The Nietzsche Crucible

There are two impulses unique to the human psyche. The first is the resident notion that there must be a point to our existence – it is this impulse that holds at bay the dark abyss of meaninglessness that would swallow us up, otherwise. The second is the baseline assumption of a summum bonum (a highest good, an ultimate goal) – it is this impulse that places value on concepts like justice, truth, beauty and love. And it is the synthesis of these two impulses that give impetus to our conviction that life is worth living . . . even though we may be uncertain about the actual underpinning origin of these impulses.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known atheist philosopher, famously declared that “God is dead and we have killed him” – the intent of this statement being commonly misunderstood. For Nietzsche, the non-existence of God was a given starting point, therefore his intent isn’t about a god who dies, but rather, a need for the death of a moral system predicated on the existence of God. Nietzsche observed that in nature the strong and powerful dominate the weak – making this the natural ordering principle of morality. So that at its core morality is best understood as a display of power – which was largely the morality of the Greco-Roman world that Jesus entered into . . . and forever changed.

This is likely why Nietzsche self-described as the antichrist – not as an eschatological claim, but rather, as a measure of his commitment to undoing the legacy of the Jesus mythology with its moral premise of a self-emptying indiscriminate love that deems every person, regardless of cultural status, equally capable of sharing in this gift of God. Because to Nietzsche’s mind, such a moral premise invariably compromises the authority of the powerful – allowing the under evolved plebs to control the moral order of society . . . which would be tantamount to a devolution of man as a species. Because if the culturally elite aren’t given the carte blanche moral authority they deserve – humanity is doomed . . . sound familiar?

And this is where I completely surprise you by saying – Nietzsche has it completely right! In a godless world morality is nothing but a weapon of manipulation in the hands of the powerful, and pretending otherwise is just intellectual sophistry. Without God there is no real point to your life, and the ultimate goal is to seek power – everything else is an illusion. It could be said that Nietzsche understood the philosophical significance of God’s transcendence – in some ways better than many Christians, and most certainly better than all of the post-modernist philosophers who presuppose transcendent moral value, without bothering to sort out how transcendence could exist in a strictly materialist universe.

This is the Nietzsche crucible – if God doesn’t exist, then the tyranny of the powerful becomes the moral standard. But because we are drawn to the idea that each of us is given an immeasurable value, which is the premise for imagining that we are all equal, each of us deserving of the dignity of our personhood, regardless of social status. Therefore when existential atheism pretends it can coopt this moral ethic regarding the value of all human life, while ignoring its transcendent premise . . . they only beg the question: From what premise should we base this moral ethic? Nietzsche would say — stop pretending to care about equality, if God is dead, the only premise is the materialist natural order of the strong passing moral judgement on the weak. So keep this in mind, when the godless attempt to sway you with their moral platitudes — it’s all just a power play for them . . . they have no real moral authority, they’re just pretending to have it.

. . . but we have something else waiting for us.

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Vestibule of the Apocalypse

To the same degree that conspiracy theories, gaslighting propaganda, and political spin dominates our cultural discourse – a proportional disenchantment and distrust begins to settle over every cultural institution. This is because people have become convinced that the whole thing has gone off the rails, imagining it to be in a state of free fall, plummeting towards some unavoidable calamitous appointment with destiny. So even though T.S. Elliot already told us that the world does not end with a bang, but a whimper – we all seem eager to try our hand at apocalyptic prognostication . . . truly a first world obsession.

It would seem, if cultural anxiety and hysteria is to be believed, that I have spent my entire life waiting in the vestibule of the Apocalypse – where we’re all waiting to make our final descent into our last moments before judgement day, where the shame of our folly and arrogance await us. Well, except for those who tried to warn us all of the impending doom – they get the smug satisfaction of being prophetically astute as they too are lowered into the abyss with the rest of us. But given that we’re awash in thousands of doomsday scenarios – it’s hard to say which one of them will actually win the soothsayers lottery of cataclysmic events.

One of the benefits of growing as old as I have, is you live long enough to pick-up on all of the reoccurring patterns in the cultural narrative – like how every generation seems eager to tell its own story of how the world will end. All that’s needed is a half plausible threat as a prompt, and anxious fear will take it from there – finding every reason to extrapolate the least bit of evidence into a full blown crisis. In my day it was over-population, nuclear annihilation, and an imminent ice age – since then, it’s been global warming, emerging viral pathogens, and economic collapse. So it’s no surprise that we incessantly rehearse our fear of the future in the dystopic fiction of the books and movies we consume.

It’s important to note that there’s always a religious fervor associated with such phobic predictions – because suspended disbelief is required if their dark foretelling of the future is to be accepted as inevitable. In this way religious cults and progressive social movements share the same ethos, language, and expectation that our unbridled fears should be allowed to write the story of our future demise. Because the agreed upon assumption here is that we are all at odds with our own existence, and that we can somehow create the illusion of controlling the outcome of this alienation if we’re willing to anticipate the worst. This is beyond pessimism – this is like buying stock in hell, because the fire insurance premium was discounted to half price.

Interestingly enough, the meaning of the word apocalypse has nothing to do with some world ending cataclysm – but rather, an apocalypse is a revealing of what’s been hidden, of what is true about what already exists. And the truth is that Christ is already “ . . . the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13). It is this very timelessness of Jesus that defines the Christian understanding of the future. Our hope isn’t found in the tedious details of how we think it all ends – our hope is in the God who transcends time, and holds our future in his hand.

It’s always best to remember — it will only be this way a little longer

Entering Into Suffering

One doesn’t have to puzzle over a paradox for very long to discover that rational thought has its limitations. This is because rationality presupposes an intelligible framework predicated on a preexisting criterion with predictable outcomes, and paradox exposes the inherent flaw of such a presupposition. In response, one can choose to humbly confess that some of what is unknown to us, may in fact, be unknowable – or one can agree with the materialist’s faith assumption that everything is knowable to the human mind . . . given enough time. This for the non-theist creates a paradox of sorts – they either have to concede that their belief in an absolute human intelligibility is simply an unprovable leap of faith, or they have to concede with the theist that somethings may be unknowable.

Interestingly enough, the non-theist offers us a paradox as their flagship challenge to the existence of God. The question goes like this: How can a good and all powerful God exist in a world that experiences suffering? Right off the bat this question is predicated on an assumption of an absolute moral expectation that isn’t actually native to the non-theist position – but given that it’s meant to be understood as a paradox within the theistic paradigm, the question remains valid. So the actual paradox at the heart of the question, isn’t so much about whether or not God exists, rather it’s a question of whether suffering is meaningless or not.

Which is why it should be noted that the pointlessness of suffering isn’t much of a dilemma for a non-theist philosophy that believes that the whole of our existence is pointless — so looking for a sympathetic framing of suffering from that perspective would ironically be pointless. Conversely, the dilemma is very real for the Christian who holds human life as sacred – believing that our being made in God’s image gives us an immeasurable value — to which human suffering seems absolutely antithetical. So in this way, the paradox of suffering becomes an ever-present subtext of the Christian ethos . . . because suffering is an inescapable part of life.

Within the Christian apologetic, suffering is treated as the necessary potentiality of human free will, and as the unavoidable consequence of living in a fallen world. But this answer, though correct, strikes me as antiseptically academic — especially given the uniquely personal way God entreats us to relate to him . . . in the midst of a suffering world. But if we insist upon an answer and an explanation for what is arguably unknowable, what do we imagine will be the outcome of that? What if this is the very mystery that our faith is calling us into – reconciling a life we don’t understand with a God shrouded in mystery?

But here’s where we find solace – in this season of Advent. Here’s where the paradox of the existence of God and suffering find convergence – in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. Jesus chooses to enter into our suffering with a self-emptying love for us. Having experienced the struggles and hardships of living every day in a fallen world, Jesus knows full well the senseless cruelty of hatred and violence, having felt its merciless touch first-hand. So you could say that Christmas is the celebration of a paradox – for we celebrate the birth of a God-incarnate, willing to suffer and die for us. And we celebrate it not because it makes sense to us – but because intuitively we know that this is how love responds to suffering.

The promise of Christmas — Emmanuel (God with us) . . . always with us

In Search of Authenticity

We’re living in the age of reinvented truth, where each of us is somehow entitled to our own indisputable version of it – you have yours and I have mine. No doubt, this is why we now experience the rise of soothsaying media pundits and the cultural Gestapo keeping the gaslights turned up – ever spinning the narrative of current events with the sleight of hand of an illusionist, bending our perception into a useful compliance and conformity. Because in a world where truth is no longer transcendent — it invariably becomes nothing more than a transient commodity to be sold to us like a shady huckster’s miracle cure tonic.

So is it any wonder that we reflexively crave the anchoring certainty of something (or someone) really true to believe in . . . with a transparently simple authenticity. And there’s the rub – once we find something to believe as true, we make it our truth. I don’t mean this in the way that popular culture does – in its sophomoric assumption that truth is a malleably transient concept, subjectively shaped by our personal opinions. Rather, I’m talking about something far more epistemological – that in our process of believing something to be true, we inescapably bring that truth into our already developed understanding of what we think truth should be . . . and by doing so we inevitably force it into conformity with our preexisting beliefs.

Therefore there is what is true and there is our interpretation of what is true – like an altered copy of the original . . . making it something less than what is authentically true. In this way, intellectual honesty requires us to be humble enough to confess the limitations of our own understanding of what is true . . . and in doing so we become malleable enough to be altered by the truth. So instead of us arrogantly assuming we get to judge what is true – truth makes its assessment of us, measuring us against its immutable standard of what is genuine and authentic . . . because this is the unyielding nature of reality.

But the purveyors of nominalist and gnostic ideas would have us believe that our perception of reality is more important than reality itself – as if the very nature of reality could be altered by our opinions of it. Ironically, it’s precisely this type of arrogance that keeps us at odds with our own existence – unsettling us at the very core of our being. This is the predicament our culture finds itself in – ever desiring to pronounce its own opinions as truth . . . moving us further and further away from all that’s authentically true. But this has always been the case – our search for authenticity will never be satisfied . . . on our own terms.

So as I anticipate the advent of the one who self-describes as “. . . the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6), I’m reminded of where authenticity resides – because it doesn’t get any more authentic than Jesus. For Jesus is the perfect expression of an authentic human – defining what it means to bear the image of God. He enters the brokenness of our world, as no stranger to the full human experience – he chooses the self-emptying path of the cross, entering into our suffering to free us from our suffering. This is the deeper reality, the most authentic moment in time with which the whole of history is defined. So let us celebrate this season in the most authentic way – by celebrating authenticity incarnate.

. . . and sometimes it’s the simplest life that turns out to be the most authentic.

In Search of Social Justice

With marketing it’s all about the art of spin – in its most common form it employs carefully chosen images and language, in order to place the product in the best light possible . . . as if it were without defect. This is mostly a benign form of manipulation, given that most of us are already hip to their tricks, but when marketing spin becomes propaganda it takes on a more insidiously malignant form of manipulation. This is because propaganda attempts to reframe the whole of reality, creating the illusion of associative value – i.e. accepting the propaganda will make you a better person, rejecting it makes you a person of questionable character.

In Europe, during the 20s and 30s of the 20th century, the propaganda pamphlets of both the fascist, and the communist zealots coined the phrase “social justice” in describing each groups desire to catalyze the grievances of the common man against the ruling class. In this way, the phrase “social justice” is a rhetorical parasite, latching itself onto an unimpeachable virtue, while remaining deliberately ambiguous enough in exactly how the word “social’ isn’t a redundant modifier to the word “justice”. . . given that justice is already a social concept.

I have lived long enough to have met many a social justice warrior – and I always ask them the same question: What’s so deficient about the concept of justice that social justice addresses. As is often the case with this type of thing — most have no idea why they make a distinction . . . it’s simply what everyone else is calling it. But some will be a little more self-aware, pointing out how charity and benevolence are often the forgotten expressions of a just society . . . and there point is well taken. But then there will be those with specific political agendas attempting to extol the envy and schadenfreude of coercive wealth redistribution as a retributive necessity of what constitutes a just world.

So here’s what I’ve learned over the years about social justice: most people just want a world where people do the right thing, including taking care of one another — and you can count me among this group. This is because we all intuitively feel the world is broken — theologically, this is described as our fallen condition. For some, this condition elicits a humble confession that God alone is just, but for others justice is viewed as a malleable human construct, and therefore needs to be constantly repackaged to follow the curve of cultural ethos. In this way, social justice has become nothing more than an empty container awaiting the next iteration of social grievance to define its purpose – which is why propaganda is required to distinguish it from what is commonly understood as justice.

Every consideration of justice begins and ends with some presupposed notion of morality, and every moral framework is predicated on some expectation that human life has value. So the ultimate question is: what gives human life value? Therefore if we’re going to advocate for justice, as we all should, then how we define what is just requires a clear definition of human value . . . and this is the very conversation that too often doesn’t occur. This is undoubtedly why our longing for a just world is so primal – because it goes to the very reason why we exist. Actually, all of our longings point to the same thing – our need for God . . . because there is no other understanding of ourselves apart from him.

. . . and meeting Jesus changes everything.

In Search of Significance

We all want a life that matters – even if it only matters to ourselves. Think about it – even if you attempted to live a pointless life, such an undertaking would invariably take on a purposefulness of its own, otherwise it couldn’t be sustained. Just think of the most unambitious, random person you know – who appear to be making things up as they go along. But unavoidably their days will be filled with choices they will make, based on some contrived criterion — one that differentiates what matters most to them, from what they assume to be either contrary or inconsequential to the life they want to live . . . a life that matters, at least to them.

Our anthropological impulse is to somehow reconcile our own personal sense of meaning, with how we perceive our significance within our community and culture. In this way, all of our choices are given a context – determining how much connection (or disconnection) should exist between ourselves and others . . . so that within our proximity to others we might experience some sense of our shared significance. This very often becomes the driving force behind our inclination to seek a tribal identity – an identity from which we borrow the pretense of a greater significance and a practical sense of belonging.

We are contingent beings, which is to say we are not self-existing, we require an ontological context – in this regard, we can only find our significance within this context. I only bring this up because we live in a culture that invites us to find our significance in the perpetual reinventing of ourselves – while it simultaneously insists we must conform to social expectations. And such a cognitively dissonant context is unsustainable, which is likely why we’re drawn to a disembodied imagining of our own existence – as if we only lived in our heads . . . unconstrained by material realities.

Historically speaking, such gnostic notions of meaning and significance have been around since the very beginning – since Adam and Eve assumed that they were capable of arbitrating good and evil . . . on their own terms. And ever since, we’ve all assumed we have the authority to determine our own significance and value – especially, when in comparison to others. And what a sad little game of make believe it is – pretending we matter simply because we say so. As if we could be self-existing as a matter of self-pronouncement.

We are created in the image of God, this is the ontological fountain of our immutable significance – in this regard, we are contingent upon God’s existence whether we want to accept it or not. This is why those who ardently deny the significance of God’s existence, are the ones who invariably find themselves at odds with the significance of their own existence. This is also what makes our faith confession essential to how we understand of ourselves – believing that the God who created us is still at work on us (Philippians 1:6) . . . and that makes us all pretty darn significant!

I am no longer a slave to fear — I am a child of God

Shadow Boxing

On occasion, while skimming through social media, I’ll come across a religiously political, or politically religious debate (the two have become almost indistinguishable) — that I have no particular interest in entering into . . . but in a strange way find entertaining. The discussion is usually so predictable it feels scripted, and the personalities of those involved seem like they’re straight out of central casting. So as I read I have the Loony Tunes incidental music running in my head, and I imagine the voice of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as the primary interlocutors, occasionally hearing from Daffy Duck or Porky Pig offering up their genius insights. Because let’s face it — most of these type of exchanges are basically low brow food fights.

And this is the state of public discourse in this age of tribal group-think – where everyone is quick to dismiss anyone who dare disagree with them, as if they were a one dimensional cartoon character, lacking both in moral integrity and intellectual acuity, to take seriously . . . because we already know what they have to say. Yea, but do we? Sure, there are those so conspicuously shallow and ill-prepared, it takes no more than a minute to exhaust their whole repertoire on any given topic. And because of the ubiquity of such people, we just assume everyone who disagrees with us fall into that category . . . which ironically, such an assumption, is itself, intellectually lazy.

Even when I choose to initiate a discussion on social media, with an examination of a particular aspect of a common issue. Invariably, the reaction I get to such a conversation primer is to ignore its nuanced framing of the issue being proffered, in favor of defaulting to their scripted out opinion. So needless to say, most responses miss the point of many of my posts entirely. And to make matters worse, I am then treated to a barrage of straw man arguments denouncing a position I don’t even hold. This is the type of shadow boxing that the modern dialectic has become, fighting a phantom opponent . . . because it’s easier than having to honestly work through a lack of understanding.

Very often when I’m having a conversation with a non-theist, they will rehearse for me all of the attributes of the God they find impossible to believe in – at which point, I normally surprise them by telling them, I too can’t believe in that God. And this is usually because they’ve allowed their misconceptions of God to write their script, creating for them false assumptions about the implications of his existence. In this way, when our presupposed narrative goes unexamined – we are no longer capable of being intellectually honest . . . because we’ve allowed our narrative to be written in stone.

The temptation is always to trust our own understanding — to assume we know more than we are actually capable of knowing. So with a false sense of certainty, we begin to shadow box with the phantoms we’ve created, and with self-righteous indignation, we’re willing to pummel anyone we disagree with . . . assuming we understand better than they do. But is this the way of Christ? Or does my Christian faith call me to a humbler engagement of those who disagree with me? Is my life an invitation to discover the mystery of a God who has ways that are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8)? My prayer is to be set free from the shadows of my arrogant assumptions, so that I might see God in the full light of his glory.

And just like that . . . we can learn to live as one.

How Life Is Measured

Back in the 80s there was a bumper sticker that read “The one who dies with the most toys wins”. I never was clear whether this was meant to be taken as sort of mantra celebrating the zeitgeist of consumerism . . . or just a sarcastic denouncement of such a vacuous value system. But either way, this provocative statement does raise an important question – How is the good life best measured? . . . Especially, in light of the brevity of time we are given on this earth to live that life. But how is such a thing to be arbitrated? By what scales are such things judged?

When measuring most anything there are usually two basic categories: Quantity and Quality — one concerns itself with how much (volume), while the other with what kind (type) . . . each invariably requiring its own standard of measurement. But then again, that’s exactly how a consumerist would approach the question . . . assuming that value could be existentially assessed. So it would seem, the first question we need to ask would be: If we don’t exist to consume, then what is the point of our existence? Because the logic is simple – any measurement of how we exist, must first contend with the question of why we exist.

In scripture, the book of Ecclesiastes systematically works its way through every measurement of what life offers (both quality and quantity) known to man. All that can be accumulated, consumed, and experienced is examined in order to determine innate value, but each is found wanting. Until finally, all of it is pronounced a wasteland of vain banality . . . ultimately meaningless, in and of itself. Which is to say, of all the stuff that we can own and experience, none of it is capable of providing us with meaning or significance, but can only point us toward the source of significance.

In the beginning, as image bearers of God, we were given dominion of the earth – meant to participate in the purposes of God. So all of our material possessions can only find significance and value as we are good stewards of them – the inanimate being animated by the purposes of God through us. The taste of food, the pleasure of sex, the beauty of a sunset, the laughter of children – have absolutely no value at all . . . apart from our experience of them as expressions of God’s love for us. Therefore, the number of our days we are given are meant as a testimony, each one an oblation and celebration of God’s creation.

So how is life measured? It is measured by the glory we return to God, and in the praise and thanksgiving we offer up to him for all that we are, and all that we have. For it is in him that we find our being, and from that, our significance. So everything we put our hand to, everything we experience, and all that our eyes can behold – points us to God’s glory. Therefore, to whatever extent we put the confession of this truth into practice, we are experiencing the full measure of life . . . as it was always intended.

. . . so teach me to know my number of days

A Disposable World

Consumerism has long been understood as having the notorious reputation for obscuring the line between what we want with what we need — ever seducing us with a shiny object or a siren song to imagine ourselves made whole . . . by various superficial means. But there is something even more insidious in the way that consumerism frames our reality, as if we somehow had a self-existent significance. Because while we’re busy sorting out our wants from our needs, we have already unwittingly accepted the premise, that our wants and needs are of paramount concern to how we exist – placing on the back burner the very pressing concern of why we exist in the first place.

I have long pondered the words of St Augustine, who observed that ever since the fall of man, man has been haunted by the non-existence from which God spoke him out of — which is another way of saying that our own existence feels alien to us apart from God. And where there is an unease with existence, an ambiguity of purpose inevitably begins to create a vacuum that the consumerist ethos will be more than happy to fill. But in the same way that salt water is not only incapable of satisfying thirst, and can only increase it – the consumerist illusion of self-existence can only serve to widen the crater of our disaffection.

So not only are we haunted by the nihilism of our own fallen nature, but we also live with the consumerist impulse to fill that void with impermanent solutions incapable of ever satisfying our deepest needs. This invariably causes us to experience our world as disposable – because when the value of everything is measured against the transience of what it might mean to me . . . then everything gets tossed eventually. This is the type of pragmatism that animates the atheist mindset — for if the universe doesn’t have an innately transcendent value, then everything in it gets assessed in terms of survival pragmatism . . . and the self-serving illusions such a pragmatism invariably portends.

So I’m not surprised when an atheist believes that we all live in a universe that is at odds with us, making survival priority number one. But I’m a little surprised when I hear Christians speaking of this world as if it were a sinking ship, thereby making of Jesus nothing more than a lifeboat means to an afterlife solution to their survival . . . as it sounds disturbingly similar to the atheist’s rationale. To believe that creation was plan A, but now God has somehow moved on to plan B — is to believe in a disposable world . . . a world that God is simply tossing into the trash bin like a burnt waffle. But is this really the right way to understand our salvation?

If we have made ourselves the point of salvation – then we’ve missed the point almost entirely! And we’ve likely missed it because we’ve accepted a self-involved consumerist notion of meaning and significance – placing ourselves at the center of existence. Christ death, burial and resurrection is, first and foremost, a glorification of God – for it places God righty at the center of all things. Because if we are to ever be reconciled to our own existence – it will not be on our own terms . . . it will be found in the loving mercies of God who reconciles us unto himself. For this is the very heartbeat of the gospel.

“All these impermanent things . . .”

Throw Rocks Or Wash Feet

It has been my experience that most people are not interested in entertaining a conversation about the philosophical moral underpinnings of their own view of why human life should be considered valuable – because they’d much rather shoot from the hip when expressing their moral opinions. Such an approach invariably fosters an existential mix of emotional pragmatism with an extemporaneously applied conviction. Which is to say, scrutinizing their own moral views for consistency, is secondary to being able to pass judgement on those who disagree with them. Because in a conflict of moral opinions, securing the moral high ground in order to exact judgement with accusatory fervor, is preferable to being the target of such moral outrage . . . even if you can’t explain the presuppositions of your own morality.

This is our default relationship to morality – an inescapable paradigm of judge, or be judged. Which is why commonly accepted morality is constantly morphing to follow an ever changing cultural ethos – where morality is determined in a power struggle between the loudest influential voices of the day.  But this is not a modern phenomenon. Nietzsche had long dismissed morality as being nothing more than a contest between various groups, hoping to leverage the authority of morality to manipulate culture into submission. And it was this kind of power play that the Pharisees had in mind when they brought a woman, they had caught in adultery, before Jesus (John 8:3-11) to see if he’d pass judgement as was culturally expected.

There must have been quite a stir within the crowd, everyone eager to hear Jesus’ verdict – those with empty hands, secretly hoping not to participate in a public stoning . . . and those who had gathered up quite a few rocks, just waiting for Jesus to give them the go ahead. And surprisingly Jesus does not disappoint either group – he gives the go ahead to throw rocks with the stipulation that only those without sin could do so . . . and with that everyone knew that there wasn’t going to be a stoning that day. But more importantly, he had exposed the insidious nature of the “judge, or be judged” moral paradigm that was essential in creating the Pharisees’ mystique of authority, they relied upon to control the people.

In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus warns us that the morality of judging one another can only ever become a devolving cycle of perpetually finding fault with one another. But when asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus instead sums up the entire law (morality) “And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”~ Matthew 22: 37-39. Notice that the operative word here is love, making of love the core principle of morality.

And if you’re wondering who is your neighbor, and what does loving them look like: Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – a story about serving the needs of a stranger, a stranger who might even hate you (Jews didn’t care for Samaritans). Therefore the morality of loving must take on the shape of serving the other, regardless of who they might be. To underscore this very point Jesus chooses to wash the feet of his disciples . . . even Judas Iscariot’s (John 13:1-7). He is washing their feet fully anticipating going to the cross, where he will give himself over to the ultimate act of self-emptying service – so we’re tempted to wonder why spend time on such a lesser service as washing feet. But Jesus explains: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you.” ~ John 13: 12-15. So every day we must choose whether we will throw rocks or wash feet . . . choose wisely which morality you want to live by.

“Let your mercy flow through us . . . may they know your mercy”

Falling To Earth

You don’t have to be an expert talking head, or a seasoned political pundit, to recognize that the world is a troubled place. It is more than evident that our culture has been exponentially unraveling for a while now . . . with no discernable end in sight. Caught between the self-involved narcissism of the perpetually offended, and the militant tribalism of the pseudo-virtuous – one would think that all could be made right in the world if we would simply dispatch this notorious THEM, that everyone else seems so concerned about. Because there are few things more primal than blaming others for what we are unwilling to face up to, about ourselves . . . about the way we contribute to the divide.

No doubt you’ve experienced contentious people who insist on being adversarial at every turn – as if they had covered themselves in gasoline, daring you to strike the match. Because for people like this it’s in the combustion of conflict where they find their validation and significance – in this way their anger makes them feel as if they’re connected to something larger than themselves . . . some higher purpose. So how do we cross the divide with people who seem so intent on sustaining the divide? Or maybe the better question is – have I been the one who’s been sustaining that the divide?

Every day I have to make a choice, whether I’m going to be life giving or life depleting to those I encounter . . . and many days I fail that test. What makes this choice so critical – is that each choice has a multiplying effect. Either I am creating moments of grace that spreads generously from person to person, as their day unfolds. Or I am forging a chain that each person I encounter will invariably add their own link to, until the weight of it is a burden far too heavy for any of us to carry. For it is the very nature of human interaction that we will either lighten one another’s load, or we will laden each other with the heavy baggage of our own discontent.

I have been pondering these things as I’ve been meditate on these words of Jesus “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23, 24) This is a curious pairing of ideas that seems to be saying: In the same way that the glory of a seed resides in how it falls to earth and dies, thereby multiplying the life that it was given – the hour that the Son of Man is glorified, is when he dies on the cross, is buried, and rises again, thereby multiplying his resurrection for us all.

And if the pinnacle glorifying moment of Christ’s incarnation is to be likened unto a seed that multiplies life by dying – what do you imagine our moment of glory in this life should look like? The way of Jesus is a humble path, and the glory of that path is found in redemptive sacrifice. Therefore let us die daily, so that we might be life giving to those God has placed in our lives – so that his glory may be known. Is that not the glory of what it means to live in Christ?

Yes, it will be the humble who will know the glory of self-emptying love

The Chains We Revere

You can take it as axiomatic, that wherever you find hope in short supply, you will find fear has already begun to forge the chains of bondage. Stockholm syndrome comes to mind – because since this 1973 taking of hostages, we’ve come to recognize a discernable psychological pathology, of how those put in such extreme, life and death circumstances, will almost involuntarily develop an unusual attachment to their captors. It is an example of how fear’s natural inclination is to cower in response to the threats of an imposed will — assuming that compliance is the safest alternative. Because in such circumstances, if hope is nothing more than an idle wishing for a different outcome – then hope is lost.

But even in the 18th Century, Voltaire observed – “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere” His thesis seems to be, in classic Enlightenment terms, that it’s merely a matter of intellectual deficiency that makes people amicable to their chains – as if making a different choice, was a simple matter of getting your mind right. But given that Voltaire, a rather flamboyant atheist of his time, fundamentally believed that human existence to be in a perpetual state of survival hostility, set against the backdrop of an indifferent universe — one would think he could appreciate how people without a transcendent hope would choose to make peace with any overwhelming threat of imposed will . . . that in fact, he too had chosen to accept the chains of his own making.

In the book of Judges we find a reoccurring pattern: Israel straying from God, being oppressed, and then calling out to God for rescue. This is the pattern of the book until we get to chapter 13, with the birth of Samson, where Israel is being oppressed by the Philistines . . . but has chosen not to cry out to God. So by the time we get to chapter 15 where Samson takes refuge from the Philistines with the men of Judah . . . and then the Philistines show up. And here’s what the men of Judah said to Samson: “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us? . . . We have come down to bind you that we may give you into the hands of the Philistines.” (verses 11 & 12)

It is obvious from this text that the men of Judah had already made peace with their chains, and they had no real interest in the freedom of God’s redemption that Samson represented. Like their forefathers before them, who frequently entertained the idea of returning to their slavery in Egypt, while wandering in the desert – the certainty of their oppression somehow seemed preferable to them, than any reckless notion of waiting for God to provide. This is why I say – when hope is absent, fear always rushes into the vacuum . . . so that with hopeless resolve we end up negotiating the terms of our surrender to whatever power seeks to enslave us.

A culture that no longer finds its hope in God will always be susceptible to the fearmongering manipulation of forces seeking to subjugate it into compliance. And it doesn’t matter whether those forces are political or religious — or even in a more personal way, take on the shape of addiction and anxiety. Without the transcendent hope that can only be found in God . . . such a culture will remain in the chains of its own making. So I say, stand fast in your faith, knowing that your hope is sure and can withstand the shifting sands of circumstance. Therefore give no foothold to fear in your heart . . . and just let those chains fall knowing that when Jesus sets you free — you are free indeed! (John 8:36)

. . . and be free — up in the bright sky

More Real

The rationally-minded rely upon order and pattern, looking for hints and clues, so as to coherently frame an understanding of existence – ever assuming that such an external context will render them a tenable explanation for what is real. While others choose a more existential approach, counting on their experiential intuition to make sense of what reality means to them. But regardless of the approach, whether guided by an internal instinct or an external calculation, each one depends on its own process of perception to interpret the ubiquitously persistent questions of how and why we exist — each one, to some extent, convinced that their perception of reality . . . is reality.

This is the predictable process of cognition and emotion, where everything is evaluated on the subjective continuum between the extemporaneous and the over intellectualized – a span that exemplifies the ceaseless struggle of our hearts and minds to be at peace with our own existence. But what if the peace we seek is beyond the limited scope of what the heart and mind can apprehend? What if there were a more primal longing within us,  capable of reconciling what is, with what ought to be – something that wasn’t merely real . . . but was actually more real?

C.S. Lewis spoke of a distinction between what was merely real and what was really real — a distinction that regards the metaphysical (spiritual) as an essential dimension to understanding our own existence. But not as a dimension juxtaposed to the material world; instead one that was always meant, by design, to be in harmony with it. It was in our banishment from the Garden, where we first experienced the crisis of the disharmony of our own existence, because our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in had been broken. So we weren’t evicted from the Garden as part of some arbitrary penalty for breaking some arbitrary rule, rather it was about losing our capacity for living in the full dimensional paradise of Eden.

I have officiated a number of weddings, where I’ve usually shared a brief homely, making a distinction between marriage as a legal transaction, with marriage as sacrament. My point isn’t to diminish the legal aspect of marriage, rather it is to point to the far deeper reality of marriage as sacrament. I point out that those attending haven’t come to merely bear witness to some contractual arrangement sanctioned by the state, but instead to bear witness to the miracle of God binding together two people as one, so that they might share in the joy and hope of believing that God’s love has the power to make something new.

I think of the passage of scripture that likens us to jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-18), that reaches its crescendo in verse 18 – “. . . as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” The deeper truth, the real reality, all the things that out last and out shine the superficial concerns of our day to day – they all abide in God’s presence, entreating us all to come and remember who we really are . . . for this is the place where everything is more real.

. . . and it’s all there — just past sight

Religion Goes Off The Rails

The intellectually honest and the humble will agree – comparatively, very few things can be proven to be true. So invariably, this makes most of what we’ve accepted to be true, a collection of things we’ve chosen to believe to be true. And such a collection of beliefs, no matter how informally held, very often take on the ardent conviction and fervor, of what one might associate with religious belief. But this really isn’t that surprising, given that faith is a choice to believe something is true – even when it can’t be proven. In this way all belief systems are a form of religion, each one embraced as the definitive understanding of reality — each one attempting to live out the implications of its claims.

This is where my non-theist friends tend to object, arguing that what they’ve chosen to believe without actually having indisputable proof, isn’t really a belief system held as if it were religious dogma – because they have chosen to believe in science . . . with every expectation it will be a salvific agent of progress, capable of solving every unforeseen problem humanity may encounter in the future. Needless to say, I’ve long given up trying to break the Gordian Knot that is the conspicuous cognitive dissonance of their argument, as I’ve come to believe that ironically, their faith in what they’ve chosen to believe in is simply impervious to an intellectually self-aware examination.

But I get it – no one wants to associate what they’ve chosen to believe with how religion usually goes off the rails. After all, what kind of society would we be if we still lived during a time when religious mythology allowed mothers to throw their children into volcanos? O sure, an alien from another planet wouldn’t be able to distinguish the barbarism of such practices from our abortion clinics that allow mothers to dispose of their unwanted children – but then again, no one would expect a space alien to appreciate the subtle political nuance of how this modern dogma of choice had become so socially sacrosanct. Clearly, some religious folks believe their body to be a temple, while others choose to believe that having the freedom to practice human sacrifice is what makes their temple sacred.

So yes, the distortions of religious fanaticism are ubiquitous — even in the religious belief systems that pretend to be secularly irreligious. Politics have long been an incubator for the type of emotional tribalism that demands an unquestioned loyalty to partisan ideals – insisting that the very existence of the world hangs in an apocalyptic balance. Demanding lockstep conformity and devotion, politics very often mirrors the presumed religious instinct of marginalizing the unbeliever as the unwashed infidel – a tactic useful for intimidating unwanted dissenting opinions. In this way, each belief system relies on its own religious methodology in making its claim on what is true . . . even when feigning to be non-religious.

In all four Gospels we find Jesus engaging the religiously devout of his day – but he does not take issue with the fact that the Pharisees had religious conviction, but rather, with how their misplaced devotion to the Law had become a distortion, making of God a cruel taskmaster who could never be pleased. Ironically, among many practicing Christians today, this distortion of God’s nature is still prevalent. And unfortunately, because of that, many followers of Christ today reject the idea that they are religious, erroneously assuming that being religiously devout is synonymous with being heartlessly legalistic. So it might surprise you to discover that I consider myself a religiously devout follower of Christ. Which is to say – I don’t pretend that my choice to believe in Christ as my Savior is anything but an act of faith that defines everything else about me.

. . . and so you’ll catch me holding on to the Kingdom come.

What Do We Mean By Rational? (4 of 4)

On many occasions, in the midst of conversation, where the other person felt compelled to announce their rationality, as what I can only assume, was an effort to establish their credibility — I’ve never been sure of how I was supposed to respond to such an assertion. Were they really contemplating being irrational, but then changed their mind? Given the fact that they don’t even attempt to make an actual contextualizing argument for what they might mean by rational, I’m left to wonder if they even know what constitutes rationality – so ironically, such a pronouncement makes me think it might just be a compensation for exactly how irrational they are. But more likely, it’s just a transparent attempt at passive aggressively marginalizing my view as irrational . . . without actually having to do the heavy lifting of making that case.

The most common false assumption about rationality is that it’s somehow self-evident – as if we all share the same cognitive reference point, in regards to how life makes sense. And it’s why under this erroneous assumption, that most of those promoting themselves as rational feel no compunction to demonstrate exactly how their views are rational – which ironically makes a rational exchange of ideas with them nearly impossible. Because truth be told, their claim of rationality is nothing more than a rhetorical device intent on creating the illusion that their opinion is intellectually superior.

This is precisely how civil discourse devolves, as most people are simply unwilling to recognize their own presuppositional bias. For those who view the meaning of life through the prism of pleasure, then the pursuit of pleasure constitutes what they find most rational. For those who believe life is best understood as a matrix of power struggles, then their framework presupposes that all competing ideas must be forced through that lens before they can ever be deemed rational. This is because there is invariably a context and criterion implicit in how each of us defines what it means to be rational. But an intellectually honest discussion about what criterion best applies the logic of rationality is hardly ever engaged.

Disagreements over what is rational are very often predicated on a false dichotomy attempting to pit empiricism against faith, as if they were diametrically opposed – when they are not. An empirical examination of information is inescapably an interpretive process relying upon a presupposed criterion of meaning and significance. It is in this presupposing of unproven beliefs where the empiricist is actually exercising their faith . . . albeit, a faith that goes largely unconfessed. While the person of faith is more than willing to announce their faith beliefs upfront, as they examine all of the available information with logical integrity and intellectual honesty.

The Christian faith presupposes the existence of a God who purposefully creates the universe, imbuing it with meaning and purpose. It is a design that gives transcendent significance to how we comprehend concepts like love and justice as meaningful. It is a redemptive narrative, ever seeking to reconcile us to our own existence. So if you believe that life has meaning, and that love and justice are transcendently sourced, and that you are meant to be in harmony with your own existence (and not just a refugee, surviving an indifferent universe) – Then you are basically embracing the Christian rationale for how reality was designed to work.

. . . a design so wonderful that it inspires us to lift praise as our most natural and reasonable response.