God's Omnipotence: Part 4, The Problem of Will

Beyond causality, in her Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God Katherine Sonderegger also thinks problems are created when we talk about God's "will" in relation to divine power.

The issue of God's will bedevils so many issues. For example, when we pray and God does or doesn't "answer," how are we think about God's will in those situations? Is it God's "will" to answer this prayer but not that other prayer? Is it the Lord's will to heal this cancer diagnosis but not that one?

Or if we're traveling, and pray, "We'll see you tomorrow, Lord willing." Yet people get into horrible accidents all the time. Was it the Lord's will that these people not reach their destinations?

In all this, the problem of God's will is the flip side to the problems of God's sovereignty and omnicontrol of the cosmos. Where Calvinistic views of God's sovereignty and providential omnicontrol make God 100% responsible for every cause in the universe, down to the last atom, the problem of God's will raises the question of God's situational and sporadic intervention in our lives, God willing this outcome but not that one, God dipping in and out of the cosmos.

So, beyond extracting God's power from causality, Sonderegger also suggests that we need also to remove it from the notion of "will."

The crux of Sonderegger's argument is that the notion of "will" is too anthropomorphic, too human in it's vision of decision-making. "Will" brings in notions of deliberation and weighing choices. All of which, according to Sonderegger, are not proper ways to think about God. She writes:
The traditional problematics of Omnipotence--the puzzle cases about necessity and contradiction in the exercise of Divine Power--stem, I believe, from this all-too-creaturely depiction of Omnipotence itself. "Doing what one wills," after all conjures a Divine Agent who will survey the objects of His electing Will; then select; then execute the decree...The mighty God who does as He will must be seen, at base, as One who reflects, meditates, and chooses, as One who prefers one path over another, one creaturely event to be favored against its opposite. The Power of this God is measured by His being able to execute His preference: what He prefers, He enacts. Such an imaginative portrait of the Lord underscores not His Uniqueness but rather His commonality, His likeness to His deliberative creatures...

But I believe there are strong reasons to tag [this] traditional portrait as altogether too anthropomorphic. The Lord who does what He will is not simply a Lordly Potentate, sitting on high, contemplating with great ease and pleasure His next good to be realized. No. Rather, the portrait of Omnipotence I have termed too earthy and human scale catches up in a concrete, agential image the perduring--and in this form, I say, insoluble--riddles of Divine Power in and over creation. The earthy image, that is, sums up and expresses the framework in which dilemmas of Divine Power are derived and, perhaps, resolved; it is this framework, the image lying behind the puzzles, that generates the puzzles--the Power behind the throne!--and dictates the form of any possible answer. This framework, I say, should be broken up and set aside; the dilemmas follow suit.
To summarize, many of our problems regarding divine power flow out of a particular picture of power: a King or CEO making choices and then having the power to make those choices happen in reality. Power is the ability to enact your will, to make the world conform to your choice. This is what human power looks like.

But the problem, according to Sonderegger, is that when we import this vision/definition of power into God's life we create all the horrible puzzles we've been talking about. For example, in the Calvinist vision God is an All Powerful CEO who micromanages the entire cosmos. And if it's not that, then we have a capricious Lord, a God who wills one thing but not another, answers this prayer but not that one. But either way, we're stuck.

To be sure, as Sonderegger notes, we can find answers to these questions from within this framework. Calvinists have a suite of answers to the criticisms they face. And we've all heard the answers about why God answers some prayers and not others. But the problem, says Sonderegger, is that these answers are leaving the regulating framework intact, failing to reject the all-too-human vision of power sitting behind and creating all the problems in the first place. According to Sonderegger, you can't solve the problem of divine power within this framework, because its this framework that is causing all the problems.

What we need to do, says Sonderegger, is rethink our deep image of divine power.

Perhaps, if we change our regulating image of divine power, many of our problems might go away.

God's Omnipotence: Part 3, The Problem of Causality

We continue our series looking at Katherine Sonderegger's treatment of omnipotence in her Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God.

Beyond theodicy and our concerns regarding the moral implications of absolute power, there's a third problem associated with divine omnipotence:

Causality.

The problem shows up in a lot of different debates. For example, some extreme Calvinist positions claim that every cause and effect in the universe is the product of God's sovereign will and plan. According to this view, not a single atom can deviate from God's will. Omnipotence manifests here as "omnicausality," God being the sovereign cause of every effect in the cosmos, down to the last atom.

Obviously, "omnicausality" kicks up a host of issues, free will and theodicy the biggest ones. Are we truly free, and worthy of moral blame, if God is the Omnicause of all my thoughts and actions? And if God is the Omnicause of child abuse, rape, and genocide, then how can we call God loving and good?

All that to say, when omnipotence is associated with omnicausality we have a host of snarly theological problems. Stepping into this debate, Sonderegger's makes a bold claim by stating that God's omnipotence "must be removed from the category cause altogether."

That's the line, when I encountered it in book reviews, that drew me to Sonderegger's book. That idea, that God's power must be removed from the category of cause altogether, resonated with me. Because it does seem that when God gets implicated in causality we run into all these problems. So if God can be removed from causality, might we find a way past these troubling controversies?

And yet, as we noted in the last post, Sonderegger isn't going to address the issue of causality through a hyperkenotic approach, evacuating God of all power, making God's power so weak God can't be the cause of anything.

So we see the challenge Sonderegger has set for herself: seeking a robust vision of God's power (contra the hyperkenoticist and process theology folks), while removing that power from the category of cause altogether. That's a fascinating project, and if Sonderegger is proven to be successful in it, I think it would be a big theological breakthrough.

God's Omnipotence: Part 2, The Hyperkenoticists

We continue this series looking at Katherine Sonderegger's treatment of omnipotence in Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God.

In the last post we raised the question posed by Sonderegger: "Must God renounce power in order to be good?"

Again, this is a uniquely modern question, posed because of our our concerns about evil and suffering ("How could an all-powerful God allow horrors like the Holocaust?") and how power is involved in systems of domination and oppression.

Because of these worries, as Sonderegger surveys, modern, post-WW2 theology has tended to approach divine power through the lens of kenosis. Divine power is viewed through Christology and a theology of the cross.

This kenotic move is everywhere in modern theology. From Moltmann to process theology. Even Barth. You're likely familiar with the general move: In Jesus God empties (kenosis) Himself of power. On the cross divine power is revealed to be love. God's power is the "weakness" of self-giving, self-sacrifice, and self-offering. God's power is cruciform.

Sonderegger coins a word to describe extreme versions of these "theologies of weakness": Such theologies are hyperkenoticist. Specifically, to solve our problems with divine omnipotence these theologies completely fold power into love. God's "power" simply is God's self-giving love, and love doesn't force, bully, boss, or coerce. Love isn't control or force but presence and solidarity. Bonhoeffer famously expressed a hyperkenotic view of God's power in his letters from prison:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. 
The theological "win" of a hyperkenotic theology is that it offers answers to our questions about divine power. For example, the hyperkenoticists argue that God isn't an All-Powerful Potentate, ruling the world from the top-down. To borrow from Thomas Oord, God didn't stop the Holocaust because "God can't," God's power simply doesn't "work" like that. God's power isn't force or the "omnicontrol" of the universe. God's power is relational and non-coercive--love, presence, solidarity, and self-donation. Process theologians make a similar move by contending that God is immanent rather than transcendent. That is, God's power isn't a transcendent power "above" or "over" creation, but an immanent power "within" creation, a power that has to work with us relationally. This relational view of God's power, for the process theologian, saves us from the keen pressures of theodicy. Again, God can't stop the Holocuast, because God's power doesn't work like that. As love, however, God is always "with us," wooing, mending, nurturing, supporting, caring, refreshing, and calling us.

Beyond theodicy, hyperkenotic theologies also help us push against visions of power that support or give warrant to domination and exploitation. If the Crucified God reveals to us that divine power is self-donation and solidarity with victims, then we can use the cross as a weapon of prophetic rebuke toward systems of oppression.

While there are tons of variations on this theme, and painting with a very broad brush, we can summarize by saying that hyperkenotic theologies solve the problems of divine power by folding God's power into God's goodness. The solution to the problems of divine power is simply to say that God's power is love.

And this is, as regular readers know, how I've solved the problems of divine power. I've been a proud hyperkenoticist. And yet, I picked up Sonderegger because she pushes back against the hyperkenoticists, and attempts to reclaim a robust vision of God's omnipotence while addressing the problems that worry hyperkenoticists like myself. As Sonderegger asks and answers:
But we must ask, Can the God who merely suffers empathetically with His sorry world--however nobly or creatively--indeed be the Reality we call God?...'God is present with us in our suffering,' we often hear, from pulpit and alongside the sickbed. Indeed Christians cannot but testify to the Lord's graceful and glorious Presence in all our afflictions. But God is not simply a Beacon, though He is that in a dangerous sea; not a radiant Light only, though He is to be sure all that in the darkened world; not a benevolent Presence and Solace only; but rather as Holy Scripture says, a very present Help in times of trouble, a Defender and Judge and Conqueror. The Lord God is an Agent and a Force: holy Power in its fullness. He does not merely see, but also brings about; does not merely hear, but speaks in royal Judgment; is not merely a powerful Agent but is rather Power itself...All at once and in all eternity, He is this, the Lord.
Sonderegger thinks the hyperkenoticists go wrong because they collapse all of theology into Christology. Sonderegger pushes back by declaring, "not all is Christology!" Taking aim at theologians like Jürgen Moltmann in his Crucified God, we must, says Sonderegger, "simply, quietly, but firmly, say no; no, to such radical cruciformity in the doctrine of God...[as] Christology cannot be the sole measure, ground, and matter of the doctrine of God..."

That's pretty big pushback for a hyperkenoticist like myself, a person who tends to look at God from a strongly (even exclusively) Christological perspective. So why is Sonderegger throwing down the gauntlet like this?

Three of her big concerns are Scripture, Trinity, and definitions.

First, Scripturally it's hard to do justice to the pictures of God's power we find in the pages of the Bible. The Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and most especially, the resurrection of Jesus. These aren't just evidences of love, they are manifestations of power.

Second, from a Trinitarian perspective, when our view of God focuses exclusively upon Christology, as vital as that is, our theology becomes unbalanced. Plus, as Sonderegger points out, a hyperkenotic Christology ignores Jesus's own acts of power in the gospels. Jesus doesn't just empathize with people, he heals them, power flows out of him. Jesus also calms storms and multiplies loaves and fishes. Jesus loves, yes, but he also has power. And yes, the Son dies in solidarity with victims on the cross, but the Father raises the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, thereby defeating the powers of sin and death.

Lastly, Sonderegger raises a point about definitions. Specifically, hyperkenoticists solve the problem of power by redefining power as love. Change your definition of power and--Voilà!--problem solved. But power and love, Sonderegger pushes back, are two separate and distinct attributes of God. You can't solve theological problems by defining them out of existence. That's cheating. We need to say something positive about God's omnipotence separate and apart from what we claim about God's love. As Sonderegger says, as tempting as it might be, in our theological discussions of omnipotence "Goodness and Power cannot be identical."

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 14, The Grace of Your Story

Night descends on the frightened hobbits huddled together on Weathertop. To calm their nerves, Strider chants to them the Song of Beren and Lúthien, the tale of a love between a mortal man and an immortal elf.

This story holds a particular significance for Aragorn, as he is a descendant of Lúthien through Elrond's brother Elros, the first King of Númenor, the start of the regal line which Aragorn will inherit. In the history and legend Aragorn shares with the hobbits, he shares the prophecy that the line of Lúthien "shall never fail." Aragorn, the future king, is a continuation and fulfillment of this hope.

The hobbits know none of this history, or of Aragorn's place within it. Neither does the reader at this point. Aragorn is still Strider, a rough, dirty, mysterious Ranger.

But Aragorn knows the story. Because it is his story. And as he recites it, he is changed and transfigured. The hobbits notice:
As Strider was speaking they watched his strange, eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood-fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky. Suddenly a pale light appeared over the crown of Weathertop behind him. The waxing moon was climbing slowly above the hill that overshadowed them, and the stars above the hill-top faded.

The story ended...
As Fleming Rutledge notes, this theme of transfiguration runs throughout The Lord of the Rings. We catch an early glimpse of it here. We'll revisit this later on in this series.

For today, a reflection about how sharing the story of Beren and Lúthien affects Aragorn. As Rutledge observes,
Like the disciples of Jesus, the hobbits are in no position to understand as yet, but clearly Strider/Aragorn understands where he fits into the redemptive story. For Tolkien, this understanding is the greatest thing that can happen to anyone, whether great or small...Just as Strider sees himself and his vocation as a part of a greater ongoing saga moving toward consummation, so also Frodo and Sam will later come to see the same for themselves.
Finding our part, great or small, in the Story is one of the greatest things that can happen to anyone. Trouble is, as Robert Jenson has observed, the post-Christian West has lost its Story. And having lost our Story, we've become anxious, confused, and disoriented. We've lost access to the grace that Aragorn finds in his story. We exist today only to scroll through social media and binge on Netflix. No regulating narrative or drama controls and guides our lives. We just crash into news report after news report and are scattered into so many directions, depending upon our particular neurosis, like a bunch of bowling pins.

But the gospel according to The Lord of the Rings is that there is, in fact, a Story.

And like Aragorn, this Story is yours.

God's Omnipotence: Part 1, The Problem of Absolute Power

I recently read Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God as I'd heard that Sonderegger had an interesting take on God's omnipotence, the doctrine that God is "all powerful."

As many of you know, God's omnipotence is a snarly issue, full of controversy. So I was interested in Sonderegger's take on God's power. Across twelve posts (!!!), I'd like to wade into the issues of divine omnipotence and what I think are the big takeaways in Sonderegger's proposals.

In this post, let's briefly sketch some of the problems and issues that swirl around the issue of omnipotence. As Sonderegger observes at the start of her treatment of God's power, "But uniquely to our age, Divine Power has become a 'question,' a worry, a problem, even an offense."

Why "uniquely to our age"? Well, the Bible doesn't seem to have a problem with God's omnipotence. God's power crackles almost on every page of the Bible. Likewise, the Christian tradition doesn't have much problem with God's power. The church fathers and the medieval theologians, from Augustine to Aquinas, assume and praise God's omnipotence.

So power is a uniquely modern theological problem. Why is that?

Much of the pressure upon divine omnipotence, as Sonderegger rightly points out, comes from theodicy, the problems of suffering, pain, and evil. Theodicy, I would argue, drives much of modern theological innovation. Modern theologians, post-WW2, talk about omnipotence with the Holocaust and other modern terrors constantly in mind. The big question always haunts: How could an omnipotent God have allowed the Holocaust to happen?

Beyond theodicy, there's also our modern skepticism about power itself. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And if that's true for humans, would it not also be true for God? Our modern worries about domination, victimization, oppression, and exploitation make us very, very concerned about any image of God being an all-powerful Lord, Master, King, and Potentate. Such a hierarchical, top-down vision of power has been associated with some of the worst ethical abuses within Christianity, and we're rightly concerned whenever we see that vision of divine power deployed, especially when it's used to justify human arrangements of power and domination.

The upshot in all this is that divine power seems to erode our visions of divine goodness. God's power and love seem to be in some tension, if not pitted against each other in a zero sum theological game. All of which leads Sonderegger to ask, "Must God renounce power in order to be good?"

That's the question we'll be exploring.

The Book of Common Prayer: Prayers for Plagues and Times of Great Sickness

From The Book of Common Prayer (1662 Edition):

In the time of any common Plague of Sickness.

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From The Book of Common Prayer (1928 Edition):
In Time of Great Sickness and Mortality.

O MOST mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succour. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Stillness as Resistence

Following up on yesterday's post, about how hard it is to stay still, I was reminded of a famous passage in Exodus.

Moses and the Israelites are backed up against the Red Sea, Pharaoh and the Egyptian army bearing down on them. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, the people begin to panic. Nowhere to go! Nowhere to run!

Then Moses says:
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Goodness, that's so hard and counter-intuitive. When trouble is heading right for you being still doesn't come easy. We want to act, to do something. Being still seems like doing nothing.

But being still can be a profound act of resistance. If not in body then in heart and mind. Being still makes room for God to fight for us. Yet, this is such a profoundly countercultural thing to say and do in this world of self-sufficiency, self-help, and self-actualization. Stillness is hard during this season of COVID-19, when everyone is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The crazed, anxious activity of others infects us, making us feel shamed or anxious about staying still.

But on the banks of the Red Sea, God fights for the still.

COVID-19 and Lent

I've seen a lot of people knocked out of Lenten rhythms and reflections because of COVID-19. I've seen pastors and others give the world permission to ignore Lenten commitments because of the stress of COVID-19.

Maybe I'm weird, but I've been grateful that it's been Lent during COVID-19. Lent has helped me during this season--pondering mortality, dealing with losses and restrictions, dealing with disappointment, facing my idols of security and self-sufficiency.

I've been reading Pascal's Pensées, and my goodness, it's the best thing I could be reading, both for Lent and COVID-19. Two passages I read recently that are particularly apt for Lent and this season of social distancing:
I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not know how to stay quietly in our room.


We find nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort.

For then we face our nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, and emptiness.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 13, Homelessness and Longing

The band finally reaches Weathertop, but they don't find Gandalf, only a rune that he might have left three days previously, when they spied lightning from Weathertop.

Standing there, alone and exposed, the Black Riders closing in, no help or rescue in sight, a despair and fear settles over Frodo. Fleming Rutledge draws attention to the moment, as Tolkien writes:
They stood for a while silent on the hill-top, near its southward edge. In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger.
Homelessness and being in exile is frequently used to describe the People of God in this world. We are a people out of time and place. "Foxes have dens and birds have nests," said Jesus, "but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." "For this world is not our permanent home," declares Hebrews 13.14, "We are looking forward to a home yet to come." And as Jesus foretells, "In this world you will have trouble."

Tolkien does a masterful job in The Lord of the Rings evoking this longing for our true home. There is a poignant melancholy that haunts the book, observed mostly in the elves. Aragorn and Gandalf are also pensive and sad. We see this longing in the restlessness of Frodo at the end of the story, his desire to go to the Grey Havens and depart Middle Earth. There's also a great sense of loss in the book, how something beautiful and good has been poisoned, damaged, and degraded. We've lost our true home, and now stand with Frodo, scared, alone, and beleaguered on Weathertop.

To be sure, this is a mixed theme in Tolkien. For Sam, the Shire is his home, and he remains to embrace the comforts of family and the the soil he gardens. So, we have to hold onto both Frodo and Sam to get proper guidance about how to balance our love for a particular place, because the Shire is good, with our longing for that "home yet to come."

Set Free from the Hunter's Snare

Praying during the Lenten season with the Liturgy of the Hours (the Catholic version of The Book of Common Prayer) you frequently encounter this Antiphon and Responsory:
God himself will me free from the hunter's snare.
The image comes from places like Psalm 91:
I say this about the Lord, my shelter and my stronghold,
my God in whom I trust—

he will certainly rescue you from the snare of the hunter.
It raises the question. Who is the hunter and what is his snare?

I can't help but think of my post last week about Hebrews 2.14-15. The devil is the hunter and his snare is anxiety and fear.

I find this image very apt and timely. Looking around, many of us have been caught in the hunter's snare.

But what I love about the image in Psalm 91 and the Lenten refrain "God himself will me free from the hunter's snare" is its fierce proprietorship. If you know anything about hunting and its code of ethics, the one thing you do not do, when coming across a snared animal, is set it free. Yet God comes along and sees us caught the hunter's snare, and God promptly blows off the rights and feelings of the hunter. God sets us free.

I just love that image, God lawlessly walking through the woods, setting all the snared animals free. That hunter is going to be pissed!

Another way to think about it is that the hunter is a poacher, trying to steal from the owner of the land.

Either way, we might have been caught in the snare, but the hunter doesn't own us. For we are God's, and he is ours.

The Gospel & COVID-19: Part 4, The Judgment of God

There's been a lot of discussion and debate about if COVID-19 is an act of God's judgment. Did God send the plague to punish us, to teach us something, to call us to repentance?

The camps in the debate fall along the predictable lines. Conservative Christians, especially the Neo-Reformed, are willing to consider or claim that COVID-19 is God's judgment. Progressive Christians, by contrast, resist that conclusion.

As progressive Christian, I don't think God sent COVID-19. I hold pretty strongly to a Christological hermeneutic when reading Scripture. Jesus is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1.15) and "the exact imprint of God's nature" (Heb. 1.3). And it's pretty hard for me to imagine Jesus sending a plague.

And yet, I'm enough of post-progressive Christian to not leave this issue so neat and tidy.

I'm wrestling with two issues.

First, I sometimes worry if my Christological hermeneutic is Marcionite.

Marcion was an early heretic who claimed that the god of the Old Testament, who created the world, was an evil, wicked god, different from the good, loving God revealed to us by Jesus. Obviously, the church rejected Marcionism.

But the ghost of Marcion still haunts us whenever we try to reconcile the God we find in the Old Testament with the God revealed to us in Jesus. Of course, we don't posit two different gods as Marcion did. But theologians worry that when our moral characterizations of God in the Old and  New Testaments become so different that they become discontinuous we wind up, functionally, talking about two different gods. The sharper and cleaner the moral break between the Old and the New Testament the greater the threat of Marcionism.

But you don't need to accuse me of Marcionism. I worry about it all on my own. (Why? "I guess I'm just a worrier. That's why my friends call me whiskers.") God sent many plagues in the Old Testament, so it's not theologically outrageous to think God could send another one.

Again, I don't think the God revealed to us in Jesus would send COVID-19. So I recoil at the suggestion. But I'm self-aware enough to worry about how I relate to the Old Testament. I work hard to embrace and be challenged by the whole of Scripture, and God sends plagues in the Old Testament. So with COVID-19 I sort of land in this weird place: Did God send COVID-19? I don't think so, but who knows?

The other thing I'm thinking about during this season has to do with the goodness of pondering our mortality.

As I wrote about during Ash Wednesday, progressive Christians flocked to the imposition of ashes sharing that day how it was good for us to "contemplate our mortality." Ashes we are and to ashes we shall return. We are all marked by death. So it is good, it seems, to contemplate and embrace our mortality. And I agree. As it says in Ecclesiastes 7:2, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart."

Then COVID-19 arrived. Suddenly, we really are facing our mortality. This isn't an Ash Wednesday practice drill, this is the real deal.

So, is all this heightened mortality awareness a good thing? We said it was on Ash Wednesday, but do we really believe it?

Here's what I've been pondering. We blather on and on on Ash Wednesday how good it is to embrace our mortality, our finitude and limitations, how we are marked by death. But we forget that our mortality is the judgment of God upon human sin. So progressive Christians seem deeply confused. We claim that embracing our mortality is a good thing, while at the same time recoiling in horror at the suggestion that our mortality is the judgment of God. This strange ambivalence is what sits behind our knee-jerk rejection of any suggestion that God might act in history to bring our mortality to mind.

Again, I recoil at any suggestion that God "sent" COVID-19. But I also realize that I'm trying to have my theological cake and eat it too. Mortality is a good thing to embrace, like we all said on Ash Wednesday, until, well, our mortality becomes real. I'm allowed to contemplate my mortality with ashes on my head, but God can't act in history to bring that mortality to mind. Because if God is involved in mortality then that God is a monster. So which is it, people? Is mortality a good thing or a bad thing?

Here's what I think. I think there was a lot of hypocrisy on Ash Wednesday. There we were, insulated by our affluence and the wonders of modern medicine, sharing on Twitter how good it was to contemplate our mortality. Then shit got real and we collectively freaked out. Apparently, all our mortality awareness was a bit of a show, a lot of theological virtue signalling on Twitter.

Does that mean I think God sent COVID-19? No, but I do think that death is the destiny of everyone and that the living should take that to heart. I think under the Curse and Judgment of God, waves of death roll over the earth, and will continue to do so until the New Heavens and the New Earth. And during those seasons we will groan and lament with all of creation, longing for our redemption. But I also think these seasons humble and chasten a sinful humanity. Ash Wednesday is exactly right: embracing our mortality as God's judgment upon sin is a good thing. The vanity, pride, triviality, silliness, and self-absorption are burned away like chaff. The liturgy was a scrimmage, and now it's game time.

Did God sent COVID-19? I don't think so, but I don't really know. I am but dust, too feeble of mind and heart to pronounce upon the ways of the Almighty. But I can share with you where my heart and mind have been during these days:
Psalm 90

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”

For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:

in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.

You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!
Death is the destiny of everyone. The living should take this to heart.

So teach us, O Lord, to number our days, that we might gain a heart of wisdom.

The Gospel & COVID-19: Part 3, Love as Distance

One of the theological challenges of COVID-19 is thinking through what love looks like after the discovery of the germ theory of disease.

In the gospels, we see Jesus touching lepers. But the Bible was written before the germ theory of disease. The early Christians on through the Middle Ages were noteworthy in caring for and nursing plague victims. But the early Christians didn't know anything about infectious diseases.

Basically, in the Bible and throughout most of church history, the Christian ethic of love has been one of approach and contact, even in the face of disease and plague. Jesus touches lepers, Christians rush toward plague victims. Love embraces. That's how Christians are taught and morally formed, we love by moving toward each other.

But since the discovery of germ theory, this ethic of approach, touch, and embrace has been complicated. COVID-19 has made this abundantly clear. As everyone is sharing now, love is distance. We care for each other by staying away from each other, especially away from the most vulnerable among us.

But love as distance is, to put it mildly, one of the most disorienting and confusing aspects of COVID-19. As Christians, we've had it drilled into us that love is approach, touch, and embrace. That's how our hearts have been formed. But now we're supposed to stay far away from each other? Intellectually this makes sense, but emotionally it doesn't. We want to rush toward each other, to gather, to hug, to hold hands, to be close. Because that's what love does, love is closeness.

Unless love is distance. 

This paradox and tension is one of the great moral, social, emotional, and theological challenges of COVID-19. Sadly, I have no great insights to share about this. I'll keep thinking about it. All I really wanted to point out is how COVID-19 is posing a unique theological challenge. HIV, given that it is bloodborne pathogen, didn't trigger this paradox when it emerged. You could embrace the HIV+. Overcoming fear to embrace the HIV+ matched up well with the gospel model of Jesus touching lepers. But not so with COVID-19.

So we're in uncharted territory, figuring out how to lean into the Christian ethic of embrace, touch, and care while also practicing social distancing. Love as distance is loving, but the distance is creating isolation and abandonment. How to keep each other safe from infection while staying close to each other as well? That's the gospel challenge of the moment.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 12, Memory

Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin and Strider strike out from Bree. They enter the wilderness, making for Weathertop, the Black Riders now closing in on them.

As the groups approaches Weathertop Strider shares some of the old lore about its history, how "It is told that Elendil stood there watching for the coming of Gil-galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance."

The hobbits ask "Who was Gil-galad?" And Sam surprises them by singing a song:
Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea...
Sam had learned the song from Bilbo when he was a child.

Fleming Rutledge observes about this scene that we're introduced here to one of Tolkien's great themes: Memory.

As Rutledge writes, "Communal memory, for Tolkien as for Christians, is a central human responsibility; forgetting is a deprivation and, indeed, a mortal sin, as the Hebrew prophets repeatedly attest...Those who can remember, therefore, are held in high esteem throughout The Lord of the Rings."

There are many examples of this, how families tell and retell their stories or how churches remember and pass on their history. But I'm thinking today about the "old lore" of the Scripture. Remembering and telling those ancient stories, and especially the Gospel stories. And how Jesus's final commands were to love each other and to remember.

The Gospel & COVID-19: Part 2, Love, Fear, and Sharing

So, if the fear of death is the power of the devil in our lives, if we sin because we are scared, what are we supposed to do?

The text I focus on in The Slavery of Death is a text that's been getting a lot of attention lately:
1 John 4.18
There is no fear in love, perfect love casts out fear.
The issue I wrestle with in The Slavery of Death is that it's perfectly natural and human to be afraid of death. To put it like I do in the book, as "biodegradable creatures in a world of real or perceived scarcity" we're going to be afraid. So, following Hebrews 2.14-15, the psycho-spiritual struggle isn't the elimination of fear but emancipation from the slavery to fear.

You can have fear but not be enslaved to it. Because of COVID-19, we're all walking around with chronic, low-grade anxiety. That's normal and to be expected. Our spiritual work is to not be enslaved to this anxiety.

As I argue it in The Slavery of Death, love is the capacity to "cast out" fear as evidenced by our ability to make choices not dictated by fear. Fear is there, but we don't let it become the master, the ultimate reason for the choices we make. For example, if you share rather than hoard that sharing is evidence of "perfect love," a capacity to make moral choices that aren't being driven by fear and scarcity.

A story in this regard.

Sensing the rising anxiety in our town, Jana went to the store to buy some staples. So she's at the store because of some anxiety. Totally reasonable.

And the store, like your stores, was pretty picked over.

Jana went to the rice section to pick up some rice and found it all gone, all except three packages of brown rice. Jana picked these up and put them in her cart. Just then, a young Hispanic women came up and looked at the now totally empty rice shelves. She started to cry.

Jana asked if she was okay and found out she was a young mother, and that the only thing her son would eat was her Mexican rice. But now, with no rice, she had no idea what to buy or what her son was going to eat.

Hearing this, Jana offered her the three packages of brown rice she had just put in her cart. Touched by the gesture, the woman started to cry again. But she declined the offer, the recipe her son liked needed white rice. Still, she was moved by Jana's kindness.

Jana's offer of rice is a little thing during these anxious times. But it illustrates the point. Love is the capacity to "cast out" fear, to make choices, like offering your three packages of brown rice to an anxious mother, that are not dictated by fear. We're afraid, we're at the store shopping, but we're not mastered by fear. We can still share.

Sharing during anxious times is perfect love casting out fear. Sharing is an exorcism, how we break "the power of the devil" during COVID-19.

The Gospel & COVID-19: Part 1, The Power of the Devil

Like you, I've had a lot of thoughts and experiences since the US started implementing social distancing to flatten the curve of COVID-19.

So, a few posts to share some thoughts about the gospel during times of a pandemic.

The main thing I've been thinking about is my book The Slavery of Death.

In the book I spend time thinking through this text from Hebrews:
Hebrews 2.14-15
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Using Orthodox theology and existential psychology, the argument I make in The Slavery of Death is how our fear of death becomes the "power of the devil" in our lives, the source of human sin.

Psychologically, death anxiety manifests in one of two ways, as either basic anxiety or neurotic anxiety. In the West, insulated as we've been from threats of physical death, our death anxiety has tended to manifest neurotically, in things like shame, low self-esteem, envy, vanity, or competitiveness. We wonder if we're living meaningful lives, or if our lives measure up to some standard of comparison.

Basic anxiety, by contrast, is survival and resource anxiety. We in the West have been largely spared this sort of anxiety. We've been protected by our affluence and abundance.

But COVID-19 has changed all this. Suddenly, we're seeing a surge of basic death anxiety take hold of the West. Which is a unique situation to behold, how we react, individually and collectively, to basic death anxiety. We've never see this in our lifetimes.

The basic death anxiety is hitting us in two different ways. The first is the straightforward threat of infection and possible death, for ourselves or someone we love.

The second is a resource-based anxiety, triggered by scarcity. Across the nation, you see this scarcity-driven anxiety leading to hoarding. When things turned in the US last Thursday and Friday, our family was on a Spring Break trip. We returned home Sunday evening 48 hours after a lot of the shopping panic had set in. We couldn't find toilet paper in any of the stores we shop at. Totally empty shelves.

It's all an illustration of what I describe in The Slavery of Death, how our moral failures, like hoarding, aren't driven by "total depravity," they are driven by anxiety. Contrary to what the Calvinists believe, we don't sin because we're morally depraved, we sin because we are scared.

Praying the Stations of the Cross

One of my Lenten practices has been praying through the The Stations of the Cross. I fell in love with the Stations in middle school when I, a Church of Christ kid, started attending Blessed Sacrament parochial school.

If you also the love the Stations, or are looking to explore them, let me point you to a lovely book by Maragaret Adams Parker and Katherine Sonderegger Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding Hope in a Weary Land.

The book opens with an introduction and history of the Stations, and then goes through each Station with a Scripture reading, prayers, and a theological meditation by Sonderegger. Haunting artwork by Parker accompanies each Station.

One note, the authors follow the traditional Catholic stations of the cross, which might be unfamiliar to Protestants. This is discussed in the introduction of the book.

The book is an excellent resource for daily prayers during Lent. Starting on Ash Wednesday, I've been going through one Station each day and plan to all the way to Easter.

Greatness in Wretchedness

I'm reading Pascal's Pensées and much within Pascal is very appropriate for Lent. Here's one of this thoughts:
Man's greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched.

Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched.
Cheerful thought! But not a bad one to ponder during Lent.

For Pascal, "wretchedness" is simply our situation without God, psychologically and morally. It's no fun being in such a state, morally confused and psychologically unwell, but our awareness of this wretchedness is "greatness" as it is a recognition of our longing and need for God. It's the first step back into the wholeness.

It reminds me of an old hymn we used to sing:
I need Thee every hour,
Most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine,
Can peace afford.
I need Thee, O I need Thee,
Every hour I need Thee!
O bless me now, Savior,
I come to Thee.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 11, The Finger of God

We're still in Bree, and last week we saw the "third power" at work in the story. The Ring, with a seeming will of its own, appeared to be responding to an outside wish or command from the Enemy.

But Fleming Rutledge, in her book The Battle for Middle Earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings, also sees the "something else at work" in the events transpiring in Bree. As you know, it's a close call in Bree. The Black Riders almost capture Frodo and the Ring.

Rutledge is doing a very close reading of the book, looking for clues to what she calls "the deep narrative" of the story. And she spots it again in Bree. The power of the Enemy is not unopposed. Something else is at work.

After all the drinking and singing at The Prancing Pony, Merry goes out for a walk. On the walk he encounters a dismounted Black Rider, lurking the the shadows of Bree, hunting. Merry follows the Rider, who meets up with another and overhears their whispering, hissing conversation.

Merry rushes back to the inn to alert Frodo and the others.

Upon hearing the story, Strider says to Merry, "You have a stout heart, but it was foolish."

Merry responds, "I don't know. Neither brave nor silly, I think. I could hardly help myself. I seemed to be drawn somehow. Anyway, I went."

Rutledge observes about the exchange:
Here is another use of the passive ("I seemed to be drawn") and the word "somehow," always a clue to an unseen hand guiding the hobbits. It is noteworthy that Merry refuses credit. We have all seen this; people who do something admirable in a crisis will say afterward that they don't know how they did it, that something else took over. Tolkien, speaking as a Christian, calls that "the finger of God."

Friday the 13th: The Fusions of Christianity and Paganism

Tomorrow is Friday the 13th.

I should post this reflection tomorrow, but Fridays are reserved for the The Lord of the Ring series. So posting today will have to do.

I'm wrapping up my next book, which now has a title: Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age.

You'll have to wait for the book to figure out what "hunting magic eels" is all about.

Anyway, yesterday I was editing a chapter at the end of the book entitled "Enchantment Shifting." In that chapter I lean upon Stephen Smith's argument in his book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac.

When we look at the history of the West we often tell a story about the triumph of Christianity over paganism. And it's true that Christianity came to dominate the West. We don't see temples devoted to Zeus in our towns anymore.

But as Smith points out, paganism never really was defeated. Paganism has continued to thrive alongside Christianity for over 2,000 years. Christianity might have won the official, political battle in the West, but on the streets the common folk continued to believe in superstitions and occult, magical forces. And today, in our post-Christian era, paganism is experiencing a renaissance. This is what I mean by "enchantment shifting" in my book, the resurgence of pagan enchantments in the face of Christian decline in the West. This is an issue we have to suss out if we want to "re-enchant" our faith. What sort of enchantment are we talking about?

But to the point of this post, Christianity and paganism never really stayed in their own lanes over the last 2,000 years. Christianity and paganism have merged and fused in all sorts of curious ways.

For example, people in the Christian West believe in ghosts, and they have also worried about things like Friday the 13th.

The Ontology of Life Versus the Ontology of Death

One of the contrasts that struck me in reading John Haught's book The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe is how atheism (and by that I mean materialism) traffics in what Hans Jonas calls "the ontology of death."

Following Haught, atheism preaches an ontology of death because, in a purely materialistic view of the cosmos, the ground of being is lifelessness and mindlessness. Primordially, the cosmos was lifeless and mindless, all that existed were elementary particles moving about. Life and mind and all its fruits--goodness, truth, beauty, love--have emerged in the cosmos, but as entropy takes hold all of that is destined to perish, returning the cosmos back to a lifeless, mindless state.

In short, according to atheism the ground of being (ontology) is death (lifeless mindlessness). In this view, life and mind are accidents. Reality is primarily, foundationally lifeless and mindless.

Religion, by contrast, posits an ontology of life. Life and mind are not taken to be accidental but inherent and even primary aspects of existence. This is not to deny the scientific descriptions of cosmic evolution, from Big Bang to the heat death of the universe. But it is the denial that this physical description, by ignoring the ontological significance of life and mind, is complete, comprehensive, or final. Faith posits an ontology of life, that the ground of being throbs with life and mind, quivers with experience, subjectivity, interiority, and consciousness in ways that are not scientifically reducible. Goodness, truth, beauty and love are not cosmic accidents or evolutionary sideshows but are, rather, integral and driving forces of cosmic evolution and development which author the cosmic drama as much as the laws of particle physics.

In short, one way to contrast atheism with religion is in their rival ontological visions.

Atheism preaches an ontology of death, the ground of being is lifeless and mindless, we are traveling from death to death. Life and mind are accidental and of no ultimate cosmic significance.

Religion, by contrast, preaches an ontology of life. The ground of being quivers with life and mind. Goodness, truth, beauty, and love are primary and foundational, woven into the fabric of the cosmos, forces authoring and determining the unfolding cosmic story.

Intentionality

When I do training and equipping work with churches the issue of change and spiritual formation often takes center stage. "How can we become more X?" is the big question. Given the work I do with churches, the question is generally "How can we become more hospitable?" But the examples abound: How can we become more gentle, more kind, more prayerful, more giving?

The strange thing is, as I often share with churches, we already know the answer to these questions. We know how to go about changing everything in our lives...except being like Jesus. Want to lose weight? We know what to do. Want to get more organized? We know what to do. Want to improve your marriage? We know what to do. Want to improve your grades? We know what to do. Want to exercise more? We know what to do.

But when it comes to being like Jesus, we're stuck. Totally flummoxed.

But really, we do know what to do.

The issues and solutions may vary case to case, but they all share a common solution.

Intentionality.

Focus on behaviors. Set goals. Take action. Seek mentoring and coaching. Create accountability.

Change only ever happens when we become focused and intentional. You have to wake up with an intentional, goal-oriented focus and plan aimed at some behavior and carry that focus and execute that plan throughout the day. All of us know that if we don't do that our grades won't improve, we won't lose those pounds, we won't exercise more, we won't get more organized, and our relationships won't improve.

So, how to we become more like Jesus?

Again, we know that answer. Intentionality. Without intentionality we'll never become more hospitable, gentle, prayerful or kind. For some reason, we treat being like Jesus as a problem different from, say, weight loss. But change is change, and the technology of change is quite similar no matter the issue.

Learning to Enjoy the Presence of God

When any man comes into the presence of God he will find, whether he wishes it or not, that all those things which seemed to make him so different from the men of other times, or even from his earlier self, have fallen off him. He is back where he always was, where every man always is. Eadem sunt omnia semper [Everything is always the same]. Do not let us deceive ourselves. No possible complexity which we can give to our picture of the universe can hide us from God: there is no copse, no forest, no jungle thick enough to provide cover. We read in Revelation of Him that sat on the throne “from whose face the earth and heaven fled away.” It may happen to any of us at any moment. In the twinkling of an eye, in a time too small to be measured, and in any place, all that seems to divide us from God can flee away, vanish leaving us naked before Him, like the first man, like the only man, as if nothing but He and I existed. And since that contact cannot be avoided for long, and since it means either bliss or horror, the business of life is to learn to like it. That is the first and great commandment.

--C.S. Lewis

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 10, The Power of Sin

An event happens in Bree that revisits one of the theological themes of the book.

Frodo is persuaded to visit the common room of The Prancing Pony. At one point, the loquacious Pippen starts to share a little too much information with the curious townspeople. To draw attention away from Pippen Frodo hops up on a table and the people call for a song.

With all eyes on him, Frodo begins to feel foolish, and he starts to finger the things in his pocket:
He felt the Ring on its chain, and quite unaccountably the desire came over him to slip it on and vanish out of the silly situation. It seemed to him, somehow, as if the suggestion came to him from outside, from someone or something in the room. He resisted the temptation firmly...
But things don't end there. The Ring persists. In the middle of Frodo's song he tumbles and the Ring finds a way to slip onto his finger. Frodo disappears and scrambles off.
Frodo leaned back against the wall and took of the Ring. How it came to be on his finger he could not tell...For a moment he wondered if the Ring itself had not played him a trick; perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room.
Frodo feels temptation coming "from the outside." The Ring has agency and responds to "some wish or command."

We're revisiting, here, the Pauline themes in the book. For both Paul and Tolkien, Sin isn't a moralistic issue. Though we tend to see it that way. Sin is making a moral mistake. But for Paul and Tolkien, Sin is a power, a power with will and agency. As we've discussed, there are three powers in the drama. God, us, and the power of Sin.

A Letter to My Students: On McDonald's, Faith, and Dignity

From time to time I send emails to my classes after lectures and then share them here. This is one I sent to my Psychology and Christianity class last semester:


Hi Class,

I'll occasionally send you emails when I want to supplement something we talked about in class, or to provide you places to explore something I've shared.

On Thursday, I mentioned a book I read this summer by Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Backrow America.

I'd mentioned a few things about Arnade's travels through poor (what he calls "backrow") American cities and towns, urban and rural.

The first observation was from his chapter "If You Want to Understand the Country, Visit McDonald's." This chapter will give you wholly new eyes for the fast food chain.

But you're on a college budget, so if you can't buy or check out the book from a library, here is an online article "McDonald's: you can sneer, but it's the glue that holds communities together" written by Arnade.

Also check out this recent article by Adam Chandler in The Atlantic, "What McDonald’s Does Right".

To be clear, I'm not sharing these to promote McDonald's or fast food. The articles are, rather, sociological windows into a part of America you've might not have ever known about or seen.

The other chapter I mentioned in class from the book is "God Filled My Emptiness" which recounts Arnade's first-hand experiences witnessing the power of faith in the life of the poor, addicted, and marginalized. As Arnade shares in the book:
When I went into graduate school for physics I spent six years studying the big questions--how the universe started, what it was made of, and what is our place in it. I embraced the belief that humans can understand and figure out our world, and that there was no question too big that we couldn't solve, accepting an implicit arrogance in mankind's ability to rise above our surroundings...

I was not alone. Most of us in the front row [the wealthy, privileged parts of America] had decided that it was impossible to identify absolutes, that any moral certainties in religion were suspect, and that all we could know or value was what science revealed to be quantifiable. Religion was often seen as an old, irrational thing that limited and repressed people...

Yet over the years I kept finding myself in churches, as I kept finding myself in McDonald's, going there for one reason: because the people I wanted to learn from spent their time there.

Often the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row [poor, marginalized] neighborhoods were churches and McDonald's. Often the people using McDonald's were the same people using the churches, people who sat for hours reading or studying the Bible at a table or a booth...

This is how it is on the streets. Faith is the reality and the source of hope. Science is the distant thing that doesn't necessarily do much for you.
Quotes like these are what was sitting behind my comments in class about science and a godless view of the cosmos being a poor source for mattering and hope, especially if you're living in poor, back row America. Faith provides a source of dignity, value, meaning, and hope when all worldly metrics inform you that you're worthless, a loser, a piece of trash. This power is highlighted in the quote from Dignity I shared in class:
Takeesha was standing alone by a trickling fire hydrant, washing her face. She was working, wearing thigh-high faux-leather red boots, leopard-print pants, waving at whatever car or truck passed by. I had seen her before, and she had always smiled at me or waved...

We talked, and over the next half hour she told me her life story. She told me how her mother's pimp put her out on the streets at twelve. How she had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I photographed: "How do you want to be described?" She replied without a pause, "As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God."
I'm reminded, as I read Takeesha's self-description, of something Jesus said to the religious, church-going people of his day:
"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do." (Matt. 21.31)
Have a lovely weekend. I'll see you next week.

Grace and peace,
Richard

Why We Need Each Other

Help must come from the outside...God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth. They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation. They need them solely for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Existential Lent?

One of the things I notice this time of year is how progressive Christians approach Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Specifically, to state my observation right at the start, by and large progressive Christians shift Ash Wednesday away from its penitential focus toward an existential focus.

To be sure, there are existential aspects to both Ash Wednesday and Lent. We know the words that accompany the imposition of ashes: "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

Because of these words, reminders of our mortality, many progressive Christians seem to think that the point of Ash Wednesday is to contemplate our mortality and to grieve the death of loved ones. I've seen many Ash Wednesday services in progressive spaces basically turned into bereavement services. Lent becomes about lamenting, rather than about penance.

To be sure, death is centered on Ash Wednesday. But those words "dust you are, and to dust you shall return" don't come from Job, Ecclesiastes, or the lament Psalms. They come from Genesis 3, God's curse upon human sinfulness and rebellion. God says to Adam, because of his disobedience, "dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

So, yes, death and mortality are in play here, but as the punishment and consequence of sin. Any focus upon death on Ash Wednesday or Lent is framing death as just deserts rather than as a trigger for theodicy. What Ash Wednesday is reminding us of is Sin's Curse, how we have brought that curse upon ourselves, and that we are marked by death because of our sin. Again, the focus is penitential rather than existential.

And shifting the focus from penance to angst, from sin to bereavement, from repentance to lament, from personal guilt to theodicy, is such a stereotypical progressive move. Instead of looking in the mirror to take a hard moral look at ourselves, we focus upon our doubts and confusion about God's behavior in allowing loved ones to die. For progressive Christians during Lent, God is the problem, not us.

Now, I don't want to push too hard on this point. There is place for grief, lament, and groaning during Lent, how a world subjected to death is full of suffering and pain. But the season of Lent is to dwell upon how we've contributed to that pain, rather than spinning it into a theodicy problem. Again, the focus on this penitential season is accusing ourselves rather than God.

So, yes, Ash Wednesday and Lent are sad. But I think a lot of us are missing the point about why we're so sad. We're angsty sad, rather than penitentially sad. And again, to be clear, angsty sad is perfectly okay and appropriate, but it's not actually the focus of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Center your sins and you'll get this season right.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 9, The Prancing Pony

So the Hobbits meet Strider at The Prancing Pony in Bree.

With all this talk about resisting the Shadow we might miss the theological witness of The Prancing Pony, the role of Butterbur in the struggle. Butterbur might not seem to be a huge force in the resistance, but we come to learn that he's a trusted, if forgetful, friend of Gandalf. And the most important contribution of The Prancing Pony to the resistance is that it provides safe haven for weary travelers, along with being a network of information.

This might seem to be a minor thing, providing food and safe accommodations to travelers, but it's a critical part of the story. I think here of the Shunamite woman, who provided a safe place to stay for the prophet Elisha. I also think of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. I recall reading once an observation from Gerhard Lohfink about these friends of Jesus. He observed that not everyone packed it up to follow Jesus on his itinerant wanderings. Some of Jesus' friends stayed home, like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but they provided him, it seems, a Prancing Pony. A place to rest and recharge the batteries.

Butterbur is no Aragorn. Most of us aren't, but we all have a part to play. And maybe its our job to provide others with a Prancing Pony.

Inspiring Self-Criticism

I know lots of progressives have their issues with the Old Testament, the genocidal passages in books like Joshua in particular. I do worry about this strain of progressive doubt. There's a shimmer of antisemitism around these progressive objections, our standing in moral judgment of the sacred text of the Jews.

For my part, I find the Old Testament to be one of the most miraculous moral documents in the history of the world.

This assessment of mine has to do with the prophets, though not in the way you might think. Just about everyone admires the moral vision of the minor prophets in their calls for social justice. And I do admire that, but what I admire most is how the prophets made it into the Bible in the first place.

Step back for a moment and ask yourself what the prophets were doing. The prophets were indicting Israel, often in searing language. Few of us would be willing to listen to or tolerate that degree of criticism. But what did Israel do? The craziest possible thing. Israel enshrined that indictment, called it the Word of God. Put it in the Bible.

I find that absolutely astounding. Truly, words fail me here. How do you take the worst things that could be said about you and make that the inspired Word of God? If I wrote a book about all of your sins and failings, would you able accept that writing as the sacred, inspired Word of God? I highly doubt it.

The capacity for moral self-criticism on display in the Old Testament is mind boggling. And it's an example for all of us. You want to wag a moral finger at the Old Testament? Fine. But show me a willingness to shake your finger at yourself on par with what you see in the prophets. I highly doubt you'd be able to pull that off.