First Sunday of Advent


As regular readers know, over the years I've written and shared poems during the weeks of Advent. Last year, as a gift to readers, I gathered these poems into a PDF booklet entitled "Glory Here in Straw and Blood": Poems for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. I also wrote an introduction to the collection to share why I write these poems each year.

So this year, here on the first Sunday of Advent, I wanted to share again this booklet of poems, hoping that you find in them some blessing during this beautiful and holy season.

Here is a link to the PDF booklet and it is embedded below: 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 36, The Wager

418.

Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose everything. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist...

///

This is a selection from Pascal's most famous pensée, commonly called "the Wager." 

I expect many of you have heard of the Wager before. Pascal describes life as a bet: Does God exist or not exist? He then moves to the two payoffs of the bet: losing everything or winning everything. Having set out the game, Pascal thinks the choice is obvious: Wager that God exists.

The Wager is one of those arguments for the existence of God that, in my estimation, seems persuasive to those who are already convinced of God's existence. Less so to the unconvinced. That said, Pascal's Wager has impacted the faith journey of many people, and has played a role in religious conversions. 

I think one of the ways the argument hasn't aged well is in its focus upon two eternal outcomes. The way the Wager is often presented is by describing the payoffs of God's existence as either heaven or hell, depending upon your bet. In the secular West, however, describing our ultimate fates as between heaven or hell increasingly strikes many listeners as overwrought, too fundamentalist and mythological. Given that, I think most modern people are simply indifferent to Pascal's wager, unwilling to even consider the imaginative space the Wager inhabits, for to entertain the Wager already gives too much away. By and large, modern people lack the existential seriousness and urgency required to make one work through Pascal's decision tree.

Consequently, I think that simplistic and crude presentations of the Wager will generally fail to persuade modern people. Less because of skepticism than indifference. But the heart of the Wager, in my estimation, retains some potency. The key is a shift of emphasis. Traditionally, the Wager focuses upon winning or losing, the outcome in the afterlife. As I said, that focus might not play very well with modern people. But the other place to put the emphasis isn't upon the outcome but upon the betting.

Life is a bet, like it or not. As Pascal says, you have to put your money down, there's no way to avoid it, you are already committed to the game. Your entire stack of chips is pushed in for an "all-in" bet. You have to live against some eschatological backdrop. And most people do live with a backdrop, at least vaguely, working under some misty assumption that life has some afterlife, that what we do in life, in the language of the movie Gladiator, "echos in eternity." Again, what this echo looks like is metaphysically vague for most people, and it can be materialistically unpacked as leaving an enduring impact or legacy upon the lives of others. Regardless, we're pushing our life past our death, and it is this afterlife that imbues life with meaning and significance. Here's how William James, not a religious person, describes our existential situation:

If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

For most of us, life certainly does feel like a real fight where something is eternally gained for the universe. But that's a bet. The other bet is that your life is a private and meaningless game of theatricals from which you can withdraw at will. This is the Wager. And it's here, with the conviction that life is a high stakes game full of eschatological drama and pathos, where I think Pascal's Wager still holds some power. 

So for my part, I'm with Pascal. I bet on the fight.

"Bible Study" by Tony Hoagland

"Bible Study" by Tony Hoagland

Who would have imagined that I would have to go
a million miles away from the place where I was born
to find people who would love me?
And that I would go that distance and that I would find those people?

In the dream JoAnne was showing me how much arm to amputate
if your hand gets trapped in the gears of the machine;
if you acted fast, she said, you could save everything above the wrist.
You want to keep a really sharp blade close by, she said.

Now I raise that hand to scratch one of those nasty little
scabs on the back of my head, and we sit outside and watch
the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis
over western Illinois — which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.

Who knows, this might be the last good night of summer.
My broken nose is forming an idea of what’s for supper.
Hard to believe that death is just around the corner.
What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?

I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep,
still feeling the motion of the car inside my body,
I thought some wrongness in my self had made me that alone.

And God said, You are worth more to me
than one hundred sparrows
.
And when I read that, I wept.
And God said, Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?

And I looked at the mini bar
and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall
and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.

And God said, Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.

Maybe When God Calls Us It Feels Like A Pain

How do you know when God is calling you? Well I don’t know, in my own life I think that for years I tried to avoid loneliness, because it hurts to feel lonely. Now I’m beginning to recognize that maybe that’s what it feels like when God calls me. Maybe when God is calling, it hurts. Maybe when God calls us, it feels like a pain. And for years in my own life, I tried to drown that pain. I tried to avoid that pain. I tried to fill that ache with all kinds of what I can now look back on and see was a lot of stuff that was destroying me, corrupting me. And to listen to the call of God means to accept some of the emptiness that we have in our own lives. And rather than always trying to drown out that feeling of emptiness, instead of always trying to fill it with a lot of junk, to allow that to be a door through which we go to meet God.

And this is where I think moral purity begins to play in, that almost everything that corrupts us is something we use to fill some kind of ache, some kind of emptiness. And moral purity might be nothing more than a call to accept the ache and to accept the emptiness, and to allow ourselves to go through that to where God is calling us to go. And the joy of the Christian life is that those aches, those needs, that emptiness that we’re going to encounter because we’re human, is ultimately met in Christ, and that everything that we try to fill it with that is not Christ will never really fill it.

--Rich Mullins

God Gives Simply To Those In Need

There is nothing we need do or to be in particular in order for God to be giving to us. The distinction between good and bad, between Jew and Gentile--all the distinctions that typically determine the boundaries of human love and concern--fall away in that God gives simply to those in need, in order to address every respect in which they are in need, without concern for anything they especially are or have done to deserve it.

God's giving indeed breaks all the usual boundaries of closed communities. In creating the world, God goes outside the community of the divine Trinity of offer gifts to the stranger, to what is not divine. God offers the gift of Godself in partnership with a people by choosing those who are deprived and enslaved strangers within the community in which they reside. Jesus aligns himself with those without favor or good standing within the community of God's people; and brings all within the very life of the triune God despite all their difference, despite indeed the greatest difference of all that remains nonetheless, between divine and non-divine.

In order to be proper ministers of God's benefits, we would therefore need to recognize the common right of all to the goods of God, simply as creatures; we would have to recognize our obligation to advance the fortunes of that universal community of creatures that is the object of God's favor. God's giving is not owed to creatures but if those gifts are being given unconditionally by God to all in need, creatures are in fact owed the goods of God by those ministering such benefits, without being or having done anything in particular to deserve them. 

--Kathryn Tanner

The Geometry of Life

If you've followed my work closely since the publication of The Slavery of Death you'll have noted a dominant theme in my thinking regarding the notion of an "eccentric identity."

The notion of eccentricity grabbed me when I read David Kelsey's two-volume work Eccentric Existence. And I've tried to give Kelsey credit whenever I mention the idea. 

I've gone on to fuse Kelsey's idea with the work of Arthur McGill. McGill speaks about Jesus' "ecstatic identity" in contrast to an "identity of possession." That is, Jesus receives, as a gift, his identity from the Father rather than trying to grasp or possess his identity in an act of territorial ownership. Jesus' life is located outside of himself, in the Father. In my work, in connect McGill and Kelsey to speak not of "eccentric existence" or of an "ecstatic identity" but of an "eccentric identity."

Again, if you've been following me, you'll have noted that I've come to think of "eccentric identity" as a sort of master idea for spirituality and psychological flourishing. And if you know to look for it, the notion shows up over and over again across all sorts of Christian writers and thinkers. Most recently in my work, eccentric identity is at the heart of the chapter "The Good Catastrophe" in Hunting Magic Eels, how help has to come to us from the outside. 

A deepening of the idea comes when we connect the "eccentric identity" with Charles Taylor's analysis regarding the buffered self in the immanent frame. Specifically, with the loss of a transcendent dimension in the modern world the self is thrust back upon itself. The self cannot become "eccentric" because God is dead. That is, there is no transcendent ground of being, meaning, or value found outside of or beyond the self. Facing that void, the self must turn inward for direction and meaning. Modern existence is no longer eccentrically grounded but is, rather, interiorized. The symptoms of this "inward turn" are everywhere. The rise of therapeutic culture. Individualism. The sovereignty of the ego. 

Simply phrased, we're talking here about the geometry of life. Is the self incurvatus in se (curved inward) or excurvatus ex se (curved outward)? Is the self introverted or eccentric? 

The argument I've been making since The Slavery of Death, culminating in Hunting Magic Eels, is that your life boils down to this basic geometry.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 35, Reading the Bible from the Middle

252.

Two errors: 1. to take everything literally, 2. to take everything spiritually.

///

Pascal is talking about the Bible here, and in a very short sentence unpacks a whole lot of the problems we find among readers of Scripture. To the one side are the fundamentalists and evangelicals who read the Bible too literally. And to the other side are the progressives and mainline denominations who demythologize and wholly spiritualize the Bible. 

In many ways, my book Reviving Old Scratch, a very unique book on this subject, was an exercise in trying to keep to this balance when we talk about the devil. To be sure, depending upon where readers stood on the literal/spiritual continuum, readers felt I was either too literal about the devil in that book or too spiritual. 

Which I took as a good sign that I was in the middle of something. 

Deep Meaning, Self-Esteem and Nationalism

Thinking about yesterday's post, another location where you see a loss of "deep meaning" in the West is with nationalism.

I don't think people pay enough attention to how nationalism relates to self-esteem. Why, for example, are people so keen to "make America great again"? 

The answer is that, for most of human history, we achieved deep meaning by a connection with an ancestral people. Our tribe, kin, and clan. These relations gave us a history and roots.

But with the rise of the modern nation state, especially with such a rootless nation of immigrants like America, our identities have become increasingly associated less with a tribe than a state, a flag, a country. I am who I am--I matter, I have worth--because I'm an American. The status of the nation, its heroic narrative, confers status on its citizens. And if you don't have a lot going for you in life, you can cling to that, you can raise the flag. No one can demean or shame you, because you're a f***ing American.

By and large, Republicans get this dynamic more than Democrats. Donald Trump, especially, knew this. Without deep meaning Americans achieve self-esteem via the status of the nation. You elevate the stature of the nation and you elevate the worth, value, and dignity of its citizens. Make America great and you make its people great. There is a primal pull here, rooted deep in the limbic system. It's not abstract, but a raw, visceral ground of dignity. 

The point here is that you can't really understand political discourse without understanding the connection between nationalism and self-esteem. To be sure, this doesn't explain everything within the political landscape. For example, what about Democrats and self-esteem? (I'd argue that they are pursuing self-esteem through performative social justice activism where they cultivate a feeling of moral and intellectual superiority.) Still, if you can't see how people desire to take pride in their country, and why this thirst exists, you're not going to understand what is happening in America. 

Life Without Deep Meaning: You Are What You Like

I was having a discussion with my sons about how people become polarized around things like movies, music, books and video games. Anything related to consumer or entertainment culture can trigger massive amounts of conflict and hostility.

It put me in mind of Freddie deBoer's post "you aren't the sh*t you like." Deboer's argument is that, with the modern loss of what I'll call "deep meaning," our younger generations are increasingly defining themselves through the entertainments they like. Your identity, your particular and distinctive place in the world, becomes your collection of consumer preferences. As evidence of this, consider things like Gamergate and the insanity of Star Wars fans. Basically, because selfhood is being anchored to entertainment culture, differences of opinion about these products, like enjoying or not enjoying a particular Star Wars movie, triggers massive amounts of defensiveness and hostility. Identities are put at risk though the mere expression of different consumer preferences. If you don't like this movie you are passing judgment on me.

Here's a bit of deBoer's analysis:

Famously, the 20th century saw a collapse in meaning...Into that chaos of meaning came, of course, capitalism. If you can't generate real meaning and psychological security in your life, Amazon would be more than happy to sell it to you...

...I think a lot of nerds have fallen into the trap of thinking that liking Marvel movies is a personality. They have steeped themselves so fully inside these products that they have come to think of them when they think of themselves...And this is a mistake. Liking Star Wars simply isn't a solid foundation for your personality; the human psyche needs more fundamental codes and commitments to work with. Star Wars isn't in your control, so if you give yourself up to it and someone does something with it that you don't like, your whole world gets rocked. Ask the people who hated The Last Jedi. And these properties, no matter how sophisticated they are, or how beloved they are, just can't contain enough substance to anchor a sense of self.
This is true. Over the years I've increasingly observed my students defining themselves through their entertainment preferences, and therefore fighting amongst themselves, in an ego-defensive way, about those different preferences. If you like (or dislike) a particular band, for example, that tells us a massive amount about who you are as a person.

Deep meaning has collapsed in the post-Christian West, and facing that void entertainment preferences now anchor our a sense of self. Without deep meaning you are what you like.

Jesus Died Praying

Jesus died praying...He fashioned his death into an act of prayer, an act of worship...[And] his dying words fuse his words at the Supper...For the event of the Supper consists in Jesus sharing his body and blood, that is, his earthly existence; he gives and communicates himself. In other words, the event of the Supper is an anticipation of death, the transformation of death into an act of love...Death, which, by its very nature, is the end, the destruction of every communication, is changed by him into an act of self-communication; and this is man's redemption, for it signifies the triumph of love over death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end to words and to meaning, itself becomes a word, becomes a place where meaning communicates itself.

--Joseph Ratzinger

Everyone Gets To Where They Are Going

Jana and I were talking with our boys yesterday about their grandparents, Jana's mom and dad and my mom and dad. Those are four beautiful souls. And they get more and more beautiful as the years pass.

Those observations put me in mind of the idea behind C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which I summarized in our conversation as "Everyone gets to where they are going."

We're all heading somewhere. Our character is an arrow, a path, a trajectory. Like it or not, your life is aiming at something. There is as destination you are walking toward. And the ultimate "judgment" that is passed upon our life by God is simply the generosity that allows you to get to where you are going. That's C.S. Lewis' vision of hell in The Great Divorce, that if your life is about choosing yourself, well, that's what you get in the end, yourself. You will get to where you are going. That's your punishment. Yourself. Conversely, if you're choosing love, well, you will also get to where you are going.

So that's what I told my sons. Their grandparents have been heading in a direction for a very long time. They are getting to where they are going. That's why they are so beautiful. Other people, not so beautiful, they are also getting to where they are going. 

We are all, I said to my sons, getting to where we are going.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 34, This Is An Awareness Test

149.

There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.

///

The central idea behind Hunting Magic Eels is borrowed from Andrew Root's contention that faith in God in the modern world is less a crisis of belief than a form of attention blindness.

Attention blindness is a phenomenon described by the psychologist Daniel Simons. Perhaps you've come across one of the viral demonstrations of attention blindness on social media:

In Simon's research, 50% of participants miss seeing stimuli like the moonwalking bear. I missed the moonwalking bear the first time I watched the clip above. 

Root and Pascal's point, and as I argue in Hunting Magic Eels, is that when it comes to God there is something to see if you have the desire to see it, a willingness to redirect your attention to perceive the world in a new way. Refuse to adjust your attention however and, well, then there is nothing to see.

Prayer (I) by George Herbert

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

The Meaning of Sex: Part 4, A Love Like That

A few years ago I was on the campus of Belmont University, a guest speaker for their "Sex and Soul" week. The afternoon of my visit I met with a group of students in an auditorium to take their questions about sex. 

Interestingly, a lot of the questions I was asked assumed a cost/benefit approach to marriage. Was it worth it? It seems that the younger generations are increasingly approaching issues regarding sex and commitment as an economic issue, as looking for a return on investment. 

After a few question in this vein, I shared the following story about Hayley and Harrison Waldron.

In 2015 Hayley and Harrison were newly-weds, a year married, just out of college, visiting New York state for a friend's wedding. Harrison went out on a ride on an ATV. On the ride he had a horrific accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. In critical condition, Harrison was care flighted to a hospital in Erie, PA, where my parents live. 

Harrison survived the brain surgery, but his life was dramatically altered, cognitively and physically. And importantly for my college student audience at Belmont, Hayley faced a very different sort of love story from the one she had imagined, a martial future where she would become Harrison's primary nurse and caregiver.

The vow says, "In sickness and in health." But for a twenty-two year old, married just over a year, the vow was demanding a lot of Hayley. I don't know if anyone would have faulted Hayley if she did the cost/benefit analysis of her future and decided to step away from the marriage. But heroically and sacrificially, she didn't. Hayley remains Harrison's wife to this day. You can read about their story here. 

I've never met Hayley or Harrison, but I know their story, and have followed it since 2015, because my parents opened their home to the family while Harrison was cared for in Erie. 

So I shared Hayley and Harrison's story with the Belmont students, in the face of their economic approach to love and marriage, highlighting Hayley's choice to remain with her husband after his accident. And after sharing the story, here's what I asked the students at Belmont: "Raise your hand if you want to be loved the way Hayley loved Harrison. Specifically, if something traumatic ever happened to you, and you had to be cared for your whole life, raise your hand if you want a partner who wouldn't leave you but stay by your side."

Every hand in the room went up.

And then I asked this: "Now, raise your hand if you'd be willing to be the partner who stays, who makes the sacrifice to stick with your partner, to keep your promise, knowing you'll have to be a caregiver and nurse for the rest of your life."

And no hands go up.

I don't think that reaction was because the Belmont students were selfish. Rather, the question I had asked them--"Could you do what Hayley Waldron did?"--was so heavy, demanded so much, that none of us in the room could say, off the cuff, if we would have the courage and strength to make such a heroic choice. 

After a pause, I brought home my point.

"Of course, we all want to be loved liked Hayley loved and loves Harrison. It's our dream to be loved like that--heroically, sacrificially, and unconditionally. We all want to hear the promise "in sickness and in health" and know that the person making the promise to us is actually going to keep it. No matter what. We all want to be loved with a love like that.

"And yet, while we all want to be loved like that, are we willing to give it? We hope to be as fortunate as Harrison in love, but are we willing to be like Hayley? Because isn't that the great asymmetry facing us? That we desire, dream, hope, and want, even demand at times, a love that we are not willing to give?"

I would never question or blame someone for making a different choice from Hayley, or Hayley herself if she ever makes a different choice. My point here isn't to set a heroic moral ideal and demand we all hit the mark. My point is that there is a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the modern world when it comes to love, sex, and marriage. We are unwilling to become the lovers we are longing for. And if that's the case, no one will ever find love anywhere. Ever. For we are unwilling to give what we each expect to receive. 

The Christian sexual ethic boils down to this: Become the lover that you yourself wish for. And if you think that sounds easy and trite, it is not. Because the love you wish for isn't eros, it's agape. Just imagine yourself in Harrison's shoes. Imagine you are the one who is sick after the vow "in sickness and in health."

The moral logic of the Christian marital vow isn't moralistic or pietistic. It's not about creating or perpetrating a "purity culture." The logic of the vow is to get two people buying into the Golden Rule when it comes to love and sex, becoming the lover you wish for. You see the telos of this moral logic come into view in a story like Hayley and Harrison's. The meaning of sex is to get us to a love like that.

The Meaning of Sex: Part 3, The Crucible of Love

So, if eros is to be purified into agape, if my sexuality is also a location where I'm learning to be like Christ, how exactly is that accomplished?

The traditional Christian sexual ethic has always tied eros to an unbreakable covenantal commitment, the marital vow and promise. True, there are cases where the marriage can dissolve, but the ideal is that the promise will never be broken. As we've said in making the promise for generations, "Until death do us part."

Now, before going on, I do want to stop here and say this is a hard and wounding subject to many who have experienced divorce or great pain in a marriage. Some of our dearest Christian friends have experienced divorce. And we've had friends who have been in abusive marriages. So I have some faces here in front of me as I write about marital vows. 

Also, the point of this post isn't to shame anyone having sex outside of marriage. I'll get to this point at the end.

But I do want to share about the role of promises in spiritual formation. A promise creates a crucible of love. A promise creates an arena of spiritual formation where eros can be transformed into agape. The marital promise is that place where the selfish and greedy nature of eros experiences mortification to become less focused upon the self and more and more upon the other. For without promises, the tethers of covenantal fidelity and loyalty, the restless, insatiable demands of eros becomes a master and tyrant. Without the promise eros has no aim other than its own gratification. Where eros keeps curving inward upon the self, the promise keeps pulling you out of yourself and toward the beloved. The promise keeps eros directed toward agape. 

Given this, let me share what I think is the biggest problem with progressive Christian voices trying to update Christian sexual ethics: It's totally a young person's game. All the advice about sex that I've ever heard from progressive Christians imagines as its audience a young single person who has to make choices about sex before marriage or pornography consumption. Those are important topics, but is this all progressive Christians have to say about sex? Advice for unmarried young people?

For example, tomorrow Jana and I celebrate 30 years of marriage. We're in our fifties now. And here's something we've learned about eros and agape. Specifically, what does it mean to love one body well over the lifespan? Because our bodies aren't what they used to be. There is age, yes, but also medical issues to face and overcome. We are lovers, but we've also been nurses to each other. And through it all, our promise has kept us, and it's been a struggle as any older couple can tell you, to keep paying loving attention to these two bodies that have changed so much over the years. Over thirty years our eros has been purified, taking on the character of agape. Increasingly, we just want to take care of each other. And that's the meaning of sex that young people struggle to fathom.

And even for our Christian friends who have gotten divorced, their promises kept them trying longer than most. Maybe, in retrospect, too long for some. But even so you can see how the promises created a crucible for love, pushing our friends to determine during long seasons of discernment and martial therapy that they weren't being selfish or flippant in contemplating or finally seeking a divorce. That hard season of discernment was a form of loving each other to and through the divorce. The promise made them go the extra mile to try and make it work, causing them to wring every bit of selfishness out of the eventual decision to get a divorce. In short, that extra mile, as hard as it was, was also a crucible of spiritual formation. The promise makes us try when it would be easier to just walk away. 

To be clear, the stories of marriages and divorces are too complex to attempt a "one size fits all" cookie cutter ethic. I'm assuming readers will attempt to fit their particular experiences of sex, marriage, and divorce into the words of this post and share in the comments how their experience is the exception that proves what I'm saying is problematic or wrong. But my point here is actually quite modest. I'm not laying down any hard rule for sex outside of marriage, or making a comment about the acceptability of divorce.

What I am pointing out is that without covenantal loyalty and fidelity, without promises, eros has no place to be purified across the lifespan. Sex is more than what single twenty-year olds are up to in the bedroom. Sex is a marathon, not a sprint. The Christian sexual ethic is playing the long game with sex, thinking of lovers when they are 21 and when they are 81. For here is the good news about sex: Eros has a goal, a home, a place of rest, a location of joy and fulfillment that twenty-years olds can barely grasp. There is a beauty that is waiting for us. But we only find it in the crucible of love.

However, if you're still unconvinced, or don't think what I'm selling here will have any appeal to young people, one more post tomorrow to close my case.

The Meaning of Sex: Part 2, The Purification of Love

So, when I've shared about sex before progressive Christian audiences I've tried to put forth a vision that makes sex mean more while avoiding the pitfalls of stigma and shame.

I've done this by focusing upon the nature and shape of our love. Like all of our desires and loves eros needs Jesus. Eros must go on a Christological journey for it to find its true end. Eros must become cruciform and be transformed into agape.

Here is Joseph Ratzinger making this point:

Love involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier [when we first fell in love] ... Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking...instead it seeks the good of the beloved; it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.

[Love is] a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving...

[Love is] drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to 'be there for' the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.

I think this is the place to start with a progressive Christian conversation about sex. This is how to make sex mean more without piling on shame. Eros is an arena where we learn agape. Just like we're learning to be like Jesus in every arena of our life.

And this focus upon the shape of love can also bless conservative and evangelical Christians. For as we are embarrassingly aware, plagued as they have been with pornography, scandal, and divorce, conservative Christians marriages haven't been a real bright spot. This is mainly because the conservative Christian sexual ethic hasn't focused upon love but upon the When? and the Who? When can you have sex and with whom? What happened, in this attention to the exteriors of the sexual relationship, is what Jesus describes in the gospels: We clean the outside of the cup but leave the inside filthy and dirty. We've failed to speak about how eros isn't a playground of self-satisfaction but a training ground for service and sacrifice. We fail in making eros Christological and cruciform.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 33, Harming the Will

234.

God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will.

///

One of the points I make in Reviving Old Scratch is that a lot of us turn God into a Rubik's Cube we have to solve. Especially when it comes to something like the problem of evil.

As we know, the Bible can be less than helpful in answering some of these perennial mysteries. And so can Christian doctrine. For example, Rowan Williams has argued that the ancient creeds worked to make speaking about God more difficult. In nailing things down the creeds didn't dispel mysteries, they created them. Every heresy those ancient councils faced wanted to make speaking about God easier, more logical, coherent, and rational. But in each case--from the relationship of the Old Testament to the New to Christology to the Trinity--the creeds rejected the easier path and made speaking of God more difficult. 

Why?

Well, I think Pascal has put his finger here on a part of the answer. God wishes to move the will rather than the mind, for addressing the mind can poison the will. Christianity isn't a philosophy. It's not a path to enlightenment. It's not an intellectual puzzle to solve. It's not a book full of answers. Christianity is, rather, an arena of meaningful action. An arena that prioritizes the virtues of faith, hope, and love. 

For example, to go back to Reviving Old Scratch, when it comes to the problem of evil, the Bible doesn't give us a logical syllogism but what Greg Boyd calls "a theology of revolt." When it comes to evil the Bible addresses the will rather than the mind. The Bible doesn't give us a theodicy, it provides us with a call to meaningful action. 

The Meaning of Sex: Part 1, Less or More?

Over the years I've been asked to speak about sex, on college campuses, on podcasts, at churches and conferences. I've stood before large gatherings of college students taking questions from the audience about sex. 

Much of this conversation has been about what a Christian sexual ethic might look like given rapidly changing cultural norms about sex. Most of my audiences have been progressive Christians who, by and large, have adopted a reactionary stance toward the messages about sex they heard in conservative and evangelical communities. Specifically, there's great concern about stigma, shame, and guilt surrounding sexuality, especially from what has been called the "purity culture" of evangelicalism.

Wanting to address the shame experienced by many within evangelical purity culture, many progressive Christians have struggled to put forth a distinctively Christian sexual ethic. By and large, the progressive Christian sexual ethic has been tolerance and permissiveness. It seems that, among many progressive Christians, the only way to combat shame is to make sex mean less. Sex is just not that big a deal. That's the general recipe: lower the stakes. Make sex mean less and there will be less shame.

But for a lot of us this isn't a very satisfactory landing place. For two reasons.

First, there's nothing particularly or distinctively Christian about being more tolerant and permissive regarding sex. And for people like me that's a problem as we think that Jesus has some particular and distinctive "good news" about sexuality that you can't get anywhere else. You don't need Jesus to feel tolerant and permissive about sex. Everything in the world is already telling you to be tolerant and permissive. 

Second, the road forward for a Christian sexual ethic isn't for sex to mean less but for it to mean more. We don't want sex to become meaningless but meaningful and meaning-full. But that's the trick, isn't it? This is what we're all struggling to find. How do you make sex mean more without that bringing shame back into play? This, it seems to me, is the road forward for progressive Christians who have found themselves at a loss in saying anything distinctive, interesting or life-giving about sex. 

How do we make sex mean more without burdening people with shame?

To Join the New Thing

A point I've made repeatedly over the last few years, in books, blog posts, podcasts, and from church stages, is that one of the most pressing problems in our desire for social change has been the loss of a local imagination. 

Both progressive and conservative Christians are afflicted by this loss. For both groups, the only imagination we have for changing the world is Washington, DC. If we want to change the world the only lever to pull is electoral politics, winning elections. In short, the kingdom imagination of Christians has become wholly politicized.

But there are other levers to pull if you want to change the world for the better. As I've shared with many people, we must develop a more local social imagination. 

And this is where the role of a local church is so important. So many young people have abandoned the local church, and I do have a lot of sympathy for their reasons for doing so. That said, so many young people live as isolated persons, separated from local communities and local work. Young people spend all their time on social media and are, thus, pulled into and spellbound by national dramas. Important dramas, no doubt, but always national dramas that have little to do with the daily flesh and blood realities of our neighbors. For so many young people the only social powers that exist are themselves and Washington, a single individual the the state. Nothing in the middle, no local mediating institutions where our passions for social change can cash out in tangible work with real people. What's missing is the local church. 

Pondering this, I was put in mind of a quote from Gerhard Lohfink:

There must be a place--visible, comprehensible, subject to examination--where liberation and healing begin, that is, where the world can become what it is meant to be according to God's plan. Starting from this place, then, the new thing can spread abroad...Human beings must have the opportunity to view the new thing and test it. Then if they want to they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation and the story of peace that God is bringing into being.

I know a lot of churches have lost their way. To me, though, that doesn't recommend abandonment but investment. There is work to be done. Spiritual spaces need to be renewed and reclaimed. For if we abandon these local spaces we become isolated and spend our days doomscrolling, freaking out every four years over national elections. All that is left without a local imagination is social media and Washington. 

For too many young people, the isolated individual and the state are the only pieces left on their chess board. A lowly pawn and an all-powerful queen. But with a local imagination other pieces appear. More pawns, rooks, knights, and bishops. More moves to make, other ways to play the game, different paths to checkmate.

And if we turned back to our local churches, what should be the work? I think Lohfink gives us a nice mission statement. There must be a place in your neighborhood where liberation and healing begin. And observable place where people can view, with their own eyes, the new thing God is doing. 

Yes, I know, no church is perfect. But neither is Washington, DC! Neither is Twitter! You're not getting perfection in this life. But I'm relatively certain that there is some work being done in your town where humble people are doing humble, life-giving work. There is some place in your town where the new thing is coming into view, where liberation and healing are taking their first, tentative steps. Find this work and join it.

Love as Attention: You Must Become Like Children to Enter the Kingdom of God

Jesus famously declared that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of God. Like many of Jesus' sayings, the statement is enigmatic. How exactly are we to become like children? What characteristic are we supposed to focus on and emulate? 

A few years ago I wrote about what struck me most about children during a season of helping with afterschool childcare. 

As you're likely aware, watching children is very hard work. Children can be irritating and boring. They can be oppositional, sneaky, demanding, loud and sullen. But there are also so many joys in spending time with children.

I've always been fascinated with how Jesus paid attention to children. Jesus was good with kids. I think there's something very important about that. A sign. I've always said, "The best test of character I know of is watching how you treat children."

If I had to hazard a guess about what Jesus was getting at about becoming like children, I think children teach us the basics of being a human being. Children want you to bear witness, to behold, to see them. The requests you get over and over again are, "Look at me!" and "Watch this." and "Come here and see this." Most of what you do in being with children is beholding them. Seeing. Watching. Bearing witness.

Which requires two things. Presence and attention. You have to be there, and you have to have your eyes open.

And as I practice these skills in being with children I'm made aware that I'm being reeducated all over again in how to be a human being.

For what we want most from each other is presence and attention. That's the basic language of love. But we so rarely offer each other this gift. Mostly because we are all, at various times, sullen, oppositional, demanding, and boring. So we look away. And we lose track of each other.

And eventually, we discover that we've left each other all alone, and that love is in short supply.

Presence and attention. That's what I think made Jesus so good with children, and what he meant in looking to children as guides in spiritual formation. Attention is the economy of love. 

We Regard No One From a Human Point of View: Part 4, Cruciform Perception

Last post in this series, so let's recap J. Louis Martyn's seminal article "Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages."

First, we drew attention to Paul's apocalyptic worldview, his focus on God's actions in Christ to set the world right. 

Next, the apocalyptic invasion of Christ creates an epistemological crisis. Can we see the new thing God is doing? According to Paul, there is a way of knowing "according to the flesh" (kata sarka) that has passed away. For the people of God, "we regard no one from a human point of view."

Lastly, in 1 Corinthians Paul contrasts "unspiritual" knowing with knowing according to the Spirit. Martyn argues that the audiences in the Corinthian church would have agreed but misunderstood Paul's point, too quickly and triumphalistically identifying themselves as among "the spiritual."  

Which brings us to Martyn's final, critical point. If we no longer regard anyone from a human point of view how then should we view them? Yes, according to the Spirit, but what exactly does that mean? What is a properly spiritual way of knowing at the turn of the ages?

Recall, in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul doesn't bring in "the Spirit," as he had in 1 Corinthians, as a contrast to "the flesh." Wanting to clarify his meaning more precisely, to avoid a triumphal and prideful identification as "the spiritual," Paul turns to another contrast, Christ himself. A proper way of knowing isn't a flesh versus Spirit contrast but a flesh versus Christ contrast. Or, more properly, the proper way of knowing is via the Spirit so long as we read the Spirit Christologically.

Phrased differently, at the turn of the ages God's new creation comes into view as the Crucified. Paul's big point for the Corinthians is that their "spiritual insight" was not sufficiently cruciform. Let's look again a 2 Corinthians 5:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Following Martyn, notice how the language of "the spiritual" and "the Spirit" has been traded in for more thoroughgoing Christological language with the focus upon the cross. As Martyn summarizes: 

...[T]he implied opposite of knowing by the norm of the flesh is not knowing by the norm of the Spirit, but rather knowing kata stauron ('by the cross'). Those who recognize their life to be God's gift at the juncture of the ages recognize also that until they are completely and exclusively in the new age, their knowing by the Spirit can occur only in the form of knowing by the power of the cross. For until the parousia, the cross is and remains the epistemological crisis, and thus the norm by which one knows that the Spirit is none other than the Spirit of the crucified Christ.

The essential failure of the Corinthians consists in their inflexible determination to live somewhere other than in the cross. So also the essential flaw in their epistemology lies in their failure to view the cross as the absolute epistemological watershed. On a real cross in this world hangs God's own Messiah, the Lord of Glory! How can that be anything other than an epistemological crisis?

This remains a problem for us today. We want to associate "the Spirit" with power or elitism. But Paul punctures these illusions. Martyn continues:

Thus, the new way of knowing is not in some ethereal sense a spiritual way of knowing. It is not effected in a mystic trance, as the pseudo-apostles claimed, but rather right in the midst of rough-and-tumble life. And that rough-and-tumble life is not the private experience of an individual ecstatic...

...Thus, the one who knows by the Spirit cannot demonstrate that way of knowing by performing mighty works, congratulating himself on his individual prowess...

In the very next chapter, Paul gives a concrete example of seeing the world kata stauron, with "cruciform perception": 
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
This is key. Notice what Paul sets out as the authenticating evidence for the truthfulness of his apostleship: afflictions, beatings, imprisonment, sleepless nights, hunger, ignominy, poverty, sorrow, and dying. But also this, new creation breaking through: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, truthful speech, the Holy Spirit and the power of God. This is the mixed and confusing jumble we find at the juncture of the ages, where the old and new world collide. 

This is how the cross is our epistemological crisis and watershed. We don't expect to find glory, the Spirit, and the power of God in locations of brokenness and desolation. But that's exactly what the cross helps us to see. No longer do we look upon brokenness, suffering, shame and poverty from a human point of view. We gaze on the world with cruciform eyes. And as we do--Look!--the new creation comes into view.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 32, The Heart Has Its Reasons

423.

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. We know this in countless ways.

///

This is, perhaps, Pascal's most famous pensée, and I use it Hunting Magic Eels

As both Augustine and Dante teach, our heart is a compass as it restlessly seeks its true home. The heart is a guidance system. Follow it.

The heart is rationality. The heart has its reasons, its arguments, its logic. Be convinced by it.

The heart is perception, vision, and seeing. As Paul writes in Ephesians: "May the eyes of your heart be enlightened." You heart has eyes. Look through it. 


We Regard No One From a Human Point of View: Part 3, Triumphalistic Misunderstandings

Having argued for kara sarka being a form or mode of knowing in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17, J. Louis Martyn turns to how various audiences in Corinth would have heard Paul's claim.

Specifically, two audiences Martyn calls the "Enthusiasts" and the "Pseudo-Apostles" would have felt quite comfortable with Paul's description of knowing via "the flesh" versus knowing via "the Spirit." The Enthusiasts were those in the church who held proto-Gnostic ideas, viewing themselves as possessing special insight and wisdom. The Pseudo-Apostles were Jewish Christian teachers who had arrived and upset Paul's work in the church (see 2 Cor. 11.12-15). Both groups would have remembered Paul contrasting two modes of knowing in his prior letter to the church, the distinction between spiritual and unspiritual people:

These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2.10-16)
As Martyn argues, surely the Corinthians would have had this passage in mind when they heard 2 Corinthians 5.16-17. That is to say, they would have readily agreed that there were spiritual and unspiritual people, and that the unspiritual know kata sarka, according to the flesh. Spiritual people, by contrast, know according to the Spirit. And, of course, the Corinthian audiences, both the Enthusiasts and the Pseudo-Apostles, would have identified themselves as being in the spiritual group. 

This presents a bit of a challenge for Paul, and for us today I'd argue. Specifically, there can be a triumphalism in seeing oneself as "spiritual," as possessing special spiritual insight or knowledge. This is a chronic temptation among pentecostals and charismatics, Christian groups who can grow a bit too optimistic and certain about their prophetic insights. The Corinthians had a similar problem. 

As Martyn argues, the Corinthians would have misunderstood Paul's point in 1 Corinthians, interpreting him trumphalistically, as seeing themselves as wholly separated from the old age and totally in the new. For Paul, that contrast is too neat and tidy. We live, rather, at the turn of the ages, at the juncture. That complicates the spiritual versus unspiritual distinction. At the turn of the ages, where the old and new are colliding, "spiritual knowledge" might not be obvious to us. In fact, it isn't. Paul, therefore, is very, very keen that the Corinthians don't view knowing via "the Spirit" trimphalistically as they were in the habit of doing, and growing proud as a consequence. Consequently, wanting to avoid triumphalistic misunderstandings in his follow-up letter in 2 Corinthians Paul doesn't contrast "the flesh" with "the spirit" as he had earlier. And if that's the case, what is this new mode of knowing? If not a "spiritual" knowledge, what sort of knowledge points us toward the new creation? 

We'll finish up this series with an answer to that question in the final post.

We Regard No One From a Human Point of View: Part 2, Kata Sarka

One of the first things J. Louis Martyn tackles in his seminal work on Paul's apocalyptic theology "Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages" is the meaning of the Greek phrase kata sarka in 1 Corinthians 5.16-17. 

In English translations kata sarka is translated as "according to the flesh" (ESV), "from a human point of view" (NRSV, NLT, NET), and "from a worldly point of view" (NIV) or "a worldly perspective" (CSB). 

The issue Martyn faces is if kata sarka should be translated adjectivally or adverbally. If an adjective kata sarka modifies "no one" and "Christ" in the text. In that reading, Paul would be saying he knows no person (or Christ) "in the flesh." If, however, used adverbially kata sarka modifies the verb "to know." In that reading, as Martyn writes, "Paul is speaking about ways of knowing. He now knows no one in a fleshly way; if he once knew Christ in a fleshly way, he knows him in that manner no longer."

To answer the question, Martyn surveys 2 Corinthians 2-6, the context of the text in question, gathering up evidences that Paul saw the Christ-event as the decisive event in cosmic history, a "turning of the ages" from old to new. The Christ-event, then, creates an epistemological crisis, demands a new way of seeing. Consider one of the texts Martyn points to, 2 Corinthians 2.14-17: 

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

Notice the point from the last post. The call here isn't for repentance. The focus of action is upon the activity and victory of Christ who "leads us in triumphal procession." But the Christ-event requires seeing properly. Or, rather, smelling properly. For some, Christ smells like death. To others, Christ smells like life. Note the perceptual framing, which is less about repentance than seeing (or smelling!) the new thing God is doing. The fragrance of Christ spreads through the world and to some it smells like rot and to others the sweetest perfume. Two ages, one moving toward life and the other perishing, are now existing side by side and the call is to discern which world or age you belong to.

Following this thread, from chapters 2 to 6, Martyn concludes that kata sarka is being used adverbially in 5.16-17. What Paul is describing in this critical passage concerns epistemology, a way of knowing at the turn of the ages.

We Regard No One From a Human Point of View: Part 1, Apocalyptic Epistemology

One of the most influential articles that established an apocalyptic reading of Paul was J. Louis Martyn's "Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages," published in 1967. I'd like to take a few posts to summarize this seminal work.

Martyn's analysis is focused on the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5.16-17:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
What does Paul mean when he says, "We regard no one from a human point of view"? What is this "human view" and how, exactly, is that view changed into something different? And what does Paul mean by "new creation"?
 
To set the table for how Martyn is going to attempt to answer these questions, John Barclay, Joel Marcus, and John Riches, in their introductory comments in a volume devoted to Martyn, make the following observation:
Paul's letters reflect a keen awareness of the fact that in the human scene something is terribly wrong, and needs therefore to be set right...When we sense this ominously dark side to the human scene, as Paul perceives it, and when we note that Paul takes as his major theme the announcing of good news, we are not surprised to find him repeatedly referring to the setting right of that which has gone wrong.

We may be surprised, however, to find in Paul's letters virtually no use of certain words we often employ in connection with righting what is wrong. When he speaks to human beings of their wickedness, should he not call on them to repent? And should he not say that, after repenting, they can be assured of the peace and rightness that comes with forgiveness? Yet, in all of his references to the righting of what has gone wrong, Paul makes no significant reference to repentance and forgiveness. 
If not upon repentance and forgiveness, then what does Paul focus on? What sets the world right? 

According to Paul, what sets the world right is the liberating actions of God to set humanity free from dark enslaving powers. This focus upon God's liberating activity is what marks Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. 

What is crucial for human persons, then, as observed in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17, is less about forgiveness than epistemology. Can we see the new thing God has done and is doing?

Notice in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17 what sets the world right isn't human action but the arrival of God's "new creation." Paul's concern, then, is less moral than perceptual. Are we still regarding the world, and Christ especially, from "a human point of view"? Or can we see, as Paul encourages, that everything has been made new? 

This is how an apocalyptic reading of Paul comes to focus upon epistemology

God has done a new thing. Can you see it? That is the crucial question.

The Secret Kindness of God

The whole world is preserved, and every part of it keeps its place, by the will and decree of Him, whose power, above and below, is everywhere diffused. Though we live on bread, we must not ascribe the support of life to the power of bread, but to the secret kindness, by which God imparts to bread the quality of nourishing our bodies.

           --John Calvin

This quote from Calvin struck me as I reflect upon Paul's sermon in Athens, that in God we live, move, and have our being. All of life is infused with the secret kindness of God.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 31, Avoid the False Dichotomies

253.

Two extremes: to exclude reason, to admit reason only.

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One of the things that bothers me about almost every political or theological debate is that they always end up with a false dichotomy. If you are for X, then you have to be against Y. If W is important, then you're saying Z is unimportant. If you say Q is good, then P is bad.

This is why our politics is such a mess. Politics is the art of balancing competing goods. Take vaccine mandates. On the one hand, is it good, as a public health measure, to have a large proportion of the population vaccinated? Answer: Of course that is a good thing. It saves lives. On the other hand, should your body be protected from any invasions from the government? Answer: Of course. No one wants to live in a world where the government has total control over your body.

Trouble is, during a pandemic, we have to balance these goods, public health and mortality rates against individual liberty and bodily autonomy. 

Now, I'm not here to tell you how to balance those goods. I've got better things to do today than debate people on the internet. My point is that we can't see the good as the good. That is to say, we demonize the good the other side represents. We force the debate into a false dichotomy, that, for example, if you're for vaccine mandates you hate liberty. Or vice versa. 

This a troubling situation because when you demonize the good you're blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. When you demonize the good you can't tell up from down, or left from right, morally speaking. When you demonize the good with these false dichotomies you lose your ability for moral choice and navigation. You're lost.

Anyway, back to Pascal's point. In the religious life we often pit reason and emotion against each other. For example, if you're a charismatic you're unreasonable, a holy roller, an emotional leaf in the wind. But you can be charismatic and theologically sound and rigorous. Don't use false dichotomies to create theological straw men.

In short, faith needs to be reasonable. It really does. But we must also take care not to make reason the sole criterion of faith. It's not reason versus unreason, it's not an either/or. 

Shame and the Kindness of God

Shame isn't very popular. Neither is guilt. But I can't shake the conviction that, at root, these emotions aren't pathological. In fact, they ground our humanity. If we lost shame and guilt we wouldn't be human, and people who lack a capacity for shame and guilt have a name. We call them sociopaths.

To be sure, guilt and shame can become pathological. But what I'm talking about is the innate goodness of these emotions, how they provide us with emotional information when we've caused harm. We need that information. Otherwise, we'd do even more harm.

If you're like me, you are haunted by shame and guilt. Memories. But what I don't want is for someone to tell me that these feelings don't matter. I do not want evasion or minimizing. I want and need an honest accounting. 

To me, that is what the cross gives me. An honest picture of my guilt and shame. I see in the cross, along with all humanity, all the damage and harm that I have done. There I stand, a sinner. 

And yet there, in that exact same space, I am met with the kindness of God. Mercy, grace, and forgiveness. And it's the juxtaposition and intersection of these two experiences which creates the overwhelming power of the Christian faith. For it is precisely where I'm stripped naked, where my shame is wholly exposed, where all the sad, hard truths are shouted aloud, and all the skeletons drug out of my closet and into the daylight, precisely there I am met with tenderness and embraced in love.

This, I submit, is the great power of the cross. The cross exposes our shame and guilt. We stand before it as sinners. No minimization, so secrets, no evasion. And precisely there, in that moment, we are met with the kindness of God. Just look at the cross, both things are happening simultaneously. Shame and kindness meet.

Calvary as Theophany: Post-Script 2, Salvation Is the Future

I'd like to add a post-script to yesterday's post-script regarding "a theology of drowning."

The theological point of that post was that God's love and our salvation are two distinct things. God can love us but that doesn't necessarily mean we're saved. 

Another way to frame this is to ponder those curious disjoints in the New Testament regarding reconciliation with God and being saved. It's easiest to see this in how salvation is described for God's people in the future tense. That is to say, I've been justified and reconciled with God (past tense), but salvation has not yet been secured (future tense). Some examples:

2 Corinthians 2:15
For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.

Note the disjoint. Currently, we're the pleasing aroma of Christ. So God's love is not the question. Yet we are still "being saved." Clearly, God's affection for us is something different from the full experience of salvation. 

Another example:

Romans 13:11
And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed

Again, this sentence is addressed to believers ("when we first believed"). So God's love for this group isn't at issue. But salvation remains something to be realized: "Our salvation is nearer now."

And a final, famous example:

Philippians 2:12
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

It couldn't be more clear. The "beloved" still have to "work out" their salvation. 

There are many more examples of this love/salvation disjoint. But as I pointed out in the last post, our habit is to conflate the two. Theologically, we tend to assume reconciliation with God is synonymous with salvation. And in many texts, they are. Reconciliation and justification are clearly related to salvation. But as I've illustrated here, salvation is often described as a work in progress, as something in the future. 

This supports the "theology of drowning" argument I made in the last post. God loves us, from the foundation of the world God loves us. But salvation is a process, something that needs to be worked on, realized and brought to fruition. 

Just knowing God loves you isn't enough.

Calvary as Theophany: Post-Script, A Theology of Drowning

Having finished what I planned for this short series I pondered how the last post might be received, the confusions and questions it might have kicked up. So, one more post to reflect a bit more on the contrast between God's love and salvation. 

Basically, I offer you here a theology of drowning.

The point of the last post was that there is a distinction between God's love and our salvation. The two are different. That claim can seem both obvious and strange.

On the one hand, the claim would seem obvious to many Christians. Of course God loves everyone, but not everyone is saved because they haven't accepted God's offer of grace.

And yet, on the other hand, the argument I made in Parts 1 and 2 of this series is that, since Jesus is the Lamb Slain from the Foundation of the World, you are already under grace, already forgiven. You don't need to "change" how God feels about you. God doesn't change, and He's always loved and forgiven you.

That's a strange claim to some because, if this is indeed the case, then all of humanity, it would seem, is already saved. Right? If we've been already forgiven, if we're already under grace, then we're already saved.

This is confusing. How can we be saying that everyone is already saved but that we still need saving?

Here's where the confusion comes from. Because penal substitutionary atonement has been the dominant model of atonement most Christians assume that our primary predicament is guilt and the judgement of God. So what saves us is grace. Salvation is reduced to forgiveness

And now we can see the problem more clearly. Specifically, penal substitutionary atonement trains you to think that God is your problem, how God feels about you. Salvation is solving your God problem. Solve that, get on God's good side, and you're good to go.

But what I've claimed in Parts 1 and 2 is that you don't have a God problem, that you've never had a God problem. That's how Calvary is a theophany. What the cross reveals to us isn't the "solution" to our God problem, but the revelation of how God has always felt about you. God doesn't need to submit to some sort of atonement rigamarole to forgive you. God is love, intrinsically, eternally, and unchangingly. 

But if this is the case, if we don't have a God problem, then isn't everyone already saved? Since God unconditionally loves everyone already we're all good to go, right? 

And it's here, right here, dear reader, where I think both the evangelicals and progressives start to lose their way.

Evangelicals lose their way because they see in Scripture the language of God's wrath and judgment. Clearly, then, the world still has a God problem on their hands. Consequently, evangelicals will question Parts 1 and 2 of this series, my claim that you don't, and never had, a God problem. In short, because they reduce salvation to forgiveness evangelicals are chronically tempted to frame salvation as a God problem, and push back on any notion that you don't. 

Progressive Christians have a different problem. Progressives, by and large, agree with Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Progressives proclaim that no one has a God problem, because God loves everyone and always has. The trouble progressive Christians will have with me is Part 3, my suggestion that, yes, God loves you, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're saved. Basically, for progressive Christians, if we have no God problem we have no problem at all. 

By and large this assumption has left progressive Christians confused about things like evangelism and the role of the church. Why can't progressive Christians grow churches? Well, because the gospel they take into an unbelieving world is basically this, "We are here to proclaim to you that you have no God problem. God already loves and forgives you!" And the unbelieving world looks up and says, "Um, thank you, I guess? I wasn't really worried about God in the first place, but I thanks for letting me know I have nothing to worry about from your imaginary friend." And then everyone goes about their business. 

That's the problem with progressive Christianity in a nutshell. The gospel of progressive Christianity is that no one has a God problem and, therefore, no one need mind God at all. Nothing to see here! As far as God is concerned, I'm okay and you're okay, so carry on everyone. This is how progressive Christianity becomes functionally atheistic, by making God irrelevant. 

So, problems to both sides. Evangelicals keep insisting you have a God problem when you don't. And progressive Christians, while correct that you don't have God problem, can't figure out what God is for if he's not your problem.

The issue with both positions, evangelical and progressive, is that we've reduced the drama of salvation to our relationship with God. Again, mainly due to the primacy of penal visions of atonement, salvation just is forgiveness. And when salvation is reduced to your relationship with God you swing between the evangelical and progressive errors. Evangelicals keep insisting a problem exists with that relationship, while progressives proclaim the relationship to be fine but can't think of why that relationship matters in the first place. 

So, what's the answer here? 

The answer is that we need to widen and deepen our view about what the New Testament means by salvation. Salvation is more than our relationship with God. Consider 1 Timothy 2.4, which proclaims that God "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Clearly, you don't have a God problem. God loves everyone and desires to save everyone. 

So then why isn't everyone, automatically, saved? If God desires our salvation, isn't that enough? Well, yeah, if the only issue was God's love then, yes, that would be enough. Because God does love you. But the problem here is that salvation isn't just about God's love. Salvation is also about God's rescue.

Let me come at this from another angle. The gospel isn't just a love letter from God. To be clear, it is that. Calvary is a theophany, God's Love Letter to us come into view. That's my point in Parts 1 and 2. But the gospel is also described as power. That's the point of Part 3. Here's Paul in Romans 1.6: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."

Why power? If the gospel is just the message that God loves you, why the need for power? More specifically, why is the gospel the power for salvation? Why is salvation more than God writing "I LOVE YOU!" in big rainbow letters in the sky? 

Well, we need power because we're drowning. It's damned little consolation to be drowning and hear someone standing at the shore shouting, "I love you!" We'd yell back, "Thank you, very much! But assurances of your affection isn't what I'm needing right now. I need saving!" 

See the difference? 

But the question remains: How, and why exactly, are we drowning?

Again, both the evangelicals and progressives get confused on this point because both can't escape the notion that drowning is a God problem. This creates the muddled, mixed message of evangelicalism, where God is both drowning you and rescuing you; God is a lifeguard with dissociative identity disorder. Progressives, for their part, shout to drowning people "God loves you!" while people go under the waves. To be clear, progressives aren't that heartless. In their own minds, progressives don't think anyone is drowning and so spend their days shouting "You're not drowning!" to people standing on dry land. 

Both groups miss the point, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, that there is a "third power" at work in the drama of salvation. The reason we are drowning is due to the power of Sin, Death and the Devil. This is why the gospel message is more than a proclamation of God's affection for us but the invasion of God's power into our lives. Salvation is more than forgiveness, the solution to your God problem. Salvation is rescue, emancipation, freedom and liberation from dark cosmic powers. God loves you, yes, and He's trying to save you.

Hopefully you can see here how a fuller vision of salvation would help both evangelicals and progressives. A better theology of drowning would help evangelicals to stop blaming God for drowning us. And a better theology of drowning would help progressives start throwing some life preservers.