“There is no such thing as singleness in the Church”

Aelred of Rievaulx

I forgot where I heard that quote, but when I did hear it I knew it was right. Single here does not mean “not in a romantic, intimate, sexual, relationship” (if we assume that from reading it then perhaps that’s an indicator we have turned romantic love into an idol). Rather, “single” in this quote means isolated, alone. Of course, more and more we think that those two go together: no romantic relationship=isolated and cut off from others and lacking meaning/fulfillment. And by we I mean both Christians and non-Christians. It’s interesting how in that respect Christians mirror the non-Christian culture they supposedly oppose and decry. Funny how that happens.

I’ve been thinking about singleness lately, particularly because our church is going through a sermon serious on sexuality and the Christian life, what the Gospel means for our bodies, Christian marriage, etc. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how much we Christians have totally given in to thinking about love, sex, marriage, and singleness the same way the surrounding culture does. And it’s destroying people who are married and people who are not married in the church. To skip all the arguments why this is the case and put it plainly: marriage is not about love (though we learn to love each other within it in new and surprising ways, and the love that is cultivated over years and years is a gift from God). It is a form of discipleship, a living parable that says something about Jesus and the church (which is why man & woman is important because the bodily nature of our existence gives that parable literal flesh and says something different than a man&man or woman&woman or man&woman&man…). Marriage should be for the upbuilding of the church, our brothers and sisters in Jesus. But of course it most often is a privatized affair that leads to isolation from brothers and sisters in the church. “Sorry guys, gotta go be married in my little box (house) and live my life now!” We assume, like the culture around us, that once marriage begins life begins (because a life without sex is unfulfilled apparently). Guess Jesus never had a life.

Of course, what does all this do to our brothers and sisters who God calls to celibacy (no romantic/sexual relationships) or people who find themselves in involuntary celibacy (I’m still learning about this)? What does it do to brothers and sisters who find themselves with same-sex attractions and seek to live according to the vision of human flourishing in the Kingdom of God, the traditional Christian sexual ethic? What does this do to brothers and sisters who struggle with gender dysphoria and seek to follow Jesus? What does this do to guys who want to be close friends and worry they’ll be perceived as gay, or feel uncomfortable because the only thing they associate the word “intimate” with is “sex”? What does this do to women who desperately desire children but, for one reason or another, cannot have them? What does this do to married people who have “arrived” and yet still feel a longing or sense of being unfulfilled?

Marriage to Christians in America (probably elsewhere, too) has become an idol. Specifically, the nuclear family has become an idol because we think that’s how we’ll win the culture war and make America great. But marriage is not about political/cultural leverage to gain power and control, nor is it about personal fulfillment, nor can it handle the excruciating weight we place on it to be a god (because let’s be honest, romantic love has become a religion. Watch The Bachelor).

And so all this to say that I have learned more about marriage from celibate and gay Christians like Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, Bridget Eileen, than I have from other so-called “biblical” views of marriage (which just end up being secular views of ‘love’ with a Christian gloss on them). Besides that, I’ve learned how celibacy and a life without sex is necessary for the church, embodying faithfulness in ways married people simply cannot. It is God-honoring and a (dare I say higher) way to live faithfully following Jesus and experience fulfillment in life. I hope my marriage isn’t just mine; it’s a gift to my wife and daughter, yes, but also to my brothers and sisters in the church, married and not married.

Given that the Body of Christ is the primary social and political reality we Christians inhabit, and that we have all been made brothers and sisters through the blood of Jesus on the cross, then no one in the church is “single”; no one is isolated or alone. At least, no one should be. Our lives are intertwined together in Christ. Some people decide that to do this they must modify the typical Western living arrangements we’ve been so accustomed to so as to better disciple and form one another into Christlikeness (I’m thinking of intentional Christian communities, houses that contain more than simply the nuclear family; Wesley Hill lives with a married couple and their lives are interwoven, and various other ways we Christian seek to live a community shaped by the Cross rather than American Individualism). Increasingly, I think Christians in America will have to be more intentional about creating social spaces where we open ourselves to being conformed into Christlikeness, as we cannot assume the culture around us will do this (especially related to marriage). How else will we offer anything life-giving to the world in need of redemption? How else will we become the kind of community and people who show the true Way, the Way that leads to life in God’s Kingdom? What better place to start (re)imagining that than marriage and sex.

 

 

Here are some helpful articles that have pushed me to think differently and more creatively and faithfully about marriage, celibacy, friendship, etc.

 

https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/05/05/marriage-as-a-lifetime-of-suffering/

Souls Knit Together

https://ronbelgau.com/jesus-and-sexual-morality/

A Happy Convergence

https://spiritualfriendship.org/

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/03/against-heterosexuality

https://www.biblicalsingleness.com/

https://www.meditationsofatravelingnun.com/

Celibacy: Tragedy or Deep Comedy?

The Aim of Christian Friendship

 

Stephen Colbert, Suffering and Evil, and Divine Goodness

Hart Door of SeaPB.qxd

I’m sure by now you all have seen or heard about the interview of Stephen Colbert by Anderson Cooper where they talk suffering, grief, and Colbert brings up his Roman Catholic faith. It was wonderful to see two men dealing, intimately and together, with vehement hurt and emotional pain. Enough of the hyper-sexualized crap; men and women need to and should be friends in intimate and non-sexual ways, and the Church should be realizing the rich store of resources available in her past to rediscover the beauty of Christian friendship. But I digress.

Colbert was quoted as saying (apparently from Tolkien, and I’ve never read this from him until now): “What punishments of God are not also gifts?” Specifically, this was said by Colbert in a 2015 interview with GQ about his own reflection on the lamentable and tragic death of his dad and brothers. (here). Cooper, in their interview, reads this back to him and asks, “do you really believe that?” to which he simply responds, “yes.” It’s pretty profound and I hope Cooper is receiving the salve and hope he needs to respond to his own grief (I believe it was his mother that recently died). However, I think there are some tricky theological paths to travel here, paths that if not trod carefully and with reverence can end up giving false hope and a sense of peace where there is no peace. Furthermore, I think there’s an equivocation happening that we must be careful to hash out a little more clearly.

What do Tolkien and Colbert mean?

Philosophers and Theologians have wrestled, like Jacob with God, for centuries trying to attain the blessing of a clear “answer” to the question of suffering, evil, and pain (Genesis 32). Why doesn’t God do something? Couldn’t God have just made it all perfect and avoided all this trash, this hurt we creatures experience on a day-to-day basis (especially those less fortunate)? Maybe evil means there isn’t a God because if there were, there’d be no evil. Responses are plentiful: God wanted to create the best world that was “simple in laws and richest in phenomena” and that required suffering (Leibniz); Evil doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a human construction reflecting a human emotion of “I don’t like that thing”; God doesn’t exist (J.L. Mackie and many others); God gave people (including the creatures of the spiritual realm) free will and we abused that, causing destruction and pain (Augustine, Plantinga). There are plenty more. But there’s one that comes very near to what Colbert/Tolkien could be talking about, one that is very dangerous for our conception of God and His goodness, hope in Jesus, and meaning amidst suffering. But before I lay that out I want to set it next to what I think Colbert or Tolkien could be getting at.

I think Tolkien and Colbert could mean a couple things. First, they could mean that “punishments” are God’s direct judgment on us. You did a bad thing and God is gonna take your mom away as punishment. “Who sinned, this man or his parents that they were taken from him at an early age?” It’s straight retributive action. I do not doubt that God can and does act in the world with such punishment (Acts 5!), but not all suffering people experience is because God is actively punishing them. Which leads me to the second thing that could be meant. “Punishment” could mean something akin to what St. Paul got at when he said “the wages of sin is death” in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 6:23a). In this sense, “punishments” are the consequences of a world that is, in C.S. Lewis’s term, “bent.” Something is wrong with the world. Something primordial and ancient in the deep recesses of the creation of all things has gone awry. This Christians call “The Fall.”

It’s difficult to describe something so intangible, but it’s experienced everyday in the most tangible and visceral ways. We all know this. Given this, God nonetheless has acted to put things right. In choosing a people (ancient Israelites) to whom He promised a Messiah (Jesus), God has made Himself known in the coming of Jesus, God’s own Son, God’s communication to us (why Jesus is called the “Word”). Christians claim His crucifixion saved us. It’s weird, it’s gruesome, and I think it’s beautifully true and mysterious and joyful (see Paul in 1 Cor. 1:18). Out of that grotesque figure on the Cross, God brought life and raised Jesus from the dead. This is public truth grasped by faith, bringing us into the community of God’s people (Israel and the Church) to live out a straightened (not bent) way of life and awaiting the straightening of all things.

Because God brought such life and salvation out of such a horror as the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians can be assured that no brokenness or pain is beyond the Spirit of God to redeem and out of which good can be brought. If this good is a “gift,” and such pain is “punishment,” then I think Colbert and Tolkien are proclaiming a paradoxical and joyous truth: suffering can be borne with gratitude and joy (even though it sucks and you feel horrible. That’s the paradox). In suffering like our Lord, we are made perfect, for His “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Weakness and suffering and pain and joy and hope and peace are part and parcel of the Way of Jesus, because beyond it is Life eternal in the renewed creation.

What could go wrong?

But there is something Tolkien says in his letter from which that quote comes, something that I’ve heard in the way people have been talking about this interview, that is theologically dubious and, though seemingly comforting, a false hope.

Tolkien states that such “punishments” are gifts that “produce a good not otherwise to be attained” (quoted here). That last part is massively problematic. Let me try to lay out why I think this. (Note: this isn’t my own private conclusion, but rather I’ve come to see this as what Christian Theology has taught especially in the early Church Fathers who reflected on questions of suffering, evil, and God’s goodness. Maybe it’s slightly mistaken in some way, but I think the overall picture is sound and fits best within the larger tapestry/narrative of Christian Theology found in Scripture.)

David Bentley Hart lucidly challenges bad theology regarding suffering and evil, and with hopeful abandon lays out a Christian Theological response to evil and suffering in his little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s an amazing book, one that’s brought me to tears multiple times. I cannot recommend it enough, though his writing is a little dense at times. But in such a short book he manages to lay out the beauty, truthfulness, and mystery of the Christian Gospel, the Good News that in Jesus God has come to rescue His creation from decay and death. (though Hart is a Universalist, I don’t think what he says requires one to affirm that position. I’m not a Universalist and I think the theology in his book fits perfectly well with the witness of Scripture)

Having set forth some responses to and positions on the 2004 Tsunami in Asia by various Christians published online, he responds to them: “As incongruent as the various positions were one with another, one common element was impossible to overlook: each man, solicitous as he was of God’s perfect righteousness, clearly seemed to wish to believe that there is a divine plan in all the seeming randomness of nature’s violence that accounts for every instance of suffering, privation, and loss in a sort of total sum. This is an understandable impulse. That there is a transcendent providence that will bring God’s good ends out of the darkness of history – in spite of every evil – no Christian can fail to affirm. But providence (as even Voltaire seems to have understood) is not simply a “total sum” or “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind.” (p. 29).

We often try to fit every single instance of suffering into some scheme of God’s in which it is all justified. If we can just get something good out of the suffering, the pain, the loss, then that experience “makes sense” to us. In other words, the suffering has meaning. In the instance of that statement by Tolkien and the ways I’ve heard this interview discussed, the gut-wrenching experience is rationalized or fit into a scheme that makes the pain necessary to some end. And while anytime something “makes sense” to us (“oh ok I can see how that’d be…”) brings with it a sense of control or stability, Hart wants to show how that is actually dangerous, giving a false picture of God and therefore no comfort at all to those who are actually suffering.

The issue is with the understanding that some goods are brought about in a way that they “otherwise could not have been obtained.” In other words, there is some good (Colbert notes the compassion for other sufferers, the awareness of other’s losses) that you couldn’t get, and that God couldn’t give you, apart from such an excruciating experience. There is a truth here that shouldn’t be missed. The human experience of life requires that we move along paths towards goals, and that travel may be difficult. No traveling, no destination, no goal. Between the bottom and top of a mountain is a lot of danger. Our human experience is suffering, and this certainly allows us to meet others in their suffering. That’s fairly straightforward. But let’s not confuse our human experience (the phenomenon of life as we presently experience it) with the way the world should and will be (the life and hope we have in Jesus as New Creations). Sin has distorted all things; nothing is the way it should be. That’s a basic Christian conviction. Therefore, no human experience can be taken as normative (i.e.: your experience cannot be the sole arbiter of what “good” is and what things should be like. This includes things like sexuality, justice, marriage, etc. The understanding of how things should be must be given to us from outside ourselves.).

Humans experience a fallen world. That’s a Christian given of the way reality is. So when Colbert or Tolkien say that to get some good, some moral character or wisdom, by suffering or pain or “change in design” as Tolkien puts it, this must be seen as true to the extent it does not make such an experience necessary to God’s overall plan of salvation. If we go that route, we are in danger of making sense of suffering but ending up with a horrific God. And this is precisely Hart’s criticism of such responses to evil and suffering. We are immediately in the territory of God’s providence and goodness, how God is overseeing all things and bringing them to His good redemptive end. How, in the midst of things, God is good. We must tread carefully and speak slowly, because we’re nearing the edge of human linguistic capacity to speak of things eternal, things not yet seen.

To put it as clearly as I can: God does not need our suffering and it was not necessary for Him in creating to bring evil as well as good. Good and evil do not come as an inseparable pair, even though that’s what it seems like in human experience. Even though we experience our human experience first, before being brought into Christ, this is not what necessarily should be the case. What if our experience, as real and obvious as it is to us, isn’t to be our main guide? The mistake made in thinking that punishments are gifts in this way is to assume that God intended to create a world in which we had to have both good and evil together; that the only way God could get us to “goods otherwise not obtained” is through suffering. But this is to assume our experience is primary, and to try and rationalize and make sense of our experience given God’s providence in a fallen world (a noble endeavor, but gone about the wrong way).

So what?

You may wonder: so what? Suffering is a given in human life and we all must deal with it. It will often lead us to ultimate questions; questions of God, meaning, purpose, hope, and death. This all may seem like some tricky theological gymnastics with no connection to actual life. But theology disconnected from life is not theology.

Colbert and Cooper were both, in their particular ways, seeking solace and hope amidst suffering and were exploring this theologically. To think, however, that their wisdom and human understanding could only have been brought about by such suffering (i.e., God had to do it; there was no other way) is to make that suffering intelligible by putting it into an explanatory framework with which we humans can deal. Why am I experiencing suffering? Oh, I get it now: so that God can bring about goods that “otherwise could not have been obtained.” I had to experience this so that I could know…x. This is an explanation with which we finite humans can somehow get a grasp on the processes of an infinite Creator, thereby making sense of our suffering. Or so we think.

To accept such a rationalization is to affirm that God could not have done otherwise when He created. His hands were tied; He had to create a world in which both evil and good exist side by side. And therefore we must experience both, with good coming from evil and “punishments” bringing some goods, like solidarity with others who suffer. But what kind of God is that? Is this the God we Christians worship in Jesus? The God who is beyond time and space, who is not just another “thing” in the universe, but rather Goodness itself? No. God does not need suffering, or death, or decay to accomplish His purposes; such a God would be horrific. Yet we experience them. So what do we do?

Rather than rationalize our suffering into some framework that makes it all “make sense,” better to live in the paradox of our experience with God’s power and providence evidenced in the Cross. Hart notes that, when thinking and speaking about pain and suffering, “one must be careful to draw a clear distinction in one’s language between a recognition of our gracious participation in Christ’s unique victory over death and any attempt to conscript death into a perfect alliance with God’s saving action in history” (p. 80). God’s plan, His will, does not need death and evil; yet he allows it. Why? This is where we must, though the temptation is strong, resist explaining our suffering (in the sense we usually try to, that makes sense to us), and look to the Cross instead.

“Evil can have no proper role to play in God’s determination of himself or purpose for his creatures, even if by economy God can bring good from evil” (p. 74, emphasis added). God can and does bring good from evil. Included in this is our ability to commiserate, to empathize, to be with others in suffering having learned from our experience of similar suffering. Such things are profound comforts. But to think that this is the only way God could bring that comfort about is to trade in false though seemingly rational theologies.

Rather, your and my suffering is literally meaningless. Your and my suffering has no ultimate purpose in God’s plan of redemption, no ultimate control on your life, no ultimate meaning in all things. Because we live in the midst of two “orders,” two “eons”: that of death and decay and old things, and that of life and the New, the Kingdom of God in Christ. To live in-between these worlds is agony, or simply, current human experience. Trying to rationalize the agony away does an injustice to the truth of all things: that God will and has triumphed in the Cross. To see this is not easy; it requires labor. And to stop at “God is bringing about a good that you wouldn’t otherwise get” is to stop our imaginations short of the true and rich scriptural picture of God’s good purposes for His broken creation. Hart puts it this way:

“The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn all at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.” (p. 61, emphasis added).

We all know the world as suffering. We all know good things have come out of such suffering. But don’t mistake this with the way things should be. Look, instead, through the veil of death, through suffering, to the Cross, where such suffering and death have been defeated. By doing so, our suffering can be brought into Christ’s suffering, and therefore glorified (not rationalized). We can look upon evil as having no ultimate ability to determine God’s plan of salvation in all things and our individual lives. Therefore, as Hart puts it, we can “hate these things with a perfect hatred” (p. 101).

The final paragraph of the book brings my heart to a singing crescendo that desires to see Jesus, to see all things, including my own suffering and anguish, made new. I’ll end with it.

“Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days. As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy. Such faith might never seem credible to [a skeptic], or still the disquiet of [their] conscience, or give [them] peace in place of rebellion, but neither is it a faith that [their] arguments can defeat: for it is a faith that sets us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead. Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor anymore pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.” (p. 104, emphasis added)

 

Reflections on finitude, powerlessness, and becoming a father.

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App called WeCroak that reminds you you’re going to die. Dust we are indeed.

My daughter was born May 10th, 2019. She was premature at 4 lb 4 oz and 16.5″ long. My wife and I never anticipated being preemie parents, and we didn’t anticipate her coming this early since she was due in June. The reason she came early is that on my wife’s routine pregnancy visit the doctor found that she was preeclamptic (had high blood pressure which is dangerous for baby). So the doctor admitted her, I rushed home after class to pack our unpacked hospital bag, and induction began the night before she was born. I still had final exams to do, my wife still had one day of work left before her maternity leave started, and we both did not expect my wife’s blood pressure to stay high after birth causing her to need magnesium treatment and multiple ER visits. Though mom and baby are doing fine now, I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way by certain truths that modern life encourages us to forget.

When I held my daughter for the first time, I could feel her wriggly boney body through her soft skin. Her ribs were visible and her leg bones were thinner than my thumb (I’m not a big guy, either). I was careful putting pressure on her because all I could think was how she felt as light and brittle as styrofoam. The next thing that happened was one of the most paradoxical and seemingly contradictory things I’ve experienced (next to feeling the absurdity of life and the call of Jesus to follow Him and rest) in my life thus far: great joy and awe at the beauty of God’s creation, and great dread and fear at the frailty of it all, including myself. It reminded me of a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when the father is reflecting on the decrepit and dissolving post-apocalyptic world: “The frailty of everything revealed at last.”

Staring at my daughter while she slept in the hospital made me see that life is incredibly fragile and finite; I am incredibly fragile. Modern America encourages us to live as though we’ll never die, to self-create and thereby transcend our finitude, to believe we are our own. I am guilty of this. I spend my time thinking I can do everything, fix everything, accomplish everything, that I am in control. My daughter’s tiny body reminded me that every breath I take, every breath she takes, every bird that lands and eats, every minute instance of existence itself is totally and completely dependent upon God’s grace. To be really philosophical about it, God ontologically sustains all that is, gives it being and beauty and dignity, and has the power and the prerogative to take it away. That, combined with the theological truth that God so loved His creation that He sent His Son, that He promises to restore all things and invites us to become a part of His people (Church) through whom He primarily is revealing that restoration and reconciliation, has shown me more of what it really means to fear the Lord. In fear and anxiety and awe and joy and overflowing peace, I thank God for my daughter, and the grace of being at all. My daughter is an embodied and tangible reminder that, as David Bentley Hart says, “we exist only because there is One who has called us from nothingness.”

Another thing I realized, related to the previous point, is how powerless my daughter is. She cannot do anything for herself except poop. She is totally and utterly dependent upon my wife and me. Power is something everyone is striving for. Empowerment, giving power to the powerless, power to self-create or make up one’s own mind, power to live your best life, etc. These are the things we as Americans spend our time playing political triage with: who has power? who needs power? is it wrong for these people to have this much power? what is power? Staring at my daughter’s tiny dependent being made me uncomfortable in one sense because it reminded me of how, ultimately, I am powerless and dependent. Modern American life wants us all to believe that we are independent and autonomous and self-creating. Theologically, this is a mistake. Our beings and breath and everything are dependent upon God’s grace, His gift. We are not self-sufficient.

My daughter reminded me of the truth of the gospel that Jesus told His disciples. When asked if they could sit at Jesus’ left and right in His glory (i.e.: they wanted places of power and prestige when the Kingdom came) Jesus responded by inverting the world’s notion of power, thereby revealing the sharp distinction between the World and the Kingdom:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be the first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:42b-44)

Power, for Christians and the life of the Church, is self-giving service and weakness. It is sacrifice, just as our Lord sacrificed, even to the point of death if need be. Life is not about asserting your power to do what you will, but to give that up to Jesus and take up a life of servitude as a slave to Him. Of course, this is the most counter-intuitive thing imaginable: I want to exercise my power and do what I will! Nobody is gonna stop me, not even God! I do this; it’s sin in me (Rom. 7). We followers of Jesus will never be rid of our old selves until He returns, but in the Church now, the time between times, we have the Spirit to give us that power. May we be reminded by the powerless, the children and elderly and cognitively impaired, that Jesus alone is truly powerful because He became weak. I thank God for my daughter and what He is already teaching me through her. I hope the Church (esp. in America) can learn to follow the Crucified and Risen One, the powerless One, the Almighty Lord, in faithfulness and steadfastness.

Fruits are not outcomes

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Classic trolley problem: the greater good seems to be killing less people and saving many, so you should kill the one.

We’re all utilitarians; every last one of us. Whether it’s in individual decisions/actions (Jeremy Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism, individual acts that bring pleasure or limit pain for the individual) or rules that govern a mass of people (John Stuart Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number), we default to this everyday in various decisions. We also run a country with utilitarian principles. And that may be simply because it’s pragmatic to do so; it gets stuff done. Example: What should America do about healthcare? Poor people are a huge number that are in need of good healthcare. Giving that large mass of people free healthcare would be a great good, though it would be at the expense of the others, but the good for the many outweighs the downside for the smaller group. Therefore, the greatest good (healthcare) for the greatest number (poor/not-rich) is universal healthcare. Simple calculus. Weigh the consequence and its impact on the greatest number, do the action. And this is not bad per se; it’s helpful and is a tool for navigating life. I use consequentialist/utilitarian calculus when I go to Panera (the best action is the one that makes me feel good, so I order the Napa Valley chicken salad sandwich).

However, for Christians, Scripture speaks of fruit, not outcome/consequences (I struggled to make this distinction until I read this and it clicked). It seems that for Christians in America, the greatest good for the greatest number obviously is played out in American political life. The point of ethical living is good outcomes for the greatest number; therefore vote for these things that are in-line with “Christian principles” (what are those? I didn’t know Jesus came to give us principles) because those principles bring good outcomes. This may be true to some extent (how to define a good outcome, though. If by living peacefully/nonviolently someone else dies, it that a good outcome?).

Jesus specifically tells His disciples to look for the fruit that is produced to know what kind of tree we’re looking at. In the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew (Matt. 7:15-20), Jesus tells us how to spot false prophets: “thus you will know them by their fruits” (NRSV). Given Christian thinking in America, we connect that with utilitarianism and think, “Aha! Jesus means people who make good outcomes are good trees, and people who make bad outcomes are bad trees.” But is that what He’s saying? I think it’s even more straightforward than our utilitarian calculus of greatest good for the greatest number. The Christian life is not primarily about making good effects, producing good outcomes or consequences (though much of the Church’s life will do that). Rather, in the Christian life we seek fruit: simply following Jesus and allowing your life to be conformed to His. Fruit, remember, is dependent upon the vine or source. Jesus tells us that He is the vine and we (His disciples) are the branches taking sustenance from the vine and producing the proper kind of fruit (John 15). If fruit is born by abiding in the vine that gives it sustenance, then what kind of fruit is it? Well, what kind of plant are we talking? Answer: Jesus; His life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus shows us what fruit is by being fruit. Not only that, He is the vine that sustains and directs the development of that fruit. The fruit knows what kind of fruit to be by knowing the kind of plant it is a part of. So the question for Christians in America should not be: which action produces the greatest good for the greatest number on a federal or state level? Rather, the question we Christians should reflect on is: do I know what fruit is? I would argue a fruit that is born in the Christian life is a life of peace or non-violence. This is fruit, specifically, good fruit because it comes from Jesus’ life; it is imitating Him and, through prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to make us like Him. Paul even notes that the Corinthians should “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), and the author of Hebrews speaks of the Christian life as one of remembering “your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). That outcome of their life is being like Jesus; living in obedience to Him.

This is radically different than a simple calculus that looks for what we think the greatest good is (we’re usually bad at predicting what we think will bring us pleasure or happiness or the like). In utilitarianism, fallen humans are set up as judges of what is a good outcome and a bad outcome. But Christians don’t look to themselves for that, but rather the vision of fruit that comes to us from outside ourselves: the revelation of God in Christ. Therefore, fruit in the Christian life is obeying Jesus, maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures, ordering our lives after the pattern of Jesus’ life and within the Story God is telling in Scripture. To bear fruit is to live faithfully to the pattern or story given to us rather than the one determined by us. Of course, this will severely challenge our current ways of thinking. For example, is supporting pro-choice/pro-life the end goal? Each claim to bring the greatest good for the greatest number, each focus on making America function a certain way, both completely miss the fruit that the Body of Christ is to produce: fidelity to Jesus within that community first that then goes out.

Utilitarianism is alluring because it “works.” Utilitarianism gets stuff done. But the Church is not called solely to be a sociological group that produces good effects. The Church is called to faithfulness, to bearing good fruit by God’s grace. And that good fruit is imitating Jesus, obeying Scripture, and self-denial, even if that may lead to “bad” outcomes.

The Christ-rule as the way of life for the church

We all know the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you (or some variant of that). Of course the problem with the contemporary use of this rule is that it is separated from the context and narrative in which it makes sense. By so plucking it out of the pages of the Bible, it then becomes raw material to do with it whatever we want. I’ve seen in the philosophical literature many interpretations of the rule, all revealing how the rule is used to serve whatever human purposes/interests are at play. The use of this rule apart from the Story of our Lord is, in my mind, illegitimate and cannot be endorsed apart from life lived in the church following the crucified Jesus.

Rather than argue about the use of this rule in modern American politics and how “universal” the rule is, I think another passage of Scripture helps us see what Jesus means in how we (the church, His followers) are to be/act. This morning I was reading one of the lectionary readings for Maundy Thursday, John 13. This is the famous feet-washing episode during the Passover meal with His disciples. After washing their feet, Jesus states this is the example they are to follow: self-sacrifice and service to each other in church, as well as others (though the text focuses primarily on inter-disciple love). I love the detail John notes (v. 3-5 NIV):

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

Jesus knows Who He is, the power given to Him, the glory of having come from the Father and being Lord over all creation. And yet this isn’t an exploitative or coercive power: it is power redefined as weakness, service, and sacrifice. It is true power, because this is what power looks like in the Kingdom, the Rule of God, and our King is showing us this.

But even more than this, Jesus states that He has set the disciples an example. Verse 15 really stuck out to me as what I will call the Christ-Rule:

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Rather than think what I, the individual self, would want others to do to me (this is a misunderstanding of the Golden Rule) Jesus calls His disciples to act as He has acted, to do as He has done. That is the rule Christians are to follow: the self has been transformed, died and raised with Jesus, and this self is ordered toward doing what Jesus did and wanting what Jesus wants. This is the Rule Christians ought to focus on, rather than the myriad of isolated interpretations of secular accounts/bad accounts of the Golden Rule (obviously we should renew our understanding of this as well).

Jesus is our example, or King to whom we, the church, pledge our allegiance and whose life we follow. Because we proclaim in faith that the new creation has come in the One who washes grimy Middle-Eastern feet before dying in humiliation, showing Himself to be the Way into God’s Kingdom. Lord give us grace through the Holy Spirit to have the power to be weak and Christ-like.

Deconstructing harmful things

I didn’t grow up in a denomination that hurt me. I didn’t know people in church who manipulated me or hurt those close to me. I have only thought some pastors said dumb things that, while doctrinally or theologically problematic, were albeit harmless to my emotional or psychological state. I have hardly ever found myself incredibly angry or resentful towards a certain group of Christians (Southern, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, etc.) except when I read about them doing things contrary to the way of life the worldwide church is called to in following our Lord. I don’t understand what those experiences are like: possessing a deep distrust and harboring still-raw wounds from church leaders or Christian groups. I don’t really get socially uncomfortable being associated with “those Christians” if it means I am being faithful to what Jesus teaches, or Scripture teaches (I’m thinking of sexual ethics or care for poor people/immigrants, things like that). Maybe I get uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s usually because I want to know that the person I’m talking with is really engaging with the message and not just putting me in a camp and thereby allowing themselves to sidestep having to face something challenging (i.e. who Jesus is and what He wants from us).

However, I have met people that have been hurt; that still are hurt. I have met people that live their lives (I think outsiders may see it clearer than they themselves) in complete opposition to “those Christians” they grew up with, defining themselves in opposition to that denomination. “Oh that Christian conviction makes me like those Christians I grew up with? I’ll do the opposite.” Obviously it’s more complicated than that, as they think certain convictions are better than others (e.g. personal autonomy is waaaaaaaaaay better than institutional authority or any kind of authority external to the individual). I’ve met brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with that past, as well as struggle with how to go on and live now. It seems especially excruciating when they sense they can’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” on certain Christian convictions, all the while wrestling to disentangle those convictions from the horrible people who held them in their past.

I struggle to engage with people like this. First, because I simply don’t know what it’s like. My initial (bad) reaction is to say: “move on, get over it, go to counseling (which they should!) why are you so hung up on that?” I’ve been learning to listen a lot to these brothers and sisters the past few years, and it’s exposed a second thing in me that I always struggled to articulate, but that I recently learned to do with my counselor: I desire to dominate the other. I want to force people into what I think is right, rather than present in word and deed, in love and truth, and allow them to respond. Maybe that’s some sort of conservative genetic thing, or a personality type, or a crazy complex combination of things, but I realized that’s what I do. And I realized I do it because I’m insecure. I don’t want to be out of control. But as Stanley Hauerwas says, Christians (especially in America) are a people who must learn to live “out of control.”

So I guess I’m becoming more sympathetic with those who want to “deconstruct” their previous Christian experiences (yes this is not the technical meaning of the term, but it’s how it’s deployed in common usage). The problem is that I don’t want those brothers and sisters to deconstruct themselves to spiritual death: you can’t lose what is life giving, what is true, even if that takes years and therapy and disabusing yourself of the association of that conviction with horrible Christians. I don’t know how that exactly works; certainly the Spirit changes us all in our common life together and through the Scriptures. But I’ve been learning to listen to those who have had a very different Christian experience from myself, as well as to better speak truth and love to them. Which means embodying a life like Jesus’ and always being a part of that tattered community called Church, the Body of our Lord. That may result in hard conversations and conflict. But I suppose conflict out of love and truth, oriented towards redemption and healing, is better than no conflict and a continuing of spiritual ruin or malformation. I’m still learning how to best go about this, but I know I need my brothers and sisters to help me, and especially the Scriptures, because that’s the only vision that is true and I need someone other than myself to help me aim at the truth. We all do.

(This article and podcast inspired this post: https://www.mbird.com/2018/03/closer-than-you-think-the-trouble-with-deconstruction/

Mockingcast episode 125: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-125-wont-you-be-my-neighbor/id1224964658?i=1000407367754)

Not admirers, but cruciform people.

The Roman Catholic Church across from our apartment faces the sunset, so the cross is illuminated on clear evenings.

I take it as a given that all my own understandings, my assumptions, my thoughts of right and wrong, just and unjust, everything, are all necessarily dependent upon God’s grace. That would mean, then, that being made more like Christ means becoming less “me,” and that’s a good thing. It’s good because that “me” is caught up in sin, death, self-deception, pride, arrogance, and in need of new creation, new life, a new self. Therefore, my starting assumptions and my understanding of the world and myself must never be universalized and taken for granted, but open to being destroyed; and God’s grace, His Word through His Holy Spirit, creates something new, something true. I’d take God’s constructs (by faith, of course) over my own or someone else’s any day.

This is scary because it’s a death; but it’s good because that new creation, being truly human in Christlikeness, is what we are made for. That’s what Lent orients us toward: dying to self, picking up the cross, following Jesus. As Len nears, I’m reflecting on how I’m in continual need of illumination by the Spirit, that my intuitions and thoughts may not always be the best things to lean on (I have OCD, so when people tell me to “follow my heart” or just to “trust your gut” I think, “you don’t know how f*cked up it is. I can’t trust it”). The death that we follow Jesus to, then, is a gift. It is a call to die and to be made new by God’s action. The Scriptures attest to this newness of life, this new creation brought about by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise to come again.

I was reading a Stanley Hauerwas essay over this past weekend. He was arguing that Scripture is difficult for us to recognize and see without trained eyes, because seeing the resurrected Jesus is not easy either: both require God’s help, and both are more radical than we think because both call us to die to ourselves and be reshaped (I think this is why a lot of disagreements happen in the church: we simply don’t want to accept the new creation, the God-given vision of various things like care for poor people, immigrants, human sexuality, etc.).

He recalls a story of a man who started one of the earliest integrationist/interracial communities in Georgia, called the Koinonia Farm. Clarence Jordan, the founder of the community, ran into an issue getting liquid propane delivered to the farm in winter (against the law not to deliver it). He called his brother, Robert, a lawyer and later senator and justice in Georgia’s Supreme Court, for help. The exchange is revealing and, I found, convicting:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything too, Bob.”

“It’s different for you.”

“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church on the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be–the cross?”

“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.”

“Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?'”

The Hauerwas Reader p. 258, quoted from James McClendon Jr. Biography as Theology p. 127-28

It’s easy to think we’d be the people who resisted the temptation to simply be an admirer of Jesus. But we’re not. I’m not. We always have to ask Christ to fashion us into his people, his church, his disciples. Even if that looks irresponsible in some ways, such as risking there even being a church at all. I pray this Lent that we remember, on our own strength, we are nothing but admirers. But, with God’s help, we become new; we partake in Jesus’ resurrection life. But that begins with the uncomfortable, inconvenient, offensive cross.