I find this discussion posted below wonderful. Neither Jordan Peterson or Slavoj Žižek are Christians, but they are both influenced deeply by classically Christian concepts. In this discussion , which was billed as a debate but turns out much better, begins with each speaking formally for 30 minutes, then each getting 10 minutes to respond to the other’s intro speeches, then it goes into a back and forth series of questions and responses. Both of these men have lively minds and that kind of humility that undergirds the search for truth. In effect what we have here is a modern version of a Platonic dialogue.

I have been somewhat of a fan of Žižek for years and more recently of Peterson — not an unqualified fan of course. In the end, at least in terms of this “debate,” they constitute, or at least lean towards, a kind of Christian balance but, I believe, without the full realization they are doing so. Peterson lays out his path, a kind of stoicism as it were, of pursuing the good life, and Žižek responds with a deep pessimism. My immediate thought was of St. Paul writing to the Romans about how he does the things he ought not to do and does not do what he ought, thus finding within himself the principle of sin acting against him. We might agree with Peterson’s path but find ourselves repeatedly incapable of staying on that path. In this sense the biggest lacuna in this particular discussion, and I believe in both men’s general work about the human condition, is a complete understanding of sin and its effects, though they both seem to have a better understanding than most. Nonetheless, this dialogue between these two original (especially Žižek) and deeply cogent (especially Peterson) thinkers is an incredible opportunity to have one’s mind creatively engaged.

RELATED POSTS:
Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

Many art critics have religious leanings. Many artists have religious leanings. Many works of art deal with religious themes. However, there would seem to be an unspoken pact among art critics (and art teachers) that religion and theological concerns will not be seriously considered as a topic or approach to thinking and writing about art. This is not a great situation for either artists or anyone who would appreciate art.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, critic, and professor, and author of the book: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Studies in Theology and the Arts). In this lecture below he surveys and addresses this lack of theology in art criticism, and why it matters — not merely because he’s a Christian, but because theology can help all of us better understand works of art.

Anderson mention James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Here is a lecture Elkins gave on that topic a decade ago:

I am wondering how divided the Church is, or at least how divided Protestantism is today. I am reposting this from June 28, 2012. At that time I was on my way to becoming Catholic, and Church disunity was one of the primary reasons for my abandoning Protestantism. But do people even care much anymore about denominations? Are not the majority of Christians today mostly just choosing a kind of buffet-style evangelicalism? Even a lot of Catholics seem to essentially be merely post-modern pop-evangelicals in their faith and merely post-conciliar Catholics in there actions. And yet, perhaps this means we are even more divided than ever with each individual representing their own, personal denomination.

This was originally posted in June 2012.

“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:22-23, NASB)

I continue to be astounded by the number of Protestant church divisions in this country alone (not including divisions elsewhere). For most of my life I’ve only had vague notions of these divisions, and never considered them as serious. I have also lived mostly with the view that they can be ignored (because I believed they are someone else’s problem) and all I need is faith and the Bible. Now I am inclined to see these divisions as having informed my thinking more than I realized, as deeply troubling, as a testament to the questionable “fruit” of the Reformation, and I want to seek resolution for my own faith and life.

The following set of images gives a high-level overview of some of the more obvious divisions we find within Protestant/Reformed churches in this country. I understand there are many more divisions than listed here, but I think this is enough to choke on for now.

American Christian branches
to European founded churches

Click on the first image to begin the slide show:

These images came from a slid deck I found on a Catholic apologetics web site.

The copyright for the slides are held by:
Peterson, Susan Lynn (1999).
Timeline Charts of the Western Church.
Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI

869_francis_ad_orientem_kindlephoto-7684526
Pope Francis facing ad orientem. Perhaps you find this surprising? I do.

Whenever speaking of priests and bishops I don’t really want to say, “He’s one of the good ones,” but I feel that way about my archbishop, Alexander K. Sample. I find him level-headed and wise.

Here’s a talk he recently gave on discovering the Traditional Latin Mass, or Tridentine Mass or, as it’s officially known, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

I too have a desire for the Traditional Latin Mass, originally somewhat out of curiosity, and then because I’m sorta studying Latin, but mostly because I want to be holy and I am weak.

That might sound strange, but my thoughts are simple. We are called to be holy. God has given us many gifts and various means to help us become holy. These include prayer and scripture, fellowship and peaching, etc. The Mass is a gift to us. God does not need it, but we do. The Mass was made for us and we are made for Mass. It seems to me, in terms appropriate to reverence before our Lord and Savior, that the more traditional Mass is a better fit with our natures and fundamental human needs than the Novus Ordo Mass, or Ordinary Form. In other words, the more traditional Mass encourages holiness more than the more modern Mass, and I need all the help I can get.

Many will beg to differ.

Those who say they are Christians but not religious are gravely wrong. All humans are religious. Religion, and religious activities, are given to us as gifts. And the religious impulse is part of our DNA, put there by God. Our nature calls out for religion, and for rites, and for reverence. These things really matter. In fact, I think in today’s crazy world reverence is more important than ever. (Side note: It’s like how sexuality is a gift that is meant for a covenantal monogamous marriage context only, and not for a pick-your-own-adventure/buffet-style of anything goes freedom. We are not meant for that kind of freedom. It kills our souls. It doesn’t lead to virtue and theosis.) The Traditional Latin Mass seems to have a great deal more inherent reverence than the more common alternative. And I worry that alternative is slowly killing the Church.

For more of the Archbishop’s thoughts on liturgical reform, here is a two-part discussion he recently did on Mater Dei Radio:

Liturgical Reform Part 1 July 20, 2016

Liturgical Reform Part 2 August 16, 2016

However, the Traditional Latin Mass is not an absolute requirement for the Christian life. It is not an absolute requirement for holiness. And many find the Novus Ordo Mass very encouraging. In fact I do too — I am still in the presence of the Lord, still kneeling, still praying, still receiving His body and blood. But I believe the traditional Mass is a gift that coincides and fits human nature best. There is a fittingness between the Mass of the ages and the design of Man. I would like to have the regular opportunity to receive such a gift in my area. In the Archdiocese of Portland there is a slowly growing number of TLM masses here and there. Where I live it’s limited, especially since I am committed to working within my own parish and seeing what can be done there.

I hope the Archbishop’s views continue to get propagated and accepted throughout the archdiocese. But I know he is wise and will not force anything. It is really up to us to discover it and ask for it. Fortunately for me and my family, our parish, which does not do the Tridentine Mass (yet), is generally very reverent and solemn, frequently includes Latin, and the music is often quite beautiful, and the homilies are good and orthodox. Still, I would love the option, and I pray for it every day.

“Moses, Moses!”
“Here am I.”
“Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
(Exodus, chapter 3)

IMG_7435

Recently I have been praying in the mornings. I created for myself a place to pray. I face east, light a candle or two, and kneel. I pray novenas and rosaries, move the beads in my fingers one by one, cross myself, bow my head. It’s not much, but praying this way a fairly new thing for me. I feel drawn to a more physical expression of prayer.

What is it about kneeling? Holding beads? Candles? What is it about these physical things? Some might say they are trappings, or hindrances, or worse.

Moses was asked to take off is shoes. Why? Did God need this? I doubt it. Did Moses? I’m sure he did.

During the Penitential Act of the Mass we strike our breast three times while saying this: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

We speak and we strike. It’s deep truth, it’s of the heart, it’s also physical. We confess physically, we worship physically. We bow. We kneel.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
(Psalm 95:6)

I am curious about the physicality of worship; the actual, physical nature of worship. Perhaps more than curious, because the emphasis on the physicality of faith is one of the characteristics that drew me towards the Catholic Church and away from my Protestant roots. I found a richness in Catholicism and a kind of poverty in evangelical Protestantism. I’m sure some would disagree with me.

I also find those verses in Holy Scripture that point towards, or mention, physical acts of worship more than merely interesting. We are physical beings. Christ is physical (fully man). He drank, he ate, he knelt in prayer, he climbed up the mountain, walked into the garden and out to the wilderness. He stood, strolled, sat, slept. He broke bread. He went to the temple. He was whipped, beaten, crucified. He is God become man — the “physical act” par excellence. He worshiped with his body. Our bodies are part of our worship.

Consider:

It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns the years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit’s training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us aways from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine. (Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough)

Perhaps four bare walls and a pulpit is the symbol of a disembodied, even gnostic, faith. Perhaps the non-biblical, historically recent “doctrine” of the rapture speaks of that same desire to be free of the physical. Perhaps denying the Real Presence is just an example of fear — fear of our humanness, of our bodies, that God is actually one of us.

I can’t say. I wonder.

But I know the physicality of worship is everywhere in scripture, even in moments we might overlook.

And when our days there were ended,
we departed and went on our journey;
and they all, with wives and children,
brought us on our way till we were outside the city;
and kneeling down on the beach we prayed and bade one another farewell.
(Acts 21:5)

Kneeling on the beach. I would love to have a time machine. What is it about kneeling? Why not stand in a circle and hold hands? Or just stand around smiling with “Jesus in their hearts” or some such thing? No, they knelt — with Jesus in their hearts I’m sure, with love for each other, with the Spirit at work amongst them I’m sure, but they also knelt.

Is there a law at play here? I think so. Our human nature seems created for worship, and to do so with common, predictable, even specific kinds of actions. Why wouldn’t there be some similarity across humanity, across space and time? Scripture tells us this is true. Our nature, including heart, mind, and body, seem to cry out for a totality of worship — a combination of heart, mind, and body together in action.

We know that some situations just call for physical action, whether worship or supplication or awe…

Then Abram fell on his face…
(Genesis 17:3)

Then she fell on her face…
(Ruth 2:10)

And Jo′ab fell on his face…
(2 Samuel 14:22)

…and they fell upon their faces…
(Tobit 12:16)

…he fell on his face…
(Luke 5:12)

…falling on his face…
(1 Corinthians 14:25)

Across the ages, welling up from within their humanness, individuals act in similar ways. There is a physical connection, built into the human body, connected to mind and heart, to situations and contexts that call forth acts of worship, deference, and awe. Is this not a law of nature, of creation itself?

Does a law mean there is a right way and wrong way to worship? I think so — at least some ways seem better than others (I’m no expert).

Does a law mean one is shackled, suppressed, controlled? No. A law is the path to freedom — like the athlete at play, or the rules of the road making driving safely possible, or a structure of government laying the foundation for civil society. You don’t have to kneel, bow your head, and certainly not light a candle or face east. But if you do, you just might be doing something good for your soul — something fitted to your very being itself. It’s your choice. It’s a mystery.

Do we “make up” the law? No. We discover it, like a miner discovering the vein of gold, or an explorer finding new lands, or a scientist understanding a fundamental rule of nature. The law is like a gift — something good and precious, and for our benefit.

IMG_7443

Do we need to discover this law anew every day? No. We can listen and observe those who have come before us and have already discovered the law. But we can experience it fresh every day, for no day is the same, and life keeps moving.

We can look to the past.

And all the men and women of Israel,
and their children, living at Jerusalem,
prostrated themselves before the temple
and put ashes on their heads
and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.
(Judith 4:11)

Why does God care that we act out our hearts and minds? Why prostrate? Why ashes? Why sackcloth? Today this is a curiosity, mere archaeology — see how strange they used to behave, clearly the actions of a simplistic people, right? Incomprehensible. Inconceivable. Perhaps we have become blind and incoherent in our sophistication. Perhaps we are the simplistic ones. We lost something precious, have we not?

Okay, ashes and sackcloth may be too strange for us, but how about some appropriate form of penance? Or some act of sacrifice? It might be good for us. How about kneeling in prayer?

We don’t act out our faith for God. I don’t think He needs any of that. But we need it, because God made us this way. He created our nature, gave us the gift of worship, bid us to worship rightly because in that we find life. It is for us, not for Him. Kneel because it is good for you. Face east because you know this is a tradition of the Church; facing towards the rising of the sun, pointing towards the new day and the harkening to the beauty of the risen Christ. Can you face in another direction? Sure. Which way is better? Discover the answer in your meditations.

Moses took off his shoes. He was standing on holy ground. Where is our holy ground?

And he took a cup,
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them,
and they all drank of it.
(Mark 14:23)

There is no secular world, not ultimately. There, truly, is only the sacred. What we call secular is merely that which we grab for ourselves and call ours. But it is not ours. All belongs to God. Every one and every place is holy, sacred, belonging to God, made for His purpose. Sin corrupts much of this gift. We can fashion ugliness, do terrible things, turn from God in many ways, but God can make all things new and good, even our darkest actions, even our hardest hearts. All things are God’s, true, but there are some things which are called out, for our sake, to be seen clearly as holy — places and times that require worshipful action. These are great gifts of “holy ground” for us. The greatest is the Holy Eucharist — really, truly, and substantially Christ present with us.

The cup of blessing which we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
(1 Corinthians 10:16)

We kneel, genuflect, bow, pray. We sing, chant, speak. We go, enter, stand, sit, be. We eat. We drink.

We worship.

Our bodies are made for worship.

body2

Imagine a medical experiment that goes like this: Doctors, searching for the most basic essence of the human being, decide to determine just how much of the human body can be removed and the subject remain alive and human. They take a willing or unwilling subject and slowly begin removing parts of his body. They remove feet, then legs, hands, then arms, some organs – appendix, a kidney, part of the intestines, genitalia, etc. – they remove eyes, tongue, lips, ears, then they start to remove some bones – part of the pelvis, some ribs, etc. The subject is still alive. He does need help and care to live, but so do babies, and don’t we all at some level. Is the subject still a human being? Yes. But have the doctors answered their question? Perhaps. At one level at least they have made a possible determination of the minimum physical requirements to sustain a kind of minimum human life. And yet, can we not say there is something more than gruesome and immoral about this experiment? Is it not also grotesquely wrongheaded?

How is it wrongheaded? It is wrong in two ways. The most obvious is that a human person is a combination of body and soul. To focus only on the body is to miss at least half of the equation, but more importantly it is to miss the combination of the soul with the body, and the vast mystery that combination produces. The other reason is that reductionism is not the way to understand the essence of the human person. There is no minimum, basic essence. Rather there is an immensity. One does not understand the human person by owning, controlling, dominating, dividing, dissecting, compartmentalizing, possessing, or compressing the human person. Statistics are interesting, but they cannot tell us about you, not really. Experiments might divulge some fascinating aspects of the creature called me, but we are ignoring more outliers than any good scientist would allow if we are to think the experiments got to something more than mere hunches about only rudimentary things. Human beings are profound, crazy wonderful creatures carrying within themselves the imago Dei. We cannot be reduced.

There is a similar tendency among some Christians to do with Christianity what those doctors did with their human subject above. Their goal is to get to the absolute essential, non-negotiable core that defines a true Christian from all other persons. The idea is to find the absolute minimum that must be present in order for a person to be a Christian. Favorite questions include such gems as “how can a man be saved if he lives on a desert island and has never heard of Jesus?” or similarly “what about those tribes in the deepest jungles?” Some Christians have taken traditional, historical Christianity and sought to strip away all that is unnecessary. Like cutting apart the human body, out go the sacraments, the Eucharist, going to church once a week or even at all, doing good works, fellowship and community, and everything else. Catch phrases like “I love Jesus and hate religion” are popular symptoms of this mindset.

But can we reduce Christianity to an essence? Some have a natural urge to make things simple, so they might say “faith” or “Jesus” is all it’s about. But both of those words are vast galaxies to explore. They are really pointers to riches and nuances and complexities that a lifetime is too short to come to their end. There is something more. Christianity is not a belief or a practice, it is not merely a religion, nor is it a culture. It is something of all those things, but more fundamental is the nature of it. Perhaps it is best to think in this way: Divine law is the mind of God, natural law is the expression of Divine law as the creation. Human nature is fallen, in other words it is the natural law corrupted. But even in our fallen state, we are still primarily the Divine law expressed in our createdness. And the rest of creation is also, in its fallen state, primarily the Divine law expressed as creation. In other words, there is a fittingness between us and the Divine law, and a fittingness between all that is properly natural law.

From Divine law comes the natural expression at the center of creation, the human being. Placed in the garden, made priests of creation, taught to worship and offer sacrifices, later fallen and struggling with corruption, human beings have within their souls and their bodies the design of religion, the hunger for cult, the patterns of worship, the need for meaningful action and sacred practice. That is why in all cultures everywhere there has always been religion. It is the way God fashioned human beings. To fight against this is to deny our Creator’s design, to deny the human composition. Humans are made for religion, for cultic worship, for liturgy and praise, for sacraments and sacrifice, and for embodying a priestly function in terms of the creation – we are to re-present the creation back to God as our offering to Him, as thanks for His goodness and love towards us. And it is important to see the interconnections of all this. Religion is not an add-on to the person. Religion is one of the most fundamental, essential, interwoven elements that constitute any human being. It is inseparable from our humanness.

To reduce Christianity down to the most basic, most simple of formulas or one-word creeds, is to go too far. To say “I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” is to make an inhuman statement. It is to go against the Divine law by going against the natural law. Many who say we are saved by faith alone misunderstand what faith means in light of human nature, in light of the creation. To say we are save by grace alone can also be misunderstood and abused, but properly understood it puts the action on God and thus opens the door for the riches of that grace, to all of the Divine law expressed in the natural law and making us fully and properly human. “Grace alone” points to the Creator and His design of creation, the deep imago Dei in all of creation, and most fully in human beings, coming into fullness through worship as the proper response. To dissect Christianity, removing anything that seems to be unnecessary may be a way to rid oneself of false doctrines and perverse practices, but all too often it becomes an ideologically driven means of drawing lines between those historical, liturgical, sacramental, and traditional kinds of Christians and the so-called pure Christians who are unencumbered by religion. In short, they have unencumbered themselves from the rich gifts that God has offered them, from the truth, goodness, and beauty of the natural law, and from their own createdness. This so-called unencumbered church is all too often the inhuman church.

Christian churches come in many flavors. If we are to pick a church and stick with it, as opposed to the common Christian practice of switching churches like people pick their new favorites restaurants, then which characteristics or touchstones might we look for to guide us? I have in mind six touchstones which I will describe below. For simplicity I also have in mind the main “flavors” of Christianity to be Protestant (and its many variants), Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox.

As  a Protestant I was trained to see right doctrine as the primary , evidential touchstone of faith. Sola fide—”faith alone” in the right doctrine—was the bedrock of salvation. Where one went to church was ultimately based on what doctrine was preached from the pulpit; that was the key discriminator of any church, so I was taught. Sola scriptura—”scripture alone” as the only source of right doctrine—followed as a very close second in importance. I still tend towards placing a heavy emphasis on doctrine, faith, and scripture, though what doctrines I believe have changed over the years. How tightly I hold on to various doctrines has also changed. And I do not believe in sola fide any longer, and I do not hold to sola scriptura. (Let me say, however, that I do like the spirit of sola fide and sola scriptura. I like emphasizing the importance of faith and scripture. I just think the doctrines are wrong.)

I now see the CHURCH as a living, breathing, even changing thing—it is a body after all. Yet I know there must be something changeless and fundamental about the Church. Practice is important. Right doctrine is also critical, and the Truth should be preserved, but Protestantism has destroyed much of that foundation by systematically dismantling the pillar and ground of truth. (see 1 Tim. 3:15) This our inheritance who have been raised Protestant. This is a harsh perspective certainly, but we should all be greatly troubled by the profound dis-unity produced by the Protestant Reformation (which I see more as a rebellion than true reformation). If we look at the fruit we have produced then we should grieve this particular aspect of our history. I grieve that I have played a part in that dis-unity.

As I try to get a handle on what I believe, why I believe it, and what Church I should follow (Roman Catholic, one of the many Protestant variants, or Eastern Orthodox), I realize my Protestant training has left me unprepared to make such a choice. What criteria do I use? What are the key characteristics of the visible Church? I’m sure there  are many who would be eager and willing to offer an answer, for they have it all bottled up, but that’s exactly the kind of certainty with which I grew up and which I am leaving behind—not because I dislike certainty, for I love it, but that the further I go in the life the more I realize there is a great mystery behind all our certainties. I want to follow Christ, to be like Him, and to have my life be an exhibit of love for Him. Something I have learned over the years is that following Christ is a far more mysterious and dangerous project than we typically assume.

With this in mind I see six possible characteristics or touchstones of the Church that seem to speak to me and offer guidance. They are: Liturgy, Theology, History, Unity, Authority, and Mystery. This list began with a couple of good friends who say “history, mystery, authority” is their elevator pitch as it were of why they converted to the Catholic Church. I have added liturgy, theology, and unity to that list because I find they must also be there for me. What I think about these things, and what I discover in light of these touchstones, perhaps will guide me.

Note: Faith, love, hope, righteousness, goodness, holiness, virtue, etc., are not listed below because, though they are also touchstones of the visible body of Christ, they are primarily of the individual. They are, as it were, assumed in the list below. I also have not included the sacraments as a touchstone, though they should also be assumed. Perhaps the sacraments are really just a part of each touchstone below.

The six touchstones:

Liturgy is made for us and we for it. By liturgy we infuse into our souls the truths we claim. Liturgy fits with the classical education model as well (something important to me) for liturgy is about the ordering of the soul, the whole person. We learn by memorizing, by practice, by repetition, by meditation, and through application. The body, and not just the mind and emotions, must be involved in learning. But liturgy is also an act of unity. We practice our liturgy with others, in solidarity, in love. Liturgy can be simple or complex, old or new, though wisdom and experience might find a balance. To deny liturgy, or to denigrate liturgy, or to ignore liturgy is to turn from the true nature of man, which is to turn away from God the creator of man’s nature. Which church offers the best, most fitting combination of man’s nature with liturgy? Which church seeks an “ordering” of the whole being in its liturgy?

Theology is the pursuit of understanding God and promulgating that understanding in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. We should all pursue an understanding of God, though most of us are not called to be Theologians in a formal sense. So, on the one hand theology can stand for a particular orientation towards God, and on the other hand, those beliefs and practices that flow from that orientation. Theology here can also stand for the dogmatic cosmos that each Christian group or church claims as truth. Which church offers the best dogmatic cosmos, the best harmony of doctrines, the best total theology, that explains our experience and makes sense of what we know, how we should live, and what it means to be the Body of Christ?

History is the knowledge of where we come from, but also the debts we owe to those who came before us. History is the rich tapestry of accumulated experiences mystically present in the simplest of actions. History is the substance of our commitments and obligations in the light of past and future saints and martyrs. History is the voice of monuments calling us to the true richness in the historical and ever present body of Christ. Which church best presents and preserves the substantial history of Christ’s mystical body?

Unity is the solidarity of believers regardless our natural tendencies towards disunity. Unity is the demand of love in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Disunity is a result of hate and pride, the result of the fall, evidenced first in the blaming of Eve by Adam and then second in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Because of our fallen state disunity should come as no surprise to us. However, staunch, systematic, historical disunity may be a sign of the hardness of one’s heart, either as a  kind of self-righteousness cloaked in dogmatic arguments or as a kind of complacent inertia. Which church best represents the movements of unity, embracing the universality of faith (and the diverse experiences of faith) in light of a holistic dogmatic cosmos? Which church seems to offer unity rather than demanding disunity?

Authority is the servant. As Christ told his apostles, to be a leader one must be a servant, even by becoming the least of all. The purpose of authority in the Church is to do the will of the Head (Christ) by serving the Body (us). One does not gain authority by claiming it, but by being anointed. But why authority? We are sinners, we are dis-unifiers, we are hard-headed. We need to be held accountable by something or someone with more authority than ourselves. This is the way God designed the world and us in it. It is a part of human nature to need, and ultimately thrive within, the bounds of temporal authority outside ourselves. And we need that authority to be visible, present, conforming to our human needs. To think otherwise is vanity. Which church best offers the guidance and solidity of authority so necessary in light of our weaknesses, in light of our disunity, in light of our vanity? Which church is the better servant of our striving for holiness and the kingdom?

Mystery is the nature of being. The heart of sainthood is a mystery. God is a mystery. Though He has revealed Himself to us, He remains beyond our grasp. Be we, who are made in God’s image, also are mysteries. Worship, prayer, and love are mysteries. What Christ did on the cross, and what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts are also mysteries. We can know what has been revealed, and be confident in what we know, including God’s existence and goodness, in Christ being the Son of God, in the story of salvation God has been telling since the beginning of time, but we also bow before God because He is “I AM”, the One who is, the source of being, a mystery. What church embraces a pervasive desire to know God and yet fully embraces mystery? What church has both a rich intellectual tradition and is simultaneously filled with mystics? Which church most consistently cries out: “Be a saint”?

Now I am both blind and optimistic. I will deny things that are there and see things which are not. How I answer the questions above may be very different than how others do. I may romanticize one “version” of Christianity over another, while someone else will do the opposite. While we should always desire Truth, we must realize the answer is not that we attain (or believe we have attained) Truth, rather that God has us in His hands. We are saved by God’s grace not because we have attained Truth. Of course we must seek Truth, but love is greater. We cannot “bottle up” our Christianity, for to be a Christian is to be a “little Christ” as it were, and Christ is the Word, the Son of God, the light of the world, a man, a mystery. Christ cannot be bottled up. That is why, though God has us as only He can have us, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Thus I propose the six touchstones above both provisionally and tenuously.

Question: Why is it that in Protestantism fasting is not promoted much?

The following Six reasons to keep Meatless Fridays is from a Catholic blogger:

  1. The tradition of eating fish and not beast flesh (now beef, pork, poultry) goes back to Noah’s Ark where for the 40 day flood, they ate only fish and not beasts.
  2. The mystical institution of Friday penance is Luke 5:35 “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them: then shall they fast in those days.” Christ was “taken away” from us on Friday and so we fast on “those days,” i.e. on Fridays. Every Sunday is a “little Easter,” which means that every Friday is a “little Good Friday.” If you’re going to party on Sunday, you need to do penance on Friday.
  3. The Friday abstinence from meat goes back to the Apostles. The first-century document Didache records that the earliest Christians observed fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays: “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day {Wednesday} and the Parasceve {Friday}.”
  4. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that abstaining from beast flesh and animal products inhibits your libido and reduces lust. See Summa theologiae II-II q. 147, a. 8 for more details!
  5. A pejorative slur for Catholics is “fisheater” or alternatively “mackerel snapper.” Wear these slurs as badges of honor. Eat fish on Fridays.
  6. Christ expects us to fast. In Matthew 6:17-8, Jesus says “But when you fast.” He does not say, “But if you fast.” So then, why not try to work in a penance related to food every week? If you don’t make it a habit, you’ll never do it. Friday penance is the time-honored practice. It’s hard and it will be inconvenient when you have to go with the cheese nachos instead of the hot-dog at the baseball game…but it’s worth it.

If you get discouraged, just think of Saint John the Baptist. He ate locusts!

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.

Would it be a good thing for American Christians to make fasting a common part of their life?

I presented this essay/article in this year’s Classical Conversations practicum for discussion.

Hilarin Felder:

“Napoleon regarded this as precisely the most striking proof of the divinity of Jesus–namely, his power over men’s hearts. The once wellnigh all-powerful Corsican, in the solitude of his last days, called up before his imagination all the heroic figures and master minds of the world, and measured them by his own gigantic greatness. But all of them combined, and he himself as well, vanished like empty shadows before the person of Jesus Christ.”

Napoleon:

“What a conqueror!–a conqueror who controls humanity at will, and wins to himself not only one nation, but the whole human race. What a marvel! He attaches to himself the human soul with all its energies. And how? By a miracle which surpasses all others. He claims the love of men–that is to say, the most difficult thing in the world to obtain; that which the wisest of men cannot force from his truest friend, that which no father can compel from his children, no wife from her husband, no brother from his brother–the heart. He claims it ; he requires it absolutely and undividedly, and he obtains it instantly.

Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Louis XIV strove in vain to secure this. They conquered the world, yet they had not a single friend, or at all events, they have none any more. Christ speaks, however, and from that moment all generations belong to him; and they are joined to him much more closely than by any ties of blood and by a much more intimate, sacred and powerful communion. He kindles the flame of love which causes one’s self-love to die, and triumphs over every other love. Why should we not recognize in this miracle of love the eternal Word which created the world? The other founders of religions had not the least conception of this mystic love which forms the essence of Christianity.

I have filled multitudes with such passionate devotion that they went to death for me. But God forbid that I should compare the enthusiasm of my soldiers with Christian love. They are as unlike as their causes. In my case, my presence was always necessary, the electric effect of my glance, my voice, my words, to kindle fire in their hearts. And I certainly posses personally the secret of that magic power of taking by storm the sentiments of men; but I was not able to communicate that power to anyone. None of my generals ever learned it from me or found it out. Moreover, I myself do not possess the secret of perpetuating my name and a love for me in their hearts for ever, and to work miracles in them without material means.

Now that I languish here at St Helena, chained upon this rock, who fights, who conquers empires for me? Who still even thinks of me? Who interests himself for me in Europe? Who has remained true to me? That is the fate of all great men. It was the fate of Alexander and Caesar, as it is my own. We are forgotten, and the names of the mightiest conquerors and most illustrious emperors are soon only the subject of a schoolboy’s task. Our exploits come under the rod of a pedantic schoolmaster, who praises or condemns us as he likes.

What an abyss exists between my profound misery and the eternal reign of Christ, who is preached, loved, and worshipped, and live on throughout the entire world. Is this to die? Is it not rather to live eternally? The death of Christ! It is the death of a God.”

(Quoted in Hilarin Felder, Christ and the Critics, vol. 2, pp. 216-17)

Mr. Ping: The secret ingredient is… nothing!
Po: Huh?
Mr. Ping: You heard me. Nothing! There is no secret ingredient.
Po: Wait, wait… it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?
Mr. Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.

(from Kung Fu Panda)

I wonder if this snippet from a rather popular and decidedly mediocre “family” movie captures some essence at the core of our culture’s popular ideologies of self and meaning. If so, do we find this ideology also at work in the heart of popular Christianity?

Over the years I have become convinced that most of popular Christianity¹ has more to do with questions of ideology² than with faith. For that reason maybe one of the most important philosophers today that Christians should consider (if not necessarily to agree with) is Slavoj Žižek. His take, which is fueled by Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalytical theories, provides rich fodder for thought. And given that he is coming from such a radically different place than most Christians, there is a kind of intellectual distance that may help Christians get some objectivity on their experiences. Keep in mind that I am not an advocate of Žižek, just a curious thinker fascinated by many of his observations.

Much of Christianity we take for granted, and quite a lot we don’t even really “see” at all—it’s just assumed and accepted. Common issues within Christianity are often framed in such a way as to mystify the real, underlying issues. This is not to say that there are not many who call themselves Christians who are also people of genuine faith, but the larger culture with all its variations and internal antagonisms, is rife with “givens.” Even the small community church that pulls away from the larger church (whatever that is) does so within a set of ideological assumptions about its place in the world and the available theological positions. There are, because there has to be, exceptions, but it is worth engaging with someone like Žižek (profane though he can be) in order to see with different eyes. Consider this talk he gave in 2008 at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. His topic was ideology and tolerance:

Though Žižek does not address many of the specific questions facing Christians, and though he speaks within a thoroughly secular framework, he does raise alternate views on how ideology plays out in our beliefs. If Christians thought more about their beliefs, especially their beliefs about being Christian in the social/cultural/historical sense (and I must say that some already do this), I think we would begin having more interesting conversations. Maybe we could cut through some of the garbage as well.

As I watched Žižek’s lecture, here are some brief thoughts that came to my mind:

  • When I think of his concept of a post-ideological society I wonder if we are living in a post-theological society as well. In other words, is Christianity today less theological and less ideological than in the past? Or is it that we are less theological and more ideological? In other words, are we more inclined towards illusions of truth?
  • His idea that we are addressed as slightly spiritualized hedonists strikes me as not only true in terms of advertising, but also true in terms of modern evangelical Christianity. Consider how so much of worship music in pop-Christian churches is a continual reference to the self and one’s personal feelings, desires, and experiences rather than what worship is supposed to be—about God. Consider how so many sermons are about how we can get through life better, have better marriages, raise better kids, find centered feelings of peace, rather than plain old encouragement to run the hard race through the frequently awfulness of life until the race is over.
  • Christians, as much as anyone, are living in a “realize yourself” world where we seek the truth not that we might conform to it, rather that we might find ourselves in it—that truth might be found to be us. Thus, truth becomes not only a tool for one’s own self-actualization, but truth must necessarily be fragmented into various individualized truths as self-actualizing individuals struggle to make truth change to their own desires.
  • His example of tolerance in explaining ideology is interesting. I wonder how much of the ecumenical spirit within much of Christianity is really about tolerance. And I wonder if tolerance is really just another word for smugness.
  • His tearing down of the ecological myth of a once balanced earth (Gaia) disturbed by man, and that we must get back to the natural balance of Nature, is rather profound. In a sense he is stating, in secular terms, that creation is fallen and out of balance already. Might this correspond to the biblical idea that the goal is not to get “back to the garden” rather it is for creation to be save, transformed, made new again?
  • I wonder how much of popular Christianity, from its pop music to it pop worship, operates within the terms of fetishism. In ideological terms, and Hegelian, could it be that pop Christianity is (or looks) more Christian than true Christianity? Or that the emotions contrived by so-called worship teams add greater depth to the truth of Christ? Or that the hi-def screens and concert quality audio make the message of faith more contemporary?
  • Lying for the common good: The idea that in classic totalitarian ideology (as exemplified in The Dark Knight film) a lie is necessary for social stability begs the question of how often we promote lies for the stability of our own social worlds. How often does it happen that Christian communities embody and carefully maintain little lies in order to maintain the particular idea of Christianity they are trying to believe is true?
  • His idea that we act as if we believe seems to fuel much of Christian culture, especially regarding popular attitudes towards prayer and worship. We pray that someone will be healed, in our hearts we do not believe that prayer will make a difference, but we believe prayer still works even if we do not believe it works, and thus we act as though it does, and thus we convince ourselves that it does.
  • I wonder how much of what goes for popular Christianity is really just a system of belief where nobody truly believes but they all pretend to believe because of the social constructs they inhabit (e.g. kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but they pretend to believe for the sake of the parents). In other words, how much of popular Christianity is a system of belief and how much is genuine belief?
  • The chicken who is not allowed to “know.” I wonder how much of popular Christianity is a kind of fiction born out of the need for a particular version of Christianity that we tell to children. In other words, do we change true Christianity into a a kind of fairy-tale Christianity so that it is much easier for us to tell it to our children, to answer their tough questions, and to not get too deep into the tragedy of life? And then, do children tend to know (or come to know) that it is a fairy-tale version of Christianity (or just a fake version of life) they are given, but they go along with the farce for the sake of their parents’ delusions? And do the parents end up believing the lies they tell? And finally, do the children end up believing the lie when they have children of their own?
  • In popular Christianity who is the “chicken” who is the Big Other? Think about the sexual scandals in the Catholic church over the last few years. What was the purpose of the systematic cover up? The church preaches that people are sinners, including priests. Who were they protecting? Was it the Pope? Or was it the laity? Who were they trying to keep from knowing? Or consider popular Christianity and its often strange language, linguistic tropes, its strange fashions and mannerisms. Why talk and behave that way? By behaving in a non-real way who is being protected? I wonder if the Big Other in popular Christianity isn’t God. I wonder if Christians tend to play the game not because they are lying to themselves but because (subconsciously) they hope they are lying to God.
  • Are there things that we “see” in popular Christianity that we know we see but are supposed to pretend that we do not see? That is, do we play a game of fabrication in which we sublimate the truth under the guise of acting like Christians?
  • We know we are to be loving, but are told that if we can’t be loving at least be polite. Then we believe that being polite is being loving. What do we do with this?
  • Do we like being Christians because it gives us more freedoms than our liberal, politically correct society? Is our desire for those freedoms from a good heart or bad? How often do Christians champion their subculture so that they can claim their gun rights, or their property rights, or even the right to hurt others in the name of Christ?
  • I wonder if our modern consumer Christianity falls into an historical progression from: 1) become a Christian because it is the truth, it is the best option, to 2) become a Christian because that’s what the other cool/hip people are doing, the mega-church is the happening place, to 3) become a Christian in order to realize your full potential, become the real you, actualize yourself.

Now, there is a problem in thinking about ideology, that is one can begin to feel trapped. I do not believe that we are trapped within ideologies or ideological structures to such a degree that we cannot get out of them. But I do believe it is good to more carefully examine the structures of our beliefs, including the social contexts that support and perpetuate those beliefs.


¹ By “popular Christianity” I mean that in the broadest sense, the way we use the phrase popular music for example. It is that form of Christianity that is most clearly evident across our culture. One could say it is that core orthodoxy that animates the personal claims of being Christian throughout much of the world, and especially in the West. All of us, I would contend, more or less hold to this form of Christianity, and all of us, more or less, struggle with it, either patching up the chinks as we go, or in some fashion, abandon it for another. Popular Christianity is not the same as biblical Christianity or authentic Christianity, though a Venn diagram would likely show some overlap.

² I recognize that the word ideology is rather vague in this context, and I intend it to be so. If I had to define ideology I might say it is the set of (largely submerged) beliefs (held sometimes consciously and generally unconsciously) that serve to propagate and maintain both other beliefs and social structures of belief. On the other hand, this definition is probably both too broad and poorly aimed. In short, to use the word ideology is to say that what is taken for granted, what is accepted as obvious, often belies a deeper, more complex, and frequently more troubling reality.

This post was born out of a question posed to me by a friend. The question is: Are other Christians truly Christian, and what does the Orthodox Church say? In other words, according to Orthodoxy does a person have to become Orthodox in order to be saved? As with my previous post regarding Orthodoxy, I must plead a general ignorance to the topic. My writing is a personal project of exploration. I welcome feedback.

Our beliefs

Before I try to give my rather uneducated answer I want to say something about beliefs. None of us hold our beliefs lightly, though we may think we do. It is common for us to say things like, “What’s right for you is right for you,” etc. But we know that can be merely a form of quasi-good manners, a kind of “get along” attitude that keeps us out of trouble at a surface level. As Christians we know that we give in to relativism to our peril and yet, for any number of reasons, we often accept Christians as Christians whether they be Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, or non-denominational evangelical, or anything else (with a few exceptions of course). I sense this is a somewhat historically newish position–at least for Protestants.

As a boy I was given a strong sense of the dividing lines between my tradition, which was Baptist, and other traditions. All others were looked at skeptically and we essentially had nothing to do with them. Ecumenism was mostly absent from the Baptist community I was part of. The the fact that other Protestant denominations were more ecumenical indicated a potential turning from God or letting in the “leaven” of the world, and why would we want to court danger? Another example: I grew up being taught that it was possible some Catholics could be truly Christian, though most clearly weren’t, and so on. Of course I did not actually know any Catholics; my family and I had adopted the typical Baptist fundamentalist position of separation. That was how I was trained.

In short, I believed my tradition was right, that I was saved, that other “Christians” were either not saved or were nominal Christians. I saw them as being good candidates for God’s grace–something I did not need so much of (or any) because I had picked the right version of Christianity. That was how I was trained. And it can get really bad as Christians start staking doctrinal positions and then using those positions to condemn other Christians. You can see this in the comments sections of many so-called Christian blogs where the vitriol flies so thick in the name of God that one wonders if the commenters are really just a bunch of demons having some fun.

But now, from what I can gather, that Baptist church in which I was raised is much more ecumenical and broad-minded (as is much of American Christian culture). I believe that is generally a good thing. Even so, our beliefs are often more dogmatic, more down the line, even more divisive than we admit, or are capable of admitting. The fact is, we really do not think something is only true for you or him or her. If we believe something is true we believe it is universally true. If you step in front of a moving bus you will get run over. That is true for everyone. If God exists then He exists no matter if every person on earth becomes an atheist. If it’s true it’s true. If you believe in limited atonement then you believe it is universally true, not just for you. And for each of us, in our minds and hearts and souls, if we believe something is true then we cannot also believe it’s untrue. We know at a fundamental and deep level that something cannot be both true or untrue simultaneously, though we may say otherwise in casual conversation. This can get tricky when it comes to which “expression” of Christianity one ascribes to. If one is truly (unwaveringly) Roman Catholic then one must believe that the Roman Catholic church is the most Christian (I do not know how else to put it) church one can join and all the others are either somewhat wrong or mostly wrong or all wrong; the same goes if one is truly Baptist or truly Anglican or whatever. It is even truly if we attend a small, non-denominational, easy-going evangelical community kind of church. At some level we say this is right and those others are, at least, a little less right, a little more skewed in their understanding, a little less free in their faith, or a little less Godly. We adopt the habit of good manners in order to avoid conflict and let people have their space, but we don’t really think the Church we go to is wrong and theirs is right–unless we don’t care, but that’s another, and maybe more serious, issue–and maybe it’s a less serious issue.

This is all to say I expect anyone who claims to represent a particular tradition will assume and adopt the position that their tradition is best. The question then becomes what about those other traditions? And what about the individual believer? My limited experience tells me the Orthodox Christian believes his church is the true Church, that it is the church closest to The Way of Christ, and that if one wants to participate most fully in the life of the Church then one must become Orthodox. So what, then, about those other Christians?

What does Orthodoxy say?

I am not a member of the Orthodox Church–though I am willing to go where God leads though I do not know the destination. In other words, as of now I am still an American-individualist, Protestant-trained, former-Baptist, quasi-Calvinist, non-denominational, existentialist-Christian who is fascinated with Orthodoxy because it has become an interesting and fresh wind in both my thinking and in my soul for many reasons, though I still gaze from the outside. My relationship to Orthodoxy raises a big question: From an Orthodox perspective can I (or anyone) still be saved if I am not Orthodox? In other words, what about all the non-Orthodox Christians like me? Are they saved, are they going to Heaven, will they be in the Kingdom of God, are they being sanctified, are they even really Christian?

From what I can gather, the short (Orthodox) answer is yes, other Christians can be “just as saved” as Orthodox Christians.

The longer Orthodox answer is more involved and nuanced. Let’s take a look at some evidences from within Orthodoxy. Here are three sources: Orthodoxy and Heterdoxy by The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (2011), The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware (1997), and The Orthodox Church in America web site.

Here is Fr. Damick:

It is part of the fundamental character of Orthodox theology that we do not theologize outside the Church. That is, although we have very detailed theology of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian, we have absolutely no theology about what it means not to be one. God has never told us the spiritual status of the non-Orthodox, except in only the most general terms which cannot be reliably applied to particular people. You can’t find it in the Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers, or in the divine services. All we have been given is the Way.

From this, we can look at a given doctrine or practice and say, “That is not the Way.” But we cannot say, “All of you who have embraced that heresy are therefore forever damned.” We don’t know that. (Damick, p.15)

From this we can see the focus of Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy. It is a cautionary statement, one that warns the Orthodox reader to recognize the borders, maybe even the limitations of Orthodox theology, in relation to the non-Orthodox. In other words, if someone claims that a person is un-saved or un-Christian or damned because they are not a member of the Orthodox Church, that claim is going beyond the support of the Orthodox Church. This does not mean the claim is false per se, but that the Orthodox Church cannot itself make that claim. Damick’s statement is more a warning to Orthodox Christians to be careful before he then goes on to lay out his examination of Orthodoxy and heterodoxy. For someone in my position his statement tells me that, while I know he is claiming the Orthodox Church to be the Church, the Orthodox Church is not condemning me to damnation just because I am not a member of the Orthodox Church. I also take his position to represent the Orthodox Church, which I think is fair given his careful study of Orthodoxy and the history of Christianity, and his status as an Orthodox Christian parish priest. Still, I am not taking his statement as an “out” for me. I still face the question of whether I should become Orthodox.

Here is Bishop Ware:

Orthodoxy […] teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation. This belief has the same basis as the Orthodox belief in the unbreakable unity of the Church: it follows from the close relation between God and His Church. “A person cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother.” So wrote St Cyprian; and to him this seemed an evident truth, because he could not think of God and the Church apart from one another. God is salvation, and God’s saving power is mediated to humans in His Body, the Church. “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.” Does it follow that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” While there is no division between a “visible” and and “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say. (Ware, pp. 247-248)

Bishop Ware makes a similar argument as Fr. Damick, whether someone outside the Orthodox Church is truly a Christian is something the Orthodox Church cannot say. In fact, he goes further and says that even someone visibly part of the Church is not necessarily saved. The implication of this is that mere membership in the Orthodox Church is not enough to be saved, and being outside the Church is not de facto evidence of being damned, but that all is in God’s hands and we are not privy to know all that God knows. Therefore no Orthodox Christian can claim that because he is a member of the Orthodox Church he is automatically saved (or will be saved), nor can he claim that all who are outside the Church are damned. He goes even further by quoting Augustine in saying that there are true believers outside the church. In that sense it is not merely that the Orthodox Church cannot claim someone outside is either saved or damned, but that it must be true, according to Augustine, that many outside are saved and many inside are damned. Again, I am not taking his statement as an “out” for me. I still face the question of whether I should become Orthodox. And there is still that statement that outside the Church there is no salvation. From what I can understand, Ware is saying that anyone whom God will save is a member of the Church, though some not yet visibly.

I heard once an Orthodox Christian say about a relative of his who had died having been a Protestant and never Orthodox, that the relative is “Orthodox now” meaning that they were Christian, died and gone to be with God, and in the afterlife must necessarily become fully Orthodox. Of course I have not idea if this really happened, but I like the basic idea. Certainly God can do what He wants.

Here is the Q&A section of the Orthodox Church in America web site [I have made portions of the text bold to call them out]:

Question:

You talk as if only the Orthodox who believe these things can be saved. What about other Christians and all other men in the world?

Answer:

In the first place it must be made clear that it is not enough for anyone merely to believe these things, or merely to be a formal member of the Church. In order to be saved one must live by the truth and love of God.

It is the common teaching of the Orthodox Christian tradition that the Church has no monopoly on grace and truth and love. The Church teaches on the contrary that God is the Sovereign Lord who saves those whom He wills.

The Church believes as well that salvation depends upon the actual life of the person, and God alone is capable of judging since He alone knows the secrets of each mind and heart. Only God is capable of judging how well a man lives according to the measure of grace, faith, understanding, and strength given to him.

The Orthodox would insist, nevertheless, that an honest seeker of truth and love will see these things perfectly realized and expressed in Jesus Christ and will recognize God, the end of their seeking, in Him.

We all know, however, that our image of Christ is deformed both by the lives and the doctrines of those who claim him, and thus His truth and love and His very person remain obscure and hidden to those who might follow Him if they could see Him clearly.

But once again, let it be clear that every man is judged by God alone according to the actual truth and love in his life. This goes for Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. And although the Orthodox confess that the fulness of truth and love is found in the life of the church, nominal church membership or formal assent to some doctrines does not at all guarantee salvation.

Again we have an emphasis on God saving whom He wants regardless of official membership in the Orthodox Church. We also see that the focus of the believer is Christ through Whom he comes to know God. I see this statement above as saying that before we talk about being Orthodox let’s talk about seeking truth, following Christ, and knowing God. That is where we begin and end. An Orthodox will claim that the Orthodox Church plays a huge, maybe a primary, role in all this, but it is first one’s relationship to truth, Christ, and God. And once again, I am not taking his statement as an “out” for me. I still face the question of whether I should become Orthodox or not.

Work it out

Finally I want to mention an interesting distinction between the particular Protestantism with which I am familiar and the small corner of Orthodoxy that I have witnessed. For many Protestants and/or reformed-minded individuals, salvation is spoken of as a kind of singular event. One “gives one’s testimony” in the form of a story about that moment when one became “saved.” It is not uncommon to hear the question, “When were you saved?” Salvation comes from making a “decision for Christ” or some such similar idea. It is both a specific point in one’s history (“I was saved on July 17th, 1993,” etc.) and it is a mental assent to specific beliefs or doctrines (that’s when I “believed” etc.). It may be very emotional, it may be very personally profound, but it is still an “at that moment I believed” event. Sanctification, or the process of becoming more like Christ over time, is still considered very important by many Protestants, but it is often a secondary concern, or after-effect, in the economy of salvation, and even for some it has no real part in that economy. However, what little I have observed from Orthodoxy shows me that, though one may be able to point to a significant conversion event in one’s life, salvation is not a past event but a future we hope for. In fact, even the devout Orthodox, even an Orthodox priest no less, will openly say, “I hope and pray that God will save me.” There may be confidence at one level, but there is also a recognition that salvation is fully in God’s hands until the end and it has not yet happened. We cannot know whom God will save, including ourselves. We should not presume to know the mind of God, but we should trust God and seek to be like Christ. For the Orthodox sanctification, from what I can tell, is absolutely central to salvation, not merely in a logical sense, but that one pursues the Christian life in order to be saved while also knowing it is God who saves. It is taking fully to heart St. Paul’s words: “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” For many Protestants, myself included, the idea of “working out one’s salvation” sounds wrong, but there it is.

Some tentative conclusions

This is an altogether too short and too limited examination of the topic at hand. I have only scratched the surface, and I have only looked from one angle. My approach is to (hesitatingly) examine if the Orthodox Church does or might accept a non-Orthodox Christian as being truly a Christian. What I have found is that the Orthodox Church, which for so many centuries fought tooth and nail against heterodoxy, and while still believing the Orthodox Church is most fully and completely the Church of Christ founded by the Apostles, nonetheless is very open and accepting of the idea that the non-Orthodox can just as much be in God’s hands as the Orthodox. This is not only more Biblical in my understanding, but stands in contradistinction to much (though not all) of Protestantism which has tended to display its insecurities through a rather heavy-handed dogmatism and doctrinal hair-splitting.

In fact, what has surprised me is an interesting balance within Orthodoxy where doctrine is held very high, along with knowing where Orthodoxy differs from other forms of Christianity, and yet there is also a fundamental spirit of openness around the idea that every one of us is on a journey and in the hands of God. What I have seen in Protestantism is one or the other, either a high view of doctrine combined with a lack of an ecumenical spirit, or a low view of doctrine so that one can just enjoy a more social and friendly kind of church community without those pesky doctrinal hangups.

For the Orthodox concerned for their non-Orthodox relatives and friends there is some comfort and some additional concerns. First, the fact that someone is not Orthodox does not automatically mean they are not or will not be saved. Their salvation is ultimately in God’s hands and all the Orthodox individual can do is pray and love and place their trust in God. On the other hand, the Orthodox concerned for their non-Orthodox relatives or friends must also face the fact that just because they themselves are Orthodox does not mean they have a carte blanche into the Kingdom of God. They still need to pray and love and place their trust in God. And then, in the end, it is still up to God.

For me this perspective coincides with my own understanding of the Christian life. Regardless of what church I attend, in the end I too must place my trust in God. He is my creator and the sustainer of my life. Only in Him do I have a future. Only in Him can I find salvation. On the other hand, I know God is the maker of mankind, of history, of institutions, of geography, of the mind and body of man, even of his needs. It makes sense that Christ would create His Church with man in mind, not merely man’s psychology in view, but man’s whole experience, including his needs, his desires, his language, and everything else that makes man man. With that in view I must still face the question that while I seek to pray and love and place my trust in God, and while I know that ultimately it is all in God’s hands, I must also ask what is this thing called the Church and what is, or should be, my relationship to it? For me that is still an open and pressing question.

Postscript: One resource that looks promising on this topic, but which I did not consult, is the book The Non-Orthodox: The Orthodox Teaching on Christians Outside of the Church by Patrick Barnes, available as a free download here.

Deacon: Bless, Master.

Priest: BLESSED is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

Choir: Amen.

And thus began the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the little and beautiful St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church this last Sunday of All Saints morning. This was my first time to ever cross the threshold of an Eastern Orthodox church. This was my first time to participate in an Orthodox liturgy. This was my first time to hear Russian (or was it Serbian?) spoken in a church (though most of the service was in English). This was my first time to see icons in a truly reverential context. It was an hour and a half of a lot of personal firsts.

I was very nervous about going. I am wary of both my tendencies to romanticize experiences and to be cynical. I am also a ponderer and book-learner more than a doer much of the time, which allows me to keep experiences (and their required responses) at bay. I have been reading about Eastern Orthodoxy for a while now. Why I am doing so is a long story, nonetheless I am loving it and being challenged. But I had never been to an Orthodox church. So, when a couple weeks ago my wife and a very good friend of ours visited this same church on a sudden and impulsive whim, I knew I would finally have to make a visit as well.

What did I find there? Walking to the entrance I met some friends that I did not know attended the church. That was a blessing. The church is small and, as you can see from the image above, stands out architecturally. I find it beautiful. I took my eldest daughter with me; she was eager and liked it very much. My daughter knows several of the people that were there. The service was not like anything I grew up with (Baptist/Radical Reformation). Though translated into English (and thank God for the printed handout so I could follow along) the liturgy is ancient. People entered quietly, greeted each other quietly, lit candles, kissed icons (not something with which I am familiar), and stood through most of the service. We did our best to follow, to sing the words (I found it beautiful), to cross ourselves when we should (this was another first for me), and to show appropriate reverence and not look too out of place. We did not participate in either the communion (because we are not Orthodox) or in the kissing of icons, etc. There was the constant noise of children and babies; this is a family oriented community. The interior was dim, but not dark, solemn but not dour, colorful but simple, and of course, the icons which are unique and beautiful (a common word in this whole experience). The homily delivered was excellent–a remembering of all the Saints and the martyrs that are examples to us, and a reminder that Christ’s resurrection really means something, not only in terms of final salvation, but that we are not the same because of Christ’s glory; something profound has changed within us. After the service my daughter and I spoke with Father David (I believe that is how one should address him). He made a point of coming up to us and welcoming us. We did not stay for the after-service meal, but most did. They have a large backyard with garden and play structure for the kids.

What did I think about it all? I should qualify my thoughts first, and maybe get just a little too personal. I am not a “church shopper.” I do not want to consume Christianity. I am not looking for the next “meaningful” thing. I do not want a hip church, or a programmatic church, or a second chapter of Acts church, or an un-church, or a high church. I am not searching for something new or even something old. And I do not want to make decisions based on emotions, and certainly not on heresy. I am not seeking out an “experience.” In fact, I am not really searching for a church at all. And certainly I do not want to go in any direction without my wife with me. Still, and with trepidation, I am exploring. I have been on a journey, a slow journey for sure, examining the tradition I grew up in and was trained in. I have had a lot of questions, a lot of soul searching, a lot of reading. I have tended to be wary of just about everything one finds in an Orthodox church (keep in mind my limited experience): Formal liturgy, recited prayers, icons, religious garb, incense, etc., etc. And yet, my world has been subtlety shifting for several years. I do not know where God will lead me and my family. Wherever He leads that is where I want to go.

With all that in mind, I will say two things about this one visit: a) I am still on my journey, still wondering, still studying, still praying, still seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, and b) I loved it, really loved it. I want to go back and learn more about what I experienced that first time. I want to understand why I loved it and what that means.

Final thoughts: I am humbled by how much I don’t know about Christianity, about those who came before, about the practices of Christians around the world. Orthodoxy is an entirely new study for me. I am often conflicted in what I believe, and what I want to believe. This is a bad place to be according to my past Christian training, but I have since come to believe that I would rather be in the hands of God on a surreptitious  journey than out of His hands with full confidence in my beliefs. I can only praise God for His love and fall on my face and ask for His mercy. I thank Him for this church experience and I pray for His guidance.

A footnote: Take another look at the beginning of the liturgy quoted at the beginning of this post. Now consider these words by Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World (1963/2004, p. 28):

The Orthodox liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.” From the beginning the destination is announced: the journey is to the Kingdom. This is where we are going–and not symbolically, but really. In the language of the Bible, which is the language of the Church, to bless the Kingdom is not simply to acclaim it. It is to declare it to be the goal, the end of all our desires and interests, of our whole life, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept in love, and to move toward what is loved and accepted. The Church thus is the assembly, the gathering of those to whom the ultimate destination of all life has been revealed and who have accepted it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man. It is Christ’s gift to us, for only in Him can we say Amen to God, or rather He himself is our Amen to God and the Church is the Amen to Christ. Upon this Amen the fate of the human race is decided. It reveals that the movement toward God has begun.

Amen.

As part of my ongoing study of Christian baptism I have now come to an important passage in the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says a fair amount on baptism throughout his letters to the early churches. Most of the verses on baptism from Paul seem to assume things about baptism that must have been understood by those of that time, but are not necessarily the same assumptions we have today. In other words, Paul often mentions baptism without providing a complete teaching on baptism, probably because he didn’t feel he needed to explain everything. His readers probably knew what he was talking about. For us today, with two thousand years of various traditions and teachings, we have to work to figure out what Paul thought on baptism. Did Paul think baptism was required for a Christian, whether to received the Holy Spirit or to be initiated into the visible church or to receive some kind of grace? Or did Paul think baptism was a good cultural thing to do, a meaningful thing to do, but a thing that could and should be tossed aside if it causes one to stumble in the faith?

As with my previous posts on baptism, this one is a kind of meditation and not a final statement.

The passage from 1 Corinthians chapter one is important because we have Paul raising the issue of baptism in light of larger issues of faith and understanding within a church community. Here are the key verses:

1 Corinthians 1:4-17 (ESV):
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

This is a powerful passage and it must be pointed out that the issue at hand is not baptism but quarreling, and really quarreling about who different groups within the church community were “following.” In other words, it is clear that Paul is not writing to the Corinthian about baptism, but baptism was a piece of the picture, enough so that Paul must bring it up so as to explain how or where the Corinthians got things wrong.

I want to make it clear that I am no scholar regarding the New Testament or the theology of Paul. What I want to do, as in my previous posts on baptism, is to use this passage to provoke my thinking and see where it may lead. You can participate in the process via the comments. Let’s go through this passage.

Paul says: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

My notes: Paul affirms their faith. Is the “grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” a grace imparted at baptism? There does not seem to be any indication of that. He says they were enriched in speech and knowledge, that they lack no spiritual gift, and that Jesus Christ will sustain them guiltless to the end. what we don’t have here is the means laid out. Just how was this grace given? When was it given? What does it mean to be enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge? How was the testimony confirmed? What did that look like? What are the spiritual gifts Paul means here? How does Jesus sustain anyone? I find passages like this one difficult. It is packed with ideas that I feel I know, but on reflection I realize I don’t. Spending my entire life within Christianity has produced a tendency to read such passages without reflection, for I “know” what Paul means. Do I? What I find interesting is that Paul is writing that these things are true, and then he will go on to say that he is glad he baptized very few of the Corinthians. Does this mean that all these things (grace, spiritual gifts, etc.) are true even if one does not receive baptism. I would say it might.

Paul says: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

My notes: Here Paul reminds the Corinthians that God is faithful, that they can count on Him. The question I have is whether the entering into the fellowship of Christ requires baptism. From what Paul is going to say many would say probably not. I am not so sure. It might.

Paul says: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

My notes: Here Paul addresses the main issue at hand. There are divisions and Paul calls for unity. Exactly what Paul means by “the same mind and the same judgement” I am not sure. Is this primarily doctrinal? Did these divisions produce lack of unity elsewhere? Did various factions refuse to fellowship with other factions? I would say we must read the rest of the letter to answer those questions.

As an aside: How, in light of this passage, should we understand the East/West Schism of 1054, or the Reformation, or the subsequent Protestant divisions?

Paul says: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

My notes: Here we have more of a picture of the nature of the divisions, that is, quarreling. Is this quarreling merely doctrinal disagreement? Or are the Corinthians also being unloving? The history of Christianity has taught us that we can have different doctrines and practices and still love each other even though we often don’t. It seems that Paul sees these divisions as a kind of dividing up of Christ. What does that mean? Clearly one aspect is that the Corinthians have turned their focus from Christ to individual teachers. Whether these teachers represent, in the minds of the Corinthians, different doctrines, approaches, styles, or charisms is unclear. Did some follow Apollos because he was a more dynamic leader, or because he emphasized certain things, or because he has a different nuance on doctrine. I would guess his doctrine was sound and in line with Paul. Could it be that there were some differences, but the differences insignificant, and the problem is that the Corinthians made a big deal out of insignificant things while forgetting the big picture?

Paul asks whether they were baptized in the name of Paul. Clearly the Corinthians, and Paul, saw baptism as being meaningful. To be baptized in the name of Paul is very different than being baptized in the name of Jesus. But why? Paul would not draw this distinction if he did not see baptism as being meaningful. However, how meaningful? It would seem that baptism means, at least in part, to be a follower. How did the Corinthians gets this wrong? Christians today follow Christ, but they do so by being part of a tradition. Thus, one might say, though not necessarily in these words, I follow Christ by following Luther, or I follow Christ because I am a Catholic (or Baptist, or Anglican, etc.). Is this any different than the Corinthians? Baptism becomes an important question when one changes denominations or goes from Protestant to Catholic or  vice versa. Was one’s baptism valid? Have we made too much of baptism or, maybe, too little? Have we divided, and then continued to divide and to divide, Christ?

Paul says  “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)”

My notes: This is the first of two “big” verses in terms of baptism. How can Paul say that he thanks God he did not baptize very many of the Corinthians? What this would imply is that baptism is relatively unimportant to the bigger issues of unity. (I was tempted to say bigger issues of faith, but it could be argued Paul is not directly dealing with that here, though it is probably implied.) In fact, one could conclude that Paul is implying that baptism is not necessary and, apparently for the Corinthians, it has become a kind of stumbling block anyway. Better to not be baptized, Paul would seem to be saying, and receive salvation, than to be baptized and then falsify one’s baptism by turning to divisions. Or, one could say, it is not the name into which one is baptized as much as it is the name that one follows with one’s life. In other words, one’s life will demonstrate one’s allegiances, not one’s baptism.

Of course, Paul did baptize the Corinthians, even if only a few. Could it be that Paul is not saying baptism is relatively unimportant, but instead is saying that it is too important to take so lightly as the Corinthians have taken it? In other words, if one was baptized into Christ, and yet tramples on that baptism with petty divisions, would it have been better to have not been baptized in the first place? Could this, then, be an argument for baptism, and not only that, but for a high view of baptism? It seems to me that Paul is angry (or at least deeply worried), so much so that he wishes he had not performed such an important and sacred act as baptizing any more than he did. It is as though he is saying, “How dare you disdain your holy baptism, which brought you into the unity of Christ and his church, by now dividing Christ up with your divisions. Did not that baptism mean anything to you? Do you not understand how profound and precious is that baptism?” These, of course, are not Paul’s words, but do they get at his meaning? I am incline to think so.

Paul says: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

My notes: This is the second “big” verse. Here Paul contrasts baptism and preaching the gospel. It would seem that, again, Paul is dismissing baptism by comparison to the gospel. In other words, Paul says, it would seem, that baptism may be just fine, but compared to the gospel it is nothing. Therefore, we Christians—so it goes by implication—can get baptized if we want to, but Paul wasn’t that into baptism for he knew what was important, that is, the gospel. But is this what Paul is truly saying? Maybe. I wish I could call him up and pester him with questions (I’ve got a lot and I know I’m not the only one. Mostly, though, I just want an excuse to make the call and talk to him). What we must realize, though, is that the Corinthians are not asking why Paul never baptizes anyone. That is not their question. The fact is he did; Paul preached the gospel and he baptized.

As I understand it Paul went around the Mediterranean preaching the gospel and baptizing converts. I would guess that he saw these two activities as being combined, maybe even inextricably linked. What I see him doing here is not denying or downgrading baptism, but calling the Corinthians on lying, that is, on accepting the gospel, getting baptized in the name of Christ, and then denying both by their divisions. This verse may, in fact, imply a high view of baptism, not a low one. I do not see the issue here being that the Corinthians had a perverted view of baptism, such that baptism was a magical rite that made one into a Christian. I don’t even see this as a correction of the Corinthians’ view of baptism as much as it is Paul pointing out that he is glad he did not baptize anyone who is now acting out a blatant disregard for the gospel for which their baptism is a part (or for which it stands).

It is clear that Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 1:4-17 is about schisms forming in the church (specifically the local church in Corinth) and not about baptism. In fact, I would argue the entire letter is about divisions, including many passages that are often taken out of context, like Paul’s famous exhortation on love recited at so many weddings. What, then, did baptism have to do with salvation in Paul’s thinking? I would argue that one has to start with Paul’s understanding of what it means to become a Christian. I have neither the intellect or space to unpack that here, nor do I want to fall into hubris, however, one thing that seems clear enough is that to become a Christian is to become a member of the church, that is, the body of Christ. There are many interpretations of what this means, but it must at least mean that one is now a part of that group which follows Christ.

My thoughts here align somewhat with what is called the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), though I have not bought into that perspective entirely, nor can I say I fully understand it. However, it seems clear to me that Christians, now grafted into the people of God, find their identity as Christians, that is, as members of that group. But for Paul it is nothing like merely being a member of a club, rather it is far more radical than that. Later in Corinthians Paul, with thoughts (I would argue) of the Corinthians’ divisions foremost on his mind, he reminds them of the children of Israel being saved by God and rescued from slavery in Egypt. He says:

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4a)

It is interesting that Paul says they were baptized into Moses. It would seem that that baptism came about as a result of being both under the cloud and walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea on dry ground; a place of immanent death and, I would assume, a terrifying experience. This passing through corresponds to the going under the water in baptism which corresponds with Christs’ death. The question here is whether the baptism into Moses was merely a symbolic act signifying an internal or spiritual reality. I would say no.

The Israelites did not go through the sea in the kind of voluntary way we tend to think about baptism. They were desperate, they were facing death from the Egyptians bearing down on them, they were angry at Moses, then the sea parted and they fled. The act was accomplished by God, and it was nearly an act of coercion. Sure, they did not have to go, but when someone puts a gun to your head you will probably do what they say. This is not to say that God made them walk through the Red Sea, but it comes close, and it is not until after they are safe on the other side, with the Egyptian army drowned behind them, that they turn to God and sing His praises. (That strikes me as a very human story.) One could also say they did not have a choice in being under the cloud. In short, their baptism was done by God for their benefit as He put His seal on them. It was one of the things, along with the spiritual food (manna?) and spiritual drink (water from the rock?), that God gave/did to make them His people. In this sense baptism was not a sign of repentance and a profound heart change. It was not even a sign of choosing to be the people of God. It was something done to the “fathers” to make them members of a select group of people, a people called out by God and to God. The terrifying I AM came upon them, as it were, and declared them His people. Is Christian baptism like this in some way? I would say yes on two counts.

First, we are saved because God saves us. He chooses us as an act of His grace and, in response, also as an act of His grace we choose Him. It is a two-way street, yes, but God does all the driving. It is act and response. Second, because God’s grace pours out on us we then enter into that group of people we call the church. We are His people, like our “fathers” the Israelites. Thus, like the Israelites passing through the sea we receive faith, and like the Israelites becoming the people of God we also become God’s people. I am not arguing that gentile Christians are Jews, or have quite the same unique status in His universe, but that Christianity comes from Judaism and the Jews are our brothers and sisters. We are kin.

Paul wants the Corinthians to see that, like their fathers, they too have been baptized into a membership, that is the body of Christ. It follows then that if all Christians are children of God we should not have divisions. It does not matter what one’s background, social status, ethnicity, etc. Paul says, again in the letter to the Corinthians:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

So, did Paul think baptism was required for a Christian, whether to received the Holy Spirit or to be initiated into the visible church or to receive some kind of grace? It would seem the answer is three yeses. The next question is whether this baptism is the work that God does through His spirit or whether it is the act of water baptism that has become our tradition, or is it both? Is it another example of God acting and we responding? If Paul wants us to draw a connection with how God made the Israelites His people then the answer might be yes. Their story included both the act of God and the physical/visible baptism of cloud and sea. I suppose God could have done anything. He could have written an entirely different story. He could have chosen them but never told them. He could do the same for us. But He didn’t for them, and He doesn’t for us. Still, is this baptism of the Spirit or of water, or both?

I am inclined to think Paul uses the word to mean technically by water. We know there are references in the New Testament that specifically refer to water (Acts 8:36-39, Acts 10:47-48a), and they are apparently positive about water, that is, the apostles do not say that water baptism is no longer required, nor do they teach that it is now inappropriate (even in 1 Corinthians, as I suggested above). We also know that baptism by water was a Jewish practice (and maybe throughout the pagan world), and Paul was steeped in Judaism. We also know that Jesus baptized with water (John 3:22-26). And, finally, we know the early church practiced baptism, which should not quickly be dismissed. What we have mentioned in the New Testament is that to believe the gospel and become a Christian involved repentance, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. How all that fits together I am not yet sure, but I believe Paul understood baptism in this “formula” as being water baptism, but as also being inextricably intertwined with repentance and receiving the Holy Spirit. Is there an order to these three activities? I am not sure. Maybe it is different for each of us.

A tentative conclusion of sorts: I have inherited a non-sacramental theology. I am a child of the Reformation (which was not a true reformation from what I can tell, but a rebellion, for good or ill. I am still deciding) and I have deep roots in certain beliefs. But I wonder if the stripping of everything (all external religion, smells, bells, recited prayers, and even baptism) in an attempt to get at some kind of pure essence (an essential Christianity) that we have not turned our back of God in some way. From scriptures we see that God is both all about the heart (internal) and action (external). We see God giving a carefully described, detailed, rule-bound religion to the Israelites. I always thought that He did that as a way to either lay burdens on them in order to teach them something, or in order to make them be separate from the rest of the world. I now think God gave them religion because He made human beings to be religious. The religion that God gave His people was a gift in light of their created design, their humanness. He gave them a raft of symbolic acts and religious practices that He then connected to their hearts and to His providence. Could it be that we also are to have the internal and the external moving in concert? Is religion a good thing for us Christians? Has the “passing through the sea” become now a spiritual, internal process leading to faith with no necessary external component? This is the great question for me, one that I am still sorting out, but a question that might be leading me back, in some fashion, to a pre-Reformation expression of Christianity.

I am posting this from an old, now defunct blog of mine. But I feel there is enough good stuff in it to warrant posting again here. It was originally posted 21 April 2008.

In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.

Our lenses
I love Pasolini’s seminal film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless cinematic versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was both thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).


An earthy, socialist Christ
Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus
from
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.

As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, are also objectively true (arguably). My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence—even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of Pasolini as an artist.

Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God. [Though I would argue they could not exist unless God exists.]

The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.

I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications across the board.

But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.

Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.

Moral Objects
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from within that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:


Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 c
m
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.

What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.

Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too—witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.

Moral Stories
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance.

I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.


Medieval Mystery Play

So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.

Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle of the recent film Tranformers.

Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, where there is no final truth, and where one can find no source of meaning of life. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are still all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.

The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? (Why should anyone wait for Godot?) Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.

~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What does one do with this? How does one come to terms with a spiritual wasteland, or an irresolvable predicament? Is it such that rational human beings must suffer the conflict of a great desire for meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning? Is religion an answer or a placebo? No matter what we do we do not get away from these questions. How we solve them, or come to terms with them, is a big deal (or maybe it is also meaningless). My contention is that there is a God, that that God is there, and that that God is knowable. But am I deluded? I don’t think so. And the person who thinks I am deluded believes from a place of conviction as well. I find this more than fascinating.


Michael Clayton

What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy. [Note: Need implies the metaphysical. There is no “need”, no meaningful calling or longing, without transcendence.]

The film’s story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:

Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principle deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.

Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.

Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:

Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful. It becomes a “helpful myth” to underscore the moment. [Note: Many materialists see all religion this way. Religion is the “helpful myth” of choice for the individual in the moment—but no more.]

To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor, like an ironic t-shirt. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting —I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made an actual conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)

Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.

In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled; it reminds me of the last shot in The Graduate (1967). Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. Although on what basis can we judge? But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence. After all that his life is meaningless and he will eventually die. The film offers no hope. It cannot based on its presuppositions.

The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning, then any decision made by Clayton cannot have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true. Because of those beliefs the film succeeds as a kind of cheat. We let it work, we fill it with meaning, though it does not deserve such grace.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.

The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.

But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following three part video analysis by Anton Scamvougeras is an excellent overview of the film’s themes. If you have not seen the film, then don’t watch these clips yet; first go watch the film!

When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.

Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?

[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]

Finally

I am convinced there is no such thing as a story without some moral content. 
Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisions and therefore fundamentally moral.

But as soon as we make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way, we don’t really believe it. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. We know they are wrong. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity. This is also a good time to go and re-read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.

I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound, fundamental connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.

I am reposting this post from my other blog. It was originally published a couple of years ago. I have added new thoughts at the end about where I am now with the topic discussed. I hope you enjoy.

Are we not postmodern?

My brain often works best by comparison. In this post I want to briefly compare the postmodern impulse in art making and the post-Christendom worship of the emergent/emerging1 church. I fully admit my ideas are not fully baked, and yet the process of putting them forth might teach me a thing or two.

Somewhere in the transition from the 1960s to the late 1970s Art reached its end. The end was prefigured by such notables as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. The end of art wasn’t really about the end of art, but about the end of a series of historical/cultural problems and intuitions tackled largely in succession since the Renaissance. What happened over time was a decline in interest in those issues as they either were solved (“solved” is a rather subjective term with regards to art) or they were found no longer relevant. The world changed and so did the world of art.

But art never stops. Art will emerge as long as humans exist.


Hymn, by Damien Hirst, 2000

What happened (one thing that happened) was a new impulse, that of appropriation. This impulse was already coursing through the veins of art; Picasso appropriated, Johns and Warhol appropriated, and many others. But with postmodern art artistic action began to twist free from the weight of art history and the art’s weighty lineage. Art and art history began to work more and more independently from each other. Of course that independence wasn’t complete, but art makers felt that art had become fundamentally divorced from meta-narratives. Now the appropriation of anything and everything was possible – even appropriation of that weighty lineage. In this sense art finally became art.


Portable War Memorial, by Ed Kienholz, 1968

What is meant by appropriation?

To appropriate something involves taking possession of it. In the visual arts, the term appropriation often refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of new work. The borrowed elements may include images, forms or styles from art history or from popular culture, or materials and techniques from non-art contexts. Since the 1980s the term has also referred more specifically to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work. The new work does not actually alter the original per se; the new work uses the original to create a new work. In most cases the original remains accessible as the original, without change.2

Key here is that last part. The “original remains accessible as the original, without change.” This is a kind of quoting without quoting; a kind of objective theft for subjective purposes. One could say it’s a synthesis, something new from something old that becomes new merely through the act of appropriation. In this way an old work of art may become a new work of art fully within a new context – and seen as a new work of art because of new ownership as it were. But this should be expected, for “there is nothing outside the text” as Jacques Derrida once said.3


After Walker Evans 2, by Sherrie Levine (1981).

Keeping this in mind I want to shift gears a bit.

Christianity has gone through (and is going through) similar changes. Christianity is one of the great meta-narratives in world history. However, many Christians (some of whom prefer the term Christ followers) have begun to twist free of their traditional moorings. They see their faith and Christianity as two different entities. Faith is no longer strictly about being a member of a particular group with its set of proscribed codes, mores, or rituals. The focus has shifted more toward Jesus and away from the historical church. Jesus has become the deconstruction force, deconstructing Christianity.


Jesus has a power lunch with the money changers?
(Why I put this picture in here I don’t know.)

If faith is a passionate, existential belief in the lordship of Jesus, then Christianity as an external religious set of practices can be other, is other. This otherness allows the multiplicity of historical and cultural expressions of Christianity to be appropriated as the “believer” sees fit. One is no longer bound by a tradition, rather by faith. Christian practices and disciplines from any branch of the church and any time period can be appropriated by the Christ follower on an as needed basis. Logically, then, practices from non-Christian sources might be appropriated as well. If being a Christ follower is no longer about religion (or being religious), then religion, as a set of optional practices and disciplines, becomes a non-threat.

More and more Christians today are seeking old, and very old, religious practices – going back to the historical church and gleaning. I assume the idea is that through the course of the modern era we may have lost some good things. I assume this is more true for Protestants than Catholics or Orthodox. The question on the table is whether these practices are meaningful and might they negatively influence one’s faith – a real fear for many Protestant apologists. I don’t have an answer for that at this time. I am both curious and wary, and certainly interested.


Christ followers walk a labyrinth

Why does this interest me? I came to a deep re-evaluation of my faith as an undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I was an art history major, a film studies major, and part of a college ministry team in a large Baptist church. I began to have too many conflicts between my faith (which I held to be true) and the Christian culture in which I was immersed. My Christianity was deconstructing, but only because my faith was stronger. I began to see that the outward forms were of little consequence compared to my pursuit of truth and my beliefs. Interestingly art played a big part in this. Art is what helped me realize the freedom that resides at the center of the story of Jesus. I saw artmaking, which is such a natural human thing to do, chafing under the weight of Art’s meta-narrative. Breaking free did not destroy artmaking, in fact artmaking flourished. Breaking free merely lowered the dominance of the meta-narrative a few notches. I think, similarly, I knew intuitively my faith could handle some freedom.

And so I left that Christian culture behind for a while. I took a breather. But I did not leave Christ behind. In fact my faith became stronger, my theology more grounded, and my hope deeper. Now I am at the fringes of that culture again and wondering.

Modern Christ followers, many of whom are part of what is sometimes called the emerging church, are appropriating many religious practices – trying them out as it where – in much the same way that artmakers are appropriating many things from both “within” and “without” the art world. And just like with artmaking, if one’s faith is authentic then one has great freedom in one’s practices.


Image by Luke Flowers from this article

Phyllis Tickle has recently articulated the idea that the emerging church is really part of a wholesale worldwide emerging, religious and otherwise. She has also likened the shifting and changes in Christianity to be like a great rummage sale, where people sift through what is there, what has come before, what others have done, to find what they need and what they didn’t know they needed. According to Tickle these rummage sales tend to occur within Christianity about every 500 years or so. The current rummaging includes searching for spiritual practices that have been lost, long unused, or never before used in the current context(s). These practices include anything from how we “do” church, to how we pray and fellowship, to classic disiplines like solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, sacrifice, study, worship, celebration, service, confession, and submission. Most of these practices were never truly promoted or explored in my Christian upbringing, and they are largely foreign concepts to a consumeristic culture.

I am not yet sold on the idea of spiritual disciplines. I am still inclined to think of a truly spiritual person as being one in whom the Spirit of God is at work – which I see as a one way street: God invading a person’s life. And I am inclined to think that one cannot move or change one’s spirituality through any action unless God initiates and completes the work. Yet, just as with all issues of God’s sovereignty and human action (and choice) there is what we know of God and what we actually experience every day. With that in view I can see spiritual disciplines as offering tremendous encouragement and I find myself increasingly curious about exploring disciplines. I also see them as being very much a matter of personal choice. Regardless, the re-emergence of disciplines and practices is evidence of a church extending beyond the modernist model of Christianity, which I see as generally positive.

1. I am purposely conflating these two terms, though many would seek to separate them, because under the umbrella of this particular topic one finds the comparison still holds true.

2. “Appropriation (art).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2008, 15:40 UTC. 17 Sep 2008

3. I believe that quote is found in Of Grammatology.

New thoughts since the original post two years ago:
For several years I was seeking a new kind of Christianity or , at least, a new kind of Christian culture. I kept running up against my aversions to modern Protestant versions of the “faith,” and I wanted something that had more substance in terms of culture and practice. However, whatever kind of Christianity I found would still have to have some basic theological foundations that were largely reformed, for I am a child of the Reformation in many ways, though not strictly. Out of curiosity the emergent/emerging church became a focus of mine for a while. In some way it still is and some of the key players in that movement (if it can be called that) are still on my radar, but less so these days. I appreciate some of the hermeneutic approaches and the emphasis on one’s personal process in coming to truth. But the more I look at popular alt-church trends the more I find that church, religion, practice, or most of anything we call worship or the Christian life just doesn’t mean squat. Not that there is no value whatsoever, but none of it is truly substantial. Faith is radically inward. Faith is what is truly substantial. Faith gets worked out in a person’s life in works that cannot be adequately predicted or proscribed. And there is nothing that a person can do, no practice, no spiritual discipline, nothing, that can affect any meaningful spiritual change in a person’s life. You cannot grow your faith. Only God can do that. If he chooses to work through some spiritual discipline or some ancient practice in someone’s life then that is his choosing and the individual’s benefit. But if there is anything that a study of the New Testament cries out to us regarding religion is to beware of pretense. It is is a bigger trap than mere sincerity can avoid. My searching has only clarified this for me.

On the whole, though, I do not see my observations in the original post above as necessarily indicating a negative situation for Christianity. The postmodern situation highlights something very important that can get lost in a primarily Christian dominated or influenced culture. That is, faith is fundamentally existential, which means that it requires the individual to make the decision, which means that the choice needs to be a free choice. Postmodernism throws everything up for grabs and pushes the individual into a more radical posture. It calls into relief the meta-narrative of Christendom as narrative. If we strip away the trappings of Christian culture one can no longer rely on the safety that culture provides. One has to now wrestle with the issues rather than having them answered before one even has a chance to ask. Kierkegaard dealt with this issue in his Attack Upon Christendom. The problem, as I see it, in not with postmodernism per se, rather it is with the sad reality that many (most?) people today do not seem to have the intellectual foundations to be able to accept this freedom and turn it to good. Our present age appears to me as a sea of people floundering in the waves and grabbing anything that looks substantial. Freedom without discernment is a deep and wide ocean where everything and nothing looks like salvation. But of course discernment, like faith, is one more undeserved gift from God.

If your bible is falling apart you probably aren’t.

~ John MacArthur

I have an old New American Standard Bible that is in sad shape. It is heavily dog eared, has some ripped pages, and is on at least the fourth duct-taped version of its binding. The “bison grain” cover is barely there and looks terrible. Numerous verses and passages are underlined and there are notes written in the margins. One could say it is falling apart. According to a popular Christian way of thinking I should be able to say that my life is, therefore, probably not falling apart.

Or I can say that kind of thinking is probably garbage.

The popular and pithy saying at the top of this post (attributed to the son of the man who baptized me – yes, I am that old) has been quoted ad nausia, and I am going to disagree with it because I believe it is, ironically, unbiblical. First let’s unpack it, shall we.

The idea is simple, the Bible is the “word of God” and should be read and understood by anyone who claims to be a Christian. I agree with the first part (though God speaks to us in other ways as well) and tend to agree with the second part. I say tend to agree because I don’t think it is necessary (both practically or conditionally) for a Christian to read the Bible. But I do think it is a good thing to do. But what does it mean to say, “your bible is falling apart?” It is fair to assume the quote implies that a falling apart bible is one that is well read, well studied, carried everywhere, and loved like an iPhone. Falling apart also implies that it is not yet completely apart and can still be read, studied, and cherished. It could be held together with rubber bands or kept in a box. It is not yet to the point of pages fluttering away in a strong wind. Still, it is long past the point where most people would give up other books as too sorry for anything but the free book bin on the sidewalk outside the used bookstore. It is the child’s stuffed animal that is so ragged and patched it has long ago ceased to look like the original animal it once was.

So, your bible is falling apart, but you are not falling apart. This must mean your life is “together.” To not fall apart, as in your life not falling apart, is something for which we all strive. We like predictability, lack of pain and suffering, and happiness. We look to God to help us make our lives hold together. God, as is popularly believed, will reward us for being true to Him, being on His team, doing the right things, having the right views. So, if your life is not falling apart then your family is doing good, your finances are doing good, your job is good, your health is good, your marriage is good, all is well. Or, if all is not well, then your attitude is good. You are weathering the storm, filled with joy in the midst of suffering, trusting God in the midst of suffering, clinging to that old rugged cross with happiness and gratefulness in a stormy sea. It’s not you that is falling apart. No matter what, good or bad, you are “together.”

The issue I have with this kind of perspective really has to do with faith and “being a Christian,” whatever that means. You see, we want (are desperate) to find a way to make visible faith. We know the handy sayings, like sola fide. We know it’s all about faith, right? But what is faith? For the apostles it just meant belief, as in I believe what Jesus said was true, or I believe God will keep his promises. To have faith means to believe the good news that Jesus and the apostles taught. But we know that belief in this sense is  more than something like I believe two plus two is four, or I believe gravity keeps me stuck to the earth. We know that faith has a heart component. But the thing is we can’t see the heart. We even have trouble really knowing our own hearts. So we try to find ways to make faith visible.

How do we make faith visible? We create something we call Christianity. Now Christianity is constantly being debated. There are lots of perspectives, lots of examples, lots of arguments about what being and acting like a Christian is supposed to look like. We have centuries of Christendom, and various versions of that. We have alternatives to Christendom. We have ardent, political expressions, and many non-political expressions. We have the apologists and the missionaries and the soup kitchens. We see gloomy churches and happy churches and churches that are hip and churches that are covered in the patina of history. We are told to read our bibles, to have quiet times, to put God  first, to go to church regularly, to be authentic. We are asked to give to churches, to missions, to causes, to the poor, to the needy, to campaigns. We hear religious speak, see religious haircuts, are given religious music, and modeled religious clothing. Then we are told to cut through all that and know that none of it matters if one’s heart is not in it. But we are not told to stop acting Christian, rather we are told to be Christian from the inside out. Be Christian and your life (the act) will follow.

All good, right? Except for one thing: once we are told that true Christianity is inward, we can’t help but ask, “what does that look like?” You see, faith is fundamentally and radically inward. No amount of outwardness can provide incontrovertible evidence of inwardness. If we want to know what faith really is, what it truly means to believe, the next step is not to look outward, but to look inward. But we cannot look that far inward. Besides, we are told otherwise. We are told that if you really have faith then your life will look such and such. We are told that belief spills out in a life that looks “Christian.” We may even be told that how you have thought about it is wrong, that there is a more radical or meaningful way to be Christian. It might come in the form of a call to genuine community, or specific doctrines, or something that is emergent, or something that is not. And all these “calls” will tie back to a faith that is understood as a psycho-emotional orientation of one’s heart. But inwardness, whether Saint Paul’s “inner man” or Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity,” is deeper than the psycho-emotional. It is so deep that one cannot control it, peg it, define it, categorize it, or even really nurture it. Faith is inwardness and inwardness is the work of the spirit of God in one’s life. It is deeper than emotions. It may even be deeper than the self.

Now I believe what James says about faith having works. Faith does come out, but not as religion, not even as Christianity. And it does not come out necessarily as a worn out bible. Faith comes out as a commitment to the things of God, and not as a choice so much as a discovery. Faith is seen when Abraham discovers he will still follow God even when God says to murder Isaac. I am convinced Abraham could not have predicted his response to God’s call.

And what are the things of God? Mostly not anything we call Christian; not religiosity, not doctrine, not denominations, not conferences on marriage, not music, not lifestyles, not social programs, not Sunday morning, not Christian haircuts. Rather the believer’s commitment is a radical orientation of the heart to what God is doing, mysterious as it is, in human history and in one’s life. In short, the things of God can be summed up as the gospel, and the gospel can be summed up as what it is that God is doing in human history. This is HIS-story (to put a cheesy t-shirt spin on it). This does not mean that none of those things most often associated with Christianity are not used by God in one way or another, of course they are, for nothing happens apart from God. But we must realize that everything else is also a part of the story God is writing, and this includes many things that would seem not Christian in nature; “out of scope” we would say in project management. We Christians must recognize that everything is “in scope” when it comes to what God is doing, for everything is God’s doing.

Another way to put it: True, authentic, biblical Christianity is first and foremost what God is doing (His spirit in the world) and not what we are doing. Christianity is (fundamentally) not something we do.

The problem is that the work of the spirit of God is unpredictable. What the spirit does in a person is both radical and unique. And though it may be for some ultimate good, it may not be “good” in a typically Christian sense. We forget too easily that the “pearl of great price” was purchased because the man sold everything else. He gave up, got rid of, handed over all that he had, all that was dear, all that was valuable in order to gain one thing. We may have to give up everything too, including our families, friendships, churches, communities, missions, marriages, children, parents, education, careers, everything. We will likely have to give up our precious self-concepts too. And Christianity itself may be one of the things we have to give up in order to enter the kingdom. A pastor I know once said he would rather his daughter be an unwed mother on crack who enters the kingdom of God than a pious church going Christian all her life who goes to hell. That shocked a lot of listeners, but it’s the perspective to have. Better to follow the spirit than to be a “Christian.”

Now, that position is not compatible with much of Christianity. If you come from a reformed type of Christianity, like I do, then you know the goal is about being an authentic Christian, based in the (written) Word of God, and exhibited in a godly life which, in part, means your bible will eventually fall apart and your life will be together.

According to the quote in question the “falling apart bible” and the “together life” go hand in hand. It is a formula. If you are not merely play acting at being Christian, then your heart is in the right place, and if your heart is in the right place it will manifest itself in a well-worn bible, and if your bible is well-worn then your life will be in a right relationship with God. Or, if you are in a right relationship with God your bible will get worn out. Or, if your heart is right, then your relationship with God is right, then your life will be right. Or, if you love God, then you will desire to read your bible, and if you read your bible you will find out how God wants you to live, and then your life will be together, unlike your bible. The problem is that this is all on the surface, even the “heart” in this scenario. It is just another version of the old “come to Jesus and your troubles will vanish,” though this time with less tent meeting and with more suit and tie.

That kind of thinking can get you in trouble. What Christians don’t want to believe is that formulas kill. The trouble with the reformed mindset is that after tearing down (metaphorically) the “religion” of Roman Catholicism it built up its own replacement formulas, with its own kind of religiosity, its piety, its doctrines, and its culture. We are not called to a kind of Christianity. We are not called to look a certain way, but to be a certain way. How that looks in your life may not look like anything typically understood as Christian and may even get you persecuted by other Christians. You may even find yourself saying, “My God, what happened?!”

But there is another problem that anyone who has spent some time on “Christian blogs” understands: The highly biblically literate individual who is on a mission to “save” the wayward blogger from his errors can also be the worst kind of  unloving, un-Christlike, ass. One would think that someone with a well-worn bible would eventually come across passages that reference the downside of self-righteousness, or the importance of being loving and having humility, or the pitfalls of the Pharisees. In fact, another pithy saying might be, “Beware the man with the falling apart bible for he is probably a jerk.” I wish this were not the case, but religion is insidious and pervasive. What we know as Christianity, that is all the things people do, say, build, and define in the name of Christianity, has not solved the problem of hypocrisy. Phariseeism is the most pervasive denomination within Christianity. You see, the well worn bible may be evidence of the right sort of inwardness in one person and the wrong sort in a hundred others. The life that is “together” may be evidence of the right sort of inwardness in one person, and the wrong sort in a hundred others. But the truth is more like this: Come to Jesus and you will be tested, your life may fall apart, the bible might or might not speak to you, and the spirit of God just might shatter all your illusions, including the one called “Christianity.”

I propose another saying: “I would rather fall apart all the way to the Kingdom of God than to be cast into utter darkness with a well worn Bible.” Another way to put it is that I look forward to the day when my life is no longer falling apart. I know that day will come, for God is true to His word. but I also know that day is still to come.

In conclusion:

I must say three final things. First is that the well worn NASB I mentioned at the top has been mostly replaced by several other bibles over the years, all of which are not well worn. And I have to say I was quite self-righteous about the worness of that bible years ago. I can unequivocally say that that bible does not represent a life not falling apart. And I have to add that the selectively underlined verses and the notes in the margins represent a somewhat different theology than I have now. Secondly, I believe reading the bible is a good thing, but not because it has any connection to one’s life holding together. Reading the bible is good because the bible is full of truth and seeking truth is something we should be about. I mean, Jesus knew his scriptures and we’re trying to be like him. Right? Of course, we should probably be reading our bibles in their original languages anyway (but not because it’s the “Christian” thing to do). And thirdly, I am fairly sure John MacArthur is a child of God. I cannot know for sure, but it is unlikely that he is not. I have disagreements with a lot of what he says, but I come directly from the tradition of Christianity that he exemplifies and mostly we stand on common ground (I think). I believe he is very likely a good man, sincere in what he says, and probably better than I on many levels. I may have completely missed his point of his quote, but I don’t think I have missed how it is generally understood by most Christians. And I do not write this post to pick on him, rather to call into question some common perspectives that have become deeply ingrained within much of Christian thought today, and yet I believe are antithetical to the gospel.

Why do people homeschool? What reasons “drive” them to make such a decision. In our modern/post-modern, industrialized/post-industrialized world with a so-called global economy, global communications and the pan-popular ideology of liberal democracy, why would anyone want to take one’s kids out of publicly funded, democratically controlled, scientifically managed school systems?

There are many reasons to homeschool. In many people’s minds homeschoolers are strange, on-the-fringe people who choose to homeschool to avoid putting their children in the evil world of public schools as though they are protecting their kids from Satan. Unfortunately that picture is sometimes true; unfortunate for both the truthiness of the homeschooler stereotype and because public schools are sometimes bad places for kids. I have written about some of this before. Most of the time homeschoolers, however, are thoughtful parents who choose homeschooling for a number of different reasons, which sometimes includes religion as a deciding element, but also includes mostly non-religious reasons. Consider the following statistics which, I believe, though giving a limited perspective on the nature of the choice to homeschool, and are more than ten years old, nonetheless, provide some valuable insight.
Percentage of homeschooled students in the United States, by reason for homeschooling: 1999, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):
Can give child better education at home  48.9
Religious reason  38.4
Poor learning environment at school  25.6
Family reasons  16.8
To develop character/morality  15.1
Object to what school teaches  12.1
School does not challenge child  11.6
Other problems with available schools  9.0
Child has special needs/disability  8.2
Transportation/convenience  2.7
Child not old enough to enter school  1.8
Parent’s career  1.5
Could not get into desired school  1.5
Other reasons*  22.2
This list does show that religion plays a significant part in many homeschoolers’ choices. Coming in second place, 38.4 percent of homeschoolers said they chose homeschooling for religious reasons. That’s more than a third. Of course, there are many different kinds of religious reasons too. Also, religious reasons are not at the top of the list. Then, if one adds up the following three reasons: “Can give child better education at home” (48.9), “Poor learning environment at school” (25.6), and “School does not challenge child” (11.6), they add up to a whopping 86.1 percent. If anything that number highlights big concerns many parents have about mainstream education: It’s just not that great much of the time.
I highlighted these three statistics from the list to point towards an important grouping of reasons to homeschool. Many parents feel schools don’t live up to the promise of what education can and should be. Taking on the task of homeschooling is daunting and not a guarantee of a better education, but it is also a chance worth taking for many people, and for good reasons. I have written about the struggle of making that choice. What I want to point out here is that religion, though important for a large part of the population in general,* is only one of several factors for homeschoolers in general. In other words, even if the detractors of homeschooling get what they want, that is, some kind of proof that homeschoolers are merely ideologues and fear mongering religious fanatics, they still have to face the reality that, religion aside, mainstream education is still not necessarily the best, or even the better, option.

From what I can tell the popular understanding, and what is most often portrayed by the news media, is that homeschoolers take their kids out of public education primarily for religious reasons. Although I have some harsh criticisms of some religious reasons, I cannot argue against the basic idea. Religion is not necessarilya bad basis for homeschooling. In many cases it is a good reason, though it can also be a very bad reason for some people. I certainly don’t think religious reasons are any worse than pulling one’s children out of public school and putting them in a private school for class reasons and then denying that one ever thinks in terms of class. However, religion is not the only reason homeschoolers choose to homeschool. As we have seen, it is not even the number one reason.


* According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: “Overall, nearly eight-in-ten (78.4%) adults [in the U.S.] report belonging to various forms of Christianity, about 5% belong to other faiths and almost one-in-six (16.1%) are not affiliated with any particular religion.”

>I am re-posting this from my other blog.

I grew up going to church. I still attend a church, but it is not the same kind I grew up with. I see a lot of that happening with Christians; growing up in one kind of church and/or denomination and switching to another as adults.

I’m sure there are as many reasons as there are individuals who make the switch. And there are are some big trends that have been well documented, such as Protestants converting to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, and vice versa. For me, I can only account for my own experience.

I grew up in a Baptist church, a church that my family, including grandparents, had been long time members. That church experience has had a long term and profound affect on my life, including my theological propensities. As a kid I was very interested in sorting out many theological and Christian questions. I wanted to know who God was, how I was supposed to live, what it meant to be a Christian in this world, what values should be at the top on my list, and so on. I am still sorting out those things. The fact that I am still “in process” as it were would not bode well in the church of my youth, though that church as it is today may have changed.

There were a number of beliefs and actions that Baptist church emphasized, including the importance of being a member of the church, the importance of being baptized, the importance of bringing one’s Bible to church, and the importance of attending church. Other things included the importance of one’s “walk” with God, one’s personal relationship with Jesus, consistently having a “quiet time,” developing a life of prayer, reading the Bible for oneself on a regular basis, and evangelizing others. Underlying all these things were fundamental beliefs in the presence of a personal God, the lordship of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the need for salvation of each individual, and so on.

There was also the culture which contained, maintained, and pushed certain ideas that, if directly challenged, would have produced some backpedalling and heavy qualifications but, nonetheless, were corporately held. Such as the demonization of Catholicism, and the strong sense that we’re still fighting the Reformation, and maybe most of all, and almost entirely unrecognized, the blending of apologetics & hermeneutics with the Enlightenment project (the belief in the power of human rationality apart from God to establish reliable, universally recognized scientific and moral knowledge).

My perspectives have changed on those beliefs and actions. Some I still hold to firmly, others I do not. More importantly to my personal journey of faith, I would say the definitions have shifted. For an example, most Christians believe reading the Bible is important. It is common for Baptists to feel the weighty expectation of bringing one’s own Bible to church on Sunday. But what does this really mean? As part of the Protestant tradition the Bible, read by the individual in the vernacular on a regular basis, is of the highest importance. What I found, however, was the tendency of those church members (including myself) to read their Bible frequently, but to understand it to say those things they have already been taught. In other words, the apparent act of reading had everything to do with merely reaffirming held doctrine rather than letting the text say what it means. To let the text say what it says is hard enough without the pressure and example of a subculture encouraging one to read, essentially, closed-mindedly. This is one of the biggest and most serious problems in Christianity as far as I’m concerned. Later, toward the end of my college years, I began to understand what it really meant to read the Bible with a mindset that would allow for my held beliefs to be substantially challenged, and it blew my mind, not to say rearranged my life as well – and I’m still not that good at it.

The reasons for my change is a long and involved story, but in short I can say that I was a person with many questions, in the midst of a crisis of religion (but not of faith oddly enough), I valued rationality as well as process, and then I found myself almost accidentally in a community that was committed to the radical pursuit of truth. I say radical because I have come to believe commitment to truth no matter where it may lead is fundamentally discouraged in Christendom and its numerous permutations. I must emphasize the critical thinking nature of this community because my shift was not so much about interpersonal relationships. Where I was coming from was loaded with good people and good relationships. I was not running from failed relationships or because I did not like the people with whom I was fellowshiping. My need to get away had everything to do with getting my head on straight and re-examining my theological assumptions and my worldview.

This community where I ended was called McKenzie Study Center and it is still around in some fashion. It was not unlike the famous L’Abri Fellowship. What that place taught me, or I should say the staff taught me, was a different philosophy of ministry, and that made all the difference. Because of my own experience I tend to think of my philosophies of ministry in terms of the “old way” and the “new way”, but the “old way” is still the primary approach in most churches I am sure. The old way has several characteristics that I dislike. These include: 1) the belief that all theological questions have already been answered, 2) apparent theological conundrums are mysteries and therefore touchpoints of our faith, 3) the role of the preacher is to proclaim the truth with passion, emotion, and rhetorical skills such that the listener is “moved” closer to God and truth, 4) a church service is not a place for questions or dialog – the preacher preaches and you listen, 5) struggling to understand and digest church doctrine is a sign of immaturity in the faith, 6) church is about an experience – created and carefully controlled by professionals, 7) the arts have a place in Christian life and culture as long as they are “in service” to God (if you have acting skills you can perform skits in the youth group, or music skills you can lead worship, etc.), 8) pastors are not to be “in process” about either their faith or their understanding of the the Bible, 9) in fact, the goal is that each of us get beyond being “in process” as quickly as possible because being a mature Christian is to have no more doubts or questions, and 10) going to church, reading the Bible every day, and praying a lot with conviction is critical for the life of any Christian.

I have just said a mouthful, and I know many Christians would take issue with some of these points. But my experience, and the experience of many others, confirms these things to be true. If a pastor or ardent churchgoer tells you otherwise they are confused or lying. There are many other aspects of our Christian culture, both present and past, that are un-Biblical and abhorrent. The wonderful irony, and what gives me much hope for myself and others, is that many, many people who regularly attend church and are immersed in the Christian subculture are people dedicated to knowing God, loving others, and working out their faith everyday in fear and trembling. And the church I currently attend is far from perfect, though it suits many of my preferences better than my old church. It’s not really about church anyway, it’s what underlies the reasons we get together and what it is we are trying to encourage.

I also must conclude by saying that not only is my journey far from over, and my seeking far from completed, but that my present “clarity” about Christianity is just as much run through with my own sinfulness as it ever was. I have come to believe that just about the dumbest thing Christians could ever do is hold themselves up as a model of righteousness or even of right living. What I hope for Christianity is that it would move out of the swamp and into a place where 1) we know that theology is an ongoing process and many questions must still be answered, 2) that “believing anyway” even though something doesn’t make sense is not a touchstone of faith but an issue to resolve, 3) that pastors must be committed to truth more than their charisma, 4) that church should be a place where questions are welcome and pastors will even stop their sermon to recognize a raised hand, 5) that the struggling to understand doctrine may be both a sign of maturity as well as confusing doctrine, 6) that church is a place for all of us to contribute in creative and different ways, that authenticity is far more valuable than professionalism, and that worship is not singing songs in church, 7) that the arts need no justification, 8) that pastors must be “in process” both personally and theologically, and that process should be made known and not hidden, 9) that our goal is not to get beyond being “in process” but that our process is the working out of our faith, including our doctrines, and 10) that our lives as Christians are first and foremost the work of God in us, all the rest is just extra.

If I had an eleventh point it would be that there are no formulas, including the list above, to making Christianity, or one’s journey in faith, better. There is only life and faith and God and us.

Peace.

>

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently did a survey of religious knowledge across the population. You can find the article here. What seems to have caught folks’ attention is that atheists and agnostics scored highest in religious knowledge.
I do not find this surprising. There is a lot of pressure to jump on the religion bandwagon. My unscientific observations show me there is difficulty in being a casual atheist. There is group pressure, the desire to belong, proselytizing, the natural feeling that one is missing something without religion, etc. Therefore if one is not going to go down the religion route then there is some reason to know why and have a ready defense. Ironically, my experience shows me that atheist do a better job of “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account” for what they believe than most Christians. On the other hand, I do not see any requirement in the Bible that says one has to score an 80 or above in order to get into Heaven.
Of course, one key difference, while most Christians may score lower than atheists on a religion survey, atheists do not generally offer a solution of hope. Christians may be ignorant (which I deplore) but they are not relying on their wiles to attain salvation. If one embraces the Kingdom of God, if one seeks to follow Christ in all of one’s life, then there is little need to pass the written exam.*
You can take the test yourself here. I took it and scored 100% which isn’t saying much. The test is really basic.
* I will say, however, that I do not consider the list of religious affiliations in the survey results to necessarily indicate anyone one who embraces the Kingdom of God or is seeking to follow Christ in all of their life.