, promote and support these goods over against alternative lifeways?

Liberalism can't answer any of these questions. The state is neutral toward questions of "the good," leaving that up to its citizens to work out for themselves.

Basically, liberalism just creates "liberty." Which is a great and glorious good. And yet, without any shared vision of the common good, liberal democracies can't collectively "go anywhere" when it comes to human flourishing beyond maximizing liberty and increasing material prosperity. These are the only two metrics of "progress" available to a liberal democracy. Neutral toward the values and virtues entailed in a teleological account of human flourishing, liberal democracy is constitutionally and Constitutionally unable to pursue any goods that fall outside of liberty and wealth. This evacuates the word "progress" of any moral or value-laden content. Our only "good" is freedom and money.

Further, this space created by liberal democracy has deleterious effects upon the spiritual formation of Christian believers. See the work of James Smith on this point. As any pastor can tell you, it is very difficult to spiritually form a people who define "good" as the maximization of their liberty and bank accounts. As Stanley Hauerwas has made a career pointing out, it is almost impossible to form Americans into Christians. It's easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than get an American into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Witnessing these impacts of liberalism upon our pursuit of the common good and the church, many on the Christian right demand that the church "take back" the nation.

To be sure, there are cruder and more insightful visions of this on the Christian right. The crudest versions of this are illiberal calls for "Christian nationalism." Simply put, Christian nationalism is the Christian version of Islam's sharia law, and aspires to an illiberal imposition of religious values upon an unwilling public. 

More sophisticated political theologians on the Christian right, horrified by the specter of illiberalism, attempt to articulate visions where faithful Christians can influence, shape, and direct the liberal nation state. Many of these theologians look to the work of Oliver O'Donovan.

And yet, even the most sophisticated political theology cannot alleviate the inherent tensions here. Liberalism, as pernicious as it might be, is connected to democracy. Consequently, any policy a political theologian might recommend, or a Christian voting block might pass, will face another Election Day, over and over again. Democratic politics will persistently destabilize any Christian-informed vision of the good. Which is why you have to give Christian nationalists some credit for their honesty. Christian nationalists know illiberalism is the only way to move a nation state consistently toward a value-laden vision of the good. That good has to be imposed upon the people. Otherwise, they'll vote you out of office or overturn your policy at the ballot box. Liberalism will always dilute every robust Christian political project.

All this is just a very selective sketch of the tensions that exist between Christianity and liberal democracy. Liberalism is corrosive to religious faith and a Christian-informed vision of the common good. And yet, the only way to redress these effects is illiberalism, imposing religious values upon an unwilling populous. Christianity and liberal democracy don't exist comfortably side by side. The relationship between them is tense and conflictual.

Simply put, a Christian nation will be an illiberal nation. And a liberal nation will never be a Christian nation. So pick your poison.

The Tensions Between Christianity, Capitalism, and Liberal Democracy: Part 1, The Encroachment of Monied Power Upon the Will of the People

Recently, in pondering political theology, a triangle appeared in my mind. I imagined a triangle with labels at the three vertices: Christianity, liberal democracy, and capitalism. 

With that triangle in mind, I began contemplating the tensions that exist between each of these points. Each side of the triangle is hotly disputed, controversial, and contentious. These three things--Christianity, liberal democracy, and capitalism--don't play very well together. Christianity, liberal democracy, and capitalism don't exist side by side in perfect harmony. Here's the triangle:

I imagined this triangle to sort out and disentangle the tensions that exist between Christianity, capitalism and liberal democracy, for there are points of tension unique to each pair. And yet, these tensions are often conflated in a confusing jumble that thwarts clear analysis. 

In this series, I mainly want to think about the particular tensions related to Christianity. Specifically, I want to describe how the political desires of evangelicals for a "Christian nation" betray deep incoherences, theological incoherences, yes, but also economic and political incoherences. In the next two posts, I'll focus on those sides of the triangle. 

To be clear, my observations in this series will not be particularly unique. Any novelty here is the triangle itself, which I think has some pedagogical value in visually illustrating, in a simple figure, perennial issues in political theology.

Before turning to the sides related to Christianity, today let's focus on the tensions between capitalism and liberal democracy. While this tension isn't explicitly theological, much of American political and economic life is experienced here in the push and pull between the common good and free markets:
Again, I'm claiming no novelty here by drawing attention to how liberal democracy and capitalism are uneasy bedfellows. It is common knowledge that this relationship is fraught and contentious. More importantly, the balance of power between these two can swing back and forth. Or become persistently tilted toward one side.

For example, whenever we see the government break up big monopolies, railroad and oil tycoons way back when or Big Tech today, we see the tensions between liberal democracy and capitalism. Examples abound. Policies passed to raise the minimum wage. All the regulatory agencies, from the EPA to the FDA, focusing on labor, consumer, and environmental protection. Progressive taxation. Medicare and Medicaid. Social Security. Calls for universal healthcare. Public education. Affordable housing policies. The Federal Reserve affecting interest rates. All our arguments about the influence of corporate money on electoral politics. Global trade polices. Immigration polices. The military-industrial complex. Financial regulations to protect investors. On and on and on.

The point should be clear. Many of us tend to think that liberal democracy and capitalism go together like hand and glove. But they don't. The relationship is tense and agonistic. For the most part, the relationship involves democratic politics beating back the rapacious encroachments of the profit motive upon the common good. Simply but, where liberal democracy is committed to fairness and equity, capitalism is a reliable engine of inequity where the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Many think, and I believe reasonably so, given the influence of monied interests upon Washington DC, that America is functionally an economic oligarchy, what Robert Reich has described as "supercapitalism." We are ruled by the rich.

To be clear, I'm not denying the power of capitalism in creating economic opportunity, mobility and prosperity. It's worth contemplating the historical impacts of capitalism upon world prosperity in helping humanity escape the Malthusian trap. And yet, to return to my point, to admit the power of free markets in providing widespread prosperity is not to deny that capitalism is an engine of economic inequality that can destabilize and undermine the democratic project. If the distance between the 1% and the 99% gets too large and is not redressed, widespread labor and economic unrest will blow up the American experiment. This is a live possibility, which is why democratic politics is constantly attending to and mending the constant rips capitalism makes in the fabric of the common good. 

To sum up, my main interest with my triangle concerns the tensions between Christianity and capitalism and between Christianity and liberal democracy. I'll turn to those tensions in the next two posts. Political theology is my focus. However, the tensions that exist between capitalism and the democratic pursuit of the common good are worthy of theological reflection in themselves. Much of American life plays out on this side of the triangle, how democratic policies must constantly address and redress the encroachment of monied power upon the will of the people. 

Introduction to Christianity: Part 3, The Meaning of the World is a Person

One more post sharing reflections on faith from Joseph Ratzinger's (the late Pope Benedict XVI) popular book Introduction to Christianity

Again, Ratzinger's famous definition of faith concerns the meaning-fullness of existence, a meaning upon which I take a stand. Ratzinger reflecting more on that idea:

The tool with which man is equipped to deal with the truth of being is not knowledge but understanding: understanding of the meaning to which he has entrusted himself. And we must certainly add that "understanding" only reveals itself in "standing", not apart from it. One cannot occur without the other, for understanding means seizing and grasping as meaning the meaning that man has received as ground. I think that is the precise significance of what we mean by understanding: that we learn to grasp the ground on which we have taken our stand as meaning and truth; that we learn to perceive that ground represents meaning

The contrast Ratzinger is making here between knowledge and understanding is the difference between scientific insight and technological mastery--what Jacques Ellul calls technique, "the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity"--with an understanding of human existence that embeds us in the fullness of truth, beauty and goodness. For Ratzinger, coming to trust in that fullness, taking a stand upon that ground, is faith. 

But there is more. What makes the ground of life meaning-full is that it subsists in the Logos. Existence is meaning-full because material existence isn't lifeless and inert but is held and ordered by the Logos--the Word, the Mind, the Intelligibility, the Meaning. But most importantly, the Logos is the Person.

The Logos is more than the Rationality and Meaning-fullness of created existence. The Logos is a Person--the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who became incarnate in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, taking a stand upon the Meaning-fullness of Existence is not an exercise in existential philosophy. Even though the Logos is Rationality Itself, our relationship with the Logos isn't solely or primarily intellectual. The Logos is a Person. Thus, meaning is inherently relational

Ratzinger observes:

In all that has been said so far the most fundamental feature of Christian faith or belief has still not been specified; namely, its personal character. Christian faith is more than the option in favor of a spiritual ground to the world; its central formula is not "I believe in something", but "I believe in you." It is the encounter with the man Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person...In [Jesus'] life, in the unconditional devotion of himself to men, the meaning of the world is present before us...The meaning of the world is the "you"...

...Christian faith lives on the discovery that not only is there such a thing as objective meaning but that this meaning knows me and loves me, that I can entrust myself to it like a child who knows that everything he may be wondering about is safe in the "you" of his mother. 

Or, stated even more simply, Ratzinger shares this lovely line:

[We live in] a world that in the last analysis is not mathematics but love.

That is Christian faith in a nutshell, the conviction that the ground of the world isn't mathematics but love, and that taking a stand upon this love, relationally entrusting yourself to this love, is the very ground of your existence.