After slogging through his history, I begin to agree with Cox

Since I couldn’t get to sleep, I read some more of Cox’s Future of Faith.  Since I have read through most of his take on the early church (which I found especially hard to swallow — because of where he chose to put his emphasis and the frame that he used to present the history), I found the reading much easier. Perhaps it was also because I decided to read it as a Cox’s spiritual autobiography rather than, as the title suggests, a grand vision for how people of faith should live. Since, in these later chapters, I don’t feel the need to argue with him, I found myself agreeing with his assessment of where Christians are, for the most part, and where they need to go.  As I read about his encounter with Ratzinger in “No Lunch with the Prefect”, I found myself agreeing with his vision for the role the papacy could play in Christianity. He clearly doesn’t understand the inertia of social systems — at one point he seems to expect the Catholic church to make a dramatic course change because we now “know” that Peter himself didn’t teach Apostolic succession, though almost all of his successors did.  And his claim to “understand” fundamentalism because he spent a couple of semesters in college in <a href=””>IVCF</a> is pretty shaky (though, he is right that he probably understands it better than those who lack even that exposure). But in these later chapters I find that I’m agreeing with him a lot more than in the earlier chapters.  I don’t like his view of history and I think he could benefit from some more exposure to Eastern Christianity, but when it comes to where Christianity is at present, I don’t think he is far off.    

Future of Faith, Reflections, Part Two

John Gorezen had some great questions on the last reflections post that I did and I finally posted some answers. Hopefully this post will provide for further discussion.

Spiritual autobiography

The more I read of Cox’s book, the more I have to conclude that this book is more a picture of Cox’s own spiritual development rather than any grand vision of what the “Future of Faith” holds. Nothing convinces me more of this (so far) than chapter titled “The Road Runner and the Gospel of Thomas”. The first hint comes when he says, at the top of page 56, that “Christianity is no longer a ‘Western’ religion. … Its vital centers now lie in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” (emphasis mine) First, this ignores that Latin America is called “Latin” because it was Christianized by Europeans and the people living there now — the Christians living there now — are the descendants of Europeans and Native Americans. I suppose he gets past this problem with the insertion of “vital” but, there, too, he ignores the vital centers of Eastern Christianity: Constantinople (Asia minor) and then Moscow (Asia) were the “Romes” of the East until the 20th century. For a historical background of the church in the East, I recommend Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers series of lectures in podcast form. The Ethiopian and Egyptian churches continue to be vital centers of Christianity in Africa. I could even argue that, since the people of the Egyptian church are not the majority religion in that country that they have more in common with the early Church. For more on the spirituality of these churches, I can recommend Speaking of Faith’s Preserving Words and Worlds program. It provides some insight into native African Christianity’s long and lively tradition (as well as that of the Turkish Christian minority). Again, it looks like Cox seems oblivious to any Christianity that doesn’t have deep roots in the West or that was born of the West’s missionary movements. But if we see this book as Cox’s spiritual autobiography rather then as his view of the “Future of Faith”, we can certainly forgive him.

Three Changes

Cox outlines three changes that happened since he was in seminary. I was born and have lived entirely after all of these changes, so I see their impact in a completely different way than Cox. The changes he sees are 1) The understanding that Christianity was not as intellectually unified as he was first taught, 2) “Apostolic Succession” didn’t come directly from the twelve apostles and 3) the influence of the Roman Empire on the early Christians was enormous. The third item, the influence of the empire, is the least surprising to me. Cox claims that the church “softened [its] attitude toward the Roman Empire from passive resistance to docile subservience; then they tried to suggest that the Christian movement had been made up of loyal subjects of the divine emperor from the beginning.” I find this sort of slander against the post-Constantinian church revolting. One needs to look no further than early post-Constantinian bishops like St. Nicolas (yes, that St. Nick) and St. Chrysostom. In fact, if we look at Chrysostom’s “Two Homilies on Eutropius” we can quickly see that as the Archbishop of Constantinople (Rome of the East) he was no toady of the government or its emperor despite being appointed by the Emperor. And, as to the influence of the Roman empire on the early church, I have always understood that the early church saw itself as directly opposed to the empire. Certainly the Diocletianic Persecution has always been known to the church and to say that anyone ever suggested those Christians were “loyal subjects of the divine emperor” flies in the face of a very ancient understanding of history. The first and second points (intellectual unity of the early church and apostolic succession) don’t seem that important to me. Whether or not Paul and the other Apostles thought that there was such a thing as apostolic succession seems less important to me than the continuity of the church. And a lack of intellectual unity among the early Christians isn’t that surprising: they were persecuted and communication was difficult. If they weren’t able to hold big councils for a couple hundred years to hash out there differences, then I’m not surprised they had some.

Historical Jesus and Mystical Christ

The last bit I want to comment on is the way Cox divides Jesus Christ into the “Historical Jesus” and “Mystical Christ” as a way to avoid believing in the Resurrection while still remaining Christian. Once you’ve rejected the Creed and declared that “Modern” Christians just won’t be able to accept some things that are in the Creed, I suppose the separation of the Historical Jesus from the Mystical Christ isn’t a surprise. But first, let’s be clear about something. Early Christians who were not eyewitnesses to Jesus ministry were no more likely to believe in Jesus’ resurrection than modern Christians are. The gospel of John tells us as much when Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we’re just more sophisticated than early Christians simply because they accepted this idea of the resurrection where we do not is silly. It was a different time and, in many ways not something we can easily comprehend. But we can easily see in their writing and sermons, if we take a few minutes to look, that they struggled with the same things we struggle with. Again, I come back to the Creed. If everyone easily accepted what they were told, there would be little need to communally recite the “I believe” of the Creed. It could be relegated to some esoteric bit of knowledge the priests just tell their congregants “Here is what you have to think.” To put this, loosely, in terms of Freudian psychology, we recite “I believe” to remind ourselves of where we’re headed, not as a reflection of what is going on in our id or ego at this moment, but of where our super-ego is trying to direct us. (I’m not sure that analogy is completely appropriate, but it feels close enough for now.) After dismissing almost every mystical (i.e. any part that cannot be rationalized) aspect of the Creed — the Trinity, the Virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ — I’m left wondering why Cox even bothered writing this book. It isn’t as if these ideas about Christianity are new or that they compromise the “Future of Faith”. They’ve been around at least since the Enlightenment and before. I’ve written enough for now. I hope to finish this book up in the next couple of weeks and post my final take then. In the meantime, I welcome your comments. And I’ll try to respond more quickly.

Future of Faith, reflections part 1

I’m not planning on doing a posting for each chapter, but there was so much in the first part that I felt this was necessary. I wrote most of this up last week and discussed the first chapter with my peace-activist, Mennonite neighbor. When we met, he was preparing to protest the super-Zionist Johan Hagee’s appearance here in Lancaster. Signs were laid out on his dining room table asking “What about the Christians in Palestine?” His point of view was invaluble in helping think about my reaction to Cox’s book.


First, let me preface my comments by saying that I continue to be frustrated by Harvey Cox’s apparent ignorance of Orthodox Christianity. I suspect that if I were to ask him, he would know more than this book reveals, but, so far, he seems to studiously ignore Orthodoxy if he knows of it. That, or he reflexivly lumps it with Roman Catholicism. Orthodoxy is distinct in many ways from Catholicism. In fact, there are some areas (which I’ll talk more about as we go along) where Catholicism and Protestants have more in common with each other than they do with Orthodoxy.

Fundamentalism is Dying?

One of the first assertions that Cox made that seems premature to me is that fundamentalism is dying. The specific Chrstian Fundamenalist movement of the 20th century might be dying out. The word “Fundamentalism” has outgrown that particular usage, though, and grown to encompass any religious movement that has little room to acknowledge any truth outside itself. Fundamentalism in this sense is not dying out. The most extreme examples of religious Fundamentalism can be still seen when Christians bomb abortion clinics, when a Muslim blows himself up, or when Orthodox Jewish “modesty patrols” burn down stores they don’t like. And, less we restrict fundamentalism to “people of the book”, this same sort of fundamentalism can be seen in Hindu violence against Muslims or as Buddhists in Sri Lanka attack Muslims. While most of us would find this violent sort of fundamentalism foreign, there is a “soft” fundamentalism — a doorway fundamentalism — with completely understandable roots that appeals to a large number of people. These are people of faith living in community. They bond together because they have a common understanding of their faith. This fundamentalism, like the movement that began in the early 20th century, is a reaction to those who, in the eyes of the fundamentlists, want to diminish the “truth” their story, and replace it with a morality tale. This soft fundamentalism, reactionary in nature, is a opposed to the pragmatism of modern approaches to religion — as a moralistic, humanistic way of living. And, since one of our first instincts (as Cox notes in his second chapter) is to objectify people we do not identify with — especially those we see as dangerous, this soft fundamentlism can lead to violence. Once you’ve objectified someone, it isn’t hard to accept violence towards that person. Just as Cox notes that people were premature in predicting the death of God and religion, predicting the death of fundamentalism is premature. As long as people continue to take their scriptures seriously, there will be religious fundamentalists. And, as long as Christians use a “Just War” theory, there will be violent Christian fundamentalists.

Morality vs Ethereal

Which brings us to what Cox thinks is the reason people remain religious now. From page 2: “People turn to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next.” Here Cox provides two different points of view as to the purpose of religion. These are his answers to why people are religious: essentially, Morality or fear of death But both of these are completely man- and self-centered. As the narrator of “The Gurus” (another book I’m currently reading) notes, these approaches leave people who are searching for deep spirituality wandering. Some are drawn to the more morally ambiguous Hinduism (as in “The Gurus”, for example) because they are looking for an experience with the divine now rather than the promise of the divine later or guidance on how to live now. It is these people, the ones who are not simply satisfied with morality, who aren’t cowed by fear of death, and who posess enough spiritual curiousity to look outside their culture, who Cox doesn’t even seem to see. People looking for morality don’t need religion. While Christianity certainly provides a unique paradigm for building a moral life, that is not the purpose of Christianity. Even escape from an unprovable, but horrific, after-death torment in Hell is not the “why” of Christianity (though you wouldn’t know it from a pass through the Hell House). Jesus himself said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” In quoting the Psalms (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”), Jesus was reminding his listeners that following a code of conduct wasn’t what was important. Framing Christianity’s purpose as a, or sometimes, the only means of conveying morality is just another reason to dismiss it. Being moral, following the Golden Rule, etc, doesn’t require faith, belief or even religion.

Faith vs Belief

Cox defines “Faith” is an individual experience while “Belief” is (generally speaking) the corporate expression. He sees us turning to an “Age of Spirit” that is more similar to the first 300 years of Christianity (the “Age of Faith”) than the “Age of Belief” that we’re just now leaving. While I’ll agree that the first 300 or so years of Christianity was unique, I think categorizing the past 50 years as an era just as distinctive as that initial period is just silly. But I also think he makes too much of this difference between “faith” and “belief”. Another way to explain how Cox differentiates these two concepts is to think of faith is as a person’s experience of awe, of wonder, and a “sense that behind anything that can be experienced this is something that our minds cannot grasp” (to quote Einstein, as Cox does). Belief, on the other hand, Cox defines as dogma that has its origin in religious institutions. Most emblematic of what Christianity has to offer as belief, in this sense, would be the Nicene Creed. Cox, in quoting Rober Wuthrow, says we’re “replacing explicit creeds and doctrines with implicit norms devised by the group.” (Emphasis his.) For non-, or should I say, anti-creedal Christians, the problem of the Creed is that doesn’t address what Jesus told us to do or what he did. This is absolutely true. So the Creed has been replaced in some Christian circles with the ambiguous, subjective question: What Would Jesus Do? Let me be clear that this is not a bad question. But it should not be used as a criteria for who is “in” or “out”. And this is what is happening whether we use the Creed or social norms (e.g. “Christians don’t smoke”, “Christians don’t dance”, “Christians aren’t gay”). We’re defining an identity. The Creed does not demand any standard of behavior from people, but simply says you’re “in” or “out” by what you claim to believe. Its an explicit standard with little to no room for subjectivity. As an added bonus it has remained the same, worldwide, for almost 1700 years. Implicit norms, however, change with culture. They vary from place to place and time to time. A tee-totalling Baptist from America, for example, might have trouble recognising an imbibing German Baptist as Christian because of his implicit understanding of how a Christian acts. A Creed is a means of identification. It is how a group defines itself. Profess the creed, and it doesn’t matter if your a smoker or gay.


Now, where does doubt come into play here? Cox rightly identifies the existance of doubt as an area that has been dealt with poorly in the past. Fundamentalist Christians, especially, make it seem as if doubt is a sign that something is wrong with your Christianity. However, Cox seems to blame this problem on the nature of belief itself. He opposes doubt and belief:

Eliminating the spurious use of ‘belief’ to define Christianity has another advantage. It recognizes that often people who call themselves ‘unbelievers’ have episodic doubts about their unbelief. ‘Believers’ go through similar swings.”

He even uses Mother Theresa’s letters as evidence of this. And this is where he shows that he doesn’t understand another facet of the usefulness of the Creed. During every mass that Mother Teresa attended, the Creed was recited. And, yes, she had her doubts. This was not a reason, however, not to recite the creed. One can recite the creed while struggling with doubt. Perhaps the best expression of doubt and belief is found in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Cox’s overly specialized re-definition of belief versus faith would require us to re-translate this. In the same way, the use of creeds, the recitation of “I believe”, was never incompatible with doubt. By reciting the creed you’re identifying yourself with fellow strugglers. “We’re in this together, whether we’re drinkers or tee-totallers; whether or not were Democrats or Republicans; liberals or conservatives; peaceniks or warmongers; gay or straight. We hold this in common and, in humility, admit our need for mercy and our hope for healing.”

“Age of the Spirit”

Finally Cox’s claim about the Age of the Spirit and its opposition to the Age of Belief, really shows his lack of understanding of Orthodox Church and, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church.

[F]or centuries Christians have claimed that the Holy Spirit is just as divine as the other members of the Trinity. But, in reality, the Spirit has most often been ignored or else feared as too unpredictable. — page 9

I can only point out that from what I’ve read about Monastic life and the Orthodox celebration of “Fools for Christ” there has always been a place in Orthodox life for the free expression of the Spirit. Just as “Aslan is not a tame lion”, God, through the Holy Spirit, isn’t tame or predictable and never has been. Monastics live in self-supporting communities apart from the hustle and bustle of “normal” life to allow more time to commune with the Spirit. Fools, in the meantime, bring the Spirit directly into the hustle and bustle of “normal” life. They’ve suffered greatly as a result, but they’re also respected by many as having distinctly spiritual insight. Both of these approaches feel threatening to us, even in this modern “Age of the Spirit” that Cox claims we’re in. Finally, his claim that the Age of the Spirit looks to the future instead of the past seems disingenuous. For example, he makes several nostaligic comparisons to the Age of Faith when defining the Age of the Spirit. I would argue that looking towards the future is no better than looking towards the past. Neither is correct. We need to live now and focus on the present.

Systematic Theology, Tradition, and the Cross

While I’ve been waiting for a copy of Cox’s book to read, Father Stephen has posted an excerpt from Richard Wurmbrand’s With God in Solitary Confinement.

Jesus Himself thought unsystematically on the cross. He began with forgiveness; He spoke of a paradise in which even a robber had a place; then he despaired that perhaps there might be no place in paradise even for Him, the Son of God. He felt Himself forsaken. His thirst was so unbearable that He asked for water. Then He surrendered His spirit into His Father’s hand. But there followed no serenity, only a loud cry. Thank you for what you have been trying to teach me. I have the impression that you were only repeating, without much conviction, what others have taught you.

In this, we hear the echo of that oft-repeated axiom from the fourth century Orthodox monastic Evagrius of Pontus: A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian. In the West, we tend to be systematic about things, studying them, taking them apart and seeing how they all fit back together. But this is not living the Way. The Way operates on us, in us. The Way changes us. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Where is the systematic theology in that? What is being fixed? If we spend our time praying intead of worrying about re-forming this or that area of the church, this or that system of theology, we’ll end up living The Way instead of trying to figure out the right form. But we need form. We need structure. We create structures to provide a framework for living. Take away the structure, take away the Tradition and we’ll create new ones. Jaraslov Pelikan (a late convert to Orthodoxy) observed

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. 

At another time, he said “The only alternative to Tradition is bad tradition.” And this is where we end up without creeds: with bad tradition. In fact, we end up re-formulating our thinking so much — re-creating our personal creed — that we don’t have time to actually live it. As Henry David Thoreau observed:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. 

This is why we have Tradition. First, because if we didn’t have it, we would end up creating it anyway and, second, because we want to create deep mental paths. Where systematic theology failed us, Tradition offers a way out.

Where’s Utopia?

When I wrote about possible apocalypses last month, I neglected the other extreme that we tend to go to. Just as many of us live preparing for a coming apocalypse, many think that we’re on the cusp of a new utopia, a golden era. Harvey Cox’s “Future of Faith” could be seen as one example of this, just as Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason“ could be seen as another. Both share a utopian view of the future: “One day, soon, we’ll all live in peace!” Today, a friend shared an article with me that manages to synthesize Cox’s utopian view with that of Harris’: “Stepping Up to the Age of Empathy; ‘Empathetic Civilization’: When Both Faith and Reason Fail”. I had just finished reading a review of “Kinds of Killing”, so it made an interesting juxtaposition. Following is my response to my friend.

When Jeremy Rifkin mentioned “embodied experience” the first thing that popped into my mind was existentialism. But then, also, the ancient (Hebrew) conception of belief: that it must be lived. At least in modern times it is common to claim to believe something, but live in ways that contradict that — often, it seems with little self-awareness. But this bit I would take issue with:

For the former, especially the Abrahamic faiths, the body is fallen and a source of evil.

I’ll agree that Augustinian Christians do see the body this way. Eastern Christianity (at least how I’ve experienced in, and in my reading of the Saints) sees the body as made “in the image of God”. The body is not the *source* of evil. In this way we echo the ancient Greeks who saw evil as the absence of good, rather than something of substance itself. The body isn’t evil, but when we fail to do good, we “do” evil. So, I’d say much of this is an straw man argument, or, at least, an argument against a distortion of Christianity. If we don’t think the emotions and the body are not part of our baptism into Christ, then, sure, the argument makes some sense. But those of us who see the body and emotions as integral parts of the whole person would disagree. This may not be the common understanding of Christianity in much of the West, but it isn’t a new take on Christianity that only just appeared during the “Age of Empathy”. Which makes this a non-question:

If empathic consciousness flows from embodied experience and is a celebration of life—our own and that of other beings—how do we square it with faith and reason, which are disembodied ways of looking at reality and steeped in the fear of death?

I think it is telling that the Enlightenment took place in Western Europe, but there wasn’t (at least as far as I know) a similar renaissance in the East. The Byzantine and then Russian Empires filled the power vacuum that the fall of the Roman Empire, along with its civilizing influence. Which is not to say that the East is somehow purer, but that our understanding of history and philosophical development is very Euro-centric. The very notion of “Ages” seems, to me, to be part of our desire to compartmentalize. “That was then, this is now.” This is fed by our infatuation with ourselves: the idea that Humanity is advancing philosophically as well as technologically. What period of time, wherever people had the resources to sit around and write articles like this, hasn’t seen itself as entering some grand new “age”? I’m sure, for example, American slaves didn’t see a new age coming, but their masters certainly did often enough. None of this is to imply that we haven’t seen a dramatic technological shift in the past 100 years. But our visions of the future are just that: dreams. Our dreams of utopia or apocalypse may change, but in the end, we’ll probably end up somewhere in the middle. Speaking of apocalypse, I just got done reading this book review. I thought the first paragraph, which talks about how to prepare private citizens for war was good. Then, this bit, farther down:

Mostly, though, soldiers complained of the miserable conditions of life that Russian villages offered them. “Partisan resistance prompted further reprisals, leading more to join the partisans, and so the escalating cycle of violence continued.” This inevitability, ironically, seems to have escaped the notice of present-day nations. What is the use of an upper hand if you can’t spank someone with it?

“Future of Faith”? — First Impressions from a Convert to Orthodoxy

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on reading Harvey Cox’s “Future of Faith.” Keep in mind I have to actually obtain a copy first: Hopefully through Inter-Library Loan or from a friend. That said, I read (and responded to) John Goerzen’s overview of the book, and I skimmed the book when I was at Barnes & Noble yesterday. (You can see much of the same material on Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature if you don’t have a copy and don’t want to trek to B&N for a look-see.) After reading John’s blog post, though, the first thing I did was read the Wikipedia entry on Harvey Cox. It was there that I learned Mr. Cox wrote “The Future of Faith” when he retired last year at the age of 80. Now, I don’t know about you, but I associate the hubris of predictions about the future of, well, almost anything, with the naivety of (relative) youth. Sam Harris wrote “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (which seems to have inspired the title of Harvey Cox’s book) in his late 30s. Predictions just don’t work that well — we tend to overstate near-term changes (It’s 2010, where’s my hover car?) and under-state or misunderstand longer-term changes. So, when the front flap of “The Future of Faith” claims that a trend Mr. Cox calls The Age of the Spirit began 50 years ago — within Mr. Cox’s lifetime – I can’t help but at least raise an eyebrow. Especially when he puts this change on par with what he calls the end of “The Age of Faith”: when Constantine legitimized Christianity in the fourth century. Oh, really? During that period, Christians went from being a severely persecuted minority (read up on how Constantine’s predecessor, Diocletian, treated Christians) to being socially acceptable. Today, Christianity is the world’s largest religion. What change has happened in the past 50 years that is anything like the end of systematic persecution of Christians? Obviously, Cox is talking about something other than the obvious. Let’s go back to what the front flap of the book says.

The Age of the Spirit: a trend that began fifty years ago and is increasingly directing the church of tomorrow whereby Christians are ignoring dogma and breaking down barriers between different religions — spirituality is replacing formal religion. 

Hmm… Still not buying it. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is an edited copy of the Gospels that eliminates any indication of Christ’s divinity to reveal “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Or, look at the Unitarians who also focus on the “spiritual” teachings of Jesus (and others) while rejecting any ideas more orthodox Christianity has about his divinity. To put it bluntly, what Cox is describing as the “Age of the Spirit” seems to be something that has been around much longer than 50 years. Within Christianity, the changes since the fourth century parallel the changes in our systems of government. As we rejected ideas like Divine right of kings and moved to more democratic systems of Government, people’s lives in the church changed as they rejected the supreme spiritual authority of the Pope. Is it any coincidence that many of the Founding Fathers of the American system of government were not Christians? After reading John Goerzen’s post and looking over the table of contents of the book, I also get the impression that Cox, like many Protestants, has an interpretation of history that sees the Constantine’s legitimization of Christianity as, somehow, harmful to the Christian ethic. That, in itself, isn’t an unusual point of view. Even Christians contemporary to Constantine saw the “mainstreaming” of Christianity as harmful to the Christian ethic. As a result, many escaped into the desert and, as a result, birthed the monastic movement that continues today. The Anabaptist movement inherited this monastic zeal which (rightly) sees Christ’s teachings as the focus of Christian life. The Anabaptist movement, though, like many movements and reformations that ended up in that mish-mash we today call “Protestant Christianity” seems, to me, to have developed into a culture of Christianity that chooses protest as its point of identity rather than a focus on Christian life. And the protest is against anything that feels too “Catholic” or, in the case of Cox, too authoritarian. I could go on here, but I really want to make sure I read the book before offering too many more of my own opinions. I imagine I’ll have reactions along the way, and I’ll post them here. Finally, why am I interested in reading this book? Well, John seems to have liked it and I respect John. He’s built one of the tools I use on a daily basis, OfflineIMAP. He’s a thoughtful Christian and I’d like to be able to have a more informed conversation with him (and those like him) about why things like the Creed matter. To do that, I have to understand a little more where they’re coming from instead of just dismissing what they say as hubristic ranting.

Hearing Voices

My friend Jim has a couple of good posts on listening to people from the “ex-ex-gay” movement. I think he is right: the Church does need to hear from people who have tried to convert from homosexual to heterosexual — especially those Christians who believed they could “convert” their sexuality from being gay to being straight. We need to listen especially closely to those men and women who have sincerely attempted to alter their own sexual orientation and failed. Most importantly, those of us (and, yes, “us” includes me) in the Church who believe that homosexual relationships are sinful need to listen. Before I tell you what I hear, let me explain a bit about where I’m coming from. It is no surprise that there are a lot of confused people out there. And by confused, I don’t mean the men and women who are homosexual. No, I mean the people who think that being a homosexual is, in and of itself, wrong. There is nothing wrong with being gay. I would go further, though, and say that if you are not actively seeking a relationship with God, then you are not better off in a straight relationship than in a homosexual one. The primary concern is our relationship with God. Everything hinges on that. In fact, morality doesn’t matter. Morality plays no role in our relationship to God. This should be clear enough from story of the Publican and Pharisee that the Orthodox begin each celebration of Great Lent with. The tax-collector was the morally disreputable person in Jesus’ day — the person everyone knew was doing wrong, cheating them out of their hard-earned money. In his place, I can imagine a gay man, someone all conservative Christians would “know” is a sinner. The Pharisee stands there proclaiming his piety, ridiculing the tax collector. Likewise, I see many conservative Christians holding themselves up as moral examples, making a very public display of their moral superiority. They kick and scream when they feel they’ve been wronged — when someone has stripped their courthouse of the Ten Commandments or a crèche — and loudly condemn those whose sins are more public. The answer is not to hide your sin, not to be discreet about it. “All have sinned” and no one persons sin is any less or any more than anyone else’s. No one is perfect. No one can exalt themselves above another or look down on another. Jesus told us as much when he said it was the tax collector, not the pharisee, who went home justified. Which means, of course, that I’m no better than the most flamboyant, promiscuous gay man. In fact, I have no right to comment on anyone else’s sin. I’m reminded of the story of Abba Sisoes from the fourth century:

Considered to be a very holy and venerable man, many drew near to Abba Sisoes while he was on his death bed. In his last moments, he saw choirs of angels and archangels, not to mention prophets, Apostles and saints. Wondering what was going on, those gathered around him asked, “With whom are you speaking, Abba?” “With the angels,” he replied, and indicated that he was seeking to do penance before he left this life for the next. Knowing his holiness, one friend said to him, “You have no need for penance, Father.” Abba Sisoes replied, “I have not yet begun to repent.”

Here is someone no one thought could be condemned, yet, truly embodying the spirit of the publican, he felt he had not yet begun to repent. At this point, I hope I’ve made myself clear: I am in no position to proclaim my own piety or tell others that they are condemned. So what does this all have to do with listening to “ex-ex-gay” people? One thing I hear is a gay man (Peterson Toscano, founder of Beyond Ex-Gay) who struggled for almost 20 years and spent over $30,000 to become “straighten” himself out. It didn’t work. At this point, it sounds like a bad Scientology tale. The first thing that comes to mind (and Peterson says as much) is the obsession with sex. Since the focus is on sex continually, it heightens the awareness and temptation. In another video, Peterson even says that he had more sex when he was trying to “de-gay” himself than he has since he gave it up. But that part of it, obsession with sex, seems to be a part of American Christian culture. Witness sites like (a Christian sex-toys web store), or Christian sex toy parties, or even Exodus International’s methods — at least, those Peterson describes. The focus is on sex. Sure, we pay lip service to putting God before all else, but the idea of a married couple voluntarily abstaining from sex? That would be unheard of! Lifelong voluntary “marital fasting” that some saints of the Orthodox church undertook seems impossible and ridiculous to us. As one person described this fasting:

Rather than repudiating the legitimate pleasure taken in eating and in marital relations, fasting assists us in liberating ourselves from greed and lust, so that both these things become not a means of private pleasure but an expression of interpersonal communion.

The second thing I hear is the singling out of this particular sin. As Peterson says: “I thought I couldn’t be gay and a Christian.” While all Christians are called to live pious lives, many of us struggle with a particular sin or temptation. Sometimes, we sin and are not aware that what we do is sin. So, again, the focus on homosexuality, singling it out for special attention and treatment, and not on whether or not homosexuality is a sin, is where we’re going wrong. Consider the advice that St. Theophan the Recluse gave to a young girl: When confronted with a thought to pursue some sin, don’t fight it. Don’t grab onto it to beat it into submission. Instead, let it pass and immediately pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” By turning our attention to God instead of the thought to sin, we redirect our energy. Note, also, the parallels between the Jesus Prayer and the prayer of the Publican. Finally, and probably most controversially, it makes me wonder about things that we universally agree are wrong today, but that, at the time the New Testament was written, weren’t seen as huge sins. Slavery, for example. I see no evidence that new Christians freed their slaves or started treating them humanely. I also know of no restrictions on ordaining slave owners. Yet, today, we see any kind of slavery, not just the brutal kind sometimes practiced in the early American South, as universally wrong. So what’s the point of all this? What have I found from listening to this ex-ex-gay man? Well, to be honest, I haven’t learned anything. I have taken the opportunity, though, to think through my prejudices and to clarify them a bit. Peterson deserves our compassion: he has been ill-served by a church that tried to take him down a road he simply couldn’t travel — by a church that made his sexuality more important than his relationship to God. The focus should, as always, be on God, not our sin.

A God who Pushes Back

In response to a NYT article about Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church, my friend Jim writes “I personally find it a bit of a mystery that some people find comfort and hope in that sort of theological framework”.  By contrast, I can totally understand it. I understand it, but disagree with it.  My experience as a Christian, and a little healthy doubt, has lead me to reject my one-time fascination for hard-core, predestined-from-the-womb Calvinism.  But, while I’m not comfortable with a Calvinistic god who is completely arbitrary — one who has no real way of showing love — I doubt an individualized god who looks like a friendly neighbor who practices a “live-and-let-live” philosophy. It seems the Mars Hill congregation does not want a god who will smile on their imperfections, but what they’ve been offered, what they’ve found to fill their “God-shaped hole”, is indeed not anthropomorphic.  It is true that anthropomorphizing God, making him like our tolerant neighbor, is dangerously wrong-headed.  But just because we have an incomprehensible god does not mean that we have a view of the right one. A hint of what is so attractive about this “New Calvinism” can be found in Dostoevsky:

Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. (source)

Mars Hill parishioners have pursued this false freedom and found it wanting.  Naturally, they turn away from that.  Of course, we are always in danger of following the wrong leader, but especially so when we feel weak and are offered something that looks unbending. By way of contrast, I offer this quote from Father Stephen.  His whole post is an excellent defense of un-individual, Trinitarian Christianity, but this is quote seemed most relevant:

An excellent example of this occurred once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.

No Comfort in Faith

(Found this sitting in a queue from a while back.  For some reason, I posted this on LiveJournal, but not here. Now is a good a time as any to get it out of my system.) The recent revelation that Mother Teresa was a doubting Thomas almost the entire time she worked in India but yet remained faithful shows the lie that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens would like to promulgate: belief in God is comforting.  (And here, I thought we were still struggling with Catholic Guilt.) While I’ve no doubt that some believers gain primarily comfort from their belief, the religion that Jesus teaches isn’t very comforting at all. “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” And, of course, any Mennonite knows that Martyrs Mirror is filled with stories of people who endured a great deal of suffering. My own children have listened to the lives of many martyrs in the Orthodox lexicon of Saints, Nikolai Velimirovich‘s Prologue — so many that whenever they hear the Emperor Diocletian‘s name mentioned, they can tell you the end of the story. Perhaps some people make Christianity out to be a nice bedtime story, but anyone who pays attention to what Jesus said or what Paul wrote knows that any comfort offered isn’t the whole story: we are called to live sacrificially. Which is exactly what Mother Teresa did. What strikes me most among discussions like this one is the idea that Mother Teresa had an obligation to announce her doubts to the world.  “She’s a public figure” the thinking goes “and she kept this from us?” Well, no, her struggle with doubt or the lack of God’s Presence was her own and she kept it between herself and her spiritual confessors.  If she wanted to announce her doubt and be done with it, she could have done that without making her life any more uncomfortable. Mother Teresa was doing something completely foreign to most of us.  Jack Welch was a better humanitarian.  Mother Teresa was not a humanitarian and Christopher Hitchen’s was right to discredit this notion of her.  Jesus said “You will always have the poor” and Mother Teresa understood this to mean that we should be more concerned with loving the poor and having compassion for them than with giving them a handout. “You take care of their tomorrows, I take care of their todays,” she said. Secularists who don’t know Mother Teresa won’t appreciate the way she chose to use her money.  Evangelicals won’t appreciate her Gospel.  Atheists see her doubts as her hypocrisy. But there is something else going on, also.  She identified with the poor in the same way Christ identified with us.  She emulated his compassion. And of course isn’t that the whole Problem of Evil all over again?  As Judas pointed out, the money spent on the perfume Mary poured on Jesus feet was a year’s wages — surely there was a more practical use for it.  Surely Jesus could have done more than forgive sins, couldn’t he?  He was God, after all, shouldn’t he have done more? Mother Teresa is someone many people can admire from a distance.  Most will be repulsed by her, though, if they take a closer look.  She shows us exactly why true religion isn’t comforting.

“As we forgive those” screening

Forgiveness is the final form of love.” — Reinhold Niebuhr I went and saw “As we forgive those” tonight. It is an amazing account of the process of reconcilliation that some people in Rwanda are going through. The documentary focused on two different genocideres and the reconciliation that they sought with the surviving members of their families they attacked and murdered. Two women whose families had been killed struggled to forgive the men who had killed their families. The process of reconcilliation in “As we forgive those” covered what happened after the Gacaca courts.during reconcilliation workships run in cooperation with the Prison Fellowship in Rwanda. One of the projects the former genocideres participate in is building homes for victims of their crimes. This is especially poignant since they often destroyed those homes during the genocide. (I have to admit that I only saw the last part of the movie. The listing of screenings gave a contact email and said it was being shown by Church of the Apostles in Fayetteville, NC. I sent an email, got a response, found the date posted on the site was wrong, and got a showtime. But no location. So I naturally assumed it was at the Church of the Apostles. No one linked to their website. If I had gone to the website — or even known it existed — I would have realized it was showing 20 minutes away from the church. Anyway… if you post information, make sure it is all connected.) Besides the excellent message of reconciliation instead of retribution, the Church of the Apostles seemed to be using the film as a sort of evangelism. The minister.stood up after the film and said, essentially, “See what Christians are doing? You might have a bad impression of the church, but We ain’t all bad!” I thought it was a bit too pathetic. Still, I think this is a great film for any church to show or sponsor. And it’s great for people outside the church, too. The message is universal.