Right Answers, Wrong Questions: Part 2

This is the second part of an essay I wrote in college. For the first part, click here.

While the truth of both the free-will defense and the greater-good theodicy are logically compelling, they are not at all encouraging for the sufferer. What can be said to the afflicted? The greater-good theodicy makes people feel as cogs-in-the-machine of God when suffering. The free-will defense is inept also. The Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel shows how both of these arguments cannot comfort: “Why how could I bless Him?…Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves?…Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?” (Wiesel 67) This cry is against the greater-good theodicy; how could God have allowed the horrors of the Holocaust? What was His purpose? Later, Wiesel argues the conclusion of free-will thinking, irrational, but yet full of pain. “[I]n a world without God, without man. Without love, without mercy…I felt myself stronger than this Almighty.” (68) The responses to both these cries are simple and logical, cold and even emotionless. Disturbingly, the Bible also seems to advocate the following answers: you are not God. You cannot know His purposes.
The Book of Job is the oft-quoted, Christian answer to suffering. In the book, Job complains to God of all his troubles. God answers “Who is this darkening my counsel?/With words lacking knowledge?//Brace yourself like a man/I will interrogate you,/And you will respond to me.” (Job 38:2,3 CEB) What follows is a grand speech of God discussing all of His wondrous works. Eventually, Job relents of his questioning. God restores Job’s wealth that was taken away. However, is this the only comfort the Christian can offer? Is the only response to suffering that God has created the world and we have not, and as such we should cease complaining? Ought we to simply “brace ourselves” and carry on, unfeeling? This seems an odd answer from a God who later in the Book of Isaiah orders the prophet to “comfort [His] people” (Is. 40:1 CEB) or a God who “heard the cry of injustice because of their slave masters.” (Ex. 3:7 CEB) As can be seen from Wiesel, the Jobian response is hardly comforting to those in the midst of affliction. How can a Christian answer evil and suffering?
Perhaps the answer lies in not answering. Following the line of logic that the church fathers left us, together with Lewis’ Free-Will defense, it would seem the most reasonable for the Dark Power (as Lewis is fond of calling evil) to repent of its wickedness. If evil results in non-being that will eventually destroy itself and God is the totality of being, than it stands to reason that it is not better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. It is infinitely better to repent than face eternal judgement. However, clearly from the Bible, that is not the final state of the Dark Powers. Evil is fundamentally, at its core, irrationality brought into being, if it can even be called that. Suffering is similar. It is the consequence of the first sin of man, a meaningless irrationality of the powers of nature. Not only do the ancient fathers have discussions of the non-being against God, but modern scholars are beginning to reaffirm this state of “being and non-being” simultaneously. Theologian Joshua McNall argues that Satan is less than a person because of his evil. “Paul’s logic of the mind progressively depraved and darkened…may cause one to reject the “well-reasoned” nature of the devil’s campaign against the creator.” (Mcnall 226). Theologian Michael Green takes the non-being evil a step farther, stating “[the devil] counterfeits personality.” (qtd. McNall 227). If evil is so irrational as to not even be worthy of a true personality, is there even an explanation for it? Can there even be an answer to the question “why did this evil act happen?”
The Bible does respond to these questions with hope. Paul, writing to the Roman church, which knew persecution, states that “God works all things together for good for the ones who love God” (Rom. 8:28 CEB). Throughout the second half of Chapter 8, Paul extolls the virtues of suffering. “The present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18 CEB) But is looking forward to the future simply Pollyannaism? Is it not just another form of ordering the afflicted the “brace themselves like a man”? It does not address the current suffering or offer advice . The reader is left with hope for the future, but is that enough comforting? It is compelling though, that even nature herself is “groaning” (Rom 8:19 CEB) and suffering. Perhaps this is the key: fellowship in suffering.
The verse from Isaiah quoted above is from a section of the prophet that foretells of the coming of John the Baptist, who in turn, foretold the coming of Jesus. How could that be quite comforting? Israel was not freed from her bondage, she still was ruled over by Rome. Jesus died. Although He did rise again, how could He comfort in struggle if He was God? Isaiah has many verses about the coming Messiah, but one is key to this discussion: Isaiah 7:14. God declares that “the [Virgin] is pregnant and about to give birth to a Son, and she will name Him Immanuel.” (CEB) This word “Immanuel” means, God with us. God has come to humanity and that radically alters how Christians discuss suffering. God’s solution to the suffering of man was not to send them logical arguments and hope that they listen. It was not simply to send Himself to die on a cross without living amongst the people. Because Jesus was both God and man, He experienced all that man experiences. A death on a cross is a horrific death. It is not known exactly how death occurs on a cross, and “different individuals died from different physiological causes” (Maslen and Mitchell), but it is an excruciating painful experience. However, Jesus endured much more than a just painful death while on earth. Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions. It is often said that John 11: 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. This verse is a powerful salve to comfort the afflicted. Jesus, after arriving late to heal His friend Lazarus, is criticized by Lazarus’ sister. He ordered her to bring Him to Lazarus’ grave and then “Jesus began to cry.” (John 11:35 CEB). This is the power of God With Us, the heroism of the Gospel. Jesus, who was going to heal Lazarus, and knew He could, nevertheless wept over Him. This is Jesus’ response to suffering. He cries. He does not reprimand Mary for insulting Him; He does not explain to Martha how more good than bad will come out of Lazarus’ death. Jesus sobbed over the suffering in the world. This was His response to the sufferers: compassion and fellowship. This is how Christianity’s hope comforts Paul, God endured suffering alongside man and will come again.
Job’s friends exemplify this attitude of Christ, at least for the beginning of the story. They have received their fair share of criticism for what they said to Job, but for the first part of their introduction, they sit in the ash with their friend Job. “When they looked up from a distance and did not recognize him, they wept loudly. Each tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven night, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.” (Job 2:12,13 CEB) Perhaps this is the overlooked lesson in the Book of Job. When friends are hurting, the most comforting think is to be present. This is the thought of missiologist Glen Penner. “When people are suffering often the last thing they need is words of advice, even from friends or loved ones. They need our presence.” (Penner 43) Even after Job endures the speech of God, the book continues to hint this theme as the proper reaction to suffering. “All [Job’s] brothers and sisters, and acquaintances came to him and ate food with him. They comforted and consoled him concerning all the disaster that the LORD brought on him.” (Job 42:11 CEB) This is part of the ministry of Christians, to incarnate the Incarnation, to be with people, perhaps even weeping with them. This is the solution that Bishop N. T. Wright offers the world. “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” (Wright) This is also the advice of pastor John Piper. “Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that He’s given you.” (Piper) Perhaps this is the best way to defend the faith, not by providing the right answers to the wrong questions, but by not answering the irrationality of suffering. This weeping with the afflicted is part of the ministry of Christ, fulfilling throughout history the prophecy. The afflicted will be comforted and not by the answers to their questions, but by the tears of the comforters that Christ sanctifies as His own.

Works Cited:

Maslen, Matthew W, and Piers D Mitchell. “Medical theories on the cause of death in
crucifixion.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 99,4 (2006): 185-8.
doi:10.1258/jrsm.99.4.185                                                                                          

McNall, Joshua. The Mosaic of Atonement. Zondervan Academic, Grand Rapids. 2019.     

Penner, Glenn M. In the Shadow of the Cross. Living Sacrifice Books, Bartlesville. 2004.     

Piper, John. “Embrace the Life God Has Given You.” Desiring God. March 10, 2017.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Marion Wiesel. Hull and Wang, New York. 2006.

Wright, Fr. N. T. “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not       Supposed To.” Time Magazine. March 29, 2020. time.com/5808495/coronavirus-         christianity/.

Right Answers, Wrong Questions: Part 1

One of my last classes in college was Global Human Suffering. Is it inappropriate to say I loved it? Well, I did. I was extremely proud of my final paper and I want to present it to you all here.

A Call to Restructure Christian Theodicy
Whenever humans face adversity or suffering, when innocents are murdered by a madman or a child wastes away due to a horrible disease, the modern person is tempted to ask, “Why did God allow this to happen?” The skeptic asks this question with an attitude of pride, hoping to catch a Christian off guard, hoping to disprove the love of God. An apologists asks this question to justify God, hoping to prove His grace and compassion, hoping maybe to convert the skeptic. The victim only seeks comfort in his suffering, not intellectual validation, although for a very few those are one and the same. What is to be done with this question? Is it a sufficient way to explain an experience? Does the traditional answer satisfy the apologist, convince the skeptic, and comfort the afflicted? The traditional answer to the question “Why did God allow this to happen?” is “nothing happens unless God allows (or causes, depending on theological persuasions) it to happen.” While true, this answer does not go far enough in either comforting the broken-hearted nor convincing the skeptic of God’s love. Christianity is much more than simple logical answers to dilemmas. For an apologist to attempt to justify every affliction is impossible. Many times, the sufferer is not looking for logical explanations but real emotional comfort in their hardship. Christianity can offer both in the same answer, there is no need for compartmentalizing human personality. Attempting to explain the cause of specific affliction is a fruitless endeavor for the Christian. While there is a logical solution to the problem of suffering, a better explanation and even better comfort lies in the reality of the Incarnation.

While attempting to explain the cause behind specific afflictions is impossible- the vast array of them boggle the mind- the apologist must still account for the existence of evil. How can a loving God allow for the existence of evil? There are two different answers to this question. One focuses on man and the other focuses on the metaphysical origins of evil. C. S. Lewis proposed what is known as the “free-will defense” in his radio lectures to a war-torn England. “Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata…would hardly be worth creating.” (Lewis 47) Lewis then argues that “[God] thought it worth the risk” (47) to bestow free-will on His creatures, and to disagree with God is dangerous. Perhaps it is possible to disagree with Lewis and not with God. There are two main problems with this line of argument, The first is simple: there are whole groups of Christians who deny the existence of free will. To use this as the Christian theodicy does not account for a significant portion of Christians. The second problem with this argument is that the free-will defense does not sufficiently explain the origin of evil. If taken too far, the free-will defense can quite possibly argue for theological dualism. In fact, Lewis does confess an attraction to the idea that there is an evil power equal to God in the universe, “next to Christianity, Dualism is the manliest…creed on the market.” (42) The free-will defense also cannot answer the suffering caused by natural disasters. While a good defense for free will, as an explanation for suffering does not sufficiently answer the “Why?” question.

A better explanation for the origin of evil and suffering in theology must address causeless suffering also, or suffering that seems to have no cause, such a natural disasters. Two theologians from Africa offer a much more thorough argument that shows the true nature of evil and chaos, not just another option for man to choose in the cosmic war. Augustine was seeking to explain how evil came about in a part of his book City of God. His conclusion to the problem of evil is that evil is dependent on the good to exist. “good may exist on its own, evil cannot.” (Augustine 474). This is the foundation of his understanding of evil. It is a perversion of the good. In fact, evil to some degree does not exist. “We are familiar with darkness and silence…by the absence of perception.” (474). It is because of this that evil is fundamentally non-being, as Athanasius explains.
Athanasius spends that majority of his treatise On the Incarnation proving why God incarnate is true and Jesus is the Messiah. However, a small part of the book is devoted to evil. Athanasius, following a common thought in ancient world, argues that if God is the totality of being, then evil “is non-being. The good is being-since it has come into being from the existence of God.” (Athanasius 53) This is a thought lost to time in the discussion of suffering: the nature of evil is weaker than the nature of good. Fundamentally, evil is not equal with God, though sometimes it feels like it. This is a comfort and yet also terrifying to conceive of evil as non-being. A terror because the human mind is incapable of fully understanding true nothingness. It is the furthest from God possible. Comforting because to those on the side of the Good, evil is weaker. Within both of these theologians’ metaphysics, evil is dependent on the good. Evil exists because the possibility of perversion of the good. Good is not dependent on evil. Thus, the problem of a good God directly creating evil is solved. Because contraries are possible, even evil, the contrary of Good, is possible. But how, could God, if He is truly all powerful, allow the contraries to come about? The answer constitutes a proper use of the free-will defense and introduces another concept in sufferology: the greater good theodicy.

Firstly, Lewis’ defense of free will answers this argument well. The problem with the argument is not that it is untrue; it is true. However, it fundamentally cannot answer why evil came into being. The question of “why did God allow this?” and “why does evil exist?” are fundamentally two different questions. Lewis argues that because the happiness of God depends on mankind freely choosing Him, God made it possible for humankind to ally with the non-being. “Though [free will] makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” (Lewis 47). Lewis understands the heroic nature of reality. Life is suffering, but rather than detaching like a Buddhist would argue, the Christians quoted cry to conquer life and have a full celebration of matter and reality.

But how can a good God allow evil? Though Epicurious asked this question in the Ancient world, it was thought to be answered by Athanasius and Augustine. The Medieval world saw these answers as sufficient. The great theologian and logician Aquinas took this line of thought. “Evil has no direct cause, but only an accidental cause.” (Aquinas) Since it stems from a perversion of good, Aquinas argues, therein cannot be said that it stems from anything other than an accident. Even in Aquinas’ work of pure logic there is an air of heroism. “Evil always lessens good, but it never wholly consumes it.” (Aquinas) This is a hint to the proper way to address evil and suffering. However, a new philosophical movement arose in the modern era to assault this explanation.

The greater good theodicy is an answer to the specific question of “why did God allow a specific suffering?” While even Augustine answers the specifics of this question, it was not until the Enlightenment that suffering became again an argument against God. The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution moved western philosophy away from the metaphysical to the natural. It was not that philosophers and scientist before this time did not address the natural world, but they also had the underpinning of the metaphysical in their thought. Empiricism stated that only things which are verifiable by the senses are true. This undermined metaphysics in the Western mind. Many atheists grabbed ahold of this rift in Western philosophy to assault the idea of God, seeing God as cruel to allow suffering. Christians answered with the greater-good theodicy, again developed by countless theologians over the ages. Perhaps God permits evil for greater goods. While Atheist philosophers have since abandoned the problem of evil, “No one, I think has succeeded in establishing [the logical problem of evil disproving God]” (Rowe) many non-academics still find the problem of evil a compelling argument. This speaks to the inability of theodicy to speak to humanity’s emotional needs.

I hope you’ll join me next fortnight for the next installment.

Works Cited:

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica: Part 1. Trans. Fathers of the Dominican
Province. 1920. 2nd ed. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/index.html. Text.

Athanasius, St. On the Incarnation. Trans. John Beher. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press,
Yonkers. 2011.

Augustine, St. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. Penguin Books, London. 1972.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Harper One, New York. 1952.

Rowe, William L. “Suffering and Evil” The Logical Problem.” YouTube, uploaded by
drcraigvideos. Sept, 1, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k64YJYBUFLM.

On Spiritual Refugees

I enjoy looking into the goings-on in my cousin denominations. Every once and a while, I will check in on them, making sure that they are okay. Some I watch more closely than others. One church has piqued my interest and I have been following the drama since it started: The Methodist church and the homosexuality question.

Now, before you think, dear readers, that this is simply another tirade on this issues, offering a solution or lamblasting the opposing site, it is not. I want to take this space to talk about the victims of such discussions. I think homosexuality is wrong and the church should actively minister to those in that lifestyle, that needs to be stated first and foremost. I agree with the Traditional churches on this issue. However, though it looks like the Methodists have discovered a solution, there are still countless people on both sides of this debate hurt deeply. In fact, some may choose to leave rather than see their home denomination split. They have become “spiritual refugees.”¹

These people, fleeing the chaos of their denomination falling in around them, will be hurting. They will feel betrayed by those in their local church on the other side of the debate. They will be grieving at the loss and unfamiliar with their new surroundings (assuming they join another church.) Spiritual refugees, I predict, are going to be a new wave of people the American church is going to have to deal with, especially the more conservative denominations.

I grew up in a Wesleyan church. I loved it and I love the theology. I have been insulated from the chaos that other denominations have been fighting for a while. Creeping relativism, an adoption of liberal theology that rips those churches from their historical underpinnings. It was not until I began working occasionally as a musician at a local Methodist church that I discovered the great rift. Seeing congregants horrified at the change in their denomination was heart-breaking. They felt, like I said, betrayed and alone. Their home was, essentially, considering rejecting them and their strong-held beliefs.

I started thinking, “Where will these people find a home if the Methodists go a certain way?” As a Wesleyan of Wesleyans, I cannot imagine what it would feel like to leave your denomination. This is where I think the local church can help immensely. Now, I am not talking about poaching congregants from churches, but there needs to be a way to minister specifically to the needs to spiritual refugees when they walk through the church doors. I do not know what it is going to look like, but I think churches need to prepare. I am familiar with my Arminian friends and discussions in the Nazarene church and Methodist churches will be producing spiritual refugees. In the Calvinist world, there is talk of the Southern Baptist church losing its moorings.

I would say to churches with spiritual refugees, allow people to mourn, but do not allow much negative-church bashing to occur. There is a difference between destructive talk and helpful disagreement. To those spiritual refugees looking for a new home, I would counsel a few things. First, if you are a (conservative) Arminian, run to the Wesleyan church. I am serious. We are enough of a middle-way denomination, you will feel comfortable here. Also, do not run to the most opposite denomination. To go to the nearest Bible-believing fundamentalist denomination would be a mistake. It will make you hard and bitter rather than facilitating your healing.  Weep over your hurt and betrayal and forgive. A closer denomination theologically and structurally can help heal your heart.

As denominations have these difficult conversations and divisions, I think that there will be a wave of refugees looking for a spiritual home. I hope and pray that they find it.

  1. Credit to my mother for coming up with this phrase.

The Scourge of Thin Belief

Folks, we need to talk about something. It is a something that has been bothering me since the heinous murder of George Floyd. Social media reveals the height of our privilege.

As soon as the murder hit the news cycle, I began seeing on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, protests of the murder. I was a bit overwhelmed by them all, and was about to go mourn, however, something caught my eye that grieved me even more.

If you had their back, why didn’t you post anything condemning George Floyd’s murderers?

-Facebook Comment

Many of the influencers (and some wannabe-influences) reposted some genuinely moving things about the murder. The called for justice; they called reconciliation and for change. And then, many of them would post something about their day, or a link to a product, or something funny. It was as if they had forgotten they had posted only twenty minutes before that a black man was murdered by a white cop cruelly and in broad daylight. (Not all, just some, and usually white.)

I cannot fathom what went through their heads. “I feel bad a man died. Let me repost this.”

Twenty minutes later…

“Hahah! I love this video” or “Hey, this product changed my life” or those insidious “Ask me” boxes.

Thin beliefs are easy to adopt and then toss away, so they are useful for crafting our self image.

-Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

I wanted to scream at my phone, “Do you not care about Floyd?!!? Does it not move you to grief that a man was murdered?” In fact, I saw a comment on a friend’s post about the looting that really shook me to my core. “If you had their back, why didn’t you post anything condemning George Floyd’s murderers?” as if social media is the only way to make substantive change or mourn.

Not all those I follow are so tone deaf; some have been posting only Floyd related reposts and original content. However, it seems as if those who continue to post after “recognizing the problem” seem unconcerned with any substantive change. Now, I firmly believe that one of the best ways to deal with tragedy is to “go home and love your family” (St. Teresa of Calcutta), however, please don’t post about it on social media. We should not and cannot return to normalcy. For the love of your fellow man, recognize the cognitive dissonance in yourself that believes it is acceptable to not take a murder seriously.

I have recently been rereading a book from college that speaks to this very issue. Alan Noble, in his diagnosis of the modern Christian life, Disruptive Witness, bemoans the growth of slacktivism and thin belief.

While the secular age does not necessarily lead to philosophical relativism, it does lead to thin belief. By “thin belief“ I mean a set of foundational ideas about the world that lack robust explanatory power. Their sources may be obscured from us, consciously or not. They may come in direct conflict with other beliefs we hold…In a sense, all of our beliefs are part of the continuum from thick beliefs parentheses which involve a deep understanding of the internal logic, origins and context; embodied practices; and robust explanation of belief) to thin beliefs (which can be as superficial as signaling your support for a political cause simply because you like it’s #). We hold a thin believe when we fail to grasp it’s a sort of justifications and reasoning, and therefore unable to articulate it fully. We didn’t struggle to consistently live according to it. Thin beliefs are easy to adopt and then toss away, so they are useful for crafting our self image. Not that the beliefs themselves necessarily lack depth tradition, passion, or truth. In fact, this is part of a great shame of the belief: it may affect otherwise good beliefs, mistreating and misrepresenting them. – Disruptive Witness, 44-45

It is this “thin belief” dissonance that bothered me so on social media. It felt as if those posting about the murder of Floyd were only doing it because they felt they had to. They must address it to look as if they care, but then they returned to their regular programming. It was disgusting.

This brings up another topic of Noble’s: Image-crafting.

In the Image of God, He created them.

-Genesis 1:27

Noble continues his discussion of social media by pointing out the root of the problem: our curated image. “There is a moral urgency to defend our cause. And if we’re honest, no small part of this urgency involves unarticulated fears about how losing this argument reflects our image.” (47) This is the main problem. It becomes not about the issue at hand, but about us, about how moral we are. “We want to be the kind of people known for defending [whatever cause is in vogue].” (47)

As someone who deeply cares about the incarnation and image of God in humans, I find it even more insidious that we are using the demise of an image-bearer to cultivate an image of ourselves. We are co-opting his image into ourselves. Rather than being authentic, we must craft how we are perceived. (Can you tell I despise influencer culture?) Rather than being content how God created us, we must look for moral validation from strangers who appreciate our stance with no accountability to translate our latest post into our lifestyle. We sit around congratulating ourselves how good we look online; meanwhile black citizens in America continue to be murdered. Our hearts should break, not just for the fifteen seconds it takes to repost.

God Loves Lazy Sunday Afternoons

Throughout my college career, one thing and one thing only (other than simply the blessing of the Holy Spirit) that has continually kept me sane is a lazy Sunday afternoon. From my first year at the Abbey, watching A Series of Unfortunate Events with Kat or playing Ultimate (I’m ashamed to admit), to living off campus my senior year and taking a walk while the dishes pile up, I have tried to keep the Sabbath sacred.

Now, caveat, before my Lutheran-minded friends call “legalism!” This is a personal commitment because I think it works. I do not think it makes me a better Christian , I do not think my salvation hinges on my keeping the Sabbath, and I do not think that I am making God love me more. I do not like when the Reformed (them darn Calvinists) seem to make spiritual disciplines about doing something for God “to give Him glory!” Its as if doing these things while muscling through them make them super-Christians almost. This is a continual problem I have with the Puritans: doing the Spiritual Disciplines simply for their own sake (Eventual link to blog when I get my thought fully gathered on this topic here.)

Now that we’ve got THAT cleared away (and yes, I’m ready for my Calvinists friends to say I misrepresented them. My defense is will come in a later blog post) let’s talk Sundays. When I lived in DC, one of my favorite activities was wandering around the city on Sunday afternoon. On Saturdays I would have specific destinations, but on Sunday, I just let my legs take me where they would. I ended up lost in a random DC neighborhood on Sunday, found a random statue of Joan of Arc in a run-down park, and wandered random little corners of the Capitol. I loved it. It was a way of shaking off my week and preparing myself for the office again. This aimless wandering was a bit of chaos to my otherwise ordered week. It was wonderful.

Nowadays, in my boring life, I just watched six episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender with my wife and wandered around a neighborhood I never had before in Bartlesville. It had been a hard week, trying to motivate myself to do school. Actually taking a break was refreshing. This is one of the great things about a lazy day, and why I’m thrilled to be a part of a religion that more or less commands a lazy day.

While there are many reasons God commanded a Sabbath, the one that comes first to my mind is that fact God Himself took a day to admire what he created. He then wanted humanity to reenact that. My Pentateuch professor, Dr. Mcnall changed my conception of the Sabbath when we covered the seventh day in class. There is much evidence that God is creating a temple in Genesis 1, in addition to simply just creating the Earth. Writer G. J. Wenham writes that, “Many features of the garden may also be found in later sanctuary, particularly the tabernacle or Jerusalem Temple.”¹ In this understanding of the Garden of Eden, God spends the Seventh Day descending onto His creation and surveying all He had made. Eventually, God, because He brought the Israelites out of Egypt, God expected of them to, like Him, take a day of rest.² In the same way as God, people are to take a day to survey their work and to rest in God.

Another huge reason for a Sabbath, is to keep work from becoming an idol. Our society is obsessed with productivity and earnings. In fact, there is a whole subculture of the internet already doing this. Psychology Today has a good article on the problems hustle culture gives to our mental health. While there can be an emphasis on “Sabbath keeping” for just our mental health and I think that is dangerous, the mental health benefits should not be ignored (I’m looking at you, Calvinists).

Now, my lazy self had the opposite problem. The guilt caused by wandering on to #hustleculture Instagram page plunges me into laziness not business. There is no way to measure up so why try. Again, Sabbath to the rescue! The Sabbath that I follow is from Saturday evening to Sunday evening (yet another reason my family gets asked if we’re Jewish). This forces me to get my Saturday chores done by evening. It forces me to get stuff done by the end of the week or “OOPS! I missed it. Have to do it next week.” But also, when that occasionally, inevitably happens, God comforts me in my panic attacks, telling me with the Sabbath, that these projects are not the end of the world. They can be done. Ocassionally, there is, as my wonderful mother is fond of saying “My ox is in the ditch” situations such as break travel or impending project deadlines.³ These situations must be taken care of, but I am careful to not allow simple laziness to impede on my Sabbath. It is a comfort that my tiny things in the grand scheme are not that important.

The final reason I like to take a Sabbath is that it allows me to be lazy. As much as I like my ethics teacher, Dr. Jarmola, I still have to disagree with his love of Kantian ethics. If applied to life, “act as if your action will become the universal maxim at all time” is a recipe for mental illness. In addition to the stress of making you the moral arbiter of the world, it is an impossible task. Kantianism offers no grace. God, however, actually understands the human proclivity to laziness and worked it into his scheme of the world. We are supposed to take a day to do nothing. Isn’t that beautiful? God wants us to let the dishes get stacked up, to set aside or projects, and leave the floors unswept, for just a day. Because He loves us. Because we function best worshipping Him in our work and that starts first with us recognizing that He is the Author of work, not us.

The Sabbath is a wonderful innovation by God. To the workaholic, it says, “You are not God.” To the overworked it says, “Your work is not the end of your existence. Take a rest.” To the content in their work, it says, “Look at all you have accomplished.” To the lazy is says, “Work tomorrow.” To the discouraged, it says, “Sorry this week didn’t work out like you planned. Here is next week. Rest now.” And this is yet another reason why God loves lazy Sundays: To all it says, “Jesus is your rest and someday your toil shall be over and you will dwell again with God.” This is our hope. That once again, God will dwell with us in His temple.

Now go, have a lazy Sunday to rest your mind and most of all, worship God by not doing anything!

 

  1. G. J. Wenham, “Sancuary and Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” PWCJS 9 (1986): 19.
  2. Side note, this is why I do not like the song “Waymaker” God DOES take one day a week to stop working. I understanding what the song means, God never stops making His will from happening, but language matters people.
  3. A reference to Luke 14:5

In Defense of Church Buildings

Amongst the social media chatter about the corona-virus, a philosophy that has always bothered me showed up in the comment section of churches announcing that they were closing. Yes I’m talking about, “The church is not a building, We don’t need a church building!” While I do understand where this idea comes from and to some degree it is true, we need to be careful how we phrase and show this idea.

But Spenser, why do you have reservations about it if you think it is true?

I’m glad you asked, imaginary dialogue partner!

The word “church” is the translation of the Greek word “ecclesia” which originally referred to a political assembly but was adopted by the Apostles to mean an assembly of believers.  Our English word “church” comes from Old English word “cirice” meaning “A place of assembly.” The English word does have more of a place connotation than the Greek. However, even though church buildings only came about in the third century, the authors of the Bible did not shun gathering in buildings because of some superstition about buildings being wrong. Paul regularly preached in synagogues and open air markets. He did not reject one or the other, but went to places where people gathered.

Placemaking is the study of what makes places attractive and make people gather there (my definition). It is a growing emphasis of city planners. “What makes a place a ‘place’?” they ask. They seek to create public art, sidewalks, benches, and green spaces. Anything that causes people to stop and gather for any purpose. People cannot gather where there is nowhere to gather.

The ancient church had house churches because they were still a small, persecuted religion. The fact the early church had house churches does not mean the church should be in houses in all ages. They had no place to gather, especially during persecution. As evidenced in the New Testament, they did appropriate other religious gathering places,such as the temple and synagogues. They were not against places to gather by the fact they gathered at religious places. When the government wants to exterminate a religion, it is best to not create a building in which to meet, a central location that all the Christians can be easily gathered into.

After the church developed more and spread across the world, places to meet seemed like a logical thing to build. In fact, church buildings directly contributed to the rise of culture and civilization after the fall of Rome. In Ireland, towns grew up around monasteries, whole communities of people who lived around a church building. Because they were the church, the monks of Ireland built buildings. Dare I say, the monks created a place.

But this brings up another point: aesthetics. I think, personally, churches would be better received if they were more beautiful. A pox on Protestant utilitarianism! It has done more harm to the beauty seen by our eyes than it has benefited our souls. They hung jewels from the walls of the temple simple to make it beautiful. It was the house of God and the place God dwells ought to be beautiful. Usually the argument against beautiful churches is that they cost money and the money would be better spent at charity. I disagree, for the simple fact that Catholic charities is one of the largest charities in the world and every Catholic church is artistically interesting.

One of the best defenses of church buildings I have ever read comes from a surprising place. Church-planter and dinner church extraordinaire, Verlon Fosner, defends the parish model of church in his book Dinner Church. He specifically pushes back against churches building grand buildings in suburbia. If churches are trying to reach the poor and downtrodden, isn’t it best to put churches, places people can eat together and gather to worship Jesus, near those people? Rod Dreher credits the survival of the Jewish people with the fact that in order to not break Sabbath, Orthodox Jews must live in walking distance of their synagogue. What would it look like, for lack of a better term and as much as I hate this paraphrase, Christians “moved into the neighborhood” and created a place?

This is not to disparage those who say, “The church is not a building” (I hope I have convinced you to some degree that it is) in a non-Christian and rude way. I just want to push back against those who, in their zeal for spirituality, see nothing good in having a place for Christians to gather and proclaim the word. I saw a quote from Tozer recently that I think is a better way to say what “The church is not a building” crowd mean: “Worshipers never leave the church, we carry the sanctuary with us.” May you carry the sanctuary wherever you go, even into a church building while fellowshipping with the body.

 

The Other Virus

Originally, I had written a post to post this week about church buildings to lighten the Coronavirus talk. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend on social media, and being a dirty, rotten, no good cusper (google it) I must comment on it—publicly.

Pride has crept into our coronavirus response, from governments, to the media, to even your own neighbors! How did this dreadful virus come upon us, you ask?

In my (oh so scientific) perusals of Facebook there seem to be four reactions to the lockdowns:

1. Perhaps maybe we should be worried about how much freedom the government is taking from us during this time. (These people are usually still isolating)

2. I want to keep people safe and will follow the government restrictions. I may voice some disagreements, but I think the government has our best interests at heart.

I like these two. Ya’ll are mostly sane. I don’t think governments ALWAYS have our best interest at heart and yet I also think there have been times in American history our freedoms have been rescinded and then brought back (usually these cases are wars or riots.)

Now, you next two groups, with you I have a problem. Ya’ll need to calm down and take a good long breath, six feet away from someone else, of course. This “holier-than-thou” attitude isn’t helping anyone.

3. “OH MY GOSH” How could you EVER care about the economy over human lives? Why would anyone go to church? I’ll be praying for you. I wouldn’t DREAM of going out. Do you even CARE about people?

(Because of the inevitable backlash I shall receive from those two characterizations, mandatory satire warning for the previous paragraph and the following:)

4. THIS IS ALL A DERNED COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY! They want to destroy the economy and put out socialism! Stay outside and go in groups! I can see things that you other sheeple cannot see.

To these two groups, I would like to say in the spirit of Christian love: Please be quiet until you can be rational and kind. Virtue signaling on social media helps in literally no way except to fuel your own ego. We all obviously are not nearly as smart as you to concoct huge, elaborate theories or smart enough to sit tight and bend-over backwards to government overreach.

Most of the government is trying its best. The media is not helping. Most churches are trying their best. We’re all trying our best.

To those who stay at home and discuss on Facebook, continue! It’s great. Discuss! It is possible to believe Gov. Kelly overreached while gatherings of 10 people still are not wise. The extremists to both sides will disagree with one part of the previous sentence.

To the extremists:

If there is a (yuge) conspiracy, how did Trump fall to the swamp? Isn’t he supposed to save us from Socialism? That aid package is the biggest the US has ever put out.

OR

Is it better to die in your house of starvation if you didn’t spread the ‘Rona to people? Are you willing to gamble people’s livelihoods? We all have to eat. Not all of us (but the author does) have to quarantine from the virus.

All this to say, having an opinion and acting a certain way during this quarantine doesn’t make you a better person during this time. Staying inside yet wishing death by starvation certainly doesn’t. Going outside in large groups and de facto bringing death to people doesn’t either. Stop having pride over your opinions. It’s not at all attractive nor helpful. Play music, read books over Zoom, have elaborate political debates over the merits of government intervention, but stop acting better than other people because of your reaction.

In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, we all need to “calm down.” Some more than others.

Good Friday: The Agony of God

Today is the darkest day of Christendom. I don’t under those who celebrate today with exclamation marks at the end of their Good Friday greetings. Mourn, O Man, for God is dead and we have killed him. For the first Good Friday, there was no preacher to assure that a “Sunday was a’comin!”

The best mediation I have ever seen on Good Friday (apart from the painting at the beginning of this blog) is from the everlasting Chesterton. Meditate on this and know the love and agony of God:

“That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist. -G.K.Chesterton

Go in peace.

*In a barely audible whisper* Sunday is a’comin.

Airing a Public Failure

I hope to answer a burning question I, in my hubris, imagine my eleven subscribers  have: “Why again?” Or maybe they think, “Oh my gosh, he’s trying this again? Haven’t we been through this already?” Yes, and hopefully I can justify myself to the nameless void.

Having come my final semester of college, and coasting through it, I decided it would be a good time to resurrect by blog. Hopefully, I thought, it would keep my time more disciplined. However, I came to decision. Do I pretend as if I haven’t tried at least three times to keep up with a blog and start a new one? Do I use my old domain name and simply delete all my old posts? I decided on neither option, as anyone perusing through my site can see. I decided to not pretend as if my past doesn’t exist and my failures are erasable.

A while ago, one of my brothers said they were going to delete his entire Instagram and start again. This struck me as odd. I was under the impression that social media was a chronicle of development, not to create an aesthetic. How very wrong I was. Social media, I was informed, is to cultivate an image to the outside world. I was disturbed by this. What if I wanted to just be honest? However, after some thought I realized that even this proclamation of independence from image culture was in itself an image- an image of that word I dread authenticity. There were two solutions, admit I was a part of the machine, or disconnect entirely.

Obviously, I did the former, as evidenced by this blog. I decided admitting my failure, though, was the aesthetic I want to cultivate. As much as it is my horror to admit, here is my humble public offering to the internet gods of “authenticity”:

I was an idealistic young man, bright with the light of energy and the conviction my personal preferences were the mode that the world must fit in. I blogged about it. I wanted the world to see it. I hurt individuals and that took the wind out of my sails. I tried again, and hurt more people with my sharp wit and sharper opinions. My lack of discipline also contributed to my thrice abandonment of this blog.

Certainly, I want to re-cultivate my image to reflect my more mellow side and at least pretend I have some discipline for my personal life? No. I want this to exist to show two things: I have failed and I am trying again. I am admitting I have failed (a fact already present by the inactivity of this blog). I am turning away from my inattentiveness and lack of discipline. In a word, I am confessing. I do not look for absolution though, as so many of my millennial and gen-z counterparts also fail to do. I need to absolution for I have committed to wrong, just a minor indiscretion. I want to simply allow this to remain up to hopefully inspire someone else to also take up a neglected passion, publicly or privately.

This exercise in public embarrassment I hope will change how we look at failures and those who start again. Encourage them, do not belittle them. Even the greatest ideologue, can perhaps admit a failure and grow in humility.

Meta-Ethics

-For my ethics class we must write journal entries that reflect our topics in real life. This is just one of my entries-

I really don’t want to write my journals anymore. Getting school done this week is difficult. The senioritis has hit and hit strong. So here I am, writing a page-long entry while snacking on Hummus and listening to my “Study pop” playlist to set the mood. I have decided that this is the ethical thing to do, by most accounts and systems we’ve studied.

Emotivism is the most difficult to associate with not doing what I want to do. I could say that feeling I should do it is a sentiment that I should follow. It is still difficult to follow emotivism. It could also tell me to not to, because empirically, it cannot be proven to be an ethical thing to write it at this very moment.

Virtue ethics is one of the easiest systems to command me to write this entry when I don’t want to. The classic virtues are Temperance, Courage, Wisdom, and Justice. It is wise for me to do this now when I have time. It tempers my sloth and needs courage to accomplish. Plato defined Justice as “everyman doing his own task” and this ethics journal has become my task.

Kantianism is also commanding me to write this entry. I must do this now, or I will never get it done because putting off this entry will become the universal maxim and then I will never accomplish it. I must force myself to not treat my future self as an object by putting off this entry to him.

Egoism also tells me that it is in my self-interest and the interest of my future self to finish up this entry and quit worrying about it. Just because egoism is self-serving does not mean it is hedonistic. One can be disciplined in egoism. That is relativism.

Speaking of relativism, this system tells me to eat drink and be merry. There are not absolutes and if I want to write I can, but if I don’t want to I don’t’ have to whatever feels good. I really do want to follow relativism, but it looks like I am at the end of the entry now.

Dear Edgy Christians: Introduction

This is the beginning of an occasional series from an edgy Christian to my edgy Christian community. I begin as all pretentious youth do, with definitions.

There are actually quite a few types of people who fit under my umbrella term “edgy Christians.” Essentially, an edgy Christian is any Christian who sees themselves as counter-cultural to the rest of the Christianity around them. It is very important for the edgy Christian to view themselves as outcasts. Either they hold the true meaning of the faith, or their politics do not align with the people around them. Their Christian identity is more wrapped up in what they disagree with rather than what they agree with. I fall into this category. 

Quite a few edgy Christians, though they feel isolated, find communities online. (A rather ironic thing, since most edgy Christians find pride in being counter-cultural, different, and unique.) These communities, blogs, and Facebook groups can quickly become echo chambers of complaint. They complain about their pastor, how he doesn’t understand race relations in America, or how “normie” their home parish is. They characterize their opponents as not understanding the doctrines of Christ and watering-down our religion. Much like Christ Himself.

I do not think edgy Christianity is completely a bad thing. A major part of the Old Testament is devoted to “edgy Jewish” writings. I think us edgy Christians can be vital to the Church. We can serve as mirrors and prophets to the Christian world. However, if we seek to isolate those boomers in the pews, we isolate ourselves from both an embodied community and the ability to actually make a difference.

There are many varieties of edgy Christians: left-leaning evangelical liberals; MAGA Baptists; traditional Catholics; young, restless, and Reformed; literally all of Eastern Orthodoxy; and Wesleyan liturgists, to name a few. Some this Wesleyan liturgist would argue are heretics. (See my post on Spiritual Refugees.) But the uniting strand among them is a desire to change current Christianity to be more “woke” (whatever “woke” means to the individual.)

I genuinely want to see Christianity changed for the better. I want many of my edgy Christians to help reform their churches away from vapid cultural surrender and to actually think about the ramifications of their faith. However, in our zeal, we can isolate whole swaths of Christendom. Christ rarely ignored opposing groups. Instead He asked pointed questions. He didn’t write them off as hopeless “____________” (fill in the blank with your preferred opponent.) No, He earnestly sought after those with whom He disagreed. This “write-off” attitude amongst edgy Christians bothers me; so, as a true edgy Christian, I have taken to the blogosphere. This occasional series will address issues I see in the edgy Christian world. I speak as one inside the world. This is not a call to cease zeal, but a call to be more understanding and take an honest look at our methods. Stick around, I’d love to dialogue with you. (Like a true edgy Christian.)