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The Form Without the Power: “Non-Theistic” Worship

A Ukranian (Byzantine) Catholic priest celebrating the eucharist, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Ukranian (Byzantine) Catholic priest celebrating the eucharist, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why would a church worship “non-theistically”?

The two things I am most interested in, as both a perpetual student and as a pastor, are doctrine and liturgy.  I suppose that’s why I take lex orandi, lex credendi so seriously.  The two coinhere, or both become a joke.  With that in mind, consider the following post from an Episcopal bishop (emphasis added):

Looking at (Episcopal) parish search profiles (for the purpose of finding examples for one of our parishes in transition), and ran across this: “We are an open communion church with a central altar. Our 9am, 11:15 am and 5 pm services are based on Rite II in the BCP, liberally adapted to express our progressive, somewhat non-theistic approach to worship.” There are no words.

As horrific as this is, let us attempt a few words anyway.

The bishop did not name the congregation, but I wish I could watch a live stream and find out what “non-theistic” worship looks like.  Foolishness like this cuts to the heart of what ails Mainline Protestantism, whose erosion I have frequently noted.

Looking back in the vault, then, I would connect the phenomenon glimpsed above to:

  • a failure to explicitly proclaim and comprehend the God implicitly narrated in the Book of Common Prayer and other historic Christian liturgies (a distinction I just learned from Nicholas Wolterstorff).
  • those occasions when “progressive” Christianity nukes the fridge, and leaps from a harmless politically liberal version of historic, Trinitarian Christianity to a loosely defined sub-Christian farce of vague spirituality held together around no-doctrine-as-doctrine at its gelatinous core.
  • a proper caution when considering claims from emergent Christians and sacramental progressives like Rachel Held Evans who link an ancient ritual aesthetic to millennial interest (without a concomitant interest in the creedal and conciliar context for such ancient resources).

Earlier this year, I referenced the doctrinal situation of the Episcopal Church in a post seeking  to affirm a high view of Scripture, something I believe the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” undercuts even though it was clearly held by Wesley and his Reformation forebears like Luther and Calvin.  The danger I sense in my own Wesleyan tribe is something I see in Mainline and center/progressive Protestantism in general:

…though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.

What’s shocking is not that such congregations or clergy exist; what is shocking is that Mainline Protestant leaders lack either the interest or the will to do anything about it (or both).  To name a few: in the UMC, the PCUSA, and Episcopal Church (and let’s not forget about our United Church of Canada friends) we tolerate the abandonment of our Reformation roots and basic orthodoxy among our leaders with barely a sigh of resignation.  If we will not even insist our ordained clergy believe in God, we quite simply deserve to die so that God will no longer be mocked.

There is a place for “non-theistic” worship with Christian trappings, and it is the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Otherwise, ostensibly Christian communities who engage in such deformed liturgies are doing little more than highly organized lying.

I take comfort in remembering that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church rests on the firm foundation of the birth, holy life, cruel death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Though many forces threaten to tear us asunder, our spiritual union with the Tripersonal God – our whole purpose for being, by the way – cannot be sundered, no matter how much human cowardice and supernatural evil conspires to separate the church from he who reigns as her sole Head, Israel’s messiah, and the world’s true Lord.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.


The God We Worship [Book Review]

liturgical theologyMost of what passes for liturgical theology is really theological reflections on liturgy; rarely is a truly liturgical theology attempted.  This is a driving assumption behind an interesting new book by the eminent philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff titled, simply enough, The God We Worship: A Liturgical Theology.  In his new tome, Wolterstorff examines the liturgy with a very particular project in mind: “to uncover the fundamental presuppositions of the Christian liturgy.” (17)

Wolterstorff relies throughout on a couple of guides for this task, one Orthodox and one Reformed.  From the East, he frequently draws on Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s masterful little book For the Life of the World, a classic in liturgical theology originally written for Orthodox youth.  From the Reformed tradition, the reader often encounters J.J. von Allmen, from his 1965 book Worship: Its Theology and Practice.  The author references these two works regularly and plays them off one another in helpful ways.  Moreover, the specific liturgies referenced throughout include a similarly ecumenical variety: the Catholic Mass, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and Orthodox Divine Liturgy are the most commonly examined.

At this point, you are likely tempted to think this is only of interest to those who practice and/or teach “high church” worship.  To be certain, this is frequently the connotation that “liturgy” possesses, particularly among Protestants.  On  Wolsterstorff’s reading, however, this is a mistake.  “Christian worship is liturgical when it is…the scripted performance of acts of worship,” he insists in the introduction. (8)  Note that a “script” is not necessarily written down; liturgies, including highly regulated and written liturgies like Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer, often contain unwritten actions and gestures that are not written down and vary from place to place.  Woltersorff goes so far as to claim, “I know of no body of Christians who get together for worship whose worship does not take the form of liturgical worship.” (9)

The God We Worship then unfolds in a logical sequence, focusing on what is, on Wolsterstorff’s reading, “implicit” in the liturgy.  God is first worthy of worship (thus Christians express reverence, awe, gratitude, and other attitudes in the liturgy); God is vulnerable (for if God is worthy of worship and does not receive it, God has allowed Godself to experience injustice); God participates in mutual address, which in turn lends itself into an understanding of a God who listens (and then hears favorably), and who speaks.  Wolstersorff concludes by ruminating on what understanding of God is implicit in the Eucharist.  Here he draws heavily on Calvin, concluding “This is a form of communion that goes far beyond that which takes place in mutual address; indeed, it has no close analogue in human interactions.” (161)

From the description thus far, the reader who is interested broadly in worship and liturgical theology may note that this book sounds quite different than many books usually placed in those categories.  That instinct is correct.  Wolterstorff is, in a real way, treading new ground here.  If he’s correct, making explicit the theology implicit in our common liturgies offers not necessarily a corrective on the broad Christian tradition, but a different accent.

 “Liturgical theology does not contradict…other forms of theology; at many points, it overlaps them. But it has its own distinct configuration. Much of what it highlights, the others place in the shadows. Liturgical theology highlights God as listener and God as vulnerable. Conciliar-creedal theology says nothing about either of these.” (167)

Wolterstorff acknowledges in the conclusion that those initiated into the tradition of liturgical theology will find this volume “highly idiosyncratic,” and I would concur.  He concludes by noting an assumption that is, shall we say, implicit throughout: most of what is usually called “liturgical theology” are really “theologies of liturgy,” including the master works of his interlocutors Schmemann and von Allmen. (169-170)

Time will tell whether theologians and liturgiologists will take Wolsterstorff to task for his innovation or not; at the very least, The God We Worship is a unique and ambitious treatment of liturgical theology.  While not always easy to read, and with one vexing Wikipedia reference to divination that made me curse out loud when I read it, this is overall both a fascinating and important reflection.  If Wolterstorff is right, along with others, that worship is quite simply what the church exists to do, we shall need more such guidance in the future, and the Body of Christ will be blessed should he and others continue to develop this new avenue in liturgical studies.


Thanks to Eerdman’s for providing a review copy of this volume.


Managing Sin or Following Jesus?

managing sin is not God's intention for us

Willard warned us about the dangers of just managing sin almost two decades ago.

Are we following Jesus, or merely managing sin? Nearly two decades ago, Dallas Willard observed:

“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how we deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 41)

He famously blamed this marginalization of the gospel’s impact on our actual lives on the ascendency of  “gospels of sin management.”

Gospels of sin management focus on sin rather than Jesus; they start with where we have gone wrong, rather than what God has done in Christ out of love and grace.  The result is tragic: rather than living God’s kingdom in its fullness, we manage sin and never really enjoy the kind of life God intends.

The net effect is that we make the gospel about mitigating sin and not about a salvific, lived relationship with God.

If that sounds too much like sophistry, let me go at it another way.  Eric Metaxas summed up the life and teaching of the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

As Willard goes on to point out, when and where God’s will is done, the Kingdom is present. We pray every Sunday for the Kingdom and often don’t think about it: “Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is there, but the Kingdom – God’s will actively being carried out – is central.

Gospels of sin management come to us in two forms, and distort our visions of the Kingdom accordingly. There is a gospel of sin management on the right, and a gospel of sin management on the left. The conservative version of sin management focuses on personal sin: on moral effort towards (for instance) lying less, having fewer lustful thoughts, or being less prideful. On the right, managing sin is about Jesus atoning for my personal faults so that I can go to heaven.

There is a gospel of sin management on the left as well. Instead of focusing on personal sin, it focuses on social and corporate sin, on structural evil. In this progressive variant on managing sin, Jesus came to overturn injustice, he came as an advocate for the marginalized, and is concerned not so much with my stealing or cheating, but about poverty and homelessness and injustice. Jesus came to help us manage society’s sins and if we get right with Jesus there just might be a little less injustice.

Both of these pervert the Kingdom of God based on their particular visions of the gospel. Like the best lies, they rely on a kernel of truth and wrap it up in great falsehood. Now, lest anyone accuse me of antinomianism (being against moral law), hear me out: personal sin is awful, and against God’s will; structural sin is awful, and against God’s will. But if we only aim at managing sin, we miss the One who is our true life.

Personal sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward on the other side of life, removed from real life except for the knowledge of forgiveness. Social sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward in this life for human effort; instead of the fullness of God’s reign, we celebrate a little less evil in society as if it is the ultimate goal of God.

Both of them fail as gospels in the sense that you can buy into them fully and never have an active, living relationship with Jesus Christ.

When I observe Protestant Christianity in North America, I see us managing sin – left and right – all over the place.  I see a lot of Christians fighting over how to alleviate sin, and barely any energy put towards actively following Jesus.

Willard has hit a chord, in my estimation. He was right almost twenty years ago, but we are still getting it wrong.  What say you?


Shifting to a New Gear

by Drew 0 Comments
Time for a shift. Fiat 500L 6-speed shifter, courtesy Peter Milosevic via Wikimedia Commons.

Time for a shift. Fiat 500L 6-speed shifter, courtesy Peter Milosevic via Wikimedia Commons.

Buckle up – things are shifting!

This is my first post at my newly reworked homepage.  Any links from my previous site, pastormack.wordpress.com (aka Uniting Grace) should now connect here.  You may notice a few changes.

What’s New?

  • Location. I now have my own domain name (and it’s the same as my twitter handle).  What can I say? It was time to go legit.  If you had previously subscribed, you should be migrated now to the new site and not have to do anything. (And if you have not subscribed, now would be a great time to do just that…there…over on the right!)
  • Name. The name has changed to Plowshares Into Swords, and the tagline is also new: “Contending for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”  Both are biblical references (Joel 3:10/Jude 1:3), and I chose them together to clarify the purpose of this blog.  The Christian tradition has, in most times and places, agreed with Qoheleth that “there is a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:8)  There are times to turn swords into plowshares, and times to the do the reverse.  I believe that the state of Christianity in North America today demands the latter.  It is a time to fight some fights that need fighting.  It is a time to contend for the things that matter most.  The faith “once delivered” is under assault from within and without the Body of Christ: dehumanizing forces like secularism, individualism, and materialism (to name just three) degrade Christian faith and practice from the outside, while gospels of sin management (left and right), prosperity gospels, self-help masquerading as preaching, infotainment substituting for worship, and pastors-cum-CEOs threaten to rot the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church from within.  It is a time to take seriously the call of the church to be an alternative community of Word and Sacrament, called out of the world for the sake of the world.  It is a time to face the winnowing of Christendom and decide: will we remain faithful to Christ and his Church, confident that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against his Bride (Matt. 16:18), or anxiously flit from fad-to-fad, servile to market research and technocrats to tell us how the accomplish the Missio Dei?
  • Conversation Partners. I will continue to help curate Via Media Methodists and the WesleyCast, both of which are a joy and continue to grow their audiences.  I will no longer be contributing to UM Insight, but I look forward to participating in the conversation at an exciting ecumenical project called Conciliar Post. (I previously participated in a round-table discussion hosted by Conciliar Post on the incarnation here.)  Conciliar Post boasts some of the deepest cross-communion dialogue happening on the Christian blogosphere today, and I will have to be on my game as I try and keep up with the sharp young minds there assembled.  It will be a treat to offer a Wesleyan voice in conversation with so many charitable, bright folks from across the theological and ecclesial spectrum.

    conciliar post

    If you don’t know about Conciliar Post, you’re missing out.

What stays the same?

I will still post on a variety of topics, mostly having to do with Christian living, theology, ministry, and the church, but with occasional book reviews, political/cultural commentary, and miscellany.  There will be some Wesleyan/Methodist content but most of that will now be at Via Media Methodists, in addition to occasional guest pieces at Conciliar Post as well as a variety of Metho-nerd outlets.


To all of my readers, those who are fans and those who are critics, those who are fellow theology geeks or Metho-nerds and those who are Jesus-followers looking for bread on the journey as we seek to tarry on with our Lord, I give my sincere thanks.  It is a joy to share reason, wrestle, pray, and wonder with you, and I thank you for reading and sharing, for offering feedback, and for inspiring me towards sanctification even in this peculiar world of theo-blogging.  I raise my glass to you and thank you for joining as we shift gears and drive on to the next phase of the journey.


Of Victims & Bullies

Of Victims & Bullies
Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy Andrevruas, via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy Andrevruas, via Wikimedia Commons.

The short version: sometimes they are the same person.

Growing up, especially in middle school, I was bullied quite a bit.  Bullying is a serious thing.  I still remember the names I was called and the faces who said them. I recall vividly having to restrain myself from retaliation. The kind of overt bullying I experienced is all-too-common for young people in America, and this was before social media.  Now, home is not necessarily a haven, as bullying can continue on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms.  Young people are bullied for a variety of reasons: for looking different, for being attracted to someone of the same gender, for their poverty, or for a disability.  24/7 bullying culture is a serious matter.  Victims of bullying are at an increased likelihood of mental and emotional problems, including temptations to suicide.

Victims deserve our sincere support and empathy.  Christians in particular are called to love the marginalized, outcast, and oppressed. Psalm 34:18 reminds us that God is committed to the cause of all those who are victimized: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saved those crushed in spirit.”  Christians and other citizens who wish to care for the “least of these” simply cannot avoid concern for victims of physical, verbal, or other forms of violence.  Many decent people are quick to come to the defense of victims.

For that reason, some unhealthy personalities will always seek to take advantage of others’ good nature and feign victim status in order to garner attention or gain power.  KickBully.com offers excellent resources for addresses bullying.  On a page dedicated to bullies who claim to be victims, they describe the behavior under three headings:

A bully exaggerates the impact
of your actions on him
– He exaggerates his pain and suffering

– He makes you feel guilty for causing his pain

– He claims you don’t appreciate him

A bully focuses on past
and future victimization
– He frequently reminds you of your past actions that hurt him

– He replays his pain whenever he wants to manipulate you

– He brings up his pain long after the event occurred

– He doesn’t seem to get over things

– He says you will hurt him again if you don’t do what he wants

A bully uses his victimization
to avoid changing his behavior
– He says you must earn back his trust, good will, friendship, support

– He claims his belligerence results from his being treated unfairly

– He becomes angry and indignant when you try to reason with him

– He says he is tired of doing all the compromising

– He says he isn’t going to be so polite in the future

– He suggests that others are ganging up on him

They sum up this phenomenon by describing the behavior simply, “A bully pretends to be a victim in order to manipulate others. Because most people are good and compassionate, this is bullying at its worst. ”

Tim Field of BullyOnline.org attributes this behavior to a “manipulator,” one of a variety of attention-seeking pathological personality types:

“May exploit family, workplace or social club relationships, manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions. While there may be no physical harm involved, people are affected with emotional injury…A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim he or she is being persecuted, victimized, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting she is the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.”

We live at a moment in the modern West where we may begin to see more of this kind of behavior; an insightful new Atlantic piece names a subtle shift starting to take place in our culture that will profoundly impact how we relate to one another.  Pre-modern cultures were largely honor cultures, where disputes would often be settled physically (a fight, or a duel), and requesting aid from third parties would be anathema in the case of an offense.  The 19th and 20th century, particularly in the West, has seen a shift to a “dignity culture,” where insults were seen as less of an affront to personal honor and people are more likely to handle conflicts directly or simply ignore them.  In a dignity culture, people are not totally averse to third party aid, but it is seen as a last resort to be avoided if possible.  But now we are transitioning to a  new kind of culture, described by sociologists thusly:

The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”

Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This victimhood culture clashes with the dignity culture; slights that would be dismissed or handled reasonable in a dignity culture become fodder for great offense and shame campaigns by those influenced by the culture of victimhood.  This is one aspect of the “suicide of thought” which we’ve examined previously. The sociologists quoted by The Atlantic piece elaborate:

“People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

This helps to explain why we might see a rise in bullies playing the victim.  As the culture shifts – and we are already seeing this in places like college campuses – there is more and more incentive to claim victim status, whether based on legitimate experiences or not.  A good example of this kind of dynamic is the #CancelColbert faux controversy, in which a failed attempt was made to silence a comedian (who hadn’t made the offending tweet) for satirizing racism – which is a form of critique! Sound inane? It was, and the inanity was nicely summed up in this insanely hilarious interview. and Colbert’s mic-drop-worthy response.

The question The Atlantic does not answer, and that I find vexing, is the obvious one: what to do? The nature of claiming victimhood status is that it demands immediate deference; to question it is to risk nebulous but severe charges like insensitivity, harm, and blaming the victim.  Moreover, bullying manipulators can easily turn any criticism or question to further the pretense of victimhood (as the chart above indicates).

The best option may just be to ignore them altogether; by challenging them directly you will likely feed their delusion and simply get roped into their histrionics.  As with other forms of toxic people, the only way to win with faux victims-turned-bullies is to minimize your exposure to them.  Henry Cloud has some excellent thoughts along these lines in this lecture.

In a world that is far from the promised Kingdom, there will be victims and, sadly, those who pretend victimhood to further their own selfish ends.  We must care deeply for the former while being wary of the latter.  Or, as Jesus put it, we are called to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16b, NRSV)

Have you experienced what sociologists are calling “victimhood culture?”  Are there positive aspects to this culture? Are there other helpful ways to deal with it? Leave a comment below! 


Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?

Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?
"Jesus Laughing," by Ralph Kozak.

Would you be comfortable with a celebrating savior?

The Jesus Christians often portray is not someone who would be considered enjoyable to be around.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights. For the “Jesus Laughing” image feat. above, see here.

We portray Jesus in many ways: the wise teacher, the comforting healer, the zealous prophet, the suffering servant.

But do we preach, pray, and share Jesus as someone we would actually enjoy being around?

Dallas Willard notes,

“…the currently accepted image of Jesus all but makes it impossible to find him interesting and attractive, lovable. The responses of common people to him throughout the pages of the gospel show how false that image is. He was such an attractive person and such a powerful speaker that, from the human point of view, the leaders of the day killed him out of envy of his popularity (Matt. 27:18). He was a master of humor and often used it to drive home the truths he imparted, as any good speaker does. But few today would put him on their guest list for a party – if it were really going to be a party.  Just as we don’t think of Jesus as intelligent, so we don’t think of him as pleasant company, someone to enjoy being around. Is it any wonder that someone would rather not be his student?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 239)

This doesn’t mean going the Cal Naughton, Jr. route and picturing Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt (“I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party!“- see below).  But, following Dallas Willard’s observation, it suggests we should take seriously just how Jesus attracted so many followers (and detractors).

Jesus ate and drank with sinners; he comforted those in distress, he fit in with outcasts, and was a physician for the sick of body and spirit.  In fact, the only folks that weren’t that comfortable around Jesus – the only people who wouldn’t invite Jesus to party – were the religious.

Can you worship a Jesus who would go to a party?

What would you say to Jesus at a party?  Are our churches full of people who would talk to Jesus at a party, or would they condemn him for being under the same roof as a keg? Leave a comment below!


Inconceivable! Baptism & the “Fellowship of Christ’s Suffering”

by Drew 2 Comments

inconceivableI am convinced that we take the wonder and peculiarity of the Christian story for granted.  Our ancient forebears, not weighed down with sappy sentimentality or rationalistic reductionism, knew better.  I came across the following quote by St. Cyril of Jerusalem while researching a sermon and I thought it was too good not to share.  This is from his catechetical lectures on the sacraments:

“O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation.”

St. Cyril contrasts the visceral reality of the cross and resurrection experienced by Christ with that which is symbolized and beautifully enacted in baptism.  What is inconceivable – if you’ll pardon the Princess Bride reference – is that all that Christ won in his conquest of death by death is ours without the torment he willingly embraced.  Through the confession of the true faith and baptism in the Triune name, we come to know “the fellowship of His suffering” and salvation is bestowed as a free gift.

Let us never lose sight of the strangeness of the gospel, and how – inconceivably – God has condescended to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit for our redemption.

What does it look like to share in “the fellowship” of Christ’s suffering? How does your baptism inform your daily walk with God? Leave a comment or question below!


The Gift of Silence in a Wordy World

by Drew 3 Comments
Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Political ads. Music blaring.  Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.

How do we cut the noise?

The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

But stillness and silence are in short supply these days,  This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:

“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)

On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day.  The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.

We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us.  The urgent always demands to be  addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side.  But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.

What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day.  Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset?  Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.

Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.

But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.

How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!


Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

by Drew 5 Comments

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).

Orthodoxy as the “Authority of All”

Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.

Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.

John Cassian, who had a profound impact on monasticism thanks to his influence on Benedict, comments on the universality of the orthodox consensus:

“The consensus of all ought of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a [person] seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgment of all announces his [or her] own condemnation beforehand, and a [person] who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all [people] once and for all, whatever arises contrary to it is by this very fact to be recognized at once as a falsehood, because it differs from the truth.”

Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins.  He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples.  They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations.

In an age where atheist preachers are fighting to keep their pulpits, this insight is more important than ever.  The Christian movement is not subject to my personal whims but is, in Jude’s language, the “faith once delivered,” and the health of the Body is not possible unless we hold fast to that deposit of faith and practice held authoritative everywhere, by everyone, and for all time.

Source: Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1, 338-339.

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