Hope for Getting Through the Dark Night of the Soul

The darkness of life confronts some more than others and for what, perhaps is a majority, this darkness seems inescapable.  This was brought home to me in the following three vignettes, a Mafia wife, a despairing novelist, and a poverty stricken young girl. The three stories converged upon me this week as a problem for which there is no justification or answer.  In place of an answer I offer counter stories accompanied by poetry and song (weak even in the description); the stories of two men who faced soul crushing despair in a wilderness of hatred, bigotry, and racism, and yet who, like Moses, caught a glimpse of the promised land.  At their lowest point both see beyond the immediate despair and prospect of death and their vision is captured in a moment of transcendent artistry.  The vision of their art is the singular balm, of which I am aware, for the dark night of the soul.  Continue reading “Hope for Getting Through the Dark Night of the Soul”

A Rumor of Angels

When Stan and Vicky found us, Faith and I had been beaten and robbed and left for dead.  They took us in and fed us and cleaned our wounds. We were so disoriented that we did not know what had happened or how to go on.  The gang that got us was not of the club and knife wielding sort and the wounds they inflicted were not physical, which would have made helping us more straightforward.  As it was, we needed the peculiar abilities and the large measure of grace Stan and Vicky had devoted their lives to developing and dispensing. Continue reading “A Rumor of Angels”

Peace as Redemption from the Violence of Sin

The Gospel of non-violence is not simply non-violence tacked onto a typical evangelical or Catholic understanding.  The NT involves a radical sort of belief system characterized throughout by a peace that surpasses human capacities to implement or apprehend.  The peace of the Gospel is attained by a reordering of the world and every aspect of the world (which indicates the pervasive nature of both violence and peace).  Peace stands over and against violence as the key descriptor of the alternative inaugurated in the kingdom of God. It is an alternative mode of social interaction built upon an alternative understanding of God working itself out in an alternative understanding of the atonement. The doctrines which branch out from this Gospel all bear the vitality of peace as life-blood and fruit.

The peaceable Kingdom (ecclesiology) makes peace a lived possibility through a holistic alternative to the pervasive violence (the historical dialectic/conflict, the eternal return to war, the personal agonistic struggle) which marks thought and human interaction in the kingdoms of this world. Just as violence characterizes the principalities and powers of this world and is descriptive of the work of sin, salvation is a peaceable counter Kingdom which serves as the formative basis for a new humanity.  Peace is a discipline to be learned, a form of thought to be implemented, an ethic to be inhabited, and a form of inter-personal relationship to be attained in and through this kingdom.

Paul, in Colossians, equates being in the body of Christ with the rule of the peace of Christ in the heart (Col. 3:15).  Inward peace of the heart cannot be disassociated from the corporate peace of the body of Christ.  Both are directly linked to “letting the word of Christ dwell richly within you” and this in turn is connected to worship, teaching/learning, and the cultivation of thankfulness.  Paul ties “whatever you do in word or deed” to letting this peace rule (Col. 3:16-17). Peace is a holistic descriptor of the economy of salvation and all that it entails.

A hermeneutic built upon a necessary violence (which misses the centrality of peace) will ground this necessity in the person of God (God invokes and uses violence for salvation) worked out in the death of Christ. This violent gospel depends upon a hermeneutic which displaces both the ethic of Christ and the Gospels as interpretive frame. The love of God and the anger of God, in this understanding, are in a conflict which can only be resolved through the death of Christ.  Sin and salvation pertain primarily to a problem and resolution in the mind of God.  God himself directs violence against Christ so as to satisfy his righteousness.  Violence, in this gospel, has an ontological ground and origin surpassing the finitude of humanity.  Divine anger is infinite as is the required payment. Peace is subsequent to this original violence and consists of having achieved a balance in the most primordial of conflicts.  To reverse John Milbank’s description of the peaceable heavenly city, this economy is built on the virtue of resistance to anger and its ultimate domination. The death of Christ is a coercive resolution to a reigning legal necessity.  This heaven is simply the hell of humanity projected into the economy of salvation.

A hermeneutic built upon peace, to the contrary, finds this peace as original to the person of the Trinity.  It will read the death of Christ as the end point of human sin and violence (rather than a result of God’s wrath).  This hermeneutic will, of necessity, be Christocentric in its reading of the NT as the peace of Christ is the only lens which provides this key insight into the immanent Trinity.  In other words, peace describes a reading of the NT which touches upon sin, salvation, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Church, hermeneutics, and anthropology.

As Milbank describes it, in the heavenly city come to earth virtue is not the virtue of resistance and domination but it is grounded in the original peace of God.  Peace is basic to human experience because it is basic to God.  Peace poses the possibility of an alternative life based upon a reconstituted personality in the image of God.

One way of getting at this is the alternative thought form which breaks out of the dull regularity posed by violence.[1]  Divine creativity knows neither the bounds of formulaic thought nor the rut of a personality given over to compulsive repetition. As Ro. 8:2 puts it, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death.”

The law of sin and death describes a law of violence binding to dissolution and death.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” (Ro. 3:12-17, ESV)

In Paul’s genealogy of sin, violence and peace mark two paths. Violence begins with the organs of speech being caught up in deception and turned against God and this gives rise to murder.

In his detailed depiction (in Ro. 7) of the impetus behind this violence the split ‘I’ (doing what it does not want and unable to do what it wants) demonstrates how the law holds out a fullness of being – promising life (wholeness or completeness as the object cause of desire) but ending only in an agonistic struggle to the death (7.16-20).  This struggle is all consuming, and in Paul’s description, it seems to include corporate humanity represented by Israel and individual persons represented by Adam.  Paul describes this life in the flesh as a life of slavery to fear, deception, and violence, and life in the Spirit is posed, over and against this way of violence, in chap. 8 as the way of peace.

The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became ‘another law’ (ἕτερον νόμον).  This law, however, is voided (along with all of its violent machinations) by Christ.  The punishing effects of the law of sin and death no longer bind, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8.1-3) who ushers in the law of life in the Spirit. This then will result in the capacity to ‘walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit’ (8.4).

This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which Paul characterizes as the path of life and peace (8:6).  Paul describes this new mindset as one that one is enabled to suffer and absorb violence so that those who suffer with Christ will be glorified together with him (8.17). We may be subjected to violent futility and death but this violence no longer defines the Christian.

 Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Ro. 8:36-7, ESB)

The Spirit of life is a departure from the universally binding law of violence and death. Christ’s death defeated death and we participate in this defeat as we absorb violence.  We conquer by turning from participation in the violence of the world through the love of Christ.

[1] Thus, the typical conversation in opposition to non-violence – the “what if” scenarios which present a situation in which violence is seemingly the only resolution – are themselves a proof that there is a logic which constrains its bearers rather than the other way around. Thought is reduced to something on the order of mechanics so that the capacity to imagine an alternative world is demonstrably foreshortened.  The dull regularity with which the “what if” scenarios repeat themselves is on the order of a neurosis.  The compulsion to repeat, which Freud found was the consistent indicator of neurosis, binds thought in an imprisoning pattern.  Rather than an avenue for understanding, creativity, and growth, thought begins to cannibalize its host through its constrained regularity.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Ro 8:36–37). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

Beyond Medicine, Miracles, Reason, and Science: What Difference Marks the Experience of the Christian?

I was asked this excellent question recently and wanted to share the thoughts it provoked.

“Is preaching all there is to the kingdom of God in this present age? Does God not work miracles through men anymore? Must we have only rational ideas to be in the kingdom of God?” Continue reading “Beyond Medicine, Miracles, Reason, and Science: What Difference Marks the Experience of the Christian?”

A Depth of Learning for a Depth of Fellowship

Is there a formula for successful Christian community? What I wanted as a young Christian, and could not find, was a fellowship of disciples which could learn and flourish together.  The inner fellowship of three, the group of twelve, the seventy, and the mentor who would impart a depth of learning and experience—we all want to experience an abiding depth of love in an intimate group. We want to do life together!  So, what prevents this from happening? Continue reading “A Depth of Learning for a Depth of Fellowship”

The President’s Two Bodies: “We the People” and Donald Trump

The infantile, imbecilic, morally degenerate, or simply very ordinary individual can be a monarch as the office itself has a life of its own which the mere mortal marks. Though he or she may suffer complete dementia, his or her body animates and localizes what was often presumed to be an eternal order of law and power. This power is precisely carnal – of the flesh – as opposed to the realm of the spirit.  It is a biopolitical power in that it depends upon and makes itself evident in the carnal dimension. Thus, the king cannot break the law as he embodies the law. He is not subject to the law but creates subjects in both a political and physical/personal sense.  The royal power to discipline, punish, penetrate, demarcate, and procreate, whether by judicial decree, military might, or sexual prowess, is, by definition, physical. It is pure biopolitics in that it is synonymous with an incarnate power. Royal power does not just depend on physical spectacle, it is this spectacle marked out in the realm of the flesh: the more spectacular the more powerful. The question is what happens to this pure power of the law, connected to the royal body, in a democratic society? Where the people are collectively sovereign can the rule of law be dispersed in the corporate body or does the sublime royal body tend to protrude through some individual – an “organ” of state?[1] Continue reading “The President’s Two Bodies: “We the People” and Donald Trump”

Can Christ Save Us from “Christianity”?

David B. Hart, in introducing his translation of the New Testament, describes a faith so strange that what we now call “Christianity” only vaguely resembles the original.[1] He claims that due to poor translation, theological misdirection, and a failure to grasp key terms, that we have missed that the first Christians were extremists. In pursuit of an alternative society and kingdom, they rejected society, “not only in its degenerate but its decent and reasonable form.” Hart uses the example of the contrast of modern Christian notions of personal wealth and what the New Testament actually says, to demonstrate how far removed we are from first century teaching.  Wealth per se is not evil, in the typical modern understanding, only its misuse or the wrong orientation to it.  We are so attuned to this misinterpretation, according to Hart, that we know exactly where to turn and what verses support it.  Yet, it is precisely from among these verses that he unfurls his irresistible case: The New Testament teaches that personal wealth is intrinsically evil. He concludes, after several pages of demonstrating the point, “the biblical texts are so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp their import.”[2]  Continue reading “Can Christ Save Us from “Christianity”?”

Beyond Complementarianism, Slavery, and Bigotry, to Truth

The great reversal instituted by Christ is expressed in the New Testament as the move from law to grace, from shadow to substance, or from promise to fulfillment.  John describes it in cosmic terms as the displacement of one world for another and Paul describes it as the displacement of the principalities and powers and the dominion to which we were all once subject.  He works it out in detail in his description of how we are freed from the law in Christ.  The metaphors used to describe this are adoption into a new family, redemption from slavery, entering a new kingdom, or being made righteous.  The language of marriage, new birth, and transfer of citizenship gets at the impact of this reversal. I would argue that what is being described is not a series of reversals worked out in different realms but one great reversal which applies to every realm. To miss it at the universal level will mean a misunderstanding of the particulars. There might still be male/female, slave/free, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories mean something different. The slave is now the position to be sought, Jew is no longer an exclusive but a universal category, and female or bride describes those joined to Christ. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and an alternative grammar transforms their meaning.  If one has missed this deep grammatical shift (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) it is to miss the transvaluation (in Nietzsche’s phrase) of Christianity. Continue reading “Beyond Complementarianism, Slavery, and Bigotry, to Truth”

Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?

Harvey Weinstein, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump –  the list of prominent men who abuse women could be added to from every walk of life: comedians, athletes, political figures, and of course prominent religious figures.  Harvey’s brother describes him as an abusive bully who regularly insulted and hurt those around him.  He said he is unrepentant for his actions and is incapable of remorse.  The figure that came to mind with Bob Weinstein’s description of his brother was the administrator at the college where Faith and I worked.  His open misogyny and abuse of power will continue, as with Harvey Weinstein, because grievance and complaint were squelched by the institution.  While his forte was not private sexual assault but open cruelty and abuse, the wall of silence is the same. Continue reading “Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?”

Halting the Brain Drain by Creating Space to Think

The brain drain within conservative Protestantism is a trend with which those in a position to know are well aware.[1] There are many factors which may lead to this disaffection: reduction of worship to entertainment, irreverent humor and general lack of depth, an absence of certainty, unity, and authority, a stunted history and tradition, a counter-liturgical casualness. . .  Among intellectuals all these factors may play a part but ultimately many find themselves in something of a homeless condition – the shallow intellectual tradition of evangelicalism means they are without any sort of organized or institutional support. Especially among those who would devote themselves to theology, many soon discover they have educated themselves out of their own communion. Continue reading “Halting the Brain Drain by Creating Space to Think”