I didn’t manage to get one of these posted last week, but I’m back this week rounding up a portion of my reading from the last week (or so).
Geoff Holsclaw | Fundamentalism is an Autoimmune Disease
Christian Fundamentalism is like an autoimmune disease.
I know it sounds harsh. And I was raised Fundamentalist, and I’ve suffered under its effects.
So let me explain.
An autoimmune disease is when the immune system attacks the body it is meant to protect.
This is what Fundamentalism has been doing to the Evangelical body for the last 100 years…
Holsclaw here is discussing Fundamentalism as it is found on the right. What is striking and illuminating is his metaphor of Fundamentalism being like an autoimmune disease. A posture meant to protect that instead attacks and destroys. And Fundamentalisms can occur not only on the right, but the left as well. That’s right, there can be progressive fundamentalism as well.
Both (just to name a few, not an exhaustive list):
- use techniques of othering
- tend to claim some sort of special, gnostic knowledge
- utilise negative filtering
- shame those with whom they disagree or those who question, whether passive aggressively or aggressive aggressively
- practice intention projecting and motive imputing
- view the “other side” as moral monsters
- ensure internal compliance thru the treadmill of harsh moralisms
- engage in all-or-nothing thinking
In these ways (and more), Fundamentalisms of the right and the left end up being very similar. Both conservative and progressive Fundamentalism toxify our souls, wound those we love, and poison our discourse. Let us choose instead the peaceable way of Jesus the Liberating King revealed in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7).
Church historian Joel Halldorf | A Tale of Two Evangelicalisms on the important differences between USAmerican evangelicalism and Swedish evangelicalism. These paragraphs in particular caught my eye…
Swedish evangelicals were skeptical of socialism, not social justice—even when that justice was mediated through state-sponsored welfare. Polls from the late twentieth century show that Swedish evangelicals continue to be against the death penalty, and for welfare, migration, humanitarian aid, and the environment. Compared to secular voters, Swedish evangelicals are more engaged in environmental issues, more supportive of migration and humanitarian aid, and more critical of military export.
White American evangelicals tend toward the opposite in all those issues. They are, as we shall see, shaped by another and very different story.
Swedish evangelicals also rejected liberal theology; this movement was never strong enough to pose a real threat to them. Liberal theology was something distant, a sign of the corruption of already failing churches, and evangelicals did not fashion their theological identity in opposition to it. Swedish evangelicals did not have to choose between conservative theology and progressive economic politics.
Swedish evangelicals are less threatened by immigration, pluralism, and the growth of Islam than are their US evangelical counterparts, to say nothing of the Swedish secular majority. To a minority, pluralism is not the big threat. In this case, diversity is a step up from the traditional homogenous secular-Lutheran society. It levels the playing field, and makes clear that there is no neutral ground, only competing perspectives. The development of what Jürgen Habermas called the post-secular society is a welcome development to a minority. Swedish evangelicals are aware that any attempt to homogenize the culture would marginalize them.
Today, America is characterized by a political polarization that seeps into all aspects of life: culture, the universities, workplaces, and even family dinners. In this moment, the church needs to look at what has been its main political mission throughout history—namely, to keep the peace and, crucially, to embody peace. As historian John Bossy has noted, the liturgy and practices of the church in medieval Europe were designed to foster peace and friendship in a world where struggle, conflict, and war always seemed close.
This does not mean abandoning politics. Rather, one expression of such a politics would be to create spaces where people of different convictions are able to gather and explore a unity that is not based on political agreement. But this demands that Christians, instead of using politics as a theological shibboleth, listen—though of course not uncritically—to what has shaped individual convictions. For behind each conviction lies a story, and knowing it often leads not to consent but to some kind of understanding. But reductionism is always a temptation: to reduce individuals to their political convictions, and the church to a branch of a certain party. Withstanding it demands a richer anthropology, a deeper understanding of the church as the body of Christ and a realization that the political mission of the church is to work for unity.
See also the Mere Fidelity podcast which contrasts USAmerican and British Evangelicalism and the article Australian and American Evangelicals are Not the Same. Is it just me or is there a pattern here? One which suggests we should not define worldwide evangelicalism by its rather contested USAmerican variety?
Tish Harrison Warren (THW) | As a Pandemic Parent, God Calls Me to This Loud and Lonely Life
Nouwen writes about his own spiritual fantasies during his monastic jaunt. He tells his spiritual director, the abbot, that he dreams about how someday God will mystically “reveal himself … in such an intensive and convincing way” that Nouwen would let go of his idols and commit himself unconditionally to God.
In response, the abbot is neither surprised nor impressed. “You want God to appear to you in the way your passions desire,” he says, “but these passions make you blind to his presence now.” He calls Nouwen—and me—to find God’s presence in the only place where it can be found: in our actual lives. …
This is the mystery of the Christian life. Not only does God meet us right where we are—amid our raucous and roaring lives—but mysteriously, we meet Jesus in his suffering.
In the Gospels, we constantly find Jesus seeking to retreat to silence, stillness, and aloneness. Meanwhile, the crowd—with its noise, demands, needs, and, yes, babies crying, and even occasional requests for snacks—always finds a way to catch up with him.
It is a pattern: He withdraws to a solitary place; they follow. He withdraws again. They find him again. (This is a pattern every parent of young children who has tried to have a private phone call knows well.) And this is an overlooked but real way that Jesus empties himself and enters into suffering. He wants to be alone with the Father, but he rarely can be. His response—to the noise, to his disciples’ constant bickering and ill-advised questions, to the incessant needs presented to him—is always compassion. Again and again, “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them” (Matt. 9:36).
In this housebound cacophony of Covidtide, God waits to meet us. We still of course need times of solitude and silence, but we also must learn to look for God amid the noise and the crowds in our own living rooms. And there we find Jesus, a man acquainted with chaos, who still has endless compassion for the likes of you and me.
You may have noticed that “trauma-informed” everything is everywhere these days. But is it possible the word “trauma” has become seriously overused? Given its ubiquity (even in theology) this would surely be viewed as a very unpopular opinion. So, I should be clear: I’m all for “trauma” being used where appropriate. I realize so many of us have experienced trauma in our lives, myself included. And in my day job, I currently work with veterans, who so very often have traumas they do not want to talk about. So, I get it. Yet, its specifically because of the appropriate use of the word “trauma” that I’m concerned about its faddish application, its overuse, and its misuse which ultimately dilutes its meaning and effectiveness. There is much here to consider regarding the hermeneutics of labels and psychological diagnoses in general, which can both facilitate functionality in life as well as needlessly weigh people down. I am simply making a plea for wisdom in how these labels are applied and factor into the interpretation (and over-interpretation and mis-interpretation) of our own experience. And I have discovered I’m not the only one who has this concern…
These days, “trauma” seems epidemic.
A group of Columbia Law School students felt the “traumatic effects” of the Michael Brown grand jury decision so keenly, they argued, that they needed their finals postponed. A handful of Emory University students were “traumatized” by finding “Trump 2016” chalked on campus sidewalks. A young professor chronicled his traumatizing graduate training, which included discrimination and job anxiety. And in an interview, a “trauma-sensitive yoga” instructor talked through her “hair trauma”: “I grew up with really curly, frizzy hair in Miami. When you’re 13, a bad hair day is overwhelming,” she said. “. . . Even though I would never compare that to someone who was abused, it’s an experience that shaped my identity and, at the time, was intolerable.”
These aren’t isolated incidents. Trauma is being used to describe an increasingly wide array of events. By today’s standards, it can be caused by a microaggression, reading something offensive without a trigger warning or even watching upsetting news unfold on television. As one blogger wrote, “Trauma now seems to be pretty much anything that bothers anyone, in any way, ever.”
This is not a mere terminological fad. It reflects a steady expansion of the word’s meaning by psychiatrists and the culture at large. And its promiscuous use has worrying implications. When we describe misfortune, sadness or even pain as trauma, we redefine our experience. Using the word “trauma” turns every event into a catastrophe, leaving us helpless, broken and unable to move on.
That hasn’t stopped definition expansion. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for example, now says trauma can involve ongoing circumstances rather than a distinct event — no serious threat to life or limb necessary. Trauma, by the agency’s definition, doesn’t even have to be outside normal experience. No wonder clinicians increasingly identify such common experiences as uncomplicated childbirth, marital infidelity, wisdom-tooth extraction and hearing offensive jokes as possible causes of PTSD.
This thinking has seeped into our culture as well. The word “trauma” has exploded in popularity in recent decades. A search of the 500 billion words that make up the Google Books database reveals that “trauma” appeared at four times the rate in 2005 as in 1965. According to Google Trends, interest in the word has grown by a third in the past five years.
All of this is problematic. The way we interpret an experience affects how we respond to it. Interpreting adversity as trauma makes it seem calamitous and likely to have lasting effects. When an affliction is seen as traumatic, it becomes something overwhelming — something that breaks us, that is likely to produce post-traumatic symptoms and that requires professional intervention.
Our choice of language matters. A famous study by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus illustrates why. Loftus showed people films of traffic accidents and asked them to judge the speed of the cars involved, using subtly varying instructions. Different study participants were asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed,” “collided,” “bumped,” “hit” or “contacted” each other. Despite watching the very same collisions, people judged the cars to be traveling 28 percent faster when they were described as “smashing” rather than “contacting.”
To define all adversities as traumas is akin to seeing all collisions as smashes. People collide with misfortune all the time: Sometimes it smashes them, but often they merely make contact.
See also these articles on the misuse of the word “trauma” to describe unpleasant or upsetting experiences as well as this article in Psychology Today on the abuse of the word “trauma” and the over-diagnosis of PTSD in clinical settings. And this: “Once we blow everything up to superlatives, especially negative ones, we not only lose the words to properly talk about true horror, we also undermine our own resilience.”
However, Wu’s third post in this series is notable because it takes on The Problem of White Shame, which contains this (potentially) provocative statement:
White shame is not an effective, long-term strategy to change minds. Shame can sometimes serve as a sudden jolt to one’s conscience, but only if it is used well. Few people understand how shame works to use it in a healthy manner. Instead, common shaming tactics usually push people away, creating an us-versus-them mentality. Whether you are white or non-white, relying on such methods is counterproductive.
Wu follows this up with Is Shame a Solution to Racism?
The article makes a compelling case that we should focus on wrong behavior, not wrong identity, if we want to unite people against racism.
There is, however, more than can and should be said. My friend was correct when he said, “Articles like this leads people to think that shame is all bad.” If we only read these valid remarks in this Christianity Today article, you would think that shame is an enemy to be opposed. One would think there is little to nothing redemptive about shame.
But if you’ve read this blog or other publications, you probably know better. Or you at least feel conflicted.
I agree. We need to expand our imaginations around shame beyond the toxic shame that influencers such as Brené Brown and other self-help gurus tend to focus on. Such a focus on toxic shame tends to be very Western, white, and assumes an individualistic anthropology that too easily isolates us as persons. Yes, toxic shame exists and it is, well, toxic. But ironically, the intense focus on toxic shame too readily reinforces the entanglement and hold it claims on our inner psyches. Broadening our imaginations around shame, particularly our theological imaginations involving a genuinely relational and communal anthropology, is key to actually defeating shame.
The Trinity Forum | Redeeming Shame: Believing a Truer Story | A Conversation with Curt Thompson – “I know you feel shameful, but I am not leaving the room.” Beautiful and powerful!
C. Christopher Smith, of the Englewood Review of Books (ERB), interviews John Swinton on his new book, Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges
ERB: You intentionally avoid the terminology of “mental illness,” preferring instead to describe these experiences as “mental health challenges”? Why did you make this shift and encourage readers to do likewise?
John Swinton: I use the term “mental health challenges” for two reasons. First, it focuses our attention on what enables us to remain healthy in the midst of psychological distress. While mental health challenges can cause great suffering and distress, it is possible to find hope and faith. Second, the shift from illness to challenge offers a positive and forward-facing orientation. Whereas illness reminds us of what is wrong with us and narrows our range of options, challenge sees the situation as potentially constructive and leaves the door open for a variety of perspectives, interpretations, and descriptions. How to enable people to take up those challenges and learn to live life fully is a primary task of the book. However, I would emphasise that I don’t try to insist on people naming things in the same way as I do. I think its important that people can name their experience in whatever way they want to. A number of the people who took part in the study that underpins the book were comfortable with the idea of mental illness. Others were not, sometimes because they simply didn’t feel ill all of the time, or because they felt that calling their experiences “illness” was too limiting and located the main source of healing in professional help. I chose the term mental health challenges because I think it is positive, humanizing and a good way to begin thinking about the issues theologically.
See also Swinton’s latest article at Christianity Today | Mental Illness and the ‘Medical Theodicy’ Trap in which he addresses something of the problem in the interview above from a slightly different angle.
The autopsy results came back, and it turned out that Brian had had a problem with his pituitary gland that may have contributed to his depression and ultimate demise. Some people seemed strangely relieved when they heard this. “Ah! It wasn’t really his mind. It was his body that had gone wrong.”
Now, that may have been the case, but there are two things to consider as we reflect on this reaction. First, the spiritual dualism is quite startling. If his death has something to do with Brian’s mind, then it is a spiritual problem, but if it has to do with his body, it is a medical issue. Second, and connected to the first point, it is interesting how medicine became, for some, a therapeutic theodicy, a way of explaining the presence of perceived evil and suffering. If the problem lies within the human psyche, and if the human psyche is the place where we determine our salvation, then Brian has a real problem. But if the issue is biological, then medicine can explain it without the need for awkward questions around the nature of God and the meaning of human suffering.
One of the problems for modern Western people is the tendency to equate the soul with the mind. Culturally we place inordinate social value on intellect, reason, quickness of thought, and academic ability. Certain strands of theological thinking can be sucked into this hypercognitive trap when defining emphasis is placed on intellect and verbal ability, with the verbal proclamation of the name of Jesus assumed as a central and vital aspect of our salvation. When we think like this, any damage to the mind implicitly or explicitly morphs into damage to the soul.
This can make it particularly difficult for Christians to live well with mental health challenges, brain damage, or something like dementia. The implication that the real problem is soul damage prowls around like a roaring lion. The palpable sense of relief that some of my well-meaning Christian friends expressed as they encountered a medical theodicy is but one instance of a cultural phenomenon that is, to say the least, troublesome.
In the first link, Swinton focuses on the difference between “mental illness” vs “mental health challenges.” And this seems like a potentially welcome and helpful change. But note also, Swinton (rightly) complains in the second about a problematic dualism that splits human psyche and embodiment, even going so far as to call such approaches hypercognitive. This is a common complaint in theology actually, stemming from a critique of René Descartes, the purported father of modernity, who gave us the dictum: “I think, therefore I am.” But notice that while we might think we are expanding beyond “cognitive” and “thinking” models, to one more in touch with “feeling,” the move is still inward to the “mind.” But whether one reduces the “mind” to the brain or not (there is a LOT of debate here, some proposals do and some not as much), this is still largely cognitive. It is just that we think (notice the irony) of the “mind” differently in a feeling model. But this merely moves us from “I think, therefore I am” to an equally reductionist, “I feel, therefore I am.” But if this is true, there is an additional problem with the terms “mental illness” and “mental health challenges” to the one Swinton discusses. Note that the “mental” aspect (along with whatever it is we conceive of here as the “mind”) is the common ingredient in both. And if this is so, then it seems we have not left Descartes behind after all … and the dualism (and individualism) bequeathed to us in modernity is encoded into the “mental health” field itself. I am open to feedback on this. If I am off, tell me where. It has just seemed to me for a long while that if we are really concerned about the dualism Swinton (rightly) draws attention too, we also need alternative language to “mental illness” and “mental health” to speak of our psychological distress. We need language that does greater justice to the “head, heart, and hands” as well as “mind, body, and soul” together … that better reflects the holistic, embodied, and relational/communal beings the triune God created us to be?
This is a much needed critique of the predatory nature of self-help in general as well as the solipsism of self-help social justice in particular at Tablet Magazine | Master Cleanse: Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women (my comments appear in the brackets).
Self-help has always been a woman’s game. Not that men don’t also seek to improve themselves, but the books targeted to them tend to assume an existing state of self-confidence: You’re great as you are, you could just be a little better. Men learn optimization, life hacks, the power of thinking without thinking: four-hour work weeks and other highly effective habits that are meant to help them build upon their innate perfection, like a software upgrade. Women, on the other hand, have faulty wiring that needs ripping out. Our most beloved self-help books are all about fixing something that came broken, delving into the psyche and excavating everything that’s wrong with you: Women are exhorted to work on themselves the way a weekend warrior might work on a vintage TransAm, tinkering endlessly, replacing parts, fixing one flaw only to find that the engine still won’t turn over, the real problem still buried somewhere under the hood. That you might actually get behind the wheel and drive out of the garage someday is a possibility so distant that it’s hardly worth thinking about. What matters is that whatever is wrong—with the engine, your life, the world—it’s definitely all your fault. (“YOU have to DO the work.”)
Is it socialization? Evolution? A bit of both, nature and nurture at once? Whatever the reason, women’s feelings of inadequacy have always been a gold mine for savvy salespeople, with entire industries springing up around the insecurity du jour. The trappings change as attitudes do; notice how the publications that used to sell spot-reduction techniques or cellulite creams pivoted to “wellness” in the early aughts. At the peak of its relevancy, the Gawker empire even launched its own version of the women’s lifestyle magazine with Jezebel, a supposed game changer that would deliver all the sex-celebrity-fashion fun of a Marie Claire or a Cosmopolitan, “without airbrushing.”
Ten years later, it’s clear that the game did not, in fact, change. Female self-loathing is still a major moneymaker, the only difference being that the relentless focus on women’s flaws has moved under the skin. Your problem areas are now your problematic areas; it’s your soul, not your cellulite, that needs smoothing.
[Notice too the explosion of “Christian” therapeutic self-help brands, particularly via social media, which offer something similar under the guise of deeper spirituality or discovering your “authentic self”; but that also seem to have just as much of a ‘bait-and-switch’ and ‘carrot-on-a-stick’ feel to them. We need more than self-help can offer. Is it just me that sees that how one’s shame is never resolved or that one’s “true self” is ever elusive seems baked into the brand (even if not intentionally and only implicitly). But whereas (so-called) “Christian” self-help will leave us empty, the eucharist offers us the nourishment found only in Christ. And whereas (so-called) “Christian” self-help offers a never ending treadmill, Jesus the Liberating King offers us true rest.]
Diversity, an $8 billion enterprise back in 2003, exploded in the wake of Donald Trump’s election into one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. Colleges funneled millions of dollars into diversity and inclusion efforts; in 2019, a survey found that 63% of working diversity trainers had been hired within the past three years. And it’s not just corporate strategy that’s up for sale: you can buy diversity in the form of books, movies, merchandise, and $2,500 dinner parties where white women pay to confess their racist complicity. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility seminars—at which the attendees are overwhelmingly white, female, and highly educated—cost as much as $165 per person. Her keynote speaking fee is $40,000. Whatever is being sold, be it a jade vagina egg or a ticket to an anti-racist workshop, there’s a great deal of money to be made off the guilt, anxiety, and insecurities of financially secure white women.
And like any other luxury lifestyle choice, this one is an ongoing investment. As a marketing strategy, convincing women that social justice is best achieved through endless self-interrogation is brilliant. The savviest brands on offer turn the profitable allure of unattainability into a core part of their ethic. DiAngelo herself talks about anti-racism the way some people would talk about training for a marathon—“I want to build the stamina to handle the discomfort so we don’t retreat in the face of it, because retreating holds the status quo in place”—only in this version, it’s endless preparation for a race that never comes. Not even DiAngelo herself can give a straight answer to the question of how well-meaning allies might put their education into action.
Self-help social justice doesn’t just offer privileged white women the comfort of a permanent passion project; it fuels the pleasant, ego-driven delusion that nothing is more important to the cause, to any cause, than the innermost minutiae of your own thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.
Meanwhile, as antiracist reading lists proliferate and book sales surge, the primary benefit is not to the marginalized communities who suffer most from oppression, but to the finances of the privileged class of professional diversity educators whose guidance is required, forever, to help you do the work. This may partly explain the dearth of solutions in books like White Fragility; after all, an anti-racist training program that actually made people not racist would ultimately render the author, and her entire industry, irrelevant.
In her 2001 book Race Experts, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn observed that practical and productive approaches to societal change were being subsumed by the New Agey therapeutic language that now dominates contemporary diversity efforts, what she described as “far-fetched notions about the capacity of self-obsessed wallowing in emotional outpouring to heal not only the individual but all the ills of the world.”
“These approaches pose as a challenge to the status quo,” Lasch-Quinn wrote, “but end up guaranteeing that the moment of emotional catharsis will never end.”
Twenty years later, these words seem prescient. The emotional catharsis is, indeed, ongoing. The cult of self-improvement demands that you fix yourself first: Love yourself before you ask someone else to love you. Know your own value before you ask for that raise. Unlearn your privileged biases before you try to make change. For how long? As long as it takes, lady. Maybe forever.
Fr. Stephen Freeman | The Gospel of Progress – and the New Jerusalem – a wise and piercing perspective…
However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Hebrew 2:14-15
This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.
We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.
Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.
Dominion by Tom Holland | A review by Terry Eagleton concerning the legacy of Christianity. Eagleton doesn’t mince words when it comes to distinctively Christian views regarding love and nationalism.
Holland argues that all “western” moral and social norms are the product of the Christian revolution. He is haunted by St Paul’s claim that God chose the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong, and to drive the point home he might have looked at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. We encounter there an obscure young Jewish woman called Mary who is pregnant with Jesus, and Luke puts into her mouth a cry of praise that some scholars believe is a Zealot chant. It speaks of how you will know who God is when you see the poor coming to power and the rich sent empty away. It is this which must be weighed in the balance against the killing fields of Christendom.
So, too, must the notion of love. This book is full of saints and martyrs selflessly devoted to others. Yet what distinguishes the Judeo-Christian idea of love from the romantic, erotic, touchy-feely sense it has acquired in modern times is that it has nothing to do with feeling. Love for the New Testament is a social practice, not a sentiment. How you feel about the person whose place you take in the queue for the gas chambers is neither here nor there. You don’t even have to know him. Only a love of this ruthlessly impersonal kind, which couldn’t care less about the gender, rank, skin colour or personality of whoever needs your help, could prove equal to what St John darkly calls the powers of this world: Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and their lackeys.
These men are nationalist bigots, which suggests another sense in which Christianity can be subversive. Holland remarks that the early Christians’ refusal to identify themselves with a homeland was a cause of scandal. They were branded as rootless vagrants who delighted in being alien, and thus made a boast out of what should have been a source of shame. Christianity started life as an eastern, not western phenomenon, but rapidly left its birthplace behind. What held it together was faith, not territory. One was no longer to grovel before the idols of state, tribe, nation and household. And as for household, almost every reference to the family in the New Testament is deeply hostile. Kinship and blood ties no longer matter, and Jesus’s treatment of his mother is by no means always that of a good Jewish boy.
You can, however, make a fetish or idol out of anything, as Freud instructs us. Such false gods fill every chapter of this illuminating study. Yet Holland is surely right to argue that when we condemn the moral obscenities committed in the name of Christ, it is hard to do so without implicitly invoking his own teaching.
We close today with Anglican reflections on the Psalms…
Our shifting emotional currents of joy, sadness, anger, and longing are like that river. Human emotions are good, needed, beautiful, and even nourishing things. Some movements within Christianity subtly mingle the gospel with stoicism, portraying the emotions as threatening or profane. They end up elevating reason and a cold kind of piety above all else. But in fact, Scripture makes evident that emotions are a vitally important part of being whole, and even holy.
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that emotions give us true information about the world and ourselves. She calls them “hot cognitions”—emotions are not irrational, but rather informative. They show us what we value. They teach us how to live. Learning to admit, observe, and name our emotions changes our internal life, making room for the breadth of human wisdom, for fear and sorrow but also for love, beauty, and goodness.
But emotions can be destructive forces if they jump the banks—if they overwhelm all else, determine the whole course of our lives, dictate our responses to others, or become centered as the only true or real thing about our experience of life.
So how can we remain alive to our internal life without being washed downstream by whatever we feel from moment to moment? And how, as Christians, do we bring our whole selves, including our emotional lives, before God?
The Scriptures give us a practice: We pray the Psalms. The Psalms were the first prayer book of the church. Our most ancient Christian brothers and sisters practiced prayer primarily as the daily memorization and recitation of the Psalms. Taking up this practice as a community, year after year for millennia, in nearly every language and location on earth, teaches the church, both as individuals and as a people, to remain alive to every complex human emotion. As we pray the Psalms, we learn to celebrate and we learn to lament. We learn to be honest with God about our anger and our sin. We learn to grieve and doubt. We learn to admit shame and express gratitude.
Praying the Psalms does not simply teach us to express our emotions to God; the practice also shapes our emotions. It gives banks to the powerful currents in our hearts. Like the slow process of erosion, praying the whole Psalter over time, again and again, forms the landscape of our inner life. The Scriptures work back on us, through prayer, to determine what we believe and how we respond to the things we feel. This makes us who we are and shapes what we worship. In short, praying the Psalms names what we feel, but it also transforms who we are.
As we take up the Psalms in daily prayer, our own stories—full to the brim of both loveliness and pain, both hardship and beauty—find banks and direction. We are honest about the mercurial realities of our inner life, and, through that practice of vulnerability, we pray the Psalms with Jesus and enter into the larger reality of who God is and what he has done.
And that’s the thing about banks. They aren’t primarily a means of control. Their chief purpose is not simply to limit or hem in. Banks are what keep a river flowing in the direction it is intended to go. Banks are what allow a river to reach its end, its ultimate aim, its telos. In the same way, these prayers of the Psalms allow our inner life, with all its variegated currents and twists and turns, to find its culmination in the roaring sea of God’s love.
W. David O. Taylor | The Psalms as a School of Theology
But what if theology proper is also something that occurs through poetic modes of knowing? What if so-called real theology takes place in liturgical contexts, not just in academic ones?
What I would like to suggest here is that, while the psalms are ordinarily perceived as the domain of devotional activities, revolving around heartfelt expressions of personal and communal piety, we should also see them as a place where ideas about God are contested and clarified, where the things of God’s world are described and defined with real-world consequences for believers, and where God is confronted directly—in short, where theology actually happens.
The point here is not to argue that disciplined and critical reflection on the nature of God, such as we find in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, does not have an important role to play in the church’s work of speaking about God in faithful ways. It does—very much so. The point rather is that poetic modes of knowing God should also have a place at the theological table.
Put otherwise, the Psalter isn’t “merely” applied theology, existing downstream from the allegedly more substantive work of systematic theology. The Psalter is a place where theologia prima occurs, where the ways and words of God are discerned before the face of God, in the company of God’s people, for the sake of the faithful praise of God.
In the Psalms, we discover words about God, words from God, and words to God. We discover a God who reveals himself through both metaphor and mighty deed. We discover the character and being of God through both the “Book of Nature” (creation) and the “Book of Moses” (Torah). In discovering all these things, we enter the business of theology. … [W]e can say in confidence [the Psalms] afford us true knowledge of God and a model for how doxology can become a proper context for doing theology—how, for example, theodicy is resolved or humanity is theologized.
In brief, while the usual way that the problem of evil is treated in a systematic theology class involves a logical resolution of the goodness and power of God in relation to evil and suffering, in the Psalms the issue of theodicy is “resolved” through an invitation to pour out the griefs of one’s heart to God, to fiercely interrogate God, to imprecate evil in the name of God, and to sit in silence before the presence of a sympathetic God in the company of God’s people.
Likewise, while a doctrine of humanity is often examined as a separate topic to a doctrine of creation in academic theology, in the Psalms humans are presented as embedded in creation. They are charged to “till” and to “tend” creation as earthlings themselves. Their responsibility to creation is grounded in God’s love for all his works—beasts and birds, oceans and orchards, creepy crawlies and celestial bodies.
Within the context of the psalms, these are things that we get to think about in order to arrive at the truth of the nature and work of God—but not only that. We also get to sing ourselves into the truth, to see the truth through a rich repository of images, to get a feel for the truth as we put the words of the psalmist on our lips, and to pray the truth so that we might wholeheartedly trust the one who comes to us as the fullness and fulfillment of the truth.
A prayer for Christ the King Sunday:
“Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.“