Love is Never A Mistake: Christ and Augustine on “Doctrinal Correctness”

Note: I wrote this post in early July of 2017, only a few days after I’d been told by my surgeon that I had four blocked arteries and would need major surgery. I wrote this only a day or two before the surgery, not knowing if I would live to write another. I asked myself “if there’s only one thing I have time to say publicly, what would it be?” This was what came out. Nine months later, I’m still here, my health mostly recovered. I get to read more, think more, say more, for which I’m more grateful than I can express. But had this turned out to be the last thing I published, I’d be okay with that.

I’m not a theologian. Let’s take care of that one straight off the bat.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

I’m fascinated by theology, and love to read about it, discuss it, think about it–but at the end of the day, as a believing layman, I sometimes find myself wanting to simplify rather than complicate that belief. What does it really boil down to be a Christian believer in the world? When all the interesting theological thinking is done, what do I actually do to act on whatever belief I hold? Is there a simple principle that can guide my thought and action?

Luckily, it seems to me that there really is, stated in flatly unambiguous terms by my faith’s own central figure, in the Gospel of Mark:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’–this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34, NRSV)

The Bible is often a difficult text, rife with passages that require a lot of study and very careful interpretation, and upon which scholars have legitimate confusions and disagreements. But this isn’t one of those passages. It’s stone-cold clear: a scribe asks, essentially, “of all the various tenets of our faith, which one is the most important, the one that should trump all the others?” Jesus gives a twofold answer with stark clarity:

  1. Love God.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Boom. That’s it, folks, right from the Big Guy himself: the idea that that, of everything that we might think, believe, or do, this twofold commandment is the trump card. The concept that takes precedence over all the others.

St. Augustine usefully combines both these concepts into a single term, caritas.

Caritas is a Latin word, which is the root of the English word “charity”, but for Augustine means much more. He means precisely the two qualities Christ marks as the Most Important Thing Of All in Mark 12:

Caritas=Love of God and Neighbor

Augustine unpacks the importance of this concept in one of my all-time favorite books, called the De Doctrina Christiana (Concerning Christian Doctrine). The De Doctrina is ostensibly a book about how one should go about translating the Christian scriptures, but it also goes beyond that: it’s not just about linguistic translation, but about how the content of the scriptures–the Gospel itself–is best translated into our lives and cultures. How do we translate Caritas into everything we do?

Interestingly, Augustine takes the concept of Caritas as both his starting point and his main “razor” for both linguistic and cultural translation. In essence, he says that the end of scripture, its most important purpose, is exactly what Jesus says it is in Mark 12: caritas. Consequently, the most important rule of Biblical translation, for Augustine, is that any translation of scripture must ultimately convey that caritas. Even when we think we understand something in scripture, but our understanding does not lead to caritas, something is wrong:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all [boldface mine]…However…if he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity [i.e. caritas], which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.1

In other words, for Augustine, if one’s translation of scripture does not, ultimately, point toward and demonstrate love of God and love of Neighbor, that indicates that something is wrong, no matter how correct you might believe your translation to be. On the other hand, even if you make a mistake, if that mistake itself leads to the love of God and Neighbor, you’ve done little harm, as though you got lost in the middle of a journey but still wound up at the right destination anyway.

To put it even more simply: A mistake that still leads to caritas beats something you’re convinced is correct but doesn’t lead to caritas, every time.

To put it even more simply than that: love is the trump card. If what we believe or do does not show and result in love, something is wrong, no matter how right we think we might be. If what we believe or do is mistaken, but still shows and results in love, then, at least, we’ve still ultimately managed to do the right thing. We did it in spite of ourselves, perhaps, but we still did it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that too many believers (myself included, sometimes) have become stuck in the idea that right belief–what we might call “doctrinal correctness,” is the most important aspect of our faith. I suspect this is because it’s easier to create a laundry list of propositions and then mentally check them off (“yep, believe that, check; okay, believe that other thing, check…”) than it is to make sure we’re truly showing and promoting love of God and Neighbor in everything we do. I see it in my own dealings with fellow believers on social media, when I snark at people who I think are wrong. I see it in the accusations that fly back and forth over issues like positions on the status of LGBTQ persons or gender roles: “you can’t really be a Christian if you believe x or y.”

But according to Christ himself, that’s not really the question, is it? What makes someone a Christian, at the end of the day, is our ability to demonstrate love for God and Neighbor. Period. If we don’t do that, we’re not succeeding, no matter how correct we might think we are. When I snark at someone with whom I disagree, I’m not doing it right, no matter how right I think I am. If I try, as a believer, to “convict” someone of something I believe is wrong or sinful behavior, and that person winds up walking away feeling more shamed than loved, I have failed, no matter how correct I think my belief about his/her behavior might be. If that person walks away feeling loved, I’ve succeeded, whether my belief about that person’s behavior is correct or not. If I’m not sure whether my words or behavior toward another person are right, or if I’m not sure whether my belief is correct, erring on the side of love is never, ultimately, an error.

It’s a freeing principle for we imperfect people, and easy to remember:

When in doubt, love. When  not in doubt, be more concerned about showing love than being right. Love is never, ever, a mistake.


  1. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), pp. 30-31.  

 

On the (Self-) Coddling of Christian Universities

deathofsocratesA few weeks ago Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, released an open letter addressed to his university’s student body. In the letter, Piper appeared to take on the issue of “victimization” culture, railing against a student who apparently objected to the content of a sermon at one of OKU’s chapel services. A number of bloggers have already responded to Piper’s letter in various ways, chief among them my friend and colleague Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman and historian John Fea, not to mention numerous commenters to the Pietist Schoolman post. While Piper’s letter won accolades from conservative commentators like Rod Dreher, who hailed Piper as “A Man Among Boys”, Gehrz, Fea, and a number of their respondents had more thoughtful responses. You can read the text of Piper’s letter here.

Rather than respond directly to the letter, however, I’d like to set it in the context of several other recent events involving Christian (especially evangelical) colleges. Briefly:

  • This past August, both Oklahoma Wesleyan and Union University withdrew their memberships in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities over the actions of two other then-member universities (Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College), who changed their hiring policies, after the Obergefell ruling, to legally married same-sex couples. The reason OKW and UU gave for withdrawing from the CCCU was not any sort of decision about the matter by the CCCU, but rather that the CCCU hadn’t moved to condemn EMU and Goshen quickly enough. This means, of course, both universities acted before even knowing what kind of response the CCCU (which had decided, not unreasonably, to discuss the matter first) might make.
  • In early December, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraged his university’s students to carry concealed firearms, specifically in order to counteract a perceived threat from Muslim terrorists. The most chilling sentence in Falwell’s address was this: “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us…” Several commentators have already worried about the connotations of the phrase “those Muslims,” but the real problem, for me, is the before: Falwell isn’t talking, here, about responding to a threat that has already materialized; he’s talking about a pre-emptive strike: Let’s go out and get Them before They get Us.
  • Finally and more recently, Wheaton college recently suspended (or, to use their term “placed on administrative leave”) Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins, apparently, had committed to wearing a hijab during advent as a way of showing solidarity between Christians and Muslims. While Wheaton had no problem with the hijab, the college suspended Hawkins for part of her explanation, in a Facebook post, for why she was doing so, in which she stated that Christians and Muslims “…worship the same God.” Again, what was troubling to me was not that there was debate about that statement (it’s actually a very interesting question), but the speed of Hawkins’ suspension: according to the Christianity Today article covering the event, Hawkins’ posted that Facebook message on December 10–the Thursday, according to Wheaton’s academic calendar, of the last week of regular classes before finals week. It seems likely that Wheaton officials would not have become aware of the posting, or at least have been able to discuss what to do about it, until the next day (Friday); the 12th and 13th, of course, were a weekend, and Wheaton’s suspension of Hawkins, according to its own press release came on Tuesday the 15th, which means that there was only a single business day (the intervening Monday) between Wheaton officials’ becoming aware of the post and placing Hawkins on administrative leave. This means that Hawkins was assuredly placed on leave before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place. It also means that all the substantive conversation about the issue, for Hawkins, has taken place under that administrative leave–under, in other words, at least the implied threat of termination (were that not at stake, there would have been no reason for administrative action at all). Nothing like forcing the suspect to make her case À l’ombre de la guillotine.

It’s the repeated before that’s troubling. Union University withdrew from the CCCU before it knew what the CCCU was going to do about EMU’s and Goshen’s changes in policy. The problem wasn’t, at that point, that the CCCU hadn’t responded as they’d wanted, but that the response they were looking for wasn’t the CCCU’s immediate, knee-jerk response. Falwell exhorted his students, chillingly, to go out and “end those Muslims” before they walked in, calling not for a response to an act of violence in progress, but for a pre-emptive strike against those he feared might possibly commit one. Wheaton took administrative punitive action against Hawkins before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place, forcing any subsequent conversation to take place not between colleagues and fellow inquirers, but between the institutional power of the employer and the termination-threatened employee.

Bear in mind that these are universities–the places that we supposedly set aside precisely in order to creates spaces to inquire into and communicate about difficult issues, to ask questions and seek answers about complex and important matters. But the common element of all three of these incidents is that the institutions acted almost immediately not to ask questions or communicate about hard issues, but precisely to prevent substantive and unfettered communication and inquiry. While Wheaton’s FAQ about the issue asserts that Hawkins’ administrative leave is “…a time for conversation and assessment,” there’s surely a significant rhetorical difference between a conversation between academic colleagues that takes place without constraint and one that takes place under an official administrative action by the institution, and there’s no reason that Wheaton’s administration could not have chosen to have some of those conversations prior to taking sweeping institutional action, especially an action imposed at the beginning of finals week. In the absence of additional information, everything about the Wheaton decision smacks of placing action before thought.

It’s that sense of–quite literally–acting before thinking that makes all these incidents disturbingly strange for institutions of higher learning. It’s as though it’s not enough only to be orthodox; one must also be immediately and autonomically orthodox, with no room for asking questions or communication before an equally-autonomic institutional response must kick in.

To put it a simpler way, these seem like responses born in fear more than thought (fear of what I’m not sure). There appears to be a disturbing insistence on invoking institutional power right away to insulate the institution from ideas or persons its most powerful members think might be unorthodox or dangerous, without stopping beforehand even to ask whether or not that might be the case. In none of these cases was authentic inquiry allowed to precede institutional action. Doesn’t this begin to sound like the story of the student who insisted on not being made uncomfortable by the content of a sermon, not being forced into a situation where he/she must struggle with challenging ideas rather than maintaining his or her own “orthodoxy?”

Who, then, is really insisting on being coddled?

[Note: Lest anyone think I’m merely being grumpy about all this, I’m going to take some time in my next post to talk about what I think might be some better alternatives for thinking about and dealing with such issues in more positive and (to use the the term in vogue in some evangelical circles) irenic ways.]

Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing, Part Three

In which St. Augustine and a medieval mystic show us how it’s done, and we realize John Lennon was plagiarizing both of them…

I ended the previous part of this meditationSaint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne on this note: if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism.

The good news–quite literally–in this case is that God has already made this possible by accomplishing what was discussed in the first part of this meditation  the incarnation, where all that fullness, in a great and mysterious action, became one and the same thing as an embodied human being. That’s why the incarnation is so important. It means human and God can in fact be made one.

At the same time, that gap between what we can know and what God is is still there, so what takes us the rest of the way? It can’t be understanding. It can’t be knowledge. It can’t be human effort under its own steam.

But what might happen if we try to get to the point where we can work through those things: start with what we can sense, move up through what we can understand and symbolize, precisely in order to be so aware of those things that we can come into some kind of contact with that realm beyond it. Get past sense and signification so that we’re stretching our intent entirely toward that “Cloud of unknowing?”

St. Augustine gives us an interesting glimpse into what something like that might be like. The moment happens at a point where Augustine, after his conversion, is sitting in a garden, having a conversation with his mother:

From Confessions, Book Nine (New Advent Trans.):

We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philippians 3:13 we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.

And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she has been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to have been, and to be hereafter, are not in her, but only to be, seeing she is eternal, for to have been and to be hereafter are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound the first-fruits of the Spirit; Romans 8:23 and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like Your Word, our Lord, who remains in Himself without becoming old, and makes all things new? Wisdom 7:27

We were saying, then (my trans):

If the roar of flesh fell silent

silent the phantasms of earth,‭ ‬water,‭ ‬air,

silent the heavens

silent the very soul to itself,

so that it passes beyond itself,

not knowing itself‭;

If dreams quieted‭

‬and imagination,

and all tongues,

every sign,

each transient thing

just stopped–

since,‭ ‬if one hears,‭ ‬all things say this:

‏>“‎not for ourselves were we made

but for he who made us who dwells in eternity‭”‬–

and,‭ ‬having aroused the ear

of Him who made them,

they quieted down,

and He spoke:

Himself only,

so that we heard the Word Himself

not through carnal tongue

nor voice of angels

nor sound of a cloud,

nor cryptic metaphor–

If we heard only Him,

who we love through these things

but without them

(just as now

we strain

and in a lightning thought

touch eternal wisdom

dwelling above all‭)

And if this could continue,

purging all other visions

of far inferior birth,

and this alone ravish and absorb

the spectator,‭ ‬hide him

in inward joys,

so that eternal life was this moment

of understanding:

Isn‭’‬t this,‭ ‬and this alone:

‏“‎Enter into the joy of your Lord‭?”

What Augustine does, here, is give us a fascinating dual movement: he starts by sort of listing out all of the things through which we can begin to experience some sense of God through his sensible creation: the natural world, through which we have evidence of God’s activity–something that points toward God but is not itself God. Symbols that help us explain our conceptions of God but don’t express God himself. Even God speaking to us in words we can understand as words. Then he asks a really amazing question:

What if, for a single moment, all that stuff just shut up? What if all that fell silent and we just felt pure, unmediated communion with the thing all those symbols point toward but aren’t? What if we didn’t have to understand or experience God through these things (like pesky middlemen), but were right there, being with God as God?

Then he asks: What if that single moment–which he’d just experienced with his mom–wasn’t just a single, beautiful moment? What if it stretched out infinitely, an eternal, un-mediated being-present with the divine?

And the final humdinger: Wouldn’t that be heaven?

Notice that while Augustine didn’t get quite that far–to heaven, that is–he did get to that moment that, if stretched out infinitely, would be heaven. So what he he can achieve in this existence isn’t itself heaven–but it’s a a piece of it.

So how does one actually come to be in such a state? To commune with that part of God we cannot know?

Augustine gives us a glimpse: he and his mother start by being fully present in a moment with one another, and consider all those sense-able and knowable things we most often use to know and relate to God, but are present with them so completely that they are able to move beyond them into that space of what can’t be known.

So how, then might real people (who aren’t, you know, St. Augustine) reach toward this kind of communion? And how do we know that what we’re communing with is really the divine, and not something else?

Another mystic, the anonymous writer of a fourteenth-century Middle English treatise on mysticism called the Cloud of Unkowing perhaps helps us understand this process a little better. The Cloud author recognizes that “Cloud of Unknowing”, and his basic method is not to lament that there are things about God we cannot understand, but rather to stretch our awareness directly and fully to that “Cloud:”

Lette not therfore, bot travayle [work] therin tyl thou fele lyst [motivated, desirous]. For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost [knows] never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God. This derknes and this cloude is, howsoever thou dost, bitwix thee and thi God, and letteth [hinders] thee that thou maist not see Him cleerly by light of understonding in thi reson, ne fele Him in swetnes of love in thin affeccion.

The Cloud author’s most basic and brilliant observation is that, while, as I’ve mentioned above, God in all his fullness cannot be known by a human mind, knowledge isn’t the only, or even necessarily the best, tool we have when it comes to relating to God:

For of alle other creatures and theire werkes — ye, and of the werkes of God self — may a man thorou grace have fulheed of knowing, and wel to kon [know] thinke on hem [them]; bot of God Himself can no man thinke. And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese [choose] to my love that thing that I cannot think. For whi He may wel be loved, bot not thought. By love may He be getyn and holden; bot bi thought neither. And therfore, thof al [although] it be good sumtyme to think of the kyndnes and the worthines of God in special, and thof al it be a light and a party of contemplacion, nevertheles in this werk it schal be casten down and keverid with a cloude of forgetyng. And thou schalt step aboven it stalworthly [stalwartly, bravely], bot listely [carefully], with a devoute and a plesing stering [stirring] of love, and fonde for to peerse that derknes aboven thee. And smyte apon that thicke cloude of unknowyng with a scharp darte of longing love, and go not thens for thing that befalleth.

Notice that what the contemplative is doing here is essentially reaching out toward that Cloud with loving intention, to “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love”. Obviously that’s not going to get one all the way. But it does act as a way of clearing one’s consciousness of all the other matters–sensible and symbolic–that can’t lead toward that full relationship. And the good news–literally once again–is that the incarnation means that we do not need to complete the task under our own steam. What happens when we enter that contemplative state is that we clear the air of things that make us less receptive to the force that works the other direction, God’s own grace and mercy:

And therfore schap [determine] thee to bide in this derknes as longe as thou maist, evermore criing after Him that thou lovest; for yif ever schalt thou fele Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth alweis be in this cloude and in this derknes. And yif thou wilte besily travayle [diligently work] as I bid thee, I triste in His mercy that thou schalt come therto.

By stretching that loving intent and desire for God directly toward that Cloud of Unknowing, we put ourselves as purely as possible in the way of grace, and grace takes it the rest of the way.

A blessed Christmas to all.

 

Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing: An Advent Meditation, Part Two

In which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a burnshead1crazy Scottish love poem.

I have to confess I actually like Advent more than I like Christmas. Christmas itself, at least in my own Midwestern, American, middle-class culture has been so taken over by a combination of commercialism and seemingly obligatory rituals and expectations that, for me, Christmas proper, I fear, has become more of a yearly exercise in stress management techniques (as much about dealing with the stress of others as about dealing with my own) than in commemoration of the incarnation of Christ.

Advent is different: it’s a season rather than an “event,” which gives me time–to prepare, to rest, reflect backwards and imagine forwards. Advent is when I have the time and wherewithal to think about things like the incarnation itself, with a sense of anticipation, as in the first part of this meditation. This second part tries to get to the purpose of that kind of thinking, to the idea of the kind of communion with the Divine that that event of the incarnation makes possible. This will come in two installments, one on Christmas Eve, and the next on Christmas proper.

To begin, try a quick exercise:

  1. Think about something you love deeply: a person, a friend, a spouse, or even an activity or a work of art.
  2. Try to list the things you know about that that thing that you love.

Now consider this question: To what degree do those things that you know seem to account for the love itself?

Now try again, but instead of explaining things you know about that object of your love, start explaining the love itself.

Show of hands: do you feel like your explanation of your love expressed that love in every iota of its fullness?

Yeah, of course not.

Now think about that “gap.” There’s some distance, there, between what you can explain and understand intellectually,, or even symbolically: “my love is like a red, red rose”–kinda, but not all of it, right?

So in a way, that gap is important. That gap between what you can know and whatever it is that accounts for the complete fullness of your experience. In a way, the gap is the thing; that’s what you love. That gap, in a sense, is the most “real” thing about your love; the very thing that makes it more than anything you can symbolize or put into words is its most essential component.

It’s like this:

Your experience of your love in all its fullness.
^
|
|
What you can explain
^
|
|
What you can sense

In a sense it’s that top gap that’s most essential, right? If you were only stuck with what you could explain, your experience of it wouldn’t be love.

So there’s a very real sense in which what we cannot symbolize is precisely the same thing as what we love. The existence of something we cannot symbolize is precisely what makes it as real as it is.

And that thing is really hard to talk about, precisely because it’s not something that can be expressed using any of the tools we humans have–that is, symbols–to express and communicate things.

This is why, for example, even great love poems tend to end in things like failure and negation. Take this one by Robert Burns:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Notice how this poem starts with two really cheesy, cliche similes; then moves to a sort of attempt at equation, which doesn’t quite work for the speaker either, and then the speaker goes on not to positive images but rather to images of dissolution: the seaIn which we do the Strange Thing of talking about relating to God by means of a Scottish love poem.s going dry, rocks melting with the sun. It’s a strange set of images–we’re destroying the world in a Sci-Fi apocalypse and it’s still not right! Then all the speaker can do is say goodbye–twice–and try to imagine placing infinite distance between himself and his love and try to think about an infinite effort to return to that at which he never arrived to begin with.

But that’s the idea: the love, the real love, that which makes it love, begins precisely at the point where the speaker’s ability to symbolize and express it breaks down. That’s what the poem is about.

That’s as good an initial illustration as any, perhaps, of how medieval mystics tend to think about the relationship of human beings to God: knowledge and intellect and human powers of symbolic expression only get us so far in terms of relating to God in all his fullness, because what we can express and understand about God is limited by our fallen humanity.There’s a very real way in which, if we can understand and express it, it must not be God, because we are less than God, so anything that we can actually get our minds around is also less than God. If we can understand it, we’ve already got it wrong.

At the same time, we have a sort of vague sense of that gap between what we can understand and symbolize and something else, and that something else as to be precisely what makes God God (because it can’t be what makes God God if we can explain it in human terms that fit within the finite and fallen human capacity for knowing).

Which means that if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism I’ll talk about on Christmas Day.

 

Dear CCCU Presidents: Retain EMU and Goshen, for Christ’s Sake

As both a follow-up to my recent posting on the role of the idea of the idea of the Gospel in Union University’s recent departure from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, and a preamble to my next one, which deals with the idea of what really should create unity among believers, here are some wise and necessary words from Kyle Roberts, Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

For the impatient, the most important point Roberts makes, I think, is that the differing stances on same-sex marriage expressed in the (inclusive) policies of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, as well as those of Union University and Oklahoma Wesleyan, are the results of good-faith attempts on both sides to understand and value the authority of scripture. The fact that they have come to differing conclusions should not be a reason for either to accuse the other of having abandoned respect for scripture.

Source: Dear CCCU Presidents: Retain EMU and Goshen, for Christ’s Sake

What is at the Heart of the Gospel? Hint: It Has Nothing to do with Marriage

Wise_Blood_(novel)_1st_edition_coverThe Gospel stands out against morality. The purpose of the Church should be to call the bluff on any attempts of finding morality in the Gospel.

Gerald T. Sheppard

One of my all-time favorite novels is Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Its protagonist, Hazel Motes, is a deeply wounded character who, after the traumas of being raised by a legalistic (and abusive) evangelist and surviving combat in World War Two, returns home with the intention of founding a new antireligion, what he calls the “Church of God Without Christ.” He describes his new “church” as one in which “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Without getting into a full summary or analysis of the novel, what fascinates me about Hazel Motes is that, the harder he tries to repudiate Christ, repudiate the Gospel, the more he seems marked and pursued by it. It starts with the way his “evangelism” for his new anti-religion resembles the very brand of evangelism he so loathes, to the point that others mistake his message for its opposite. It continues with the ways in which grace pursues him in the persons of several (primarily female) characters who, despite the manner in which he pushes them away, continue to care for him. Throughout the novel, he seems “marked” indelibly by the very Christ he says he eschews (the blind preacher-cum-huckster, Asa Hawks, tells him this outright), and Motes seems continually haunted, in the way O’Connor once referred to the south as “Christ-haunted,” through to the very end of his life, to the point that he experiences a salvation–at least of sorts–there. O’Connor describes him in the preface to Wise Blood as a “Christian maugre lui–in spite of himself.

At the end of the day, I suspect that’s what all believers are (I know I am): Christians in spite of ourselves. It is one of the most traditional and conservative beliefs of Christianity that all human beings, no matter how good or moral they may seem, are tainted by the fall. It is even entirely orthodox to believe that no one, under his or her own steam, is even capable of willing his or her own salvation. Human beings, in this view, are too vulnerable to their own wills, their self-interest, their own constructs, to be able to achieve or merit salvation on their own. Even St. Augustine admits that he was unable, on his own, to assent to God’s calling to him, such that that act had to be God’s:

I kept saying to myself, “See, let it be done now; let it be done now.” And as I said this I all but came to a firm decision. I all but did it — yet I did not quite. Still I did not fall back to my old condition, but stood aside for a moment and drew breath. And I tried again, and lacked only a very little of reaching the resolve — and then somewhat less, and then all but touched and grasped it. Yet I still did not quite reach or touch or grasp the goal, because I hesitated to die to death and to live to life. And the worse way, to which I was habituated, was stronger in me than the better, which I had not tried. And up to the very moment in which I was to become another man, the nearer the moment approached, the greater horror did it strike in me. But it did not strike me back, nor turn me aside, but held me in suspense.1

But this, of course, is the whole point, the very center and heart Christian belief, this crazy, irrational, wonderful thing we call the Gospel. O’Connor’s character personifies this quality in frightening and beautiful ways, doing overtly what we all do internally: fighting the grace to which he had already assented. Trying, and failing, to beat the action of grace aside in favor of their own egos. The important thing is that, in both cases, what makes both Augustine and Hazel Motes Christians–in spite of themselves–is entirely God’s action, not their own. Their own constructs, systems of belief, of morality, of religious doctrine–all the things they themselves will into existence and cling to like stubborn mollusks–are ultimately futile. Only the action of grace brings them the rest of the way. And that–the act of God that enables fallen humans to take that last step into a reconciled relationship with the divine–is what we call Gospel.

I mention all this because the ideas of what lies at the “heart” of the Gospel, and what constitutes the source of unity among Christian believers, have been sticking points in a lively (and sometimes acrimonious) debate that’s surfaced in Christian university circles over the last couple of months. Long story short, two members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University) recently changed their hiring policies to include persons in same-sex marriages. On the heels of these announcements, the provost of another CCCU school, Union University, announced that Union was leaving the CCCU, primarily because the CCCU failed to immediately expel Goshen and EMU from the organization over that change. In his letter, Union’s provost, Samuel Oliver, argued that [his concept of traditional] “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel.”2

I have to admit that one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to blog on this matter is the degree to which that statement befuddled and angered me. I had to allow myself the time to quit huffing and puffing and throwing things to be able to write about the matter in a way that didn’t violate my own standards of what respectful debate between believers should look like.

I’ll admit for the record that I think that Oliver is dead wrong. I grew up within the Lutheran tradition (and am still active in the Lutheran church), and the idea of the Gospel holds a very special–revered–place in that tradition. We go on about it. A lot. John Pederson, a Lutheran theologian, Pastor Emeritus of Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver, and a long-time friend and spiritual mentor (not to mention one of my favorite people ever, and the person who introduced me to fine single-malt scotches), kindly gave me permission to reproduce a brief definition of the Gospel he shared with me in an email:

My most succinct statement would be something like: The gospel is God’s announcement of good news into all creation.

  1. The gospel is proclamation, announcement, performative utterance (J. L. Austin offers the example of “I take you to be my wife. . . .”), speech-act (Ernst Fuchs), and as such has more in common with the creation story (“And God said, and it was so.”) than Torah or any other ethical configuration. The gospel has more in common with the jury’s announcement/proclamation, “the jury finds you not guilty. . . .” than any moral aspirations I might hope for. The gospel is not exposition, exhortation, aspiration, achievement, and certainly not any stipulated moral code.
  2. The gospel is God’s action and not mine. I do not constitute the gospel by my performance of it or anything else. The gospel is God’s performance, just as much as is creation, covenant, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Best not indulge human narcissism by suggesting any part of this on my own.
  3. The gospel is good news. It is uncalculated, unexpected, undeserved, surprising. It goes against the evidence, one might say. Evidence for the gospel is in God’s speech, God’s promise and not in any moral influence that may be effected in me. The gospel is not conditional in any way, but rather proclamation, performative, and, as Lutherans might say, forensic.

It is this (to my thinking very traditional and orthodox, and in no way limited to Lutheranism) way of thinking about the Gospel that made Oliver’s statement seem so alien and upsetting to me. To put a particular definition of marriage at the heart of the Gospel is to make a dangerous innovation on traditional Christian thought. To put a human construct in a place that only Christ has the right to occupy. The Gospel has never been a moral code, and has never been about anything human beings do. To replace that traditional idea of the Gospel with a moral code based on one particular (and arguable) interpretation of only a few passages of Scripture is, to my thinking, an offense against the Gospel, not a preservation of its witness. The Gospel is the opposite of any such code, a gift of unmerited grace. The whole point is that we can’t live up to even our own moral standards, much less God’s, such that grace is our only hope. The grace that chases us down–as it does Hazel Motes, and as it did Augustine–and calls for our response, however flawed, human, and inept our responses will be.

Our responses to grace are where things like moral codes and doctrinal ideas–such as ideas about what properly constitutes marriage–come into the picture. They are part of how Christians try to think and act in relation to the gift of grace, but are not themselves components of grace. And, of course, as fallen human beings, none of us can ever get that response exactly right. The fact that our responses are often divergent is a reflection of this imperfection: none of us have the right to claim moral high ground over any other, because none of us can claim the perfect response to grace. As much as I might disagree with Oliver, I have no basis on which to consider him anything other than a brother in Christ, because it is Christ’s action, not ours, that creates that relationships. All we can really do is recognize our mutual imperfection and try to continue, from our confusion and disagreement, to hammer out better responses to grace, and to one another. And we can only do that if we maintain relationship with one another. We’re simply not allowed to walk away. This is why I think the act of severing relationships with other, equally imperfect respondents to grace over the differences in our responses is also unwise–something I’ll try to argue more fully in the next installment.


  1. This is in Book Eight, Chapter 11 of the Confessions
  2. See my colleague Chris Gehrz’ overview of the initial situation over at the Pietist Schoolman Blog

Be Careful Where you Look for Demons: Yoga, Christianity, and Macbeth

I found myself having an interesting exchange on Facebook a couple of dburn_themays ago, between myself (a Christian who regularly practices yoga–or at least a little-known variant thereof known as pranaholycrapI’mfallingover), a Christian yoga instructor, and another individual. This third person seemed intent on admonishing us for what she considered to be a practice that was not simply a questionable activity from a Christian perspective, but a quite-literally demonic one.

I was a little taken aback by the accusation that I was, entirely unbenownst to myself, taking regular dips in the venomous waters of Satanism and, apparently, opening myself to literal demonic possession. And given that the little yoga I do seems so effective in terms of reducing back pain, reducing stress, and increasing muscle strength and flexibility, I was also surprised that demons could be so considerate. So I did a few web searches to find out more about such attitudes, and found that it is almost a commonplace in some corners of uber-conservative Christianity to imagine that practicing yoga, even in the way it’s commonly practiced in health clubs in the U.S., is essentially engaging the worship rituals of another religion (usually identified as Hinduism)–rituals which somehow amount to demonic worship as well.

Of course, there are more moderate perspectives as well. Were I to really engage in such arguments, I’d likely start with the idea that what is most often termed “yoga” in the West is not really yoga at all, but rather a combination of two elements of yoga, asanas (the poses) and pranayama (the breathing exercises). While these are essential elements of yoga, they do not begin to encompass the religious dimensions practiced by, say, real yogis and those who intentionally engage in yoga as a religious practice. The relationship of asanas and pranayama to full-on yoga is a bit like the relationship of butter and sugar to chocolate chip cookies: they are essential ingredients of chocolate chip cookies, but it would surely be a mistake to suggest that everything that contains butter and sugar must therefore necessarily be a chocolate chip cookie. It would seem absurd to insist to a chef who intended, for example, to make a rice pudding, and produced something that looked and tasted exactly like rice pudding, that because its primary ingredients are butter and sugar it can be nothing other than a chocolate chip cookie regardless of the chef’s intentions (great, now I’m peckish for both rice pudding and chocolate chip cookies).

In any case, I’m not going to engage those sorts of arguments about actual yogic practice here. (My own view is pretty similar to the one expressed in this 2005 Christianity Today article. I do want to address what I think is the more important issue, which is not about the particulars of yoga or any other activity (internal martial arts such as Aikido, for example) that draw on “Eastern” philosophies1, but rather about the ethics of where one goes looking for evil. And because I’m a literature person, that makes me want to talk about Macbeth.

Everybody knows about the witches in Macbeth, if only through the “double, double, toil and trouble” line in all its various cultural manifestations. What’s always interested me about the MacbethAndBanquo-Witcheswitches in Macbeth, however, is that they seem, to me, to be almost entirely unnecessary to the plot. While the witches seem ominous and powerful, there is nothing in the play that could not happen without their supposed “influence.” It is sometimes argued that the witches “plant” the idea of murdering King Duncan in Macbeth’s mind, but the fact that he picks up on the idea so readily, and moves from suggestion to execution so quickly, seems to indicate that the idea was already very much present in his mind. Early in the play, Lady Macbeth is a much stronger influence in terms of egging Macbeth on to do the deed than the witches ever were. In fact, one can remove the witches’ scenes entirely (some of which most Shakespeare scholars recognize as later interpolations by Thomas Middleton, anyway), and rest of the plot and character motivations in the play still make sense. Even the most bizarre image in the play–when “Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane”–is explained and accomplished by the most mundanely naturalistic means (soldiers disguising themselves with branches).

At the end of the day, all the witches really accomplish is the creation of a pot of really, really bad soup.

If this is the case, then, what are the witches doing there?

Scholars sometimes point to the fact that the play was written during the reign of James I of England (also James VI of Scotland, claiming descent from Banquo himself), who had a sort of obsessive interest in witchcraft. Bear in mind that we’re talking about the early 1600’s here, which was an era of widespread cultural fear about witchcraft. James own book on witchcraft, the Daemonologie supports the practice of witch hunting, and concentrates on the ways that one may determine whether or not an individual is a witch. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this text, as he draws from it and related texts in the play.

It’s also important to remember that witchcraft was not the only hot-button issue of the time: for example, there are numerous reference in the play to the then-recent Gunpowder Plot, in which a faction of English Catholics had attempted (and failed) to literally blow up the House of Lords (the king himself present) while it was in session, using barrels of gunpowder planted in the basement. Political intrigue abounded.

I’m often tempted to see Shakespeare looking at both his culture and his monarch in light of the existence of their obsessive interest in hunting down witches and demons with the presence of much more mundane–and much more immediately dangerous–forms of evil. In Macbeth, all of the evil actions are easily explained by very mundane, human motivations: ambition, greed, revenge.

Even for a present-day audience, it’s easy to blame the events, and the “evil” on which the play certainly meditates, on those “weird sisters”(they’re never referred to as “witches” in the play). They’re the most obvious target: they’re grotesque, mysterious, seem to call on dark powers–and, not insignificantly, they’re apparently females who are not under any kind of male control (the demographic most frequently targeted in period witch hunts: unmarried teens and elderly widows). Yet they still accomplish very little, if anything at all. When I teach the play, generally my students are quick to mention the sisters as a source of evil in the play, and often surprise themselves I ask, “what do the sisters actually do?” and find they have few, if any answers.

I suspect this is one of Shakespeare’s points: as the audience of Macbeth, we tend to follow evil in its most stereotypical manifestation, only to find that the real evil in the play doesn’t originate from that stereotypical source. The real evil in Macbeth comes from its very human characters, from Macbeth’s combination of insecurity and ambition, from Lady Macbeth’s fierce love and will for her husband (and later her guilt), from the seemingly inevitable chain of events that seem to flow inexorably from Macbeth’s initial murder of Duncan, from the natural consequences of his usurpation of the crown. From the the guilt of multiple murders, overmatched by the need to continue to hide them.

I can easily imagine Shakespeare gently cajoling his audience–and his King–through the combination of these obvious, and obviously banal and human, motives with the ineffective, seeming “witches” in the play, reminding them to be careful where they look for evil. Most often, it doesn’t originate from witches and demons. In a way, that would be nice: witches and demons make the source of the evil obvious, easy to detect, easy to eradicate. But evil is never that easy (if it was, it would hardly be a problem), because most of the time, evil looks just like us, our fears, our ambition, our guilt. We tend to go after “witches” not because they’re the source of the evil we face, but because their grotesque obviousness is easier, for us, than noting where the evil really comes from in ourselves.

This in mind, it’s important to recognize that, historically, the ones most often accused and found to be “witches” were anything but: they were most often, as mentioned above, women who existed on the fringes of society, outside of the kind of male authority and protection necessary for safety in early modern England’s very patriarchal culture. In other words, the strong desire in the culture of Shakespeare’s audience to avoid looking within for the real sources of evil led them to look in the easy, external places: the weaker people who lived on the fringes of society who were less able to protect themselves physically and legally from accusations of witchcraft. That culture’s unwillingness to explore the real sources of evil led to countless deaths of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among them. The very people the central figure of their own religion exhorted them to care for the most. In other words, the most “demonic” quality of Shakespeare’s culture was its ability to create its own demons, the demons it used to avoid dealing with its own, much more banal, evils.

I think this is what bothered me the most about such seemingly strong desire to hunt down “demonic” influence in practices that originate in cultures other than one’s own. It’s much more likely that evil lives much closer to home, much closer to one’s own heart. That it arises, most insidiously, from the impulse to avoid searching for the evil in one’s own ambition and fear by displacing it onto some external target, a target created by ourselves, made visible by the way we ourselves have projected difference on to it.

At the end of the day, it’s not the yoga–the other, the immigrant, the LGBT person, the foreigner–that is evil. It’s our own ability to project evil on to such innocent targets and destroy them rather than to face and to take responsibility for the demons of fear that already live within us.


  1. Many of the articles I read seemed to pit what they termed “Eastern” philosophies against Christianity, which struck me as odd–as though Christianity hails from Boise, Idaho or something.