The Taser's Edge


In the Sabbath Rest of Tom Bombadil
January 11, 2013, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Books, Ecclesiology, Evangelism, Prayer, Spirituality, Theology, Worship | Tags:

Though the hobbits ate, as only famished hobbits can eat, there was no lack. The drink in their drinking-bowls seemed to be clear cold water, yet it went to their hearts like wine and set free their voices. The guests became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it were easier and more natural than talking.

The Lord of the Rings, Part One: The Fellowship of the Rings, Bk. I, Ch. 7



(Yet) A(nother) Response to Ross Douthat

Part I: A Furious Few Days in One Small Corner of the Interwebs:

The article that kicked it off:

The responses that rolled in:

And finally, far less Facebook-ed:

 

Part II: My Own Response

The worst of the responses to Douthat have failed to hear his argument. To be clear, contra Uffman and Butler Bass, he is NOT making the decades-old evangelical argument that the American mainline churches’ drop in attendance since the Cold War era is due to those churches’ lack of Christian conviction, values, faithfulness, etc. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention (shrinking symbol of American evangelicalism) leads with that argument any more.

The heart of Douthat’s op-ed instead comes at its end:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.

The only response that I have read that really hears this final point is AKM Adams. And it’s on this point that Douthat is completely right.

Part III: An Oddly Illustrative Juxtaposition

During my time at Duke Divinity, I served a year-long internship at a rural North Carolina United Methodist Church. Other populations have their Rotary or Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, but rural North Carolinians have the Ruritan Club. Members get together a couple times or more each month, eat well, raise funds for various causes, sometimes join together in volunteer opportunities.

Almost every active member of the church was a Ruritan (or the spouse of a Ruritan), and almost every active Ruritan was an active member of one of the local churches. The two populations were virtually interchangeable, but what this meant is that the church could have no discipleship-oriented activities, service projects, classes, small groups, Bible studies, or worship services while the Ruritans were meeting or having an event.

For the lay and previous pastoral leadership of this particular congregation, this was not a problem. My own read is that this was not a conflation (as one might want to assume unfairly of rural North Carolinians) of being a good American and being a Christian. The conflation was between being a person who cared for others and being a Christian.

They are not the same.

Part IV: An Old Hope
The Episcopal Church in particular, but also other mainline denominations such as the UCC, as well as parts of the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ELCA (and sorry if I’m leaving out any) are just like the Ruritans. There are plenty of good things to be said about Ruritans, and there were plenty of good reasons for liberal Christians to be a non-violent witness at the Chicago G-8 Summit this year.

But because I’m a Christian, I am fool enough to believe that by the Holy Spirit, when a Ruritan serves a pint of Brunswick stew to another Ruritan, it can be Christ serving Brunswick stew. And when an Anabaptist Catholic Worker refuses to return the blows of an overzealous riot policeman, that can be Christ loving the world once again.

There is a difference in the Christian’s way of being in the world, because of what we believe about the triune God in the world, and because of the particular way that particular God has sought out our particular selves. This particularity is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God help us if we lose it, no matter how much our churches may shrink or grow.



A Theological Twanscript

Please follow James K.A. Smith and me, but know first that we don’t actually know each other.



“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!”: A Eucharistic Prayer of St. Francis
Let the whole of mankind tremble
     the whole world shake
     and the heavens exult
when Christ, the son of the living God,
     is [present] on the altar
     in the hands of a priest.
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!
Look, brothers, at the humility of God
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves, as well,
     that you may be exalted by Him.
Therefore,
     hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves
so that
He Who gives Himself totally to you
     may receive you totally.

from “A Letter to the Entire Order” in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (Paulist Press: The Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM



Journal Excerpt [3 April 2012]

Contemplation is the practice of resting in the Sabbath rest of God, climbing into mother God’s lap and drifting off. Coming back home. Where I am, I am home. I just forget, so I need to practice remembering.



And the Essential Ingredient…

We are now able to see the essential ingredient that makes psychotherapy effective and successful. It is not ‘unconditional positive regard,’ nor is it magical words, techniques or postures; it is human involvement and struggle. It is the willingness of the therapist to extend himself or herself for the purpose of nurturing the patient’s growth–willingness to go out on a limb, to truly involve oneself at an emotional level in the relationship, to actually struggle with the patient and with oneself. In short, the essential ingredient of successful deep and meaningful psychotherapy is love.

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

This quote was striking to me because of how true it is for so many relationships, personal and professional: spouse and spouse, parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, pastor and parishioner. It’s also a very characteristic quote for Peck, with its existential overtones as he defines love.

Love is “human involvement and struggle,” which sounds like a good definition for human life, at least as we experience it.



The God from Whom I Repeatedly Flee

All theologizing, if worth its salt, must submit to the test of hospital gowns, droning television sets, and food spilled in a clumsy effort to eat. What can be said of God that may be spoken without shame in the presence of those who are dying?…I met a woman by the elevator each day whose mouth was always open wide, as if uttering a silent scream. In a bed down the hall lay a scarcely recognizable body, twisted by crippling arthritis–a man or woman I’d never met. Another woman cried out every few moments, desperately calling for help in an “emergency” that never ebbed. Who were these people?

They represented the God from whom I repeatedly flee. Hidden in the grave-clothes of death, this God remains unavailable to me in my anxious denial of aging and pain. He is good news only to those who are broken. But to them he’s the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, lurking in the shadows behind the nurses’ desk, promising life in the presence of death. This is the last place I might have sought him. I found myself wanting often to run from that gaping mouth, the twisted body, the cries that echoed through the halls. I resisted going to the nursing home. Yet at the same time, I was drawn there.

I know why Francis had to kiss the leper, why Mother Teresa reached out to those dying on the streets of Calcutta, why Jean Vanier gives himself without restraint to the handicapped. It has nothing to do with charity. It’s a concern to touch–and be touched by–the hidden Christ, the one found nowhere else so clearly. It’s a longing to reach out to the grotesque, stroking the bloodied head of a slain lamb as its image gradually changes into the fierce and kindly face of a Lion whose name is love.

-Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes



In all things, charity

I’ve often thought that the atmosphere of theological discourse on the internet is very similar to ages in the past. Others apparently agree…

Lutheran Insulter (or check out the original, Shakespearean Insulter)


Secularism and Me

I’m someone who would like theologians to stop pretending that all theology is not also autobiography, and so I’ll embark on a long trip with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in this way…

I have traveled and lived and still travel and still live in circles where secularism is a problem, and a scary one. There are theological aspects, spiritual aspects, sociological aspects, political aspects to this, and to draw a Venn diagram would not work. But I can outline some of them.

In case any of the following beliefs sound fringe-y, they are not. You have your lawn mowed, your mail delivered, your water meter read, your hair cut, your latte made, your paycheck signed by people who hold these beliefs. You are biologically related to and in many cases descended from people who hold these beliefs.

Yes, I do know and love and am loved by people who believe that it is illegal to pray in United States public schools in 2012. Some of these folks also believe that it is important to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that United States money is printed with “In God We Trust,” and that the central statement of the Pledge of Allegiance is “under God.”

The secularization of society for these groups of people is the transitioning of the United States into a post-Christian nation, a descent into godlessness and chaos. A secularized United States is terrifying, because there is no order without God’s order, which is Christian (or at least North Atlantic, Judeo-Christian-inspired) order.

There is a more critically considered version of this, which I’ll call the First Things-ian view of secularism. First Things is the magazine founded by John Richard Neuhaus, who marched with MLK, who authored one of the most brilliant books ever written on being a pastor (Freedom for Ministry), and whose last days were spent as a neo-con (or not quite that). First Things is basically the magazine through which well-considered conservative (and/or traditional) Judeo-Christian political thought travels. It’s a magazine that helps you think better, but which you might also find yourself throwing across the room in anger/mystification.

The First Things-ian argument is that secularization is the corroding of the traditional values which aid all human fluorishing. These values are shared and universal. (For a First Things thought from earlier today to illustrate this, click here. For a problematizing of the universal claims that the Christian religion makes and has made, click here.)

For me, discussing how I relate to secularism and secularization is one of those (many) areas where I feel my lack of a coherent and contiguous narrative of history. But here is my understanding, embedded in my sense of history: the United States is much more accurately described as a pagan culture than as a secular culture (or as “pre-pagan” rather than “post-Christian”). God and gods have not been removed from public discussion and society at all. Christianity was one among many cults in the religious marketplace at its beginning, and it is so today. This “new” world is not something to fear (as both groups described above would tend to believe, although the latter hides it better), but it is still God’s world, populated by God’s children, all of us in need of conversion by God’s love through Jesus Christ.

There are some differences between these worlds, 1st and 21st centuries, of course…

Charles Taylor argues that having no god is an option for large masses of people in a way that it has never been in human history. Or, as he puts it in his Introduction:

[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.