I get that doctrine is important to the life of the Church. Doctrine is part of the Church’s call to bear witness to the work of God in Christ, and it can be both an act of worship, as well as a catalyst in bringing the Church to it’s knees in worship. And yet, for all this, I often sense that beneath doctrinal articulations is a hard flexing of the will-to-power, that doctrine is itself the product of an aching desire for exacting control.
The sage of Proverbs states, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” On the other hand it’s also true that there is a way that appears to be death, but its end is life. This is the testimony of the Cross. The hitch in both of these instances, is having the discernment to see through the appearance of things to the substance and end towards which they lead us.
I know many people were surprised by Robin Williams suicide, but given the relationship between comedy and sorrow, was it really such a surprise? Comedy has its roots in tragedy, deep insecurity, and loneliness, and we laugh at comedians because they give us a socially acceptable way to vent our own insecurities and fears, without being so damn vulnerable in the venting. On some level I knew Robin was lonely, depressed, and hurting, for the hurting in me resonated with the hurt in him, and it is this resonance that caused many of us to connect with him. Like many, I am saddened by his passing, but I am also disturbed, because when a comedian dies by suicide it is a bracing reminder that laughter, as good as it is, is not enough. We need vulnerability because it is the key to connection: to genuinely knowing others and being fully known, and living in connection is the kind of creatures we are.
Having said this, I realize that depression, clinical depression, adds a biological depth to the relational dynamics I am describing, such that a depressed person can have many significant relationships, and yet the depression keeps them from meaningfully engaging those relationships. In rooting depression in tragedy and loneliness I don’t mean to undermine the biological aspect of depression. I just want to acknowledge how all of us, whether we are clinically depressed or not, have a share in Robin’s pain, because, living in a fallen world, none of us are unscathed.
As I am writing my way through this, it occurs to me that laughter points to compassion, and compassion is what we really need. Laughter is sometimes a blessed reflection of compassion, and sometimes its dim shadow. Like laughter, compassion connects us to one another through our pain and insecurity, but unlike laughter, compassion is always vulnerable. As I said before, this vulnerability is so hard to accept, and is likely why genuine compassion is hard to find. Yes, we all feel compassion at times, and express it here and there, but to live in compassion requires that we be at home in our vulnerability, and that is just too much.
So, where am I going with all this? Simply put, I’m just processing, and hopefully moving towards compassion even as I laugh along the way. I’ll just finish by saying, “God have mercy on Robin; God have mercy on me, and God help me to live in compassion by embracing my vulnerability, and thereby learn to laugh with unyielding joy.”
Here is another letter that I am sharing because having the opportunity to respond to these concrete, heart-felt, and existential questions gives me the opportunity to unpack the implications of the Gospel to the realities of every day life. As always, I hope reading this is thought provoking and edifying.
Dear Ms. O,
Regarding your questions about marriage, Wow! That’s a lot to process particularly in trying to give such a subject its proper due. I would say that marriage is one of the basic elements of society, as it takes a natural reality, the biological impulse for procreation, and it directs it toward something greater: the development of civilizations and all the good it can bring into our life. I would also say that from a Christian perspective it is a profound theological reality, as it potentially mirrors the dynamics of the life of the Trinity, and is a kind of living parable of Christ’s relationship to the Church. With this context in mind, the character of a potential mate is one of the key factors to consider, and by character I don’t mean perfect moral character, but rather qualities that are critical for a person to have in order to be open to growth and to sustain good relationships. I suppose good conversations could be had about what these characteristics are, but off of the top of my head a person should be relatively humble, honest, at least moderately considerate of others, principled and yet open-minded. If two people possess these qualities I believe that on the whole they will be able to navigate the promises and pitfalls that two imperfect people face when living the challenges of life together.
You asked why it is that people get married and what is marriage’s purpose. In some ways these questions are intertwined. Of course the personal reasons why people get married are diverse, with some reasons being more noble than others. I think on some basic level we have a deep drive to connect with others in an intimate way, and marriage is the avenue for expressing the deepest intimacy, body and soul. Often people approach marriage seeking self-fulfillment, which is not bad, but it can become idolatrous, and in the world often is idolatrous. I mentioned marriage mirroring the dynamics of the Trinity, which specifically is being-in-communion, a deep sense of one’s self in the giving of one’s self to the well being of the other. In the Trinity this is the Father eternally begetting the Son, and the Father eternally processing the Spirit, and the Spirit intimately moving through the Father’s begetting of the Son, as well as the Son’s response of self-giving obedience to the Father. This means that the Father knows himself in and through the Son, and the Son in and through the Father, and the Spirit in and through the Father and the Son. I could go on, but the point is that each distinct person has himself in and through the self-giving relationship to the other. In other words, the fulfillment of each is found in self-giving to the other, and in God this distinct self-giving is so complete and without reservation that they are substantially one, one being. Marriage, in a limited human way is supposed to be this reality in time and space, and marriage goes awry or dies when the two involved either become enmeshed, which means the loss of distinction of the two members, or when the two members never really give of themselves to the other in a self-sacrificing way, which is the loss of communion. Most often marriages die because the two people of the marriage are using the other for their own self-fulfillment, which, from a Xian perspective, goes against the most foundational law of the universe, the law based on the very being of God. This is the problem of sin, and this is why in marriage much grace is needed.
Regarding how you know you are ready for marriage, I am not sure how to answer that. Throughout my dating life I lived in great ambiguity and uncertainty about these things. This uncertainty about readiness and finding “the one” is in part because of the complexity of relationships, but at a deeper level, it was about my own brokenness. Fortunately, graciously, God acted in my life by confronting an idol I had long been laboring under, and that confrontation freed me so that I knew I loved Paula, and soon after I proposed. I don’t think my experience is common, nor do I think it should be, as it is more likely a testimony about my brokenness and God’s grace, than it is an expression of how God moves in people’s lives to bring them together. During the time in my life that I was dating Paula, I remember having a discussion with a brother about marriage and making the right decision, and I remember him telling me that “It’s not about making the right decision, but about making the decision right.” Obviously that stuck with me. As I see it, this notion frees us from the search for “the one” or “the soul mate” who is going to bring self-fulfillment, and moves us toward considering whether the person we are attracted to has the qualities to face the challenges of life together, as well as opening us to the grace we will need to overcome our own brokenness, however it has taken shape in our life. It is this kind of wide-eyed perception of both the realities of human sinfulness, especially our own, as well as the promises and possibilities of marriage, as a reality patterned after the Trinitarian life of God, that provides a good foundation for marriage.
Peace be with you.
Below is a letter I sent to a friend who had a question about the relationship of body, soul, and spirit with respect to human nature. I offer this letter as a post, for a few reasons: it’s been too long since I have posted anything, it provides some clarity regarding a subtle aspect of human existence, and I found that in the process of writing I experienced some grace for myself, and I hope that it might provide grace for others.
Dear Ms. R,
Regarding your response to Beth Moore’s presentation of the tripartite model of human nature, I think typically it is not the most biblical way to understand human nature, as it owes more of a debt to Greek philosophy than it does to the Scriptures, but neither is it completely off, or outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in fact, it is sometimes a helpful model to use. Before continuing, let me say that theological language is analogical in nature, and so when we talk about spiritual things we are always going to construct models to represent the reality as it is in-and-of-itself, however, this representation means that there is some functional semblance between the models we use and the reality they point to, and this furthermore means that some models will be better, and in our case, more biblically sound, than others.
Going back to Beth Moore’s presentation, I think it is helpful to make this distinction, particularly in a pastoral setting, when we can help people understand that their emotions, which the tripartite model equates with the dynamics of the soul, is not the touchstone to determine how things are in one’s relationship with God, who is Spirit. One could have feelings of elation and yet not be in union with God. Likewise, one could be in the dumps emotionally, and yet be in a state of gracious union with God. Again, our emotions are not the touchstone in discerning this. However, this does not mean that emotions should be ignored. We are, after all, not Stoics, and so, emotions should be addressed, but on the right foundation, which most essentially is the grace of God uniting us with God through the Cross by the Spirit. Our emotions reveal our perceptions, and patterns of thought about such things as our identity, the nature of God, and the nature of the world in which we live, and often our patterns of thinking are diseased, sometimes horribly so. (Can I get a witness?!?) So, a part of maturity requires that we address these patterns and perceptions, and allow the Spirit of God, who works at a level deeper than our thinking (spirit to Spirit) to renew our minds through the Word of God, as it leads us into the gracious ministry of the Living Word.
Now that I have communicated a little about how this model can be helpful, let me address where it can go wrong. In short, under the influence of Greek metaphysics, this tripartite model can lead us into thinking that human kind is some kind of composite of three substances: body substance, soul substance, and spirit substance, that are somehow integrated yet, when push comes to shove, completely distinct. From better biblical minds than my own, I have heard that the Scriptures tends towards a model of human nature that has been referred to as holism, where these three parts of human existence are more a matter of angles of approach than substances. Humankind is one unified, holistic reality that can be viewed as body, as soul, as spirit, and each of these factors of human existence are essential to human being. Teasing this out with you, I posit that we could say that the body is the surface and empirical dimension of the soul, and the soul is the depth, and intangible dimension of the body, and the words “body” and “soul” are useful in referring to different perspectives of a singular whole. Likewise, the spirit is depth dimension (can I say depthest dimension?), but specifically denotes that aspect of human existence that is capable of communion and union with God. This is why the spirit is dead when the person is alienated from God, because the meaning of spirit, from a biblical perspective, is that relationship with God: we have ourselves in relation to God, and outside of that relationship we don’t have ourselves. Instead what we have is something we call the self that is really the sum total of biological and socio-cultural forces, with the spirit, such as it is, making limited choices within a closed and constricted system that is perishing. This is why, outside of Christ, we perish with the world, we literally lose ourselves, because in a real sense we never had ourselves.
After all this, you may be thinking, “Okay, fine, I get the difference, but how does it matter with respect to effective Christian living?” Even if you aren’t thinking this, I am still going to address it, because as you know, ideas have consequences. First let me say that it is not completely clear to me what are the consequences in failing to make this distinction between the tripartite model and the model of biblical holism. Rather, I think we, on principle should go with the model we best perceive in Scriptures, and trust that our understanding of the consequences will follow. That said, one critical, indeed very critical, issue that comes to mind is that the significance of the Resurrection is more clearly seen in the holistic model, for in this model Jesus’ bodily resurrection means our total salvation. In the other model one could think, “I accept that Jesus was bodily raised, but what does that have to do with righting my soul, and bringing life to my spirit?” Keep in mind, however, that this question can only be asked in the tripartite framework, for in the holistic framework body, soul, and spirit are different facets of one whole. Thus, to raise the body is to heal the soul, and this resurrection is the sign that the spirit is in communion with the Spirit of God.
Now my mind is racing, and there is so much more I want to say about sacramental realities, incarnational spirituality, and the sanctified senses and imagination, as well as how all this ties into cultural engagement and culture making, but grades are pressing, and I think enough has been said for the present moment (Jesus, help me live in the present).
Peace be with you.
Perhaps in the end the final question is: “By the work of whose hands do you live?” Are you going to live by the work of your hands, and be the sum of all you’ve done? Or, are you going to be the work of God’s hands, hands that were pierced to embrace you, remake you, and make you His own? Perhaps in the end God will merely look for the hands that shaped you.
In thinking about why I am a bit uncomfortable with fundamentalist Christians, even though they share many of my theological convictions, an analogy occurred to me wherein the Christian faith is much like a symphonic piece, and the Fundamentalists, as well as a whole host of Evangelicals, are singing the basic melody, but are missing the whole symphony, a wonderfully complex orchestral piece that has a clear melody, but a melody that throughout the whole of the orchestration is repeated with a slight variation on a consistent theme, and where there are echoes of the melody, counter-melodies (which heighten the tension of the melody) and where there is vocal and instrumental harmony, all of which provides texture, depth, and breadth to the song that is Christianity. The main problem, however, is not that they are merely singing the melody, but that they too often think that the mere melody is the whole orchestration, and too often they are suspicious of those parts of the larger orchestration that go beyond the basic melody. In short, its like their souls have become attenuated by only listening to the pop version of the Christian faith.
I love coffee. I love it more than I should. This I know, because my sensitive digestive system often tells me so; nevertheless, I love coffee so much I often ignore what it says. This post, however, is not about my physiological responses to coffee, but about a disparity in my experience of coffee, which is that coffee never tastes as good as it smells at that moment when it is being ground. That smell is like heaven crashing my senses, like God has said, “I will enter the world as an aroma” and when that aroma hits, I am suddenly lulled into a deep sense of contentment, peace, and that everything is aligned, both in the world out there and the world within. It’s almost a mystical experience, a sudden sense of oneness, but the problem is that this sense passes all to quickly, and I am left bereft with only a faint memory to sustain me.
Now that I think about it, this post is about my physiological responses, as I am convinced that body and spirit are two-sides of one coin, and when the aroma of coffee hits my senses, catalyzing a whole series of hormonal responses, I am certainly expressing both the psychosomatic dimension of human existence, as well as the capacity of these physiological responses to engage my spirit at a deep level. Again, the aroma hits, and I am one with God, everyone, and all things. This phenomena reinforces my deep sensibility that ultimately all things are sacramental, that God ordained in the structure of creation that the material can participate in the spiritual, and that the senses, when rightly trained, can lead us into the presence of God.
So, in thinking this through, I’ve decided I’m gonna start carrying around a battery powered coffee grinder, and some fresh coffee beans in a vacuum pouch, and when I start getting, anxious, frustrated, or angry, which is far more often than I want any of you to know, I am going to pull out those beans, grind them, and be one with all things and everyone.
May Sumatra be with you…
sacramentally of course, as only God can give peace.
Every morning I wake to see the top picture above hanging on the wall just to the left of my bed, a picture of an Italian village near a river. And every morning through the lens of anthropomorphising imagination I see, amidst the buildings of this village, a little face expressing something like anxiety with a touch of fear. It’s as if this building, in a moderately high-pitched, cartoon-like voice is saying, ”Uh… anyone see those approaching storm clouds???”
Below is a link to a good article on why some Millennials are leaving mainstream Evangelcial churches and crossing the liturgical threshold into Rome, Constantinople, or Canterbury. In short, they are looking for historical rootedness and tradition, a deep connection between the spiritual and the material, and an intimate connection between truth and beauty. Personally, I resonated with the testimonies of the people who were interviewed in the article, particularly when it came to the concerns expressed by one gentlemen regarding the move by many Protestant churches to incorporate more liturgical styles in their own worship. In his words, “such stylistic treatments dodge the real question: the issues of church authority behind the traditional liturgy.” It seems to me that the traditional liturgies are organic in nature, having emerged from the common life and wisdom of the Church as it moved through and developed over time, and in my experience these liturgies have more presence, as if they act sacramentally to communicate the work of the Spirit amidst the multigenerational work of the people. By contrast, the modern move among Evangelicals and Protestants to recover aspects of ancient liturgies for their own worship is at risk of treating liturgical history as a buffet to choose from without submission to a greater reality than their own theological sensibilities and convictions. As the above gentlemen said, such an approach too often evades questions regarding the authority of the Church. I don’t see this evasion as necessarily intentional, however, as the nature of both the Church and authority are complex and sensitive issues.
However you weigh in on this issue, I recommend reading the article, which is titled “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy” and was written by Gracy Olmstead, who is the associate editor for The American Conservative.