How we connect to ourselves, others and God has changed, and we feel it.
The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is a conservative/libertarian research and education think tank. In a 2021 article for them, Joseph Sunde tried to add to the big discussion among researchers about why Americans are so disconnected. He sidestepped the obvious by not mentioning being locked down for a year by a virus that made us suspicious that relationships might be contagious. And he neglected to highlight the Trump effect that made family reunions (and churches) minefields of politics. Instead, he took the long view.
The unraveling of the U.S. social fabric has been well-documented since Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000. When I was a pastor in 2000, that book gave facts to bolster our instinct that one of the main directions the Spirit was moving us was to create community in a city where every other force was tearing it apart. Sunde reviews what studies are showing two decades later, and they are revealing. One researcher says, “Today, Americans tend to have fewer ties of association with each other and fewer organizational memberships, but they also spend less time on friendships….Many of the ties to social identity Americans do have are less conducive to social flourishing. For example, church attendance has fallen dramatically despite its social benefits, whereas entertainment-focused associations such as sports teams have risen in popularity.”
At some point, sports reached the tipping point vis a vis other associations, especially the church. We could see it tipping when soccer practices began to invade Sunday morning. Another good reason we had our worship times on Sunday nights was so parents did not have to force their children to choose. However, we still had to adjust for the national holiday called “Superbowl Sunday” to take up a Sunday night. We were definitely “second fiddle” then.
Another example of “entertainment-focused associations” presented itself in Philadelphia last month when Taylor Swift’s tour arrived. The local CBS outlet said, “Lincoln Financial Field is ‘holy ground’ for Swifties tonight as Taylor Swift will hold the first of three concerts of her Eras Tour.” Tickets were hard to get but “fans who were able to score a ticket dressed up for the occasion inspired by their favorite Taylor Swift songs.”
All that goes to validate how you feel disconnected and why. You probably do. I am a lot more disconnected that I was in 2019. A perfect storm of troubles has atomized the country and wicked people are capitalizing on our disconnection to seize power and keep us divided, as they historically do in such circumstances. It’s an evil instinct.
So what do we do? Maybe you can fill in your own personal details as we brainstorm how to claw back some connection.
To reconnect with yourself
Now that the church is so weak in many places, we’ve really got to step up our personal spiritual disciplines. After many people lost their churches during the pandemic, they realized their love for the Lord — heart, soul, mind, and strength, was mainly about being associated with the church. That’s a good thing, of course, but it is not the only thing. Without a growing personal relationship with God, spirit to Spirit, we lose ourselves quickly when trouble comes. And it is likely to keep coming.
You probably have some moribund disciplines that could be reignited. And you probably have some you’ve always thought you should try. Look at what your heart, soul, mind and strength each need and do something right now.
Here are some ways to reconnect that might not have some to mind.
Try sex with your partner again. Stress is bad for sex but sex is good for stress. We feel better about ourselves and our connectability when we get close physically. If you don’t have a sex partner, touch people, kiss your parents, hug friends.
Take a pilgrimage. It could be to Portugal or King of Prussia. I just got back. Being out of the rut for a while and rubbing up against new things is a good way to see yourself as who you are now. It is also good for meeting God in surprising ways, which is the crucial element of knowing one’s true self.
To reconnect with others
The problem with connecting with others is connecting. We have to do something, move toward someone, organize to connect. The deepest parts of us say this is just supposed to happen, like mom should feed me. But once we’re over 30 or so, we need to take responsibility for meeting our connection needs.
Apart from changing your mind, here are smaller things to try:
We decided to end our disconnection with the church by going to a church meeting six weeks in a row during Lent. It worked!
Eat with someone. You don’t have to go through a drive through all the time. Make the family gather for dinner. Go out with a couple. Plan a monthly date with a friend or group. At least eat inside where other people are once a day.
Do some therapy. The experience of being listened to loosens up our capacity to connect with others.
To reconnect with purpose
The last few years have left use reeling. The huge problems of our politics, climate and disconnection have reduced us to survivors. It is no wonder huge spectacles are welcome distractions from the huge forces that plague us.
The associations for which America was once famous were built by people with a common purpose. Do you think we can still act out such purpose? Here are foundational ways to do it.
Listen. Who are you God? Who am I? What shall I do? These basic prayers are the kind that get answered. I don’t think they are answered by books as well as they are answered by meditation. Take the time.
Plan. Write down what you hear and let it get shaped into a plan. “I need to stop drinking. What shall I do after rehab?” I don’t think things happen to us as much as we would like. We need to happen ourselves.
Create. We just watched the movie “Air.” The theme was, unsurprisingly, “Just do it.” It was a good depiction of how hard it is to give your gifts and do what is best. But that is what are meant to do. We were created to create. Take the best thought you have now that aligns with the resources your have now and do something about it every day. You’ll feel better.
For the next three weeks I hope to keep my hands up and open to receive what God has for me. But I also want to let them turn down when it is time to let something go.
We will end up our Spanish pilgrimage in the Cave of Ignatius in Manresa in a few weeks (above). But all along the way we hope to symbolically pray with him on the bank of the Cardoner River. His biographer describes what happened there:
He sat down for a little while with his face to the river—Cardoner—which was running deep. While he was seated there, the eyes of his understanding began to be opened; though he did not see any vision, he understood and knew many things, both spiritual things and matters of faith and learning, and this was with so great an enlightenment that everything seemed new to him. It was as if he were a new man with a new intellect.
No one knows for sure just what happened because experiences with God are generally rather indescribable. But we know Ignatius changed his life and went a new direction from then on.
When he left Montserrat, Ignatius left his aristocrat clothes and his soldier’s equipment behind. He went to the hospital in Manresa to further heal and to further practice the spirituality he had discovered while reading the lives of the saints in the famous mountaintop monastery. He found a cave where he could be alone with God and practiced a severe version of the penance rituals common to monks and others at the time (around 1522). The children called him “the man in sackcloth” as he wandered among the poor. He damaged himself with his asceticism and villagers came to his rescue, as he lay in a fallow state of contemplation.
He got better and took his meditation to the river, as I have often done on the Schuylkill. Ignatius left it to speculation as to what the River Cardoner revealed to him. But he soon abandoned his severe fasting and harsh penitence, and embraced a more balanced spirituality. His new understanding led directly to his decision to write the Spiritual Exercises, which are still an inspiration to many people. The last chapter of his guide, “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God,” probably contains the essence of what was affirmed by the river. God is present in all things, and labors to continually transform what is broken and create what is good. God bathes all of creation in a ceaseless flow of blessings and gifts, like the light emanating from the sun.
I am inspired to take another pilgrimage with my mind and heart open to wherever it leads, because God will be there and I will be focused and free to meet up with Jesus along the way.
Even though the order Ignatius founded became rich and powerful, I can overlook that. They did not gild the banks of the river like they did the cave. So Ignatius the wounded soldier, disciplining himself for the duty of transformation, will not be completely obscured in Manresa. The Cave is a thin place, no matter what kind of human with whatever kind of motives has visited. We will add our faith in Jesus and likely leave with more than we brought. May your May be a similar journey in faith, hope, and love.
One of the most memorable “characters” in the wacky Disney Nutcracker (2018) is the Mouse King. For one thing, it is a technical marvel. MPC, the animation wizards, crafted hundreds of individual mice which they then combined into a oversized monster that could ooze around humans, robots and CGI scenery.
But the Mouse King is also memorable as a fascinating idea. When I was praying, the idea came to me as I sifted through lost and longed-for loves — my own loves and those my clients recount. I thought, “Love is like the Mouse King.”
We wish love were bigger
What I mean is, just like the wicked Mouse King is a conglomeration of many little mice, the big love we long for could be a collection of the little loves presently offered to us. The one with eyes to see, let them see.
As I prayed, I felt lonely and unloved. But I am not, objectively, alone or unloved, so I needed to see what those feelings were all about. They centered on my disappointment over people who were not responding to my attempts to connect and meaningful relationships I felt I had lost. I had a classic moment of eating the holes in the Swiss cheese. I ignored the “cheese” I had for the cheese I desired. You may have developed variations on this theme:
I am not worthy of actual cheese so I make do with holes.
I was deprived of cheese and only understand holes.
I don’t need cheese and am strong enough to live in holes.
I deserve good cheese and no one will give it to me.
Fill in the blank for yourself.
All this is to say, we are hungry for love, for the “cheese” in which we find so many holes, for the main sustenance our souls can’t live without. We usually wish we had more true love in us and coming to us. If only my love were bigger.
Could small loves add up?
Today I got to see a friend’s toddler on Zoom. He barely knew how to wave and wasn’t sure about all those faces, but he waved. Later on, he said in language only his father could understand, “I want more waving.” I said, “That’s worth the effort to get to this meeting!” It was a very little love to receive, but could little loves add up? Could we be more satisfied if we turned into them?
A 2022 movie adapted Sir Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) for the screen. The film is a funny and sinister take on the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. In it, Pratchett creates another version of a rat king. This monster has a magical ability the draw non-sentient rats to itself. They pulse and bubble under his coat (above). Many little energies produce a potent villain.
I think the same can happen with love. Christians often note this when they bravely say their mustard seed of faith can move a mountain, “If we combine the individual gifts we have, we can change the world!” My small faith, hope and love are not too small to be valuable. In this vein, most Christmas cards should depict God, who is love, being born as a human baby. Amazing things came from that small being! Small loves add up to substantial impact.
I think it is a little easier to see how I am obligated to do the right thing by loving others, even if my love is small. It is harder to see and collect the small loves given by people loving me! (Did you add a bullet point above?). Nevertheless, I think these small-seeming loves combine to form enough love for me to live on. But I will need to have the eyes of my heart open so I can see them. They may seem so small they are invisible!
What’s more, these little loves, even when seen and welcomed, will have to find their way through all my defenses against the terrible feelings I fear connected to not getting enough love. I may have decided long before I had language to think about it, that my mother’s love was too small! I wish we could draw all these loves to us like a Rat King draws rats. But more than one acquaintance has said, “But that would be self-centered, wouldn’t it?” or “Wouldn’t I be taking someone else’s love?” Do you have a reason to stay unloved? Is it “big love or nothing” with you?
Make a list
Even though it seems like a daily battle, I keep trying to receive what I am given, even if I feel it is too small, even if I sometimes give into the temptation to think all I have is holes.
Why don’t you try collecting a bunch of small loves with me and see how you feel? See if they amount to more of what you need. Here’s what I piled up today from the last 24 hours or so:
My friend’s child on screen felt like a small love to me. There were a lot of layers of love in those waves.
My own amazing and devoted children are on my screensaver. I talked to one of those lovers yesterday.
I looked at the painting my granddaughter made and we framed.
My yoga app surprised me with a new soundtrack: birdsong.
New friends invited us over for 70-hour brisket. I don’t know what that is but I already appreciate the effort.
There were a LOT more bullets. I culled my list because I’m sure you get the idea. To NOT come up with a substantial list of your own will take some stubborn resistance on your part, and you may have that, like we all do. But we can overcome our resistance.
Even without God in the world, you’d have small loves all around you leading to the biggest love of all. It is a blessing the whole world shares. But God is born among us every day. Jesus is walking with us. God, who is love, is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. We’re gifted with love moment by moment.
The men have jumped into our newly-formed spiritual direction group. Month by month our capacity to listen to God with and for each other is growing. We are encouraged and challenged. We are also learning we are as different in character as we are together in purpose, and that seems just right.
Chronos and Kairos
Some of us are more tuned into linear or “chronos” time. (Chronos and Kairos in Greek Thought). If you are an engineer or scientist of some kind, you’re probably prone to emphasizing sequential, goal-oriented and, perhaps, scarce or developing time — maybe you are even wearing a chronometer! Your orientation to time might be as it is because you are more attuned to left brain processes, along with much of the Eurocentric world (Left and Right Brain Thinking). I’m not sure this always follows, but maybe you will be more aligned with an “apophatic” approach to meditation (Apophatic and Kataphatic Meditation). I told the group I would be in big trouble if I were not linked with people who lean this way, since I pretty much lean the other direction.
Let’s not make an “either/or” distinction, here. But the “other direction” is being more tuned into “kairos” time. I think fewer people “land” here these days (pun intended). The disposition seems out-of-date. Not too many of us are farmers, but if you are, you probably tune into the seasons and see things according seeds sprouting and crops ripening “when the time is right.” Like a farmer, you may feel an immediacy about time, like “right now,” like “It rained last night and it is the right time to plow.” You might have expectations of time based on intuition or your experience. You might orient this way because you are more attuned to right brain processes. Maybe you are more of an artist, an ardent listener, or a seeker of timeless things. Or maybe you are searching like the mother in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once — I don’t agree meaninglessness is at the heart of the universe like that movie does, but I respect their right brain pursuits. I’m not sure this always follows, but if you’re built in this way, you might have more of a “kataphatic” approach to meditation.
It started with a story
All those thoughts and links above come from the story I now carry about how our group gathered. I enjoyed listening to the interplay of all those dispositions as we prayed, sang, and took each other seriously. Several of us offered a story about a loss we had commonly experienced. We were in varying degrees of being unsettled or moving on. It was moving to share such a profound subject with someone, in which our deepest loves and suffering were surfacing.
I won’t tell you the substance of our dialogue, of course. But one of us named what they were doing to themselves as a “purity test.” This jogged another person to describe a scene in the Bible in which God purified someone’s mouth with a live coal during a vision in the Temple (later noted as Isaiah 6). This caught my attention because I had just that day been singing along with an old song on YouTube about that scene:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The [doorposts] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Of course Isaiah’s story has been repeated for centuries and music has been written for the angel’s to sing! If we have not had such an experience ourselves, yet, we long to!
Left brain folks focused on the prophet’s lips
Everyone had their own way to enter into our mutual discernment.
Some were more “left-brained.” If you have a linear mindset, which is characteristic of left-hemisphere processes, then what is past is lost and what is not yet realized can be disappointing in that you don’t have what you need.
The specificity and constraints of language are instigated in the left brain, so it is no wonder some people noticed and were most were moved by which words were spoken in the story above: “Woe is me, I am lost,” and then by the Lord speaking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The left brain is where wild thoughts go to be tamed and abstractions go to become projects.
We were listening together, and some people leaned more into apophatic mediation. It is a wordless and imageless way. As you become empty of what distracts or upsets you (usually the energies of left-brained processing), you become one with the love of God you seek. When teachers help us to do this, they often start by helping us find a centering word or phrase that supersedes the din of our inner dialogue and the many voices that lead us to judge ourselves and which assign us self-improvement projects. That kind of meditation helps us stop our endless self-examination and self-centeredness (An example from Martin Laird).
Right brain folks having their own revelation
Others were more “right-brained.” If you tend to experience the world with your heart and senses first, your instinct is to seek the thin places and turn into them.
The experience of the prophet in the temple was eternal; it has that sense of “kairos” even if you just read it for the first time a minute ago. It happened in God’s time, so much so, it feels fresh to people reading about it 3000 years later. It is a promise, not just history. As our group met, we made a thin place and we entered into that eternal now. Our thin place experiences do and should have a staying power like Isaiah’s. I was very happy to be reminded that. Even though I felt the loss of my previous spiritual experience, it was good to accept how amazing it was for the season it lasted. Whatever touched eternity in it could not be lost. What is gone is still beautiful in kairos time; it flowered in is season.
As we were listening together, some people leaned more into kataphatic meditation. It is a image-rich way to pray. As you connect with the eternity of this present moment, you become united with the Creator in creation. The experience of God’s grace grounds you in the One who was and is and is to come. When teachers help us do this, they often start with a story or a metaphor, not a principle or a manual. Visual, musical, or literary art, a statue, a tree, a sunset, etc. are all aids (like the icon, below) all help us connect. Jesus is the best example of this kind of mentoring. He leads us to know God beyond our arguments for or against such knowing. He helps us to become an “I am” in love with “I am” (An example like Ignatius of Loyola).
We are both/and beings
Obviously, we all have left and right hemispheres to our brains, barring some catastrophe. But if you are an American or under 35, you are probably more oriented to the left brain. One of the reasons we love the character Data so much in Star Trek: Picard is because he is succeeding in developing his right brain, too; he is becoming fully human, like we want to be.
By nature, we are both/and beings, right and left, spirit and material, time-bound and timeless. If we live in love, we can be a big help to each other as we find our own way into wholeness. We often see ourselves best when someone who loves us sees us. When we seek God together, we rarely end up oriented the direction we began. Our various starting points often combine to lead to a startling and encouraging new place.
In our group the other night a deeply felt problem, a focus on woe and a snippet from a story about a vision left me moved to turn again today and find joy in the presence of God in me and around me. I hope my story helps you find the hope in your own.
I get a good impression of Jeremy Duncan whenever I meet him at Jesus Collective events. I think he and his crew are doing an inventive and reparative job at Commons Church in Calgary, which he founded. Now he has written an inventive and reparative book called Upside-down Apocalypse: Grounding Revelation in the Gospel of Peace. Once I started it, I could not put it down. What’s more, I could not resist telling anyone who would listen about the book I wish I’d read when I first started getting into the Bible.
If you ever listened to me speak or write when I was a pastor, you didn’t hear too much about the last book in the New Testament: Revelation. I basically assigned it to obscurity in seminary. In high school I read (and was inspired by) a best selling book about Revelation and the “end times” called The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. It ultimately soured me on the prevailing interpretation of apocalyptic literature among Evangelicals.
Lindsay made a career out of teaching his misreading of the Bible. I was so intrigued by his best-selling first book, I actually looked up the Bible verses he quoted. I discovered that even a cursory reading revealed he was making stuff up. When I read Revelation, I did not understand it well, but I did get the idea it was mainly about encouraging the Jesus-followers of John’s day (and, by extension, me) to hang in there even if the world seemed like a disaster. It did seem like a disaster, but not really for the reasons Lindsay and the Left Behindwriters were popularizing.
Free the Revelation!
I would have done better if I had owned a copy of Pastor Duncan’s book. He articulates what I only suspected and frees Revelation from its bondage in conspiratorial, power-seeking, Empire-spawned speculation. Jarrod McKenna kind of skewers people who get it wrong in the Prologue:
All that Christ embodied and instructed is sidelined with pietistic sincerity as Christians vote, act, and desire for history to side with their end-time speculations. Most telling of all, these so-called revelations don’t reveal but rather obscure Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of the gospels is displaced by diabolical readings of a murderous messiah who saves not with provocative, nonviolent, suffering love but like a Marvel villain wanting to make his enemies bleed.
Duncan brings Jesus out of obscurity and restores his central place in the book of Revelation. Here is his central premise, which you did hear if you ever heard me speak:
If we are going to read the Scriptures well, we need to read them on their terms. And even though the New Testament is written by a collection of authors addressing various contexts, two presuppositions hold all these diverse texts together. First, God is love. And second, the person of Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing that love embodied in human history. These are the assumptions that sit behind everything we read in the New Testament, including the book of Revelation.
If you put on this Jesus lens and read Revelation you see the Lord John knew and wrote about in his Gospel and Letters. It is easy to find Him in Revelation, even if you’ve been flooded with the cinematic gore of “end times” hysteria.
Duncan starts by retrieving the word “apocalypse” from its twisted use as a “disaster” or “final reckoning.” As he was doing it, I found myself having a hard time accepting its true meaning. Maybe you were influenced, like I was, by brilliant uses of the corrupted definition like in the movie Apocalypse Now. The opening scene, above, is etched in my memory as an appropriate way to see Vietnam. R.E.M. later similarly protested with “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”
When John titles his prophetic writing Apocalypse he is not talking about a huge crisis or the end of the world. The word means the “uncovering of something hidden.” An apocalypse, Duncan says, tells us two things: “First, there is more to the story, and second, the more will change everything we thought we knew.”
John uses the common form of apocalyptic literature and, first, turns it upside down to fit how Jesus turns the common imagination of God upside down. “Jesus shows us the complete nonviolence of a God who would rather endure death than inflict it,” Duncan says. The second way John uses the form for his own ends is to reveal Christ, to give witness to “the unveiling of Jesus’s victory that turns our expectations of power upside down, replacing them with divine renewal.”
Reassert the structure.
Like I told you, I did not study Revelation too hard, so I am glad Jeremy did. One of my big takeaways from his book centers on how John’s prophecy is actually structured. It is usually seen as a linear story leading from the present and looking into the future, right up to the end of time. But as early as 270 A.D. Victorinus taught the book was synchronous, not successive. Like the Hebrew prophets often do, John tells one story three times, with an expanding scope: local, national and cosmic.
John borrows his structure from the book of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, he starts small and builds from the lived experience of individuals. Duncan sees the synchronous stories as three “rounds.”
The first roundopens with seven letters to seven churches, “addressing everyday experiences of injustice and anxiety and Christ’s call to live with each other well.” Like the other rounds, it begins with a vision and ends with Jesus enthroned in the world:
To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (3:21)
In the second round, John pushes out the story further. Like in the first round (1:10), the second round begins with John “in the Spirit” in 4:2, receiving his further word from the Lord. If Jesus is Lord, that understanding does not stop at the heart level; it must change society, too. Directly opposed to the wicked Roman emperor, Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD), a wounded lamb comes to sit on the throne.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”
Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,
“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign. (11:15-17)
Our worship leader had us singing with those elders on Easter Sunday last week.
In the third roundthe camera is pulled back to view the whole cosmos as God sets her sites on the final defeat of evil. At 11:18 the final cycle begins. At that point, the nations are angry over the reign of God. Just like when the rulers killed Jesus, there is a contest between God and those who destroy creation. Unlike Isaiah, who saw a day when God would destroy evil among us, Duncan says Jesus transforms that vision into a day when God saves the world by destroying the evil in us. These famous words end the final round:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (21:3-6)
Most of the book has to do with an explication of these three rounds. I hope this little taste entices you to pick it up and do some Bible study with a Jesus lens.
Renew your hope!
I think Duncan is especially interested in the second round. The first round represents the too-small, individualized Christianity where most churches are stuck these days. And the third round is so cosmic it does not need to be understood, fully, just anticipated with gratitude. But in the second round we see that our struggles for transformation are not futile but elemental to faithfully living in the upside down kingdom revealed in John’s upside-down apocalypse.
After showing how John is writing to people under the tyranny of Domitian, Duncan shows how he cleverly sets up his readers to see that fighting Rome with Rome’s tools corrupts us and produces Domitian-like leaders and strategies.
Just as we are ready to despair, and as the scene turns from worship to tears, the Lamb emerges to take the scroll from the one who sits on the throne. The true son who “did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6), who did indeed ascend to the heavens, but who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant unto death – even death on a cross (2:7-8). God is not like Domitian. Jesus is not the imperial child. Destiny is not written by the violent.
In self-giving love, Jesus unveils the hidden, authentic history of the world. Faithfulness was not the illusion. Power was.
Reading that quote made me want to read the book again! In the age of Trump (and who is this Harlan Crow billionaire with a collection of dictator statues?), many Christians are coopted by the pursuit of power on the political right and the left. And many more people, it seems, are long-gone from the bankrupt church and fully given over to acquiring power in an attempt to dominate some piece of what remains of the empire. John’s Revelation was a corrective to the despair of his time and Duncan’s restoration of Revelation is a similar blessing. As we read his book, may our hearts again feel the strength to take our stand in an evil day and open our souls to hope again.
He confessed a classic movie scene:
a hero must offer Dad’s eulogy
and can’t complete it because he sobs.
That’s not him. He’s a stone lit by flickers,
afraid someone will see his tearless guilt,
or hear his relief echoing in the loss
of the father he never had — that death
finally completed, his secret resurrection.
She held a service in her mind:
another tree fell in her strained forest
when the dominator finally left —
moved on to a new host, declaring victory,
leaving the rotting hulk of their influence,
a shadow still dimming the light in her bunker,
where she reflexively cowered in the springtime
of their crucifixion, weeping at the tomb.
Both pleaded, “Please stay dead, so I can rise.”
Though free they still felt oppressed,
surrounded by the blare of faux idealism,
screens teaching what no one is
but who everyone is supposed to be.
They could not confess their liberty,
consigned to forgive people who were not sorry,
bearing sins which others committed,
forever fearing the day they trusted again.
Both prayed, “I can’t die with you; only the living can.
I’m killed, choiceless, double crossed.”
Lord, the old confession finally seems relevant.
I welcome You into the fullness of your death:
the “daily death” Paul dies from the wild beasts
snapping at his soul, sitting at dinner tables,
leading business meetings, filling pulpits,
the stench of their breath accepted as atmosphere.
When it lifts, we feel normal might be in the air.
But it is the breeze of resurrection we smell.
We pray, “Make me alive so I see death dying,
so I am not an empty, tearless loss,
or still at home in a toxic memory.
Remember Game of Thrones? About 6 years ago Jon Snow got resurrected.
I can’t make sense of the well-blended pastiche of Western Culture that is GOT. But I can tell you John Snow’s resurrection was quite a media event. It was such a common topic SNL made fun of it (in an unfunny skit). The point of the skit is that the scene was incredibly slow.
The resurrection scene was so laborious and long that it was kind of boring, especially since you knew if they started it they were going to finish it. “Just get on with it and let’s do dragons!”
Resurrection is so much the essential Christian event, having it rendered on TV made me queasy. But I think many church people could relate to a laborious drama leading to resurrection: “Lent then Holy Week?!” Most people decided a long time ago that processs is just too much. “Just get on with it and get to the resurrection!”
One of my favorite quotes from Paul Tournier’s book, Creative Suffering, is “All liberating growth takes time.” I think it makes sense that Lent is long. We are not instantly ready for resurrection. It has to grow on us — and in us.
But I can feel it when people say, “It seems like my whole life is Lent and there are only random moments of resurrection!” The whole Christian year, even, feels like that — we have an incarnation day and a resurrection day, then a whole lot of trouble in between. It just does not seem right.
Hearing that kind of complaint in myself and others, I tried to listen to it hard. I came to another question: What if the suffering is not long, it is the resurrection that is slow? What if we just need to reframe the issue? Are we really bored? Or are we just resistant to the creative suffering we need to endure to develop. Like Tournier implies, it takes time. What if our slow resurrection is a good journey after all?
It did take a couple of days for Jesus to get to resurrection himself, after all.
The church doesn’t teach this much any more, but the “harrowing of hell” was an exciting topic for centuries during the early days of the church. The story goes like this. Between his death on the cross and his resurrection, Jesus used the “keys of death and Hades” he holds (Revelation 1:18) to free righteous people from the past who were waiting for the Messiah. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9) – the lower parts were understood to be the “abode of the dead,” a place Greeks called “Hades.” The Apostle Peter tells us that Jesus “preached to the dead” (1 Peter 4:6) and “to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18). Their “Lent” was long!
On Holy Saturday – the day before Jesus’ resurrection, the scene of Jesus descending into Hades (or Hell) was often vividly described in the old days. Jesus unlocks the door to Hades to announce his victory over death, Satan, and all the powers of Hell. He then releases Adam and Eve and all the “just” who were waiting for their redemption. A number of paintings and icons, especially from the Eastern churches, depict the scene. Christus Victor!
If you feel like your resurrection is taking too long, welcome to humanity. But I hope you can see that Jesus came to find you and walk with you on your long jounrey a long time ago. He is with you in the time between your death by sin and your entrance into the fullness of your resurrection life. He has descended to your level, too.
We’d prefer it to be instant, like everything else.
When I was in the Baptist church as a child, we highly anticipated the song we would sing every Easter: Up From the Grave He Arose, we called it. The tune for that line felt very dramatic and everyone sang it loud, which was exciting.
It is an instant song, “Well then, up from the grave he arose. Just like that!” As if Mary ran and told the disciples, “I was just weeping by the tomb and up from the grave he arose!” It kind of implies we ought to be rising up just like that too. I think some of us have. But for the rest of us, our partner doesn’t look at us and say, “Well, will you look at that, you rose!” We may, in fact, be more resurrected than we were last year, but sometimes it feels like the same damned things keep happening. That’s slow.
We may think, “Why is this scene so slow! Let’s pep this up. Make something happen; I am at the end of my attention span!” At least quit talking and sing a song! Singing Up From the Grave He Arose can still revive my interest. I’m glad Easter comes to keep me engaged in my own process of getting a life.
By the way, my childhood song has a worldwide following. I wish the Indians below did not look like they had been recently colonized, but I still find their sincerity irresistible.
I have to say these regular Americans singing it are much more my wavelength. This is how you should sing the old song, IMO.
Development takes time
All liberating growth takes time. My psychotherapy and spiritual direction clients are experiencing slow resurrection. It is always amazing to watch a loved one dip their toes into their mental and spiritual health and then be drawn into deep currents of love and hope. The writer of Ted Lasso and Shrinking recently had an interview on NPR in which he talked about his own slow resurrection of sorts. It is happening everywhere, right now, and is happening in many of you reading this.
Resurrection is more a relentless growing. Hope is not instantly accrued. I think the Apostle Paul is sharing his own experience when he says:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions,
knowing that affliction produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5
Hope takes time. Sharing the glory of God develops. But when that grace has taken root and been nurtured, it has a way of sinking in. Resurrection is like the roots of the best kind of weed trees growing through our concrete defenses, finding a path to dirt and water through stones, harrowing parts of us that just need more light and air.
When we think of “harrowing,” we often think of some traumatic experience: “Saw III was harrowing!” But the word comes from a herding practice. Harrowing is removing dead thatch, which lifts vegetation up and levels mole hills. So we’re saying, Saw III really stirred me up and flattened me!” The process allows the turf to breathe and water to penetrate. It reduces disease by exposing fungi and bacteria to sunlight which is essential for the health of the pasture. Like Jesus was stirring up hell, his Spirit is harrowing us and bringing light to our darkness.
In the quote above, Paul is encouraging people in a young church in very uncertain times to stick with it. Turn toward sureness, not certainty. Turn toward being assured — saying, “Sure,” not being right. Be watched over. Stand in the grace and turn into the hope of the fulness of glory that is already here and yet to come. Learn to trust it.
If we go into every day turning toward hope, I think each day can surprise us with resurrection: “Thank you God. Up from the grave I arose. Up from the grave she arose. My God! There is hope for everyone!” I have spent a couple of hard years learning that lesson, again. I keep talking about Mahalia Jackson singing about how God sent the angel and said, “Touch her.” And she sang, “I rose up this morning and I want to thank God!”
Each day may seem like it is long: arguing with a mate, being abused or discriminated against, failing, feeling ashamed or disappointing, fearful. It can all feel SO long! But each morning we rise up! Hope can be reborn and strengthened! Jesus is risen!
I had a happy time in my Jesus Collective Hub the other day. I love the fool’s errand we are on: trying to have a Jesus-centered outlook which manages to respect but not join the powers tearing apart the church and whole societies these days. We’re not succeeding, but it feels like the right thing to try.
In every generation of the church, there has been an argument about something, and great teachers have generally arisen to help us figure out how to keep going. For instance, the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament usually hone in on a current problem he needs to solve. His approach is different in different contexts — like the difference between a problem your mother might have had as a child and one you are having now, or the difference between an email you’d write to your work group and the one you’d write to your best friend. Just so, the letter to the church in Ephesus feels different than the letters to the church in Corinth. As a teacher in the church myself (I wanted to be like Paul), I think the greatest skill I needed to develop was to listen in love to all the varying viewpoints people have and to try to knit them into a mutually accepting whole, leaning toward a consensus direction while accommodating both the newest and stubbornest differences.
The different ways to see the atonement have provided people a reason to have an argument over the years. The views have matured over time and have been expressed differently in many contexts. All of them have their own beauty to respect, don’t they? In the past four weeks I have been meditating on the four main “theories,” and I am going to get to the fifth in a minute. But I want to acknowledge the need for “third way” thinking before I do, just like the Jesus Collective is trying to develop for our current problems.
The same damned argument
The present polarization in the United States does not seem like a new phenomenon to me. I am sort of stuck in the 11-1200’s in my readings right now (good book), so everything seems to go back there for me. But I honestly think the differences between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kamala Harris seem a lot like what Christians were arguing about way back then, too (the women are both Evangelicals, at some level, after all).
Greene represents people who are afraid tradition is being run over by newfangled thinking. They still have a view of the atonement in which God beats the devil, using deception to do it, as necessary, for the sake of purity and goodness. So she will also work with God as he does what it takes to defeat evil.
Harris represents people on the side of human individuality, science and progress. Those people have a view of the atonement in which God unleashes people from guilt and frees them to appreciate the wonder of creation, especially the value of each human. So she will keep at it until the world is safe for all God’s children.
How we put those potentially polar positions together takes a third way, not a triumph by one side.
Paul manages to be on both sides of redundant church and societal arguments. For instance, he tells the Ephesian church:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm. – Ephesians 6:10-13
I think Greene thinks Harris is with the devil, so she is putting on her armor to stand against her in this evil day. I don’t think she read all of Ephesians well, but I could see how she might get where she is.
Then Paul tells the church in Corinth
So if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. — 2 Corinthians 5:17-19
I think Harris thinks Green is in the way of new things that need to come, especially the need to reconcile elements of a pluralistic society and to protect against people being trespassed upon. I am not sure Jesus is at the center of her thinking, but I respect her goals.
Christus Victor launches a new/old way
In the atonement explanation named “Christus Victor” (Christ the Victor) Gustaf Aulen went back to the Bible and the Early Church to verify the transcendent way Jesus worked to saved humankind — and creation with us. I am not sure he intended to do this, but he opened up a new way to see an old thought and many people latched onto it as a way to stop having the arguments of the past over and over again. We are still having the same damned arguments, but Christus Victor provides a view that incorporates previous explanations of the atonement and frees up imagination locked in entrenched views from Eurocentric philosophy and politics.
In 1931 Gustaf Aulen published a book of his lectures titled Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. We’ve explored all the main types, so far; I split Aulen’s third one into two parts. He saw his book as a defense of the “classical” view of the atonement he found in Paul, Irenaeus and Luther. (Of course Luther — the Swedish state church theologians at the time all needed to adhere to “evangelical faith,” which was, basically, Lutheranism). In the course of offering his defense against egocentric, humanistic, and idealistic theology, Aulen ends up offering a new way of seeing — at least it seemed new enough to get a name that stuck: the “Christus Victor theory.”
Aulen stressed a Bible-based, dramatic view of God and the work of Jesus. That is, God in Christ personally participates in the drama Christianity is. The Gospel is a story about how God entered into our place and time and saved us. This view is more popular all the time, it seems. A church plant in Philly affiliated with my denomination was called Story Philly. Evangelical author, Donald Miller, wrote a book called Storyline: Finding Your subplot in God’s Story.
The main plot of the story is clear in the Bible. In Christ, God “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14). The order of the action is important: God has rescued us; God has transferred us; in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness. Paul does not write, “God has forgiven us so that he may then rescue us” (as in the penal substitution theory). Rather, God rescues us out of darkness and brings us into the kingdom of his beloved Son and that rescue act is our salvation. By his gracious initiative, God brings us into the realm of life where we find that our sins are forgiven.
I’m not sure Aulen would approve of where his work has led, especially since he thought he was talking about something old, not new. But it has provided a fresh way to meet the evils of the modern and postmodern world. Paul’s statement that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (in 2 Corinthians, above) provides a new launchpad. That phrase epitomizes Aulen’s view that the atonement is “dramatic,” “dualistic,” and “objective.” It is dramatic and dualistic, because it is the story about a conflict between God and the powers of evil, sin, and death, in which God triumphs over “the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (in Ephesians above). It is objective, because it is about God’s action, not ours. God took the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world (see Marianne Meye Thompson). I think Aulen caught the wind of the Spirit which has been blowing for a hundred years as the modern era comes to a close. Others are moved along with it, as well.
World War I, the Great Depression, massive industrialization and huge governments and corporations ignited new imagination for what Aulen (and Paul) called “the powers.” It was not just theologians having the discussion. Here is a quote from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) — it may seem familiar after the peeking into Silicon Valley Bank and getting a glimpse of the faceless “power” it represented.
But the bank is only made of man. No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
I think most people want a world without militarism, poverty, sexual exploitation, white supremacy and the despoiling of nature. Yet we find it very difficult to have such a world. Our social, economic and political structures powerfully resist transformation! Steinbeck made that reality vivid when he described the banking system as a monster that cannot be controlled.
The American theologian Walter Wink(who died in 2012) made it his life’s work to help us understand these monsters and how to loosen their hold. He freed the core truths of biblical faith from endless argument and made them tools for change agents to use, both in the church and in society (Gingerich summary). I am not sure he is a direct theological descendant of Aulen, but I think he is moving in the new stream of freedom Aulen undammed.
Wink shows how the language of “principalities and powers” in the New Testament (e.g. Eph 6, above) refers to human social dynamics—institutions, belief systems, and traditions. He calls these social constructs “manifestations of power,” and insists they always have an inner and an outer aspect.
Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form—be it a church, a nation, an economy—and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together. (Naming the Powers).
In Wink’s view, we need an integrated, inner-outer awareness in order to understand the world we live in and act effectively as agents for healing and transformation. “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.” What’s more, in Wink’s understanding, all systems of power have the potential to be just or unjust, violent or nonviolent. “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed” (Engaging the Powers). (Nice summary artricle).
The Gospel of Peace.
Kamala Harris and Marjorie Taylor Greene are on the outs with God if they profess to follow Jesus but continue to create and serve a domination system which has been overturned by the work of Jesus. An alternative way to live is being taught for people with ears to hear. We have prophets of the new creation arising everywhere, just like Gustaf Aulen. They are peacemakers — see J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (2001). They are social investigators — watch Rene Girard reimagine Jesus as the final Scapegoat. They are feminists and womanists — listen to Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker take down anyone who can’t see Jesus as the Liberator.
Aulen and the rest are all following a very basic, maybe the most basic, atonement explanation, as Paul taught the church in Ephesus:
[Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. — Ephesians 2:14-16
The “powers” which create the systems of domination they control and defend have been abolished. We are free to live now and forever. Whenever we see the latest powermonger creating their territory in the name of something good (like an end to racism, climate action, evangelism, etc.), we need to reassert the Lord’s basic work: reconciliation to God and others, not a more robust hostility that defeats our enemies.
If the resurrection of Jesus did not free us from sin and death to effect reconciliation and participate in the new creation, who is Jesus? Even if you are a leader of the country with the largest military in history, which is the biggest polluter in history and whose marketing machine overwhelms whole economies worldwide, reconciliation is still a top priority; persistently planting the seeds of a new creation is a preoccupation. For us small people, who think we are comparatively powerless, the call is still the same. We live in the new creation; what else is there to do but live with Jesus?
UC Riverside, where I got my B.A. in history and met my lovely wife, is just down the hill from Arrowhead Springs, now the former headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ. So our college campus was crusaded quite a bit by young men, primarily. They dutifully delivered the Four Spiritual Laws from their holy mountain.
One of my roommates had just become a Christian in a rather random, personal way when he was accosted on campus by these Evangelicals. They were talking about Jesus, so he thought he should talk to them, since he was now a Christian. Then he couldn’t figure out how to get away from them as they made their pitch, going through their boiled down, mass-produced elevator speech about substitutionary atonement. When he got back to the dorm, he was furious with me. “This is what you got me into?” I think he waved the booklet in front of my face.
I don’t think I had a lot of answers for him. But since he was smart and mad, I listened to his critique. And then we all got into a study of the booklet which is still making an impact on me, and which leads me to this fourth exploration of atonement explanations for Lent.
What do Gospel charts teach?
The Four Spiritual Laws tract starts with: “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws that govern your relationship with God.” We thought:
Laws? We’d already picked up on Paul’s disdain for law.
Laws that govern? We weren’t sure that God was not governing the universe personally and couldn’t figure out if we needed laws to govern our relationship with God if Jesus wasn’t doing that himself.
When we got to the page above, we were not immediately confused because we trusted Jesus to be the way to eternal life. But the chart just did not sit quite right.
We already knew there were other ways to describe what Jesus did in the Bible.
We weren’t sure there was a gulf that needed a bridge, since we lived in Creation.
And even then, “pay the penalty for our sins” just seemed strangely violent if God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life, yet is also obliged to roast us in hell if we don’t find it and follow it.
But, honestly, I think the biggest problem we had was when we got to the train. The train made me feel, in particular, like I was getting the wool pulled over my eyes.
We definitely did not think we could accept a Christianity supposedly based on fact. Even as undergrads we knew that facts are rather squishy; even we debated the relative meanings of words all day. And none of us could really think of the Bible as “fact” that did not need a second opinion from God and others.
We tried having each car at the front of the train. Faith probably got the most votes. But we also thought “God is love” was more connected to feeling, so maybe the caboose should be first.
But then we thought a train going somewhere was too linear and that was our problem to begin with. So we put the train cars on a circular track and that made the most sense. At one time or another, they each took the lead.
The problem with penance
As far as the various explanations of the atonement, the one which might be best attested in the Bible is substitution. Paul did not turn it into a graphic, but he describes it well. Before Anselm, the explanation had a more personal, metaphorical feel to it, something like a parable Jesus might teach. Then the Reformers get a hold of it in the 15-1600’s.
The Protestant Reformers refine Anselm’s “satisfaction theory,” which also has a substitutionary feel to it, and focus it on justice. The gist is: There are laws God needs to follow to be authentically just. And one of them is that sin must be punished. Plus there is a more personal “law:” humans need to feel sorry for breaking the law, not just do penance and think that takes care of their sin.
Penance might be a word you can’t even define now, but it was a big deal then. Martin Luther got a protest going against the corrupt Church of his time when he could no longer stomach the “penance” system. You’ll see a theme start growing here: penance, penalty, penal substitution. “Penal” means: “relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.” The gospel of the reformers who win the Reformation wars is, “Humankind is on the wrong side of the law. Jesus stands in for them and receives their punishment. He endures God’s wrath. Just be sorry and stop sinning.”
Luther was a 33-year-old theology professor at Wittenberg University on October 31, 1517 when he walked over to the main church and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion about their contents. He had said more provocative things in a lecture earlier, but this posting became a key event that ignited the Reformation. The first thesis of his 95 was about penance.
The penance system Luther experienced got started because the early church was trying to figure out what to do with people who were baptized into Christ and then sinned. Tertullian (c.155-c.220 AD) decided they were forgiven for original sin and saved, but they needed to satisfy the debts they incurred subsequently. The church was an alternative community, so they basically came up with their own “penitentiary.” What should a person pay to get back into the good graces of the Church and be restored to fellowship after they have sinned? They work out a major application of “step three” in Matthew 18: “If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”
There were (and still are) three main steps to penance: confess to the priest, be absolved in the named of Jesus and the Church, do something to demonstrate you’re seriously sorry and intend not to sin. Sometimes this was just, “Say this prayer,” or “Give alms.” But sometimes it was like a court sentence where you were out of the church and brought back in incrementally. At some point you can stand in the back of the meeting. Then you able to sit in the audience. Finally, you get the OK to take communion again. You can see that this was mainly “doing penance,” not necessarily feeling penitent. By the time of Luther, the church was offering indulgences for donations to shorten time in purgatory where dead people with built up sin had to stay before they’d worked it off and achieved heaven. (I was just surprised by a recent Netflix movie about this). I think this felt like drive-through forgiveness to Luther. Plus the whole process was administered by a faceless institution that ran like the Roman Empire.
The reformers were trying to make things work better according to the Bible and not according to some development fund manager in Rome. Their movement unwittingly rode the wave of the communication revolution the printing press brought in (Luther might have had tons of Instagram followers). I also think they were the flower of the individualism tree that was planted when Aristotle became the continent’s favorite philosopher.
Penal substitution wins at Dort
100 years after Luther went public, Calvinists are becoming the premier interpreters of the Reformation. John Calvin was trained as a lawyer and it shows in his theology and ministry — and even more in his descendants. Calvin turns justification by faith into the legal argument it remains. Mary Lane Potter says, “Calvin’s theology may be accurately described as a lifelong meditation on the law of God.” His successors take obedience to the law to a new extreme. I think their behavior points out why I think penal substitution is not adequate to stand on its own or to be made into a reductionistic booklet.
You’ve probably never heard of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 (short for Dortrecht, in the Netherlands). It is a meeting called by the Dutch Protestant Church for Calvinist leaders from across Europe to affirm the famous five points that undergird orthodox Calvinism. You can summarize the five articles in their statement with TULIP if you mix up the original order:
Total Depravity – “Man” (not trying to fix the sexist language for them) is completely touched/affected by sin in all that he is (in nature he is completely fallen), but is not as bad as he could be (in action, i.e., not all people murder, etc.). Furthermore, this total depravity means that the unregenerate will not, of their own free will, choose to receive Christ.
Unconditional Election – God elects a person based upon nothing in that person because there is nothing in him that would make him worthy of being chosen; rather, God’s election is based on what is in God. God chose us because he decided to bestow his love and grace upon us, not because we are worthy, in and of ourselves, of being saved.
Limited Atonement – Christ bore the sin only of the elect, not everyone who ever lived. Christ’s blood was sufficient for all, but not all sin was imputed to Christ. Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all people. But the sufficiency relates to his divine value which is different than our legal debt. Sin is a debt since it is breaking the Law of God. In limited atonement, Calvinists are saying that there was a limit to whose sins were imputed to Christ in a legal sense.
Irresistible Grace – The term suggests a mechanical and coercive force upon an unwilling subject, but this is not the case. Instead, it is the act of God making the person willing to receive him. It does not mean that a person cannot resist God’s will. It means that when God moves to save/regenerate a person, the sinner cannot thwart God’s movement and he will be regenerated
Perseverance of the Saints– We are so secure in Christ, that we cannot fall away.
The other advantage of the TULIP acronym is that it arranges the five points of Calvinism logically and progressively and gives a read out of substitutinary atonement, with each point contingent on the other, as follows. If humans are totally depraved, then they are unable to make an initial response to God. God must call people to salvation through unconditional election. God must also provide the way of salvation by the death of Jesus Christ. He makes salvation secure by the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. He keeps his saved ones secure so they will inherit the eternal life he has promised them.
The Synod of Dort sounds like a theological study group. But it is also (and, I think, primarily), a legal, political meeting. With the synod, the Calvinists anathemize the Arminians who rose up to protest the increasing legalism and politicization of the Calvinists. Arminius was a Dutch Reformed theologian whose followers published Remonstrancein 1610, which is the opposite of TULIP.
The acts of the Synod were tied to political intrigues that arose during the Twelve Years’ Truce, a pause in the Dutch war with Spain. The Arminians were accused of propagating false doctrine AND perceived as ready to compromise with the Spanish. The Dutch Calvinists were not ready to deal. So Arminianism was considered by some to be not only theologically unsound but also political treason. The synod concludes with exile for theological opponents and execution for traitors — another episode in the ongoing Wars of Religion in Europe.
After the Synod rejected the teachings of the Remonstrants as falling outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions, a political condemnation of the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt followed. He was a high official and had been the protector of the Remonstrants. For the crime of general perturbation in the state of the nation, both in Church and State (treason), he was beheaded on May 13, 1619, only four days after the final meeting of the Synod. With this process, the Dutch Reformed Church rid itself of Arminianism, but the ideas escaped to England where they were embedded in the budding movement called Methodism.
The fact that the application of the synod’s findings were implemented by judges and resulted in execution exemplifies my problem with today’s prevailing doctrine of penal substitution. It continues to be exclusive and interested in not only God’s sovereignty but its own. The teaching of it continues to be like an ongoing legal argument, as most people who have argued about predestination in a Bible study will attest. I see the Calvinists as the descendants of Constantine, who conquered in the name of the cross, the symbol of power over the powerless.
Give us a plan for our dialogue, Lord
The fiercely argued ascendancy of substitutionary atonement as the premier explanation of the gospel remains. Richard Rohr shows that Arminians vs. Calvinists is not a new argument in the church. Augustine and his followers fought with the “pelagians” (like John Cassian), and Dominicans argued with Franciscans (Rohr).
We need to keep having loving dialogue because we are not all built the same way and differing views need to be integrated in the peace of Christ, not allowed to become red or blue talking points. I connect the players in the Synod of Dort with Jeffrey Russell’s helpful distinction of the movements of “prophecy” and “order” in the medieval church, the Arminians being more on the “prophecy” side. I think the Calvinists are part of the general takeover of Eurocentric thinking in the 1600’s and onward by the “scientific” left brain; but the left brain is necessary to the whole, just should not rule.
The church has always had a helpful dialogue about the many, deep meanings of the atonement, which describe the grace of God — a grace which speaks to individuals and people groups in all ages and all places. The work of Jesus is bigger than our understanding and perfectly obvious to our needy hearts. The idea of “substitutionary atonement” is in the Bible and in the dialogue of the Church from earliest history [atonement explanations]. I’m not a fan of the corrupted version made in the image of Eurocentric thinking from the 1600’s. But I accept the grace of God in Jesus who bears my sins and sets me free from guilt.
So let’s end with a meditation on the death of Jesus for us, a song that came out in 1609, a decade before Dort. Maybe it unites us all — it has quite a diverse background. The tune is by the German Protestant composer, Hans Leo Hassler. The words we sing are a rewrite by a 26 year old Presbyterian minister in 1830. The original lyrics were attributed to the warrior mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, but are now attributed of Arnulf of Lueven (ca 1250), Lueven being a town just a couple of hours south of Dortrecht in Belgium. The original poem is long and includes all sorts of body parts, but the head is what became most vivid and lasting.
Here is the second verse for your prayer:
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek,
because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how,
nor find you unless you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you;
let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.”
– Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, 1 (1078, in Bec)
I am revisiting the historical explanations of the atonement during Lent. So I dug deeper into the life and work of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who lived through one of my favorite European centuries. Why don’t you use his prayer (above), which is very characteristic of him, and see if you can feel it the way he might?
I took up a lot of my spiritual director’s time talking about Anselm this week, and I am tempted to go on and on with you because I feel full of revelation. Previously, I pictured Anselm as a stuffy, rule-bound academic who made life hard for Abelard. As it turns out, he is a super influential revolutionary attempting to integrate a tsunami of new thinking into his faith and life. If that is not enough, he is a church leader living in the center of one of the most tumultuous political actions in history: the Norman Conquest of England, and made some significant, gutsy moves that got him exiled a couple of times. What’s more, he opposed the First Crusade (1096-9) on moral grounds, even though he was a staunch supporter of the pope. I asked my wife, “Why isn’t there a movie about this guy?”
You live in a time of change, too
In the 11th century an intellectual and spiritual revolution began to burn in Europe and Anselm helped light the fire. So much change has happened in our world in the last four years, you must feel something burning, too. Anselm’s era is supercharged with change. What will become capitalism is taking root as European towns form. Universities begin to develop. Foreign trade increases and foreign ideas come with it. Foreign wars are fomented.
In the church, the dominant “Augustinian” traditions are challenged by the rediscovery of the works of “The Philosopher,” Aristotle. In Anselm’s time, teachers were astonished when Europeans became aware of over a thousand documents from ancient Greek writers, notably Aristotle, in Arab libraries throughout Spain. They had been lost after the Roman Empire went Christian and a wide-scale destruction of “un-Christian” books and libraries occurred. In many places there had grown a contempt for learning, free inquiry and rationality itself. (Some things just keep happening again and again!) Anselm was basically writing in the spirit of a 1619 Project on behalf of overlooked, unjustly dishonored ancient philosophers who rose from the vaults of the heathen Moors in Al-Andalus.
Aristotle presented a version of rationalism which was so compelling teachers in the gestating universities scrambled to recast their disciplines in light of it. It was change as big as the advent of the personal computer, the cell phone or A.I. Anselm was the first and foremost thinker to apply Aristotle’s rationalism to Christian faith. He thought of it as using reason after attending to the primacy of faith. He started a way of thinking and teaching about God (later called “scholasticism”) which gave birth to an “Age of Reason” later on (See Aristotle’s Childrenby Richard Rubenstein).
The “Platonic” side of Greek philosophy, represented by Augustine (354-430) dominated the Early Middle Ages. It taught that truth resides in God’s mind and is generally beyond our complete understanding. (Plato is Socrates’ disciple and Aristotle’s mentor, all in Athens about 470-322 B.C.). Contrary to Plato, underlying all Aristotle’s works — whether on politics, poetics, ethics, logic or natural science — is the conviction that human beings are rational creatures capable of making reasonable choices. They can use their intelligence to examine the world, discern patterns in nature and figure out how things work. Aristotle’s common-sensical, nonmystical, and optimistic view of the world enters the culture at a time it can flourish. Anselm helps knit it into a new common sense.
Even though Anselm was obsessed with learning and teaching, his exploration of all this newness is always about seeking to know God better. He wrote,
I do not seek to understand, in order that I may believe; but I believe, that I may understand. For I believe this too, that unless I believed, I should not understand (Proslogion, 1).
In this, he is following Augustine. But as Proslogion continues, his writing shows the innovation Aristotle brings to reasoning which will reorganize all further philosophy in Europe. God gave Anselm a daring, inquisitive brain and he considered it his calling to use it, even though his monasteries kept calling him into leadership.
How did Jesus save us?
For the rest of Lent, maybe you could follow your best feelings and thoughts — even if they make you a rebel against your prevailing way of life or the constraining intellectual laziness of your church and culture. Anselm could be your guide in this. He meditated on the cross and the atonement it promises, and came up with a new way to see it — theologians call it the “satisfaction theory.”
I used to see Anselm’s “proof” of why Jesus (the God-man) is crucial to our salvation as some petty, stale philosophy. But now I see it as being way out front of the zeitgeist that was about to envelope his continent. He uses a newly-rational process, to offer a somewhat-capitalist view of Christ’s work, which contradicts what almost everyone thinks about the Lord. His focus on God’s honor matches how his Norman overlords see their honor. But Anselm is not locked in his era. He posits a theory that calls his context into humility before God, both church and kingdom, daring to go against entrenched teaching backed by powerful people.
Anselm’s philosophizing generally starts with a question which has come up during his meditation. Much of his atonement view evolved from pondering what is owed to Caesar and what to Christ, as well as the role of obedience in the redemption of humanity. Cur Deus Homois the result. It has been called a defense of God’s actions in the face of the evil of the world. But I am not sure Anselm is being defensive. I think he sincerely wants to come up with the best answer for himself and everyone else. Why did God become human? Why did the incarnation occur? You can read a nice summary of the whole argument, here, and see of variations of an answer, here.
Anselm thinks the incarnation is a gracious way to protect humanity from bearing the requirement to honor God — since we don’t meet the requirement and God is loving, but also just! You might say it is a worship-based argument, which would be appropriate, since Anselm had devoted his life to building it on a foundation of meditation and worship. Unlike the popular “ransom” theory which prevailed at the time, the way Anselm reasons it, Jesus is not bait to trick the devil, since God doesn’t need to make deals with the devil (way beneath God’s honor), and Jesus is not sent on a mission where he is predestined for sacrifice (there is no compulsion, no murder by God, humanity does the killing). Jesus dies because he has lived a life for humanity that honors God. The powers-that-be kill him for doing it. Jesus must be human to offer God the honor due and must be God to endure the infinite punishment due humankind for not doing it. Humanity owes a debt of honor to God which they cannot pay (Forgive us our debts…).
God wills to create a humanity that honors him and attains blessedness. Therefore, God must necessarily become incarnate and redeem humanity when it falls. What follows from all of this is that redemption, while it is achieved by Christ, is entered into only through being joined to Christ through the Spirit. Participation in Christ as the one who obeys and the one who undoes the consequences of not honoring God is indispensable. Jesus “satisfies” the need to honor God and so do we by participating in his work.
Does this mean anything personal?
I also told my spiritual director that I did not think many people would want to read this piece but I really felt like writing it. As I meditated on “why?” I came back to my admiration for Anselm’s timely influence. Right now, the church seems neutered by politics, TikTok, and self protection. We are submerged under mistrust. The present world is awash with climate change, scientific beauties and monstrosities, newly authoritarian governments, the unknown ramifications of the pandemic, and much more. It is a crazy place where faith in Jesus has almost no influence spiritually or otherwise. What should we say and do?
I am inspired by Anselm’s example. His life and writing are an exercise in trust. He calls people to honor God through Jesus Christ, in his own crazy era, with the gifts he has. He takes the core doctrine of Christianity, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and dares to use his power and influence to change the subject and undo the moribund thinking of the church, which has been more afraid of wrong thinking than producing Spirit-inspired thinking.
I think Anselm’s argument style and some unprocessed influence by his background and context, make his argument less than fully satisfying. But it is still a great argument and it is way better than the prevailing, somewhat superstitious, teaching that dominated the church in his day. He’s fresh, he is alive, he is listening to God. Aren’t we all a bit too anxious, occupied, insecure and afraid to listen to God these days?
Plus, I think Jesus pictured as an uncoerced, obedient person who gets killed because of his uncompromising trust in God is very attractive. He despises the shame. Maybe Anselm’s “life verse” was from John 8, where Jesus says,
But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” (John 8:45-51)
I still think John 8 is one of the most interesting, funny, and relevant chapters of the Bible. It is all about lies. And in the middle of it, Jesus is defending his honor, and God’s. He accuses his detractors of being on the father of lies’ murderous side. By the end of the argument, they pick up stones to kill him. They did not succeed then, but they will before long.
Lord, have mercy! We are small boats tossing on a sea of lies. We have to keep finding ways to deal with our anxiety as the earth and society fall apart around us, as the church is clearing out, and as its voice is overtaken by liars. I think Anselm was moved by the Spirit to follow Jesus in honoring God, no matter what. As we realize we can’t really do that effectively or completely, we have the God-man who can and did do it and continues with us to do so. Jesus welcomes us into the transcendent reality of life in the Spirit and the hope in God’s ongoing creative work.
I hope we think that truth into the language of our new era as we respect the old era, and rest in how Jesus satisfies the demands we feel to make the world right. With that hope, Anselm might add to the prayer with which we started:
Help me to honor you as I stand in Christ
who has satisfied the consequences of how I have not honored you.
Teach me to honor you
as you as you honor me with your loving and true presence.