Were you there when you were converted?

Thankfully I’ve been in circles within which obtaining a job in a church or ministry has not depended on my ability to identify the year, month, day, and hour of my conversion. Nor have I been turned away from a job that would have required me to have been baptized after having made “a decision for Christ.”

Yes, of course, many (equally snarky) people point to the crucifixion of Jesus, or to his resurrection, as the moment of their salvation. But I now have one more snotty answer if anyone should ask me to give a precise account of the moment I got born again: “Bro, I wasn’t even there.”

What makes us think that there were sufficient reasons for us to be born again? What makes us think that our decision had anything to do with our spiritual birth? It didn’t even have anything to do with our natural birth.

Jean-Luc Marion:

“Birth is no less incomprehensible [than death]. … It was an event that in some sense the whole world witnessed except for me. In short, the event that saw me show up remains an event I never attended.”

To get born requires the decision of others, of parents and particularly of a mother. Any “I” that could decide on anything of consequence was not even around.

Ironically, if we are going to take “being born again” as seriously as Jesus and Nicodemus took it, we are going to have to relinquish the right to choose, the ability to decide, the prerogative to pass judgment.

The seriousness of the new birth as a doctrine and as a spiritual necessity requires the theological rigor to conceive of my spiritual genesis as an event that can’t depend on me, because I was not alive to give myself life.

“Where were you when the world was made?” may as well be the same question as “Where were you when you were converted?” The answer to both is, I wasn’t.

Advertisements

How (Not) to Give a Christmas Present

Here in Korea, giving gifts is illegal.

At least certain kinds of gifts are illegal. Specifically, illegal are those gift-giving instances in which the recipient has some influence or authority over the giver. It’s called the Kim Young Ran Law, and it’s designed to curtail corruption, or “graft”—the giving of gifts in order to secure some sort of gain from the recipient.

As a result, I, a foreigner and private school teacher in an American-style school, am considered a “public official” in Korea. It’s an odd classification, one which effectively prohibits me from accepting a bottle of Scotch, a fountain pen, or even a cup of coffee from a student or parent who is currently, or may at some point be, my student. This would put me in a position in which I might be inclined to show favoritism to a student, giving them a grade they haven’t earned.

20160927001303_0.jpg

Kim Young-Ran herself! Photo: Yonhap News/Korea Herald

Curiously, I may give my students Scotch (?), fountain pens, and coffee, because they can’t pay me back in any shady way.

The law is an overcorrection aiming to fix a real problem. And here at Christmas time, it’s heartbreaking to imagine all the Scotch, fountain pens, and coffee that I’m not getting. All that generosity, nullified! Bah humbug!

The problem, of course, is that bribery strips the gift of its very status as a gift. When a gift is given with a wink, the gift disappears. The gift fails to reach the outer space of gratuity and is sucked back into the orbit of an economy where goods, services, and cash are exchanged within a transactional rationality.

Is there such thing as a pure gift?

But wait, you might say: is it even possible to give gifts that don’t collapse under the gravity of pure economics? When I give my kids presents at Christmas, isn’t it because they didn’t shout, cry, or pout, and thus, Santa Claus was contractually obligated to show up? When I buy my wife a bouquet of flowers, aren’t I really attempting to buy another few months of cooking and cleaning from a low-maintenance partner in home-economics?

Jean-Luc Marion comes along to rescue us from our deconstruction of gifts. Along the way, he shows us some ways we can give in purity. A philosopher saves Christmas!

How do you give a real gift, then?

maxresdefault.jpg

Photo: LE BRAS

1. Eliminate the giver!

Marion says that when an inheritance is given, the giver has been stolen away by death, and cannot be thanked or reciprocated. I had never heard of my Icelandic uncle Skuli from North Dakota until he died and left me some cash. So I never felt “indebted” to him for the Martin D-28 dreadnaught acoustic guitar I bought with his money. I was able to simply enjoy it.

550427_10151995228405656_380762185_n.jpg

Thanks, Uncle Skuli! (Me out in front of King’s Cross Church in Charlotte, NC, 2012, with my Martin D-28, now almost 20 years old.)

But he wasn’t able to enjoy me enjoying it, except proleptically. I wouldn’t suggest giving all your Christmas gifts at once, when you die, simply in order to eliminate the possibility of the gift falling back into the realm of quid pro quo.

But isn’t Santa Claus a way of eliminating the giver? Sure, Santa can be conscripted as an all-seeing eye crossing naughty kids off his list. But one argument for keeping Santa around is that he gives parents a chance to watch their kids open and enjoy Christmas presents without their kids feeling any shred of indebtedness to them. The parents (spoiler alert!) are the real gift-givers, and they’ve been hidden by the person of Saint Nick. And Saint Nick is long gone.

Grown-ups can receive gifts from Santa, too. Why not give a completely anonymous gift, ascribed to Santa, this Christmas?

2. Eliminate the recipient!

This is not as sinister as it sounds. “Sorry, son. I could gift you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Marion has in mind here a humanitarian gift. The giver remains, but the recipient is unknown to us. We can give a pure gift that can never re-enter the transactional economy if we don’t even know whether it is helping pay a child’s tuition in Timbuktu or keeping the lights on at a Boys and Girls Club in Kalamazoo.

But here’s an idea: Give a big fat Christmas present to your local church! These are the leaders you know and trust. These are the ministries with which you are most intimately familiar. These are the anonymous recipients who, though they cannot repay you, live among you.

I frequently tell people that giving to their local church takes faith and releases them from control. If choose the charity which, or the individual who, will be the recipient of my gift, then I give and I withhold according to my own private calculus of who is worthy, and of how much help. In contrast, if I give to my church, I abandon my gift completely to the wisdom of my church’s leadership—people who I know and whom I have elected to be ministers of mercy and stewards of modest kingdom resources here in my own community. And best of all, I’m not in control. This is a way of technically eliminating the recipient, but more fundamentally eliminating me—at least the me who would otherwise be picking, choosing, and managing the “gift”.

3. Give to an enemy!

Marion says that “my enemy appears as my gift’s best friend.” Weird. How so?

He says that when I give a gift to an enemy, they (1) will not give me a gift in return, they (2) will resent me all the more, and they (3) would rather kill me before they acknowledge that I’ve put them in my debt.

Voilá! The gift is purely given, and I can’t and won’t be compensated for it.

To kill an enemy with kindness, to heap burning coals upon their head—it seems like a weird way to channel one’s resources at Christmas. But the guy who Christmas is named after says to do it, so …

4. Eliminate the gift!

Finally, Marion describes a man who gives a woman an expensive piece of jewelry. There are two possible things going on in such an instance.

Either the man is giving the jewelry in place of time, love, and tenderness, or the man is not really giving jewelry at all, but is instead giving himself. He is either saying “I love you,” but lying; or he is saying nothing, but saying everything. The necklace or bracelet is where the gift begins and ends, or it’s simply a stand-in that signifies the un-monetizable gift of self, the provision of one’s soul.

images.jpg

Michael Bolton, who is hiding in the margins of this post, and can be found if you look closely. (Photo: buzzfeed.)

It gets cooler. Marion says that the placeholder gift can be given all at once. But when I give myself with the gift, “I can only give symbolically, since it will require the entire duration of my lifetime to truly accomplish it.”

Spare the gift, spoil the child

If we lavish our kids with stuff, there is always the chance that our kids will receive it not as grace, but as karma. They could develop a karma disposition to the world. The mountain of gifts we give them would then disappear by its perversion; they would rot by ceasing to be gifts at all.

But if we can figure out a way to give our kids ourselves in, with, and under their Christmas presents, they have a chance of experiencing real gratuity, real grace. The mountain of gifts will still disappear. They’ll be wasted—symbolically, sure, but also they’ll literally end up in a landfill somewhere. But their disappearance will allow the only gift that really matters to emerge: the gift of self. Isn’t this the whole idea of love, anyway?

Marion says we cannot live without love, or at least we cannot live without the hope that we will some day be genuinely loved. That is to say, we can live without a pile of toys or a box full of jewelry. But we can’t live without someone giving themselves to us in complete generous abandon—another claim that makes us recall the historical origins of Christmas.

This Christmas has me thinking of how I can give myself via the placeholder of a few gifts. But it also has me thinking of how a Christmas present, to be a real gift, requires me to be present to those I love all year long — long after the “gifts” have been discarded.

The Expatriations of Bono and TS Eliot

As soon as I became an expat in the summer of 2015, I began feeling a new kinship with those who throughout history have gone to take up residence in a land not their own.

In the past year I’ve been fixated on the so-called “Lost Generation” of expats who lived in Paris after the Great War. First it was a near obsession with Hemingway. Then I got a group of friends together to read this generation. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and now Eliot. In their lives and literatures, they were trying to dial into life after the cataclysm that was World War I.

Eliot’s difficult waistcoat

As I’ve studied The Waste Land, I’ve paid close attention to Eliot’s expatriation. As Yale’s Langdon Hammer humorously notes (in his Open Yale Course), Eliot is the only major British poet from St. Louis. In speaking of Eliot’s forced entry into British culture, Hammer makes a big deal out of the young poet’s waistcoat. (Being a sartorial old soul myself, I was all ears.) Hammer says Eliot’s waistcoat can be read as a symbol of his quest to strip himself of his Americanness, to fully embrace British culture, and to inscribe himself within its literary tradition, however uncomfortable, stuffy, and restrictive that might seem.

eliot-xlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4Bq-b8lvYeT7ebSRCv1_WuiyfQhbdHwZyRQbWHTxg33B-M

Photo: The Telegraph

As Eliot settled into his British tweed, he made it his practice to quote heavily from authoritative literary and religious texts of the past. He was conscious of their power to convey an authority to him by their very citation. But he was also conscious of the fact that everything had changed in the wake of the Great War, and that he would have to do something new with the old he treasured. The result was a sort of bricolage of lines from Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, the Bible, and Buddhist texts. Nick Mount’s fantastic lecture on The Waste Land likens Eliot’s use of texts to a Canadian soldier’s gathering of bits of broken stained glass from across Europe and their assembly into a new window at the University of Toronto. Eliot was old and new.

He was also difficult! In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he insisted that, following the War, poetry had to be difficult.

And so Eliot set out to become a tastemaker in his new home. By quoting authorities, he wanted to tell Britain what its literary and cultural legacy was, and he, the American, wanted to make himself the standard of what it meant to be literary, cultured, and British. Spoiler alert: he basically succeeded.

Bono’s star-spangled jacket

U2’s front man maintains a home in Dublin, and has most definitely not renounced his Irish citizenship or roots. And while in 2000 he had “just got a place in New York,” he was not new to America. The Joshua Tree feels like the wide open spaces of the American west. The video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was filmed under the pulsating lights of Las Vegas. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was addressed to the American industrial military complex and its commanders-in-chief. The Rattle and Hum album and tour was an immersion in American sounds and culturescapes. They re-toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary, convinced that it had something yet to say to the two Americas under Trump.

GettyImages-550081

Image: Getty/GQ

After 9/11, it was U2 who memorialized its dead at the Super Bowl halftime show that winter. The names streamed up the screen like a New York skyscraper as though they were headed to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Bono showed his American flag jacket lining in solidarity with the country reeling from the attack less than six months prior.

All of which is to say that Bono is a lot like Eliot. He has quoted America’s traditions to it, and has made himself himself its modern interpreter and its most enthusiastic champion. Though while Eliot renounced his Americanness to cozy up to the British, Bono has used his outsider status to hold a mirror up to America—to try to convince America of its exceptional history, ideas, status, and burden to serve and lead the world in all things free and brave.

However, Bono hasn’t postured himself as America’s authority. As recently as last night, Bono sang two songs to America on Saturday Night Live. In one of them, he sings:

I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight

Moreover, Bono, unlike Eliot, increasingly doesn’t seem to be convinced (as perhaps he was during the Zooropa/Pop period) that, in order to point America back to its founding documents, his music and lyrics need to be difficult. Where Eliot thought the cataclysm of World War I called for difficulty, Bono seems to think the post-9/11 world needs joy and simplicity “with an acid drop mixed in with the sweetness.”

Bono’s and Eliot’s expat churches

One final consideration of Bono’s and Eliot’s expatraiations.

Everywhere in the world where there are expats, there are congregations for them. Eric Liddell went to the English-speaking presbyterian church in Paris on the Sunday when he skipped his Olympic event. Flushing, New York has Korean congregations that dwarf the rest of my denomination’s churches. I currently pastor an English congregation in Seoul.

Perhaps it was just another of Eliot’s anglophilic waistcoats, but the poet converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. He submitted to the authority of a bishop despite his professed Puritanical temperament. While he moved and shook the literary world, effectively becoming its archbishop, in ecclesial matters he sat in the pew and became, liturgically, an English commoner seeking communion. For all we can tell, he was a quiet orthodox church member until his death. Two years after his death, his name was emblazoned in stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. That seems like a fitting place for one who became both the English language poet of the twentieth century and a humble Anglican.

On the other hand, as one of my fellow expat churchmen has recently pointed out to me, Bono’s relationship with the church has been a different sort of expatriation experience. As Joshua Rothman ably recounts, U2 struggled in its early years with their potential for international stardom and the felt demands of their fringy ascetic ecclesial community. Eventually, they chose rock n roll over church. The Irish context of Protestant-Catholic violence certainly contributed.

The result, as I’ve hinted at above, is that Bono became something of the megachurch worship pastor of America’s sorta-spiritual and maybe-kinda religious stadium rock crowds. He doesn’t fancy himself a papal authority in American music or culture the way Eliot saw himself in the world of British letters. Bono has always taken more of a persuasive posture of influence; he just doesn’t have an ex cathedra temperament. But if one made a bit of a Puritanical analysis of Bono’s dealings with the American soul, one might say he is an unauthorized street preacher; a circuit-riding camp meeting convener; an officiant of strange fire.

In the end, Bono has not expatriated the way Eliot did. Part of me thinks Bono is doing it right. Who instinctively cozies up to Eliot’s renunciation of homeland? Who can bear his stuffy sartorial affectations? Who cannot look on quizzically at his brazen cultural interpolation? And, by contrast, who cannot help but admire Bono’s admiring pep talks in star-spangled jackets?

But the churchman in me, along with the would-be rebel in me, knows that while Bono bends over backwards not to be seen as an American authority, his churchless spirituality ultimately amounts to an unwillingness to sit under authority. He’ll read the Psalms, interpret them, sing them, and make them sexy enough to sing in an arena. He’ll earn his money, and then he’ll decide where it should go and who it should help. And ultimately, he’ll make himself a sort of Unitarian pastor in a “church” where everyone that’s feeling the vibe feels at home, as long as their politics are sufficiently socially conscious and they’re okay periodically holding up their consciences to a certain figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

Bono has expatriated not from Ireland, but from the church. This leaves him homeless, dislocated in a way that Eliot would have remained had he merely gone all-in with the British literary tradition and not settled into the back pew in his local parish church.

It has been 35 years of ecclesial homelessness for Bono. My hope is that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for in churchless spirituality. My hope is that, if he still can’t reconcile church and rock n roll, he will become uncool or irrelevant enough, soon enough, to settle down into some quiet parish outside Dublin and perhaps duck into Redeemer when he’s playing expat at his other home in New York.

To be at home, to repatriate, he’ll need to take some of the advice he’s giving to America on the new album and get out of his own way.

[Update: As I mentioned to my critical fellow U2 enthusiast, sometimes we assume we know the perspective from which Bono speaks and the audience to which his songs are addressed. We don’t, necessarily. It turns out that America may not be the primary audience of “Get Out of Your Own Way”—instead, that honor seems to belong first to his daughter and second, to himself. ]

The death of “the death of God”

Tim Keller has very helpfully and pithily said:

Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe in that God either.

This is an apologetical approach that, it seems to me, is aimed at the morally- and socially-conscious postmodern skeptic. It appeals to the unbeliever who doesn’t want a God who supports patriarchal oppression, who prefers the rich to the poor, who champions the strong over the weak, or who privileges whites over people of color. Keller invites the skeptical to name the characteristics of the God they reject. Usually Keller doesn’t believe in that God either.

nietzsche.jpg

But, whether Keller has this in mind or not, his quip is also useful in a Christian’s collaboration with atheists in smashing the idols of the conceptual god(s) of philosophy.

When the Western quest for reality in the mode of metaphysics reached its end in Nietzsche, Nietzsche sought to take God down with it. Nietzsche declared “the death of God.” Next came the collapse of truth in favor of values which, he said, are asserted by the will to power. God must decrease that man may increase. Etc., etc.

This story really messed with me when I first heard about it in college. I began to muster arguments for the non-death of God using traditional apologetics. Then I found out that Nietzsche went crazy, which seemed to help me discredit his philosophical atheism. A bumper sticker I saw finally sealed the deal:

Nietzsche: “God is dead.”

God: “Nietzsche is dead.”

Case closed! I could now ignore Nietzsche.

It wasn’t until seminary, when Michael Horton upheld Nietzsche as a potential ally, that the German philosopher of nihilism with the enviable mustache was raised from the dead for me. Horton explained how Nietzsche helps Christianity dismantle modernism and its human attempts to climb, with the ladder of pure reason, from the mind up to the heavens and beyond. Now Nietzsche was cool and alive while the modernism he destroyed was passé and dead.

But what to do with Nietzsche’s atheism?

Marion on “God is dead”

Jean-Luc Marion has underscored that “the death of God” says nothing about the actual status of a real God. Rather, it denotes the death of a concept of God generated and upheld by philosophy.

Marion goes on to argue that the a-theism of “the death of God” is from the outset self-annulling. Right from the get-go, “the death of God” spells also “the death of the death of God.”

How?

First, to speak of “the death of God,” one “must necessarily assume a particular concept of his essence.”

It might go something like this:

“God is dead.”

“Which God?”

“The Prime Mover.”

“Okay.”

For the Prime Mover one might instead identify “the First Cause,” “the Moral God,” “the Supreme Being,” or “Self-Caused Cause,” each in turn.

The next move Marion makes is profound:

It thus disqualifies in each case only that which corresponds to this sole concept, leaving all the others still to be reviewed and critiqued. In other words, every conceptual atheism remains regional, and thus provisional: it progresses at the slow pace of justice, which investigates, examines, and challenges the ever-repeated concepts that claim, always just as illegitimately, the mastery of the essence of “God.” … But each refutation refutes itself, since it only ever refutes one definition that is by definition inadequate of the essence of “God,” opening at the same time the path for every new possible definition.

He concludes:

Atheism refutes itself by having to repeat itself, following the rhythm of the concepts that it assumes and then challenges. … Atheism is always delayed with regard to itself, or rather it prolongs itself only by retrospectively eliminating each of its provisional assurances. … Atheism … must renounce the proud title of a definitive and universal dogma in order to accept the more modest, but coherent, name of a trial that is never ended and always limited to specific petitions. … From the “death of God” there follows immediately the “death of the death of God.”

Atheism can only eliminate one concept of “God” at a time. And each time that it does so, successfully, there remains a potentially infinite number of concepts of God that will still need to be weighed and killed off.

Christians can cheer this sort of atheism on insofar as it is a-theism; insofar as it seems that it will do a masterful job, eventually, of smashing any and every idolatrous conceptual “theism” women and men might conjure up.

But Marion seems right to suggest that atheism is jumping the gun in its comprehensive verdict. It mistakes a regional evaluation for a universal one. It can say, correctly, “this God is dead” any number of times. But one must keep repeating this slogan after carefully investigating each conceptual “God,” one at a time, as Nietzsche did with his specific philosophical concept of “God.”

Pre-empting Nietzsche

Meanwhile,—and this is especially important—Christians will need to stop waiting for neo-Nietzscheans to smash their idols, and begin to do some smashing themselves. Better yet, Christians ought to learn that their own idol-fashioning itself is pretty dumb.

Our concepts of God, built from the ground up through our pre-understandings of what God should, or could, or must be like—these will all have to go. The God who is worthy of our worship cannot be conceptualized adequately by, inscribed within the bounds of, or reached and grasped through the powers of, human reason.

This is nothing other than the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility. Any and every “God” we could conceptualize and comprehend is an idol.

By contrast, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ—even in all the revelation through which this God has been revealed to us—remains un-conceptualizable and thus un-death-of-God-able.

Every “God” atheism does not believe in, Christians also do not believe in. The true God is not available for conceptual examination by the Nietzschean court. If atheists and Christians were both honest with themselves, they would agree.

[Marion quotes are from Negative Certainties, 54-5]

Don’t call it an “office”

There are a couple things in life that I’m passionate about. Hills upon which I am willing to die. In no particular order:

  • One does not put two spaces between sentences; the computer will space it appropriately for you.
  • One does not grind one’s coffee until it is time to brew said coffee.
  • North Carolina is in no wise “first in flight”; Ohioans commandeered their beach and wind.
  • The bottom button of one’s blazer, suit coat, or sport coat is to remain unbuttoned.

And, more recently, a new rule:

Don’t call my study an “office.” It’s a study

Nomenclature matters, folks. Our words create the worlds we experience and the quality of our experiences therewith. John Culkin famously said that “we shape our tools, and afterward our tools shape us.” Names of things are human-shaped tools, which thereafter shape us. They shape our expectations and our realities.

I don’t have a classroom of my own. I instead have a tiny room at the end of a hallway. I love this arrangement. I get lots of privacy and in turn I get lots of things done. And, by “things done”, I mean principally “thoughts thought” and “learning learned.”

That’s because my room is my study.

When I tell a student to come see me in my study after school, I am indicating to them that we are going to learn together. Whatever problem they may be having with their grade, the paper they’re writing, their attendance record, their behavior, their language acquisition process, or their mastery of the course content will be approached in a specific way: it will be approached with the conviction that we are, together, learning.

Consider the alternative. I could call my room my “office.” What experience can a student, a colleague, a supervisor, or a parent expect to have in my “office”?

They can expect to have their problem dealt with administratively. They expect their problem to be solved like the unclogging of a procedural bottleneck. They show up to get a grade fixed, a paper corrected, an assignment postponed or a concept explained. People who come to an “office” expect bureaucracy, and they pray that maybe this will be the one time in a hundred when that bureaucracy actually works efficiently, achieving the results desired. They expect, though, to be processed like any other data input that might come into that space, whether through paper and ink, email, telephone, or flesh and blood.

As for me and my study, we shall serve the learner. The learner inside me, and the learner inside student, teacher, administrator, and parent. I want people to come into my study–myself included!–with the expectation that both solitary and collaborative learning takes place in this sacred space. The sofa and armchair, the bookcases, the coffee station and the aroma that regularly makes it into the adjoining hallway, the round table (as opposed to a desk, aka bureau, hello!), and the natural light coming through the windows–all of these things help indicate what this space is for.

But especially the name of the space. Don’t call it an office.

Grace and Effort

I don’t do anything halfway. So when I was a Lutheran (sometimes ecclesially, sometimes theologically, sometimes both) as a young man, I was really Lutheran. Probably more Lutheran than Luther. So, probably not really Lutheran, actually.

What that means, of course, is that I didn’t like good works. Or trying hard. Or any sort of effort at all. It was an attractive spirituality, because I’ve never been attracted to workaholism. The Protestant Ethic missed me.

By the time I encountered Dallas Willard in my early thirties, I had changed enough to be ready to hear what is, in my estimation, the best line in all his writings:

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

I both hated and loved this. I hated it because it meant that I couldn’t be the champion of spiritual sloth in order to elevate grace. I loved it because I finally sensed the liberty to try.

Not to try to impress God, but to “make it my aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9).

Not to try to impress others, but to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).

The notion that keeping a list and checking tasks off of it is a form of works righteousness? Yeah, I couldn’t fail people any longer under the cover of grace.

The notion that the meaning of life was to receive grace and live a passive existence rather than trying to glorifying God through the exercise a certain amount of holy ambition? I couldn’t fool myself in that respect any longer either.

Jean-Luc Marion, in reflecting on a long career as a Christian and a philosopher, articulates what a lifelong application of Willard’s dictum looks like. Tolle, lege:

At several points, indisputably, I had the impression of being taken from the herd and put where I did not even know one could go. In those moments, I did not realize projects or ambitions coming from myself, but I received what happened to me. Often, my life as a whole seems to me like some of the years when I trained as a runner:

During long and exhausting training sessions, one suffers enough to know oneself to be the one who makes the effort, but, once one is in form, on the day of competition, in the sun of spring or the overhead light of an autumn evening, when suddenly a state of grace causes one to accomplish the impossible (a victory, a personal record), one wonders who has done all that, or, rather, I wonder whether I have done it or even whether this has happened to me.

From there stems this strange feeling that has never left me, of living with someone bearing (in all the senses of the word) my name, who does things without warning me and whom I had to accompany. At times I would almost have preferred that he leave me alone, but I have always lived with someone who is stronger than me and whom I follow. Yes, and I cannot do otherwise. I hope so, all the way to the end.

As someone who is pushing toward a 500-mile running goal for the year, with one month left to go, I resonate deeply. I have no idea how my joints are holding up under my heavy frame, how the Pop Tarts I had for breakfast are converted into energy for my run after work (or even if it works that way), and I don’t know how I haven’t tripped and broken half the bones in my body by now.

17904059_10155709889480656_7486992904446466403_n

But I definitely feel as though it has been me running those 445 miles. I’ve had to decide on 128 different occasions in 2017 to get off my couch and go for a run. I’ve exerted more sheer will power in the past 11 months than at any time in my life.

It kind of feels like a cliché when you hear someone say “by God’s grace I was able to _______ [win the gold metal; finish an ultra-marathon; win the spelling bee; publish 20 books].” But it’s no cliché. We put ourselves to a task, and open ourselves to the ‘haunting’ of God’s gracious presence. And often, good things happen. Things we can celebrate—whether feats of strength or increases of moral fortitude.

It was hard work. And it’s all of grace.

Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

The Capacity to Admire

If there has been one intellectual and spiritual preoccupation of mine for the past 7 or 8 years, it has been a preoccupation with love. I believe it all started in a slogan of Augustine’s which I must have first encountered as a newlywed sometime in 2003. Credo ut intelligam, as Anselm later codified it. “I believe in order to understand.”

200px-Anselm-CanterburyVit.jpg

Anselm of Canterbury | 19th-Century Stained Glass | Image: Wikipedia

For Augustine, this faith that seeks understanding, this belief unto learning, is an act of the passions, of the will, of the decision-making faculty that resides at the core of who we are as human beings.

All of this is another way of saying that love has priority over knowledge, and is the pathway of knowledge. Knowledge grows as love grows, not the other way around. One must admire someone before one can learn about them and from them.

I was stunned recently by Jean-Luc Marion’s reflections on admiration. In a recently-published book of conversations (translated by Crina Gschwandtner, my secondary doctoral supervisor!), Marion recounts the ways in which, as a young thinker and Christian, he both succeeded and failed to admire well.

‘You’re doing it wrong’: How (not) to admire badly

Sometimes the young Marion would come close to foolishly hitching his wagon to a pseudo-Master, someone who was making a lot of noise, gathering a lot of disciples, and, as we might say now, “building a platform.”

Other times, Marion would miss a real master right in front of his eyes. He recounts when he and his classmates were bored and passively rebellious in the midst of the tedium of basic lectures on German. Only later did they realize that the man who was teaching them declensions and conjugations was the great Paul Celan. You’ve got to have your eyes, or, better, your heart open in order to recognize the possibilities for a life-transforming mentor-protégé relationship right in front of you. 41+5NJrfRhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Still other times, Marion noticed the temptation to appropriate a master at the expense of receiving their contribution. To get to true understanding, one cannot strip-mine the masters for their material. You can’t go beyond your masters without truly going through them.

True admiration is the key. Marion sums this up poignantly:

“Those who do not have the capacity to admire cannot receive what is there. They want to imitate or confiscate the inheritance instead of receiving it as one should, namely as a task that is too great yet cannot be avoided.”

Admiration of the Image-bearer

Augustine and Anselm’s motto has to do with the human quest to love and know God. But Marion shows that this same love-first openness to God’s self-revelation must be recapitulated in one’s human relationships. As we reckon with the incomprehensibility of God, we discover knowledge of God opening only insofar as we are, first and last, poised with loving anticipation for what God might reveal.

Humanity, in God’s image, is likewise fundamentally incomprehensible, a reality we do not often fully appreciate. As we abandon attempts to understand people apart from a loving openness to them, a true admiration grows. This admiration opens the space for a love-borne understanding. In turn, such a quality of understanding brings us to the place where our “use” of those we admire sheds its posture of appropriation. Instead, we move through and beyond those we admire by engaging them in winsome, charitable conversation. Our conclusions, even insofar as they diverge from our masters, are nevertheless indebted to them. And this indebtedness honors them. 

When I take the posture of admiration at the outset, I honor the incomprehensibility of my human interlocutor. As I do so, I am able potentially to come to a quality understanding that would never be possible had I attempted to know first before admiring.

Love, for humans as well as for God, unlocks the potentialities of understanding and refuses the impulse to reduce another to brute facts or usable truths. Fatih seeking understanding ‘works’ among humans, too.

Every one of us has people whom we admire for one reason or another. The only question is: will we admire well, or poorly?

Sloth and Our Lazy Loving

I am in the midst of teaching through a course on The Seven Deadly Sins for the 5th time. This repetition has occasioned something of a seasonal self-audit of my own spirituality. Each time through, the study of each vice (aided mostly by Rebecca DeYoung’s great book on the subject) diagnoses things in me that make me uncomfortable and, hopefully more often than not, repentant.

DeYoung’s fantastic definition of sloth continues to haunt me. Sloth is not laziness, but laziness in loving. Sloth is “resistance to the demands of love.”

We are about as slow and as tardy to love as this sloth is lazy and late in Win, Lose, or Draw:

As I’ve studied the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, my mind has been blown by two dynamics in this respect:

  1. The reality of our creaturely, finite, temporal natures means that we are constitutionally “late” to love–not in the tardy sense, but in the responsive sense. God loves first and best. We love, but any love we give that is worthy of the name is always already a citation, a response to a call that precedes us. This is not bad. It’s good. We are imitative beings through and through.
  2. We are fallen creatures. We are late in another sense. We are lazy in love. We resist love’s demands. We hear and see the speech and action of our Creator-Lover, and we kick against the goads. We instinctively know that if we are to truly receive such love, we will be compelled to give it again. And we know and can name the people in our lives we regard as unworthy of our love. And so we push away the love of the first and best Lover, thinking this releases us from our status as imitative beings. We reject love, so we won’t be compelled to love the unlovely.

I’ve read in several places recently that one major malaise of our current culture is its boredom. Marion suggests (in his own way) that boredom is the result of our systematic resistance to the demands of love. What is left when the receiving and giving of love is eschewed as our ultimate vocation? Boredom. The residue of an always-unsatisfying saturation with entertainment, diversion, distraction.

Our relationships feel like work and so we check out from them—often with entertainment.

But often with work. Busyness is the other side of the Boredom coin.

Or we view our work as something other than a response of love and a reiteration and imitation of that love in the direction of our neighbor, and so we avoid it.

A resolution or two:

  1. Some productivity guru once said that you should swallow a frog first thing every morning. If you do, you can be sure that you’ve done the hardest, most unpleasant thing you’ll do all day, and now it’s done and out of the way. If I know a demand of love faces me, and its demand is less than fully pleasant, I need to swallow that frog. Have the hard conversation. Put down the phone and look the person in the eye. Give myself in full attentiveness.
  2. I need to stop myself before every new vocational task. I need to remind myself that I am doing that task out of love for my neighbor, my colleague, my student, my friend, my children, my wife. I need to imagine the face of the beloved for whom I work, sitting there in the room with me as I work, asking for my love through my work.

All said, to love well, I need to resist my resistance to the demands of love.

10 Things to Love About Luther

Luther Slide.001He wasn’t perfect. He said nasty things to a lot of people. And while he at first held great hope that European Jewry would be swept up into the evangelical movement of the Reformation, he later uttered a lot of bigoted things against Jews.

I still love Luther. And here are my Top 10 Reasons to Love Martin Luther on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation:

10. Luther believed that God didn’t need him to reform the church.

I believe Luther, despite his bull-in-a-china-shop temperament, honestly didn’t want to split the church. And I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says:

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

9. In fact, Luther believed that God didn’t need him at all.

I am in a phase in which I am beginning to greatly appreciate the monastic traditions, especially those of the first few centuries. Luther was a monk, too. But by the time he was leading the Reformation, he didn’t have a lot of great things to say about monasticism. He felt that cloistered monks and nuns made two mistakes: thinking too much of their service to God, and thinking almost nothing of their neighbor. So Luther said:

“Who needs my good works? God doesn’t need my good works. But my neighbor does.”

When we realize that God doesn’t need us, it takes off all kinds of unnecessary pressure to be awesome for God, and releases us to let God be awesome by the Spirit at work through us. We are chosen and privileged to get to have God attract glory through our loving service to our neighbor.

8. Luther was a monk, and married a nun.

martin-luther-und-katharina-von-bora-ab67cd71c0e57938c68d918c763e1989a4afc20c540312a4dfd8fa400fcfb66b

Sorry, but that’s just awesome.

Better, she was 16 years younger than him! He married when he was 40 and Katarina Von Bora was 24.

Luther wrote that some people are called to a life of celibacy in singleness, and most to marriage–but that both were holy callings. The Medieval church had ranked celibacy over marriage and said that monks and nuns were the real servants of God, while everyone else was mired in the world and couldn’t really serve God fully. 

Luther was like, um … no.

He said, reflecting on his own potential to remain celibate: “I am neither wood nor stone.”

Thankfully, once he deconstructed the medieval notion that God needed monks and nuns at all, and that they certainly weren’t more holy than married people, his honesty about not being a block of wood or a stone, sexually-speaking, made some monks and nuns wonder about their own vocations.

The rule had been that once you made a vow of celibacy, you could never go back. You had to be celibate for life. Luther recognized that there could be seasons of life. God might call you to celibacy in one season, and then to marriage. And perhaps again–after a spouse’s death–to celibacy once again.

Nowadays the world values singleness (sans celibacy) as the “best”. Meanwhile, the church seems to value marriage and disparage singleness, as though singles were lacking something.

Luther’s teaching–and his bold action!–are instructive for us. There are seasons when God calls us to chastity, and in which we may be given God-glorifying and (especially) neighbor-serving work to do and the freedom from spousal constraints to do that work. And there are seasons when God calls us to serve a spouse and maybe some kids as our “first neighbors.”

Luther helps us think clearly about singleness and marriage. And he certainly catches our attention when he marries a nun!

7. Luther was a jerk, but at least he knew it.

It’s at this point that we’re going to need to visit the Luther “insult generator.” I’ll wait. 

screen_shot_20150313_at_1.24.05_pm.png.CROP.original-original.24.05_pm

Look, there are plenty of times that Luther’s jerkiness was uncalled for, when it harmed the neighbors he was meant to serve. Plenty of times when his proneness to ad hominem attacks showed that he had an insecurity that wasn’t in concord with the gospel itself.

At the same time, Luther was no fan of himself. Listen to his advice:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

Being honest about how disappointed we are in ourselves is not in itself humility. It won’t in itself turn us from those who curse to those who bless. But it’s the essential first step.

6. Even though I’m nicer than Luther, Luther’s prayer life dwarfs mine.

Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”

What a jerk.

Time wasn’t the ruler of Luther. He had lots to do, but he was not busy like we’re busy. And that allowed him to say something annoying like the above.

But Luther also thought of prayer like breathing. He wanted to pray without ceasing in that way: for the need for God to flow out of him at every moment, so that he was in a constant spirit of prayer. And to me, this is even more convicting. After all, I can think of the last time that I sat down and prayed. But I can’t think of the last time that I moved through a day with prayer breathing out of me all the day long.

5. Luther’s message was not complex, or easy. It was–like most true things–simple and hard.

Legend has it that a member of Luther’s church came up to him and asked, “Why do you preach the gospel to us week after week?” Luther reportedly responded, “because week after week you forget it.”

This message is simple, though it’s hard. 

Luther’s message was basically: “You cannot do nothing at all to make God love you, to earn his favor, to merit your salvation. You do not justify yourself. God justifies you by applying to your record the perfect life of Jesus. You can’t suffer enough to atone for your sins. God atones for your sins by applying to you the suffering of Jesus—the very proof that God loves you.”

At first we feel liberated by this news and say “Amen.” But then we proceed to think, act, and feel as though we must impress God with our good deeds rather than allow our service to our neighbor to be energized by God’s love for us. And so we have to hear it again.

The gospel that Luther recovered is not complex or easy. It’s simple and hard. 

4. Luther talked about farts. A Lot.

martin-luther-i-resist-satan-often-with-a-fart

Even with the Headmaster gone, the only quote I found that I could share with my colleagues in staff devotions on this topic was this one:

“Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When argument doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

It’s good to know that a world-changing theologian not only talked about farts around his kids and his congregation, but frequently talked about farts in his voluminous published theological writings.

3. Luther was a practical theologian.

I grew up on Luther’s Small Catechism. Answers in the catechism about a point of doctrine are followed up with another question: What does this mean? And every answer to that follow-up question started with “We should fear, love, and trust God so that we …”

41cTo2oEqjL._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_

In other words, Luther recognized that the gospel finds its home in our hearts, in our affections, in our emotions, in our countenances, in our dispositions: not just in our brains, but in the most human and touchy-feely parts of who we are as people.

This or that biblical truth is true, and it means that we should fear God, love God, trust God. In other words, every truth from the Bible calls for an “amen” not just in our thoughts, not just in our words, but in our feels.

Any truth that’s worth believing belongs in your gut, Luther catechizes us: you must let it shape your fears, loves, and trust in ways that make you more human and thus more like Jesus at the core of your being.

2. Luther suffered physically, mentally, and spiritually, but savored and treasured the simple, good gifts of God.

One of the reasons Luther talked about farts and in general had such a potty mouth is because he spent so much time on the potty. He suffered his whole life from constipation. How bad was his case? Well, in 2004, German archeologists discovered the toilet on which Luther wrote the 95 theses. 95. Great find!

But he also suffered spiritual slumps and depression both before and after his discovery of the gospel. Knowing the gospel, and even believing it, doesn’t necessarily cure spiritual slumps. Neither does it automatically cure depression. We can grow in our fear, love, and trust of God even while we are in a dark night of the soul.

But despite all these ailments, Luther was known as a jolly fellow who loved simple things: a good pair of shoes sold at a fair price; a good stein of beer with a few buddies; a good carafe of Corsican wine; a good laugh; a good meal.

Luther was a model receiver of God’s good and simple gifts. He knew that they were from his loving Heavenly Father, who loves to give good gifts—both simple and profound—to his children. And he was thankful for the gifts and for the neighbors that worked hard and skillfully to bring them into being.

1. Luther shows us that, when all is said and done, it’s all about Jesus.

Let’s end with this prayer of Luther’s, meditating on how astounding it is to be called a brother of Jesus.

O gracious God, I am fully aware that I am unworthy. I deserve to be a brother of Satan and not of Christ. But Christ, your dear Son died and rose for me. I am his brother. He earnestly desires that I should believe in him, without doubt and fear.I need no longer regard myself as unworthy and full of sin. For this I love and thank him from my heart. Praise be to the faithful Savior, for he is so gracious and merciful as are you and the Holy Spirit in eternity. Amen.

Mastered by Divinity

JL MARION

I’ve long thought that is what the M.Div. degree ought to signify. Listen to Jean-Luc Marion describe what theological work does to us:

Theology always writes starting from another than itself. It diverts the author from himself; it causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.

Theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that permits and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself. … One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology. In all senses.

(God Without Being, 1991)