Let’s get started!
In the Reading Roundup from 9.13.20, I introduced you to Saint Macrina. Today I want to point you toward an article which appeared in Christianity Today this past week – The Church Mothers Teach Us to Delight in Scripture – which discusses not only Saint Macrina but also Saint Monica. The Church Fathers are important, but the church is all the poorer if we ignore or forget the Church Mothers.
At one point in On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina draws on a text Monica had also invoked at the end of The Happy Life: 1 Corinthians 13. The purpose of human life, Macrina suggests, is an endless increase in love because God’s beauty is unlimited: “But when the thing hoped for comes, all the others grow quiet while the operation of love remains, not finding anything to take its place.”
For both Monica and Macrina, Scripture provides a script for everyday life: singing a Psalm of praise to God, raising a child, recognizing intellectual limits, learning from others while holding fast to the truth, grieving a loved one who is dying. But for both women, the Bible is more, in the end, than a practical how-to manual. It directs us to the stirring beauty of our Creator and the ultimate, glorious purpose of our lives that gives meaning to every minor concern: It teaches delight in God.
Is the Apostle Paul really against women in ministry or leadership? This is a great conversation with scholar Lucy Peppiatt.
October 2020 is Miscarriage Awareness Month. The landscape has changed dramatically in the 20+ years since Christie and I were drafted into this school of suffering. There are many more resources and much more awareness now than there was then. But still, the more things change, it does seem the more things stay the same in some places. Too many still, not only in USAmerican culture generally but also our churches more specifically; reveal what can only be called a cluelessness in which they are unaware of how grief is processed, convey by their distance a preference for grief and death to be kept isolated and private, and demonstrate they lack even the basics of a theology of grief and suffering in which the triune God of the universe bends low into our grief in the person of the cruciform Christ and the comfort of the cruciform Spirit. How can this be we ask? Have they not known the God who not only suffers with us but is the One who can ultimately redeem our suffering? There is much work which needs to be patiently entered into here. Are we up to it?
You have probably heard by now that Trump has COVID-19. You would be correct in concluding even this is playing out along the partisan lines splitting us all apart and fostering dividedness, estrangement, and disunion during this election year. We would all do well to slowly read this piece from Politico – Americans Increasingly Believe Violence is Justified if the Other Side Wins – and to call upon our leaders at all levels to denounce any and all violence.
However, for Christians, King Jesus has not left us without instructions. In fact, he has made it clear: those who claim his name are to practice enemy love (Matt 5:44). But what of the oppressor, we ask? Or the persecutor? Are we to pray for them? Wise practical and pastoral discernment is needed here, for those who might use this to suggest (for example) an abused spouse stay in harms way will run afoul of Jesus in other areas (ie., the abuser has obviously failed in love of neighbour and needs to be held to account). Even still, the need for wisdom and discernment does not negate Jesus’ command to enemy love. Jesus came to an oppressed and persecuted people, his fellow Jewish people, and commanded them to love their enemies. Indeed, this is a hard saying. But those who claim union with Christ’s cruciform life must reckon the command of their King.
Scot McKnight comments:
Here’s where Jesus was, then: “neighbor” was the Jewish neighbor, the “enemy” was Rome, and the “enemy” was dishing out persecution. Jesus counters with “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). Hence the parallelism of Jesus’ lines is addressing more or less the same command:
Love your enemy
Pray for those who persecute you.
The enemy is the persecutor; loving means at least praying for that person.
This passage hinges on the meaning of “love.” Briefly we remind ourselves what was said above on 5:31–32. Love must be defined by how God loves. From God’s behaviors we learn that love is a “rugged commitment to be with someone as someone who is for that person’s good and to love them unto God’s formative purpose.” The eternal relations within the Trinity, commonly called the perichoresis, or mutual indwelling and interpenetration, form the eternal foundations for love, and God’s covenant relationship and commitment to Israel reveals that God is one who enters into relationship (presence) as the God who is for Israel’s good. …
Jesus’ words were not considered clever by his followers; they were seen as a challenging demand, an Ethic from Beyond that mapped a new future for kingdom people. …
A careful reading of 5:48 as the summary for 5:43–47, which focused on love or mercy for one’s enemies because of God’s love for all, cracks the rock open to find the diamond. The “perfect” of God in this text is his love for all. Thus, Jesus is urging his followers to be “perfect in love” or to “love completely” in the sense that they are to love not only fellow Jewish neighbors but also enemy neighbors. Jesus urged his disciples to love all because God loves all (5:45). …
The word “perfect,” we conclude with the emerging consensus above, means “to love all humans, Jews and Romans, as neighbors.” This view of perfection lines up with Jesus’ own hermeneutical approach to the Torah. He says in Matthew 22:34–40 that the Torah (and the Prophets) hang on two commands—to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Perfection is to be the person who treats everyone as the neighbor, and this fulfills the entirety of God’s will. …
This not Jesus’ strategy for conquering; it is not pragmatic. Nor is enemy love natural. This command, instead, confronts us with the one who is Lord and confronts from a world that is not yet ours: the kingdom. (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary) Zondervan, 2013)
Psephizo: How does the cross overcome not just our guilt, but our shame? This post has much within it for rich contemplation. Significant reflection on shame is something that has been largely absent from both the Western cultural imagination as well as the Western ecclesial and theological imagination. Even so, despite seemingly invisible, it still has had its effects. It seems that shame gets weaponised not only against ‘others’ (by both conservatives and progressives), but against our own person by we ourselves. The post linked above takes as its beginning point the definition of shame popularised by Brené Brown: that I have not merely done something wrong but that I am myself somehow wrong and bad. Going on from there, it goes further than Brown can and attempts to deal with shame theologically (some of the comments are worth reading as well).
For Brown’s part, it is no surprise her definition and remedy (of what might be called ‘toxic shame’) are psychological and therapeutic. My aim is not to hastily dismiss this. Brown is the one who initially got me to quietly begin to contemplate shame years ago and I know people for whom her work has been significant and helpful. This is all well and very good. However, our psychological strategies show themselves to be finite just as we ourselves are finite and contingent beings, and we are thus faced with the limit of the therapeutic. I suggest Brown’s overall approach comes up short in at least two ways. Firstly, her definition is decidedly individualistic (revealing an insufficient anthropology) and secondly, she seems to assume too quickly that all shame is of the toxic kind named by the therapeutic, to be remedied with therapeutic strategies. The kind of (what might be called) “worm theology” her perspective tries to avoid is understandable, but even adjusting for this, the question still remains: what if there is something wrong in the human condition that human shame is pointing toward and that therapeutic strategies won’t and can’t touch?
I used to keep in my mind the image of an iceberg, a shame iceberg. Let’s say Brown’s approach helps us to address the part of the iceberg on top, there still remains the majority of the iceberg beneath the surface. In part, there may be a window here into why self-help becomes just another treadmill which only addresses the surface and only numbs the pain. But I have also tried to develop two other images. One I get from the British TV series, Doctor Who. Here we learn that technology exists in the form of “perception filters,” in which nefarious forces can reside directly next to us, influencing and controlling, yet completely out of sight. Addressing the top portion of the shame iceberg leaves so much unaddressed that we can still run aground on when we least expect it. But as well, I have come to think of shame as like the lava in a volcano (this first occurred to me after moving to the PNW and having Mt. Rainier basically in my backyard). We can see the portion of the volcano that is above ground, and people climb all over it, and we form cities and towns all around it. But below, the lava is churning and not only can that shame lava influence us and our relationships unawares, it can also explode and burn us up when we least expect it.
These thoughts are provisional at this point, and I put them here as a place marker with the intent of, over time, developing a more fully developed theology of shame. What we need here, I think, is a way to contemplate shame beyond the individualistic anthropology of Western therapeutic approaches. There is already help in this from theologian Jackson Wu, who works to help the church consider how the communal approach of Eastern and Chinese voices can help us to reimagine our theological approach to shame. But as well, I think we find that the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can help us to develop a thick theology of shame which has the resiliency to confront the brokenness, estrangement, and disunion of the human condition in each of us, and yet remain hopeful. At some point I’ll have more to say on this; for now I just point you to some quotes. Notice Bonhoeffer’s distinctly relational and communal emphasis on shame as the sign of estrangement and disunion.
Bonhoeffer, in Creation and Fall, states:
Shame arises only out of the knowledge of humankind’s dividedness [Entzweiung], of the world’s dividedness in general, and thus also of one’s own dividedness. Shame expresses the fact that we no longer accept the other as God’s gift but instead are consumed with an obsessive desire for the other; it also expresses the knowledge that goes along with this that the other person too is no longer content to belong to me but desires to get something from me. Shame is a cover in which I hide myself from the other because of my own evil and the other person’s evil, that is, because of the dividedness that has come between us. Where one person accepts the other as the helper who is a partner given by God, where one is content with understanding-oneself-as-derived-from and destined-for-the-other, in belonging-to-the-other, there human beings are not ashamed. In the unity of unbroken obedience one human being stands naked before another, uncovered, revealed in body and in soul, and is not ashamed. Shame arises only in a split-apart world. (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 3) Fortress Press, 2004: 101)
And in his Ethics, Bonhoeffer has this to say:
Instead of seeing God, human beings see themselves. “Then their eyes were opened” (Gen. 3:7). Human beings recognize themselves in their disunion from God and one another. They recognize themselves as naked. With God and others no longer serving as a protection and covering for them, human beings find themselves exposed. Shame appears. Shame is the irrepressible memory of disunion from their origin. It is the pain of this disunion, and the helpless desire to reverse it. Human beings are ashamed because they have lost something that is part of their original nature and their wholeness; they are ashamed of their nakedness. … [H]uman beings are ashamed because of the lost unity with God and one another. … There is something forced about enduring the gaze of another, as is required when making a personal vow, for example; there is something longing in the love that seeks the gaze of the other. In each case it is the painful attempt to regain the lost unity, either through a consciously determined or a passionately self-abandoning internal overcoming of shame as the sign of disunion and estrangement. …
Shame seeks a cover to overcome the estrangement. But at the same time the covering implies an affirmation of the estrangement that has taken place, and is thus unable to repair the damage. Human beings seek cover, they hide from other human beings and from God. … Shame contains both an acknowledgment of and protest against disunion, which is why human beings live between concealment and disclosure, between hiding and revealing themselves, between solitude and community. …
The dialectic of covering and uncovering is merely a sign of shame. However, this dialectic does not overcome shame but in fact confirms it. Shame can be overcome only where the original unity is restored, where human beings are clothed anew by God and others, by the “heavenly dwelling,” the temple of God (2 Cor. 5:2ff). Shame can be overcome only by enduring an act of ultimate shaming, namely, inevitable exposure before God. … Shame can be overcome only by being put to shame through the forgiveness of sin, which means through the restoration of community with God and human beings. … Shame reminds human beings of their disunion with God and one another. (Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6) Fortress Press, 2005: 303-7)
Related to the above – Outside In: What do we see when we look at ourselves? by Alan Jacobs
This essay has been, I hope it is now clear, a series of stories of evasion. Human beings wish to believe in a pure and good inner self led astray by “cultural forces”; or a conflicted self that is concerned not with righteousness but only with happiness and unhappiness; or a self afflicted by and seeking to throw off the burden of a flawed and inadequate past; or no self at all. We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us, that whatever it is causes us to do what is wrong, and that we cannot plausibly blame that wrongdoing wholly on external forces. …
We will tell ourselves almost any tale—we will look at Jerusalem and claim to see only stones; we will describe all our sins and crimes from the outside in—rather than confront the darkness of our nature. Surely when we see such corruption we are merely the victims of a “distorting glass.” Because, if what we see in that glass is true, then we can have only one cry: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
So, so good! Steve Bezner: The Attraction of Antifa (and the alternative story of Jesus)
You’re looking for meaning? Grace is the ultimate. Grace is free. Grace is unmerited. Grace is there for the taking, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. I can see no purpose or meaning higher than Grace. Grace is John Coltrane; it is a love supreme.
Grace will take anyone in her path—even members of Antifa and armed militias. Those individuals may be bent on violence today, but grace has a way of changing us once we truly taste it. Grace rolling over our lips rewires the way we think, overturns the way we interact, clarifies the way we perceive others. And it is Grace alone that can do this. As Robert Farrar Capon says, “Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale.”
It is grace alone that gives us the eyes of God, that allows us to love those in our paths with the heart of God.
It is grace alone that fuels our own transformation, discovering how God deeply loves us.
It is grace alone that drives God to reconcile the world unto Himself.
It is grace alone that fuels our Story.
May we tell it. May we live it.