Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Limiting Luther, Interrupting Ignatius

From Bengt Hoffman's Luther and the Mystics (1976):
Martin Luther's faith consciousness was significantly molded by mystical experience and western dependence on rationalism has obscured or eclipsed this mystical light. This is to say that the rational attributes of trustworthiness and loving care ascribed to God and the corresponding realities of faith and trustfulness found in man, are shot through with non-rational intimations, experiences of fascinating, awe-inspiring and bliss-giving presence. Luther's language about God residing in the heart of the believer was not only figurative. It was based on actual experience. The rational terms for God-man union were underpinned by a mystical knowledge. As indicated, there are barriers built into western intellectual thought structures which render it difficult to grasp the intimate connection between the conceptual-doctrinal and the experiential in Luther's legacy" (18-19).
From Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart (1986):
The genius and contemplative experience of Ignatius of Loyola led him to channel the contemplative tradition, which was in danger of being lost... [but the] unfortunate tendency to reduce the Spiritual Exercises to a method of discursive meditations seems to stem from the Jesuits themselves. In 1547 Everard Mercurian, the Father General of the Jesuits... forbade the practice of affective prayer and the application of the five senses. The spiritual life of a significant portion of the Society of Jesus was thus limited to a single method of prayer, namely, discursive meditation. The predominantly intellectual character of this meditation continued to grow in importance throughout the Society during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries... [Accordingly, early modern Catholicism] received the limitation imposed not by Ignatius, but by his less enlightened successors (23).
Philip Endean's article, Luther in Ignatian Light, goes further along these lines. Meanwhile, three cheers for the primary sources themselves!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture

I gave this lecture at Princeton Seminary in April. The images were the best part, but well, there are still some things you can't get on the internet. (Though it will be published here eventually.) Here's a podcast I did on the visit as well.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why I never read your Jordan Peterson post

And if you know about Christopher Byrant, John Sanford, and Jung's pleas to Christians in Psychology and Alchemy, you should not read this one either. If not though, carry on.

My simple point is that someone's brief Christian response to Peterson's endearing pop Jungianism is unlikely to approximate the depth encapsulated in the careers of Bryant and Sanford who, from both sides of the Atlantic, painstakingly and effectively assimilated the best of Jung into the Christian tradition.

It's hard, for example, to do better than Bryant's opening directives in Jung and the Christian Way, which originated as lectures given in 1980 at All Saints Margaret Street: 
I think Jung's understanding of dogma to be partial and inadequate. He regarded dogma as a protection against a psychic experience which might otherwise have proved overwhelming, as an attempt to tame and domesticate dangerous psychic forces. No doubt this has been one of its functions. But perhaps because of his undervaluing of belief he failed fully to grasp the positive value of dogma. For Christian doctrine and dogma grew out of an attempt to define and map an intense spiritual experience; and dogma is one of the tools for the exploration of a reality which transcends human grasp. The creeds are not intended to be the final expression of ultimate truth but signposts pointing the way to unfathomable mystery. Christians who believe them to be accurate signposts need to take care not to identify the signposts with the realities to which they point. As under Jung's guidance we learn to get in touch with our own depths and discover our own truth, the powerful realities the dogmas signify will become new and exciting (x).
Or take Sanford's The Kingdom Within, which helpfully identifies the largest deficit in the Jungian, and possibly Petersonian systems:
Sensing the necessity of evil for the advancement of spiritual consciousness, some psychologists have ventured into the outskirts of the fields of philosophy and theology and have asserted that evil also belongs to the ultimate wholeness of things. C.G. Jung in particular repeatedly intimated that totality must include evil as well as good. This is a dangerous and misleading thought for, in spite of the necessity for evil, evil has a negative power of its own which is directly opposed to the life-giving power of totality. We must distinguish between chaotic or undifferentiated parts of our personality, which may seem to us to be devilish but which must be included if we are to be whole, and absolute or ultimate evil - a very different thing which cannot be integrated into wholeness since it is antiwholeness (137).  
But none of this is to suggest that one shouldn't just go directly to Jung himself. For critical as he might be of the moribund European Christianity that kept sending him new patients, Jung himself tells Christians, if they are able, to stay put and learn from their own tradition. As Jung puts it in Psychology and Alchemy:
Psychology is concerned with the act of seeing and not with the construction of new religious truths, when even the existing teachings have not yet been perceived and understood.... Accordingly, when I say as a psychologist that God is an archetype, I mean by that the "type" in the psyche. The word "type," as we know, is derived from typos, "blow" or "imprint"; thus an archtetype presupposes an imprinter. Psychology as the science of the soul has to confine itself to its subject and guard against overstepping its proper boundaries by metaphysical assertions and other professions of faith. Should it set up a God, even as a hypothetical cause, it would have implicitly claimed the possibility of proving God, thus ending its competence in an absolutely illegitimate way (263).
One wishes, of course, that Jung would have exemplified this reticence career long. In point of fact, he often overstepped it. Hence Bryant is on the mark when he writes, "Jung appears to find it hard to distinguish the experience of the self and that of God. [But] to say that God can be experienced within the working of the human psyche does not, of course, imply that he is not present and perceptible outside of it" (40-41).

Even so, Jung - at times - went so far as to complain that people would
not stay in church. He blamed the church's failures less on the inadequacy of Christianity than on the "psychic situation of Western man, and [his] inability to assimilate the whole range of the Christian symbol" (277). Jung continues:
I would only be too delighted to leave this anything but easy [healing] task to the theologian, were it not that it is just from the theologian that many of my patients come. They ought to have hung on to the community of the Church, but they were shed like dry leaves from the great tree and now find themselves "hanging on" to the treatment (277)...  I wish everybody could be freed from the burden of their sins by the Church. But he to whom she cannot render this service must bend very low in the imitation of Christ in order to take the burden of his cross upon him" (281).
No doubt Peterson's success today is due to more dry leaves shed from shallow churches. But again, it is Jung himself who suggests it would be better for Christians to access the content of their own tradition, perhaps using the ladles forged by depth psychology to help reach it.

The Cowley Father Christopher Bryant (popularized in Susan Howatch's Starbridge series), and American Episcopal priest John Sanford succeeded at doing that. One of the best things the Peterson phenomenon might accomplish is to help people find their books again.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Calling London's Secular Bluff

There are (at least!) two temptations that beset a group of Midwestern Christian college students who spend a month in London. The first might be to fear the secular city, tip-toeing around it but mostly keeping to ourselves. The opposite (and more common) temptation comes from allowing ourselves to be bedazzled by diverse, stimulating, enrapturing London, and then looking back with predictable disdain on the narrowly Christian American suburbs we left happily behind.

But as our intensive Arts in London course over four weeks in London and Wales began, we attended "Choral Pilgrimage 2018: Sacred and Profane," by legendary choral group The Sixteen at the Royal Naval College. There we read this in our program from Robert Hawkins, which effectively neutralized those twin temptations: 
Today we might hear the terms 'sacred' and 'secular' as opposing poles, as if there were a clear separation between religious matters and worldly affairs. To think in this way is rather 'secular' in itself, and very particular to modernity...  The word 'secular' comes from the Latin saeculum (generation, age): It is used in Christian Latin to mean 'the world'. This isn't to say 'secular' had nothing to do with 'the Church'; it merely distinguished between monks, who were called to 'renounce the world', and priests, who interpreted their vocation as a need to get stuck into the affairs of the world, and to do God's work there.... For a modern viewer, particularly one without religious conviction, the all-encompassing nature of this sacral worldview can be hard to imagine. Part of the significance of beginning to see with believing eyes is the realisation that the extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary, the sacred in the profane (11).
We took this article as the Magna Carta of our trip, and set out - like those secular priests - to pursue the sacred, in a robustly Christian way, in the ostensibly "secular" space of London. (It certainly helps that all museums are free.) Like the snake the St. Paul handled in the massive fresco in the Royal Naval Chapel, we trusted that presumably secular culture would not poison us.
Taking the motto of our parish church in Highbury Islington, "roots down, branches out," we refused to be scandalized or seduced by the city. We weren't afraid of London; but nor did we despise the Midwestern evangelical tradition that has reared us, and which taught (and teaches!) us how to inhabit a cosmopolis without losing our Christological nerve. The result was we found God everywhere. And not a generic God either, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After all, as Columbanus put it in the sixth century, "Ineffable, Incomprehensible, he fills all things and transcends all things;" or as R.S. Thomas put the same insight in the twentieth, "you [God] terrify me as much by your proximity as by your being light years away."

God was so present in fact, that over a reflective dinner in Wales, our class came up with a list (embellished and/or warped a good bit by me) of the ways the sacred/secular boundary was breached during our pilgrimage. The list is far from exhaustive, and here it is:

The Sacred in "Secular" London (& Oxford & Wales):
  1. First comes the flag of London itself, with the sword that beheaded saint Paul displayed as prominently as St. Paul's dome is on the city's skyline. The message of grace that he preached is therefore only missed if we choose to ignore it (which we all do!). To help us not to, the city's official motto, Domine, dirige nos (Lord, direct us), became our prayer.

  2. In our first visit to the National Gallery, we enjoyed Joachim Beucklaer's Four Elements, where worldly goods for their own sake are ostentatiously displayed in a festival of materialism. Or so most think. Biblical scenes are in fact concealed in the distance of each painting, if one knows where to look. As we learned from T.J. Gorringe's brilliant book-length commentary on these works, “The turn to the secular may not be a sign of Christianity losing its grip, but, on the contrary, of realizing its true implications.”
  3. Eric Gill's motto of sorts, beautifully displayed in his Gill Sans font at the Tate Britain, expressed the truth we kept encountering on our trip. The Latin phrase from Aquinas' commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius translates, "The beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is." Or as one student put it more directly, "The artists we're encountering are for Jesus even if they don't know it."
  4. As we headed to the Hay-on-Wye HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival, we expected something akin to a neo-pagan British Burning Man. Instead, one of our own found a gloriously tiny prayer-book dedicated to her own name in this sea of books, and Rowan Williams (a speaker this year) was ubiquitous, happily jockeying with whatever else is on offer for twenty-first century hearts and minds. 
  5. In a lecture we enjoyed on Celtic Spirituality, St. Patrick's phrase, "Christ in every eye that sees me" seemed to apply to all eyes that met ours in London, Oxford and Wales, or even from the past in the National Portrait Gallery. Student after student pointed out how they felt Christ refracted in the wildly diverse population that surrounded us, from the residents erecting a memorial in our neighborhood after a tragedy, to the Catholic nuns who lived right next door.
  6. Ours was a Wesley-haunted trip. We encountered memorials to him everywhere, and not just in churches. There he was in the massive Aldersgate flame ("my sins, even mine") at the entrance to the Museum of London, filled with material evidence of London's Christian history. Wesley - whose message sprung from the churches he was kicked out of into the very streets - kept reminding us of the message of justification by faith which he preached, and which remains freshly offensive and invigorating in every age.
  7. It was not only Stanley Spencer's The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27) that overwhelmed us at the Tate Britain, with the entire population rising from the dead, but also his depiction of "Swan Upping at Cookham" (1915-19). Spencer description of his inspiration sounded this sacred-in-the-secular theme yet again: "The village seemed as much a part of the atmosphere prevalent in the church as the most holy part of the church."
  8. We were led through galleries in Burmondsey (London's chief gallery district) by artist Alastair Gordon. An active artist and a no-nonsense believer, Ally went so far as to ask us to pray that God would keep a Christian art subculture from developing in London so that Christians would keep working in the wider world of art. 
  9. One student pointed out how the architecture of St. Bride's has imprinted itself on every wedding cake (notice the famous resemblance), Christian or not. Even the German bomb that destroyed the nave only served to reveal the layers of history that were sealed up inside, now to be enjoyed.
  10. Andrew Cusack explained that the architectural nucleus of Pugin's Gothic Houses of Parliament remains the royal chapel of St. Stephen. And even the structures of opposing parties today goes back to the recitation of the antiphonal Psalter from two sides of the choir.
  11. Seeing Darwin enthroned at the Museum of Natural History ruffled our faith about as much as does the law of gravitation (to quote former Princeton President James McCosh). Instead, the massive leviathan suspended above Darwin seemed to have the last word, reminding us of Job 41, "Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride." As a result, on entering Darwin's hometown of Shrewsbury, we gave the statues to him a polite nod, and went on to admire the churches. For the cosmic Christ is cruciform, and is our caterpillar, after all.
  12. In the shows we watched for our Musical Theater class, gospel themes covertly prevailed. These included the, "He lives in you, He lives in me," hymn in The Lion King, the notes of redemption in the conclusion of Matilda and Odette's please for the prince's attention in Swan Lake. Above all, the stolen candlesticks testifying to forgiven sin became a virtual altar in a superb production of Les Mis. As group member Martin Johnson put it, "Known about this show since 1983: finally saw it. Says it all. Unmerited, unconditional one-way love: Better than any sermon I have ever preached: or heard."
  13. Speaking of sermons, nestled near the heart of our trip was the royal wedding sermon, which was broadcast in every pub, restaurant, shop and so-called "secular" space in London. Ubi Caritas, the hymn quoted by Bishop Curry, "Where charity and love are, God is there," encapsulated our venture, and propelled it onward.
  14. In Wales, our Eucharistic celebrant had DNA helixes on her vestments, testifying to the goodness of God in all creation. Like the ancient fossils deliberately built into the baptistry and altar of All Saints Margaret Street, they were a reminder - for our bio majors especially - that there is no division between serious science and genuine faith.
  15. The martyrdom of the Carthusians under Henry VIII was a tragedy. Full stop. That said, there was a marked contrast between the cloistered Carthusians, who were - and remain where their order endures - completely silent, and the wonderfully eloquent Christian witness of our cheerful tour guide at the Charterhouse who is one of the contemporary brothers of a more recent order. The same dynamic is at work in the continuation of the Knights Hospitaller (revived by Queen Victoria and surviving in the Saint John Ambulance), or in Anglican celebrations of once-suppressed Our Lady of Walsingham today.
  16. As beautiful as the large memorial to the Oxford martyrs remains, we were instead taken aback by the actual place of the martyrdom of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, which stands in the midst of a busy Oxford road, where we almost got ran over to take this photo.
  17. That said, an equally moving experience was our visit to the recently dedicated tomb of Thomas More at St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London (no photos allowed). These martyrdoms together testified that there are no easy answers to the divisions on the sixteenth-century. But that More's tomb was recently dedicated in the Queen's royal chapel seemed to qualify it for our sacred-in-the-secular list.
  18. On the literary end, though Romanticism is often seen as a gateway to the secular, we learned in Wales that the first Romantic poet may very well have been the hymn writer William Williams
  19. And Williams' mantel was passed on to Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, who penned agonizing, doubt-infused tirades against his maker, but whose faith was too rooted to fail. "The Cross is always avant-garde," he realized. And his poem, The Moor, illustrated our theme: "It was like a church to me. / I entered it on soft foot, / Breath held like a cap in the hand...  / There were no prayers said, / But stillness of the heart's passions - that was praise / Enough..."

  20. One student pointed out that just as the sheep left marks of wool wherever they had been on our hikes, so all of London seemed flecked with traces of sheep-wool, showing signs of God's emissaries in all quarters of cultural production.
  21. Our time of silence in the Elam Valley enabled the quiet of the landscape to speak. It confirmed for us what we read and learned about Celtic spirituality, which boasts "an interpenetration of religion and landscape in a way that surpasses anything we might find in the late classical world (6-7)." The same truth was well-expressed in the Latin root of chasuble, that emblem of high church fashion. Originally though, it was the just Latin word (chasula) for the simple poncho the rain invited us all to wear.
  22. One would think that during a visit to the Courtauld, the "sacred" conversations would cease after the first floor of medieval art, and certainly wouldn't continue into the nineteenth century galleries. But Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was as powerful as the ground floor of Courtauld in revealing the dignity of all who are overlooked. This painting just did not let our group go.
  23. To the surprise of many of us, St Mary le Strand was packed with students from Kings College London, offering a vibrant, orthodox sermon on a standard weekday at noon. Just like John Stott's famously evangelical All Souls Langham Place, St Mary Le Strand remains architecturally in the thick of it all, and has not yet given up the [Holy] ghost.
  24. As the rain poured down during our trek to the dueling Cathedrals of St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, one of us cited Matthew 5:45, "he sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust," with the caveat that sometimes the just are in the world and the unjust in the church. As Augustine once put it, "there are many sheep within, and many wolves without."
  25. "I believe God is in the bowels of the Tate," remarked our guide Jonathan Anderson with a smile as he began his tour. He gave confident readings of multiple works in this secular church, extending the argument he made so persuasively in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture. There is quite a difference, we learned, between the nihilistic and the apophatic; between nothingness and no-thing-ness; between "God is not there," and "God is not there." Antony Gormley's Untitled (for Francis) from 1985 even seemed an illustration of Charles Taylor's view of the modern, "buffered self," the artist's body cast is solid lead. And yet, this body was pierced with the stigmata, open again to Christ, who surely hovered nearby. But concealed, as Bellini understood, by seraphim.

  26. Perhaps the reason we found these connections so easy to make because we were not seeking "Britishness," but a wider empire, the Kingdom of God. Our indefatigable guide, Geoff Weaver, cited John Ellerton's famous hymn - daringly written at the high tide of the British Empire - to prove this point: "The voice of prayer is never silent / Nor dies the strain of praise away.... So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never / Like earth's proud empires, pass away." Lily, a student in our class who spent much of her youth in China, found it fitting that this was the hymn sung when Britain turned over control of Hong Kong.
  27. We might even go so far as to say that the presumed line between the sacred and secular seemed as softened as the Offa's Dyke path that we walked. That original division between England and Wales was once a bloody border, but is now just a pleasant place to walk.
  28. None of this is to rule out the specificity of Christian proclamation, or to say that churches are unnecessary in the name of some kind of religionless Christianity. Not in the least. This was made clear by the fulcrum of our visit, Pentecost worship at All Saints Margaret Street. The love of God in Christ of course beams down on everyone in London - but only with the smoke of incense in Christian worship are these beams revealed.
  29. And in true Anglo-Catholic fashion, the worship of All Saints Margaret Street is not divorced from service. The homeless are welcomed into this glorious church to sleep in its pews every night (guidelines are clearly posted), with silver candlesticks staying right where they are, as if to prompt a remake of Les Mis.
  30.  Indeed, our whole trip was summarized by the fact that the revelatory smoke of incense offered by this church does not dutifully stay put. On Corpus Christi, just as we left, the All Saints thuribles took Oxford Circus by storm, declaring revealing God's beams of love for anyone who had eyes to see (photo, which I wish I had taken, courtesy of All Saints' site).
So then, what hath London to do with Jerusalem? The Passover red of the Rothko room gave us an answer: Everything. And if there is any mission for a Christian liberal arts college in the twenty-first century (and there is), it is to help students (and professors) realize that the same answer applies to Istanbul, New York, Berlin, Marrakesh, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Singapore or Jakarta.
Though we might well admit that sometimes it seems London includes all these cities at once.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Distillery

Here's a podcast conversation with the fantastic Shari Oosting at Princeton Seminary on ecumenism, Mary, feminism, etc.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Infinity Luther War

In this extended conversation, Bill Borror, Scott Jones, Scott's Trump impersonation and I discuss evangelicalism, Santeria, theological education gaps, grace vs. works & why the slot of America's greatest theologian should remain vacant.

For those without an hour to spare: I claimed that Martin Luther was taken for granted by folks like Lindbeck/Frei/Jenson (Yale School, etc.) who taught those (Hauerwas, Reno, Radner, etc.) who taught my generation. Hence second rate students like me barely got Luther, which is why his rediscovery now comes with such force.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Our Lady of 2054

Being a title of our Madonna della Misericordia. Read all about it here. Way more upbeat than Bladerunner 2049. If I could add one more source to the essay, it would be this line from Alan Jacobs' Pro Ecclesia essay on ecclesial plurality: "There is not a single form of ecclesial life they can reliably sustain every kind of saint."

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Five More Questions on "Enchantment"

I have learned (thanks to the good Dr. Ryan Clevenger), of a fascinating corollary to Mattes's book on Luther and beauty, namely, Jason Josephson-Storm's well-crafted stake to the heart of Charles Taylor's assertion that "Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of 500 years ago is that they lived in an 'enchanted' world and we do not" (38).

It leads to five more questions of my own, followed by Josephson-Storm's vivid, myth-crunching prose.

1. But the modern world really is disenchanted, right?
Disenchantment is a myth. The majority of people in the heartland of disenchantment believe in magic or spirits today, and it appears that they did so at the high point of modernity. Education does not directly result in disenchatment. Indeed, one might hazard the guess that education allows one to maintain more cognitive dissonance rather than less. Secularizatin and disenchantment are not correlated. Moreover, it is easy to show that, almost no matter how you define the terms, there are few figures in the history of the academic disciplines that cannot be shown to have had some relation or engagement with what their own epoch saw as magic or animating forces. This monograph has shown how different magic and spiritualist revivals entered the lives of modernity's main theorists, from Max Müller to Theodor Adorno to Rudolf Carnap. But it is not only theorists of disenchantment who were entangled with enchantment....Mechanism has long had establishment enemies. This list barely scratches the surface (304-5).

That artistic and literary movements often went together with magical rituals and spirit summoning should also be no surprise: the occult can be found from the Harlem Renaissance to the Surrealists, from Wassily Kandinsky to Victor Hugo to W.B. Yeats. What we might think of as the orthodox or establishment disciplines have been hardly less magically inclined. Spiritualism and theosophy have appealed to biologists like Alfred Russel Wallace and inventors like Thomas Edison. Nobel Prize-winning physicists from Marie Curie to Jean Baptiste Perrin to Brian Josephson have often been interested in parapsychology. Even computer scientists like Alan Turing believed in psychical powers. Moreover, despite the laments of the new materialists, pansychism has been a persistent counter-current in philosophical circles as well-known thinkers - including Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer... Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, Henri Bergson... Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Albert Schweitzer.... - all argued that the material universe should be though of as thoroughly animated or possessed of mind and awareness.
2. So should we stop using the term modernity, understood as disenchantment of one kind or another?
Modernity is a myth. The term modernity is itself vague. There can be value in vagueness, but "modernity" rests on an extraordinarily elastic temporality that can be extended heterogeneously and in value-laden ways to different regions and periods. It also picks out different processes such as urbanization, industrialization, rationalization, globalization, capitalism, or various particular artistic, scientific, philosophical, or technological movements. To speak of "modernity or "modernization" is always to select from within these and to surreptitiously bundle them together as symptoms of a larger master process. It often makes an actor out of the very thing that needs to be explained. Hence, modernity is not just vague; it is doing a lot of covert work, and its main feature is its capacity to signal a rupture or breach, which it marks as the expression of a single horizon of temporality. Moreover, when described in terms of the de-animation of the world, the end of superstition, the decay of myth, or even the dominance of instrumental reason, modernity signals a societal fissure that never occurred (306).
3. But surely the term postmodernity still has purchase, right?
Postmodernity is a myth...  In Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The crisis of European culture), the German philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz described what he saw as a calamity in European intellectual and cultural life, arguing that capitalism, shallow materialism, and conflicting nationalism have produced an ehtical vacuum. Strikingly, Pannwitz suggested that this collective zeitgeist has spawned a new type of person: "The postmodern man is an encursted mollusk, a happy medium of decadent and barbarian swarming out from the natal whirlpool of the grand decadence of the radical revolution of European nihilism." ...Pannwitz might seem to be describing our contemporary epoch....  But Pannwitz wrote this [postmodern] account in 1917, not 1987, much less 2017. The appearance of this text and even its term postmodern a century ago allows us to see that the postmodern condition is far from new. ...The term postmodern became lexically available shortly after 1901, when variants on the term premodern appeared and came into common usage.... No sooner had "modernity' become the quintessential periodization than it was possible it imagine its future eclipse. Postmodernity is often presented as a second rift after the rift that defined modernity. Postmodernity is often seen as a counterreaction to modernism, but the two movements largely coincided. Indeed, postmodernism and modernism would seem to have the same meaning insofar as they both aim to transcend the current moment, often by looking forward. Accordingly, both periodizations rest on the idea of fundamental rupture from the past, which, while inflected differently, often rests on the very disenchantment narrative I have been working to dispel....
In sum, I have been arguing that in the hands of both proponents and critics, modernity is a philosopheme that comes with a rudimentary narrative structure attached. Every time something specific is termed "modern"," that implies a story: "First there was x, and then everything changed." The word modernity always communicated myth, and it turns out that disenchantment is one of the stories we most like having told to us. (307-308).
4. But I went to grad school where I read critical theory, so I'm safe from all these enchantment debates, right?    
The esoteric keeps appearing in thinkers we have canonized in critical theory... Critical theory's self-image is of vigilance and hyper-intellection. If you are routing it through Kant, Hegel, and Marx, you can make that boast. If you stick with Marx, you can even call yourself a materialist. If you put European mysticism at the center, however, then all those claims become suspect...

Ferdinand de Saussure's attendance attendance at spiritualist séances and writing about theosophy in the very moment he was giving his famous lectures. Gilles Deleuze's first publication, which was the introduction to a work of occult magic. Giorgio Agamben's interest in Paracelsus as a solution to the semiotic rupture. Peter Soterdijk's investment in Osho as a spiritual and philosophical precursor. Roy Bhaskar's debt to theosophy. Luce Irigaray's interest in yoga and mysticism. Even Derrida expressed an interest in telepathy and attempted to ally the pharmakeus (magician), writing, and magic against speech and logos. Not to mention thinkers like Michel de Certeau and Ernst Bloch, whose connections to mysticism are well known. I could go on (237-38).

...Critical theory is one of the central places in the academy for a left-Weberian critique of modernity. We look to critical theorists to be reminded that disenchantment has meant the domination of nature, the dehumanization of humanity, the end of wonder, and the desctruction of myth. But having read Klages, we can see the important aspects of this line of critique originated in the fin-de-siècle occult milieu. So on these grounds, all the various left-Weberian attempt to overcome instrumental rationality or the iron cage by way of re-enchantment might now seem suspect (239).
5. So, granting I don't want to conform to the new materialism, or consummate the human sacrifice ritual that George Bataille chickened out of because (although he found a volunteer victim), he could not find a willing murderer (237), is there a way out of the whole enchantment business? 
As I interpret Max Weber, we live in a disenchanting world in which magic is embattled and intermittently contained within its own cultural sphere, but not a disenchanted one in which magic is gone... (305) [And yet, for Weber] What ultimately disenchanted the world was the Protestant conception of grace - that salvation is solely due to the sovereign grace of God (sola gratia)." (281). 
While Josephson-Storm of course does not put it this way, it might therefore seem fair to argue that Christianity, which began as a disenchanting movement within the Graeco-Roman world, could continue to do similar, perhaps even increasingly necessary work today - leading to a restrained enchantment, animated by love of neighbor, on the far side of God's myth-crunching grace.

Of course, there are a variety of Christian manners of accomplishing this. Perhaps the most direct is just one post back.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Luther & the Enchantment of the World (Ten Questions)

The questions are my own. But the answers are all quotations from Mark Mattes's brilliant book, Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal (2017).

1. Did Luther disenchant the world? 
One can have an enchanted world without the Platonic itinerary leading beyond the senses to the intellect, and from the intellect to the soul, and from the soul to the divine. Luther does not rule out analogy altogether, but analogy is best established ex post facto: through the light of Christ's resurrection such analogies become obvious in nature and human relations (14).
With Luther, we can and should affirm a depth to material reality. His is no protosecular perspective. Indeed, God as masked is ever working through creatures to provide for creaturely needs or to impose consequences upon creatures who overstep their bounds. But law alone is not definitive of reality. Reality is defined by the gospel as well. The gospel undermines the hierarchical scheme as a scale that alone traverses reality, particularly when it is interpreted as a ladder by which sinners can climb to God. From the perspective of the gospel, if the cosmic ladder should abide as a helpful heuristic tool to interpret reality, then it can only be a one-way ladder from God to sinners. Indeed, law as accusatory comes to end in Christ (Rom. 10:4). Beauty, then, is not a self-perfecting of nature by means of supernatural aid; instead, it is calling forth a new creation into being through grace (2 Cor. 5:17) (165).
 2. Was Luther a nominalist?
For nominalists like Ockham, all that exists are particular entities having particular qualities...  Luther was educated in the Ockhamist (nominalist) tradition. However, his teachers were more eclectic in their approach to the status of universals that they supposed. While the approach of Luther's teacher Trutvetter assumed a theory of participation of creatures in God, which is closer to a realist position on the status of universals as objective realities... [Luther's] approach, similar to that of his teachers, is more fluid than his self-designation [as a nominalist] would indicate. When he calls himself a modernus, he is referring to semantic and logical skills he gained from disputational methodology...  but he thinks in terms of "natures" as sets of possibilities by which we generalize and classify objects in the world. In theology, however, he could at times think in terms or appropriate language very similar to that of the realists.  For instance, when he describes Christ as the forma of faith, in which believers share the same form as the object of their knowledge, Christ, then Chris is the reality as such, the universal (if you will), and believers as "Christs" have their reality as participating in Christ, as Christ's instantiations in the world (21-23).
3. But come on, he's still a nominalist, right?
[G]iven that the nominalists held that God of his absolute power (de potentia absoluta) could declare humans "righteous only because God accepts" them "as such quite apart from any infusion of grace" (the doctrine of acceptance), Luther was decisively antinominalist. For Luther, "imputation is nothing else but the work of grace. And grace, instead of being the arbitrary will of God, works the justification of the sinner because of Jesus Christ" (citing Hägglund,'s 'Was Luther a Nominalist?) (27).

Luther's training was in nominalist logic, but his spirituality was deeply indebted to mysticism, which, seeing the soul as a bride of Christ as a groom, is apt to honor images of the believer's union with Christ. Luther reworks both traditions in light of the gospel. Because God in his being is not merely or solely equivalent to, coterminous with, or reducible to eternal law, as nominalism taught, Luther discovered that God in his proper work is merciful and loving. Likewise, union with Christ is no reward for piety but a gift received in faith. Luther's eclecticism is not inconsistent, because his standard for evaluating philosophy is primarily the requirement of clarifying and advancing the gospel, which philosophy is called to serve. Luther's theological ontology is not one that pits relationality against participation; instead, divine favor (relation) grants a new being (participation). (17).
4. Then was Luther a realist?
For nominalists, grace elevates nature by requiring humans to honor what God has enjoined them to do via covenant (pactum), while for realists, grace perfects humans as they more and more conform to eternal law. For Luther, both views fail to love God for his own sake because we seek our own self-fulfillment as we exercise our potential even in our quest for salvation. ...for Luther, theology does not prefect philosophy (realism) nor is it parallel to philosophy (nominalism); instead, it sets limits to philosophy, which surreptitiously seeks to enter theology's arena (matters of infinite and/or grace) and also exploits its logical tools for rigorous clarification of doctrine (25).
The distinction between law and gospel governs Luther's approach to philosophy. Nominalism and realism are no longer alternatives for him because their conclusions must each be evaluated in light of the law/gospel distinction. Luther charts a new path beyond that philosophical debate. In Christ, men and women are new creations, new beings, and they are not merely the set of all who claim Christ as their own but instead share in the form of Christ and so instantiate Christ himself in their service, which is similar to but not the same as realism. Even so, his overall positioning of philosophy in relation to theology has a nominalist contour [which] has its place when restricted to this-worldly matters. (42).
 5. But didn't Luther ruin the beauty of the medieval universe?
In a sense, Luther affirms the pancalism [everything is beautiful] of his predecessors, but not on the basis of establishing the convertibility of the transcendentals of goodness and beauty on metaphysical grounds. Indeed, God is hidden because wheat humans experience is often not God's beauty, but what appears to be God's indifference or downright antagonism. If there is to be any certainty with respect to beauty, it will be had in Christ alone. Christ is goodness and beauty, and through Christ humans can understand the world as creation, as gift and as God's communication to us.  In other words, the gospel opens creation as beautiful and conforms the human intuition of its beauty...  not on the basis of an intellectual argument but because faith resituates humanity away from its tendency to claim some divine status for itself and toward a childlike trust the receives the goodness of creation as it comes to humanity from the Creator.

That sinners are clothed with an alien righteousness that makes them beautiful is a trait that they can claim before both God and the world. Believers have a new identity in Christ - beauty. Likewise, enjoying this beauty in Christ, they can be open to the beauty with which God surrounds them in the world  (112).
6. But wasn't Luther hamstrung by Scotus's univocity?
For nouvelle théologie (as outlined by Boersma) "participation" is supposed to be that middle that allows both nature and supernature to be connected, as the imperfect is to the perfect. But this is quite literally beauty as glory, an aesthetics of perfectibility and not receptivity, attempting an ascent into God. Luther should be interpreted through neither the lens of univocity nor that of analogy. Instead, God sets the conditions for everything that exists, including being. Only through Christ do we have access to God as merciful and loving. Nor can Luther be accused of contributing to a "nominalist fragmentation of created order," which regards sensible objects as separate from in and in competition with one another and separate from their transcendent origin. For Luther, creatures are properly related to God through faith, which permits God to be God for them, and they are properly related to each other when they serve (thus, when they are not in constant antagonism with each other)... (180).
7. But if Luther isn't to blame, who is?
Secularity is best understood not as the dismantling of the Platonic infrastructure of Western thought (since, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, it is a series of footnotes on Plato), but as the dismantling of a biblical worldview. Modern philosophers and literati have offered unrelenting critiques of a biblical worldview so that the "self" may be unencumbered by "tradition," "authority," and ultimately God. Such matters should not intervene in its quest for greater self-discovery and self-awareness however it achieves those ends, provided no harm is done to others (180-181). Even more than foreclosing on Plato, undermining or eliminating a biblical worldview - as happened in the thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) - guarantees a secular outlook (181).
8. Still, does Luther really have any contribution to make to aesthetics?
It is often claimed that the Reformation led to a "secularization" of art. But, as noted, disenchantment with nature is not due to Luther's theology but is a result of early modernity's attempt to free itself from the shackles of a biblical worldview because it was perceived as heteronomous, a threat to human freedom as self-definition (194).
While [John] Milbank, following [Charles] Taylor, sees [the Romantic claim that beauty will save us] as an unintended consequence of the Reformation's valuation of daily and family life, it is hard to see it as faithful to the Reformation. Instead, it is a detachment from, distancing from, or even rebellion against the Reformation. The Reformation honored the secular sphere not as secular in the sense of a religiously vacant, neutral, or "naked" public realm but instead as another locus - other than the gospel - of God's providential agency. [Romantic artistic tendencies] can be unmasked as an aesthetics of perfectibility, albeit in a secular mode, where God serves no longer as the objective standard of perfection but as the individual's own inner compass indicating whether self-actualizaing autopoiesis has been achieved. It too, for Luther, would be an unnatural desire needing to be "extinguished," since it fails to accord with the truth that God's forgiveness and promise are sufficient to bring meaning and wholeness to life [197).
9. But Christian Neoplatonism still has much to offer, right?
The Reformer agrees with the medieval assumption that everything perceived is a manifestation of the divine, but he models a different, non-Platonic approach. Indeed, he counters Neoplatonism, with its tendency to see matter as something to be superseded by intellect or spirit, at work in Karlstadt, Zwingli, and the Schwärmerei. Luther has no disenchanted worldview. But his enchanted world is free of the attempt to self-justify through merit by climbing the itinerary of the spiritual ladder. Hence, "all that our body does outwardly and physically, if God's Word is added to it and it is done in faith, is in reality and in name done spiritually. Nothing can be so material, fleshly, or outward that it does not become spiritual when done in the Word and in faith... He is present everywhere, but He does not wish that you grope for Him everywhere. Grope rather where the Words is. There you will lay hold of Him right" (citing LW 37:92; 36:342) (176-177).
No doubt, Platonic perspectives helped many early Christian sort through many aspects of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity. But Christians should not take their stand on the value of Plato's philosophy. The current North American religious milieu has been described as "gnostic," more than anything honoring a "sacred self" or core within each individual. Truth be told, many contemporary gnostics are fairly Platonic-like, valuing the nebulous, intangible, and everlasting "self" in place of the ancient category of the "soul," but obviously are not Christian (180).
10. Is there anything remotely resembling Luther in Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological aesthetics or David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite?
Von Balthasar comes as close to Luther as a Roman Catholic can when he restates the nature of form in a cruciform way on the basis of an analogia Christi (analogy of Christ) as a countermove to Karl Barth's christomonistic rejection of the analogia entis (analogy of being). Von Balthasar writes, "If the Cross radically puts an end to all worldly aesthetics, then precisely this end marks the decisive emergence of the divine aesthetic" (citing Balthasar, Glory of the Lord I, 471) (200).
[F]or Luther, in contrast to David Bentley Hart's metaphysical approach to infinity, it is clear that outside or apart from Christ, infinity is ambiguous; it is not clear that it is good or beautiful. It may well be tantamount to Hegel's "bad infinite": one damn thing unendingly following another (158). But the fact that Luther falls short of offering a comprehensive aesthetic upheld by a single principle or series of principles applicable for all times and places actually rings true with David Bentley Hart's contention that the word "beauty," "indicates nothing: neither exactly as a quality, nor a property, nor a function, not even really a subjective reaction to an object or occurrence, it offers no phenomenological purchase on aesthetic experience. And yet nothing else impresses itself upon our attention with at once so wonderful a power and so evocative an immediacy. Beauty is there, abroad in the order of things, given again and again in a way that defies description and denial with equal impertinence" (citing Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 16) (189).
That'll settle the Manichees. But don't take my word for it. Buy this book!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


On the third day of Christmas millinerd gave to me, a free PDF of the latest PTR with his "Scandal of the Evangelical Eye" article alongside many fine pieces celebrating the career of philosopher Gordon Graham. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Our Stars Are Falling

A sermon preached at All Souls Church in Wheaton, IL on Dec. 3, 2017 (audio here)

Happy new year, and welcome to Advent. While the world celebrates outside, rushing to Christmas, our readings focus on judgment and apocalypse. You do not need to be pregnant to relate to the Bible this Advent, because there are two pregnancies in this season, Mary’s and what Mary’s son refers to as the birth pangs of the end of the world. But it doesn’t feel very out of step to focus on judgment this Advent, because such themes correspond with our headlines rather well. Starbucks has its cheerful holiday displays and Christmas carols playing, but the newspapers there sold there and media feeds there perused cut into the carols with darkness and forebodings that match this morning’s texts. Sure the sun and moon may not literally be darkened, but the institutions to which most of us look for guidance and light are increasingly dim. I have a hard time imagining any pundit’s analysis of our celebritocracy, as some have called it, could do better than Isaiah: “You have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” 

Faced with our unravelling, we may be energized to launch a defense of genuine Christianity amidst abuses. Let people know that the Christians that are getting all the press are not doing it right. That’s important work, a necessary strategy perhaps, I’ve tried it myself - but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that strategy is Isaiah’s. Because whereas I want to defend what I consider to be true faith, Isaiah just waves the white flag of surrender. He doesn’t say, my part of Israel’s not like that, you know. Instead, faced with an Ancient Near Eastern public relations disaster due to the failure of God’s people, Isaiah doesn’t pick up the fire extinguisher, but he picked up the kerosene instead. 

We have all become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
Can you help me defend evangelicalism, I asked Isaiah this week? His response was:
    We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities,
    Like the wind, take us away.
    There is no one who calls upon your name...
The reason Isaiah dares to throw the integrity of Israel under the bus, is because he knows it’s God’s job to fix things, not his. And if Isaiah is maddening in that way, Paul is even worse. He writes to the Corinthians – a spiteful, envious, schismatic band of first century Christians – that is, Christians like us  - and Paul says, in effect, “you have everything you need, you lack no spiritual gift… [therefore] WAIT for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless.”

I want to roll up my sleeves and fix things, set the record straight – and maybe such action has its place – but the message for this place, right now, is that while we might want to fix things, God beat us to it. The action that matters most has already been accomplished. And unlike my efforts, his efforts actually got the job done. Momentarily, we will celebrate his efforts – his passion and resurrection - at this table. And if we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter in Eucharist four times this Advent, well then crank up the Bing Crosby and Amy Grant - maybe a little bit of premature Christmas celebration is okay as well.

My point is that our Scriptures today seems to frustrate the Christian like me that wants to do something about what’s going on around us. Isaiah says surrender, Paul says wait – and Jesus doesn’t help me much either.  Jesus in Mark 13 even seems confused. He seems to think that the end of the world would happen within the lifespan of the people to whom he was then speaking. “Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Many have claimed that the New Testament here just gets it wrong. Its writers thought the world would end, but, two millennia and change later - here we are. And there are answers to that objection, right? Jesus was referring to the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, which he accurately predicted, and which is a prototype for the end of the world yet to come. And that’s a good answer. But a pithier reply to that objection came in a class at Princeton University taught by theologian Robert Jenson, who died earlier this year. A skeptical student in class asked, “Doesn’t the NT indicate the world was about to end – why has God delayed?”  And Jenson nonchalantly responded to that question with a brilliant six-word reply: “Why has God waited?” His answer: Because he wanted to include you.

As a teenager I used to go in for those end time prophecy charts that I was once schooled in as an evangelical convert. I don’t adhere to them anymore not because I take Scripture less seriously, but more seriously. Our passage says that “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,” know the day and the hour of his return. And that means that the shofar-blowing, end times chart wielding dispensationalist Christian that I spoke to at length in California this summer, who claimed to know the time of Christ’s return, was claiming to know more than Jesus. But wrong as he is, that guy - our brother - still has something we need. Because it is good for us to believe the world is nearing its end. First because it might actually be the case, and secondly, it helps us align our priorities.

And for many of us in this congregation, we don’t need to look at the headlines to feel the world is ending. Illness or tragedy has done that instead. We do not need a rapture theory to account for Jesus’ claim that “one will be taken and another left” because we have lived it. Some of us were taken by illness and death, and some of us were left. And such deaths – tragic as they are – function as spiritual alarm clocks for the rest of us. Whether the end of the world is upon us I do not know. Other times in history such as Isaiah’s or Jesus’s or 1453 or 1944 probably had more reason to think they lived in the end than we do now. That said, our inevitable death – which will probably befall everyone in this room before this twenty-first century ends – is the functional equivalent of the second coming of Christ for each us. “To be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord.” So, Mr. unsophisticated street preacher, may I borrow your placard for a moment?  because the end is nigh for we sophisticated Christians as well. Therefore, “be on guard, be woke, lest he come suddenly and find us asleep.”

Mark 13 says the sun and the moon will be darkened, and stars will be falling from heaven. And that may not be literally be happening right now, but that the media and political and movie stars are falling cannot be denied. The celebritocracy is shaking. I have relished the collapse of some of them, convincing myself that my indignation is of behalf of their victims. And we can be indignant on behalf of those victims – God certainly is. Remember last week? “What you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.” Jesus identifies with the victims. And if you are such a victim, which I am not, take comfort in Christ’s identification with you. But what is so difficult for me to acknowledge is that when our news and entertainment stars fall from a great height, they don’t fall beneath us, no, they fall to the earth – to the place we Christians occupy as sinners redeemed by grace alone. We therefore don’t stand above the fallen, we stand next to them. “Beware of ever aspiring to such purity,” says Martin Luther, “that you do not want to seem to yourself, or to be, a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners.”

Aside from any headlines, if you, like me, have a carefully nurtured high view of yourself – then maybe our stars need to fall this Advent as well. Indeed, to be a Christian is for the stars of our egos to have fallen, while the one star that matters still hangs in the sky, leading us, come Epiphany, to him. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The End of Grace

A sermon preached at All Souls Church on Christ the Kind Sunday, November 26, 2017 (Audio here)

Detail of Joel Sheesley's painting of Christ the Good Shepherd at All Souls Church
It’s the last Sunday of the Church year.  And It’s not just our church year that is coming to a close, but our year of focus as a congregation on grace this year seems to be abruptly ending as well. Because if grace is about undeserved favor, as we’ve been insisting with the classic 16th century Reformers who left their mark on our tradition, there seems to be a lot of deserving going on in parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus our King appears to punish and reward based on our actions. The sheep fed the hungry, clothed the sick, and are rewarded for what they did. The goats did not do those things, and are punished for not doing them. Salvation - so it seems in this passage - is not based on what Christ accomplished, but on what we accomplish for him.

So much then for grace. Based on this text it’s high time we amp up our programming here at All Souls. Do more. Feed, clothe and visit more people so that when we arrive at the gates of heaven for our final exam, we will look Christ our examiner in the eye and say “You gave us the cheat sheet in Matthew 25, and we did what you said. With our careful list of programs and accomplishments in hand, we’ll declare to our beloved Savior, “Render to us what we are owed.” Actually, if we said this to him, he wouldn’t b our savior really, because he just told us what we should do, and we – by doing it – saved ourselves. We’ll be like the man in the C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce who tries to breach heaven with the artillery of his accomplishments.
“Look at me, now,” said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the
slap made no noise). “I gone straight all my life…
I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights.
Or not. I actually don’t think that’s what the parable of the sheep and goats is saying at all. Our year of grace is therefore not over, and by God’s grace it never will be. The reply given to the ghostly figure at the Gates of Heaven in the Great Divorce is correct. "Nothing in God’s kingdom can be bought." Now you may be able to buy a ticket in other religions. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, contains a scene of final judgement where the righteous boast, “I have given satisfaction to God by Doing that in which he delights.” But that is precisely not what the righteous say in Matthew 25. And the more closely we look at this passage, the more that caricatured reading dissipates, and the true nature of our Shepherd King is revealed.

Now of course, what we do does matter. “O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith,” says none other than Martin Luther. “It impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly” (ht: Wes) Yes, good works are key. But what’s fascinating about this passage is that they cannot be no tallied up in scorecard, because the sheep are blissfully oblivious about what they’ve done. There is no smug satisfaction, no proud unfurling of a banner of accomplishments or a three by seven foot massive cardboard check presented to Jesus with tallies a lifetime of charitable giving. There instead only surprise.  "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” They are surprised. It turns out that all the good works of the sheep were not for score-keeping, but grew from their love of Jesus. The only calculations in this scenario comes from Jesus, who knew all along. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The sheep may be surprised, but God is not. And nobody earns an inheritance, of course. It’s a gift.

If this reading of the passage sounds too Protestant for our ecumenical age, then it’s worth noting that the anonymous incomplete commentary on Matthew, that Thomas Aquinas said was superior to the great churches of medieval of Paris, summarizes the parable in this way: “The kingdom of heaven has not been created according to what human righteousness deserves, but according to what God’s power can prepare….” (Homily 54).

And so all along it was Christ working through the sheep, ministering to Himself as manifested in the needs of the world, where he is especially present. For a Christian to render service to the needy is, bizarrely enough, for Christ to render service to himself. It sounds strange, but it is exactly what the text from Ephesians says when it declares that we are “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” His fullness is being poured over all creation, looking for places that are empty enough to receive it. And the church is not the community of people filled with themselves, but we are instead the epitome of that emptiness – so that God can fill us to overflowing into the need of world around us, where he is present as well. His presence in need is why our cardboard icons of our brothers and sisters in Kenya, whether in the sanctuary or in the sponsorship cards that can be taken in the narthex, are actually icons of Christ no less than Joel’s painting in the back. And if seeking his face in the needs of the world is reason we do good works, then sure, we can increase our productivity – or maybe scale back the activities that weren’t undertaken for that purpose. Not just lean into new projects and initiatives, but lean back into what he’s prepared for us to do beforehand. Not just fresh resolutions for a new church year, but new year’s resignations as well.

But whatever we’re called to do or not to do – He knows your assignment, I do not - there actually is one way to be certain that Christ is with you from this passage. Notice there’s a third category beyond sheep or goat. There’s one place in the passage where his presence is actually guaranteed. In the position of need. That’s why are honoring the church in Iraq today. As for our congregation, Are you sick? This passage guarantees that he will be made known in your lack. Αre you grieving? He is there. Is there a need in your life in any way, a place where you find yourself asking? Matthew 25 assures you that he resides in that need just as he resides in the bread and wine we’ll be sharing. And I know most of us here are well fed and clothed, which is why we seek him in the needs of others. But in the same Gospel of Matthew Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and if we have that kind of need, he promises to be present to us as well. Ironically, if we conclude from this passage, “Lord, I know I don’t care for the poor sufficiently,” that’s where we can be sure he will be with us.  Your and my inadequacy – our emptiness - is our ticket to this table. If we can say that about ourselves, he may respond with the words from this morning's reading from Ezekiel: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.”

That requires resting around his shoulders like the sheep in the painting in the back of our church, which is an individual portrait of everyone in this room. You are the sheep that is spoken about in Ezekiel. Rescued perhaps from an abusive situation, from an addiction, from the prison of self-satisfaction, or from a kind of performance-driven Christianity that might have run you out of his pasture for good. There are kings and there are shepherds, but only he is both. And he has brought you to this little way station, this stable. He might be telling you to launch a new program of good works for him. If so, do it. He might also be telling you, as he does in Ezekiel “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down.” And when we lie down – ceasing our own self-generated projects – then he can finally pick us up, and get to doing the work he’s planned to do through us from the start.