The Impotence of Anger

We overestimate the power of anger to correct injustice.

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I was reading the Epistle of James recently when I was stopped by what he says in Chapter 1, Verses 19-20:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

 I was taken aback when I read …your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. What an unexpected thing to say. We generally believe that when an injustice is done, anger is indeed the proper response, especially if we can direct our anger towards the one who has committed the injustice.

We see anger being constantly expressed in both our public and our private life today. America is in constant turmoil as one aggrieved group after another expresses its deep anger through protest marches, Facebook attacks, Twitter exchanges, irate commentaries on TV and in print media, road rage, and personal screaming at one another. Rage reigns as the spirit of our age.

Anger, I think, is an appropriate response to injustice done towards ourselves or others that we care about. Injustice injures the sense of fairness, harmony, and wholeness that we instinctively believe should characterize human living.

And I believe that expression of our aggrieved feelings is healthier than letting them lie unexpressed within our inner selves where they fester into something sick and malevolent. Repressed anger can breed depression. It can also break out in acts of explosive violence, as in many of the mass shootings today. When the magna within a volcano is blocked from flowing out naturally, the interior pressure builds up to the point where release can only come through a fearsome explosion.

There is, therefore, health in letting anger express itself. As my wife often reminds me, she must vent when the inner pressures become too great. That allows her to return to a sense of calm. I think that is true for most human beings.

Trying to Understand James

So why does James say what he does? I want to know more about his thinking. The context, however, does not provide it. James gives no explanation for what he says. I am left to speculate. Here’s where my thoughts lead me.

If expressing anger is a healthy release of painful emotion, employing anger as a tool for achieving change in another person or in a society is another matter. I wonder if that is not what James is driving at when he writes, …your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Anger is a poor tool for changing other people for one good reason. When we direct our anger at another person, that other person is most likely to feel attacked. Because they feel attacked, they harden their defenses, not soften them.

Whether they see some truth in our anger, they still are likely to close up, not open up. And since they feel attacked, they defend themselves by counterattack. The situation tends to become uglier and uglier as battle lines harden and emotions get hotter and hotter.

We see this, for example, with many of the angry pro-life protestors who gather outside abortion clinics and try to block access, disrupt operations, and shame those entering or working inside. Such protests seldom lead to any real change in the situation or even fruitful conversation between the two sides, whether anti-abortion or pro.

I see this phenomenon as well in much of the political discourse in our country today. Anger from those who oppose or even despise Trump hardens those who support Trump. The rage of those who support Trump hardens those who oppose him. In such a climate, anger seldom leads to any transforming change of attitudes. We do not change our opponents’ attitudes. We just harden them.

I wonder if James’ attitude may not reflect his own reflections on the narratives in the Old Testament. The prophets are full of denunciations of Israel’s sins and injustice. These denunciations are said to be the words of God, expressing God’s anger at what he sees.

But did the denunciations lead to serious spiritual change? On the whole, they did not. Israel continued in its ways until catastrophe brought the ways of wayward Israel to a calamitous end. Even God’s own anger does not seem to have been effective in advancing his righteous order for life. If God was to find a way to set things right in the world (another meaning of the biblical word righteousness), then it had to be in a way different from the outpouring of divine wrath.

So we come to the New Testament message that God so loved the world, the disordered world of injustice, that God sent his Son to set things right through the way of sacrificial love.

Working for Real Change

This then leads to the question: How is real change achieved in situations of injustice? Not by violent expressions of anger, but by engagement in concrete constructive actions to remedy and transform the injustice. One enters into the social trenches and works in whatever way one can to bring first compassion and then change to the situation. Jesus sets the example and calls us to follow him.

Such an approach does not work transformations overnight. It often encounters frustrations and setbacks or even dramatic reversals (as happened to African-Americans in the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies). Jesus’ work of compassionate ministry landed him on a cross.

But the wisdom of Jesus’ parable about the seeds (Mark 4:1-9, 13-20) is that some of the seeds we plant in our actions do sprout, blossom, and produce an abundant harvest. And the seeds that Jesus planted in his own ministry have certainly done that.

This is not to say that protest marches and other public expressions of anger are illegitimate. They do an important job of expressing the anger and frustration that people feel about injustice. They turn the spotlight on that injustice, which is an important first step in correcting it. But public and private expressions of anger seldom motivate the perpetrators of injustice to change. They just fuel even more hardened conflict.

Is this then why James says what he does? Do my speculations make sense, or do victims of injustice hear them as a cop-out? I am curious what you my readers think.

 

Flesh Finds Its Fulfillment

Death is not the ultimate destiny for our mortal flesh.

I find it hard to make sense at times of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I get the gist of the author’s argument. He is trying to persuade some wavering Christians to remain firm in their allegiance to Jesus.

What I find hard to follow is the support arguments he makes for his case. For one, he makes constant references to the old Jewish temple and sacrificial rituals. If we are not familiar with them, as most modern Christians are not, then we will find the arguments he makes based upon them puzzling.

For two, the author is well versed in the Greek literary culture. He writes elegant Greek. He also slides in and out of the Greek practice of interpreting narratives as allegory. He sees aspects of the Old Testament story as prefiguring the events that happened with Jesus. This is not quite seeing Old Testament details as spiritual symbolism, but it’s not far from that. That can challenge our attempts to understand his argument, too.

Yet his imagery and phrasing can prove highly provocative to the imagination. They stick in our minds like thistle burrs. We have a hard time shaking them out. They have left an enduring impact on Christian worship language and theology.

The Example of Melchizedek

Let me give one example. The author makes a big deal about the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in the Old Testament. He is described in Genesis 14 as the priest-king of Salem, the future city of Jerusalem. He greets Abraham after his victory over four kings. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek in turn entertains Abraham with a meal of bread and wine.

Early Christian readers noted that small detail. They saw it as prefiguring the Christian Eucharist. And so in Christian iconography, Melchizedek’s reception of Abraham is linked to the celebration of the mass.

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The mosaic of Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century A.D.

A beautiful example appears in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There a mosaic shows Melchizedek offering a sacrifice of bread in front of something that looks like a Christian altar. His bread is clearly prefiguring the bread that will be consecrated in this spot in the Christian Eucharist.

Entering the Inner Sanctuary

 It was a different detail, however, that caught my attention as I was reading Hebrews recently. In chapter 10, the author writes:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)

The point of the passage is found in the last sentence. The author repeats once again his admonition to remain steady in faith. He has been repeating this theme throughout the letter.

We can be resolute in faith, he argues, because Jesus has opened the way into the inner temple. Here he is alluding to the curtain that separated the most inner sanctum of the Jewish temple, the Holy of Holies, from the less sacred Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter this inner room. And that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

Now the author of Hebrews employs this imagery to express a spiritual reality that the earthly reality points to. The inner sanctum is the presence of God. We can confidently enter into that presence because Jesus has opened the curtain that separates us from the presence of God.

The Curtain of Flesh

Here’s the detail that grabbed my attention. The author says in a parenthetic phrase that that spiritual curtain is our earthly flesh. By having lived a life of faithfulness in the flesh—a flesh he shares with all of us human beings—Jesus has opened the way into God’s presence.

When I read that, this detail became the burr that stuck in my mind and provoked some further reflection.

It is an axiom of Christian spirituality that God is spirit. As invisible spirit, God cannot be perceived directly by the sensory organs of our bodies. We cannot see God with our eyes nor hear him with our ears. In that respect our material bodies are a barrier to spiritual perception.

We can only perceive God’s presence indirectly, through the effects God has in his actions in the world. That’s why I think the traditional proof for God’s existence based upon the world’s design has such persuasive power, even if it does not provide a logic-tight proof. We sense the presence of a creative power behind the beautiful universe we observe with our senses and our scientific tools.

And that is how it must be as long as we remain creatures of flesh. In that sense, I resonate with what the author of Hebrews says when he identifies the obscuring curtain with our material flesh.

But what if our flesh can come to perceive spirit? What if our flesh can be given the right perceptive capability? That is, I believe, the good news of the Christian gospel. For the destiny of the material universe–and the destiny of each of us as material human beings–is ultimately to be so infused with God’s Spirit that we can come to perceive God’s presence directly. The barrier of flesh is transcended.

The Role of Resurrection

And how does that happen? By a transformation of the flesh in the experience of resurrection. In the resurrection we become, indeed the whole universe becomes, material bodies which unite with spirit in a perfect and fulfilling union. As a result of that union, we become capable of perceiving the world of spirit in a way we could not before.*

This transforming experience seems to be what the apostle Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says of the resurrection that lies ahead:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians 15:42-46)

Our experience of life in the flesh is one of both pleasure and pain. It is a life of mutability, for our bodies are always in flux. It is one of health and of disease. It is one of amazing ability (witness Olympic athletes) and one of disability and limiting injuries. It is one of creativity and one of staleness. It is one of vitality, and one that ends in total loss that comes with death.

It is these facts of life that made the ancient Greeks so disdainful of material life. In the great Platonic vision, salvation meant escape from this imperfect, mutable existence and arrival in the static, but perfect world of spirit (the world of the Forms). Christian spirituality has inherited much of this disdain in its various forms of extreme asceticism.

But that is not the vision of the New Testament. When Christians proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, they held out to the world an unprecedented hope. They saw the destiny of human beings–and ultimately of the whole universe–to be a glorious transformation when material existence is not abolished, but raised to a high and glorious existence, in which matter and spirit are so interfused that they become one.

We see this vision described with great vividness in the vision of the new Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21-22.

The Practical Point

Now what is the practical, here-and-now point of this Christian vision? It means Christians are called to care deeply about life now in the flesh. In caring for that life here and now we are stewards with God in working to bring material life to its glorious destiny.

We do not run away from the demands placed upon us by daily living, demands that we encounter in carrying for our families and earning our living in our jobs. We pursue with all our energies the search for healing for bodies and minds. We work to nurture the well-being of our environment and the earth’s climate. We care deeply about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, for we work to help them rise to their glorious destiny too.

And yet we do all this well aware that the eternal is not the same as the material existence we now live. Therefore there is nothing about our present material existence that is of supreme value. We do not turn material existence into idolatry. We long for a glorious destiny that has not yet arrived in its fulness. All of the material creation must pass through the door of death before it can emerge into resurrection.**

I am aware that what I am writing may sound just as strange as the language of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I am trying to describe a vision I have of creation and life that I cannot describe with full precision because it is not yet here. Yet I glimpse hints of it throughout the New Testament.

We can sometimes feel about our lives that we are stuck in the mud, as if we are turtles crawling through the muck of a fetid swamp. That, to some degree, is life in the flesh. Yet the Christian gospel tells us that is not a fully correct perception. The swamp will someday be transformed into a beautiful paradise garden, fed by all the life that was the swamp. And we turtles will one day sprout wings so we can soar through this garden like dragonflies.

In the meantime, let us–as the author of Hebrews might counsel–keep up our faithful crawling encouraged and buoyed by our vision of the glorious destiny that is coming in God’s providential timing.

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* If I understand the theology of Teilhard de Chardin correctly, this is what he means by his Omega Point. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, his writings can be challenging to read, but they linger in my mind and continually stimulate my thought. What I write in this post would not be possible without the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on my own thinking.

** In saying that, I think of the strange phenomena of black holes in our universe. I wonder if we cannot think of black holes as the form of death that stars experience. What happens to a star when it is sucked into a black hole? Does it dissolve away? Or does it go through some kind of resurrection experience? Who knows? But the message of the gospel might suggest that in the black hole experience stars too undergo some kind of mysterious transformation.

 

David and Jonathan

The amazing friendship that should never have been.

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Jonathan and David embrace in friendship. From a 13th century French illuminated manuscript.

One of the grace notes in the Old Testament narratives is the various references to the passionate friendship between David and Jonathan.* When we encounter the first mention, we find the text telling us:

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1)

What strikes me about the sentence is that phrase Jonathan loved him as his own soul. It suggests the depth of feeling that Jonathan feels for this young man who has just slain the fearsome giant Goliath.

Another glimpse of the depth of Jonathan’s feelings comes two verses later. The text tells us:

Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:3-4)

Jonathan is so attached to David that he literally gives David the garments of his warrior honor: his robe, his armor, and his arms. It is an astonishing gift of liberality in a deeply warrior culture. And also an expensive gift. Armor was something so expensive that only the elite could wear it.

As we read on in 1 Samuel, we learn that this attachment between the two men is not a passing fancy. As David’s popularity with the public grows, it incites deep jealousy in King Saul. Saul begins to see and fear David as a rival. He also begins to entertain plans to kill this rival.

Jonathan tries to dampen his father’s fears by becoming an advocate for David. He reminds Saul of David’s bravery and his service to the kingdom. He asks his father, You saw it, and rejoiced; why then will you sin against an innocent person by killing David without cause? (1 Samuel 19:1-7)

 Jonathan can pacify his father’s fears only temporarily. When Saul again makes plans to kill David, Jonathan sends a coded message to David to flee for his life. David is no longer safe in the royal court. As the two friends part—never to see each other again alive—we again get a glimpse of the passionate attachment between the two young men.

The text tells us:

As soon as the boy [who had been instrumental in delivering the coded message] had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap, and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept more. (1 Samuel 20:41)

An Inter-generational Bond

Jonathan goes on to say to David:

Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’ (1 Samuel 20:42)

This friendship has become something more than a normal friendship. It has become a spiritual bond that will extend beyond their own lifetimes to their descendants.

We also note that the attachment is deeply mutual, as the text makes a special point that David wept more.

Some modern readers have asked if this friendship was something more than emotional. Was it homoerotic? Is there a hint of that in the detail that they kissed each other? But what kind of kiss was it? Was it erotic or just a kiss of deep affection?

Another hint occurs in David’s lament over Jonathan’s death when he describes his love for Jonathan as passing his love of women. I contend we can spin too much speculation from these details. The Bible draws a tantalizing veil over the nature of their friendship.

Later details in the Biblical narrative make clear that this deep attachment never waned. When Jonathan dies in battle with the Philistines, David launches into a passionate lament over the death of Saul and his son (2 Samuel 1:17-26). His tribute to Jonathan is especially poignant:

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.

            I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

            your love to me was wonderful,

            passing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)

And David honors the bond that Jonathan saw as passing into future generations. When David learns that Jonathan left behind a handicapped son, Mephibosheth, David brings this son to live in the royal compound and provides him with a royal pension. The text says David treats the young boy as if he were one of his own sons. (2 Samuel 9)

An Improbable Friendship

What the stories about David and Jonathan bear witness to is the enormous prestige the ancient world gave to friendship. It was regarded as the highest form of human relationship, a far higher and often more intimate relationship than marriage. It possessed especially high value in the warrior cultures of ancient times. We find another passionate example in the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus described in Homer’s Illiad.

I discuss the reasons for this prestige in another of my blog postings Jesus’ Privileged Friends. You can click on it if you wish to learn more about the reasons ancient people so highly valued friendship.

But what is particularly striking about the friendship between Jonathan and David is that it should never have happened. Jonathan was after all a royal prince, the son of Israel’s King Saul. He, therefore, had higher social status that David, that upstart who had once served as a lowly shepherd herding sheep.

As we read the Biblical text, we learn that David indeed became a serious threat to the throne of King Saul. He in fact succeeded Saul as king of Israel. Saul hunted down David to kill this rival. He had good political reasons for doing so. This should have given Jonathan every reason for dropping this now politically inconvenient friend.

And yet the Biblical text tells us that the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Jonathan remained loyal to David for the rest of his short life. And on the different occasions when he protected David from his father’s murderous rages, he put loyalty to his friend above loyalty to his father the king. It would be hard to find a similar example in all the many annals of royal dynasties in human history.

Likewise, as we have seen, David remained loyal to Jonathan, even beyond Jonathan’s death.

How can any of this have happened? It is a marvel among marvels. And a testimony to the power of passionate friendship.

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* The accounts are scattered throughout 1 and 2 Samuel. They include: 1 Samuel 18:1-5; 1 Samuel 19:1-7; 1 Samuel 20; 2 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 9; 2 Samuel 21:7

Snow Fall in Advent

How a blizzard brings to mind one of Jesus’ parables.

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One of my favorite parables of Jesus is his story of the ten wise and foolish bridesmaids who await the arrival of a long-delayed bridegroom and his wedding procession. We find it in Matthew 25:1-13.

The parable is commonly read during the Advent Season. It has inspired many artistic interpretations. My favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach’s gorgeous cantata, Wachet Auf.

As I was thinking about the parable recently, my thoughts drifted. I recalled a December blizzard that blanketed our region several years ago. The memory inspired this poem:

 

It snowed last night.

In the morning light

I gazed upon a vanished landscape

As if a frozen volcano had exploded

And buried all in layers of white ash.

Everything low had disappeared:

The autumn leaves,

The hibernating grass on the brown earth,

The rose bushes that stand sentinel

Against the house wall.

The garden sculptures poked their heads

Out of their snow graves

As if gasping for one last breath.

Sidewalks were gone, so were streets.

One did not know where to avoid

The drain ditches that carry off the rain water.

The groaning trees lifted their branches

Into the air

As if in prayer

To be relieved of their white anxieties.

In a cloudless sky

The sun beamed upon the land

As if a priest were bestowing his blessing.

The land radiated back the benediction.

My eyes could not absorb such beauty.

I had to don dark glasses

When I stepped out to walk the dog.

She tried to dig a pathway

To the lawn, like a locomotive

Pushing its way through a snow-bound mountain pass.

She did not get far. She peed,

Then made a beeline back inside.

As a breeze whiffed over the drift tops,

Worries like snow tumbleweeds spilled into my head.

Would the road get plowed in time

For the school buses to make their rounds?

Would I make it into work?

Blizzards are like Advent.

They demand that we let go,

Take our seat by the gate,

Trim our oil lamps,

And await the coming of the Bridegroom.

 

Pioneer Jesus

Precisely because he is a full human being, Jesus can open to us the pathway into wholeness.

 I was reading the Epistle of the Hebrews when I came to this passage, as it is translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)

As sometime happens when I am reading a passage, one word jumps off the page and grabs my attention. In this case, it was the author describing Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation. That word pioneer seemed an odd choice.

When I hear the word pioneer, what first comes to mind is this definition: one of those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others. * So I think of childhood heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who launched into the virgin lands of the American West and opened them for settlement.

Why use this word to describe Jesus? That’s the question I asked myself. I wondered what was the Greek word that lies behind this translation. Consulting the Greek text, I found it was the word archegos. I opened my Greek dictionary to see what meaning it might assign to this word.

The first meaning the dictionary gave it was: a leader, a ruler, a prince. That made sense in that one meaning of the Greek word arche is rule or office. But then the dictionary gave the word archegos the additional meaning of: one who begins something, an originator, a founder. That, too, made sense in that the primary meaning of arche is beginning.

Given these meanings, why did the translation team select the word pioneer? Since I cannot talk with one of team, I must hazard a guess. Certainly Jesus could be regarded as the Christian’s leader or ruler. But I noticed the context places great emphasis on the importance of Jesus’ sufferings.

The importance of Jesus’ sufferings comes up again in a later passage: Hebrews 4:14-16. There we read that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he was one who was tested just as we are, but came through the tests into victory. The author counsels his readers, therefore, to approach the throne of grace boldly in their prayers. The one who sits on that throne is not a harsh, unfeeling judge, but one who understands our challenges because he has experienced them too.

Opening a Spiritual Mountain Pass

Here is where the translation pioneer begins to resonate for me. The author of Hebrews has no doubt about the divinity of Jesus, but he also believes just as firmly that Jesus was a real human being. We find in the epistle some of the most exalted language in describing Jesus, but also language that depicts his real humanity. The Jesus of Hebrews is a victor certainly, but a victor who has achieved his victory through a real experience of a life limited by the constrictions, anxieties, and trials of real human beings.

As the pioneers of America broke through the barrier of the Appalachian mountains and opened up to others the vast expanses of territory on the other side, so likewise I can think of Jesus as this pioneer who breaks through all the limitations of human life to open to humanity the vast and spacious territory of the Kingdom of God.

Now that the barriers have been broken through, the rest of us can follow. Jesus shows us the way to transform our trials and sufferings into mountain passes that can conduct us into a spacious wholeness beyond them. We find that way described for us in the gospels. Which is why the gospels are so central to our spiritual journeys. They describe not just Jesus the pioneer, but also the road which he opened up in the wilderness and on which he summons us to follow him.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers us the same power to grow through our own life sufferings and challenges into that spaciousness of life that we call salvation. He invites us to follow him on the road he has pioneered–which includes both a cross and a resurrection–so that we can experience that wholeness of life which he has entered into in advance of us.

_____

* This is the first definition given the word in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1966.

The Allure of God

Experiences of beauty point beyond themselves.

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Last week my wife and I attended a play about the Christian conversion of C.S. Lewis. His conversion was a process, not a one-time event. An important element in that process, he says, was some early experiences he had of joy. They set the stage for his conversion. In fact, he titled his autobiographical account of his conversion Surprised by Joy.

He gives his understanding of joy, however, a twist. In his experiences of joy, the ecstatic elation of feeling did not last long. Joy triggers an intense, almost poignant, longing or craving, a craving for that which had somehow caused that momentary experience of joy. His concept parallels that of the romantic German concept of sehnsucht.

What is “that” that has momentarily touched him? For Lewis, it is on a surface level beauty. What we find beautiful may differ from person to person (“beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”), yet wherever we find it, it seems to trigger a sense of pleasurable elation. We are drawn to it, as the night moth is drawn to the porch light.

And, as Lewis found, beauty feeds that intense desire to be in the presence of what we find beautiful. To hold onto it and possess it if we can.

Beauty as a Pointer

But for Lewis, beauty wherever we find it points to something beyond itself. It draws its allure from a higher source–God. Beauty then becomes one of the defining qualities of divinity. When we are fully in the presence of God, we are touched poignantly by God’s supreme beauty and by the beauty that he in grace bestows on all he has made.

So when we stand in awe of a stunning sunset, we are experiencing a beauty which derives from the godhead. When we examine a complex spider web in the light of early dawn, we perceive a beauty that flows from a divine source. When we admire the beauty of a handsome man or woman, we take joy in a beauty that is conferred by his or her maker.

When we work on a mathematic problem and we discover the solution is one of sublime simplicity, we feel we are once again discerning a beauty that derives from the One who creates mathematics. When we feel a sense of amazement at the beauty of some kind, compassionate action, we are recognizing that beauty adheres not only to things, but to behavior as well.

Supreme Beauty

If God then is supreme beauty as God is also supreme goodness and truth, then the words of the psalmist make sense:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

When we are touched, if only momentarily, by the beauty, goodness, and truth of God, then we long, sometimes poignantly, for that experience again. Our soul thirsts with an intense thirst, that ultimately only God alone can satisfy by bringing us into his own presence. We can never quite be the same again.

That’s why, I believe, that believers have had a hard time not understanding the Song of Songs in the Old Testament allegorically. What is this longing for God like when we experience it deeply? The closest thing in human experience is the intense longing of lovers for each other. And the Song of Songs is primarily a poem about longing, intense erotic longing.

A Poignant Experience of Beauty

I write this way because of my own experience. When I was in graduate school, some classmates and I decided one weekend to make a retreat at the Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. There we were invited to attend the round of daily prayers in the chapel.

We were not allowed to actually sit in the choir stalls with the monks. Instead we had to gather in a separate room attached to the chapel. There we could listen to the divine offices through a lattice grill. We heard the monks as they chanted their psalms and sang their hymns, sometimes to a strumming guitar.

Even in our somewhat isolated confinement, I found the music flowing to us through the grill intensely beautiful. In Homer’s Odyssey, the music of the sirens is described as so intensely beautiful that sailors were inevitably drawn to plunge into the sea as they passed the sirens’ island. The plunge was always fatal as the waves would dash them up against the jagged rocks. So Odysseus ordered his crew to stop up their ears with wax. Only he would be able to listen, but securely lashed to the ship’s mast.

Well, for me the music of the monks felt something like that coming from divine sirens. I could not believe how deeply it moved me. In some strange way I must have been experiencing something of the beauty that was flowing in their voices from the very God they were praising.

A week later, back in my dorm room, I woke up one night consumed with intense longing to that music. The pangs were so intense that they bordered on pain. They kept me awake for hours. I so wanted to experience that beauty again.

The intensity of the experience confused and frightened me. What was it saying about me? I struggled with that question for years to come. I still do not understand all that was going on that experience, except it did reveal for me the immense power of beauty when we experience it in some very deep way. That power can resemble both pleasure and pain. It can shake us the core of our being.

Signposts of the Universe’s Destiny

Like Lewis, I have come to view such experiences of beauty as pointers to something beyond themselves. They are preparing us, I suspect, for that great experience of unimaginable beauty that will be disclosed to us when God brings the universe to its final fulfillment. God then will be in all that is, no longer obscure and veiled from our eyes, but shining in a dazzling effulgence that will be indescribable. It can only be experienced, not described in words. But all creation will break forth in pealing shouts of joy.

In that day will be fulfilled the words of the psalmist:

Those who go out weeping

Bearing the seed for sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy,

Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:6)

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

When Too Many Voices Speak for God

We can stagger under the impact of know-it-all voices.

Religious hypocrisy is a perennial problem among Christians. In fact, none of us ever live lives fully consistent with the gospel we claim to believe. One bitter fruit of this is that God’s good reputation gets tarnished outside of the circles of professed believers. I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paul’s Pious Phonies.

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There is another unfortunate fruit (more like a thistle) of this hypocrisy. Confidence in the message we preach and teach is undermined. This loss of confidence is intensified when we hear multiple voices proclaiming divergent understandings of God’s will.

I have lived most of my life in environments where I have heard a cacophony of conflicting voices each claiming to understand the truth for the church. I have often experienced a sense of betrayal by people (not only professional theologians and preachers, but also Sunday school teachers and devotional book writers) who have confidently proclaimed what they believe to be the will of God and therefore how I should live. As a boy and youth I accepted their claims without question.

But as I have advanced in my spiritual journey, I have come to question, if not outright reject, much of what was taught me when I was younger. I have adopted a lively caution as I listen to what I hear proclaimed today, not only in Evangelical circles, but in mainstream Protestant and Catholic circles. That caution works like a spiritual Geiger counter that constantly tests for what may be nothing more than religious cant.

What often sets off that spiritual Geiger counter is any claim by a speaker or writer that he or she is presenting the only one true way to God. The tone is I-know-it-all. This strikes me as true arrogance. My God will not be boxed into one theological box. My God may accomplish his purposes in ways far beyond anything I can imagine or expect.

What is called for, I believe, is a fundamental humility about our understandings of God and God’s will. We can and should live our lives confidently in the beliefs and convictions we hold. That is the way of maturity. Yet we must always be ready to admit that we might just be wrong. Infallibility is not a gift given to mankind.*

My Debt to the Reformation

To be honest, however, such a stance of humility can bear its own disquieting fruit. We can listen to the many theologies and ethical systems laid before us by preachers, spiritual teachers, theologians, and fellow lay Christians and then feel totally confused. Such confusion saps us of confident living. How do we end up making choices about what is right and true, choices on which we can choose to live our lives?

Here is where I realize that despite many qualms about my upbringing, I remain a spiritual son of the Reformation. For when I am confronted with a viewpoint that I do not fully understand or trust, I return to the Bible to find my bearings once again. It serves as the spiritual polar star that orients my faith journey. It is the rudder that keeps my spiritual ship sailing within a life-delivering channel. It is why the study of the Bible remains central to my spiritual life and my preaching and teaching.

When I say that, I am not saying that I practice some form of proof-texting where I find some verse in the Bible which I then extract out of context and turn into an isolated statement of universal truth. Such proof-texting lies behind much of the religious know-it-all arrogance from which I rebel.

I don’t believe that because a particular sentence appears in the Bible, it automatically becomes the authoritative word of God. Context and literary genre, for example, matter. So when I read the Bible, I try to be especially acute to the context of a phrase or sentence as well as the literary genre in which that phrase or sentence is embedded.

What I am doing  when I turn to Scripture is that I seek to soak myself in Scripture’s spirit and mindset. That means that, in a spiritual sense, I bathe myself in the waters of Scripture, listening to and meditating on what the Bible’s many diverse writers are saying. For I do not find one consistent message in the Bible, but a group of diverse voices in dialogue with each other. Their many voices remind me of the many voices of the rabbis whose wide-ranging discussions lie behind the creation of the Talmud.

Within that diversity of opinion and vision, I hope that I will tap into the Spirit who animates them all. The Spirit can do his work to cultivate within me the mind of Christ, which Paul urges us to adopt in Philippians 2:5: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….

As we come to look more and more at the world and at our own individual lives from within that mind of Christ, we can have confidence that the Spirit will lead us deeper and deeper into the truth.**

This is one important reason why I write this blog. I have confidence in the Bible because I have confidence in the Spirit that lies behind the Bible. The Bible therefore is worth the hours of energy that I invest in reading it and trying to understand its complex and spacious message.

This confidence in the Spirit is no guarantee, however, that my thinking will be without error. My creaturely mind will never be big enough to comprehend the fullness of truth. There will never be any grounds for intellectual or spiritual arrogance. But I can hope that I will be drawn deeper into the truth as I remain open both to the Spirit’s reshaping of my mind and heart and to perceptions of the truth offered by my fellow human beings.

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* On the issue of humility, I want to affirm the spirit expressed in this prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me ,and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I was introduced to this prayer in a 2012 issue of the magazine Reflections, published by Yale Divinity School. The theme of the issue was: Seizing the Day: Vocation, Calling, and Work.

 ** What I am trying to say about the role of the Bible in my life parallels what the sages who wrote the Book of Proverbs say about the search for wisdom. For them, what ensures that their search for wisdom will prove fruitful is that it is grounded in an underlying fear of the Lord. This fear is understood not as terror, but as awe, reverence, and trust. The classic statement of this viewpoint comes in Proverbs 9:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

For me, one dimension of fearing the Lord is my basic reverence and openness to the words and thoughts I find in the Bible.