We’ve got to do better than Disney thinking in a disintegrating world. I know, I’ve been to Disney World.
Disney World is such a theological place! It recently set my head spinning again when I visited. Simba, Aladdin, Pooh, Peter Pan, etc. were all trying to teach me lessons — and everywhere, it was “Have a magical day!” which is like a liturgical response to everything for people from the Magic Kingdom. With Disney, the basic message is relentlessly, “Find the dream in you and follow it” and there is always a choir to tunefully follow up the message, like the famous song from Cinderella (below) that sums it up:
After the song, we all go ride the rides that give a little jolt of experience that proves the magic is real. A little magic, a large group of fellow-worshipers, a promise of more (if you buy a ticket) sounds like religion to a lot of people. It is, in a way. But it is religion that resembles what N.T. Wright calls present-day “gnosticism” more than it resembles the way of Jesus, as he warns:
Gnostic-like thinking says, “Whatever you need is in you, you just need to find it and unleash it.”
- Some people go for that with gusto: “I believe I can fly!”
- Many more wither under the responsibility of self-creation in an uncaring world.
We need the third way that is following Jesus, risen among us.
The world is confusing right now.
There is a lot to say about what is happening to the world and how people are making sense of it, and I hope we will say a lot, because Jesus is the ultimate meaning maker. It is an opportune time to see what is going on right now, since it is an election year and the beliefs of the masses get up to the surface and we get a chance to see them again — and we get a chance to make sense of them (if the pundits don’t steer us completely). How do we keep discerning the way when there is so much shouting from either pole? A lot of people I’m talking to are quite confused, how about you?
I think we can keep our heads on and our love intact if we stay somewhere in the middle and keep moving toward Jesus. There is a third way. Jesus is not a stance or a platform, but he is the way and a destination. I often find myself trying to steer a middle course among the people of the world, and, unsurprisingly, between the poles I often see in the church. It is something like what Paul teaches when he says I must not be, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
- On the one extreme we have people who preach that “your dreams are a wish your heart makes,” just keep believing — and for many a traumatized person in Philadelphia, to do that would be a brave step out of the disaster they have experienced their whole life.
- And then on the opposite extreme, we have people who can’t say the word “Disney” without an ironic inflection, who think a material “reality” is all there is so make the most of this mess and spend your efforts getting yours and loving your friends — for many people moving in to Philadelphia, to say such a thing might be an honest step away from the delusions in which they can no longer believe.
It is surprising how often the church seems unconscious that they have another way, a third way, that is not for or against, with or without the present age.
Is there a way to relate to people in the middle of the turmoil?
Here we are in the middle of the polarization: Spirit-indwelled people, living in a tangible community, persistently telling the story of our resurrection with Jesus and our future as world-redeemers by his side. We have our work cut out for us if we want to have any conversation at all.
Let me try to demonstrate how to think in a way that isn’t at one of the poles or merely disagreeing with them, a third way Take one subject that makes Christians at odds with most structures: WAR.
- The one side might just let people decide whether being a pacifist is “right for them.”
- The other side might use all the power at hand to keep what is theirs, as long as they are safe and don’t have to do anything too dangerous.
What does a Jesus-follower do? I don’t think Christian peacemaking is the same thing as political pacifism, but since they always get lumped together, let’s just use the word. What is the third way in thinking about war? – and I mean what is thinking as a Spirit-indwelled person, not just a spirit trying to escape a body or a spiritless body trying to prolong life as long as possible?
To begin with: pacifist is not passive. Not being pacifist is being pacified.
That sums it up. Proactive peacemaking is a lifestyle, not a leisure-time activity. Loving others, including enemies, is a character trait, not an application of theory. I say (and I think Jesus does too) that if you are not “pacifist” you are pacified. You may think you have love in your heart and that’s enough, or you might think you are not required to address the subject of loving people at all, but those are just more ways to be under the sway of the powers Jesus came to upend. Being disembodied is not an option.
If you want life coursing through your body as you proactively make peace on earth with Jesus, I think there are at least three important reasons to think about forging a third way that is moving toward Jesus rather than getting stuck bouncing between the prevailing poles of arguments looking to make you an adherent.
- There is only so much time.
We should make the most of our time. So many of us like the election cycle because it is a big overdose of arguing that lets us off the hook from deciding. As long as we can find a reason not to choose, we feel a strange lack of responsibility that we like. I was just with five-year-olds for a few days. They were adept at pretending they never did anything they feared might be construed as wrong. Ever. No lie was too big to get me to swallow in that cause. We’re all like that a little, I think. If we can avoid it, we will. But our minutes matter. The clock is ticking and the life Jesus offers is being wasted if we are not telling the truth we know.
Donald Trump said: “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. … I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” There is no time to wish that away and no time to lose by merely avoiding. We need to choose Jesus.
2. Faith is public.
The idea of a public faith is heresy to most Eurocentric people. They think faith is private. We are taught in any number of ways to be autonomous beings responsible for ourselves. And we believe the law protects our private beliefs (until those beliefs go against the powers that write the laws, of course). So we are furious at poor people for not getting richer and furious at rich people for taking all the poor people’s money — people should fulfill their potential and no one should take away the possibility of that. Even when it doesn’t happen, the prevailing authorities can’t think of anything else to do but blame individuals for not being good enough, since they are sure the world is an economy run by an invisible hand and people get to do whatever is in their heart.
Nothing in the life of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible, for sure, would imply that faith is anything but a life one lives in public, in view, unashamed, assuming one’s life matters as part of the whole. “Privacy” is the luxury of being complicit with some power that protects one’s capacity to go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Jesus is enduring a public execution. He tells his executioner that he will not use his power to participate in a war that might save him from the acts of evil he came to share and overcome. That is about as public example of pacifism as possible. There is another way.
3. Meditation without action is self absorption.
Orthodox Christians tried to root out gnosticism in the 200’s and 300’s, but the spirit of it was well-preserved in the meditation teaching of my cherished monks, I have to admit. By the 20th century, they realized that Buddhism, Sufism and all sorts of other religious people long to leave the body for complete union with God. These days, mindfulness and irreligious yoga instructors teach the out-of-the-body mindfulness without any spirit at all.
I appreciate the reality and the feelings of contemplative prayer. But I am mindful to meet Jesus in prayer, not just my own capacity for contemplation. Just because I am doing spiritual things doesn’t mean I am connecting to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What saves me from the self-absorption so popular these days is remembering Jesus in history and meeting the risen Lord in my own history: spirit to Spirit, heart to heart, mind to mind, strength to strength. From the peace I experience in prayer, I make peace.
There are ways between the poles:
- Keeping my eyes on my minutes rather than wasting hours on political redundancies and absurdities, as if they were as breathlessly important as the CNN would like us to believe.
- Keeping my faith public rather than being driven into privacy or giving up on making a difference.
- Keeping my spirituality looking to Jesus rather than just “spirituality” or just my own physical sensations.
Being actively on the way, connected to Jesus and his people, allows me to be a pacifist, to choose to love, to even risk the danger of brazenly escaping the clutches of the powers in their own backyard. They don’t have me pacified because I left reality for my dream and they don’t have me pacified because I gave up my need to be a personal alternative and to create an alternative society, the church. Jesus has me, right in the middle, making a peaceful way through, a third way.