The Weight of Glory: Part 3, The Objectivity of Faith

The obvious rebuttal to the argument from desire is the Freudian one, that our romantic longings for God and heaven are defense mechanisms that assuage existential terror and despair. In short, when we use a hermeneutics of suspicion, can these feelings be trusted?

Lewis offers a response in "The Weight of Glory" to this line of objection. Describing the revelatory authority of the Bible, Lewis writes:
The natural appeal of this authority is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I expect it to be less immediately attractive than "my own stuff"... If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.
Basically, anyone who criticizes faith on the grounds that faith is a warm, cozy blanket or an existential narcotic in the face of a cold, indifferent cosmos, doesn't know jack about what faith actually feels like.

True, there are believers who seem to always exist is a state of bliss, hope, peace, and consolation. For these people, everything is "blessed." But the norm for faith is far different.

The name "Israel" is apt for the people of God. We aren't consoled by God as much as we wrestle with God. Faith is a struggle. As Lewis points out, faith isn't narcissistic, a mirror reflecting back my desires and dreams. Faith is, rather, a smack upside the head and a douse of cold water. Faith is hard, it's unsettling and upsetting. And during dark nights of the soul, faith is pain and suffering. There are many days when faith feels like a curse.

And as Lewis notes, this is where we encounter the objectivity of faith. Not objective like a rock or tree is objective, but objective in the sense that faith is an encounter with a reality separate and external to my own subjective longings. I am bumping into something beyond myself, something that is simply given that I cannot modify and can only discover and explore. Faith is objective in that I'm decidedly not making God into my own image. Rather, my image is being challenged, criticized, undermined, and being remade. And little of that experience is very fun or consoling.

The Weight of Glory: Part 2, The Ache

Yesterday, we noted Lewis' famous "argument from desire."

My interest in this argument shows up in my upcoming book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age.

Specifically, in Hunting Magic Eels I explore what I call "the Ache." The Ache is our pain, angst, and restlessness living in a wholly disenchanted, materialistic universe. As we all know, rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, and loneliness are all skyrocketing in our increasingly secular, post-Christian age.

And the issue isn't just about better care for mental illness. Post-Christian Europe, with its socialized medicine, a model that many in the US want to see emulated, has the highest suicide rate in the world. That data point makes it clear that a better health care model in the US doesn't make the Ache go away. 

The Ache is akin to Lewis' argument from desire, but in the key of mental health and illness. Hunting Magic Eels doesn't point to Lewis' longing, but toward the psychological fragility disenchantment and materialism produces within us. We're not doing very well, emotionally speaking, in this post-Christian world. 

To be sure, the existence of the Ache is no proof for the existence of God. The Ache is, rather, our restlessness and desire for God. And for many, this pain is often the first step back toward enchantment.

The Weight of Glory: Part 1, The Argument from Desire

C.S. Lewis was my first exposure to theology. Like many others, as an undergraduate I read Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Problem of Pain. But also like many others, I quickly moved on to what I considered to be more "serious" theology, eventually considering C.S. Lewis more of a "popular" author who was writing for a general audience.

But I recently read Alan Jacobs' biography of Lewis, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, which has rekindled an interest in Lewis, especially as a resource for enchantment in a post-Christian, disenchanted age.

As a part of this, I just read C.S. Lewis famous sermon The Weight of Glory, my first (belated) time to read what I understand to be Lewis' most quoted text. I jotted down a bunch of notes and observations about "The Weight of Glory" which I'll share in this series.

The first observation is that "The Weight of Glory" may be the best instance of Lewis' famous "argument from desire," using our longing for God as an argument for God's existence. Here's a beautiful passage from the sermon:
In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
For Lewis, this longing is symptomatic of a metaphysics, a desire for our true Home. Of course, the rebuttal here is that longings are not evidence for the existence of God. To this Lewis responds,
Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me

I'd say that for about two years now, I've been mulling over Jesus's statement in the gospels that we must take up our cross and follow him. For example:
Matthew 16.2-26
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
What I've been ruminating on is how this would have sounded to a first century audience. We come into the text with so much theological background that we struggle to connect with how Jesus's contemporaries would have taken this call to "take up your cross and follow me."

Roman crosses littered the landscape. The Jews regularly watched their countrymen "take up their crosses" as they walked to their place of exposure, mockery, torture, and death. And in that context Jesus says, "take up your cross." What could he possibly mean?

They wouldn't have had a moralistic or spiritualized take on the saying. No one in the audience would have thought, "Oh, I see, he's speaking metaphorically. By 'cross' he means the daily struggles I have to face."

Their minds would have turned to Roman persecution. Something like, "Follow me, as your Messiah, into the maw of the Roman death machine." But the trouble I have with this interpretation is that it basically is a call to throw your life away.

What I think Jesus was getting at is a call for fearlessness in the face of the Roman death machine. Jesus was basically taking the greatest fear of their lives--the prospect of crucifixion--and saying, "Don't fear this." Because it was that fear that allowed the Romans to have complete control over you. That was the whole point of crucifixion, control through terror. So if a person was liberated from that fear, could "take up their cross," then a spiritual and psychological emancipation would occur. An emancipation that would allow the reign of God to come fully into your life.

Basically, the degree to which the Roman cross had a psychological footprint in your psyche one could not be truly free and available to the kingdom of God, God's rule in your life. You might want to follow God, but the threat of the cross would always be there to psychologically bully, intimidate, and coerce you. A person who was willing to "take up their cross" to follow Jesus, by contrast, was free from this threat and terror. So the call wasn't to throw your life away, it was a call for fearlessness in the face of Imperial threats.

Jesus's audience were captives to terror, and his call to "take up your cross" was taking that terror head on.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 42, The Fall of Isengard

After the victory at Helm's Deep, Théoden and the Company ride to Isengard to deal with Saruman.

Upon their arrival they find that the battle has been already won by the Ents. Merry and Pippin vividly recount their assault on Isengard and how their releasing of the river, like Noah's flood, washed the earth of Saruman's evil works.

Yet, Saruman remains in the tower of Orthanc. And there, in a last bid, he tries to weave a tapestry of lies to sway Théoden and then Gandalf. Théoden is tempted, but resists. Gandalf laughs. 

Mercy, though, is offered to Saruman, but he is too enslaved to accept Gandalf's terms. So his staff is broken and his power stripped.

Commenting on Saruman's choice, Gandalf observes:

He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! He will be devoured.

In the biblical imagination, there is no lordless place. Everyone serves. The only question is whom you serve. We moderns, however, in light of our political freedoms, tend to see ourselves a free agents, obedient to no one but ourselves. We do not serve, only command, even if that command is only over ourselves. We are world full of little lords.

But this is the same illusion that held Saruman. We are unhappy fools, dreaming that we can ride the storm. Just look around at all the little lords, the teapot Sarumans. How are we doing? Are we relaxed, peaceful, and joyful? Or is the storm slowly devouring us?

Paul stands before us, like Gandalf at the foot of Orthanc, and makes the offer: "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God."

An offer of peace has been extended. But we will not serve, only command. And that will be our doom.

Heroism, Hostility and Politics: Part 3, We're All Fundamentalists Now

So, as politics becomes our new hero system--the arena of moral action where we struggle to achieve a meaningful, impactful, and significant life--it will increasingly be plagued by worldview defense, aggression and hostility directed toward those espousing different values and politics than our own. Again, the more politics matters the more violent it will become. As politics replaces religion in a post-Christian world it will increasingly be characterized by holy wars.

And yet, if that's the case, couldn't the same be said of religion itself? Aren't we just trading in one holy war for a different one?

Not exactly. 

People of faith who are historically literate and morally reflective know that religion has and can be a powder keg, a source of social hostility. Consequently, many of us have worked long and hard to notice, confess, critique and resist those impulses within ourselves and our faith communities. We've been on a long journey, from dogmatism and fundamentalism toward a faith that is more tolerant, inclusive, peaceable and generous. 

Take a minute to think about and inventory this journey and work in your own life. All the time you've devoted to make your faith more wise, gentle, welcoming and loving. All the effort.

For many of us, this journey has taken decades, often many decades. And the work is still ongoing.

And now, think of our politics. How many converts to this new post-Christian faith, this ascendant hero system, have invested a similar amount of work in cultivating a more tolerant and generous politics? Have you?

Basically, in this post-Christian world where politics is the new religion, we're all fundamentalists now.

And given that situation, this is what I encouraged that the conclusion of my Fuller Magazine article:

Mature Christians have always recognized that we must be perpetually vigilant and exert enormous energy to excise all traces of bias, hostility, prejudice, intolerance, and hate from our faith. This is a hard, ongoing labor. And it raises the question: Can we claim we’ve done this same work with our politics?

Let me be the first to confess: I have not done this work. As a lifelong follower of Jesus, I have worked very hard to espouse a Christianity that is loving, tolerant, hospitable, and generous. I have not devoted the same amount of emotional and spiritual work to my politics. I have a beautiful faith, but an ugly politics, a politics characterized by tribalism, affective polarization, and worldview defense. And that contrast makes me wonder. What do my emotions, all that affective polarization, reveal about my deepest allegiances? Where is my hero system truly located?

Those questions haunt me during election years.

And so, brothers and sisters, let me call us to some spiritual reflection and labor this election season. Our political holy wars are a sign that something dark is at work in our hearts and nation. I fear that, in our post-Christian world, worldview defense, affective polarization, and tribalism will become our new normal and constant temptations demanding of us an energetic spiritual response. As followers of Jesus, we know what to do. This is a struggle we are familiar with. Our weapons in this battle are the ones we learned in Sunday School. Mercy, self-control, kindness, joy, hope, peace-making, forgiveness, humility, and love. We fight to leaven our faith with these virtues.

Let us leaven our politics as well. 

Heroism, Hostility and Politics: Part 2, Hero Projects and Worldview Defense

Why has politics become so tribal and hostile? Why is politics becoming a holy war?

In my Fuller Magazine article I turn to the work of Ernest Becker to explain this. 

Specifically, in his book The Denial of Death Becker argued that, in the face of death, we pursue self-esteem and significance by performing in what he called a cultural "hero system." A hero system is a pathway of meaning, an arena of performance where we can earn a sense of self-esteem, the feeling that our life "matters":

We’re interested in self-esteem, according to Becker, because of existential anxiety--in other words, our fear of meaninglessness in the face of death. This is the cry of Ecclesiastes, how death renders life “vain” and “meaningless,” our life work “a chasing after the wind.” Given the prospect of death, we want our lives to have a lasting, durable impact upon the world. A meaningful life is a life that “makes a dent in the universe,” a life that “makes a difference.” On my campus, at each graduation ceremony we give an award to an outstanding alumnus, someone who has made a significant contribution to the world. It’s called the “Outlive Your Life Award.” While few of us will win awards from our alma maters, we’re all trying to win some version of the Outlive Your Life Award. We are all trying, according to Ernest Becker, to live a “heroic” life.

Our cultures help us in this pursuit by providing us with a path toward significance and meaning, what Becker calls “a hero system.” These hero systems are everywhere, from the stories we pass down in our families to the metrics of success in our workplaces to the American Dream. Listen to any commencement address and you’ll hear some version of the American hero system, the speaker’s take on what constitutes a meaningful life.

We achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance by performing within these hero systems. And this answers the question of why self-esteem is so important to us. Self-esteem is the emotional voice informing us that we’re winning the Outlive Your Life Award, that we’re making a meaningful difference in the world.
In times past, religion was a huge player in these hero systems, given that religion was a critical repository of our deepest values, our metrics of meaning. It still is. But as I point out in my article, in an increasingly post-Christian world, politics is now taking the place of faith. Politics has become for us the arena of heroic action, the location where meaning and "making a difference" is now pursued:

Politics has always generated strong, even violent, emotions because of how politics enshrines deeply held values. And rising polarization suggests that political affiliation is assuming an ever-increasing significance in our lives, an outsized role in defining our self-perceptions and worldview. In an increasingly post-Christian nation politics is becoming our new religion: the repository of our values, the focus of our concerns, the arena of our action, and our hope for a better future. And as a consequence, election years feel more and more like holy wars.

The reason heroism is connected to hostility is that people who espouse values different from our own threaten the validity of our hero project, calling into question the metrics of our meaning. This unsettles us, makes us anxious. And in the face of that anxiety we lash out at those people who hold different values and beliefs, the people who vote differently than we do. Psychologists call this worldview defense:

[T]here’s a dark side to the hero system. In Ernest Becker’s book Escape from Evil, his sequel to The Denial of Death, he describes how our hero systems go on to become a source of social conflict. Specifically, we live in a diverse, pluralistic world. Not everyone agrees on how to win the Outlive Your Life Award. Our world is full of rival hero systems, competing beliefs and values about what matters in life. And all this diversity makes us uneasy. Rival hero systems threaten the legitimacy of my own, calling into question the values and beliefs by which I define a significant, meaningful life. If no single hero system is the ultimate truth, given all the options before us, why would any of them be a reliable and durable answer to the threat of death? In the face of that question, we’re thrust back into the lament of Ecclesiastes. If no hero system can be ultimately trusted, it seems every attempt to outlive your life is “vanity of vanities.”

Facing this fearful prospect, we engage in what Terror Management Theory calls “worldview defense.” It’s too anxiety inducing to allow others to place question marks next to the values and beliefs that make our life meaningful. Here we come to how self-esteem becomes implicated in group conflict and hostility. People who hold different values threaten the legitimacy of our hero project, calling into question the worldview that give our lives meaning and significance. And in the face of that threat, we attack.

The work of Ernest Becker is a powerful tool in explaining the tribalism and hostility at work in our current political landscape. As mentioned, as we move into a post-Christian future, politics will increasingly become the repository of our most deeply held values, the arena in which we will pursue the Outlive Your Life Award. Politics will become our hero system, the place where we strive for ultimate purpose and meaning. And as politics becomes increasingly fused with our self-image and self-esteem, it will, of a course, become increasingly tribal. Politics will be characterized by worldview defense, with our attacks on political opponents exhibiting greater levels of religious zealotry. 

This is how heroism is linked to hostility. Simply put, the more politics matters the more violent it will become. This is how politics becomes a holy war.

All of which provides us with a sharp, deep indictment of politics. 

And yet, what about faith? Isn't faith the original holy war? And if so, how does faith escape its own temptation to worldview defense?

Tomorrow, in the final post, I'll share my reflections on that question, and how those reflections might help our politics in a troubled election season.

Heroism, Hostility and Politics: Part 1, Affective Polarization and Political Tribalism

As an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, I was invited to contribute to the most recent issue of Fuller Magazine, a special issue focused on politics and the election.

My article was entitled "The Hope and the Horror: Reflections for an Election Year." I thought I'd share some of the main parts of the article this week.

The hope from the title speaks to how in our elections we feel that we are given the reins of history, a real chance to make a difference in our lives and the lives of our neighbors. Participatory democracy is empowering. It gives us hope for tomorrow.

And what about the horror? 

The horror is our dread of election seasons. The hostility, anger, and vitriol. The fights we have with friends and family members. How we have to block people on social media because we've lost or collective minds. Sure, democracy fills us with hope, but as the election season drags on we grow weary, stressed, and exhausted. We just want the whole thing to be over with.

As I talk about at the start of my article, much of this weariness comes from the rise of what political psychologists call "affective polarization":

Over the last few election cycles, social scientists have been tracking the rise of what is called “affective polarization” within the American electorate. Affective polarization is different from issue polarization, which speaks to the degree of agreement or disagreement among Americans across a variety of issues. In other words, how much “common ground” exists between us on the challenges we face, from climate change, to health care, to immigration, to responding to a global pandemic...

Affective polarization concerns the feelings we have about the people on the other side of the political aisle––it describes the feelings Democrats have about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats. And as we’ve all observed, affective polarization has been steadily increasing. The authors of a 2019 study of affective polarization summarize, “Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party. Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.” 

We’ve seen the effects of this on Facebook and over Thanksgiving dinners; we’ve witnessed firsthand how affective polarization poisons the political well. Affective polarization explains why political conversations are so difficult, tense, and unproductive: we’re demonizing our conversation partners. The possibility of compromise evaporates when seeking common ground is experienced as a moral failure, caving in to the forces of evil. Bright ideological lines dividing the agents of light from the agents of darkness are patrolled with vigilance. No ground can be ceded in this struggle. To fraternize with the enemy is betrayal. 

One force driving affective polarization is how politics is increasingly becoming an group identity marker, which is driving the tribalization we're witnessing in politics, an Us versus Them mentality:

Affective polarization is one force behind the great tribalization of American politics. In this tribal landscape, political issues aren’t debated to seek common ground or solutions. Issues become identity markers, social tools we use to figure out which political team you’re on. We’ve all witnessed this moral sorting on social media. An event crashes into our collective consciousness and we watch the two tribes predictably array themselves on either side of the emerging debate. This moral sorting explains why our political debates, whether at the family reunion or on social media, have become so unproductive. We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances.

In fact, our political tribes have become more important than traditional demographic markers of group identity, like race and ethnicity. In a fascinating study done in 2015, participants were asked to select a candidate for a college scholarship. The candidates were identical in their qualifications, except for race and political affiliation. Interestingly, white participants were slightly more likely (55.8 percent) to award the scholarship to the black student. But when it came to political affiliation, 79.2 percent of Democrats picked the Democratic student for the scholarship and 80 percent of Republicans picked the Republican student.

Politics is increasingly becoming a marker of group identity in America. Consequently, affective polarization is simply the manifestation of some well-known social dynamics you learned about in Psychology 101. Specifically, group identity is often achieved through two related mental and emotional biases: in-group favoritism and out-group denigration. We see the biases at work everywhere in our lives, from the positive feelings we have toward the people in our “tribe” to the suspicions we harbor about “those people.”

But it’s not just that humans are wary of difference. It goes deeper than that. Group identity is a large part of how we achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance. Make a list of the things that give you a sense of meaning and belonging and much of that list will involve group membership. You’re an American, a Christian, a Fuller alumnus. You belong to a church, a family, and a place of work. We are members of groups and organizations that represent our deepest values and concerns, declaring these allegiances with Facebook groups and bumper stickers. Gather up all these groups and you have an identity, a location where you stand in the world. 

I'll share more tomorrow about this last bit, how the sense of self-esteem and significance we gain from these group identities is implicated in the social hostility we observe in politics. For today, I just want to underline the point about how when politics is practiced as "holy war" we fail to engage our problems pragmatically. As I wrote above, "We’ve stopping seeking solutions. We’re picking teams and declaring our allegiances."

Basically, politics should be a tool, a way to solve our social problems. But politics has become increasingly moralized, transforming itself into a holy war, a clash between Good and Evil. The pragmatic spirit is lost, and politics ceases to function as a tool to solve our problems. It's all identity markers, wherever you look across the political landscape. No solutions, just the social signaling of Us versus Them.

As I described above, the tools of pragmatic problem-solving require negotiation and compromise as we seek to balance competing goods. But in a holy war, compromise and negotiation are moral failures, waving the white flag of surrender, and caving in to the forces of darkness.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 41, The Battle of Helm's Deep

After the rousing of Théoden events move rapidly, culminating in the battle of Helm's Deep where the people of Rohan defend themselves against the army of Saruman. 

From here on out, calls to arms and battles come to dominate the story. All the along, the story has been one of resistance, but now the battle is formally joined. The storm has broken. 

As I talk about in my book Reviving Old Scratch, Greg Boyd has described what he calls the "warfare worldview" of Scripture. Fleming Rutledge, with other theologians, describes the same as the "apocalyptic" vision of the Bible. This is the world of The Lord of the Rings.

A lot of liberal, progressive Christians are troubled by this, worried about any "battle" or "warfare" imagery in the faith, fearing how that can be abused. And examples of this abuse are readily available. That said, as I also observe in Reviving Old Scratch, these same liberal, progressive Christians are very willing to see social justice as a "struggle" and "fight." And that struggle and fight has its own collection of temptations toward hate and dehumanization.

Which is to say, I think the apocalyptic framework of faith is pretty hard to avoid, and everyone has to manage, believer and non-believer alike, the moral tensions inherent in any passionate moral engagement with the world. Pretending these issues don't exist just isn't an option. The key is leavening, keeping our eye on the Christological heart of Tolkien's tale. Yes, a war has begun, swords and axes are being used. Legolas and Gimli share their body counts. But readers of The Lord of the Rings know that all this swordplay cannot win the final, ultimate victory. All the physical combat is simply a delaying tactic, buying time for Frodo and Sam. Théoden comes to see this very clearly at the battle of Helm's Deep:

The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?

The answer is that no tower can. But two small hobbits can. That's the Christological leavening of the apocalyptic worldview, our understanding how this battle is really going to be won. How the Lion of Judah conquers as The Slaughtered Lamb. And any passionate moral engagement with the world, theistic or non-theistic, without that Christological core is destined to tip into the darkness.

"Black Lives Matter": The Gospel as Rehabilitative Honoring

Over the summer the leaders of our church shared a statement with our congregation that "Black lives matter." And since then, and really no surprise given that we live in West Texas and the extreme polarization of our politics during an election year, our leaders have had to do a lot of explaining and teaching about what the church means when we say "Black lives matter."

In our statement, we were clear that when we, as a congregation, say "Black lives matter" we aren't endorsing any group, organization, political party or legislative policy. For us, the statement "Black lives matter" was a gospel issue.

How so?

A part of the problem, again no surprise, is that there is a perception that when we say "Black lives matter" we are elevating some lives over other lives. Such a perception tends to elicit the rejoinder that "All lives matter."

And, of course, they do. But the gospel education comes in clarifying that the phrase "Black lives matter" isn't about elevating some lives over other lives. The gospel impulse behind saying "Black lives matter" is, rather, rehabilitative, restoring a lost value, worth and dignity. Saying "Black lives matter" is just another illustration of what Jesus was doing when he addressed the Samaritan woman or broke bread with tax-collectors. Jesus wasn't saying Samaritans or tax-collectors matter more than others. Jesus was rehabilitating a lost humanity, restoring a diminished dignity.

A great example of this practice is found 1 Corinthians 12. There Paul is wrestling with honor/shame issues in the Corinthian church, how some people stood higher or lower on the metrics of value within Roman society. That problem should sound familiar to us given America's racial history. Consequently, unity in the body of Christ, declares Paul, is accomplished by rehabilitating the dignity of those who stand lower on social metrics of value and worth. The gospel demands that, wherever people are devalued, our practice should be rehabilitative honoring. As Paul shares:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor. 12. 21-26)

For those who stand secure according to metrics of social worth, Paul says such people "need no special treatment." You don't need to go out of your way to say their lives matter. The issue for Paul is "giving greater honor to the parts that lack it." And as should be clear, while this "greater honor" is distributed unevenly across the body, since honored members "need no special treatment," this asymmetrical honoring isn't unjust, unfair or divisive since the goal is restoration and rehabilitation.

The gospel mandate behind saying "Black lives matter" is that the body of Christ is "giving greater honor to the parts the lack it." This asymmetrical practice of giving "greater honor" isn't an elevation of some lives over others. Giving "greater honor" isn't a form of "reverse racism," establishing a new and different hierarchy of value and worth. Showing "greater honor" is restorative and rehabilitative, recovering value and worth where it had been missing. And according to Paul, this practice of rehabilitative honoring--"giving greater honor to the parts that lack it"--is how the church overcomes division and disunity.

Sometimes pictures help, so here's a diagram of the two ways of understanding "Black lives matter": 

To the left, situation A, is the false perception that saying "Black lives matter" is an elevation of Black lives over other lives, prompting the response "All lives matter." As described above, such a response is a mistake because what is actually happening is illustrated in situation B on the right. In saying "Black lives matter" we are engaged in rehabilitative honoring, giving "greater honor to those who lack it," restoring Black lives to that proper place where mutuality and concern for all pour forth.

Creation Ex Nihilo: Part 4, Victory?

Summarizing, the God-as-Gardener vision seems to trade a theodicy puzzle for an ontological puzzle. We no longer ask, "Why is there evil and suffering?" but are left with "Where did the primordial chaos come from?" For some, this trade-off is worth it as their faith struggles with acute theodicy questions. And for myself, I can identify.

Now to be clear, I'm shortchanging the ontological mysteries with the God-as-Gardener vision. If God didn't create the Chaos then we are beginning with a primordial dualism, which moves us out of Christianity and into paganism. That is to say, at least the theodicy mystery, as hard as it is, is a Christian mystery. All mysteries are not created equal.

All that to say, there's a lot more to be said about the ontological issues with God-as-Gardener. But what I want to talk about is how theodicy works with God-as-Gardener. The view is adopted as it is believed to lessen theodicy questions. But does it really?

For example, to start, even though God didn't create the chaos the God-as-Gardener view admits that God has the power to order the chaos, to bring goodness into existence. And if that's the case, aren't we back at the pressing theodicy question: Why has God let this bit of the garden go to hell? If God has the power to order creation why is God letting his garden grow over with weeds?

Of course, we can offer a wide variety of answers to these questions, why God might or might not act in a given situation, why God would pull that weed but not this weed. But if you look at those answers, they all pull from the same theodicy kit we use with creation ex nihilo. And in the end we land where we always end up: It's a mystery why God pulls this weed and not that weed.

Which is to say, it appears that when we adopt the God-as-Gardener vision all we really doing is making everything worse. We still have the exact same theodicy questions that we had before, and we're also espousing paganism rather than Christianity. 

Which brings me to a final concern. As I've shared before, one of the great features of Christian theodicy is that it views the presence of evil and suffering as a catastrophe, as an accident. This view kicks up a host of questions about origins and all the theodicy questions we have when God creates ex nihilo. But what is often forgotten in these debates about the origins of evil is the Christian view that evil and suffering have an end, that existence culminates in God's defeat and victory over evil.

By contrast, one of the great problems with God-as-Gardener models, where a primordial Good/Bad dualism is posited, is that evil and suffering become intrinsic and eternal features of existence. And notice the key difference with Christianity. These models solve the question of origins (where Christianity struggles) by positing a dualism. But the price they pay is that evil is undefeatable and ineradicable, precisely where Christianity confesses a ringing eschatological victory.

So you're going to have to pay a price either way. There is a price you pay with origin questions to get a victory in the end, or you can have settled origin questions with the price that evil lasts forever and ever. Like it or not, Christianity chooses to assume the burden of theodicy to confess an ultimate victory.

Which is to say, yes, a God-as-Gardener reading of Genesis 1 does get you a short-term theodicy win on the question of origins: "Why is there evil?" But its great cost is denying the Kingdom of God a final, ultimate victory over evil.

Creation Ex Nihilo: Part 3, Goodness/Power Tradeoffs

The alternative biblical parsing of the opening lines of Genesis illustrate how some might continue to confess God as "Creator of Heaven and Earth" while at the same time rejecting creation ex nihilo.

Specifically, as Genesis recounts, "heaven" and "earth" are orderings within existence, each reflective of artistic intent and output. And as Genesis also says, these ordered and artistic expressions are "good."

If we follow this line of thought, we can see how it seeks to affect our conversations about theodicy. The origin and ever-present activity of the chaos is taken as an ontological given, a force God shapes and works with but is not the source of. What God does is bring order out of the chaos, and it's this order that is created and called "good."

The theological "win" here is that God's actions in creation are thus only associated with "the good," locations where there is harmony, peace, love, and well-being. Goodness is the "creation" of God. Evil and suffering, by contrast, are due to the forces of chaos that disrupt, disorder, and destroy the good structures God creates and works to maintain with and alongside human beings.

If all this seems a bit too abstract, here's a simple metaphor. God is a creator like a gardener. What you see in Genesis 1 is gardening, imposing order on the chaos to create something good. The idea is that when we find goodness, wholeness, structure, and beauty in our world and lives God is the originator of that bit of order. God in this view becomes wholly aligned with the good. All the disordered parts of existence--evil, suffering--don't trace back to God, because God didn't create everything, God didn't create the chaos. God is a gardener. 

Okay, with the basic idea now out there, let's start to make a turn to suss out the various theological implications of this viewpoint.

Again, the "win" in this viewpoint is that it seems to extricate God from evil and suffering. The causal chain only runs from God to the good since God didn't create everything. God only creates the good. Everything else, it seems, is off God's plate.

But you see the obvious question. But where, then, did the primordial chaos come from if it wasn't created by God?

The answer, of course, is that we don't know. It's a mystery. And while that might seem to be unsatisfactory, this is always where the theodicy question ends up. With a mystery, with a "we don't know." So there's mystery and dissatisfactions all around. This is nothing new. The issue is where you want to place your mystery and dissatisfaction.

So as a starting place in evaluating the God-as-Gardener view, we can observe that it trades a theodicy mystery for an ontological mystery. And for many, that's a good trade. It's better to question some notion of God's power than to question God's goodness.

In short, the God-as-Gardener view is another example of the goodness/power tradeoffs we see in the theodicy debates. Specifically, if you want to keep God's love and goodness unsullied and unquestioned, you have to work the power side of the equation, putting forth some view that "limits" God's power in some way. By contrast, if you hold firm on God's omnipotence you risk, in the eyes of some, putting serious questions marks around God's goodness and love. These goodness/power tradeoffs are everywhere in the theodicy debates.

So the God-as-Gardener view seems to be a species of that tradeoff, questioning God's power (God doesn't create ex nihilo) to salvage God's goodness (God only creates the good, like a gardener).

But is that all there is here? A goodness/power tradeoff? A theodicy mystery exchanged for an ontological mystery?

I used to think so, but I've recently begun to wonder.

Creation Ex Nihilo: Part 2, Creator of Heaven and Earth

Again, some have argued that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo creates so much of a theodicy problem we should reject the doctrine. But if we did so, how could we confess that God is the "Creator of heaven and earth"?

The argument revolves around how we read the opening lines of Genesis.

Specifically, there are two different ways to punctuate the opening of Genesis, each leading to different theologies of creation. Here is Genesis 1.1-3 (KJV):
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good...
The issue has to do with how Genesis 1.1 relates to 1.2 and/or 1.3. In traditional readings 1.1 sets up 1.2. In this reading the first act of creation (1.1) is God creating a chaotic and formless world--the deep (found in 1.2). From there God begins to impose order on the chaos (1.3 and following).

But there is a second reading of these opening verses, one that originated with Jewish theology, where 1.1 is not read as an act of creation but read as a sort of Preamble or Chapter Title: "This is the Account of How God Created the Heavens and the Earth." The formal creation account then starts in 1.2 rather than in 1.1. Such a reading sets up like this:
This is the Account of How God Created the Heavens and the Earth:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
In this second reading--where the creation account formally beings with Genesis 1.2 rather than with 1.1--the chaos and void are there with God at the beginning of creation. The origin of the chaos and void is left unspecified.

Additional evidence for this reading is observed in that the timing of creation is synchronized with the artistic acts which start in Genesis 1.3. The clock doesn't start with Genesis 1.1 and 1.2. We don't read: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The first day."

In light of this second reading, how can we confess that God is the Creator of heaven and earth? We start with the first act of creation in Genesis 1.3: The bringing of light. And this act of creation isn't creation ex nihilo but bringing order to chaos. And so is each subsequent act of creation. Creation is imposing artistic order on the chaos, the making of something beautiful and "good" out of that which was previously "formless."

To summarize, in this second reading, the creative acts of God recounted in Genesis 1 are less acts of creation ex nihilo than the artistic and moral ordering of chaos. Creation, in this biblical reading, is turning chaos into something "good." God is Creator of heaven and earth not because God created heaven and earth ex nihilo, but because heaven and earth are orderings and structures God brings out of chaos:
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 40, Truth and the Bewitchment of Théoden

Leaving Merry and Pippin, the two small stones to do their work in rousing the Ents, Gandalf rides with the others to Edoras, the capital city of Rohan, to the Hall of Théoden, the king of Rohan.

What we find in Rohan is troubling. Théoden seems demented and paranoid, distrustful of those who love him and are loyal to him. Théoden is also submissive and yielding to the advice of Wormtongue, his advisor.

We soon learn that Wormtongue is a servant of Saruman and that Théoden has been under a bewitchment. But Gandalf has come to break the spell and rouse the king. 

As Fleming Rutledge observes, the transfiguration of Théoden is one of the great transfigurations in a story with many great transfigurations. A confused, senile, paranoid and docile old man becomes a sane, powerful, and fearsome king. The change is not unlike that of the Gerasene demoniac in the gospels.

And Wormtongue is aptly named. The bewitchment of Théoden was produced and maintained with poisonous words, with flattery, insinuations, half truths, and lies.

It's noteworthy that Satan is called "The Father of Lies." The devil traffics less in lasciviousness than in falsehood. I think this is so because life is, fundamentally, about moral navigation. And if you can't see the world and yourself truthfully and accurately there's no way to chart a course. 

This seems to be one of the reasons why our world is so lost and sick. No one knows what is true anymore. No one can agree on what is true anymore. We are bewitched. We are Théoden.

Creation Ex Nihilo: Part 1, Creation and Theodicy

One of the issues that comes up in discussions about theodicy is creation ex nihilo, God creating "from nothing."

The concern is that, if God is the ultimate source of everything that exists, then God is ultimately responsible for everything that happens with creation, evil and suffering included. The response here is generally an appeal to creaturely freedom, that humans misuse their freedom and are the ones responsible for falling away from love and grace. But the response to that response is that God foreknew this misuse of freedom, and the vast weight of horrific suffering it would introduce into creation, and God created anyway. For some, that foreknowledge puts God back on the hook.

So the theodicy question is this: If God creates ex nihilo is God ultimately responsible for what transpires in creation? Some think so.

Which creates a theodicy pressure upon the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. So much so, some have argued that we should jettison the doctrine. I, myself, have flirted with this notion, seeking some theodicy relief. But I've recently cooled on this theological move.

So, a few posts to share how we could think about creation without it being ex nihilo and how that is believed by some to help with theodicy. But also some reflections about why this relief might not be as forthcoming as some would think.

"Logos" by Mary Oliver

Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.

The Gospel and Social Justice

One of my struggles with Christian social justice warriors is how they relate social justice to the gospel. This is a difficult issue to raise, as 99% of the time I'm in agreement with the public calls for social justice on a variety of issues. What concerns me, however, is the path we walk in the church toward those calls.

One of my post-progressive criticisms of progressive Christianity is how it equates social justice with the gospel, collapsing the gospel into the container of social justice with no remainder.

The issue here goes to a point I've raised before about means and ends. Many progressive Christians use Jesus as the means to reach social justice ends. We call and act for social justice because of Jesus. And that's true. But the temptation here is that, when Jesus is reduced to being the reason or means toward a greater end, Jesus becomes instrumentalized, treated as a tool, and as a tool superfluous and discardable. Because in the end it's only the end that matters, not how you get there.

Now of course, progressive Christians can object to this. As long as we're working for social justice these theological quibbles can be deemed irrelevant. Worse, raising these quibbles is likely a reflection of my privilege.

Perhaps, but I'm going to stand my ground on this one. For reasons I've learned from the incarcerated and the homeless. The gospel is much bigger than social justice, though social justice is a huge, urgent part of the kingdom's business with the world. Thus my constant chatter in my church when sharing with our SJW members that social justice is a means toward the kingdom, not the other way around. This looks like a subtle distinction and ordering, but the two are regularly flipped. And it's critical to get the ordering right to keep social justice from falling into idolatry.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Social justice is a hammer. The gospel is the entire toolbox, the building materials, the blueprint, the workers, the architect, and the people living harmoniously in the house together.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 39, Small Stones

Upon their reunion, Gandalf explains many things to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. But soon, Gandalf turns their attention back to the task at hand. The time for talk is over, now is the time for action.

And in making this transition, Gandalf makes a curious observation:

The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.

What has turned the tide? It's not what you think it is, Gandalf's momentous reappearance. It is, rather, something smaller. It's already happened in the story, and we, the readers, have missed it. Something happened, something seemingly random, and insignificant, but that was the moment when everything changed. 

What turned the tide was the arrival of Merry and Pippin to Fangorn and their meeting with Treebeard. That meeting, as we will come to see, changes the course of the war. As Gandalf continues:

"They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche."

This past summer my family visited Gettysburg. I've been a student of that battle since High School when I read The Killer Angels. What struck me then and struck me again this summer is how the outcome of that battle pivoted on so many individual decision points. Each decision a small stone, but a decision so momentous that in retrospect you can rightly say, "The battle could have been won or lost right here." And this is the vitally important point: You say that all over the battlefield. Over and over again you stand at a crossroads of history, radically different futures unfolding before you, wondering what the world would have been like if this small decision, made right where you are standing, had gone differently.

But it's not just Gettysburg and battles. History is crammed full of these moments. Students of history know this. Small stones over and over again where you could rightly say, "If this didn't happen, the entire history of the world would have been different."

And then there's your own life. You go back through your memory and realize, "If I had made a different choice that day my life would have been totally different." So many small stones, over and over again.

We sometimes ask, "What can I, a single person, do to make a difference in the world?" Our power and influence seems weak to the point of uselessness and insignificance. But really, if you look at history and your life, the situation is quite the opposite. The history of the world and the course of your life turns on every choice. Everything matters. Everything is a small stone.

The Teleological Gaze: Part 6, Story

Looking back over these posts, I'm not sure if they add up to a coherent point or observation. As I said at the start, these posts have been jottings, musings.

It seems to me that something is here, some thread that goes to the root of a lot of what ails us in our modern, secular age. Basically, without a teleological perspective--some idea about what existence, life, society, commerce, and material goods are for--we become lost and unmoored. Without any ready and sturdy answer about what life is for, we become captive to nihilism, cynicism, consumption, distractions, and desire.

Another way to express this is to say that the teleological gaze is also a narrative gaze, seeing life as story, drama, and plot. As we know, humans are story-telling creatures. Stories are how we make meaning of ourselves, our lives, and our history. And stories are teleological because stories are journeys. If a story isn't "going anywhere" we'd quickly lose interest.

The self is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It's a story that has come from somewhere and is going somewhere. There is a telos, a direction you're heading. And whenever we lose that telos, whenever we lose the thread of our story, we feel lost, like we're drifting. We've can't locate the plot of our lives.

To be clear, I'm not saying our stories, collective or individual, must be or are inherently religious. Nor am I saying that we can't change the plot and re-narrate our lives. I'm simply pointing out that the narrative structure of our identities means some goal, direction, or purpose sits at the root of being a human being. Our minds require a horizon. Otherwise we drift.

Perhaps another way of saying this is that we need a why. Why am I getting out of bed in the morning? Why am I here on this earth? Why does this matter and make a difference? Why keep pushing and struggling and fighting?

The answers to all these why questions place you within a teleological framework, providing you with the purposes and goals that convert the randomness of existence into a life, into a story.

The Teleological Gaze: Part 5, What Is Business For?

In these posts we've been focusing on psychology (meaning, self-worth) and virtue. But in my series about Mary Hirschfeld's book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy she makes a few points about the teleological gaze and markets.

In that series, we talked about how money obscures our ability to say "enough." Material goods have a telos, making them amendable to the question "How much is enough?" True, opinions can vary widely, but we can ask questions like, "How many cars is enough? How many homes? How many laptops?" And so on. It starts to look a bit excessive if you owned 100 cars, 100 homes, or 100 laptops. Again, no one can say where the line is for everyone, but when we are talking about material goods their telos--their purpose or function--allows the question of enough be raised and debated.

Money clouds this question. Money doesn't have a telos like a house, car, or laptop. Thus, it's impossible to say how much money is enough. Money erases telos, and without purpose or function all we are left with is raw desire. More money is always better.

Hirschfeld points out that something similar happens in the world of business. What is the telos of a business? What is a business for?

When a business is healthy it thinks teleologically: it exists because it provides society some good or service that is in demand. Businesses with a high degree of social consciousness focus on meeting that need, thereby making a contribution to the common good while also making a profit. But far too often, businesses lose track of their telos and become fixated on profits. And like money, the profit motive erases telos. The business stops caring about the quality of their goods and services--the reason for their existence--and starts thinking only about "the bottom line." The business starts to exist only for the purpose of making money. And once again, we can ask: How much profit is enough? Without a telos, the answer is always more.

All that to say, Hirschfeld's point is that when a business loses track of its function and purpose, its telos, and comes to focus solely on profit margins, we end up with the economic ills and dysfunctions we find all around us.

The Teleological Gaze: Part 4, The Outward Turn

In my upcoming book Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, I devote a significant amount of time linking mental well-being with what David Kelsey calls an "eccentric" posture toward life. Readers of The Slavery of Death and long time readers of this blog will be familiar with how I've put this notion of eccentricity to use.

At its heart, eccentricity involves an "outward turn." An what's critical here is how this outward turn rests upon the belief that existence is not a bounded set. There is something "outside" and beyond us that we can anticipate, turn to, and be rescued by.

The connection I make in Hunting Magic Eels is how much of mental health demands an "outward turn," an eccentric orientation. I don't want to give too much of this part of the book away, but I can sketch here a bit of the argument I make.

Following the first three posts in this series, when we lost our teleological gaze we lost our ability to ground the value and purpose of our lives in something more substantial than our own self-evaluations and self-estimates. This is an extension of the point I made in Part 2 about meaning and now connecting it to mental health. Specifically, if life is a bounded set meaning is something I'm not given "from the outside." It has to be created from within the bounded set of my own existence. This is Existentialism 101. I have to look around at the resources life has given me--my talents and opportunities--as raw materials out of which I have to create a life that I deem, in my own eyes at least, as "worth living." Camus gets right at the question in the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." Why is life worth living?

That's a great question, but without a teleological gaze pretty damn hard to answer. Oh sure, the talented and the affluent answer the question easily. The "winners" are having a delightful time. With their lives full of meaningful work, leisure time, and creative outlets, it's easy for these few to crush the existential game of building meaning out of the resources at hand within the bounded set. But for the rest of humanity, answering Camus' question can be difficult. Despair is always close at hand. Our work isn't engaging, creative, fulfilling or self-actualizing. Opportunities for self-care, restoration, and self-exploration are rare if non-existent. Life within these bounded sets can be very hard.

Consequently, meaning, purpose, value, worth, and significance have to come through an outward turn, from outside the bounded set. This is the genius of religion, that I don't have to answer Camus' question all on my own. I don't, in fact, have to answer it at all. I don't have to create my own telos as my telos comes to me as grace. My life isn't a game of self-actualization that can be won or lost, it is a gift to be received as primordially blessed and graced.

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

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

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

Back, but also changed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teleological Gaze: Part 3, After Virtue

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teleological Gaze: Part 2, Manipulation and Meaninglessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teleological Gaze: Part 1, Definitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot serve both God and Twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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