Sunday, May 21, 2017

The "Confession" of Philippians 2: Salvation or "Forced Submission"?


"Every knee should bend.  In heaven and on earth and under the earth."
"Every tongue should confess."

What does this mean?

     Philippians 2:5-12 (NRSV)
5   Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6   who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
7   but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
     And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.
9   Therefore God also highly exalted him
     and gave him the name
     that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
     every knee should bend,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
     that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

"Every knee should bend.  In heaven and on earth and under the earth."
"Every tongue should confess."

Every.

Now nearly everyone recognizes that this has universalist implications.  But for whatever reason, (usually because of a priori commitments to anything other than universal salvation) it is assumed that the surface meaning simply cannot be the real meaning.  There must be another way to read it....

It is perfectly fair to assert that the "plain meaning" is not necessarily the right one.  I fully agree.  In and of itself, that assertion is mostly uncontroversial.  But neither does the mere assertion prove that the implications of any particular "plain reading" are false.  The specifics cannot be dismissed by an appeal to generalities.  

So let us look at some of these "deeper meanings" so that they can be accepted or rejected on the basis of their own merits apart from a priori commitments.  What are some of the ways that these "deeper meanings" that allow for the universalist implications to be avoided?

A few possibilities:
  1. This is hyperbolic rhetoric.  It isn't intended to factually relay a literal-future-event in newspaper-like objective detail.  Rather, it's royal language meant to communicate the authority and power of Jesus.  To him and him alone does the knee bow.  Christ is the focus here, not the literal quantity of knees that bow or the spiritual states of those doing the confessing.  It is going to far to assert otherwise.  Call this the hyperbolic explanation.
  2. It's theologically connecting the worship of Jesus with the worship of the God of Israel.  Similar to #1, the imagery of knees bowing and tongues confessing is intended to shine the spotlight on the person of Christ in ways that are usually reserved for God alone.  Again, it's not a numeric count of the worshipers.  Call this the trinitarian explanation.
  3. "Every" really means "every kind".  No different than the "all" really means "all kinds" argument.  Each and every individual is not the focus.  Call this the non-individualistic explanation.
  4. The confession and bowing of the knee will include each and every person who ever lived -whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth - but it will not happen voluntarily in genuine love, gratitude, wonder, and worship.  What is called confession will actually be a "forced submission"... a compelled bowing of the knee done in hatred, terror, or both.   It's something similar to an earthly king who defeats his foes, glories in his power and victory & in the humiliation of his enemies, and then lops all of their heads off.  Call this the forced submission explanation.
  5. We don't know what it means exactly, but we have clear evidence elsewhere in the Bible and/or in the hermeneutical history of the church that it simply cannot mean that the confession and knee-bending is tied to salvation.  Therefore, we need not even really address the "plain reading".  Call this the presuppositional agnostic explanation.
Each of these has problems and (generally speaking) are considered viable mostly because of previous theological commitments to anything other than universal salvation.

But from what I've seen, #4 is the most frequently used.

Besides a royal and omnipotent "forced confession" not making much sense to me in the context of the verses prior, there are other reasons to reject this.

Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym of Dr. Robin Parry) addresses this "forced submission" explanation in The Evangelical Universalist (2nd edition):
Second, the terminology Paul uses is suggestive of salvation rather than forced submission.  All creatures confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Elsewhere in Paul's letters when he speaks of confessing Jesus as Lord it is always in a context of salvation.  No one can say that "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).  If someone confesses with their mouth and believes in the heart that Jesus is Lord, then they will be saved (Rom 10:9).  There are no examples in Paul of an involuntary confession of Christ's Lordship. (p 99-100)
Confession is always grounded in a context of salvation, not punishment or damnation.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

What is it to "belong" to Christ? (1 Cor 15:22-24)


During the Q&A portion of the 3rd session of the Universal Salvation and Christian Theology class that I'm taking online at The School of Peace Theology (this was several Saturdays ago - 4/21), I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Parry a question about 1 Corinthians 15:23.  I'd like to spend a few minutes tossing around a few ideas that didn't have a chance to fully develop in the immediate context of the Q&A.

Here are the verses:
For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him.  Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.  (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET)
That whole “then when Christ comes, those who belong to him” part.  That's the part that I was curious about.

Specifically, what is "belonging"?  What does it mean to "belong" to Christ?

Dr. Parry's starting point (though not his settled ending point) was that those who “belong” to Christ are the church - those who have “accepted Jesus in faith”.  Belonging as such is an act of volition, a conscious choice that an individual makes herself.  She knows that she's making it, and if she doesn't know that she has made it then she hasn't made it.  Nobody can make this decision for her, and she cannot ultimately make it for anyone else.  There can be no exceptions with a strict exclusivism, not for children who perish too young to “accept Jesus”, the mentally disabled, or those who "never heard".  The inherent nature of "belonging" forbids it.  And that brings to attention the general idea that this exclusivist criteria must be met before the moment of physical death.  Within the context of universal salvation however (the topic of the class), the implication is that there are subsequent opportunities to "accept Jesus" after that moment in time "when Christ comes" - those who don't "belong" at this point may still yet "belong".  After all, a major theme of 1 Cor 15 is that Jesus has defeated death, so a soul's disposition towards God at an arbitrary moment in time is not given the final word over human history.  Nevertheless, belonging in the relevant sense is limited to those who have "accepted Jesus".  I'll call this the "exclusivist" definition of "belonging".

But what about those who, due to the time and place that they lived and died, never even heard of Jesus?  Those faithful Jews who, though "faithful", didn't "believe in Jesus"?  What of those whose hearts are inclined towards God and who love others yet don't possess the "proper vocabulary" or whose circumstances didn't permit a "proper" Christian faith (the majority of the human race)?  C.S. Lewis elucidates this well in Chapter 15 of The Last Battle in the character of Emeth:

But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.
By this criteria, we would say that Emeth belonged to Aslan prior to his awareness.  I'll call this the "inclusivist" definition of "belonging".

Or does belonging transcend any sort of moral assent or our “acceptance” of it all together?  Might we belong to Christ regardless of our awareness or even the "good intentions" of Emeth?   It isn't so much about whether a conscious faith in Jesus is “necessary” or not - "necessity" being characterized by the idea that God is looking for a minimum level of “faith” in order to grant "belonging".  It's that our belonging might entirely transcend any conscious awareness of it as such.  That we might all find ourselves caught up in "belonging to Christ" when that day comes, finding ourselves home in such a way that some of us might have known and anticipated while others of us might not.  Either way human knowledge and consent is simply not the point (though it's not to say that a belonging can be forever separated from the experience of it as such).  This idea of belonging ultimately rests on the premise that the original goodness of God, the goodness from which all things have come and to which all things are called, is irrevocable and fundamentally true regardless of our "acceptance" of it.  This is not to say that a "conscious faith", the type envisioned in the "exclusivist" category above, is excluded or minimized or is anything other than our telos.  It's just to say that while "faith" might be the means by which we perceive and participate in our belonging, "faith" is not what first originates that belonging.  It gets tricky I guess, but the idea is that belonging in the sense here is prior to "faith" - that belonging actually creates and sustains faith.  It recognizes that God works deep and mysteriously within the human person, well below the surface of awareness, conscious choice, and the time/place in which we were born.  In other words, we do and will "belong" and ultimately our experience will catch up to this fundamental fact.  Call this the "absolute" definition of "belonging".

Or we might look at it as Henri Nouwen does in The Return Of The Prodigal Son:
At issue here is the question: "To whom do I belong?  To God or to the world?"  Many of the daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God.  A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed.  A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me.  It takes me very little to raise me up or thrust me down.  Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.  All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me. (p 42)
So in this case, my “belonging” is understood in terms of that which existentially defines me.  What religion a person belongs to, what she professes to believe, what sacraments one has partaken of, or what "sinner's prayers" one has prayed are largely irrelevant.  Belonging, in this case, is a matter of the soul's home and the reality in which a person participates.  It isn't all together opposed to the exclusivist/inclusivist characterizations above (though it has inclusivist overtones), but it is distinct in some ways.  It is primarily about our makeup, our state of being, our "ontology" and isn't concerned with exclusivism/inclusivism according to the way that the terms are generally used.  Call this the "ontological" definition of "belonging".

Each of these has it's own set of questions and complexities, but a universalist can be fine with any of these definitions in a way that is thoroughly Christian.  They aren't necessarily opposed to one another and may even represent a sort of progression - with a consciously understood and ontologically mature "faith" being the end toward which God mysteriously calls and forms us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (8) Mystical Moments



This is the 8th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

**********

Some Christians (or adherents to any religion, really) may think that mystical experiences (to the degree that we believe in them at all) are necessarily confined to their faith.  A mystical experience within another faith must necessarily be coming from the devil.  To believe otherwise would be to discredit the exclusivity and rightness of their own faith. 

Admittedly, I struggle with a “disenchanted” faith.  But, I’m not one of those people. 

Charles had three (what I would call) mystical experiences.  All while practicing Islam. 

The 1st:
Sometime during my second prostration – when I bent down to touch my head to the ground, to “grovel before God,” as a future employer would put it – something like a massive spark of electricity hit me right smack in the middle of my head.  Everything was suddenly bright, and blue, and I was breathless.  And exhausted. 
And the words appeared, fully formed in my head: You do not need to be so angry.
They weren’t my words.  I hadn’t thought them.  They came from outside of me.  I had to stop praying and catch my breath.  I rolled over on my back.  What had just happened?  Had God just spoken to me?
 There was no question in my mind.  And no doubt whatsoever.  God had spoken to me.  God had reached inside, put his thought in my head, this thought that wasn’t mine and that I needed so much to hear, to feel, to become a part of me.  It was a tiny moment – it happened in an instant – and yet it was utterly overwhelming.  It engulfed me from the inside, left me gasping and in shock.  It was as if I’d ceased to be an individual human being, ceased to be anything other than an appendage of the infinite. (p 97-98, bold mine)
The 2nd:
Unbidden, and unasked for, God was in my head and body.  Again.  For a moment so brief I’m not sure it could be measured.  And yet so overwhelming it seemed as if the world had, in the moment, stopped.  Words formed: Everything is going exactly as it should be.  Even though they were inside my head, they were not my words.  Not my thoughts. (p 135, bold mine)
And the 3rd:
And then, as had happened twice before in my life, there were words in my head.  Words I knew were not mine.  My love is all that matters.
 But this time there was no electric shock.  Nothing turned blue.  No breathlessness, no halted prayers.  Just these words, gently inhabiting me, words given to me – spoken but not spoken – in the midst of death, terror, and destruction.  In the midst of the worst thing that I and everyone else standing there beneath the fire and smoke had ever experienced.  My love is all that matters. (p 178, bold mine)

You do not need to be so angry.

Everything is going exactly as it should be.

My love is all that matters.

There is nothing particularly special about the words themselves.  They are not complicated or inaccessibly poetic.  They do not reveal some profound wisdom hidden from the foundation of the world, words that had never before been uttered.  Anyone could have spoken these same words.  But for Charles they were charged with life.  They were words for him in that moment, and for him alone.

My thoughts drift to the gifted white stone of Revelation 2, a stone inscribed with a name known only to the one who receives it.  Just a stone with a name?  I imagine it being a name that cuts deep in its healing and profundity, accounting for all things in my existence.  I can’t even imagine what this name would be.  God can speak this name.  That I believe. 

So it’s about the words, sure.  But it’s also more.  It’s the immanence of the divine, the temporary withdrawing of the veil of separation.  A different kind of knowing that is pure gift.

There’s a big part of me that reads these accounts and responds just like his (at the time) girlfriend, Jennifer.
She looked at me with a mixture of awe and disbelief.  “I’m jealous,” she said. (p 98)
But there’s also a part of me that isn’t so sure about that at all.  Do I really want my life interrupted?

continued

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (7) A Muslim’s Take on "Faith vs. Works"

This is the 7th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

**********
Islam is a religion of deeds and actions, and there is no great argument among Muslims about the distinction between faith and practice, at least not among the Sunnis I worshiped with.  I had always found the Protestant arguments about faith and works to be both smug and pointless, especially since the formulation most Protestants used – saved by faith in grace apart from works – always seemed to make the faith that saves the believer’s faith.  If I’m saved by my faith in God, then I’m saved by something I do, and not by God’s action.  Isn’t that faith a work in and of itself?  It certainly seemed that way to me.  (p 103)
There is no need to be overly sophisticated in his observations.  No need to obscure things through fancy theological words & concepts.  Despite Christian assertions that “faith” and “works” are opposed to one another, Charles sees Christian “faith” functioning as a type of “work”.

Another way to put it might be to say that it's all just wordplay.  That is, the debate identifies (or perhaps it's more accurate to say "creates"?) a fundamental problem that can best articulated in the form of a dichotomy between "faith" and "works", and then purports to resolve the problem.  From Charles' standpoint as a Muslim, this is just nonsense.  It doesn't really do either.  Later Lutheran Charles might approach these questions in a different way.  Perhaps radically different.

But that doesn't distract from the fact that his questions here are very basic and very important?

Hidden here, perhaps, is the fundamental question of "what is faith"?  Is it a kind of "earning"?  A kind of "mental work"?  Is it "trust"?  Is the object of faith only trustworthy if I believe that they are trustworthy?  Believe what, exactly?  And if that's the case, are they really even trustworthy?  After all, am I finally worthy of trust or "faithful" to my daughter if she believes me to be so?  Am I finally bound by her conscious thoughts and level of certainty about my trustworthiness?  Whose "faith" are we talking about anyways?  

There is a degree of overfamiliarity with these concepts, particularly within Protestantism.  You know what?  Speaking of faith in these ways makes it all seem like a "work".  A sort of game.  Or a math equation.  Things seem too formulaic.  Or like an economic transaction where "faith" is a sort of currency.  Faith becomes a means to an end, not a means of participating in an end.  Some abstract sort of thing (primarily a set of beliefs or sacramental partcipation) that a person has to have to get on God's good side.

So good observations Charles.  The semantic content of "faith" within the Christian narrative has the potential to really get things off track depending on the context that it's placed within and the problem that it purports to solve.

continued

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Free-will, Freedom, Universalism, and the Allure of Love (John A.T. Robinson)


It is probable that the mental picture usually conjured up of the relation between divine omnipotence and human freedom is that of two irresistible forces each pulling in opposite directions. If, per impos­sibile, one were to gain a painful inch here or there, it could only be at the expense of the other’s loss: submission to the power of God must involve the abandonment of the freedom of man. But have we any rea­son to think that this is at all an accurate picture of what happens when will meets will in the personal relationship of love? Surely, it is grossly misleading.

We all know times, when a man or woman really shows his or her love for us, whether it be in some costly manifestation of forgiveness or self-sacrifice or in some small act of kindness or consideration, that we feel constrained to respond—we cannot help ourselves, everything within us tells us that we must. Our defenses are down, the power of love captures the very citadel of our will, and we answer with the spon­taneous surrender of our whole being. Yet, at the same time, we know perfectly well that at such moments we can, if we choose, remain un­moved; there is no physical compulsion to commit ourselves. Everyone may point to instances in which he has been constrained to thankful re­sponse by the overmastering power of love. And yet, under this strange compulsion, has anyone ever felt his freedom infringed or his personal­ity violated? Is it not precisely at these moments that he becomes con­scious, perhaps only for a fleeting space of time, of being himself in a way he never knew before, of attaining a fullness and integration of life which is inextricably bound up with the decision drawn from him by the other’s love? Moreover, this is true however strong be the con­straint laid upon him; or, rather, it is truer the stronger it is. Under the constraint of the love of God in Christ this sense of self-fulfillment is at its maximum. The testimony of generations is that here, as nowhere else, service is perfect freedom. When faced by an overpowering act of love, we realize how absurd it is to say that the freedom and integrity of our moral personality are safeguarded only if we set our teeth and determine not to allow ourselves to be won to its service. If, then, we do not lose, but rather find, our freedom in yielding to the constraining power of love, is there anything to be gained for the cause of liberty by demanding that when it is under the control of self-will it shall in the end be stronger than when it is under the control of love? May we not imagine a love so strong that ultimately no one will be able to restrain himself from free and grateful surrender? If the miracle of the forcing of pride’s intransigence—which is no forcing but a gentle leading—can be achieved in one case (St. Paul would say, in my case), who are we to say that God cannot repeat it in all? One by one, may not each come to the point at which he finds himself constrained to confess in the words of Charles Wesley:
I yield, I yield,
I can hold out no more;
I sink by dying love compelled
To own thee conqueror!


In The End, God…, by John A.T. Robinson, p 105-106

Monday, April 24, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (6) The Journey Into Islam


This is the 6th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

**********

Because Charles experiences within Islam were what first piqued my interest in reading his story, I’d like to spend the next several posts reflecting on how Charles characterizes those experiences. 

So what attracted Charles to Islam?

Perhaps it’s necessary to look at this question by way of contrast.  There are, of course, competing narratives about the “nature” of Islam in our world today.  A popular narrative in modern America is that Islam is “inherently violent” – that its teaching and ethics, its history, its founder, etc. necessarily lead a “true believer” towards a violence and hatred that’s expressed naturally and legitimately in the sort of ‘acts of terror’ that we see today.  Theirs is a “god of hate”, some would say.  This can be supported in any number of ways – through a careful proof-texting of Quranic texts, by pointing to the history of Muhammed and the development and spread of the religion, through the witness of the ex-faithful or of suicide bombers and their heavenly aspirations. 

The implications of this narrative, the way it shapes cultural attitudes and perceptions, are numerous.

Relevant here are the corresponding ideas that (1) violent people are attracted to Islam precisely because their own violence and hatred finds expression and authorization in Islam as ideology and (2) that if it hasn’t already, “true Islam” will naturally cause people to become violent and hate-filled.  As the narrative goes, Islam both attracts and creates violence because of what it “inherently” is.  And because this inherent nature of Islam simply is what it is, this claim can be made apart from any economic, social or political factors.  These factors may accelerate or decelerate the process, but the underlying argument is that there is no real distinction between “Islam” and “radical Islam” (“radical” in the sense described here).

Now it’s not my intent to address any of that general narrative here.  The only thing that I’m concerned with for the purposes of this post has to do with Charles’ particular narrative and how it doesn’t fit that popular narrative.

A few or my earlier posts centered around Charles’ childhood – his anger, loneliness, his perceptions of power, etc.  Charles was angry before becoming Muslim.  So was his becoming Muslim borne of the desire to express this anger and rage without pretense?
I wasn’t drawn to reform.  I didn’t want to make America work better – I wanted to damn it and burn it down. (p 77)
What was I looking for?  What did I want?  Some kind of justification for the urge to do violence, some way to legitimize my rage at the world I lived in.  That’s what I wanted.  I had a nihilistic urge seeking a pretense, some sort of idea, some mess of words to cover the naked desire to simply burn everything down. (p 79)
But conflicting with this rage and nihilistic urge is the desire for a kinder world:
My nihilistic desires struggled mightily with this wanting a kinder world.  And lost.  And thank God.  Somehow, in the midst of all of this, I realized that I could do the kindness I sought in the world.  Islam, with its emphasis on good deeds, helped guide me to this place. (p 80)
Charles did not become Muslim because it was a natural fit for his nihilistic world view or gave him free reign to “burn everything down”.  Quite the opposite.  In his own words, he became Muslim because in it he perceived a way to “do the kindness I sought in the world”.  I suspect that his vision of what the world was – the nature of power – did not permit a vision interested in fundamentally “changing the world”.  But Islam was, perhaps, a means to protest the ways of the world.  A doing of kindness that was, if nothing else, a form of resistance.

So Charles’ narrative is the opposite of the popular narrative I outlined above.

That was my 1st observation. 

The following series of quotes led me to a 2nd observation:
In becoming Muslim, I had found that parts of the African American experience were useful in explaining both my life and my experience of living in America.  This is akin to what Norman Mailer wrote in his 1957 essay “The White Negro”.  Though Mailer is speaking of 1950’s hipsters, with their existential cynicism, I think what he says can also describe some white Americans who, like myself, found themselves growing up on the wrong side of America, in which whiteness conferred no social advantage because the people abusing us were also white. (p 76)
Rather, what spoke to me was the experience of social power and state power as a constant, almost existential threat that African Americans like Malcom X wrote about.  That a “life of constant humility and ever-threatening danger” – think Citrus Elementary School – could also lead to other responses – to separatism, because “if you don’t want me, then I don’t want you either. (p 77)
He’s careful not to characterize the connection here as one of race, but one of experience and understanding:
I am not pretending to be anything or anyone I am not – I am not claiming blackness.  But the story Malcom X told of how he experienced America made sense to me.  It made an awful lot of sense.  It was an America I experienced and understood. (p 77)
So this “life of constant humility and ever-threatening danger” is the backdrop for the allure of Islam.  We needn’t and shouldn’t suppose that Charles choice was driven primarily by rationale deliberation or theology – that would all come later.

For me, this series of quotes demonstrated the inability of the Christianity that he had been exposed to – the dispensationalist variety that I wrote about here – to speak to his situation.  It was not a fit for a person with Charles’ experience of America - for the lonely, marginalized outcast.  Tragic, but I have to confess that I’m not surprised.  Why is this?  

This is not to suggest that if the church were to “do it right”  - whatever that means, that anyone and everyone is just going join up with a traditional church the moment a representative comes knocking.  That hasn't been my experience.  That’s na├»ve, condescending, and sidesteps the complexity that is a human life.  

Still.  Who and what is the church for and what does it represent?  What does it bring to the world?  Is the church for “the least of these”?  Is it really?  How? 

This demands, I think, some serious soul searching for anyone who identifies as “Christian”.  Speaking to myself as much as anyone else.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (5) Aching to be Loved


This is the 5th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

**********

In case you hadn’t noticed, the subtitle to ‘The Love That Matters’ is “Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death”.  As the “meeting Jesus” part has not happened yet in the narrative flow of the book (at least not consciously) I’d like to focus on the 2nd half of that sentence – the “in the midst of terror and death” part - prior to getting to the “aching to be loved” part that is the title of this post.

Though the specific forms and manifestations vary, the experiences of “terror and death” are prevalent throughout the early parts of the book.  For example, Charles writes:
What was I looking for?  What did I want?  Some kind of justification for the urge to do violence, some way to legitimize my rage at the world I lived in.  That’s what I wanted.  I had a nihilistic urge seeking a pretense, some sort of idea, some mess of words to cover the naked desire to simply burn everything down. (p 79)
This is just one example.  Earlier posts in this series have touched upon this rawness and pain, a pain that leads to “nihilistic urge”.

But then, just a handful of pages later and seemingly out of nowhere, Charles writes:
Love can be an abstraction or an ideal only for those fortunate enough to take its presence in the world – its fleshiness, its goodness, its generosity – for granted.  To ache to be loved, as Jennifer and I both did when we were young, is to ache to know God. (p 86)
Because love is a relationship, and it’s meaningless to claim to love someone if there’s no chance she will understand or experience the doing as love. (p 87)
Where did this come from?  The contrast between these sorts of thoughts and those from just 7 pages earlier provide something of a glimpse into the nature of the battle to find a place in the world "in the midst of terror and death".  There is a tension, an uncertainty.  And as sometimes happens in life, Charles thoughts on love are a surprise, an interruption into a story as it’s being told.

I wonder, was Charles only able to write these words in hindsight?  Can a person only recognize such things about love in their past having subsequently found something of that love that they’re aching for?  And having seen it, they can go back and see their trajectory towards it?  Or does one recognize such things in the moment, in between the moments of nihilism?

I don’t know.  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  Either way, I really liked what Charles wrote here. 

Love cannot be reduced to an abstraction.  Nor can it’s “success or failure”, given this definition of love as fleshy concreteness and as meaningless apart from relational fulfillment, be reduced to the mere offer of love.  Because it’s meaningless to claim to love someone if there’s no chance of that person understanding or experiencing that love as love.

Love must be experienced as love in order to be complete as love.  It takes form through both giving and receiving. 

This is an existential statement.  And it’s an eschatological statement.  It need not become abstract to be either of these.  It need not become generalized or lose its sense of particularity if we take this definition of divine love and widen it, drawing out it’s implications. 

Love is not concerned with its success in terms of minimum requirements, in terms of being “offered” and then shrugging it’s shoulders contentedly if “rejected” in “free-will” by one person or by every single person who ever lived (there is no distinction).  No.  You can argue that God’s love ends I suppose.  You can try that, and some do.  But don’t argue for the fulfillment of love apart from the beloved’s experience of it as such.  This love is not kitschy or sentimental.  But it is relentless, entering into a world of terror and death.
"The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love.  The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God."
-William Barclay
continued

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Theodicy, Death, and the Laws of Nature II (Thomas Lynch)



The set of events (rather pointless to call them "unlikely") that resulted in the death of a young girl named Stephanie are provided on p 55, just prior to this section.  To briefly summarize, the family was driving through Kentucky on their way to Georgia for vacation.  Some local Kentucky boys, mischievous but not malevolent, were messing around in a local cemetery for fun.  They stole a headstone.  Getting tired of carrying it, they decided to toss it off the overpass.  It was at just this moment that Stephanie's van passed under:
The stone shattered the windshield, glanced off Stephanie's father's right shoulder, woke her mother riding in the passenger seat and, parting the space between the two front seats, struck Stephanie in the chest as she lay sleeping in the back seat.  She had just traded places with her younger brother who cuddled with his two sisters in the rear seat of the van.  It did not kill Stephanie instantly.  Her sternum was broken.  Her heart bruised beyond repair.
Words provide little comfort.  No explanation can dull the reality of it (I assume the story is true).  But Lynch cannot help but cycle through the various explanations:
Sometimes it seems like multiple choice.
    A: It was the Hand of God.  God woke up one Friday the 13th and said, "I want Stephanie!"  How else to explain the fatal intersection of bizarre events.  Say the facts slowly, they sound like God's handiwork.  If the outcome were different, we'd call it a miracle.
    Or B: It wasn't the Hand of God.  God knew it, got word of it sooner or later, but didn't lift a hand because He knows how much we've come to count on the Laws of Nature - gravity and objects in motion and at rest - so He doesn't fiddle with the random or deliberate outcomes.  He regrets to inform us of this, but surely we must understand His position.
    Or C: The Devil did it.  If faith supports the existence of Goodness, then it supports the probability of Evil.  And sometimes, Evil gets the jump on us.
    Or D: None of the above.  Shit happens.  That's life, get over it, get on with it.
    Or maybe E: All of the above, Mysteries - like decades of the rosary - glorious and sorrowful mysteries.
Each of the answers leaves my inheritance intact - my father's fear, my mother's faith.  If God's will, shame on God is what I say.  If not, then shame on God.  It sounds the same.  I keep shaking a fist at the Almighty asking 'Where were you on the morning of the thirteenth'?  The alibi changes every day.
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, p 56

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting on 'The Love That Matters' by Charles Featherstone (4) Searching for God in Dispensational Christianity



The 4th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

**********
One day, when I was fourteen, I suddenly found myself interested in God.  Wanting to go look for God.
I suddenly found myself interested in God.  Who knows how such things happen, but what better place to find oneself suddenly interested in God than the deeply Christian and predominantly dispensationalist southern California of the 1980's, right?!
Living in suburban California in the early 1980s, the only religion you were likely to bump into by accident was a conservative, happy face dispensationalist Christianity. (p 53)
Now, even though this was a few years removed from his brutal elementary and middle school years, the experience of loneliness, rejection, and cynicism remained present.  As I said in an earlier post, you don't just magically "get over" those things.  They provided the context in which Featherstone first encounters the Christian faith.  So what does a 14 year old in pain look for in the quest for God?
But there was also belonging.  I ached to belong, and to an extent, I was welcomed into this group. (p 53)
And one more thing I could belong to, another place where I was taken seriously as a human being with something to contribute. (p 53)
I'm certain that belonging was a primary concern to me when I was 14.  While that needs becomes muted over the years for any number of reasons, it's always there.  We are less conscious of it perhaps, able to bury it through career, activity, entertainment, alcohol, but we never outgrow are 14 year old need for belonging.
Honestly, I find the whole thing pretty embarrassing.  I was never a particularly good Christian in high school, and by my junior year I would give it up all together.  But I did believe for a time, even in much of the nonsense of dispensationalism.  (A group of us decided to write "rapture letters," explaining to people what had happened to us when we disappeared.  My mother found mine in the typewriter, mistook it for a suicide note, and had a meltdown.) (p 53)
I wonder if Charles, at the encouragement of his dispensationalist friends, felt "persecuted" when his mother found that letter and "had a meltdown"?  Such tribulations were foretold to be a sign of the end times....

Anyway, I recall reading most of the Left Behind "novels" early in my college years, I think.  It was after my own "religious awakening" during the summer between my 1st and 2nd years of college.  The only place that I had to work out any of my God questions was within the soft-core dispensationalist faith of my parents.  I didn't have any Christian friends at school, and I didn't even really want any at the time.  I was in a fraternity, and perhaps a bit like Charles, I found the whole thing just a bit silly and embarrassing (see that belonging thing??).  Our family had gone to church much of my life, but I had never really made any friends at church.  I mean, I had lots of friends growing up, but never any from church.

Actually I take that back.  I think I had one friend from one of the churches that we went to for a few years during my middle school years.  It was short-lived.  His name was Vanya.  I didn't know it at the time, but his parents were Fundamentalists with a capital "F".  I really only have two distinct memories.  The first is of a sleepover at his house.  They didn't have a TV and his parents made us go to bed at like 8pm.  The second is of inviting him to play football with me and my friends from school (we lived in the same town but he was homeschooled and didn't know anybody).  It was tackle football, and some of my friends were being rough on him because his name was Vanya.  After a dirty play, he said "What the hell?!"  Nobody thought much of it because we all swore like crazy.  It was barely a swear word anyways.  Later that day (or maybe a day or two later), I got a phone call from Vanya apologizing for "impure speech."  He also wanted the names and phone numbers of all of my other friends who had been playing that day so that he could apologize to them too.  I was pretty much horrified.  I gave him a few phone numbers, the numbers of the guys who I thought would go easy on him (and easy on me).  I think that was the end of the friendship.  I'm sure he told his parents of his "impure speech" and that they'd made him call me which my parents thought was terrible.  I look back now and think it's well beyond "terrible".

In any case, I wasn't "rejected" at church or anything.  I just didn't find it to be a place to belong, nor did I need it to be.  I went because my parents made me.  Truthfully, I don't think I really learned anything helpful about God in those years.  I only recall learning things that I even now struggle to unlearn.  But that's for another post.

Back to dispensationalism.  Far from being a necessity for belonging, my own devouring of Left Behind novels was done from a more twisted motive.  It was pretty much the desire to be piously entertained.  Entertainment.  It was like solving a riddle and I liked that.  These were like the movies, only this (or something like it since nobody could read all the symbolism with 100% accuracy) was really going to happen!  I read maybe 5 of the books.  I don't know how many there are and I don't care to know.  I lost interest.

And so did Charles.  But Charles observes that dispensational theology might have been a great fit for him:
In fact, if you're a teenager who is obsessed with history and current events and who has something of a cynical view of the world, dispensationalism is a perfect theology.  It takes you seriously, takes what you know seriously, and your knowledge is no longer simply a strange collection of facts and stories that fascinate you (and perplex everyone else) but suddenly has cosmic import.  You know the signs of the coming of the end and can read those sings with a subtlety that most others cannot.  You're valued, even if your faith is rough and needs forming. (p 54)
It's a vision that makes a lot of sense if you're angry and cynical, if there's a part of you that, in your pain, wants to see the world crumble and burn.

The "insider knowledge" that characterizes dispensational theology can and does create a sense of solidarity.  There is belonging in being part of an "us" over against "them", especially when embedded in the DNA of the "us" is a knowledge of the future which is characterized by the eternal blessedness of "us" and the demise of "them".  It unites in "hope" (though not much of a "hope" IMO), and it unites in purpose and vocation - keeping the faith and saving the "others" from the tribulation.

Now there are any number of reasons for a person to exit this dispensational lunacy.  For Charles:
But this faith, as intellectually interesting as it was for a bit, couldn't do much for me otherwise.  It could not give meaning to my suffering.  It could not deal well with the suffering of the world.  It was, near as I could tell, the faith of comfortable people, people who had never struggled.  It looked for one thing and one thing only - the coming of the end of the world.  Everything was about signs and portents, wars and rumors of wars, nations fighting nations, Jesus returning on the clouds, and making preparations for all that. (p 54)
I could write for days about "eschatology" and it's inviolable connection to life in the moment, how it can transfuse hope and meaning into the moment.  I won't do that here though.  Suffice it to say, Charles was searching for an incarnate spirituality, one that is present within the world as it is rather than one that primarily seeks escape.  Dispensational theology is simply incapable of providing this incarnate faith.  It's eschatological vision cannot do it.  How could it?

While I wrestle with the questions of suffering and theodicy differently than Charles, I really relate to his pursuit of a faith that is willing and able to at least see suffering, that doesn't turn away from it.  For him, I think, there was no real hope in dispensational theology.  It's vision of "salvation" was insufficient, and it made staying in that community ultimately impossible for Charles.

A traumatic childhood of fear, rejection, and loneliness led him away from this interpretation of the Christian faith.  That's worth pondering.  Very poignant.  Would he have been more at home had he not suffered, had he led a more "comfortable" life?  Had he cared less about the suffering in himself and in the world?  Does that seem like a twisted vision of Christianity?  In any case, we can't say what would have happened if Charles had encountered this dispensational theology having lived through a different set of experiences.  He didn't.  So he moved on.

continued


Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (3) On Power & Endurance in an Unjust World



Charles early years, as you might expect, were formative in his perceptions of power, "power" being a way of saying "this is how the world really is."
Between school and home, I began to understand power in a very simple and brutal way: as the ability to inflict pain and suffering with impunity.  The key word here is impunity – if there were consequences, if there were a check, someone of something that could or would step in to prevent or even punish, then there would be no power.  There may be cruelty and violence, but real, raw, brutal power needs to be able to say, “You are at my mercy.  No help is coming, because there is no one who can or will help you.”  It needs law.  It needs righteousness.  I have come, over time, to appreciate and even understand there are other kinds of power (I have to in the vocation to which I have been called), but even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe. And I grew increasingly angry.  Angry at the world.  (p 39)
This is not mere "belief".  This is personal experience:
Suffering is rarely, if ever, deserved.  But once you are target by power, it will not let go.  Because it is not in the nature of power to let go of those it has grasped hold of and swallowed. (p 56)
And with poignant clarity:
Because I never lived, as a child, as a young person, with any sense that the world could be changed.  Little would work in my favor.  There was no cavalry, no knight in shining armor, no guardian angel waiting to save me.  That never happened.  There was no justice.  Just loneliness, shame, fear, and violance.  The world was a fundamentally unjust place, and it had to be endured. (p 57)
Charles recalls his childhood perceptions of ‘power’ with striking clarity.  One senses the wounds beneath his words, a characterization of power and existence that remains fresh and vivid decades later.  He admits as much.

“..even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe.”
One does not choose to understand power in this way.  It just happens, the result of thousands of tiny interactions, observations, failures, successes, torments.  One does not “choose” to see power as “no help is coming.”  No, one experiences it, a reality in which “no help is coming” in a way that it can’t be unseen or unexperienced.

He recounts his anger, his hunger to see others hurt the way that he had hurt, the imagined satisfaction at the prospect of annihilative nuclear war that would render all power and suffering as meaningless.  Power made meaningless becomes the ultimate good.

Importantly, the battle for Charles is either to fight this fundamental reality, to survive within it, or to succumb to it.  There was no alternative worldview to bear witness to.

Yet.

As the story develops, a new narrative takes form:
To forgive those kids at Citrus Elementary, to forgive Ms. Johnson, it all felt like weakness to me.  I held them tight because I felt that if I didn’t, they would win.  To forgive felt like powerlessness.  And more than anything, I wanted what they did to me undone.  I knew that was impossible, but the ten-year-old boy was not reasonable.  He wanted to have the last world.  To be powerful.  He wanted impunity. But that isn’t how it works at all.  By holding them tight, I gave them – these ghosts long gone – the power to tell me who I was.  And I finally understood, not in some intellectual way, but in a deep true, emotional and spiritual way, the truth of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is power, the power to say “you do not get to tell me who I am.”  (p 217)
Note the page #'s of each of these citations.  The earliest is page 39 and the last is page 217.  There are 178 pages between them.  That's several decades of living.  Then a sudden change.
"And then it came to me.  All at once.  Forgiveness suddenly made sense."
On the one hand, this realization came "all at once" for Charles - a moment of clarity, an interruption.  The thought was not there one moment and the next it was.  On the other hand, our lives are not a series of disconnected and unrelated moments.  So it seems impossible to fully separate one particular moment from the moments contained in the 178 pages in between these two citations.

Now I'm certainly not saying that Charles needed his life to go exactly the way that it did so that he could learn a spiritual lesson about the power of forgiveness.  I don't believe that.  Honestly, I think that's a potentially abusive hermeneutic.  But even if I did, I'm not comfortable talking about lessons learned from struggle in anyone's life other than my own.

Still, it's the hope that the arc of our lives bends and moves towards something that sometimes keeps me going.  Often the bend seems to be towards darkness and loss.  An abyss.  But the light appears, surprising us, awakening our imaginations to a different way of being.  And I don't think that the light and the darkness are evenly matched.  The light is stronger.  It endures.

And yet in the world as it is, there's the haunting "even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe."  We want to believe otherwise but we cannot.  Our moments of clarity, those moments when the sky is pealed back and we something of reality, simply don't stay with us in that irresistible revelatory way in which we often first experience them.  Against our wishes they fade.  We live in the tension of hope and tragedy.

Refer back to the earlier quote:
Suffering is rarely, if ever, deserved.  But once you are target by power, it will not let go.  Because it is not in the nature of power to let go of those it has grasped hold of and swallowed. (p 56)
How different would it read if this "power" that "will not let go" is perceived as irrevocably redemptive, if the power that "swallows" us wills our good!


continued


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...