Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love Wins: Part 3, "Our eschatology shapes our ethics."

After raising a lot of questions in Chapter 1 of Love Wins Rob Bell turns to a discussion of heaven in Chapter 2.

The title of Chapter 2 captures the gist of Bell's discussion of heaven: "Here is the New There." Or, in the words of Jesus: "May your kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

At root, Chapter 2 of Love Wins is trying to combat the other-worldliness in much of contemporary Christianity: The obsessive focus on the Judgment Day: The fetish of your ultimate destiny: The notion that the most important thing in the world, well, isn't even in this world. As Bell writes:

For all of the questions and confusion about just what heaven is and who will be there, the one thing that appears to unite all of the speculation is the generally agreed-upon notion that heaven is, obviously, somewhere else.
Bell, of course, isn't the first person to insist that heaven should have a lot more to say about this life than the next. Good places to begin dipping into this view are Moltmann's Theology of Hope and N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. For my part, I think Bell should get a lot of credit for getting some of this theology out to a wider audience. This is popular theology doing what popular theology should be doing.

The best line of Chapter 2 might be the best line of the whole book:

Our eschatology shapes our ethics.
Your view of heaven and hell influences how you treat people. In my tradition, this has meant privileging bible study over feeding the hungry. Marginalizing justice in order to save souls. And in one sense, I can't blame the people I've known who have felt this way. They are just enacting their eschatology. Avoiding hell is the most important thing. Even if you are starving. There is more important than Here. But if we pray "Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven" we have a very different view. Here is as important as There.

I agree with all this, but I'd like to sharpen Bell's point. The dialectics that Bell uses are temporal and geographical. The relevant contrasts are Here vs. There and Now vs. Then.

I think those are fine but I believe they hide a deeper problem. The more fundamental contrast is Easter vs. Death. As I've written about before, the root problem behind the dysfunctions of Christianity isn't other-worldliness per se but a death-centered theology. Other-worldliness, in my view, is just a symptom of a death-centered faith.

The real problem is the idolatry of death.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Walden Pond: "To solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."

One of the things I love about Walden is that it is a philosophical throwback, an example of when philosophy was about how to live. Nowadays when people think about philosophy, particularly academic philosophy, they imagine it to be a spectacular waste of time. It's all about abstractions that have little to do with how we should live. Once upon a time, philosophy was about wisdom. Not so much anymore.

Walden, by contrast, stands firmly in the Socratic tradition, a treatise that interrogates (perhaps a bit rudely) the person on the street--sifting through our ways of life, goading us to think, and trying to clear the path toward the good life.

In Chapter 1 of Walden Thoreau states as much:
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
That's what I like about Walden. It was an experiment in living, yes, but it was a philosophical experiment. It was an attempt to discern the best way to live. Not just theoretically but practically.

In this regard, I think theology can learn a lot from Walden.

Truth be told, there is a lot of theology out there that seems to me to be a massive waste of time. I have little patience for this sort of work. A part of this, I think, is due to my training in the social sciences. Clarity and concision of expression are prized in our academic writing. Say what you mean, say it clearly, and move on.

These are virtues that seem to go missing in a great deal of philosophical and theological writing, where obscurity appears to be a sign of depth. A confession: There are a lot of theologians out there who are widely lauded among theological bloggers who I find to be a complete waste of time. (Rule of thumb: If Hegel and a Heidegger emerge early in the discussion you're in for a painful experience.)

It's my belief that there are no deep, inaccessible thoughts. There are only bad writers and thinkers. That and a lot of posturing. Any theological idea worth discussing can be expressed in simple, direct, and clear sentences. True, without the requisite background it might take a lot of simple, direct, and clear sentences, but that is all you should need as far as tools go. Speak plainly! Anything more than that is posturing, pretension, and the self-protective habits of the guild.

But not all theology is like this. I recall meeting my friend Mark for the first time and asking him what his academic discipline was. He responded, "practical theology." Good Lord, I thought, Isn't that an oxymoron? Apparently it wasn't. I'm not qualified to give you a precise definition of practical theology, but at root it's an attempt to do theology for the church. It's the attempt to use theology in prophetic and pastoral ways to help equip the church for mission.

This doesn't mean that practical theologians won't engage in speculative discussions about God. It's just not speculation for the sake of speculation. Generally, there is a pastoral aim. For example, Wittgenstein famously argued that a lot of the philosophical problems philosophers debate are actually pseudo-problems created by an imprecise use of language. Basically, a lot of philosophical "problems" are due to muddled thinking and sloppy word use. Proper philosophical discussion, then, according to Wittgenstein, was to be therapeutic, an effort to show embattled philosophers that their debates were misguided and useless.

I think we need to do a lot of that sort of work in our churches. Many Christians have tangled themselves up into theological knots. So a lot of practical theology is about helping untangle those knots so that all that mental energy can get redirected into mission. "To show," in the words of Wittgenstein, "the fly out of the fly-bottle." Good theology should bring peace and calm. But a lot of Christians are theologically anxious, confused and tense. Good theology within the church can help with this, therapeutically speaking.

There is much more to say about all this. But I'm not the one to say it. Practical theologians can weigh in as they see fit. My main point is simply this: I think theology would do well to take a cue from Walden. I think theology should help "solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." Particularly the problems faced by the church. And, in fact, many practical theologians are doing just that. May their tribe increase.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Slavery of Death: Part 7, "In this world we are like Jesus."

In my last post I sketched a bit about how the Greek Orthodox think about Genesis 3 as a story about the etiology of death. In this post I want to go deeper into how the Orthodox view the Fall and salvation. To do this I'll be sharing extensive quotes from Orthodox theologian John Romanides' book Ancestral Sin. Romanides' work will pull together most of the threads of the earlier posts. What you'll find new in this post are first glimpses of the Orthodox view of salvation and the Christian life.

This is a long and quote-heavy post. But if you get to the end of it I think you'll find your efforts amply rewarded.

And it's possible that this post could turn you entire world upside down.

To begin, Romanides contrasts the Western and Orthodox views of sin and salvation. As we've noted, the Orthodox see the Fall as humanity's descent into corruptibility which leads to moral weakness and a continued bondage to Satan. This is a death/resurrection view. The West, by contrast, works with a sin/wrath matrix.
In the East, the fall is understood to be a consequence of man's own withdrawal from divine life and the resulting weakness and disease of human nature. Thus, man himself is seen as the cause [of death] through his cooperation with the devil...The Greek Fathers look upon salvation from a biblical perspective and see it as redemption from death and corruptibility and as the healing of human nature which was assaulted by Satan...It is quite the opposite in the West where salvation does not mean, first and foremost, salvation from death and corruptibility but from divine wrath. (p. 35)

Given this focus on human corruptibility and how our mortal natures make us vulnerable to Satan and moral disobedience, the Orthodox work with a Christus Victor view of salvation, the defeat of Satan and death:

[T]he dominant thought of the the biblical view that Satan is the primary cause of transgression, sin, and death. (p. 79)

The only way to shatter the power of the devil is the resurrection of the dead through the trampling down of death. (p. 80)

God became man in order to destroy the devil and to trample down death. (p. 88)
Why this focus on death as the primary predicament of humanity? Again, as noted earlier in this series, death and human corruptibility (what St. Paul calls sarx) is the motive force behind human sinfulness. The following quote is very imporant in helping us connect a theology of the slavery to death to the psychological, social, and behavioral manifestations of sin:

Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in men gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival. Thus, Satan manipulates man's fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him...Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man's weakness in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up. In addition to the fact that man, [as John Chrysostom has written,] "subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying," he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness and wealth, glory, bodily pleasures, and he may even imagine that his destiny is a self-seeking eudaemonistic and passionless enjoyment of the presence of God regardless of whether or not he has true active, unselfish love for others. Fear and anxiety render man an individual. (p.162-163)
Salvation, then, is being rescued from this slavery to the fear of death.

Hebrews 2.14-15:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Preaching on this text St. John Chrysostom elaborates:

[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24].

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?
Romanides puts the matter succinctly: "[S]alvation from death equals salvation from the rule of sin." (p. 166). Thus, "If Christ had not abolished death, sin would continue to rule." (p. 166).

In all of this we see the central role of death in keeping humans bound to evil/Satan/demonic impulses and to sin and self-interest. The key to salvation, then, is cracking death. Liberated from death humanity would be reconnected to the Divine Life and, thus, set free from sin, death, and the devil.

For the Orthodox what this means is that salvation is about revivification, about taking something that was dead and bringing it back to life. Born again. Raised to life. Resurrection. Revivification.

Paul identifies righteousness with vivification. Thus, the justification of the righteous, who were held captive by death and the devil unjustly or temporarily, is the very same thing as their vivification, in other words, as the imparting to them of the uncreated and life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice on the Cross. (p. 94)
We see this clearly in Paul's discussion of sin and baptism in Romans 6. Note how liberation from sin is made possible by the liberation from death.

Romans 6.1-9

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.
That's the key to being set free from sarx, a body "ruled by sin," to be connected to the life of Jesus because "death no longer has mastery over him." Nor over the baptized. As Romanides notes (p. 73): "Christians defeated Satan through baptism."

The idea here is that what was lost in Eden, participation in the life-giving energy of God, is restored through the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit we are no longer solely sarx/flesh. We have been restored to life via the Spirit. For "The carnal and animal man is the whole man who is bereft of the energy of the Holy Spirit that makes man incorruptible." (p. 141; cf. Gal. 5.18, 6.7-8; 1 Cor. 2.14-3.4; 2 Cor. 3.6; Eph. 4.30; 1 Thess. 5.19; Rom. 8.11).

Just as the death of the body is its separation from the soul, likewise the death of the soul is its separation from the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit. Only those who have the Spirit of God are partakers of the true immortality and life of God...This is why, when we speak of man's condition under the power of death, we mean not only the tyranny of the corruptibility of the body but also the separation of the soul from the life-giving energy of the Spirit. (p. 131)

The storyline goes like this. Humanity was on the path to perfection, immortality, and communion with God. But through the envy of the devil and human cooperation death entered the world. Humanity was, thus, severed from the Image/Spirit of God. Humans were now animals, biodegradable creatures, flesh, sarx. And as biodegradable creatures humans became enslaved to their fear of death. Self-preservation at all costs became the rule of life in the Darwinian, post-Eden ecosystem.

To save us from this situation we had to be reconnected to the Source of Life. In the cross Christ defeats death and the devil and allows the Spirit to be poured out on flesh/sarx. This occurs on Pentecost and throughout the book of Acts. Salvation is revivification, Spirit pouring onto sarx, a reconnection with God. Eden restored. Adam fell off the path. And we, inheriting the mortal condition, were powerless to get back on the path. Christ came and restored the lost connection, setting us back on the path.

Salvation in Christ is the restoration of man to the path of perfection and immortality through the communion of the Holy Spirit. (p. 152)
So, via the Spirit, the connection has been restored. Those in the Spirit are back on the path toward perfection, immortality, and ultimate communion with God. But here's the twist for Western Christians. We can fall back off the path. The connection can be re-broken. Salvation begins and is made possible with the gift of the Spirit. But we can thwart, reject and "grieve the Spirit." Salvation is a process, a journey, an end point. We have the Spirit, the life-giving connection, the hope. But we aren't saved yet. We have to fight. We have to go to war against sin, death and the devil.

Participation in the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit is not given permanently, once for all, by Baptism...Man is able to participate in the energy of God that can make him incorruptible only through the struggle for perfection...the personal and corporate struggle against the devil who reigns because of death. (p. 172-173)

Those who live in Christ belong to the realm of the Spirit of life, while the rest of the world belongs to the realm of death. Although the battle for perfection and immortality in Christ has been won by the triumphant saints who await the final victory, for the militant faithful, however, the communion in the Spirit of life that leads to incorruptibility is not yet an accomplished and permanent reality. On this side of the grave, those who live in Christ have not yet permanently acquired the Spirit's life-giving energy that renders man incorruptible. The permanent gift of immortality depends on how much labor the Christian undertakes to live according to the Spirit during this life. Thus, the faithful on this side of the grave, for the present, have only the "betrothal to the Spirit." (p. 140-141).

The communion [with God's] life-giving energy, however, is not the same in all the faithful. It ebbs and flows between mortal condemnation and the endowment of incorruptibility unto eternal life. "Indeed," according to what the great Basil said, "the worthy do not each partake of the Holy Spirit in the same measure; rather, in proportion to the faith of each man, He metes out His energy." (p. 141)

In this view, the Christian life is both developmental and militant. It is the constant and continual struggle against sin, death, and the devil in our lives and in the world around us. And through this fight we become perfected. More mature in the faith. Participating in greater portions with the Spirit. We build with precious stones rather than with straw:

1 Corinthians 3.10-15

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
What, exactly, does this fight (this "building with precious stones") look like on a day to day basis?

Recall, what is the power of death in our lives? It's fear. Once again Hebrews 2: "to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."

The battle of the Christian life, then, is the battle between fear and love. Between self-interest and self-giving. Between Incurvatus in se and Excurvatus ex se, from being "curved inward" on ourselves to being "curved outward" toward others. This is the moral nexus of the Christian life, the struggle between fear and love.

There is a distinction "between those who live according to Satan and death and those who struggle in Christ to attain to unselfish love that is free of self-interest and necessity." (p. 133)

The salvation of man is dependent upon how much, under the guidance of God, he is capable of exercising himself in the cultivation of a genuine, unselfish, and unconstrained love for God and his fellow man. (p. 121)

The will of God, like the purpose of the Church's existence, is the salvation of men through perfection in love for God and one another. (p. 120)

It is clear that any denial of Christ out of fear was regarded by the ancient Church as a real lack of unselfish faith and as a fall into the hands of him who has the power of fear and death...The Lord did not hesitate to speak to man's instinct of survival or self-preservation. (p. 118, 119; cf. Matt. 16.26; Mark 8.36-37; Luke 9.25)

Love that is free of self-interest and necessity fears nothing...All human unrest is rooted in inherited psychological and bodily infirmities, that is, in the soul's separation from grace and in the body's corruptibility, from which springs all selfishness. Any perceived threat automatically triggers fear and uneasiness. Fear does not allow a man to be perfected in love...Being under the sway of death and not having real and correct faith in God, man is anxious over everything and is ruled by selfish bodily and psychological motives and, thus, he is unable to love unselfishly and freely. He loves and has faith according to what he perceives to be to his own advantage...Thus, he is deprived of his original destiny and is off the mark spiritually. In biblical language, these failures and deviations are called sins. The fountain of man's personal sin is the power of death that is in the hands of the devil and in man's own willing submission to him. (p. 116-117)

Just as God, above all, is free of every need and self-interest, the spiritual man who has the Spirit struggles and becomes perfected in the love according to Christ, love that is delivered of all need and self-interest. "If the Son, then, shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." [John 8.36] (p. 153)

That is a whole lot to chew on. But with these understandings firmly in hand can now start to make a slow turn from theology to the lived experience of the Christian, to the dynamics of fear and love in day to day existence. And to help make the turn let's add some more passages to help guide our thoughts forward.

Hebrews 2.14-15:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

I John 3.7-10, 14-18

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 4.16b-21

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous. And we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. For anyone who does not love remains in death. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

There is no fear in love.

In this world we are like Jesus.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

"This I Saw..."

A thought heading into the weekend...

I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living,

its goal to become a councilor,

that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl,

that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties,

that wisdom was whatever the majority assumed it to be,

that enthusiasm was to give a speech,

that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars,

that cordiality was to say "May it do you good" after a meal,

that piety was to go to communion once a year.

This I saw,

and I laughed.

--Søren Kierkegaard

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Will the Internet Kill Christianity?

Thanks to Lawton for passing on this link to a recent article in Relevant Magazine by Brandon Peach entitled Will the Internet Kill Christianity?

The article starts by citing the recent argument made by Christian apologist Josh McDowell suggesting that young people are rejecting Christian fundamentalism because of the Internet:

“What has changed everything?” Christian apologist Josh McDowell asked his audience on July 15 at the Billy Graham Center in Asheville, N.C. His talk, titled “Unshakeable Truth, Relevant Faith,” had detailed a certain uncomfortable fact in anticipation of the question: that young Christians in America are rejecting Christian fundamentalism—and doctrinaire concepts such as absolute truth and biblical infallibility—in droves. Why is faith in God being supplanted, earlier and earlier, by relativism, secularism and skepticism? McDowell’s answer was simple: the Internet.
What, exactly, is going on with the Internet that is making this happen? According to McDowell, young Christians are being exposed early and often to secular and atheistic arguments found online. Peach seems to agree with this assessment, suggesting that the Internet is dominated by the voices of irreligion:

The fact is, a relationship between irreligion and the Internet was bound to happen. Religion has long enjoyed a culturally accepted free space in which to share rhetoric—the Church. Atheism has suffered the exact opposite. America’s wariness of (or its outright antagonism toward, in its greatest excesses) irreligion has forced atheism to the fringes of its society. What the Internet has provided is a free space for atheists in this nation to connect with those across the globe whose cultural milieus are more inviting of all brands of irreligion; indeed, some in which secularism is a majority viewpoint.

It is no wonder, therefore, that atheism is gaining steam in the U.S.

I don't know if these assessments are correct. But I do think that marginalized voices at the local level can aggregate and gain steam, facilitated by the Internet, at the global level. That is, I don't think the Internet is more atheistic, but it is more pluralistic.

Regardless, I'm not sure what McDowell's solution is. Information quarantine?

Here's a radical idea. Rather than sticking our heads in the sand, why don't we come up with some better answers to the questions the kids are asking.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

For the College Students: A Prayer for the Moonstruck

The new freshmen have arrived at ACU!

This morning, as a part of our Passport and Welcome Week activities, I got to visit with some of our incoming Psychology majors to get their first semester schedules worked out. This Thursday our faculty, along with spouses and kids, will eat dinner with all of our new majors.

Interacting with our new majors today I was struck by the diversity of their emotions. Some were already homesick. Some were scared and overwhelmed. Some were excited and bouncing off the walls with energy and excitement.

Thinking about our new freshmen, and all our ACU students, I was looking for a psalm of protection to pray over them. Psalm 121 is a leading and quirky contender:

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the LORD,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you—

the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm—

he will watch over your life;

the LORD will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.
Two quirky details draw me to this psalm. These occur in verses five and six.

In verse five we read that the LORD is your shade at your right hand / the sun will not harm you by day.

If you haven't heard, Texas has been baking all summer. The projected highs for the next seven days in Abilene are: 104, 103, 106, 107, 105, and 104 degrees. You get the idea. So, yes, the incoming freshmen need Psalm 121 prayed over them: the LORD is your shade at your right hand / the sun will not harm you by day.

The second quirky detail immediately follows the petition for protection from the sun: the sun will not harm you by day / nor the moon by night.

Beware the moon! Pray that it will not harm you. Pray for protection from both sunstroke and moonstroke. (BTW, that's how The Message renders these verses: God's your Guardian, right at your side to protect you / Shielding you from sunstroke / sheltering you from moonstroke.)

I worked for four years at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. Invariably, after some evening when the night shift reported all sorts of acting out by the patients, some grizzled veteran of a nurse would say, "Well, it was a full moon last night." The moon was always invoked by the staff to explain the crazy behavior of the patients on nights when the moon was full.

I've found that is is very common. In just about every profession that has to deal with a population in the evenings--hospital workers, police, prison guards, dorm supervisors--the moon is often invoked to explain why, when the moon is full, people seem to lose their minds.

Of course, you know that this is where we get the words "lunatic" and "lunacy" from, the ancient (and persistent!) notion that the full moon makes people a little nutty. It's what sits behind the whole werewolf myth, the sense that there is a "monster" inside us that gets pulled out by the sight of the full moon.

Is this a pagan notion? Well, there it sits in Psalm 121: A prayer for protection from the moon.

Which brings me back to my college students. Sure, they need protection from sunstroke in West Texas. But what they really need is protection from moonstroke. From the lunacy of college nights. Full moon or not. Their howling at the moon during the semester is probably the greater threat to their sanity, morality, life and limb and GPA.

And so, here at the start of the school year, let the righteous lift up this prayer of protection--Psalm 121--for the moonstruck college students the world over:

The LORD watches over you—

the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

* Frock Collection * 1

Love Wins: Part 2, What about the Flat Tire?

By my count, there are two ways you can end up in hell.

The first way is that God predestined for you to be there. In the second way, in contrast to the first, God wants you to be in heaven but you reject God's offer of grace. That is, you're in hell because that was your choice.

(There's actually a third way of going to hell involving Las Vegas, three chickens and a circus clown. But it's a rare that anybody goes this route.)

I grew up believing in the second way of going to hell. Specifically, I believed (and still do!) that God "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2.4). If this is so, it stood to reason that if you ended up in hell you had rebelled and rejected God during your life. God wanted to save you, extended the gift of grace, and you rejected it.

When I was young, this explanation seemed perfectly cogent and reasonable. God makes a gracious offer. You refuse. You reap the consequences. Sure, hell is bad. But we shouldn't blame God. Everyone had their chance.

Or did they?

From time to time at ACU I've led a chapel where I've asked students the following question: If you had one question you could ask God what would it be? What question of faith keeps you up at night?

Overwhelmingly, having done this with hundreds and hundreds of college students, the responses fall into one of two groups: The problem of suffering and the problem of moral luck. Based upon my sampling, I'd wager that these are the two biggest stumbling blocks to faith: The problem of suffering and the problem of moral luck.

The title of Chapter 1 of Rob Bell's Love Wins is a question about moral luck: "What about the Flat Tire?" This question is associated with a discussion in the chapter about how we can expect people to accept Jesus if they have never heard the good news or if the "news" brought to them is messed up (i.e., a distortion of the gospel) or delivered by a faulty messenger (e.g., some huckster faith healer or hypocritical preacher). Basically, Bell is highlighting the contingencies inherent in the process of evangelism. So he writes:

If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us--what happens if they don't do their part?

What if the missionary gets a flat tire?
This is the flat tire of the title. It's not the only issue, problem or question Bell raises in this ramble of a chapter where he asks question after question. But the tire functions as a sort of metaphor, a metaphor for moral luck.

Moral luck is a termed coined by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Moral luck refers to how we extend moral approbation and disapprobation to people, thinking people "good" or "bad", when many of the factors affecting our judgements these people fall outside of their control. Some people are perceived as "good" when, in fact, they are simply very fortunate. Others are deemed "bad" when, in fact, they are mainly very unlucky.

"Who sinned, this man or his parents?"


Some of this is fairly straightforward. I might accidentally hit a child playing in the street with my car. Wrong time. Wrong place. And that death hangs over my head. Sometimes accidents happen and sometimes those accidents have a moral cloud.

That's unfair of course. If it was an accident there should be no moral blame involved. And yet, we aren't very good at keeping that distinction clear. Ever feel guilty for something that was out of your control?

And the picture gets even more complicated when start to think about accidents of birth. Some of us are raised in Christian, flag-waving, American homes. Some of us are born to devout and patriotic Muslim families in Iran. How quickly do the kids from those two homes make their way to Jesus? Not to say that radical change and conversion isn't possible. Biographies of this sort do exist (e.g., Saul's conversion to Paul). But conversions of this magnitude are atypical and rare. Most of us go along with the god of our culture and/or family. Few Christians ponder how resistant they are to Muslim evangelism to note how it would be the same if the shoe were on the other foot.

In short, should I get "credit" for being a Christian? Or am I merely lucky?

What about that flat tire?

All this is to say that I was very pleased to see Rob Bell raising the issue of moral luck at the start of Love Wins. As I said, I think moral luck is one of the two biggest stumbling blocks to faith. And as best I can tell, few young people feel that they are getting honest, direct, and substantive answers to their questions on this issue. I've seen very little popular (or academic for that matter) engagement with this issue. That's a problem. You have this huge stumbling block to faith with every little by way of recognition, engagement and response. No wonder young people are getting fed up with church.

Of course, if you're a regular reader here, you know I've cobbled together my answer to the question of moral luck. Not saying I'm right, but at least I recognize the problem and have struggled to find something substantive to say on the subject. I think it's time for the church to catch up. And for that, I appreciate Love Wins for pushing the question.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Walden Pond: "What Demon Possessed Me That I Behaved So Well?"

After setting out his famous summation of the modern condition--"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"--Thoreau goes on in Chapter One of Walden to describe a bit about why he thinks this situation has come to pass.

His first target is a thoughtlessness that resigns itself to the status quo. The attitude seems to be "Well, this is what everyone says is the 'good life' so that is what I'll do." More, this sentiment is less a conscious thought than it is unconsciously and unreflectively assumed. We just follow others. Doing what they do. Pursuing what they pursue. Wanting what they want. Admiring what they admire. Applauding what they applaud. Blessing what they bless. Cursing what they curse.

All without thinking.

Thus we are back to the great theme of Walden--living life deliberately. And a part of this deliberation is to step back and question the patterns of life that have captured us. Mainly because people just blindly follow everyone around them. This leads me to the next quote I'd like to highlight from Walden:

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?
Here we engage with one of the other great themes of Walden: Nonconformity. The willingness to question, object, protest, and resist.

The connections here with the Christian faith are almost too obvious to mention. One famous passage will perhaps make the point explicit:

"Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world."
A confession: I'm a bit of a nonconformist. I try to dress differently. Think differently. Behave differently. I'm a little bit off. Not much mind you, but I'm not drawing precisely inside the lines. I try to blur the boundaries of every "pattern" I find myself in.

This often gets me into trouble. I go too far at times. I've offended people.

You can blame Thoreau. As I've said, this book has affected the way I live. I spend a lot of time repenting of my good behavior.

I could say a lot more about all this, how it all plays out in my life, but I've already gone too far in the direction of vanity in this post. If you are going to be a rebel don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. But I do want to say this.

If nonconformity is an important part of being a Christian--"Do not be conformed!"--then this is a skill that needs constant care and cultivation. And the main thing that needs to be cultivated is this: Indifference to the crowd. The main reason we conform is because we live in fear. Mostly fear of social censor or disapprobation. Fear of the sidelong glance, condescending smirk, and the whispering of the clique. We need to inoculate ourselves against these fears so that when the real tests come we have reserves of courage than can be drawn upon. We've got to get used to saying "No," used to going a different way, used to looking weird. You can't conform everyday of your life and then expect, when the heat comes, to do anything different. You have to inoculate yourself.

When the sun sets on our lives let us not lament: "What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Things have been so busy recently - with DIYs, collaborations and a side project (more on that soon I promise!) it's felt a little out of control. I'm half way through the fourth and final in the DIY LBD series (ok so maybe more like a third of the way).  Prior to finishing it, here's a recap of the three I have done previously. I have worn the crap out of all of them - that's the remit for a LBD right?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

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