a few words

Month: December, 2007

the awkward establishment :: merry… happy… whatever

Sitting in Starbucks and listening to Josh Groban croon hymns alternately to my Lord and to the arctic-dwelling sleigh-driving symbol of Mammon’s reign, I read the following with a smile:

‘[Christianity is] in the awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but [is] not yet clearly disestablished.’ . . . To one degree or another, all of us are enthralled by a conception of the Christian religion as majority; and our North American fixation upon this imperial model of the church is the more entrenched and adhesive because our sort of establishment has not been one of form but of content—not de jure but de facto. Moreover, in many if not all situations within our context it is still possible to carry on ‘as if’—namely as if it were still Christendom. We are ‘not yet clearly dis-established.’ It is thus a particularly ‘awkward’ period in the history of Christianity in our experience as a (heretofore) mainly European civilization.

Douglas John Hall “Ecclesia Crucis: The Disciple Community and the Future of the Church in North America,” in Theology and the Practice of Responsibility ed. W.W. Floyd Jr. and C. Marsh (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 59-60; quoting Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 134.


a common word :: who refuses to hear?

Prof. John Stackhouse, writes in explanation of his signature on a recent response to the letter from a group of Muslim clerics and scholars who drafted a statement acknowledging common ground between Christian and Muslim faiths as the basis for (at least) political coexistence. When the letter was initially released, I offered a few comments as to its importance.

The substance of the original letter, as well as the response, is an acknowledgment that wherever Christians and Muslims are bound up in hatred for one another marked by violence, then neither Christians nor Muslims are being faithful to God’s commands: to love Him above all else, and to love our neighbors. Whatever our theological differences, no one is being convinced or converted in the bloodshed.

Apparently, Prof. Stackhouse has met with some criticism for his signature on that letter, and if he has, then other signatories have likely been chastised as well. I haven’t heard any criticism, but I am persuaded that any objection must rest on misunderstanding. I would really like to run into someone who opposes this mutual attempt at understanding, perhaps he or she can clarify things for me. 

The letters are essentially political documents, in the sense that they attempt to structure a relationship in such a way that the parties involved can get along. The theological content of the letters is by no means dishonest about differences between the faiths. Is theological truth being sacrificed to political expediency in this exchange? If this is the objection to this effort, then theological truth and political expedience (in this case, a rather minimal desire for co-existence) are being falsely opposed to one another. There is no theological truth that can be taught with weapons of war. Differences between the faith are not maintained by means of hostility, they are maintained by means of teaching that is faithful. Children of both faiths who learn in a context of violence are taught by fear, which only perpetuates violence. Dialogue on the other hand, does not negate difference but defines it. We all, Christians and Muslims alike, bleed red—no difference there.  

If it is objected that the Muslims who sent the original letter do not represent the “true” Muslim faith, which is rather to be seen in those more radical elements which do want to inflict harm on their neighbors, then I would reply that the objection is irrelevant, or at least it should be to a Christian. The location of “true” Islam with the violent ought to be disputed, but the more relevant point is that disregarding the efforts of these Muslims who are reaching out in a gesture of peace, is a shameful begrudging of hospitality. These are neighbors whom we are called to love. In light of the tensions between historically Muslim and historically Christian nations (whatever they are now) the least we can do is return a gesture of respect and acknowledgment. That humility is only the beginning of the love and service that we owe our Muslim brothers and sisters—even those who may hate us.

No one’s identity is being compromised in these letters. Nothing is being swept under the rug. I can’t conceive of a viable objection to this effort at mutual understanding. Perhaps someone can help me understand.

Oh, Prince of Peace, come quickly.    

the ‘makeshift and incoherent life’ of tinkerers

Over lunch (triple-decker peanut butter and jelly, to be precise), I ran across a paragraph that reminded me of an ongoing conversation with a good friend:  

“The central image the Wuthnow uses to describe twenty- and thirty- somethings, when it comes to life generally and religion specifically, is ‘tinkering.’ They are, he says, ‘a generation of tinkerers.’ These are a people who pragmatically piece together a jumble of disconnected and sometimes contradictory bits of belief and practice as they—supposedly autonomous individuals—see fit. Tinkering, Wuthnow argues, is a style or habit or strategy driven ultimately by the many economic and cultural uncertainties that characterize American society in recent decades. Tinkerers are resourceful and adaptable but also often live makeshift and less than fully coherent lives.” [1]

Tinkering already assumes the disjunction of trust and truth. Trust is an impossibility in the tinkering life because truth is always something that I (a tinkerer) possess or assemble myself, truth is always contained within my own experience, and therefore there is no room for trust. If trust becomes a truth, it is appropriated as a subjective feeling of dependence, rather than as submission or obedience. Tinkering is a way to remain self-contained, self-controlled, and self-directed. Like every Babel, it tends toward confusion and fragmentation—and leaves every tinkerer alone.

This is the spiritual expression of the American Dream, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the capitalist manifesto—work hard and don’t let anyone tell you what to choose. You can make it!

This deep in history, there seems to be something of the tinkerer in every theologian, but the best theologians self-consciously work within a tradition. Christian theology is born out of the depths of prayer, not out of a sense that it would be nice to have a habit of praying, or that praying might make me a deeper and more sensitive person. This means that Christian theology already presupposes trust as its resting point, the precarious stance from which the whole gospel is proclaimed.

[1] Christian Smith, “An Unbooming Business: Review of After the Baby Boomers by Robert Wuthnow [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007]” First Things, no. 179 (Jan 2008): 50.

applications finished :: dude, where’s my car?!?

Well, over the course of the last four days, I’ve shipped out all 11 Ph.D. applications. The monkey is off of my back, and into the schools’ court, with all the balls, bells, and whistles I could send (untangle that metaphor!). We shall see what comes of this, but for the time being it’s wonderful to have one less thing to worry about. I’m going to spend the evening reading. I would have spent the afternoon in celebratory repose with a book but…

…the city of Albany kindly towed our truck this morning for failing to comply with “snow emergency” regulations. Cave-dwellers that we are, we never heard the announcement on TV or radio stations. Mountain people that we are, we never realized that snow constitutes an emergency in Albany. Sinister stuff, that snow, recklessly falling out of the sky all over everything.  So, bad money after good—$200 in towing and tickets to chase all those application fees… Ugh…   

reading together :: lectionary

Coming to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer better and better this year through my thesis, two of his personal habits have impressed me. The first is the correspondence which he maintained with friends and family. He must have written at least a letter a day, if not more. For all the ease of “getting in touch” through technology these days, I’m not actually sure that we do it more (or more substantially!) than when it was more difficult. 

The second, related habit is his daily reading of Scripture. Not the reading in itself, but the mode of his reading.  Bonhoeffer used, along with many of his friends, family, and colleagues, a daily lectionary. This meant that on any given day, he and many of the people he knew would be reflecting on the same passages. This is reflected in many of his letters from prison, as he speaks to Eberhard Bethge about something he noticed in the day’s passage. 

I’ve been using a daily lectionary now for almost a year, there is much to commend about the practice.

  • The readings “fit” into the ecclesial year, so that the reading is appropriate for the season.
  • I am not left to design my own reading agenda, so I read passages that I might not come to otherwise. 
  • I am not reading alone, but with any number of other church-folk who read the same passage.  

In ecumenical spirit, I have been using the daily lectionary available on the PCUSA’s page. But I did a bit of work to clean it up and put it into a Word document, so I thought I would make that available for anyone who wants to join me in the practice.  

Download the document Here.

MacIntyre and McCandless :: the end of the wild

“What is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” [1]

This quote of MacIntyre could be the launching point for any number of fruitful conversations, but I’d like to set it alongside the film that Carolyn and I went to see on Friday night. Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a restless college graduate trying to exercise the demons in his family (or at least their hold on him) by throwing himself into solitude, adventure, and unbridled exploration of creation’s wonders. If ever there were a model for someone seeking truth in “the free and arbitrary choices” of a sovereign self, McCandless (or the cinematic reconstruction of him) is that figure.

[Spoiler Warning—from here on, I discuss the plot a bit]

The story is tragic, there is no doubt. But it is powerful because it draws on an instinct present in many of us, the drive for purity, for truth, McCandless launches himself on a quest for truth, convinced that deep within himself—if only he puts himself deep enough into the wild—there lies a spark of divine truth that will emerge to outshine all the pain and corruption he has discovered in his short life. He follows the instinct for purity to its utter end; he will allow no corrupting attachments or relationships in his quest for natural/divine truth. Yet, in seeking to overcome the pain his parents caused him, McCandless leaves a sea of tears in the eyes of people who come to love a reckless wanderer. But, truth, for McCandless is a force more powerful than love.

In the end, when McCandless comes face to face with “nature,” that naked spark of truth he sought all along, it becomes for him a mirror. The realization that his own face is empty, nameless, sends him back to the relationships he abandoned. It is of course, too late, but his dying act reaches out from beyond his own death, calling out to his family by re-claiming their name.

McCandless is a tragic figure because he sought freedom apart from service to others; because he sought truth apart from love; because he sought knowledge in nature apart from any wisdom; because he sought healing apart from forgiveness; because he sought new life without facing the death that was already at his core. He lived out, to the extreme, character traits that we all value, and he died all at once the death that we subject ourselves to little by little.

MacIntyre notes that both bureaucratic scripts and individual quests for meaning are ultimately intolerable. The truth, it seems to me, lies neither in bureaucracy for its own sake—collectivist order to which individual lives are sacrificed; nor in the escape from every hindrance, beholden only to the voice within. There is a bureaucracy whose structure is upside down, whose Head washes the feet, whose last are first. A bureaucracy in which freedom is measured by service and in which control is first turned inward, to be expressed more fully in love for others. It is likely that McCandless never met that good news, or never recognized it if he did, so rare is its presence. May God grant his church the courage to live in its calling.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 35. 

a new year :: and we are hungry

Sunday marked the beginning of a new year. The church bulletin I referenced a week ago was not so far off the truth as we might initially think—at least liturgically speaking. We have come to the “end of the Church,” and it is time to start over. We have come to the time of year where there is no church, and we wait for the church’s re-birth in the day we come to reenact Mary’s “yes.”

For now, however, we are thrown into the darkness of winter, looking for Jesus to come, looking for some light in the world. Now we wait in the darkness of so many oppressions, looking for that promised messiah whose coming means liberation, and whose life will finally be the blessing to all nations. It is a good time to wait in the darkness and the quiet, to see if God is with us here. It is a good time to go to the empty spaces, the stables and slums of the world, to see if God might be there. It is a good time to feel the emptiness within, and to cry. It is a good time to hold out empty hands, and to stand with those whose hands are empty. It is a good time to be hungry.

This is a good time to go back to the beginning and pay close attention, to piece together the fragments and prophecies that lead us to the Christ who came; it is a good time to piece together the fragments and promises that hold our hope of his return. It is a good time to look for the Son of Man, that rock hewn from the mountain, whose advent will shatter all the hostile powers and restore the image of God among people who have learned well how to treat each other as beasts. It is a good time to remember the startling news of our proclamation. 

With the Church, in the Church, we have come to the end of the Church, and the days of waiting.  

a poem for the first snow

The Temperature of Memory

The first snow fell,
and in the morning
hangs its hints on
summer half-dressed.
The concealed
allows what lies visible
to capture us more
completely in her beauty.

Deep in,
the rocks remember
months of sunshine,
alone they shake off snow;
everything else,
having forgotten, wears winter,
permitting his heavy touch.
Rocks are too hard to hear,
but trees and grasses know
that the wind warns; soon all
will be buried,

Not in somber state,
but as kids or cats under the press
of too many blankets -bodies waiting
to spring.