Freedom Thanksgiving

My new book Stranger God is out, and so much of the story of that book was formed by my life at Freedom Fellowship.

Saturday was our Thanksgiving themed meal for our monthly gathering. (We share a meal and worship service every Wednesday, and once a month on the third Saturday.) Darla put hours into cooking the main meal of turkey and dressing. Jana and I brought macaroni and cheese for a side.

The place was packed as we received a van-load of friends from the 180 House, where men and women are walking the long road to recovery. The sun is setting early now, so Tim put out the Christmas lights over the picnic table area. Mr. John, who you meet in Stranger God, was distressed last night. So I helped him get his plate of food.

The Pringles led our worship, as they traditionally do. Herb, my co-teacher out at the prison, was on lead electric guitar. As a worship leader, I always appreciate Rod's vulnerability, his tears quick to surface when he feels emotional about something. Charles and Linnie brought us to the Table. I helped bring the bread and juice to Judy, who you also meet in Stranger God, as she was feeling too dizzy to go down front. Patrica gave out the hugs. Hugs as a part of Eucharist is a Freedom tradition.

Kimberly, a recent graduate from FaithWorks, a Highland ministry that does job training for the unemployed and underemployed, shared her testimony. Kim grew up with a mentally ill and suicidal mother, has struggled with addictions, and has been incarcerated multiple times. But God is restoring her. Kim's story is a typical Freedom story.

After church I drove friends home. Kim and Amber to their transitional housing. Maria and Josh to their parent's house.

The subtitle of Stranger God is "Meeting Jesus in Disguise." Freedom is a place I go to meet Jesus.

And while I can make it sound romantic, it really is all very quite ordinary. Just like it was this Saturday.

Prison Diary: The Crookbook

I can't recall if I've shared this yet, but a few months ago I had this idea to publish a prison cookbook, asking the men in the Monday night Bible study to share their best prison recipes. Along with the recipes, the book would also share spiritual reflections from the men in the study. Prison cookbooks have been published before, but this one would be for a Christian audience.

Well, I'm happy to announce that this cookbook is becoming a reality!

Having pitched the idea to the guys, last week they gave me a homemade, handwritten prison cookbook. Complete with drawn illustrations and a Table of Contents. Entitled The Crookbook, it has over twenty-five recipes. 

Currently, I'm typing up the recipes and am going to start having people test the recipes in their own kitchens to provide feedback. Soon I'll start collecting spiritual reflections from the men in the study. And then I'll start looking for a publisher. I'll keep you posted, especially if The Crookbook gets published. Proceeds to go to a charity picked by the Men in White.

The Gospels: King James Version

I've been using the King James Version a great deal in my personal and devotional reading. It's the Flannery O'Connor, Johnny Cash influence upon me. I like to read about the "Holy Ghost."

Trouble is, I don't like most of the KJV editions out there. Most KJV editions present the text in a verse-by-verse format in double columns. I prefer my translations in paragraph, single-column format, like you'd have in a novel.

Recently, I discovered that Oxford Press' KJV edition of the gospels presents the text in a paragraph, single-column format. It also has two other features I like: dropping the italic font and adding quotation marks.

In the KJV whenever the translators added a word that wasn't in the original text they put it in italic font. I appreciate their goals with this choice, but the mixed font is aesthetically unpleasing. Also, in the KJV they didn't use quotation marks. Quotes are set off by a capital letter. You get used to this if you use the KJV a lot, but quotation marks are preferred.

All that to say, if you're looking for an entry point with the KJV let me recommend the Oxford Press gospels. It's cheap and portable, the kind of Bible you can throw into a backpack or briefcase, and has a nice modern, novel-like layout.

A Devil's Cauldron of Wickedness

As scandal after scandal breaks about powerful men sexually assaulting women--from Donald Trump to Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. to Roy Moore--along with the spotlight shown by #MeToo on the scope and ubiquity of sexual harassment, I think it's way past time to admit that sex and power is a devil's cauldron of wickedness.

Sex and power is a toxic combination. When the male libido is embedded within a power hierarchy women and children are going to be harassed, assaulted and abused. Male dominated power hierarchies are simply unsafe. I don't think this can be disputed.

Consequently, one of the biggest reasons we should strive to be egalitarian in gender roles is also one of the simplest and most loving: Safety.

If we care about protecting women and children, women must share power with men. Not only will egalitarian power structures reduce the incidence of abuse, harassment, and assault, egalitarian power structures will respond to incidents of abuse, harassment, and assault with greater moral and legal seriousness. Harm is reduced and cover ups harder to accomplish.

Patriarchy--the rule of men--is simply not safe.

An Act of Will

Last week I was invited to speak to some of our undergraduate students about how to study for finals.

I pondered that invitation, thinking about what I might say, and nothing really came to mind. At the end of the day, the only advice I felt I could share was this:

Studying isn't a technique, it is an act of will.

To be sure, there are techniques to memorization and practice. But the appeal and effectiveness of those techniques vary from person to person. Regardless, when push comes to shove there's no way around memorization. You just have to do it. You have to put in the time and the work. There is no technique to it. There is no trick. It's just work. Studying is an act of will.

This observation about studying put me in mind of the series from last week about intentionality. At the end of the day, there is no technique to spiritual formation. True, we rely upon the Holy Spirit, but to get the ball rolling with spiritual formation, and keep it rolling, boils down to an act of will.

You've no doubt heard the story about turtles and cosmology from the life of William James:
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, madam?" Inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James – it's turtles all the way down."
In our search for tips, tricks, and techniques--from how to study, to how to lose weight, to how to become more organized, to how to improve our prayer life--we want to believe that it's turtles all the way down.

"Here," someone offers us, "try this tip, trick, or a technique."

"Super!" But then we ask, "How do we do this tip, trick, or technique?"

"Well, here is another tip, trick, or technique that can help you with the first tip, trick, or technique."

"Fine," we say, "but what can help me with that tip, trick, or technique?"

We want there to be tips, tricks, and techniques all the way down. But this can't go on forever. At some point the answer simply has to be:"You just have to do it." It starts with an act of will. Techniques can help, but the first domino that has to fall is a choice, a decision, a resolution, an act of will. Spiritual formation starts, to use biblical language, with metánoia.

That's true of studying, and it's true about living like Jesus.

Yes, there are techniques, and there might even be tricks and shortcuts along the way, but it all begins and ends with an act of will.

Prison Diary: The Greatest Commands

You know we like to sing out at the prison. It's one of the most life giving things we do.

Two weeks ago I introduced the Men in White to a popular song in our tradition, "The Greatest Commands."

The song features, as all good Church of Christ singing does, four part harmony. The twist with "The Greatest Commands" is that each voice is singing different words. The words are a mixture of I Corinthians 13 and 1 John. The lyrics:
Alto:
Love one another, for love is of God.
He who loves is born of God;
And knows God.
He who does not love, does not know God,
For God is love, God is love, God is love.

Bass:
Love bears all things,
Believes all things,
Love hopes all things,
Endures all things.

Tenor:
God is love, God is love, God is love.
God is love, God is love, God is love.
God is love, God is love, God is love,
God is love, God is love, God is love.

Soprano:
Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
With all thy soul, all thy strength,
All thy mind.
Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
For God is love, God is love, God is love.
To hear the harmony lines on piano click here. To hear voices singing the parts click here.

This song is huge in the Churches of Christ. I absolutely love it. So I was excited to try it out with the guys in the study. They can't really read music, we're not all that great at harmony, and, obviously, we don't have altos and sopranos.

But we did get three the first three parts off the ground, the alto, tenor and bass lines. I had groups of guys who got the various parts down come up front and sing with each other, holding their lines while I introduced the next. That's as much harmony as we've ever pulled off! We've got a new song under our belts.

A blessed night. Goodness, how I love singing out at the unit.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 4, Fruitful Intentionality

What's the biggest problem with Christianity?

In my opinion, it's the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit.

Let's ask the question again: Why aren't Christians any different from other people? I think the answer is pretty obvious: Christians don't approach the Fruit of the Spirit with any intentionality.

My biggest problem with Christian spiritual formation efforts is the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit. Somehow, prayer and fasting are supposed to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I'm not wholly convinced that's the case, all things being equal.

Here's a crazy idea: I think you cultivate something like patience by being focused and intentional about being patient.

For example, my recent book Stranger God is one big argument that you cultivate kindness by adopting practices that make you more intentional about being kind.

You acquire the Fruit of the Spirit when you become focused and intentional about each particular fruit. In a specific, focused and intentional way you go after gentleness, joy or peace. Because without this specific, intentional focus nothing is going to happen. You'll just drift.

Let me give a concrete example about what I'm talking about.

A year ago in our small group we were contemplating how to spend our time. One suggestion was to make our time a space of sharing and prayer. We'd come together and go around the group sharing how our week had been--the consolations and desolations--and then we'd conclude by praying for each other.

I think this is a very common approach to Christian community and spiritual formation in churches. Get people in small groups to have them "share life" and pray for each other.

This approach to spiritual formation is wonderful for reducing loneliness, helping people feel known and connected, but I don't know if it helps form Christ-like character traits. "Sharing life" tends toward the therapeutic rather than toward virtue. "Sharing life" mostly involves me sharing how shitty my week has been at work, or how worried I am about my kid, so I can get some encouragement, advice and support. All wonderful and vital things, especially if you've had a shitty week at work. But "rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep" isn't spiritual formation or transformation.

So when my small group was having this discussion I suggested the following: "What if, when we come together to share, we filtered our week through a fruit of the Spirit? We share consolations and desolations about, say, patience or kindness. We'd still be sharing about our week, but we'd also be keeping a focus on how we're imitating (or not imitating) Jesus."

My suggestion was all about focus and intentionality. If you aren't intentionally focused on, say, patience, you'll never become more patient. This seems obvious, but few Christians approach spiritual formation this way. We spend enormous amounts of time "sharing life" or learning about spiritual techniques (like prayer), and almost zero time being intentional about cultivating a specific Fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

We fail to focus on the Fruit of the Spirit in any intentional way and, thus, fail to become fruitful.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 3, How Spiritual Disciplines Miss the Mark

It's a truism in the spiritual formation literature that if you want to form Christ-like character you have to involve yourself in spiritual disciplines.

I disagree. I think the general understanding of spiritual disciplines in Christian circles has profoundly missed the mark and kept a lot of Christians stuck.

To be clear, I think the spiritual disciplines can and often are a vital part of spiritual formation. I'm a practitioner of the disciplines. My criticism here is simply this: Jesus and Paul never recommend the spiritual disciplines as means of spiritual formation, if by that we mean contemplative retreats, visits to a spiritual director, a course in various prayer techniques, and so on. What Jesus and Paul do recommend, over and over again, is intentionality.

Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount. Having set out his vision of God's kingdom rule in our lives, Jesus doesn't conclude with the suggestion that we should practice prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and silence so that the Sermon can be formed in our lives. No, Jesus ends by saying this: "The one who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock."

Intentionality.

Consider also Jesus' directive after he washed the disciples' feet: "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."

Intentionality.

Jesus' vision of spiritual formation is simple: Put these things into practice. Don't wander off to do other sorts of things. Intentionally do these things. Intentionally put these things into practice. Yes, prayer and fasting are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but intentionality in practicing prayer and fasting is primary.

Consider Paul's many recommendations for spiritual formation and transformation. Like Jesus, Paul rarely mentions spiritual disciplines in this regard. Over and over again, Paul simply points to intentionality.

For example, in Romans 6 Paul says:
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 
The path toward spiritual transformation is driven by intentionality. Count yourself as dead to sin and stop offering yourself as an instrument of wickedness.

This from Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.   
Again, there's no appeal to spiritual disciplines here, just a straightforward appeal for intentionality: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Do not conform, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

What might that mean, "the renewing of our mind"? Elsewhere in Paul (Phil. 4) we get another appeal for intentionality:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 
Again, there is no call for spiritual disciplines here. Just a simple directive for intentionality: Think on these things.

To be clear, practices like prayer, silence, fasting and Sabbath are wonderful techniques to help us "think on such things." My point, however, is that Paul isn't aiming at technique, he's aiming at intentionality.

I don't think Paul cares all that much how you get yourself to "think on such things." Maybe you rise in the middle of the night to light candles and pray the Psalms like a monk. Maybe you crank the Hillsong praise music. Maybe you write in a journal. Maybe you carry prayer beads in your pocket. Maybe you put sticky notes filled with Scripture on your bathroom mirror. Maybe you avoid social media, cable news and the workplace water cooler. You can skin this cat a million different ways. But the thing that makes any of it happen and work is intentionality.

My opinion is that the conversation about spiritual disciplines has missed the mark because we've gotten too focused upon particular techniques, falsely imbuing them with some sort of spiritual potency. We've missed the point about what makes the spiritual disciplines work--intentionality. Whatever prayer might be, it's intentional. Whatever fasting might be, it's intentional. Whatever silence might be, it's intentional. Whatever Sabbath-keeping might be, it's intentional. Whatever Bible study might be, it's intentional.

It's the degree of intentionality in our spiritual lives that is formative and transformative. What is spiritually formative and transformative is waking up with a spiritual focus and keeping that focus throughout the day.

If you lack that focus, nothing happens. You just drift.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 2, The Missing Ingredient

So what's the missing ingredient?

Again, think about the Fruit of the Spirit. How can we become more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled?

Think about hospitality and justice. How can we become more welcoming or stand in greater solidarity with the oppressed?

Or think about spiritual disciplines. How can we become more committed to prayer, fasting, simplicity and Sabbath?

Now think about anything else you'd like to change or improve. How can I lose twenty pounds? Improve my relationship with my spouse? Be a better friend? Take better care of the house, yard or garden? Exercise more and eat better?

What's the word that makes any of this happen? What's the missing ingredient?

Intentionality.

Across the board, for all of the questions above, the answer, over and over again, is the same.

Intentionality.

There is no magic bullet. There never was. No matter what the next conference, guru, podcast, or best seller is pitching you. In the end, it all boils down to intentionality.

Does your church want to become more hospitable? You're going to have to be intentional about it.

Do you want to be more kind? You're going to have to be intentional about it.

Do you want a deeper prayer life? You're going to have to be intentional about it.

We want a million different things. But we're intentional about hardly any of it.

In short, forgive the hyperbole, the #1 problem in Christianity is this: We want to be like Jesus, but we're not intentional about it.

For example, how many of us woke up today with an intentional goal to be more gentle? I expect very few. Which means, by the end of the year, none of us will have become more gentle. That's a Fruit of the Spirit, a key marker of being like Jesus, totally ignored.

Because we lacked intentionality.

The examples abound. But they all come back to the same conclusion.

You'll never become more like Jesus unless you're intentional about it. And most Christians just aren't.

The Most Important Word in Christianity: Part 1, We Are Drifting

There's a lot of very important words in Christianity.

Faith. Hope. Love.

Father. Son. Holy Spirit.

Gospel. Kingdom. Church.

So it's a bit ridiculous that I'm going to suggest a word on no one's radar screen as "the most important word in Christianity." The title of this series is a bit of hyperbole.

Still, I want to make an argument that the word I'm going to share is the most important word in Christianity in the sense that I've come to think of it as the critical missing ingredient for so many Christians and churches trying to live into the way of Jesus.

I've worked with a lot of churches over the years, mostly doing equipping for congregations wanting to become more hospitable. But I've also taught an adult Bible class at our church for over 15 years. And I've been teaching out at the prison now for over five years. So I'm regularly in the thick of spiritual formation efforts.

And over the years, I've faced this basic question thousands of times:

"How do we X?"

You name the X.

How do we become more hospitable?

How do we become more prayerful?

How do we become more loving? More giving? More holy? More fruitful? More grateful? More committed to spiritual disciplines? More invested in each other's lives?

How we become less addicted, less anxious, less busy, and less selfish?

How do we become, in short, more like Jesus?

That's the million dollar question that gets asked, personally and congregationally, over and over again.

Because lot of us are just drifting. Personally, we're drifting. Our churches are drifting. Often with catastrophic consequences to our moral witness. The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But are Christians demonstrably more loving, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle and self-controlled than our neighbors?

We know the Fruit of the Spirit is the telos, the goal, of Christian living, the mark of Jesus upon our lives. And yet, we make no serious progress toward that end. Year in and year out, we remain much the same.

True, someone will tell us that we need the spiritual disciplines here. But again, churches talk about the spiritual disciplines all the time. But year in and year out, people aren't praying more or practicing Sabbath more. Year in and year out, our habits remain much the same. We remain just as busy and just as consumeristic.

Seriously, just take a look at your church. How many times have you heard the call to more Sabbath, simplicity and prayer? A bet a million times. Now ask: Is your church any less busy or stressed out than it was ten years ago?

Again, we're just drifting.

So what's the missing ingredient?

Now On Sale! Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise

My newest book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise is now available on Amazon.

In 2011, I published Unclean and began to receive calls from churches and faith communities to come and talk about psychology and hospitality. Specifically, we know we are called to be communities of hospitality, but churches struggle mightily to cross social boundaries. Why is that so hard?

Well, the answer is Social Psychology 101. We are attracted to sameness, the similar, and the familiar, and are wary and apprehensive toward difference and the unfamiliar. Strangers are strange, and that makes us uncomfortable. Which makes the God who comes to us in strangers strange, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable.

So as I've talked to churches about hospitality, I've highlighted these emotional and affectional issues as our biggest obstacles to welcoming the God who comes to us in strangers.

In the early years doing these presentations I spent most of my time describing and diagnosing these dynamics. As readers of Unclean know, outside of advocating for open communion as a Eucharistic practice, I didn't have specific and practical recommendations about how, in the language of Stranger God, to "widen the circle of our affections" to welcome strangers.

Frustrated by this lack of practicality, I began searching for spiritual practices that could help cultivate the affectional capacities necessary for welcoming the God who comes to us in strangers. That search brought me to the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux. Discovering the Little Way allowed me to connect hospitality to spiritual disciplines, intentional practices aimed at cultivating what Miroslav Volf calls "the will to embrace."

Finally, back in 2011 when I wrote Unclean, I hadn't been living into a life of hospitality. I felt that disconnect keenly. So I started to practice what I was preaching. I started visiting the prison. I began to share life at Freedom Fellowship, where we walk alongside friends who are poor, homeless, addicted, disabled and paroled. And I formed a friendship with Kristi, and now spend time each week befriending the residents at the Highland Assisted Living facility. Now, six years later, my best friends are poor, disabled or incarcerated. Stranger God tells the story of how God has saved me through all of these friendships.

Many churches want to welcome their neighbors. We discern God's call to cross social boundaries to meet the Jesus who comes to us in disguise. But we are so, so divided by politics, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, and class. Tribalism is at a fever pitch.

Stranger God was written "for such a time as this." The book was written for a popular, general audience, the kind of book anyone can read and enjoy. Stranger God shares the biblical call to hospitality, walks through all the emotional obstacles we face in welcoming strangers, introduces practices of hospitality rooted in the Little Way, and ends by connecting those practices to a larger vision of kingdom and mission. Stranger God is a hospitality manual, from A to Z, from the Bible, to social psychology, to practices anyone can do in their everyday life.

As you probably know, I'm not on Facebook or Twitter. So if you've enjoyed this blog and would like to say "Thank You" one way you could do that is to shoot out a Tweet or Facebook post about Stranger God. Any social media help would be much appreciated.

But mostly, I hope you like the book, and that it prompts us to get out of our comfort zones to welcome the stranger God.

All Souls Day

In 2010 I wrote the following post about how, for those of us who believe in universal reconciliation and apocatastasis, today, All Souls Day, just might be our defining holy day:

Yesterday, November 1st, was All Saints Day, the day when we remember the "faithful departed" now in heaven. We remember these saints as spiritual examples and as sources of encouragement for our own journey. They are where we want to be. They are who we want to be.

Today, November 2nd, is All Souls Day, a holy day linked with All Saints. Specifically, on All Saints we remember the saints who have attained to the Beatific Vision (what we often call "heaven"). On All Souls we remember the saints who dwell in torment because they have fallen short of attaining the Beatific Vision. These saints are undergoing a time of purification in purgatory. However, prayers and good deeds done in the name of these saints is believed to shorten their time in torment. This is what we do on All Souls, pray for those in torment to hasten their purification. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The theological basis for the feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, almsdeeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass.
All Souls was established by St. Odilo of Cluny at his abbey of Cluny. The legend goes that one night the monks at Cluny took in a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. While at the abbey the visitor told the monks a curious story. On a ship heading home from the Holy Land the pilgrim told of a storm that wrecked his boat on a desolate island. There on the island the pilgrim met a hermit who told him that there was a deep crack in the rocks of the island. This crack was so deep one could hear, if you listened, the continuous groans of the tortured souls in purgatory. One night, while listening at the crack, the hermit overheard demons whispering deep in the bowels of hell that the prayers of the faithful could shorten the time a soul was in torment in purgatory. More, of all these prayers the demons expressed fear and admiration for the prayers of the monks of Cluny. The prayers of Cluny, the demons said, were the most powerful prayers in rescuing souls from hell.

Obviously, the monks of Cluny were excited to hear this news about the efficacy of their prayers. Consequently, from that day on, praying for the souls in purgatory became a large part of Cluny monastic life. Eventually, this practice of praying for the souls in purgatory spread throughout Europe and became incorporated into the liturgical calendar as All Souls Day.

Now to be clear, All Souls Day doesn't endorse universal reconciliation. The idea is to pray for the faithful departed. But there are three things about All Souls Day that resonate with those who subscribe to the vision of universal reconciliation.

First, the key theological notion involved in All Souls Day is the key theological notion behind universal reconciliation: Post-mortem sanctification. The whole notion of purgatory is the natural response to the theological problems associated with the belief in eternal conscious torment. So while purgatory isn't the same thing as universal reconciliation it is motivated by the same suite of theological issues.

Second, in Latin American countries All Souls Day has expanded to include all of the dead. Prayers are offered on Día de los Muertos for all the departed, not just the faithful. In this we see an evolution within All Souls Day where the scope of salvation is generalized to all souls.

Finally, the deep motive behind All Souls is hope. We are asked to pray today for the salvation of souls long or recently departed. I have no idea if our prayers will be as effective as the prayers of Cluny. Or if they will be effective at all. Regardless, the prayers represent a hope. As Karl Barth once said, we can't be sure if universal reconciliation is true, but it is our Christian duty to hope for it.

Today, then, through our prayers for all souls, we can fulfill that obligation.

The Myth of Disenchantment

Speaking of wishing you a haunted Halloween yesterday, I'd like to make an observation about enchantment and disenchantment.

Here on the blog, and in Reviving Old Scratch, I lean heavily upon Charles Taylor's analysis that the West has been moving from enchantment to disenchantment, from the spooky to the skeptical. In Reviving Old Scratch I call this journey ScoobyDooification, as the journey from the spooky to the skeptical is traced in a single episode of Scooby-Doo.

But is it really the case that we've become less enchanted?

In his book the Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Ananda Josephson-Storm argues that we moderns remain very much enchanted. What we tend to take as disenchantment is really just a shift in enchantments. Yes, it is true that belief in God is on the decline, but that enchantment is just shifted to other areas.

As an example, last summer Jana and I visited Glastonbury Abbey in England with our dear friends Hannah and Becky. We've all heard about how Christianity in on the decline in countries like England. The church is struggling. But you've never seen a more enchanted place than Glastonbury Abbey. True, it was all occult, New Agey, pagan, Arthurian (legend has it that King Arthur had been buried at the Abbey), Fairie, Wiccan, magical, Eastern, Celtic, hippy, and on and on, but the place was dripping with enchantment.

Perhaps God is dead in England, but I know where I can buy ingredients for my next love potion.

And don't get me started on ley lines.

All that to say, have we really moved into an era of disenchantment?

Perhaps not.

The Gospel According to Monsters

Regular readers know that I used to write a lot about Halloween and monsters. A chapter in Unclean is devoted to the psychology of monsters.

Last Wednesday I was asked last minute to do the lesson at Freedom. So, given that Halloween was just around the corner, I dusted off that old monster material and did a class on "The Gospel According to Monsters."

I talked about four classic monsters--werewolves, vampires, mummies and Frankenstein--and I used each to talk about our spiritual predicament.

Werewolves remind us that we have a "beast" inside us. We like to think we're in control, but we are very much not in control of ourselves.

Vampires remind us that evil is attractive, even sexy and romantic. But behind the allure, is death and a parasitical existence.

Mummies remind us that, although we are shambling around, we are dead inside.

Finally, in an interesting twist, the story of Frankenstein reminds us that we're actually not very good a locating monsters. In the Frankenstein story the mob is the monster. In hunting monsters we've become the monster.

So given all that mess, what is the gospel according to monsters?

I read Romans, but changed a single word:

"God loved us while we were yet monsters."


I hope you have a blessed and haunted Halloween.

The Long Faithfulness

I want to follow up on the posts from last week about cultivating a covenantal imagination within the church.

Again, a covenantal imagination is fostered when we see church as a place where we make and keep promises to each other. Love is expressed in the hard work of forgiveness and fidelity across the years. Church is the sacramental and communal outworking of God's hesed, God's long faithfulness.

This hesed is what carries us through the disillusionments with church. In this, as Bonhoeffer pointed out, disillusionment can be a grace. Disillusionment is the threshold of hesed, the testing and proving ground.

As I pointed out last week, what binds us together as a church beyond liking each other? Liking each other isn't a substantial enough foundation for the long faithfulness. There has to be more. There has to be promise keeping in the face of disillusionment.

We are not the body of Christ because we like each other. We are the body of Christ because we promise to each other. That is what allows us to practice the long faithfulness.

Prison Diary: Suffering

Given the size of our study, we have about sixty guys in the room, it's hard to have intimate, vulnerable conversations. It's one of the things we wish we could do, but it's a trade-off. Limit the study to the few, or take as many as we can? We take as many as we can, and even then we have the longest waiting list to get into the study of any study currently going.

But this week, Nate got very vulnerable. We were talking about our ups and downs in this Christian walk, the way we fail over and over again.

Nate spoke up and started talking about his struggles with depression, dark moods that suddenly descend upon him and bring him to despair. The pain of being separated from his family. Being unable to hold his daughter in his arms. The weight of guilt and shame when he morally stumbles and falters.

The emotion with which Nate communicated all this was powerful and brought him to tears. I've never seen a more vulnerable and real moment in all the years I've been coming to the study.

I know it's hard, in policy debates, to generate compassion for criminals. But when you see suffering face to face you have to have a pretty hard and calloused heart not to be moved.

I wish the world could have seen Nate's tears on Monday night.

Disillusionment as Grace

A lot of our struggles with church stem from disillusionment. Because the church aspires to be the People of God, the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the church always triggers our idealism. We're attracted to church because of what it could and should be.

But the church rarely is what it could or should be. So the church both raises and dashes our hopes. You can't help but become idealistic when talking about the church, but that idealism creates expectations that human communities cannot meet. So hopes crash and disillusionment follows.

But might disillusionment actually be a great grace? Might our disappointment with the church be a gift? That's the argument Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes in Life Together:
Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

On Persuading the Church to be Like Jesus

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of the local church, how the kingdom of God has an address on a neighborhood block.

In that post I described the kingdom of God as a people gathered who make and keep promises to each other. That particular description of what it means to be the church is becoming more and more important to me.

Last week I was in Tacoma talking to church leaders and pastors, and one of the things I said to them was that cultivating a covenantal imagination is the most vital and counter-cultural thing we can be doing in our churches.

Without that covenantal imagination--making and keeping promises to each other--the only binding agent available to the church, our only social glue, is liking and preference.

And you can't accomplish anything remotely missional, cruciform, sacrificial, or kenotic if all you have is liking and preference.

When all you have is liking and preference there is no capacity for spiritual formation. All you are left with is persuasion.

Without a covenantal imagination, all a pastor can do is try to persuade people to be like Jesus.

The Local Church

I have a passion for the local church. Rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning isn't the hot, cool thing to be doing as a Christian. But to me, it's one of the most radical and counter-cultural things we can be doing.

And yet, for church leaders and pastors working in small, struggling congregations, leading a church can be hard, demoralizing work. Especially as America walks deeper into the post-Christian wilderness. The demographic tide is sweeping the church away.

So it is also a passion of mine to encourage local pastors. If you're leading a small, local church I want you to know you're a hero of mine.

And the reason is quite simple. If the kingdom of God is going to show up, it shows up among a people who gather to make and keep promises to each other, where the people of a community struggle through the generations to love each other and their particular place.

The kingdom of God is not found at conferences, on social media, in a book, or in your headphones. If you're listening to a speaker, scrolling through your iPhone, reading the pages of a best-seller, or jogging to your favorite podcast, you're not really encountering the body of Christ.

The kingdom has an address on a neighborhood block.

On Resistence and Metaphysics

As we struggle toward a better future in America in the arena of race relations, it has often been pointed out how Martin Luther King, Jr. gets weaponized. King's non-violence, rooted in Christ's call for enemy love, is often used to silence or critique modern movements like Black Lives Matter.

It is true that we need to be reminded over and over again that King was not the tame figure we've enshrined in our cultural consciousness. King was a dangerous man, an agitator. Let us keep reading "The Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to remind ourselves of this.

That said, I do think it important to pay attention to the metaphysical, theological shift that has occurred among modern movements seeking racial equality and justice.

For example, I'd like to compare the metaphysics of King to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

King, we know, believed in the Christian metaphysical worldview. The American civil rights movement was rooted in the black church. King always saw himself as a minister of the gospel. Local churches organized the movement.

King's non-violence flowed out of this worldview and its hopeful eschatology. The arc of the universe bends toward justice. Because of this, one could give one's life away as a vital contribution toward bending that arc.

Christian theologians have long made that point, that non-violence and eschatology go hand in hand. If the arc of the universe is not bending toward justice, and your death doesn't contribute toward that future, then you should fight to preserve your life. It's as simple as that

If this is the only life you have, and your death won't matter, eschatologically speaking, then you shouldn't throw it away.

That is precisely the argument Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in Between the World and Me. Because Coates doesn't believe in God he has an ambivalent relationship with the American civil rights movement. Having rejected the Christian worldview, Coates cannot accept King's non-violence or hope.

This is what makes Ta-Nehisi Coates so grim and hard for many to understand when they try to fit him into King's worldview. As Ezra Klein recently wrote, "Ta-Nehisi Coates is not here to comfort you." And I'm not suggesting that he should. And it is not, and will never be, my place to tell a black person what to do with their body in a white supremacist society.

My point is that there is a difference between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Martin Luther King, Jr., and it is rooted in eschatology. King and Coates have very different metaphysical worldviews, worldviews which inform their attitudes toward non-violence.

Without God, non-violence isn't really an option, not for race relations or for anything else. On this point, Coates diverges from King. As Coates said during his appearance on Klein's podcast, "I think these things don't tend to happen peacefully."

Prison Diary: Cody's Tears

One nice thing about having tattoos is that they give you something to talk about at the prison.

I have two tattoos. My first one was a half sleeve on my left arm, a tattoo of Rublev's icon. The tattoo is my hospitality reminder. I look at it and am reminded that the person standing in front of me is to be received as Christ.

Last spring I got a second tattoo, inspired by some knuckle tattoos I saw in Brazil. I was at a community gathering to promote CURA Brazil, talking with a local guy who that three knuckle tattoos. A crown on one knuckle, a cross on a second, and a dove on a third. "What do those represent?" I asked. "The Father, Son and Holy Spirit," he replied, "The crown is for the Father, the cross for the Son, and the dove for the Holy Spirit."

I loved that, but didn't think knuckle tattoos were going to work in my social location. But the idea stuck. I had also wanted to get a tattoo with the Latin Deus Caritas Est ("God is love"). So last spring I combined the ideas for my second tattoo, a band on my upper left arm, the words Deus Caritas Est with the crown, cross and dove icons in between the words.

As you can imagine, the Men in White have tons of tattoos.

My favorite tattoo out at the prison are Cody's tears.

This is going to be hard to explain without a visual, but on the inside of Cody's index fingers, just below the knuckle, there is a small tear tattoo, one on each finger. Since it's small and on the inside of the index finger, it's a really inconspicuous tattoo, one of the most inconspicuous you'll ever see.

But when Cody bends his fingers and lifts his knuckles to the corner of his eyes--like the hand position indicated here, but with the index fingers more exposed--the tear tattoos appear, as if he were crying.

"These are my tears," Cody showed me one day lifting his knuckles to his eyes.

Hidden tears, that he always carries with him. Secret tears, that he allowed me to see.

The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: "Do One Wrong Thing and You're Tainted"

Two years ago, I wrote a post describing the "purity psychology" at work within progressive Christianity.

Recently, while speaking in OKC, the topic of purity psychology among progressives came up. The post also bounced around Twitter again last week.

All that to say, the analysis remains timely and  relevant. My description of the purity psychology among progressives from 2015:

As I describe in Unclean, it's pretty much impossible for anyone to avoid purity psychology as purity seems to be an innate way we all, conservatives and progressives alike, reason about morality.

To be clear, the "purity culture" at work among progressive, liberal or radical Christians is very, very different from the "purity culture" at work with conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. The moral grammars at work among progressives and conservatives are very different. For example, where conservative Christians focus on things like sexual purity, for progressive Christians purity is focused upon complicity in injustice and oppression.

Again, as a progressive Christian, fighting against injustice and oppression is how I think about right or wrong. Justice is how I define moral "purity." Being "pure" or "righteous" in the eyes of God--in light of God's preferential option for the poor--means not being complicit in injustice.

In short, while a purity psychology is always at work whenever anyone thinks about being a good person--however they define it--I'm not saying that every expression of purity is morally equivalent. As a progressive Christian I don't think that at all. In fact, I think the exact opposite. As a progressive Christian I think conservative Christians should shift their purity categories away from sex to focus on oppression. I think the world would be a better place if we got our purity categories lined up with the right sorts of things.

So my observations about progressive Christian "purity" isn't to draw a moral equivalence between conservative and progressive purity. My observations are psychological in nature, descriptions of how purity psychology, of whatever sort, operates in a similar sort of way. Ways we should pay attention to.

For example, as I describe in Unclean, purity psychology is governed by a variety of contamination attributions. And one of those attributions is dose insensitivity.

Dose insensitivity is the contamination appraisal that even a small amount of the contaminating substance will have a catastrophic effect. For example, if I tell you that there is a very, very small amount of fecal matter in your pasta that knowledge ruins the dish for you. It doesn't take a full sized turd to ruin the dish. A very, very small amount will do the trick. Contamination is dose insensitive, a small dose will contaminate just as effectively as a large.

So let me illustrate how attributions of dose insensitivity work among progressive Christians. Here's a question that gets at the issue: How much complicity in injustice and oppression is acceptable?

Well, the answer, obviously, is none at all. Complicity is dose insensitive. Any bit of it is bad and needs to be eradicated.

This impulse to expunge every last trace of complicity sits at the heart of the radicalizing impulse within progressive Christianity, and progressive politics generally. This impulse is the psychological and moral imperative that moves you from liberal to progressive to radical. And let me again be clear, I'm not judging that trajectory at all. It's the trajectory of my life in both politics and religion.

But that trajectory, because of purity attributions such as dose insensitivity, is always going to be tempted in various ways. And one of those temptations is the temptation to point out or call out the complicity of others. Because any complicity at all is bad and worthy of being pointed out or called out it has to be expunged, even the smallest bits of it, even among well-intended friends and allies. And if you appear to be letting any complicity pass--for example, asking people to tone down the call outs--you're reconciling yourself to complicity. You're not centering the right things, not being a good ally. You're giving aid to oppressors.

Again, I'm not criticizing call outs. Call outs can be prophetic speech. What I'm saying is that call out culture is tempted in various ways by the purity psychology at work among progressives and that it's important from time to time to resist those temptations. For the sake of justice. For the sake of getting shit done.

For example, it's important to both admit and attend to the purity temptations at work among progressives because purity psychology often causes progressives to cannibalize and damage themselves in various ways. The effort to call out and expunge every bit of complicity among friends and allies sits behind the Twitter firestorms that leave so many disillusioned and disheartened.

Let me give two recent illustrations of what I'm describing.

On the progressive left you can't get two more different voices regarding Twitter activism than Freddie deBoer and Suey Park. And yet, in two recent articles both deBoer and Park make similar diagnoses about the purity dynamic at work among progressives, a dynamic that leads to a cannibalization which hurts the larger cause. Causes both of them--and many of us--are fighting for.

As a part of his conversation with Jay Caspian Kang--A Debate on Online Political Discourse--deBoer made the following observation about the damage social media firestorms cause when progressives rage with hashtags in calling out each other and potential allies:
It’s not unreasonable for people witnessing such things to conclude that the left will never stop harming itself sufficiently to do the work of changing the world. Here, too, I speak from experience. None of this is new or unique to the online space; left-wing movements are always in the process of blowing themselves up. I am discouraged by seeing so many of the typical ugly interpersonal dynamics of the left play out on Twitter over and over again. Many decent people who want to help are afraid to weigh in publicly on issues of controversy for fear of being ground up in a Twitter storm. Maybe that’s ridiculous; maybe they should just get over it; maybe they should get tougher. Maybe so. But they probably won’t, and I think we should all be able to take a long, hard look at how to better integrate potential friends into our movement, without being accused of not being an ally. Because the left needs friends.
Why does this cannibalization happen among progressives? One of the problems, as I'm diagnosing it, is that allies, being allies, are often complicit in various ways. Which makes allies, per the logic of dose insensitivity, problematic in all sorts of ways. Yes they are allies, but are they good allies? Can't they be better allies?

Progressives perennially struggle with allies, how to work with sympathetic but complicit people. Consider just how much commentary is devoted to "the ally problem" in online progressive spaces. Notice the number of Tweets and words progressives devote to the issues they have with allies. Just this morning I read a 2,500+ word post at a radical website that was 100% about allies and their numerous faults. A post not about injustice or concrete policy proposals--you know, a post about actually getting something done in the world--but a post about the shortcomings of allies.

No doubt allies are flawed, but if allies are your central, defining problem, well, you can see why progressive causes have difficultly reaching the critical social mass needed to get stuff done in the world.

The left does need friends but the left, because of its purity psychology, is also very hard on its friends, fracturing a potential coalition from ever reaching the tipping point needed to change things. Friends and allies will be complicit in various ways, but if progressive Christianity is going to have any significant impact upon the world it's going to have to figure out how to work with complicit friends. And yet, as deBoer describes, that work is frequently being undermined by a purity impulse that keeps tempting us to "call out" and cannibalize ourselves.

And while I've been focusing upon allies, what is important to attend to is how this isn't just a problem with allies. Even people who aren't complicit in various ways, and there are very few of these, still have to demonstrate a purity in their moral performance on social media. Any flaw, inconsistency or failure in this moral performance, even a small one per the purity logic of dose insensitivity, can result in the same social media backlash that poorly performing allies regularly face.

For example, Suey Park is both an activist and a woman of color. She's not a blundering ally. And yet, Suey faced a huge social media backlash because her moral performance with #CancelColbert was judged to be a mistake by many progressives. And what is interesting is how in Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig's recent profile of Suey Park in the New Republic--Why Won't Twitter Forgive Suey Park?--Suey describes how her mistake was processed as a purity failure by progressives.

In the article Suey succinctly describes the dose insensitivity purity dynamic at work among progressives:
Park’s understanding of her Twitter presence carries a distinctly Christian note. “It’s a lot like purity politics in the church,” Park observed, referring to the tendency of Twitter groups to attack perceived wrongdoers. It is, she pointed out, a strategy that works for activists until it turns on them. “You do one wrong thing,” Park said, “and you’re tainted. You’re out forever.”

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 7, Metaphysics or Money

I had planned to end this series with the last post (which I wrote over the summer), but I'm inserting one more most today (here in October).

I'm just starting to read Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money. I'm barely into it, but Goodchild makes an argument that I'd like to tack onto this series.

It's important, I think, as Goodchild points out, that Jesus pitted God against Mammon. Why that particular choice?

It has to be because Jesus saw Mammon as God's one True Rival. That where God doesn't exist money fills the vacuum. When God is dead mammon takes God's place. When God is removed from the stage money becomes the great animating and unifying force in the world.  

When there is no supreme value--no metaphysics--money becomes our ultimate value, the supreme value, the value which judges all other values. The market is the Invisible Hand of god, the spectral force providentially guiding human affairs, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.

The only way we can displace money is by making it submit to a higher value. Again, metaphysics. If God doesn't stand above money, then money fills the metaphysical vacuum to become the supreme value. That's the choice.

God or Mammon.

Metaphysics or money.

It's either/or. Submit to money, or make money submit to God.

Your call.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 6, The Weight of Enchantment

This is my last post in this series. And the point I'll be making is one I've made regularly here on the blog, our need for enchantment.

To live full, rich and human lives we need to experience sacred places and moments. We need places and moments where we can experience wonder, awe and transcendence. We need rituals to mark places, experiences and moments as hallowed, holy and set apart from the mundane and quotidian.

True, one doesn't Christian metaphysics to make this happen. Hallowing is a human universal, a deep human need. We'll do it with or without God.

Our nation helps us hallow as we flock to fireworks displays on July 4th to say Oooo! and Ahhh! Our holidays help us hallow as we enchant our houses with twinkling lights. We light candles on birthday cakes for each other. We flock to scenes of tragedy to light candles and stand vigil. We use or create rituals to solemnize marriages and deaths. Even if we don't pray we feel compelled to say to the suffering, "You're in my thoughts." We give gifts to celebrate new births.

Human life demands enchantment, it requires a sacred texture.

Again, metaphysics.

Existentially, we must sort our lives: These things are quotidian, these things are sacred. And everyone does this.

And for my part, the enchantments of the Christians faith are very attractive, outside of Jesus the most attractive thing about the faith in my estimation. The rituals, the Book, the liturgical calendar, the tradition, the saints, the spiritual practices, the aesthetics, the sacraments, the art, the music, the architecture. And on and on.

If you're looking for enchantment, Christianity is a great place to be.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 5, Cruciform Love

In my last post I noted that the Judeo-Christian tradition provides the foundation for liberal and democratic moral axioms, like "all men are created equal" and that we are endowed with "certain unalienable rights."

But Christianity goes deeper that liberalism and humanism. Christianity is about love.

Cruciform love in particular.

Self-donating, self-giving, self-emptying love. Agape love. Enemy love. Sacrificial love. Servant-hearted love. Kenosis. Washing feet. Seeking the last, rather than first, place. 

Cruciform love is what makes Jesus so attractive, even to non-Christians. And it's here where Christianity cuts deeper than liberalism and humanism.

To be clear, there are liberals and humanists that shame Christians when it comes to sacrificial, self-donating love. What I'm speaking about here is metaphysics.

Cruciform love is not the moral ideal of liberalism and humanism. Yes, as I noted in Part 4, every human being is a location of inviolable dignity and worth, but that doesn't mean I'm morally obligated to live sacrificially for others, especially not for my enemies.

True, few Christians reach, or even aspire to, cruciform love. But cruciform love is our moral ideal in a way that just isn't for liberals and humanists. Yes, any given liberal or humanist could, for themselves, aspire to self-donating, self-giving, self-emptying enemy love, but they would most definitely be leaving the liberal/humanist matrix and moving in a much more Christian metaphysical orbit, an orbit that originated with Jesus.

Again, metaphysics. There is nothing empirically or scientifically self-evident about adopting cruciform love as your moral North Star. You just have to put a stake in the ground and say, "This is what I believe in." And I admire anyone--Christian or humanist--who puts that stake in the ground.

So cruciform love, it's metaphysics and it's Christian.

But is it attractive?

Yes and no, I think. It's attractive in the sense that we find Jesus beautiful and feel drawn to emulate him. But is cruciform love really, ever, going to be attractive?

I don't think so, and it's here where Christian morality parts ways with liberalism. And with most so-called "Christians."

But for the few who hear his voice, cruciform love most definitely is an attractive metaphysics.

We live into his promise and find it to be true.

In losing our lives, we've found them.

Prison Diary: Two Candlesticks

We finished watching Les Misérables this week. I've never seen such a reaction to a movie we've show out at the unit. The Men in White were so excited to finish it up and we had a great conversation afterward.

For my part, I focused upon the two candlesticks.

Recall, Valjean steals the silver from the home of a kindly old bishop who takes him in for the night. Valjean is captured and taken back to the priest. But instead of condemning him, the priest tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean and that, in fact, he left some behind. The priest then gives Valjean two silver candlesticks, the most expensive items in the house. After the police leave, the priest tells Valjean to use the silver as a second chance, to become an honest man. In the wake of this act of mercy and grace, Valjean pledges his life to God.

And from there we witness Valjean keeping his promise to God. Saving Fantine. Cosette. Marius. Even his enemy Javert.

The entire story is watching the ripple effects of a single act of grace. Two candlesticks, and all the lives they save.

I wanted to underline this part of the story as the Men in White live in a very small and circumscribed world. They feel cut off from the events in the "free world." Consequently, they feel that they don't and can't make a difference.

But when you focus on the ripple effects of small acts of grace--two candlesticks--you come to realize that even small things can have large consequences. So be faithful in the small things, give someone two candlesticks, and let the Lord attend to the rest.

That was the message I preached to them.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 4, Universal Human Worth and Dignity

As many cultural historians have noted, the universal ethic of Western humanism and liberalism--where every human person is treated as a sacred location of inviolable worth and dignity--is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That God sides with the slaves against their oppressors in Exodus now strikes us as obvious. The Golden Rule is almost trite. That there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female" sits at the heart of liberal democracy.

As Rene Girard has pointed out, victims are the greatest moral authority in our ethical universe. And the very first stories that recounted history from the perspective of the innocent victim were the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But again, metaphysics.

That humanism and liberalism take human worth and dignity as axiomatic is a metaphysical stance. There is no empirical or scientific account that can justify the notion that every human life should be treated equally. Our ethical foundations are inherently metaphysical. Axiomatic and nonnegotiable.

For example, if a person suggested on CNN today, from a eugenics perspective, that cognitively disabled people should be sterilized, we'd shout that person down as a moral monster. It's taboo to even think such a thought. It's blasphemy. Heresy.

Again, metaphysics. Our ethical system is inherently religious.

But it might not be religious enough.

Yes, human worth and dignity is metaphysically grounded, but in liberalism and humanism it's more axiomatic than religious, given to us ex nihilo rather than grounded in a metaphysical account of the cosmos. In the Judeo-Christian tradition human dignity and worth is rooted in the account of the Imago Dei, the belief that humans are created in the image of God. In liberalism and humanism human worth and dignity is simply taken as a given, but it's not really rooted anywhere. There's no account for it.

Which makes it very vulnerable. All lives have the same dignity and worth. Unborn lives? The lives of prisoners on death row? The lives of our enemies in war?

To be clear, the Imago Dei is vulnerable in Christianity as well. Christians don't agree on abortion, capital punishment or war. God has been and is used to take and diminish life.

But since Christianity is religious, and not merely axiomatic, it has the metaphysical resources to critique itself. You can use the Golden Rule against Christians, and since it's their own rule it should give them pause. And if it doesn't, you can point out the contradiction. And keep pointing out the contradiction. You can call them hypocrites, using their own faith against them. There is moral traction for self-criticism.

But in a purely axiomatic account there are fewer resources for self-criticism. You can't use an axiom against itself. If push comes to shove, you can just reject the axiom to pick a different one. As an example of this, consider the ethical system of the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. Singer starts with some very different moral axioms from those liberals and humanists inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the moral conclusions Singer reaches--which are perfectly logical given his starting axioms--are very different from those espoused by many liberals and humanists.  Moral monster worthy stuff if shared on CNN. But it's all perfectly logical and defensible given his moral axioms.

Again, I'm not mounting evidence that the Judeo-Christian axiom of universal human dignity and worth is more "true" than Singer's axioms, or any other axioms in rival moral systems. That's sort of my point. It's a metaphysical game we are playing. Pick your axioms. And by the way, science can't help you.

My point is simply that Christianity has an attractive metaphysics.

Christian metaphysics gives us an account of universal human worth and dignity and that account is robustly metaphysical enough to spark and sustain moral self-criticism in a way that a purely axiomatic account does not.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 3, The Prophetic Capacity

One of Karl Barth's great criticisms of liberal Christianity, and liberal humanism generally, was how it lacked the prophetic resources to stand against Nazi Germany.

The guiding idea behind liberal Christianity is to unpack all the metaphysical and "mythological" material in the Bible in purely humanistic terms. Replace the transcendent with the immanent, the divine with the human, the sacred with the ethical.

But as Barth pointed out, the trouble with liberal Christianity is that if God is just the good then God becomes a cipher for whatever the prevailing culture says is good.  

The biblical term for this conflation is idolatry, making God into our own image.

The evil potential of idolatry is that when human beings turn to the dark side God comes along to legitimate that darkness, or at least stand placidly to the side. This is why liberal theology lacked the prophetic resources to stand against Hitler. Liberal theology reduced God to the Volk (the people, nation and race), and then the Volk went dark side. And the the German church followed.

But God, said Barth, is Wholly Other. God cannot be reduced to the human. God cuts across the Volk.

God's Wholly Otherness creates a prophetic capacity, the prophet's ability to utter a "Thus sayest the Lord!" over against the Volk.

Again, metaphysics. Metaphysics creates prophetic capacity, a place where the prophet can stand above and against the Volk--the nation, the people, the race.

To be sure, one doesn't need to invoke the Hebrew and Christian God to stand as a prophet. But one does need to claim a metaphysical perch, a universal moral perspective that stands above the ethics of a nation, people or race. If a person tries to work within the system they are not a prophet, they are a politician. And while much good and great work can be achieved by politics as usual, there are times when prophets are required. And prophets, by definition, don't work within political systems. Prophets stand outside the system, as a voice crying in the wilderness.

So again, metaphysics.

And one of the great attractions of Christian metaphysics is its Hall of Fame roster of prophets.

From Moses ("Let my people go!") to the prophets of Israel ("Let justice roll down like a river!") to John the Baptist to Jesus.

The Attractions of Christian Metaphysics: Part 2, Beyond Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a comparative social metric that registers in our psyche as neurosis.

We compare ourselves to our colleagues, neighbors, friends, family and cultural standards of success and worthiness. If we measure up as "average" to "above average," we experience satisfaction. However, this satisfaction is tinged with anxiety about the potential for loss and failure.

If we measure up as "below average" we experience feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

Because it's a comparative social metric that is a source of psychic pain and suffering, self-esteem is also a source of rivalry, competition and violence. Since self-esteem is rooted in social comparison, self-esteem creates a rivalrous, competitive relationship between ourselves and the world.

In sum, these are the two problems of the ego: neurosis and violence.

How can we escape this comparative, competitive dynamic?

Many wisdom, religious, philosophical, and therapeutic systems have proposed pathways toward a "quiet ego." A common theme in these systems is how quieting the ego (reducing neurosis) is critical in cultivating compassion (reducing violence). Again, neurosis and violence go hand in hand.

A key part of this process is transcendence, extracting the self from the matrix of social evaluation and comparison, allowing the self to stand above cultural standards of beauty, worth, and significance. A metaphysical self. But where is this transcendent, metaphysical self located?

In Christianity the transcendent self is located in God. We are "hidden in Christ." David Kelsey, in an insight I borrow in The Slavery of Death, calls this an eccentric identity, an identity located outside of ourselves, an identity that is received as gift.

The power of eccentricity to alleviate neurosis is described by Howard Thurman in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman explains why African Americans in the United States were so powerfully attracted to Jesus. The reason, according to Thurman, is that Christianity allowed blacks to extract and protect their identities from the social metrics of a white supremacist society. With their egos now hidden in Christ, black Christians had transcendent, metaphysical identities that made them immune to shame and stigma. Thurman describing this:
The core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God...This idea--that God is mindful of the individual--is of tremendous import...In this world the socially disadvantaged man is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: "Who am I? What am I?" The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a man feels that he does not belong in a way in which it is perfectly normal for others to belong, then he develops a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls the inferiority complex. It is quite possible for a man to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.

[Seeing oneself as a child God establishes] the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth can absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value. The first task is to get the self immunized against the most radical results of the threat of violence. When this is accomplished, relaxation takes the place of churning fear. The individual now feels that he counts, that he belongs. 
Again, the Christian approach isn't the only path one could follow to quiet the ego. But some sort of metaphysical answer has to be given to the fundamental issues of identity: cultivating a profound existential assurance of belonging, counting and mattering. Especially for socially disadvantaged persons. For without this metaphysical answer--the axiomatic givenness that you do matter, that you do belong, that you are of inestimable worth--one is trapped in the neurotic, violent matrix of social evaluation and comparison, forever dogged by a profound sense of insecurity and the fear of what Brene Brown calls "the shame based fear of being ordinary."