Christ and the Ghost Dance: Part 3, A Unity Movement

In the last post, I described the massacre at Wounded Knee as a failure of missiological imagination. 

To be sure, there were aspects about the Ghost Dance that were worrisome to federal authorities. The Ghost Dance did promise liberation from white oppression. And when tied to the recent depravations and the taking of Lakota land in South Dakota, the Ghost Dance did have have a political aspect to it, giving voice to growing resentments. To that issue we'll turn in the next post. But the ethic of the Ghost Dance, as preached by Wovoka, was to live at peace with the whites. Any expected liberation would come from the Messiah, not a bloody uprising. But such theological distinctions were lost on federal authorities.

But before turning to the emancipatory aspects of the Ghost Dance, I wanted to note another failure of missiological imagination in white attitudes toward the circle.

Specifically, intra-tribal tensions had always been a part of the Native American experience. And life upon reservations had exacerbated those. Native Americas were constantly fighting amongst themselves about how best to respond to the crisis of white colonial expansion. Should they capitulate, move to the reservations, take up farming and send their children to white schools? Or should they go to war like Geronimo? Such choices had to be made over and over and over again. And with each crisis tribal leaders found themselves upset and angry with each other given their different choices.

Into those tensions came the Ghost Dance. One of the allures of the Ghost Dance was that it healed these tribal conflicts. The Ghost Dance was a pan-Indian movement, expressing shared laments and dreams. As Louis Warren describes it, the Ghost Dance was "a unity dance."

And it is here where the Christianity of the Ghost Dance was more Christian than the Christianity of the missionaries. Specifically, as missionaries from Christian denominations arrived on the reservations they brought with them their sectarian squabbles. Catholics fighting with Protestants, and Protestant denominations fighting with each other, each claiming to be the "true" faith. 

Pushed and pulled by this fractious sectarianism, forced to choose among the Christian churches, the Ghost Dance united all the Native American Christians on the reservations. The circle included every Native American, no matter their denominational affiliation or belief. All were welcomed in the circle, both believers and non-believers, converts to Christianity and those who espoused traditional beliefs. Even whites were welcomed. As Warren summarizes,

The attraction of the Ghost Dance may have been that it allowed [Native Americans] to heal sectarian divisions that emerged in the wake of the church missions...By the 1880s, and probably before, Christian pluralism had become key to Lakota understanding of Christian religion and American politics...

...[The Ghost Dance embodied] a pervasive Lakota desire to be at peace with other Lakotas over religious matters and avoid "that strife": the denominational disputes that so divided White Robes and Black Robes, Protestants from one another and from Catholics, and all Christians from followers of the old Lakota religion...[The Ghost Dance was involved in] minimizing the potential for internal religious conflict.

Which makes what happened at Wounded Knee even more tragic, for if Jesus was, for many, encountered in the Ghost Dance, the Christianity of the circle was more Christian than the Christianity found in the sectarian Christian churches. 

Christ and the Ghost Dance: Part 2, Christianity and the Old Spirits

From the very start, Christianity has always interacted in creative ways with pagan culture.

For example, Christianity has been indelibly marked by its interaction with Greek philosophy. It has also been argued that Jewish thought was greatly influenced by its encounter with Zoroastrianism during the exile and intertestamental period which later impacted the New Testament. 

As another example, in Hunting Magic Eels I describe how Celtic Christianity was a unique blend of Christianity with the paganism of the Celts in Ireland.

Lastly, we've also seen how Catholicism has blended with indigenous spiritualities in places like Africa and Latin America. 

The Ghost Dance religion was a similar fusion, blending Christianity with traditional Native American spiritualities. As Louis Warren writes in God's Red Son, "Christ was everywhere in Ghost Dance visions as Christian teachings became embedded in or engulfed by the new religion." Many Native Americans even reserved the Ghost Dances for Sunday as a form of Christian worship. As mentioned in the last post, many Ghost Dancers connected Wovoka's prophecies of a coming Messiah, as did Wovoka himself, with Jesus. As Warren observes, "most Ghost Dancers believed that they were seeing the same spirit presence evoked in the New Testament." 

Thus, the Ghost Dance "was effectively a new religion that incorporated a Messiah figure--for some, Christ himself--alongside older spirit powers." Warren summarizes the fusion and the desire to create a uniquely textured faith:

By 1890, missionaries counted nearly 5,000 Lakotas as Christian; thus, they were taken aback that growing church attendance in an "Indian country dotted over with chapels and schools" was followed by a surge in Ghost Dancers. Their only explanation was that many of their Christian converts had not yet understood Christian teachings. But the simultaneous enthusiasm of church attendance and the Ghost Dance was a paradox only if believers had to choose one or the other--Christianity or the old spirits. The Ghost Dance expressed not only the belief that the two religions could be combined but also their longings to do just that...

...[The Ghost Dance] elevated Eagle, Buffalo, and Bear to the same plane as Christ and made him a "friend" to Indians, like one of the guardian spirits of old...The Ghost Dance combined old spirits and a new redeemer...To believers, it was exhilarating...To authorities and most missionaries, it was terrifying.

That terror, we know, led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. But some observers, even some missionaries, were able to look upon the Ghost Dance with a more generous cultural perspective, as an attempt to fit Christianity into Native American culture. True, this process was messy and uneven. Not every Ghost Dancer was Christian. And theologians would be rightly worried if Christ became, for Ghost Dancers, just one among many spirit guides and guardians. If it hadn't been violently suppressed by the US government on the reservations, how the Ghost Dance would have evolved as it interacted with Christianity remains a tantalizing mystery. Regardless, what the Ghost Dance clearly showed was a desire for a uniquely Native American expression of Christianity, something that the Christian missionaries just were not providing. 

In short, a part of the tragedy of Wounded Knee was a failure of missiological imagination. Christianity for far too many reservation missionaries was culturally European in both content and practice. The goal was to get Native Americans to sit in wooden pews in a church building to pray from a pulpit and sing hymns out of a hymnal. Christianity most definitely wasn't a traditional Native American circle dance. 

But at Wounded Knee it was.

Christ and the Ghost Dance: Part 1, Jesus at Wounded Knee

I've finished Louis Warren's book God's Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America and wanted to devote a few posts to the subject of Christianity and the Ghost Dance. My interest here is exploring how Christianity mixed, interacted with, and affected Native American religion.

To start, what was the Ghost Dance? And what part did it have to play in the massacre at Wounded Knee?

Let me start with the second question. You may have heard of the famous book by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Published in 1970, the best-selling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a classic treatment documenting American atrocities that displaced and destroyed Native Americans and their way of life. The title refers to the 1890 massacre of almost 300 Sioux Indians, many woman and children, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Wounded Knee was the last exchange of fire between the federal government and the Sioux, and is often viewed as the emblematic moment when the indigenous way of life on the Western plains, which had existed for thousands of years, finally came to a tragic and bloody end. 

What happened at Wounded Knee?

Prior to the tragedy, a variety of tensions had been building on the Sioux reservations in South Dakota. Most significantly, in 1889 Congress approved the statehood of North and South Dakota. This prompted the government to take even more land from the Sioux, almost half of the Great Sioux Reservation. In addition, when the new, smaller reservations were created, a bureaucratic bungling slightly changed the border between the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. This displaced a group of Wazhazhas Brules from their settlements on Pass Creek. This band of Wazhazhas became the most disaffected among the Sioux in the lead up to Wounded Knee and they were among the very last holdouts. 

Beyond land disputes, the US government had also significantly cut the rations to the reservations. This caused widespread illness and malnutrition in the face of a measles and influenza outbreak in the two years leading up to Wounded Knee. 

Needless to say, the Sioux reservations were under considerable strain. Discontent was widespread, with rumors about uprisings breaking out. Tensions were high.

And into this volatile situation entered a new religious movement, the Ghost Dance. 

The Ghost Dance emerged among the the Northern Paiute (territories in Nevada and California) with the spiritual leader, rainmaker, and prophet Wovoka (also named Jack Wilson). The prophecies of Wovoka foretold a future restoration of Native American life, a future of peace and prosperity that would be inaugurated by the coming of the Messiah. To usher in this age, the Indians were to live at peace among the whites, to work, and to send their children to school. And they were supposed to dance. 

The Ghost Dance was a traditional circle dance, with some key changes. The dancers held hands and rotated in a clockwise direction. Men, women, and children participated, an egalitarian change from some male-dominated traditional dances. Even some whites were welcomed into the circle. As the circle turned many dancers fell and entered into a trance, which often lasted hours. Upon awakening, dancers shared visions of going to heaven where they encountered their dead loved ones. Given the amount of loss and grief experience by Native Americans, these encounters with lost loved ones fueled the eastward spread of the Ghost Dance, eventually making its way to the plains reservations. Soon after Wovoka's first prophecies in 1889, the circles began to turn among the Sioux in South Dakota.

Given the tensions and rumors of uprisings, the federal authorities could only look upon the Ghost Dance with suspicion. While different in key respects, the circle of the Ghost Dance was rooted in traditional native practice. This represented a "reversion" in the eyes of the authorities to "non-progressive" and "primitive" native practices, a return to traditional culture and lifeways. This wasn't the direction the federal government wanted the Sioux to go. 

Plus, it was feared that the dance was stirring up revolutionary fervor. To suspicious and nervous reservation agents, hundreds of Sioux dancing and singing in a traditional circle dance was an ominous sign. And so, on November 15 the federal agent of the Pine Ridge reservation sent a fateful telegram, asking for federal troops to invade the Sioux reservations: "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy...We need protection and we need it now."

The troops came. Tensions rose ever further. Events cascaded out of control. And on December 29 federal troops opened fire on unarmed men, women and children at Wounded Knee.

Thanks to the popularity of the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, this is a sad and well known tragedy in American history. But do we know this event as well as we think? Because here is where things get interesting, for the purposes of this blog. Jesus was at Wounded Knee, and in ways that might be surprise you. 

What many people don't know is that the Ghost Dance was, for many Native Americans, a Christian movement. Many participants of the Ghost Dance identified the coming Messiah with Jesus Christ. 

Take, for example, Black Elk, the Lakota holy man. Many students of New Age and indigenous spiritualities revere the teachings of Black Elk as recounted in Black Elk Speaks. But did you know that, along with many others, Black Elk encountered Jesus in the Ghost Dance? 

Because of this experience, Black Elk eventually converted to Catholicism, and is now being considered as a saint. As Black Elk's grandson commented, Black Elk was a man comfortable praying with both his pipe and his rosary.

First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament

I've been doing a lot of reading lately about the reception of Christianity among Native Americans. More to come about that tomorrow.

BTW, there's a lot of diversity on the proper term to use here. From my research, Native American, American Indian, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples are all acceptable. But whenever possible, it is proper to speak of an individual's tribal group.

During these explorations I came across a new resource that I wanted to share with you, the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament

Published in 2021, the First Nations Version (FNV) is a dynamic equivalence translation, made with the input of over 25 tribes, that renders the biblical text in Native American idiom and imagery. It's a startlingly beautiful translation.

For example, the word "God" is often translated "the Great Spirit" or "Creator." The word "gospel" is translated as "the Good Story." It's also common among Native Americans for names be descriptive in nature. Thus, the people and places of the New Testament are given descriptive names. Mary, Jesus's mother, is named "Bitter Tears" in light of Simeon's prophecy: "And a sword, too, will pierce your own heart." Abraham is called "Father of Many Nations." Jesus's name is translated "Creator Sets Free." The city of Rome is called "the City of Iron."

There's so much more than just the names. In so many places the Native American twist brings a freshness to the text. For example, I love how "sin" is translated as "bad hearts and broken ways." So good.

Here's the FNV translation of the Lord's Prayer:

O Great Spirit, our Father from above,
we honor your name as sacred and holy.

Bring your good road to us,
where the beauty of your ways in the spirit-world above
is reflected in the earth below.

Provide for us day by day--
the elk, the buffalo, and the salmon.
The corn, the squash, and the wild rice.
All the things we need for each day.

Release us from the things we have done wrong,
in the same way we release others for the things done wrong to us.

Guide us away from the things that tempt us to stray from your good road,
and set us free from the evil one and his worthless ways.

Aho! May it be so!
And here are the Beatitudes: 

Creator’s blessing rests on the poor, the ones with broken spirits. The good road from above is theirs to walk.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk a trail of tears, for he will wipe the tears from their eyes and comfort them.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk softly and in a humble manner. The earth, land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again. They will eat and drink until they are full.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are merciful and kind to others. Their kindness will find its way back to them—full circle.

Creator’s blessing rests on the pure of heart. They are the ones who will see the Great Spirit.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who make peace. It will be said of them, ‘They are the children of the Great Spirit!’

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are hunted down and mistreated for doing what is right, for they are walking the good road from above. Others will lie about you, speak against you, and look down on you with scorn and contempt, all because you walk the road with me. This is a sign that Creator’s blessing is resting on you. So let your hearts be glad and jump for joy, for you will be honored in the spiritworld above. You are like the prophets of old, who were treated in the same way by your ancestors.

Check out the First Nations Version. Highly recommended. 

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Week 4, Myth and Meaning

Last week we discussed how Peterson makes a contrast between seeing the world as "a place of things" versus a "forum of action." In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 Peterson goes on to describe how this happens from the perspectives of developmental and cognitive psychology: 

The empirical object might be regarded as those sensory properties "intrinsic" to the object. The status of the object, by contrast, consists of its meaning--consists of its implication for behavior. Everything a child encounters has this dual nature, experienced by the child as a part of a unified totality. Everything is something, and means something...

Peterson goes on to note that the meaning of an object is something that we tend to miss as we navigate the world, but the meanings of things are exerting a constant push and pull upon our behavior. As Peterson continues:

For people operating naturally, like a child, what something signifies is more or less inextricably part of the thing, part of its magic. The magic is of course due to apprehension of the specific cultural and intrapsychic significance of the thing, and not to its objectively determinable sensory qualities. 

Basically, we are born into a matrix of meaning--a sort of psycho-social-behavioral magnetic field--that is generally unseen and unnoticed, but which enables us to act in the world. Peterson then goes on to make the point that this matrix of meaning, our forum of action, has been, historically, captured by cultural narratives and myths:

The automatic attribution of meaning to things--or the failure to distinguish between them initially--is a characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought...The "natural," pre-experimental, or mythical mind is in fact primarily concerned with meaning--which is essentially implication for action--and not with "objective" nature...[T]o know what something is still means to know two things about it: its motivational relevance, and the specific nature of its sensory qualities...Those sensory properties--of prime import to the experimentalist or empiricist--are meaningful only insofar as they serve as cues for determining specific affective relevance or behavioral significance. We need to know what things are not to know what they are but to keep track of what they mean--to understand what they signify for our behavior. 

Here we arrive at a critical feature of Peterson's thought. Myths are not fairy-tales. Myths map meaning. Science, by contrast, doesn't, and cannot, map meaning. Further, by mapping meaning, by keeping track of "what things mean," their behavioral and motivational significance, myths give us guidance in how to act, how to navigate life. 

In short, if you want to know how to live, don't look to science. Look to myth. Consult the map of meaning.

I Have Been Led

“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line - starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King's Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led - make of that what you will.”

― Wendell Berry, from Jayber Crow

Judgment Day

The poem "Judgment Day" by R.S. Thomas:

Yes, that's how I was,
I know that face,
That bony figure
Without grace
Of flesh or limb;
In health happy,
Careless of the claim
Of the world's sick
Or the world's poor;
In pain craven -
Lord, breathe once more
On that sad mirror,
Let me be lost
In mist for ever
Rather than own
Such bleak reflections,
Let me go back
On my two knees
Slowly to undo
The knot of life
That was tied there.
It's so, so out of tune with the times, adopting this eschatological view of yourself, but my goodness, how I find it such healing, necessary medicine for my sin sick soul.

The Christian Life

It was raining hard at the end of the workday. The few students remaining in our offices, along with myself, were facing the prospect of getting completely soaked in walking to our cars. 

I had an umbrella in my office, which I use on rainy days to get to and from class. I went and got it and gave it to a female graduate student. She was confused about why I was giving it to her, rather than using it for myself. She tried to give it back, but I insisted she use it. "Why are you giving this to me?" she asked, "You're going to get wet."

I just said, "Don't worry about it. I want you to use it." She did.

I didn't share with the student my answer to her question, but I had one. When she asked me why I was giving her my umbrella the answer flashed in my mind, these exact words:

"I'm giving you this umbrella because the Christian life is one continuous act of charity."

Again, I didn't say this out-loud. And there's a lot of virtue-signaling in sharing this story will you. But I'm sharing this because of that line that flashed through my mind. I didn't conjure it up or think about it. It came, rather, as in interruption in my mind. It didn't feel like it was my thought. It felt more like a a gift.

And the thought has haunted me ever since, "the Christian life is one continuous act of charity."

"Resurrection," a Poem

I stumbled upon a poem I wrote in 2018, entitled "Resurrection":

May your sight burn with the flames of grace
as you stand over the bones--
ivory white and stacked high in the sand--
to behold the roaring wind
bringing the dead, clattering, back to life again.

May your despairing heart be singed with joy
as you walk with a stranger
along the road.

May your life be watered by the dew
when Love surprises you in the morning.

May you stand defiant before the logical world
as the prophet of the impossible,
to thunder in sackcloth at their disbelief:
"Why seek ye the living among the dead?"

Not to "explain" poetry, but if anyone cared:

The first verse is the resurrection imagery from the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. The second verse is imagery from the Road to Emmaus ("Were not our hearts burning within us?). And the third verse is Mary Magdalene standing in the garden of the empty tomb on Easter morning.

And, of course, the last verse is about the disenchantment of the modern world, how, in our disbelief (as the "logical world"), we find ourselves searching for life in the midst of deadness. In such a world, Easter people stand as defiant "prophets of the impossible."

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 3, The World is a Forum of Action

At the start of each chapter in Maps of Meaning Peterson summarizes the argument of the chapter. 

Summarizing Chapter 1 "Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning" Peterson starts off with this:

"The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, or as a place of things."

After that statement and the fuller chapter summary, Peterson shares some lines, which seem to be set as blank verse. The formatting below, which is a bit baffling, is as it appears in the book:

We need to know four things:

what there is,

what to do about what there is,

that there is a difference between knowing what there is, and know-

ing what to do about what there is

and what that difference is.

We're going to, in the coming posts, get a whole lot deeper into all this, but some introductory things can be said right here.

First, Peterson makes a strong contrast between seeing the world as "a place of things" or as "a forum of action." This contrast is absolutely central to understanding his thought. Seeing the world as "a place of things" is how science and materialism view the world. The cosmos is a space filled with objects. The world is a warehouse full of furniture. 

And yet, while science is great at telling us all about "what there is" it struggles to tell us "what to do about what there is." Science doesn't create for us "a forum of action."

That insight sits at the heart of Peterson's criticism of atheism. Materialism doesn't create for us a forum of action. Materialism knows "what there is" as it investigates and describes the world as "a place of things." But materialism fails to tell us "what to do about what there is." To act we need more than an exhaustive empirical inventory of the furniture of the cosmos. A forum of action requires more than brute physical description. A forum of action involves knowing not just what a thing is, scientifically speaking, but the value and meaning of a thing. And meaning and value are the very things that escape the scientific, materialistic gaze. This is why an atheistic materialism fails to help us: it cannot create a forum of action.

Again, I'm going to share more about Peterson's view of meaning and value in the posts to come, but I want to stop here to make another comment about Peterson's mass appeal.

Specifically, Peterson describing the world as a "forum of action" is one of his major themes. Over and over again Peterson comes back to a central message: "You must act." This is Peterson's soapbox and bully pulpit. 

Do you want to debate the existence of God? Waste of time. You must act.

Do you want to debate if goodness can exist without God? Doesn't matter. You must act.

Do you want to blame your parents or the government for your problems? Won't make a difference. You have to act.

Peterson has an uncanny ability to blow past most of the obstacles that hang us up, from interminable metaphysical debates to getting stuck in neurotic quicksand. Peterson pushes it all aside to come back to his central point: You must act. Life is a forum of action, and you can't escape its imperatives. You must act. And don't kid yourself that before you have to act that you'll get it all figured out, all your ducks in a row, be those ducks philosophical preoccupations or psychological hangups. You don't have that luxury. You don't have the time or ability to answer the questions you're asking yourself. And while you are lying there ruminating, trying to determine if you have free will or not, your alarm has gone off and the day has started. Get up. You're going to be late for work. People are depending upon you. You are depending upon yourself. Life isn't waiting around for you. You must act. 

Given this pressing focus upon action, there is an urgency and pragmatism at the heart of Peterson's approach. The urgency is felt in the demand for action, especially given the high stakes of life (see last week's post). And the pragmatism is felt in how Peterson ignores metaphysical debates to focus upon choice and behavior. 

God might exist or not. But that is a metaphysical quibble that misses the deeper point. The point is that God creates a forum of action. The question of God isn't about what there is. The question of God concerns what to do about what there is.

"Bible Class," a poem

During a season when our Adult faith Bible classes were going through a study using Hunting Magic Eels, I wrote a poem for my class entitled, very creatively (!), "Bible class." You'll see some of my attempt in the poem at (re)connecting enchantment to going to church and a Bible class. Everything can be full of enchantment if we open our eyes to see. 

“Bible Class”

Here, now, see
in front of you,
inside, above, below, behind you.
Beauty. Grace.
Light and Love
shining through
your transparent self,
and dancing off the water
of sight, sound, and perception.
Hush your anxious mind
and listen to
the Heartbeat
behind your own.

You have what you need.
Our faith
and its worn, trusted paths.
Sermon, sacrament, and song.
And us,
friends and fellow pilgrims
sharing our broken, honest care.
Windows.
Each a telescope and scrying glass
to reveal the fine, imperceptible threads,
the ligaments of sacred light,
holding the whole of our joy and grief,
and the far hope
of reconciliation and reunion.

Here you are
or at least find yourself.
Look at the world.
Behold again.
Behold anew.
The miracle is close,
intimate as breath,
gentle in the breeze,
playing
in sunlight and trees.

On Orthopathy: Part 5, A Battle for the Heart

This whole series has been a slow walk to get to a point I want to make here in this final post.

I spend a lot of time with churches and church leaders. I lead workshops for churches and speak at retreats for pastors. I teach seminary classes for DMin students. And in all those conversations I've frequently encountered a shyness, suspicion, hesitancy and ambivalence about the role of emotions in spiritual formation. 

I'm pretty convinced this is a product of seminary education. Only seminary could twist you into a pretzel like this. 

It's not news to anyone that seminaries have, for many generations, trained pastors to be scholars rather than ministers. Of course, many schools have been, for many years, pushing hard against this history. But as anyone who has ever been to seminary knows, the experience is very academic and very scholarly. Classes in biblical languages, textual studies, exegesis, church history, and theology. And in the rarefied scholarly air of academia emotions tend to get marginalized. Intellect, knowledge and critical ability tend to take center stage. You want and need to be smart.  

Along with this pursuit of smartness is a common seminary tendency to point at and make fun of churches that function as case studies where emotions have led a faith community astray. Emotions make us vulnerable to bad theology, pentecostal excess, charismatic leaders, and entertainment culture. We mock how worship services have become like rock concerts. 

We should also name here one of the unspoken secrets of seminary education: it can hurt your faith. It's not hard to see why. Scholarship tends toward critical analysis, which is vital, necessary and good. But a steady diet of critical analysis can be corrosive. Due to this corrosion, many pastors can lose their faith during seminary. Or at least get started on a course that culminates, years later, in a loss of faith. To be sure, again, many seminaries recognize this as a problem and take steps to create a more healthy and balanced spiritual life for their students. Worship and spiritual practices have to come alongside classes in textual criticism. Still, in many seminaries true devotion and piety is often cause for embarrassment. You don't want to show too much enthusiasm for Jesus. You don't want to look like you might, you know, believe any of this stuff. Such passions make you look naive, uncritical, and unsophisticated. Like a fundamentalist or a holy roller. Best to practice critical and ironic detachment. No enthusiasms or hand raising allowed. 

And so, emotions get marginalized. Because of seminary education and a legitimate worry that emotions can lead us astray. But even worse, emotions are perceived as manipulative

For example, I once complemented a pastor at the end of a worship service. In the final moments of the service the praise team had come back up on stage and had begun to play some poignant backing music as the pastor concluded his sermon with a moving benediction. The service ended, in word and music, on a very powerful note, emotionally speaking. We were moved. Our hearts swelled. It was a moment. You felt it. 

So I complemented the pastor about how the service concluded. About how emotional it was for me, and how impactful. And guess what happened? The pastor expressed a worry, a fear that because strong emotions were being evoked that the moment had been manipulative. 

Here's the thing. I get that worry. I really do. We do see examples of emotions leading churches astray. It's a problem. But here's what I said to the pastor that day: "I understand the worry. But [and here I pointed beyond the church to the outside world as people were leaving the building] we're getting our asses kicked out there. The world has no qualms about appealing to our emotions. Every ad on TV and social media. Every show. And all the outrage. All these emotions, but all of it misdirected and self-destructive. Emotion is the most powerful force in the world. We can't leave our greatest weapon on the shelf. We can't fight with one arm tied behind our back. The world is using emotions. We aren't. And the world is winning."

I wanted to do this series to share with you this conversation I had with that pastor. I was making a point about orthopathy and spiritual formation. Truly, emotions are the most powerful force in our lives. James Smith is right, we are emotional, affective creatures. And Smith is also right that what he calls the "cultural liturgies" of the world--from marketing to entertainment culture to displays of patriotism--are directly targeting and shaping our emotions. But many churches, for the reasons I've shared above, have ceded the game. To appeal to our emotions is deemed too manipulative and too risky. 

The point about orthopathy is this: We cannot afford to avoid emotions. But the issue isn't about emotion, but about right emotion. Yes, there are plenty of examples of wrong and misplaced emotions. But that's not an excuse to avoid emotion. We avoid emotion at our peril. Because something in the world will appeal to our emotions if churches won't. The call here is, rather, for orthopathy, the directing of emotions toward their proper goal and the shaping of virtue.

In fact, when we see Christians behaving badly I'd argue this is due less to bad beliefs than bad emotions, fears and loves being misdirected. When Christians go wrong this is less about a suite of bad ideas than about paranoid fears and inordinate loves. These distorted and twisted emotions need proper direction and formation. 

Orthopathy is the challenge before us. In some churches, as I recount in the story above, emotions are being anxiously avoided, creating an affective vacuum that is being filled by the culture. In other churches, fears and misplaced loves are leading the church astray. Either way, this is a battle for the heart.

On Orthopathy: Part 4, Affectivity and Spiritual Formation

This really isn't a series about C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, although we've begun with that book. I started with Lewis because of the central role emotions play in his vision of virtue and character formation. Virtue demands right affection--courage in the press, compassion in the face of pain and outrage in the face of injustice. 

This is interesting to me as right affection isn't regularly placed at the center of spiritual formation. Christianity has tended to privilege orthodoxy--right belief--over things like orthopraxy (right practice) and orthopathy (right affection).

Ponder, for example, the various things we discuss when we talk about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. We talk about prayer, Sabbath, Bible study, and fasting. And while these things do involve our affections, we rarely place emotions at the center of these practices, that these practices are habits of orthopathy.

That said, the work of James Smith, in his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love, has put emotions back on the map in conversations about spiritual formation. For that a lot of us have been very grateful. 

What I think C.S. Lewis' work helps us see is that by "desiring the kingdom" we mean "virtue." "Kingdom" can be vague and abstract, where virtues like kindness and courage are easier to see and teach. With virtue you can be situationally-specific and point to models and exemplars. Martin Luther King Jr. was brave. St. Francis was kind. 

But either way, emotions become the focus and take center stage. Orthopathy is the deep engine of spiritual formation. We spend a lot of time and energy talking and arguing about Christian beliefs. So much of Christian life is about your agreement or disagreement with a theological or biblical proposition. But what is your heart up to? Moment by moment, and day by day? 

We should spend more time practicing and displaying the emotions and affections of Jesus.

On Orthopathy: Part 3, The Tao, the Logos, and Wisdom

My interest in C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man concerns the role of right affections--orthopathy--in the first of the three lectures that make up the book. I'll return to that focus in the next post, but in this post I wanted to pause to say something about Lewis' second lecture.

To review, Lewis' argument in the first lecture is that for right affections to be "right," noting also that right affections are at the very heart of virtue, these affections have to correspond to objective value. Without this correspondence feelings become "subjective" and untethered from objective goods. In such a situation our feelings of cowardice or courage give us no moral guidance. Flee or stand your ground, it doesn't matter because those feelings aren't pushing or pulling you toward a good. 

For Lewis, this situation--feelings decoupled from value--creates an educational catastrophe. As Lewis laments in lecture one, how are we to educate and form character if we cannot instill in our children or charges right affection? Character is wholly about right affections! As mentioned in the last post, courage sits at the heart of every virtue. And beyond courage, there are affections like compassion and anger. Character formation directs those emotions toward their proper ends. Compassion directed toward the hurting, for example, and anger toward injustice. Education shapes our character by directing our emotions toward right values. 

I'll return to that point in the next post. For this post, we'll pause to consider the question: Is there a such thing as objective value? Isn't this whole conversation assuming something that many people doubt?

In lecture two of The Abolition of Man Lewis gives his argument for the existence of objective value. And what's interesting is that Lewis, the famous Christian apologist, chooses to call the source of objective value the Tao. 

The Tao is a key idea in Eastern religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The Tao is "the Way" or "the Path." The Tao describes what I'd call the "moral grain of the universe" with which we wisely harmonize ourselves. Right living is to live in sync with the Tao, the ordering principle and flow of the cosmos. In this, the Tao is both ontological and ethical. 

One can see Lewis' attraction to the Tao in light of his purposes in The Abolition of Man. The Tao is the source of objective value. Ontologically speaking, the universe presents us with a Way or Path. Wise and right living, then, becomes living in a harmonious relationship with the Tao. 

I think this is a genius move on Lewis' part, and his choice here has only improved with the passage of time. Few modern people are warm to the idea of God imposing rules from above upon humankind. But the idea of the Tao has a lot of cultural cache these days. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, we're much more open to immanent enchantments in the modern world than transcendent enchantments. God handing down the Law on Mount Sinai is a transcendent ground of value. The Tao, by contrast, is an immanent ground of value.

But this doesn't mean Christianity is a stranger to the Tao. In both the Old and New Testaments creation is imbued with a moral grain. Creation isn't inert matter. Creation crackles with value. 

In the Old Testament, the Tao is called Wisdom. As I shared recently, in Proverbs we see Wisdom personified, sharing her role in imbuing creation, from the start, with value and a path toward right living:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.” (Proverbs 8: 22-23)

“Now then, my children, listen to me;
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Listen to my instruction and be wise;
do not disregard it.
For those who find me find life
and receive favor from the Lord.
But those who fail to find me harm themselves.” (Proverbs 8: 32-33, 35-36a)
In the New Testament, Wisdom becomes associated with the Logos (or Word). Like both Wisdom and the Tao, the Logos imbues creation with value from the start:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created…All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1.15-17)
All that to say, Christianity can smoothly come alongside Lewis' use of the Tao. Which is obviously why he picked the concept to build around. And in light of Hunting Magic Eels, the Tao, Wisdom and the Logos are very helpful and resourceful ways to talk about "objective value" in an increasingly post-Christian context.