Loving Your Political Neighbor in an Age of Trumpian Anxiety

trump

For some context, you should know that I am a recovering political junkie/idolater. Many who’ve only known me the last few years wouldn’t have picked up on it. Because of my job at church and my own dive into theology, I really haven’t commented on it much, nor given myself over to it in-depth recently. I used to be obsessed as a kid, though.

My dad and I used to follow politics instead of sports and loved it–I still love talking politics with him. I remember the ’92 election and every Clinton scandal from Whitewater to Lewinsky and all the smaller ones everybody forgets (Filegate, Travelgate, Campaign Finance, pardons for money, etc). I remember the Contract with America–not from books. My dad used to print off articles from the WSJ, the Times, the Post, etc. and I’d read them in class when I was bored (and that was in Jr. High). I was downright wonkish. Heck, I even edited the opinion page for my high school paper.

For years the plan was law school, become a prosecutor, then jump into a politics and help gain the Nation back for Christ. Or something like that. And then, through a long, roundabout series of events, I got the call to pastoral ministry and theology around my freshman year of college and a bunch of that changed. Essentially, I went from thinking about the Nation to the Kingdom, and from political commentary to biblical studies, philosophy, theology, and so forth.

At that point, things moderated for me. I began to cool towards the overtly political, started reading the news less, and sort of when into a political detox mode. It was sort of necessary because—as a bit of hot-blooded young fella—things had gotten all tangled up in a fairly unbiblical, “God and country” sort of way. So the break was healthy.

Of course, I realized that at some point I probably went too far in the other direction. There’s a sort of danger that happens when you’re repenting of some error to see-saw over in the other direction. So, instead of being obsessed with politics and identifying the Church with the Republican or Democratic party, or America as the New Israel, you turn into the guy who loves Jesus-juking every political concern. There’s a sort of apolitical attitude some pious types get that forgets that much of the political instinct isn’t just power-plays and over-realized eschatology, but a real concern to love your neighbor by pursuing the common good of the cities, states, and nations God has placed us in. In essence, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” no matter what, becomes hard to distinguish from burn-it-to-the-ground nihilism with a Jesus-fish slapped on it.

Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my theology of political engagement that takes into account our creation mandate, the corruption of the Fall, God’s redemption, the unique role of the Church in the World, and even my own place as a theology student and possible, future teacher in the Church. As simple and obvious as all that sounds, I haven’t nailed it down.

I know this because I feel myself getting sucked back into some of the same old patterns of thought and mind that were part of the unhealthy element of my former, political self.

To be honest, the 2016 election is so manic and anxiety-inducing. ISIS, Scalia’s death, the eroding middle class, racial tensions, religious liberty after Obergefell, the Donald, and everything else just seems to be bringing out the worst in everybody. The paranoia. The anger. The consternation and confusion that so many of these sheeple (i.e. my fellow citizens) are so obviously wrong about what matters!…Again, I don’t have this down.

What I have been doing, though, is trying to remind myself of a couple key doctrines as I continue to process my broader theology of political engagement and this election season in particular. I suppose they’re my list of truths that, as an average citizen with moderate levels of political efficacy, will help me stay engaged without becoming obsessed, or forget Jesus’ basic commands to love. Since I figure I’m not the only one who’s been getting sucked in this season, I offer some of them up to you as a brief encouragement as well.

Image of God, Fall, and Neighbor-Love.

The first is quite simply remembering that we’re created and fallen Image-bearers. I recently read that now, as a nation, we are more likely to date and marry someone of a different religion than of a different political party. This is partially because in a secular age, politics becomes our religion.  Whatever the reason, though, the result is that it’s becoming more difficult to relate to people across the political aisle. We’ve become so emotionally and relationally distanced from our political opponents that we have trouble empathetically entering into their intellectual space and understanding their points of view.

This sort of dynamic makes it that much easier to treat them as more than simply political opponents, but ideological threats—the “Other” (sorry for the trigger word). We demonize and thereby lose the ability to dialogue, tolerate, much less love people that disagree with on complex issues like economics, religious liberty, sexuality, and so forth.

Focusing on the doctrines of the Image of God and the Fall help me in at least two ways. First, whoever I’m talking to, no matter our disagreements, is a bearer of the Image of God and is to be treated with dignity, respect, and charity—certainly not with cursing (James 3:9). That doesn’t rule out argument, a sharp joke, or robust rebuke, but it does rule out the contempt that has come to characterize much of our online discourse. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself applies even to Trump supporters.

Second, the doctrine of the fall reminds me that disagreement really can be the result of a sinful refusal of one party to see the truth. And that party just might be me. The fall reminds me that I too have fallen short of the epistemological glory of God and just might stand in need of the correction of my interlocutors. It also sets a curb on my self-righteousness in general, even if I do end up convinced that I’m right on a subject.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out making judgments of character, wisdom, and so forth on the basis of someone’s political engagement. For instance, I’ll be blunt in saying, along with Matthew Lee Anderson, that supporting someone who retweets white Supremacists, won’t repudiate the KKK, breaks up marriages, grossly mocks women, minorities, the handicapped, etc., while there are any other options for an office with access to nuclear codes is a serious lapse in moral judgment. Especially if you call yourself a Christian pastor…But these considerations require that I make that judgment only in the broader context of regarding them as one of God’s Image-bearers, loved by God, and the object of God’s saving activity in Christ just as much as I am.

Penultimacy, Principalities, and Providence.

Paul urged his readers in the church in Corinth to engage in life in the world in something of a counter-intuitive way:

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Co 7:29–31).

While there are a number of quirks we could get into here, what I see Paul doing is advocating something of a doctrine of “penultimacy.” I don’t see Paul arguing that we should totally cut ties with the world, act as if our marriage vows don’t matter, or that death doesn’t cause us pain. If that was the case, then he wouldn’t spend as much time as he does in his letters addressing all of these issues. He’s saying we should act in such a way that remembers these aren’t the final realities. It’s not so much a matter of whether or not to do these things, but how we should.

In other words, God has acted to redeem the world in Christ. There is a New Creation coming. Yes, what we do in the body and in the world matters for that New Creation life (1 Cor. 6:12-20), but this version of the world is not all there is. Death is not the final word. This marriage is not the final relationship. And—this is where it counts for us—this political order is not the final kingdom of God. These things matter, but they matter in a penultimate way—not in an ultimate way.

Another way of thinking about it is repenting from the heresy of Americanism, which tends to treat America as a new Israel, a chosen nation in some sort of redemptive covenant with God, upon whose shoulders the fate of the Church depends. I believe in providence, so yes, I believe God has plans for America, just as he has for all of human history. I also love my country. But to be blunt, while America is a world-historically significant country, it is not a redemptive-historically crucial one. The Church and God’s plans survived the fall of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the sidelining of the British Empire, and every other nation identified with God’s unique purposes for history. The Church will be here long after America is gone.

Obviously, I don’t want to see the Republic I love and have grown up in (or even the Party) go down—and I don’t think we’re there—but putting the drama of American politics into a broader, theo-dramatic perspective allows us to pump the breaks on our anxieties before they carry us away into thinking we’re involved in an obvious battle of darkness and light, with the sides clearly and neatly drawn into black hats and white hats. No, we forget that our ultimate battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that span both parties and every political configuration and nation (Eph. 6).

It also reminds us that, no matter the details along the way, we do know where it all ends—exactly where God intends it. We forget too often that God’s eye is on the sparrow and he knows how many hairs are on your head—do we think he’s unaware of the primaries? I’m not saying this with a Pollyannaish view of political providence. Reading the court histories in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings is sobering stuff. All the same, God’s providence is a doctrine for sober times—for prophets living in the midst of sinful Israel as much as for Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Even on the far side of the worst disaster and death we can imagine, lie hope and resurrection.

Prayer: A Better Way

Again, none of this is meant as a sort of Jesus-Juke to create apathy to the real, political concern and involvement we are all called to in our various roles as neighbors and average citizens on up the line to elected and appointed officials. If this world and its politics did not matter, then Paul wouldn’t tell us to pray for all of our political leaders, whether kings or elected officials so that they might govern in a way that enables a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Instead, it is meant as a reminder that part of what makes Christians holy is not simply that we do different things than our neighbors, but that we do the same things our neighbors do differently. We vote, we argue, we serve, we engage, but we do so in the broader perspective of the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension to the throne of the universe from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. We do it to love our neighbors, not simply triumph over them.

That said, I suppose it is appropriate to close with Paul’s encouragement. Though much of our holiness is caught up in doing things differently, sometimes the different things we do are what enable us to do so. Prayer is one of them because prayer reorients us to all the truths I’ve been outlining.

Praying for our neighbors, our nation, our leaders, our activities puts them in their proper, spiritual perspective. Prayer acknowledges that these things are right objects of our concern—indeed, we are bringing them to God for his concerned action and discernment. Prayer also—since it is for all people—treats our neighbors, our political opponents, and our leaders as worthy of God’s attention and our respect, honoring them as Image-bearers alongside ourselves. Most of all, prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God in Christ for wisdom, for his mercy, and his good, sovereign will.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to stay “woke” about the reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutics of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connecting to this theology of individual sin,is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity that threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope assumption that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to just most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic which, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What is Apophatic Theology and Can It Work for You?

Mere FidelityThis week on Mere Fidelity we took up the ever-pressing issue of apophatic or negative theology (Don’t say “God is…”, say “God is not…”). To do so, we invited Dr. David Wilmington on to discuss the nature, the limits, and the proper uses of apophatic theology, especially some of the more contemporary forms drinking from the well of postmodern influences like Derrida and so forth. At core, we discuss the issue of language for God and knowledge of the God who transcends language, yet reveals himself in Scripture, nonetheless. This is an admittedly nerdy one, but we think it’s worth your time.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.

But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.

Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”

Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our  — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”

Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.

Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s.  Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).

Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.

Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.

Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)

Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.

Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Have Evangelicals Become Too Obsessed With Politics?

Mere FidelityIt’s election season again, which means that politics is on our mind more than it usually is. But is it too much? This episode of Mere Fidelty, Matt, Alastair, and I discuss the problem of political engagement and obsession in the church. We take up issues like the disconnect between different political and theological classes, the work of James Davison Hunter & the culture war syndrome, the problem of loudest voice in the room, instrumentalizing the faith, and so forth. And we even give Alastair a fantastic new nickname. You won’t want to miss this one.

Soli Deo Gloria

Atoning for the Altar? Medieval Honor Culture and Leviticus

One of the oddest puzzles in the Law comes in the Day of Atonement ceremonies outlined in Leviticus 16. On this great and holy day, the sins of Israel accumulated throughout the year were cleansed and atoned for in the sacrifices offered up by the high priest in the Holy of Holies. There are a progressive series of sacrifices to be offered up for the high priest, his family, Israel as a whole, the mercy seat, the Tabernacle, and even the altar:

Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses…Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (Lev. 16:16, 18-19)

This may initially strike some of us as peculiar. We typically would think that persons needed to have their sins cleansed and expiated and taken away. But the Holy Place and the altar itself have committed no sins–they are inanimate objects–so why should they need atonement?

leviticus as lit pictureJewish scholar Jacob Milgrom has forwarded an influential theory about the contagion of impurity and sin that causes the uncleannesses of the people to sort of pile up throughout the year around the Holy places of the Tabernacle. Sin is brought in regularly and it also penetrates through, polluting the Holy places rendering it in need of cleansing if God is going to dwell in blessing with his people.

In her work Leviticus as Literature, Mary Douglas finds Milgrom’s work helpful, but she says it’s too materialist in its discussion the accumulation of sin and uncleanness. Instead, she draws some comparative work between the logic of impurity in Leviticus and the discourse of honor in European cultures connected to the virtue of women or the honor of a knight (146).

She notes that the Bible itself presupposes a patronal structure where the client is concerned for the honor of the patron. God is the covenant Lord who has brought separated Israel out from the nations and made it his own people (Ex. 19; Deut. 7:6-10)–they are holy to him.

Defilement as a violation of holiness is a particularly apt expression for an attack on the honour of God perceived as a feudal Lord. The word for holy has the sense of ‘consecrated’, ‘pledged’, ‘betrothed’, as ‘sacrosanct’ in modern English, something forbidden to others, not to be encroached upon, diluted, or attacked. (147)

The Lord has saved Israel into a special relationship of dependence, loyalty, and love. This means they are to be obedient to him and keeping from insulting his honor and glory.

“This power also protects his people or his things and places, and to insult any of them is an insult to his honour.”

Douglas sees this as key to understanding the logic of the defilement of the altar:

In the courts of chivalry a warrior would recognize that his armour is dishonoured if he himself is impeached: as well as his children, and father and mother, his helmet, his coat of arms, his house, all are tainted and made worthless by the contagious dishonour. Blood washes off the major taint, a noble gift cancels a minor fault. In the same way, bringing uncleanness into the Lord God’s sanctuary makes it impure since the place shares in the insult to God. (148)

Of course, I’m obviously delighted to see a 21st century, anthropologist partially vindicate St. Anselm’s appeal to the logic of feudal honor codes to explain atonement. But beyond that, I find the analogy intrinsically persuasive. There is a clear logic of moral identification at work throughout Scripture such that an attack on God’s things is an attack on God and vice versa.

Leviticus is different that many other books–even from it’s closest kin, Deuteronomy and Numbers–but it is not utterly divorced from their moral, covenantal universe. Cleansing the altar, then, is another way of recognizing and reinforcing the holiness, majesty, and glory of the God who has chosen to dwell with Israel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Worship Services and Evangelism

Mere FidelityThis week on Mere Fidelity, we have the full cast and crew on to talk about the point of weekly worship. What is it about? Is Evangelism part of the central purposes or is that a secondary concern? How does this affect the way we go about thinking through our services and the broader church programs surrounding them?

Also, we make fun of Andrew for being an UK televangelist now.