Vain in Our Imaginations

pexels-photo-24123“…who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse…they are futile in their thinking (vain in their imaginations).” Romans 1:18b–21

The question of the last essay was how do we sharpen our senses to perceive this world as God’s world. The stars are singing, the psalms tell us, the world is speaking, so how, I asked, do we develop the sensibilities of the psalmists who hear the singing of creation and then sing back to the world the song they have heard. One way, as my friend Seth pointed out to me, is to write psalms. And he’s right. The sensibility I’m talking about is a poetic sensibility, and part of what I’m trying to do with these essays is write theology in a poetic/literary way. But maybe that isn’t far enough. Maybe I should write poetry instead.

And yet here is another essay because as I reflected on that last essay and on this project as a whole, I realized that what I am ultimately after is an account, at least for myself, of how to become the sort of person who rightly perceives and responds to God and his revelation in the world. Another way to put it is that I want to work through what difference theology makes, if it makes any difference at all. As I have said again and again, theology at its most basic level is our accounting of and response to revelation. Writing in the mode of the essay is one way to make such an account, one way to fumble towards answers. So here you are, reading, fumbling along with me.

Such much for the goals. Now for the problems. The last essay left us standing in front of a looming obstacle, a behemoth that blocks our way, a colossus so large it seems to blot out the sun. It is an obstacle Paul sums up in the words quoted above. He says, in effect, “Oh, you can experience God in the world all right. The trouble is you don’t really want to. Look, God is not hidden. You can find him. You simply don’t want to because you aren’t willing to pay the price that such knowledge costs.”

In these verses from Romans and the ones that follow, Paul lays human experience bare to ask and attempt to answer that most vexing question—what can account, really, for human behavior? Where does the madness come from? What is the glitch in the code, the chink in our universal armor? Why the buzz of anxiety? What about the torpor of depression, the sometimes crushing inertia of being human? How is it that we have become millstones tied around our necks? And he says, in effect, we are pulled inward by a gravity so powerful that we eventually implode and become black hole versions of ourselves. We become, as he says, futile in our thinking. We have become, as the KJV has it, vain in our imaginations, which means, among other things, that the way we receive and then process the world has become distorted in some significant way.

Now, there are any number of questions we might have of Paul at this moment, but here is mine—how does he know this? What is his evidence? Admittedly, Paul doesn’t have any longitudinal studies or double-blind experiments. He doesn’t reference brain scans or discuss things in terms of family dynamics, or in terms of evolution by natural selection, but he is nonetheless an incisive observer of the human condition. I’d have to imagine that if he were alive today, Paul would read such studies, that he would acquaint himself with their inward logic and acknowledge both their truth and their limits and then he would leverage their rhetorical power. And he would, in the end, say this of our scientific, psychological, socially conscious and therapeutic means of discussing the human person, “These all are fine as far as they go, but does appealing to the lizard brain really explain your anger? Does your lack of healthy attachment really explain why you can’t love or be loved? Are just-so stories about the natural selection of beneficial human traits satisfying explanations for the highs and lows of human experience ? Does all this data account for our frivolous disregard of each other, for the disposable way we treat ourselves and others?”

On one level, Paul knows what he knows because he has looked at the way we treat ourselves, others, and the world God has given us and finds all the evidence he needs. But on another level (and this all brings us back to the thing we can’t escape if we are going to take the Christian faith or theology seriously at all), Paul knows what he knows because of revelation. These are things he knows because God has made them known, and he wouldn’t have and we couldn’t have known them otherwise. Romans as a whole is Paul’s account of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, what he refers to in shorthand as the gospel. And Paul begins this letter by announcing that something definitive has happened. The axis has shifted because of Jesus. History has a new centerpiece because of his resurrection from the dead. This is not exaggeration. There is no hyperbole in Paul’s notion that the whole world has been remade in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This Jesus, this one who is both son of David and son of God, has been raised from the dead. In his rising is our healing, and there is now a new king of the world. Paul says, Let us marvel. Let us not be ashamed of this good news but rather let our faces shine with its light. Let us reassess what we know or what we think we know about human nature in light of Christ.

And then he says but. But let us not forget the real darkness. There is the definitive act of God in time and space. There is the creation of the world. The redemption of his people. Yet we deny it. It’s not that we don’t see it. It’s that we do see it and then we turn away. We make, as Paul says, a trade, an exchange. There is truth, but we trade it for a lie. There is the creator, but we trade him for his creation. There is light, but we trade it for darkness. And there is glory, but we trade it for a kind of weightless existence, preferring to be untethered rather than acknowledge the weighty giftedness of life and the world.

The language of trade and exchange is key here. Because there is something transactional taking place, there is therefore something willful taking place. And this is one way I know Paul is telling the truth because, if I am honest, I know that I make such exchanges every day and the truly sinister thing is not simply the exchange but the denial that it is happening at all. The darkness, the denial, the vanity that Paul describes, is my own darkness and denial. This is about me. It is my heart that traffics in darkness. My heart that is a dark web, flooded with encrypted communications, bustling with illegal commerce. The battleground is not out there. It is in me. That is where you, where I, tussle over boundaries of constraint, where we fight to push what is barbarian in us back to the hinterlands.

This, of course, is Paul’s point. He’s at pains to show how everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, fall short. This passage is not intended to and should not be used to rank specific sins or specific acts. It is rather universal diagnostic tool, a heuristic for the human heart. We all make the exchange. The way you make the exchange and the way I make the exchange might look different but they are both rooted, as Paul says, in a fundamental denial of the truth that as creatures we owe our ultimate allegiance, and more than that our love and worship, to the one who created us. God’s created world sings back to God is that he is the blessed creator, and so often we will not join the chorus.

Learning to hear and then sing again the song of creation means that we must remember that before we are called anything else, we are called creature. We are created beings who inhabit a world of other created beings and things. And this identity of creature is primary and expresses our fundamental relationship to God. He is creator and we are creatures. And this is what we are most likely to forget. The darkness of our thinking, the vanity of our imaginations, the very things Paul is at pains to point out, compel us to exchange our relationship with the Creator for a relationship with creation. So we must remember our first name. Creature.

Beware though. Answering to the name creature requires our allegiance, our lives, our worship of the one who created us, and part of what we call salvation is relearning our name as creatures. Beware because there is a kind of magic in names, as so much ancient literature and so much contemporary fantasy literature shows us. In The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, a girl is taken from her family to serve as high priestess of a group of gods called only the nameless ones. In service of these nameless gods, she is stripped of her own given name and renamed Arha, which means the eaten one. Her entire identity is consumed by these dark powers that she serves. That is until she meets the wizard known as Sparrowhawk who reminds her of her true name, Tenar. He speaks that name over her and in that moment the dark hold of her dark masters begins to break over her.

When we hear our true name of creature, the dark hold of our own dark hearts begins to break too.

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The Baby, the Bunker, and the CIA: Thoughts on Revelation

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are their words,
whose voice is not heard. Psalm 19:1-3

The more I seek the more I’m sought… Joe Pug, Hymn #101

Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible

Here’s a dirty secret about the study of theology. For all the footnotes, for all the jargon uttered in its name, and for all the systems erected to scaffold its dignity, theology is ultimately dependent on something it cannot produce itself. And that something is called revelation. Without revelation, theology is impossible. Without God first speaking a word, without God first showing something about Himself, there would be no Theo for the ology to speak about. God must first reveal and then people respond. That’s what theology is at bottom, a response to and an account of revelation.

This is no cause for alarm though. You might think revelation is something that you must go searching for, that God is somewhere out there, out there being wherever it is you currently are not. But it is not so. Every morning you wake to find that you are born anew and that there the world is once again waiting to speak. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” after all, and “day to day pours out speech.” The implication is that this world is waiting to tell you things about God, waiting to impress upon you revelation. Simply to wake up and feel sheets against skin, to sense the warmth of a body next to you, to curl your muscles and crack your back, to sit up and brush away crusts of sleep from the corners of your eyes, is to encounter revelation. You wake to find that there is a God and that his world is speaking.

Born anew you wake to find that you are a helpless creature. Like an infant who hungers for that which he cannot provide for himself, you wake to find that you are once again a babe in the arms of your mother, rutting for milk. The wonder is that as you clutch and crawl and grasp to find something to feed you, as you squint and screw your head in search of a face, you find that there is such a thing as milk, that there is such a thing as a face looking for you too. You come to learn in the first moments of life a truth for all your searching—what you most need can’t be found in yourself. The wonder of Christian theology is that we are all of us infants and that the world and the word are milk to us. The wonder is that there is nourishment everywhere; we just have to start clutching our way toward it.

Take what I have just said and imagine that it is true. It is overwhelming, isn’t it, to think that every moment we rub against the edges of the world is a moment when we might encounter revelation. And our response to that revelation is critical. In the simplest terms, theology is an accounting for revelation. And if that is true, then doing theology is a little bit like being an intelligence officer. A theologian, or any human being for that matter, is like a field agent in the CIA. In developing assets, following leads, trying to sniff out who can be trusted and who cannot, there is always the question of what really matters, what is hard intelligence worth acting on and what is simply chatter, noise in the system. The difficulty is this—if the heavens are declaring the glory of God, if creation itself is a testament to God, a source of revelation, then everything is latent with meaning. Everything is both chatter and intelligence, useless and useful, insignificant and significant.

But in one sense we aren’t intelligence officers at all because there is no such thing as critical distance. We don’t observe and collect data from afar. We are within the data. We are the data. And for some this is why theology can never be taken seriously. This is an embarrassing fact for those who critique theology’s validity from the outside as a genuine mode of inquiry and from those on the inside who drone on in pseudo-scientific language and armor themselves with infinite footnotes to try and make theology something it is not. Wouldn’t theology be so much better, they seem to say, if it didn’t have to account for creation, didn’t have to account for every bloody thing, really, as revelation, or, horror of horrors, contend with Scripture? For those who harbor these objections, these latent fears boil down to one disturbing fact—revelation is not something that can be caused or controlled. It is only something that can be received and responded to.

You are here to receive. You are here to bear witness to this singing, showing world God has made, this world that pours forth speech. God first speaks and then this world he has made speaks back, speaks of the God who made it and that speech goes on and on in what Balthasar calls a “voiceless articulation”(from Epilogue). And what is being said is not nonsense. The world does not say any old thing it pleases. Psalm 19 once again tells us something indispensable about all this revelation—the heavens declare the glory of God. It might all seem like noise, like meaningless din, but the heavens aren’t speaking gibberish. In fact they are saying one thing, over and over again, and that thing is glory.

Begin to receive and meaning will begin to impress upon you and so will glory. Everywhere creation drips with revelation, so you come to find yourself soaking with the stuff. You will come to feel the friction of it because this is a world textured with truth. You will come to breath in its fragrance, both the rank and the perfume. You will come to taste both the sweet and the savory, the salty and the bitter, to be nourished and delighted with the food of God, to be disgusted and sickened with all that isn’t. You will come to hear the singing, to discern harmony and order, point and counterpoint, to feel too the dissonance, to cringe at those notes that are sharp and those that are flat. You will come to behold the splendor and squalor, to see the swallowing darkness, yes, but also to see light bend and fold, to reflect and refract shapes and movement to your open eyes.

Let’s consider once again that what I am saying is true. How do you even begin to live in a such a world? Psalm 19 has something to say about that too. At the end of the Psalm, once David has meditated on both the world God has made and the words God has spoken, he has to come to terms with himself, and so he prayers in response. “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer,” he prays, saying in effect, “Make me the kind of person who is capable of rightly receiving the glory of the world you have made and the sweetness of the word that you have spoken.” Within in the span of that single psalm, David moves first outward and then inward. He begins with the heavens declaring the glory of the Lord and ends by asking that his words and meditations would be pleasing to the very Lord whose glory has been declared. Revelation first pulls us out of ourselves only to plunge us back into ourselves as we wonder at the thing revealed.

This rhythm of wonder and awe followed by prayerful response is not unique to Psalm 19 but is seen throughout the Psalms. The psalmists have a lot to teach us about revelation and how we should respond to it because they take for granted that the world says things about God. They experience that revelation and in turn take what it said, filter it through their own lives and imagination, and say it back to God. The world speaks to them, and they start reaching for metaphors. They start connecting one thing to another in a web of figures and reference. There it is in Psalm 1—the righteous man is like a tree. There it is in Psalm 23—the Lord is a shepherd, and I am a sheep. Like intelligence officers the psalmists string yarn between scraps of evidence, make connections, follow the trails. Like lovers the psalmists read the world as if it were a letter from the beloved. They trace themes from sheet to sheet, searching for what is said in words both written and unwritten. They feel the paper for traces of touch, for fragments of presence. “There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard,” David says in Psalm 19. Everything in the world is here for us to hear, but it is only the lover who wants to hear it all. The psalmists, like lovers, are especially attuned to the “voiceless articulations” of the world, so they learn to read the glory of God in creation like a kind of body language. God is not the subject of their inquiry, or the object of their scrutiny. God is their beloved, the one whose name is blessed, who is like honey on their lips, like water to their souls. The psalmists hear the world speaking, and they say back to God in love, “You are a rock, a fortress, a warrior, a rush of mighty waters, an eagle, a Father, a king, a lover. And we are trees, sheep, vines, arrows, children, subjects, lovers.”

I’ve been asking you to imagine that all this is true. Now I’m going to ask the harder question. It is true, so why don’t we live like it is? The skies, the stars, the handiwork of the heavens haven’t just shown David and the other psalmists that there is a beautiful world and that God has made it. These things have spoken to us too, and they have shown them and us that we, all of us, are accountable to that God, a God who is responsible for our consciousness, for our ability to even consider the heavens. For David in Psalm 19, the skies and stars are a gift that pull him first outward and then plunge him inward. Outward to glory and inward to his own smallness. Outward to the immensity of what God has made and inward to his own consciousness that can, by God, even in its own smallness contemplate such things as stars and shepherds and stones and conclude that there is goodness beyond and behind the stars.

We have to come to the point where we are ready to ask ourselves the questions that the psalmists asked themselves. If the skies are speaking and I am here listening, then what kind of world is this? What does it say about me that I am capable of hearing such things? How am I supposed to live in such a world that speaks?

These are not easy questions to answer, and some of the answers must wait for another essay, but one reason is that we make ourselves the primary obstacle to this way of living in and experiencing the world. As Paul tells us in Romans 1, the skies are speaking indeed, everything around is telling us that there is a God and that he is powerful, but our response is to actively ignore that fact. We make ourselves willfully ignorant of that glory because that glory demands a response. Ultimately, glory demands our worship of the God who made the splendor and the glory we behold. Whoever goes in search of revelation cannot say the journey is done until they have worshipped the God revealed. Revelation is a means to worship. The heavens aren’t declaring facts about God. They declare “Glory!” and the proper response to glory is awe, is wonder, is worship.

Theologians, if they are doing what they should, traffic in revelation which means they must also traffic in humility, awe, and wonder. Theologians must traffic in worship. This does not mean that the task of theology is easy. There are distinctions to be made, there are categories to articulate. There are systems to develop. There is hard work to be done, but in the end God reveals himself so that we might worship him. The stars shine so that we might worship God, but Paul says in effect that we have made the world a kind of starless bunker. We have lived as if these were starless, silent skies. Without humility, awe, and wonder theology can, and more than that life can, become a self-perpetuating, self-terminating activity, and soon we will find ourselves in the starless bunker murmuring to ourselves because we have forgotten that the stars are singing.

But we, like Dante, can emerge from the hell of the starless bunker and can begin again to hear the speech being poured forth from the heavens:

“Upon this hidden path my guide and I
entered, to go back to the world of light,
and without any care to rest at ease,
He first and I behind, we climbed so high
that through a small round opening I saw
some of the turning beauties of the sky.
And we came out to see, once more, the stars.” Inferno, Canto 34:133-138


Every Tooth, Every Bone: The Dangers and Delights of Disarticulation

Every Tooth, Every Bone: The Delights and Dangers of Disarticulation

“We live on a little island of the articulable which we tend to mistake for reality itself.” Marilynne Robinson, When I Was Child I Read Books, “Imagination and Community”

“Only God Himself can let the bucket down to the depths in us. And, on the other side, he must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

My sister is an interior designer, so when she come to Dallas, she likes to take us with her to design shops and furniture stores she’s eager to visit. A couple of years ago we found ourselves in one such shop called Grange Hall. I had heard of the store, and knew that they had loose leaf tea, which excited me, and that they specialized in curiosities, which interested me, so walking in I expected to find quirky things, and what I found was certainly more Diagon Alley than Dallas, Texas. Among stuffed raccoons and bobcats with bared teeth were sculptures of blindfolded babies holding nail-pierced sacred hearts. On one wall there was a matrix of porcelain faces, forty to fifty in all, with Felix the Cat, Elvis, and Jesus all staring off into the middle distance.

For all that, I found one object especially curious. Hanging on a wall next to a distressed cabinet filled with crystal jewelry there was a wooden plaque covered in tiny, white bones, and on the bronze plate nailed to the bottom it said “Disarticulated Dog Skull.” I don’t know if the bones were real or if they were molds, but they were bleached white, the teeth perfect and unused, the bones ivory slick. The skull was complete from what I could tell, but every tooth, every bone was disjointed from those next to them and every piece was labeled in minuscule and immaculate Latin.

I have to say that before seeing that plaque I had never seen or thought about the word disarticulated, but that skull pulled apart and named only to be arrayed again as a complete thing suggested a concept to me that I had been struggling to name.

Anybody who thinks about words has thought about articulation, about the elegance and precision of the right words in the right order at the right time. Articulation also has to do with the pronunciation and sound of words, with the clarity and progress of musical notes, and with joints. By definition, then, to disarticulate means to disjoint, to take things that naturally or ideally go together and pull them apart. When it comes to bones, disarticulation can mean pain, and when it comes to communication or music disarticulation can mean confusion, the smearing of clarity. So in most cases the act of disarticulation is undesirable, the result of negligence, accident, or violence.

The skull, however, showed me that not all disarticulation is bad, that for the student of a given discipline disarticulation is invaluable. Without the ability to break a subject down into component parts, whether physically or conceptually, learning would be almost impossible. When learning or seeking to understand an idea or topic we need to be able to ask, what are the component parts? What are the smallest digestible logical pieces? For the veterinary student such a plaque would prove an immensely helpful study tool, and the knowledge gleaned from a disarticulated dog skull would prove a great aid in the actual care of actual dogs.

In the same vein, theology benefits from the mode of disarticulation. Thinking about the study of God and of His revelation, we can ask what are the component parts of the discipline, what are their names, what topics fall under them, and how do they all fit together? What comes first? What comes next? Is there pride of place, a privileging of order? There is knowledge that can only be gained from disarticulation and from the subsequent synthesis, from taking things apart and then attempting to explain the whole in terms of the constituent parts.

One way to think of the study of theology and especially the study of systematic theology is to think of them as exercises in disarticulation. In fact, one of the primary things that distinguishes one systematic theology from another is the way in which it disarticulates, the way it pulls apart the relevant topics and then names and arranges the parts. The resulting synthesis is driven by questions of shape and form, by asking how the pieces all fit together. A systematic theologian might ask, what happens when you begin theology with Christ at the center? What happens when you emphasize creation or ethics or community or the Trinity or sovereignty or freedom or beauty or drama?

There are two primary dangers, though, when it comes to the mode of disarticulation in theology. The first is a kind of tunnel vision created by the temptation to live at the level of pulling apart and naming so that all you ever have is parts and never a whole. Here the distinctions multiply. Hairs are split only to be split again. The things named become more innumerable and less distinguishable. Battles are waged over ever diminishing parcels of land. The second is the temptation to memorialize, to mount your theology on the wall like the dog skull, and let the meticulous placement of the bones and the tiny scrawl of names stand for theology in perpetuity, as if theology were a task that could be completed and not a continual response to the revelation of God.

And this is the thing I so often forget, the thing that the people I talk “theology” with so often forget–revelation itself does not change, but we do, and our ability to process it, to respond to it, to synthesize it does. Over time, for the individual or for a school of thought or for a movement, things must be reconsidered, things must be rebuilt from the ground up. This is what is so provocative about Lewis’s image of God as iconoclast because it so often God Himself who brings us to the point of reconsideration, and more specifically, to the point of disintegration. Just ask Job as he peers into the whirlwind. Ask Isaiah as he stands in the temple and experiences a kind existential disarticulation as he gazes on the majesty of God. Ask the everyday mystics who labor in prayer. Ask those people in your church who stand on the other side of trauma or tragedy.

The message is clear. While theologians engage in disarticulation, no one is immune or excluded from being disarticulated by God himself. We too can be undone by our encounters with revelation. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, God’s word itself is engaged in the work of disarticulation, taking apart what we assumed could not be taken apart, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow.” Theology is not itself revelation; it is rather our best accounting for revelation, and if we treat our theology like the the dog skull mounted on the wall, labeled and named for all time, and it will eventually only be useful as a curiosity or conversation piece. When we become comfortable, and make no mistake theologians and Christians alike are oh so prone to comfortability, God in His pleasure reserves the right to tear the pieces apart so that we have to start putting them back together again. Or as Jason Isbell sings,

You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In 24 frames

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Does Theology Matter?

“…the pretense that a theologian can escape from his own time is false, and the desire to escape into a timeless systematic Nirvana is a rebellious affront to the theologian’s calling. Theology is a pastoral vocation, a ministry to the church, and not to the church of the future or to the church of all times and places, but to the church as the theologian finds her.” Peter Leithart, A Son to Me p. 18

“As I said, the theologian’s real work is not to prove that the Faith is true, only that it’s interesting.” Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox p. 85

We had never been that close, friends of friends really, but I have always liked Ryan. He doesn’t pull any punches, and he is also a killer songwriter, a real deal storyteller, who has written an album called Flatlands full of dark and brooding songs that capture where I am from with an intimate knowing that is both caring and critical. A few months ago he wrote an email to me and a bunch of friends, many of whom are pastors and/or seminary students, about some real doubts he was having about faith and the isolation he felt as a musician trying to make it at something that almost nobody makes it doing.

When we wrote back some of us made versions of the case that things are not as bad as they seem, while others of us retreated into abstract theological categories. At the time I thought the matter was closed because he didn’t immediately write back, but a few months later he responded to all of us to tell us how badly we had failed him. What he had heard in our responses was the same old pap about faith and doubt, and as pastors and as students of theology, he thought we should have more to offer than, “That sucks man” or worse still, “Well, let’s look at this through the lens of sovereignty or providence or the theology of suffering.” There was real sadness and anger in his reply, and though he later wrote a follow-up apology, saying he had overstated things and that he was sorry, I felt the sting of what he had said because whatever the tone, I knew there was a red-hot core of truth in it.

In his final email he asked if he could call all of us to apologize over the phone. He called me and we talked and he apologized again. Though I accepted his apology, I told him that in many ways he was right. I told him that in my case there were times when I used theology, particularly theological categories, as a kind of armor against doubt. When I had read his second email, I felt him saying, “I see your armor, and it isn’t protecting you from anything. It might shimmer in the sun and look formidable in battle, but I know exactly where the chinks are.”

What Ryan said hit deeply because he tapped a nerve in me that was already raw. For some time I had been thinking about the value of my theological training and my calling as a pastor and had been wondering how I might better use theology to meet people in their doubt or pain or curiosity. As much as I love theology as theology and find it intrinsically fascinating whether or not I can make it practical, I know that for most people theology has to hit their lives in a way that makes sense. I don’t think that is a failing on their part. I think it’s good to ask how things apply in real and meaningful ways. I’ve just been wondering if you can make the leap from the theology of seminary to a meaningful theology of the street, and if you can, then how.

In seminary I was shown the virtue of a clear head and was taught the need to think in categories. Categories are useful because like empty hangers they give you a place to hang things instead of throwing them on the floor. I wouldn’t have survived seminary without this way of thinking, and it continues to come in handy in all sorts of ways. When many things come at you at once, categories allow a kind of intellectual triage to sort through what is urgent and what is not. Categories can also help you distinguish between what is truly interesting and what appears to be interesting because of seeming novelty. The story of our time is not that the emperor has no clothes but that the emperor has the same clothes and keeps telling us they are new. Categorical thinking helps you say, “Same clothes, same emperor.”

It shouldn’t be surprising though that there are dangers in this way of thinking. For one, if what you crave is novelty, then you really are going to be disappointed once you begin to peel back the layers and discover that there may be a few new things under the sun, but not as many as you might think or like. For some that fact alone can become a point of despair and the world can become flat as a consequence.[1]

For another, thinking in theological categories can feel like a weapon so that some who wield it fancy themselves Alexanders with worlds to conquer and subdue. I have certainly found a temptation in myself to use my theological categories as a dismissive way of dividing the world. An education in any discipline should provide ways to encounter and interact with and divide the world, so this isn’t a temptation unique to theology. However, theology’s subject is the God who made everything so there is a particular temptation for those who study him to think that they therefore know everything.

I am thinking about all of this for a few reasons. One is I just submitted a proposal to do doctoral work in theology, so in auditing my own motivations for doing such a thing, I’m asking some questions, including “Why does theology matter, again?” and “If it does, how can I make it matter to people?” In writing this essay and the ones I hope to write, I’d like to have my lover’s quarrel with theology in public and write my way to an answer. I’d like to invite the feedback of any who would read this so I can sharpen my own thinking. In all of this my hope is to write my way toward a different way of communicating theology.

Which brings me back to Ryan, to his music and to his album Flatlands. The album is sparse and honest because, like in the flatlands of the title, there is nowhere to hide. When I first listened to the album and heard his song “Amarillo,” a song about my hometown, it was the sonic equivalent of driving the nothing-but-horizon-roads of the Texas panhandle, dirt kicking up, the road a straightedge laid across the length of golden paper, with little else in the sight line to give any sense of perspective. I felt in that song the same smallness I felt so often growing up, staring out across plains and sky, a smallness that pressed upon me the weight of the seeming cosmic-scale nothingness of life, but a smallness that also was lightness and wonder at being alive, the joy of being a witness to such enormity.

And I realize now that I’ve been chasing that feeling. I chased it in music in high school. I chased it in literature and poetry in college. And I chased it all the way to seminary. I have felt it at times along the way to be sure, if only now and again, and my life and my experience and my belief has taught me to call what I’ve experienced not a feeling merely, but a person, to call it God. The weight and lightness, the dread and joy, the awe and wonder, have cohered in my experience and understanding as the Trinitarian God of Christianity. But there is the experience of that person and then there is the act of speaking of that experience and trying to describe that person. At its most basic that is what theology is–our description of the person and experience of God. In that sense theology is as natural and necessary as oxygen. But Theology-with-capital-T, theology as a discipline and academic enterprise, is something else.

What I am really writing about here is the theologian’s calling. If I want to become more and more a theologian and if I want to serve the church as a theologian, what exactly is it that I would be doing? What characteristics of the theologian and what form of theology best serve the church? For so long the question has been, what characteristics of the theologian best serve the academy, and not the academy as we might imagine it if we were starting from scratch, but the professionalized academy as we find it now. There are disconnects, fractures and fault lines between the academy of the past and academy of the present and between the the theologian who serves the church and the theologian who serves the academy. There are so few who do this well. From my limited viewpoint, whoever seeks to love and cherish both the church and the academy often takes one as a wife and the other as a mistress, and both the church and academy suffer as a consequence. But does it have to be that way at all and does it have to be that way for me?

That’s what I hope to explore in this series of essays that I hope to write over the coming months. The goal is to write one essay of between 2000 to 3000 words each month and to send it out in a newsletter which will include links to books, articles, songs, artists, and other things that have influenced or informed my thinking as I was writing that particular essay. I’m doing this for a few reasons. For one, I want create a tangible writing goal for myself that pushes me to write something of substance on a monthly basis. For another, I want to invite others into the conversation to sharpen and challenge the things I am saying so that this whole process is actually an adventure. I’m setting out with no particular destination. As I said, I want to write my way towards an answer or answers, and I’m inviting you to come along with me.

  1. The glory of things is not necessarily their newness. Mountains do not stir awe because they are new. They stir awe because they are momentous, sublime, dangerous, and beautiful. If you snub the Alps simply because you have already seen the Rockies, you are missing the point. Getting to the place where you say, “Oh great. Another mountain,” tells you something more about you than it does about mountains. The same is true in theology and reading the bible. Part of the glory is the repetition. This is what typology is all about–that there is beauty in patterns and repetition, in archetypes and symbols. Of course, the one great exception to the Preacher’s lament, “There is nothing new under the sun,” is the great exception to almost everything–the Incarnation.   ↩

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The City of God and the Citadel of Pride: Why Humility Matters

“The grace of God could not be commended in a way more likely to evoke a grateful response, than the way by which the only Son of God, while remaining unchangeably in his own proper being, clothed himself in humanity and gave to man the spirit of his love by the mediation of a man, so that by this love men might come to him who formerly was so far away from them, far from mortals in his immortality, from the changeable in his changelessnes, from the wicked in his righteousness, from the wretched in his blessedness. And because he has implanted in our nature the desire for blessedness and immortality he has now taken on himself mortality, while continuing in his blessedness, so that he might confer on us what our hearts desire; and by his sufferings he has taught us to make light of what we dread.” City of God, Book X.29

What is ultimately offensive and irreconcilable about the Incarnation may not be the metaphysics, the sheer improbability and seeming impossibility that God would become man, but the even more stunning implications about the kind of God who would become man. Who is this God who would subject himself to the vicissitudes of history? What is this uncontrollable mystery marked not primarily by power and might but by humility?

In Book X of City of God Augustine spars with the Neoplatonists, represented primarily by Porphyry. I have to admit that this section was pretty tough going for me. I’m not entirely familiar with Neoplatonism, and though Platonism will always cast a shadow on Western thought for good or for ill, I wasn’t entirely sure where Augustine was going. But a real payoff came in chapter 29 of Book X, where Augustine comes to a truth that is instructive for anyone engaged in evangelism and apologetics.

In this chapter, Augustine asserts that at bottom it is not for philosophical or intellectual reasons that the Neoplatonists reject Christ. Rather it is because Christ’s humility in the Incarnation and Crucifixion are affronts to their pride. Of course the whole of Christ’s life and ministry raises intellectual questions, but for Augustine, the hurdle is not primarily an intellectual one of unanswerable questions, but a spiritual one of utter humility.

This is not to say the Incarnation is not an unfathomable mystery. Of course it is bottomless and beautiful and worthy of our contemplation. Nor is this to say that intellectual objections are empty and therefore should not be addressed, but it is to say that there is often a deeper objection behind the presenting objection, and if that deeper objection is not addressed, intellectual answers, no matter how subtle or seemingly satisfying, cannot win the day. For pride is the final stronghold, the last fortress that must fall in the battle for our affection. To be sure, even when we have turned to Christ, skirmishes will be fought, offensives will be launched from this fortress, for pride resides in our most inward citadel, in the Helm’s Deep of very selves.

Here Augustine is addressing that special form of pride, intellectual pride. Augustine’s target may be the neoplatonist, but it could just as easily be the New Atheist or the materialist or any other such movement that will inevitably come down the pike. But to take the example of the New Atheist, for Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris to acknowledge the hint of the possibility that there is some reality outside of science as they have defined it would be an act of enormous humility. What they have to lose is credibility, platforms, and power, the very things that Christ laid aside in the Incarnation.

In The Lord of the Rings Frodo’s greatest advantage is his seeming inconsequence. As Gandalf says of the quest to destroy the Ring, “Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.” Humility has its own power because it never occurs to the powerful that anyone would willingly sacrificing power. This willingness, this sacrifice is its own kind of power.

Yet anyone looking at the quest of the ring bearer from the outside would have their doubts.  Surely this hobbit cannot matter? Surely the fate of Middle-Earth does not hinge on a halfling? And many looking on the life of Christ have had their doubts. Surely the Christ cannot come from Galilee? Surely the Christ is not a carpenter, born and raised in obscurity? And we pile on our own objections. He never penned a book, never traveled beyond the borders of his occupied country, never directly affronted the occupying powers, never commanded the allegiance of the powerful. But if we would experience the humility of Christ and see its power to overcome darkness, and in seeing acknowledge the latent power of humility to destroy the one thing that seems unassailable, human pride, then we might come to a place of worship and awe, a place of understanding, not where all our questions are answered to our complete satisfaction, but where as Augustine puts it, “he might confer on us what our hearts desire.” 

Desire, Satisfaction, and the Supreme Good, Reflections on City of God, pt. 6

“All those schools must be ranked below those philosophers who have found man’s true Good not in the enjoyment of the body or the mind, but in the enjoyment of God. This is not like the mind’s enjoyment of the body, or of itself; nor is it like of friend by friend; it is like the eye’s enjoyment of light–or rather that is the closet analogy…Therefore Plato has no hesitation in asserting that to be a philosopher is to love God, whose nature is immaterial…To be sure, it does not automatically follow that a man is happy, just because he enjoys what he has set his heart on; many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them. But it remains true that no one is happy without the enjoyment of what he loves. Even those who set their heart on the wrong things do not suppose their happiness to consist in the loving, but in the enjoyment. If anyone then enjoys what he loves, and loves the true Supreme Good, only the most miserable would deny his happiness. Now this Sovereign Good, according to Plato, is God. And that is why he will have it that the true philosopher is the lover of God, since the aim of philosophy is happiness, and he who has set his heart on God will be happy in the enjoyment of him.” City of God Book VIII.10

Here Augustine grapples with one of the central questions: what is the supreme good, the Summum Bonum? That is to ask, what is supremely worthy of pursuit? Or to put it another way, what is the aim of life? When the weeds are cleared, what is left? When the dross is burned away, what remains?

As important as that question is, behind that question is another more fundamental question, namely, what are human beings. In this passage, Augustine is arguing that human beings are primarily creatures of desire, driven by enjoyment and pleasure, and that therefore happiness (and by extension the supreme good) comes from enjoying what is loved. That may seem simple enough, but for some, it may seem strange to see Augustine affirming these things in his discussion of the supreme good because he has something of a not entirely undeserved reputation when it comes to things like sex. But as much as the problem may lie with Augustine’s own sexual baggage, a lot of the problem lies with our culture’s tendency to hear words like pleasure, desire, and enjoyment in purely sexual ways.

Which actually speaks to one of his central points in this passage–not all desire is good or beneficial or rightly orientated, not all love leads to happiness. Moreover, perhaps we hear these words in a sexualized way because our sexual desires are disordered. But that seems impossible to many because of the tendency to think of desire and the indulgence of that desire in a purely circular and simplistic way with no thought of what desire itself tells us about the nature of the world and what our desires might be aiming us toward. Even it the thought of disordered desire may not occur to us, it is something to grapple with, especially if  Augustine is right that “many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them.”

While the thought may be simple–that human beings are creatures of desire made to enjoy that which is desired–the application is enormously complex. There are so many things to desire and so many ways that desire can become disordered. This is not to mention where the lines between true enjoyment and overindulgence are. It is hard to argue that we are creatures of desire, creatures of appetite. Love, passion, romance, labors of love are the bright face of desire while greed, gluttony, overindulgence, addiction are its dark twin. When we think of our gut level orientation to the world it’s hard to argue that so much of day to day life is grappling with desire. The push and pull of the everyday is often found in the counterbalance of seeking to satisfy certain desires, while simultaneously suppressing others. But that angst is precisely why the question of the supreme good is so important. If we are creatures of desire, then we must at least attempt to figure out what it is that it is best to desire. Or to put it another way, what is the thing that when it is desired and then enjoyed is most satisfying? For Augustine that is God. As he puts it in Confessions,”God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Even if you answer the question differently than Augustine, it is worth asking why and pondering what it might mean, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that there seem to be desires that nothing in this world fully satisfy.


What have your gods required of you? Reflections on City of God, Pt. 5

Up to this point in City of God, Augustine has been showing the impotence of the Roman gods in the affairs of this world. They do not offer the protection or benefits claimed for them, and their sheer number indicates that whatever power they might have is limited to inconsequential spheres of influence that in the end have no benefit. In Book VI he turns to the question of eternal life, asking if these gods have anything to offer their worshippers on the other side of death. His answer, of course, is no, but along the way he interacts with Varro, author of Divine Antiquities, a book now lost to history which offered detailed descriptions of Roman religion.

Varro’s book sounds fascinating, like a encyclopedia of the sociology of religion of the day. And as Augustine describes it, Varro’s book is long (which is saying something considering what a brick City of God is). Within the book, Varro distinguishes between mythical, physical, and civil theology, respectively, the gods of the theater, the gods of the philosophers, and the gods of the state. One reason for these distinctions is that Varro wants to distance himself from the gods of the theatre, what he calls the mythic gods, and wants to uphold the gods of the state, what he calls the civil gods. Both Varro and Augustine find the theater disgraceful and its presentation of the gods unseemly. But Augustine finds Varro’s distinction between the mythic and the civil gods to be meaningless because the horrors and savagery depicted in plays is the same type of savagery enacted in the temple of the gods. Fascinatingly, Augustine quotes Seneca on this point, who says of Roman worship, “One man cuts off his male organs, another gashes his arms. If this is the way they earn the favor of the gods, what happens when they fear their anger?”

One of Seneca’s implied points, and certainly one of Augustine’s explicit points, is that the worship required by a given god tells you a lot about the character of that god, which then begs the deeper question, are gods who require such things worthy of worship? Augustine’s overall point in this book is that people should not contort themselves and pour themselves out for gods who have nothing to offer in this life or in the next. For Augustine, the gods of the Roman pantheon are the epitome of gods who are unworthy of worship because they cannot save in this life or the next.

Another important point from this section is that worship is always demanding because by definition you are offering yourself to another, and to truly offer yourself is never easy. But to pour yourself out to things, ideas, ambitions that in the end deplete and bleed you and offer nothing in return is a tragedy. That is not overstating it, because from a Christian point of view misdirected worship, the pouring out of the self for those things that act like gods but are not gods, is the deepest human tragedy. It is the tragedy of idolatry. Or as David Foster Wallace so beautifully and strikingly puts it,

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” David Foster Wallace, This is Water

What have your gods required of you? This is a great question for any season, but especially for Lent, when we offer before the Lord our deepest motivations and desires, asking him to cleanse and forgive us.