Pascal's Pensées: Week 27, So Sensitive to Minor Things

 427.

Thus the fact that there exist people who are indifferent to the loss of their being and the peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different; they fear the most trifling things, foresee and feel them; and the same person who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some imaginary affront to their honour is the very one who knows that they are going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. It is an incomprehensible spell...

///

Pensée #427 is another one of Pascal's longer entries. In it he dwells upon the indifference of people toward ultimate things. And this indifference really piques Pascal. His irritation crackles in this entry. You feel him wanting to shout at and shake people.

For Pascal, there is an existential urgency to life. Death is coming. And given that looming fate, Pascal can't understand how people don't take time to ponder its significance and to act accordingly.

What we do instead is live shallow lives. We become emotionally reactive to minor things while ignoring the greatest. For example, I quipped to my students the other day, "Star Wars fans are one step away from becoming suicide bombers."

That might seem to be an extreme statement, but if you know anything about fan culture you know it's not that far from the truth. Fan culture is known for its vitriol, hate, and death threats. Insult a beloved franchise or critique fan culture--from Star Wars to video games--and dark things get exposed.

All of which illustrate Pascal's point, how we've become overly invested in the minor things in life. It's a sign of a pervasive existential sickness.

Evolution and the Fall: Death as Curse

This is a follow up to yesterday's post about death, evolution, and Eden. You'll need to read that post to get what I'm saying here.

I kept thinking about yesterday's post and felt there was a string I left hanging. Specifically, yesterday I described how in an evolutionary account death predates the Edenic moment. Death, in such an account, becomes an "intruder" in history via consciousness. Through consciousness death becomes a moral force in the universe. 

But the hanging string is that an emergent awarenesses of death isn't a curse per se, not a "consequence" of our sin and rejection of God. Though you could, I guess, consider consciousness itself to be a sort of curse, the heavy existential burden of being a creature that knows it's going to die. We could go in that direction, but I want to keep closer to the Genesis story to view the curse as a punishment for sin.

So, how do we go from existential-awareness to death as curse, catastrophe, and punishment of sin?

In a state of nature, below a certain threshold of consciousness, death isn't a curse. Death only becomes a curse with the acute awareness that death renders life futile, vain, and meaningless--the lament of Ecclesiastes. And yet, this curse is only actualized by stepping away from God into self-sufficiency. When dependent upon God, when tethered to Life, the "sting of death" is taken away. 

Basically, death-awareness presents us a moment of choice. Fear or trust? Pride or faith? Self-sufficiency or dependence? Humanity fell and falls by acting out of fear, pride, and self-sufficiency. And in that moment death becomes curse as, now separated from God, we are doomed to die. Death becomes curse when, at the advent of death-consciousness, we reject God and chose the hubris of self-sufficiency. 

This choice is both history and biography. History in how humanity, at this primordial moment of choice, "fell" and separated itself from God. We inherit this curse, entering life anxious, prideful, and alienated from God. Alienated from God death becomes our destiny.

But this choice is also biography. Each of us recapitulate the choice of Adam and Eve. We pridefully choose self-sufficiency and fall under the dominion of death. 

To summarize, death-awareness isn't the curse, it is, rather, a moment of choice. That is the Edenic crossroads. Life is available to us if we choose trust and dependency upon God. But if out of pride we choose self-sufficiency we fall under the curse and death becomes our destiny. And once that choice is made, and we've all made it, we're caught in moral and existential quicksand, with no way to extract ourselves via willpower. We're too anxious, prideful, self-deluded, and weak to effect our own escape. Thus our need for grace and divine action. 

Eden, Death, Evolution and the Fall

Many progressive, liberal Christians are perfectly contented to accept the reigning biological consensus regarding the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens

Of course, how one reconciles theism and evolution varies widely, from intelligent design to theistic evolution, but beyond the specifics of those accounts there is a general problem in how an evolutionary account handles Eden, death and the fall. 

Specifically, an evolutionary account implies that death predates human origins. More, there wouldn't have been any Edenic situation that was free of death. Lastly, it could even be argued that death isn't a wholly evil force as the creative force of evolution requires differential reproductive survival. 

So, how can an evolutionary account of human origins make sense of death as presented in the opening chapters of Genesis?

Now, I've not done a lot of reading or research on this topic, so I'm likely reinventing the wheel or stumbling into errors by sharing random thoughts off the top of my head. But here are some highly speculative thoughts on the subject. Experimental theology follows. Reader beware.

The beginning of salvation history starts with "the fall." Critical to this moment is Adam and Eve coming to acquire the "knowledge of good and evil." In eating the fruit of this tree their "eyes are opened" and they come to experience shame. From an evolutionary perspective, many have observed that this account in Genesis can easily been viewed as the emergence of a qualitative change in human consciousness. There are gradations of consciousness, from a mouse to a dog to a chimpanzee to a human being. We can assume gradations of consciousness between us and our hominid ancestors. At some point in our evolutionary history, a critical reflective capacity was reached. This moment could even have been rapid and discontinuous, a radical qualitative break, a "phase transition" where at a certain critical threshold of increasing complexity a rapid, qualitative shift in consciousness occurred within our species. And if you don't want to reduce this to wholly naturalistic processes, you can even imagine a moment where God inserted a soul into the human creature, a clean ontological break with the past. Either way, at some point in our evolutionary history a threshold is crossed, qualitative change in human consciousness emerges, and Homo sapiens (Latin for "wise man") enters into history. 

Critical to the entrance of this consciousness, according to Genesis, is morality, the knowledge of good and evil, the capacity for great evil and heroic, sacrificial love. And with the dawning of this capacity the moral history of the cosmos begins. A new kind of relationship with the Creator emerges, a uniquely moral relationship. The Bible shares the narrative drama of this relationship. 

These observations have been made by others, how increasing capacities of consciousness have made us a uniquely moral species in contrast to other animals. Sure, maybe it's a difference of degree rather than of kind, but still, most animals are not haunted by guilt, shame, and regret. 

But what does this dawning moral sensibility have to due with death? 

What's interesting in the Genesis story is how death is linked to the knowledge of good and evil. Once their eyes are opened Adam and Eve are cursed to die. 

Read literally, death would have been introduced into history at this moment, as the consequence and curse of sin. But an evolutionary account is denied this option. So how could an evolutionary approach read the story?

Well, I think it goes back to the dawning of a particular sort of consciousness. The same capacities that make us moral creatures are the same that make us existential creatures. Also unique among animals, we know we are going to die. Death haunts us. So in a very real sense, death is "introduced" into history via consciousness. Our existential drama with death begins alongside our moral drama. There are two trees in the Garden, the Tree of Life stands next to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Death and sin go hand in hand. 

And that connection goes even deeper. It's not just a timing issue, that our relationship with sin and death began at the same time. Death and sin interact. As I describe in The Slavery of Death, existential anxiety undermines morality. As it says in Hebrews 2.14-15 our slavery to "the fear of death" is "the power of the devil" in our lives. As preached by the Orthodox, the curse we inherit from Adam and Eve isn't moral depravity and degeneracy. What we inherit is a death-saturated existence, an existence that makes goodness difficult. As St. Paul laments in Romans concerning his moral wretchedness, "Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" 

Given this relationship, it's an easy step in an evolutionary account to view his "death-saturation" as less about the biological world than about human consciousness. That is to say, to have a moral consciousness, a human consciousness, is to have a death-saturated consciousness. Again, it's very clear in Genesis that an awareness of death and sin are wrapped up together. Package deal. 

In light of this relationship, especially how our slavery to the fear of death undermines our ability to love, salvation must be about both sin and death. Again, the Orthodox are good on this point. To state the point succinctly, sacrificial love only makes sense with a metaphysics of resurrection. Similar to the symbiotic relationship between sin and death, love and resurrection go hand in hand. 

All this is to suggest how death is experienced as both "intruder" and "enemy" in human experience. At some point in our evolutionary past both death and sin intruded upon us, and we found ourselves expelled from Edenic innocence and existence. With that expulsion a new sort of creature stepped into history, requiring a new sort of relationship with the Creator God.

When Morality Becomes Materialistic: Why Everyone Is a Victim Now

It's no surprise my pointing out that, wherever you look, everyone is a victim. Even people with cultural and material privilege and power see themselves as victims. Everyone, it seems, is now a victim, everyone is persecuted and oppressed.

Again, this isn't a new insight, how a "victim mentality" has become ubiquitous. Nor is it new for me to point out how this culture of universal victimhood makes political discourse impossible. Our political discourse is increasingly characterized by a politics of grievance and resentment. 

The reason for this development might seem straightforward. Since victims possess moral authority we all grab at that power, all rush to stand in the place of the victim to leverage moral demands upon others. Still, this dynamic raises the question, Why do victims possess such moral influence, and why is that influence growing?

Here's my theory, a theory rooted in Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory. Recall, there are four moral foundations, four different ways cultures label something as morally "good" or "bad." The foundations are:

  1. Harm & Care: Something is "bad" if it causes harm to others.
  2. Justice & Fairness: Something is "bad" if it is unfair or unequal. 
  3. Ingroup Loyalty: Standing with your group (e.g., family, tribe, nation) is "good" betrayal and disloyalty are "bad."
  4. Respect for Authority: Respecting and submitting to tradition and authority figures is "good."
  5. Sanctity & Purity: Respecting sacred spaces, times, objects, traditions, rituals, and institutions is "good." 
Here's the thing to note about this list. The first two foundations--Harm and Justice--tend to privilege empirical, material evidence. You can publicly point to locations of demonstrable harm or inequity. Consequently, it is no surprise that Harm and Justice tend to be privileged in courts of law where convincing judges and juries is of paramount importance.

Now, contrast Harm and Justice with the other three foundations--Ingroup Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity/Purity. As scholars have pointed out, these foundations are rooted in cultural norms and, therefore, are more subjective. Generally, one should stand with one's group. But what if your group has become bad? Think of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the plot to assassinate Hitler. Same goes for respecting authority. What if a political or traditional authority has become oppressive or corrupt? Finally, people vary widely upon the degree to which something may or may not be held as holy or sacred. Some people, for example, would never let an American flag touch the ground. Others might burn it. 

In short, because these foundations are rooted in cultural and subjective norms they are much more difficult to rally around in a pluralistic society. When the nation was more culturally homogeneous that was once possible, but as we grow culturally diverse appeals to Ingroup Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity/Purity will struggle to gain a wide political consensus and traction. There's just too much cultural diversity surrounding these subjective norms, no material fact a majority within a pluralistic democracy could agree or rally around regarding what is "right" or "wrong."

Lacking appeals to subjective, cultural norms, our moral discourse has become materialistic. Pointing out harm and inequity is the only moral discourse now left to us. Which means pointing out how you've been harmed or treated unfairly is now the only way we can affect the political process. Only victims are recognized when morality become materialistic. Politics is reduced to adjudicating between accusations of harm. 

All of which leads to the paradox of modern morality and politics. To effect political change you have to become a victim. To win an election you have to become a victim. It's the strangest twist. 

Victimhood has become our will to power. 

The Lord's Prayer

I pray the Lord's Prayer multiple times a day, and have for many years. And over that span I've come to appreciate the prayer's beautiful completeness and comprehensiveness in just a few short sentences:

Stepping into our filial relationship with God, and how all the petitions flow out of that dependency. Right out of the gate, we step into Jesus' relationship with the Father. We become little Christs. 

A petition for the reign of God to come, a reign of justice, righteousness, and peace.

A small, humble petition for daily sustenance, nothing more.

A petition for pardon and grace. And more: a pledge to create an economy of grace in our lives.

A petition for protection.

It's all packed so tight--God's reign in the world, daily sustenance, pardon, and protection--but covers so much territory. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 26, It Is Hard for a Rich Person to Enter the Kingdom of Heaven

57.

It is not good to be too free.

It is not good to have all one needs.

///

Jesus, notoriously, once said, "It is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." Why? Why, to follow Pascal, is it not good to have all one needs?

As I've said many times in many places, the great lie of American society is the belief that if you can get enough cash between you and "the bad thing" heading your way you'll be immune and safe. So we gather a pile of cash--savings, investments, insurance policies, and retirement funds--to create a buffer between ourselves and that dark eventuality that could strike us out of the blue. We sit cozy and safe behind walls of money.

Sitting inside that fortress of cash, it's hard to appreciate your actual predicament. You start to believe the delusion that you're safe and without need. You're self-sufficient! And in such a state of denial it's hard for God to reach you. Nothing gets past your walls of cash. Your 401K is a moat.

But as we know, this illusion of needlessness, of self-sufficiency, is a lie. Cash doesn't protect you from divorce. Money doesn't prevent cancer. Investments don't heal broken relationships with your children. A 401K doesn't heal depression, anxiety, or addiction. Wealth doesn't confer meaning. Stock portfolios do not keep you out of a coffin. 

But money can, for large swaths of life, perhaps even to your final dying moments, keep you clueless. 

Rich people aren't evil. They're just oblivious. 

Grace and the Devil

The greatest hindrance to faith is again and again just the pride and anxiety of our human hearts. We would rather not live by grace. Something within us energetically rebels against it. We do not wish to receive grace; at best we prefer to give ourselves grace. This swing to and fro between pride and anxiety is our life. Faith bursts through them both. By our own strength we cannot do it. We cannot deliver ourselves from pride and anxiety about life; but there will always be a movement of defiance, not last against ourselves. If we summarize all that opposes as the power of contradiction, one has an inkling of what Scripture means by the devil.

--Karl Barth

Is Psalm 109 an Imprecatory Psalm?

I'd always assumed that Psalm 109 was an imprecatory psalm. 

You'll recall that imprecatory psalms are psalms that call down curses upon enemies and adversaries. The most famous one being Psalm 137, with its chilling line, "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

Again, I'd assumed that Psalm 109 was also an imprecatory psalm. The psalm reads in the NIV:

1 My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
2 for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
3 With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
4 In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
5 They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.

6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the Lord,
that he may blot out their name from the earth...

The poem starts off as a prayer of supplication in verses 1-5. The poet calls out to God for help as the he is surrounded and being attacked by wicked people. 

A shift comes with verse 6. Here the poet seems to begin to direct curses at his oppressors. And a long list of curses it is!

In short, the NIV assumes that the speaker in verse 6 is the poet who speaks curses against his enemies. 

But there's actually some ambiguity about who, exactly, is speaking in verse 6. For example, here are verses 5 and 6 in the ESV:

5 So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.

6 Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.

Where the NIV renders the line as "appoint someone to oppose my enemy," the more literal translation of the Hebrew in the ESV just has a pronoun: appoint someone against "him."

Well, "him" who? Obviously, the NIV thinks the "him" is "the enemy" described above in verses 1-5. And that's the way I've always read the psalm. But there's actually another way to interpret the "him."

Specifically, Robert Alter makes the argument that the speaker in verse 6 isn't the poet but the enemies of the poet. What starts in verse 6 are the enemies hurtling curses at the beleaguered poet. Here's Alter's translation of verses 5 and 6:

And they offer me evil in return for good
and hatred in return for my love:
"Appoint a wicked man over him,
let an accuser stand at his right hand..."

Alter's punctuation helps us see that the voice that starts to speak in verse 6 is the collective voice of the poet's enemies who begin to accuse and curse the poet, offering him hatred and evil. Alter supports this translation by saying,

[The opening formula of the psalm, "God of my praise, do not be silent,"] aligns this text with the psalms of supplication. What is unusual about this particular supplication is that the long central section of the psalm, verses 6-19, is, in the most persuasive reading, an extensive quotation of the venomous words of accusation and imprecation that the speaker's accusers pronounce against him.

[Starting in verse 6, the words "Appoint a wicked man over him"] inaugurate the hostile speech of the accusers. A clue to the fact that the speaker is the object of the curse is that the reviled man is referred to throughout in the singular, whereas the plural is for his accusers. Their speech includes both scathing curses against the man and his family and specific indications that they want to frame a case against him in a court of law.

All that to say, Psalm 109 does have a lot of imprecations in it, but it might not be an imprecatory psalm.

The Modern World and Hope

We are eschatological creatures. To flourish we need a horizon, a goal, a telos, a destination if not a destiny. Lacking this, we wander, life seems pointless, random and meaningless. And this is one of the key reasons we struggle in the modern world. Without God, we lack a metaphysical structure that can posit and sustain hope in any sturdy or durable way. In the modern world, the arch of the universe doesn't bend toward anything except randomness and death.

And sadly, the modern church has contributed to this problem. Bullied by the cultural despisers of faith, the church has become timid on the subject of hope. Here's how Robert Jenson describes it in his essay "How the World Lost Its Story":

[P]reaching and teaching and hymns and prayers and processions and sacramental texts must no longer be shy about describing just what the gospel promises, what the Lord has in store. Will the City's streets be paved with gold? Modernity's preaching and teaching--and even its hymnody and sacramental texts--hastened to say, "Well, no, not really." And having said that, it had no more to say. In modern Christianity's discourse, the gospel's eschatology died the death of a few quick qualifications. 

I've discussed this exact thing before the blog, how heaven has become a bit of an embarrassment among many Christians, even taboo. In many of our churches, heaven died the death of a few quick qualifications. And having made those qualifications, we had no more to say.

We need courage to become hopeful again, to boldly proclaim a metaphysics of hope. As Jenson continues:

The truly necessary qualification is not that the City's streets will not be paved with real gold, but that gold as we know it is not real gold, such as the City will be paved with. What is the matter with gold anyway? Will goldsmiths who gain the Kingdom have nothing to do there? To stay with this one little piece of the vision, our discourse must learn again to revel in the beauty and flexibility and integrity of gold, of the City’s true gold, and to say exactly why the world the risen Jesus will make must of course be golden, must be and will be beautiful and flexible and integral as is no earthly city. And so on and on.

Because Jesus lives to triumph, there will be the real Community, with its real Banquet in its real City amid its real Splendor, as no penultimate community or banquet or city or splendor is really just and loving or tasty or civilized or golden. The church has to rehearse that sentence in all her assemblings, explicitly and in detail.

When it comes to hope, we need braver Christians and churches.

Dare to hope for those streets of gold.

On Being Radical

"Be radical--be radical--be not too damned radical!"

            --Walt Whitman

This advice strikes me as similar to one of my favorite bits of advice from Ecclesiastes 7:16:
Do not be excessively righteous, and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?
Instead of "ruin yourself" most translations go with "Why should you destroy yourself?" Some others render it, "Why make yourself miserable?" or even "So do not be excessively righteous or excessively wise; otherwise you might be disappointed." 

All of these, I think, also name the pitfalls of excessive "radicalism": destroying or ruining yourself, making yourself miserable, or having such idealistic and utopian expectations that you are perennially disappointed and depressed. 

But that's not to say don't be radical. We must be radical! Be radical!

Just don't be so damned radical.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 25, Mommy Let You Use Her iPad Now Look at You

136.

However sad a person may be, if you can persuade them to take up some diversion they will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a person may be, if they lack diversion and have no absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, they will soon be depressed and unhappy. Without diversion there is no joy; with diversion there is no sadness.

///

Marx famously said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Today, I think Marx would say, "The Internet is the opiate of the masses."

We're still dipping into the long pensée on diversion, #136. And what Pascal shares above remains very true, more true now than when he wrote it. Things have gotten so much worse. Could Pascal have imagined how putting the entire Internet in our pockets would so fixate and consume our attention? Could he have imagined how AI algorithms would monetize and sell the attention of our children to the highest bidder? 

I don't know if you know or like the comedian Bo Burnham, but when I first heard his song "Welcome to the Internet" from his latest comedy special it rattled me as being both the truest and most disturbing thing I've heard in a very long time. 

(I'm not linking to the song because it has a lot of offensive content. So be very, very warned if you seek it out.) 

The song is basically a catalog of everything available on the internet all of the time. All meant to capture and hold our attention. The stuff we need. Stupid things we waste our time with. And, just one click away, dark and vile things. It's all there. All of it. Everything. Absolutely everything. Always available, all of the time. Even to children and adolescents, whose brains are still developing. And what shook and disturbed me about the song wasn't its perversity. What disturbed me about the song was that it was true--accurately and disturbingly true. 

Below are select (and clean) lyrics to give you a taste of the song's hard truth:

Could I interest you in everything
all of the time?
A little bit of everything
all of the time?
Apathy's a tragedy
and boredom is a crime.
Anything and everything.
All of the time.

You know, it wasn't always like this.
Not very long ago,
just before your time,
right before the towers fell, circa '99.
This was catalogs.
Travel blogs.
A chat room or two.
We set our sights and spent our nights
waiting for you.
You, insatiable you.
Mommy let you use her iPad.
You were barely two.
And it did all the things
we designed it to do.

Now look at you.

In Praise of Old Churches and the Dangers of Founding Pastors

Like many, I've been following the The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast hosted by Christianity Today, the story of  Mark Driscoll, the mega-church he planted and his fall from grace.

A huge part of the story is how our culture is drawn to the cult of celebrity. This isn't a Christian problem, it's a cultural problem. But when it affects Christians it causes huge churches to build up around charismatic, celebrity pastors. Like Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill.

The problem of celebrity pastors in evangelicalism has been widely commented on. But there's a related issue here that, in my estimation, needs more attention.

As I diagnosis the situation the issue isn't just celebrity. Yes, that's a problem, but I don't think it's the decisive issue. The real issue is power. 

Here's what you notice about these pastor and church failures, like with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill and Bill Hybels at Willow Creek: They were the founding pastors. 

Celebrity, yes, is morally treacherous. But celebrity combined with the power of being the founding pastor is a recipe for disaster. The church becomes the property of the founding pastor. It is THEIR church, which places the membership and staff in a very asymmetrical, disempowered relationship with the founding pastor. And that's where things start to go sideways. Not with the popularity of the pastor, but with their power.

So it's here where I want to sing the praise of old churches. The church I attend is over a hundred years old. And over our history we've had some very talented and charismatic pastors. But given the age of the church, these pastors have come and they have gone. The church, however, remains. The church was here long before the pastor arrived, and the church will be here long after the pastor departs. This balances out the power relation between the church and the pastor. The church hires the pastor. The pastor doesn't own the church. To be sure, old churches can be slow and resistant to change upon hearing the vision of the new, incoming pastor. But that sluggishness and institutional resistance is a sign of more balanced power relations between the pastor and church. Change in an old church can't happen dictatorially. Change has to come relationally, with time, conversation, and trust. Hard work, yes, but healthy work. 

All that to say, old churches have more power than churches founded by the guy on the stage. And this, I think, is the really critical dynamic that isn't getting talked about as much. It's not the celebrity of the pastor that's the problem, but their power as the founder. 

The Metaphysics of Petitionary Prayer

As regular readers know, I've been writing a lot here about God's non-competitive relation with the world, dipping into the work of theologians like Katherine Sonderegger and Kathryn Tanner.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about the metaphysics of petitionary prayer, specifically when we pray for the healing of others. How, exactly, does that work? For example, does God work through the doctors, the medicine, and the science? Or does God work directly and supernaturally?

In my response, I drew attention to how we tend to frame the issue of healing in competitive ways. God or the doctors. God or the medicine. God or the surgery. It's either God who heals or the medical science that heals.

The problem with his framing is that we've inserted God into creation as one cause among other causes. God's causality comes to compete alongside medical causes with the question of who will get credit for the healing. God becomes one billiard ball among other billiard balls on the causal pool table. So if God heals, that excludes the medical billiard ball from being the proximate cause. It's the eight ball not the seven ball. And if medical science heals, it's not God, at least not directly. It's the seven ball and not the eight ball.

All that to say, when framed this way, petitionary prayer is a puzzle. Not unlike the puzzle of free will and God's providence.

But the puzzle evaporates when we adopt a non-competitive metaphysics. In a non-competitive metaphysics we exclude the either/or framing. Both/And becomes possible.

And to be clear, by both/and I don't mean reducing God to the medical sciences. By both/and I don't mean that God just is medical science with no metaphysical remainder. That's Deism. Yes, the medical science is a gift and grace of God. The fact that the created order has a logos, an intelligence if you will, is a grace of God. And the fact that our minds can grasp this logos is also a grace of God. So when medical science translates this logos into a technology of healing there can be nothing put praise and gratitude for God for how creation and reason can meet in this way. Humans can raise tomatoes, build bridges, and cure diseases. God creates and sustains those capacities. The logos of creation could have been opaque to us, but it isn't.

But that's not what I mean by both/and. Yes, God heals us because of the logos of creation and mind, but God, given His non-competitive relation to the world, is always directly present to His creation, and healing can come to us directly through this relation. Such a healing would not be detectable or locatable through any creaturely or empirical means. If that were possible, God would be placed/located as a billiard ball on the table. But that's not what God is or ever could be.

The point simply is, that when we pray for healing, it's perfectly coherent to pray for the doctors and for God to heal directly. This isn't a competitive either/or request. It's a both/and request that can never be paradoxical. God heals by nature and grace.

Scattering Seeds of Light

There's an interesting bit of poetry in Psalm 97:11. 

Many modern translations of the line go with something like "light shines (or dawns) upon the righteous." 

But the more literal rendering of the Hebrew word zara in this verse isn't "shine" or "dawn," but "sown" or "scattered." Thus, many of the more literal translations translate Psalm 97:11 as "light is sown for the righteous." The Message runs with this idea it its rendering: "Light-seeds are planted in the souls of God’s people." A more restrained take on that idea is from the NASB: "Light is sown like seed for the righteous." The NLV translation has, "Light is spread like seed for those who are right and good."

I don't know much about the New Life Version translation, you can read about it here, but I like that line, "light is spread like seed." 

All this to say, I greatly prefer the more literal translations of Psalm 97:11. These literal translations, ironically, keep us closer to the poetic and metaphorical image used by psalmist, the lovely, whimsical idea that light is planted, that light is a seed that God is scattering throughout the world and in our hearts.

On Meaning in Life: Part 5, Faith and Meaning

So, meaning in life is a cord woven from three threads. Coherence. Purpose. Mattering. Our life has a story, a story that matters and is going somewhere.

But where does this meaning come from? More importantly, in the midst of shame and failure where does a conviction that we matter originate? 

It's here where we turn to one of the most consistent, durable and replicated findings in positive psychology: Faith is highly predictive of meaning in life. And it's not hard to see why.

For example, as I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, mattering, as a metaphysical conviction, comes to us as an experience of grace. Mattering isn't something I can reliably conjure up for myself, like popping some popcorn when I'm hungry. That's the whole power of mattering, that I need it when I'm struggling to convince myself of my significance. In the midst of failure and shame my significance is something I'm doubting. So mattering has to come to us externally, as a gift. As something beyond and more real than your doubts and questions. Mattering isn't constructed, it's accepted. Mattering isn't a prize you win, it's a truth to be received. Mattering is like gravity. Questioning its existence is possible but pointless. Similarly, mattering can't be questioned, otherwise it wouldn't be mattering. Sure, you might doubt it, but still, you matter. Mattering is simply the truth.

The same goes for coherence and purpose. Faith gives us a story, a drama for our life. And it's a story with purpose, direction, and hope. 

Now, does the fact that faith confers meaning imply that God exists? Of course not. There's no metaphysical proof here. But the data is clear that humans flourish best with transcendence. Faith is good for you, there's no question about that. That association between faith and happiness is a well-documented finding. And while the link between meaning and faith is no proof of God, it does make one wonder why consciousness seeks and rests in transcendence, why peace is found in God, why our "operating software" is optimized by faith.

Skeptics might question, Why would anyone believe in God? There is no evidence. To which I'd say, Really? No evidence?

No evidence but coherence, purpose, and mattering. No evidence but a life of meaning, grace, and joy.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 24, Boredom

136.

We are so unhappy that we would be bored even if we had no cause for boredom...

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(Just a note for those unfamiliar with the Pensées. You might have noted that both last week and this week the pensée has come from the same number. Pensée #136 is a long, famous entry on diversion and the last two weeks I've pulled lines out of that longer passage.)

"God may be dead, but we sure do miss him."

That line comes from Hunting Magic Eels, from the chapter called "The Ache." The point I make in the book is that in an increasingly post-Christian and secular world we're experiencing a wide variety of emotional symptoms and ailments. Some of these symptoms are pretty alarming. Increasing rates of depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide. Other symptoms are chronic, low-grade nuisances. Less like a cancer diagnosis and more like the common cold. 

Boredom, for example. 

I go on to say in Hunting Magic Eels that a lot of young people have lost the ability to correctly diagnosis their pressing need for God. They don't understand spiritual angst and anomie. They just know they are incredibly anxious and on meds. They also know they are very, very bored.

Chronic, pervasive boredom is one symptom of the death of God. Lacking a transcendent sense of meaning and purpose, my students struggle to imbue life with existential significance. So they spend their days drifting in the sea of consumer and entertainment culture. They scroll through Netflix and can't find anything to watch. Then they scroll through Disney+ and can't find anything to watch. Then AppleTV. Nothing to watch. Amazon Prime? Nothing to watch. HBO Max? Hulu? Still nothing to watch. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of movies and shows to watch. But nothing interesting or compelling. Their constant bingeing on entertainments eventually reaches this point of satiation. Nothing to do. Nothing to watch. Boredom.

So that's how I often start conversations about God with my students. I simply ask, "How many of you are often bored?"

On Meaning in Life: Part 4, Mattering Matters Most

So, meaning in life is a cord of three strands. Coherence. Purpose. Mattering.

And yet, before moving on, a pause to discuss the relative importance of these three aspects of meaning. Specifically, are they equally important in achieving meaning in life?

A recent study done in 2020 found that, of the three strands of meaning in life, it was mattering that mattered the most. In evaluating the relative roles of coherence, purpose and mattering in predicting meaning in life (MIL) the researchers concluded:

The finding that sense of mattering, rather than coherence or purpose, emerged consistently as the strongest precursor of MIL judgments seems especially important given that both coherence and purpose have been long associated with MIL, and in some cases, seen as coterminous with MIL. By contrast, sense of mattering has been relatively neglected up to now within the psychological literature on MIL. Our results therefore support calls to supplement the emphasis on coherence or purpose in the psychological literature on meaning with a much stronger focus on understanding how people come to develop and maintain a sense of mattering in their lives, and the consequences of doing so or otherwise.
It's important to note that the study observed both religious and non-religious routes to mattering. A key issue for non-religious mattering seems to be the issue of impact, legacy, and generativity. That is, do I judge that my life is "making a difference"? Some people, who are fortunate enough to have meaningful work, will likely find answering the question of mattering to be fairly easy, with little need for recourse to metaphysics. But such answers tend to make mattering the luck of the educated, talented, and elite. Most of the word will struggle to find their work so life-giving. For most of us, mattering is going to be harder to locate.

But even for those who have meaningful lives due to work, along with ample leisure time, the situation remains precarious. There's a reason why people jumped out of windows to their death during the Great Depression. As I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, I once helped treat a man in an inpatient hospital who had tried to commit suicide. The man worked as an emergency medical responder. His job was, quite literally, saving lives. And as you might expect, he found that work deeply meaningful. He mattered. 

But the man had suffered a debilitating back injury. Suddenly, he could no longer do his job and was relegated to a desk. Soon he became depressed and then tried to kill himself. 

My point in telling that story from Hunting Magic Eels is that non-religious mattering is provisional and fragile. Yes, mattering is easy if you have fulfilling, purposeful work. But that's not really when we need mattering. We need mattering when that man needed mattering, which is when he lost his job and began to question the significance of his life. We don't need contingent mattering, conditional mattering. We need stable, durable, unconditional mattering. 

The issue, then, isn't that you matter. Lots of people can say their life matters. 

The critical question is when you matter. 

On Meaning in Life: Part 3, Mattering

Beyond coherence and purpose, the final thread of meaning in life is mattering and significance.

If you've read Hunting Magic Eels you'll know mattering plays a featured role in the book. Mattering is a conviction of existential significance, that your life "counts" in the vast scheme of the universe and that your life has and will "make a difference." 

Some psychologists describe mattering as unconditional and stable self-esteem in contrast to contingent and unstable self-esteem. Contingent self-esteem is unstable because it is performative, you matter IF you meet some standard of success or comparison. Obviously, since we don't always win the prize, this makes self-esteem a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs.

In Hunting Magic Eels I make the observation that one of the reasons our mental health is so precarious in this modern, secular age is that we've convinced ourselves that the foundation of mental health is a positive self-esteem. We can see now how this bit of therapeutic advice has been a disaster. How can you build mental health upon such an unstable foundation? 

What mental health requires is a more stable, sturdy foundation. Mattering. Unconditional self-esteem. The steady conviction that you matter, no matter what.

And yet, this raises the question: Where does this conviction come from? In the midst of your failure and shame, from where does assurance come that you still matter? 

We'll turn to those questions in the next two posts.

On Meaning in Life: Part 2, A Sense of Right Direction

Beyond coherence and comprehension, my ability to tell the story of my life in a way that makes sense of my life, the second aspect of meaning in life is purpose.

We spend our life pursuing a wide variety of goals. Many are short-term goals, like going to work or doing a project around the house. And we also work toward long-term goals that span years and even decades, from plans for our career, our homes, or our retirement. 

Accomplishing those goals gives us a sense of satisfaction. Purpose in life, however, is how all these goals work together toward an overarching aim or direction. Purpose helps us choose the goals of life and sort out and prioritize among our goals when choices have to be made in how to direct our time and energy. Purpose asks: What do I want out of life? When I'm moving toward that purpose I experience meaning in life. Purpose gives us a reason to get up in the morning. William James describes this sense of meaning as "a sense of right direction." 

In the last post I described coherence and comprehension as the need and ability to "story" your life. With purpose I think of telos, the Greek word for "end," "goal," and "end goal." Humans are teleological creatures. We need an aim, a goal. To use biblical language, we are eschatological creatures. We live today with a preferred future in mind. Otherwise, we feel lost and directionless. At sea without navigation. In a dark wood without a compass.

In short, meaning isn't just about how the pieces of life "hang together," it's also about where that story is going. Meaning implies that your life has a plot.

On Meaning in Life: Part 1, The Story of Your Life

As you may likely know, a revolution has occurred in psychology over the last thirty years. Called "positive psychology" many psychologists have turned their attention from mental illness to study happiness, flourishing, and fulfillment in life. Classes in positive psychology are routinely the most popular classes on university campuses, and podcasts sharing the findings of positive psychology have huge followings. 

Early research in positive psychology focused on virtues and character strengths, research that showed us things like the importance of gratitude. More recently, positive psychology has turned its attention to variables associated with transcendence, things like wonder, awe, and meaning.

I want to devote a few posts to meaning in life because, as I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, meaning has become harder for us in an increasingly post-Christian world. Understanding how meaning in life is constructed, what its ingredients are, can help us see more clearly why faith might matter for our mental health.

Meaning in life is a cord woven from three strands. The first strand is coherence and comprehension. 

Meaning comes from life "making sense" to us. We understand how all the parts and pieces of our life, our past, our present, and our future, are put together to make a whole. My life feels "connected" and I have the sense that I "get it." 

We struggle with meaning when we lose this sense of coherence and comprehension. We don't understand what is happening to us. Things feel disconnected, disorganized, random, and chaotic. I can't make sense of my life or the world.

We've all experienced this, how dramatic or traumatic changes in our life circumstances can create a crisis of meaning. We struggle to find a "new normal," a new mental equilibrium in the face of new circumstances. And if we can't mentally get on top of the situation we're prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological symptoms. 

This is one of the reasons therapy is helpful to us. Or simply talking out loud to a dear friend or family member. And when alone, even journaling works. For many of us, therapy is a "sense-making" journey. Weaving our past and present into a coherent whole, something that we "get" and understand.

Story is an excellent way to describe all this. We achieve coherence and comprehension when we can story our lives, when we can narrate our experience. In fact, narrative therapies explicitly frame the therapeutic task in just this way, as a journey into a new and better story. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 23, Avoiding Yourself

136.

I have often said that the sole cause of our unhappiness is that we do not know how to stay quietly in our room.

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We avoid being alone with ourselves. And that avoidance creates and perpetuates our unhappiness.

When the mind quiets we come face to face with the reality of who we are. And most of us find this to be a very uncomfortable encounter. 

I recall once sitting down in the silence of a Catholic church. Just to sit and rest a bit. And sitting there in the quiet I started to weep. Out of nowhere my deep brokenness rose up and confronted me. I hadn't done a thing to bring it into consciousness. I was just sitting there quietly. Then suddenly, I came into view. And when I saw myself, I wept. 

Seeking to avoid moments like this, our default condition is one of agitation and restlessness. We can't, won't, sit still for fear of encountering ourselves. 

Hexing the Taliban

Since I wrote about witchcraft yesterday, I thought I'd follow up with some thoughts about the big drama right now in the witchcraft world: Hexing the Taliban.

If you've not between following WitchTok or witchcraft boards on Reddit there's been a big hullabaloo about witches hexing the Taliban given their recent takeover of Afghanistan. This has created much comment from within the witchcraft community and some trolling from outside. 

A related bit of drama from within this same conversation has been incidences of witches attempting to hex not just the Taliban but also Allah.

You might find this topic bizarre, but it's a great illustration of two things. The first is a big point I make in Hunting Magic Eels regarding the contrast between pagan and Christian enchantments. The second goes to a point I made yesterday. 

Borrowing from Steven Smith's analysis from Christians and Pagans in the City, the point I make in Hunting Magic Eels is the contrast between immanent versus transcendent enchantment. As Smith argues, the difference between paganism and Christianity is the location of the sacred. In paganism the sacred is located within creation, an immanent enchantment that sees creation as being filled with metaphysical powers, energies, and potencies. Christian metaphysics, by contrast, locates the sacred beyond creation, a transcendent enchantment. (Though we should note that this contrast isn't wholly accurate as Christians believe God is both immanent and transcendent.)

Another way of describing the transcendence of God, familiar now to my regular readers, is to say that God's being and existence is unlike created being and existence. God, as Being Itself, cannot be located among created beings, found among the furniture of the universe. Or, as Thomas Aquinas would say, God does not belong to any genus. 

To illustrate St. Thomas' point, I have a witchcraft book on my shelf that has a table in it listing various gods and goddesses that one could appeal to in casting spells. For example, in this table are listed the gods and goddesses Ganash (Indian), Damballah (Haitian), Isis (Egyptian), Brigid (Celtic), and Odin (Norse). These divinities are members of the genus "gods and goddesses." It's this membership that makes a gods and goddess listing in a table possible.

God, by contrast, is not a member of any genus. God cannot be listed under any category of being. God doesn't exist like Odin or Isis. God cannot be found in a table of gods and goddesses. God is what gives gods and goddess their existence.

A still further way to say the same thing is that God creates ex nihilo ("from nothing"). And crucial here is the point that creation ex nihilo isn't some moment in the past, like the Big Bang, when the universe "began." Creation ex nihilo isn't an isolated historical event, it is constant and ongoing, God holding creation continuously in being. Creation ex nihilo is why there is something, right here and right now, rather than nothing. Creation is inherently contingent and, thus, constantly requires the sustaining attention of God. In God we live, move, and have our being.

Which brings us back to hexing Allah. Sharing as they do the same Abrahamic faith with Jews and Christians, Muslims also believe God creates ex nihilo. Consequently, a witch who tries to hex Allah is displaying a metaphysical confusion. A witch hexing Allah is making a category error. For you can only hex a being that exists within the created order. The hex has to be within the same order of being as the object being hexed. Phrased differently, you cannot hex the Being that makes hexes exist in the first place. Hexes and God operate at different orders of being. But even that sentence is an error as God cannot be a member of the genus "order of being." God is what causes orders of being to exist.

You get the point.

All that to say, the whole hexing Allah drama is an interesting case study in the difference between pagan and Christian metaphysics, between immanent and transcendent enchantments. And if this seems to be a pointless academic distinction read Hunting Magic Eels to find out how this distinction affects your life and happiness. Your joy hangs in the balance.

Which brings me to my second point, made in yesterday's post. 

Specifically, yes, witches trying to hex Allah display a lack of metaphysical sophistication. They don't understand God. Fine. But remember the point from yesterday's post: Witchcraft is more about political resistance than religious observance. Hexing Allah and the Taliban isn't really about metaphysics. It's about saying "f**k you" to the patriarchy espoused by the Taliban, in how they view and treat women. Hexing the Taliban, Allah specifically, may be metaphysically confused and nonsensical, but it is an admirable act of resistance and solidarity on behalf of the woman of Afghanistan. 

The Rise of the Witches

I've been doing a deep dive into witchcraft lately. I'm discerning if I want to write a book about witchcraft or devote a long, in-depth blog series to the subject.

You might be wondering, "Why witchcraft?"

Three reasons. 

First, the main subject of my latest book Hunting Magic Eels focused on the rising rates of unbelief in our culture--skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism. But as I point out in the book, a lot of the people turning away from organized religion (the Nones) aren't opting for hardcore atheism. Most of them are turning toward alternative spiritualities. Paganism, particularly, is on the rise. As I say in Hunting Magic Eels, paganism is back. And witchcraft most especially. For example, see this and this and this. And if you didn't know, WitchTok is a huge, huge thing.

All that to say, while I do discuss paganism in Hunting Magic Eels, I spend most of the book talking about unbelief and skepticism. But I'm wondering now if I focused on the smaller of the two trends, having focused on atheism and scientism rather than upon paganism and witchcraft.

Second, I think white male church leaders, like me, have had a blind spot here. So I'm trying to correct that. To be simplistic about it, atheism is mainly a white guy problem. And since many preachers are white guys, they tend to focus on what they and their peer group struggle with. Witchcraft, by contrast, is big among young women. A richer and more comprehensive look at modern trends in religious belief has to attend to these sorts of gender differences. Preachers know how to talk to atheists. I don't think many would know how to talk to a witch. 

Third, as pointed out by Tara Isabella Burton in her book Strange Rites, modern witchcraft may be more of a political than metaphysical movement as a reaction to patriarchal structures in the world and in the church. Witchcraft is as much political resistance as religious practice. And if that's so, the church should be listening. The biggest appeal of witchcraft for women is empowerment, which places witchcraft in a critical posture toward patriarchal expressions of Christianity. Going forward, if the church wants to appeal to women, especially among the younger generations, it needs to attend to the political critique of the witchcraft community.

The Prophetic Imagination and Universal Hope

I'd like to follow up on yesterday's post. 

In discussions about the possibility of universal reconciliation one of the things I've noticed is how little the prophetic imagination is utilized in making the case. Of course I may have missed this in other thinkers and treatments, but I haven't seen many defenders of universal reconciliation make much use of the Hebrew prophets.

Most of the defenders of universal reconciliation use either reason or New Testament work to make the case. By reason I mean arguing for universal reconciliation based upon argument or philosophical appeals. For example, arguments about human freedom or a proper definition of justice. By New Testament work I mean things like Greek language work on the word translated as "eternal," unpacking what Jesus was referring to by "Gehenna," or appeals to universalistic texts like 1 Corinthians 15.28.

But what you don't see a lot of are appeals to the Old Testament prophets. Yet in my estimation this is, perhaps, the very best location to see how God's judgment, punishment, and wrath are temporary rather than permanent. 

This is vitally important because, at the heart of the debate, sits our image of God. We can debate free will, definitions of justice, the meaning of the word "eternal," what Jesus meant by Gehenna, or what God being "all in all" might imply. And while helpful, none of these debates get to the crux of the issue: What is God like?

Our best answer to that question is the story of the Old Testament which culminates in Jesus. Specifically, God does punish Israel for her sins, a terrible wrath is poured out. And at that point, with Israel's exile, it really does seem like the story reaches its sad, final conclusion. There's nothing in the story to suggest a different ending. But then, out of nowhere, a song of hope breaks out. This inexplicable narrative turn, this rupture in the story, is ground zero for what will eventually come to be known as "grace." On the far side of God's wrath we hear the words, "Comfort, comfort, my people." We get an answer to the question posed to Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones: "Can these bones live?" The crazy, unexpected answer is, "Yes!"

My point is that when you deeply internalize this vision of God you come to realize a profound truth: With God there is always hope. Even, as Ezekiel learns, after death. Skeletons pose no problem for God. That is the prophetic imagination. Yes, wrath and punishment. But after that, hope. In reading the prophets what you start to appreciate is that what you assume to be the final act in our drama--getting exactly what we deserve--isn't really the end. Not with God. And if you carry that imagination forward into the New Testament you look at things differently. It's a huge paradigm shift, knowing hope exists on the far side of hell. Knowing that dead bones still have a future with God. 

And you know this not because of any argument or philosophical debate about Greek words or definitions of justice. You know this because you've seen this story before. You're now reading the New Testament knowing what God is like. So, yes, you do see language in the New Testament about punishment and wrath. But as a student of the prophets bumping into hell is wholly expected. And yet, you look at that language differently. You've seen the tide of wrath turn before. You know the end of the story isn't really the end. So you expect it shall happen again. For God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. With God there is always hope. 

Unquenchable Fire and Hope

I was reading through the book of Jeremiah and reached Chapter 17, the last verse of which reads:

"But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses." (Jer. 17.27)

The line that caught my attention was the reference to "an unquenchable fire." This phrase caught my attention because of New Testament descriptions of an "an unquenchable fire," passages often used to justify a vision of hell. For example, John the Baptist says this about the coming ministry of Jesus:

"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3.12)
It's not surprising that John the Baptist would pull language and images from the Old Testament prophets, here, echoing Jeremiah, a reference to "unquenchable fire." I raise this connection, though, to make an observation.

Specifically, many have pointed to texts like Matthew 3.12 as evidence that the punishments and fire of hell are eternal and everlasting. That is to say, to use the term of art, hell is "eternal conscious torment." 

And yet, Jeremiah's reference to "an unquenchable fire" doesn't imply eternal separation from God. As we know, while the prophets did prophecy judgment against Israel, culminating in her exile, we also know that after the exile the prophets turned to proclaim a message of hope, salvation, and future reconciliation between Israel and God. For the prophets being punished with "an unquenchable fire" didn't mean that you couldn't or wouldn't be reconciled to God in the future. 

All this is just another reminder that when we hear talk of judgment from Jesus and John in the gospels we have to keep the Old Testament prophetic backdrop constantly in mind. When we hear Matthew 3.12 we need to keep in mind Jeremiah 17.27 which helps us understand that being punished with "an unquenchable fire" doesn't foreclose on hope.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 22, Sinners Who Think They Are Righteous

562.

There are only two kinds of people: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.

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I've been listening to Christianity Today's podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Well worth a listen.

In following the dramatic rise and fall of Mark Driscoll in the podcast one sees the point Pascal is making here. When sinners think they are righteous they can do tremendous damage. I think religious leaders are particularly prone to this temptation as they frequently see themselves as doing the Lord's work, agents of God's purpose and plan. Righteous instruments. And when that happens, when a thirst for fame or power gets painted over as godly and good, well, disaster awaits. 

And we all struggle with this. For example, social media is so toxic because people believe they are righteous in acting so terribly. If Twitter is anything it is a mob of sinners who think they are righteous.

As Freud pointed out so long ago, we struggle to face hard truths about ourselves and tend to act defensively, with denials and rationalizations, rather than admit our failings. I think Jesus said it best:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus the the Jolly Roger: Part 4, The Pirate Code of the Kingdom of God

Last post revisiting parts of my 2016 series about using pirates as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. 

Let's revisit why many sailors turned to a life of piracy. Press ganged into service at the gun point of an empire, the life of a seaman was basically that of a slave. For these seamen, piracy offered the prospect of freedom. It was this same allure of freedom that also attracted women, who faced oppressions of their own, to the life of piracy.

But a life of piracy offered more than freedom. While life aboard a pirate ship was no utopia, pirate ships governed by the pirate codes were noteworthy for their democratic and egalitarian structures, very different from the ships of empire. Equal voice and fair distribution were values among the pirates, in stark contrast between the hierarchical and unfair distribution experienced on the treasure ships of the empire.

Again, this isn't to deny that pirate ships were filled with violence, simply that the more democratic and egalitarian life aboard a pirate ship was attractive to those pressed ganged into service and who lived a life of forced labor. The dream of a more democratic and egalitarian life under the pirate code was a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven where even the "least of these" are honored and given a voice.

As Jesus said, the kings of the world lord over us. The seamen aboard the treasure ships of empire knew this reality up close and personal. But there shall be no lording over, Jesus said, in the kingdom of God.

We see Jesus' alternative political reality emerge in the early church where members held nothing as his or her own but shared with each who had need. A new world was emerging in the shell of the old.

And who was attracted to the life of the early church? Slaves and women, those who were being lorded over by empire. No wonder they were attracted to this new movement, an alternative political reality where lording over and domination were replaced by the care and koinonia of the kingdom.

Oppressed and beleaguered, the first Christians flocked to the church because of the pirate code of the kingdom of God.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 3, Living Under the Sign of Death

When you think of pirates you think of things like eye patches, peg legs, hooks, parrots, and buried treasure.

And you also think of the Jolly Roger.

The skull and crossbones on a black flag--the Jolly Roger--is one of the most recognizable pirate symbols. But what did it mean to sail under this sign of death?

No doubt, the skull and crossbones, as a sign of death, was meant to stir up fear onboard the ships the pirates attacked. "Death is coming for you!" the flag declared.

But in his book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us Kester Brewin suggests that the skull and crossbones symbol--the sign of death--had other, deeper meanings for the pirates.

According to Brewin, when the pirates raised the Jolly Roger they were also saying something about how they saw themselves in relation to the world. Specifically, they saw themselves as dead men. Sailing under the sign of death the pirates declared that, being already dead, they were immune to the fear of death.

Here is how Brewin describes the deep symbolism of the Jolly Roger:
For all sailors the skull and crossed bones was a familiar ensign. It was entered into the ship's log when a member of the crew died...The raising of the Jolly Roger was thus deeply significant. It represented the pirates embracing of their fate--they were going to die--and yet their resistance of death at the hands of their despotic masters...

The Jolly Roger was doubtless designed to inspire fear and supplication in the hearts of those they attacked, but there is something more profound and heartfelt in the symbolism. The skull and crossed bones does not just mean 'we are bringing you death'; rather it announces 'we are the dead.' We the shat-on, the abused, the flogged, the one you have treated as less than human, have escaped your power, have slipped away from the identity you foisted upon us. We, the ones you took for dead, are returning as the dead--and thus free of all fear, free of all human labels or classifications or ranks. We might say that the pirates did not raise the Jolly Roger as a symbol of violence, but rather as a declaration that no more violence could be done to them. They were dead, and yet lived still...

It is this fearlessness in the face of structures that have oppressed and marginalized them that marks the pirates out...Drawing together what this extraordinary powerful flag meant, [Rediker] concludes that it serves to sum up piracy altogether: 'a defiance of death.'
Obviously, there are a lot of Christian resonances here.

Like the pirates with the Jolly Roger, Christians also live under a sign of death. The sign of the cross.

And this sign functions for Christians in very much the same way Brewin describes how the Jolly Roger functioned for the pirates. Under the sign of the cross Christians declare that they have died to the world. Christians live as the dead and, thus, live freed from the power and threat of death. In the words of Brewin, no more violence can be done to us. And it was this fearlessness among the early Christians--following the example of Jesus before Pilate--that made their witness so potent and powerful. Already living as the dead, there was nothing the empires of the world could do to threaten the followers of Jesus.

I've written an entire book about all this. Beyond a fearlessness in the face of the threat of death, in The Slavery of Death I talk about how our emancipation from the fear of death also affects how be build and bolster our self-esteem. Defying death means dying to the ways our culture defines a significant and meaningful life. Empires don't just threaten death, empires define who is or is not successful, worthy and significant. Empires tell us who are the winners and who are the losers.

Living as the dead, then, means being immune to the ways our culture variously praises and shames us as we seek first the kingdom of God. This immunity--found in renouncing the idolatry of our age--creates the capacity to live resurrected lives, lives set free from our slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2.14-15).

Like the pirates, Christians sail under the sign of the cross in a fearless defiance of death.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 2, Jesus Was a Pirate

Kester Brewin makes the argument in Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us that pirates always emerge when economies become blocked by the powerful. During the Golden Age of piracy wealth was flowing from the New World to the Old, enriching the empires of Europe. The seamen who made this transport possible were blocked from this wealth, often pressed into naval service at the point of a gun. Press ganged into service by the empire, life aboard the ships of England, Spain, France and Portugal was functional slavery. 

So a life of piracy seemed an attractive alternative. Though perilous, the life of a pirate offered freedom over the slavery of empire.

And this freedom was the great affront of the pirate to the empires of the world. The ships of England, Spain, France and Portugal carried letters from their kings allowing them to act as pirates. When a English ship attacked and robbed a Spanish ship this was legitimate, sanctioned by the king of England. The English ship was not a pirate, but a privateer.

To the pirates, that seemed to be a distinction without a difference. When robbery was sanctioned by empire it was legitimized, not robbery but business as usual. But when pirates, unaffiliated with any empire, robbed a ship? That was an affront to empire. High treason. A crime. Immoral. A sin. When captured, pirates were summarily hanged.

In short, Kester Brewin argues that piracy emerges when access to the common good becomes blocked. And more often than not, it's empire who is doing the blocking, legitimizing their own robbery, injustice, and oppression while condemning it in others.

Piracy, thus, emerges whenever and wherever an economy has becomed blocked. Pirates are symptoms that injustice is talking place. As Brewin writes:
I want to argue that pirates emerge whenever economies become 'blocked.' To put it another way, wherever we see piracy we are looking at a system in trouble, a trading structure that is unjust...
In the hands of Brewin this understanding of piracy is a powerful tool to talk about our current political and economic systems. I encourage you to read Mutiny! to ponder his analysis.

For my purposes, I want to ponder how Jesus and the early church acted as pirates.

Specifically, I think you can make a really strong case that the reason Jesus was killed was because he was a pirate.

The conflict that brought about Jesus' death was his clash with the temple. Jesus' temple action was the precipitating event leading to his arrest and trial. And Jesus' claims about "tearing down the temple" were the main issues being debated during his trial before the Sanhedrin.

Jesus had been picking a fight with the temple for some time. What was the issue?

Following Brewin, the temple represented an economy that had become blocked. Access to God, community and salvation was being controlled by wealthy and politically powerful elites. Large portions of Jewish society--the poor and marginalized--were being shut out of God's kingdom economy.

And so, a pirate emerged.

Jesus began to offer forgiveness on the street, free of charge. And the problem with this was that the forgiveness Jesus offered was not legitimized or sanctioned by the temple elites. That was the question Jesus faced over and over again: "Who authorized you to do this?"

Jesus was a pirate, acting outside the structures and controls of empire. Jesus cracked open a blocked economy, granting access to those who had been excluded and marginalized.

As Brewin writes, pirates emerge to raise "merry hell" whenever "the voiceless find their path blocked."

Jesus, as a pirate, raised merry hell, and he was killed for it. For the kingdom had begun to unblock God's economy, letting in the voiceless, excluded and marginalized. And for that the empire executed Jesus as a criminal and bandit.

In all seriousness, Jesus was crucified for being a pirate. Jesus wasn't killed for being a kind human being. He was killed because he was offering access to the kingdom of God outside the boundaries of legitimizing authority.

So, raise a glass today for the pirates of the kingdom! Join the kingdom's mutiny against the empires of the world. The tide is up and the winds of the Spirit are blowing. Shake out the main sail and pull up the anchor.

Set sail and raise the kingdom's pirate flag.

Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 1, The Kingdom of God Is Like Pirate

This summer my son and I watched a pirate documentary series, and it put me in mind of a series I did five years ago entitled "Jesus and the Jolly Roger." The series was inspired by my friend Simon Nash who put me onto the book by Kester Brewin Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us. In thinking again about pirates this summer, I revisited those old posts and wanted to share them again:

I found Brewin's book utterly fascinating and fun, a hard to classify book that fuses theology, history, pop culture and economics. That said, this short series is not a review or accurate summary of Brewin's book, which is more about economics than theology. This series, rather, are riffs inspired by Brewin's take on pirates.

Let's start by asking the obvious question: Are you serious, pirates

Yes, I'm serious. I'm taking a cue from Jesus, his parables in particular. Jesus's style in telling his stories was often to jolt or startle his audience into new perceptions. In describing the kingdom of God Jesus would make comparisons that were, by turns, shocking, charming or bewildering.

The kingdom of God is like a son who asked his father for his half of the inheritance.

The kingdom of God is like a farmer going out and sowing seed.

The kingdom of God is like a manager ripping off his boss.

The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in field.

The kingdom of God is like a net full of fish, some valuable some trash.

The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet where everyone rejects the invitation.

The parables are not moral fables. Jesus used comparisons like these not to make a moral point but to draw our attention to some facet, some aspect of the kingdom of God.

So that's what we're going to do in this series.

The kingdom of God is like a pirate...