Pascal's Pensées: Week 7, The Great Mending


To make a man a saint, grace is certainly needed, and anyone who doubts this does not know what a saint, or a man, really is.


I lament here the gender-specific language of "man." I couldn't figure out a way to make it more inclusive without it sounding a bit off.

Regardless, by "man" we mean "human being." It takes grace to be a human being. 

I can't recall who once shared shared this with me, but I was speaking at a church and visiting with my host in his kitchen. He was talking about his relationship with his father. That relationship hadn't been very good in the early years. But late in life, in his final years, the father had undergone a change. He'd softened. Become more vulnerable. More gentle. Kinder. 

And in describing this, my host shared, "It takes a lifetime to become a human being."

I've never forgotten that line. It takes a lifetime to become a human being. 

Doesn't it? And even then, many of us don't get very far on this journey. 

Much of this journey, in my estimation, goes to what Pascal notes above, the role of grace. Our need to give grace, to ourselves and others, and how we can't become human without relying upon grace. Grace is the only power that humbles us, breaks us, heals us, and reconciles us. Grace is the Great Mending of all that we've broken and torn.

Save Me From Myself


I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself — and that I am still afraid of You.

Take my life into Your hands, at last, and do what ever You want with it. I give myself to Your love and mean to keep on giving myself to Your love — rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me. It is enough for me that You have glory. Everything You have planned is good. It is all love.

The way You have laid open before me is an easy way, compared with the hard way of my own will which leads back to Egypt, and to bricks without straw. 

If you allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If you allow them to blame me, I shall worry even less, but be glad. If You send me work I shall embrace it with joy and it will be rest to me, because it is Your will. And if You send me rest, I will rest in You.

Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything You have ordained.

Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for your glory. This is what I live for. Amen, amen.

--Thomas Merton

Love as Impassibility

In theology there is a debate that roils regarding what is called God's divine impassibility. Divine impassibility is rooted in the belief that God cannot be acted upon. This is a metaphysical claim that nothing in creation can cause or trigger God to do, think, or feel anything. So, God cannot suffer emotions as we suffer emotions. God is impassive.

(For theological nerds the argument here is basically this. If God can be acted upon God becomes a part of the furniture of the universe, an agent among agents. God, in that instance, would no longer be God but a Supreme Being within the universe. This God cannot be, for, as the Ground of Being, God cannot be "within" the universe as a being among beings.)

Of course, the pushback here is that a God that doesn't suffer with us isn't the God we find in Jesus. God isn't impassive but emotionally invested. 

I don't want to rehash this debate. Use Google to go down this rabbit hole if you'd like. What I want to do is revisit a post of mine from 2018.

Specifically, in that post I argued that divine impassibility has a branding problem. When we think of God being "impassive" we think of God being emotionally blank, flat, or indifferent. And, of course, we recoil at this vision of a cold, impassive God. 

But as I argued in 2018, that's not who God is. God is love. And it's this love that is sturdy, fixed, unwavering, and unchanging. God is "impassive" in the sense that God's love doesn't ebb or flow, rise or fall, come and go. God's love isn't triggered into existence only to fade back into indifference. God's love is like the sun, always burning and constant, and never changing in the face of human action. 

Yes, it is true, that the word "impassive" doesn't conjure up this image, which is why I said the doctrine of divine impassibility has a branding problem. It's just a poor word choice. But if we're careful to define "impassive" as unchanging rather than unemotional, then we have a better chance of understanding what the doctrine is trying to teach us.

Anyway, I wrote that post in 2018 but was recently pleased to come across an essay by David Bentley Hart that makes this exact same argument. 

As Hart shares, the word used to argue for divine impassibility was apatheia, a word borrowed from the Greeks:

Apatheia entered Christian thought [as a term] borrowed primarily from the Stoics, for whom it signified chiefly a kind of absolute equanimity, an impassive serenity so fortified by prudent self-restraint against any excesses of either joy or sorrow as to be virtually indistinguishable from indifference.

This is another branding problem, as apatheia is the word where we get "apathy" from, and that's just not the word we want to ascribe to God. But as Hart goes on to observe, Christian thought radically rethought apatheia, connecting it not to stoical indifference but to agape. As Hart writes,

When Christians adopted the term [apatheia], however, it became something much more. According to Clement of Alexandria, for instance, true apatheia consists of the cultivation of understanding and charity, and as we are drawn to God in Christ, we are being conformed to a God who is without pathe--devoid of pain, free from wrath, without anxious desire, and so on--not as a result of having mastered the passions within himself, but from his essence, which is the fulness of all good things; and ultimately the Christian who has so advanced in understanding as to be purged of emotions is one who has become entirely love: a single inexorable motion of utter agape. Far from being mere Stoic detachment, then, apatheia is in fact a condition of radical attachment. 

Now the question that will get asked here is this, "Isn't love an emotion?" To which Hart responds:

To state the matter simply--no: love is not primordially a reaction, but the possibility of every action, the transcendent act that makes all else actual; it is purely positive, sufficient in itself, without the need of any galvanism of the negative to be fully active, vital, and creative. This is so because the ultimate truth of love is God himself...And this is why love, when it is seen in its truly divine depth is called apatheia. If this seems an odd claim to us now, it is largely because we are so accustomed to thinking of love as one of the emotions, one of the passions, one of those spontaneous or reactive forces that rise up in us and spend themselves on various objects of impermanent fascination; and of course, for us "love" often is just this. But, theologically speaking, at least according to the dominant tradition, love is not, in its essence, an emotion--a pathos--at all; it is life, being, truth, our only true well-being, and the very ground of our nature and existence. 

Phrased simply, love isn't a feeling, love is ontology.

The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity: A Retrospective

In 2015 I wrote a post entitled "The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity." That was only six years ago, but it now seems like ages.

As the author of Unclean, in that post I was one of the first bloggers to notice that a purity psychology was at work in progressive spaces. This was a few years before worries about "Woke mobs" and "cancel culture" became commonplace. 

There was predictable pushback in 2015 toward my post. As longtime readers will recall, I was criticized for being a white male, though I don't know what that had to do with my analysis. I was also called "satan" on Twitter. Reactions which, somewhat ironically, illustrated the exact point I was making in the post. 

Anyway, I had a self-congratulatory moment the other day reflecting back on that post. Since 2015 you've likely read so many analyses that have made the exact same observation and argument, that a purity psychology is at work in progressive spaces. Three examples. How complicit in oppression does a Founding Father have to be to warrant canceling and erasure? How many racist or sexist Tweets are you allowed to share in high school to warrant your cancelation and erasure as an adult? How many friendships are you allowed to have with a deplorable?

Basically, how many sins or associations are you allowed before being erased or canceled? The answer appears to be zero. And can anyone ever be forgiven? The answer seems to be no.

The lines in the progressive sand are very puritanical.   

Now, as a progressive, to even raise such issues about your own team is itself a violation of the purity code. That's how you get called satanic. But I continue to believe that purity psychology is toxic, in both evangelical and progressive Christian spaces. You should want your team to be better, to be more self-critical, humane, merciful, and tolerant. Hell, I'll say it: more Christlike. And pushing back against the purity psychology at work in your heart, mind, and social space is a good place to start. 

Shame, Self-Esteem, and Idolatry

Biblically, you can make a good argument that idolatry is our primary spiritual struggle. Israel's Shema and the first of Christianity's Greatest Commandments underline the point: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

And yet, idolatry is hard for us modern people to get our head's around. We don't bow down to idols in our houses. So we shift the focus to our affections, values, and investments. What do we love or care about more than God? What are we putting, by way of priorities, before God? Such questions are a staple of preaching. 

But such a listing--an inventory of all the things we put before God--is descriptive, not explanatory. Why exactly are we loving the things on this list more than God? How and why does that happen?

In my book The Slavery of Death I attempt one answer. We become idolators, I argue, because of self-esteem and shame. 

Specifically, our lives are captured and governed by what Ernest Becker calls a "hero system," a pathway toward meaning, significance, and recognition, a route toward self-esteem. The things we come to worship before God tend to be the metrics by which we are achieving and building a sense of worth. Look at the things in your life that make you "matter," the things that set you a little bit above others on some scale of value, and you'll discover your idols.

The other thing you'll discover from this list is that many of your metrics of self-esteem are widely shared. This is why Becker describes the hero system as a cultural hero system. We're born into a value system, a widely shared consensus about what makes a good life. The rules of the self-esteem game existed before we were born. So we're stepping into a game that's already in full swing, like joining a poker table at a casino. The dealer of life starts us off with some chips, deals us our hand, and we start to play. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to win the game, or at least break even.

And this is where shame comes in. If we attempt to reject the idols of the cultural hero system we find ourselves stepping out of the value system that governs the world. We walk away from the poker table and exit the casino. We begin to pursue other alternative and, therefore, strange and peculiar goods. In the eyes of our onlooking family, peers, and co-workers we start making inexplicable choices with our careers, finances, families, time, energy, and relationships. To step away from the cultural hero system--to reject the idols--is to start playing the game of life very differently, a difference that creates a clear, social contrast. Our lives become signs of contradiction.

And as should be obvious, to live a strange and peculiar life, to live as a contraction to society, is to face a great wall of social stigma and shaming. Loving God, therefore, demands shame-resiliency. 

In sum, we become idolators because of self-esteem and shame.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 6, The Contradiction


If he exalts himself, I humble him.
If he humbles himself, I exalt him.
And I go on contradicting him
Until he understands
That he is a monster that passes all understanding.


I'll confess, that last line makes me uncomfortable. I don't think people, as individuals, are monsters that pass all understanding. I might, though, be willing to ponder the sentiment collectively, historically, and abstractly, that humanity is a "monster" who, without some moral guidance, tends toward the dark and destructive. And this darkness does show up deep within each of us. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts."

As a psychologist my mind here goes to things like Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Obedience Studies. We're not monsters, but we can become a monster. The darkness always sits close to hand. So the work here is to spotlight our moral vulnerabilities. The cracks in our virtue. 

And with that reframe in mind, I have often used this very strategy of contradiction when I've addressed audiences. I've said this over and over to audiences, "We like to see ourselves as lovers. But we're all haters."

And then, if I'm in front of a progressive audience, I'll say, "For example, do you love Donald Trump supporters? Do you love police officers? Do you love gun owners? COVID deniers refusing to wear masks? Do you love QAnon supporters?"

And if I'm talking to a conservative audience, I'll say, "Do you love pro-life feminists? Do you love Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Do you love Black Lives Matter activists? Do you love LGBTQ folks?"

Like I said, we're all haters. Everybody hates somebody. And you haven't really confronted Christianity until you've reached this point of contradiction, that hard, grim look in the mirror at your own sin. Few have the stomach or courage for it. 

Over the years, many kind followers and readers have asked me, "Why aren't you more popular as a speaker and author?" It seems, in the estimate of these generous people, that what I have to say and what I have said over the years deserves a wider following and hearing. Perhaps. I sort of think of myself as the Grateful Dead in the Christian landscape, never mainstream but thankful to have a small, devoted following. I think of myself an indie artist playing small clubs to faithful fans, staying true to my muse even if that means I'll never breakout into the mainstream and pack out stadiums. 

A part of this is that I've never been interested in growing a following or building a brand. You have to put in some effort to find and keep up with me. I don't make it easy. I'd prefer to be the musician in the subway. The graffiti artist in the ally. The street preacher on the corner. You don't need a ticket. I'll be right here. You know where to find me. 

But really, I think the biggest part of any lack of mainstream appeal within the Christian Industrial Complex is what I've described here in this post, Pascal's method of contradiction. If you say the things like what I have said to both progressive and evangelical audiences you don't attract huge, huge followings. 

Take a look at Hunting Magic Eels. The book is perfectly suited to a "spiritual, not religious" age. The book could have been wholly warm and fuzzy, all good vibes and uplift. But at the end of the book I turn to say some contradictory things. As longtime readers of this blog will know, at some point I will turn on you. I will intentionally seek you out, progressive or evangelical, and say something hard to you. And, predictably, the reviewers who have not liked Hunting Magic Eels have not enjoyed the last part of the book. But I refuse to exit the stage without stepping on your toes. At least a little bit. And that "Ouch!", which I insist on including, will, I think, always put an upper limit on any mass, mainstream appeal I might have. 

But no regrets. I like small clubs, alleyways, subways and street corners. I think that if I ever did become wildly popular and mainstream my work would have "sold out" and devolved into something therapeutic and commercial. I would have lost the contradiction. I'd rather remain a street preacher. 

You know where to find me.

The Politics of Seeing

On one my office desks I have a photo book, a collection of the work of Dorothea Lange. Lange was a photojournalist and is best known for her work documenting the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. 

Beyond the power of Lange's photographs in the book, what I love about the volume is its title: "Politics of Seeing." 

You see that politics at work in Lange's most widely known photo from 1936 "Migrant Mother":

Worry and concern etch the mother's face as her children cling to her. You can just see how the weight of the world is sitting on her shoulders.

We like to say that the injustices in our world, the forces of oppression, are systemic in nature, requiring systemic solutions. That's undoubtedly true, but it's also extremely simplistic. For my part, I'd argue that justice begins with seeing, with vision, recognition, and perception. 

And even if problems are largely systemic, we will perpetually lack the will or interest in effecting change if we fail to see the harm etched on face of this mother. To recognize her pain is the politics of seeing.

God Is In All Things

God is in all things...Now since God is very being by His own essence, created being must be his proper effect; as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being; as light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated. Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it...being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things...Hence it must be that God is in all things, and exists intimately within everything. 

--Thomas Aquinas 

He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything...

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 

For in him we live and move and exist.

--Acts 17.24-28

The Ethos of the Extraordinary: Self-Esteem in a Post-Christian World

I saw this quote on Alan Jacobs blog, from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's book Plato at the Googleplex:

Kleos means both “glory” or “fame” and also “the song that ensures that glory or fame.” The noun is cognate with the Homeric verb kluō, meaning “I hear.” Kleos is sometimes translated as “acoustic renown” — the spreading renown you get from talking about your exploits. It’s a bit like having a large Twitter following. In the Homeric version of the Ethos of the Extraordinary … to live a life worth living was to live a kleos-worthy life, a song-worthy life. Being sung, having one’s life spoken about, your story vivid in others’ heads, is what gives your life an added substance. It’s almost as if, in being vividly apprehended by others, you’re living simultaneously in their representations of you, acquiring additional lives to add to your meager one.

The Ethos of the Extraordinary answered that all that a person can do is to enlarge that life by the only means we have, striving to make of it a thing worth the telling, a thing that will have an impact on other minds, so that, being replicated there, it will take on a moreness. Kleos. Live so that others will hear of you. Paltry as it is, it’s the only way we have to beat back uncaring time.

Our own culture of Facebook’s Likes and Twitter followings should put us in a good position to sympathize with an insistence on the social aspect of life-worthiness. Perhaps it’s a natural direction toward which a culture will drift, once the religious answers lose their grip. The ancient Greeks lived before the monotheistic solution took hold of Western culture, and we — or a great many of us — live after. A major difference between our two cultures is that, for the ancient Greeks, who lacked our social media, the only way to achieve such mass duplication of the details of one’s life in the apprehension of others was to do something wondrously worth the telling. Our wondrous technologies might just save us all the personal bother. Kleos is a tweet away.
The quote struck me given one of the big themes in Hunting Magic Eels

Specifically, as Goldstein observes, with the Greeks and their Ethic of the Extraordinary we get a window into the achievement of self-esteem "before the monotheistic solution took hold of Western culture," self-esteem in our post-Christian world where "the religious answers lose their grip." As I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, and as Goldstein notes here, without God we're returning to things like Kleos in the pursuit of self-esteem, meaning, value, and identity. 

This craving and desire for "having one's life spoken about, your story vivid in others' heads" to give your life "added substance" feeds and fuels what I describe as "the Ache" in Hunting Magic Eels, the unstable nature of how we achieve a sense of value and purpose in a life devoid of a transcendent ground of meaning. 

Without God, in the words of Goldstein, seeking likes and followers on social media has become for post-Christian people "the only way we have to beat back uncaring time."

Reading the Bible: Part #3, Error Toward Love and Grace

Summarizing, I told my students that there will be times, in reading the Bible, where you can't avoid making a hermeneutical decision. As my friend Mark once told me, some issues just can't be solved exegetically, they can only be solved theologically. 

But our fear in this moment, I continued with my students, is reduced if we remember that God's got our back. God isn't waiting to damn us for hermeneutical mistakes. Yes, we have to approach these hermeneutical decisions with great respect and care. I do think God cares if we treat holy things flippantly. But the faithful are not being held over the fire in the hands of an angry God. The faithful are allowed to make mistakes.

Which brought me to the last and final point I shared with my students about reading the Bible.

"This is just my personal opinion," I said, "So take it for what it's worth. But when it comes to choosing between readings of the Bible, error toward love and grace."

A more fancy way of saying this is that we should read the Bible Christologically. We often make fun of the WWJD meme. But asking ourselves "What would Jesus do?" is a pretty awesome question. I ask myself this question all the time. And when I ask myself the question, the answer always comes back: Love and grace. I read the Bible accordingly.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 5, Strange Organs


We think playing upon man is like playing upon an ordinary organ. It is indeed an organ, but strange, shifting and changeable. Those who only know how to play an ordinary organ would never be in tune on this one. You have to know where the keys are.


I'm put in mind of Flannery O'Connor's famous line about how she tried to reach her modern, secular, humanistic, and skeptical audience: 

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
But you don't have to shout at everyone. This is Pascal's point, people are different. We are organs, but strange organs, with shifting and changeable keys. And you have to know where the keys are for any given person to be helpful to them in searching for God.

This is a lesson I've had to learn. Since the start of this blog and my publication and speaking career I've had so, so many conversations with seekers, skeptics, doubters, and wavering believers. And the conversations are all different. The issues are often a confusing mix of intellectual objections, personal biography, personality, and mental health. An issue that might initially present in one way, like an intellectual struggle regarding the problem of evil, might actually be masking some past trauma with a family or church. Sometimes the struggle with God is a byproduct of depression. Sometimes it's a personality trait like excessive, almost compulsive, rationalism. And sometimes it's just straight up spiritual resistance, that if the claims of Christianity were true one's life would have to change in a radical way and the abyss you'd be forced to face in the rejection. In her typical shocking, shouting, and startling way, Flannery O'Connor uses the Misfit in her famous short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" to put the choice of faith this way:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

Reading the Bible: Part #2, God Has Your Back

Once you become hermeneutically self-aware there's no going back to a state of interpretive innocence. From now on, and forever afterwards, you can see yourself making choices, making interpretive decisions. 

This self-awareness can fill us with dread. Since I'm aware that I'm making an interpretive choice I'm now also aware that I could be making a mistake. And that fear of making a mistake brings me to the second part of my answer to my students.

"There's no avoiding making an interpretive call when reading the Bible," I said, "But you have to trust that God's got your back, even if you get it wrong."

The reason we are so fear-filled when we step into hermeneutical self-awareness is that the game we are playing is perceived to be high stakes, a high wire act. We're making hermeneutical choices but fear that if we get it wrong God won't have our back. If we get it wrong we fear the judgment and wrath of God.

This, I shared with my students, is the really toxic combination, hermeneutical self-awareness combined with a judgmental God. Hermeneutics, by itself, isn't the problem. It's hermeneutics combined with a particular view of God. Simply:

Hermeneutical Self-Awareness + Judgmental God = A Whole Lot of Anxiety

Biblical interpretation is so anxiety-inducing because it's viewed as so high stakes. Your eternal destiny hangs in the balance, so you have to get it right. And yet, given the hermeneutical situation, you lack any firm guarantees you've made the right choice. The whole thing is a neurotic spiritual nightmare. In fact, it's this nightmare that keeps many Christians from stepping into self-awareness to own and admit their own hermeneutics. It's more comforting to remain oblivious and un-self-aware. 

So I told my students, You have to believe that God's got your back, that, yes, you might make a mistake. But that mistake isn't determinative or damning. Just be faithful and humble. You don't have to have all the correct answers to be loved by your Father. Each of us will carry into heaven a raft of confusions, errors, and misinterpretations of Scripture. It's unavoidable. We will not score 100% on the final exam. 

But don't worry. Let your heart be at rest. God's got your back.

Reading the Bible: Part #1, Make Your Call

In one of my classes we had a discussion about how to read the Bible. Specifically, we were wrestling with the ubiquitous problem of multiple, rival interpretations and how to resolve them. Christian Smith calls this issue "pervasive interpretive pluralism."

Given all the rival ways of interpreting Scripture, and all the good arguments on every side, my students asked me the question, "Dr. Beck, given this situation, how do we know what the Bible says?" 

It's a great question, and in three posts I'll share my answer to the students, an answer that has three parts.

The first part of the answer was this: You just have to make your call.

My students, like most evangelical Christians, are foundationalists. They want their interpretations of Scripture to stand on a firm foundation, Biblical Truth. The Bible says it, we believe it, and that's it.

Trouble is, that foundation doesn't exist. Once we step into the hermeneutical whirlwind there's no escaping the truth that, whenever we read the Bible, we are, in fact, interpreting the Bible. Interpreting is inescapable. But with the dawning of that hermeneutical self-awareness it feels like quicksand has opened up beneath our feet. If all is interpretation, with no firm foundation upon which to sort true and false readings of the Bible, it seems we can never be certain that we're getting things right. 

Of course, it's not quite as bad as that. It's not like anything goes when reading the Bible. Readings of the Bible can be more or less plausible. Some readings are just too strained to be compelling or persuasive. Plus, there's the Creeds and the Great Tradition of the faith. There might not be a foundation, but there are come guardrails. 

Still, how do you adjudicate, say, between views regarding gender roles in the church? Legitimate and good-faith Biblical arguments can made in favor of both complementarianism and egalitarianism. How to choose between these positions?

Here's what I told my students. You can't avoid it. You just have to make a call. 

Because we're foundationalists we want to believe we can avoid this. That if we just study hard enough the Bible will, in the final moment, become wholly clear and transparent. That universal agreement and consensus will break out.

It won't. Study all you want, you're just going to circle back to the strong arguments being made on both sides. You can't avoid making a call. 

So that was Part #1 of my answer to my students. Do the hard work of Biblical study, put in the time and effort to explore, but don't think you can avoid, in the final analysis, the necessity of making a call. So make it. 

And yet, such a prospect terrifies us. What if we get it wrong?

That brings us, tomorrow, to Part #2 of my answer.

Strike Three!: Evangelicals, Vaccines, and Science Denialism

I say, three strikes and you're out.

Evangelicalism's quarrel with science started with evolution, going way back to the Scopes Monkey Trial. That might be "Strike One!" but, truly, I have some sympathy here. I can understand why a conservative evangelical Christian would struggle with evolution. You really do have to do a deep and radical rethink in how your approach Scripture to bring Genesis into conversation with Charles Darwin.

Then came climate change. "Strike Two!" many would say. And yet, the science here is so correlational you can see how people could gravitate toward scientific voices that confirmed their felt convictions.

Still, the massive amount of climate change denialism among evangelicals seems really fishy. Why is this view so widely held among evangelicals? Unlike evolution, no literal reading of the Bible is getting in the way of looking objectively at the climate science. Statistically speaking, then, we should expect views on climate change among evangelicals to mirror those in the general population. But that's not what we find. So clearly something sociological is going on in this community, some epistemic bias that is causing them to look at the science in a peculiar way.

But still, if one was being generous, you could see, given the complexity and controversies of climate science, how people could have a hard time, on their own, locating trusted scientific voices amidst the cacophony of social media.

But then came vaccines for COVID-19. 

As a group, evangelicals tend to be COVID-19 anti-vaxxers. To say nothing about wearing masks.

I really think this has to be "Strike Three!" 

Seriously, I know an evangelical can jump into the comments to debate evolution, climate change, or vaccines. Fine. But those siloed debates are missing what is now a clear pattern: Evangelicals are science-denialists. Again, I don't mind a close debate about any of these particular issues. What I'm pointing to is how this particular community is demonstrating a clear and consistent epistemic bias against science. Issue after issue, it's pretty predictable where this group is going to land. 

What's the source of the bias?

I know atheists might disagree, but I don't think it's the Bible or faith. Yes, a Biblical literalism is in play with evolution. That's true. But as I noted above, there's nothing in the Bible or the Christian creeds getting in the way of looking objectively at climate change. And the same goes for getting in line for a vaccine. 

So the bias has to be coming, and this is really no surprise, from partisan politics, the conflation of evangelicalism with the Republican Party. And to me, that is both sad and hopeful. Sad, as I wish that conflation of faith and politics didn't exist. One shouldn't be storming the Capital in the name of Jesus. But also hopeful in that, should any given evangelical be able to swim their way clear of the partisan riptide, they will find that Jesus is happy for you to get a shot. 

Bursting Illusions: Part 3, Except for the God-Damned Bloody Corpse

Poor Freud. 

We'll been picking on him pretty hard. But given Freud's ignorance about faith, this has been pretty easy. True, the notion that faith is simply a form of wishful thinking has to be taken seriously, but the idea that faith reduces to wishful thinking is just nonsense. 

One more post to illustrate that point.

I was visiting with a student at school who was taking an honors class about Stars Wars and religion. Each semester our Honor College offers nichey, one-hour seminars to our honors students on fun, quirky topics like this. Years ago I did a "Gospel According to Calvin and Hobbes" class for the Honors College.

The student I was visiting with was doing his final paper for the course drawing connections between Star Wars and Christianity. And you can see some quick parallels. For example, via the force the world of Star Wars is enchanted, a supernatural world. Further, that supernatural world is highly moralized. There are the good (the Jedi) and the bad (the Sith), and those training in the force must choose. The Jedi vs. Sith struggle parallels the Christian notion of "spiritual warfare," how we must resist "turning to the dark side."

The student and I were chatting about all this, about the force and resisting the dark side, the connections with Christianity, and then I said, "Yes, there's a lot of Christianity in the spirituality of Star Wars, except for the bloody corpse."

Frankly, Star Wars is more pagan, magical, occult and Jungian than it is Christian. Quick and easy assumptions, that if something is both spiritual and moral it bears a resemblance to Christianity, are very common. Faith is just moralized supernaturalism. 

Stars Wars is pagan and occult because the force is a morally neutral, impersonal potency inherent in creation. The force isn't personal or transcendent. The force isn't a god or God. The force is a creational energy that practitioners manipulate for good or ill, as either black or white magic. In short, just because something is both spiritual and moral doesn't make it Christian.

What makes something Christian, I shared with student, is the bloody corpse. Golgotha. Jesus hanging on the cross. Christianity isn't spiritualism and supernaturalism. Christianity is a god-dammed bloody corpse. And by god-damned I mean what St. Paul meant in Galatians 3: "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree."

As Fleming Rutledge has repeatedly pointed out, the god-damned bloody corpse at the heart of Christianity is what sets Christianity apart as being the most irreligious of religions.

To be sure, yes, we must take Freud seriously. We are drawn to the spiritual, supernatural, mystical, magical, and superstitious for therapeutic reasons. My students want to own light sabers and study at Hogwarts. Trust me, they can discourse at great length about the Mandalorian religion and tell you if they are in Gryffindor or Hufflepuff. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, we grab onto metaphysics and magic, even if fictional, like a security blanket, sprinkling supernaturalism over our lives to give it flavor and zest. And it's all quite consoling and comforting. And Christianity is constantly being tempted into becoming cozy, therapeutic, magical, and self-indulgent in just this way. 

But what prevents this slide of Christianity into the therapeutic and magical is the god-dammed bloody corpse. It's hard to snuggle with a dead body. Bloody corpses make for poor security blankets.

What makes Christianity unique among world religions and therapeutic supernaturalisms is that Christians worship a crucified God. The central symbol of Christian faith is a symbol of God being found in the midst of torture, horror, suffering, death, evil, and god-forsakenness. The bloody corpse isn't a flight from the harsh realities of the world, it is a descent into the darkness. 

Freud was ignorant, stupidly suggesting faith was an avoidance of reality. 

And sure, it can be, until you trip over that god-damned bloody corpse.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 4, We Do Not Prove That We Ought To Be Loved


The heart has its order, the mind has its own, which uses its principles and demonstrations. The heart has a different one. We do not prove that we ought to be loved by setting out in order the causes of love; that would be absurd.


There is a different famous pensée which features large in Hunting Magic Eels about the heart and reason. That pensée will show up later in this series. But today's pensée is a good introduction to a theme that Pascal dwells on in the Pensées.

Specifically, much of the appeal of faith is found within the affective, emotional, and relational sphere of human experience. This is a point observed by thinkers such as Francis Spufford in Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense and Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

To borrow from C.S. Lewis, the "dark enchantment" of the modern world is this pernicious assumption that "truth" means "factual" or "scientific." But that's nonsense. Taking a cue from Pascal's point that we "do not prove that we ought to be loved," I observe in Hunting Magic Eels

The great lie of our scientific, skeptical world is that science has become the sole arbiter and judge of “the truth.” We’ve been deceived into thinking that if something isn’t “scientific,” it isn’t “true.” But a moment’s reflection shows this is simply ridiculous...I don’t know the love I have for Jana because of the scientific method. I don’t verify the joy I experience looking at a West Texas sunset in a test tube or petri dish. I don’t measure the beauty I experience before a great work of art. I don’t make moral decisions by applying the laws of physics. And I can’t find the story that gives my life purpose, value, meaning, and direction written in any equation penned by the late Stephen Hawking. I know we’re all deeply grateful to science. I love air conditioning and antibiotics. But the truest things in my life are feelings, not facts.
You cannot prove that you ought to be loved. And even if you tried--"Here are all the logical reasons why you should love me!"--that proof would appear so strange it wouldn't move anyone to love you.

But still, you ought to be loved. The mind has its order. And the heart its own.

Bursting Illusions: Part 2, The Cozy Joy of Loving Your Enemies

Another line of argument that Freud sets out in The Future of an Illusion is that humanity needed religion, in our evolutionary infancy, to acquire and police our emerging moral sensibilities. We needed to have a God in heaven who was watching over us and whom we feared if we got out of line. In fact, many of the great Enlightenment thinkers who spurned religion felt that religion was necessary for the ignorant masses, a moral and social glue that helped keep our political order in line. 

And again, as I observed in my last post, this is most definitely true. No denying a kernel of truth here. People do avoid certain behaviors for fear of going to hell. 

And yet, this view of faith is also naive and simplistic. Once again, being an outsider to faith, Freud just didn't know what he was talking about. The moral vision of the Bible isn't about our neurotic worry over stealing a cookie out of the cookie jar. God's isn't Santa Claus, making a list of who has been naughty or nice so as to keep the kids in line. There's nothing particularly infantile or comforting about the moral witness of the Old and New Testaments. 

Consider the book of Jonah. 

In the book of Jonah's four short chapters Israel set before herself, as an everlasting witness, one of the most shocking and disturbing moral documents ever written in the history of the world. Recall, the Assyrians burned, raped, murdered and enslaved their way through Israel. Yet here, in the book of Jonah, God shows mercy to Israel's enemies. The book famously ends with God's question to Jonah about Nineveh, the Assyrian capital: "Shall I not have pity on this great city?"

The answer, of course, is no, no you should not. These are the people who raped, slaughtered, and enslaved our people. So no, God, you should not show pity. And that's exactly what we see in Jonah's response: he wants God to burn it all down.

Just like any of us would. 

When comes to morality, do you want to know what is cozy and comfortable? Atheism. Read any of the atheist writers who blather on about morality. You'll find nothing there as disturbing, upsetting, and difficult as what you find the book of Jonah. 

I once had a long chat with an atheist about the book of Jonah. He was a tolerant, humanistic, liberal chap. Very morally cozy. He thought Jonah was a story about a whale. A child's fable. I enjoyed sharing with him one of the most scandalous stories ever told, a moral vision so shocking he seemed shaken when the message settled over him. 

You know that feeling. That warm, fuzzy feeling. The cozy joy you feel when you've been called to love your enemies.

Bursting Illusions: Part 1, Love Those Comforting Whirlwinds

You can make a good argument that Freud's The Future of an Illusion is the single most devastating critique of religious faith that has ever been penned. It's so influential that modern criticisms of faith often just rehash and warm over The Future of an Illusion.

This blog started, way back in 2007, with a series called "Freud's Ghost," reflections that ultimately lead to my book The Authenticity of Faith. In that series and in that book I took as a starting point that we have to take Freud seriously. Religious people often don't. But it seems pretty clear that many (most?) religious believers do display defensiveness. That is, religious beliefs are often used to console and comfort in ways that help us deny, avoid, or repress harsh realities. 

Freud writes in The Future of an Illusion

[Religious believers] will, it is true, find themselves in a difficult situation. They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can no longer be the centre of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of a beneficent Providence. They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into 'hostile life'. We may call this 'education to reality.' Need I confess to you that the whole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step?
Faith is a "warm and comfortable" house where we are protected by the "tender care" of our Father in Heaven, a cozy fantasy where we can play pretend to avoid facing the harsh realities of "hostile life."

Again, I absolutely think Freud is naming something real here, a dynamic that I spend The Authenticity of Faith wrestling with. And yet, as I've pondered Freud's argument, I also think it is often overstated. 

Specifically, Freud didn't know a lot about religious experience. He stood as an outsider and, as an outsider, mischaracterized the life of faith. And without a truthful and accurate description of faith--a real failure for a scientist--Freud filled in the gap of his ignorance with his prejudices and biases. Faith was childish. All soft edges and cozy blankets. Faith was an avoidance of reality. 

But any cursory reading of the Bible reveals that this is nonsense. Consider the book of Job. Such a consoling, comforting story, right? 

Ponder Job's encounter with God in the whirlwind. How comforting is God in that theophany? Job has suffered so much, and God, notoriously, never attends to Job's pain, nor condescends to answer Job's questions. Instead, Job gets this:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?"
To borrow from Dr. Freud, what Job gets from the whirlwind isn't "warm and comfortable," what Job gets is a bracing "education to reality." What Job gets a bucket of cold water to the face. Job gets no comfort, no answers. Just exposure to a Reality that humbles him into repentance in dust and ashes. 

Turns out whirlwinds aren't all that cozy.

Hunting Magic Eels on Audible. Plus a Study Guide!

Hunting Magic Eels is my first book to appear in audio format. Today the audiobook of Hunting Magic Eels releases on Audible. For years readers have asked if any of my books would be released in this format. And today I can answer, "Yes. Hunting Magic Eels."

Also related to the book, my church is doing an adult faith series on enchantment using Hunting Magic Eels. I prepared a six to five week study guide for my church. You can download it here if you'd like to use if for your church or reading group. It might also be helpful if you'd like to preach a series on enchantment using the book. My denomination and church are pretty focused on Bible study, so you'll see in the study guide that I lead with Scripture rather than with my book.

Again, thank you to all of you who have shared links to the book on social media, written a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or who have selected it for a study or book club. 

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 8, Contagious Holiness

One last post in this series. I hope you've enjoyed it. It could go on and on. If you want to explore more, pick up Jacob Milgrom's commentaries, the one volume abridged version, or the longer, three-volume set.

As I recount in Unclean, one of the fascinating reversals we find the gospels is how Jesus displays a contagious holiness. 

Specifically, contamination generally obeys the law of negativity dominance. That is, when the clean and unclean, or the pure or the polluted, come into contact the negative dominates over the positive. The clean becomes unclean and the pure becomes polluted.

The law of negativity dominance creates a quarantine logic. Given the power of the pollutant, we maintain states of purity by distance and withdrawal. As we are now intimately familiar with, this the logic of social distancing and sheltering in place. 

Of course, social distancing makes sense in the world of a pandemic, but when imported into the moral and social domains--where people are deemed "unclean"--social distancing becomes a huge obstacle to acts of welcome, inclusion, hospitality and love. 

What we see in the gospels is Jesus transgressing against the rules of social distancing. Jesus breaks quarantine to touch and share community with the unclean. And yet, when Jesus does this, something surprising happens. The law of negativity dominance is reversed. In the event of contact Jesus doesn't become unclean. Instead, Jesus purifies the unclean. Rather than a contagious pollution we experience a contagious holiness. 

Again, as noted in this series, we tend to see in Jesus a reversal of the Levitical purity codes. And it is true that the law of negativity dominance dominates the book of Leviticus. And yet, what we find in Jesus isn't new. Contagious holiness goes back to the book of Leviticus. 

What Jacob Milgrom describes as "sanctum contagion" is mentioned four times in the Torah, twice in Exodus (Ex 29.37; 30.26-29) and twice in Leviticus (Lev 6.18, 27). Sanctum contagion has an if/then logic: "If x touches y, x becomes holy." For example:

Whatever touches the altar shall become holy. (Ex 29.37)
There was a bit of a scandal about the universality implied in the word "whatever." Due to perceived abuses and outrages, later rabbinic teaching tried to limit the scope of sanctum contagion. As Milgrom describes:
[The priests and scribes] were probably deeply disturbed by the stream of murderers, thieves, and assorted criminals who flocked to the altar and resided on the sanctuary grounds on the basis of hoary, venerable traditions that the altar "sanctifies": so they declared that those who entered the sacred precincts were not under divine protection. The priests therefore took the radical step of declaring that the altar was no longer contagious to persons; those who touched it were no longer "sanctified," so they might be wrested from the altar by the authorities with impunity. In this cultic reform the priests would have won the support of the king and his bureaucracy, who would have earnestly wished to terminate the sanctuary's veto power over their jurisdiction. 
We actually see evidence of this practice, claiming sanctuary protection by grabbing the horns of the altar, in the Bible (e.g., 1 Kings 1.50).

With this background in mind, we suddenly see Jesus in a new light. Specifically, as N.T. Wright has shown, in the gospels Jesus pitted himself against the temple. Jesus was the temple, the location where heaven and earth intersected, the place where humanity encounered God. Consequently, it's not surprising that Jesus would display sanctum contagion. Contact with Jesus didn't render him unclean. Instead, sinners and the unclean were purified and made holy. 

And just as we observed with the religious and political authorities who worked to limit the scope of sanctum contagion, there was a similar shock and scandal in Jesus' own ministry of purification and forgiveness, how his contagious holiness undermined the religious and political authorities of his time and place. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 3, Welcome to the Ache


First part: Misery of humanity without God. 

Second part: Happiness of humanity with God.


A large part of Pascal's strategy in the Pensées is to point out our "misery" or "wretchedness" without God.  This is the same strategy I use in Hunting Magic Eels.

I don't call it "misery" in Hunting Magic Eels, I call it the Ache, and I devote a chapter in the book ("Welcome to the Ache") touring through what Charles Taylor has called "the malaise of modernity." 

I like the definition of malaise: "A general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify." 

Pascal, though, knows the cause: the modern world's separation from God. And since Pascal returns to the point frequently in the Pensées we'll be revisiting this topic throughout this series.

What's interesting here is how even secular journalists are noting and writing about our modern "crisis of meaning" and linking it to the poor mental health of our younger generations. Lacking a transcendent foundation for our life projects we drift among the allures of social media, entertainment culture, and consumerism. We have nothing to look forward to except the next Netflix binge. And the pandemic has only highlighted this existential vacuum in our lives. We experience life as shallow and insubstantial or fragile and precarious. We vacillate between boredom and anxiety. 

As I share with my students, we want our lives to be "high stakes." We want our actions to have weight, import, and significance. But it's hard to achieve this sense of "mattering" through self-talk. And yet, self-talk is the only tool our therapeutic culture gives us. Just stare into the mirror and try to talk your way into significance. Convince yourself that you matter.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of us find this hard to do. 

[Note on numbering of the Pensées. In this series I'll be following the numbering of the Penguin edition.]

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 7, Death, Animals, and Protecting Our Humanity

A lot of our reaction to Leviticus depends upon what we are comparing it to. Comparing Leviticus to modern, liberal sensibilities makes us perceive the book as barbaric and inhumane. But different contrasts cast the book in a more compassionate light. 

For example, just by chance, I was working my way through Leviticus while watching the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. (Our family got a free subscription to HBO with a new cellular plan, so I was finally able to watch the show.) As I wrote about recently, Game of Thrones is known for its barbarity and brutality. In this, Game of Thrones is closer to the world of Leviticus than modern America. And as I went back and forth between Game of Thrones and Leviticus I always experienced relief upon returning to the world of the Bible. In contrast to the barbarism and brutality of Game of Thrones, the world of Leviticus was more ordered, more ethical, safer, and more humane. 

In short, we tend to judge Leviticus with modern moral sensibilities instead of seeing it as the ethical and political revolution was at the time. Leviticus speaks into a world of full callous violence, sociopathic torture, routine rape, and child sacrifice. Leviticus speaks into a world like that of Game of Thrones

Seen against that backdrop, we see how Leviticus is a training manual in becoming a human being along with the creation of a humane society. Leviticus cultivates and guards human and humane sensibilities. Leviticus is a school of the heart. 

Consider, for example, how Leviticus treats the killing of animals.

It is noteworthy that humans were created by God to be vegetarians. Genesis 1.29:

Then God said [to Adam and Eve], “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food."

As we've learned in Leviticus, the blood of living creatures is their life, and in the beginning humans were not allowed to take the life of anything, human or animal. This alone is a humanizing impulse, this deep and sacred recognition for all animal life. Our modern concern for animals rights and suffering finds its origin right here in the Bible. 

Allowing humanity to eat meat appears as a divine concession after the flood. Genesis 9.1-3:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything."
But as just noted, this concession is only granted if humans recognize that, in eating animal flesh, they have no right to the life of an animal. The life of the animal, the blood, is God's alone and must be returned to God. As Genesis 9 continues:
“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind."
Note this: "I will demand an accounting from every animal." Leviticus codifies how that accounting would be done in the life of Israel. Perhaps the oldest sacrificial law in Leviticus is found in chapter 17, specifying how the slaughtering of animals was to be conducted:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people." (Leviticus 17.1-4)
Every time an animal was slaughtered for food it had to be taken before the Lord. This is clearly a burdensome requirement, but we can see the humanizing logic. Humans, to remain human, cannot become inured to killing. The death of each animal has to be marked and given sacred recognition. Otherwise, callousness accumulates and spreads like a cancer. Indifference to killing becomes the norm. In all this, we see how Leviticus is guarding the heart. 

Which should give us pause. When it comes to using animals as food, who is more barbaric, more callous and indifferent? Us or Leviticus? 

And as Jacob Milgorm observes, protecting the heart also seems to be the driving logic behind all the bizarre food prohibitions we find in Leviticus. 

We love making fun of Leviticus for banning shrimp and bacon from the Hebrew diet. Seems like such a waste. But such jokes miss the deeper, humanizing insight. 

To be sure, great barrels of ink have been spilt trying to find a uniting theme about why some animals are deemed unclean in Leviticus, and not fit for eating, and others deemed kosher. None of these attempts have been fully persuasive. And yet, our curiosity and perplexity here misses the deeper point. The point to be noted isn't why certain animals are considered unclean, but the fact that most animals are unclean

What we tend to miss is how incredibly restrictive Leviticus is when it comes to eating animals. And here again we see a humanizing logic. After the flood, yes, a concession is made to allow eating animals, but that concession is very, very restrictive. When it comes to animals, humans were not allowed to become omnivores. Killing is thereby profoundly restricted. As Milgrom writes, "The Israelites are asked to go beyond the abstention from blood, which is enjoined upon all people. They are to discipline their appetites further by narrowing down the permitted animals to a few. In this way they may aspire to a higher level of life, which the Bible calls qadosh, or holy." 

In all this we can see how Leviticus is protecting and cultivating humaneness. A last word from Milgrom: "[By] virtue of his training and piety, [the ancient Hebrew] soul shall never be torpefied by his incessant butchery but kept ever sensitive to the magnitude of the divine concession in allowing him to bring death to living things."

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 6, Guilt, Restitution, and Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere, and we even have stereotypes of books of the Bible. When I say "Leviticus" what comes to your mind? Bizarre commands. Sexual abominations. Bloody rituals. Stoning malefactors.

But as we know, stereotypes miss a great deal, so much so they can be misleading. And the same goes for Leviticus. Consider Leviticus 6.1-7:

The Lord said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit—when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.”
You've likely missed the import of this passage.

When it comes to sins against the community in the book of Leviticus, a key distinction is between intentional and unintentional sins. Unintentional sins can be repaired. When made aware of your unintentional sin a guilt/sin/offense (translations differ here) offering is proscribed: 
The Lord said to Moses: “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering." (Leviticus 5.14-15)
Intentional sins, however, are a whole different issue. Intentional, willful sin--naked, prideful rebellion against God--cannot repaired and the offender must be excluded from the community:
But if one of you does wrong on purpose, whether Israelite or foreigner, you have sinned against me by disobeying my laws. You will be sent away and will no longer live among the people of Israel. (Numbers 15:31).
Which brings us back to the interesting case of Leviticus 6. If you read that passage again, with the contrast of intentional versus unintentional sins in mind, you can see the issue. Clearly the offender being described has a guilty mind, their actions are very intentional. They are extorting, stealing, lying, and swearing falsely. Such sinners have to know what they are doing is wrong. It's all very intentional.

And yet!

And yet, the offender can repent. A person can act with intentional malice yet still find a way to remain within the community. By doing two things. First, they have to offer the guilt offering. Same as the unintentional sinner. But the second, additional thing is restitution: They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. 

How to make sense of this? 

Jacob Milgrom argues that the critical issue is guilt, pubic confession, and a willingness to make restitution. Our stereotype that Leviticus is rigid, unbending, and unforgiving needs to be amended here. There are ways to make amends. There are routes toward rehabilitation. One is put in mind of Zacchaeus, a prototype of the willful sinner who extorted and stole:
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
We often think of Jesus' mercy as being opposed to or overturning the rigid exclusions of Leviticus. But the seeds of Zacchaeus's social rehabilitation, being welcomed back as a "son of Abraham" through his admission of guilt and willingness to make restitution, are sown in the book of Leviticus. There is a way back into community if you are willing to admit your guilt and make amends.

It's right there in Leviticus. Stereotypes can be misleading.

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 5, Theodicy and Collective Responsibility

One of the interesting observations Jacob Milgrom makes in his commentary on Leviticus is that Leviticus functions, or at least embodies, a theodicy.

The perennial question of theodicy--Why are bad things happening to us?--is given an answer in Leviticus: the communal accumulation of sin, which eventually leads to God abandoning His sanctuary. As Milgrom writes:

God will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. To be sure, the Merciful One would tolerate a modicum of pollution. But there is a point of no return. If the pollution levels continue to rise, the end is inexorable. God abandons the sanctuary and leaves the people to their doom.

What are Israel's priests trying to convey through this ritual? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy...Is it possible that Israel's priests, whose prime function as "to teach the Israelites" (10:11) had nothing to say regarding God's providence?

We know now where to find their answer--not in words but in rituals, not in legal statues but in cultic procedure--specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering...[The] priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and unless quickly expunged, God's presence will depart.

[The purification ritual demonstrates] the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. Sinners may go about apparently unmarred by their evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, all the sinners will meet their doom.

And not just sinners, the innocent will also get swept up in the punishment of God. 

Now, of course, this might seem grossly unfair, but what we find here in Leviticus does have modern ring to it: The notion of collective responsibility and reaching a "tipping point" where the group suffers the consequences of collective, distributed guilt. 

Think about climate change, and all the suffering that lies in store for humanity. Why is that suffering happening? Well, a failure of collective responsibility and reaching a "tipping point." Current "flourishing" will have a price. A tally is being kept and will have to be repaid at some point. 

Or think about generational and systemic sin. Individual people, or groups of people, may "flourish" because of systemic injustices, but those injustices damage the social fabric of society. And if that damage is allowed to accumulate our social contract will fracture and split. 

My point isn't to draw precise analogies with these examples and what's being described in Leviticus. I'm simply underlining Milgrom's point that the vision of "crime and punishment" in Leviticus is communal in nature, and also temporally delayed when a tipping point is reached. In this vision, isolated and individual sinners might not always get the punishment they deserve. In fact, they may benefit and flourish from their wickedness. But that sin is being reckoned. It doesn't evaporate into thin air. And it accumulates over time. Things get worse and worse. And should the community reach the tipping point, they will, collectively, suffer the consequence. 

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 4, Detergents

In Leviticus there are four substances that act as "detergents," to use Jacob Migrom's evocative description. 

The four detergents used in ritual purification are fire, blood, oil, and water. Each detergent seems to have a domain of associations:

Fire -- Associated with God. Think: Moses and the burning bush, the pillar of fire leading Israel through the desert, the blazing theophany upon Mt. Sinai.

Blood -- The primary ritual detergent, associated with the animal world. The blood is the "life force" of animals, human and non-human. 

Oil -- Associated with the land, the domain of agriculture and the human sphere of work. Accordingly, oil is used mainly in the social and political sphere, as with the anointing of a king.

Water -- With oil associated with the land, water completes the picture and functions as a multi-use detergent, from everyday to ritual purifications.

As mentioned above, blood is the primary ritual detergent, especially for the expiation of sin. Why was this the case? Because blood is "life":

For the life of a creature is in the blood. (Lev. 17.11a)
This notion sits at the heart of the Levitical prohibition concerning consuming blood. No human being has a right to the life of an animal. The meat of an animal may be eaten, but the life of the animal must be returned to God. Life is sacrosanct and is under the purview and jurisdiction of the Deity. 

This explains why blood, as life itself, is the ritual detergent par excellence. The basic idea at work in Leviticus is that sin accumulates in the community, like a pollution that adheres to everything. Think of an oil spill. Or the soot that covered everything in London in a Dickens' novel. The ritual and moral impurities in Israel built up in a similar way. Blood was the main detergent used to clean the community and the sacred space of these impurities. Blood had this power because the impurities marked the encroachment of death. And only life could wipe death away. 

That idea, life wiping away death, is the critical insight. 

Here's why. In many sectors of Christianity, the atoning blood of Jesus has become associated with the appeasement of a wrathful God. But that's not what you see in Leviticus. God doesn't demand blood and blood is not offered to God to appease God's wrath. In contrast to the pagan gods, Israel's God pointedly didn't eat animal meat or drink blood. Blood was, rather, simply used as a detergent. 

Trouble was, animal blood was only a temporary detergent, so the cleansing had to be repeated over and over and over again. Thus, according to the book of Hebrews, what sinful humanity needed was a detergent so strong it could be offered "once for all." This was the blood of Christ, God's very own life, his own blood, that could wipe away every trace of sin and death. Note, there is no wrathful God here. Simply the graceful provision of the most potent detergent--God's own life--that could, in a single act of purification, wipe away every sin, of every person, for all time.

The Crack Running Through All Things

Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.

But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. 

Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!"

--Luke 24.1-6

Karl Barth once famously compared the gospel to a bomb that has exploded in our midst. A potent metaphor for Europeans who had witnessed WW1 and WW2. Keeping with the metaphor, any historical investigation of the resurrection is akin to examining the hollowed out crater left behind by the blast. The bomb itself is not to be found. 

Christian faith is about this hole in history. But more than history, our faith is about a crack in the cosmos. A tear in the fabric of reality. Hiccup in the Matrix. Gap in causality. The factual loose end that science will never be able to tie. 

Is reality a closed system, tending toward darkness, entropy, and death? Are you seeking the living among the dead?

Or is there a crack running through all things where daylight is streaming through? 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 2, Transcendence Matters

Recall that Pascal was going to turn his collection of "thoughts" into a book arguing for and defending the Christian faith. But due to his death Pascal couldn't write the book. So right from the start, editors of the Pensées have tried to discern the outline of the book Pascal would have written, trying to arrange the notes and scattered thoughts in an order that might create an argumentative flow.

Obviously, such arrangements are speculative. But they do help arrange Pascal's ideas into thematic groupings which make the Pensées a bit easier to digest. Pascal did linger on certain points and return to points previously made. And while the location of these points within a larger argument Pascal might have made is hard to know, thematic groups of the "thoughts" help highlight "hot spots" in Pascal's thinking. 

For this series, I'm going to follow the flow speculatively set out by Peter Kreeft in his Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained. Incidentally, not everyone finds the Pensées a clear, edifying, and coherent read. Many of the Pensées are confusing, tangential, or obscure. So if you're new to the Pensées, or failed to get through the Pensées, let me suggest Kreeft's book. 

Let me say something about Kreeft's title, "Christianity for Modern Pagans." That's an aggressive title. And Kreeft is a pretty aggressive Christian apologist. But, then again, so is Pascal and so is the Pensées. 

So before we get into things, a note about "paganism."

It's a timely note as I devote a chapter to pagan versus Christian enchantments in Hunting Magic Eels, in Part 4 where I talk about the discernment of enchantments. For this, I borrow from Steven Smith's book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac

Smith makes the argument that Christian and pagan spiritualities differ in how they place the location of the scared. Smith writes:

[P]agan religion differs from Judaism and Christianity in its placement of the sacred. Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within: it is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, reflect a transcendent religiosity; they place the sacred, ultimately, outside the world--"beyond space and time." 
Smith points out that immanent spiritualities--locating the sacred within the world--have always been around, and even have mixed in various ways with the transcendent spirituality of Christianity. To be sure, for Christians God is both immanent and transcendent, the two mix together. But the key shift of Christianity in the West has been the recognition and role of transcendence. 

Now, to Kreeft's title and the point I make in Hunting Magic Eels, Smith observes that, after 2,000 years of cultural dominance in the West, the transcendent spirituality of Christianity is now losing ground to the immanent spirituality of paganism. Increasingly, people aren't looking toward a transcendent sacred that stands over, interrupts and judges human affairs. Rather, we seek and sacralize goods we find within creation. Things are good--food, sex, values, human being--in themselves. Creation, the parts we enjoy at least, is intrinsically good, independent of any other transcendent good that confers goodness. This trend is at the heart of the "spiritual but not religious" movement.

All that to say, when we say "God matters" we're also saying transcendence matters. Why? Here's what I write in Hunting Magic Eels:
Transcendent enchantment challenges the central conceit of the modern world, that no one, not even God, can stand in judgment of us. So it’s not surprising that immanent enchantment is now all the rage on the spiritual marketplace. One of the most noteworthy features of modern-day “spirituality” is how eclectic it is, how you choose it. In the modern spiritual marketplace, you pick your enchantment, like shopping for deals at Walmart...Mix and match until you achieve the enchantment perfectly suited for your lifestyle, budget, political views, values, and friend group. All fit to order.

These [enchantments] aren’t problematic in themselves. But immanent enchantments are collected and curated, the product of our whims and fancies. Our enchantments have become lifestyle choices. We pick the enchantment that suits us or is most in fashion. Or the one we can afford. And celebrities are such a help here. Enchantment becomes a brand and fad, the mystical tinsel we sprinkle over our curated images on social media.

If we’re thoughtful, we can sense the shallowness of it all. Can an enchantment we pick up and lay down at a whim really give our lives the sacred meaning and weight we’ve been longing for? Can an enchantment we choose for ourselves become anything but narcissistic, a reflection of our own highly selective and cropped self-image? Immanent enchantments are on the rise because they are perfectly suited to our consumeristic age. And that is the fatal, fundamental flaw.

Lessons from Leviticus: Part 3, Holiness and Grace

The Hebrew verb that animates the book of Leviticus is hivdil, meaning "to divide." 

All through the book, the Israelites, and especially the priests, are to mark distinctions and to make separations. Leviticus is about "dividing" the pure from the common and the clean from the unclean: "This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean." (Lev. 10.9b-10)

These acts of hivdil harken back to the creation story in Genesis, where God creates order from chaos via divisions, like dividing the light from the darkness. It's also a division that separates Israel from her pagan neighbors, setting her apart as a holy, consecrated community of priests. Hivdil, then, is how we create the holy:

You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev. 20.26)
All of this makes sense, but it also creates some problems for Christians who see in Jesus a willingness to transgress against the purity codes to embrace the unclean. Readers of Unclean will wonder how its author views the imperatives of hivdil. The Levitical impulse to make divisions between the clean and the unclean is "the bad guy" in Unclean. If so, can hivdil be rehabilitated? 

I think it can, and this may be the most important lesson I've learned from Leviticus. 

To start, let me set aside one of the most common objections to Unclean. Specifically, you can't have a community, even a welcoming community, without creating some boundaries and distinctions. A community without boundaries, like shared commitments or binding promises, isn't a community. 

I think this is one of the weaknesses of Unclean, how it can leave readers with a generic vision of "inclusion." Just love everybody! Which, of course, we should. But in practice this tends to water down to mean liberal tolerance among atomized individuals. There's no welcoming community extending a difficulty hospitality in that vision. Just a bunch of liberals who say to each other in the public sphere, "I'm okay, and you're okay." Progressive Christians love the message of Unclean, but if Christian inclusion and hospitality just mean non-judgmental tolerance--I'm okay, and you're okay--one hardly needs to read my book to get that message. Just watch a lot of TV. Non-judgmental tolerance is the ethic of our age. You don't need God or Jesus or Unclean to learn this.

All that to say, were I to rewrite Unclean today I'd have added nuances that push back upon a simplistic message that moral and communal boundaries are intrinsically bad. 

Anyway, putting that issue aside, here's what I think is the big lesson of Leviticus and its call to hivdil.

Simply put, holiness is the the prerequisite of grace. 

Start by recalling the points from Parts 1 and 2 of this series. The primary goal of Leviticus was to establish Hebrew monotheism in the mist of Canaanite paganism. And the most important tool in this effort was hivdil, the making of distinctions and divisions.

Of course, hivdil had a social aspect, Israel adopting particular, and even peculiar, lifeways that set her apart from her neighbors. The dietary laws are a prime example here. And yet, the most important aspect of hivdil wasn't cultural but theological

Specifically, all the work and worry to confess, establish, and live with the holiness of Israel's God was critical to the establishment of Hebrew monotheism. The paganism of Israel's neighbors was animistic and pantheistic, worshiping the spiritual potencies at work within creation. By contrast, the holiness of Israel's God recognized God as Wholly Other. The heart of Leviticus is establishing this division between God and creation. This division, this ontological labor, was the heavy theological lifting that extracted the Hebrew faith from the pagan, pantheistic matrix of the ancient world. 

Yes, yes, yes, Leviticus is bizarre and strange. But if you keep the ontological labor of hivdil in view, you come to see that Leviticus is, perhaps, the most important book in the Old Testament. 

So, the work of hivdil was critical to establishing the ontological Otherness of God. And this brings us to the key insight: God's Otherness is absolutely necessary for a doctrine of grace. Grace is a gift, a gift that comes to us from the Outside, as a divine interruption. Grace is grace because is crosses over a vast unbridgeable abyss, a chasm so great we cannot cross it from our side. It is the Otherness of God that makes grace an experience of God's free, unprompted, unilateral movement of love toward us. 

And without grace, there is only magic, being pushed and pulled in the competitive arena among rivalrous, fickle, and capricious creational powers.

My point here is that you can't get Jesus without the prior work of Leviticus. You can't have an experience of God's grace without a prior experience of God's holiness. You have to stare into the abyss, helpless, before the surprise at seeing a bridge cross over to you. There is no unmerited and unconditional gift without ontological Otherness. Without God's Otherness there is only spells and incantations. 

As I said, holiness is a requisite for grace. God had to be separated from creation to establish God as God, to extract relationship with God from the pagan and magical. This theological work had to happen first before anything else could happen. Before grace there had to be God. And once that work was completed, once we were clear about God, the path was paved for the revelation of grace. 

For grace to be experienced as grace an ontological boundary had to be crossed. 

Leviticus established the boundary, and in Jesus God crosses it in grace.