Do Rules Help Us Change?

One of the most challenging things about the spiritual life is progression. How do we change? What’s the key to transformation? How do we make and embrace rhythms that will foster the kind of growth we desire (or at least claim to desire). This is a problem for those who explicitly identify as religious and count themselves as members of religious communities and institutions. It’s also a problem for those who would identify as spiritual but not religious. Whether it’s body image and weight issues, general health, overcoming co-dependent tendencies or dealing with deleterious habits, the problem is the same: how do I embrace what I know is good for me, but hard, without being consumed by resentment or just becoming plain exhausted?

Rules tend to not work very well. The problem is that the deepest transformations in our lives come from the inside out, not the other way around. We are creatures of desire and unless we desire the thing that is good for us we’re not likely to pursue it in any deep sustained fashion. You can make a law that prohibits theft or embezzlement, and it might stop someone from stealing, but the avarice or sense of entitlement that create the motivation to steal in the first place remain impervious to legislation. Hence Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord command what you will and give me the grace to will what you command.”

This passage in Frank Lake’s  Clinincal Theology is instructive here:

When a man becomes related to the law by effort, instead of to the Lawgiver by affiance, related to the ethical demand but trying to satisfy it, instead of to God by trusting the satisfaction of Christ, related to the standards by discipline instead of to the Person by discipleship, he frequently ends up in depression. This is because the law of the Spirit of Life is not to be found in the law of self-effort, self-discipline, or will-power. The spirit of joy is the fruit of a life in loving relationships on the human level, and ultimately with Christ Jesus on the divine. In His concern for the truth of eternity, the Holy Spirit must withdraw Himself and His endowments from the man whose life is centered in regulations, especially religious regulations. Depression, and aridity as one of its cardinal symptoms, is a direct effect of disobedience to God’s law of life through-interpersonal-contact with His creatures.




An Agnostic’s Appreciation Of An Evangelical Pastor

By her mid 30’s Marian Evans was a major player in Victorian intellectual circles, writing regularly for The Westminster Review and translating important works of Feuerbach and Spinoza into English. For various reasons she used a pseudonym  “George Eliot” when she undertook fiction writing. Born in 1804, she was raised in a nominal or “easy going” Anglican home, she had a period of deep evangelical Calvinistic conversion, but in the context still of the established Anglican church. By her mid 30’s she was an agnostic, but remained sympathetic to the Church at least in part. The following excerpt is from her “Scenes of a Clerical Life”. The book tells the story of three Anglican clergyman. The one mentioned in this passage is an establishment evangelical:

The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second, something to reverence. And this latter precious gift was brought to Milby by Mr. Tryan and Evangelicalism.

Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offence to feeble and fastidious minds, who want human actions and characters riddled through the sieve of their own ideas, before they can accord their sympathy or admiration. Such minds, I daresay, would have found Mr. Tryan’s character very much in need of that riddling process. The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes, of God’s making, are quite different: they have their natural heritage of love and conscience which they drew in with their mother’s milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work; but the rest is dry barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay. Their insight is blended with mere opinion; their sympathy is perhaps confined in narrow conduits of doctrine, instead of flowing forth with the freedom of a stream that blesses every weed in its course; obstinacy or self-assertion will often interfuse itself with their grandest impulses; and their very deeds of self-sacrifice are sometimes only the rebound of a passionate egoism. So it was with Mr. Tryan: and any one looking at him with the bird’s-eye glance of a critic might perhaps say that he made the mistake of identifying Christianity with a too narrow doctrinal system; that he saw God’s work too exclusively in antagonism to the world, the flesh, and the devil; that his intellectual culture was too limited—and so on; making Mr. Tryan the text for a wise discourse on the characteristics of the Evangelical school in his day.

But I am not poised at that lofty height. I am on the level and in the press with him, as he struggles his way along the stony road, through the crowd of unloving fellow-men. He is stumbling, perhaps; his heart now beats fast with dread, now heavily with anguish; his eyes are sometimes dim with tears, which he makes haste to dash away; he pushes manfully on, with fluctuating faith and courage, with a sensitive failing body; at last he falls, the struggle is ended, and the crowd closes over the space he has left.

George Eliot. Scenes of Clerical Life



Is Love Winning?

Robe Bell says he isn’t interested in controversies over traditional and long held conceptions, but in the possibility of regaining the meaning, mystery, love, and hope that go with God.

But isn’t that like saying as a radical interventionist, “I’m not concerned with your family history, with the language, patterns and symbols that have landed the family here. I’m concerned with moving the family forward today!”

The thing that bonds liberals and evangelicals tighter than Jacob and Esau in the womb is a loathing of the tradition.

You’ve Got To Love Your Life

Jack Kerouac once put down these 30 rules for writing spontaneous prose:

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You’re a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Rules number 4 and 20 strike me as in some fashion anchoring the rest, or at least animating them. The prerequisite for writing spontaneous prose seems to be self-love, but not a self-love rooted in the basest kind of fearful self-preservation. Kerouac is talking about a self-love rooted in gratitude for the mystery you are and get to be. You don’t have to love every single thing about your life. That would be impossible. Every cloud doesn’t have a silver lining. You do, however, have to love the whole thing. This is because of its “holy contour”.  The whole thing that is your life, the good, the bad, and the ugly is worthy of a deep reverence. This is why hating birthdays is probably the eighth deadly sin. It involves a fundamental posture of ingratitude to the universe. Suffering certainly legitimates all manner of anger and frustration at reality, but does it legitimate ingratitude?

Frank Lake, the great British psychiatrist, wrote of the paradoxical gift of anguish:

The natural man in us tends to reject the paradox that mental pain and spiritual joy can exist together in us, without diminishing either the agony of the one or the glory of the other. The whole personality may be afflicted by a sense of weakness, emptiness, and pointlessness, without diminishing in the least our spiritual power and effectiveness. This is possible because Christ is alive to re-enact the mystery of his suffering and glory in us. So far as our own subjective feelings are concerned, any inner-directed questioning of our basic human state may produce the same dismal answer as before; the cupboard is bare. While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time as it turns it into a satisfactory channel.

The fragility that allows one to become a channel is certainly worth a heartfelt gratitude, even if that sentiment stands ambivalently alongside other more ambiguous feelings in our hearts.

Do You Like Surprises?

Most of us hate surprises, at least where relationships are concerned. We think we like them, but we don’t. We walk into situations with co-workers, family members, friends, spouses and we think we know how it will go. Actually if we’re honest we “know” how it will go. They will be deceptive, obsessive, narcissistic, compulsive, detached, you name it. Of course we know they have their moments. We’ve seen them be truthful, dispassionate, unassuming, restrained, engaged. Those are the options: the devil we know and the angel we hope appears. How often to we make space for someone to surprise us?

Now realistically the way of the world that we all find ourselves in day after day doesn’t often leave room for surprise. Many, perhaps most days if we’re honest, make us feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It’s realistic to assume things will be as they have been, that nothing much changes in this world. And yet we pack in to see a film like Les Miserables, which is all about spontaneous change that cannot be programmed, orchestrated or anticipated. Somehow something comes in, seeming from the outside in, and changes everything. True the moments seem fleeting, but are they so rare as to seem mythical. No. Les Miserables seems fantastic, but we don’t consider it a fantasy. It’s the precipice we all want nuzzle up to, hoping not only that we’ll fall into it, but that its mystical gravitational pull will draw us into its being, changing ours.

The problem is that you get an experience like this and you do one of two things: fight or flight. You either fight to remake the world into this surprising reality or you flee from the world in an escapist fashion, seeking life-giving surprises in a fantasy world removed from the gritty recidivist patterns of the reality in which we feel trapped.

The freedom comes in a Latin phrase (what doesn’t?): simul justus et peccator. We are both right, or justified (justus) and bent, broken and problematic (or in the word of the old time religion: sinful). We need something that allows us to see ourselves as human, which equates to flawed, finite,  in short fallen from the oasis of our highest aspirations, and also unconditionally loved. We need a reality to break in that helps us re-imagine what can possibly be and who possibly can be what, but one that is realistic. It comes with the realization that the mysterious reality that surprises us despite ourselves is in our midst, and yet ahead of us. It comes, yet can’t be caught or contained, only received. It’s already here, yet it’s not yet here. And it always leaves us satisfied and wanting, scared and assured.


Childlike Faith

What is called for is not at all a form of infantilism, but the repetition of the eternal Son’s loving readiness to obey the “command” (mandatum) of the Father: we must persevere, together with Christ, in fleeing to the Father, in entrusting ourselves to the Father, in imploring and thanking the Father. The model for all of this is Christ at the highest point of his maturity and responsibility with regard to his mission. And the more we identify ourselves with the mission entrusted to us, in the manner of the eternal Son, the more thoroughly do we become sons and daughters of the heavenly Father: the whole sermon on the Mount testifies. In the figures of the great scenes the truth is crystal clear Christian child likeness and Christian maturity are not in tension with one another. Even at an advanced age, the Saints enjoy a marvelous youthfulness.

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child

The Childhood of Jesus

In Unless You Become Like This Child, von Balthasar reflects upon meaning  and nature of the childhood  of Jesus.  He notes an evident tension that arises: How is it that the eternal Son of the Father sent for us and our salvation can learn and develop a sense of vocation as the son of Mary? He explains:

It may be difficult for us to bring both things into harmony: on the one hand, the presence, from the beginning, of the full mission in the small Child, who can envision it in its totality in a genuine, even if childlike, manner; on the other hand, the human process of maturing ever deeper understanding of this totality, until the total mission is obtained,within the adult human consciousness, the plenitude that will allow its autonomous responsible execution. Actually, it is at this final point the real difficulty begins. How can this assumption of full, personal responsibility for what one does and decides to do be reconcilable with the abiding childlike attitude toward the Father that makes Jesus say in John’s Gospel: “The Son can do nothing on his own initiative; he does only what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:19)? “He who sent me present with me, and has not left me alone: for I always do what is pleasing to him.” (8:29) “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me… for I do not speak on my own authority.” (12:44,49). And yet: “My testimony is valid, even though I do bear witness about myself; because I know where I come from, and where I am going.” (8:14)… The Son, then, as child, has his room for play, and as the wisdom of God he can “play in his presence continually, play throughout the wide earth” (Prov 8:30f.). But it is the Father’s good pleasure that wholly fills this room for play, so that the Son always does what pleases the Father and  “exactly fulfills his command.”

Why Be Good?

So a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God, a knows all things, can do all things, undertakes all things that are to be done, and does everything cheerfully and freely; not that he may gather many merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God thereby, and he serves God purely for nothing, content that his service pleases God. On the other hand, he who is not at one with God, or doubts, hunts and worries in what way he may do enough and with many works move God.

-Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works

Don’t Be An Imaginary Sinner!

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

– Martin Luther, A Letter  to Melanchthon Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521,

What divides American Christians?

At least theologically, there are two effective divisions between American Christians, One is between those for whom the gospel is itself the norm of all truth and the person of Christ therefore the founding metaphysical fact, and those for whom some other agenda or “theory” is the overriding norm. The other is between those who use “justification by faith” — or in the especially aggravated case of Lutherans, the “law and gospel” distinction — to fund their antinomianism, and those appalled by this. The language in which I have described the alternatives will doubtless betray on which side of each division I find myself.

-Robert Jenson, Christian Century (May 2, 2007)