"Not all who wander are lost."—J.R.R. Tolkien
Every day, my previously stable faith is replaced with a little more hungry curiosity. I consider this progress.
I posted this brief statement on my Facebook and Twitter accounts yesterday and promptly received quite a bit of interest in return. Not surprising, really, that my typical readership would resonate with such a claim, but I also found some surprising affirmations from those I would not have expected to appreciate my sentiments.
I write fairly often about moving away from emphasis on a propositional faith and toward one that is more implicitly lived out in our daily experience. Said another way, I would much rather have the teachings and values shared by Jesus revealed through my actions and through what people see in me, rather than simply through any particular rhetoric that I offer them as an act of persuasion, or even coercion. This is also selfishly motivated, as I am increasingly convinced that, whereas a faith centered on the proclamation and defense of particular statements is one that lends itself to inertia, a way of life that reveals your values without explicitly having to state them is both more compelling to others and more fulfilling for ourselves.
During the Christian spiritual journey, followers of Christ are forced to eventually face some basic faith-related questions. Here are a few of the most common ones:
1) What is salvation?
What does salvation really mean? When does it happen and is it permanent? Do you choose your own salvation or is it predestined? Is everyone saved or just a select few?
The idea of salvation is extremely complex, and our concept of it directly influences how we live, evangelize, and interact with the people around us.
Vampire Weekend are a little like a college-educated version of the rich young ruler in Mark 10. I say a little because, despite the fact that they have gotten flack for being “privileged, boat shoe and cardigan loving Ivy League graduates,” the New York-based foursome actually probably aren’t as wealthy as skeptics think, and the late 20-somethings probably haven’t been as straight edged as the rich young ruler. I mean, they’re rock stars. And even though they went to Columbia University, rock stars aren’t widely renowned for their moral rigidity.
But on Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, which was released last month to critical acclaim and commercial success, we find lead singer Ezra Koenig asking honest questions of God, much like the young ruler.
On this album, the third in what Koenig sees as a trilogy, Vampire Weekend manage to mature their poppy, eclectic sound, drawing from all sorts of genres and international songs — as they normally do — but also exploring deep questions of morality, love, faith, and belief in complex ways.
Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.
“We are leaving for church in 10 minutes,” I said, summoning my most authoritative voice before the lifeless lump under the covers.
My seven-year old Annie Sky watched the tense exchange between me and my 14-year old daughter Maya, who made periodic moans from the top bunk. With furrowed brow, my first grader sat on the couch, as if observing a tiebreaker at Wimbledon with no clear victor in sight.
For a moment, I wondered why I had drawn the line in the Sabbath sand, announcing earlier in the week that Maya would have to go to church that Sunday morning after an all-day trip to Dollywood with the middle school band. Somehow I didn’t want Dolly Parton’s amusement park to sabotage our family time in church. (The logic seemed rational at the time).
When Maya lifted the covers, I glimpsed the circles under her eyes and sunburn on her skin. But I repeated my command, with an undertone of panic, since I wasn’t sure if I could uphold the ultimatum.
When she finally got into the car, I breathed deeply and turned to our family balm, the tonic of 104.3 FM with its top 40 songs that we sing in unison. As the drama settled, I realized one reason why I made my teenager go to church: I want my daughters to know that we can recover from yelling at each other (which we had) and disagreeing. We can move on, and a quiet, sacred space is a good place to start.
It's an important question. Mark Driscoll, the famed neo-Calvinist, wants us to believe that we are God's enemies and God desired our destruction until Jesus, God's own Son, put himself in harm's way and saved us from God. Interesting theological gloss...but there's something in this I'm pondering right seriously this morning...
...What's it like to wrestle with the Divine One? You know, like Jacob did there in the desert one night. You can contend with God, can you not? Is God not then your enemy in some way? Well, perhaps your adversary? I don't know for certain if any of this language suits, but I'm pondering it because God and I are engaged in a cage match and I am mustering all the courage I have not to pull out a folding chair or some such mess knowing full well that God cheats.
I love Peter Rollins' honesty about his dark night of the soul.
He's popularized a term for the intellectual position accompanying the dark night of the soul: a/theism. I interpret Peter's thought as being in relation to an experience of God's absence. [Note: corrected this paragraph's content from "even coined" to "popularized. Turns out another author coined a/theism."]
I thought it was hilarious that Tony Jones challenged Peter to give up atheism for Lent on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.
But I took it seriously when Micah Bales, one of my best friends, wrote a post challenging Peter Rollins' Atheism for Lent. You can't give up God because God is a felt presence. (Peter later responded to Micah. And Brian Merritt a piece about who Micah is.) Our conversations got me thinking about what I value about Peter Rollin's voice and what I might challenge about a/theism as I understand it. In order to talk about why a person believes or disbelieves in God, you have to talk about a personal spiritual journey.
I’m going to tell you something I do not do very well. But, only if you will not tell the other mothers because I have listened to them talk, and apparently I am the only one not very good at this. Deal?
I'm not good at helping my children learn to feed themselves. I totally get in the way. Let me explain.
Well, actually, there isn’t much about it to explain.
I don't like messes. So, I feed my children … for too long. I sit a bowl full of spaghetti in front of them, and I get a little panicky. I mean, have you ever found dried, crusted spaghetti noodles on the floor a week (or more) later when you're cleaning? And what about the slimy, greasy residue left on the plastic tray attached to the high chair? And then there's the highchair cover. I did not realize you could take that thing off to clean it until my second child was two. Wow. That was amazing — what I found under it, I mean.
Never mind the fact that most of the food gets on the child and everything and everyone else … not in their mouths.
And, I mean, I'm also very concerned about my child’s dietary needs. Seriously, I think that is the biggest reason I insist on feeding them well into their third year. (Did I just write that?) They need me. They need me to spoon that mouthful of spaghetti straight into their teeny little mouth. That way I know where it goes — there is no guesswork.
Reentry is often a pain in my ass.
It's true. I get a chance to get away from it all, to spend some time with friends and begin to unwind and it's glorious. But then there's the return trip home. It always takes longer. It's like slogging through Chicago slush. Painful. Unpleasant. So, after years of dealing with this side of my personality, I've tried to develop a habit of articulating the positives of leaving.
I rise on the wrong side of the bed the day after spending time in contemplation and wonderment. It happens. I apologize to Spouse and try not to step on any toes. Rev. Crankypants is in the house.
So, to undo the crankyness, I want to thank Brother Rob for his kind attentions over the last few days. I want to thank him for letting me use his name in such a scandalous way as I have. His coattails are long. It's astonishing how using his name in such a title can bring traffic to one's blog. It's a little embarrassing, really.
Rob is a good man trying to do some radical stuff. He has a ministry to those who understand the call to be fully awake and alive in this world as a radical posture.
On Sept. 5, 1997, the world mourned when Mother Teresa, whose work with the poorest of the poor made her a global icon, died of a heart ailment at age 87.
Exactly 10 years later, the world did a double take, when a volume of Teresa's private letters revealed that the tireless, smiling nun spent the last 39 years of her life in internal agony. Jesus, she wrote, no longer seemed present to her, in prayer or even in the Eucharist. In letter after tormented letter she described an unrelenting spiritual "dryness,” a "torturing pain." Her smile was "a big cloak" of deception. She admitted at one point to doubting God's existence. Eventually she apparently became more reconciled to her condition; but as far as we know, she died with it.
As an 11-year-old boy, Don Bradley went looking for gold plates.
After all, Mormon founder Joseph Smith said he was directed to a set of such plates, buried in a hill near his house in upstate New York.
On a childhood visit to that hill, Bradley turned over lots of rocks, feeling certain he might find some sacred record overlooked by others.
That quest for Mormon gold became a metaphor for Bradley's lifelong spiritual journey. It led him first to dig into Smith's history to enhance his LDS devotion and then to uncover uncomfortable facts and omissions in the faith's story, which bred disillusionment and distance.
Eventually, Bradley's research helped bring him back to the Mormon fold, this time with a broader view of Smith's spiritual abilities.
"I could describe many of the events of Joseph Smith's life, but I couldn't explain the thing that really mattered: why it all worked," Bradley, now 42, said in a July speech at the annual Sunstone Symposium, a conference in Salt Lake City for Mormon intellectuals. "Joseph Smith wasn't of interest because he'd been a merchant, a mayor, or even a much-married husband, but because he was the founder of a religion. And it was precisely the religious dimension I couldn't account for."
Besides rediscovering Mormonism, Bradley learned how to balance faith and facts, science and spirituality, reason and revelation.
I've learned that women want things.
And this is good.
And mothers? They want good things — the best things — for their children.
Nestled almost dead-middle of what's considered to be the most Jewish of the gospels, we're presented with an unnamed, non-Jewish mother who is out of her element in almost every way. Her daughter is going through hell-on-earth: she's suffering from a demon. She needs a little bit of heaven to invade and save this situation.
So she heads to a Man, Who:
- has been favorable towards women,
- has been favorable towards non-jewish people,
- has some experience with getting demons in line,
- has proven to be the Expert of heaven-on-earth.
She pleads (loudly). Jesus blows her off (quietly). others get involved:
"Jesus, we really need You to do… a little bit more here."
So, Jesus, already seemingly out of character, acts in a manner continuing to be unlike Him:
"I'm not here for you."
Ah, the life of the church. So many arguments, so little time.
The list of subjects about which the saints disagree is seemingly endless, encompassing both the profound and the woefully mundane.
The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-sex unions. Pre-, Post-, or A-millennialism. Biblical translation. Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poorest of the poor. How best to support the sanctity of marriage. Hell. Heaven. Baptism. Which brand of fair-trade coffee to serve in the fellowship hall. The use of “trespass/es” or “debts/debtors” in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Whether to use wafers, pita, home-baked organic wheat, gluten-free or bagels at the communion table. What color to paint the narthex.
It should come as no surprise to most Christians that the world outside the church looking in sees it rife with conflict, bickering, arguments and castigation — of the “unbeliever” and fellow believers alike.
Frankly, it also should come as no surprise to the rest of the world that the church — by virtue of being a community of humans — naturally would have such disagreements and discord.
As I've read and listened to Christian reaction in the wake of Obama's interview stating his personal opinion on same-sex marriage, I've been discouraged with the nature and tenor of the conversation itself. Specifically, I'm troubled by the way many Christians choose to take definitive and certain stances about complex issues, and the rhetoric they use to state and defend these positions, rhetoric that tends to divide rather than unite and close discussion rather than open it.
I'm interested in exploring what it is about the Christian religion, and perhaps more specifically, evangelicalism that results in such an approach.
I fully understand the attractions of certainty. From my study of C. S. Lewis I know that his popularity among evangelical Christians in the 1940s and 1950s was largely due to his style of certitude. Lewis was writing in a time where scientific discoveries and religious liberalism were challenging the assertions of orthodox Christianity. In a period of doubt and questioning, Lewis seemed to have a way of cutting through complex arguments and reaching a simple solution that was convincing to his readers.
Typcially, cults don’t garner media attention unless they do something really big, like when Heaven’s Gate rose to the public eye in 1997 after 39 members committed mass suicide. And while cults may welcome newcomers openly or warily, it seems they prefer to remain elusive and secretive.
In the feature-length drama Sound of My Voice, Peter Aitken, a 20-something school teacher, is angry at the cultish fanaticism that led to his mother’s death (per her cult’s teaching, she refused to take medicine when she was gravely ill) and turns a cynical eye toward belief patterns he believes distort reality.
Shaped by an experience that left him void of parental companionship, he searches for meaning alone, not knowing what to believe.
To believe is easy. You can fill stadiums with people wanting to believe, either to solidify what they already think or to grasp hold of something because they feel cast adrift and lost at sea.
To doubt, to interrogate your fear, to really question what you believe, that’s difficult. It’s difficult because we want to protect ourselves from doubt and unknowing. Indeed when we encounter somebody who is different from us, our first experience is often to see them as monstrous, as having beliefs and practices which are alien and stranger and historical and contingent. When we encounter them we either want to consume them, make them part of our social body, or we want to vomit them and get rid of them. Or perhaps we want to have some sort of interfaith dialogue where we can talk about where we agree.