The marginalization of the mystical

Luke Timothy Johnson writes on keeping the “exoteric” (legal, moral, ritual) and “esoteric” (mystical, devotional) aspects of religion together. Both, he says, are necessary for the religious life to flourish, but western monotheisms–Islam and Christianity particularly–have become too focused on the exoteric.

Prayer for a squirrel

Christopher has a terrific piece up at Episcopal Cafe on how prayer can and does connect us with our fellow creatures:

…to bless God for the life of just one animal, who has been a friend and companion, begins to have us think anew about our fellow creatures, about creation, about ourselves, about God. Such a gesture may be small, but it is significant step toward recognizing our coexistence with, our reliance upon, and our shared flesh as fellow creatures.


Also via Christopher comes this wonderful sermon for the annual service of the
Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals.

An outing to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

We had absolutely gorgeous weather here today, so my beloved wife and I decided to take a trip up to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of Catholic University and reputedly the largest Catholic Church in North America. The church is a Byzantine-Romanesque hybrid style with many side chapels on both the upper and crypt level. It’s hard to get good pictures of the interior, and seemed a bit irreverent to boot, but here are a few shots:

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Here’s a nice set of shots from flickr.

Debating Celtic Christianity

There’s a lively conversation going on downblog on the “Use and abuse of Celtic Christianity” post from a few weeks back. Welcome to any new readers! I don’t have much to contribute to the discussion at this point, but I’m happy to see it keep going.

This is your brain on God

Marvin hits the nail on the head here: just because an experience can be artificially reproduced doesn’t mean it isn’t genuine or veridical when it occurs under other circumstances.

Why would we expect that religious or mystical experiences, if genuine, would bypass the brain anyway? In fact, why would we even think that’s possible?

The ecological promise of an orthodox theology

I was flipping through H. Paul Santmire’s excellent book Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, and discovered that he takes Matthew Fox’s (no, not that one) “creation spirituality” to task on many of the same grounds that I criticized J. Philip Newell. Like Newell, Fox embraces a form of nature mysticism, disdains talk of original sin in favor of “original blessing,” and embraces a “Christus exemplar” account of the atonement, wherein the “Cosmic Christ” reveals to each of us that we are already one with the divine.

Santmire has some sharp words for Fox’s view:

His approach resonates all too disquietingly with the anti-urban, romantic individualism of the Thoreauvian tradition. When all is said and done, Fox leaves us in the sweat lodge. His thought is not fundamentally at home in urban America. We can see this deficiency from the vantage point of any inner-city neighborhood. (p. 21)

Santmire goes on to consider, as an example, an inner-city neighborhood called Asylum Hill in Hartford, Connecticut and wonders what Foxian creation spirituality would have to say to a welfare mother, a pregnant teenage girl, or an unemployed veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The message of Fox may speak to an elite, largely affluent few. What does it have to say to the impoverished urban masses around the globe, who must struggle every day for their sustenance, often against overwhelming odds? What does it say to a global society that is increasingly urban, for better or for worse? (p. 21)

He points out that the vast majority of people in the world are well aware of the reality of radical evil–a reality that Fox downplays; what they need is a message of hope and liberation. And the “Christian masses” throughout the ages have been quite aware of their own bondage to sin and evil, which is the experiential ground of the power of other atonement images: the Christus victor and Christus victim motifs. Christ the victor defeats the powers of darkness and death; Christ the victim reconciles us to God:

…the faithful in the Asylum Hills of this world are all too aware of their own mortality and their own sinfulness to make any sense at all out of the claim that they themselves, not just the Christ of their salvation, are somehow divine. They do not want to be told that they are divine. They do want to hear that they have been delivered and that they have been forgiven, so that they can then engage in the struggles for justice in this world, liberated from hopelessness and freed from the burdens of their own alienation. (p. 23)

Santmire agrees with Fox that “Cosmic Christology must be an urgent theme for contemporary theology” (p. 23), but “creation spirituality” glosses over the profoundly ambiguous nature of the created world and fails to do justice to Christian eschatological hope. The vision of the Bible is not a protological one, calling for the return to some primeval paradisical state, but an eschatological one, looking toward a future consummation and redemption:

Original blessing is not the ending, but the beginning for the Bible. Eschatology as a yet-to-be-fully realized dawning of a New Heaven and a New Earth, in the midst of which the New Jerusalem is to be situated–this is the driving biblical vision. But there is always what Ernst Käsemann called the “eschatological reservation,” the witness to the “crucified God” (Jurgen Moltmann), as the sign of “God with us” in our struggle to hope and to love in the midst of this oppressed and alienated world God creates and blesses as good. (p. 24)

In a neat turnabout, Santmire argues that it’s actually the often-demonized Augustine who can provide some resources for an adequate theology of nature and creation. The mature Augustine, he maintains, abandoned his Manichean roots and attendant distrust of the material world, and situated his narrative of fall and redemption within the context of a story of an unfolding and yet-to-be-consummated creation. For Augustine, creation is good and overflowing with blessings from its Creator, and yet the cosmos waits for its fulfillment in the end times. Within this process, human beings act out the drama of alienation from and reconciliation with God, the latter achieved by the incarnate Son. Augustine provides resources for a theology that does more justice to the goodness and ambiguity of both creation and humanity than Fox’s creation spirituality or the popularizers of an idealized Celtic spirituality.

Also, be sure to check out Marvin’s posts on the topic of Celtic Christianity and Pelagianism (this one and an older one here.)

“Truly this man was God’s son!”: A meditation on the centurion’s confession

Here’s the text of a meditation I gave at a mid-week Lenten service at our church. We were instructed to select a piece of art depicting a scene from the last week of Jesus’ life according to Mark’s gospel. I selected the confession of the centurion at the foot of the cross and used a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder as my visual aid. I don’t know that this sort of thing is my forte, particularly, but here it is for what it’s worth:


This image is by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a friend of Luther and one of the most important painters of the early Lutheran movement; the scene is the centurion’s confession recorded in Mark 15:39:

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’”

This event was beloved by early Protestants because it vividly illustrates the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. But it also highlights that the object of that faith – Christ crucified – doesn’t match our expectations about the divine.

Scholars tell us that Mark’s gospel emphasizes the “messianic secret” of Jesus’ identity. Throughout most of the gospel, supernatural powers – a heavenly voice and demons that Jesus exorcises – are the only ones who recognize who he truly is. The first human to confess Jesus’ identity is Peter (Mk. 8:27-30), but Peter “stumbles” when Jesus tries to explain to the disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, and killed and rise again.

The disciples – Peter in particular – can’t accept this. They want – and expect – Jesus to restore Israel, kick out the Romans, and give them, his loyal followers, positions of power and influence in the new administration. They also, understandably, don’t want their friend and teacher – who they love – to die a cruel and painful death.

Mark’s gospel, maybe more than any of the others, turns this expectation about what the Messiah – and what God – is like upside down. That the Messiah should be rejected and killed, dying the death of an outcast and criminal, certainly flies in the face of how we expect God’s power to show itself.

I know that what I usually want from God is for him to engineer things in my life to go better for me.

I pray for things to happen – for a job interview to go well, or for a medical test to turn out a certain way, or generally for things to go the way I want them to. These aren’t all self-centered prayers either; often I’m praying for others. But the sentiment is similar – I want God to do something, to make things happen (according to how I judge best).

In this sense I guess I’m like the disciples. I have very specific expectations about how I think God should behave.

And maybe being in the “in group,” one of the religious, upstanding citizens can blind us to a true perception of God. Certainly the gospels suggest this over and over. The “righteous” – the scribes and Pharisees – are often the ones least likely to catch on to what Jesus is about. In a similar way, we think we know what God is about, and maybe this can make us blind to surprises that God has in store.

Which might give us a clue why the only human confession of Jesus’ status as Son of God should come from the centurion at the foot of the cross. From a gentile, a Roman soldier, part of the occupying power. Not someone we would expect to be clued in to the ultimate truth about Jesus and God.

But this agent of the occupying power, a man who has probably inflicted both large and small cruelties on the subject population, perceived in Jesus’ suffering and death something divine. Is this, in part, because, as an “outsider” he didn’t have expectations, but was able to be open to what God was revealing?

Mark’s passion story is un-nerving. We don’t get the serene, “in charge” Jesus of John’s gospel, or even the forgiving Jesus of Luke. Instead we get Jesus’ stark cry of terror and abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So why here, of all places, does the centurion – and Mark – locate something divine? Why in the cross rather than, say, the resurrection?

Many theologians have wrestled with the meaning of the cross, but one of the most profound is the suggestion that in Jesus’ death, God himself enters into the suffering, pain, and darkness of the human condition–and the entire creation. In the cross, God reveals something about the very nature of divinity as self-giving love and presence in suffering, instead of an all-powerful king. This isn’t what we would expect God to be like at all!

Martin Luther suggested that faith is basically a stance of receiving: only when we recognize that we don’t have anything to offer–that we’re “beggars”–can we receive the gift God wants to give us. He also believed that our knowledge of God must begin at the cross–a God revealed as humble and suffering rather than by power and glory.

Is the centurion able to see God’s power “made perfect in weakness” as Paul would say, because as an outsider he isn’t full of expectations?

Maybe to receive this mystery–the mystery of the crucified messiah–we need to let go of some of our expectations and let God surprise us.


Lent — always beginning again

I hope everyone’s enjoying their Fat Tuesday. I plan on “feasting” on a bowl of pasta in a cream tomato sauce with roasted cauliflower on the side and watching some Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs.

Lent is upon us again and what’s struck me this year, as in years past, is just how crappy I am at living the Christian life. As a Lutheran, I should fully expect this. And yet it’s always a bit disappointing.

On the other hand, there’s some deeply embedded wisdom in the tradition of dedicating Lent to prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. For a very simple reason: this is what Christians should be doing all the time anyway! Lent isn’t about adding on onerous new tasks, but recommitting ourselves to the Christian life.

So, maybe one way of looking at Lent is that it’s our opportunity to begin anew what we should’ve been doing all along. A kind of reset button for the Christian life.

Similarly, Luther recommended “drowning” our old self anew every morning in the memory of our baptism, recognizing that we’re always beginning anew and we always need grace and forgiveness. Spiritual “progress”–particularly self-discerned–is often a snare and delusion.

Anyway, that’s how I make myself feel better about my backsliding and sloth over the last year (among other sins, known and unknown). So, tomorrow I’ll have the ashes imposed on my forehead and try to remember that my efforts are always going to be dust, but that living into God’s ever-present and unfailing grace is our truest calling.

(I have a sneaking suspicion I wrote a similarly-themed post in some previous year, but that just proves my point, doesn’t it?)

Return of a blogger

I’m happy to see that Andy of Sinning Boldly has returned to blogging after a lengthy hiatus. Right now is looks like his focus is a little more on the devotional/spiritual side of things. Welcome back, Andy!

Pre-Christmas odds and ends

The ATR household is off to visit family for the better part of the next week, so blogging will be light–well, even lighter than usual.

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been reading ’round the Web lately:

Christopher has several posts on l’affaire Rick Warren that are, as usual, very much worth your time. (See here, here, and here.)

Congrats to John Schwenkler, whose blog Upturned Earth has been absorbed into the ever-expanding conservative media empire that is Culture 11.

Lynn reflects on the movie Milk and how different the atmosphere for gay rights in California has changed since the 70’s (n.b.: a couple of f-bombs).

I thought this article on St. Joseph at Slate was neat.

Jennifer reminds us that it’s T-minus one month till the Lost season premiere! (And don’t forget Battlestar Galactica on January 18th!)

Alan Jacobs and Noah Millman discuss intereligious dialogue at the American Scene. This is something I haven’t given as much thought to as I’d like. (See here, here, and here.)

Tom Engelhardt writes on publishing and reading during a downturn. Also see this: “The Tyranny of the ‘To-Read’ Pile”

George Monbiot on peak oil.

This is interesting: Meat Consumption and CO2 Emissions

Not surprisingly, beef has the highest CO2 emissions per pound, but surprisingly high also are cheese and shrimp. I wonder if transportation was included in the figuring.

This talk
from the E.F. Schumahcer Institute was delivered in May, but it still seems entirely relevant to our current predicament.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring you Christmas wishes from Ronnie James Dio (along with the rest of the Dio-era Black Sabbath line-up).

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

 Conrad von Soest, Nativity (1404)
Conrad von Soest, Nativity (1404)