Historians trained in the reading of the genealogy of ideas will reckon that the current secular age we find ourselves in – an age where a religious paradigm and thought-form is relegated to the periphery – is the outcome of the Enlightenment period, a time where western man began to fashion himself over against the motifs of a Judeo-Christian worldview. With the rise of modern science, new political structures, and a humanism divorced from traditions and religious affection, the modern period ushered in an age of the “free man” – that individual no longer bound to ancient authority. God construed in theistic terms slowly began to collapse into a deistic God: distant, cold, detached, designer of all, uninvolved. This practical atheism that deism unintentionally produced morphed into a robust, out-of-the-closet atheism, powerfully expressed, for instance, in the writings of Nietzsche and Sartre. And while modernism rests on the values and ethos of the Judeo-Christian worldview, an ethic hijack from the religious for the sake of the secular, it fails to substantiate such values ontologically since it does not and cannot hold on to a metaphysics that would at once overturn the modernistic moment. As some have said, the advent of post-modernism is nothing more than a sick philosophy, inwardly rotten, self-festering because it is born out of a nihilistic world, cut off from any objective reality because, out of a nihilistic presupposition, there is no objective reality, no concrete coordinate system to judge or orient oneself, and so all has collapsed into the individual, the radically subjective.

This is of course something of a caricature. Nevertheless the truth (if I can use such a word) still stands: We in the west are swimming in the sea of the secular. But according to Christianity, unbeknownst to the whole world and by virtue of the great condescension of God, the world has already been stepped in the secular since the Advent of Christ. Ontologically speaking, religious thinking and all that usually comes with it was pushed passed the horizons of human consciousness with the enfleshment, the secularization of God!

Way before the Enlightenment period, the secular triumphed on the cross 2,000 years ago when God, marginalized, rejected and beat up, died. This gave birth to a new religious moment however: God as omnipotent is the weak human under political oppression, for the sake of the world. This is precisely the kind of religious thinking that is subversively secular through and through: A God of love is a God that is dead to political power, religious power, visible power.

Is it possible that, through the coming-of-age secular world we find ourselves in, the God of love, the Father of Jesus, has, through His Spirit, brought the church closer to the truth of His nature revealed in the First Advent?

It seems to me that when the Christian experiences marginalization, disenfranchisement, even radical persecution – as it was during the early years of the church, she is truly “intimately sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” It is precisely here, in this cultural moment, when the church can move in the power of the Spirit, “knowing the power of his Resurrection.”

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“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

‭‭1 John‬ ‭4

We are exhorted to love, to seek out the good for the other as other – a true love absent of manipulation and power dynamisms. The phenomenological experience of this love overflows from self to other, a deluge that engulfs the flesh, spilling over, rushing towards the other with great voracity, never truly limited to the mere acceptance or rejection this other may showcase – if this love’s origin is “from God”. To love in such a manner is to reveal one’s identity: one born of God; an identity that corresponds to one’s awareness of the Giver of this life and this love. To love with true sacrifice is to unveil one’s origin and one’s epistemic disposition. Only one born from God – and so know’s God – can love like this. It is impossible to love with an infinite love unless the source is infinite, unbound and all together beautiful. And so whoever is unable to truly love, to love like the Father loves, reveals their ignorance of the Father, because it is impossible to know Him and not be like Him, for to know Him is to know love.

  

Anxiety gripped, with eager anticipation. I found it hard to be vulnerable, to take the risk necessary for hearts to melt under the hot sun of encounter. But anxiety gave way to faithful risk – and so we melted. Heat became us under the snowy night of the first day of Spring. I reached over what seemed to be a great chasm to embrace her hand – delicate petals that bare hidden strength. A smile arose. Hearts palpated, as we learned how to sink into each other’s newly discovered presence. 

 Lips kissed Black Lebel, toasting to new beginnings, so the last of its dregs may sing with joyous discovery. 

There we were. 

On the drive home, God spoke to me through snowy landscape and pothole roads. It was as if I was driving home for the first time. And in the shadowy reflection of self, I uttered what seemed to transcend reason: A union will be born that will last forever. 

And so I learn to discover myself in her with ever increasing glance. Her eyes, deep oceans of volcanic rumblings, call me to myself. So much hidden; so many things kept under. Layers ache for penetration, while I simultaneously sense fire beneath my own chest. 

And so I am scared, because I feel so deeply…

This gentle storm. 


There is little doubt that our consumerist and materialist culture offers us what appears to be the dominant choice available: Sensual hedonism. To consider a life that rejects sensual pleasure as the key ingredient to the happy life would, to the minds of many, seem like counterintuitive nonsense. But if we think about this a little, I believe we can unmask the deceptive potency of sensual pleasure.

We all know that pleasure is not created equal. Some are fleeting, while others possess staying power. There is pleasure that finds its terminus on our sense organs (think of cotton candy on the tongue), and a kind of pleasure that penetrates to the depths of our being. Under further examination we notice that we must forsake certain pleasures for higher ones. The student who desires the pleasure of achieving an outstanding academic record – a pleasure, comparatively speaking, that is  longer lasting – must learn how to forsake the fleeting pleasures of sensual delights offered in the dens of frat houses and clubs. The pleasure of being a parent requires with it the letting go of lower, base pleasures that are present at every turn to the one with less responsibilities. Pleasures that possess the potency to elevate the heart and mind, and make their home in the soul, as it were, appear to the rational mind worthy enough to sacrifice lower, transitory pleasures, because these base enjoyments don’t seem to carry the promise of happiness as the weightier ones do. But these transitory pleasures are powerfully efficacious in ensnaring us.

Their deceptive quality lies within the fact of their immediacy. Procrastination (and the accompanying vices of laziness and slothfulness) give the immediate pleasure of comfort and ease. And who doesn’t desire comfort? The pleasure extracted from pornographic viewing is intensely present, as is sexual engagement in general. And with this immediate bombardment of delicious tantalization comes the false promise of happiness. We tend to conflate immediate pleasure with the real promise of happiness; and this is the essence of the deception. There is something within our fallenness that causes us to gaze at the immediate and lose sight of the substantial; something within each of us that foolishly hunts down the easy and forsakes the wise consideration of consequence, true joy and real satisfaction. But until we learn the grammar of wisdom, we will continue to find ourselves enslaved to the lie.

Homeless-Vietnam-Vet-480x365

What does it mean to be beautiful?

Typically, beauty is conceived as hostile to flaw. Like water and oil, flaw and beauty don’t mix. The fewer the flaws, the greater the beauty. Imperfection(s), in this sense, seem to get in the way of beauty. Aesthetic sensibilities would be counterintuitive if lack of proportion and broken symmetry were part of the equation of beauty, for how can beauty be associated with “ugliness”? Perhaps this is why the Gospel of God is so counterintuitive to the mind that has not been bathed in cruciformity. For the Gospel, in its infinite manifold glory, delineates an aesthetic that subverts our understanding of beauty. Aesthetics is reshaped, redefined in the Gospel precisely because it is in the Gospel we see the culmination of all that is beautiful – God – gloriously expressed in brokenness, twistedness, and disjointedness. The presence of God among humanity is weak flesh; the glory of God is a torn, disfigured body pierced through and marred on a roman cross.(i) This presence and glory of God is the beauty of God, a God for us.

Right now there is a living, embodied person, a human being like you and I, who is before God the Father. And this person has scars. Think about it, a scarred and “flawed” human being is in the very presence of Perfection. Does this person feel shame and embarrassment in the presence of Beauty? No, this person is beautiful before God for he is God’s Son. He is free to be scarred and deformed before God. He is free because he is loved.(ii) And the scars he bears are wounds of love. Such wounds don’t fade away in perfect glory; these scars are not subsumed and dissolved in a sea of matchless perfection. These “flaws” are the sign of glory, the method of love, the free choice of selfless charity.

To follow him, this Jesus the Nazarene, is to learn how to be freed from an aesthetic that is derived from “worldly perfection” in an imperfect world. Discipleship in this context means learning how to see through a cruciformed lens. It means readjusting our vision in such a way as to perceive God’s beauty in the presence of what the worldly aesthetic (iii) would consider antithetical to beauty. Following Jesus liberates us to see the whole world as beautiful, not just those parts that are splendidly symmetric and proportionally correct, while at the same time recognizing genuine ugliness in injustice and cruelty. This is possible because following Christ is following the God who was the marginalized human who was not privileged, who was part of a community that was subjugated and occupied by alien powers, who was mocked and scorned, and finally rejected and murdered outside the city walls, relegated to the periphery of social life and death.

God in Christ frees us to be us. For instance, self esteem can be granted by a God whose grace communicates God’s countenance in an acne covered face of Jesus in his adolescent years. This “self esteem” is only possible insofar as the Christian remembers that self worth participates in Christ, since the Christian self is in Christ. Now those who feel less than because of their “lack” of beauty can regain a place in the economy of creaturehood as a whole and worthwhile being: God shares in that lack, baptizing it by God’s infinite union with that lack (the Hypostatic Union) and transforming it into beauty. God reveals to the ugly their beauty by virtue of God’s participation in the genuine texture of human experience, which includes the experience of flaw and lack. God’s embrace of the unattractive converts unattractiveness into beauty. Such a transformation is not due to the reorientation of the unattractive so as to possess the elements of beauty (i.e. Transmutation), but simply because God’s embrace (fundamentally achieved in the Incarnation) is the redefinition of beauty. This is deep beauty. (iv)

So, who is truly beautiful today? Who among us possess deep beauty? The answer is straightforward: Everyone. Every human being is genuinely beautiful in light of the enfleshment of God, regardless of whether or not they possess the necessary traits for a worldly aesthetic. However, it is only by answering the call of God to enter into the waters of baptism and partake of the Table as a disciple are we given the liberty to enter into the truth of our own beauty existentially. In other words, the Christian is given the sustaining grace to “put on Christ,” that is, to be deeply beautiful. And as the Christian grows in grace (sanctification) she will enter more and more deeply into this existential, concrete fact: She is beautiful, free to be herself in Christ.

This is why it is important to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The worldly aesthetic (“pattern of this world”) confronts the Christian on every side, continually bombarding her with images and expectations (i.e. “You must look like this;” “You must be like this;” “Shouldn’t you do this?” etc.), tempting her to forget her true nature in Christ. The worldly aesthetic comes as a promise of fullness and happiness, proclaiming to the tempted that she is less and needs more, lower and must be exulted, ugly and must be made beautiful, scorned and must be admired. The worldly aesthetic is the demonic lie, and thus is an empty promise that only binds and imprisons.

 

The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of this World

The aesthetics determined by the kingdom of this world fails to discern the depth of beauty and movement of the King of Heaven, the Divine Logos. The Incarnation of the Logos is the manifestation of the fatal threat to the aesthetic establishment of this fallen world: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Aesthetic perfection draws infinitely close to its antithesis; God becomes humanity, while remaining God. How could such a thing occur? How could absolute Beauty unite to Himself ugly, frail, sinful, dejected humanity to such a degree that now this Logos, this Word is a particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth?

The worldly aesthetic cannot fathom this precisely because it is in contradiction to its internal logic, for the fallen, worldly aesthetic seeks to render those traits that are the constituents of beauty as absolute and segregated from those qualities that fail according to aesthetic judgment. It does not make sense for Beauty to join together in absolute intimacy with ugly. On the contrary, it would seem as if beauty by definition must be separated from ugly (isn’t this logic manifest among human relations? The so called beautiful people join together in fellowship while rejecting those who lack such beauty. The so called powerful ones unite and suppress those who are weak, subjecting them to “power”). Here God is terribly ugly precisely because He is so beautiful. The Kingdom of Heaven penetrates so deeply the kingdom of this world that it utterly disrupts and dismantles the worldly aesthetic from within, redefining the boarders of aesthetics by way of expansion and inclusion.

The Kingdom of God not only expands the boarders established by the worldly aesthetic – so as to include those qualities that lack aesthetic traits as qualities that are deeply beautiful – it also passes judgment on its affirmative claims regarding those qualities that are considered attractive (i.e. symmetry, proportion, splendor, power, purity, etc.). For instance, power is no longer true to its nature (and therefore unattractive) when it is used to subjugate others, generating dehumanizing conditions. The worldly aesthetic tends to prize power for its capacity to achieve whatever goal is intended. Sometimes power is perceived as very attractive when it is used for self exultation and glory. The Incarnation, however, judge’s power as it is, calling it back to its true ontology, its true essence: power is true to its being (and thus truly attractive) when it is used toward the end of service and love, justice and holiness. The Reign and Rule of God collides with and overtakes the kingdom of this world, radically in the Incarnation, reorienting all of reality so as to bring about a healing aesthetic, a true aesthetic, established by God from the beginning. Deep beauty, the new aesthetic established by God in Christ makes “powerful” people weak, “ugly” people beautiful, “corrupted” people pure, “dirty” people clean. Behold the leveling of all things: the humble are lifted up, the proud, brought low.

Though the Incarnation is a radical break from typical aesthetic sensibilities, from beginning to end God’s revelation to humanity has always come in the form of an aesthetic that challenged the pre-aesthetic establishment of this fallen world: The promise to Abram and Sarai and not to someone already possessing an abundance of children, nor to someone who was still of child bearing age; the deliverance of weak Israel from powerful Egypt; the use of frail prophets; the birth of God in a manger; the ministry of Jesus; the death on the cross; the Lion of the Tribe of Judah as a slaughtered Lamb. From beginning to end God chooses to subvert the worldly aesthetic, establishing a liberating one. The worldly aesthetic sees the Kingdom aesthetic as unattractive. God on the cross is the God of beauty, however, for here is the reconciliation of all things. But the god on the throne of lustful power and selfishness is the god of the ugly, for here is the severance of all things.

 

 

The Cross of Rome

The juxtaposition of the two aesthetic systems – one from God and the other from the fallen worldly system – is articulated in the image of the cross in Rome. The power and splendor of Rome is an amazing expression of worldly aesthetics. Beneath it and because of it the great instrument of shame and pain perfected by Rome, the cross, is the ultimate expression of ugliness. Rome and cross stand as contradiction; the cross is radical exclusion from Roman, worldly aesthetic taste. It is as if those who are thrust unto the cross are unable to live up to the standards of Roman sophistication and culture. The glory and splendor of the empire overwhelm the pitiful souls that bear the cross; these souls, these persons are profoundly repulsive against the backdrop that is Rome. Here lies the great paradox of the cross of the man Jesus: This man who is deemed repulsive to the worldly aesthetic is the “Lord of Glory.” The charity of this man, this Lord, swallows up the ugly cross, fully baptizing it in love, and so transforms the exceedingly ugly instrument that is the Roman cross into an object of contemplation, holiness, power, and beauty.

Deep beauty is cruciformed by nature; the aesthetics of the Kingdom of God is cross shaped. The cross is the standard, the Incarnation the way, because the Resurrection secures the redemptive reality of the present and future. The Christian is called to walk in this truth, and in so doing, be free. This is the gift of God.

 



 

(i) John 1:14; 12:23; Isaiah 52:14. Isaiah’s words are particularly poignant here: “Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness…”

(ii) Revelation 5:6, 8-14

(iii) “Worldly aesthetic(s)” here means an aesthetic sensibility that only prizes those traits that are germane to beauty/attractiveness, while simultaneously excluding those traits that subtract beauty/attractiveness. Worldly aesthetic(s) is a perversion of that which is good.

(iv) I use this phrase to speak of the new aesthetic that emerges in God’s revelation vis-à-vis the “unattractive,” “ugly,” “unexpected,” “weak,” etc. The word “deep” signifies the fact that God challenges us to look beneath the surface of what conventional and/or subjective aesthetic taste dictates.

crying-eyes

We live in a world that is saturated with tears that have fallen because of great suffering and affliction; a world, that if it did not bear the stains of the tears of God, would be hopeless and despair ridden. This is a world where a new mother loses her child, where death at times doesn’t seem to be the worst of ills but a relief from it; where torture is an everyday occurrence, and where anguish – economic, social, psychological – are all together easily available to any human being. This is a world, though beautiful and filled with splendor, is nevertheless bleeding and sick.

But God’s tears affirm that we are never alone, never abandoned in our suffering; and it is His tears that give meaning to ours, simply by validating our own. If God weeps – which he does, unlike those gods who merely offer pity from afar – how much more wonderful the redemption offered by God?

God is a God who is touched by human pathos. God is a God who was never limited to brute omniscience and brute omnipotence ; rather He has always been open to the suffering of His people, open to learning, first hand, what it means to suffer as human. Not only does God make, for example, the words of the psalmist God’s very own words (as Scripture), but in coming to humanity as a human being, God became absolutely vulnerable by virtue of His existential participation in the human drama. Though God remains God, God’s humanity in Christ Jesus is truly the Father of us all, a Brother of us all, and a Friend of us all. Though God the Son, the Logos from Eternity, took to Himself “human flesh,” the full Triune God mysteriously participates in the Incarnation to the extent in which the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, share in interpenetrating intimacy. This is God the Father who empathetically understands the pain of His children; a Father who stands ready to receive His hurting ones. This is our Brother and Friend, the one who lays down his life for us all. This is God our Counselor, our Comforter. God hurts most among man because God loves most among all. God is love.

The suffering and death of the Son recapitulates the underside of a history fashioned by the oppressor. Jesus’ ordeal is the evidence that God not only sees the suffering and rejection of all but also enters into that particular suffering and death. Again, this is the One who becomes the one who is bleeding and deformed, dehumanized by way of injustice and cruelty. This God, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, then becomes just another statistic . Ever since this tragedy of tragedies, never can a human being face suffering and death without the existential eternal presence of the God Who Is. God in Jesus has walked in our shoes. The Christian, by faith, is granted a certain dynamic relation with the Spirit of Jesus, who is God, so as to find special comfort, consolation and companionship during tribulation in the here and now. The suffering Christian is called to link her suffering with that of her Lord’s vis-à-vis the love and ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence in the suffering of the Christian (and, in a different dynamic, the suffering of the world) gives suffering a transcendent reality, filling it with meaning even when the particular suffering seems completely meaningless. God the Spirit is the One who establishes and brings to fruition the existential presence of God with those who are under suffering within time and space. It is faith in the Suffering Servant, the Christ who suffered, that opens the Christian to the comfort of God. God is more than a God who cannot be moved. God is the God Who, while Unmovable, is pushed to the margins and crucified outside the center of the city of God. This only happens to a God who is love.

Consider this God of love: God in Christ experiences the mockery of the governor’s soldiers. This God is the scorn of the empire; his head bares a crown of thorns. Jesus is the King who is crowned with a crown of affliction and humiliating suffering. Behold the man, who being God, embraces the suffering of the world. Look, the heart of God is a human being who chose to accept the incalculable suffering hurled unto him by his creation, a creation He brought into being out of free love.

Suffering the Absence of God

There is a peculiar kind of suffering that must be addressed: the suffering of the absence of God.

If our discipleship is similar to the process of following the earthly Christ as the apostles did, then Christ followers today and in all times are promised the suffering of atheism. I do not mean here the mere intellectual rejection of God (as a type of atheism), but rather the experiential atheism the apostles and disciples felt when their Messiah was eradicated on the Roman cross, or when the Psalmist asked where his God was in the continued presence of his enemies that mocked and ridiculed him, or even when Jesus on the cross cried the cry of dereliction. There are times when, in following Jesus closely, the Christian will lose sight of both Jesus and God. This is an experiential atheism because the anchor of one’s being, the meaning and purpose of one’s life, the foundation of one’s existence, seems to be utterly removed. Existentially, God appears dead, asleep, or absent in every meaningful way. Here the Christian can taste tears of dread and vertigo. It is as if one were thrown into hell to experience the greatest pain possible: the absence of the Fount of all life and love.

On the other hand, when the Christian senses God this is due to God’s grace. To “see” God, to “experience” God is to be the recipient of a grace that comes from the Infinite Other. This spiritual sense no doubt helps to yield a sense of meaning and purpose to one’s being, but the Christian’s existential anchor must not be dependent on those feelings, however. In fact, it is promised to the Christian that she will experience the absence of God at times. In as far as the Christian is on a journey with the community of the crucified and resurrected (the Church), following the crucified and resurrected Lord, suffering the absence of God is part of discipleship.

This curious type of suffering can be profoundly effectual in teaching us what it means to follow God. Experiencing the absence of the experience of God could open us to the truth that God is in fact God and no mere idol, if we but let it teach us this. God cannot be locked to our expectation (God is free); we are sinners and God is Holy; God’s loving embrace transcends our small feelings of God embracing us at moments within time. It is true that a whole host of lessons can and are probably taught – and are learned if we but have ears to hear and eyes to see – during this desert like experience. Christ on the cross is God triumphant; the death of God is the salvation of the world. What occurred to the historical Christ and to the disciples should be paradigmatic for all followers of Jesus.

Here faith is found truly naked. Faith must stand on the invisible and be open to receive from the invisible. The experience that God is not near creates the necessary space for faith to mature. This naked faith – this faith that appears to stand without any support – is in fact a gift from God, and is sustained by God’s grace. Though momentarily the Christian may feel abandoned by God (as the disciples felt during and after the crucifixion), the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. Paradoxically, suffering the absence of God is to undergo a work so deep by God that, if given the ability to see for that moment, would be unbelievable and fantastic. Again, Christ on the cross is the hermeneutic lens by which we come to know this.

The Depressed are Not without Hope

Physical affliction can be a horrible ordeal. However, there is an affliction of the soul that tempts the one who is afflicted to consider death as the best of all possible options. Only the one from the dead, Jesus the Christ, can quiet the storm of dread and despair and look into the eyes of the afflicted and remind her that he holds the keys to death. Jesus is the hope that stands over and against all hope that dies; God is when hope fails.

The affirming and embracing Word of God speaks in the silence of God. Jesus Christ, grace made flesh, is the one who returns from the untold depths of depression and despair (i.e. hell), seeking those who are willing to be made free.

light-forest

The Christian life is a radically communal life; a life lived with and for the other (both God and humanity). This life, however, is only possible insofar as the Christian exercises the teachings of her Lord delineated in the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible to maintain community – that is, of course, community fashioned and sustained by the God who’s intention from the beginning was community – without practicing forgiveness, kindness, hospitality, charity, mercy. These practices must be real, intentional, and taken seriously in the liturgical expression of the church if the church is to be church. In this truth, church is fellowship, the sweet gathering and coalescing of diversity, and thus is patterned after the Divine Godhead, Father, Spirit and Son. The church catholic, in other words, is the icon of the Trinity; in turn, the church catholic is the new humanity, the new human being. Thus, the perennial question that faces the anthropologist and philosopher, the question ‘What is man?’ is taken up and addressed as this: Man is with. Never can a human being be utterly alone. Such a thing would be a contradiction. Community, eschatologically realized in the church (as the community that stands in the proleptic appearance of Jesus and lives from the end), is the ontic structure of humanity. God’s image on earth is a collective.

In light of this revealed truth given to us by the One who is Holy Community, the motivation to be radically alone – to be, in other words, completely unaccountable to God or humanity – is always informed by a dehumanizing and demonic desire. It is important to note here the subtle distinction between radical aloneness and the plain desire to retreat from human community for a time. Such a retreat from human interaction does not presuppose the disconnection from God or humanity to the degree that this retreat entails the abrupt severing of all forms of accountability. Even when I am alone I recognize that I am still accountable to both God and my fellow sister and brother; my momentary solitariness does not remove from me my responsibility to the rest of humanity, and it definitely does not exclude me from the presence of the God who, in all truth, sustains my very breath.(i) In my singleness I am still caught up in fellowship (even though I may not be experiencing myself in fellowship at the moment). Such a reality is inescapable.

However, if I begin to believe that I am radically alone – even in the presence of other persons and the continual presence of God – I begin the journey of faith in a lie because such a faith is not resting in truth, but in an illusion. Though I may feel alone, this does not mean I am alone. And though I may believe I am alone, this too does not entail that I am such. Regardless of both feeling and faith, I am radically oriented towards the other; I am continually accountable to God and man. This is true even for the hardened atheist who, let us say for illustrative purposes, also hates all persons.(ii) This hate-filled atheist is still caught up in fellowship because he is human and, because he is creature, ever before God, though, by virtue of his posture, is trapped in a lived contradiction precisely because he chooses to reject the fellowship of both God and humanity. In other words, living without being accountable to God and man (radical aloneness) is ontological suicide, the negation of our being, and so is utter dehumanization.

Breaking Community & Restoring Community

Today, the twisted impulse to reject fellowship is continually encouraged by various forms of media – as well as other cultural outputs – that articulate so easily and successfully a paradigm that exalts domination, exploitation, possession; in short, the objectification of others. Drinking deeply from this well would have one human seeking to deface the other in order to couch self as superior to the other, in one form or another. But the epistemic ground for knowing self is forever linked to the other; thus, to seek to use the other for the sake of the self – a reality that is all too common – is to grow ignorant and distant from self.(iii) It is the goal of the Christian to reverse this trend, to walk contrary to the theme and spirit of the age; to learn, in other words, how to love. This love is the fount of all genuine community. It is from the side of Christ – a side that was opened and pierced because of his love – that his mystical bride, the Church, the community that is God’s intention for all humanity, was birthed. Community is always borne from the blood and water of God (as the Cup of the New Covenant, and as the water to perform the act of serving love of washing feet), which is his humanity broken for us. This brokenness reverses the logic of domination and oppression, objectification and exploitation – the dehumanizing acts and customs of this fallen world. God died for our sakes, and his resurrection was the beginning of the end of this broken world, this torn community.

Christ, in his teaching and life, in his death and resurrection, has laid the foundation of authentic community. But there is no doubt that fellowship is hard to sustain at times. However, in light of the power of God on behalf of His people and for the sake of the world, genuine community always stands as an invitation, a genuine possibility. Nevertheless, sometimes we must be nailed to a cross and set side by side with God, who also is nailed to a cross, if we are to have fellowship with Him and entrance into His Kingdom. Sometimes we must experience a little (or big) death if we are going to do life together. But the Christian always hopes, always believes in light of the victorious resurrection of her Lord. Doubt, though it may last for a season, is not the final word. And so the Christian true to her call, reminded of how she was loved first, will reach out, will turn her cheek, will even love her enemy, in order to sustain (and actualize) real, concrete fellowship. We must continually learn how to care for our neighbor – and be opened to being cared for by our neighbor. For in the presence of busy schedules and unreflective choices, it is so easy to “live” without living together; and this is nothing but a form of death. Wisdom’s keys are in the hands of our neighbors.

A full life is not a self-contained life, nor is the free life defined merely as the irrational, uncompromising, inconsiderate free expression of the will. The free and full life is the life of love, love for God and neighbor. And a life of love is a rational life – in as far as love considers the full person of the other, which is appropriate in light of the intrinsic dignity of the other – and is compromising – in as far as love considers in a healthy and whole way the other – and is true, because it is a sign of the very life of God. Will itself does not stand as the supreme faculty of the human being, nor does the free expression of the will, free from all bounds, represent the highest modality of human life. Rather will in conformity to truth, to love, stands as the highest life of the human being, the Good life, the ideal life. This is the life the philosophers have actively searched for, and is the life all humans long for, unbeknownst to many. It is only in this sort of life that we find completeness, and a joy that is full and rich. It is a life where we need no longer run from the other, but rather we can run towards the other in full embrace. In this life words have sweet sounds; hands, rather than wielding weapons, are open for hugs, for service, for care. Deception becomes only a distant memory; hate, greed, lust, become markers of a past age in the life of love.

Let us enter into this Kingdom, into this fellowship. It is the life God has fashioned us for. Take and eat, for true community orbits around good meals. Come and have life.

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(i) In fact solitude can create the necessary space to live well by teaching us how to listen and see once again, so we can be open enough to having genuine encounters with God and others.

(ii) Though, of course, the atheist may not hate all persons, the Christian maintains the revealed truth that the atheist, by virtue of his atheism, cannot truly be in fellowship with other persons because genuine fellowship can only be had in Christ who unites all things to himself. It is through the door of Christ we are able to truly see the other as fully other, without negation or addition, and thus have real fellowship. In short, Christian love is able to see and handle the human as fully human. However, Christianity also recognizes that God’s grace could reach over and sustain the social interactions of the atheist to such an extent that the atheist is partaking in a form of fellowship.

(iii) Though Christianity affirms that the ultimate epistemic ground for knowing oneself is fundamentally rooted in our identity in Christ (that is to say, we know ourselves to the extent in which we know, or rather are known by God), Christianity also and in the same breath affirms that being in Christ must also entail fellowship with brother and sister. To draw closer to God means to draw closer to my brother and sister; to come to know about myself in God is to also come to learn about myself in fellowship with my neighbor.

The Church of Christ bears withness to the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end. ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing’ (Isa. 43:18-19). The new is the real end of the old; Christ is the new. Christ is the end of the old…

Within the old world the Church speaks of the new world. And because the Church is more certain of the new world than of anything else it recognizes the old world only in the light of the new. The old world cannot take pleasure in the Church because the Church speaks of its end as though it had already happened – as though the world had already been judged. The old world does not like being regarded as dead…

Yet the Church, which knows the end, knows also the beginning. It knows that there is the same breach between the beginning and now as between now and the end. It knows that the beginning and now are related as life is to dead, as the new is to the old. Therefore the Church only sees the beginning in the end; from the end…

~ Dietrich Bohoeffer (Lectures delivered in the Winter semester 1932-33 at the University of Berlin 

Vestments

Within all cultural contexts exists explicit and implicit assumptions and expectations regarding the way one is to carry one’s self, particularly in the area of garb. This is true within the various sub-cultures of the Church. I belong to the loosely defined evangelical culture; yet I find myself comfortable with all who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior, regardless of church tradition and the sub-culture one belongs to within the Church Universal. But as a minister of the gospel of God, I’ve chosen to adorn myself in liturgical attire when, for example, officiating weddings – a decision that seems alien to many of my sisters and brothers within the same sub-cultural space I share in. Why, then, do I wear the flowing robes and stole, and even sign myself with the cross?

First, there is purpose to tradition. There is good reason that the Church for two millennia has clothed herself with varying garments. One such reason is to remind herself that she is the Church, the mystical body of Christ, the steward of God’s treasured Good News to a sick and dying world. The fabric adorning my abode and the bodies of others in the Church represent the true spiritual skin of the bride of Christ; and when she gazes into the mirror, she is reminded that she is not her own, but has been purchased with the highest price because she is, above all else, loved. As a pastoral presence to others I find it healthy and therefore good to be reminded of how I am shepherded by the True Pastor, and that my vocation is fundamentally rooted in the love and grace of God. Far from being a sign of self-confidence and worthiness, vestments signify the unworthiness of the Church – especially her ministers – in carrying out service to the Crucified King; but that, though she is unworthy, she has been blessed and chosen out of sheer grace and so clothes herself with the garments of Christ. In other words, vestments reminds the Church that she can only stand in the forgiving and reconciling love of God.

Another reason why I chose to where vestments is because there is power in image. Again, vestments remind the Church that she is clothed by garments that are not her own but God’s. But in addition to this, vestments also hide me – a terrible sinner saved by God – behind the dignity of the office I operate in. The robe and stole is designed to facilitate the obliteration of me on the cross, that my true self which is hidden in Christ can be revealed to those who I am serving. The image, therefore, is a powerful reminder that even the service I render to others is a service that can only be efficacious by the Holy Spirit. He is the One who transforms mere words into glorious gospel. He is the One who transmutes my hands into the pierced hands of Christ as I stand embracing the other, or serve Holy Communion. The image is only powerful because it is a pointer, a sign, to the One who is truly almighty. The vestment makes visible the words penned by the Apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Vestments make visible the invisible.

Finally, I find vestments a wonderful aid in cultivating the practice of faith. As a sign both to herself and others, vestments cultivate a sense of beauty and dignity within the church, allowing the practice of faith to be a bit easier. As faith matures the less of visible reality is needed in conferring to the believer what is invisible. Yet, by faith, we are taught of the importance of both dignity and beauty, and that both should be cultivated and celebrated. Therefore, the sign of mature faith is not necessarily the removal of signs, but a healthy use of those signs in order to remind the believer what truly is and Who truly Is.

It is true, however, that history teaches us that the church has failed at times in using vestments toward their proper end. Rather than allowing such attire to be a holy reminder of the goodness and grace of God, it has been used as a garment of power and a weapon of abuse. Rather than a sign of the sinfulness of the minister swallowed by the grace of a forgiving God, it has been used as a metaphor to express the ministers’ holier-than-thou disposition backed by an unloving, angry god. But the Church moves forward not by rejecting good tradition, but by using it towards good, just, holy, and beautiful ends. I pray that my use of vestments may heal old wounds and facilitate God’s love to the world and Church.

St_Thomas_Aquinas-233x328

It is a question laid on the backs of those who are possessed with some inkling of promise; and, no doubt, on those who desire to take possession of a title, a status, for some particular end. The question itself presupposes a possibility; without such a possibility the question is superfluous. For the Christian, this possibility is fundamentally rooted in the volition of the Father. A disciple is both free and bound by the love of Christ, and thus cannot take up the question and address it as if she were lord over her own life. Nevertheless, I will attempt to give voice to my heart concerning this apparently important query by positing a series of reasons as to why I think the answer to the question for me is a “no”.

One of the reasons why I don’t believe pursuing a doctorate is on my agenda is because I am disillusioned with the academy. In a letter to Ewin Sutz, a friend from his time in Union Theological Seminary, Bonheoffer echoes what I have been sensing deeply for sometime:

I no longer believe in the University, and never really have believed in it – a fact that used to rile you. The entire training of young theologians belongs today in church, monastic-like schools in which the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship can be taken seriously which is really not the case with all three things at the university and, in present-day circumstances, is impossible.

Bonheoffer, of course, writes this after his many years at university, with two doctorates under his belt. But this historical fact I find compelling: This man, Dietrich, shares these words out of the context of his own experience as an academic; and that this was an insight that was reinforced by his experience in the academy and not birthed from it. In addition, he writes these words before he begins the famed underground seminary – an institution that looked more like a monastic order than the academy.

My disillusionment follows the same contour as Bonheoffer’s thinking, that the essential’s of Christian life and reality are simply not taken seriously in such institutions. In addition, my time within the academy for ten years has furnished me with a series of insights and experiences that fuel my distaste for the academy towards the end of cultivating Christian reflection and scholarship; nay, towards the ends of cultivating critical thinking period! This is not to say that no good can ever come from the academy. This is patently false. But why think it the sole vehicle for serious intellectual growth? Why believe a doctoral program the pinnacle of intellectual training?

Scholarship, the vanguard of the academy, is (amazingly) unimmunized to fads, pop-thinking, and shallow movements. I am unimpressed – perhaps pretentiously so – by the power and veracity of scholarship so called to obtain and secure truth, especially those truths given to the communion of sinners called the church which is the “ground and pillar of the Truth.” This is but a small expression of my disillusionment.

But above this concern regarding the state of the academy in se, I am struck with this historical reality: Though many of the great theological minds were furnished with ‘academic’ training, many were not – at least not on the level we would equate with doctoral studies (without being anachronistic). I just don’t think that serious theological contribution is limited to those who possess doctorates, or to those who have been formally trained. In fact, if the record shows anything, the vast majority of those who flow through the ranks of academic achievement and have experienced the intellectual rigors afforded by the academy (vis-à-vis doctoral studies), have fallen by the wayside of heretical thinking. This is not to say I am in full agreement with the Tertullian maxim to keep the church unpolluted by an “academic” thought-form – but I do believe his question must be asked again and again: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

Historically, many of the church’s most influential theologians were individuals who were not theologically formally trained – though academically sharp – but were persons of the church (formed and sustained therein and not in a professor/scholar modality). The sharp divide of academic theology and ecclesial theology (pastor-theologian) is due in no small part to historical forces emanating from the scholastic period. Pursuing a doctoral program does not effectively remove one from the possibility of being a pastor-theologian; nevertheless, why think such a path necessary for serious contribution? Indeed, this path may help to facilitate such a goal, but is it required? Is it the best of all possible options? I don’t think it is. Especially given our current literacy, our resources and access, and our already furnished knowledge – things which were lacking in the past and could have only been achieved by way of funded and supported research and study. In other words, it is hard to imagine Martin Luther doing what he did (and discovering what he did) without his doctoral pursuit; such would have been virtually impossible in that socio-economic and ecclesial-political context. We, thank God, are not limited to such a context.

Now, if one’s end is to be an academician, I can’t see how that is achievable without the pursuit of a doctorate. I do think, however, that it is possible to be a scholar, a “respected” one, even though one has not submitted oneself to a doctoral program. My end is not to be an academician, nor do I desire to be a ‘scholar’ in the academic sense – funded by university – and restricted to a particular topic in writing & research. I’ve suspected for some time, and have seen in certain cases, a powerful curtailing effect on the creative process of theologians by way of institutional standards and expectations. Even the mode of scholarship pursued and celebrated in the academy, I find, is lacking pastoral and ecclesiological substance. Such scholarship tends towards abstraction. I do think such scholarship is needed, even for the sake of the church; nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder why it holds dominance as a mode of thought for the church. In addition, much of this scholarship is obsessive about tertiary sources and compulsive about producing something novel, rather than being committed in thinking to primary sources, as well as being committed to the true task of the church-thinking: To reflect via gospel truth and dynamics about those things that concern the church from within and without, being rooted in articulating the ancient faith for a modern era without compromise. Instead I see much novelty in the wrong sense of the word. In essence, I see the church thinking more like the world than the church, especially as she submits her mode of thinking to worldly institutional standards.

But aren’t the skills acquired via doctoral training – the seminar discussions and readings; the prolific amount of writing and revising; the language acquisition and scholarly instruction – necessary in order to be a responsible thinker and producer within the Kingdom? To this I say “yes.” However, why think these skills can only be obtained in an academic program? I believe the best part of doctoral studies – reading, writing, and discussion – could be achieved freely in a community of like minded thinkers. This will be no doubt challenging; it will require a great deal of intrinsic motivation and discipline to pursue that level of study voluntarily and without the support of a ready-made academic community of scholars and thinkers. But it is doable! And, I submit, has been done historically in the church. Sure, you won’t obtain the famed ‘PhD’ behind your name, and you won’t be called “doctor.” But who cares? How many are doctors in the theological sciences but are not Church Doctors? Why not initiate Bonheoffer-like monastic-seminary institutions and dive in?

It belongs to the nature of the world to be title-minded; access and doors of opportunities are granted to those who have appropriated formal training and certification. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Standards help facilitate excellence. However, one’s vocation in the Kingdom is not limited to a scholastic methodology (though it may include it); God, in other words, is not required to use the academy to make a theologian out of a man. Not only does church history show this, but it belongs to God’s typical pattern of volitional expression to use those methods and persons who are least likely to achieve what they do according to worldly standards. I find this fact to be utterly freeing. I also find it very attractive.

Joseph

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