What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

Today I was reading an interview between CNN’s Daniel Burke and comedian Pete Holmes, star of HBO’s “Crashing” and author of the new book Comedy, Sex, God.

I want to copy for you here a portion of that interview that really struck me. He says: “But what we’re talking about is symbol systems and labels. And those are good; those are helpful. (But) we’re trying to get our inner reality to respond. So in the book, I’m trying to rescue some Bible verses, I’m trying to rescue some ideas of Christ. I’ll always get a lot juice out of rescuing something that Jesus said. It’s healing to me, psychologically, to do that with words that were used to convince me that I was in danger of going to hell. It might be my favorite thing to do, is to go like, “Oh my God, it was right there.” We just didn’t have eyes to see. We didn’t have ears to hear. We were listening wrong. We were listening with an agenda. We were listening with our egos. We were listening with a deep desire for membership and identity and certainty. We weren’t looking as the mystics are. And when you look at the Bible the way a mystic sees it, it opens like a flower and you’re like, whoa.”

This really resonated with me, as did the general story of Mr. Holmes’ spiritual journey from evangelical Christian upbringing to spiritual voyager. His use of the idea of mysticism also struck a cord.

I have casually remarked in my posts on this blog that I have given the (haphazardly) systematic theology I am slowly developing the name “New Mysticism.” Pete Holmes’ comment above (and perhaps his comments more broadly) seems to provide a good entry point into discussing what I mean by that term.

I am not qualified to be a mystic in the classical sense. I cannot sit still long enough to meditate. I am too busy (over-)thinking to calm my mind. I have too strong a sense of self to be satisfied with the idea of the unio mystica, though I have a deep desire to feel a strong connection with God. I have no supernatural gifts that allow me to see the fabric of reality other than through a glass, darkly. I have no divine message to share, only the thoughts and feelings of a human inescapably drawn to pondering the nature of existence and reality, subject to my all-too-human limitations in finding definitive answers to the many questions I ask. I am no mystic as the term is often intended.

Why “New Mysticism,” then? As I’ve laid out in a Brief Outline of My Theology, my theological approach is both existential and epistemologically skeptical; some amount of mysticism seems an inexorable conclusion from such a starting place.

In existentialist thought, we acknowledge that our understanding of all things is mediated by experience, by imperfect sensory apparatus analyzed by imperfect minds. We must acknowledge some slippage between what we perceive (the existential) and what actually is (the essential).

Skepticism of our ability to know follows closely. I’m not one to take epistemological skepticism to absurdity (if our knowing is flawed, how can we know that we know?), but I do acknowledge that the human mind has its limits.

The philosopher David Hume once made the argument that we cannot definitively know that causation exists. What we observe is a (very) strong correlation of events. To borrow his analogy, we see the cue ball hit one of the other billiard balls and then the second ball begins to move. Through math and science, we can even protect the force and direction of that movement based upon the angle of impact, speed and rotation of the cue ball (and myriad other details, such as the evenness of the pool table). But we have no way to, beyond any doubt, prove that the cue ball is causing the other ball to move rather than that we are only observing a very consistent “coincidence” that is caused by forces and factors we cannot perceive.

We cannot live and function should we focus on that doubt, of course. We must live with the very great probability that this is in fact causation (it hasn’t failed us yet, after all). We cannot meaningfully interact with the world around us, certainly cannot plan such interactions, without taking for granted causation exists and we believe it to.

Do not be misled into thinking that I am making some argument against either knowledge generally or science specifically; experience seems to demonstrate (if not prove) that we can know some things reliably enough and science is in fact the best tool to understand the nature and action of the world around us.

But there are limits to the sorts of questions that the human mind may understand. Science can show us with relative certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. It cannot, no matter the angle at which we hold it nor the manner in which we dissect it, tell us why in any sense behind the mundane and lifeless. The question of, “If the Big Bang caused everything in the universe, what caused it?” stretches to infinite strings of causation or some manner of causation we cannot perceive. Either way, the answer is beyond us. When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”, that is a mystical answer to a question that defies logic. There is nothing we can understand about God in any temporal sense; God simply is God. We must either accept or reject that, there is no way to prove it or explain it.

It is here that we find the necessity of mysticism; that is: a belief that some knowledge is not susceptible to human logic, that there are things we may know from experience that we could never prove to anyone else, that there are ways of understanding apart from cold logic. I know of no other way to describe such things other than “mystical.” But it strikes me that that mysticism is not entirely the same as the term has been formerly understood. It may also be a mode of experience, but in my mind it is first a worldview, one without which we are not open to such modes of experience, no matter the labels we place on them.

And so, I find my theology to be firmly rooted in the mystical, the supernal, the sublime. How could it be otherwise? The spaces between cold logic are where faith, hope and joy come alive, where we find (or create) the only meanings that, at the end of the day, really matter to any of us.

This mysticism is different, perhaps, from the mysticism of the past in another way. It does not dismiss, nor reject, nor argue against logic and science, instead recognizing that these are God-given tools to develop understanding to the extent that we can. If there is a God, and God created everything that exists, then every rule of science, every geological fact, every evolutionary development represents in some manner the will of God. Understanding the operation of the natural world may thus give us some understanding of the nature of God. Even if it doesn’t, such understanding proves quite useful, and we’ll need more of it if we are to hope to undo much of the harm we, as a species, have done to the world.

This “new” mystical approach allows science and faith to co-exist by understanding that, just because a story in the Bible is not historical fact does not mean that is not True in the most important, dramatic and essential ways by telling us something meaningful about existence itself. If only we are able to understand, whether by logic or by divine revelation.

“New Mysticism” is intended as a middle road between an unquestioning faith and an equally unquestioning materialism, one that gives fair play to all manner of knowing and seeks to incorporate all of the experiential, the existential, into a meaningful whole.

 

After-Action Report: TAC 2019

This year’s conference was a whirlwind. K got commissioned as a deacon this past Tuesday night in what was a beautiful ceremony with a great sermon by the Bishop. I can’t say how proud of her I am; I just don’t have words for it. That’s something, as this blog is itself proof of my usual verbosity.

Amidst all the doom and gloom surrounding the United Methodist Church of late, I left the conference with more hope than I had upon arrival. It’s a voting year for 2020’s General Conference, so nothing that happened at the 2019 Called Special Session of the General Conference is really set in stone yet. Palpable tension settled upon the conference from the beginning, thickening as we approached the clergy voting session Tuesday morning.

Despite extensive technical issues with the voting system, issues which seemed not to affect the voting results but simply to drag out the process, the clergy muddled through in their first voting session to astounding results.

The Texas Annual Conference had nine spots for delegates to General Conference, an additional nine spots for delegates to our Jurisdictional Conference, and spots for four alternates–this each for clergy and for laity, voted on separately.

At the end of voting (clergy voting had to be continued yesterday morning because of the time it took to fight with the electronic balloting system), the clergy had elected progressive/compatibilist delegates for all but two of the alternates, who were from the Confessing Movement/WCA slate. I’m told with some frequency that the Texas Annual Conference is the most conservative conference of the UMC in the U.S., so this was quite a surprising sea change from our last elections (in 2015). I’m not prepared to say that this represents a majority of clergy favoring full-inclusion, as I don’t know that. I do have confidence that this represents a majority of clergy that want to keep the church together, to be in fellowship in our disagreement with one another on theological issues. I can also soundly say that these elections constituted a firm rejection of the Traditional Plan’s passage at the 2019 GC.

A quick note on the word “compatibilist”: it is used within this context (and I believe within the UMC as a whole at present) to mean someone who supports maintaining the unity of the Church despite our theological differences. There are compatibilists on both sides of both the sexuality issue and the issues of theology and scriptural interpretation that underlie that more visible issue.

The laity elections, on the other hand, went exactly the opposite. You will recall, I imagine, that I ran as a lay candidate for the 2020 General Conference this year. As both a staunch progressive and a staunch compatibilist, I had the honor of being part of the “That We May Be One” slate of candidates. Despite having about 45-percent of the lay votes, we were soundly defeated by the traditionalist/Confessing/WCA contingent, electing only two alternates among the 22 total spots for GC and JC. I was not among those elected.

As much of a beating as the election itself felt, the numbers still give me hope. If the lay delegates of the Texas Annual Conference are still forty-five percent on the side of keeping the Church together and finding a way forward in unity, and if we are in fact the most conservative of the U.S. Annual Conferences, I think we’re in for a very interesting delegation to 2020 GC.

Voting this year also pointed out to me a great problem with the Book of Discipline structure of the UMC.

Under the current rules, each delegate gets to vote a number of times equal to the open spots being voted for. So, if we’re voting for 9 GC delegates, each voting member of the conference (again, separated between laity and clergy) gets nine votes.

But each vote must be for a different candidate. To be elected, a candidate needs 50% of the votes cast during that ballot. So, if a group controls 50% of the votes, they will, minor anomalies aside, control all of the delegates elected. This is exactly what happened in our voting this year.

The solution is simple: we go to corporate-style voting. Under corporate voting, each delegate would get nine votes if there are nine spots. But these votes could be allocated between candidates however the voter wishes. So, a voter could give all nine votes to the same candidate. This would ensure that a minority group could get some representation to GC while also maintaining the ability of a majority group to have the majority of the spots. In other words, the results of the election would be a more representative slice of the annual conference the elected delegates are supposed to represent.

Except that they’re not. Delegates are expected to “vote their conscience” at the General Conference and are not actually given any duty to represent those who elected them. On the one hand, this makes sense, as we’re (sometimes) talking about sensitive theological and moral questions. But the practical reality is that it means we’ve essentially taken the worst parts of the American-style democracy on which the UMC governance is based to form our electoral system and the expectations of the delegates to our legislative body.

There’s no fixing this right now. Elections are happened, these rules would have to be changed by the General Conference, and the 2020 GC already has enough on its plate. But this is something to consider for the future of the UMC if we are (as I continue to hope we will be able to) able to keep it together or the successor denominations if we are not.

During the evening session of laity voting, I had a somewhat contentious conversation with an older, conservative lay delegate. I tried to be civil–but did not succeed as well as I should have. Nevertheless, I want to bring up a few points we discussed in case they are common to others or some of my readers encounter them in the future.

The first argument that this man made were that “sociology” (he meant “social issues” rather than the soft science discipline) and theology should be kept separate, as they are separate things.

I could not disagree more. In the immediate, issues of social justice, the treatment of others, who we marry and ordain, and how we view our morality (if we are going to rely on the argument that morality is absolute and comes from God) all soundly fit within the realm of theology. More broadly, if our goal is truly to follow Christ and to “become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect,” everything is theology. I’ll probably write a full post to treat that issue.

But we cannot separate our politics or our social beliefs from our faith. That’s a careful line to walk for me, because I both believe that my faith should guide my politics and that there ought to be a separation of religion and government. This also merits a full post (or a book!) to treat fully. For now, suffice to say that I do not believe that we compartmentalize our social or political and spiritual beliefs when they are contradictory. In my opinion, the conservative Evangelical right as a political force in this country is emblematic of what happens when we do compartmentalize.

The second argument–really a statement of belief–that the man made was that the sexuality issue is “destroying our church.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’m sure that this man and I have very different ideas about the why and how. More important, the principal factor that guides us should be, “what is God calling us to,” not “will this change the institution to which I am accustomed.” I realize that this argument could be used to suggest that the UMC should split, but I believe that we are called to unity in addition to social justice and must attempt as best we can to walk that line.

As I mentioned above, the clergy voting seems an indication of a desire to walk that line. The laity voting, not so much. We would do well to continue to ask ourselves, “Are we destroying the Church?” I don’t know that there’s a right answer to that question, and it’s the one that must inevitably follow that I care about most: “Whatever we’re doing, are we doing it out of an earnest desire to follow after Jesus and live out the Gospels for a world in desperate need of the Good News, or are we pushing our own agendas, propping up our own senses of identity, reshaping our Christianity to fit our preconceived notions, or adapting those notions in light of our faith?” There are no easy answers here, nor should there be.

 

Texas Annual Conference 2019 – A Fiery Start

K and I arrived at the Hilton of the Americas this afternoon at about 4:30, just ahead of the start of our annual “meetings vacation” (her term; she likes meetings way more than me). By good fortune, we managed to avoid the long line to check into the hotel–turns out there’s an app for that now. The future is here.

Of course, checking in remotely didn’t get us a room key, and the app told us we’d have to present ID at the desk to use the phone as a key. I took a chance and asked the concierge whether she could check our IDs and give us phone access to our room. She didn’t seem to be aware that that was a thing, but she was able to make us a physical keycard, so no harm no foul. In the middle of her programming the keycard, she got a phone call. After a few short words exchanged, she apologized to me and made another phone call. I overheard something about a car being on fire on the side of the building. About that time a fire truck rushed by outside.

In all honesty, I didn’t think much of it. I took the keycard and went to check that it worked before K stepped out of the line for check-in. Once inside the room, I first sent a text to Kate telling her that she could meet me upstairs. Then, I sent a message to a colleague asking for confirmation that our 5:30 meeting was still on. She responded with, “The building is on fire.” A non-sequitur if ever I’ve seen one.

I looked out the window from the hotel room and could see black smoke billowing skyward, a disturbingly dense cloud. I left the room in hopes of meeting K and found her coming down the hallway toward me, determinedly, and with her face held tense as she does whenever she worries. “We need to leave. I see smoke,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I went back into the room, grabbed my briefcase with my computer, and we decided to take the stairs. The Hilton of the Americas has internal stairwells as wide as the Champs Elysee, if you didn’t know–and we had them all to ourselves. It wasn’t until we reached the first floor that we heard the fire alarms: piercingly high-pitched and all but irrelevant at that point.

We made a beeline outside, where we were able to confirm that, yes, there was a fire. But it wasn’t actually the hotel, but the parking garage across the street and the skybridge between the two buildings. The parking garage, mind you, where we’d parked our car an hour earlier.

The smoke on the street, couple with the crowds and the multitude of firetrucks, quickly proved unpleasant. We decided to journey a few blocks away and find a place to take refuge. We chose the site of our impending meeting and ended up having a pleasant dinner with great company (which is usual for TAC).

The fire was taken care of in due time, with little permanent damage. The skybridge was reopened, our car and all of clothes (which had remained inside while we got checked in) and everything else turned out fine. The opening worship ceremony was delayed by fifteen minutes, but other than that, everything proceeded as normal.

It’s election year, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m running as a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, with idealistic hopes of finding some middle ground that can bring inclusion and some amount of justice to my LGBTQ brethren and sistren while preserving the unity of the denomination. It’s a tall order, and the deck isn’t stacked in my favor. Let’s just hope our fiery welcome was not an omen.

More to come…

Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

What Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecies Tells us about Biblical Literalism

As my dear readers have come to understand, one of my biggest assertions in my theology is against any purely literal or uncomplicated reading of the Biblical text. In this post, I want to demonstrate how a number of interpretations of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic scripture requires the insertion of metaphor and a rejection of purely literal reading.

This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are intended to be taken literally. There are. But determining which scriptures those are is not a matter of blind acceptance; it is a matter of using all the analytical tools God has given us to separate the wheat from the dross. That extremely complex and difficult task is a discussion for another time (and a long one at that). For now, I just want to look at how certain prophecies generally (but not universally) accepted by Christians as applying to Jesus require us to leave behind the literal meaning of the text or, more commonly, to allow one of Chesterton’s “furious paradoxes” in seeing both an immediate (more literal)  prophecy and one (more metaphorical) that looks toward fulfillment in Jesus.

Let’s start with Isaiah 7:13-17. Verse fourteen is often translated “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s rather easy to see how this might be applied–retrospectively–to be a prophecy of Jesus. But that requires ignoring the context. The word often translated as “virgin” does not necessarily mean “virgin;” it could also fairly be translated to indicate a “newly married woman” or a “young woman (of marriageable age).”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary I happen to have at hand at the moment of writing states that calling the (soon-to-be-born-in-Isaiah) child “Immanuel” should not be equated with a claim that the child so-named is God in human form as we believe Jesus would later be. Instead, the commentary argues that the prophecy simply means that the coming of the king of Assyria would occur before a child to be born to a woman present at the time the prophecy is uttered reaches the “age of accountability” (held by Jewish custom to be 13 but not explicitly named in the Bible).

Indeed, Ahaz calls upon Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (against Isaiah’s warnings) for assistance; Tiglath-Pileser captures Galilea and later Samaria for himself. Jerusalem itself is besieged by Sennecharib in 701 BCE (though Hezekiah is king at this time).

So, on a literal reading of the prophecy, we should only apply it to 8th Century Israel and Judah, not to the coming of Christ seven centuries later. But the metaphor still seems so clear as to be unavoidable. That’s the problem with well-constructed prophecy, isn’t it? It seems in retrospect so easy to find a successful prediction and yet we like to think of that link as inevitable. Which makes it suspicious and susceptible to reasonable questioning, as the human predilection for inserting patterns into chaos is well documented.

Much ink has been spilt on the topic of the Christianization of Old Testament scriptures like this one, and I’ll defer to the scholars on that discussion. For this post, I’ll limit the topic to the fact that, right or wrong, to see Isaiah 7:13-17 as a prediction of the Messiah requires us to leave the literal text behind. I don’t at all believe that that is wrong, but I do think we need to acknowledge what we’re doing when we make that argument.

Likewise, Isaiah 9:1-7 (From verse 6):

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary again warns: “Christians have used some aspects of the passage to help them understand the significance of Christ, but the passage as a whole does not directly apply to Christ and the NT does not so apply it.”

While conceding that “Verse 7 does express what Christ will yet do,” the commentary goes on to describe how the passage represents an imminent deliverance from Assyria of the Israelite people by Yahweh.

Again, it is easy to see, looking back from the Gospels, how readily this passage might be applied to Jesus as the Messiah, but that is an ex post facto interpolation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t intend for Isaiah’s prophecy to have both an immediate meaning and a cosmic one–I think that’s a fair interpretation for the Christian to make. But, in doing so, we must maintain the honest position that neither Isaiah 7 and 9 do not prove the coming of Christ through Old Testament prophecies.

Rather, we ought to formulate the statement as something like: “As a believer in Jesus as the Son of God and in the Gospel message, I believe that the God, speaking through the prophets in the Old Testament, gave the Israelites double-pronged prophecies that had immediate and literal importance to the hearers while also containing a metaphorical cosmic prediction of God’s action through Jesus Christ, though the prophets and hearers of the time would not have considered or looked for this second, metaphorical meaning.”

Again, the specifics of our interpretation of these passages are not the point of my thoughts here. We’re instead focusing on the need to resort to metaphor and non-literal thinking to make the popular Christian interpretation of these scriptures the least bit functional.

Some more examples:

Isaiah 52-53: Like Isaiah 7 and 9, there is a very strong metaphorical relationship between this text and the life of Jesus Christ. But we must also conveniently overlook some inconsistencies between the description of the “suffering servant” and Jesus or again assume that this text had both a more immediate interpretation and more metaphorical applicability to Jesus.

Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” This cannot be a literal reference to Jesus if you are a Trinitarian Christian, as such an interpretation would result in the heresy of “adoptionism.”

Zechariah 12:10: The passage about “the one they have pierced” and those that follow certainly seem to have correspondence with the Crucifixion–you might have read this passage during Good Friday services. As I have above, I’m not asserting that this passage doesn’t have anything to do with the Gospels. However, if we look at the first verses of Chapter 12, I think we have to consider that this passage is not literally referring to Jesus’ on the Cross and that our (probably correct) temptation to read that relationship relies on a metaphorical relationship.

As I’ve tried to indicate in the preceding paragraphs, I’m going to accept the applicability of the Old Testament passages cited above to Jesus. There are many more examples to be given, but I’m going to try to keep this post short(ish).

To accept that we should assign Christian meaning to those OT scriptures and maintain some semblance of logic and intellectual honesty, we must acknowledge that metaphor is sometimes required in the “proper” interpretation of the scriptures.

If we do that, we cannot hold both that these passages point to the Messiah and that the Bible should only be read literally and without layers of indirect meaning and complex interpretation. Interesting, n’est pas?

Holy Week

(An opening note: I’ve started writing this post, veered off onto various tangents–later deleted–and then restarted several times. Being “stuck” on a post of this nature, or having to repeatedly reset my thoughts, is atypical of my experience in the time I’ve been running this blog. The thoughts that follow should probably be treated as musings, as me thinking to myself on paper as you observe, rather than the sort of pointed and organized theological assertions I tend to make. This may be–and I hope that it is–a result of what theological understanding I have being overwhelmed by the reality and the mystery of the Holy Week. I also hope that you find something of value to ruminate upon, meditate upon, or at least mull over during the coming Easter weekend.)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’re probably already familiar with Dr. John (Jack) A. Beck. He is a scholar of Biblical geography and was our guide during our two weeks in Israel last year. If you want to (re-)read about that, my journal of my experiences along the way starts here.

Sunday night, Jack came to our church to preach in the morning for Palm Sunday and to give a lecture about what the geography of Jesus’ route into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday tells us about the Gospel text. As expected, it was an eye-opening lecture. I’ll include a short summary, but I’d invite you to take the time to watch it here. Then consider watching some of Dr. Beck’s other work or buying some of his books.

I’m going to unabashedly ride on Dr. Beck’s coattails here, thinking about the Holy Week in light of the picture he paints of the thoughtful fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy involved in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

TL;DW

If you don’t have time or inclination to watch Dr. Beck’s lecture, here’s the short of it: the choices Jesus makes in approaching Israel from the east, through the Judean wilderness, entering Bethpage on a donkey (procured after he’s already walked up the Mount of Olives rather than before) and proceeding from Bethpage to the Gihon Spring are all conscious fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

The response of the (probably mostly Galilean) crowds to throw down their cloaks and wave palm branches was an explicit recognition of Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of those prophecies.

Enacting Prophecy
If your first response to the argument Dr. Beck makes is to have some doubt about the Messiah because he actively orchestrated the fulfillment of the prophecies, you’re not alone.

I had written a rather long response to this issue, but I’ve cut it from this post in the interest of focus. Maybe it will pop up in a post of its own sometime in the future, but for now, I’m going to settle with saying this:

Jesus taking measures to enact the Old Testament prophecies in his entrance to Jerusalem is just another of his claims to be the Messiah. When you look at it this way, it’s not very different from any other time he claims that he is the Messiah. You’re still left with the choice of whether to believe he is or is not, and we are ultimately given enough on which to base a strong conviction of the answer without being able to definitively and unequivocally prove it to anyone–in no small part due to the fact that none of us were personally there to witness. It’s a matter of faith for a reason.

I’m proceeding in this post based upon the importance of Jesus consciously choosing to fulfill the prophecies about which Jack Beck speaks in his lecture.

A Point of No Return

I don’t know to what extent the human aspect of Jesus had access to divine foresight; that is certainly a part of the mystery that Jesus was wholly human and wholly divine. But it wouldn’t take divine foresight to see what was likely to follow if Jesus made the claim to be the Messiah by so publicly fulfilling the messianic and prophetic expectations of the Jews gathered in and around Jerusalem for Passover.

The Biblical text tells us that he expected what followed–he predicts his impending death three times before he actually makes his grand entrance into Jerusalem according to the Gospels.

The Pharisees and religious authorities commonly asked Jesus the authority by which he spoke and did what he did. They were already looking for a way to be rid of this thorn in their side. The same goes for the political authorities (who sometimes were also religious authorities). Jesus’s declaration to be the Messiah create an alternative to their authority in maintaining control over the Jewish people. Look at history–those in authority are often willing to kill for far less.

So there’s every indication that Jesus knew what his entrance into Jerusalem in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies would cause to happen. Certainly, once the palm fronds came out, it would have been clear that there was no going back.

A Declaration of War
As Jack Beck points out in his lecture, the palm fronds procured by the bystanders witnessing Jesus’ arrival into the city have historical roots. This is a reference to the Book of Maccabees, wherein the Jews retake Jerusalem from the Seleucids, celebrating their victory with palm fronds. The crowd’s use of the vegetation shows us several important things.

First, they were familiar enough with messianic prophecy from the Old Testament to recognize the claim that Jesus was making when he entered Bethpage on a donkey. Second, they expected their Messiah to bring them military revolution in which they would retake Jerusalem from the foreign powers who once again dominated it. Third, they expected this victory to be achieved solely (or at least almost solely) by God’s action through the messiah.

You might ask why I make the third argument. It’s simple, really. The Galileans gathered for Passover who witnessed Jesus coming into the city gathered palm fronds, not weapons. We know of the existence in the decades after Jesus’ death of violent dissidents who would eventually be instigators of the Jewish Revolt (the Sicarii or Zealots), but there’s not evidence of their existence before the procuratorship of Felix in the 50’s A.D. (from Josephus). Neverthless, we’re not told of a rash of violence, an uprising by the Jews or a widespread suppression by the Romans in response to Palm Sunday (and the Gospels seem to indicate a noticeable lack thereof–see the section on Pilate below). The use of the palm fronds also indicates timing–the Jews participating here are acting as if the victory is already won (if we stretch the metaphor to Maccabees to near-direct analogy).

We’re told in Mark that the priests began to look for a way to kill Jesus not upon his Passover entrance into the city, but upon his “attack” on the moneychangers at the Temple. This doesn’t seem exactly right to me. If the “rustic” Galileans understood the message Jesus was sending on Palm Sunday sufficiently to behave as they did, surely the educated priests took note as well.

And if all of them understood this, certainly the disciples did, too. When they were told that they should go fetch a donkey in Bethpage for Jesus to ride, they must have understood that this was it–Jesus’ big declaration of his Messiahhood.

We don’t really get any indication about how the disciples felt about all of this. We know that Jesus had told them three times to expect his impending death upon the entrance to Jerusalem and we know that fear later overtakes Peter and the other disciples upon Jesus’ arrest. But we’re not told about how they feel upon the entry to Jerusalem, knowing that Jesus’ action in fulfillment of the prophecies means that something big is about to happen.

This, ultimately, I think, is fitting. As I’ve argued in other posts, Erich Auerbach argues in Mimesis that the “Biblical style” of narrative forces us to engage with the text, to think about it in various contexts, to really wrestle with the ambiguous possibilities. This instance is a perfect example.

If words described the feelings of the disciples upon the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, we would quickly read those words and move on, taking them for granted. Feelings may be described, yes, but they’re at their most powerful when experienced. The gap in knowledge here forces us to insert our own humanity into the text to understand the humanity of the disciples in that moment–to try to feel what they felt.

Imagine how torn you would have been. You’ve been traveling with a man who claims to be the Messiah for several years. You have heard him teach amazing things and bring the Gospel of hope to a broken world. You have seen him do the miraculous, proving that he is truly “God with us,” both in those wondrous events and in the mundane ways in which he speaks and lives.

And now, all of the hopes and doubts you’ve developed in those years rush together in a maelstrom of emotion. The liberation Jesus has promised is finally at hand! The people outside of Jerusalem are recognizing Jesus as the Messiah! But Jesus has told you that this means the end for his physical time on earth. And, understanding the revolutionary tone that has arisen when the palm fronds came out, you know there’s about to be trouble. Is Jesus going to overthrow Roman occupation? Is he going to be killed by the Romans? Is the Day of Judgment at hand? Is Jesus really who he says he is? This combination of excitement and fear must have been swirling about in the minds of the twelve (and Jesus’ other followers).

Perhaps this thought grasps me because all Christians have some experience of this moment, I think. When they are deciding whether to believe in Jesus, they are at the precipice of fear, doubt and hope–between conviction that the Gospel promises are true and the hopelessness of deciding that Jesus was only a deluded man who made outrageous claims and died for nothing. And, I think it’s fair to say, that experience is not just a one-time thing in the life of the Christian. Until the Second Coming, we are all (metaphorically) in this middle place at the beginning of Holy Week–in possession of some evidence that Jesus is who he says he is but yet without the undeniable proof that the Gospel is Truth. Faith, especially when reasonable, is a difficult thing, and I empathize.

Pontius Pilate
Jack’s talk also has me thinking about Pontius Pilate’s position in the Passion. When the palm fronds came out on Jesus’ entrance to the city, surely someone informed Pilate what that symbolized. We know (and Jack shows this in his talk) that later Roman coins would mock the defeat of the first-century Jewish revolts by showing palm trees next to Roman soldiers or the goddess Nike, so we know that, at some point, the Romans understood the symbolism. I think it’s reasonable to believe that Pilate understood it at the time.

At this point in Roman history, and given Pilate’s position in Judea, I think that his primary concern would have been over physical and political revolt against Roman occupation. I don’t think he would have much cared about an internal religious dispute in Judaism if it didn’t affect Roman rule.

This certainly seems to play out in the Gospels, where the synoptics indicate that Pilate finds no reason to put Jesus to death beyond the urging of the Jewish priests. There, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” Jesus replies with some variation of “You have said so.” (emphasis mine, of course). If you’ve been left wondering about this exchange and why Pilate accepts that answer, I think Jack’s analysis of the entrance into Jerusalem helps fill in the gaps.

When those welcoming Jesus waved palm fronds, this would have been cause for some alarm among Roman leadership–the symbolism certainly seemed a prelude to revolt. But when the days followed with no revolt, or even the intimation of preparations for a revolt, I think the Romans would have lost concern quickly. Jesus’ actions with the moneychangers in the Temple would likely have reinforced Pilate’s idea (assuming he heard about this event) that the dispute of Jesus indicated an internal religious struggle with little bearing outside the Jewish community.

When Pilate questions Jesus, who responds without an assertion to rulership or right thereof, without threat of uprising or violence, without opposition to the power of Rome, I think that would have sealed the matter for the Roman. We’re told in Luke that Pilate tries to pass off Jesus to Herod. This would have been a shrewd political move, I think–it allows Pilate to claim that he’s made some effort to allow the Jews reasonable autonomy and to distance himself from the whole affair (which he seems to understand that no good can come of). Unfortunately (for Pilate), it doesn’t work; Herod passes the buck right back to the Roman governor.

John gives us even more information–here Jesus responds directly to Pilate’s key concern, saying “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This statement gives Pilate an explanation to why no uprising manifested after Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, as well as giving some assurance that there’s no threat to Roman rule from the “Jesus dilemma.”

Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify Jesus at the behest of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin (after his attempt to escape the situation by pitting Jesus against Barrabas) is characterized as a further political calculation. Jesus has already told him that Jesus’ followers hold beliefs that make a present uprising against Rome unlikely because they see nothing to be gained from such a worldly revolt. On the other hand, the magnates of Jewish society in Jerusalem have worked themselves into a froth over Jesus’ presence and claims–not doing something about Jesus likely would cause unrest. For the practitioner of realpolitik, the choice is a simple one.

Thus, we’re again given ambiguity, this time in the person of Pontius Pilate. In John, we’re given the image of an almost nihilistic powermonger (“What is truth?” he asks in response to Jesus’ claim to have brought the Truth to Earth). In the synoptics, we get the characterization of a man who bears no ill-will to Jesus but who is subject to sociopolitical forces beyond even his control. One invites derision; the other sympathy.  Some early Christians must have agreed, as apocryphal texts make some attempts to rehabilitate the image of Pilate.

JudasBetrayer or Loyal Follower?
I cannot remember where, but somewhere in my reading I’ve picked up on the interesting argument that Judas’ actions seem to indicate that his “betrayal” of Jesus was a matter of following instructions rather than truly betraying Jesus. To preface, I want to say that I have not done enough research to evaluate the credibility or weight of evidence in this argument; I present it here as nothing more than intriguing supposition. The argument goes something like this:

Iscariot should be taken to indicate relationship to the Sicarii (rather than the more commonly-accepted “from Kerioth”). As noted above, Josephus indicates the first appearance of the Sicarii in the 50’s A.D., so this is a somewhat problematic move, but one I’m not entirely willing to completely brush aside if we are focused on narrative meaning rather than historicity. In a similar vein, it has been argued that the use of the Pharisees in the Gospels reflects more on the time of the writing of the Gospels (when the Pharisees had become dominant after the fall of the Temple) rather than as an indicator of their position at Jesus’ time, when the Sadducees had greater power. If that assertion is true, and if a similar move is being made by the Gospel-writers here to use the idea of the later-formed Sicarii to make anachronistic–but effective–commentary about the relationship of those in favor of temporal, violent revolt with the way offered by Christ, then it is feasible (if unlikely), that Judas’ name as given in the Gospels was meant to tie him to the idea of violent revolt.

Accepting this as true for the sake of argument (as the line of thinking I’m describing does), the argument then proceeds to draw an analogy between Judas hanging himself in the account of Matthew with the loyal soldier committing suicide to die along with his beloved leader.

These ideas are then used to retroactively argue that Judas had been instructed by Jesus to give his location to the priests (something that the Gospels give no indication of) and that Jesus selected Judas because Jesus knew Judas would see the task through.

This idea came back to me as I thought about the argument that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem–or at least the response thereto–could be viewed as a declaration of war. But the argument that Judas had some allegiance to those elements of Jewish society in favor of violent revolt against the Romans could just as easily cut the other way–we could imagine that he would be in high spirits as the palm fronds waved in remembrance of the Maccabean victory and all that it symbolized but that, when no uprising manifested and he began to understand that Jesus’ revolution and kingdom were not temporal, he became disillusioned and betrayed his master.

To be clear, there a number of elements of the Gospels that actively undercut the idea of Judas as “loyal servant” in the “betrayal” of Jesus. John disparages Judas’ nature as the disciples’ treasurer and Luke says that “the devil made him do it.” At the end of the day, there must remain some uncertainty about whether Judas was a scapegoat added to Jesus’ passion. I think he serves that function for us regardless of historicity or authorial intent–by focusing on demonizing Judas’ behavior toward Jesus, we can conveniently turn our thoughts away from scrutinizing our own failures in our walk. Even more, demonizing Judas ignores much of what Jesus had to say about forgiveness.

We don’t need some convoluted argument about Judas’ intent to reach that conclusion, even if petty greed seems an poor motivation for Judas’ actions as is commonly put forth.

I’d also note that the “grave betrayal” is that Judas told the priests where to find Jesus–but there’s no indication that Jesus was hiding and there’s every indication he expected to be arrested as part of those things which needed to happen.

Gethsemene
That brings us to the Garden of Gethsemene. This short scene in the Gospels carries so much meaning with it! I am especially moved by Chesterton’s description of the action between the Father and Son in Gethsemene as “God tempting God.” This accentuates the idea that, through Jesus, God has come to Earth to suffer everything man has suffered (and worse) in a demonstration of God’s justice; that it is human to not want to sacrifice, but divine to do so anyway; to give us some glimpse of the perichoresis of the Trinity.

In light of Jack’s analysis of the import of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, this scene in Gethsemene takes on new meaning for me. Jesus has already set in motion the claim and events that will lead to his crucifixion, and only after doing so does he ask for the “cup to be removed” from him. Jesus is asking for the miraculous and divine intervention of the Father, I think, not simply for some other way for things to work out.

To see even Jesus in this position carries great comfort to me, for some reason. I understand that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and that I am (only) fully human, but I nevertheless find this acknowledgement of human emotion to be another of God’s kindnesses. Here there is a permission to feel without guilt while Jesus’ example simultaneously calls us to the righteous path in spite of those feelings.

Conclusion
If you happen to be Catholic, I invite you to submit the task of reading all of these thoughts to your priest as an acceptable form of penance if future need arises. If you are of a Protestant persuasion, then consider the fact you’ve survived all the way through as a further demonstration of God’s inexhaustible grace.

Either way, I thank you for giving me the time to ramble as I have, and I wish you a Happy Easter filled with the profundity and comfort of the reality of God’s work for us through Jesus Christ. He is Risen, indeed!

Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.

Eucatastrophe

In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!

 

 

Voter Fraud is Real! (But Not Where You Think)

I came into the office this morning to begin knocking out my Friday tasks to find an article from the New York Times (click here) detailing voter fraud at the 2019 UMC General Conference.

So far, four fraudulent votes–all against full inclusion–have been discovered. They originate from discrepancies between who voted and who was actually a delegate from the South Congo Conference. One, Phillipe Kasap Kachez, was not a delegate and resides in Brussels but voted as a delegate from South Congo. When asked why, he said that his father–UMC Bishop Kasap Owan–asked him to attend and vote against inclusion (the NYT article contains more direct language but, as the origin of the quotation is questionable, I have not included it).

There was a call from the floor of GC expressing concern about fraudulent voting and asking for investigation. I’m not sure what, if anything, came from the referral to the Ethics Committee that followed. While GC is not in session, the Ethics Committee does not have jurisdiction to investigate, nor are there provisions within the Book of Discipline for dealing with fraudulent or unethical activity in the polity’s legislative process.

Except for cases where clergypersons orchestrated the fraud, I’m not interested in finding a way to punish those who fraudulently participated. I find no utility in that effort. I am, however interested in the truth of what happened and why. Certainly, most of the supporters of the (Modified) Traditional Plan acted and comported themselves in good faith and with honest intent. I may find that intent misguided at best, but I’ve no reason to doubt their sincerity of belief or commitment to following the Book of Discipline in how resolution is reached.

There are those on the conservative side who have been maneuvering politically and playing Machiavellian games to further their goals. That’s not against the letter of the rules (and so not actionable in any way), but it is against the spirit of them. There have been progressives doing the same thing, I’m sure, but my bias prevents me from picking up on that to the same extent.

What the NYT has revealed, however, is on another level. The willingness to commit violations of the trust and fellowship established by the UMC in order to win an issue that they’re afraid they can’t win by honest means is deplorable and should be denounced by all members of the Church, regardless of position on homosexuality or the Traditional Plan versus the One Church Plan.

The NYT reports a 54-vote margin on “the vote against gay clergy and same-sex marriage.” I’m not sure which specific vote this refers to, but the margin between most of the votes was similar. Four fraudulent votes are not enough to change the result by the numbers, but they are enough to throw the whole process into question. It remains to be discovered if more fraudulent activity will be brought to light, but this news does not bode well. The votes also raise the specter of other fraudulent or nefarious activity behind the scenes that may have influenced voting in ways other than improperly cast votes.

I favor removal from office for any bishop shown to have participated in such a breach of trust of the polity. Again, this is not a matter of punishment, per se. With the issue already as divisive as it is, it becomes even more important to protect the integrity of the process by which we reach a decision. Anyone who can be shown to have willfully violated that process should be removed from participation to protect the process itself.

Additionally, we must proceed with caution. These allegations, and those that follow (if any), cannot be fairly imputed to the entirety of the conservative or “traditional” position. It is important that we identify who was involved so that we can protect and respect the integrity of those who were not.

I am curious to see how the leaders of the conservative wing of the UMC respond to this revelation. The bishops have already hired an outside consulting firm (which makes it sound excitingly like Sherlock Holmes, but don’t get your hopes up) to investigate the affairs at General Conference.

The 2019 General Conference, it seems, has created more problems than it has solved.

Morality and God’s Choice, Part II: Job

(This is the 11th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge. Please continue to repost, link, and send your friends my way!)

For the previous post in this series, please click here.

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the Old Testament. There are some passages in the OT I like more (Jeremiah 31:31 and its surrounds, for instance), but taken as a whole, Job is where it’s at for me. The book gives an answer to the problem of theodicy that remains relevant today, along with shooting down some still-espoused misconceptions about how God works that plague simplistic theologies.

And it’s important to note here that I think that the Book of Job’s primary task is theodical. This is tangential to, but inextricably linked with questions of morality–specifically, the morality of God. Put simply, is a God who allows bad things to happen to good people a good and just God? That’s the question the Book of Job seeks to answer (or, as we’ll see, show us is simply beyond human ability to fully grasp).

When we look to the framework of the Book of Job, we’re reminded that we must view the question asked, broad and expansive as it may be unto itself, as a limited (and somewhat problematic) one when it comes to questions about God’s morality.

Remember that Job’s affair begins when “the Satan” (which should be properly read as a job title akin to “the accuser” rather than a personal name) presents himself (itself?) to the Lord and, sua sponte, God boasts about Job’s faithfulness. The Satan argues that Job is only loyal to God because he is well-blessed with life’s joys and comforts; at this God turns Job over to the Satan to be tested.

If we read this exchange literally, God does not come off in a great light. Instead, God is allowing suffering simply to win a bet, so to speak. But if we read it mythopoeically, which I think we must, the dialogue is simply a personification of an existential question–why does God allow bad things to happen to God people? Or, perhaps, what is the meaning of suffering?

That the angels present themselves to the Lord in the beginning of this text seems (to me, at least) to intimate some throwback to an earlier way of thinking, when Yahweh was viewed as a god in the pantheon of El rather than the supreme being God’s self, part of a “divine court” (in the monarchical sense of the term rather than the legal sense). If that is true (and I don’t have sufficient information to be sure), then: (1) it indicates an older origin for the Book of Job than when it was written down (already probable) and (2) it reinforces the idea that we should view the framework of Job as a mythological set-up for a theological investigation rather than a literal telling of what God did to Job (who himself, admittedly, probably never existed–but that’s not the point). This is all to say that the Book of Job only works as satisfying analysis of theodicy as allegory; taken literally, the Book of Job just makes a jerk of God.

I also want to point out the strangeness of Job’s reward at the end of the Book. Job’s old things are not restored to him; they are replaced. He is given a new family to compensate for the one taken from him, not given his formerly-living loved-ones back. This may have something to do with common afterlife beliefs (or a lack thereof) in the time that Job was originally created (or when it was recorded), but I have not done the research to make any useful comment on that, except to say that the history and nature of Jewish belief in an afterlife and/or resurrection is extremely complex, rich and varied, even today. It is well documented that the Sadducees in Jesus’s time appear not to have believed in an afterlife, but whether this could be fairly extended backward in time to the Book of Job is outside the realm of my own current scholarship.

It is tempting to read the Book of Job as concerning God’s sovereignty. After all, God’s appearance at the end of the text might be irreverently summed up as God asking Job, “Who the f*** are you to question me?” That line always brings a smile to my face, particularly when uncensored in teaching about this text. It certainly wakes up those who were drifting. Here’s a taste from the text itself:

“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–while the morning stars sand together and all the angels shouted for joy?'”

That question (whether or not using my paraphrase)–what authority or basis does Job have to question God–isn’t really about God’s sovereignty (though that follows later). Because of the mighty acts described, it’s tempting to think that God is comparing God’s power to Job’s, but a closer reading reveals that God is making the rhetorical point that Job lacks the comprehension and understanding necessary to make sense of the answer to Job’s question.

Early in the text, there is a strong focus on Job not sinning by what he says about God. In particular, I love the advice he gets from his wife: “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). The implication is that, if Job says that God does not have the right to treat him as God has, that Job will be speaking a lie and defying God and thus be subject to divine punishment.

Job walks a fine line in his responses, one that is important for us to consider carefully. Repeatedly, Job calls God “Almighty.” He acknowledges God’s power directly (30:18) and God’s omnipotence (“Does he not see my ways and count my every step?” 31:4).

He says, “…how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God? Though they wished to dispute with him, they could not answer one time out of a thousand. His wisdom is profound, his power vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?” (9:2b-4).

And, “How can I then dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy. Even if I summoned him and he responded, I do not believe he would give me a hearing. He would crush me with a storm, and multiply my wounds for no reason. He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery. If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty! If it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him? Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me; if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty” (9:14-20).

Throughout the Book, Job never questions God’s sovereignty. In fact, it is part of the basis of his desire to question God: because God has the power to do things differently, to choose not to afflict Job, Job can ask why God has chosen to do so as a moral question. He cannot oppose the answer, but he can ask why.

This in essence, gets right to the heart of–and then past–Divine Command Theory. Job’s position, essentially, is to acknowledge that no one can oppose the will of God and that God, as sovereign over all things, has the authority to establish what is and is not “righteous.” But this does not answer the question of whether God plays by God’s own rules or exempts God’s self from them.

The answer the Book of Job gives is a complex one. Job’s “friends” (Bildad, Zophar and Elihu) repeatedly reshift the blame back to Job or his family. Surely, Job’s suffering is the result of some secret sin he has committed and not confessed. But the narrator tells us that Job is “blameless,” Job repeats this assertion, and even God confirms it in the conclusion of the story, so the friends’ argument fails absolutely.

This kind of ad hominem attack to “save” God’s righteousness from human inquiry is still a common retort in questions of God’s morality–it is easy to blame the complainant’s own unrighteousness as the reason for his suffering. The best part about it: rejection of this argument requires the assertion (as Job makes) that one is without fault and absolutely righteous. For those of us who are not literary figures but actual people, this approach simply isn’t tenable.

But the ad hominem attack is as much a logical fallacy when made on God’s behalf as it is in any other circumstance. Even God decries its use, commanding at the end of the text tat the friends make sacrifices and ask for Job’s intercession with God for forgiveness for not “speaking the truth” about God.

So the Book develops this tensive relationship between fundamental ideas: no one has the authority to try to judge God, but God also rejects that God needs to be protected from moral scrutiny by humans. This is the first of the reasons that this series is titled “Morality and God’s Choice;” it seems that God has made God’s self available to moral questioning–or at least asking why–even though God has no duty to–and man has no authority to–do so.

This paradoxical relationship plays out in what I would call the two answers that God gives to Job in response to his questions. In the first answer, Chapters 38 and 39, God gives the answer I first described above–that Job lacks understanding sufficient to grasp why God allows the good to suffer. In the second answer, Chapters 40 and 41, God exerts God’s authority–the same authority Job’s been asserting throughout that makes God ultimately immune from the judgment of mortals.

But God’s words in Job are just part of the whole argument made by the Book’s writers. God’s rejection of the arguments of Job’s friends is an admission that bad things happen to good people–something experience readily confirms. This in and of itself sets up (or rather acknowledges) the complexity of the question of God’s morality–how do we parse out the morality of God allowing certain things to happen and when God actively wills certain things?

Here’s where the order of God’s two answers becomes important, because it changes the intent and meaning of God’s insistence on God’s authority from a rejection of questioning to a reassurance made to creation. When God begins by explaining that Job can’t understand the complexities of the moral questions he is asked, God finishes by explaining that God is, in fact, in control of all things and, therefore, Job’s faith that God is Good (the real reason he is blameless, I would argue) is well placed.

So, we can summarize the thrust of the argument in the Book of Job as asserting that God, ultimately, is both all-powerful and good. Not because God has to be good, but because God chooses to be. It may sometimes be difficult for us to see or understand that, but this is an important aspect of our faith in God, and a reason that Paul relates faith, hope and love so closely. Our faith in God is in–and borne out by–God’s love for us, without which we could have no existential hope.

I would argue that we see God personally rejecting divine command theory through the narrative of Job; that this twists the expectations set up by the literal reading of the story is, in my mind, ironic, poetic and funny.

As a conclusion, I’m going to repeat the ideas that will carry us forward in this series. First, God does not need to rely on God’s sovereignty to protect God’s self from moral questioning, because God is good by all measures and therefore needs no defense. Second, there is, impliedly at least, some righteousness in asking God why–so long as we accept the limits of our understanding. We see this not only in the allegory of Job, but also with Jacob wrestling with God. There is relationship here, an honest desire to be closer to (and or blessed by) God, and this presents a rival source of righteousness to blind and unquestioning obedience.

As we move onward, we’ll look at how we might see how God’s actual morality and justice, not just by fiat but by conscientious and loving Will in action, reveal themselves. We’ll look at what the Incarnation says about God’s morality. And we’ll look at what God’s choices mean for us in the way we consider the morality, justice and righteousness to which we are called in Christ.

 

 

Heartbreak and Hope

I have waited several days to write this post in hopes that that would give my emotions and chance to settle so that I could write from a place of reason, reflection and respect rather than one based upon frustration and anger. Even now, I’m not sure the extent to which that’s actually possible, but I’ve decided not to wait and to do my best.

A short summary of events for those who were unable to get the play-by-play: On Sunday, the delegates ranked each petition submitted to the Conference by “high priority” or “low priority,” creating a ranked list that established the order in which petitions (or bundles of petitions in the case of the plans) would be reviewed. The highest priority issue for the delegates: pensions. Not whether we could keep the Church together, but whether we’d protect the retirement funds of those who decide to leave. Not a good sign. The Traditional Plan ranked next, followed by two “disaffiliation plans” (read: exit plans), only then followed by the One Church Plan.

On Monday, to satisfy procedural requirements that all petitions first pass through a Legislative Committee, the entire body of the General Conference met as that Legislative Committee to determine what the delegates would actually vote on come Tuesday. The Traditional Plan was relatively quickly passed on to the general body by a vote of 461 to 359. The two disaffiliation plans were sent onward. By vote of 436 to 386 (about 53% to 47%), the One Church Plan was kept from moving forward.

The UMC’s Judicial Council (the church law version of a Supreme Court) determined that a number of provisions in the Traditional Plan violated the UMC constitution (to be fair, there were several provisions in the One Church Plan also found to be unconstitutional). Many efforts were made to amend the Traditional Plan at the conference to pass constitutional muster, but it doesn’t seem that this was effective. Those parts of the plan that are constitutional will (most likely) become church law, for the time being.

The more punitive of the “exit plans” was also passed, one which would extensively reduce the resources of any church that decided to leave. I have heard both that the exit plans were submitted so that the Weslayan Covenant Association members and others could leave the UMC if they didn’t like the result at GC and as a measure to undermine the will of progressives to fight by making it easy for them to leave. I think both were true and, when the very-well-organized conservatives saw how things were going with the Traditional Plan early in the conference, they reasoned that they might be able to take control of the church as a whole and keep the majority of the resources for themselves when progressives left as they were urged to. This is, of course, speculation.

I watched the vast majority of the General Conference 2019 as it happened. I hoped and prayed for a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit to change the trajectory of the conference. While I’m extremely unhappy with the result of the Conference, I know that God often surprises us and moves in ways we do not expect. I remain faithful that what is true and right will prevail in the end and I, for one, remain committed to the United Methodist Church and for advocating that the UMC become a place of inclusion and not rejection, an arm of the greater catholic church that spreads the love of God through Jesus Christ in a manner that accurately reflects that love instead of relying on ignorance and human stubbornness to suborn holy scripture for the isolation and judgment of others.

In the meantime, I am embarrassed to be a United Methodist. I am embarrassed that, any time I want to discuss my faith with others and reveal my denominational affiliation, I must overcome a presumption of bigotry. I am embarrassed that this General Conference did more to support the stereotype of Christians as dogmatic, unthinking zealots who care more about their own feigned self-righteousness than anything else it might have accomplished. I am embarrassed that a very slim majority has overshadowed the fast-growing minority to the greater populace.

My personal experience of the General Conference returned me to my teenage years. I spent a long time in high school and college wondering if I really was a Christian, because those who taught me in Sunday School told me that I had to believe particular things that I could not to be a Christian. The loudest voices among the traditionalists on the floor of conference essentially argued that one must believe that homosexuality is a sin to belong in the United Methodist Church, perhaps even to call yourself a Christian. Others were smarter than to say such things aloud, but I wonder whether they’re thinking them. Still, such sentiments cannot be fairly imputed to all traditionalists or conservatives, and we did hear speeches on the floor of the Conference from conservatives willing to maintain unity with progressives and willing to hold to their beliefs while showing grace to those who disagree. I very much appreciated that kind of honesty and humility.

The speeches from the floor of the Conference did much to reveal the nature of the two sides of the homosexuality issue. The progressives came willing to compromise, saying, “Let’s use the One Church Plan to continue to live in productive fellowship despite our theological differences, because that diversity should not be viewed as blessing and not a curse.” The conservatives came saying, “We are right, you are wrong, and there’s no room for discussion.” In my mind, that behavior demonstrates the flaws in the conservative position as much the lack of careful consideration and reason in their theology. The progressives made arguments for unity; where they provided support for the reasonableness of their position, they pleaded only for understanding sufficient enough to acknowledge the slimmest possibility that their theology could be right, just enough to live in fellowship with them. These arguments were varied and drew upon scripture, logic, experience and tradition. The conservatives only brought the refrain, “the Bible says homosexuality is wrong and that’s all there is to it; we cannot allow impurity into our church.” Get in line, or get out.

That the conservatives had the presumption to make the General Conference a zero-sum game and then to complain that we’re collectively right back where we started before the GC despite all of the effort and resources put into the Commission on a Way Forward and the Special Session of the General Conference, frankly, appalls me. I just cannot find sympathy for those who refuse any resolution but their own way and then complain that they didn’t get everything they wanted–even when, on paper at least, they did.

Likewise, I find some irony in conservatives complaining that they have been called hypocrites by those who believe that Traditional Plan and the values that accompany it are immoral when the thrust of their action and exclusivity is based on their precept that homosexuality is immoral. They want to play the righteousness card for themselves, but they don’t like it when others want to play it against them. This, I think, is the microcosm of making personal holiness the linchpin of one’s faith, the very reason we are warned not to judge, lest ye be judged. I have things to write about this specifically, but I think they’re better saved for another post.

But this is a good time to temper things a little bit in fairness. As I mentioned above, not all conservatives are unreasonable, and it’s unfair to demonize them on any personal level, particularly as a generality. It is one thing to say that they have been lead into hypocrisy and away from what Jesus calls us to by well-intentioned misguidedness; it is another to say that they are evil. I do not believe the latter. To my mind, their dilemma is a failure of understanding, not a matter of malice. This is why I remain willing to be in fellowship with conservatives just as I vehemently oppose their values on this topic. There is far more that we agree about than that we don’t, I think, and I can’t think of a single traditionalist with whom I’m familiar about whom I would not readily say that they genuinely want to walk closer to Christ–and many of them do a better job of it in practice than I do. As much as I’m heartbroken by the feeling that they’ve by and large told even I–who is not part of the LGBTQ community directly but who believes strongly in its inclusion within the Church–am also unwelcome, I’m not interested in giving up on them or our relationship. And I still don’t think that some form of schism leaves us “better off.”

I also want to say that there were people on both sides who behaved badly. And there were people on both sides who set amazing and especially-Christian examples of respect and love for those who disagree with them. Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of the General Conference was that there was not more of that to be found.

Despite the great harm that was suffered by the LGBTQ community and its supporters at the General Conference, I did manage to find some hope. I’d refer you to two high points directly:

JJ Warren Speaks From the Floor
Adam Hamilton Speaks Against the Traditional Plan

The presence of so many rainbow-stole-wearing supporters of full inclusion at the conference brought great joy to my heart. As Rev. Hamilton opined, the conservative approach to General Conference has inspired and mobilized both progressives and centrists who had not previously been active in their support of full inclusion. This gives me hope.

Additionally, as I argued in my post, The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy, the passage of the Traditional Plan will not accomplish what the conservatives wanted to accomplish–at least not fully. In very conservative conferences such as the one to which I belong (the Texas Annual Conference), unless the entire TP is struck down by the Judicial Council, there will be increased opportunities to marginalize and punish members of the UMC who are also members of the LGBTQ community (particularly if they’re also clergy or want to become clergy) as well as their supporters. But in those annual conferences already committed not to play the conservatives’ inquisitorial games, the passage of the Traditional Plan won’t change that.

The numbers from GC are also inspiring. The margins by which votes for the Traditional Plan and Exit Plans passed (and conversely, by which the OCP failed) were far narrower than expected. Traditional wisdom (at least in my part of the country) would be that the vote should have been about two-thirds to one-third. The Good New Network, the WCA and other conservative organizations within the UMC are well-funded and highly mobilized. The numbers from GC2019 show a very different story. To be fair, the voting numbers alone remain somewhat opaque–it’s impossible to parse out who voted against the Traditional Plan or for the One Church Plan because they are progressives in favor of full inclusion, because they are conservatives who value unity more than passing “their” plan (as if there is no diversity amongst the conservatives at all), or for some other reason. But that combined will is a voice that must be respected. Even with passing the Traditional Plan, if the conservatives do not realize that the tide is changing, and faster than they would like to think, there will be some rude awakenings in the near future.

I’ll conclude with this: a friend of mine who is not a Christian asked me this week why it was so important that we don’t split when there’s clearly so much disagreement within the church. I told him that part of our core witness as Christians is that God, the Creator of all things, is fundamentally about love and relationship. If we cannot demonstrate love and relationship between Christians in our own denomination, who can we convince those who are not believers of the truth we know but fail to practice?