Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

First, let’s just starkly admit the truth: political conservatives (and their conservative Christian allies) long ago lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the young. We bolster ourselves with this or that poll which shows millennials more opposed to abortion on demand than at any other time since its legalization, or with this or that sociological study that similarly promotes a view of our youth as politically more conservative in this or that area of political life, which we most desperately want to be true. And to be sure, there are plenty of youth who are conservative politically or are devout adherents to traditional forms of Christianity. We ought to be heartened by these studies and polls, for they are heartening. But let us not lose sight of the larger reality that our society by and large is sharply opposed, and growing more so each day, to conservative political thought and to traditional Christianity.

Traditional, or conservative, Christians and political conservatives have lost the cultural and political battles. We have lost because we foolishly agreed to fight the battle on the one area that progressives will always win: moralism. Moralism is, fully and completely, the core of our civil religious life. Moralism is, simply put, the external adherence to a particular code of belief and behavior. Moralism is politically a more powerful weapon than reason and argument. It is more powerful because it relies on feeling and connotation, it is evocative. Moralism is entirely binary: this not that, good or evil, love or hate. And it is always a tool of comparison, to be used against an opponent. By comparison, we can free ourselves from condemnation: “I’m a good person, I’ve never murdered anyone.” We can even condemn someone with our faux humility: “Who am I to judge someone else?” Moralism always turns upon the personal, and always uses comparison and judgment as a tool for division and conquest. That is why it is so powerful politically.

So it is, that if a political group can fight on the ground of moralism, the more progressive side will always win the battle and the more conservative side will always lose. Conservatives cannot judge a moral act, because moralism makes such judgment personal–the political is always personal. Thus if we disagree with a particular action, then we condemn not the act but the person. Responses which run along the lines of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” are completely unpersuasive, because in a moralistic framework that is not possible.

There is no way for conservatives and traditional Christians to win on these moralistic battlegrounds. Conservatives and traditional Christians have tried by pitting one group of persons over against another: transgendered persons who want to use a particular bathroom versus young girls who are vulnerable to exploitation and assault, or unborn babies versus the mothers bearing them. And while sometimes these tactics work, temporarily, in the long run they will all ultimately fail because the battle is being fought within a paradigm that guarantees conservatives and traditional Christians will fail.

Part of the reason for this political failure (and the exacerbated acceleration of the fragmentation of the conservative movement in this election cycle) is due to the ceding of ground by conservatives and traditional Christians in the social and cultural life of our nation. Traditional Christians, among whom I list evangelicals (though clearly I am not using the term “traditional” in any technical sense), either simply have retreated from the public square (such are my fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians), or they have separated out into their Christian ghettoes with substandard and bastardized forms of media expression (and such are the evangelicals among whom I once considered myself a member, with their Christian rock bands, their Christian publishing houses, and their bald imitation of pop culture in their services and ministry efforts).

This laziness in engaging our public square and mainstream culture–or if not laziness, cowardice–has become, in part, the downfall of the conservative movement. Conservatives delighted to argue and form think tanks and advocate for this or that policy–if they were able to resist the lure of gilt and power and privilege in the hallowed halls of our bloated government. And while millionaire and billionaire donors were wont to give to this or that super PAC to prevail in this or that political contest, little of that money was invested in cultural and artistic endeavors. There were, of course, a few notable documentaries that were nothing more than the same morality tales that progressives told in their own documentaries. Bowling for Columbine or Hilary’s America? Opposite sides of the same moralistic coin.

And progressivist moralism will always feel better than conservative moralism. Both are the same form of binary legalism. Both have their own forms of damnation; with conservatives it’s Kafkaesque government that swallows up the individual, with progressives it’s being conservative.

But American Christianity (and here I want to exclude the Eastern Orthodox, which I will explain), is itself to blame for this moralism. American Christianity made a false dichotomy between law and grace. It wrongly excluded ascetic endeavor from grace, calling it works righteousness, and thus paved the way for its own expulsion from civic life. Ironically, however, what you did mattered a great deal as to whether you were truly a Christian or not. You could not make yourself one by doing this or that, but you sure could prove you were one if you did do this or that. Thus was born the moralistic framework that progressives used to dominate the cultural and political landscape.

To be sure, the progressivist worldview is an Enlightenment prejudice, the Enlightenment itself being an antithesis to Christianity, and into the vacuum created by the western schism (and the various schisms within Protestantism) the Enlightenment worldview rushed to become the predominant cultural view which then ate away at western Christianity from within. Thus progressivism is in many ways little more than the Enlightenment packaged as a form of civic religion, with Christian vocabulary (though increasingly less of that).

This progressivism infected artistic endeavors, with each successive transition in the arts seen as a progression, a forward evolution from what came before. From realism, to impressionism, to expressionism and onward, each new development somehow “more” than what came before. And while at various periods this or that artist (painter, writer, composer) held to one of the forms of Christian faith, such faith less and less informed that art form. After Bach came Wagner. First Milton, then Whitman.

This is why the ersatz “art” of twentieth century conservative American Christianity became so utterly banal, and is so utterly a failure. It appropriated art forms it did not understand, which had long ago left their Christian moorings, and inserted a moralistic “Gospel” into it without understanding how or even whether such things fit. And while western society moved further and further into the late Enlightenment (or postmodernism), conservatives (political and Christian) remained stuck within earlier forms of the Enlightenment, and progressives merrily sailed along on the currents of social mores. Both still utilized the tools of the Enlightenment, but conservatives used such things to construct, whereas progressives utilized them to deconstruct. And since progressivism won the cultural and political battles, conservatives were left speaking Anglo-Saxon in a land of twenty-first century slang.

So the arguments, art forms and speech of conservatives, political and religious, don’t communicate, aren’t persuasive and therefore are ineffectual. We are shouting at ourselves, but we are not making a dent in the public discourse, let alone transforming our cultural forms.

But the answer is not to become more postmodern than the progressives. We’ve already lost those battles with our Christian glam rock and our Kirk Cameron movies. The answer is not to fight a losing battle. Which means not to fight the battle as determined and as outlined by progressives.

This is where the pro-life movement can be illustrative. Rather than allowing itself to be shoved into the either/or box of moralism, the pro-life movement became the both/and way of life which loved the baby and loved the mother. Advocating for adoption of babies into loving homes so that they would have the resources and support and love they needed, or providing homes for expectant mothers to live in and be cared for while bringing their babies to term. Abortion on demand groups attempted to paint such endeavors within the either/or paradigm of loving or hating the women (and still do). But the quiet way of living exemplified in this way, powerfully affected the younger citizens in our society. And yes, reasoned arguments in the public sphere helped as well. But it was the powerful witness of people like these, including the courageous witness of Mother Teresa as a further example, a witness that did not allow the fight to continue in the either/or battle of moralism, that is prevailing.

Earlier, I excluded the Eastern Orthodox for two reasons: the first of which is that Orthodoxy did not participate in the Enlightenment, which was primarily a western phenomenon, and thus has been able to preserve its categories of thought and terms and practice across various languages and cultures; and the second of which, more negatively, is that Orthodox have been largely ghettoized by the manner in which Orthodoxy came to the United State via immigration. Orthodox comprise at best perhaps just under a million adherents here in the United States, and have not been in a position to have much cultural impact, as a group. Further, the Orthodox manner of enculturation is typically to embrace various aspects of a nation’s culture that are amenable to the Christian Gospel and from those leverage points to then transfigure the culture from within, such that it’s expression of the Orthodox Faith, while the same in substance to all other Orthodox churches, is yet culturally located. Unfortunately, however, the “culture” of the United States is neither monolithic nor really a culture in the traditional sense.

That is to say, at the root of all of this must be a way of living that eschews a binary moralism for a maximal experience. In Christian terms, it must be a way of life in which grace changes what we do and frees us from the bondage of moralistic legalism. It must be a way of life in which ascetic endeavor (caring for expectant mothers and their babies, say) is itself motivated from a previous transfiguring grace. Our artists must be disciplined by their art, and freed by their faith, expressing a view of a fallen world which is yet sustained by grace. Our politicians must have the courage and the will to resist the easy moralism of political discourse, rejecting its terms and making new arguments. This will mean the exploration of new forms of media, and the discipline to understand the media. It will mean hard, hard work to speak to shattered and fragmented audiences. It will mean the rigorous application of humility to engage constituencies hostile to the message. It will mean the discipline of learning how to communicate in new ways beyond binary moralism, and to do so with far less shouting and rancor. It will most assuredly mean the formation of new political parties, as the binary moralism has most definitely benefited specific entrenched groups to the determent of our political process.

In the end, it won’t be reasoned argument that ultimately persuades. Only beauty and goodness can do that. If we can’t make beautiful art, our fellow citizens will not leave their glittering images to hear us. If we can’t speak in beautiful ways, our fellow citizens will not stop shouting long enough to listen. If we fail to manifest the beauty of our way of life, our fellow citizens will not stop moving to behold that which is good. All we have done so far is to join with progressives in a war of coercion, in a contest to see who can exert their political will on another. We must, for the love of God, cease doing this. The will to power is satanic. Whoever lives by the will to power will die by the will to power. This is not the way of Christ. We must first, middle and last, be beautiful creatures of a glorious Creator. Not in the worldly way of beauty. But in the beautiful way of Christ our savior.

Because all politics is penultimate. But beauty is forever.

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Waiting and Hope

In this season, we are both in the beginning of the Advent season for “western” Christians, and in the middle of the “eastern” Advent, the Christmas Fast, for Orthodox Christians. In this time of year, when we can tune out the noise of the commercial mercantile season, we hear notes of hope and waiting. This season is the time where we enter mystically, spiritually the experience of ancient Israel, as well as the entire cosmos, hopefully anticipating, waiting for, the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Although merchants focus us on the joy of the season, so that we’ll purchase their things, the Christmas joy is not yet. We’re in the time of hope and waiting.

It’s important to make sure we keep this distinction. Oh, yes, I know, even the Orthodox hymns of this time are already starting to “turn the corner” with their joyful hints and glimpses of what’s to come. And even though Orthodox traditions in the United States still try to keep a spare and penitential theme during the Nativity Fast, we’ll still celebrate St Nicholas’ day with gold-foil chocolate coins in the shoes of the children on December 6th, St Nicholas’ Day, and it’s not unheard of that Christmas stockings with candy, nuts, fruit and little icons will be passed out to the children near St. Nicholas’ Day. Yet, even so, Orthodox keep this season in fasting and almsgiving. We will feast. For twelve days beginning Christmas Day. But now we wait and hope.


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The assurance of faith is often talked about in terms of feeling. We feel assured, we feel a conviction in our hears, we feel confident of a belief or hoped-for outcome. And there is no doubt an aspect of assurance that involves feelings. The difficulty however is that feelings are fleeting. They come and go. We may feel assurance about something, but days or weeks or months later, no longer feel that assurance. And then after a time, we once again feel that assurance. If that’s assurance, that’s not very sure.

Part of the dilemma is that we normally associate conviction with knowledge. If we know a thing to be true, we are convinced of it. But if we are uncertain about something, then we normally assume we don’t have enough knowledge about the thing. Or, worse, we assume that we lack faith. Because if we have faith about a matter, we believe we also will have strong feelings about it. We separate out faith and knowledge. And, tragically, since we tie faith and feeling so closely together, we lose a vital aspect of faith, which is to bring assurance to our hearts. Or, to say it another way, assurance is the expression of trust. We are certain of a matter, because we trust that it is true or will come to be true. Assurance is the exercise of faith itself.


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Turning Corners

Jacob, trying to throw off the stifling yoke of his father-in-law, Laban, flees with his wives, children and possessions. But leaving Laban brings him into the path of Esau, his brother, from whom he stole the birthright. Pinched between two enemies, Jacob prepares for the worst, then heads off by himself to pray. Dawn reveals Jacob wrestling with the angel, then marked by a limp. He next meets Esau, and avoids war.

Samuel heads to the home of Jesse, on a mission from God to anoint a king. Moved by the word of God in his heart, he anoints the youngest son, David. It took another decade and a half before David was finally installed as King of Israel.

Daniel, in Persia, sends aloft a prayer for understanding. Immediately, God sends his messenger. But the messenger is opposed by demons, and it is three weeks before Daniel receives his answer.

Word comes to Jesus of Lazarus’ illness. He waits long enough for Lazarus to die. Four days later, Lazarus emerges from the tomb.

We wrestle not against flesh and blood, Paul tells us. Our lives as Christians are constantly immersed in realities we do not perceive with our senses. All around us is an immaterial reality we do not see, which our prayers influence and which influences our prayers.


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Prayer’s Apprenticeship

More than a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post on the way God intertwines his divine freedom with our human asking (Prayer’s Co-creations). In that piece, I contrasted a view of prayer in which one tries as hard as one can to pray God’s specific will (either like trying to hit the small point of a bull’s eye, or just tossing up some prayers and hoping some of them will be answered like winning some sort of “prayer lottery”) with a view that encompasses God’s divine freedom with our true experiences and desires as his and our co-creations. I gave the two examples of the wedding feast at Cana in which Jesus turned the water to wine, and of the Syro-Phoenician woman who was first rebuked by Jesus for her request to heal her daughter before then granting her prayer. I made the point there that, at least with the Cana wedding, it appears as though God shifted his divine plan of redemption so as to include the gracious mercy of meeting a humble human need.

I want to think further on this idea of God’s enfolding our prayers into his divine plan, but this time from the standpoint of the one praying, using the metaphor of apprenticeship.


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[Note: the following is an unspoken sermon, a sermon written but not preached, for my Grandfather’s funeral. It was Grandpa who gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon, and so it seems fitting that on the occasion of his repose in the Lord, I compose a sermon in his honor.]

Twice in the ministry of Elisha, prophet of Israel, these words are spoken: “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” The first occasion is when Elisha doggedly follows Elijah across the Jordan and sees Elijah translated alive into heaven in the fiery chariot and horses. Elisha is given a double portion of the Spirit of Elijah and begins his ministry. The second time is when the evil king, Jehoash (or Joash) of Israel goes to Elisha when Elisha is dying. Seeing Elisha dying, Joash cries out, “My father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel.” Whatever we may say of these two occasions and the meaning of these words, we can at least say that both times they are uttered, the men who utter them are recognizing the end of a ministry, the gathering to his fathers of a man of God.


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In Defense of Religion

I have been listening to some excerpts from a recent book on the person of Jesus. Frequently, in the podcasts at any rate, the author inveighs against the “spirit of religion,” calling it a contagion which infects an otherwise healthy relationship with God. While I’ve not read the new book and so would not claim to have an adequate understanding of the author’s critique against, or definition of, religion, I do not think it is religion that is the problem, or at least there is no Christianity apart from some form of religion.

I have written elsewhere on this blog on an incarnational understanding of religion. But I want to take a little different pathway here.


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