Wednesday, August 16, 2017

First Hand Accounts of Charlottesville

Given the ambiguity and lack of specificity of the “many sides” argument of Trump, I thought I’d put gather together some reports on what happened according to people who were actually there.

Here are a few:

Charlottesville: Race and Terror  A documentary style video that, among other things, follows and interviews a group of heavily armed neo-nazis.  This is a MUST WATCH.

Video of the car attack by James Alex Fields

Charlottesville: a first-hand account of racist violence  Written by an elder in the United Methodist Church.
Two Blocks From the Culture War  Written by William J Antholis, a former government official.

What U.Va. Students Saw in Charlottesville  Eyewitness testimonies from 7 UVA students.  And a corresponding video.

A Witness to Terrorism in Charlottesville.  The account of Kristin Adolfson written by Charles Bethea.

Here’s What Really Happened In Charlottesville  A length account from Blake Montgomery

A Far-Right Gathering Bursts Into Brawls.  Written by Hawes Spencer.  Some good pictures.

The complete story of what happened in Charlottesville, according to the alt-right  From the perspective of several people on the alt-right.

Yes, What About the “Alt-Left”?  Eye witness testimonies of counterprotestor interactions with antifa.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Pilate's Great Truth?

“What is truth?” Pilate asks the prisoner Jesus according to John 18:38.

This nihilistic question often appears in attacks against relativism and post-modernism.  It’s quite useful for many Christian apologetics groups. 

But the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus is not about some abstract idea of “truth”.

Fast forward a bit in the story to John 19:10.

Pilate asks, “Don’t you know I have the authority to release you, and to crucify you?”

If a person hears this question, recognizes Pilate’s appeal to epistemological truth (“don’t you know”) and concludes that the big idea behind this conversation is that his purported relativism has been contradicted by his own words, they’ve missed the point.

Pilate believes in truth. 

He just doesn’t think it matters. 

In the end, the fundamental truth is death and the power to kill.  Specifically, the truth is that Pilate has the power to either kill Jesus or set him free.  And that’s all that matters.  This is the truth that Pilate announces to Jesus.  It is the truth of the power to kill.  What is “truth” in comparison to the sheer fact of Pilate’s power to kill or set free?  Whatever the “truth” is, it pales in comparison to Pilate’s power to crucify. 

What is “truth” in comparison to the “fire and fury” of sheer military force, ancient or modern?


Jesus does not debate Pilate’s ability to crucify him.  He acknowledges it.  He responds in John 19:11 with this:

“You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above.”

He has authority.  But there is another "authority" too.

“From above”.  What is that?

Is Jesus alluding to the truth that Pilate is right about the nature of power, but that he possesses a power that is ultimately just bigger and better than Pilate’s? 

No, I don’t think so.

In John 18:36 Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That’s what servants do according to the tenets of power in this world.  They fight.  It is the way of things.  But his kingdom is not of this world, so truth is not subservient to or synonymous with the power to kill.  No, the truth that Jesus alludes to is found in relation to this power “from above”.  And this power does not fight to keep Jesus from being handed over.

It’s quite pious sounding.  And it’s absolutely scandalous. 

It’s not of this world.

What is this power, this truth?

You can say “the power of God”, sure.  But what does that mean?

It is the power that raises Jesus from the dead.  It is the power that forgives from the cross and speaks “Shalom” upon his resurrection.  It is the eternal power that stems from the truth of life over death.  It’s a power that confounds, overcomes, and finally envelops the power of Pilate. 

It’s not that Pilate’s power isn’t real.  Look around the world.  All the death, loss, and tragedy.  It is real.

But it’s not the last word.  It is not the power of the world only bigger.  God is not Pilate but with more firepower.

Christ, the Word and power of God, is the beginning and the end.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Russia and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve read commentary implying that Vladimir Putin orchestrated the Syrian refugee crisis as a means of destroying western Europe.

The 1st instance was in On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder: 

“In early 2016, Russia manufactured a moment of fake terror in Germany.  While bombing Syrian civilians and thus driving Muslim refugees to Europe, Russia exploited a family drama to instruct Germans that Muslims were rapists of children.  The aim, again, seems to have been to destabilize a democratic system and promote the parties of the extreme right.” (p 108)

And the 2nd was in the essay The Seven Trends behind the Global Rise of Populism by Iyad El-Baghdadi:

 “Opportunistic players such as Russia found the perfect conflict to exploit to destroy the “liberal world order” – cynically and skillfully using it to erode international norms in the name of “fighting terrorism”.  Putin couldn’t throw missiles at Europe – so he threw waves of Syrian refugees at them.” (7. The unravelling of the Middle-East)

The 1st instance caught my attention, but it was more tangential than direct.  Though it is alluded to, “orchestrated” might be too strong a word.  I moved on.  The 2nd instance, however, forced me to sit up and really take notice.  Can’t ignore it twice.

Orchestrating a refugee crisis.  That’s a strong claim that requires evidence.  Sifting through that evidence requires time and attention, a refusal to be drawn into the unending cycle of “breaking news”, a desire to hear competing points of view, and a willingness to go beyond quick “gotcha” talking points.

I’m not talking Think Tank level analysis here, but is it possible for a novice such as myself to separate fact and fiction?  Could some basic reading and thinking bring even a modest amount of clarity?  Or are there just too many opinions from too many experts?  Too many “alternative facts”?  Too little time.

Let me tell you, after going through this exercise I have great respect for the press.  It is not easy to sift through mountains of facts and to make sense of ambiguity and contradiction in an age when millions of people can fact check your work instantly.  On and off, it took me weeks to write all of this....and it's likely that nobody will ever read it.  Imagine doing this on a daily deadline in front of the critical eye of millions! Particularly with the rapid pace at which the news cycle moves, the whole thing is exhausting.


Given Putin’s support of the Assad regime, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Western voices to “blame Putin” for the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Blame Putin” could be understood only in the most general sense, as in “Putin shares the blame”.  Inflammatory perhaps, but nothing overly shocking.

The two citations above, however, imply something different than mere guilt by association.  Something immensely more malevolent.  They imply, more or less 1)the intentional creation of a refugee crisis that was 2) orchestrated under the guise of or in conjunction with fighting ISIS and was 3) intended to weaken or destroy western democracy in Europe and throughout the world.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I found this to be a stunning claim.  A refugee crisis as the unwelcome collateral damage of geopolitical conflict is one thing, unspeakably tragic as it is.  But the creation of a refugee crisis as the means of fighting a geopolitical war?  It’s so dark and twisted, so inhumane, that it almost defies belief.

Is there any evidence to support such a claim?  What would that evidence look like?  Is such a claim unambiguous and irrefutable, or is it only supported via a complex web of conspiracy theory laden circumstantial evidence?

The relevant factors as I saw them:

(1)    Targeting of Civilians

It seems to me that any proof must go well beyond the well documented Russian support for the Assad regime. Proof of “weaponizing refugees” must first be proven by Russian actions towards civilian populations.  So that’s the first question.

Take this article in The Telegraph from March 2, 2016.

General Breedlove, Nato’s military commander in Europe at the time, said this back in 2016:

“Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

What evidence supports this assertion?

“Barrel bombs are designed to terrorize, get people out of their homes, get them on the road and make them someone else's problem. These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces, I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem.”

So the evidence is the use of weapons in an indiscriminate way, a way that is best explained as an attempt to create migration.

Or take Senator John McCain’s comments per this article from The Independent:

“He [Mr. Putin] wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project.”

As above, the evidence lies with a Russian air campaign that target civilians:

-The intensified air campaign follows accusations from Senator John McCain, chairman of the US Senate armed services committee, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was intentionally stoking the refugee crisis in order to undermine the European project.

Numerous examples could be given of different authorities making this same assertion using the same evidence.  Russia, of course, denies targeting civilian populations or stoking the refugee crisis in any way. Whatever air force they employ, as the story goes, is targeted solely at rebels hostile to the Assad regime.

Have civilian populations been intentionally targeted or not?  Are rebels hiding amongst these populations or not?

(2)    Failed Cease-Fire

There is also the matter of the failed Turkey and Russia brokered Aleppo cease fire in October of 2016.  The cease fire was designed to allow humanitarian aid in and to let civilians out. The rebels, however, never accepted the cease fire.  Fighting never really stopped, and air strikes recommenced on the 3rd day of the cease fire.  As far as it relates to the refugee crisis, Russia and the Syrian government said that the Rebels wouldn’t let civilians leave Aleppo.  The Rebels asserted that the civilians tried to leave, but shelling by government military forces caused their retreat back into rebel occupied territory.

What to make of this?

If Russia wanted to exacerbate the refugee crisis, why wouldn’t they let the civilians out of Aleppo?  Perhaps Russian and Syrian forces did shell the civilians because they feared that rebels were attempting to escape with the civilians.  Or perhaps the rebels truly wouldn’t let them leave…because they wanted civilians as human shields or for another reason.  A number of narratives can be strewn together that, absent the facts, can make sense of any position.  Bottom line, it’s complex.  The facts are hard to know.

(3)    Putin’s Criticism of Europe’s handling of the Migrant Crisis

Regardless of whether Putin intended the migrant crisis, has he weaponized it?  Has he used it to attack and subvert European democracy?

Take the following example of a case in Austria; the raping of a 10 year old Serbian boy at the hands of a 20 year old Iraqi migrant.  This is a horrible story.  The migrant claimed that the rape was an emergency because he hadn't had sex in 4 months.  He was ultimately set free because the courts couldn't prove that migrant realized that the boy was saying no.  The attacker remained in custody awaiting a second trial.  I don't know all the details.  Here, I want to try to focus exclusively on Putin’s decision to wade into European migrant policies on this particular point.

“In a European country, a child is raped by a migrant, and the courts release him.”

“It doesn’t fit into my head what on earth they’re thinking over there.”

“I can’t even explain the rationale – is it a sense of guilt before the migrants?  What’s going on?  It’s not clear.”

“A society that cannot defend its children has no future.”

This same article included some comments by Konstanti Romodanovsky, head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service.

“The European Commission left it up to individual nations to decide how they want to treat asylum seekers – despite the fact that polices and capabilities of member states are very different.”

The common thread?  Using these sort of incidents as a means to argue that European unity creates unsolvable problems of sovereignty and thus puts individual nations at risk.  He argues that unity is weakness.  What is “strength” in these contexts?  Are “alliances” on paper only, but when shit really hits the fan it’s dog eat dog, the strong against the weak?  “Why the façade!?”…argues Putin.  “Let me point out the inherent problems of your “generosity” towards immigrants….a generosity that is fake and nobody really wants, mind you,” he argues.

This is the great challenge.

It’s curious though.  Putin places great emphasis on the nationalism and the sovereignty of the nation state. More specifically, he is concerned with his nation state.  So we should therefore assume that his comments here can be best understood against that backdrop – they are intended to benefit him.  That is, the sovereignty and safety of European nations is of little concern to him. These comments are to benefit Russia and, ultimately, himself.  The only questions are how and why?

(4)    The Effect of the Migrant Crisis

To put it mildly, the refugee crisis has "put strains on the regions resources and political unity."

If the intent was to destabilize Europe and it's unity, it appears to be working.  Working towards what end?

"Instead, it continues to view the United States and NATO as a threat to its own security. Since the beginning of 2014, President Putin has sought to undermine the rules-based system of European security and attempted to maximize his power on the world stage," he (General Breedlove) said.

Spotlighting the effects doesn't prove that the cause (the refugee crisis) was intended, but it's worth noticing that the obvious effects have not appeared to dissuade Putin (or Assad) from changing course.  Quite the opposite.  As outlined above, the crisis has provided the occasion for Putin to verbally attack Europe and to publicly question it's foundations.

This doesn't prove intent, but it's effects and the words and actions that followed suggest complicity.


If there is a “smoking gun” I didn’t find it.  There is no leaked Russian memo entitled “On the Creation of a Refugee Crisis Towards the Destruction of the European Project.”  Much of what I found is circumstantial and therefore requires a level of analysis that only those who make their living in these sorts of things are prepared to provide.

As I wrap this up, one more angle to consider.  One more quote from The Seven Trends behind the Global Rise of Populism:

“Perhaps more things are being put on bureaucratic auto-pilot not because of a plan but because of the lack of a plan. Maybe the “elites” are also winging it.”

The lack of a plan.  Maybe everyone is just winging it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Creatio ex Nihilo and The Cosmic Christ (Jurgen Moltmann)

Ever since reading God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo by David Bentley Hart, the theological idea of creation ex nihilo has become an important one for me.  Subsequent readings, along with a few other essays (Theodicy, Hell, and David B Hart by Brian Moore being a notable one) have cemented it as foundational and formative.  The eschatological themes of heaven, hell and the destiny of creation, the connection between protology (beginnings) and eschatology (ends), the moral themes of theodicy and suffering, and the ultimate question of 'Who is God?' are all intimately germane to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

For me, this doctrine (as implication of the Gospel) provides reason for hope and the occasion for faith.

I came across the same themes recently in the work of Jurgen Moltmann.  Moltmann, however, doesn't explicitly use the language of creation "ex nihilo".  Not here anyways.  For Moltmann, this line of thought falls within his theological expositions on "The Cosmic Christ".

The connection is amazing.  When we are talking about the meaning of Creation ex nihilo, we are talking about the cosmic Christ, the Alpha and the Omega.

Both of the citations below are taken from Chapter 6 (section 3) of Jesus Christ for Today's World by Moltmann.  The chapter is entitled 'The Cosmic Christ'.  Have a look:

If all things are created by one God, then a transcendent unity precedes their diversity and their historicity. It is not a matter of many worlds belonging to many gods or powers. This is the one creation of the one God. If all things are created by the one God through his Wisdom/Logos, and if they are held together in that, then an immanent unity in which they all exist together underlies their diversity in space and time. Their unity is not the outcome of some subsequent process, emerging from their relationships and the warp and weft into which they are bound. Everything has its genesis in a fundamental underlying unity, which is called God's Wisdom, Spirit or Word. The fellowship of all created beings goes ahead of their differentiations and the specific forms given to them, and this is consequently the foundation underlying their diversity. If God withdraws this foundation, everything disintegrates and becomes a nothingness. If God lends it fresh force, the various forms are renewed (Ps. 104.29f.).
--(Kindle Locations 996-998).

The Hebrew word roach is often translated Spirit, as it is here; but a better translation is 'wind' or 'breath'. The Hebrew word 'rahaph' is generally rendered 'hover' or 'brood'. But according to Deut. 32.11 and Jer. 23.9 it really means vibrating, quivering, moving and exciting. If this is correct, then we shouldn't just think of the image of a fluttering or brooding dove. We should think of the fundamental resonances of music out of which sounds and rhythms emerge. So in thinking about 'creation through the Word', we shouldn't think primarily in metaphors of command and obedience. A better image is the song of creation. The word names, differentiates and appraises. But the breath is the same in all the words, and binds the words together. So the Creator differentiates his creatures through his creative Word and joins them through his Spirit, who is the sustainer of all his words. In the quickening breath and through the form-giving word, the Creator sings out his creatures in the sounds and rhythms in which he has his joy and his good pleasure.
--(Kindle Locations 1004-1010).

Friday, June 23, 2017

What is the 'Kingdom of God'? (Jurgen Moltmann)

In the summings-up of Jesus’ message we are also told again and again: “The kingdom of God is at hand – repent.”  But what does the word ‘repent’ really mean according to these parables?

A sheep has gone astray and is found and the finder is delighted that his search has not been in vain.  The lost coin could do nothing about either its loss or its finding: the joy is solely and entirely the woman’s.  The lost son, finally, was not merely ‘lost and found; he had actually been ‘dead and was alive again’.  So if we look at these parables, what is the kingdom of God?  It is nothing other than God’s joy at finding again the beings he created who have been lost.  And what is the ‘repentance’ which the sinner has to ‘perform’?  It is nothing other than the being-found, and the return home from exile and estrangement, the coming-alive again, and the joining in God’s joy.  We are experiencing God’s kingdom when something like this happens to us, something where we flower and put out fresh growth like the flowers and trees in the spring, and come alive again, because we sense the great in exhaustible loves from which all life proceeds.  When we experience God’s exhilaration in his joy over us, and our own vitality reawakens, the kingdom of God cease to be some remote and alien rule; it is the very source and fountain of life.  Then the kingdom of God is the wide space in which we can unfold and develop, because it is a place without any restrictions.  Once we experience God’s kingdom like this, we discover afresh the wealth of our potentialities for living.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions

I recently read Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli.

The book is an intimate look at the child refugee crisis as framed through the 40 questions posed to these children upon their arrival in the United States.  It is not a whitepaper or book of detached logic.  It doesn’t present the problems and then propose clearly achievable solutions.  So my intent here is not to ‘review’ this heart-wrenching, desperate book.  This situation is a nightmare, and the author practically begs for the underlying issue to be seen and acknowledged.  That the author does not know how this story ends is simultaneously a call to action and a sobering fact.

A few quotes from the book:

"It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born."

"In varying degrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts."

"No, we do not find inspiration here, but we find a country that is as beautiful as it is broken, and we are somehow now part of it, so we are also broken with it, and feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and are trying to figure out how to do something about all that."

"The political response to the crisis, therefore, has always centered on one question, which is more or less: What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?"

"How would anyone who is stigmatized as an “illegal immigrant” feel “safe” and “happy”?"

"No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a trans national problem that includes the United States—not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem."

"To refer to the situation as a hemispheric war would be a step forward because it would oblige us to rethink the very language surrounding the problem and, in doing so, imagine potential directions for combined policies."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Tale of Two Tweets (On Violence and Forgiveness)

This past Sunday morning, I woke up to the following two tweets right next to one another in my feed:

The first relates directly to the prior day’s attack in London:

10. Chilling testimony from eyewitness who says he saw assailants stabbing a girl, while screaming, “This is for Allah.”

And this followed:

Violence breeds violence.
Only forgiveness offers an alternative.
I know must don’t believe this but…
It is what Jesus lived and taught.
And it is what God has vindicated in…


The degree and nature of the dialogue between the content of these two tweets is, I think, of the utmost importance.  In an age where our world’s imagination for destruction and ever more deadly weapons seems to shape our vision of the future, I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that it determines our future.

How do we hear this 2nd tweet?
  • As irrelevant religious blather?  Or as pointing towards the most relevant speech of all?
  • As fundamentally mistaken and flat-out theologically wrong?  Or as the truth at the heart of reality?
  • As cowardly, destructive, and leading inexorably to the deaths of the innocent?  Or as the courageous means to new life?
  • As weak?  Or as strong?
  • As luxury?  Or as necessity?
  • As perpetuating the cycle of violence?  Or as breaking the cycle of violence?
  • As hopelessly naïve, the result of privilege and distance from the death and suffering?  Or as sober and costly solidarity with the death and suffering in the world?
  • As indifference and “doing nothing”?  Or as the means whereby an active and potent moral imagination is ignited?
  • Which one "takes terrorism seriously"?

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Efficacy of Prayer as a House of Cards

Imagine you wanted a promotion at work.  So you prayed to a milk jug for two weeks and then applied for the promotion.  If the promotion came through, would you say it happened because the milk jug answered your prayer?  Most people would not.

Most Christians say that God answers prayer in three ways: yes, no, or wait.  If God says yes, you get whatever you were praying for.  If God says no, then you don't.  If God says "wait," then you keep praying for your desired outcome, knowing that God's timing is different from your own.

But the problem is, that covers every possible outcome.  Things either happen now, later, or not at all.  There's no other possibility.  How can you be confident that prayer works if there's, literally, no scenario that could prove it to be false?

Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue, p 50

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Like Pebbles Into the Deep

I read this today in How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin:
“The conversion moment in us is when we see from a new perspective,” Sister Anne said.  “Sometimes all we can see is that this is not working for us anymore.  That is all you can see, until you are ready to see from that new perspective.”  Everything she asked me to do that week was about perspective.  To walk along the shore and pick up small rocks, allowing them to become stand-ins for all my troubles – and then fling them into the expanse of the ocean.  As I did, I grasped their smallness; I heard the small plunk against the backdrop of the roar of the waves. (p 81).
I really like this.  I love the imagery.  I love that Sister Anne’s instructions expand beyond sheer will power and positive thinking to include hands and feet.  This is not to minimize or demean the life of the mind.  It’s just to say that we aren't brains without bodies or bodies without brains.  I can't think my way out of my troubles.  I can, however, take a pebble and throw it into the sea.  And maybe the mind follows.

"But sins and troubles are not pebbles" says Mike's brain.  "They are not a thing that you simply discard like an old newspaper".  

True enough.  And yet...

Walk along the beach.  Feel the sand in between your toes.  Is it cool or hot?  Breathe deep and smell the salt of the ocean until you can almost taste it.  Hear the sound of the waves.  See a small stone and pick it up.  Roll it around in your fingers. Close your eyes and envision this small stone as a sacrament of your troubles.  Recognize that this little piece of trouble is not you.  It does not define you.  Look up and out into the ocean. Take that small stone and throw it into the watery abyss.  Feel it leave your hand.  Watch it sail into the deep expanse of the ocean.

Imagine this expanse as the love of God. Watch that tiny sacrament of your troubles drown in the depths of this love.  Do you believe?  Imagine all that fear and suffering, all my failures, my will to be less than that to which I'm called, all of it swallowed up.  Death where is your victory?!  Do you believe?  The worst sins of humanity, all things resurrected to the goodness from which they came, redeemed in the depths of this fierce and inexorable tranquility.  Oh my soul, do you believe?

In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:

“As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.”

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.  As in all people.  Each and every one.

Now nearly everyone recognizes that this has universal(ist) 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 and that 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, the assertion that we need to proceed with caution in how we determine the "plain meaning" is mostly uncontroversial.  But the thing is, neither does the mere assertion that "plain readings" aren't necessarily true prove that any one particular "plain reading" is false.  The specifics cannot be dismissed by an appeal to generalities.  

So let us look at some of these possible "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" avoid the universalist implications?

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?


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.


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 naïve, 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
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