Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bloggo ergo Cogito? (ergo sum?)

Back when I started bloggging in March of 2006, I set up a series of blogging rules, with the idea that I would add more as they come to me.

So, here is another one
9.) When you run out of things to say, sit down and shut up.

I've always kept a list of things I wanted to blog about, and I always told myself that when that list was empty, I would stop blogging. The last post was the last thing in my list. It's time to close her down.

But let's be honest, the blog isn't quite as fresh and interesting as it used to be. The posts have gotten longer and more theoretical, and, not surprisingly, fewer people have read and commented. The blogging that I've done lately has spun off into irrelevancy. It's time to sit down and shut up.

After one last observation, that is.

Descarte thought that the only way he could know, without a doubt, that he was real and not being deceived by a powerful demon was that he was able to think. He reasoned that as long as he could think, he knew he existed - "cogito ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am.

I have some friends in Minneapolis who say that they cannot think unless they are also writing. They blog so they can think (bloggo ergo cogito). When we're having conversations, they say stuff like "I put a post on my blog about this", which makes me laugh because they would rather me read their blog than sit with me and talk about something. I suppose I should just go to their blog to see if they exist (ergo sum?). Who needs real-life when you have Web 2.0?

My point is that I don't want my friends to forget I exist because I've stopped blogging. I started this blog experiment with the hope it would help me keep in contact with old (and new) friends. I still want that.

On another note, I find myself thinking quite apart from my blog. One day, if I get a really good idea that is worth sharing, I'll try to put it on Jesus Manifesto, or some other such place.

Okay, NOW I've run out of things to say. I'm sitting down and shutting up. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lessons from Sem 6: Christianity for Grown-ups

This is my last post in the "Lessons from Sem" series. It might not seem like it, but I had all the topics outlined before I even started the series, it's just taken me a long time to get them fleshed out, and this post was the worst. Remember - I'm a tortoise, not a hare. This the longest post I've had by far, and I cut out a lot - what remains only scratches the surface. This topic is just too big - it might make a better book than blog post.

The stark reality for all kinds of churches in the western world is that 20 and 30 somethings (now creeping into 40-somethings) are conspicuously absent. Heck, I'm in my 30s, which is well into adult territory, and often feel like the young kid in my church - especially as I get more involved. Young adults - specifically young men - are absent in church. This is more true in conservative evangelical churches than other groups, but it holds true across the board.

As I look back on my later college years, and the years between college and seminary, I realize that I was in a place where I was struggling to make sense out of the God I was taught about in my childhood. You know, the God who is a little like Santa Claus, in that if you were really good and prayed right, you might get what you ask for. The God who peered down on us from above, simultaneously waiting to destroy us in wrath and save us in love. The God who created a world in seven days that also looks millions of years old. The God who (according to some) decreed everything from the beginning of time, yet is somehow not responsible for it.

During my later teenage years, I couldn't find a lot of good answers to my questions in church, so I looked for them outside of church - in scripture, history, philosophy, and even fiction books. The result is that I came to very different conclusions about God than what I was taught in church. Yet, in my conservative evangelical tradition, a difference of opinion was usually not very well tolerated. I heard "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it." more often than I should have. I was insulted and demeaned for my questions from a deacon teaching one of my youth sunday school classes. So, I silently turned my questions inward. My self-confidence suffered. I did (and still do) often wonder if it's me, not them, that's the heretic in matters of faith. I often wonder if maybe I'm the one that's wrong.

But as life went on and I struggled with problems with my friends, problems with my job, problems with my wife, and problems with my faith, the god of my childhood didn't seem up to the task of making any sort of meaningful difference in my life. The faith of my youth was anemic, anti-intellectual, sickeningly ascetic, and over piously dogmatic. Deep, powerful questions and searching were incompatible with the tools I was given. Some personal experiences continued to fuel me, but I knew there had to be more life in it than there appeared to be.

During this time, a couple of things occurred to me. First, that when I was told as a youth "You just can't do it without God" was a lie. The reality is that people do it without God every day, all the time, all around the world. The reality is that when people leave the anesthesia of church life, they find all kinds of pleasures that make them feel good, and free, and alive. In some very tangible ways, these pleasures make them feel human. I wondered, is this all wrong? Furthermore, the reality is that when people go to college and learn the historical evidence of the earth's age, and of the findings of anthropology, of psychology, and of biology, that Christianity is too easily mistaken as magical nonsense. When you factor in hard issues of how the Bible came to be, historical issues with the Old Testament and ancient near east literature, why should a person privilege the Bible and the tenants of Christianity over scientific forms of knowing?

I'm not a fan of John Shelby Spong, but as he talks about the absence of young adults in the church, he has some very cogent words to say:

"So what happened to the God who was thought to live just above the sky, keeping record books, invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will? The God who sent sickness and weather patterns to punish individuals? Because that's what we believed...The God they meet in church is simply not big enough for the world they inhabit."

The second thing that occurred to me is that the story of the Bible (with some exceptions) doesn't really include any kids. Instead, the stories are written about, for, and to adults. They are written about career fishermen, about murderous pharisees who have a miraculous conversion. They are written about old men who suddenly feel called by a strange God to move away from home. They are written about wealthy family men who tragically have everything taken away from them. They are written about an adult Jesus. Sure, the adult focus may be cultural, but I'm convinced there is something there.

Seminary opened my eyes to that something. Seminary opened my eyes to the fact that these questions that I've forcefully kept silent have an important place in the life of faith. Far from being a force to retard my faith, the questions are an expression of it - they are a way in which I show that my faith is alive - that, like Israel, I wrestle with God and won't let go until He blesses me. Seminary taught me that meaningful and deep questions mean that a person is serious about how deeply they want Christ to impact their life. Far from being apathy, the searching demonstrates commitment.

Seminary taught me that issues like personal transformation, and the use of the scripture, and concepts like forgiveness, love, and cosmology can't be properly understood by a set of rules - even rules written on two stone tablets. The reality is that Christianity is for grown-ups who are past the stage where rules and regulations are enough. Christianity is for people who can penetrate the evolutionary concept of power, and understand what it means when Christ asks us to be born again. As much a we try, no set of rules can encompass what it means to be a Christian - but instead the rules should give way to a relationship with God and with others that mediates the presence of Christ, through the Spirit, to people in the world.

Seminary confirmed my notions that the Christian conception of Spirit isn't a ghost that can be explained like some Scooby-Do cartoon, but is the all-encompassing origin and orienter of all creation. The Spirit isn't something that is in a different domain than science, but it is the origin of the universe, of matter, and of the creaturely questions that ask how the universe works. The Spirit is complex, wild, and unbounded, and it creates in us the very questions to which we seek answers as it creates in us the need to understand the truth of our situation. The Spirit is the condition in which we, as creatures, seek.

And the truth of the situation is that, for better or for worse, we are creatures bound to bodies. At least on earth, talk about "spirit" and "flesh" as if they can ever be separated is foolish. We are material beings, and if we are to believe the Bible, will be material beings for eternity. The pleasures of this life are meant to be enjoyed - we are designed so that experiences make us feel alive. It should tell us something that sensory deprivation is considered torture. The Christian message is that experiences don't give eternal life, but that salvation is found in the inversion of power, in giving all we have to the poor and following Christ in his self-sacrificial way of experiencing life in the world.

Christianity for grown-ups understands that salvation is not found in a book, or in a denomination, or even in saying and believing the right thing. A lot of people I interact with might say, "Duh! Of course Christianity is for grown-ups!", but my perspective is that most Christians don't treat it that way - they seem to treat it like something they believe because they have to. They treat it like something they do because they don't know any other way, and like it is something that unravels if too closely examined. Christianity for grown-ups is more robust than that. The Christian way is complex and nuanced - it is a relationship with the infinite God of creation that orients in unexpected ways, and that calls us to put aside childish things while at the same time forcing us to acknowledge that our understanding of God will always be child-like in its adequacy.

One of the lessons that seminary taught me is that, far from being a magical or ignorant religion, Christianity is for grown-ups.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


One of these days, I think I would like to get a doctorate. I would love to teach and do research and rub elbows with smart people who are at the top of their field.

Since I graduated from seminary, I've been thinking on and off about grad school. One of the things I've heard both professors and doctoral students say is that you need to have a pretty good idea of what you can contribute to the field before you go into it. My problem is that I'm not sure I have much to contribute - I don't have much to say that hasn't been said before.

In psychology, when a person has goals they can't give up on, yet have no idea how to influence their environment to achieve those results, they are said to use the virtue of courage.

When I think of courage, I'm reminded of these quotes by Thomas Merton, who famously said:
"Why should I desire anything that cannot give me God? Why should I fear anything that cannot take God from me?"

Problem is, I have little grasp on what it is that gives me God. How does anyone influence their environment to give them God? Is it even possible? Or do we instead simply grope around for truth and meaning and salvation, hoping that God, in response, will reach out and grip us?

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."

Sometimes I wonder, as I search around for God, if I really serve the right master. Am I more interested in making sure everyone agrees with my theology and my reading of the Bible than I am about the narrow way? Am I more concerned that I will get fired for trying to make sense out of God in our postmodern world than I am about trying follow God's work in the world? Am I more concerned about what my family might think than about making the gospel actually good news? Sometimes this tension between the spiritual and not-spiritual threatens to tear me apart.

I'm reminded of Jeremiah's prayer:
"If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?"

This race with the footmen of our fears makes us over in the image of what we desire. We want to be liked, have stability, and have peace with our detractors. But the shape that life takes is one of complacency and impotency. I don't want alleviation of my fears to be the end I am shaped by. I want to be made in the image of the God who terrifies me, yet in whom I find delight.

"Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how."

How can someone be shaped by something they can't grasp or control? How can someone be made in the image of that which they grope after? Courage.

Putting aside the fears of life - of running with the footmen - and deciding that something is more important than the fears and anxieties we face is the epitome of courage. Courage is the virtue we use when all our other tools are stripped away and we simply grope after what we ultimately desire above all else.

I'm not sure what comes next is any easier - it seems to me that horses come after the footmen, but should I be any more afraid of them?