The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 53, When Christ Calls a Man, He Bids Him Come and Die

After realizing that Frodo was still alive when captured by the orcs, Sam goes to save his Master. A rescue operation made easier when the orcs turn against and kill each other from envy and rivalry triggered by the discovery of Frodo's Mithril mail-shirt.

Reunited, Frodo and Sam set out into the desolation of Mordor, to cross the long miles to Mount Doom.

It is a very long way, and very hard going. There's nothing to eat in the bleak landscape, and no safe water to drink. Checking their supplies Sam makes the calculation. They only have enough food and water to make it to Mount Doom. There is not enough to make a return trip. If they get to Mount Doom, and somehow complete their mission, that will be their last and final act. Even if they succeed, they will die in the attempt.

Sam tried to guess the distances and to decide what way they ought to take. 'It looks every step of fifty miles," he muttered gloomily, staring at the threatening mountain, 'and that'll take a week, if it takes a day, with Mr. Frodo as he is.' He shook his head, and as he worked things out, slowly a new dark thought grew in his mind. Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought of their return. But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provision would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert. There would be no return.

'So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,' thought Sam: 'to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all...'

But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.

The most well-known quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship is, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." That's what I think of when I stand with Sam in this moment. Sam realizes he's been called to die. That has been the mission all along. 

And facing this, Sam commits to the path. Sam's dream of returning home dissolves, but it is transformed into a new strength. It reminds me of Jesus' words in the gospels, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." It's a one-way ticket.

Life with God is an "all in" enterprise. You can't kinda, sorta walk the path to Golgotha. You either pick up the cross, or you don't. You can't kinda, sorta love someone unconditionally. You either love them, and all the sacrifice unconditional love entails, or you don't. Sam is either giving his life away to get Frodo to Mount Doom, or he's turning around. 

All this is why our first movement toward God is described as a death, as total renunciation and surrender. Total loss. The strings cut. Every kinda, sorta, coulda, woulda, shoulda excuse laid to rest and buried. The cross lifted and set to the shoulder. In the words of St. Paul: 

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Freed From our Subjectivities

In May, during the COVID lockdowns, I took great pleasure following the "Reading Barth Together" webinars done by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas as they read and talked through Barth's Dogmatics in Outline.

One of the moments in their conversation that I greatly enjoyed was from Session 2. Willimon asks Hauerwas about what is fresh or radical in Barth's theology. Hauerwas responds that "Barth frees us from our subjectivities." It's a comment that highlights a theme that runs through their entire conversation.   

Ever since Descartes' turn inward in radical doubt we've been trapped in our subjectivies, imprisoned within our wavering emotions, fractured thinking, broken self-images, inner demons, neurotic ruminations, anxious obsessions, uncontrollable impulses, and wayward desires. We're a mess. And then we try to trap God in this prison as well. We fret over if we believe in God anymore, and drown under the weight of our questions and doubts. 

Trapped in our subjectivites, we've convinced ourselves that what matters in life is what we think of God. But the situation is really quite the opposite. What matters in life is what God thinks of us.

A Lying Spirit Is Sent to the Evangelical Prophets

In the weeks leading up the election all the way through the tragic events last week at the Capital building, so many evangelicals reported having received prophetic messages telling them that Trump would remain President for a second term. 

Many have commented on just how certain evangelicals are when they receive a "prophecy." There is no doubt, no pause for discernment. Just rock solid conviction.

This is profoundly strange. I really wish more evangelicals would read their Bibles. Because any cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals that Israel's prophets were far from being reliable, especially in instances where Israel had wicked rulers like Donald Trump. 

Consider 1 Kings 22. Wicked king Ahab calls in Israel's prophets to determine if he should go to war. To a person, every prophet predicts a great victory. Just like every prophet on the stage at Eric Metaxas' Jericho March and every wack job evangelical pastor who shared prophecies from their pulpits.

With every prophet in lockstep agreement in 1 Kings 22 you'd think that victory was assured for Ahab. Just like those Jesus-flag waving evangelicals expected when they assaulted the Capital building. God was with them! All the prophets said so!

But disaster awaited Ahab, just like disaster awaited the evangelical insurrectionists on Capital hill. But how could that be? How could all the Lord's prophets be wrong?

Well, as the story unfolds in 1 Kings, God sent a lying spirit to the prophets to lead Ahab to disaster. 

Let me make some very minor edits to 1 Kings 22 to make this preach:

And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Trump and his followers, that they may go up and fall at the Capital?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice them.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold American evangelicals, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”

Faith and Mental Illness: Epilogue, The Causal Joint

After finishing this series I discovered the work of the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer on what he calls "the causal joint" in his book Faith and Speculation. The causal joint has some application to our reflections on faith and mental health.

One of the things Farrer is wrestling with in Faith and Speculation is how divine and human agency work together. How does the Infinite and the finite interact? What is the "causal joint" between the two?

We can think of two different gears in motion, God and the human mind. How, exactly, do those gears come together? When we think of the Holy Spirit helping our mental well-being, how is that happening? When God gives me peace in the midst of my anxiety is God changing the neurons in my brain? Has God's gear engaged the gears of my brain?

The trouble with this gear analogy, as Farrer points out and as we've discussed in this series, is that it tempts us to think of God's causality in creaturely terms. And when we do that, God's causality enters into a competitive relation with the world, God's gear pushing aside my gears. It's a non-zero sum dynamic, either God or me as the cause.

So we have to reject the gear metaphor, and all such metaphors of the causal joint that embed God in competitive relations with the world. As we've repeatedly pointed out in this series, God's causality is qualitatively different from creaturely causes. God differs differently.

Which brings us to one of Farrer's conclusions in Faith and Speculation. Because one part of the causal joint is Infinite the causal joint cannot be specified, not in any creaturely terms. We just don't, and won't ever, have a mechanistic picture of God's impact upon our minds and brains. This is Tanner's point that the union of the human and divine has an apophatic aspect. The causal joint is veiled in mystery. And any attempt to illuminate the causal joint is doomed to fail as our only metaphors for causality will always be creaturely metaphors, images of two gears coming together, billiard balls colliding, or dominoes falling. 

Farrer's point, that the causal joint is hidden and shrouded in apophatic mystery, explains why it is difficult to describe God's relationship to our mental health as "therapeutic" or as a "coping strategy." When we conceive of therapy or coping strategies our minds are working with a creaturely framing of how therapy or a coping strategy "works" in helping us along on our mental health journey. But God, however, doesn't "work" in our mental health journey like therapy or a coping strategy. 

At best, we can only observe the downstream effects of the causal joint. And those effects can be described as "therapeutic." Because of God's presence and activity in our lives we experience peace, courage, renewed hope, and strength for the day. Precisely how God brings about these effects in our lives--the causal joint--we cannot say with any psychological or neurological certainty or precision. And yet, we know the causal joint exists because when we turn to God in prayer, surrender, and dependence we feel and experience that Life which sustains and empowers us. This turn to God isn't "therapeutic" in any way that we might understand that word, but the effects of this turn upon our lives are tangible and real, the deepest foundation of our peace, wholeness and joy.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 52, One Small Garden

The battle of Gondor won, Gandalf and Aragorn proceed with a desperate plan. Knowing that they can never win a military campaign against Sauron, their only hope is to move against Mordor in the hope of attracting Sauron's attention, giving Frodo and Sam the opportunity to make their way to Mount Doom. 

Meanwhile, our attention returns to Sam's plight. Frodo has been captured and Sam assumes the burden of the Ring. And Sam, like so many others before him in the story, now has to face his own temptations to power:

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.

It's a moment of crisis, but Sam passes the test. In one of the most important passages of the book, Tolkien writes of Sam's victory:

In that hour of trial it was his love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

In this passage we find one of the clearest descriptions of Tolkien's vision. So many times we've seen the vision of the Ring, the lust and thirst for power. But we've never this clearly seen what Tolkien sets out as the alternative, a political and social vision of what it might mean to reject the Ring, articulated in positive, affirming tones. But here, in Sam's victory, we finally see it: The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

There has been a vast amount of commentary about Tolkien's political vision. It's a beautiful vision, and the witness of Wendell Berry comes to mind. But is Tolkien's vision, if cashed out politically, too agrarian? Is it too nostalgic?

I confess, I lack competence to say anything very insightful about urbanization, industrialization, environmental sustainability, and agricultural reform. But I can say something about the psychology at work in Sam's vision.

If the Ring tempts us with heroism--Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age--Sam's "plain hobbit-sense" points us toward smaller, humbler things. As Henri Nouwen once observed, the three great temptations of the age are the temptations to be powerful, spectacular, and relevant. These are the temptations of the Ring. The call of Jesus, by contrast, is the call to what Nouwen describes as "downward mobility." 

And yet, as I describe in The Slavery of Death, this journey toward smallness and humility is hard on our self-esteem. Brene Brown calls it "the shame-based fear of being ordinary." This shame is also a manifestation of the Ring. Brown describes it as "the never enough problem," never powerful, spectacular, and relevant enough.    

My point is that every morning, as we rise to face a new day, we stand with Sam and the Ring in our hand. Two possible lives, two possible paths, two possible days unfold before us. The path of heroism, the striving to be powerful, spectacular, and relevant. And the path of an ordinary, smaller, humbler life, caring for your "one small garden," fidelity to the small tasks of the day and to the people God has put in your life. 

Rejecting the Ring is embracing the admonition of 1 Thessalonians 4:11, "make it your ambition to lead a quiet life." I love that contrast, make it your ambition to lead a quiet life. Would that more had such great and grand ambitions. To tend our one small garden with plain old hobbit-sense.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 8, Sin, Virtue, and Grace

 

Let me clean up something from the last post.

A key point that Tanner makes when it comes to human nature is that we don't have to think of sin as ruining human nature. Rather, sin severs our connection with God, causing us to lose access to grace wherever we find ourselves on our mental health journey. 

And yet, sin does more than sever us from God. Sin does do damage to creaturely existence. The important thing to note, however, following Kathryn Tanner, is that sin doesn't separate us from God's presence, a connection secured and guaranteed to us by the Incarnation.  

So we can think of sin as operating in two different registers. 

The first register is that of creaturely stewardship. Sin, in this view, is a failure of stewardship, a failure of care. If you don't take care of your house, car or yard it all goes to hell. The same goes for your physical and psychological health. Following from what we've shared before about Tanner's "weak imaging" of God, there is a logic inherent in creaturely existence that reflects back the image of God. When God asks Adam to care for the garden, as one created in God's image, we can note that Adam himself was a part of that garden he was to care for. That is, beyond plants and animals, Adam had to take care of himself, physically, psychologically, and relationally. And the logics of stewardship at work in the garden, from horticulture to animal husbandry to physical health to mental wellness, remain available and open to investigation as they have always been. Given the logic of creation there is an implicit technology available. Since Adam, we've learned a lot about gardening, medicine, and therapy. And these discoveries help us in our stewardship of creation, our bodies, and our psychological health. 

The technology of human flourishing is the study of virtue, the healthy habits and mental dispositions that lead to a happy, well-adjusted life. These virtues are matters of stewardship, how to best care for your body and mind. Sin, in this view, is a failure of stewardship, a failure of virtue, a failure of self-care. 

Importantly, one doesn't need to appeal to religion to point any of this out. Again, the logics at work are intrinsic to creation, available and accessible to all given how God put the world together. 

And yet, we can also think of sin in a different register, the way Tanner has described sin as severing our connection with God. Specifically, there are virtues that push beyond creaturely self-care, beyond mere failures of stewardship. 

In the Christian tradition there are what are called the "theological virtues." These virtues are faith, hope, and love. These virtues are theological in that they aren't concerned with creaturely stewardship, they are concerned with our connection to God. To use a metaphor from the last post, these virtues plug us into God and flip the light switch on. Sin in relation to these virtues is less about damaging creation and ourselves than turning away from God. True, turning away from God can lead to failures of stewardship. So there is link. 

Regardless, the point of making this distinction is that it helps us see that psychological science and practice has an integrity on its own, as a creational technology, independent of faith. Therapy is simply a school of self-stewardship, learning the habits to care for yourself and others. And anyone can benefit from this school. It's not unlike taking a class in gardening, only in this school the garden you're learning to care for is your own body, mind, and social relationships.

But there's more to life than mere stewardship, there is the abundant life found only in God. Beyond the therapeutic there is the grace and Life available to you in God. Sin isn't just not taking proper care of yourself, sin is also turning away from the grace available to you in Christ through faith, hope, and love.

Therapy matters. And so does God.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 7, Solving the Paradoxes

In a recent series of posts I introduced Kathryn Tanner's notion of "strong" versus "weak" imaging of God. Recall the key question: What does it mean that humans reflect the "image of God"?

For Tanner, a "weak" version of this image is how creaturely human characteristics, such as rationality or creativity, might reflect the image of God. For example, God is a Creator and we humans are also creators. Thus, as we create we reflect back the image of God.

And yet, Tanner calls this sort of thing "weak imaging" as there is a qualitative distinction of such an infinite magnitude between any human trait and God that to suggest any correspondence between the two is so degraded it's difficult to characterize that relation as an "image" or, at the very least, an accurate image. The situation isn't mirror-like.   

For Tanner, then, a "strong imaging" of God is direct participation in the life of God. We reflect the image of God because God lives in us and we in God. What reflects the image of God in human life is God's own image, like here mirroring like.

Building upon this distinction in her reflections on human nature Tanner makes some observations regarding the relationship between nature and grace, with implications, I think, for mental health.

Specifically, recall the Protestant versus Catholic views of nature versus grace. According to the Protestants, sin ruins human nature (e.g., total depravity). And if that's so, it would suggest that mental health and wellness is 100% a grace issue, that nature can be supernaturally repaired by grace. Spiritually, that view of nature and grace might make sense, but as we've seen, such a view creates problems when considering mental health. Faithful Christians struggle with mental health issues, so are they not relying on grace? And non-believers can be mentally healthy, so how is their ruined nature able to function so well without grace?

But according to Tanner, we don't need to follow the Protestants down this road. Sin does not ruin human nature. Sin, rather, simply separates us from God's presence in our life, from our ability to participate in the "strong imaging" of God.

Two implications follow. 

First, the creational situation of the human being has a goodness and integrity on its own. This is the "weak imaging" of human nature. Second, it is also the case that God's Spirit unties us with God's very self, a connection that gives us access to divine power and life. But what is key to keep in mind here, given the insights from the last post, is that the presence of God in human life doesn't nudge the creature aside. The divine life leaves traces in our life, we can bear witness to its effects, but it doesn't remold or remodel creaturely existence. God doesn't rewire your brain or adjust your neurotransmitters. Again, God makes a difference in our life, but differently.

Here's how Tanner describes this "connection via disconnection" at the boundary of divine power and creaturely existence:

The gift of the Holy Spirit to us does not give rise to new powers and capacities in us; there are certain created correlates of the gift of the Holy Spirit in us--new human dispositions, for example, of faith and love--by way of which our whole life is eventually renovated in Christ's image. But there is no adequate created correlate for the power the Holy Spirit itself. That power cannot be made our own in the way the created powers proper to our nature are our own. Like any power of one nature that resides in another nature quite different from itself, divine power, because it surpasses human nature, can be in us only improperly and imperfectly. Divine power is in us only as light is in the air or the way heat from a flame is in iron.
These moves by Tanner--the distinction between weak and strong imaging and the metaphysical commitment that God differs differently in our lives--brings us, I think, to the point of solving the paradoxes we've been dealing with in this series. Let me try to unpack this.

First, one of the sources of the paradoxes regarding faith and mental health is the Protestant assumption that sin ruins human nature. Such an assumption, as pointed out above, creates twin problems. Why doesn't grace immediately and wholly heal our mental health? And why can non-believers be healthy outside of grace?

The answer is that there is a psychological flourishing available to us that is proper to our creaturely existence. And we reap the benefits of being good stewards of this creaturely life. The close analogy here is physical health. Exercising, eating well, practicing good stress and sleep habits, all cultivate physical well-being. Psychological well-being as well. And in addition, there is all the therapeutic advice about cultivating emotional and mental well-being. None of this requires or demands faith or grace as our physical and psychological flourishing is simply following the logic of creaturely existence.

Importantly, this also means that we can slide in the opposite direction as well. Stressful environments, trauma, physical vulnerabilities, lack of social support, poor self-care, bad habits. On and on. For a multitude of reasons, our physical and psychological health can deteriorate. And all of this continues to follow the logic of creaturely existence.

And yet, all along this psychological continuum, from mental illness to mental health, God's life and grace is present to us, if we make ourselves available to God. This is the gift and grace given to us in the Incarnation. Because of Christ and the grace of the Incarnation, God is unconditionally available to us, no matter our moral state or psychological well-being. As Tanner writes, 

Our unity with Christ by way of the humanity we share with him precedes any change in our wayward dispositions that re-orients us to God...[and] those dispositions do not have the capacity by their frailty to alter this unity we have with Christ. To the extent it did not come about to begin with by way of our dispositions, our unity Christ is not affected by any fall back into sin by us. The Word's making itself one with us in Christ remains, however much we might backslide. Christ is one with us in virtue of our humanity whatever we might do.

So no matter where we are right now, wayward sinners or struggling with depression, God through Christ is perpetually, consistently, and reliably present and available to us, in our sin and in our mental distress.

What happens with sin, then, is how we turn our face away from God. We sever the connection from our side. We pull the plug. We hang up the phone. We flip off the light.

The important implication of all this is that grace is operating across the mental health spectrum. God is present to us, and God's grace available to us, no matter where we stand.

And since God makes a difference in our lives differently, when we turn toward God we don't see God changing or modifying our brains, causing our depression, for example, to evaporate. The depression remains, but God is present to us in our depression. In the midst of mental illness, God gives us grace, support, power and aid that we could not have all on our own. All this explains the seeming paradox when Christians say, "I suffer from depression, but without God I couldn't face another day."

And looking at the top end of the spectrum, at the mentally healthy and flourishing, there is a Life that is available to the happy and well-adjusted that transcends any joy, peace and hope that therapy, good genes, healthy habits, proper self-care, or good meds could provide. The abundant life isn't a therapeutic project.

This then, it seems to me, solves the paradoxes regarding faith and mental health. How the godless can be happy and well-adjusted. How the faithful can suffer from mental health problems. And how faith is always associated with greater well-being.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 6, God's Non-Competitive Relation to the World

According to Kathyrn Tanner, the key to understanding God's relationship with human nature, and therefore how God relates to our mental health, is found in understanding God's non-competitive relation to the world. 

The issue here is metaphysical, and follows from St. Thomas Aquinas's famous assertion that God is not a genus nor a member of a genus. Phrased differently, God is not a being as we understand beings. God is not an object locatable within creation. God cannot be found among the furniture of the universe. 

And this implies that God cannot be located in your brain either.

God, as a the Source and Ground of being, has a qualitatively different relation to the world. As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, "God is His own relation to the world." Or, in the words of Henk J. M. Schoot, "God differs, differently." And for Tanner, and many other theologians, this unique relation leads to a very important to insight: God's non-competitive, non-rivalrous relation to the world. 

Specifically, God's actions in the world do not compete with or displace creaturely action or integrity. Nor does God's actions supplement, augment or "supercharge" creaturely powers and potentialities. God doesn't "add" anything to the creature.

Now, of course, our minds rush to raise objections here. If God doesn't "add" anything then God isn't making any "difference" to us. Well, yes and no. Let me keep preaching the metaphysical lesson: God differs differently. God makes a difference to us, and to our brains, differently. We cannot think of the word "add" in a literal sense, thinking Me + God = 2. Again, God isn't locatable or denumerable like that, meaning that God's can't, arithmetically speaking, "add" anything to us. 

And yet, at the same time, God is making every difference to your mental and physical well-being. God is present to and actively sustaining every last bit of you, across every spiritual, psychological, and physical register. God is, as Augustine puts it, closer to you than you are to yourself--always there, always sustaining, always supporting, always empowering. Just not in a way you or I can understand or describe. 

Another way to say this is that this connection between God and myself is primarily in an apophatic register--it cannot be described or verbally specified. The difference God makes to me and my mental health defies any clear conceptual modeling or therapeutic understanding. Since this connection is with God it will always be and remain an explanatory mystery in my life, resistant to any psychological or therapeutic specification. As Kathryn Tanner observes in her book Christ the Key, there is "something incomprehensible about human nature as it is shaped by a relationship with God."

Which bring us back to God as a "coping strategy." 

Given God's non-competitive relation to the world, God cannot be a "coping strategy." Not strictly or literally. Since God is a member of no genus, God cannot be a "coping strategy" among and alongside other coping strategies. God is what makes coping strategies exist. 

And neither does God displace creaturely reality, integrity, or agency. God doesn't nudge aside neurotransmitters to get your brain working better. God doesn't "compete" with neurotransmitters. Neither does God nudge aside bad thoughts or choices to "insert" more healthy ones. God doesn't compete with you, not physically or psychologically. Again, God differs differently. 

But again--remember, remember the metaphysics!--this doesn't mean that God is unavailable or unhelpful. God is always present and helpful, affecting every neurotransmitter and every thought. God is always holding you, moment by moment, in being. The issue is that God's presence and aid is available to you in an apophatic key, in a way I'm not able to explain or you to understand. And if you're willing and committed to keep that distinction in mind, we can, tentatively and poetically, say that God does help us cope, just in a way that doesn't correspond to any therapeutic understanding of what we mean by coping. 

God helps us cope, but differently.

More on that in the coming posts.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 5, Nature and Grace

To answer the puzzles before us--Psychologically, how can faith be robustly associated with mental health, and spiritually providing a connection with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, yet the faithful still struggle with mental health problems?--I want to turn to the relationship between nature and grace using the work of Kathryn Tanner.

Our starting point today is the Catholic and Protestant debate concerning the relationship of nature and grace. 

In Protestant theology, human nature has been so corrupted by sin that it lacks any ability to help itself. When applied to the issue of mental health, such a theology suggests that human nature, relying wholly upon its own psychological and theological resources, cannot reach a state of emotional well-being. Sin would keep undermining our ability to self-actualize. 

Such a view is problematic for two, related reasons. First, clearly there are emotionally healthy people who are not Christian. How could that be possible if sin subverts well-being? Second, and now familiar to the readers of this series, there's the problem of Christians who struggle with mental illness. Why hasn't the gift of grace radically rehabilitated our emotional health? Such a situation nudges us back toward shaming those who are struggling. We suspect that people with psychological issues are still under the power of sin, haven't yet fully embraced grace. Mental struggles become stigmatized and a sign of sin.

In contrast to Protestant theology, Catholics have a different view of the relationship between nature and grace. You might have heard this before, but there's a saying among the Catholics from Thomas Aquinas: "Grace perfects nature." According to the Catholics, nature isn't destroyed by sin. There is an inherent goodness to creation as it stands. The problem, then, isn't that nature is "totally depraved," but that nature has lost its spiritual connection with God and therefore cannot find its way back to God.

Here's a metaphor to illustrate the contrast. 

Human nature is a sailing ship. Protestants think the ship is broken, holes in it and sails tattered and torn. The ship, on its own, is unsailable, it'll sink. This is "original sin" and "total depravity." In this view, the ship needs repair. What was damaged needs to be fixed. 

The Catholics, by contrast, think the ship is fine. There's nothing inherently broken in human nature. The human animal is no more broken than a lion or a sunset. Nature has an inherent goodness. The problem with human nature is that the ship needs a captain and a competent crew, someone to direct, navigate, and sail the ship toward its true destination, toward home, which is God. To keep with the metaphor, according to the Catholics our problem isn't that the ship has holes in it and will sink. Our problem is that without grace we're incompetent captains and sailors. The ship is seaworthy, we just keep crashing it into shoals, getting stuck, or finding ourselves drifting lost in a vast ocean of wayward desire and confusion. 

Shifting back to mental health, there's things to recommend the Catholic view. Human nature is good, we're not damaged. So we can avoid all that talk about our "sin nature" and "depravity," poor starting locations when you want to have a conversation about mental health. And yet, at the end of the day, the Catholic view of nature and grace creates a puzzle similar to the Protestant's. Specifically, if grace has given me a good captain and crew why am I not, from a mental health perspective, navigating my life much better? Why am I still frequently crashing the ship or lost at sea? Sure, I don't have to view myself as "depraved" or "damaged," which is a therapeutic win, but I'm still struggling and confused. Why is that happening? The question draws us back into blaming each other, as it suggests we've not properly and fully allowed God to assume full command of the ship. 

But here, at this seeming impasse, the work of Kathryn Tanner will prove useful to us. I'll turn next to her treatment of nature and grace, and how I think it helps us think about mental health, in the coming posts.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 51, The Hands of the King are the Hands of a Healer

One of the striking aspects of Tolkien's story is how he envisions kingship. 

The Battle of the Pelennnor Fields is won. Rohan arrived. The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl, is slain. And Aragorn brings reinforcements with the Army of the Dead.

But much has been wounded and lost. The drama turns to the Houses of Healing in Gondor. 

In the Houses we encounter Ioreth, among the eldest of the women in Gondor who heal and tend the sick. Facing the work of caring for the many casualties of battle, Ioreth pines for the ancient lore to be fulfilled: "Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known."

Little does she know that the rightful king has arrived in Gondor, and the king is indeed a healer. Gandalf quotes the lore shared by Ioreth and declares, "For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the the sick that lie in the house." 

Aragorn goes to the Houses. Faramir, Éowyn and Merry are grievously wounded and close to death. What follows are a series of resurrections. 

First, Aragorn searches for Faramir in the Vale of the Dead and calls him back to Life:

Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those that watched felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn's face grew grey from weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked afar in some dark vale, calling for one that was lost.

It's a evocative moment that brings to mind Christ's Harrowing of Hell, his going to the Land of the Dead searching for Adam and Eve and calling home all lost souls.

Aragorn next comes to Éowyn. Over her he speaks, "Éowyn Éomund's daughter, awake! For your enemy has passed away!" In calling Éowyn by her name there's a clear echo of the gospel: “Lazarus, come forth!” 

A similar calling happens with Merry. Pippin fears Merry will die, but Aragorn responds, "Do not be afraid...I came in time, and I have called him back."

After calling Faramir, Éowyn and Merry back to life the chapter ends with Aragorn tending to all the sick and wounded in Gondor:

At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he had supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow. And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they laboured far into the night. And word went through the City: 'The King is come again indeed.' And they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth1 that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people. 

And when he could labour no more, he cast his cloak about him, and slipped out of the City, and went to his tent just ere dawn and slept for a little. And in the morning the banner of Dol Amroth, a white ship like a swan upon blue water, floated from the Tower, and men looked up and wondered if the coming of the King had been but a dream.
The crowds gathered at the doors of the Houses, bringing their sick to Aragorn, again echos the gospels where Jesus labored through the night healing and releasing those under the Black Shadow:
That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons.
Again, there is no single Christ-figure in The Lord of the Rings. There are many: Gandalf, Sam, and Frodo all have their moments. And now, once again, Aragorn. And what Aragorn helps us see, in his Christlikeness, is the King as Healer. 

What marks Aragorn as the king isn't military prowess. What marks Aragorn as the king is that he heals the sick and calls the dead back to life.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 4, Beyond Coping

As summarized in the last post, a helpful way of thinking about faith and mental health is to see faith as a coping strategy, a therapeutic resource in our quest for wholeness, no matter where we are on that journey. 

And yet, theologically inclined psychologists like myself are hesitant to consider the issue settled at this point. For two related reasons.

First, prayer is more than meditation. The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives is more than emotional uplift and positive thinking. When considered from a wholly psychological point of view describing faith as a "coping strategy" ignores the fact that we're talking about a supernatural, or extranatural, connection between the individual and God. And if that's the case, how does that connection work?

This reflection is important because, depending upon how we describe this spiritual partnership, we can find ourselves back with the puzzles and extreme views we've already talked about. Specifically, if turning to God connects us to supernatural power and aid what capacities am I tapping into? For example, when I turn toward God as a "coping strategy" this is no mere psychological technique, I'm turning to the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who parted the Red Sea, the God who raised Jesus from the dead. And if that's the case, why wouldn't it be reasonable to expect remarkable, miraculous assistance? To borrow the metaphor from the last post, mental health as a marathon, why wouldn't divine aid and assistance give me super-speed the way the prosperity gospel preachers proclaim?

Such questions illustrate why there's some more work to be done in talking about faith and mental health. Sure, from a purely psychological angle describing faith as a coping strategy seems to describe the faith/health relationship cogently and accurately. But from a theological vantage, until you describe the situation spiritually we're still left with all our original puzzles. Why doesn't God, when we turn to him, give us super-speed to run the race of mental health? If we don't answer that question well we can wind up blaming and spiritually shaming people for their mental health struggles. If God is handing out super-speed to the saints, and you're still plodding and struggling along, who is to blame in that situation? Well, you, obviously. Sure, you might say you're turning it all over to God, but clearly there's some bit of resistance still at work in your heart and mind, some spiritual failure of yours blocking the blessing God is wanting to give you.

So that's the first reason we still have some work to do. This "coping strategy" isn't a self-help trick. It's tapping into the force that lit the sun and the stars. So our use of this "strategy" can have some outsized expectations. And why not? This is God we are talking about.

A second related reason we have to spend some time in theological reflection about "faith as coping" has to due with the relationship between grace and human agency. One of the theological problems with the metaphor from the last post--mental health is a marathon and faith as a watering station or cheering crowd helping us run the race--is that the engine of mental health is human effort and will. The "faith as coping" frame keeps human agency at the center. Phrased differently, God becomes a tool or a technique, something I use to help myself.

By contrast, a theology of grace claims that it is God, and not myself, who is at work within me. As it says in Philippians 2.13: "For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." So what does that mean in the context of mental health? For example, if it is God who is willing and working in me, why am I still struggling with mental health problems? The answer tends to be, well, because some sin in you is resisting God, refusing to let him will and work in your life. Which brings us back to blaming the victim.

And so the question: How does a theology of grace, a reliance upon God's action in my life rather than my own, relate to mental health? Such questions take us deep out over troubled theological waters. Pelagianism vs. Augustinianism. Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Synergism vs. Monergism. Nature vs. Grace. These are debates that have typically focused on the role of human agency in salvation and sanctification, but they have implications for mental health as well. If emotional wholeness is a fruit and blessing of the abundant life promised and being poured out by God, to what degree is human will and effort implicated in producing or experiencing this fruit and blessing?

Faith and Mental Health: Part 3, Faith as Coping Strategy

As mentioned at the end of the last post, psychologists are increasingly looking at faith and spirituality as a therapeutic resource. Much of this is due to the rise of positive psychology and the scientific study of happiness and flourishing. Faith has long been known to be predictive of happiness and well-being, so it only makes sense to consider it a therapeutic resource. 

Basically, a client's faith is considered by psychologists to be a coping strategy, a client-centered resource that can be used to support a variety of therapeutic goals, from meaning-making to anxiety-reduction to rehabilitating self-image. We can turn to our faith to find purpose in life, to secure a sense of peace and rest, and to discover a source of dignity and significance that transcends life circumstance. 

Viewing faith as a coping strategy seems to answer our paradoxical sensibilities regarding the connection between faith and mental health (Part 1), while avoiding the extreme view outlined in Part 2.

Specifically, to use a metaphor, we don't begin the marathon of well-being at the same starting place or with the same fitness levels. Some of us are far down the road, happy and flourishing. Others are behind and struggling to keep up. Our location on the run and fitness are due to a complex mixture of nature, nurture, and personal choice. Keeping with the running metaphor, faith is a coping strategy no matter where you are on the race. Far ahead or behind, faith is like a watering and feeding station along the run, or the crowd that cheers you on giving you a second wind. 

It should be obvious how this metaphor answers the paradox of faith and mental health. On the one hand, yes, faith is clearly implicated in mental health. No matter where you are in life, faith is there to help, like getting that drink during a hard part of the marathon. Without that drink the run would be so much harder. You might even dehydrate and drop out. 

But at the same time that drink of water doesn't give you super-speed, supernaturally turning you into the Flash, allowing you to race to the front of the line. You remain where you are in the race. Still, faith keeps you going. This idea--faith keeping you running no matter where you are in the race--explains why faith always aids mental health yet why people of faith can vary in their respective degree of mental health.

This marathon metaphor also helps us avoid the extreme views we encountered in the last post. Contrary to what the prosperity gospel preachers say, faith doesn't give you super-speed or wings, erasing your place in the race or the number of miles ahead of you. Faith is no short cut to mental wholeness. There's a journey to be taken. And yet, faith does help us run and finish the race. We're not alone on the journey and we're not unsupported. In fact, without faith we might never finish the race, never experience happiness, peace, and joy in our lifetimes. 

So, faith always supports mental health, and the mental health of believers can vary widely. 

Problem solved, right?

Not quite. 

Yes, from a psychological angle, the faith-as-coping approach seems to deal with the most obvious questions facing us when it comes to faith and mental health, answering the paradoxes and navigating between extreme views. But for the psychologist and theologian, there are some remaining issues still lingering. 

We'll turn to those issues next.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 2, Avoiding Extreme Views

Before getting into what I think are proper ways of thinking about the relationship between faith and mental health, I want to mention some extreme views that aren't as helpful.

On the one hand are a suite of views that wholly reduce mental illness to spiritual problems. In the world of pastoral counseling this view was most visibly articulated by Jay Adams in his 1970's book Competent to Counsel, which helped establish the field known as "biblical counseling." You also see this view at work within the prosperity gospel movement, where pastors and celebrity speakers preach a radical freedom from mental illness with a "name it and claim it" gospel. The animating idea at work in these views is that mental health problems are, at root, spiritual problems that require spiritual answers, interventions, and solutions. Standard mental health practice, from the psychological to the psychiatric, is dismissed as either irrelevant or condemned as actively harmful.

All that to say, whenever you raise the prospect of a connection between faith and mental health, there is a collection of extreme views that you want to keep an eye on. When you argue for faith being implicated in psychological well-being you want to avoid a sort of "spiritual reductionism," where the psychological is wholly collapsed into and reduced to the spiritual. 

And yet, in an effort to keep some separation and distinction between the psychological and the spiritual, one can swing too far to the other side as well, treating these domains as wholly distinct and independent. That is, on the one hand you have spiritual issues which require spiritual interventions, like pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. On the other hand, you have psychological issues which require clinical interventions, therapy with psychologists and/or medications from psychiatrists. And these issues never overlap. It's apples and oranges. Spiritual issues in one sandbox and psychological issues in a separate sandbox.

That's an extreme view as well, one we should also avoid. Thankfully, over the last twenty years there has been a growing recognition in psychology regarding the role and importance of faith and spirituality in mental health and well-being. Rather than ignoring faith as irrelevant, psychologists are increasingly encouraged to use a client's faith and spirituality as a vital resource in treatment. Such efforts point to a "middle way" between the two extreme views we've described above. More on that in the next post.

Faith and Mental Health: Part 1, The Connection?

My writing and speaking over the last few years has drawn me into thinking more about the relationship between faith and mental health. You'll see this reflected in many locations in Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering and Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age when it comes out. 

This is, perhaps surprisingly, a new area of reflection for me. As a psychologist, you'd think I'd have thought about this issue a lot. But my early reflections were more about social psychology (Unclean) and existential psychology (The Authenticity of Faith, The Slavery of Death) than about clinical or counseling psychology.

But the positive argument I made in The Slavery of Death, which I see as addressing many of the hanging questions from The Authenticity of Faith, did cause me to reflect on how faith impacts neurotic anxiety. And as I've pressed on from that beginning, I have been reflecting more and more on the relationship between faith and mental well-being. Again, some of this reflection will show up in Hunting Magic Eels, parts of which I see as extending the insights started in The Slavery of Death.

So, a few posts sketching out some reflections on the relationship between faith and mental health.

Let's start at the beginning: What is the relationship between a mature spiritual relationship with God and emotional well-being? 

The answers you get to this question tend to be diverse and even paradoxical. For example, when I introduce this topic to my students I start by asking them two questions:

First, raise your hand if you think a mature spiritual relationship with God has mental health benefits?

All the hands go up.

Second, raise your hand if you think a mature Christian can suffer from depression?

These are psychology majors, so almost all of the hands go back up.

Having elicited these responses, I then ask the obvious question: How can both of those things be true? 

On the one hand, we seem convinced that a deeper, fuller, and richer relationship with God will create greater well-being, greater joy, peace, courage, strength, hope, and psychological resiliency. And there is ample empirical evidence to back up this connection. The studies are clear: religious people are among the happiest people in the world. 

But on the other hand, we also know that some of the best Christians in our lives, perhaps even you yourself, struggle with mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and so on. Faith, even a strong faith, doesn't make you immune to psychological problems. You can be a mature Christian and struggle with mental health issues.

Thus the issue, and even the paradox. There does seem to be a connection between faith and mental health, but the connection isn't as clear and straightforward as we might first assume.

Nativity


And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger...

The Temptation of Joseph

I've been reading W.H. Auden's "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio" for some of my Advent reflections. 

I wanted to share with you a remarkable section from the peice, "the Temptation of Joseph."

To start, many Protestants might not be aware of the temptation of Joseph. In Orthodox iconography of the Nativity, beyond Mary and the Baby, you will see on the edge of the icon an image of the temptation of Joseph. Joseph is talking to an old man, but the old man is really the devil, who is placing doubts in Joseph's mind about Mary's pregnancy. You can see the temptation of Joseph in the icon I've shared here in the bottom left corner. 

Traditionally, Joseph represents all of humanity, how each of us have to make a decision about the birth of Jesus. We have our doubts and have to answer: Is this baby truly the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit? That is our trial. 

In "For the Time Being" Auden takes this moment of temptation in a fresh and surprising direction. 

It has been long observed how Mary and Eve stand in a relationship in salvation history. Where Eve introduces sin into the world, Mary reverses the curse by becoming the Mother of God, bringing salvation into the world. This relationship is evocatively captured in a widely shared image this time of year, of Eve hanging her head in shame with Mary reassuring her as she places her hand upon her womb. The snake tangles around Eve's leg, but its head is crushed under Mary's heel.

Following this parallelism, Auden uses the temptation of Joseph to make a connection between Adam and Joseph.

Specifically, one of the notorious things Adam does to Eve is throw her under the bus, blaming her, when God confronts him in the garden. In the hands of Auden, Adam's sin against Eve symbolizes all of the sins of men against women throughout history. Similar, then, to how Mary overturns the sins of Eve, Joseph has to stand in his moment of perplexity and doubt to reverse the sin of Adam against Eve. In Adam, men blame and stigmatize women. Men don't believe women. Joseph's trial, then, is that a man must believe a women. And in believing Mary, Joseph overturns the sin of Adam.

As Auden writes, "For the perpetual excuse / Of Adam for his fall--'My little Eve, God bless her, did beguile me and I ate'... / you must now atone, / Joseph, in silence and alone."

And Auden describes the many ways men mistreat, use, and lie to women, the sin of "the impudent grin... / That hides a cold will to do harm."

All this sin is gathered and falls upon Joseph. As a man, Joseph must endure the trial of being himself marginalized and excluded: "To-day the roles are altered; you must be / The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity." More: "You must learn now that masculinity, / To Nature, is a non-essential luxury." 

The temptation of Joseph is passing as a man, and for all men, this trial of marginalization and doubt. To reverse the sin of Adam against Eve, Joseph must accept his peripheral role and believe Mary. Joseph here faces his #MeToo moment. 

As Auden writes:

Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred. 

And Joseph, showing men the way, passes the test. In the Christmas story, Mary heals Eve and Joseph heals Adam. And so we, with Auden, petition this season: 

"Joseph, Mary, pray for us."

Stoicism, Faith and Theodicy: Part 3, Stoicism Over Christianity?

Okay, so we come to the point of these posts, the observation I had about stoicism, Christianity, and faith crises. 

To recap, modern believers are increasingly reactive in the face of death, to the point where death often triggers faith crises. 

Next, some of this reactivity could be addressed by reclaiming some of the stoical impulses within Christianity, impulses that had been the norm within Christianity until relatively recently. 

And again, Christianity is only partly stoical. Christianity doesn't approach death with full equanimity. As we see with Jesus when he faced the death of Lazarus: he wept. Likewise, Job is able to say "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord." But he's also free to scream toward the heavens demanding justice from God. 

All of which brings me to my point. Given our increased reactivity in the face of death I think it would be good to reclaim some of the mild stoicism we find in the Bible, to take a bit of the edge off our existential fragility. In the face of grief we should be able to pray "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord." We should be able weep with Jesus in the garden, but also be able to say, "Not my will, but Your will be done."

Trouble is, we're so emotionally reactive in the face of death that this suggestion of mine makes people irritated and prickly. Likely you felt prickly and irritated. Just a wee sprinkle of stoicism is considered to be beyond the pale. And so, in the face of death or pain, the full hurricane of emotional reactivity is kicked up, a storm unchecked by any stoical acceptance, and a faith crisis ensues.

And then, after the faith crisis, what happens? 

Amazingly, many of these former Christians end up opting for...wait for it...stoicism! 

In either its Eastern or Western forms, stoicism is rapidly growing in popularity in our post-Christian world, including among many former Christians. It's a strange phenomenon I've witnessed up close. As a Christian a person shows a complete antipathy toward anything remotely stoical in the faith, emotionally raging at any suggestion that "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away." It's an absolutely intolerable sentiment, triggering a departure from the faith. And toward what? Strangely, toward full blown stoicism. 

That is what has baffled me. Weirdly, what can't be tolerated in the smallest dose is now guzzled down by the gallon. A little bit of resignation is rejected as dysfunctional with complete resignation embraced as the cure.

Stoicism, Faith and Theodicy: Part 2, Partial Stoicism

So how are we, as Christians, to approach our increased emotional reactivity to death? 

One of the things we seem to have lost over the last generation or two is a certain stoical equanimity in the face of death. This is not to suggest that we must approach death with a calm reserve, resisting strong displays of grief and devastation. Death is our greatest enemy and our deepest source of woe. And let me be very clear about this, I'm speaking here of certain cultural capacities, not specific expectations about how any one person should or should not grieve. Grief is a deeply personal journey. We should never let abstract theological debates intrude upon private pain and loss. 

What I'm suggesting is that, in generations past, the Christian response to death had a stoical aspect to it, an aspect we seem to have lost. To be clear, the Christian response to death has never been 100% stoical, and this will bring us to the big point I want to make in the next and last post. But the Christian response to death has had a bit of stoicism mixed in. You see this most clearly in the book of Job. From early in the book:

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”

And also:

Job's wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Job replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

We can also see this stoical posture in Job's repentance before the whirlwind at the end of the book. And beyond Job, we find stoicism in places like Psalm 90 and the book of Ecclesiastes.  

When I say we've lost a bit of this stoicism what I'm pointing to is how the biblical refrain "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away" in the face of death makes us modern Christians prickly and irritated. It's not a posture we recognize as holy and good. We push Job's stoicism away. 

To be sure, Job rants and raves and is inconsolable. That goes to my point. Again, our response to death isn't 100% stoical. We must remain unreconciled to death. Job's response to suffering is only partly stoical. And it's this partial stoicism--an ability our forbears possessed to confess, without prickly irritation, that "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away"--that we seem to have lost.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"Magi"

You have hours to think
swaying over desert sands.
The snort of a camel
or the howling of the owl
the only punctuation of your mind.
The heavy ticking of moon and sun.
Pondering time
rippling 
over signs and prophecies.
Contingencies connected somehow.
This star
she does not rise on her own.
She is caught in a web
pulled and pulling
bringing something into view.
You can feel it on the air
quivering.
A ribbon of meaning
tracing through all things.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 50, A Small Surprising Providence

The Rohirrim ride into battle, and the Witch-King withdraws from the gates of Gondor. This is Theoden's great moment of glory, as the tide of the battle turns.

But the Witch-King returns to the fight, now mounted upon a great, winged creature. And the Lord of the Nazgûl deals Theoden a mortal blow.

And in that moment of despair, two of the most unlikely warriors step forward to avenge their fallen king. Merry, Hobbit of the Shire, and Éowyn, lady and shieldmaiden of Rohan. Refusing to be left behind, Éowyn had rode into battle disguised as a man.  

Assuming Éowyn to be a man, the Lord of the Nazgûl taunts her, saying "No living man can hinder me!" For long ago Glorfindel had made a prophecy concerning him: "Not by the hand of man will he fall." Hearing these words, Éowyn reveals herself, "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman."

The Witch-King sets his monstrous steed upon Éowyn. She strikes, severing its head. The Witch-King rises from the dead beast, advances, and brings a crushing blow down upon Éowyn's shield, shattering it and breaking her arm. The fight seems over. And then, quite forgotten, Merry attacks, cutting the sinews of the Nazgûl's knee. The blow is enough to stagger the Witch-King. Seeing her moment, Éowyn drives her sword through the invisible face, killing the Black Captain.

After the death of Théoden on the field of battle, the narrative will return to linger upon Merry's sword, the sword which dealt the surprising, unlikely blow to the Witch-King. This blade was, it will be recalled, one of the swords that Tom Bombadil gave Merry, Sam, and Pippin from the Barrow-downs. It was a sword forged long ago by the Men of Westernesse, forged for their battles with the same sorcerer king of Angmar. And here, in the Battle of the Pelnennor Fields, the ancient blade fulfills its destiny, finally finding its enemy, after long centuries and many twists and turns, in a blow struck by the most unlikely of people. 

Two themes mix together in the defeat of the Witch-King, surprise and providence. Providence in how we discern something more than chance at work in finding a woman standing before the Witch-King and a sword of Westernesse close at hand. And yet, when we invoke providence, we tend to think of something inexorable and predictable. But the death of the Witch-King was anything put predictable. He certainly didn't see it coming. We are startled and surprised. So much so, it is hard not to see providence as great fortune or luck.

And much of this effect is due to the smallness of the two critical actors. A woman and a hobbit in the midst of a raging battle, standing against the greatest power of Mordor, second only to Sauron himself. But on the Fields of Pelnennor the weak will defeat the strong. It is a small, surprising providence.   

I write this post a week before Christmas. And the theme of a small surprising providence seems very apt for the season. The comparison isn't perfect, but one sees a bit of Mary in Éowyn, a woman bringing doom to the Witch-King. But what is very clear is that the story of Christmas is a bit of a surprise in its smallness. The great tide of history turns upon small people making small choices. Just like the events on the Fields of Pelnennor, the Nativity story is filled with portents and prophecies, the history ancient and full of lore. The Hand of Providence is as work. 

But still, a providence so small and surprising. 

Stoicism, Faith and Theodicy: Part 1, Our Reactive Relationship With Death

I want to share an observation about stoicism, Christianity, theodicy and suffering, spread out over three posts.

This observation flows out of something I've written about before. Specifically, our existential relationship with death has changed over the last few generations. 

To wit: Death, the most obvious, reliable, inevitable, and predictable fact of our lives is increasingly experienced as something accidental, unexpected, and surprising. We used to joke that the only thing for certain in life is death and taxes. Today when people die we're shocked.

Worse, we feel lied to and betrayed. Again, everyone, 100% of us, are going to die. And yet, whenever we do face death we feel that some sort of cosmic promise and agreement has been broken. Given the universal inevitability of death, how did we get to thinking that our situation might be otherwise?

I'm not trying to be insensitive. I'm just trying to highlight how something so predictable has become so surprising. 

In short, we're increasingly reactive to death, emotionally speaking, increasingly disturbed, triggered, off-footed, shocked, troubled, and unsettled by death. So much so that death has become one of the biggest causes of modern faith crises. Someone dies--and again, everyone dies--and we lose faith in God. This is huge generational shift. 

In times past, we turned to God for consolation when we experienced bereavement. Nowadays we become atheists.

Cognitive Explosions We Fear Will Indeed Blow Our Minds

Yet I think there is another reason for our skittishness with the gospel's truth claims, that is probably more important and is moreover perennial. So soon as we pose the question, "What indeed if it were true?" about an ordinary proposition of the faith, consequences begin to show themselves that go beyond anything we dare to believe, that upset our whole basket of assured convictions, and we are frightened of that. The most Sunday-school-platitudinous of Christian claims--say, "Jesus loves me"--contains cognitive explosives we fear will indeed blow our minds; it commits us to what have been called revisionary metaphysics, and on a massive scale. That, I think, is the main reason we prefer not to start [with the question "What indeed if it were true?"] and have preferred it especially in the period of modernity. For Western modernity's defining passion has been for the use of knowledge to control, and that is the very point where the knowledge of faith threatens us.

--Robert Jenson

Tanner on Human Nature: Part 5, An Apophatic, Incomprehensible Anthropology

Having described how human nature is receptive and responsive to the divine image, Tanner then turns to the question: What is it about the open-endedness of human nature, its capacity to change in response to external environments, that reflects back the image of God? 

This question, if you return to Part 1, is a question about the "weak imaging" of human nature. The question here isn't how we participate in the divine life ("strong imaging"), but how a created good reflects God in its natural glory. Stars have their glory. So do trees and butterflies. So what reflects God's imprint in human nature given its capacity to change and grow?

Tanner answers the question by pointing to God's incomprehensibility: 

One can say human nature in this respect forms an image of that divine image by imitating God's own incomprehensibility...God is incomprehensible, beyond human powers of positive explication through concepts and speech, because God is without limits or bounds...Humans imitate God's incomprehensibility by having a nature that is also in a sense unlimited, unbounded by a clearly delimited nature, in virtue, in the human case, of an expansive openness and initial indefiniteness apart from some more specific formation from without that our own self-reflective capabilities help to direct.

Tanner pushes this even further, pointing toward the "mystery" of human nature, how we still wrestle with great unknowns about who and what we are. Nature versus nurture. The mind/body problem. The origins and nature of consciousness. And so on. These mysteries of human nature point toward the image of God. Tanner highlights how these apophatic--unknown, unsayable--aspects of human nature point toward the mystical, ineffable, mysterious, apophatic aspects of God:

Whatever the knowable dimensions of human nature, its apophatic ones are what count here for imaging of God. An apophatically-focused anthropology form the natural consequences of an apopothatic theology.

Which brings us back to the title of Tanner's book, how Christ is our key here. The incarnation is an apophatic mystery. We cannot specify, in human terms, how Jesus was fully both God and man. That union is a mystery. And that mystery is what sits at the heart of human nature when it is strongly imaging God. Psychology and neuroscience cannot describe how humans reflect, share, and participate in the divine life. This mystery is beyond scientific description. And in this way, the mystery of our union with God, the mystery of human nature, becomes an incarnational sign within creation pointing toward the second person of the Trinity:

Jesus is not the comprehensible stand-in or substitute for an incomprehensible divinity but the very exhibition of the incomprehensible divinity of the Word in human form or medium. Jesus displays in his life what it means to be an incomprehensible image in the flesh of an incomprehensible God.

Following the paradigm of Christ, then, there would be something incomprehensible about human nature as it is shaped by a relationship with God, too, which makes it the imitation of God. We are an incomprehensible image of the incomprehensible both in those natural capacities that allow us to be radically re-formed, and in what we become in relation to the true image, the Word incarnate.

Tanner on Human Nature: Part 4, How Can Human Nature Bear the Image of God?

Following up from the last post, if human nature is able to be remade and remolded by participation in the divine image, Kathryn Tanner asks the following questions in Christ the Key

"What created qualities and capacities allow humans both to receive the presence of the divine image and to be transformed thereby in the imitation of it?" 

In addition: "How, moreover, do those qualities and capacities themselves image the divine image through a weak form of participation in God?"

To summarize, the first question is concerned with the particular qualities of human nature which allow it to be reformed in the image of God in a way we don't see with stones, plants, or other animals. How is human nature different from the natures of other created things in a way that allows us to strongly reflect the image of God?

The second question, after we answer the first, is how does this particular capacity of human nature, simply as a created thing, reflect back some quality of the God who made it? 

We'll look at Tanner's answer to the first question in this post, and her answer to the second question in the next and final post in this series.

So, what are the qualities of human nature that allow it to be remade in the image of God?

Tanner starts by observing that human nature must make room for God:

First of all, human nature must be characterized by an expansive openness that allows for the presence of God within it. It must be the sort of nature that has or makes rooms for the divine within its basic operations. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, talks of human nature in this respect as an expanding receptacle or container...The presence of the divine is what makes the human capacities or reason and will expand, but for this to happen these human capacities must be expandable, open-ended, that is, in their ability to grow in the good.

This insight, it seems to me, goes beyond mere anthropology. There is practical wisdom here about spiritual formation. Specifically, the first step in reflecting back the divine life is making room for God, making space for the divine life in our lives. Practices of contemplative prayer play a central role here. God can't change you if you fail to make room for God in your life.

Beyond this capacity for "making room" for God, Tanner then turns to a second quality of human nature, one we noted in the last post, our ability to change:

To be changed into the divine image in that way, one must have a changeable nature...If humans are to be radically reworked through attachment to God, then what is of interest about human nature is its plasticity, its susceptibility to being shaped or molded by outside influence generally. Becoming a human image of God through the impress of the divine image is just an extreme case of having one's character made over by relations with what one is not...All creatures may be formed in relation to what they are not but humans seem to have an exaggerated capacity for this that opens them to a radical sort of re-formation from without in the divine image. In contrast to other creatures, human beings are unusually flexible, capable of adapting, of altering their behaviors in order to adjust to changing social and natural environments.

In short, the most obvious thing we notice about human nature, its adaptability to diverse ecosystems, is what makes it such a powerful means of reflecting the divine image within creation. 

Specifically, given that humans adapt to diverse environments, what would human nature become were it to live, move, and breathe within a divine ecosystem? 

The answer, it seems, is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the perfect image of God in human form.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 49, The Good Catastrophe

As Aragorn travels the Paths of the Dead, the story returns to Minas Tirith, where the war finally breaks out.

The battle goes badly for the defenders of Gondor. The city gates are breached by Grond, the great battering ram forged in Mordor for just this purpose. The gates of Gondor shattered, the Lord of the Nazgûl commences his triumphant entry into the city. Only Gandalf comes to stand, alone, in the gap. But even Gandalf doesn't seem to be enough. Defeat has come. All seems lost...

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.

"You cannot enter here," said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. "Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!"

The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.

"Old fool!" he said. "Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!" And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
It's a moment that gives you chills, a dramatic highlight of the book. The cock crowing. Dawn breaking. The horns blowing. Rohan comes at last.

In his essay "On Fairy Stories" Tolkien describes what he calls the eucatastrophe, "the good catastrophe," the experience of "sudden miraculous grace." In The Hobbit the good catastrophe comes when Bilbo shouts, "The eagles are coming!" The eagles will also come in The Lord of the Rings. But the definitive good catastrophe in The Lord of the Rings, in my estimation, are the words "Rohan had come at last."

The eucatastrophe is what makes the fairy story a religious story, what makes The Lord of the Rings a religious story. The eucatastrophe is what keeps the drama from becoming a tragedy, what keeps the metaphysics of the narrative from tipping into nihilism and terminal defeat. You have to believe in miracles, you have to believe in grace.

At the heart of the Christian story is our eucatastrophe: the resurrection of Jesus. Easter Sunday is "sudden miraculous grace," victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, life triumphing over death, hope defeating despair, and meaning conquering nihilism. The shadows of death scattered by the coming dawn. We live with the sound of the horns ringing in our ears.

Tanner on Human Nature: Part 3, Better and Better Mirrors

So, human nature can reflect the image of God, strongly so, by "showing off the light of the divine image itself...by glowing with a light that remains another's." 

From that vision of what it means to carry and reflect the image of God, Kathryn Tanner goes on to make another fascinating point, how the divine image remolds, remakes, and reshapes human nature. She makes the point in Christ the Key, contrasting how natural objects versus human beings reflect the image of God:

All creatures can do something like this showing off or shining back the divine glory given to them. Even now creatures can glorify God, glow with a kind of divine penumbra by pointing to, and in that sense making manifest, the goodness of the God who made them. The wonders of the world speak of the wonders of God...

What remains unusual about human beings--and what therefore makes them the image of God as other creatures are not--is that the character or identity of human life is remolded in the process. Humans do not simply reflect the image of God. In doing so something happens to human life itself. Its very own character is altered or transformed for the better. Humanity takes on, in short, its own perfect shape by being reworked through attachment to the divine image.

By way of this attachment, its very human character becomes an image of God in a stronger fashion than before, beyond anything possible simply by participating in God as a creature...[H]uman nature becomes, so to speak, imprinted with the character of the divine seal itself by way of the impression that the very presence of the divine image makes upon it.

To summarize, humans don't simply reflect the image of God because they possess some natural endowment, like rationality. Although our created natures, like those of trees and stars, do reflect the glory of the God who made us. In addition, reflecting the image of God is more than passive reflection, like that of a mirror. Thus Tanner's big point: Because of the plasticity of human nature, reflecting the image of God is active, developmental, and formational. Unlike a mirror reflecting back light, human nature is changed in the process of reflection, becoming a clearer and brighter reflection, a better and better mirror if you will. Alone in creation, only humans have this ability to reflect back the image of God to greater and greater degrees.