The Moment When God Is Closer Than Ever

When we come to a point in our lives where we are completely ashamed of ourselves and before God; when we believe that God especially must now be ashamed of us, and when we feel as far away from God as ever in all our lives---that is the moment in which God is closer to us than ever, wanting to break into our lives, wanting us to feel the presence of the holy and to grasp the miracle of God's love, God's nearness and grace.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Circle Prayer

One of my favorite moments of the week is the concluding prayer of our weekly Bible study out at the prison.

When our time is up we say "Circle up." And then the 50-60 guys get up and move to the edges of the room. We all hold hands and we ask aloud, "Who wants to pray us out?"

Someone volunteers and then leads the prayer.

Most of the petitions are for their families, for God to care for them and keep them safe. They pray for unity and revival on the unit, that God's kingdom come to where they live. They always pray prayers of blessing over Herb and I, and always for our families. And they regularly pray for the guards, which are essentially prayers for, if not enemies, than for the most difficult people in their lives. All this is offered up with both force and conviction. They pray boldly.

After the "Amen" the men come up to Herb and I for goodbye hugs. "Stay safe," I usually say, "We'll see you next week."

Post-Script:
Like most of my posts, I wrote this post three months ago, before COVID-19. The prison went on lock-down in March and all religious programming has been suspended. Many of you have asked me about the Men in White, and sadly, I've been unable to see them face to face for many weeks. In a season of grief, this has been one of my deepest losses. Please keep the men in your prayers.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 22, Small Hands Moving the Wheels of the World

The Council of Elrond finally decides that the Ring must be destroyed. Elrond sets out the task before them:
"The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength or wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."
Here is one of the great Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings, how this victory over evil will be achieved by "the weak" and those with "small hands." The saving of Middle Earth comes through its smallest, weakest, most unheroic inhabitants, the hobbits of the Shire.

It's a clear echo of 1 Corinthians:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.
A contrast could be made between Tolkien's very Christian story in The Lord of the Rings with the imagination we find ascendant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To be sure, there are Christian themes in Marvel--I'm looking at you Iron Man in the final moments of the battle with Thanos in Endgame--but the imagination of Marvel is Powerful People (aka, superheros) using power virtuously. Virtuous superheros are the saviors of the world.

In Tolkien's world, by contrast, the saviors are the weakest people who refuse to use superpowers and who destroy superpowers.

Why God Matters: The Warrant of Love?

In a recent post I shared that the theological labor of our time is to explain why God matters during seasons of a pandemic independently of science, self-care, and social work. I wrote:
First, when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don't really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises--#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals--God isn't adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don't really need God. All you need is science and self-care.

Second, I was on a call with some pastors recently, invited to share some thoughts and encouragements during this difficult time. During the call, one of the pastors lamented how he wished his church had more and better ways to meet the needs of his community as we wrestle with the world of COVID-19. Specifically, there were so many good community organizations already in full swing and doing great work this pastor couldn't see the niche for his church. And without that niche, he felt that the church was useless.

I totally empathized, and encouraged his church to find some place to serve or support the community, but I also offered a caution or, perhaps, a question.

Specifically, the church doesn't primarily exist to do benevolence work in the community. The church should do this sort of work, and I'm even comfortable in saying the church must do this work. But the church can't be reduced to this work.

So I shared with the pastor, you're right, there's lots of good work being done by community organizations. And they often do this work better than the church. But a pressing challenge for pastors is to boldly articulate for your congregation why God matters independently of social work.

My point in all this, again, is that Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work.
In the comments to that post, and as these reflections bounced around social media, I noted a common response.

The response basically took the form of God as warrant. (Warrant isn't a typical word, but it basically mean to "justify" or "authorize" a course of action. Thus, the "warrant" of an action is your justification or reason for doing what you're doing.)

Specifically, God "matters" because God is the "warrant" for listening to science, self-care, and social work. By far, the most common response I saw to my post was that calls to social distance and wear masks are acts of care and love for our vulnerable neighbors. God calls us to love, and so we love through following the medical recommendations in how to not spread the virus. That's why God matters.

That seems like such a clear answer to my question, but it's missing the point of my critique.

Let me be clear, of course God is our warrant for love, which during a time of pandemic includes social distancing and wearing masks. But the point of my post was that our answer to why God matters can't be reduced to God being the warrant of love. Again, to be very clear, God is the warrant of love, but God can't matter solely for us as the warrant for love. God has to matter, to use the words of my original post, independently from being the warrant for love.

Here's why it's a problem to reduce God to being the warrant of love. There are two parts to the problem.

First, when God is reduced to warrant God is being used as means to an end. God is some moral or psychological prod motivating me to act in prosocial ways.

There's a host of problems when God is used instrumentally like this. For starters, when God is reduced to means the end we're aiming for becomes paramount. For example, if the loving end we're aiming for during a pandemic is social distancing and wearing masks then we each can reach that end from a variety of different paths, from a variety of different warrants. You, as a Christian, might appeal to God. God is your warrant for social distancing and wearing a mask. But non-Christians will have different warrants, their own and different reasons for taking care of the vulnerable. And since the end goal is caring for the vulnerable, these warrants aren't really all that important. The important thing is doing the right thing in social distancing and wearing a mask.

Does God matter in that scenario? Not really. What really matters is social distancing and wearing a mask. The social ends. The means you get to that end are various, and you can get there however you want, but its the end that matters in the end. Which means God doesn't matter.

Sure, God might matter for a few people, but not for most people. Which means God is optional, by definition not necessary. God doesn't really matter.

So you see how we're right back to the point I made in my original post. Commenters who responded with some version of "Well, God matters because God is my warrant for loving the most vulnerable" haven't even started to answer my question.

And those who responded "What does it matter why you do it, just do the right thing." are also just restating the point of my post: Does God matter? Apparently not, for these commenters.

(To be clear, the question "Does God matter?" is meant for people, like me, who think God matters. If a reader doesn't believe in God I don't really care what they have to say about the question.)

Which brings us to the second part of the problem.

The theological concern in reducing God to a warrant is idolatry, using God in the service of some higher value or purpose. In our discussion, this higher value and purpose is social distancing and wearing mask to care for the vulnerable. We see that good and use God to justify doing that good.

The trouble here is that when God is put in the service of some higher good that higher good becomes our god. So when that good shifts or changes, God is redeployed to provide the warrant for that new target. In such a system, where God is the warrant for the good, there's nothing that stands in a critical relationship with our vision of the good. God simply serves whatever we call good.

That's idolatry, and it's also dangerous. To be sure, it's not dangerous to wear a mask or stand six feet away during a pandemic. Just the opposite. For now at least. I don't want to cede total moral authority to doctors and scientists. Doctors and scientists can give us facts, but those facts don't come with values and morals attached. There must be a locus of moral reflection and authority that stands in a critical relationship with doctors and scientists.

So my point isn't that social distancing and wearing masks as an act of love is morally problematic. Not at all. It's the right thing to do. What's dangerous is a particular habit of thinking about God, where God is only useful to us when God gives us a reason for doing something we want to do. The examples abound, historical and current, about the disasters that occur whenever we use God to justify the good as we see it. Reducing God to a warrant is hugely problematic. Perhaps not in the case of social distancing, but the issue here isn't the social distancing but the habit of thinking going on about God during the pandemic.

In fact, I would argue that the greatest threat facing Christianity, among both progressives and evangelicals, is this habit of thinking, using God instrumentally, as a means to an end, as a warrant for something we want to do.

On the one hand, this habit of thinking promotes atheism. Because if you don't need God to be good then God doesn't matter. And on the other hand, this habit of thinking promotes idolatry, God becomes the religious tinsel we sprinkle over whatever we call good. And you see this playing out everywhere. Most progressive Christians are functional atheists and most evangelicals are idolators who use God to justify MAGA nationalism.

Asking why God matters is trying to get down under that rot.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 9, Natural Theology Revisited

When we revisit the prospects of natural theology through N.T. Wright's broken signposts, we get a sense of how he's splitting the difference between Lord Gifford's hope for the Gifford lectures and Karl Barth's strong "Nein!" about the possibility of human reason ever reaching across the abyss to God.

On the one hand, Wright's seven vocational signposts--justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships--seem to be pointing us somewhere, toward some vision of human flourishing. In this, Wright's vocational signposts are species of the moral argument for God's existence, that we can discern a "moral texture" to the cosmos that points us toward some Value in the fabric of reality that cannot be reduced to or captured by factual, scientific description.

So the vocational signposts can be taken as evidence of "natural theology," observations we make of the world which tell us something about the existence of God and God's characteristics. But Wright is quick to push back upon that conclusion. For two reasons.

First, the vocational signposts don't really escape the criticism of skeptics who would reduce them to some evolutionary or sociological account. The signposts don't imply theism.

Second, as Wright has been keen to point out, all the signposts are "broken." They don't really point anywhere but to our own failure. And in the face of that failure, coupled with the objections made by skeptics, the prospect of natural theology evaporates. As Wright summarizes:
The seven 'vocations', then, are at best broken signposts. They appear to be pointing somewhere, but they lead into the dark, or over a cliff, or around in circles to where we began. Were they just wraiths, the ghosts of our own imaginings? Were they just random impulses in a late-developed evolutionary pattern? Were they, after all, the wrong questions to ask? Should we simply have capitulated to the cool Epicurean cynicism: yes, we feel these things, but they don't really mean anything, and we should silence such irrelevant voices and pursue the placid pleasures available to us here and now? Or should we smile an early Barthian smile and say, Well, there you are, nothing good was ever going to come from all that?

Is there a way forward from this apparent impasse?
For Wright, the way forward is Christology. The goal of natural theology has always been to reason upward toward some abstracted notion of God, the "God of the philosophers." But for Wright, the vocational signposts only make sense when we read them backwards onto Israel's history in light of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Humanity (in Adam) and then Israel was given a vocation by God. And in that vocation we have a glimpse of what it means to "be a human being." But humanity failed. We dropped and broke our vocation, shattering it into a thousand pieces--the broken signposts. Both that vocation and our failure only come into view when we look at Jesus on the cross. The broken signposts won't enable you to reason your way upward to some abstract notion of God. But the broken signposts can bring you to the foot of the cross, where God reveals his glory in the crucified Jesus.

You can't make sense of justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships independently from Jesus. You can't discern human vocation separate from the cross. You can't know what it means to be a human being except through Christ. This is Wright's argument, that human vocation as revealed in the signposts only make sense when read backwards (and now forwards) from the cross. Jesus fulfills Adam's and Israel's vocation.

That is natural theology for N.T. Wright: the cross, as a public event within history and not as an abstract philosophical proposition, is the only true signpost in human history. And through that signpost all the other signposts will find their proper place and expression.

For outside of the cross, all signposts--all our attempts at justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships--are bound to brokenness, confusion, and futility.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 8, Relationships

The last of N.T. Wright's broken signposts is relationships.

As with all the signposts we've been talking about, Wright observes how we need and desire each signpost, but how each signpost is paradoxical, confusing, or difficult in some way. Relationships, Wright says, are no different:
...[A]ll of us know we are made for relationships of one sort or another. All of us are formed, for good or ill, by our relationships, whether supportive or abusive, healthy or unhealthy. Often the abusive or unhealthy relationships are the ones to which we return like an addict. Here, then, is a paradox. As Pannenberg argued, humans are exocentric creatures, becoming the people we are through the relationships we have outside of ourselves. Yet we mess up those relationships and are messed up by them.
We cannot be happy without relationships, yet relationships do so much damage and cause so much unhappiness. We need relationships and we fear them.

Here, then, is another broken signpost. Relationships point us toward flourishing and fulfillment. We see that happy place in the distance. We dream about it. Yet the very thing we need and desire is so difficult and hard for us to pull off. Worse, in our need and desire we often move ourselves away from the goal, into trauma, abuse, and pain. As with the other signposts, we can see a better world on the horizon, but we find it impossible to make it there on our own.

In the next post, I'll conclude this series by gathering up the signposts and sharing N.T. Wright's thoughts about what to do with them and what their meaning might be for natural theology.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 7, Spirituality

N.T. Wright's next broken signpost is spirituality.

Despite the protestations of fundamentalist atheists, most people are supernaturalists. We long for spirituality and recoil at the suggestion that human beings and the cosmos are reducible to a materialistic, scientific description. Science is a powerful tool, but it's also inhuman.

So we yearn for spirituality. And these yearnings point us somewhere, toward our true home and rest. And yet, spirituality is also a broken signpost. We shop around and dabble in all the various spiritualities on offer, from paganism to yoga to herbs to astrology to traditional Christianity. We mix and match to taste to create a "spirituality" uniquely our own.

And yet, we can feel the shallowness and arbitrariness in all this, this consumeristic approach toward spirituality and faith. Spirituality is supposed to give life depth of meaning and value, but we feel the falseness in our boutique spirituality given how easily we can pick it up and lay it down in passing trends and fads. Can something so easily discardable really infuse our lives with purpose and value?

In short, we feel the spiritual yearning burning in our hearts and souls, but we struggle to keep this quest from devolving into superficiality and triviality. We long for spiritual depth, but fear our "spiritual but not religious" approach to faith is just some mystical tinsel we have sprinkled over our consumerism and self-absorption.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 21, Evil and Theodicy

During the Council of Elrond, the conversation wades into theological waters regarding the origins of evil.

Debating what to do with the Ring, use it against Sauron or destroy it, Elrond states that the Ring can never be safely used. Eventually it will corrupt its owner. Elrond says:
...the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.
Christianity creates the problem of evil with its stubborn insistence that the created order was primordially good, graced, and blessed. Some have called this the doctrine of "Original Blessing."

The doctrine of Original Blessing is breathtakingly beautiful. It's such a wonderful confession. The primordial being, nature, and existence of all things is good.

But with that beautiful confession we create "the problem of evil." But as I've written about before, beyond the beauty of Original Blessing, the problem of evil has two other big upsides.

First, the "problem" confesses that evil is contingent and therefore defeatable.

Second, since evil is contingent, we can become attached to the world and healthily embrace dissatisfaction with the pain of the status quo, since life isn't meant to be this way. We resist stoicism and resignation in all its forms, Western and Eastern, in the face of evil. It's okay to get attached to this world, even in its pain and dissatisfactions. Love is that very attachment. It hurts like hell, but it's healthy. All this adds up to a call to action in the face of evil.

Again, as I've shared before, these are the three great "wins" of the Christian position on evil. Original blessing. Evil is defeatable. We're called to attachment and action, not resignation. And yet, to confess these three beautiful things is to create "the problem": How did evil come into being? How does it persist?

All that to say, The Lord of the Rings presents us with the Christian worldview regarding evil. Nothing was evil in the beginning, not even Sauron. But then there was a fall. In Tolkien's world, Morgoth was the original Lucifer figure who fell from original blessing. Sauron also follows this path. These are the metaphysical events that create the arena of moral action in The Lord of the Rings. And that's we and the Fellowship inherit, no explanations, but a suite of metaphysical confessions that create an arena of moral action. This is what the Christian perspective on evil gifts us. A call to action.

As I share in Reviving Old Scratch, the only theodicy available to us is resistance. That's what's going on with Rivendell, Gondor, and the Fellowship of the Ring. Resistance.

That's the drama of The Lord of the Rings, the drama of the Christian theodicy.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 6, Power

The next broken signpost is power.

As N.T. Wright points out, we really don't know what to do with power. He observes, "Power has been a dirty word...But we really can't do without it." We think power is contaminating. As Wright notes, "Some have therefore suggested that power is straightforwardly bad." And yet, welding power is integral to creating and holding together a just and safe society: "No society, then, can survive without someone exercising power, but the world has known for a long time that power needs to be exercised wisely and held in check."

But whenever good people enter into the political sphere, seeking to weld power wisely and well, they often find themselves in horribly compromised systems. As Wright observes, "Generation after generation of politicians have gone into public life in the hope of gaining power to make their world, their country, their region a better place, but this always proves more elusive than they had supposed." Politics quickly gets reduces to grabbing and holding power and never gets around to using that power for the good and betterment of others.

And so, as with justice, beauty, truth, and freedom, power is a vocational signpost, "part of the basic kit of what it means to be human." But once again, power is a broken signpost. We find power confusing, necessary but also defiling.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 5, Truth

N.T. Wright's fourth broken signpost is truth.

We all want the truth, as Wright observes: "We still want the truth. We don't want to be surrounded by liars or to live in a hall of distorting mirrors."

Trouble is, in a world of fake news, postmodern subjectivism ("You have your truth and I have mine."), and Orwellian doublespeak, we have no clue what is true or not. As Wright says, "We demand more truth just when it is becoming more elusive. We need truth and were made to tell truth, but we live in a world of lies. Often enough we add to them ourselves. We even tell lies about telling lies."

We desire the truth, but find ourselves asking the question: "Is there such a thing as 'truth'? And if so, why is it so hard to come by?"

Our desire for truth is a vocational signpost. We want to create a truthful world and to be truthful ourselves. Truth seems integral to human flourishing and well-being. And yet, this signpost is broken as well. We want truth, but seems fairly clueless about how to achieve it on our own.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 4, Freedom

The third broken signpost that points toward our human vocation is freedom. N.T. Wright describing our desire for freedom but our confusions with it as well:
We all know [freedom] matters; we all want it for ourselves and for those about whom we care. But freedom is surprisingly difficult to define or defend, to get or to keep. We all want it, though we're not sure what it is or what to do with it if we had it. One person's freedom often comes at the cost of another person's slavery. Does it have to be a zero-sum game? Is our instinct for freedom merely a delusion?
Beyond the ways the expansion of freedom in the West has ruined the environment and turned developing nations into cheap labor for Western markets, there's also the biological questions about freedom. Wright observes:
Philosophers still debate whether we humans really have free will itself or, if we do, whether that means we are simply random particles whizzing around deluding ourselves that we are making real choices.
And lastly, there's the question of what the purpose of freedom might be. Wright again:
In any case, does 'freedom' mean freedom from or freedom for?
We might have freedom, but we wind up using that freedom to fall into other sorts of moral or psychological bondage. For example, think of pornography. We're all "free" to consume pornography, but does that consumption lead to greater freedom or greater slavery?

So here, again, we face a broken signpost. We all desire freedom, but we don't know how to secure it, what it might be for, or if we even have it. As with justice and beauty, we need something "extra" to help us sort out our confusions about freedom, and what creating a free world might look like.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 3, Beauty

Wright's second broken signpost is beauty.

As Wright notes, we can't live without beauty: "We all know that beauty is a central and vital part of life, whether in nature, art or music." And our interest in beauty seems to point toward human vocation. How so? Wright observes, "Some of the earliest signs of homo sapiens are the remarkable works of cave art which indicate much more than a functional interest in the world."

I like that observation. Our interest in the world is more than functional. Human life is more than meeting our basic biological needs, more than eating and finding shelter. We need to fill life with art and music, with beauty.

But what is beauty, and what is our longing for beauty pointing us toward?

True, beauty seems essential to life, but we seem confused by its lack of utility. Just look at the lack of funding we give to the arts in our schools. What is beauty for? We don't seem to know. Lacking a clear utility, beauty seems optional and discardable.

Beauty is also fleeting and elusive. It fades.

Finally, evolutionary accounts tell us that beauty is really just a way we've developed to attract reproductive partners. Beauty does have a "purpose," the evolutionists tell us, to help preserve our genes. Beauty is inherently selfish, sexual self-advertisement. And yet, if we believe this about beauty, doesn't it cease to be beauty?

And so, like justice, beauty is a broken signpost. We crave and seek beauty, but are also perplexed by it. We don't know what beauty is for, and its apparent lack of utility confuses us. And when we do conjure up an account of its purpose, as you see in evolutionary accounts, beauty ceases to be beauty anymore.

Creating beauty seems integral to human vocation, but we need something "more" to tell us what beauty is for.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 20, Tripartite Vision

Fleming Rutledge finds many theological themes in the Council of Elrond, so we'll sit with the Council for a few posts.

Early in the deliberations, the history and involvement of Gollum is recounted for the group. Aragon reports having captured Gollum and, after an interrogation, handing him over to the elves of Mirkwood for guarding. But Legolas shocks the council in reporting that Gollum has escaped.

Hearing the news, Gandalf responds:
"Well, well, he is gone," said Gandalf. "We have no time to seek for him again. He must do what he will. But he may play a part yet that neither he nor Sauron has foreseen."
Again, as we observed last week, a providential note is struck here, that "something else" is at work in the drama, something beyond the plans and actions of the Council. Rutledge also draws attention to the inclusion of Sauron here. Even the mighty Sauron cannot plumb the depths of the plans of the "something else" at work. There is a greater power than Sauron at work in the world.

Rutledge also returns to a theme we noted early in this series, how there are three agents at work in the drama unfolding. She observes:
[F]or our purposes in bringing the deep apocalyptic narrative to light, it is very important to note the inclusion of Sauron in [Gandalf's] statement...Once again Tolkien has made the drama tripartite, and therefore implicitly theological. In considering the case of a prisoner like Gollum, it is essential that all three players be kept in mind: (1) Gollum himself; (2) the Enemy or enemies; and (3) an unnamed but strongly implied providential agent. This staging with three, not two, active agents--the creature, the Enemy, and the unseen forces of good--is the same which is presupposed in most of the New Testament. 
In a post this week, I raised the challenge that churches need to articulate why God matters in our lives, especially during this pandemic. My point was that Christian speech has been mostly reduced to rehashing or repeating the speech of science, self-care, and social work. Notice in this speech how the the only agent in the drama is ourselves. Christian speech has become atheistic. Watch for this online, how we only talk about ourselves.

In short, we can't say why God matters because we've lost connection with the "tripartite, and therefore implicitly theological" way The Lord of the Rings and the New Testament see the world.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 2, Justice

The first "broken signpost" is justice.

Again, for Wright these "signposts" point us toward our human vocation, what humans are supposed to be doing on this earth and with our lives.

We feel in our bones that we should seek justice, that we should create a world that is fair and just. As Wright writes:
We all know that some things are fair, and some are not. Children know this without studying moral philosophy. When a country signs a treaty and then breaks it, we know it matters. If people think a criminal has 'got away with' a ridiculously light sentence, the hunger for justice may lead to vigilantism. 
The signpost of justice suggests that our vocation is involved in seeking, establishing, and restoring justice. And yet, this signpost is also "broken." How so? Wright continues,
Here is the paradox: how can something we all know matters so much be so hard to attain? We can't do without justice, but enacting it on a small or a large scale is harder than we might imagine...Though we all know [justice] matters, we all find it difficult--sometimes, it seems, impossible. Is this not paradoxical?
We thirst for justice. We want it. And yet, it's so elusive. And so many times our quest for justice can end up creating more injustice.

Justice is a broken signpost. Justice point us toward our vocation, but in its brokenness tells us that we need something "extra" to get this justice thing all finally sorted out.

The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 1, Natural Theology

In 2018 N.T. Wright delivered the Gifford Lectures, subsequently published in the book History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. I'd like to devote a series to Wright's proposal about what he calls "the broken signposts" in human life.

But first, some background.

Since 1888 the Gifford Lectures have been devoted to exploring the prospects of "natural theology." Now, many readers may not know what "natural theology" is, or that "natural theology" is very controversial. So, before wading into N.T. Wright, I'd like to explain a bit.

Natural theology is a branch of theological reflection that starts with "nature" and then reasons upward toward God. Natural theology asks questions like, "What does nature tell us, if anything, about God? About God's existence and character?" In addition: "What does nature tell us, if anything, about human moral life and flourishing?"

You get a peek of natural theology in Paul when he argues in Romans that the Gentiles, even without the special revelation of the Torah, should know a few things about God just by observing the world around them:
Romans 1.19-20
For what can be known about God is plain to them [the Gentiles], because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
That's natural theology, learning things about the invisible God through the things God has made.

Now, that might seem to be noncontroversial, but natural theology has been controversial ever since Karl Barth. Barth uttered a famous "Nein!" at the prospect of natural theology, and you'll see Barthians to this day write "Nein!" on social media whenever they encounter natural theology. It's happened here on this blog.

Barth's "Nein!" is rooted in his Christology. Yes, it's true you might be able to reason from nature toward some vague, generic Deity. The "God of the philosophers" as it's often described. For example, you might reason, like Aristotle did, that there must logically be an Unmoved Mover to kick off the causal chain of creation. Or a Necessary Being, like Aquinas posited, to hold up all contingent beings. But the Unmoved Mover and the Necessary Being don't get you all the way to the God who is disclosed in the crucified Jew hanging outside of Jerusalem. Natural theology can't tell you the most important thing you need to know about God: that God was revealed in the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. That revelation boggles the mind, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the pagans.

In short, natural theology can't tell you about Jesus, so it's pretty useless. Worse, it can actually be quite dangerous. This was Barth's concern. When theology become untethered from Jesus and wedded to a view of "nature," theology can be used to justify all sorts of dark things we deem "natural," like the Nazi vision of the "Übermensch," their biological/natural account of Aryan superiority. The Übermensch is what you get when nature is separated from the revelation of God in the crucified Jesus. Thus Barth's vociferous "Nein!" to all natural theology.

Still, the Gifford Lectures continue on, though many lecturers do try to respond to Barth. So, how does N.T. Wright respond and proceed?

Wright posits what he calls "broken signposts" in human vocation. A couple of comments about this.

First, Wright contrasts vocation with ethics. A lot of natural theology is devoted to ethics, looking for some rational or biological ground of "right vs. wrong." Wright doesn't do this, preferring instead to speak of human vocation. Wright's vision is more in line with virtue ethics, less about "right vs. wrong" than pondering what human life is for, its telos and goal. As human beings, what are we supposed to be doing with this life we have? What is our job, our vocation, our purpose?

In surveying human life, Wright discerns "signposts" that point us toward this vocation. These "signposts" are examples of natural theology as they are observable to all people across time and place. Each signpost is a clue about what we are supposed to be doing with our lives. However, Wright responds to Barth by stating that these signposts are "broken." Humans struggle with the signposts. We don't know exactly how they work. We feel in our bones that the signposts are pointing us toward something, and we all sense this, this "something deeper" at work in our lives, but we're not sure how to sort it all out.

"Broken signposts" is Wright's way of splitting the different between the natural theology of Lord Gifford and the "Nein!" of Karl Barth. There are "signposts" in the world, places that point us toward God and the divine. And these signposts are visible to everyone. And yet, these signposts are "broken," locations of inspiration, but also of deep confusion and ambiguity. Following Barth, Wright argues that the signposts only make sense when viewed through the prism of Jesus. Only through Jesus do we finally get a clear vision of human vocation, what the signposts have been pointing to all along.

Why God Matters

Over the last two months, as we've wrestled with the world of COVID-19, I've been having a bunch of scattered thoughts about God and the church.

The big question I've been thinking about is this: How does God matter in our lives?

It seems to me that this is the most pressing question facing churches today. Two places where this thought has occurred to me.

First, when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don't really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises--#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals--God isn't adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don't really need God. All you need is science and self-care.

Second, I was on a call with some pastors recently, invited to share some thoughts and encouragements during this difficult time. During the call, one of the pastors lamented how he wished his church had more and better ways to meet the needs of his community as we wrestle with the world of COVID-19. Specifically, there were so many good community organizations already in full swing and doing great work this pastor couldn't see the niche for his church. And without that niche, he felt that the church was useless.

I totally empathized, and encouraged his church to find some place to serve or support the community, but I also offered a caution or, perhaps, a question.

Specifically, the church doesn't primarily exist to do benevolence work in the community. The church should do this sort of work, and I'm even comfortable in saying the church must do this work. But the church can't be reduced to this work.

So I shared with the pastor, you're right, there's lots of good work being done by community organizations. And they often do this work better than the church. But a pressing challenge for pastors is to boldly articulate for your congregation why God matters independently of social work.

My point in all this, again, is that Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work.

This, I think, is the theological labor of our time.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 7, All the While the Lord Has Been Loving You, So Do What You Can

I expect after seven posts describing love as "harsh and dreadful" we're all a bit worried about our ability to measure up.

Who can make and sustain such an arduous journey?

After hearing about the demands of active love, as opposed to the love of dreams, the "lady of little faith" shares her despair with the elder Zosima about being able to share this love:
"But what is to be done, then? What is to be done in such a case? Should one fall into despair?"
The elder Zosima offers this consolation:
"Do what you can, and it will be reckoned to you...If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on a good path, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid lies, all lies, especially the lie to yourself. Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute. And avoid contempt, both of others and of yourself: what seems bad to you in yourself is purified by the very fact that you have noticed it in yourself. And avoid fear, though fear is simply the consequence of every lie. Never be frightened at your own faintheartedness in attaining love, and meanwhile do not even be very frightened by your own bad acts...I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment--I predict this to you--you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you."
Real love, true love, is a harsh and dreadful thing, requiring labor and perseverance. And the only way we can hope to carry this burden is if all is covered in grace.

So, avoid lying, especially to yourself.

Do not show contempt, not toward others and not toward yourself.

Your failures are purified when you notice them.

Do not be afraid of your own faintheartedness, and do not be frightened when you make mistakes.

The wonder-working power of the Lord hangs over you. God has, all the while, been loving you and guiding you.

Remember this: You are on a good path. Do not leave it.

Do what you can. It will be reckoned to you.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 19, Believe Rather That It Is So Ordered

After a season of recuperation, the Council of Elrond is convened. Representatives from the Wise, the Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Humans are called by Elrond to discuss the the looming threat of Sauron, what to do about the Ring of Power, and the fate of Middle Earth.

After an opening statement by the Dwarves regarding a ploy of Mordor to get them to recover the Ring, Fleming Rutledge draws our attention to the opening speech of Elrond:
"That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world."
Here, again, Rutledge highlights the "deep narrative" of the story, the "something else" at work in the story, a guiding, providential hand. Those gathered at Rivendell are not there by chance. They have been "called." They are there because "it is so ordered."

By what and by whom? The story doesn't say, but here the "deep narrative" is pointing our minds toward God.

But this hiddenness of God also presents a challenge. As Rutledge highlights, it is not obvious that the meeting in Rivendell has been "called." It could have been due to "chance." So the meeting is open to rival interpretations. Two hermeneutical options sit before the group. How should they read the story of their lives and of this event? Chance or called?

And at this crossroads Elrond points to faith: "By chance it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered."

Believe.

That's our crossroads. On the one hand, our life is ultimately the product of chance. That's the view of materialism, when you dig down into the laws of physics. Materialism is an ontology of death.

On the other hand, you have been called. Your life is a high stakes moral drama, and you are being called to action in the face of the perils of the world.

That's the hermeneutical fork in the road.

By chance your life may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 6, The Science of Love

In the last post, the elder Zosima used an interesting word to describe active love:
Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. 
The word I want to focus on is "science."

I'm not exactly sure what Dostoevsky/Zosima had in mind by using the word "science" in relation to love, but here I'll hazard my guess.

The point, I think, is that real love, the love that requires "labor and perseverance," doesn't depend upon spontaneous bursts of affection. Because if our love followed the spontaneous movements of our hearts, our love will be a roller coaster ride. Sometimes we'd be feeling it, and other times we wouldn't. Plus, there is the general tendency for our love to cool and wane over time.

For love to be maintained across the long haul it demands more than affections. Love requires disciplined habits and practices, a "method" if you will. Love is practiced as a "science," as an organized set of procedures and activities. Love is precise, planned, and intentional rather than situational, spontaneous, and occasional. To be sure, this is a very unromantic vision of love, but that's precisely the point. This is a love that endures when the romance of love is long gone.

What might this "science of love" look like?

One example I share in Stranger God is how Thérèse de Lisieux described her Little Way as a "science of love." The Little Way is a set of habits that, when we adopt them, makes our love precise, planned, and intentional. With the Little Way Love becomes a lifestyle.

The point of all this is simply to say that love is less about affections than about small, intentional choices we make to care for each other, and our fidelity to those choices, year in and year out.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 5, Dorothy Day

The elder Zosima's advice to engage in "active love" as a remedy for doubt is what causes the lady of "little faith" to share that she loves people in her dreams, but fears loving people in reality, especially if they respond with ingratitude or become too demanding.

The point is that "active love" is a difficult road. As the elder Zosima shares, "love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams." The elder continues:
Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. [Observation: Virtue signalling on social media!]...Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. 
This description of love as a "harsh and dreadful thing" was a favorite of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. In fact, William Miller used this quote--A Harsh and Dreadful Love--as the title of his history of the Catholic Worker. As Jim Forest observes about the influence of Zosima upon Day:
I doubt any figure in literature had more importance to Dorothy Day than Father Zosima. How often I heard her repeat the words, “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It was partly through Dostoevsky that she formed her understanding of Christianity, seeing it not simply as an institutional structure but as a way of life in which nothing was more important than seeing Christ in others. 
You get a sense of why Dorothy Day would describe love as "harsh and dreadful" in her response once to a social worker. The Catholic Worker extended hospitality to any and everyone--the poor, the insane, the drunk. Assuming Day was working some sort of social "program" for these people, the social worker asked how long these people were allowed to stay at the Worker house. Day responded:
“We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
I expect a lot of people, when they read the last post, thought to themselves: "I have active love, yet I still have doubts." My only response would be, as you look at the witness of someone like Dorothy Day, is to ask: "Do you really have active love?" I know I sure don't. I'm still mostly loving people in my dreams.

But I'm on the journey. I'm learning that love is labor and perseverance.  

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 4, Faith and Active Love

The reason why this chapter in The Brothers Karamazov is titled "A Lady of Little Faith" is because the woman comes to the elder Zosima with a faith problem. It's not doubt about God exactly, but the resurrection. The exchange between the lady and Zosima:
"I suffer from...lack of faith..."

"Lack of faith in God?"

"Oh, no, no, I dare not even think of that, but the life after death...this thought about a future life after death troubles me to the point of suffering, terror, and fright...It's devastating, devastating!"

"No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced."

"How? By what?"

"By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you'll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter you soul. This has been tested. It is certain."
Here, at the very start of the story, begins a thread that runs through the whole novel.

On the one hand, Alyosha will squarely face the atheism of his brother Ivan in Book Five, where we find the famous tale of The Grand Inquisitor. On the other hand, is the faith of the elder Zosima.

And the way forward, according to Zosima, as we see here in the exchange with the lady of little faith, is that active love is the proof of faith. Many have found Ivan Karamazov's arguments in the novel utterly devastating, perhaps the best arguments for atheism in the history of the world, arguments that have been repeated and rehashed thousands and thousands of times.

But Zosima recognizes that this battle isn't won or lost by arguments. In the end, he humbly admits, "one cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced." The way forward in faith isn't intellectual, but a life of active love. No amount of reading, Reddit threads, blog posts, podcasts, or debates are going to help us here. It's growing in active love, according to Zosima, that convinces us in the end.

[Small spoiler alert]

For those who haven't read the book, Alyosha will choose the path of active love and Ivan will eventually come face to face with the devil.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 3, Will You Go On Loving Or Not?

Prior to the elder Zosima sharing the story of the man who loved people "in general" but struggled to love actual people in his life, the lady of "little faith" shares her own struggles with love.

Like the man of Zosima's story, the lady is in love with love, in love with an idealized vision of love. What she fears, however, is her reaction if her love isn't reciprocated. Here's what she shares with the elder:
You see, I love mankind so much that--would you believe it?--I sometimes dream of giving up all, all I have, of leaving Lise [her daughter] and going to become a sister of mercy. I close my eyes, I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands, I would nurse the suffering, I am ready to kiss those sores...

[But] could I survive such a life for long?...That's the main question, that's my most tormenting question of all. I close my eyes and ask myself: could you stand it for long on such a path? And if the sick man whose sores you are cleansing does not respond immediately with gratitude but, on the contrary, begins tormenting you with his whims, not appreciating and not noticing your philanthropic ministry, if he begins to shout at you, to make rude demands, even to complain to some sort of superiors (as often happens with people who are in pain)--what then? Will you go on loving, or not?
This concern is a bit different from the issue of loving people in general, as abstractions. There's still the romance of love here, the dream of giving up everything to love people. But the lady is honest enough to suspect that her dreams of love are too romantic. She suspects she's in love with the idea of love, rather than with actual love. This observation of hers prompts the elder to share his story of the man who loved people in general but not in actual life.

We can get a bit too romantic about love. And anyone who has ever loved knows this. Love is hard. Love is work. And when you love others in acts of self-giving service, you may face ingratitude. You may be ignored. You might not be praised as a hero or saint.

Basically, when it comes to love we'd like a return on investment. But when that investment doesn't materialize what are we going to do then? It's at that crossroads where the romance ends and love becomes real. Love has become costly, sacrificial. And now we face the question:

Will you go on loving, or not?

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 18, We Are Beggars

There is much joy in Rivendell as Frodo is reunited with Bilbo. And yet, there is one troubling, disturbing moment that transpires between them.

Once alone together, Bilbo asks Frodo if he can see the Ring once more:
Slowly [Frodo] drew it out. Bilbo put out his hand. But Frodo quickly drew back the Ring. To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.

The music and singing round them seemed to falter, and a silence fell. Bilbo looked quickly at Frodo's face and passed his hand across his eyes. 'I understand now,' he said. 'Put it away!...'
The biblical word for "revelation" and "unveiling" is apocalypse. Here in this passage we find a dark apocalypse, Bilbo's residual hunger for the Ring reveals him to be "a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands."

Again, as we've been tracing it, this is one of the great themes of the story, the corrupting power of evil. Anyone in recovery will recognize this moment in Rivendell. You're years sober, doing great, and then, in a moment of exposure, all the old hunger and craving comes surging back. The addiction is still right there.

And yet, Fleming Rutledge also picks of a note of grace in this episode. Recall how, back in the Shire, Frodo expressed disgust at Gollum. But when the two finally meet later on in the story, much to the dismay of Sam, Frodo shows great compassion and mercy for Gollum. Where did this mercy come from? Rutledge suggests it starts in Rivendell, in this moment with Bilbo. Seeing what the Ring had done to Bilbo, someone Frodo loves more than anyone else, gives Frodo more compassion for Gollum.

There is wisdom here for all of us. The final words Martin Luther uttered before his death were, "We are beggars. This is true." We are all little wrinkled creatures, with hungry faces and bony groping hands. As GK Chesterton declared, we are a democracy of sinners.

And while such sentiments shock our humanistic sensibilities, they are a fount of compassion. We all need mercy and grace.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 2, While We Are Alone We Could Believe We Loved Everyone

Before moving on to other passages in the chapter "A Lady of Little Faith" from Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov, a few reflections from the passage I shared yesterday.

Recall the sentiment that was shared in that passage: "I love mankind...[but] the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular."

There's a passage from Jean Vanier that I've shared here many times before that talks about this very thing: 
Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realise how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are.
The passage is haunting, especially the mention of "sexual disturbances," given what we've so sadly and tragically learned about Vanier's history of perpetrating sexual abuse. 

The line I've quoted so often is, "While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone." When we're alone, we can love humanity in the abstract. And that really demands nothing of us. But in community love becomes real, love becomes work. And as Vanier's own life reveals, it's in community were our love so often tragically and abusively fails.

I think there a two main ways we convince ourselves that we love everyone: Politics and social media.

First, it's easy to love humanity on social media. All you need to do is post on social media all the causes and issues you care about. You pour out all this virtual love and never have to do any of the hard work of loving actual people.

Second, you can love issues rather than actual people. You can get very politically engaged and go on marches and do all the political things to help people. But political action, while very important, still isn't living with and loving actual people.

A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Part 1, I Love Mankind...It's People I Can't Stand

One of the richest chapters in Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov is Chapter 4, of Book Two, in Part 1, entitled "A Lady of Little Faith."

In the chapter a lady of "little faith" is in conversation with the spiritual elder Zosima. Zosima is the mentor of Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers and the protagonist of the story. In the spiritual drama of the story, Zosima is the spiritual counterweight to Ivan Karamazov's atheism as Alyosha tries to find his way forward. In this early chapter of the book, "A Lady of Little Faith," we get our first glimpse of Zosima's spiritual worldview.

There are so many wonderful spiritual insights in this chapter I want to take them up slowly, one by one, like collecting beach glass on a shore.

The first observation is how the Lady of Little Faith, a wealthy Russian woman who came to petition the elder to bless and heal her daughter, describes her spiritual predicament.

Specifically, the lady struggles to love people. Well, not exactly. The lady loves people in the abstract, loves people in general. It's specific, particular people she has trouble loving. Hearing her struggles, the elder responds by telling of a man he once knew:
He was an old man, and unquestioningly intelligent. He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful humor. "I love mankind," he said, "but am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams," he said, "I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me," he said. "On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole."
Goodness gracious, how true is that? We love people in general and in the abstract, but we struggle to love actual, physical human beings in our lives.

There's a great comic from Peanuts where Linus shares this struggle from The Brother's Karamazov:

"Primary Wonder" by Denise Levertov

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
                                                           And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

Crescimento Limpo: Challanges During COVID-19

As regular readers know, and as you've seen in my blog header, one of the ministries I have a close connection with is Crescimento Limpo in Itu, Brazil, lead by my dear friends Mark and Ali Kaiser.

CL began by providing transitional housing for the homeless and those struggling with addiction. As a part of that housing, CL also ran a residential garden where residents could work and learn job skills.

From the garden emerged the cafe, serving breakfast, lunch, coffee, drinks, and pies. Located near the city offices and court, the cafe has emerged as a place of healing and reconciliation, as many of the judges and lawyers of the city have lunch at the cafe and thereby interact with the CL residents who have stood in their courtrooms and are affected by their decisions.

However, due to COVID-19 the cafe has closed, creating pressures and challenges for CL. Below, Mark shares an update on CL's work and needs.

During a time when many of us are wondering how we can help the most vulnerable among us, please consider CL as an outlet of your generosity. You can donate at their Global Giving page here.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 17, To Live At Once in Both Worlds

The wounded Frodo and the Ring finally make it to Rivendell, to the House of Elrond. Sam finally gets to spend some time with the elves!

As Fleming Rutledge points out, the elves were Tolkien's great invention. In Tolkien's hands, the elves were not sprites, pixies, or fairies. In The Lord of the Rings the high elves are noble, ancient, wise, immortal, powerful, and possessing great dignity. They are less magical than metaphysical, in this world but not of this world.

As has been mentioned, The Lord of the Rings lacks an overt supernatural dimension, though we have been tracking the "something else at work" that threads its way through the story, the hints and clues Tolkien drops that point us toward God. But while the story lacks an explicitly supernatural dimension, it is full of transcendence and otherworldliness. And we mainly find it with the elves. We shouldn't equate Tolkien's elves with angels, but they nudge our minds in that direction.

Rutledge draws our attention to this passage where Gandalf is describing the elves to Frodo:
"The Elves may fear the Dark Lord, and they may fly before him, but never again will they listen to him or serve him. And here in Rivendell there live still some of his chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power."
Rutledge highlights the phrase that the elves "live at once in both worlds." That's the transcendent aspect of the elves, that they dwell both in Middle Earth and in the Blessed Realm.

As Rutledge comments, with the elves our minds are pointed toward the Christian worldview. The friends of God "live at once in both worlds," here on earth and also in the Blessed Realm.

As Philippians 3.20 says, "We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives."

Our Moral Fragility

Since we've been in the midst of a long series I haven't elected to break in to share thoughts about things I've been thinking during COVID-19. But now that the series has ended, I did want to share something I've been thinking about.

In moral psychology there is a phenomenon called a taboo trade-off. Many of the hard decisions we make in life involve trade-offs. But some trade-offs shouldn't even be contemplated, our minds shouldn't even go there. This is called the "mere contemplation effect."

You might recall the movie Indecent Proposal. The premise of the movie involved a billionaire propositioning a couple, offering them a million dollars if he could have one night to sleep with the wife. That offer--a million dollars to sleep with the wife--is the "indecent proposal."

The movie allows us to illustrate a taboo trade-off and the mere contemplation effect. Imagine the following scenario: A billionaire approaches a husband offering to pay him a million dollars to sleep with his wife. The husband responds, "Let me think about that." He thinks for a few minutes. And then he says, "No."

Now, what is your opinion of the husband, morally speaking?

Even though the husband gave the "correct" moral answer, if you are like most people your opinion of the husband is not very good. Why? Well, to use a phrase from the moral psychology literature, the husband had "one thought too many." The husband entertained a taboo trade-off. To merely contemplate the trade-off, to entertain it, marks the husband as morally suspect.

The point here is that morality involves monitoring some clear, bright lines. Some lines just can't be crossed, and that means mentally as well. You just can't go there. Consequently, if you contemplate crossing that bright line this marks you as morally suspect. The fact that you'd entertain the possibility means that the clear, bright line isn't so clear or bright. What was now unthinkable and impossible has now become calculable and possible. Merely thinking has signaled the start of moral decay. There is now nothing between us and the abyss. If you can think it, you can do it.

Which brings me to my thought.

We've crossed the line. At the start of this pandemic our nation entertained a taboo trade-off. We placed the lives of millions of people on one side of the scale and money on the other. We literally put a price on the lives of our parents and grandparents.

This outraged many of us. We rightly called this calculation abominable and beyond the pale. And it was.

But the darker, lingering reality is that when the calculation was entertained we were changed. We're different now. We are a nation that thought the thought. We placed a price-tag on the elderly and the vulnerable. And I've been haunted ever since.

We often look at the great evils of human history with a vague sense of puzzlement and detachment. How could those people have done such horrible, wicked things? Well, I think we now know how it happens. It starts with something small. Often in the form of a question. A thought once considered taboo is floated and entertained. That's how it begins.

COVID-19 is more lethal than the flu, but it's not catastrophically more lethal. The numbers are still changing, but the mortality rate for the flu is .1% and for COVID-19 perhaps 3-4%. And this could be lower as we get more data about asymptomatic cases. By contrast, the mortality rate for smallpox was 30%. For the black plague upwards of 60%.

That uptick from .1 to 3-4% has hit us hard, and placed us under great strain. That's all it took, a few percentage points, nothing cataclysmic, to cause us to step over a clear, bright line. A few percentage points to collectively float the idea that it might be better to let millions of people die so we could keep going out to the movies.

A few percentage points. That's all it took. I keep thinking about that.

I then imagine what we'd be willing to do, morally speaking, if the morality rate of a virus was 10% or 20% or 30% like smallpox.

We're skating on some pretty thin ice, morally speaking. We like to think we're moral, loving people. We are not. Our affluence had masked our depravity.

But then came COVID-19, which caused us to think the thought. A small thing, a thought. But such thoughts are the lines between us and the void.