Let the Seed Fall!

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Some might wonder why I have such a visceral reaction to wokeism.  I have written a few no holds barred blogs trying to warn people of what this is and where it invariably leads.  But each time I write it feels as if my concern is not well-explained.  I mean, I know some probably read and ask, “why is Joel attacking these well-intentioned people?”

However, I’m having a moment of clarity and therefore will try to expound on why it is absolutely necessary to shock people out of their stupor.  The reality is that wokeism (or grievance culture) and religious purity culture are two branches off of the same tree.  Both patriarchal conservative men and those angry pink-haired feminists are trying to create a world without suffering.  Both, tragically, create more problems than they solve.

First, what is purity culture?  

As I experienced it, in the conservative Mennonite context, it was a branch of Biblical fundamentalism (Protestantism) that had been grafted in to the Anabaptist tree.  It was a legalistic perspective.  The pure life was to avoid vice (no drinking, dancing, going to movies, etc) and remain completely a virgin until marriage.  It is not that the aim is entirely bad, but there was also a lack of grace accompanying this perspective.

In other words, there was no room for failure.  It a hellscape of unchecked perfectionist tendencies.  People who should be diagnosed as having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), along with other mental illness, viewed as being virtuous.  And the rest of us struggling to meet an unreasonable standard without the actual spiritual help we needed.  

For example, girls who thought they were ‘defiled’ for simply talking to a guy that they didn’t intend to marry.  And heaven forbid you did date and break-up.  Then you were damaged goods.  Cursed to walk the earth, like Cain, a stigma tattooed to your chest, a scarlet letter.  

To those steeped in this religious purity culture it was about saving the next generation.  It was a reaction to a world of promiscuity and failed commitments have produced far-reaching consequences.  And yet, while it does work for some, those who check all the right boxes, it permanently marginalize others and gives them no real road to redemption.  Divorced and remarried?  Tough luck, you’ll need to break up that successful loving family to become a Mennonite.

That’s the purity culture I know all too well and, for reasons I’ll get to later, have fully rejected as being unChrist-like and spiritually void.

Wokeism, despite the vast difference in appearance to what I’ve described above, is another subset of purity culture.  It is a reaction to the ‘privilege’ of those who better represent the cultural ideal.  It is another form of utopian idealism.  

Whereas the latter religious variety of purity culture believes that if their children only kiss one person, never experience the pain or disappointment of a break-up, then heaven will come to earth—the ‘woke, by contrast, believe that if everyone was forced to tolerate their ugliness and embrace their toxic grievance; if they could live free of further offense, then they would be fulfilled.  

Both forms of purity culture are offshoots of Western values.  They both see suffering as a flaw in the system and try to eradicate it through their own means.  And they do have their valid points.  No, the girl, the victim of sexual abuse, who (because of her loss of self-worth) goes from one guy to the next, should not be called a slut.  But, that said, nor should her unhealthy coping behavior be normalized.  Instead, we should stop seeing people as damaged goods because they failed to reach some sort of phony cultural ideal.

The truth is, the woke, as much as they attack whiteness.  Or the feminist who acts aggressively and looks to a career as being freedom.  The patriarchal father, as much as he claims to be protecting.  Are all the thing that they despise most.  Religious purity culture, sadly, is hypersexual in focus and produces conflicted men like Bill Gothard, Doug Philips and Josh Duggar.  Feminism amounts to a form of female self-loathing that unwittingly idealizes the male role.  And so-called social justice is simply a means to manipulate and enslave another group of people.

All of them assume that if a person could simply avoid pain and bad experience they would find their completeness.  All seek a kind of perfection outside of Christ and very quickly, despite their wonderful intentions, turn into a dystopian hell.  

What is wrong is this idea that pain us is less for our good than pleasure.  The religious, ignoring the lesson of Job, neglecting what Jesus said about the tower tower of Siloam or the man blind from birth, see suffering as a sign of God’s displeasure and a punishment.  Likewise, the woke want to be embraced without repentance, if they would simply be called clean then they could finally escape their terrible anguish, right?

The truth is, bad experience is part of life and as beneficial as the good.  Growing up in a single parent home can be an excuse or a motivation to do better.

This is what makes the story of Jesus so compelling.  Unlike us, he was completely innocent, his intentions were pure and should have been loved by all.  But, instead of embrace him, his own people saw him as a threat, he would undermine their system and perspective, show them for what they were, thus had to be eliminated.  That he was executed with criminals would seem like a humiliating defeat.  He suffered and died for what?

The tree of life.

However, it was in this suffering that salvation came.  Sure, the burden of the cross comes with anguish.  We would rather seek pleasure and avoid pain.  However, in Jesus, the cross is transformed from being a brutal instrument of death into a well of eternal life.  How?  It is in the same way that a seed falls to the ground, is buried and leads to new life.  

Why would we cling to the seed or refuse to let it be buried and prevent the tree?

The overprotectiveness of religious purity culture, the refusal to acknowledge our brokenness and need of transformation of wokeism, both try to find salvation by human means.  One seeks to impress God, like the rich young ruler or proud Pharisee, whereas the other (like Cain) demands that God accept their unworthy sacrifice and then murders their righteous brothers.  Both need Jesus.

The wonderful cross

In conclusion. We’re all damaged goods and can be made more beautiful than ever through repentance. Jesus can make our pain as much a joy as our pleasure.

The Beauty Of Orthodox Faith

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A thought occurred to me, while lamenting my persistent unorthodoxness, that eventually the point of any religious practice (with emphasis on practice) is to color outside of the lines a bit.  From art, to athletic endeavors, being spontaneous, unpredictable, and original, there is advantage in harnessing some of that creative chaos.  So ritual and rigorousness has taken a back seat to emotional expression.  Many call themselves ‘spiritual’ for their abandonment of church tradition.

However, an art teacher will tell you and a good writer knows, that there is no natural talent so good that it can’t benefit from studying the masters.  Before one can reinvent the wheel, it might be good to at least know what the wheel is and understand the basic function of the thing before improving upon it.  No basketball player does well to ignore all of the established fundamentals of their sport nor is it recommended that a weightlifter abandon good technique.  Doing things your own way can lead to injury, can limit potential and be a tremendous disadvantage.

Yes, some do “shoot from the hip” and still manage to score some points.  My own writing has improved from simply writing and not from having read every style manual written in the past few centuries.  And yet I would be remiss, as well as incredibly arrogant, to not give complete credit to the teachers, the many writers, the coiners of terms and all those who have contributed to the descriptive wealth of the English language.  And if my desire is to improve, then reading the greats, absorbing their knowledge of the craft, is only going to enhance my own creative efforts.

Only a fool would enter the ring relying only upon their natural and unimproved fighting abilities.  Absolutely, Mike Tyson would knock me out without having spent a day training, God gifted him with a heavy weight’s frame and musculature.  But, no boxer, no high level competitor, would last a minute against a person who studied form, who learned all they could from the best, practiced hours and came prepared.  It is religious devotion that pushes even the elite to the next level.

Jesus is the foundation of the church, that is true, yet this doesn’t mean we should strip it bare to the bedrock each generation.  Do we forget that Jesus himself, God in the flesh, was a practicing Jew for three decades before, while reading Isaiah 61, the prescribed text at the synagogue, announced “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  We know that Jesus would go on to push the boundaries, to correct and build upon the established religion, yet never claiming it was worthless.

What Is Orthodoxy?

This word “orthodox” refers to correctness.  

It is the same root used for terms like “orthopedic” or “orthodontist” and basically implies straightening out, correctness.

Orthodox, as the Orthodox Christian uses it, is an adjective and not a noun.  Orthodoxy is not a denomination.  No, it is an unbending pursuit, a desire to live out the fullness of the faith, it means uncompromised worship and devotion to Christ and the Church.

Unlike Protestantism, that has whittled away at tradition, the Orthodox continue to practice as Christians have for over a millennia.  We celebrate the liturgy of St John Chrysostom or St Basil and not because it is required to be a Christian, I’ve never heard those Orthodox proclaim those who profess Christ outside the tradition to be lost, yet we do see established tradition as a useful aid to the Christian.

Orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of Christ.  And yet it is not in denial of the history of the Church nor dismissive of the written and unwritten tradition that the Apostle Paul admonished the church of Thessaloniki to keep:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

The first thing noteworthy is that the church had a tradition and the second is that this tradition was passed down by the Apostles both in letter and spoken word.  But, more significantly, in the same context of keeping tradition, St Paul also speaks of things of the Spirit.  The idea that spiritual is odds with traditional is the great delusion of our time and trying to sustain one without the other is proving to be an overall failed experiment.  Tradition, passed down by the Church both in written and by “word of mouth” is for our spiritual benefit.

Orthodox tradition is about carrying forward the practices sustained, and that sustained, generations of the Church.  It pertains most particularly to the traditions of corporate worship.  And, like the tradition of Scripture itself, gives a voice (or vote) to the many faithful who have gone on before us:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

(G. K. Chesterton “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy)

To be Orthodox one must appreciate that the Church is bigger than their own individual perspective.  The Church is bigger than this generation.  Yes, we, the Church militant, are still in the the fight and yet undoing the contribution of the Church triumphant is foolishness.  It is a special kind of ignorance in an age where ‘progress’ too often means replacing an old church building with a Dollar General.

Christ is the foundation of the Church, but much has been built, from the Apostle’s time forward, that is beneficial to our spiritual growth and also very beautiful.

The Beauty of Orthodox Worship

There is something incredible about participating in a tradition of worship that has passed the test of time.  The basic form of Divine Liturgy has endured, despite the severe persecution of the Orthodox, and in to join in this is to join in the choir of all who have worshipped in this manner.  

To those who have never been to an Orthodox service, the first experience may feel foreign, especially if there is some ethnic flavor mixed in, and yet why would we expect the Church (which is universal throughout time) to be a reflection of our modern American culture?  Are we truly that arrogant to believe that our own practices, built from the clay of Modernism, is superior to the gold refined over the centuries?  We’re better than the entire Church spanning the millennia?

Before going further, consider for a moment that every Church has a liturgy, an order to the service, their own unique traditions, and there’s a reason for this.  Protestants, from revival meetings to special mother’s day services, have formed their own traditions to replace those more timeless.  I’ve heard about conservative Mennonite churches where at least one elder would insist that the ordained men enter in order of their respective ranks.  

And, lest my ‘contemporary’ friends see themselves as superior.  Not everyone is up front leading the service.

Order is good.  St. Paul spoke to this need for order in worship as an alternative to the chaos and confusion of everyone talking over each other.  We are creatures of habit, when brushing our teeth or taking a shower, rather than go through the wasted mental effort of finding a new way each time, we repeat a liturgy of a sort.  We can get more done when we finally cease these useless arguments over worship style and move on to things of more substance.

Before I had ever entered an Orthodox liturgical service, I (like most or many Protestant borns) would’ve believed it to be stuffy and boring.  I mean, how can something prewritten, predetermined, be as authentic or real as my own concept of worship?

However, upon reflection, considering the many times of Mennonite deacons begging for testimonies and prayer requests to a deafening silence or the same requests over and over again from the same people, the liturgical form that covers everything in prayer makes much more sense.  Every service the priest leads us in prayer, through a list that covers pretty much everything, and I’ll often think (and pray) for a specific reason while crossing myself to physically confirm my inner thoughts.

Which is the one beauty of Orthodox worship: It is immersive, involves all senses, we love the beauty of the house we share, our temple, that is divided in a similar way to the Biblical places of worship.  There is rich symbolism, incense rising as prayer (as is described in Scripture) and an altar, behind the Iconostasis, where the Communion is prepared.  Better yet, the entire service is participatory, a sort of call and response style, with the entire Divine Liturgy service centered around our partaking of the body and blood of Christ.

The second thing I have found, as beautiful, is that this repetition of Scripture in song is spiritually like the muscle memory formed from any other practice.  I can’t count the times when the music and words of a liturgical service will pop up during the week, either as a comfort or a challenge, and how these phrases have started to shape my perspective.  For example, “put not your trust in princess or sons of man in who there is no salvation.”  What a great reminder in this time when the institution of government seems to be failing, right?

Well worn pathways are not confining, they are freeing.  Why hack our way through the jungle of life, being ‘authentic’ in the way of every other person in this age who has lost both religion and depth, undisciplined, when there is a rich banquet of tradition to draw upon?  Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again ever take away from the meaning of the words or cause you to want to rewrite it for our own time?  I should pray not!  

No, we need good ritual in our life because it helps us to focus.  Everything in Orthodox worship is founded upon Scripture and a beautiful expression of obedience.  It has richness and depth, from the Lenten journey of fasting and reflection, to the icons, incense, vestments, altars, oil, candles, hymns, recitations and processions.  It connects is to centuries of the faithful, in our participation in the Church that they built together on the foundation of Christ and is wonderful.

Dismiss “smells and bells” all you want, but it is worshipful and beautiful.

In the end, as Father Seraphim reminds us often in his homilies, we are not saved by our church attendance, we can read Scripture, sing, give tithes and it all be for naught.  If there is no spiritual fruit this is all empty and utterly meaningless as far as salvation.  However, as St Paul speaks of the law being a guardian, the established prescription and pattern for worship, once catalyzed with sincere Christian faith, is an invaluable asset.  It may not be necessary for salvation, the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus was never Baptized, and yet it does greatly enhance the life of the believer.

Lastly, Orthodox worship doesn’t take away from our ability to worship spontaneously, in the spur of the moment, like King David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was being processed through the city of Jerusalem.  This is not an either/or thing nor have I found the tradition to be onerous or confining in the way one may fear coming out of a legalistic tradition.  There is a sort of casualness to our formality, an allowance for imperfection.  So simple even children participate.

Structure We Need To Thrive

Us creative types loath structure.  We like to color outside of the lines, right?  And yet, despite this umbrage, we often live as beneficiaries of the structure that others provide.  Many artists would starve, or be overrun, unable to do their work, outside the structure that others have diligently maintained for them.  And many would do better, even in their passionate pursuits, if they would acknowledge their need.  

The framework that Orthodoxy provides, likewise, for me has been that missing element that I didn’t even know that I needed.  This idea that tradition is somehow bad is corrosive, it is creating a generation desperate to find their place, suicidal, distorted and unfulfilled.  We are better when plugged in, when a part of something bigger than ourselves.  Tradition brings us together and Orthodoxy enhances rather than take away from worship.

As we Orthodox like to say…

“Come and see!”

Babel and the Upper Limits of Human Reasoning

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Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative.  I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.

This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years.  I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution.  At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.

Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program.  There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education. 

Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors.  It should make one wonder.  If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?

Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.

Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse

The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward.  The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable.  It is nice when those things do align, sure.  And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.

If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?

No, no it does not.

One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements.  And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles.  The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.

No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book.  I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel.  So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago?  Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.

Human efforts fail. 

When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?

We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.  These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”  Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

(Galatians 4:21‭-‬31 NIV)

Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin.  St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.

It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord.  They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either.  And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him.  So, how then can we be saved?

Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis.  The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit.  Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase.  So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ. 

Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book.  St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort.  Scripture is the cart, not the horse.  We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort.  Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works.  Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.

What Does That Have to Do with Babel?

Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort. 

But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)

This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.”  Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more.  The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation.  The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.

These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history.  But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt.  Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure.  Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language.  But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.

Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood.  In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people.  But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation.  What does that mean?  Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves.  The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.

Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)

History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe.  Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind.  Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.

But now it is time to tie all these threads together.  The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God. 

This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations.  However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.

A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch.  Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach.  Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing.  Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason.   “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”

However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two. 

Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction.  The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined.  As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.

Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces.  The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care.  Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible. 

The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.

We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

(Galatians 5:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.

Have we reached new heights only to implode?

What is really going on here?

Pride Cometh Before the Fall

Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.

Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.

In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:

You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!  Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”  Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?

(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)

But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.

We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.

Elon Musk—not a Luddite

We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.

Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.

Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.

The Rationalist’s Delusion and the Most Fundamental Problem of Fundamentalism

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Those born into decent homes and immersed in a particular ideology have no reason to question what they’ve been taught. I was no exception in this regard, as one raised in a functional Mennonite home, and had believed the whole “we-aren’t-perfect-but-are-better-than-the-alternatives” (a self-congratulatory mantra repeated when anything bad comes up as to prevent a full examination of our fundamental assumptions) until that paradigm became untenable for me.

This assumption of being right in our foundation, even if the details are not quite right, is not only something true of Mennonites. No, it is a feature of those indoctrinated into religious systems or political ideologies of all types. The college educated ‘progressive’ is not any more free of bias than the average Amishman—both reflect the cultural institutions that created them and, if anything, the ‘smarter’ of the two is likely more subject to bias than the humbler or that is what the current research indicates. At very least, nobody is completely free of bias and oftentimes our most base assumptions are the most difficult to honestly examine—most difficult because we have so much invested in them emotionally or otherwise.

My ‘Rational’ Foundation

Of these foundational assumptions, in Western culture there is one assumption that stands out above the rest and produces the strongest reactions when challenged. It is an assumption that is especially hard to root out of the most intelligent and knowledgeable people. It is a sincerely held belief about the nature of reality that is so prevalent that it underlies the most secular ‘progressive’ or religiously conservative and fundamentalist thinking of our times—from those espousing climate change and those pushing flat-earth theories, both share this same underlying assumption in common.

This assumption being the idea that we (either individually or as humanity collectively) are rational creatures, able to determine truth for ourselves and can essentially save ourselves through our capacity for logic and reason.

If you would have asked me, as a Mennonite, what my foundation was I would have likely answered by saying, “Jesus Christ, of course!” That, after all, is the theologically correct answer to give, something easily reference in the Bible, and a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence, right? Of course, as an adherent to Anabaptist “believer’s baptism” and Arminianism, I would insist that my church membership was a choice. It couldn’t be any other way, could it? I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been because I was raised in a Mennonite home, born in a nation where most people identified as Christian and was fully immersed in a culture where even non-believers affirm Christian values, right?

Nah, it had to be my own careful consideration of the evidence that led to an inevitable conclusion and from that I made a rational choice to believe that man, born two millennia ago in some Palestinian backwater to a teenage virgin mother, who was actually the creator of the entire universe, allowed himself to be brutally murdered, offering himself as a means to spare us from his own wrath and then, according to those most invested in his teachings, rose from the dead and that not believing this is a one way ticket to eternal torment.

And I believe all this for reasons… [Insert circular reasoning here]

Hmm…

When Christian apologetics fail to provide satisfactory answers, which they inevitably do for anyone beyond the intellect of an adolescent, those steeped in rationalism must either abandon the enterprise of faith entirely or live in denial and ignore the cognitive dissonance.

For example, there is no way to prove the resurrection account in Scripture through rational scientific means, it is completely irrational and yet the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on this miraculous event being true. How does one reconcile such an extraordinary claim with science? By a reasonable standard this is impossible to believe, right?

Is Christianity Rational?

Some, like St Thomas, who would not believe until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh, doubt until they have personal experience and thus choose what is entirely rational. Many others, however, are content to compartmentalize, they partition the miraculous to another time and place (to history or the future) and try to have things both ways.

Truth be told, the resurrection of the dead is not a rational proposition and never will be, it is logically, reasonably and scientifically impossible and thus is, by definition, totally irrational. There is nothing rational about the central premise of Christianity, where a man who is actually God’s son is born of a virgin woman to save the world from sin, and you did not acquire this belief through rational means either. No, according to Scripture, the means used are irrational in terms of material reality and from a normal human logical perspective.

Faith, according to Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, originates from an immaterial spiritual source and does not follow our own rules of logic and reason:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:3‭-‬12 NIV)

Nicodemus is being entirely rational and rightly perplexed. Jesus presents a riddle, he tells Nicodemus he “must be born again” (in reference to a spiritual second birth) but then tells him the Spirit is like the wind and goes wherever it pleases. However, earlier in the passage Jesus does tie the work of the Spirit to being “born of water” or Baptism.

So, does entering the kingdom start as something rational—as the product of a human choice to believe something they’ve been told—or does it originate from a source inexplicable as the wind and as involuntary as our physical birth?

For years I believed what I was taught, that Christianity started as an intellectual acceptance of a particular proposition, that one should recite the “sinner’s prayer” (often in a moment of emotional upheaval) and later, upon their confession of faith, would be Baptized. There was no reason for me to question this indoctrination, it made sense to me, I mean how else does someone change except they make a deliberate choice? And how else do we make a choice besides through the faculties of logic and reason?

Unfortunately for me (and others from my fundamentalist/Evangelical background), that’s not what the Gospels tell us. For example, when Peter reveals the identity of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” he is told directly, “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16‭-‬17) If the true identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter through normal or rational means, why do we expect anything different for ourselves?

Or, explain why the unborn John the Baptist “leaped” in the womb when his mother Elizabeth first encountered Mary who held the incarnate Logos within her own body as we read at the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel—Was that response a rational choice, this leap of joy due to John’s careful study of the available evidence and coming to a reasonable conclusion? Of course not! The unborn do not have the freedom or cognitive ability to weigh the evidence and make a rational choice.

This assumption that Christian faith is something of rational origin simply does not comport with what we see recorded in Scripture nor does the idea that conversion is the product of an adult choice to believe. It goes completely contrary to what Jesus said about those who would and would not enter the kingdom:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:16; NIV)

We believe we are motivated through rational means of the mind, that is a foundational assumption of modern thought, and have turned Christianity into something it was never intended to be: merely an intellectual proposition. But this is wrong, the human mind is never described as the prime mover, the choice to follow Jesus is never said to be an adult decision or even something born of human will. Yes, certainly we are to participants in our own salvation or St Paul would not urge Christians to “work out” their salvation with due seriousness in Philippians 2:12, but there is something about it all that goes beyond all human rationality and this is a truth not hidden in Scripture.

A Fundamentally Flawed Perspective of Faith

Many Protestant fundamentalists seem to see themselves as a fusion of rationality with faith, they paint themselves as objective and their religion as something a reasonable person should accept but are neither rational nor faithful. No, they are compromised and inconsistent. They do not strictly follow the scientific method, having arrived at their conclusions well in advance of their studies, nor are they faithful for trying to prove something beyond the realm of science with their extra-Biblical theories. They show, with their actions, that they do not actually comprehend science or the rational nor do they truly accept spiritual and supernatural things.

Fundamentalism is, in essence, the bastard child of modernism and the Protestant religion. Both modernism and fundamentalism are products of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason (so-called) that arose from Roman Catholic Scholasticism. And this Scholasticism, much like modern Protestant fundamentalism, started as a means of “articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context” or, in other words, is an appeal to a person’s intellect and mind rather than their heart or soul. It has since developed into what amounts to a denial of the latter things that becomes completely absurd in the Christian context.

While there is little doubt that the turn towards science and reason has led to the development of technology and understanding of the physical world, we can be thankful for modern medicine based in experimentation for extending our life, this shift has done absolutely nothing for spiritual well-being or our pre-rational human needs. A gaze into the night sky through a telescope, for example, could be awe-inspiring and yet it can’t answer those existential questions of meaning and purpose. And, unfortunately, rather than stick to the means of love or the “greater things” that Jesus promised to the faithful, fundamentalists try to compete (albeit fail miserably) with their secular counterparts in the realm of science and reason.

Fundamentalists, as Protestants, have put all of their eggs in the Bible basket and also—as knee-jerk conservatives—cling to an untenable version of literalism that puts their religious dogma in direct conflict with modern scientific observation. But, as an end around to their paradigm being made obsolete, they turn to pseudoscience and apologetics that barely keep their own children let alone convince anyone outside of their circles. They have no choice, they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they believe that the Bible must be completely reliable, but in the same way as a scientific textbook rather than reliable for spiritual truths, and try to rationalize around the many obvious problems with that perspective.

Meanwhile, while insisting on a young Earth and six days literal days of Creation despite the mountain evidence to the contrary, these same fundamentalists become dismissive when speaking of things like sacraments. This, unfortunately, is a tradition that dates back around five hundred years to a man named Huldrych Zwingli and others who with him lowered the status of such things as Baptism and Communion to mere symbols—reasoning that things of spiritual import originate in the mind, as intellectual acceptance, and with this completely reasoned away possibilities beyond their rational capabilities.

The difference between a fundamentalist and an irreligious secularist is that one has taken their logic the full way to a reasonable conclusion while the other thinks they can have it both ways—accepting the irrational over the rational when it suits them and their personal agenda. Then, simultaneously, rejecting what they cannot comprehend, like their secular counterparts, simply because it goes against their own experience and cannot be scientifically proven. They take Jesus literally only when it is convenient for them or when it makes sense them from their own rational perspective and then reject literalism when it goes against their own religious indoctrination.

Here are some cases to consider…

1) What Saves, Preaching or Baptism?

While writing this blog I ran across an article, “The Sacrament of Preaching,” that addressed a glaring blindspot of many in the Protestant fundamentalist world, and amongst Revivalists and Evangelicals in particular, and it shows in what is emphasized in their tradition. In the church that I grew up in, for example, the order of the service centered on the preaching, often an affair intended to provoke, guilt-trip or convict. There’s a reason why Evangelical churches tend to have venues like lecture halls and that’s because preaching, an appeal to the mind or emotions, is perceived as the primary means of bringing salvation to the lost.

There is little doubt that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ is important.

After all, didn’t St Paul tell us as much?

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14 NIV)

Yet that passage is in the context of a lament about those who have heard and yet did not accept the message of the Gospel, here is that missing context:

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” (Romans 10:16-21,11:1‭-‬8 NIV)

If preaching saved in and of itself, then why didn’t the people who heard simply believe? Why did others, according to the quote of Isaiah in the passage above, believe through revelation despite not seeking it and never having been preached to?

St Paul makes it clear that it is only through the grace of God, not by preaching or through human understanding, that anyone is saved.

It is a rationalist’s delusion that preaching is the only way that someone can possibly be saved. Unfortunately, that is an idea that has been pounded into Protestant heads for centuries now and this comes at the expense of the other means of grace used by God and described in Scripture. In fact, many ‘great’ Revivalist preachers, in contradiction to Scripture and the reality that preaching is as physical a means as any other sacrament, basically mocked the idea that anything besides means of the mind could bring someone to salvation.

But it is St Peter whom they mock, who clearly likens Baptism to the waters surrounding Noah’s ark in 1 Peter 3:21, “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Like king Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan seven times to be healed, we are also told that Baptism washes sins away, brings forgiveness and new life (Acts 2:38, 22:16, Col. 2:11-12), which is to make these acts as much of a means of salvation as accepting the words spoken by a man about Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem here is the soteriology of fundamentalist “Evangelicals” who typically portray salvation as a once and done event. This confusion is the result of salvation being thought of something in the future only, as in salvation from death, and not also salvation from sin in the present. But Scripture describes salvation both in terms of having been saved (Titus 3:4-5), also in being saved (2 Cor. 2:15) and will be saved (Rom 5:9-10) which suggests something a little different from the “born again” sinner’s prayer form of salvation preached by some.

In other words, our salvation is not this moment or that experience, our salvation is rather a continuing work of God’s grace that comes to us through preaching, revelation, Baptism, the prayers of the faithful, and the many other ways that the work of the Holy Spirit is made manifest. In a sense, nobody is saved through the visible means themselves, nevertheless, these things are the necessary physical expressions of the spiritual work of grace and thus inseparable. Yes, the prime mover is always God and yet there is always evidence of this moving in hearts that takes physical form.

2) Communion, True Presence or Mere Symbolism?

It is very strange, a year or so ago a fundamentalist friend, a sort of logically minded sort, got very emotional and angry when I refused to back down from taking Jesus at his word. Mind you, as far as I know, this is a man who would not question Ken Ham’s interpretation of the Genesis account nor the resurrection of the dead and yet ended up blocking me for suggesting that the words of Jesus could be understood without needing to be rationalized away their literal meaning or any additional explanation.

The discussion was about partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or Holy Communion) and how this was one of the sacraments downplayed and reinvented as ordinances by Anabaptists under the Zwinglian influence. But the curious part was how a rationally minded guy would get so emotionally bent out of shape over simply taking Jesus at face value or as a child would. He insisted, despite Biblical description completely to contrary to his position, that there was no sacramental value to Holy Communion, that it was merely symbolic and to say otherwise was ridiculous. In his mind, Jesus had to be speaking metaphorically and there was no convincing him otherwise.

This is what Jesus said:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:51‭-‬67 NIV)

Many of the rational folks in the crowd evidently had enough hearing Jesus double-down on this bizarre-sounding claim. Had Jesus been speaking figuratively why would he have let so many walk away without stopping them and saying with a chuckle, “Oh, you guys think I’m being literal! Come on now, it’s all just a big metaphor!” But Jesus did not. When the eyebrows raised and murmurs began, he repeated himself all the more emphatically and lets the chips fall as they may rather than back down from this “hard teaching” and, rather than explain his words as being anything but literal. he even asked the disciples if they were going to abandon him as well.

If it weren’t clear enough in John, this is the account of the “Last Supper” and first partaking of Holy Communion:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29 NIV)

Is this mere symbolism?

Again, the words do not hint to metaphor. No, they are words of substance as much as his command, “Lazarus, come forth!” was received by dead flesh causing it to reanimate and Lazarus to be resurrected. I mean, if you can’t take Jesus at his word as far as his body and blood, why believe that God could speak anything into existence—let alone literally form mankind out of dust as is claimed in the Genesis creation narrative?

From a perspective of human logic and understanding, one of those events is no more rational than the others, a rotting corpse does not come back to life, our flesh is not the same as dust, and bread is bread is bread. Again, there is nothing rational about the claims foundational to Christianity and it is rather odd that anyone would insist otherwise. I mean, at very least, one might want to consider the serious physical and spiritual consequences of partaking casually of what is supposedly only a symbol:

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:27‭-‬30 NIV)

It is interesting that many from my own Protestant roots take the first half of that chapter concerning the veiling of women quite literally, not once expressing doubt of the spiritual significance of a piece of cloth being draped on a woman’s head, and then have their eyes glaze over when the mystical significance of Holy Communion is discussed in the latter part of the chapter quoted above. You would think that the same sects that require women to cover their heads all of their waking hours would want to partake of the body and blood more than once or twice a year, and yet they strain on one while swallowing the other.

Anyhow, is it any wonder we are weak and not seeing the promises of “greater things” (John 14:12) fulfilled in us when we are too ‘rational’ to take Jesus seriously about his own body and blood?

Rational or Faithful, the Choice is Yours!

Obviously, we are given an ability to use logic and reason. We should not waste or neglect this rational ability in the name of faith either. However, it would be wise to realize the limits of our rationality and at least entertain the possibility that there are things of true substance beyond what our minds are able to comprehend. One may want to consider that God, being God, does not need to be rational according to our own rules.

In fact, even for a complete non-believer, at the edge of reality as we know it there is a realm where things do not act accordingly to our rational intuitions based in time and space. For those who have gone down the rabbit hole of Quantum Mechanics, it is quite clear that matter does not behave in the manner would expect it to and becomes irrational from a normal human perspective. The discoveries of the past century have basically turned the concreteness of the physical world, as we know it, into a mere wave of probabilities and a place where particles may very well pop into and out of existence.

So, in short, this is absolutely the wrong time in history to double down on rationalism at the expense of transcending spiritual truth. This idea that things must make rational sense, from a human perspective, is to undermine the very substance that faith rests on, one committed to that might as well end the farce and go the full way to denying everything outside of the realm of material science. However, a person who goes that route is truly only lacking in the humility to know their own limitations. Your inability to wrap your head around something does not make it any less true.

In a time when secular scientists are even beginning to see the end of their own abilities to comprehend, many fundamentalists are still stuck in a watered down modernist paradigm they’ve inherited and rely on a horribly convoluted/inconsistent/selective rationalism rather than simply accept Jesus at his word. In their insistence on their fundamentals and understanding of things, they are like one who has traded his birthright for a bowl of stew—are you still stuck in a rationalist’s delusion, unknowingly governed by emotions or confirmation bias, and missing out on true spiritual sustenance?

Confessions of the Prodigal’s Older Brother—the Rough Road To Be Free Of Resentment

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I do not call for the judgment of anyone, but it seems only right that good behavior is rewarded. And yet it is often unruly people who get the loving attention when they do bad and then the accolades when they begin to do what the well-behaved have been doing quietly for years.

The conscientious person feels bound to their duty to righteousness. They are driven by loyalties to people, motivated by moral obligation and take responsibility for the welfare of others. It was not out of a desire to be recognized, it is a burden they’ve been carrying since birth, it is never a choice for them, but rather is something inescapable, a prison and hell.

I’ve been that tortured soul. I’ve always wanted to do everything right and for the right reasons. While definitely wanting to be my own person and entitled to my own thoughts, I had no desire to be a troublemaker or disruption. I tried to be cooperative and compliant, to make the lives of my teachers and authorities easier, because I knew the greater social good was dependent upon this and would not be served by my selfish outbursts.

I could never live this ideal out perfectly. I had a standard for myself, a part of the religious inheritance I received as a Mennonite, that was impossible to live out. My frustration with this reality of my own failure would sometimes come bubbling up. Something would set me off and, in the privacy of my parent’s home, I would rage against this awful predicament and the unfairness of it all.

The carefree (and careless) younger brother…

A week or two ago some resentment returned. This change in mood was likely triggered by two things (or rather two conversations) and one of them being an encounter with David Bercot on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The other thing? I had a run-in with my own Prodigal side.

We claim there are consequences for sin. This is how we convince ourselves that our righteous inclinations are correct and there is really no other way to justify depriving oneself of hedonistic pleasure. If it doesn’t matter what we do, no real score kept for right or wrong in the end, then we might as well just have some fun, right?

I’m friends with one of those “bad boys” who (despite his heart of gold) doesn’t care what other people think and has done things at his age that were unimaginable for me. He is a ladies’ man, he’s that guy the young women (yes, even the ‘good’ ones) feel comfortable playing around with, and is basically my antithesis.

I can’t help but love him. He was my true friend a few years ago, heard me spout venom at those who had hurt me with their self-righteous indifference, and never said a word of condemnation. That said, his recklessness and lack of my seriousness, while I was fighting for all I was worth to stay glued together after a devastating announcement, had also sparked my most violent and evil imaginations.

I can’t hold him accountable, though. I look at his freedom with a bit of envy in that at any moment he could decide to settle down, marry the perfect girl (drawn by his charm) and carry no stigma. Me, however, I was always outside looking in, I wasn’t allowed (by character or circumstance) to partake of that “wild” youth nor given the legitimacy that is his for the taking once he decides to settle down.

I’m not jealous of or bitter toward him. Why should I be? But what I do struggle with is anger towards the religious culture that made me, that fed me a steady stream of false promises and left me feeling completely betrayed in the end. Specifically, I’m still upset with the fathers who dismissed me with their cynical calculations and their daughters who continually rejected my sincerest efforts—while meanwhile crawling all over the reckless and indifferent guys.

It is bad enough to go unrecognized. But we seem to live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, where caring (when others do not) is mischaracterized as creepiness and doing right for the right reasons is often stigmatized. It seems my obeying conscience doesn’t allow me the freedom of rebellion nor does it gain me the approval of those who told me that my conscientious is a good thing when I do what is right in spite of their opinions.

The daddy issues of the Prodigal’s older brother…

The problem with the older brother, in the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal son who returns home, was deeper than his resentment over the celebration for his wayward brother. His indignation was towards his father:

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:28‭-‬30 NIV)

This anger is likely due to a misconception the older brother had about his father. He obeyed. However, he obeyed for fear of consequences rather than purely as a matter of conscience. His motivation, while in some respects a devotion to his father, was also a desperate effort to secure his place in the family and a mistrust of father’s love. He, like the servant who buried his talent for fear of punishment, couldn’t comprehend being loved for anything other than his performance and had lived in fear rather than faith.

Can you imagine having spent years trying to hold up your own end of the bargain, working hard to produce because that’s how your father’s love is earned, only to have the bubble burst?

In my own case, it was not entirely my own fault that I saw God, my heavenly Father, as this sort of vengeful tyrant. As one raised in a fundamentalist setting there is plenty of reason why I would assume that God’s love is based on my own performance rather than something freely shared to all who accept it and that’s because my earthly fathers often did keep me in limbo. Revivalistic preaching undermined any assurance of salvation, my life could never measure up to their purity standards, and their love for me was limited by what I was able to provide for them.

For years my hopes for love outpaced my resentments. I would tell myself that next time will be different, that my fears of always being on the margins of their paradise were unfounded, and eventually Christian love would triumph over my inadequacies. However that paradigm came crashing down in spectacular fashion when a young woman, someone to whom my hope against hopes (in respect for her professed devotion) were fully invested, said “I can’t love you like that,” which was to say that she really could not love me at all, and destroyed that last hope of a way to her or rather her father’s world.

Trying to please the lawyer’s God…

Over the past weeks, I’ve felt whipsawed. That is to say, I’ve felt pulled between two seemingly opposed views that together undermine my peace with God and the ability to live a victorious life. The first being how the Prodigal gets the embrace while I’ve often been ignored or, worse, had those whose love I had desired recoil as if I was some sort of monster. The second being the inescapable legalistic mindset that is at complete odds with true Christian love.

I have nothing against men like David Bercot personally. In fact, I see them as men very much like myself a few years ago, they diligently search Scripture trying to find their salvation, and yet they are far more capable than I’ll ever be. Their dedication and discipline would seem to be commendable and even something enviable. However, their standard is something I’ve found to be out of my own reach and their religious prescriptions often come at the expense of love.

Bercot, like so many others including myself, is law rather than love oriented. By this I mean we prioritize precise legal interpretation and application of law above the loving purpose behind it. In other words, we are like those religious experts Jesus encountered, who do things like tithe spices, are more concerned with the day someone is healed than the fact that they have been healed, remained as dogmatic even when entering the church and had to be put in their place:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:1‭-‬12 NIV)

Paul’s pun at the end does not take away from the serious warning in his words. Those trying to please God through their careful obedience to the law “have fallen away from grace” and are thus obligating themselves to an impossible standard. They will either end up deluded (like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own superiority to others) or desperately trying to cross all the T’s and dot all of the I’s and ending up in despair when his/her effort falls woefully short of God’s perfection.

Where I’ve found God’s love…

My goal is not to be the rebellious Prodigal son or the one whose careful dedication ended in bitter disappointment. Both of them have fallen short in love for their father or in understanding their father’s love for them and have suffered consequences as a result. The story isn’t intended so that we go out to sow our wild oats, enjoying the pleasures we are afforded us as a result of our inheritance, and then come back to our father’s house again. It isn’t just a warning against a superficial closeness either.

The true meaning of the story is for us to be more like our heavenly Father, who is perfect in mercy and loves even when His love is not reciprocated. Yes, there is a law, not the kind of law that pleases a sanctimonious religious lawyer, but a law summed up by Jesus:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37‭-‬40 NIV)

When we love God we do not worry about being stigmatized like Jesus and his disciples were for breaking with the harsh and unloving application of the law. We stop trying to please those impossible to please, stop believing God is some tyrant finger over the “smite” key waiting for us to slip up, and start doing what is possible to do out of love for our neighbors. It is in remembering that Jesus came to save and not to condemn the world—that through his love even the vilest of sinners can find eternal life.

I still struggle with my hurts despite God’s grace towards me. I still find myself trying to please people who have made pretty much zero real investment in my well-being spiritual or otherwise—who absolutely refused to reciprocate my love for them. I could easily become unsettled again, reject the greater blessing I’ve received by pursuing the promises of those who attempt to live by a standard impossible to please.

But I choose to love those whom God has entrusted to me instead and even if it costs me what little remains of my Mennonite reputation. I would rather lose it all for sake of the kingdom than to return to the bondage of fundamentalist expectations. Jesus loved despite the disapproval of his religious peers and that’s the love that will overcome my feelings of resentment as one who followed the rules and got burnt. It is a rough road some days, but we are called to suffer rejection and carry our cross.

“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

Salvation from the Dark Cave — 5 Parallels Between the Rescue in Thailand and Spiritual Transformation

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When I first heard the news about the Wild Boars, a youth soccer team, having gone missing in Thailand, I assumed these twelve boys along with their young coach were hopelessly lost in the flooded cave system and probably already dead or likely would be before anyone reached them. It had been over a week since they had disappeared and there seemed to be little hope of finding them alive.

For that reason, I was very happy to read the news of their being discovered by two British divers who were aiding the rescue efforts. Somehow, despite their ordeal of having to flee deeper into the cave to avoid the rising flood waters and having been trapped in the pitch blackness without food or light for over a week, these players and their coach were still alive. And what a great relief it must’ve been for them to see a person from the outside emerge from those murky waters that had entombed them.

However, that moment of joy was soon replaced by a new fear when considering the perilous journey they now had to face in order to make their escape. The divers who found them were some of the best in the world and many of these boys didn’t even know how to swim—let alone swim in conditions that experts described as extremely dangerous and conditions that tragically did cost one of their rescuers his life.

The question became one of could these boys be saved without a miracle?

This World Is A Dark Cave

We, unlike those boys who had been outside the cave, have never been beyond this world. While we can imagine that there could be something beyond, we are truly bound by what we can touch, taste, see or perceive in our minds. For many reality only extends as far as they are able to fathom. And yet science has discovered spectrums of light beyond our vision and philosophy has long challenged us to go beyond even ourselves, our rational minds, in our thinking.

Greek philosopher Plato imagined a scenario, the Allegory of the Cave, in which we were all born bound in a cave where most are chained where they can only see a shadow of greater reality projected onto the wall in front of them and some of these life-long prisoners are eventually freed. Those freed, we discover, have great difficulty explaining this greater perspective to those still bound. This scenario is pretty much describing our own perception of reality in a nutshell.

Some desire to look beyond the shadows and find a measure of freedom. However, there are many others who are content to live with the shadows and in denial. They are bound by religion, ensnared by the entertainment industry, distracted the pursuit of wealth, blinded by the daily grind or unable to see for any number of reasons and never realize that they are in a cave and chained to a wall and only seeing shadows of something greater.

There are also those who have realized they are trapped in a cave and yet also see the waters, have probed the escape routes from this reality and have understood the true impossibility of their predicament. They have lost hope. They are depressed and living in despair because they know that they are trapped and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Jesus Emerged From the Murky Waters

Those Thai boys and their coach had to know that they were doomed without divine intervention or outside help. During the rainy season (that started early and caught them by surprise) lasts into October and they only had supplies for an afternoon. The coach seems to have did his best to look after the boys, withholding rations from himself to give them a better chance of survival, and yet what he could provide was never going to save them from death in the darkness.

Even a strong swimmer had no chance to escape the under water labyrinth that separated them from the outside world. To find another path or dig their way out was impossible given their lack of necessary tools and provisions. Their resources (besides the water they could lick off the walls) were already exhausted. Even their oxygen supply was starting to dwindle and would disappear long before the flood waters would recede. They only had their prayers and hope for a rescue mission to hold back despair—without a savior were doomed.

That is essentially the story for all of humanity and the background for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are born, our forefathers having wandered deep into a cave of sin and our escape from this blocked by the waters of death. This whole world, the entire universe, in fact, is bound by physics to eventually run out of energy and our descendants, no matter how technologically advanced, will not escape that. This is a reality that can cause an intelligent forward-thinking person to wonder what is the point of living if death is all the future holds.

Drawing by Manatsawin Mungsungnoen

If one can imagine how welcomed a sight those British cave divers were for the boys and coach trapped in complete darkness and facing imminent death, then they can also imagine the feeling of elation that the disciples of Jesus felt having seen him after his emergence from the murky waters of death—His resurrected body, their resurrected hopes, and proof positive of his claim that there is eternal life for those who follow after Him.

We Must Take the Plunge of Faith

The happiness about those lost being found was soon replaced with a big question about how to get them from the cave to freedom. How could this half starved group of youngsters and their coach (who was even worse for the wear after selflessly giving his rations to the boys) get out of their subterranean prison?

Many options were discussed and ruled out one by one. There simply was not enough time for other solutions when oxygen levels began to drop, with the fullness of the monsoon season about to begin, and the consensus became clear: They would need to dive out like their saviors or die in the cave. This was something that had been impossible for them before, it was something extremely dangerous even for a veteran cave diver, and would be absolutely terrifying for someone claustrophobic. None of them were swimmers, let alone in any physical condition to match the world class athletes who found them, and I’m sure their fears could keep them paralyzed.

Where does one find the faith to do the impossible?

That was my question a few years ago.

You jump in, that’s how…

We Cannot Save Ourselves

The truth is, while we must take the plunge under the murky waters and swim for all we are worth, the journey out of the cave is not one we are able to do on our own strength. Like the rescue in Thailand took the coordinated effort of many men and women, we cannot possibly complete our journey to freedom without a community or the help of others. Rather we need to partake of the provisions left for us by those who have followed after Christ. We need to firmly grasp the guiding rope of the written and spoken tradition that the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15) has left for us. And must also submit to those ordained to lead us to safety and who are responsible for leading us to salvation:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

We live in an age where purported authorities are questioned, and rightly, for their abuses. There are many self-proclaimed (and self-promoting) religious experts who claim to have spiritual knowledge and have yet to truly take the plunge of faith themselves. These false teachers. They are ordained only by themselves, by their own arrogance, and are whom Jesus describes as being blind guides. You can know them by their fruits:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15‭-‬20 NIV)

Be sure that those who lead you have a true connection to the world beyond. Do they shine a light that pushes back against the darkness? Do they bring you nourishment and spiritual air? For those trapped in the cave in Thailand, it is clear who came from the outside and why they are there. The rescuers come with provisions, they administered first aid to those in need and built the trust of the boys to follow their lead and instructions.

These teachers, without a doubt, played a critical role in the salvation of those trapped in the cave and we too need those who have experience beyond our own to provide calm and guide us through the fog, currents, and confusion of life.

We Must Die to Save Others

As I entered the church building on Sunday the final act of the rescue mission started. The Gospel text was, interestingly enough, about some friends of a paralytic and their faith that carried him to Jesus:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The account goes on with Jesus first addressing the naysayers and critics for their evil thoughts before going on to fully heal this man. But this detail about Jesus seeing the faith of these men is something I had missed before. It was their carrying him, like the divers leading the boys out of the hopeless depths, that led to this man being forgiven and freed from his paralysis. It is our job to carry each other back to Christ and that is the purpose of a Christian community and the Church. It is our faith that leads to the healing of others.

Like these men carrying their friend or the “buddy system” of experienced divers leading the young boys through the darkness to the light, we too must serve a role in the salvation of others. The Christian mission is to participate in the salvation of others in much the same way as those, who came from around the world and volunteered to risk their own lives—not for financial gain, not for their own biological children and not compelled by force. They simply saw a need, a desperate need, and became the solution.

Sgt Major Saman Kunan

Many have sacrificed time and volunteered their talents to aid in the search and rescue effort in Thailand. But one man, Sgt Major Saman Kunan, a retired Thai Navy diver, gave his own life so those boys could be saved. This hero, after delivering oxygen canisters needed for the daring escape, ran out of oxygen himself and perished.

And that is the responsibility of all Christians. We are to find lost sheep, feed them, heal their wounds, lead them out of harm’s way, and even give our lives for them. We are to be Christ in every sense of the word and that means dying to ourselves and saving the lost from their dark cave.

We need to be faithful to those who are lost without a hope.

Turmoil and Theosis

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There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.

A Bull In the China Shop

Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.

I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.

My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.

Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.

The Calm In My Storm

There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.

Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.

There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.

Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.

But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.

I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.

At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.

My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.

In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.

As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:33‭-‬38 NIV)

To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.

What Jesus promised the disciples:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18‭-‬20 NIV)

And the day he delivered:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneI in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22‭-‬23 NIV)

How Paul explains this:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15‭-‬17 NIV)

That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where is Martha Today?

Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.

Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.

Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.

Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.

It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.

[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]

I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24‭-‬25 NIV)

As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.

I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.

Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.

We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

How God’s Economy Differs From Our Own

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In three prior blogs (on topics of law, legalism and church authority) I’ve tried to present the Biblical basis and lay the theological groundwork necessary to establish concepts I will introduce in this post. I wish to remind my readers once again that I do not speak in any official capacity, I am not ordained, and encourage y’all to investigate these matters for yourselves rather than just take my word for it.

There are several cases in Scripture of people asking what they must do to be saved. In Acts 2:37-39, when the crowd asks what they must do, Peter answers:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.

Later, in Acts 16:31-34, a Roman jailer asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

This is how Paul and Silas replied:

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

We read the testimony of the apostle Paul, in Acts 22, where he describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He describes a blinding light, being confronted by Jesus, and how he asked what he should do. He is told to continue on the road and meet a man named Ananias who restores his sight and then tells him: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”

And we also have this explanation of salvation by Peter:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:18-21 NIV)

All of those passages answer the question of what a person must do. All of them mention water baptism as a necessary step in this process. This emphasis on baptism reflects the preaching of John the Baptist who tied the practice with true repentance. It also is what Jesus clearly taught:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

This is likely the reason why baptism is a sacrament that, traditionally, in an emergency or circumstance where there is nobody else, can be administered by anyone. One can repent and believe in their mind, but baptism should follow—because that is what Jesus taught, it is what the early Church believed and to this very day is still the tradition of the Church.

So, we can all agree that baptism is a requirement for salvation, right?

Probably not.

This is one point where legalists might carve out exemptions, turn Scripture against Scripture, or otherwise downplay the necessity of baptism. But no amount of theological twisting can overturn the rule. Baptism is absolutely a requirement for salvation and to argue against that is to deny what is clearly recorded in Scripture. Jesus says that “no one can enter the kingdom” without being “born of water” and we must assume that is exactly what he meant.

The Thief On the Cross, Judas, and the Kingdom

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss. But like the thief will I confess Thee: remember me O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

One of the starkest contrasts in Scripture is between the thief on the cross beside Jesus and Judas who betrayed Jesus. It wasn’t a comparison I had considered before hearing the Orthodox liturgy (in the quotes above) and yet is a parallel that is quite poetic and very significant.

On one side of the comparison, we have the man who did everything right from a legalistic standpoint. Judas had followed Jesus for years, from all appearances he had done everything required of a disciple and was even trusted enough to carry the common purse. But Judas, despite his outward devotion, seems to have been full of bitterness and ends up betraying Jesus with a kiss—before he took his own life. His name has become synonymous with betrayal and treason.

On the other side we have the account of two criminals crucified beside Jesus on the cross:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43 NIV)

This man called “the thief” was a criminal who acknowledged that his punishment was just and defends Jesus against the mocker on the other cross. We have no reason whatsoever to believe he lived an upright or righteous life. There is no evidence of this man being baptized. He doesn’t ask Jesus into his heart nor does he recite a creed. He simply pleas, with his dying breaths and a little faith, “remember me” and Jesus, in response, tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Does this mean that we should stop baptizing people?

Does this mean that we can continue in sin that grace may abound?

No and no.

There is no excuse for sin and there is no exemption for baptism either. There is, however, an order or a hierarchical arrangement of priorities and at the top of it is something beyond mere religion. What matters most is God’s grace and having the faith to fully put our trust in Him as our salvation. This something the thief could do and that Judas could not. Judas, for all his outward displays of righteousness and despite doing everything that was required of a disciple, had faith in his own understanding rather than in Jesus.

There are many sincere folks today who try to reduce Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. And, instead of an abundance of life or resembling Jesus, they are rigid, anxious, jealous, judgmental, unforgiving and too often a stumbling block to those young in the faith. They believe that they are receiving salvation as a trade for their own righteousness and careful obedience. They often end up like Judas, bitter and critical, and refuse to truly put their faith in Jesus.

No amount of ritual obedience or religion can save a person who has faith only in themselves. We should like the thief who knows they are doomed without God’s mercy and not Judas who was righteous by outward appearance and lacked faith. Being a lowly criminal with a repentant heart is eternally better than being a disciple who judges others by his own standards and betrays Jesus.

God’s Economy Is Different From Our Own

Those trying to earn God’s favor, like the Pharisee who boasted in prayer about his righteousness compared to another man, have a desperate need to justify themselves. And, like the Prodigal son’s older brother who was angry because of the grace shown to his openly rebellious younger sibling, many have an entitled attitude and believe that their obedience and works means they are owed. It is because they believe that God’s economy is merit-based like their own. They try to earn points by obeying the law and fail to comprehend their own woefully inadequate position before Almighty God.

Jesus, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, contrasts God’s economy and our own:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1‭-‬16 NIV)

It is easy to understand why those who started early in the morning and worked all day might feel slighted at the end. They had spent their entire day sweating it out, trying to earn their wage, only for some to come during the day or even at the last hour and receive the same compensation. From a laborer’s perspective, it seemed unfair. Shouldn’t those who did more also get paid more for their efforts?

But the landowner had not hired them to judge such matters for themselves. It was the landowner’s money to spend as he wished, he was not obligated to hire anyone, he had gone out to find them, they had all agreed to the wage they were paid and were truly owed nothing more than what they had received. It was a fair wage when they were hired and that fairness did not change because of the landowner’s generosity to those hired later.

But what point was Jesus trying to make with this story?

It is interesting that this story comes right in the heels of the account of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to be granted eternal life—which contains the same “the first shall be last” refrain. This man had kept the law from his youth. But when he asked what he lacked, this is how Jesus replied:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV)

If you stopped reading there you might end up like Judas who used those words of Jesus as a means to criticize an extravagant act of worship and to hide his own corrupt self-centered motives. There are many today who read the words of Jesus legalistically, they see the story of the rich man then add one more item to their list of religious requirements, and entirely missing the point.

However, there’s more to what Jesus said. If you keep reading you will see how the disciples were “greatly astonished” and ask Jesus “who then can be saved?” They, even as those who had already left everything behind to follow Jesus, understood the severity of what Jesus told the inquiring rich man. If keeping the law wasn’t enough, what then?

How Jesus answers is clear: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:‬26 NIV)

That is the answer to the rich man’s question.

It is impossible.

That is also what the parable of the laborers is about. Those who had started early in the day represent those relying on their own efforts and are completely lacking appreciation for the one who made their earning anything possible. They were upset that the landowner was paying those who came later the same as them because they felt their labor had been devalued and yet the only value their labor had was what the landowner was willing to pay them. They didn’t create the circumstances of their own employment, how could they possibly be in any position to judge what was fair compensation for someone else?

The point Jesus is making is only God can save us. If you believe your works can save you, even if you sell all and give to the poor, you are no better than that rich man. The rich man had kept the law and yet lacked true faith in Jesus. He had faith in himself as a good religious person, he thought he could do something to save himself, and yet salvation does not come from our own effort.

The reason why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom is that they are able to depend on their own effort and thus are adequate without faith in their own minds. It was that self-sufficiency, the idea that a human can earn their way into eternal life, that Jesus confronts in the rich man. A person relying on themselves does not understand that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) or that their salvation depends fully on God’s choice and not their own:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16 NIV)

Akribeia: We Cannot Please God Through Perfection on Our Own Terms

There are many trying to please God with their own righteousness. That is to assume that God will somehow want or need us if we are good enough and that is completely absurd. It is a path to misery or arrogance. If you try to win God’s favor through your works and have any grasp of how your own best efforts compare to absolute perfection, you will be miserable. And, if you can delude yourself into believing that you are able to live to a perfect divine standard you are an insufferable moron.

Our salvation is not based on our own effort and cannot be. The rich man’s perfect obedience to the law of Moses couldn’t please God. And those trying to save themselves by turning the words of Jesus into a new law will likewise fail. Being a Christian requires obedience to a standard that goes well beyond the law of Moses and even beyond a legalistic interpretation of Jesus. It requires absolute and impossible perfection.

This is where the word “Akribeia” comes in. It is a Greek word (ἀκρίβεια) that means exactness or precision and refers to strict adherence to the law in Christian usage. We are all judged according to Akribeia and found lacking in comparison to this absolutely perfect standard. Even if you have followed the words of Jesus perfectly as a law you will still have fallen infinity short of God’s glory and are no better than the rich man or Judas.

No amount of obedience to the law, outside of God’s grace, can save anyone. Salvation is not something we receive in trade for our works. Our perfection doesn’t come from our works. We can’t even know what perfection is at God’s level, let alone live it out, and even if we could, that would still not entitle us to anything and would still leave us condemned to death with no hope of eternal life.

This is our salvation:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8‭-‬10 NIV)

Jesus is what gives us currency in God’s economy and not our own righteousness. A person who even begins to comprehend how their own righteousness stacks up compared to absolute perfection will know that even their best efforts to follow the law will fall infinitely short. The very idea of pleasing God through our own works of righteousness is an insult and is basically to try to put ourselves on the same level as Almighty God.

To please God you need to be on an equal basis with God and that is not something we as a created being can do for ourselves. Our own righteousness is nothing but a filthy rag by comparison to the glory of God. That is why we must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27) and are made worthy through his work rather than our own.

Legalism doesn’t comprehend Akribeia. Legalists believe they can win God’s favor and therefore are always trying to prove their righteousness compared to others. They seem to believe that being perfect is like outrunning a bear in that you only need to be faster or better than the guy beside them. That is why they are critical rather than helpful, judgmental rather than merciful, and self-righteous rather than humble. They are like that unrepentant thief on the other cross who continued to mock and ridicule despite being condemned.

However, when you serve a God who is impossible to please by your own efforts you will not be jealous or upset about the grace that is shown to others. Instead, you will come beside the weak, forgive their sins as you have been forgiven, and help them to bear their burdens rather than pile more on. A humble person understands “there but for the grace of God go I” and realizes that even by their best efforts they would only be condemned by the perfect law of God. It is then, and only then, after we have exhausted our own riches and righteousness, that we can be saved.

Oikonomia: The Economy Of Jesus and the Church

The Old Testament law is severe by our modern standards and many believe that Jesus relaxed these standards. But that is incorrect. The law of Moses only addressed outward behavior, but Jesus emphasized that even our thoughts could make us guilty of sin. The reality is that Jesus added to the severity of the standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught that lust was comparable to the sin of adultery and equates hatefulness to murder. By that standard, we are all condemned to die.

Yet, while Jesus is making things literally impossible for the rich man and other good religious people, simultaneously he’s allowing his disciples to break the written law:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23‭-‬28 NIV)

What?!?

Didn’t Moses, by command of God, have a man executed for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath?

Note Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for their interpretation of the law. But he does give times when the law was set aside and then goes on to explain something that is key—he turns attention from the letter of the Sabbath law to the spirit or reason behind it. He tells these religious experts that the Sabbath was created for the man rather than man for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath law was instituted for the good of men and that reason for the law triumphed over the strict legalistic application.

Jesus can do that. He can for the same reason he could heal the blind, walk on water or turn water into wine. The one who created all things is not subject to anything and that includes the moral laws he created. Furthermore, the purpose and or intent of the law always supersedes the letter and therefore the one who knows the reason behind the law perfectly is free from the letter. And, while the written law is essentially the God of the legalist, we (together, as the Church) who are clothed in Jesus are given the same authority over the law and this authority is demonstrated in the early Church.

Jesus, in giving his authority to bind and loose, through the promise of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for the Church to rule on circumcision in a way that went directly against what the written law taught. Physical circumcision is still an explicit requirement according to the book of Leviticus, yet physical circumcision was dismissed by the apostle Paul. That loosing from the law led to conflict in the early church. Some were teaching that circumcision was still necessary for new converts while others were saying that this Scriptural requirement could be ignored. So the Church held a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and decided to waive the requirement.

We, as individuals, can’t pick or choose for ourselves what Biblical requirements apply to us. However, the Church (collectively) has the same authority as Jesus on matters of the law and can show the same grace (in other areas of law) that was argued in Jerusalem as far as circumcision. The Church can also expel an unrepentant evildoer as Paul demanded to be done in a letter to the Corinthians. The word for this is Oikonomia (οἰκονομία or “economia”) and literally means “household management” and is basically the same concept that allows anyone to be saved. If the written law cannot be overruled by God’s economy, we would all be condemned to death—who then could possibly be saved?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)

The law is a means, not an end.

Love is the end.

Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.