Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wired to Suffer: On Theodicy and Personality

I was thinking yesterday about the personality types that struggle the most with theodicy questions, why a powerful and loving God allows such suffering in the world.

My thoughts ran along these lines. Generally speaking, people tend to cluster in one of two groups. On the one side are your rational types. On the other are your emotional types. It's head versus heart. We are speaking of these types when we talk about left-brained and right-brained people. We also see it in the "either/or" nature in the Myers-Briggs personality types where "thinking" is placed in tension with "feeling" in how we make decisions. You're a T or an F.

But what if you're both?

For the most part, the two don't go together. Highly rational, logical and analytical types aren't generally known for their empathy or interpersonal skills. (I'm smiling here as I think of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.)

On the other side, socially intuitive, sensitive, and emotional people don't tend to specialize in logic, physics, or computer science.

Of course I'm painting with very, very broad strokes with all this. But here's the point I want to make. Theodicy has two sides. There's an analytical side and an empathic side.

The empathic side is easy to see. When we see others suffer our hearts go out to them. We suffer with them. Thus, if you have a soft, compassionate heart you'll likely struggle more with theodicy issues. Many of us can put images of suffering out of our minds. Others can't. And that creates a heavy theological burden.

But theodicy has an analytical side as well. There are a lot of people who struggle with God simply because they are tenacious in following the theological thread to the logical and bitter end. A lot of us think our way into faith problems. It's not that we think too much, just that we insist that people face up to the logical assumptions and consequences of their beliefs.

Generally speaking, because for the most part people specialize in one of these two areas, you can find solace in the area you aren't so good at. Emotional types, who don't really want to reason through theological puzzles, often settle for mystery. They don't mind "not knowing." Here their disinterest in analysis gives them a place to run when the emotional burden gets too heavy. When the emotional weight starts to crush they can fall back on "God is in control."

Conversely, analytical types can find shelter on the emotional side. That is, in demanding logical consistency these people might reach a conclusion that demands a certain level of hardheartedness. A lot of Calvinists fit this description in how they handle the problem of evil. As a system Calvinism has a sort of cold, implacable logic to it. But tender-hearted people simply recoil in the face of it. We get the logic of the system but are too softhearted to stomach the conclusions. That's what I'm trying to point out. You can work the logic but you have to hedge on the empathy. And by reducing empathy you can wiggle out of the theodicy trap your theology is creating.

So we see people doing one of two things to run from theodicy problems. Hedge on the empathy or hedge on the logical consistency.

But what if you're the sort of person who can't hedge on either? What if you're one of those rare individuals who are both very analytical and very empathic?

It seems to me, if you are one of these sorts of people, that you're basically screwed. All around you people are suffering. And you feel this acutely. More, as you reason it all out God comes out looking more and more like a monster or less and less like the God of orthodox Christianity. You're getting hit from both sides. You are unable to run from either the empathy or the logic. More, the two fuel each other in a feedback loop. Our analytical minds penetrate the bubble of worship and Sunday School platitudes. And our hearts won't hide the horror of life.

It's a theological nightmare.

You can't turn your mind off. Or your heart.

Theologically speaking, I think some of us are just wired to suffer.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Liam's Wells

Sadness isn't the only thing we are all experiencing with the loss of Liam. It's very rare in life that you get to meet a truly heroic person. Liam was heroic.

Thus, in the midst of sadness we also feel inspired to be better people. I have this feeling that, for the rest of my life, I'll be asking myself the question, "What would Liam do?"

You can read more about Liam and his project--Liam's Wells--here and here.

You can donate to Liam's Wells here.

Sandcastles Between the Tides of Sorrow and Time

Last week the child of dear friends passed away after a year long battle with leukemia.

All this time--from initial diagnosis, to treatment, to relapse, and on--I've struggled with my blogging. My friends and their dear sweet boy were always in my heart and mind as I wrote words about God. And with every post I experienced this horrible disconnect.

What is theology beside the graveside of a child?

All this "God talk"--the theorizing, the arguments we have in the comments section--it all seems so...small. And pointless.

I receive a great deal of comfort from this space and I know many of you have found this place to be full of camaraderie and encouragement. I hope it will continue to be in the years to come. But for today, I'd like to express, with a poem, the deep dissatisfaction I experience in writing about God in a world full of pain.

The thoughts I had standing beside the graveside of that bright little boy...
This is the end of theology.
The end of speaking
words into the air,
pretending that these syllables
gave us traction
and marked our progress.
Looking back,
we never moved.
There was only a babel filling
the intervals between our suffering.
Hastily constructed sandcastles
between the tides of sorrow and time.

Our sentences will continue
adding to the chorus of life
of crickets, wolves, and the birds of springtime.
The sounds and calls we make
to know we are not alone.
But this place will remind
with the deep ache of memory
that all doctrine has been reduced
to the singularities and wreckage of faith--
Only silence.
Only tears.
Only love.

Comments will be off for this post.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why The Bible Made Impossible is Impossible

There has been a great deal of conversation about Christian Smith's new book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. All the positive reviews are well deserved. I agree, it's a wonderful book.

In fact, I'm in the midst of a short series I'm doing about the book for the bible class I teach at the Highland Church of Christ. The Church of Christ is a biblicist tradition. However, a lot of our people have grown disillusioned with the bible. The bible has become a stumbling block to faith. Which is why I wanted to do a series at my church about The Bible Made Impossible. Smith's book is therapeutic for people struggling with "the Good Book."

There are a lot of good overviews of the book out there. Let me point you to Rachel Held Evan's as a place to start. But let me give a quick overview so I can get to a comment I have about the book and the point of this post.

What is biblicism? Concisely, it is a theory (often unstated) about the nature, purpose, and function of the bible. Its ruling idea is that the meaning of the bible is clear and transparent to open-minded readers. The implication of this idea is that when people sit down to read the bible a broad consensus can be reached about the will of God for any number of issues or topics, from gender roles to the plan of salvation to social ethics to the end times to church organization.

The first part of Smith's book is engaged in blowing up this idea. Empirically speaking, the bible does not produce consensus. Empirically speaking, what we find, to use Smith's phrase, is "pervasive interpretive pluralism." Even among biblicists themselves consensus cannot be reached. For example, Smith points us to books like the Four Views series from InterVarsity Press. Surf over to that link and look at the titles of the series. Four (and sometimes five!) views on just about every topic in Christianity. What does that say when conservative evangelicals, who hold that the bible is both clear and authoritative, can't agree?

Thus, Smith concludes that biblicism is a wrongheaded way of approaching the bible. Biblicism doesn't deliver on what it promises: consensus and clarity about "the will of God."

In the second part of the book Smith turns to describe what he considers to be a better and more faithful evangelical reading of Scripture. This first move he makes is to argue for a Christocentric hermeneutic. The nature, purpose and function of the bible is to point us to Jesus, the Word of God. The "unity" and "consistency" of God's Word isn't to be found among the (at times contradictory) stories and teachings found on the pages of the bible. The bible isn't pointing to itself. Nor is it particularly interesting in issues of "reliability." The prime interest of the bible is the One to whom it is pointing. The bible is a witness not a rulebook, it is a chorus of voices giving testimony to the Word of God. No one has summarized this better than Jesus himself:
John 5:39-40
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Now you might be wondering, how does this solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Aren't there many views of Jesus on offer? Isn't "Jesus" just a container we fill with reflections of ourselves?

Smith talks about this response but he doesn't have a final answer. Not that he could or should. That's a tall order to fill. Smith mainly argues that the benefit of shifting to this Christological conversation--Who is Jesus? Where is Jesus? How is Jesus among us?--is that it makes what is implicit now explicit. That is, rather than pretending we aren't interpreting Scripture, pretending that "God's will" is clearly and transparently written in the bible, we are forced to take up our hermeneutical burden, squarely facing, again and again and again, the question once raised by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.
That might not be much of an improvement. But it does, however, as Smith points out, lift a considerable burden from the bible. No longer do we have to obsess about the bible's inconsistencies and opacity. We can, rather, get on with the business of finding and expressing the Incarnate Word among us.

In all this I'm in 100% agreement. But the demands of this sort of approach are not negligible. Smith follows his chapter on Christological hermeneutics with a chapter entitled "Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity." In this chapter Smith says,
There is no reason whatsoever not to openly acknowledge the sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and seemingly incomplete nature of scripture. We do not need to be able to explain everything all the time. It is fine sometimes simply to say, "I have no idea" and "We really don't know."
Thus, Smith argues that we should "drop the compulsion to harmonize" the bible and that we should live "on a need-to-know basis." We should embrace the mystery and the uncertainty.

Again, in all this, I find myself in complete agreement. But here's my problem:

Only a few people are going to be able to do this.

That is my quibble with The Bible Made Impossible. Specifically, the recommendations of The Bible Made Impossible are, well, impossible, psychologically speaking. Not across the board, mind you. There are a few people who are psychologically able to tolerate ambiguity and the associated existential anxiety. Because these are pretty big stakes we're talking about here. We're not talking about ambiguity in, say, a form you have to fill out at work. We're talking about sin, salvation, heaven, judgment, grace, hell and all that jazz. And with stakes that huge any ambiguity is going to create an enormous burden of anxiety.

In short, I find The Bible Made Impossible to be psychologically naive. That sounds harsh, so let me clarify. I'm not speaking to Smith's scholarship, which is awesome (plus, he's a great writer). I'm speaking to the anthropological and psychological assumptions that need to be in place to pull his vision off. And to clarify some more, I can guarantee you that Smith is aware of these challenges. He's a sociologist after all. The problem I'm pointing out is that these challenges, where I think the rubber meets the road, aren't discussed in any great detail in the book. That's my point. You read the book and say, "Great idea, but golly, the majority of people aren't going to be able to pull this off. Not without something else being said or done."

Here's the deal. People turn to the bible for consolation and guidance. They want to know if they are doing the right thing, if God is pleased with them. And it's at that location--right there--where the real work has to be done. Because the stakes, as I said, are high. If heaven and hell is in play, if there is any anxiety whatsoever about God's approval, then telling people to "embrace ambiguity" isn't going to help. It's just throwing gasoline on the fire.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

George MacDonald on Salvation: "In Jesus Christ I See the Very God I Want"

There were a lot of things George MacDonald helped me with when I first encountered him in college. One of the things I was starting to struggle with, mightily so, was with certain visions of God that regulated particular theories of salvation.

For example, I was struggling with images of a wrathful and bloodthirsty God. That the God I was called upon to worship could only be appeased by the spilling of blood. What sort of God was that? The whole vision seemed pagan to me. And that's what I concluded, that most of contemporary Christianity is just Paganism 2.0.

MacDonald helped me forward. He gave me the confidence to replace those pagan notions of god with the God of Jesus Christ. Last week I told you I was reading back through MacDonald's novel Donal Grant. It was passages like this one from Donal Grant that proved so helpful to me:
"...in Jesus Christ I see the very God I want. I want a father like him..." [said Donal to lady Arctura,] "...No other than the God exactly like Christ can be the true God. It is a doctrine of devils that Jesus died to save us from our father. There is no safety, no good, no gladness, no purity, but with the Father, his father, and our father, his God and our God."

"But God hates sin and pushes it!" [exclaimed lady Arctura.]

"It would be terrible if he did not. All hatred of sin is love to the sinner. Do you think Jesus came to deliver us from the punishment of our sins? He would not have moved a step for that. The horrible thing is being bad, and all punishment is help to deliver us from that, nor will punishment cease til we have ceased to be bad. God will have us good, and Jesus works out the will of his father. Where is the refuge of the child who fears his father? Is it in the farthest corner of the room? Is it down in the dungeon of the castle, my lady?"

"No, no!" cried lady Arctura, "--in his father's arms!"

"There!" said Donal, and was silent.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 20, The Devil's Work

Critical post in this series. Having taken a tour through psychology we are, finally, going to close the circle and converge back upon Christus Victor theology.

Let me first summarize the takeaway from the last post, our review of Ernest Becker's book The Denial of Death.

A key point in The Denial of Death is that self-esteem is involved in managing death anxiety. Living with the specter of death humans seek to live lives that might have some permanence and durability in the face of death. Our cultural worldviews aid in this quest by providing us with cultural goods and values that seem to transcend death. In pursuing these goods and values we follow a path toward meaning and significance. Self-esteem, how we compare to the cultural values, helps us monitor our progress. We participate in what Becker calls "cultural heroics."

While there are psychological and cultural benefits to be had in all this, in the end this is a precarious and fragile business. Our day to day lives often don't feel very heroic. Consequently, we feel that meaning and significance is fragile and shallow. We can come to doubt that our culture telling us the truth. We wonder if working for "the man" is really admirable and worthwhile. The gold watch at the end of a career can seem perfunctory and pointless. We wonder if there is something more to life. But to even ask that question brings on the threat of an existential crisis. To ask those sorts of questions, questions about the validity of the hero system, can bring you to the brink of despair. It's easier to just keep your head down, existentially speaking. It's easier to remain oblivious, to keep punching the time clock and watching American Idol or football games.

And here is where we can see why the bible describes our lives as a "slavery to the fear of death." We're not really paying attention to what is going on. Our cultural hero system and the self-esteem it produces keeps us distracted and oblivious. Sort of like being plugged into the Matrix. This makes life within the hero system feel, in reflective moments, artificial, empty, contrived, and arbitrary. To use a term from the theologian James Alison, we feel we are pursuing ersatz meaning.

And this dynamic leads us to an even darker outcome. If Becker's The Denial of Death helps us understand the biblical claim that our lives are enslaved to the fear of death how might this fear be the work of the Devil? Again, as it says in Hebrews 2.14-15 the Devil is the one controlling this fear. Christ comes to set us free from this fear, to "destroy the devil's works" (1 John 3.8). And while we have come to see how a slavery to the fear of death might make us existentially oblivious and cause us to pursue ersatz meaning and self-esteem, it's not yet clear how this is "the devil's work." What is the connection between the fear of death and the satanic?

This theme is explored by Becker in Escape from Evil, the sequel to The Denial of Death.

According to Becker, the great tragedy of human existence is this. As noted above, our lives are experienced as "significant" because we create cultural hero systems. And yet, our hero system isn't the only one on offer. Every culture has its own values and goods, is its own hero system, that help define what a "meaningful" life looks like. This poses a problem. Our hero systems only "work" if we experience them as immune to death, as something eternal and timeless. In this, our hero systems are religious in nature. In fact, for most of us our hero system is our religion.

So when hero systems and the gods supporting them come into contact we experience an existential threat. The existence of other ways of life, other values, and other gods threatens to relativize our own values and god. That is, our "way of life" is found to be just one option among other options in the marketplace of worldviews. This shakes our confidence that our particular worldview is both true and eternal. If there are many gods how can I be sure my god is the one true god? Pressed further, how can I be sure that all of these gods aren't just figments of our imaginations to help us cope with our death anxiety? Suddenly we feel the existential floor open up beneath us.

In short, alternative hero systems--other values, gods, and ways of life--threaten to undo everything that has made our life feel significant, meaningful, and secure. The ideological Other, in posing an implicit critique of my hero system, threatens me to the core, attacks the very source of my self-esteem. And here's the deal. The ideological Other doesn't really have to do anything to us directly. Their mere existence is enough to threaten us. They represent, on the edges of our awareness, a dissenting voice. A group who doesn't bow to our god and, thus, calls all we hold dear into question.

So what do we do in the face of that threat? It's pretty simple. We demonize the Other. Rather than endure the existential discomfort it's easier to double-down on our worldview and to see the Others as malevolent agents. We aggress against the Other. In mild forms, we see the Other as confused or mistaken, a target for evangelism. More strongly, the Other is an enemy we have to forcibly eliminate.

Here is Becker describing this dynamic:
The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system. Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence....

[Given that] cultures are fundamentally and basically styles of heroic death denial, [w]e can then ask empirically, it seems to me, what are the costs of such denials of death, because we know how these denials are structured into styles of life. These costs can be tallied roughly in two ways: in terms of the tyranny practiced within the society, and in terms of the victimage practiced against aliens or “enemies” outside it...
And with this conclusion we have reached the climax of our psychological analysis. Here is how the "slavery to the fear of death" produces the "works of the devil." Fearing death we seek solace, comfort, and immorality from our cultural worldviews. But these worldviews can only assuage our fear if they appear to us as eternal and timeless, as something immune to death. But when worldviews collide, as they do in pluralistic societies, our hero systems are relativized and called into question. This undermines the existential armor we need to achieve a workaday equanimity in the face of death. And rather than endure this anxiety we opt for violence, lashing out at ideological Others.

According to Ernest Becker this, then, is the great tragedy of human existence: That which makes life worth living--our cultural hero system and the self-esteem it provides--is the very source of evil.

Thus we converge, from a psychological vantage-point, on a core teaching of Christus Victor theology: The fear of death keeps us bound to both sin and the devil. And we've come to see how this fear is a slavery. It is a fear that has captured everything around me and everything within me. Death soaks into everything. It soaks the cultural hero system that gives my life meaning. Thus enslaving me to the Principalities and Powers. It soaks my self-esteem, an armor of ersatz meaning and pseudo-significance. And all of it--described by the bible as a slavery to the fear of death--pushes me to become a creature of violence and sin.

And so we cry out with Paul:

"Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?"

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Authenticity of Faith Now Available

I'd like to announce that my second book The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience is now available. It can be purchased here from Amazon or, if Amazon runs out (UPDATE: they have), here at the ACU Press website.

The book description:
A psychologist tests Freud's claims that faith is a form of wishful thinking and belief in God a consoling illusion.

Is faith simply a form of wishful thinking? Is belief in God merely a consoling illusion? So argued Sigmund Freud in The Future of an Illusion. And the force of Freud's argument continues to be felt as it features prominently among critics of religion such as the New Atheists.

But was Freud right? Until now, few have directly examined the plausibility of Freud's argument. But here, in a groundbreaking analysis inspired by the religious types described by William James in his seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience, Richard Beck explores the motivational dynamics among ''summer Christians'' and ''winter Christians.'' Further, across a variety of laboratory studies, Beck examines how Christians variously engage with art (exploring what Beck has dubbed ''The Thomas Kinkade Effect''), doctrine (from the Incarnation to beliefs regarding the activity of the devil), and religious difference in a pluralistic world. In each instance, Beck analyzes the underlying motivations of the religious types, sifting through the varieties and illusions of religious experience.

The Authenticity of Faith
presents a radical ''New Apologetics,'' an attempt to move beyond contentious philosophical and theological disputes to examine the scientific merits of Freud's critique of faith. Here is an unlikely journey--the scientific search for an authentic faith; the outcome is sure to inspire reflection, conversation, and debate among believers and skeptics alike.
Some of the book endorsements:
''Many scholars have studied the relationship of psychology and Christianity in recent decades, but only a few offer the fresh creativity that Dr. Richard Beck brings to the task. The Authenticity of Faith will make us think, and then it will make us think again, and ultimately it will foster a living faith characterized by depth, relevance, and wisdom.''
--Mark R. McMinn, PhD, Professor of Psychology, George Fox University; author of Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling

''Richard Beck artfully blends psychological theory, empirical research, and theology to tackle a challenging question: Are religious beliefs motivated by mere wishful thinking? This well-crafted, thoughtful, and engaging text is guaranteed to provide readers with plenty of food for thought.''
--Julie J. Exline, Associate Professor of Psychology, Case Western Reserve University

“Using social scientific research, Beck identifies the flaws in Freud’s dismissal of religion as a neurotic defense against mortal dread. He draws on the writings of William James to show the complexity of religious belief, which emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual believer. Written in a way that is accessible to readers who aren’t trained in social scientific research, but rigorous in meeting the standards of the social sciences, The Authenticity of Faith is a masterful example of the ‘new apologetics.’”
--Steven Rouse, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University
As I've mentioned before, I thank the readers of this blog in the Acknowledgements. There is reads:
I would also like to thank the readers of my blog Experimental Theology where early drafts of this material first appeared. I’m blessed to have one of the most intelligent and thoughtful readerships on the Internet. A warm thank-you to my readers for your many helpful comments, feedback, and encouragement. You were the first to let me know that this material deserved a wide audience.
In the early days of this blog I did a series called "Freud's Ghost: The Quest for an Authentic Faith." Some of you will remember it. When I wrote that series I had yet to do the empirical work to support the argument I was making then. Years later those studies have now been done, the laboratory work to support my hunch that Williams James was right (in contrast to Freud's "one size fits all" account of faith) in speaking about religious varieties.

In all this, The Authenticity of Faith represents my long personal and professional engagement with Freud's critique of religious belief. It all started in college when I turned to face the question squarely: Did I believe in God or heaven because it made me happy?

After years of self-reflection and research, through seasons where my faith has ebbed and flowed, The Authenticity of Faith is my answer.

Monday, January 23, 2012


I took my oldest son to see Warhorse last week. Really enjoyed it. And here's why.

Warhorse might be one of the best anti-war movies I've ever seen. It's really subversive.

No doubt there have been a host of films that have more graphically portrayed the brutality and nihilism of war. But Warhorse does something really different in exposing the Principalities and Powers.

If you've not seen the film a bit of overview with no spoilers. Warhorse is a World War I film. We follow a horse named Joey and his first owner, a teenager when we first meet him, Albert. Albert and Joey form a spiritual bond and we recognize in Joey an indomitable spirit. When war breaks out Joey's family, because they are poor, sell Joey to the war effort. Joey becomes a warhorse. From there we follow Joey and the owners who care for him during the war. These owners are British, German and French. Though our affections are always with Albert, Joey's original owner, Joey finds good and compassionate people on both sides of the war.

That is, I think, the particular anti-war genius of the movie. Most war movies have to pick a side. For example, compare Warhorse with Saving Private Ryan, another of Spielberg's war movies. No doubt Saving Private Ryan portrays the horrors of war more graphically than Warhorse (though Warhorse is pretty grim). But one criticism of Saving Private Ryan is that it chooses a side. The Germans are anonymous ciphers. Humanity and heroism is on the American side.

By contrast, since the star of Warhorse is the horse the film isn't choosing sides as strongly. Thus, we follow the horse back and forth across the battle lines and this blurs the distinction between "the good guys" and "the bad guys." This is sharply illustrated in a scene late in the movie when a German and a British soldier meet in the middle of "no man's land" between the British and German trenches to attend to Joey.

It's this blurring of the distinction between Us and Them that I find really powerful in Warhorse. The "good guys" are those who show humanity and compassion on both sides of the lines.

But there is more. One of the visual metaphors in the movie is a regimental pennant that Albert attaches to Joey when Joey goes off to war. As Joey exchanges hands during the war we see this pennant exchange hands. And here's the significance of that.

Early in the movie we note that Albert's father is an alcoholic. Later we learn why. He was traumatized by his service in the Second Boer War. He drinks to forget the horrors of war. The regimental pennant Albert attaches to Joey was his father's from the Boer war.

And as we follow the pennant of Albert's war-damaged father through the film, going from solider to solider (and to non-combatants), we start to see the trauma of war spread. British solider, German solider and even French civilian. None are spared. War damages them all.

In all this we begin to see that Joey isn't the only warhorse in the film. Joey is a symbol of something much darker. The first warhorse in the film is actually Albert's father. And Albert soon follows.

Everyone, German and British alike, is found to be a "warhorse." And we leave the film thinking that the real enemy isn't the man in the other trench.

We're all just warhorses, we come to realize. The real enemy is war itself.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Among Those For Whom No One Else Cares

"To be concerned with the outcast is an echo, of course, of the Gospel itself. Characteristically, the Christian is to be found in his work and witness in the world among those for whom no one else cares--the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the misfits, the homeless, the orphans and beggars. The presence of the Christian among the outcasts is the way in which the Christian represents, concretely, the ubiquity and universality of the intercession of Christ for all men."
--William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Meditations on the Little Way: Part 4, The Elevator to Jesus: The Practice of the Little Way

In Part 3 of this series we discussed Manuscript B of Story of a Soul, the mystical charter of the Little Way, where Thérèse came to recognize her vocation as love. In the Body of Christ she would be the heart.

Having discussed the spirituality of the Little Way, in this post I want to turn to practical matters. How do I, practically speaking, follow the Little Way?

Most of the material relevant to the practice of the Little Way can be found in Manuscript C, the final two chapters of Story of a Soul.

Earlier in this series we noted how Thérèse compared the Little Way to the "science of love." At the start of Manuscript C she uses another striking metaphor: The Little Way as an elevator to Jesus:
We are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection.
Again, Thérèse was dreaming big dreams, spiritually speaking. Before the elevator metaphor she writes:
You know, Mother, that I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by.
I'm guessing we all can identify. The lives of the saints appear to be Mount Everest's of holiness. How to get up that high? Thérèse continues...
Instead of being discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness.
Refusing to give up her aspirations to holiness, and despite the daunting climb before her, Thérèse set herself the task of finding an elevator to Jesus. And thus was born the Little Way.

Thérèse discovered the Little Way by contemplating the words of Jesus in the gospels. These passages in particular:
Matthew 22.39
"The second commandment is like the first: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

John 13.34-35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
As Thérèse pondered these words she realized that she didn't love the people around her--her fellow Sisters--as Jesus loved them: "I realized how imperfect was my love for my Sisters." Convicted by this, Thérèse began striving to allow the heart of Jesus to emerge within her, to allow Jesus to love her fellow Sisters through her life, words and actions:
Ah! Lord, I know you don't command the impossible. You know better than I do my weaknesses and imperfection; You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me...Your Will is to love in me all those You commanded me to love!

Yes, I feel it, when I am charitable, it is Jesus alone who is acting in me, and the more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my Sisters.
So, how does all this look in practice?

There is a pretty large literature that unpacks, systematizes, and interprets the Little Way. I've read very, very little of this literature. So for my part I will simply gather stories from Story of a Soul that show Thérèse practicing the Little Way in her day to day life. These stories show Thérèse demonstrating little acts of charity and self-mortification.

Let me first, however, say a word about self-mortification and its relation to charity and the Little Way. Thérèse was a Catholic monastic. Consequently, self-mortification was part and parcel of her spiritual walk. But self-mortification often doesn't sit well with many Protestants. More, we don't understand it's relationship to love.

This is unfortunate because self-mortification--dying to self--was an important teaching of Jesus. At root, self-mortification is wrestling with and overcoming selfishness, self-love, and self-absorption so we can become available to and make room for others. When it comes to self-mortification we shouldn't be thinking of hair shirts. Rather, we should call to mind something like this:
Luke 14.7-8a,10
When Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor...But when you are invited, take the lowest place...
This is, in fact, one of the acts of self-mortification Thérèse mentions in Story of a Soul: "I don't hasten to the first place but to the last."

These are the acts of self-mortification that Thérèse is speaking about in the Little Way. Acts of humility, restraint, self-control, forbearance, perseverance, patience and long-suffering. It is about "bearing with" people. Self-mortification is less about fasting for forty days than it is about holding your tongue, waiting patiently, mastering your irritation, avoiding the the spotlight, refusing to respond to insults, allowing others to cut in line, being first to apologize, and not seeking to win every argument. In all this we begin to see how self-mortification is related to love. For example, is forgiveness an act of self-mortification or charity? It's both. It's an extension of grace that flows out of an act of self-overcoming. With your ego out of the way it's easier to be open to the other. Thus Thérèse argues,
Love is nourished only by sacrifices, and the more a soul refuses natural satisfactions, the stronger and more disinterested becomes her tenderness.
With that in mind, let's turn to illustrations of the Little Way. There are many, almost maxim-like, nuggets sprinkled throughout Story of the Soul related to the Little Way...
Charity consists in bearing with the faults of others, in not being surprised by their weaknesses, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice.

It is no longer a question of loving one's neighbor as oneself but of loving him as He, Jesus, has loved him.

When I wish to increase this love in me, and when especially the devil tries to place before the eyes of my soul the faults of such and such a Sister who is less attractive to me, I hasten to search out her virtues, her good intentions...

I want to be charitable in my thoughts toward others at all times, for Jesus has said: "Judge not, and you shall not be judged."
...but the most extended and practical description of the Little Way is found in the final chapter:
I have noticed (and this is very natural) that the most saintly Sisters are the most loved. We seek their company; we render them services without their asking; finally, these souls so capable of bearing the lack of respect and consideration of others see themselves surrounded with everyone's affection...

On the other hand, imperfect souls are not sought out. No doubt we remain within the limits of religious politeness in their regard, but we generally avoid them, fearing lest we say something which isn't too amiable. When I speak of imperfect souls, I don't want to speak of spiritual imperfections since most holy souls will be perfect in heaven; but I want to speak of a lack of judgment, good manners, touchiness in certain characters; all these things which don't make life agreeable. I know very well that these moral infirmities are chronic, that there is no hope of a cure, but I also know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life. This is the conclusion I draw from this: I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the Good Samaritan. A word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom...I want to be friendly with everybody (and especially with the least amiable Sisters) to give joy to Jesus.
This is the practice of the Little Way, or a central part of the practice. It is to seek out "the imperfect souls" in our lives (I'm sure people are coming to mind) who we generally, along with others, seek to avoid. As Thérèse describes, these people are touchy, irritable, and generally lacking in social graces, among other faults. More, these faults are chronic, personality-based issues that aren't ever going to change (get "cured" to use Thérèse's word).

The Little Way is to see these souls as "wounded" on the side of the road and to respond to them like the Good Samaritan. Or, to use Thérèse's other image, we can see these souls as chronically ill and respond to them like a Mother caring for her child ("I know that my Mother would not cease to take care of me, to try to console me, if I remained sick all my life"). Practically, this means we seek out the company of these individuals. And finding them we offer kindness and friendliness.

This is the crux of the Little Way: Seeking out the unlikable people in our world and offering them kindness. Thérèse describes this as being faithful to Jesus's command to love both our friends and our enemies:
The Lord, in the Gospel, explains in what His new commandment consists. He says in St. Matthew: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies...pray for those who persecute you." No doubt, we don't have any enemies in Carmel, but there are feelings. One feels attracted to this Sister, whereas with regard to another, one would make a long detour in order to avoid meeting her. And so, without knowing it, she becomes the subject of persecution. Well, Jesus is telling me that it is this Sister who must be loved...
That's a great phrase. "We don't have any enemies in Carmel, but there are feelings." I'm sure you can relate. "I don't have any enemies per se at the office but there are, well, feelings." Those feelings are the focus of the Little Way. And we see the central theme again: Overcoming natural attractions and aversions to seek out the one who isn't an object of affection. I'm particularly struck by how Thérèse compares social avoidance--taking "detours" in order to avoid annoying people--as a from of social persecution.

Goodness, I can identify with that. The avoiding people. The "detouring" around them. The Little Way challenges this natural impulse of mine. And it help me see that seeking these people out and spending some time in friendly conversation is a way I might respond to the Parable of the Good Samaritan in my day to day life. I don't have to wait to find a bloody body in a ditch to act like Jesus's model of love. I can do something "little" but just as heroic this very day: I can stop taking those detours and thereby crack the bubbles of social persecution in my workplace (or anywhere else).

In Story of a Soul Thérèse gives an example of doing this very thing:
There is in the Community a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me...Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing, I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most. Each time I met her I prayed to God for her...[But] I wasn't content simply with praying very much for this Sister who gave me so many struggles, but I took care to render her all the services possible, and when I was tempted to answer her back in a disagreeable manner, I was content with giving her my most friendly smile, and with changing the subject of our conversation...

One day at recreation she asked in almost these words: "Would you tell me Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus, what attracts you so much toward me; every time you look at me, I see you smile?"
A couple of observations about this example of Thérèse's own practice of the Little Way. First, we again see the seeking out of a person who Thérèse found "very disagreeable," and pretty disagreeable across the board--personality, manner, speech. Second, Thérèse moves beyond prayer to focus on actions, doing good things for this person. Third, we see patience and restraint in interacting with this Sister, Thérèse watching her words, keeping a smile on her face, and sometimes changing the topic of conversation. Finally and most importantly, the Sister noticed! This isn't love in the abstract. Thérèse's behavior made an impact.

I'm sure many of you are starting to shake your heads. "There is no way," you're likely saying, "that I'm going to seek out and be friendly with [insert name of co-worker, family member, etc.]."

Hey, I'm right there with you. I think we're continuing to see how these "little" things aren't so little. And why Thérèse ended up becoming saint for choosing to live this way.

Let me conclude with another example of the Little Way. I love this example because it's such a goofy thing but so very common in day to day life. I'm sure you'll be able to relate to Thérèse's experience:
I am going to recount certain little struggles which will certainly make you smile. For a long time at evening meditation, I was placed in front of a Sister who had a strange habit...This is what I noticed: as soon as this Sister arrived, she began making a strange little noise which resembled the noise one would make when rubbing two shells, one against the other. I was the only one to notice it because I had extremely sensitive hearing (too much so at times). Mother, it would be impossible for me to tell you how much this little noise wearied me. I had a great desire to turn my head and stare at the culprit who was very certainly unaware of her "click."
How awesome is this!? And can't you relate? Boy, I can. I often find myself in moods where people irritate me, for no good reason. I don't like the sound of their chewing. The way they are clearing their throat. The way they are standing too close to me. Ever have one of those moods, where little things people are doing are just driving you crazy?

So there she is, Thérèse at prayers getting annoyed at a Sister for making a distracting clicking noise. The story continues...
I remained calm, therefore, and tried to unite myself to God and to forget the little noise. Everything was useless. I felt the perspiration inundate me...
Again, what I love about this is how small this story seems and yet so huge. How much of our interactions with others is driven by these experiences of irritation? My day is full of this sort of stuff. And the Little Way is calling us to take these moments of impatience and annoyance and turn them into moments of holiness. Thérèse concludes:
I searched for a way of [listening to the noise] without annoyance and with peace and joy, at least in the interior of my soul. I tried to love the little noise which was so displeasing; instead of trying not to hear it (impossible), I paid close attention so as to hear it well, as though it were a delightful concert, and my prayer (which was not the Prayer of Quiet) was spent offering this concert to Jesus.
How to summarize the spiritual heroism of the Little Way? Think of it this way: You can run off to a monastery or hit the mission field or, wait for it, start mastering your irritation. In comparison this last seems, well, pretty little. But upon reflection, each of these seems pretty damn heroic. That's the genius of the Little Way. Finding the experiences of day to day living to be locations of epic spiritual struggle, the narrative arch of the great saints and martyrs.

And yet, this is so hard to see. Because let's admit it. Who thinks mastering your irritation, say, standing in line at Walmart is your St. Francis or Joan of Arc moment? Who thinks putting up with the annoying sound of a co-worker eating potato chips in the break-room is the path to sainthood?


But Thérèse did.

And she called it the elevator to Jesus.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Fence of Matthew Shepard

"It's gay awareness week."

That's what the killers said to Matthew Shepard before brutally beating and torturing him.

Eighteen hours after the prolonged beating a cyclist found Matthew, alive but unconscious, hanging on a fence (pictured right).

The cyclist initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow.

Matthew was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. We was in a coma. The autopsy later revealed that Matthew had been struck in the head 18 times with a pistol causing severe brain-stem damage. Matthew never regained consciousness. He died at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998. He was twenty-two years old.

The Westboro Baptist Church attended Matthew's funeral.

They held up signs.
"No Tears for Queers"

"Fag Matt in Hell"
Many of us recall the news coverage of Matthew Shepard's death. The outcry was enormous, eventually leading to advocacy groups requesting that attacks made on the basis of sexual orientation be added to the federal definition of a hate crime. After numerous setbacks and a great deal of political posturing the legislation was finally passed in 2009 by the US Senate and House. President Obama signed the bill into law on October 28, 2009, eleven years after Matthew's death.
People wonder from time to time why I write about the relationship between the gay community and the Christian church. It's not a comfortable topic where I live and work. But the answer is pretty simple.

I'm haunted by the scarecrow hanging on the fence.

In James Cone's recent book The Cross and the Lynching Tree he makes the argument that the cross and the lynching tree need to form a dialectic. If the two are separated the cross becomes innocuous and meaningless. As Cone writes:
Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, this symbol of salvation has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings...The cross has been transformed into harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their neck.
Cone argues that during the Civil Rights struggle the Christian symbol of salvation should have been, though it was not, connected with the lynching tree--an actual and ongoing location of human oppression and cruelty. For when the two become separated--when the cross hung around our neck or in our church fails to bring to mind current and ongoing locations of cruelty in our world--then the Christian faith has lost its way.

The cross, to be a truly Christian symbol, must bring to mind the lynching trees of the world.

Christ hangs from the cross as Blacks hung from trees. As Matthew Shepard hung from a fence.

Cursed scarecrows all.

As it says in the Good Book: "Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse." (Deut. 21.23)

Until we see Jesus standing with the cursed we will never understand the central symbol of our faith nor what it means to be a Christian.

Saul falls on his face on the road to Damascus. He looks into the blinding light and asks, "Who are you Lord?" And the reply comes: "I am the one you are persecuting."

Jesus hangs on the crosses of the world, from the trees and from the fences. It is as Elie Wiesel describes in his memoir Night. After watching a young boy hanged by the Nazis in the concentration camp:
Behind me, I heard a man asking:

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is He? He is--He is hanging here on this gallows..."
Though some might object to me drawing an equivalence between the history of African-Americans in the United States and that of the gay community, I don't want to put sorrows in the balance. Some may want to point out that gay persons are not being lynched and hung from the trees as Blacks were in the Jim Crow south. And because of this we might conclude that the fence of Matthew Shepard is an isolated incident, a crime committed by two hateful and deranged individuals. That the death of Matthew Shepard has nothing to do with me, has nothing to do with you, has nothing to do with the church.

And yet. And yet. I am haunted by the fence of Matthew Shepard.

As I reflect on my Christian walk I often ponder this question: If I had lived in Nazi Germany would I have stood up for the Jews?

Most Christians didn't. And as I psychologist I'm familiar with studies like the Sanford Prison study and the Milgram Obedience study. I'm aware that normal, god-fearing people can do horrible things when pressure is put upon them.

So what makes me so special? Statistically speaking, odds are I would have made a good Nazi.

I also think a lot about the Civil Rights Movement in the US. I ask myself: If I had lived in the South would I have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.? As Cone asks, would the cross in my church have made me think of the lynching trees in my nation? Would I have seen the connection?

Again, most Christians didn't.

And I keep wondering. Am I any different? What makes me think I'd be a courageous agent of light in those circumstances? Odds are I'd be just like everyone else.

And then I think about the fence of Matthew Shepard.

Let me tell you what keeps me up at night. My deepest fear in life is that I'm going to end up on the wrong side of God's history. Like so many Christians before me. My fear is that a moment will come when I am asked to stand up for those hanging on the trees, literally and symbolically, and I'll respond with "That has nothing to do with me. That has nothing to do with the church."

Where are the cursed scarecrows of this world? And does the sight of the cross bring them to mind?

I've read a lot of books and written a lot of words about Christian theology. But really, it's all pretty simple.

Jesus hangs from crosses, from trees and fences.

And to see that, like Saul on the Road to Damascus, is the day of your conversion.

The day you become a Christian.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Bedtime Prayer on MLK Day

Sitting on my boys' bed tonight before prayers.
"You know guys, you might be the only kids at your school who actually sat at Martin Luther King Jr.'s kitchen table."


"That's a pretty cool thing to remember on MLK Day, isn't it?"


"Do you remember what we saw outside the house when we visited?"

"Wasn't it the place where they bombed his house?"

"Yes. It was the place where they bombed his house. That's one of the reasons why we celebrate saints like Martin Luther King, Jr. It takes courage to do the right thing. Like David and Goliath. Like Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Like Daniel in the Lion's Den. It takes courage and bravery to do the right thing."
We say our prayers, I turn out the lights and leave the room. At the door I stop and turn back. I whisper a final prayer.
"Be brave my boys. Be brave."

Men Shalwar Kameez Beautiful Fashion


"I asked God to give me the strength to remain nonviolent and to forgive the people for what they might do."

I was sitting with Drs. David and Jennifer Dillman along with twenty-two ACU students listening to James Zwerg. We were in Montgomery, Alabama almost fifty years to the day when James, along with the other Nashville Freedom Riders, got off the bus at the Greyhound station just down the street. The Nashville Freedom Riders were in Montgomery because the original group of Freedom Riders had been attacked in Anniston and Birmingham. Knowing they would face similar attacks, the Nashville riders had come to Montgomery to finish what the original riders had started.

James was one of the first off the bus to face the mob, many of whom were carrying pipes, chains, and clubs. Being the first white Freedom Rider to come into sight James knew he’d face the brunt of the mob’s fury. But right before the blows fell upon him James stopped, gathered himself, and asked God to forgive those about to beat him.

How did we wind up in Montgomery on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides?

For years David, Jennifer and I had separately dreamed of a bus trip taking ACU students through significant sites in the American Civil Rights movement. The summer before I had been able to scout various locations with my family on the way home from a family vacation. Having shared our visions, back at ACU David and I huddled over maps determined, along with Jennifer, to make this trip a reality.

We settled on a route. Abilene. Little Rock. Memphis. Birmingham. Montgomery. Selma. Jackson. Abilene. The circuit would take us through some of the most dramatic moments in American history. Brown vs. Board of Education. The Little Rock Nine. Police dogs and fire hoses in Kelly Ingram Park. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. and Montgomery Bus Boycott. Bloody Sunday. The Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. The balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Freedom Summer.

And, of course, the Freedom Rides.

We didn’t plan it this way, but David, Jennifer and I quickly realized that we were planning our trip the very year marking the 50th Anniversary of the original 1961 Freedom Rides. We also realized that we’d be on the road the same week in May as the original Rides. All sorts of commemorations were being planned for the days we’d be in Alabama. PBS was airing an original documentary about the Freedom Rides during the week of the trip and every day we awoke to newspaper articles discussing the significance of the Freedom Rides. As our bus rolled down the road it was like we were stepping back in time.

Of course, the great blessing of this timing was getting to meet with two of the original Freedom Riders. The day after meeting with James Zwerg our students also met with Dr. Bernard Lafayette, participant in the Nashville sit-in movement, co-founder of SNCC, Freedom Rider and close associate of Dr. King. Dr. Lafayette, a world leader in the philosophy and training of non-violence, looked at our students and said: “Find an issue in life that you are willing to die for. We’re all going to die. The question is, are we going to live?”

Everywhere we went the atmosphere was thick with stories of heartache and heroism. As we walked the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma we were able to experience the courage of the Bloody Sunday marchers. Cresting the bridge you see below where the line of troopers, many on horseback and wearing gas masks, waited for the marchers. The courage of that march really can’t be communicated until you trace that journey with your own two feet as I had the summer before with my wife and two sons.

Every day of the Freedom Ride was like that. You kept finding yourself on holy ground. And sometimes quite unexpectedly.

We were pulling out of Memphis having just visited the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Theron came to the front of the bus and asked if we might stop by the church were Dr. King preached his last sermon.

When the bus pulled up to the church a security guard came alongside us. We explained who we were. Suddenly, the security guard turned into the best tour guide we had on the trip. He pulled out his keys, let us in and showed us around. And then the moment came when he let each of us go up and stand in the last pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The students were visibly moved standing in that spot. Just hours earlier they had looked out over the balcony of Room 306 where Dr. King had been gunned down. We had left that place with a sense of sadness and loss. But here in this church our spirits lifted. The man we had lost hours before came back to us in the incandescent vision of his final message. Standing behind that pulpit you could almost hear his voice cascading again over the pews:
“I've been to the mountaintop…And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. “
This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of ACU Today. The picture above, of MLK's final pulpit, the place he delivered the Mountaintop sermon, was taken by me during the ACU Freedom Ride.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Subversion and Shame: I Like the Color Pink

I like the color pink.

This has, interestingly, caused not a few people to feel perplexed by me.

The reason for this is that pink is a feminine color. So if you're a man who likes pink this is considered to be strange and deviant.

A part of my fondness for pink has to do with growing up in the 80s where there was a phase of preppy-based chic with khaki pants and pastel colored shirts--yellow, blue, green and pink. More, the pastel colors of Don Johnson in Miami Vice made pink both masculine and cool. In fact, for a senior prom I once went in a white tux from the Miami Vice collection complete with pink tie and cummerbund. Quite a look.

The point is, I grew up liking pink.

But here's the problem. Apparently, pink is really only allowed for men if it's a pink shirt (or a tie). And even that's a statement, particularly here in West Texas. But pink outside of that boundary is considered weird.

For example, given that my hair is long I like to wear bandanas to keep my bangs out of my eyes. I use bandanas sometimes as men aren't allowed to wear headbands. That's what Jana told me when I floated the idea of wearing one. Instead, I use a fake headband called "reading glasses." I use the glasses to pull my hair back as seen in my Streaming video and in the videos with Rachel Held Evans. Side benefit: this is a "headband" that makes me look intellectual.

Anyway, I wear bandanas to keep my hair out of my face (as seen here). And my favorite go-to color for the bandana is pink.

This always makes people do a double-take. Good God, a man with a pink bandana! For example, last fall I was at a High School football game and I was wearing the pink bandana. On Monday one of Jana's colleagues asked, "Did I see Richard wearing a pink bandana at the game on Friday?" Jana responded, "Yeah. Richard likes pink. Why do you ask?" "No reason," she said, "I've just never seen anything like that before."

Few have. At least where I live.

This came to a funny head a few weeks ago. I was given as a gift an Otter Box (a protective case) for my iPhone. I had to order it from our college bookstore. The Box I had before was all black and I found that boring. So the young lady who was helping me was walking me through all the accent colors: navy blue, yellow and, you guessed it, pink.
"I like the pink one," I said.

"The pink one?"

"Yes. I like pink on black. Don't you?"

"Uh, yes. But this is for you, right?"

"Yes. Is that odd?"

"Well, you don't see a lot of guys get pink iPhones."

"It's not totally pink. It's mainly black."

"That's true. But it's still pink."
Yes, I know. But I like pink. Social convention be damned.

Anyway, my iPhone is now a constant source of conversation.

Now why am I telling you all this? Well, the other day I was thinking about the power of social stigma and shaming. Most people wouldn't ever cross a social boundary like this (e.g., getting a black and pink iPhone), even at the expense of their own preferences. The shame, the "sticking out" it just too heavy a burden to bear.

But I wonder. If Christians are supposed to be a "peculiar people" we might need to learn to inoculate ourselves against social shaming. We might need to practice, on a regular basis, small acts of social non-conformity. We need to get used to not caring what people think. We need to become immune to shame.

This reminds me of the shame-attacking exercises of the psychologist Albert Ellis. When working with clients who were totally paralyzed by social shame Ellis would have them do something in public that was both very noticeable and very ridiculous. The most famous example is pulling a banana around on a string in a public place like a mall. Here's a video example of this.

Now most people, those who are terrorized by the opinions of others, would say to Ellis, "I could never do that! It would be too embarrassing." But why live life being bullied by embarrassment? Who cares if people look at you? Who cares if they laugh?

Exactly. The world isn't going to end if people think you're a bit off your rocker. Just look at me.

So learn to embrace your own version of the pink iPhone. Engage in small acts of subversion. Vaccinate yourself against shame. Buck the system.

It might be one of the most important spiritual exercises you practice.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Forget Your False Teachers

I got a Kindle for Christmas this year. I like it, but I still prefer regular books. Probably always will.

The reason I got the Kindle is because you can get all of George MacDonald's works for free or practically free. My plan for the Kindle was to get back into the novels of MacDonald. It's been years since I'd read one. But which one to read first?

I picked Donal Grant as he was the character that stuck with me the most all these years. Perhaps because he was a scholar/tutor. So, a quote for your weekend, from the novel Donal Grant:
Those who seek God with their faces not even turned towards him, who, instead of beholding the Father in the Son, take the stupidest opinions concerning him and his ways from other men--what should they do but go wandering on dark mountains, spending their strength in avoiding precipices and getting out of bogs, mourning and sighing over their sins instead of leaving them behind and fleeing to the Father, whom to know is eternal life. Did they but set themselves to find out what Christ knew and meant and commanded, and then to do it, they would soon forget their false teachers. But alas! they go on bowing before long-faced, big-worded authority--the more fatally when it is embodied in a good man who, himself a victim to faith in men, sees the Son of God only through the theories of others, and not with the sight of his own spiritual eyes.
This quote captures one the greatest lessons I've taken from MacDonald. Following Jesus--obedience to the Master as MacDonald would put it--is the truest path to good theology, orthodoxy, truth, doctrine, and understanding. Behold the Father in the Son and leave the stupid opinions behind. Set yourself to find out what Christ knew, meant and commanded, and then do it, and forget your false teachers.

Insights that changed my life in college.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Meditations on the Little Way: Part 3, "My Vocation is Love"

As mentioned in my last post, Manuscript B of Story of a Soul is considered to be the mystical heart of Thérèse's Little Way. It was written to her sister who asked her to describe her "little doctrine."

The first part of the manuscript is addressed to Marie; the second, longer half is addressed directly to Jesus.

In her opening to Marie Thérèse talks about learning from Jesus "the science of LOVE." (Note: Again, all italics and capitalizations are Thérèse's.) Thérèse describes to her sister the primacy of love and how it relates to her Little Way:
The science of Love, ah, yes, this word resounds sweetly in the ear of my soul, and I desire only this science...I understand so well that it is only love that makes us acceptable to God, that this love is the only good I ambition...

Jesus does not demand great actions from us but simply surrender and gratitude.
After the introductory remarks to her sister Thérèse turns to address Jesus for the rest of the manuscript.

She begins by recounting a vision of Anne, the deceased Founder of the Carmelites in France. In the vision Thérèse asks Anne if God is pleased with her. Does God approve of her Little Way?
Mother, tell me further if God is not asking something more of me than my poor little actions and desires. Is He content with me? ...

She said to me: "God asks no other thing from you. He is content, very content!"
However, this assurance for the Little Way was not enough. Thérèse still struggled with the seeming insignificance of both herself and her spiritual efforts. She wanted her vocation in the church to be heroic:
I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You.
She wants, "in spite of my littleness," to "enlighten souls as did the Prophets and the Doctors." To, like the apostles, "travel the whole earth to preach Your name," to "preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the remote isles." She says, "I will be a missionary, not for a few years only, but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages." She wants to be a martyr, to give everything to Jesus: "I would shed my blood for You even to the very last drop." She dreams of being like her fellow countrywoman Joan of Arc.

And yet, there she was, a twenty-three year-old cloistered nun, and by her own account someone of limited talents and abilities. And though that might have been and likely was excessive humility, I think many of us can resonate with Thérèse's struggle. How many of us have wanted to head off to the dangerous mission field? To sell it all and walk off like St. Francis of Assisi? To speak to huge crowds like Billy Graham? To do something radical?

We have heroic dreams for our spiritual lives.

And yet, most of us live quiet lives among friends, family and co-workers. And the smallness of our spiritual lives can make us wonder, like Thérèse wondered, is "God not asking something more of me than my poor little action and desires. Is He content with me?"

Here we find the great appeal of Thérèse's Little Way. It is a heroic path toward sainthood--the "democratization of holiness" as Thomas Merton called it--that everyone can travel. No matter how humble your talents or situation. There is a radicalness that can infuse the workaday.

So Thérèse struggled with her vocation. She wanted to be Joan of Arc, but it wasn't happening. So she began to despair again:
O my Jesus! what is your answer to all my follies? Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine?
Her answer came in a mystical breakthrough while reading 1 Corinthians 12-13:
I read there, in the first of these chapters, that all cannot be apostles, prophets, doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot be the hand at one and the same time. The answer was clear, but it did not fulfill my desires and gave me no peace.
Why? Because she still didn't know what her vocation was. Was she an eye, a hand, an ear, a foot? What part of the body was she?

She read on into Chapter 13...
Without becoming discouraged, I continued my reading, and this sentence consoled me: "Yet strive after THE BETTER GIFTS, and I point out to you a yet more excellent way." And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.
At last, she had found her vocation. The key to the Little Way. What part of the body would she be?

She would be the heart.
I finally had rest...Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart is BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood that it was Love alone that made the Church's members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES....IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!

Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love...my vocation, at last I have found it....MY VOCATION IS LOVE!

Yes, I found my place in the Church...I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything...
This is the mystical core of the Little Way. To follow the Little Way is to commit to being the heart of the church. The Little Way is to become love incarnate in your day to day existence with others. No grand overseas adventures. No speaking to massive crowds. No riding off like Joan of Arc. Simply becoming love. Right here. Right now.

Thérèse is called "The Little Flower." One reason for this is a metaphor she goes on to use to describe what being love--the heart of the church--is like. She compares the Little Way to strewing flowers around the throne of God. Each small act of love we do is a flower strew in the Courts of Heaven.
But how will she [Thérèse is speaking in the third person] prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents...

I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love..
Strewing flowers might seem a bit girlish and feminine. I doubt someone, say, like Mark Driscoll sees himself strewing flowers around the throne of God (though I've spent a good minute here smiling as I imagined that). But sentimentality aside, there is steel here. Requiring a hard, Navy SEAL-like discipline. The discipline of the Little Way is to make every act of sacrifice during the day, every look, and every word flow from love. Yes, these are little things, each act a small "flower," but I bet you are beginning to appreciate the heroic audacity of the spirituality of the Little Way. The Little Way isn't, when put into practice, very little at all. It's pretty damn hard to do and you'd be heroic for even trying it. That's why Thérèse is a saint without the riding off to grand adventures like Joan of Arc. Some adventures are standing right in front of you.

Yes, each little flower--each loving word, act, or look you give today--is a little thing. But cumulatively? It's the love of God incarnate. In you. For the world.

Our vocation is love.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Adam's First Wife

Let's start with a crazy question: What do Adam's first wife and nocturnal emissions have in common?

A few days ago I couldn't have answered that question. But some of my research drew me into an interesting bit of scholarship regarding gender relations, sexuality, textual criticism, Jewish lore, and demonology.

First, let's start with the obvious: Adam's first wife?

To understand the Jewish legend that Eve was Adam's second wife we need to explore the texts of Genesis 1-2 and the contrasts between the two creation stories found therein.

As biblical scholars are well aware, the first chapters of Genesis appear to be written by two different authors. The two authors are called the Elohist and the Yahwist. The Elohist is called this because he (we assume it was he) uses the word Elohim to refer to God. Elohim is typically translated "God" in English bibles. So when we read "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" the Elohist is writing.

The Yahwist, by contrast, uses the name YHWH to refer to the Deity. In many English translations YHWH is translated LORD, all caps. The Elohist story of creation ends in Genesis 2.2. The Yahwist story of creation starts at Genesis 2.3. You can see both the beginning and the ending of the two accounts as well as the switch from "God" to "LORD" in referring to the Creator:
Genesis 2.1-4
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
--End of Elohist Creation Story--

--Start of Yahwist Creation Story--
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens...
It is believed that the two stories were edited together by a third author (a "redactor") working with both manuscripts.

In some ways the two stories complement and supplement each other. But there are differences that have preoccupied scholars. One location of contrast is in the creation of Adam and Eve:
Elohist Version of Adam & Eve (Genesis 1.26-27):
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Yahwist Version of Adam & Eve (Genesis 2.7-8, 15-23):
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed...

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
Most readers of the bible read the first account from the Elohist--"in the image of God he created them / male and female he created them"--as an abbreviated summary of the longer, and admittedly much weirder, account of the Yahwist, where God parades all the animals before Adam suggesting he pick a mate from them ("You know God, I'm kind of fond of that zebra over there. Those stripes are sexy..."). But really, these are two different stories.

Incidentally, egalitarians like the Elohist version best where man and woman are created at the same time as equals. By contrast, hierarchical complementarians like the Yahwist version better with the ordered creation of man before woman and woman made from man's rib.

But for this post we are interested in a Jewish legend regarding the differences between the Elohist and Yahwist versions of Adam and Eve. While many Christians read these texts as being the same story (one compressed the other more detailed) there is a Jewish tradition where these are read as two stories about two different events--the story of Adam's first wife and the story of Adam's second wife.

The two stories run like this. The first, Elohist account is the story of the creation of Adam and his first wife. For some reason (which we will get to), this wife goes missing and Adam finds himself alone. Finding this unacceptable, God makes a second wife for Adam. This is the Yahwist story, the story of making Eve from Adam's rib so she will stick with Adam (unlike the first wife).

So who was Adam's first wife? And where did she go?

This brings us to the story of Lilith.

According to Jewish legend, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. Her name comes from one of the Akkadian words (which is uncertain) lilatu ("night") or lilu ("demon" or "phantom"). As the story goes, Lilith felt herself to be Adam's equal (as the Elohist seems to suggest). Eventually, however, Lilith refused to submit to Adam, wanting to be the dominant one. Adam, with the help of God, resists this usurpation. In response Lilith either leaves or is cast out of Eden leaving Adam alone and in need of a second, more submissive wife. Enter Eve.

Is Lilith in the bible? Curiously, she is, if only obliquely. In the middle of a discussion about the destruction of Edom we read in Isaiah 34.14:
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
and find a place to rest.

Wild cats will meet hyenas there,
satyr will call to satyr,
there Lilith too will lurk
and find somewhere to rest.

The desert creatures will meet with the wolves,
The hairy goat also will cry to its kind;
Yes, the night monster [Lilith in footnote] will settle there
And will find herself a resting place.

The Message
Wildcats and hyenas will hunt together,
demons and devils dance through the night.
The night-demon Lilith, evil and rapacious,
will establish permanent quarters.

And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas,
the satyr shall cry to his fellow;
yea, there shall the night hag alight,
and find for herself a resting place.

And the wild beasts of the desert shall meet with the wolves,
and the wild goat shall cry to his fellow;
yea, the night-monster shall settle there,
and shall find her a place of rest.

Desert creatures will meet with hyenas,
and wild goats will bleat to each other;
there the night creatures will also lie down
and find for themselves places of rest.
Here in Isaiah 34 we find a list of night creatures that will haunt the ruins of Edom. Some of these animals can be found at the zoo: wildcats, hyenas, wild goats. But there are some spooky creatures here as well: devils, demons, satyrs, night hags, monsters. And Lilith in particular.

As the legend continues, after leaving Eden Lilith becomes the first succubus, which fits the etymology of her name, a creature who haunts the night killing human infants and seducing men, particularly in their dreams.

Thus the nocturnal emissions.
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