What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

Dear James (F)–Greed, Which is Idolatry

Dear James,

I agree that the more we look at sin, and look into sin—especially that sin which sits lurking in the quiet unexamined spaces of our hearts—the more we look the more we’ll see. It’s almost neurotic, like the student of pathology or psychology who finds, through study, that she bears the symptoms of every disease and disorder she encounters! But where with the student such a thing is a necessary phase, one out of which she ought rightly to grow, the analysis of sin for us is both accurate and unending. It is also a worse experience. Sin is not limited to its bodily effects, it is also psychological, and indeed goes beyond the psychological to touch the very soul. The pathology runs throughout the entirety of the human person. It’s a scary business, looking into your own heart.

I trust, despite your note of alarm, that throughout this season our exercise together hasn’t slipped into despair. We’ve tried to balance the grim with the good, and while I admit that I haven’t made much of forgiveness, it’s worth remembering that our salvation from sin hasn’t really been the point so far. In Christ we’re both saved already, are we not? What we want for is an act of transformation in the inner man to root out the twisted evil of our hearts. To get at that, we’ve got to commit to the long, hard look inward.

It’s possible that one of the hardest places to look today is at Greed, if only because our political and economic systems are crafted to sanction and shape human Greed. Acquisition is at the heart of capitalism, and the system claims to free men by freeing their capacity for acquisition. It is interesting to remember that the Hebrews had strict injunctions against charging interest, if only because application of those same laws today would destroy our economies. In this way, and others, Greed is hard to look at; we can’t imagine living without it.

Greed has to do with stuff, and with the desire for stuff, but of course it goes much deeper than that. At its root, it’s about the danger of stuff to stand between us and God. When Jesus talks about Mammon in the Sermon on the Mount he’s speaking about a deity—the god of things—which wars with God for our allegiance. Greed’s power is to help us to think that our things will save us, that acquisition really is the meaning of life. It lends power to the belief that a sufficient buffer of money, power, and influence will be what I need to protect me against the day of trouble. “You fool!” Christ says, “This very night your life will be required of you.” In these ways, Greed keeps us from trusting in God.

But Greed also flattens our human relationships. Rather than seeing my fellow man as someone made in God’s image and likeness, a brother or sister in need, I see dollar signs. I see someone who can be used to make money, or someone whose needs will cost money. Greed reduces persons to things, and relationships to economics. (Which suggests, ironically, that Marxism’s materialism actually generates a politics to rival capitalism’s Greed.) In the end, the old phrase becomes true—rather than using things and loving people, in Greed I use people and love things.

And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of Greed, that it wars against Charity. Here the word Charity is important in both of its senses—that of giving alms, and that of the love that is proper to Christians. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be truly Charitable when I am in the grip of Greed—not only because I believe that these things are mine, and therefore not fit for another, but also because I have permitted the weight of my stuff to stifle the right response of my heart. Properly Christian love sacrifices itself for the benefit of another. Greed throws checks in this process, and by so doing perhaps fundamentally inhibits our growth in grace.

All of this is part of that hard, inward look, and yet it seems to me that we as the Church haven’t got the best track record for this process. Far too many people still seem to think that—or at least act as if—“accepting Jesus” were the end of the story. Not only do we appear to have an aversion to the hard work of faith, we categorically dislike being forced to look into the mirror of God’s truth. I wonder if Greed might actually play an important part in this aversion. Greed, as it manifests itself in a belief that I deserve something, that I am owed certain things in life, extends outward to mean that I am owed a good life (from God), and owed an easy faith journey, and owed peace, and security, and happiness. When I don’t get those things, I feel at liberty to make them happen by my own power. With Greed in control, I get to be my own master. With God in control, I don’t. This indeed is the Greed, in Paul’s words, “which is idolatry.”

I think there might be two clear answers to Greed in the human heart. The first, of course, is Charity itself, in the sense of sacrificial giving. We ought to be giving away from what God has given us. And I don’t think we ought only to be giving to the Church, but we ought also to review those charitable options available to us and allow ourselves to be moved by the other kind of Charity. Where our heart is touched, we ought to give. The other answer is to commit to the work at your local church, and to allow your heart to be touched by the needs you see there. Where you see needs, attempt to meet them. Above all, both these activities ought to generate in us a sense that we are seeing people and using things.

All the best to you as you prepare your heart for Holy Week.

Jeremy Rios

A Letter of Thanks to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

You’ve been the recipient of a great deal of public criticism these past months. I’m sure it’s been extremely challenging for you! And yet, for my part, I can’t help but feel that your candidacy for president has generated some significant good for Christians, and for Christianity in America. I thought I would utilize this letter as an opportunity to thank you for some of these crucial contributions.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping to expose our tacit lust for power and influence. Christians throughout recorded history have struggled to navigate between the Kingdom of God and the earthly political world. Christ’s Kingdom is, of course, not of this world, and operating in the press between worldly political structures and an otherworldly kingdom has been a source of perpetual tension. In the great American experiment, political power has been placed, in a heretofore unprecedented way, into the hands of its citizens. American Christians rightly feel their duty to be both good Christians and good citizens, and yet it would seem that we have never come to comfortably understand what it means to utilize our religious power in the political sphere. Are we a voting bloc? Is it our best political goal to elect a devoutly Christian president? Do we vote for the person who will lead best, or for the person who most resembles our Christian convictions? None of these questions have simple answers. And yet, what is becoming clear, thanks in part to your candidacy, is that in the process we have apparently come to love both our influence and our power. That we love our influence is exhibited by how much we kvetch about losing it—how America is no longer Christian, how our rights are being restricted, and so forth. That we love power is evidenced in how quickly we will sideline many of our public convictions for the sake of certain political ends. This kind of love reflects an idolatry—idolatry for the best seats at banquets, to be seen and acknowledged as authorities in the public square, for all the kingdoms of the world if only we will bow down.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for illustrating our love for utility. One of America’s great contributions to the world is her drive to make things happen, to get things done. Giving a free rein to capitalism has unleashed creativity powerfully, and that creativity has generated much of America’s wealth and influence in the world. However, at times this freedom—our most treasured asset!—has also manifest itself in utility. We prize what works, more than what is good; we value results, more than process; we are impatient with the slow or the inconvenient, and gobble the quick. In this, we have learned to be utilitarian. Our first question about a thing is not, “Is this good? Is this right?” but rather, “Will it work?” This is, of course, simply an alternate expression of that old phrase, “The ends justify the means.” If I get what I want, then the means by which I arrive there are largely irrelevant. If, for example, we get a Supreme Court which can overthrow Roe v. Wade (which I trust any likeminded Christian would consider an unqualified good), then whatever means we must engage in to achieve that are permissible. In this, your candidacy, which has found support in the Christian world substantially through its appeal to ends (better than Hillary, the Supreme Court) over means (you), has exposed us to the rank and repulsive vulgarity of means.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping us to see just how little of America is truly Christian. It wasn’t long ago now that statistical research declared that Christianity in America was shrinking. In fact, what it showed was that many people who were only tacitly Christian now formally identify as not, which provides a helpful winnowing of perception. Further, it has invited ministers like me to consider with greater intensity just what makes someone a mature Christian—it is certainly not their one-time prayer to receive Christ, nor is it their American political identity, nor is it their voting habits or political affiliation, nor is it their opposition to Islam, nor is it their public outrage at various anti-Christian sentiments in the world. No, what makes individuals followers of Christ is their life of, quite simply, following after Jesus. Such a life is marked by a sustained study of the Scriptures, fellowship with other Christ-followers, and an ever forming and reforming personal character into the image and likeness of Jesus. Amazingly, your candidacy has given us an opportunity to see just how much work at converting our fellow Americans remains to us. It is abundantly clear that, somehow, over the past years, we who are the Church have lost much of America to a weakened, unreflective, un-lived, and sometimes outright false or pseudo-Christianity. You have shown us, Mr. Trump, just how much re-evangelization we must perform.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for giving us this unprecedented opportunity to re-think our political and social strategy. One of the most powerful Christian political movements, of course, happened in the last forty years or so, and was publicly called the “religious right,” or the “moral majority.” Its agenda was to address in the political sphere many of the social and moral problems facing the American nation. When it began, in the early 80s, America’s moral center still largely overlapped with Christian convictions. But in an unprecedented shift, over the past 35 years that center has spun far afield from the comfortable consonance we once enjoyed. Conscientious Christians in America today find themselves, for what may be the first time in America’s history, quite simply at odds with the moral center of their nation. There was a time when policies and politicians formed by sincere Christian convictions would resonate with a majority body of average Americans. Your candidacy has helped us to see that such a time has passed. We are pressed, then, to reconsider our public strategy. If our convictions no longer represent a majority of Americans, then the place to alter those convictions—the place to regain our Christian influence—is surely not at the highest political levels. A president who reflects our convictions will be completely impotent to change the convictions of everyday Americans who disagree with him completely. In this, Mr. Trump, you have helped us to see that our greatest need is not political power, but revival—a revival of Christianity in America through discipleship, through trained Christian character, through the development of the Christian mind, and through a nationwide revival of the spirit. In the light of your candidacy we are enabled to see that the temporary benefit of the presidency, or of Supreme Court offices, is of little value when our public witness is at stake with the very people we so desperately need to reach. What good is it to gain the whole world but lose your soul? What good is it to gain a “Christian” nation, but lose its people in the process?

Mr. Trump, your influence these past months has had, and will continue to have, an unparalleled effect on the reshaping of Christian mission in America. It is my prayer that, if we repent and seek revival, you yourself may become one of the beneficiaries of the renewed Christian mind, and a public image of the formed and forming Christian character in action. In the meantime, thank you for helping us to perceive our real needs!

In Christ,

Rev. Jeremy Rios

trump-thumbs-up

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

Sorting Out Fear—BLM, Police, and Everybody Else

Last week, the “Black Lives Matter” movement was freshly galvanized in protests and outrage after two black men, in two separate incidents, were shot and killed by police. Days later, a black gunman in Dallas, Texas, who “wanted to kill white people” opened fire from building windows onto police officers below, killing five and wounding nine others. This in turn triggered counter protests, citing phrases such as “Blue Lives Matter,” and the alternative “All Lives Matter.” These events have resulted in no small amount of confusion, commentary, and rising anger. But one thing is abundantly clear: every party involved is afraid. Black people are afraid. Police are afraid. Pundits are afraid. Opponents of #BLM are afraid. Proponents of “All Lives Matter” are afraid. On all involved, an overwhelming umbra of fear has settled and is taking root. If we don’t begin to address our fear problem, I fear all our solutions will run foul.

blue-lives-matter-moreAt the heart, a pandemic of fear such as this one cripples the self. Fear foreshortens our perceptions, incapacitating us to see beyond our immediate needs for security. All things are measured in relation to my safety, my needs, my understanding of the world. In time, the need for safety and security begins to warp desire. Distrust bred by fear then drives individuals further inward. Where fear rules, humans become small, prisoners of their own limitations, prisoners of their fear as it grows ever larger, becoming tyrannical, dominating every thought and action.

In time fear takes root and begins to govern perception. After all, where fear thrives, so also does distrust, and where distrust thrives, misunderstandings become rampant. From the dominating perspective of my fear I become incapable of truly seeing the other. In this way a pandemic of fear cripples relationships. From the illusory safety of homogeneous enclaves, fear warps my perceptions and makes it easy to judge those “outside,” those who are visibly different. Under the governance of fear, all differences are immediately suspect.

Black Americans are afraid—and however one might argue the origins of their fear, their fear remains real, and in its reality it has shaped and warped perception. Policemen and women in America are also afraid—and once again regardless of the warrants for their fear it is a fear that in time warps perception and shapes identity. Americans uninvolved with either of these groups have submitted to the authority of fear as well, and in fear they are giving vent to anger, taking sides in debates and dialogues, and winning talking points while missing the heart. Until the sources of fear are acknowledged and addressed, no real changes will take place.

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

In all this, Obi Wan Kenobi’s words to young Luke seem relevant, even poignant: “Don’t give in to hate.” The Dark Side looms alluringly in the background, striving to offer a simple solution, to run amok with the adverse passions of emotion. Yet if we would stem the bleeding, I perceive five sources of fear that must be addressed.

1) Ignorance. Fear thrives in a culture of ignorance as fruit flies gather around moldy fruit. Ancient mapmakers marked the boundaries of their knowledge with images of dragons; what was unknown was an occasion for fear. Today, where we are siloed into comfortable communities, arranged by suburb, or news sources, or circles of similar friends, it remains an easy matter to section off the other. Where ignorance thrives, tropes and stereotypes become our only sources of knowledge about others, and stereotypes can grow into racism when an individual clings to a stereotype in the face of new evidence.

Education is a powerful tonic against ignorance. The original Latin word educare means, literally, to lead out. It is the act of drawing out from a student thinking, information, and knowledge; it is to lead an individual out of his own small self-perception and into a broader world of perceptions and thoughts. To educate, then, is the antonym of “to silo.” The power of education is manifestly magnified in these circumstances by friendship—a sincere and prolonged relational “bid” for the other. Such a bid requires humility (I don’t know it all), patience (I’m willing to figure this out), forgiveness (you don’t know it all), and humor (the great equalizer). In fact, if we cannot laugh with one another about our differences, very few strides forward will be possible.

Black and White Children Together2) Bad Information. One of our primary sources of information about world situations and about other people is the mass media, but we are unreflective of the fact that the media has an agenda often at odds with good information. The “news” gives you precisely that—what is new. Not necessarily what is true, or reflected upon, or properly interpreted. From any given event we are offered a headline which proposes to be “newsworthy”—that is, eye-catching, interesting, compelling, and therefore often full of pathos, or tragedy, or outrage. The mass media specialize in presenting its consumers with first judgments. But as the Proverbs state (18:17), “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” In other words, every story sounds good until you hear the other side. The point is this: the media have specialized in offering one side of the story—the sensational side—and leaving off what might bring nuance, complexity, or actual insight. Thus, our perceptions of others are shaped by a continuous barrage of extremes, so that all our evidence falls within the outrageous, and little has been offered by way of counterpoint. In time, these sources of information become mingled with fear, and fear then buffers against alternative perspectives.

The old adage that everything should be taken “with a grain of salt” is true here. But in addition to that attitude of reflective patience, we should also heed Baron von Hügel’s advice to press on toward the “second clarity.” Consider his advice as follows:

…nothing in philosophy, still more in religion, should ever be attempted in and with the first clearness (what, e.g., journalists are content with, and have to be content with), but in and with the second clearness, which only comes after that first cheery clarity has gone, and has been succeeded by a dreary confusion and obtuseness of mind. Only this second clearness, rising up, like something in no wise one’s own, from the depths of one’s subconsciousness—only this is any good in such great matters. And this process is costly, humiliating, and very easily disturbed by rubbishy self-occupations. (Letters to a Niece, 135)

It is a difficult thing to strive for good information amidst the sea of bad, and yet no true answer to our fears can be offered otherwise. In all stories presented to the eye and ear, the discerning heart must strive for the second clearness, and never be content to settle with the first.

Hugging after Prayer

From CNN: Tyler Francis, right, hugs Shondrey Dear after praying together

3) Corrupted Affections. The “affections” refer to the emotional trajectory of the heart, and identify the shaping of the heart’s desires toward certain objectives. The affections are corrupted especially through what is entertained in the heart and through what is presented to the eye. In time, under these twin influences our perceptions are further warped. Cultivated hatred is a corrupted affection—corrupted, because there are things we ought to hate (like the fact that Black mothers have to teach their sons how not to get killed on the street). But instead of hating those things that are worthy of hate, in fear we give permission to hate things that are other, such as hatred of someone different than I, or hatred of civil authorities, or hatred of any other irrational and undiscernable kind. Where the desires of mankind are corrupted, chaos gains a foothold. Where my affections long for illicit things, I begin to project those illicit longings onto other people. Cultivating a spirit of dissatisfaction with life can begin to develop an affection which desires to make others small—I may become a bully. Prolonged feelings of powerlessness combined with a perception of my own deserving worth can cultivate an affection of revenge—I will do all in my power to get what is mine.

The words of Jesus in Luke 6:45 are remarkably appropriate here, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” In other words, what we fill ourselves with in a spiritual, intellectual sense, bleeds out. Gorging our eyes on hateful media, praising criminality, objectifying women, these things corrupt our affections and combine with the overarching spirit of fear to poison hearts and minds alike. Not long ago, Late Show host Jimmy Kimmel produced a comedy spot where famous rappers re-edited their hits with child-appropriate lyrics. NWA’s famous, “F*ck the Police” was reedited to the lyrics, “Hug the Police”—the video showed children reciting the new lyrics while, indeed, hugging police officers. I couldn’t help but wonder, how would our tragic situations in the news be different if, indeed, all our children were singing about hugging the police rather than the alternative? How we train our affections has direct impact on our actions in the world.

Hug the Police4) Identity Disorder. For people who no longer know who they are or where they belong in the world, fear is a natural byproduct. Loss of identity generates loss of certainty. Uncertainty, I believe, compounds with fear and frustrated ambitions to generate outbursts of excessive violence. We kill people in acts of senseless violence because, fundamentally, we have forgotten what it means to be people at all. I intend to write much more extensively on this at a later point, but for now it must suffice for me to say that so long as humanity lives in rejection to its true identity, fear will be rampant, and mass shootings will continue.

5) Bad Fear. Fear itself is not a bad thing. There are things we ought to fear—such as high ledges, boundaries, civil authorities, and prison. But when fear is ascribed to the wrong objectives, we grant those objects power in our lives. Fear, after all, is a form of reverence—what you fear is what you worship, even implicitly. People who fear the other for whatever reason—whether the other be black, white, police, Muslim, LGBTQ, or otherwise—those people are very often giving an undue worship to the very thing they claim to despise. Their fear/reverence has come to dominate their life, their attitudes, their thoughts, their affections. They are turning from a truer humanity to a corrupted, diminished humanity.

The Proverbs again state the “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Retreat from ignorance, accumulation of good information and good judgments, development of proper affections, growing into ordered identities—these are each answered by setting our first fear in the right place. There is only One who is worthy of our fear—God—He who judges, gives life and takes it, and Who in time gives certain restitution for all the wrongs of humanity. But I fear that until our fear is anchored on Him, the pandemic of fear will continue unabated, and the shedding of blood will continue to testify against our unwillingness to grow beyond our fears. I pray for the day, when, rather than fear covering the earth like a flood, the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth, “as the waters cover the sea.”

Book Review: C. Stephen Evans on Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense

Evans_Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense_CoverStephen Evans’s recent volume in apologetics, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges (Baker, 2015), is a worthy read for anyone interested in an approachable yet philosophically rich defense of the Christian faith. Evans, a professor of philosophy at Baylor University, is an expert in Kierkegaard and does a remarkable job of rendering many of the complexities of Kierkegaard (as well as other thinkers) into language that is accessible and understandable. This volume, I should be clear at the outset, does not resemble the flashy apologetics which seek to demolish the arguments of its opponents, but rather exhibits sustained, accessible, and careful thinking about the philosophical architecture that lends credibility to Christian belief.

Evans begins his study by highlighting what he thinks is a key claim of the atheist movement at present, namely, that Christianity is both irrational and outright harmful. Setting aside the accusation of harmfulness, Evans turns his attention primarily to the question of Christianity’s reasonability. Evans appeals first to natural theology—a revelation of God through natural means, but situates this quite specifically. “The key is to see natural theology not as providing us with an adequate, positive knowledge of God, but as supporting what I like to call ‘anti-naturalism’” (20). In other words, the suggestion is that if God is the author of all creation, then we ought to expect signs of His presence in the natural world. These signs in turn mitigate against the claims of naturalism, specifically that the natural world is all that exists. Such signs, Evans further suggests, fall under two “Pascalian Constraints”—that they should be widely available (everyone should have the potential to experience them), and that they should be resistible (preserving freedom). If this is the case, then we ought to be able to look to the natural world for “signs” of God’s existence. However, Evans observes, these “are not intended to give us an adequate knowledge of God. They are intended only to give us a sense that there is more to reality than the physical world” (36). Here Evans appeals to the sensus Divinitatis—the humanity-wide (and evolutionarily backed) propensity to seek to apprehend knowledge of God from creation. Next Evans outlines several characteristics that he believes are such signs, for example the experience of cosmic wonder, the sense that the world is a place of inherent order, the human moral capacity, human dignity, and the experience of Joy (a la C.S. Lewis). These signs, widely accessible, easily resistible, do not provide adequate knowledge of God but ought to lead us to hunger for more. At this point Evans pauses to consider the believability of such signs, pausing for a discussion on the nature of how we believe anything, as well as to answer a few classic objections to the Christian faith (God and Science and the problem of evil). How then can we believe the Christian Scriptures? Evans points in part to what he calls the “Revelation-authority principle.” This principle suggests that the Christian witness has a kind of authority simply because human reason is incapable of creating it. In other words, if I could create it, it wouldn’t be otherworldly. Drawing to a close, Evans then identifies three criteria for believing a revelation from God to be genuine. First, the attestation of miracles—otherworldly signs which exist to validate a testimony (and this is a unique claim of the Christian faith). Second, “paradoxicality,” which means that certain doctrines have an opaqueness to human reason that nevertheless resonate true (here he points specifically to the Incarnation as a true mystery). Finally, what Evans calls the “criterion of existential power,” that is, the interior effect of belief working on the individual. To close the book, Evans employs his philosophical logic in laying out an argument for the Christian faith.

C. Stephen Evans

Evans teaches at Baylor

This summary has, of necessity, omitted the vast majority of Evans’s carefully outlined philosophy. Although the book is eminently readable, some readers may struggle with reading patiently. I advise any reader to follow along with a pencil to make notes in the margin. Additionally, there were a few places where Evans might have better defined some terms and explained some concepts. Nevertheless, there are quite a number of lovely moments when Evans neatly addresses some apologetical bugbears (such as observing that, “To generate the problem of evil, we need to know that God is like the God of Christianity”—in other words, the problem is predicated on a Christian understanding of God). Personally, I found the discussions of “Pascalian constraints,” the “Revelation-authority principle,” and the argument about paradoxicality, to be both clarifying and useful. In fact, recently I was asked to give a brief explanation about the Trinity. I gave a first answer, and saw in the face of my friend that he still didn’t understand. Then I started at the beginning again and said, “Look, the Trinity is something that is revealed to us. We couldn’t have come up with it on our own. But once we understand the workings of the Trinity, it makes a great deal of sense. God, invisible, eternal Spirit, needed to solve Himself the puzzle of making things right with His creation, and He did that by becoming part of it in Jesus.” As I spoke, I was aware of Evans’s thoughts providing some fresh architecture to my own work. The Trinity is revealed, and paradoxically, when we accept it, it makes a great deal of sense.

In all, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense is a solid contribution to any Christian’s library on apologetics. While it is not a book designed to win “battles” or wow large crowds, it nevertheless has potential to illuminate key questions for the honest thinking skeptic. It is also, I can personally testify, pastorally applicable.

What Do We Do with Albert Schweitzer? An Inquiry into Faith.

Albert_Schweitzer_NobelSince my university days I have been familiar with the name of Albert Schweitzer, his work having come up repeatedly during my study of Biblical Higher Criticism. Over the ensuing years his name has come up on several other occasions, and most compellingly in the context of a particular story about his life—that Schweitzer, unable to enter the mission field directly, pursued a medical degree so he could become a medical missionary. This spoke to such a measure of resolve, and to such unusual spiritual devotion in a scholar, that I wanted to know more about the man. The result was a journey through Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of my Life and Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1949), a book that in the end left me wondering if in fact Schweitzer was a Christian at all.

Schweitzer very nearly defines what it means to be a polymath. Born in 1875 in what was then the Alsace region of Germany, he grew up bilingual, later publishing books in both French and German. Educated in Germany and in the midst of the heyday of German Higher Criticism, his seminal contribution was the book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Having earned a PhD in theology, he became a theological instructor as well as a licensed minister in the German Lutheran church. In addition to his academic pursuits, Schweitzer was also a performance organist, traveling and giving concerts, penning manuals on the proper execution of Bach’s organ pieces, and even writing tracts on organ repair and organ building. To the shock of his friends, family, and peers, at thirty years of age he resigned his post as a theology instructor and curate and entered into medical school so that he could become a missionary. His resolve to do this was formed some years before, and Schweitzer’s own words are worth recounting here,

The plan which I meant now to put into execution had been in my mind for a long time, having been conceived so long ago as my student days. It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, which I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering… Then one brilliant summer morning at Günsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays—it was in 1896—there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity. Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus! “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel shall save it.” (Out of My Life and Thought, 84-85)

Medical degree in hand, he then headed to what is today Gabon in Africa, where he and his wife built a medical clinic from the ground up and served faithfully for a number of years, through the first World War, returning to Europe to raise funds through concert tours, and returning again to Africa to continue his service.

gabon_political_map

Schweitzer’s autobiography ends in the late 1930s, but after the Second World War he was awarded the Nobel Prize for a speech he gave, “The Problem of Peace,” and he later worked with Einstein to advocate for the abolition of nuclear bombs. He died in 1965 at age 90.

Schweitzer was a truly remarkable man—clearly brilliant, gifted, motivated, and compelling. His sacrifice and dedication to his work shines a poor light on our own weak contributions to the benefit of humanity. But one looming question lurks in the background of Schweitzer’s life—was he actually a Christian?

This is a scandalous question. Who am I, after all, to attempt to judge the faith of another professed Christian, and above all one whose service seems so unobjectionably clear? And yet what Schweitzer’s life exhibits is the tension between confessional and ethical Christianity. Is a person made a Christian by his profession of faith, or by his works before the Lord? Romans 10:9 is a passage (among others) that makes it explicit that the confession of Jesus is of paramount importance, while the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 seems to make it clear that our conduct is the standard of judgment. Which is it, and where does Schweitzer fall, and are we even fit to make these kinds of judgments?

Let’s consider the final concern first—are we fit to make these kinds of judgments? The answer must be yes—for each of us, and especially for me as a member of the clergy, it is doctrinally, pedagogically, and missionally imperative that we outline the proper boundaries of Christian faith. It is doctrinally imperative because when we confess the truth of Christianity we are confessing a specific truth—being a Christian means a specific, bounded thing. Pedagogically it is imperative because we must instruct believers on what it means to be followers of Jesus—uncertainty in the definition of Christian faith means uncertainty for the people of God. Finally, it is missionally imperative because the profession of faith is actually central to our witness—how will we tell others how to become Christians if we are uncertain of what it means to be a Christian at all? And therefore we make judgments—we must make judgments—outlining the boundaries of Christian faith, seeking to faithfully declare what is “in” and what is “out.” We must do this of course with both humility and grace. Humility, because we are not omniscient and therefore don’t know the work the Lord is doing in a person’s heart at a given moment; grace because God is clearly more liberal with His salvation than we would be were we Him.

hadrians-wall-

Clear boundaries create clear expectations.

When it comes to Scripture, then, what do we make of the difference between Romans 10:9 and Matthew 25? Is our salvation based on what we have done, or what we have confessed? The answer is abundantly both. The confession of faith is essential—that we believe Jesus came, died, and rose from the grave on the third day, and is today Lord of all. The essence of Christianity is the confession of the resurrection of the Son of God. But that confession alone is insufficient—it is not enough to say the words, there is also an expectation of conversion—as a consequence of our confession, our way of life must exhibit our belief. James 3:14-17 says it clearly,

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

And yet works themselves are not a substitute for faith, because we cannot purchase God’s favor. If we believe our works earn us good things from God, then we believe that we can effectively buy God, and thereby we make Him a debtor—putting God under our own, human power. This is a line of thinking that Paul in Romans is at pains to eradicate. There is no way to win salvation by our work, but work must be the natural fruit of our salvation.

This has been a point of contention throughout the history of Christianity. Good people are not saved because of their goodness, and sacrificial people are not saved because of their good deeds. People are saved because of their belief in the Christian witness, in their confession of the person of Jesus Christ. But saved people are expected to display that salvation in works.

schweitzer_Time MagazineAnd this brings us back to Schweitzer. Throughout reading his autobiography, I found I was never entirely certain of whether or not he was actually a Christian. There is no recounting of his own conversion, instead he appears to be a product of a kind of nationalistic Lutheranism—a cultural Christianity which is as inherited as his Alsatian heritage and which assumes that he is Christian because he is Lutheran. Furthermore, the thoughts he recounts about faith and Christianity focus on the purely ethical—he appears to envision Christianity as a solution to the ethical dilemmas of his day, but he appears to do this to the exclusion of the traditional Christian witness. Christ, in other words, is a supreme example, but not a resurrected Lord. “Reverence for life,” Schweitzer’s primary ethical formulation, in context appears to be less indicative of studied Christian faith and more of German higher education in the early 20th century. And while it seems abundantly clear that he lived out what he believed to be Christianity in his time and context, it is also clear that Schweitzer would identify as an ethical, rather than a confessional, Christian.

The conflict between these perspectives was most clearly exhibited when Schweitzer applied to enter the mission field as a medical missionary. What follows is his own record of that situation when his application went before the committee:

But the strictly orthodox objected. It was resolved to invite me before the committee and hold an examination into my beliefs. I could not agree to this, and based my refusal on the fact that Jesus, when He called His disciples, required from them nothing beyond the will to follow Him. I also sent a message to the committee that, if we are to follow the saying of Jesus: “He that is not against us is on our part,” a missionary society would be in the wrong if it rejected even a Mohammedan who offered his services for the treatment of their suffering natives. Not long before this the mission had refused to accept a minister who wanted to go out and work for it, because his scientific conviction did not allow him to answer with an unqualified Yes the question whether he regarded the Fourth Gospel as the work of the Apostle John. (Out of My Life and Work, 114-115)

Refusing, then, to meet with the committee, instead he made personal visits to each member. In time, they explained further their theological concerns (that he would confuse the missionaries), and their concern that he would wish to preach. Schweitzer continues,

Thus on the understanding that I would avoid everything that could cause offense to the missionaries and their converts in their belief, my offer was accepted, with the result indeed that one member of the committee sent in his resignation. (Out of My Life and Work, 115-116)

It was clear, even in his own time, that Schweitzer held unorthodox positions, and that he was admitted to the mission field on restricted terms (for the record, he later breaks his commitment and preaches anyway). But his unwillingness to be theologically examined is in itself troubling, and would exclude him today from service in almost any missions organization.

Schweitzer did indeed live out what he believed to be a kind of Christianity in his time and context, and compared to many of his higher theological peers, he shines as a paragon of faith. And yet, Schweitzer’s ethical faith was a thing mostly of his own construction, albeit shaped according to the particular needs of his time. From the perspective of orthodox Christian confession he falls far short, and does not appear to contain either a confession of the Lordship of Jesus or belief in his resurrection (the two components of Romans 10:9). Final judgments, of course, are restricted to us, because the salvation of a man’s soul is ultimately the business of God and God alone, and therefore what work He did and has done in Schweitzer’s heart is unknown to us. And yet, from the evidence we possess, it would appear that Schweitzer’s life and work eschew the confession of Christ as Lord, and uphold a noble, if insufficient ethical practice. Good deeds are great, but can never win salvation, and if good deeds are all that Schweitzer offers, then for all his learning, we must conclude that salvation is not his.