Dear James (D)–The Slanted Gaze of Envy

Dear James,

There are two errors against which we must maintain our vigilance. The first is in rejecting outright the insights of Medieval Catholicism—to do this is to commit the “chronological snobbery” of which our friend Lewis wrote so eloquently. But the other, and opposite, error is to over-romanticize the medieval period. It seems to happen, often enough, that once a person gets a taste for a different worldview—one that can challenge his own with some effectiveness—he can begin to uncritically accept the whole of that other worldview and become blind to its inherent shortcomings. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to resist the urge to label certain time periods as “golden eras.” No such times exist—there are only present moments, and while we ought to view these present moments through the corrective lens of the past, we must never permit our love for old things to take us away from our duties in the present.

The whole idea of golden eras seems to me to be rooted in Envy. When I long for another time period I am commonly “looking over the fence” at some other era, which from the light of my present circumstances appears far greener and more lush. Perhaps I like the 1940s-60s, especially because it was a heyday for publishing. Or maybe I favor Pre-Reformation Europe simply because the reality of Christendom was an undisputed fact. Or perhaps any era but our own for how clergy were viewed by congregants and society alike! But the thing to note about such envious gazes is that we always choose the favorable and ignore the difficulties. Our sight is slanted. Perceiving a present difficulty (for example, in publishing, Christian identity, or clergy relations), some other era appeals on the simple basis that, to my understanding, in that era there was no such difficulty. What this ignores is that the figures from those eras were troubled by other, significant problems! Envy, in these circumstances, is tantamount to grumbling about my present problems.

I am reminded that the Israelites grumble when coming out of Egypt—they’re free from slavery, but they aren’t happy because they don’t have the cucumbers of Egypt! They’ve taken a present difficulty (a certain kind of hunger), and are looking now slant-eyed at the past (at least we were full, there!). Envy involves a distortion of vision—we no longer look at the world properly. In Envy we are blinded to the goodness of God in the present because we’re too busy longing for the things of the past, or the things possessed by others. In this way, Envy and ingratitude are the same. Envy also destroys our practical obedience. We’ve each got tasks to do in the present—a call, a vocation issued by God and determined by where we’ve been planted in faith. In Envy, I ignore the needs and duties that surround me while daydreaming about other needs, other duties. I preach badly to my congregation because I wish I was preaching at another, larger, more attentive, more Berean church up the road. I care poorly for the child who is interrupting me at the moment because I’m busy writing something that I perceive will be enjoyed by thousands. I fail to enjoy the simple meal in front of me because it isn’t as rich as the meal of my neighbor. And yes, I think the enjoyment of what is before me is an act of obedience, while the pretended enjoyment of what is not before me would necessarily be an act of disobedience!

That isn’t to say that we can’t think about the past, or look at other people’s lives, or even compare grasses across the fence. I think there is actually a more Godly form of Envy—not sinful, of course—which is one of our natural human emotions. It is the pleasure we ought to feel at another person’s success. Did you hear about X’s raise? I’m so pleased that God has blessed him in that way. Did you see Y’s new car? What a blessing for her! When someone we know experiences an accomplishment or a blessing which we haven’t, then it ought to be our response to celebrate with that person. In such celebration, I think it perfectly reasonable to piggyback our own desire for success upon their actualized success—not in imitation of theirs, but in the hope that we can achieve what is rightly our own. When someone wins a book deal, the response of wicked envy would be to wonder why it was not my book deal, or to complain about that person’s qualifications, or to generally grumble about the situation. The response of Godly Envy, however, would be to celebrate and rejoice with what God has done for that person, then prayerfully double-down on my own call. I have personally found this process to be one of the best tonics against Envy (the wicked kind)—to celebrate the successes of my companions and to pray actively for God to increase their successes. There is a great sense of joy in being released from the bondage of my own opinions regarding what is meritorious!

Fundamentally, the human creature is made to desire greatness, and yet not all of us will experience greatness in the same capacity. Envy creeps in and takes root when we begin to compare greatnesses and fixate on our own perceived deficiencies. The slanted gaze of Envy, thus, interrupts our call to the present moment. It will do no good to deny the existence of greatness or of merit, however. Some people will always be better than me, have more than me, and so forth. But they cannot fulfill the task which God has given to me to perform. Therefore a corrected Envy—the pleasure at another’s accomplishment—ought to reinforce my call to the present task.

Despite our summons to greatness, it is remarkable how quickly we can descend to the most astonishing pettiness, and hunger’s ability to bring us to such a place is unmatched. Envy at the fact that other people get to eat! But by God’s grace, the intentionality of fasting helps to expose our absurdity, and we are given fresh opportunities to pray through our focus on self, even going so far as to bless the Lord for the food others get to eat! Truly, a grateful heart is one in which envy can find no footholds.

Your mention in passing of a great church service has my interest piqued. Do tell me more in your next letter.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Six, or Maybe Eight, Devotional Books I’m Taking to Scotland

The absolute worst part about moving overseas—worse than saying farewell to friends, or uprooting from favorite restaurants, or even dealing with the stressful immensity of the transition—is choosing which books to take with you. For readers like me, the forcible separation from the one’s library is the most violent and unpleasant of changes. I have loathed it.

libraryOf the many hundreds of books we own, I will have to choose a mere handful to take with us. The selection process itself is painful. Is this a book I will need, or one I merely want? Will I really read this again within the next three years? Will a library substitute suffice? Are there books that I will want to read in the UK simply because I’m in the UK (like Barchester Towers)? What books give me comfort when I wish to be consoled? It is a staggering set of considerations.

One is forced to divide the library into categories, and choose from each of those categories volumes which warrant the expense of traveling with you—Literature, Nonfiction, Fantasy, Theology, Pastoral Theology, Counseling, Commentaries, C.S. Lewis books (yes, he gets his own category), Poetry, and so forth. Some whole categories get axed (I can use the library for things like Theology and Commentaries), while from others I will select a few books at a time (Do I bring Gerard Manley Hopkins? Which Lewis books do I bring?).

For some months I’ve been thinking about the category of Devotional Literature—those books which I dip into daily alongside my reading of Scripture. The process has forced me to pick my absolute favorites. For me, to qualify as a Devotional the book must reveal deep reflection, resonate in striking ways, and regularly improve with time. Also, such a book is typically consumable in small portions (making it suitable for daily devotion). The books that rise to the top for me are books that form me in an ongoing way, books that I have read, and re-read, and plan to re-read again and again. Each of these books has been part of my personal formation in Christ, so I thought I would take a few minutes today to recommend them to you as well.

imitation-of-christ_cover1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
One of the most famous devotional books of all time, à Kempis’s fifteenth century meditations on the heart and its work to imitate Christ are timeless. Often austere, he calls the believer to remember that following Jesus is a full-time job. It is a book that I find calls me, in particular, to greater holiness.

“No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could. No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey. No man has true joy save he whose heart shows him to have a clean conscience. No man speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might.” Book I.20.

Diary of an Old Soul_Cover.jpg2. Diary of an Old Soul, George MacDonald
Eighteenth century Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul is a series of daily devotional poems. I find, when reading them, that their subjects haunt me throughout the day. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald his spiritual father—it isn’t hard, reading MacDonald, to imagine why, because to read MacDonald is to swim in the depths of his meditative thought.

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking hear;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some, to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
~ June Sixteenth

letters-to-malcolm_cover3. Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis
Lewis, one of the great lights of 20th century Christianity, penned this series of fictional correspondence between himself and his friend “Malcolm.” Written at the end of Lewis’s life, these letters reflect his studied and honest ruminations on the meaning and significance of prayer. In some ways, the marriage of style is also highly appropriate—because prayer, also, is like writing letters to a friend. When I read Malcolm, I find that my thoughts about God are expanded.

“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to. Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down into the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” Letter 15

revelations-of-divine-love_cover4. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich’s series of visions, and the meditations that accompany them, are often striking in both their simplicity and resonance. It enriches faith to encounter, in this fourteenth century passages, a woman who so clearly knows and loves Jesus. More, perhaps, than anything else, Julian’s meditations call me to listen more carefully to the Lord.

“Our Lord is greatly cheered by our prayer. He looks for it, and he wants it. By his grace he aims to make us as like himself in heart as we are already in our human nature. This is his blessed will. So he says, ‘Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing. Yes, even thought you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick, or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to me though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.’” #41

centuries_cover5. Centuries, Thomas Traherne
Written in the 17th century but lost and unpublished until the 19th, Traherne’s series of meditations (in collections of 100 at a time—hence, a century) see in all the dappled glory of the earth opportunities to glorify God. His conception of nature as an avenue for worship have changed how I look at the world.

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord pardon my ingratitude, and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered… O what Joy, what Delight and Jubilee should there always be, would men prize the Gifts of God according to their value!” Century 1, #66.

look-to-the-glory_cover

Note: This book is very rare.

6. Look to the Glory, Richard Meux Benson
Benson was founder of a group of Anglican monastics called the Society of St. John the Evangelist (one of the members of which was C.S. Lewis’s spiritual director). Benson combines depths of understanding about God with compassion for the everyday human creature. The combination, for me, has called me to greater personal devotion.

“Patience is most perfect when the visible result is least encouraging. Its efficacy entirely within. By patience, the soul acts upon itself, exerting self-control and forming itself so as to find a tranquil joy in the adverse appointments of God’s providence.” “Seeking Holiness.”

Bonus: These six books are all devotional in nature—they are deep, powerful, and good for short readings. However, there are a couple more books that I’ll be bringing to Scotland that fall more into the category of “spiritual reading.” So, here are two books that don’t quite qualify but I’ll be bringing anyway.

derkse-cover7. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners, Will Derkse
I’ve already written a review of Derkse’s book, but the reason I’m taking it with me is because his steady prose and consistent call to obedience reminds me to be attentive to the tasks at hand—whether they be devotional, familial, or related to my work.

“Listening has its complement in grumbling. Just as obedience is a positive attitude, wanting to listen before anyone has spoken, grumbling is a kind of negative speech before attentive listening, or also because listening has not been done attentively.” 34

 

 

telling-secrets_cover8. Telling Secrets, Frederick Buecher
In this personal memoir, Frederick Buechner speaks of the secrets of the heart and of the soul’s journey toward healing in God. Buechner, perhaps more than any other modern author, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the heart that longs for God.

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.” 32

Choosing which books to bring is a hard decision. And yet choosing these books is not hard at all. May you, in reading some of them, discover something fresh, deep, and enriching for your own spiritual life as well.

The Imitation Danger

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Look at those robes! If I had robes like that, I’m sure I could preach like him.

I’ve been slowly reading through Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, which thus far has been an experience both brilliant and enriching. Originally delivered at Yale in 1877, the series of lectures examine the life of the preacher and the construction of the sermon. Whether or not you are a preacher, Brooks’s insights into the ministry and the nature of formation bear fruit in many areas. If you are a preacher, I don’t know that I can recommend it highly enough.

In one chapter on how to construct a sermon, Brooks warns sternly against the danger of imitation in preaching—the unique pitfall of copying the style, mannerisms, and delivery of another preacher. One of the chief criticisms he offers is that, essentially, we are bad at measuring what makes someone successful. He writes, “that which is worst in any man is always the most copiable. And the spirit of the copyist is blind. He cannot discern the real seat of the power that he admires. He fixes on some little thing and repeats that perpetually as if so he could get the essential greatness of his hero” (167). We hear one speaker who tells great stories and conclude, “I ought to include more stories.” We hear another who exposits the text verse-by-verse and think, “I ought to go verse by verse.” One minister reads a manuscript, while another memorizes a manuscript, while yet another preaches extemporaneously. Each model is attempted as an avenue to a certain kind of success. In each case we miss the real point, and in imitation we are perpetually wont to ape secondary, rather than primary, things.

This is as true of church growth models as it is of preachers. Studies are performed which analyze and decode the elements of success which mark churches that grow—the casting of clear vision, administration, the humility of the members, healthy organization, buy-in, etc. Other churches, wanting to succeed, strive to imitate these elements. But in copying, they miss the heart of what brought growth to the church. In essence, all those features are secondary. Churches don’t seek humility as an end in itself, they seek Christ and are made humble in the process. Churches don’t seek good administration in itself, they follow Christ and are forced to learn administration as they follow. Churches don’t invent vision, they seek God’s vision and follow it as it pertains to their particular location, people, and needs. I remember reading about a minister who attended a Willow Creek conference. Returning, and energized, he announced to his church that he knew what they needed to take the church to the next level: they would remove their pews and replace them with Willow Creek style theater seats.

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Brooks admonishes, “if you really reverence a great man, if you look up to and rejoice in his good work, if you truly honor him, you will get at his spirit, and doing that you will cease to imitate his outside ways” (169). If we would truly grow our own ministries, or our own pulpit service, then our imitation must be in seeking the same spirit as those we admire, and not their accidentals. We must become adept at discerning between what C.S. Lewis once called in an essay “First and Second Things.” An application of Augustine’s Ordo Amoris, Lewis observed that we must love in the proper proportion those things which are most worthy of love. If we love second things first—an incidental rather than an essential—then we are on a path to losing out on both the first and the second thing. But if we love the first thing first, then we are likely to get the second thing thrown in as a bonus. Ape the style, and you will miss the soul. Great preachers are great not because they have great style, but because they are marked by a great and convinced love of Jesus. Great churches grow not because they are well organized and manifest all the fruits of the Spirit, but because they have sought and are pursuing a vision of Jesus in their midst.

All in all, you can never put on another preacher’s, or another church’s, success as your own. The clothes will not and cannot fit. At best, they will provide a temporary surge of energy. At worst, in distraction you will lose sight of your true call—which is not to attend to the success of others but rather to obedience to Christ where you are. Brooks has this to say as well, “The temptation of imitation is so insidious that you cannot resist it by the mere determination that you will not imitate. You must bring a real self of your own to meet this intrusive self of another man that is crowding in upon you” (169). The preacher must be true to himself—an individual exhibiting the transforming power of the Gospel as it is filtered through his personality, not the personality of another. In the same way the local church must be true to itself, manifesting the transforming power of grace to its people, in its location, in the flavor and aroma of its city. To do less is to cheat both ourselves and our neighbors of the power of the Gospel.

There will always be shining lights among both preachers and churches. Brooks, of these, says somewhat sardonically that, “There are some preachers who have done noble work, of whom we are often compelled to question whether the work that they have accomplished is after all greater than the harm that they have innocently done by spoiling so many man in doing it” (166). It falls then to individuals and churches alike to ward against the danger of imitation—not by ignoring God’s work done through these bright stars in ministry, but by connecting ourselves with their true source for success: our vine-tapped life into the living work of Jesus Christ.

tree-from-cliff

Why I’m Wary of Civilization and Why You Should Be Too

I just finished reading Leonard Wibberley’s hilarious, poignant, and eminently readable The Trouble with the Irish (Or the English, Depending on Your Point of View). At one point in the tortured history of Anglo-Irish relations, Norman invaders had invited an Irish lord to a parley where they betrayed and killed him. Wibberley had this to say about the episode:

The explanation for this ungracious behavior, so surprising to the Irish, is simple. It lies in the fact that Irish were regarded by the Normans as barbarous people. It has for centuries been recognized as the duty of civilized people to slaughter those whom they hold barbarous, this being a method of spreading civilization. This tenet was held quite as strongly in the nineteenth century as in the twelfth. The Normans, if they thought of the matter at all, felt they were civilizing the Irish. [The Trouble With the Irish, 48]

Assyrian Foot on Enemy - Enlarge

Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyrian King, subjugates someone under his foot (The British Museum)

Wibberley is, of course, right. A vast portion of the history of society—not only in the West but in the East and South as well—is the history of civilization pitted against non-civilization. One group, more organized, more resourced, cleverer, takes advantage of a weaker, more barbaric, less organized, or less clever group, and “civilizes” it—that is, incorporates it forcefully into its own construct. The weak are made to serve the stronger, and the strong continue their march toward destiny, or progress, or whatever. We could better laugh at such antiquated perceptions if they did not continue to operate so insidiously today.

Ironically, it is in the agenda of modern Liberalism where this idea of forcible civilization is most entrenched today. To the adherents of this mindset, the future is an inevitability of progress and is represented, among other beliefs, in an increased role of government oversight, unlimited contraception, abortion on demand, sexual mores defined solely by consent, redistribution of wealth, and with all of these the ridicule and dismantling of any and all opposition. As card-carrying ambassadors of tolerance and diversity, they quite readily vilify any opposition to their enlightened agenda. Above all else, such liberalism views antiquated Christianity with enraged intolerance, and demands the purgation and “civilization” of any vestiges of Christendom. They believe they are doing the Christians a favor.

Not long ago I was seat-mates on a plane with a lovely young woman working in the tech industry. She, an ideological vegan, was passionately working to develop a veggie burger that truly tasted like meat. Her primary motive was ecological (the cattle industry is a big contributor to environmental change in many nations). Later, our conversation ranged to a number of other subjects, and as often happens when she found out I was a minister the subject turned to homosexuality and gay marriage. She found it incomprehensible that a Christian would deny another person the right to love whom they choose. We had a lovely conversation, but she seemed blissfully unaware of the double standard in her thoughts—she was perfectly happy to make choices for others when it comes to the environment (you shouldn’t eat meat), but completely in defense of people’s rights to make choices for themselves in other areas (you should love whom you choose). The view that progressivism is completely natural, while Christianity is utterly backwards, illustrates merely one way that Liberalism is remarkably blind to its own contradictions as it projects onto the world its own peculiar brand of “civilization.”

Veggie Burger

The deep and fatal flaw of this thinking—expressed both in Liberalism but also in the idea of “civilization”—is rooted in progressivism. Progressivism is the belief that society is getting better and better. Maybe not people, of course, but generally speaking, progressivism holds that the world is moving towards a better and better state. If you have doubts about this, consider how desperate are the vast technological pressures of our day—to become better, to release new products or else. Consider the idea of planned obsolescence, which holds that a thing should be built to last only until the next, newer model comes out. Consider the tacit belief that we are searching for other habitable planets in the universe in the hope that one day we can colonize them (presumably so that we can wreck them just like we are wrecking this one—as Albany says to Goneril in King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”). Consider the roots of this thinking in how we perceive evolutionary theory—the core of our modern societal belief about the human self. Species change over time, but the implied, unspoken assumption is that they are always changing for the better. But why should this necessarily be the case? If evolutionary change is indeed grounded in random mutations, doesn’t that mean that sometimes species will change for the worse? Furthermore, if this universe is all there is, and if it is slowly dying out, what does the idea of “better” even mean? If life is as meaningless as such an outlook suggests, aren’t the best adapted life forms those which have already died?

When you think about it, our whole outlook is shaped by the idea that civilization is advancing—few are asking towards what. I am reminded of Ian Malcolm’s criticism of scientific advances from Jurassic Park—words that might be lost in the flashy effects and pure excitement of seeing dinosaurs on screen—“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We are very much moving without thinking, without reflection; moving, as it were, without direction at all. C.S. Lewis speaks to this situation with his usual perspicacity,

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. [Mere Christianity, “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”]

Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Liberalism, blinded by progressivism, is in love with its own agenda—and yet it is an agenda without roots. Why should we follow it? Where does it lead us? Precisely how does it make humanity better? Why should this vision of “civilization” be privileged over any other? To stand on any solid ground Liberalism has to give answer—Where is it going? What is the human person? What is the purpose of the human person on earth? And how does such an agenda facilitate pursuit of that objective? To do this it must appeal to categories of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, and so engage with decidedly old and nonprogressive ideas—it must engage, in short, with Christianity.

Richard Weaver in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences paints a vivid and prophetic picture of the necessary solution and imminent dangers:

Hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil. Hope of restoration depends upon recovery of the “ceremony of innocence,” of that clearness of vision and knowledge of form which enable us to sense what is alien or destructive, what does not comport with our moral ambition. The time to seek this is now, before we have acquired the perfect insouciance of those who prefer perdition. For, as the course goes on, the movement turns centrifugal; we rejoice in our abandon and are never so full of the sense of accomplishment as when we have struck some bulwark of our culture a deadly blow. [Ideas Have Consequences, 11]

Until an acknowledgement of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, has reasserted itself in our public discourse, no motion towards progress can be faithfully made, and no advance of “civilization” can be faithfully trusted. Until we know what we’re doing, and where we’re going, and why we’re going there, we are traveling blind. And that is a very dangerous state in which to be.

In The Trouble with the Irish Wibberley recounts how in time the Irish were forced to become a kind of cultural underground—disenfranchised from all cultural rights they preserved themselves through hidden schools, language preservation, and secret religious practice. This was the only way to survive the onslaught of “civilization.” By God’s grace such extremes won’t happen to Christians today, but if it does, then God give us strength to be faithful until the agenda of the world, and of its civilization, and of this kingdom set so firmly in opposition to God’s, collapses under its own perverse and twisted weight. In the words of the Psalmist (11:3-4), “If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” The answer is clear: “The Lord is in His holy temple.” If the foundations are destroyed, God’s people are to look ever more closely to Him.

Some Thoughts about C.S. Lewis and “Spiritual Direction”

Yours, JackFor the last several months I have been enjoyably working my daily way through Yours, Jack, a selection of C.S. Lewis’s letters edited by Paul F. Ford. From the vast quantity of Lewis’s personal correspondence, Ford has made a selection of letters which he believes focus on “Spiritual Direction”—whether in the context of friendship, of Lewis seeking direction, or of Lewis offering direction. I enjoy almost all things Lewis, so these letters have been a pleasure to read, and while the experience warrants a few brief reflections on Lewis, at the same time it reminded me of some growing concerns I have about our present approaches to things labeled “spiritual direction.”

What stands out first when one reads Lewis’s correspondence is simply its sheer vastness. This was a man busy with work as a professor, busy with work caring for invalids at home, busy with his personal writing, and yet taking time out of each day to maintain his letter writing—writing that followed him almost to the day of his death. Linked to this, and something possibly overlooked when we think about Lewis, is his extreme patience. Lewis makes the time to write everyone back, and some of those people most certainly didn’t really deserve it. Of special patience in this volume are the forty or so letters to Mary Willis Shelburne (also published as Letters to an American Lady), which tax even my patience when reading Lewis’s responses. Another factor that stands out about these letters is Lewis’s preparedness in matters of the soul. I work as clergy, and it is simply impossible to answer the needs of the soul which people bring to you if you do not know your own soul. Lewis’s self-knowledge, and capacity to illustrate from his own experiences in walking alongside others, is both admirable and worthy of imitation. I am also reminded that Lewis’s unique brilliance is not that he knew so much (although he did), but that he thought so clearly about everything. From that clarity he labored to bring clarity to the darkness of other people’s thoughts. It is that ongoing clarity, I suggest, that contributes most significantly to Lewis’s longevity as an author. The book is worth reading if only to be exposed to his clear thinking.

Walter Adams St Stephen's House

Fr. Walter Adams, remembered on the wall of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

While I enjoyed the book, I also had some reservations while reading it—not reservations about Lewis, but reservations about how we view “spiritual direction.” Above all else, I find that there is something decidedly fuzzy in how we talk and think about “spiritual direction” (and the scare quotes are there to highlight my reservation). I’m not sure we really know what it is, and it has become such a plastic term that it covers quite a variety of divergent concepts. Lewis himself, of course, visited a spiritual director (Father Walter Adams), and participated in regular confession. He speaks about these things helpfully in several of the letters. But when we are looking to Lewis for spiritual direction then something feels a little off. It is off, to my mind, in three critical ways. First, it is off because a relationship of spiritual direction (such as the one in which Lewis was involved) is a relationship of exchange. One believer sits under the supervision of another, trusting that older, wiser Christian in the direction and shaping of your soul. Lewis certainly fits the older, wiser category, but true direction requires a personal relationship and personal listening. The Director will listen to your life and make suggestions according to his/her perception of your needs. A key quality in the directee is obedience, and when we are reading a book for spiritual direction there is a danger that our own sense of power and control will override the process. Put simply, it’s a lot harder to say no to a person than it is to a book. A second reason it is off is because it neglects, to my mind, the role that friendship and collegial association played in Lewis’s spiritual formation. The letters selected in this volume are largely those which are overtly spiritual, and yet some of Lewis’s chief formation and enrichment as a Christian came about through his association with friends. By looking at only one kind of “spirituality,” I fear the reader can miss the broader spirituality of Lewis’s life and experience. This taps into the third reason the book felt off, which is with what material is cited in footnotes. Ford has faithfully footnoted every Bible reference he could detect in the book, but almost no literary references at all. Where Lewis references a book, or a poem, or a famous thinker, or some other literature, these items are not notated for the reader. This is a somewhat gross oversight, since one of the primary areas which opened Lewis to the Christian faith was literature itself. I find this to be a curiously evangelical approach to spirituality (made more ironic since Ford is himself a Roman Catholic)—that we only value Scripture to the neglect of other sources of information.

None of these concerns negate the overall value of the book—and in fact the book is well worth reading!—and yet they might raise some concerns about why we, as readers, are approaching the book. When we engage, we ought to be aware that the editing of this particular volume shapes our perceptions of what “spiritual direction” might be, and I am suggesting that it does this somewhat narrowly and inadequately. Because of this, we as readers can easily miss the breadths of Christian spirituality, the call to practical obedience, attentiveness to influences outside of the expressly sacred, and especially to the role that friendship plays in spiritual development

Above and beyond all of this—and perhaps above and beyond this particular volume itself—is with a kind of danger in how we, today, approach Lewis. Lewis, indeed, is a great Christian thinker, a giant of 20th century faith and well deserving the attention he has received. But when we are looking at Lewis, rather than along with him, then we are not only doing something Lewis would personally despise, but we are missing the greatest gifts he might offer us as readers—the exposure to the worlds and vistas which had opened his eyes personally to the greatness and majesty of God. This, indeed, might be the ultimate goal of all spiritual direction—to direct the heart toward a greater apprehension of, and obedience to, God.

Lewis with Pipe

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. [Emphasis in bold added]

Obsession with the sexual life is obsession, in the end, with the self—it is a pure expression of the incurvatus in se, what in George MacDonald’s thinking is “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” When my sexuality is the measure of my life and relationships, then I am also removing from influence those people who would challenge me into real mortification. I have elevated my flesh in such an idolatrous way that any call to the willed death of the body is viewed with horror and suspicion. But the deeper danger of such lust, according to Lewis, is what this process does to my imagination. If my job is to extend beyond the prison of myself, and if my faculty of imagination is one of the key areas of my mind given to my by God to accomplish this task, then imaginative activity which corrupts and retards this process is a profound danger.

Claustrophobic Man Sitting

When the pursuit of bodily pleasure dominates a life, that person’s intelligence becomes suspect, and in time inevitably crippled. I was struck by this clearly while recently reading through Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He writes that “an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.” The unrestrained desire for pleasure begins to work its way through the perceptions of the individual until the sexual appetite defines all other appetites. Lust becomes synonymous with pleasure. Pieper continues, “Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake.” The mind which is dominated by porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], by pleasure, sees in bodies only objects for consumption, sees in women only opportunities to express itself in lust. Pornography’s unique power is in its ability to render the irrational rational. The consumer of porn maps onto his or her mind not only a set of images, but a certain way of thinking, and those pathways are carried away from porn and applied in the rest of life. Lust in this way inevitably cripples moral knowledge.

Why should this be the case? Because the eyes are the organ that perceives beauty. When the eye is no longer searching for beauty itself, but seeking to map onto the world an expression and application of its own lust, then that lust in time warps perception of the good. What is best, and what is preferable, become enslaved to my personal desires. Pleasure makes subjectivists of us all. In turn, with beauty and good both soured, the capacity to apprehend truth is also corrupted. In this way, a man or woman who is led by his or her sexual desire is engaged in a process of dehumanization. After all, who would fail to agree that a crippled capacity for beauty is dehumanizing? He who suffers porneia to thrive in his life is being reduced to brutishness and eventual stupefaction.

Disintegration_Cyril Rana

Flickr: Photo by Cyril Rana

Lest you think this simply academic, this diminished capacity for moral knowledge has been on vivid display in churches which have chosen to affirm what is traditionally, and Scripturally, considered to be sexual deviance. The general convention of the Episcopal Church, after the US Supreme court ruled Gay Marriage to be the law of the land, immediately introduced new services and prayers to bless such unions. One such prayer, introduced at that time, is recorded by Robert Hart, writing in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone Magazine:

An Episcopal priest named Kimberly Jackson, of the Diocese of Atlanta, read a prayer to begin their version of communion: “Spirit of Life, we thank you for disordering our boundaries and releasing our desires as we prepare this feast of delight: draw us out of hidden places and centers of conformity to feel your laughter and live in your pleasure.”

God, then, conveniently affirms our choices and “releases our desires”—He gives us what our warped imaginations desire. The result, today, is not only that such unions are blessed, but churches have paved the path for openly gay clergy to rise to the highest ranks of church office. Moral corruption is pervasive, and the capacity to see such corruption is curtailed. It is doubtful that the Church has faced since the days of Arius a crisis of moral knowledge more serious than the one which confronts it now.

Church_on_fire_Credit_butterbits_via_Flickr_CC_BY_SA_20_CNA_8_3_15

Pieper concludes his argument about purity and vision with the following phrase, “only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.” Purity of sight is a necessary precondition to the apprehension of beauty, and thus by proxy of both goodness and truth as well. And yet, in a very real way it is impossible for humans to achieve perfect purity of sight, if only because, as Jeremiah says, “the heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick” (17:9). The wickedness which corrupts my capacity for beauty, goodness, and truth, is born from within me. From whence will we find help to resolve this dilemma? Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude come to mind—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity precedes the vision of God—but purity is impossible on my own. Therefore I must request help from outside myself. In this, I think Jesus has also spoken an irony—it is not only that the pure will see God, but those who set their gaze upon God who will be rendered pure. The solution is to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to imagine that there is a divide between our sexual purity and our capacity for moral intelligence, between our sexual conduct and our pursuit of knowledge. Silently, as we allow ongoing and unrestrained life to our lust, we are also strangling our awareness of the beautiful, the true, and the good. Only a sight that is reaffixed on the beauty and holiness of God will be able to rescue us from the horror and stupefaction of our own persistent and self-serving inward gaze. Only a renewed commitment to God as He is, and not God as we want Him to be, will rescue the Church from its frightening trajectory towards apostasy.

Of Orlando and the Ordering of Love

Boiled down, the primary issue between the LGBTQ community and the Church is not a matter of sexuality but of love—of the definition, the rights, the responsibilities, and above all the ordering, of love.

caution-out-of-order-sign-1045The central problem in the LGBTQ community is one of disordered love. The central witness of the Christian Church is a call to ordered love. The ongoing confusion in the Church’s formal response to the LGBTQ community is in its failure to properly disambiguate love. Quite naturally, we ought to anticipate conflict where a group anchored in ordered love comes into contact with a group espousing disordered love. But the elements of confusion and outright deception thrive when the Christian fails to comprehend the complexity of his own loves. No one is served well when we fail to understand love.

This confusion was on clear display in the aftermath of Omar Mateen’s furious June 12th rampage at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, to which vocal outpourings of Christian support flowed. Hasty judgments affixed blame on the Christian Church for the shooting (Mateen was in fact Muslim), then on ISIS (he shouted allegiance to that group at one point), and by proxy on all who oppose the LGBTQ agenda (specifically, religions). Time, however, revealed a different story, and in point of fact the shooter was himself a patron of the club, and reports indicate that he himself engaged in homosexual sex. Whatever the causes that led to this horror, they were far more complex than anyone perceived at first, and yet the kneejerk activity of the Christian world produced a bleak poverty of reflective response, a plethora of shibboleth solidarity, and a profound failure to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). In haste to show a certain kind of love—civil solidarity—Christians failed to acknowledge the complexity of what we mean by love.

A community which espouses disordered love loves the wrong things in the wrong ways. Put differently, to live out disordered love means that some good love (in this case, sexual love), is placed in a position of priority over other loves. In this circumstance, sexuality is crowned king and made to rule all other loves. The Christian witness claims that sexual love, an implicit and God-given good, is meant to serve other loves, not rule them. The love of God receives the position of authority, and all sexual love must be brought into subservience to that love. This is the primary point of conflict between the LGBTQ agenda and the Christian faith.

Pyramid_Kheops

You have to have the right part at the base, or the rest of the structure will fail.

Disordered love renders the fulfillment of love impossible. A person who places a false love at the centre of life is incapable of achieving fulfillment. She might achieve ecstasy, or a feeling of temporary euphoria, or a sense of liberation, but in time all false loves will degrade to despair. Disordered love also warps perception, because a single love misplaced distorts other loves. This accounts for the excessive role that acceptance and affirmation play in the LGBTQ community. Idolizing sexuality as central to identity—to such a degree that there is little identity apart from sexuality—generates the all-or-nothing need for acceptance. If all you are is your sexuality, and someone questions your sexuality, then that person has actually questioned all that you are; there is no other part to you that can be questioned. In disorder you have collapsed your identity into a single facet. Acceptance in time becomes the single greatest demand, because the LGBTQ individual has wagered his whole identity on the affirmation of this disordered love. Deny him that love and you have denied his existence.

Such high stakes highlight the necessity of extreme care when the Church addresses the LGBTQ community. At the same time, the implicit danger of affirmation is that to extend friendship, or “solidarity,” can be taken as complete and unequivocal acceptance. LGBTQ individuals are persons who, desperately hungry for love, have adopted strategies that actively remove them from the fulfillment of love. The Church contributes to this inevitable and eventual despair when it fails to account for the deeper need. When the Church offers unconditional acceptance it contributes to the destruction of souls. In a tragic way, to offer “affirmation” or “acceptance” to a self-identified LGBTQ person is like offering beer to a recovering alcoholic. The drug will fail to resolve the addiction.

broken-glasses

The break fractures perception.

In a letter on the 18th of February, 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote the following about disambiguating our loves,

Charity means love. It is called Agapë in the N.T. to distinguish it from Eros (sexual love), Storgë (family affection), and Philia (friendship). So there are 4 kinds of ‘love’, all good in their proper place, but Agapë is the best because it is the kind God has for us and is good in all circumstances. (There are people I mustn’t feel Eros towards, and people I can’t feel Storge or Philia for: but I can practise Agape to God, Angels, Man & Beast, to the good & the bad, the old & the young, the far and the near.)

The Christian is called to express charity (Agape) to all persons—this is the love that most clearly images God’s love. And yet, Lewis warns, we must not exhibit Eros or Philia toward the world, if only because “friendship with the world is enmity toward God” (James 4:4). This tension raises two difficulties in loving others well. The first trouble in communicating Christian love to non-Christians is to love without friendship, to love without approval or allegiance, to love without an affiliation of causes; to love both wisely and with discernment. This requires a commitment to extend God’s love to an individual while acknowledging that our aims are fundamentally different; so different, in fact, that we have no concord or relationship whatsoever in our ideals or aims; that, in point of fact, I hold your ideals and aims to be foundationally inimical to the Kingdom of God. This is, decidedly, a love that does not affirm.

The second trouble lies in articulating what is meant by loving with God’s divine, Agape love. How are we meant to go about Agape-ing people? God, who is Love, must Himself be the defining arbiter of the meaning of love; we look to Him to discover the meaning of Agape. But this brings us to a discomforting place, because the love of God exhibits itself most clearly in an act of horror and rejection—Agape is cruciform. God is Love, and Love is a cross, and therefore Love somehow contains judgment, death, and punishment. The Love of God is not an act of uncritical acceptance, but acceptance at great personal cost, acceptance which demands acknowledgement, change, and submission on the part of the recipient. This is the fundamental—even crucial—place where our loves are ordered. We come to God with self in priority, and love of self regnant; we submit at the cross to the love of God, crucifying the self and self-love, and allowing God’s self-giving love to take the throne. Thus, salvation is free but demanding once received, and acceptance of God’s true Love generates hatred of the unlovely. Ordered love hates the usurping love which seeks to drag the soul back into corruption and despair.

St_George

In the story of St. George and the Dragon, the Dragon is actually the body, brought into submission to God’s way.

Orthodox Christianity can not, does not, must not, never has, and never will affirm the LGBTQ lifestyle, and any who do so but claim to follow Christ have compromised on the central witness of the Christian faith. They worship the god of love, but he is a god of their own manufacture, because his love is defined by their loves. Their expressions of love are idolatrous because they elevate their human perceptions of love in priority over God’s self-revelation of love. They have projected upon God their own perceptions, their own follies, and to them God says, “You thought that I was altogether like you” (Psalm 50:21). They are disordered in their thinking, and the result is confusion and eventual despair. They claim to follow God, but know Him not. They claim to love but have rejected the cross.

Returning to Orlando—but not Orlando because it is a matter for the world—what does it look like to love the LGBTQ community? How do you love without affirming? How do you offer an open door without acceptance? Three guidelines might help:

First, the difficulty of the Christian witness must be acknowledged. Christian love cuts against the grain of the world’s love. These loves are not the same, and the Church does neither the world, nor itself, a service when it confuses its commitments to love. Faithful Christianity is a difficult thing difficultly upheld. A commitment to orthodoxy is never easy. Christians must therefore resist the urge to affirm what should not be affirmed, to accept what must not be accepted.

Second, Christians must faithfully order our own loves so that our witness will not be compromised. If Agape is truly our call, then we must exhibit it in visibly cruciform living. The logs in our own eyes must be faithfully expunged as we approach our neighbors for the logs and specks in theirs.

Third, Christians must carefully strive to know our truths and understand our own hearts. Jeremiah proclaims that “the heart is deceitful above all else” (17:9). Unchecked, we will allow our passions to influence our commitment to truth. Love is more pain than pleasure, and commitment to truth is never accommodation. God’s truth is unchanging, God’s love is unchanging, but we, when we fail to seek both of these, fall short of our call to be images of God in the world, and in the worst case we become deceivers, even of the elect.