Christian Spirituality and Human Experience

Oftentimes, the spiritual seeker is one who seeks to escape their humanity by way of mystical experience that promises to transcend the reality of the material world. The spiritual seeker often desires to discover a reality that exists behind the mundane normative experience of being human. However, Christian spirituality shatters these misconceptions about the world, humanity, and the transcendent. Because the fundamental truth of Christianity, is that the one infinite God who transcends all categories of human comprehension entered into time, space, and human reality in the person of Jesus Christ. God became fully human while remaining fully God, and therefore bestowed eternal and divine significance upon human experience. God became like us. In his book, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, Rowan Williams describes Christian spirituality as it is incarnated in Christian history by the saints of the church. Williams does not mean to suggest that the spiritual life is only for the few, the heroes of the faith, rather he presents the spiritual life by illustrations and sketches of various saints. Thus, he highlights human experience in the spiritual life. Christian spirituality is inclusive of human experience, because the relationship humanity has with God is one in which God offers friendship with himself to humans by redeeming the human story in and through entering the fray of human existence as the incarnate Jesus.

I will illustrate the place of human experience in Christian spirituality by expounding on Williams’ treatment of the New Testament, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. John of the cross. Though these sources do not provide an exhaustive explanation of the place and importance of human experience in Christian spirituality, they do provide an introduction as to how humanity and all of reality are transformed and brought into union with God by Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The New Testament is fundamentally about God’s salvation of humanity from sin and death. Furthermore, the New Testament is about the salvation of particular human beings. Thus, the New Testament while proclaiming that Jesus Christ universally defeated sin, death, and evil on the cross, also proclaims this robust salvation in the lives of specific persons. God’s disclosure of the truth about all creation happens in and through the human story and particular human stories. Williams explains, “If the heart of ‘meaning’ is a human story, a story of growth, conflict and death, every human story with all its oddity and ambivalence, becomes open to interpretation in terms of God’s saving work.”1 The human story is, then, to be understood by the hermeneutic of God’s saving work in Jesus. Human experience is necessarily intertwined with God’s revelation of himself by the salvation wrought by the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human; Jesus is, in a theological sense, the first true human being. Jesus’ work of redeeming the cosmos is realized by his full and complete dependence upon God. Williams writes, “Self-dependence is revealed as a mechanism of self-destruction; to cling to it in the face of God’s invitation to trust is a thinly veiled self-hatred.”2 Self-dependence is the attempt to create a reality apart from God. Apart from God there is no coherent truth to reality. Apart from God, humanity is capable of creating false realities based upon the lie of our own self-dependence and self-sustainability. It is possible for humans to create systems of community and interpersonal relationships without acknowledging human dependence upon God. However, these systems end in nihilistic violence, and are characterized by oppression and exploitation of people and natural goods. Thus, self-dependence is not a demonstration of human success and achievement, but a refusal be fully human. Jesus demonstrates by his identity and work that to be fully human in perfect friendship and harmony with God is to rely on God who is the creator and sustainer of all things.

Therefore, human experience is innately caught up in the mystery of God. There is no human experience apart from God but only a privation of human existence. Human existence properly understood is creaturely existence that grows into deeper union with God. Humanity was created for relationship and union with God. Humanity was created to participate in the life of the Triune God. Consequently, the salvation effected by Christ is of a progressive nature. In other words, followers of Jesus are to progress in the Christian life ever approaching God-likeness. Williams states, “Salvation is to be realized in growth, and not to grow is to fall away.”3 Human experience, as properly defined by Jesus’ mission of salvation, is characterized by spiritual growth. Christian spirituality, is necessarily inclusive of human experience, which is human experience of divine salvation effected by Jesus.

Williams uses Augustine of Hippo to explain how Christian spirituality is inclusive of the finite human situation. As finite beings, humans are not objectively in control of their reality. Williams notes, “Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting.”4 As finite beings, we are located in time, space, relationships, proclivities, and aptitudes that are not necessarily of our own choosing. We do not choose to exist, nor do we exert control over our lives in an autonomous, objective, or linear fashion. Rather, we come to exist in the middle of narratives that are much larger than our individual lives. We are born and mature in the midst of familial, socio-cultural, and theological narratives. Augustine is perhaps the first great theologian to grasp the significance of our personal narratives in our experience of the transcendent God. Williams explains, Augustine “confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalizingly obscure to reason.”5 Our human relationships with God and our spiritual growth are not merely about what we conceive objectively about God. Christian spirituality is as much about the heart as it is about the head. “The heart is moved, drawn, tossed about by impulse and desire, and ‘will’ has less to do with reason than with passion.”6 The Christian’s relationship with God, then, is as much, if not more, about simply being with God as it is about rational or intellectual conceptions of God.

Human experience entails emotions, relationships, and desire as much as rationality. The spectrum of human experience is not an encumbrance to relationship with the divine. Human embodiment is not an impediment to the God who is spirit. Williams says, “Human beings are naturally passionate, vulnerable, mobile, and if their humanity is to be saved it must be without loss of all this.”7 We are saved in and through our human experience. We meet God and grow into his image and likeness in and through our human experience. “Thus the confidence of the believer never rests upon either his intellectual grasp or his intellectual control of his experience, but on the fidelity of the heart’s longing to what has been revealed as the only finally satisfying object of its desire.”8 Our confidence rests not in our knowledge of God but in our faithfulness to desire and love God above all else. Prayer is the language of the heart, and it is by communing with God regularly in prayer that we ensure the fidelity of our desire for God.

In the work of St. John of the Cross, Williams demonstrates how embodied knowledge and desire draw us deeper into a participatory relationship with God and eventually draw us into union with God. Embodied knowledge distinct from pure reason is to know in a holistic and experiential way rather than in a merely intellectual way. Union with God is not an escape from our creatureliness or human experience, but preserves every aspect of human existence thought by Augustine to be saved in Christ, yet now existing in a transformed and higher way. John of the Cross teaches us that human knowledge and love must be transformed and reordered. Williams explains, “To be determined by knowledge and love of creatures, to have that as the decisive reality of one’s inner life, is to be able to know and love God.”9 Our inner lives are shaped by what we know and what we love. “Knowledge unifies; knowledge is participation, in which the knower is molded to take the form of what is known.”10 Knowledge unites us with God when our knowledge is shaped by prayer and permeates every aspect of our human experience.

For John of the Cross, the knowledge gained in prayer is not “rare mystical trances, visions or ecstasies, but the sense of being drawn into a central magnetic area of obscurity.”11 In other words, we know God when we cease to know by human means. We know God when we know that it is more important that we are known by God. St. John of the Cross refers to this knowing as illumination. Williams describes illumination saying, “Illumination is the running-out of language and thought, the compulsion exercised by a reality drastically and totally beyond the reach of our conceptual apparatus.”12 Thus, illumination is apophatic by nature. However, neither St. John of the Cross nor Williams intend for growth in union with God to render our human experience of God’s creation meaningless. Rather, “Illumination is an entry into that ‘contradiction’ at the heart of Christian belief represented by Jesus on the cross.”13 Illumination is experience of the infinite God becoming a finite human in the person of Jesus Christ so as to unite the totality of human experience eternally with the life of the Trinity. The apophatic moment of illumination does not abolish the world, but so transforms who we are that we receive ourselves and all of creation again, but now as a gift born out of the excessiveness of God’s love. We receive ourselves and all of creation as a gift of God which directly participates in the being of the divine.

Therefore, Christian spirituality is not about an escape from the material-physical world, nor is it about an escape from our finitude. The Christian spiritual life is about growing towards union with God in such a way that the totality of human experience is transformed, saved, and of eternal significance. Rowan Williams tells the history of Christian spirituality as the story of individual Christian lives being redeemed and brought into deeper and fuller relationship with God in and through prayer. The New Testament assures us that we are saved in our particularity. God entered the world in Christ not to save humanity in abstract terms, but to offer individual Christians relationship with God mediated by the Church. Augustine of Hippo brilliantly describes salvation in a way that is inclusive of all human experience. And, St. John of the Cross explains how we in our humanity are brought into the life of the Trinity. Christian spirituality, then, is about how God meets us in our humanity, and transforms “humanity” into a category capable of cooperating and participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

  1. Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publication, 1991), 12.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Ibid., 83.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 84.
  9. Ibid., 175.
  10. Ibid., 176.
  11. Ibid., 181.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

Our Church’s Biblical Journey to Allowing Women in Leadership

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

Recently, my local church family made the decision to allow women to serve in leadership roles in our church community. Since the founding of our church in the early 1970’s these roles were only open to qualified men. The view of our church (and the view which I held for many years) was that the Bible does not permit women to serve in leadership in the church. Throughout my Christian Journey whenever I heard that a church had allowed women to serve in such leadership positions I immediately believed that they had watered down the scriptures. In my mind I believed such churches were simply compromising to secular society, which was seeking to rid itself of all beliefs and systems the church held dear. If I were to accept egalitarian leadership, it would simply be a slippery slope to allowing the Bible to say whatever culture wanted it to say.

Today I no longer believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is the root of secularism or a denial of scripture. If anything, I have come to believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is not only culturally right but biblically correct as well. How could I make such a change? How could our church make such a change? The answer lies in seeing the story of the Bible.

Early in my Christian journey I was taught that we can see scripture through two lenses. The first lens was a liberal one. This lens allowed one to interpret scripture through different starting points. Each starting point was based upon one’s experience or background. This starting point was a springboard to such things as liberation theology, feminist theology, LGBTQ theology and an assortment of other systematic theologies. I whole-heartedly rejected this way of seeing scripture because at its foundation was human experience rather than God.

The second lens I was taught to see scripture through was a conservative one. In this approach, one seeks to use all hermeneutical tools available to try and determine what the text meant to the original audience and then seek to make it applicable to today’s audience. This approach was a very systematic approach to the Bible. The belief was that the Bible had set categories (i.e. God, Jesus, sin, salvation, atonement, end times, women’s issues etc.) If we understood these categories correctly we could systematically find scriptures to back up what we believed the Bible to be saying. Therefore, if we believed that women were not permitted to preach or lead we should be able to go and find scriptures which could prove our point of view or disprove it.

There is some value in this historical/cultural approach but I find that it, too, makes some of the same mistakes as the liberal view. This is why I have opted for a third way of interpreting scripture, one which focuses not on turning to the Bible as a source of propositional truths to decipher (although propositions have their place) but on a story to understand. The method I’m referring to has been called “narrative theology.”

The central assumption of narrative theology is that the Bible has a story to tell. It is not an “encyclopedia” of “facts” we can use to build a case for our beliefs; rather, it is a story of God’s great renewal project of the whole World. The story of creation, the fall, a family, a nation, a messiah, a church and a new creation are not illustrations on how one gets saved and goes to heaven, but they are the framework from which all things must be interpreted in scripture.

So, when discerning whether women can or cannot serve in leadership of the church we decided to look at this issue through the narrative of scripture. The narrative of scripture forced us to look at the whole forest before we could even decipher what individual trees in that forest might be telling us. Here is the story we saw concerning women and leadership.

Understanding Gender Roles Narratively

The story begins in the garden. In the creation account we learn right away that God saw no hierarchy between men and women. They were created equal and they had a task to do. They were invited by God to help manage all of creation. Genesis 1:28 says,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Genesis 1:28

This was God’s intended design—male and female working together on a common project. Yet it is not long before the story takes a sharp turn and God’s great creation project went wrong. In their arrogance the man and the woman decided they knew what was best for themselves rather than trusting in God. So, in Genesis 3 we see the results of the fall. Many complementarians (people who believe that women should not have leadership roles in the church) will admit that man and woman were to rule equally but that the fall changed this plan. Our church, however, did not see this in the story. What we saw in the story was not a change in God’s plan but a change in people. Our old view was that, after the fall, God wanted men to be in charge over women. When we carefully read the scriptures we saw the story was trying to tell us something completely different.

In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve’s sin, God curses the serpent and the ground. If you read the text carefully, you’ll notice he never curses Adam or Eve. Yet they are told that because of sin the world has been altered. Growing crops for the man will not come easy. For the woman child bearing will be painful (possibly to remind us how valuable life is). Then God tells Eve near the end of verse 16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” We saw this not as a command of God’s will but as a declaration or a warning about what is ahead. God knew that sin would cause a battle between the sexes, a struggle for power which would see women usually on the losing side of in history.

The rest of the story in the Old Testament, we believed, could back up this interpretation. Throughout the OT (although male dominance was a part of the culture) God never forbade women to lead. Instead, he actually called women to lead in some phenomenal ways. Three women in particular stood out to us in our church. Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. Miriam co-led with Moses and Aaron the nation of Israel in its infancy (Micah 6:4). Deborah led Israel during the time of the judges. Huldah, the prophetess, gave King Josiah direction on how to deal with the nation after finding the Torah. These three women were not simply placed in these positions because there were no good men available! They were called to lead because they were the right person for the position. This is what the story of the Old Testament was telling us. But what of the New Testament? If women could be leaders in the Old Testament did God change his mind in the New Testament?

When the story picks up in the gospels, patriarchy was alive and well. Yet the biggest defender of women was Jesus. Jesus treated women differently than his Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus allowed women to sit at his feet to learn (In Jewish culture this was a man’s position only). He allowed women to be his disciples (again culturally reserved for men). And the irony of all ironies, women became the first witnesses and preachers of the Resurrection! When Jesus ascended to heaven it was both men and women who waited in the upper room to receive instructions from the Holy Spirit. Finally, when the day of Pentecost came Peter proclaimed from the prophet Joel (Acts 2) that it would be both men and women who were to preach that the Kingdom of God had arrived. This is the story that the gospels and the first two chapters of Acts tell us. So what part did women play within the early church? What does the story tell us from the New Testament letters?

The Apostle Paul has gotten a bad reputation in our present day because some believe that he taught that women had no part in leading or preaching and even forbade women to speak in churches. I believe his letters have been misrepresented and have been interpreted in such a way that does not follow the story of the Bible and especially not the story of the New Testament. I believe a careful study of the story shows a picture in which Paul saw women preaching and leading not as subordinates but as equals.

In Acts we learn of women like Philip’s daughters who were preachers, while in Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn of some of the women who were leaders in the early church. Phoebe was a leader in her house church in Cenchreae, Priscilla taught Apollos theology, and Junia was considered great amongst the apostles. The story seems to show that Paul did not deviate from the Old Testament story nor Jesus and the early disciples’ view of women.

Certainly, when we get to some of the more difficult passages where Paul seems to forbid women from leading we must interpret what he says through the lens of what the story tells us he did. Paul served with women leaders. Now as a church we did look at these difficult passages of Paul’s. Yet when we saw what the story had already told us and began to read about these churches in Corinth and Ephesus, what we saw was not forbidding of women leaders but instructions to these churches about some issues they were facing.

On the topic of women’s roles in the church, I believe that if we allow the narrative to speak, we will find that, rather than forbidding women to serve in leadership the Bible actually opens the door for it. This is the journey our church has taken. We have a high view of scripture and ultimately want to make sure we do not allow culture or trends to decide how we serve in the Kingdom. My hope is that for churches who have forbidden women to serve in leadership to at least look at the scriptures again with fresh eyes. Take a look at the story again allowing it to shape you. You might be surprised at what you find.

Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part III)

In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “The thoughts that I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition and sentence, … states of consciousness, and other things.”i Such a remark makes obvious, I hope, the ways in which Wittgenstein shares many of the same philosophical concerns as Augustine. Whether they share the same conclusions about these concerns, however, is another matter—namely, the present one.

As I tried to make clear in the second blog post, Augustine’s views about the purpose of language evolve throughout The Teacher; despite holding, prima facie, that language has a twofold purpose, by the conclusion of the dialogue he says that language’s purpose is singular—to remind. Wittgenstein, on the other hand—at least the Wittgenstein of the Investigations—, seems to utterly resist the notion that language has a singular purpose. Language, on his view, is infinitely complex; its uses are vast and variegated. People teach and remind, sure, but is that really all that we do with words? What of “Reporting an event – Speculating about the event … Making up a story; and reading one – Acting in a play – Singing rounds – Guessing riddles – Cracking a joke; telling one”?ii Are these all genuine instances of using words mnemonically?

Augustine might answer, “Well, yes; if we look closer at each of these aforementioned linguistic uses, we’ll find that each has a mnemonic function, that is, except for singing.” Recall here Augustine’s contention that singing is not a form of speech because it’s accompanied by melody. “But you notice, do you not, that what pleases you in singing is a certain melodious ordering of sound? Since this can be joined to words, or removed from them, is singing not one thing and speaking something else?”iii

But here, perhaps, Wittgenstein would push against Augustine’s rejoinder. This time, rather than disputing Augustine on the purpose of language, he might draw attention to the way in which “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”iv That language is part of a form of life means, inter alia, that it cannot be abstracted from its contexts of use without simultaneously losing its intelligibility. Wittgenstein gives the example of coming across a stand-alone sentence, which says: “‘After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before.’” Upon reading this sentence Wittgenstein asks himself a series of questions: “Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If it stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about.” He concludes: “But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it. (A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.”v This final comment is instructive: it elucidates the larger point that our words require contexts to be intelligible; even if there’s a standalone sentence (or word, or paragraph, or…) we come across—like the quotations that begin books or hang on placards—we’ll inevitably supply (or, “invent” in the words of W.) a context for that sentence, if it’s going to mean anything to us at all. The intonations that accompany our speech, the facial and bodily gestures we perform while speaking, the settings wherein we say this or that, the varying levels of familiarity we share with the person(s) we’re speaking to and with— such contexts enable understanding (and misunderstanding!). It’s not so simple, therefore, to abstract something like “melody” from our speech, as Augustine here so imagines. To suggest that we could somehow come to “pure speech” completely unadulterated by our contexts, that we could know the world independent of our words and the practices in which they live is to indulge chimera.

But doesn’t Augustine seem to grant Wittgenstein’s point about meaning and the centrality of contexts of use when he, for instance, repeatedly tells Adeodatus that prior to knowing the things to which words refer (name), words can neither teach us nor remind us of anything:

[I]t is by knowing the realities that we also come to a knowledge of their words, whereas, by the sounds of words, we do not even learn the words. For we cannot learn words we already know, and, as for those which we do not know, we cannot profess to have learned them until we have seen their meaning. And this comes about, not by hearing the sounds they make, but from a knowledge of the realities they signify.vi

Augustine, The Teacher

Without prior knowledge of the realities to which words name, there is no meaning. Knowledge of the realities themselves establishes the necessary context for linguistic meaning. Additionally, Augustine argues that, for meaning to occur, we often need things like gestures to accompany our speech. Pointing, for example, helps us communicate to others something about the concrete reality of which we might be speaking; sometimes it’s even the doing of a thing itself that helps us understand what that thing is; e.g., you want to knowing what “dancing” is, so I dance. This therefore shows that Augustine rightly understands the necessity of “contexts” for linguistic meaning, and sufficiently answers Wittgenstein’s qualms. Right?

Wrong. There remains a key issue in Augustine’s theory of naming and conception of meaning. According to Augustine, all words are nouns because all words name things.vii This picture of meaning requires that one know the reference to which a given word refers. This means that our knowledge of a thing—or, let’s make this more grandiose: our knowledge of the world is separable from our language.

The problem with Augustine’s picture of meaning here on display in The Teacher is, therefore, in many ways the same that emerges in Confessions: Augustine posits a gap between a word and a thing; or, to paraphrase literary critic Toril Moi, he divides up the word from the world. On this view, then, philosophy is tasked with bridging the gap between our words and the world; the philosopher must find the connection, the essence, between a word and its object. The solution for bridging the gap, according to Augustine in both The Teacher and Confessions, ultimately comes through naming; by naming, our words get connected to the world, and therefore become meaningful. But this whole “picture of language,” in the words of Moi, “is not so much wrong, as too simple and too circumscribed.”viii Or, as Wittgenstein writes: “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”ix

In contrast to this picture of a word/world gap, Wittgenstein talks about human knowledge of the world as intimately bound up in and with our words. He compares language speaking to gameplay, as if it were “part of an activity, or of a form of life”x (think here of his famous “language games” designation). His reasoning for this is clear: “words and action, talking and doing, are intertwined.”xi Words are meaningful in our use of them in this or that activity. And naming is but one activity amongst a host of others, and it’s an incredibly complex activity at that!

All well and good, but this just scratches the surface of the larger issue that a speculative Wittgensteinian view presents for Augustine’s picture of linguistic meaning. The bigger problem with Augustine picture of meaning is that it tempts us to go looking within ourselves to establish meaning. This is the insidious idea of “the private language,” the idea that somehow, some way, we can think, mean, yea, understand the world and ourselves prior to language acquisition. In the words of Philip Porter: “Augustine’s move is to identify his pre-verbal self as a human capable of thinking and meaning something to himself alone, just not yet able to express this meaning to others.”xii This view is not just philosophically bankrupt; it’s theologically and spiritually dangerous, for it ultimately establishes me, the individual subject, as the ultimate authority of truth. Not only that, but it reifies and deifies the hidden and the private. If I can know, think, mean, and understand something to myself, by myself, prior to any form of language acquisition and involvement with the world, then I’m not actually human; I am a god.

Shudder.

i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, et al (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 3.

ii Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

iii Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

iv Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

v Ibid., §525.

vi Augustine, The Teacher, 49.

vii See, e.g., Ibid., 52.

viii Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 28.

ix Wittgenstein, PI, §3.

x Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

xi Moi, Revolution, 45.

xii Philip Porter, “Inheriting Wittgenstein’s Augustine,” New Blackfriars (2018), 18.

Peaceable Projects : Exchanging money for communal economics

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Over the past six years my wife Andrea and I have been pursuing ways to be peaceable followers of Jesus.

We strive to be pro-active pacifists who heal the earth, love people and cultivate community. Essentially, we desire to imagine and participate in a Jesus-inspired-peaceable community.

Sounds nice. Doesn’t it?

The problem is peaceable communities are few and far between. Here in Protestant America, it is a lonely venture. Contemporary peaceable resources for the novice are almost nil. There is scarce personal storytelling, history lessons, or norms related to pacifism in American churches. So what do we do about it?

Andrea and I do what so many peaceable sojourners do; we keep our eyes and ears open for supplemental guidance. We look for sustenance. We experiment. We wait.

This blog chronicles one such peaceable guide that surprised its way into our lives. The guidance recommends replacing money or finance with community and trust. Our peaceable sojourn into the conscientious world of finance started with a kid’s trip to the library.

While waiting for our kids to finish their library routine I found myself scanning through finance books. One book stood out, Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World by Ben Hewitt. Much to my surprise a book about finances cradled partial blue prints for cultivating Jesus’ peaceable kingdom.

Ben Hewitt’s journalistic venture introduces the reader to a subversive community and the quest to understand “money”. The community he describes has a primary currency of trust and generosity. Finance is used judiciously and as a last resort. Ideally, communal trust is exchanged from household to household. Through time the hypnotizing illusion of financial systems is eroded. Investment in stocks and retirement morph into investing in people and the earth. For Hewitt he came to these communal-economic ideas by asking the question: what is money?

Dethroning the World of Finance

After September 11th, Ben Hewitt found that his modest retirement fund had virtually disappeared. He set out on a quest to learn exactly what value, wealth, and money is. His discoveries would reshape his life and metaphysical orientation. In a sense, Hewitt’s work is a tool for naming the idol(s)–the practice of identifying, analyzing, and supplanting death-like power structures. His work dethrones money from its lofty pedestal and exposes its empty nature.

Hewitt systematically probes and documents the false reality of finance and money. He points to finance as an immaterial and contrived structure. How is this so? It commodifies needed resources–food, clothing, shelter– into consumer products. Essentially, objectifying real necessities to a violent fiscal metric or language. For instance, once food is commercialized it loses it natural relation to people; food is no longer a foundation of life freely given from the earth unto people. Food morphs into a commodity dispensed by corporations. People soon see it through this distorted lens. Altering humanity’s perception of food drives their “need” to accumulate money in order that food or other resources might be seized instead of shared. Mass participation in finance results in a power based economy founded on the the fear of death.

Thus, the finance economy holds communities at ransom through financial demands and language. In other words, only money can unlock needed resources within the modern world. Money or finance becomes the lock and key to life. It takes up the role of idol by replacing natural processes. From a theological angle, fiscal systems exchange resources found in creation with a human fabricated arbiter. Romans 1:25 comes to mind “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and turned to idols”. Consequently, finance generates its own moral code and metaphysical definition of existence. It is an existence of ransomed resources and enslaved people.

Ransoming of resources via finance is accomplished through the concept of value. According to Hewitt, value assigns subjectively determined, numeric rankings to resources. The result is an oppressive system which disproportionately dispenses or withholds basic resources from people according to income. Thus, the perceived numeric value of resources leads to speculation. Speculation ignores abundance. The result is resource hoarding by a few. Thus, greed converts abundance into scarcity; greed masquerades inequity as savvy financial stewardship.

Hewitt underscores scarcity by quoting from the book Sacred Finance, “In context of abundance greed is silly; only in the context of scarcity is it rational. The wealthy perceive scarcity where there is none. They also worry more than anybody else about money. Could it be that money itself causes the perception of scarcity? Could it be that money, nearly synonymous with security, ironically brings the opposite? The answer to both questions is yes.”

“Financial security” replaces communal systems of interdependence with a fear of scarcity resulting in greed. The oppression via monetary systems persist as value creates power structures. Value assigns numeric ratings for resources and for people via cost and salary, solidifying an alternate reality rife with alienation. Once people could drink freely from wells (resources). Now water can be purchased (via salary) by the bottle (commodity).

Value does not simply objectify resources, it dehumanizes people. For example, teachers and EMTs have low salaries (low value) and can barely afford housing (a commodity) due to its expensively assigned value. Meanwhile, CEO’s and lawyers with high salaries (high value) easily access necessary resources (commodities). The needs of the “low” and “high” professionals are equal and yet their access to resources unequal. Classes are spawned by the systematizing of people via “value”. Climbing the economic ladder becomes the new purpose to life.

Clearly, the world of finance is fabricated and violent in nature. Finance, at some point in time, arbitrarily creates the “haves” and “have-nots”. Money morphed from the gold coins of Rome to the cash bills of Washington to Visa cards. This economy of fear and finances has changed but its method of oppression remains the same. First, convince people that money is necessary and neutral. This is important. People must believe money is foundational and amoral. Second, wield the power of finance to exploit human lives.

Deflating Financial Economies with the Substance of Community

Hewitt dissects the lie of finance: money is necessary. He exposes money as a hollow ploy. The paradigm that you either have money or you are in debt is false. It turns out money is debt. Documented in his book, he points to the federal reserve printing currency backed by nothing, U.S banks loaning mortgages that they cannot fund and the US GDP requiring 4 dollars of debt per 1-dollar increase (Hewitt, 95-98). Essentially, modern finance uses ethereal fiscal numbers to claim physical resources. These monetary claims greatly exceed actual resources available. It can be deduced, money is debt, the financial system is a ruse, and numeric wealth is an illusion wielded by the powerful.

The weaponized illusion of fiscal wealth masks the reality that concentrated fiscal fortunes are connected to decreased communal wealth and natural resources.

So, what can be done with financial oppression? Hewitt reintroduces alternative ways of exchanging goods and services. In place of the ambiguous and oppressive value systems Hewitt suggests its counterpart, genuine wealth. Unlike Wallstreet, a realm which conjures its existence not from substance but through speculative judgments seeking to capitalize on consumer habits, genuine wealth is formed by substance and sincere relations.

The substance of genuine wealth is the combination of physical goods, food, skills and relationships a person has, both individually and by extension of their community. Wealth in its optimal form is communal, fluid–exchanging hands– and accessible to all.

An example the author gives is ladders. Why should a neighborhood of ten homes have ten thirty-foot extension ladders? Why not one or two ladders? This increases the neighborhoods resources and increases person to person interaction. Generosity or wealth is spread all around.

Consider Erik, the “poorest” and wealthiest person Ben Hewitt knows, “In short what I observed in Erik’s life was an incredibly interconnected, interdependent, community network that shared freely of its resources be they intellectual, physical or material…Erik had in large part usurped the moneyed economy by creating an economy of reciprocation (Hewitt, 139).”

In a community with Erik-like citizens time and resources are abundant. A person should need only the currency of trust to have their needs met. In communities where trust is currency people are generous, responsible and resourceful. They lean on friends and neighbors wielding innovation to meet each other’s needs. Communal trust systems cultivate renewed relationships between people, earth, and Creator, exchanging fabrication for substance.

People participating in either communal or fiscal economies might resemble the following traits.

Generally speaking, people pursuing finance value independence while relying on the accumulation of money and consumer goods. People pursuing genuine wealth value interdependence while relying on the accumulation of relationships and the development of skills. The first group immerses themselves in the unreal of financial speculation and accumulation. The second group immerses themselves in the real of relationships and cultivating innovation. And yet we are all a part of the fiscal system likely falling somewhere between the two systems. Thus, an ever increasing lean out of the fiscal system and into the communal trust economy is paramount.

After reading Hewitt’s book Saved, Andrea and I were able to understand the violent working of the money idol. We clearly understood the need to develop a large store house of communal trust. Likewise, we saw the need to decrease our dependence on money. Not because money and finance can lead to evil. But because money has become the vehicle of evil. It has stratified humanity into no-class, low class, high class. It has stripped forests of trees, polluted ground water with oil and deprived children of food. The lie of money perpetuates homelessness, cultivates war and substitutes communal relationships with personal finance. The truth of community erases hierarchy, cultivates relationships and shared resourcefulness. Humans created money. Therefore, we can undo this mistake by supplanting monetary systems as an act of creating peaceable community.

Jesus as Financial Iconoclast

Perhaps Jesus would have been willing to recommend Ben Hewitt’s book. At times Hewitt draws from the New Testament Canon and shares Jesus’ fiscal iconoclasm. Reviewing Jesus’ sentiment toward money in light of Hewitt’s book sheds light on a peaceable economy. Luke 18 records the story of a young man who wished to join Jesus’ peaceable community. He was told to sell all his possessions first. In Matthew 21 Jesus rages at merchants for turning God’s temple into a market. In Mark 10 Jesus states, “It is much harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” Jesus puts great distance between money and the Kingdom of God through much of his teachings.

Two of Jesus’ teachings confront the economy of money in a profound manner. These teachings face off with the popular American sentiment “In God we Trust” as seen infused on money. A lie so well entrenched it would forge God’s endorsement– the God who turned over money tables and multiplied fish for the masses at no cost!

And so, Jesus’ words ring clearly:

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”- Luke 16:13

As well as “Then Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And they marveled at Him.” Mark 12:17

In the first saying Jesus draws a line in the sand. Serve God or money. Either serve the systemic and deceptive world of money/finances or serve the peaceable community of Jesus. You cannot have two masters. In the second quote, Jesus teaches money belongs to Caesar. Jesus had no interest in the power wielding system of Caesar. This death dealing economy is hollow and Jesus disowns it.

In contrast, Jesus embraces the life-giving economy of God. “Give to God what is God’s.” How beautiful. Life belongs to God. This is not some trite phrase readily consumed and processed. No; it is a stark metaphysical claim. Between the two scriptures above Jesus makes it clear: what belongs to God is life. What belongs to Caesar is death: an empty, hollow fabrication called money.

Jesus endorses a communal ecosystem. He called his peaceable ecosystem the Kingdom of Heaven. Consider the garden of Eden and its founding elements: relationship, cultivation, and abundance. Communal trust systems are much like plants in an ecosystem. Plants take nutrients, process, and give back to the ecosystem. Plants do so patiently and in season. Taking what is necessary while re-gifting what is not needed. Eventually, a tree or bush will fruit abundantly; no one creature can consume its bounty. The communal trust ecosystem involves sharing, patience, and interdependence. Where no one thing or person is labeled as “mine” by fiscal systems but everything is everyone’s according to God’s gift called life.

Unlike the communal system, the ecosystem of money withholds necessities of life until the system is appeased by its ever-shifting financial demands, e.g. inflation. It is a system which takes without thoughtfulness and wastes instead of re-gifting resources. Man authored a fiscal economy which deals in alienation and death.

Thus, the choice is to consume or cultivate, take or give, fearfully grab for control or trust in Jesus’ community of peace. It is a call to acknowledge “money” as ancient evil lie. The choice is relationships restored or relationships fragmented.

Will we bow our knee to the power-based reality of Caesar? Or will we lean into the embrace of peaceable communities of trust?

Acts 2:44-46 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need. 46With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts and to break bread from house to house, sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart.”

Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part II)

What picture of language, meaning, and understanding do we have on display in Augustine’s The Teacher? Perhaps a summary of The Teacher is best for answering that question.

The Teacher takes the form of a dialogue between Augustine and his sixteen-year old son, Adeodatus. The work is one of Augustine’s earliest, a fact he makes plain in Book IX of Confessions, wherein he reminiscences fondly about his late son.

i The purpose for the dialogue is not immediately discernible. It begins by focusing on the problem between human speaker and his relation to signs and language, but it soon “quite logically leads to a consideration of the origin of man’s intellectual knowledge,” as translator of the dialogue Robert P. Russell observes.ii Knowing that later generations will read his works, like The Teacher, and undoubtedly struggle to understand them, Augustine writes at the end of his life Retractions. Retractions, despite its name, is not simply a collection of retractions and improvements on previous statements; it’s also an interpretive guide to the works of Augustine from the man himself. It’s in Retractions that he discloses to us the purpose of The Teacher, saying: “During this same period I composed a book called The Teacher where, after some discussion and inquiry, we find that it is God alone who teaches men knowledge, all of which is also in accord with what is written in the Gospel: ‘One is your teacher, Christ.’”iii The goal of the work therefore is twofold: to discover where human knowledge comes from (Christ), and to evoke trust in the source of that knowledge.

The dialogue begins with Augustine asking Adeodatus a series of probing questions about the purpose of spoken language. After a quick back-and-forth (which becomes characteristic of the work as a whole), Adeodatus concludes, under his father’s guidance, that the purpose of spoken language is twofold: to teach and to remind. Yet, Adeodatus still has some reservations about this understanding of language, particularly as it relates to the examples of song and prayer. Singing, for example, has nothing to do with teaching or reminding; people seem, more often than not, to sing because they simply find pleasure and solace in it. Augustine grants this point, but suggests that songs have no relation to teaching or reminding because, properly speaking, they do not constitute verbal speech. His distinction is ingenious: songs necessarily require melody for their operation; melody is independent of verbal speech (e.g., humming, playing an instrument, etc.); therefore, singing does not qualify as verbal speech. Adeodatus concedes to his father, but argues for an exception: prayer. Adedoatus would willingly concede to Augustine’s account of the purpose of language “were it not for the difficulty that, in praying, we are actually speaking, and yet it is not right to believe that God is taught anything by us, or that we recall something in His mind.”iv In reply, Augustine says that prayer, properly understood, does not require language. Instead, he argues, true and authentic prayer is always inarticulate. True prayer occurs within the interior part of the human; it arises within the heart or “inner chamber,” where the Lord wishes to dwell (cf., Mt 6:6). This is not to deny, of course, that prayer can be spoken; but, when it is spoken, it is “in order that men may hear and, by this verbal reminder, fix their thoughts upon God by a unity of heart and mind.”v Prayer, therefore, is not a species of spoken language. If it were, then it would necessarily teach or remind, just as all spoken language does.

After establishing spoken language’s twofold purpose, Augustine then asks Adeodatus if he agrees that words function as signs for things (or, “realities” as he elsewhere calls them). His son responds affirmatively. Yet, after challenging him to define the realities to which the words nihil and si respectively refer, neither Augustine nor Adeodatus is able to provide an account. They briefly wonder about how such words can be so readily understood and yet not refer to anything at all, but Augustine quickly drops the issue, telling his son that nihil and si must in the end refer to inner states of the mind, which are unobservable. Subsequently, he asks Adeodatus to name the reality to which the preposition ex refers. After trying to define ex by means of another preposition (de) Augustine stops Adeodatus, saying: “I am not asking you to substitute one familiar word for another equally familiar… I am looking for the one thing itself, whatever it is, which is signified by these two signs.”vi Observing that they may have reached a dead end, Adeodatus and Augustine conclude that there must be certain realities that can only be defined ostensively; e.g., pointing at an object. Gestures and bodily movements, therefore, function as signs in the same way that words do.

But words and gestures can also signify other signs, according to Augustine; they do not always name things. He says, “there are signs that manifest signs, and signs that manifest things that are not signs.” Moreover, there are even things that “can be manifested without signs.”vii In this latter case, human beings perform certain activities that simply manifest the thing/reality itself, without having further need to provide signs. For example, if someone were to ask another what dancing is, she could simply respond by dancing, and thereby demonstrate the thing itself. From this discussion, Augustine deduces that there must be a “three-fold division of signs”viii: signs that refer to other signs, signs that names things, and things which require no sign at all.ix Augustine and Adeodatus soon set out to investigate each of these sign groups; and through a series of difficult questions, they learn that this first group of signs can be further subdivided into two. The first subgroup comprises signs that “cannot be signified by those signs which they signify,”x an example being the word “conjunction.” “Conjunction” names things such as “and,” “or,” “for,” etc. Yet in naming these words, “conjunction” is not reciprocally named. The second group, on the other hand, comprises signs that can be reciprocally signified. Augustine gives the example of “word” and “noun.” Through a long, and rather tedious, argument, Augustine contends that all words (i.e., all parts of speech) are, on closer examination, nouns. Since each word names a thing, each word is, by definition, a noun. The only difference between “words” and “nouns” is cosmetic—“words come from ‘striking’, and nouns from ‘knowing’, so that the former has earned its name because of the ear, the latter, because of the mind.”xi

Augustine continues his reflection on signs, moving the discussion toward the latter two subgroups (viz., signs that name things, and things manifested without signs). Concerning the countless examples of this third subgroup (i.e., things signified without signs), Augustine says: “For, apart from the numerous plays performed in every theater by actors who play their part by enacting the events themselves, without using signs, does not God, as well as nature, exhibit and manifest to the view of all, and just as they are, the sun and the light which covers and clothes all the things around us…?”xii From the second subgroup, Augustine argues that we learn the relative unimportance of words. Since words are mere signs for realities, “the realities signified are to be valued more highly than their signs.”xiii And thus Augustine says: “[T]he most I can say for words is that they merely intimate that we should look for realities; they do not present them to us for our knowledge.”xiv This admission leads Augustine to conclude that his earlier account of the purpose of language was wrong: words serve only mnemonic functions, not didactic ones. On his view, words can evoke in the mind of the hearer a recollection of the reality they name, but they can never improve upon the knowledge of the hearer. This is because words are only meaningful insofar as one already knows the things to which they refer. Without such prior knowledge, words are utterly meaningless. Augustine says: “So by means of words we learn only words, or better, the sound and noise of words. For if something cannot be a word unless it is a sign, I still cannot recognize it as a word until I know what it signifies, even though I have heard the word… It is perfectly logical and true to conclude that whenever words are spoken, we either know what they mean or we do not.”xv Words, therefore, are mere mnemonic devices.

Admitting that words carry no didactic function, but serve only mnemonic purposes, naturally leads Augustine to conclude that understanding is fundamentally something that occurs within the individual’s mind. He says: “But as for all those things which we ‘understand,’ it is not the outward sound of the speaker’s words that we consult, but the truth which presides over the mind itself from within, though we may have been led to consult it because of the words.”xvi But this raises the question, “Does this inner consultation not ultimately suggest that the individual is his or her own teacher?” Augustine anticipates this question, and responds to it by arguing that the true inner person the individual consults is not himself or herself, but rather the Lord. He says: “Now He who is consulted and who is said to ‘dwell in the inner man,’ He it is who teaches us, namely, Christ, that is to say, ‘the unchangeable Power of God and everlasting wisdom.’ This is the Wisdom which every rational soul does indeed consult.”xvii No one, therefore, can claim to teach others by means of his or her words—“For he is being taught, not by my words, but by the realities themselves made manifest to him by the enlightening action of God from within.”xviii By divine illumination, the Lord grants understanding to the individual.

The Teacher concludes with Adeodatus summarizing all that he has learned throughout the discussion. First, under the guidance of his father, he has learned that words serve only mnemonic functions; their role is to stimulate the hearer to recall and reflect internally upon the realities to which words name.xix Second, and most importantly, he has learned that understanding is ultimately and finally a divine miracle. He says: “But as to the truth of what is said, I have also learned that He alone teaches who made use of external words to remind us that He dwells within us.”xx The real purpose of language, therefore, is ultimately theological: to trust in the Lord, the one who alone grants understanding to humankind.

i “There is a book of mine, entitled The Teacher. It is a dialogue between Adeodatus and me, and you know that all things there put into the mouth of my interlocutor are his, though he was then only in his sixteenth year. Many other gifts even more wonderful I found in him. His talent was a source of awe to me” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 9.6.14, trans. Albert C. Outler [New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007], 135).

ii Robert P. Russell, “Introduction,” in Saint Augustine, The Teacher (De Magistro) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1968), 4.

iii Saint Augustine, Retractions, 1.12; cited in Russell, “Introduction,” 3.

iv Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

v Augustine, The Teacher, 9.

vi Ibid., 11-12.

vii Augustine, The Teacher, 31.

viii Ibid., 16.

ix Augustine does not explain why he has included this third group into the category of signs.

x Augustine, The Teacher, 31.

xi Ibid., 22.

xii Augustine, The Teacher, 46.

xiii Ibid., 38.

xiv Ibid., 48.

xv Ibid.

xvi Augustine, The Teacher, 51.

xvii Ibid.

xviii Ibid., 54.

xix Ibid., 60.

xx Ibid., 60-61.

Wittgenstein and Augustine on language, meaning, and understanding: A speculative proposal (Part I)

When writing anything important—whether an email, a text, a lesson plan, an essay, a blogpost—there’s perhaps nothing more difficult than knowing where to begin. It should hardly surprise us therefore to learn that even a great mind like Ludwig Wittgenstein struggled immensely to begin his famous Philosophical Investigations—affectionately known by his devotees as “the Investigations.” According to theologian Fergus Kerr, knowing how to begin the Investigations “preoccupied Wittgenstein for many years.”i Now Kerr’s claim may be exaggerated, but it’s nonetheless telling: when writing the Investigations, the beginning mattered for Wittgenstein, and rightfully so, for what he would say at the start of the work would inevitably determine all that would follow.

It’s no accident then that Wittgenstein chose to begin the Investigations by quoting a figure who needs no introduction in the West. That figure is Saint Augustine of Hippo. As for his quote, well, it needs no real introduction either: for despite being casually written with the putative intention of expressing a reflective, but nonetheless passing observation of a juvenile’s emerging first-person awareness and incipient communicative skills, the remark has since been taken by many as a full-fledged account of language, meaning, and understanding. Augustine writes:

When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out. This, however, I gathered from their gestures, the natural languages of all peoples, the language that by means of facial expression and the play of eyes, of the movements of the limbs and tones of voice, indicates the affections of the soul when it desires, or clings to, or rejects, or recoils from, something. In this way, little by little, I learnt to understand what things the words, which I heard uttered in their respective places in various sentences, signified. And once I got my tongue around these signs, I used them to express my wishes.ii

Augustine, Confessions

That so many have, in my estimation, misread this account as Augustine’s exhaustive philosophical account of language, meaning, and understanding is something of an injustice; a literary one to be sure, and thus perhaps a minor one, but an injustice all the same. But so it goes with writing and all forms of communication: all communication is liable to abuse and misunderstanding. Whenever we write, whenever we speak, whenever we gesture, we take a risk. It’s why writing anything at all is difficult. It’s also why it matters that we try to get it right. It’s precisely why the beginning of the Investigations mattered so deeply to Wittgenstein. He wanted to get it right.

And thus the question arises: Why did Wittgenstein begin his work with Augustine? According to the American philosopher Norman Malcom: “[Wittgenstein] revered the writings of St Augustine. He told me he decided to begin his Investigations with a quotation from the latter’s Confessions, not because he could not find the comment stated as well by other philosophers, but because the conception must be important if so great a mind held it.”iii Malcom’s comment is instructive: Wittgenstein admired Augustine, and, contrary to popular reception of the Investigations, he had no desire to dismiss, or even “attack” (to put it in somewhat colloquial terms) the saint’s so-called positions; for all Wittgenstein’s whipping boys (a certain scene with a poker and Karl Popper comes to mind)—well, Augustine was just not one of them. Rather for Wittgenstein, the problem with “Augustine’s picture of how he learned language as a child,” writes literary critic Toril Moi, “is not so much wrong as premature: only someone who already knows what it means to point, and what it is to name something, will be able to follow such instructions.”iv Moi’s point about Wittgenstein’s use of Augustine in the Investigations seems textually indisputable (see PI §4; cf., §32). Augustine’s account is missing something important, and Wittgenstein wants to improve upon it. And since it is Augustine in question, the need to get it right is consequentially momentous.

But does Wittgenstein get it right? Does he, in other words, dramatically improve upon Augustine in the way so many imagine? Does he lead us out of the tenebrous Augustinian cave?

Well… kind of, but not totally. It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s improvement on Augustine is in a certain way insufficient. I say that not because the Wittgensteinian improvement is inherently deficient (it’s not—I’ll argue to the death that it’s not), but rather because it has unwittingly reduced the contributions of one of the most prolific authors in Western history—the Doctor Gratia, the author of the modern autobiography, the greatest theologian of the West (debate me all ye Thomists!)­­­­—to a mere passage. And so it goes that the readers of the Investigations can now say: “Augustine’s picture of language” or the “Augustinian picture of language,” as if that somehow encapsulates all that Augustine had to say about language. Ah, what a shame. I mentioned literary injustices earlier, and now look where we are: we’re back.

Few have written more than Augustine, and few have had a more omnivorous mind than he. Which means, for one, that even when he’s wrong, he’s interestingly so (a point Wittgenstein knew well enough); but two—and this is what’s important—it means that he probably wrote more on language, meaning, and understanding than a mere passage or two. And he did, of course—as theologian Fergus Kerr writes: “It is not clear whether Wittgenstein knew how much more complicated Augustine’s theory of language was: whether, for example, he had read the De Magistro.”v You see, it’s Wittgenstein’s unfamiliarity with the complexity of De Magistro (Eng. The Teacher), his unfamiliarity with the complexity of Augustine’s thoughts on language, meaning understanding, that leads me to say that his improvement on Augustine is insufficient.

But in Wittgenstein’s defense: who really can read the entire oeuvre of a man like Augustine? Life is short, and there’s far more important work to be done. Wittgenstein’s beginning is therefore forgivable. Which means perhaps we can all say, “Wittgenstein, as much effort and time as you put into thinking about how to begin your magisterial Philosophical Investigations, though it may be inadequate, it’s commendable, and we thank thee.”

Eh, that’s boring. It’s also intellectually lazy. Instead, let’s do something far more interesting. Let’s speculate for a moment about what Wittgenstein would have thought about Augustine’s more extensive treatment of language, meaning, and understanding in The Teacher had he chosen to read it. Now that would be interesting. It would also help us say something more definitive about Wittgenstein’s choice to begin with Augustine in the Investigations.

So, let’s begin there.

i Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 2nd ed (London: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1997), 38.

ii Augustine. Confessions, Book I.8; taken from the English translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations, 4th edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 5.

iii Norman Malcom. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 59; taken from Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 39.

iv Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 33.

v Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 56 n 1.

A Christian Devil?

The following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Rios.

Matthew 4:1-11

When talking about Jesus’ temptation it is but inevitable to identify ourselves with Jesus.  After all, everybody is tempted, constantly. But, what about an interpretation in which a Christian can see himself as being Satan? This is a possibility ignored by many because, well, who likes to be called Satan?

In a hermeneutics class with Jason Rodenbeck, a book called “Grasping God’s Word” by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays was used. A comment by Rodenbeck about the name of the book stood out (without demeaning the richness of the book) “the word ‘grasping’ has a violence to it. I’ve got it, I own that. I wish it was ‘being grasped by God’s Word’.” The idea is that the Bible is not something a Christian should hold, but that which holds the Christian.

It is a fact that everybody is an interpreter; and in this case, even Satan is. Satan uses misapplied Scripture to tempt Jesus. Several things must be pointed out: 1) Satan is called by three different words: tempter (v.3), devil (vs. 1, 5, 8, 11), and Satan (v. 10). 2) Satan is using the Word of God to tempt the Word of God (Logos, Jesus). 3) By doing so, he thinks his interpretation of the Word of God is superior to the Word Himself (Jesus). 4) The temptation is luring Jesus to succumb to the culture, religion and politics of this world.

Every teacher of the Bible should be careful about what he learns and teaches (James 3:1). It is not uncommon for teachers and preachers to use Scripture according to their agendas. It is not uncommon for them to believe theological doctrines based on verses out of context. It is not uncommon that their congregations end up believing these theological doctrines, whether they’re correct or not. And this is the reason why I think it is important to stop “grasping the Word of God” like Satan tried to do, and start “being grasped” by it.

The three words that describe Satan in this pericope can describe preachers as well. In Revelation 2:12-17 the Church in Pergamum is rebuked for holding false teachings and for committing acts of immorality. They are warned to repent or Jesus will make war against them with the sword of His mouth (the Word). Immorality and false teaching have crept into the church, many preachers even mishandle Scripture to teach that certain immoralities are no longer immoral, but normal. And so they fall into the first description of Satan, they are tempters. This control over what the Bible “teaches” is what makes them fall into the second description since “devil” comes from the words “calumniate, accuse, repudiate, misrepresent;” they are opposed to what the Bible teaches because they think that their interpretation of the Word is more important than the Word itself, even if or when it is a lie. Because of this misuse of the Scripture and their opposition to it, they become “adversaries” (the meaning of Satan) of the Word itself (Jesus).

Many preachers today use Satan’s strategy to have more “Christians” in their churches. They lure them to “following Christ” by remaining in the kingdom of this world, and by appealing to this world’s idols. There is no change of culture, or religion, or politics. Who would not like to have eternal life without sacrificing a thing? But, in this account Jesus does not fall into Satan’s temptation. Would He –having eaten bread or having thrown Himself from the pinnacle of the temple or worshiped Satan– gone to die on the cross? Not likely. And is it not what Jesus calls Christians to do as well–take up our cross to die (Matthew 16:24)?

Many preachers may not know that what they are teaching is opposed to the Word. And how could they not if they fail to do their homework when it comes to interpreting? “Ignorance is not the same as innocence.”[1] Christians must acknowledge this: bad theology leads to bad practices, many times violent ones. It is every Christian’s task to let himself be grasped by God’s Word in order to have good theology and as result, good practices. Mankind, since Genesis 3, is so used to the violence of seeing, holding, eating and sharing the wrong thing with others because it empowers them. And this is what makes the kingdom of Christ so radical, the citizenship requires the complete opposite of empowerment since it calls to an emptiness and denying of the self.

…the Bible is not something a Christian should hold, but that which holds the Christian.

Satan’s temptations follow his own pattern in Genesis: food, sight, pride. Israel fell on all of these during the wilderness. But Jesus shows a better way by denying His own needs in order to focus on ours. Christians are called to do the same to other Christians. But many, like Israel, fail to do so, or like Satan, they become the enemy to other Christians. What does Jesus call those who do Satan’s will? Those who refuse to be endorsed by a peaceable kingdom and therefore endorsing a violent one? Those who are not willing to give up their culture, religion or politics for a relationship with God? A Christian devil? No, He calls them “son of the devil” (John 8:44). Strong words that may apply to some who think are Christians, but not everyone who says “Lord, Lord…” (Matthew 7:22-23).

[1] This is a quote from the film Batman v Superman  which is thought to be a variation of the line from the English poet Robert Browning who said “Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”

A Christian Reflection on the Antitheses of Voting and Jesus’ Narrow Way

For the first time in almost two decades, I plan to vote in an upcoming election.   I am not proud, nor do I plan to wear an “I voted” sticker.  Mine is a confessional statement.  A repentance.

I am not a “loyal citizen” of the nation, as much as it may offend my close friends.  I am, instead, a person torn between my first and only allegiance to a Kingdom not of this world and the sense I have that the powers of this nation have become more ruthlessly cruel than ever in my lifetime.[i]

You must understand that I am not a Democrat.  I was raised to be a “conservative,” but I found that my reading of the Gospel changed the way I understood the Christian’s relationship to this world’s politics.  As I continued to read Jesus, the apostles, and especially John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel, I realized that none of them (especially Jesus and John the Baptist) ever encouraged Christians to seek power in this world’s power structures.  This was, inherently, anti-Christian (in the sense that it is the opposite of what Christ taught), because the politics of this world are exercised through violence and exploitation of the weak.

Instead, their politic was one which was antithetical to the politics of power and, importantly, their engagement to those politics was purely prophetic.  Apparently, we followers of Christ would not change the world by working our way into the structures of powerful kings and rulers (something Jesus was tempted with when he was tempted in the desert), but we would strive to create an alternative Kingdom—God’s Kingdom—in and among the kingdoms of this world.  And this Kingdom would grow like yeast in a lump of dough or like weeds in a garden to gradually overturn it.

The politics of the King of our Kingdom are about servanthood, humility, and peacefulness–not power, self-aggrandizement, control, and violence.

Few people who call themselves Christian understand the Gospel this way (the way I think we do at Forging Ploughshares).  For this reason, for almost two decades, I have found myself a critic, not just of this world’s power structures, but of people who claim to follow Jesus and who dismiss the message of the gospels as they pursue political power for their chosen party.   The apostle Paul (as Paul Axton has articulated so well, so often) would, I think, call this “doing evil that grace may abound.”

In other words, many of my friends and neighbors, people that I preached to for years, I believe have rejected everything Jesus taught in the pursuit of control of the Supreme Court, for the purpose of overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Being willing to oppress and cage children whose families seek asylum from corrupt governments or gang violence and blindly supporting a man who is accused of sexual assault without even caring whether the claim is adequately investigated because you want to “save unborn babies” is engaging in evil in order to do what you take to be good.

Take, for example, evangelical support for the endlessly corrupt Trump administration.  Or the insanity of the Republicans in the Senate who have hypocritically broken every one of their own rules and run over any opposition no matter who it hurts or who it decimates for the purposes of taking over the Supreme Court (Lindsay Graham’s shouting “God, you all want power!  I hope you never get it!” is, perhaps, the most revealing moment of gas-lit, Freudian slippage I have ever seen on television—Shakespeare could not have written greater irony).

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is, perhaps, the ugliest example of this evil in the Trump era so far.  Acknowledging that the claims of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh were, as yet, not proven, it was clear to nearly any onlooker that the Republicans were dead set against actually looking to see if they were true (and, admittedly, the Democrats were using these women [and any women who have been sexually assaulted] as well).  That said, it was easily apparent that no amount of hash-tagging “MeToo” would affect the steely hearts of a bunch of old rich white men inches away from controlling what they’ve lusted to control for forty years by putting a younger version of themselves in the court—a white man of obvious means with a self-documented history of bullying, carousing, drunkenness, and womanizing privilege.

Meanwhile, the “Christians” I have known in recent years have blindly gone along with it and even defend it—because, they, too, believe in the politics of power over and against the person they call “Lord” on Sundays without realizing that calling Jesus “Lord” means putting oneself at odds with “voting Republican” for the purpose of establishing “good” through power and control.  They do not realize that they have aligned themselves with the very wealthy hypocrites James chastises throughout his letter.

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? James 2:5-7

How could people whose sacred text contains these words have ever thought that putting the world’s greediest, most lecherous and gluttonous sexual predator in the office of president was a means of doing good?  How could they still claim to follow the one who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head?”  Simply put—they can’t.  And the world recognizes it, even if they don’t.  And my neck (along with those of my friends) bears the scars of the people who have tried to behead me for saying so.

That Said…

That said, as much as some of my more progressive friends who are just as angry about the current state of affairs believe that voting “Democrat” this year is our only hope, I don’t.  I do plan to vote Democrat, but only because of my guilt that my “brothers and sisters” whose daily church is Fox News have sold their souls to put evil in power.   And, at this point, I am convinced (however self-deluded I may be) that my voting is not about taking power as much as it is about checking the power of the most evil group of people I can think of.

I feel like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestling with how to confront the political evil of his time.

Today, in response to the Kavanaugh decision, a friend of ours posted a picture of a woman in tears on her Facebook.  Like all things Facebook, one has to trust that the story behind the image is true, but this story seemed plausible.  It was an image of a woman weeping after the Kavanaugh confirmation because she wondered if women who had been sexually assaulted would ever be believed or even heard.

And, at that moment, as much as my friends are urging one another “Let’s hold them accountable at the polls,” the only words I could muster were “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice,[ii] for they will be filled.”  These words, one of the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, promise that in God’s Kingdom, those who are hungry for what is right will be satisfied because they find what is right and just in Jesus’ Kingdom.  This, of course, is not possible in the economy of power of this world’s political structures, no matter which Caesars, kings, or presidents and senators are in power.  This is because the politics of power are antithetical to self-emptying politics of the Kingdom, which is the only true way to peace and real justice.

Yet, this is an idea which is so far removed from our imaginations as to be nearly incoherent.  And it is precisely because we cannot imagine a life without power that it is so.  Or, as Jesus said it, “It’s a small gate and a narrow way to this Kingdom, and few find it,” a statement rarely quoted in today’s Americanized Christianity which sees no tension between Jesus’ call to “let the little children come to me” or “go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me” and turning asylum-seeking children away or the selfishness of prosperity theology.  In a recent conversation in which I argued that VP Mike Pence is not a Christian because of his willingness to participate in and defend kidnapping innocent children whose parents are seeking asylum, I was told, “You’re claiming someone is not a Christian because of their politics?  Come on!”  Apparently, in this new faith, one can do all manner of anti-Christian evil and as long as one calls it “politics” the call of the Gospel is irrelevant.

My response?  “You will know them by their fruit.”

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend which I am hesitant even to share, but which I have concluded indicates that I, also, clearly struggle to find Jesus’ gate.  I told him that even as there is so much public pressure to overcome the tradition of the dismissal of women and children who claim to have been sexually abused or assaulted, I, too, in my darkest imagination (even knowing all of the statistics) have worried about being falsely accused of abuse.  In my heart of hearts, I know that Donald Trump’s vile fear-mongering speaks to a fear deep in my own heart.

My friend, wisely, admitted that this is a legitimate concern and that there are evil women out there as much as there are evil men who could, in fact, take advantage.  But he challenged me back that saying so could only hurt the “movement” which is drawing attention to centuries (millennia) of injustices to women.  There is, I suppose, no shortage of modern naiveté in assuming that such injustices can be cured with the proper application of democracy and social revolution.  But, as he and I talked, it occurred to me that the thing I’m really afraid of is my own vulnerability.  I’m afraid of my own cross.

The truth is, as a man, the socio-political structures in place favor me on this issue, and as a white man, even more so.  And I draw some comfort in that, knowing that a person who makes an accusation may not be immediately believed.   But that position of privilege puts those who are not in it at a disadvantage—one which is easily exploited by the Trumps and (perhaps) Kavanaughs of this world.  And, so, I find myself resistant and worrying that a change in this privilege makes me more vulnerable.  As it must.

Acknowledging, for the moment, that this supports my theory that what is behind all politics of power is fear (fear of insecurity, or of death—which John has told us that perfect love has “cast out”) the real idea that I must accept is that, as a follower of Christ, my own vulnerability is simply an accepted reality, or, more precisely, the entire point.  To follow the one whom the apostle Paul has said, “emptied himself” of power by becoming a human, a servant, and obedient to death on a cross, means that I, too, must empty myself of power (privilege) and become like him, obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Jesus, himself, said, “Pick up your cross and follow” and in another place, “A student is not greater than his teacher,” (meaning, if they did it to me, don’t think they won’t do it to you—be ready).

And this concept is entirely foreign to the pursuit of political power.

This year, I am voting for the first time in nearly two decades.  I do not do it lightly, and I do not do it proudly.  I do it begrudgingly, having agonized about it for nearly two years.  I do it primarily because I recognize the failure of the American churches to articulate the Gospel as Jesus preached it and, in doing so, have adulterated the Gospel of kenosis (self-emptying) for the false gospel of power and nationalism.   I do it because, if all Christians believed as I do, Donald Trump and these power-hungry monsters would not be in power, for all Christians would have seen what was obvious—that what we are seeing is the opposite of our faith, an idolatry of epic proportions, and would have been too busy being salt and light to have been taken in by Trump’s angry, hateful rhetoric.

But, as I vote, I will do it with eyes wide open, knowing that what I am participating in is not the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew so carefully taught us, but the kingdom of this world that is fallen and cruel.  I do it knowing that my real hope for this world is that, after we have been crucified with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him on a new earth, one without earthly kings and presidents, one without powers and principalities, one that is just and peaceful.

I do it, repentantly, praying as John the Revelator did, “Amen.  Even so.  Come, Lord Jesus.”

[i] It is difficult not to hear NT Wright arguing that Jesus’ Kingdom may not be of this world, but it is certainly for it.  In this way, Wright argues for participation in the politics of power and violence, something he can hardly avoid as his church structure is tied to the British House of Lords.  This I take to be an equivocation and a contradiction to of Wright’s own teaching on Paul’s statement that Jesus has disarmed these powers (a question I once had the privilege of posing to Dr. Wright).

[ii] Most often translated “righteousness,” the word from the root dikaios, is likely better translated “justice” (think hunger and thirst for what is right or just).  In the first century, the term “righteousness” carried that sense. In ours, it is more likely to be understood as “personal righteousness” which is often translated to “being cleared of guilt.”  Using the word “justice” helps us to see that this was intended to appeal to those who are oppressed and marginalized, I think.

The Matrix: Revisited

The following is a guest blog by Ray Jewell.

Morpheus: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

I remember when the first of the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix, came out in 1999. Crowds flocked to see the latest thing in movie magic technology. The Matrix took the cosmic struggle of good vs. evil to a much higher plane. And many Christians bought into this movie, hook, line, and
sinker. Continue reading “The Matrix: Revisited”

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

This piece is a part of a larger project which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

It is appointed for each person once to die…and then the judgment.

“Well, she’s coming for a visit.” I said with some anticipation to my little raccoon friend as we crossed the valley on my way back to our mountain.  He’d managed to find me on the way out of town and had been following at a short distance, pausing only when he found something along the way more interesting than me.  Most likely what kept him following was the smell of food coming from my pack.  She had packed a few lunches for me for the trip back: some cheese and bread, one of those caramel apples from the fair wrapped in wax paper, and a bottle of fresh water.  The bandit (I had taken to calling him that) stopped and gave me a quizzical look when I spoke.  I’m never sure whether he’s really understanding me, or just being a raccoon.  But, for a moment, I got the feeling that he was puzzled by my sense of excitement and my anticipation at her visit. Continue reading “Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends”