Sunday, June 10, 2018


Griffins Without Faces

My 3-year-old grandson, Matthew, attends a pre-school in Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk in the lovely land of East Anglia. To get there, we walk along a few quiet residential streets till we get to a narrow driveway defined on either side by tall lush greenery. At the entrance to the driveway stand two brick pillars. Atop each pillar is a small stone griffin. The faces of the griffins have been hammered off. From the aging of the stone, I’d say the hammering took place a very long time ago. 

It is possible the griffins were defaced (literally) by random vandals, but is vandalism ever really random or does its very randomness express nihilism? Regardless, it was probably not random vandals but ideologically driven iconoclasts ridding the Emerald Isle of graven images. 

After our recent visit to Matthew’s pre-school, we went to Stratford Upon Avon. The schoolroom where William Shakespeare began his formal study of words – and we shall return to words e’er long as they play a major role in this drama – adjoins a chapel constructed by the Guild of the Holy Cross 1418-1420. Restoration of the chapel in recent years displays lovely medieval iconography on the wall behind the altar. It features Christ crucified, John and Mary at the foot of the cross, and most recently discovered, John the Baptist to the side. The images of Jesus and the saints were covered over by plaster, but before that, there had been a serious effort to eradicate them. This occurred on the orders of Elizabeth I carried out under the direction of a Stratford public official John Shakespeare, William’s Dad. John was probably Catholic in his personal piety, but Elizabeth was paying two shillings for the job and this was part of changing the purpose of the place from visual art to words, those words John’s son mastered so remarkably. 

The present restoration of the chapel is uncovering the visual expressions of Medieval piety. But pause a minute. This restoration is peeling the paint and plaster spread by John Shakespeare’s minions, right? Might we now be defacing the piety of the 16thCentury iconoclastic reformers? 

After our time in Stratford Upon Avon, we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. The display of Medieval art, on overwhelmingly Christian themes, was breathtaking – a profound expression of an idealized spiritual faith expressed through the genius of art. This is precisely the sort of thing that shocked the conscience of 16thCentury iconoclasts. The Renaissance Art was equally exquisite. Renaissance Art too was rich in Christian themes, albeit an earthier more human faith.  But Renaissance Art included themes from pagan Antiquity that would have been smashed and burned by Early Christians and utterly verboten throughout the Medieval era. Both aesthetic apprehensions of what we observe and what we imagine -- Antique Pagan and Medieval Christian -- would come under attack from the iconoclastic hammer and plaster brush in a short while. 

Whence cometh this seemingly irresistible impulse of our species to make meaning through art? What is it in us that is so threatened by such art that we react against it so violently? What is it that makes words less of a threat than paintings? Now in our time, words – logocentrism – come under attack from deconstructionists. Is the challenge to words and grammar the same as, similar to, or utterly different from the iconoclastic spirit that hammers away the faces of griffins? I suspect a connection but that the connection is more complex than I can sort. 

The First Wave of Iconoclasm. There is a philosophical side to this question. But before the philosophy, let’s consider the story. My story comes down to an exegetical hypothesis on a piece of the Torah. It is somewhat interpretive, somewhat imaginative, but not an invention. It is within the realm of legitimate opinion, but it will be obviously shaped by the pastoral experience of an old cleric who has spent decades directing the sacred traffic of God’s very human people.

The history of the issue long precedes Medieval Art and the Reformation. Art was expressing religion back in the hunter gatherer and even cave dwelling days of our species. When religion grew institutional with the agrarian revolution and the rise of hierarchical states, art abounded. Language was a Johnny Come Lately to religion. We were painting divine, human, and animal stories long before someone in Sumer invented writing circa 3,000 BCE. Thereafter, words and images peacefully coexisted for nearly 2,000 years. 

Then came Moses who took a radical stand against images and words alike. Were his reasons theological or philosophical? Perhaps, but I suspect they were political – and by that, I mean no criticism. I posit Moses was trying to clear the way for collaborative moral relationships among people.

There is no archaeological evidence of a massive exodus of slaves from Egypt. There is no evidence of a massive invasion of Canaan in the era of Joshua. There is no historical evidence of such events apart from the Bible. There is evidence of class conflict in Northern Canaan, which was subjugated by the Egyptians. It would seem that Egypt as an agricultural domination system had extended its empire over the fertile valleys and plains of Northern Canaan and forced the indigenous people into field labor. Their rebellion is documented by letters from the Egyptian military to the royal court describing how the insurrection of the apiru (Hebrews – not an ethnic category but a class category – it means the rabble). 

It appears as if a future uprising may have had some success, that a significant number of the indigenous people in Northern Canaan followed Moses away from the fields, swearing to hoe no more fields for the man, and fled into the hills to take up a different life -- a pastoral life, to be ordered by egalitarian norms of freedom, justice, and equality – in marked contrast to the domination system of agrarian society. They had not previously needed to create ways to order their common life. The Egyptians had been ordering it for them. To create a free and equal society, new forms of unity were necessary. A common religion was the heart of it. 

These people were not all of the same tribe. Tradition tells us there were 12 tribes. The idea that they shared a common ancestor and a common history before Egypt is a strained tale in Genesis, which would be written centuries later. It looks very much as if some tribes claimed ancestry from Abraham and others from Isaac. Genesis makes one the son of the other and both characters had at points similar stories. A narrative of common ancestry is part and parcel of weaving 12 tribes into one people.

It was a polytheistic world, but a tribe cold have a particular tie to one god who would look out for them if they were loyal to him(religion had become patriarchal in the Bronze Age). Naturally, the tribes worshiped different Gods. Some called their deity, El (translated in the Hebrew Scriptures as God). Others worshiped a god named Yah or Yahweh (whose name will be banned early in this story, so he will be referred to more obliquely asAdonai (generally translated as the Lord). The different tribes agreed to worship the same god but in an attempt to preserve their traditions, declared:

Shema ‘srael, Adonai Elohanyu Adonai echad. 

It is vitally important to parse the Great Commandment in its context. Hear O Israel. Listen up Israel. Hear – as summons together. Then God bestows on them a single name – Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, and the rest are subsumed under one name Israel. In Isaiah, it is said, you who were not a people are now my people. God through Moses forms a people by summoning them to hear and giving them a single name. Then God radically simplifies their theology: Yah (Adonai)and El (Elohanyu) are one (the same guy). Do not jump the gun. This is not monotheism. That is centuries away. The point here is to say that the different gods of these tribes are merged into a single god, Yahweh El, the Lord God, for a single people, Israel. 

But – and surely you are not surprised – disputes over the name of God persisted. Why? I do not know. Is it that the one God manifests so variously in human hearts? I do not know. Differences persisted. Troubles continued – until it was decreed no name of God should not be spoken at all. We just won’t use words. That is from the days of the Hebrew Scriptures and is a silent shibboleth of Judaism, so that many orthodox Jews will not say any word referring to God but will point upward, or when writing omit the letter “o” and print “G_d” so that without a vowel no word can be pronounced. And yet as Judaism lives on, the Kabballah gives us Nine Names of God. Judaism has two traditions, one with emphatically no name for God and another that proliferates names. 

But I am ahead of myself. Let us return to the innocent days when Yah and El were the same, so that one said Yahweh El (the Lord God) or did not say the name of God at all, how shall we represent God in our holy places –. Some tribes had worshiped a bull-god; others, a god who looked like a griffin. Who gets to paint God to look like the God their grandparents worshiped? We can easily imagine the fight over that one. And anyone who can imagine that will all the more easily imagine an exasperated Moses banning all images of God. 

It didn’t work of course. The altar of the Ark of the Covenant had bull horns. Statuettes surmised to be of The Lord God have been found from various times of the Biblical era. But, in principle, the nameless, imageless God of Israel was sufficiently nameless and sufficiently imageless that other peoples called the Jews atheists. 

We have no art from the brief period in which primitive Christianity was a Jewish sect. Quickly, the Christians became neither fish nor fowl – or part fish, part fowl – between Judaism and Hellenism. By the 2ndCentury, paintings of Jesus as a young shepherd appear. At first there was no sacred text beyond the Hebrew Scriptures. But by the 2ndCentury, a canon of Scriptures is forming from letters and the new literary genre of evangelion(gospel) written just decades before. It would be anybody’s guess whether the written words or the paintings came first. We can be sure, they were pretty much hand in hand. 

It may (??) be important that in this formative era of Christian art and literature, Christianity was the faith of small collaborative communities reminiscent of Moses’ pastoral communitarian society. Then Christianity became the religious arm of the Empire, Constantine’s mother Monica discovered “the one true cross” and that which had not been a Christian symbol became the central Christian symbol erected in every place of worship. Cristian literature and Christian art went public together. Did the meaning attached to the art change when it became public art, the face of the Empire and its state religion, instead of the more personal art of small, marginal communities?

In the 6thCentury, the iconoclastic controversy arose – or not so much arose as went international. Syrian Christians had never warmed up to religious art. Iconography was all over Greece but not Syria. When Syrians surged in ecclesiastical influence, they launched a challenge to visual representations. It was a passionate fight. The more European sector of the Church regained control and decreed that icons are ok but attempted to smooth it over using words. Icons would not be worshiped but would be venerated -- meaning they are not gods but God can be encountered through them – which is not so different from how pagans had long understood the function of idols. 

What was actually going on in the iconoclast controversy? What was going on with the iconoclasm of the 16thCentury? While it is often assumed that Henry VIII’s only purpose of a break from Rome was to secure and annulment of his marriage, he expeditiously banned votive images as such images were being destroyed in Protestant lands on the Continent. Edward VI launched an assault on all religious art, replacing it with Scriptural texts on Church walls. Yet there survived ample religious art to be destroyed by Cromwell in the 17thCentury. What stirred their passions against paintings of the Holy Family or the saints? What thoughts motivated whoever took a hammer to the 19thor 20thCentury griffins outside Matthew’s pre-school?

I know of strict Congregationalists who will brook no religious objects in the Church or elsewhere – meaning no cross. Other Protestants are perfectly comfortable with the polyvalent symbol of the cross, but nothing else. Then there are those who will endure a portrait of Jesus (preferably the one modelled on Pope Alexander VI’s dissolute son) but no one else. Others will accept other paintings of all manner of saints, but no statues of anyone. Then there are those who are ok with a sta              e of Jesus only. Then some are ok with Jesus and other men, normally 4 evangelists; the quartet of Peter, Paul, Mosel, & Elijah; or the 12 apostles; and maybe more guys like Stephen or St. George. Interesting for our puzzlement about word and image, some will accept statutes of men referenced in the Bible but not saints from after 210 C.E. The foregoing are, as I say, comfortable with representations of men – but not women! No Blessed Virgin Mary for them – not in painting or statue but in the words of Matthew and Luke, she is acceptable. Then I have met a surprising to me number of people who are comfortable with Mary so long as she is white, but the Virgin of Guadalupe strikes them as idolatrous. 

Flashback to the 6thh Century. Were the icons of that day Eurocentric? Did that Hellenistic hegemony implicitly stir the iconoclasm of the Syrians who had been rather marginalized in the Church up to then? This is pure speculation on my part, but I do wonder. 

How are we to understand the stirring of art in the human spirit, a stirring that virtually compels us to express our faith in word, image, and song, but which also horrifies others? Is their horror a simplistic fidelity to “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” – how does that get to the ban on musical instruments (but not acapella singing) in some denominations? 

I do not know. Truly, I do not know. But I wonder if it has to do with two things: the mystery of God and the continuing struggle to connect with each other. 

Iconoclasm is primarily a concern for the Abrahamic traditions – but not exclusively so. In Buddhism, images of the Buddha were forbidden in practice for several centuries, then became omnipresent objects of devotion. The iconography of Tibetan Buddhism is as rich as that of Rome. But Theravadan Buddhism is simpler and Zen Buddhism is starkly simple. Very simple drawings characterize Zen, but so does the adage, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. There is in Buddhism a concern that the sacred not be conflated with words, images, or even the person of the Buddha. I mention this because the universal ambivalence about artistic expression cannot be reduced to absolutizing a few Biblical texts. 

Being and Void/Other/Differance 

I preface all I say here with a deep thank you to Emanuel Levinas and Eberhard Jungel (and to David Ford for having struck them against each other like flint and steel). If I seem critical, it is as a gnat critiquing giants. 

Over the centuries, Christianity came to experience God not as a superbeing but as Being itself, the suchness of things, but with the empathic point that Being is not an abstraction, not a mere quality of existing; rather Being is personal and intentionally procreative of beings. God is the intimate suchness of Reality itself. The core of all that is is Love. 

That way of talking about God has been subjected to searing critique in the latter 20thand early 21stCenturies. It has been challenged by atheists of course but more interestingly by deconstructionist philosophy, negative theology (Marion, Cupit), and – in a category all his own – Levinas. 

The Post-Modern challenge is a kind of iconoclasm, or more aptly logoclasm, an attack on words as such and an attack on the concept of meaning that words convey, a challenge to the notion of such a thing as meaning, what Derrida calls logocentrism. Nietzsche famously said in the 19thCentury,the reason we have so much difficulty getting rid of God is that we still believe in grammar. He meant we are beset with a sense of the order and purpose implicit in language. Post-Modernism challenges that sense of meaning and order. Marion notes that the whole scientific process rests on an implicit faith that there is an orderliness to reality. That is the implicit faith Post-Modernist philosophy smashes with the iconoclast’s hammer. 

I do not mean to paint all these philosophers with the same brush. Their concerns are different, but they have a common enemy, the notion of Being as the source, destiny, and purpose of reality. Contrary to popular assumptions, this repudiation of God as Being or the Ground of Being (as Tillich put it) isn’t science. The intellectual champion of Western atheism, Anthony Flew, was converted to theism by the Big Bang Theory because it proved the Universe has a Source beyond itself. John Polkinghorne, Wolfgang Pannenberg, and other leading theologians rely heavily on science while leading scientists debate the philosophical and theological implications of their discoveries. (I am no scientist and so cannot rightly judge but my sense is that the philosophers and theologians have a better grasp of the science than some of the scientists have of the philosophy and theology – Paul Davis being one of the exceptions). Nor does the challenge come from a boldly optimistic humanism. That naivete is under the same critique. It seems to be the horrors of world wars, the moral shock of genocide, the persistence of war often cloaked in ideology, the randomness of violence -- all in all, the moral failure of the world that has turned our minds to a logoclasm to match old fashioned iconoclasm. 

Moral protest certainly lies behind the philosophy of Levinas whose work is quite directly in response to the Shoah that so marked his life. Massive genocide led him to a radical critique of Western thought as such. As a Talmudic scholar employing the skeptical phenomenology of Husserl, he is adept at his critique. He rejects Western notions of Being, the Beautiful, the Good, the True, Aristotle’s virtues practiced in community, the whole tradition in favor of the discovery of morality when we encounter the shocking reality that we are not alone, but there are others. I am not prepared to replace the whole canon of Western intellectual history with Levinas, but his critique deserves to be taken seriously as he speaks in the tradition of Moses. 

I would like to add to the mix the thought of Levinas’s Asian contemporaries, the Kyoto School of Philosophy, most famously Keiji Nishitani, Kitaro Nishida, and Masao Abe. Form their experience of World War II in Japan, it was not only Western philosophy that was the problem. They searched Eastern thought wondering how it could have culminated in the militaristic nationalism that propelled Japan into the World War and led many Japanese to engage in such cruelty.

As Western thought had focused on Being as the core of Reality, Eastern thought had focused on the Void. WW II led the Kyoto philosophers to study Western philosophy for a corrective. They were drawn particularly to Karl Barth, a theologian whose language has some kinship with that of Levinas. They continued to believe a great Void, or Emptiness, or Spaciousness lies behind all our experience. But they discovered that the Void was procreative, freely proliferating the Cosmos. As they looked at the Cosmos spinning out of the Void, it told them something of the nature of the Void. Yes, a Void can have a nature. They discovered that the Void was personal!!! – an idea akin to a nameless, imageless God who is Love. The Kyoto philosophers too deserve our respect and attention. 

So Where Are We?Short answer: I don’t know. The impulse to find or forge meaning through art and language is so essential to human nature, we cannot stop it. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in. I am worn out by holding it in. Indeed, I cannot. Jeremiah 20: 9. This is as true for the poet, the philosopher, the theologian, the painter, the sculptor, and the dancer as it is for the prophet. Art and language are as essential to our humanity as tools – maybe more so. 

On the other hand, whatever we say, paint, sculpt, or in any way express of God is inadequate. We have such an urge to render God manageable, that we are apt to reduce the God of our imaginations to what we have expressed. We may worship our statues or our doctrines. It comes to the same thing. Stone and words alike are representations of God – essential because we cannot live without making meaning but dangerous because those stammering expressions of meaning are apt to shut down the ongoing process of feeling our way in the dark searching for God. 

Where does that leave us? Might it be that art and iconoclasm exist in a necessary tension? If so, how are we to manage it? I truly do not know. But if those who forge meaning make a discipline of paradox, there is an implicit iconoclasm in the meaning. It is when the image or idea is comprehensible rather than suggestive that it is apt to shut down the search prematurely. It is paradox that holds the mind open. that props open the door of our hearts. What do I mean by paradox? The personal Void. God who is one and three. Jesus who is fully human and fully divine. Our tradition abounds in paradox, though we often flatten it out and explain it way. That is when the hammer comes out. 

Monday, April 2, 2018


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

I share with you a blog I wrote last year because this Epistle is a variation on that theme. You may want to check it either before or after reading the 34th Epistle. The blog says our project as the Church is to be in relationship with each other, and then together to be in relationship with the world outside on behalf of Christ. It also says that is a hard project indeed and we often fail chiefly because relationship costs us a piece of ourselves, and that’s a price we are not willing to pay.

If I seem a bit obsessed with our relationships, permit me to list the basic reasons:

1. 1.  Our understanding of God as Trinity means God is love, that godliness is a matter of relationality. God is the source, the destiny, and the meaning of our lives so to miss God (love/relationality) is to miss the heart of everything. Because God is who God is, the only way to God is through relationship with each other.

2.   2. Whenever God acts to draw us into relationship with him (apologies for the male pronoun), God always – always – establishes a covenant to create a human community with himself in the middle of it. The Church is either a covenant community or we are a sham. It is in the covenant community that we support each other and challenge each other (sometimes by being flawed) to practice virtues and grow in grace.

3.   3. When asked “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus could not give just one. He had to give two because they are equal and inseparable: love of God and love of neighbor. (Mt 22: 36-40)

4.   4. The entire theology of St. Paul is an elaboration on finding our salvation, our wholeness, through being incorporated into the Body of Christ, an all too human community. (e.g., I Cor. 12)

5.   55. St. John says it is impossible to love God without loving each other. A purported spiritual bond to God absent a community of faith is, in John’s word, a “lie.” (1 Jn. 4: 20)

6.   6. The Catechism says the Church’s mission, our reason for being, the thing we get up for each morning, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (BCP 855)

7.   7. This literary genre of the Epistle is, of course, an homage to the New Testament Epistles, and they are overwhelmingly on a single theme: Be a covenant community!

Those are some of the reasons I feel compelled like Jeremiah (Jer. 20: 9) to speak of this. I do not mean to pressure you to connect with each other in a life giving, inspiring, rooted, meaningful way. It is my job to pry the door open but whether you choose to enter or not is up to you.

I write this Epistle to make two more points beyond what I said in the blog – the first, faintly implicit in the attached blog; the second, not mentioned but it is vitally important.

1. I.   The Triumph of the Centrifugal Force.

Usually, we simply disconnect from each other. It is hard to draw people together in a parish, harder still to draw parishes together into a diocese. There are multiple practical pretexts for disconnection. But the underlying real reason is that connection involves a kind of loss of self. To connect, we have to set our thoughts and opinions aside to listen to each other, shelve our own agendas to care about each other, to risk being changed by the relationship. It is a real risk. The reason to do it is that we also discover ourselves in a whole new light in the context of relationship. He who seeks to save his life will lose it but he who loses his life will find it. (Lk. 17: 33).

The centrifugal force in our culture is strong these days. Maybe it is because institutions have a history of oppression and corruption. They are composed of people and we know how people are. Or maybe it is because the first 6 decades of the 20th Century grew stiflingly conformist. Or maybe it is just a surge the individualist isolationism that all the name brand religions see as an inherent problem in human life. There are no doubt reasons we disconnect, but the spiritual and emotional price we pay is high.

The new point I offer about disconnection in the Church is that the parishes that are most disconnected from the Diocese (their sister parishes and partners in mission) turn out to be the ones whose members are disconnected from each other. Sometimes a parish sets out to bond internally against the outside threat of the Diocese, but invariably internal discord either precedes or succeeds the isolation of the parish. Conversely, congregations with a healthy connection to the wider Church have healthy internal dynamics as well. I have no idea which comes first. It looks like chicken and egg. But the correlation of internal and external cooperation shows up over and over and over.

2.   II. The Triumph of the False Centripetal.

On the other hand, we are hardwired to long for connection. We need some level of human interaction to live. In this time of radical individualism, we are lonelier and lonelier. So, we need to come together. But, we don’t want to lose ourselves in that coming together. We are ambivalent. So, we tend to come together on a shallow and oft-times pathological basis. The most common commonality is that we unite against someone or some other group. It is an us against them or, even better, an us against him. Systems psychologists call that a false bond or a bogus relationship. We are not appreciating each other, caring for each other, risking that essential loss of self in authentic relationship with each other. We are just getting together to talk trash about someone who is not our sort dear or against those people.

I see false bonding in the Church a lot – a whole lot – of the time. Our diocese has its outcasts who serve as our scapegoats. We find our unity in condemning them. I hear the clergy of one region of the diocese speaking contemptuously of our Church in another region. I hear the persistence of some in believing that no one cares about them even when others have labored long and spent resources to support them, but they are bonded with each other in the conviction that no one else cares.

The problem with false bonding is this: it inoculates us against authentic relationship. It is a mirage of community. It will not slake the real thirst of our souls.

3.   III. Getting Past Both Alienations To Find Wholeness.

It is entirely ok to stay isolated. I want to say the only ones we are hurting are ourselves. That isn’t quite true. We are all essential members of the team. So, if we don’t show up, the team is diminished. But the Church team has been playing with 8 on the baseball field or 4 on the basketball court so long no one is apt to notice.

It is less ok to bond on a negative basis. That does hurt other people at the same time that it corrupts us. But the Church has become so optional in a secular society, people should not have too hard a time escaping us.

The real point is the missed opportunity not only for each of us individually but for each other and for the wider world. We are invited to lose our (little) selves in order to find our (larger) selves as the Body of Christ. Our mission is not to form a mutual support group. It is to be the Body of Christ in the world. The Catechism, remember, says our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The basis of our unity is all important. We take up our cross (on which our little selves are crucified) in order to be raised into the meaningful life of Jesus’ Kingdom Mission.

What does the Kingdom Mission look like? The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) speak of little else. Good news for the poor, broken hearts mended, release for the captive, liberty for the oppressed. (Lk 4: 18) God’s gracious will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. (Mt. 6: 10) We carry out the mission as we worship and pray, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace, and love. (BCP 855) It’s a big, big mission. It is fulfilled only at the end of the age, but the Kingdom happens, it breaks in here and now all the time. It happens whenever we discern God’s will and do God’s will together.

That Mission is big enough to lift us up out of our lesser selves and are set free to become our true selves. This is how we become whole. If we “come to the garden alone when the dew is still on the roses,” and if Jesus shows up to walk with us and talk with us, either he’ll eventually invite us out of the garden into the mission field with our fellow Christians, or he’s an imposter.

The point is coming together for a higher purpose. We have reached important insights into human nature through research on PTSD among combat veterans. That condition among veterans these days is proving harder to eradicate than other trauma survivors. There are probably several contributing factors, but the main one is what matters to us. Combat trauma survivors relive their combat experience. The thing that keeps them stuck in the trauma is that they don’t want to give up the rest of the experience. Other trauma survivors are not so nostalgic. There is nothing positive for them to remember.

So, what’s so special about combat? Two things: First, for people in our self-focused society, it is the one time in their lives they were serving something more important than themselves, something they were willing to live or die for. Second, they were bonded to their comrades in that cause, ready to sacrifice themselves for each other’s good. That was their taste of real life. No wonder, they don’t want to let it go even if it is laced with terror. The point for us is that the reason combat PTSD is so stubborn is because in civilian life, in civic life, we are not connecting for something vastly larger than our own personal agendas.

Covenant community is a whole new way of being in the world. It would be boldly countercultural in the West today. You may call me a dreamer (ironic allusion), but I hope for some of us it is still possible.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


Society is torn. There is so much acrimony and division these days over political ideologies, race, gender, religion, and most anything people can imagine to divide up over. I would have thought that was clear, but in a recent social media post by the Southern Poverty Law Center showing a photo of a toddler in a KKK outfit, comments came back defensively denying that we are in significant conflict. We are even in conflict over whether we are in conflict. One clear indicator of our divisions, hate crime, is indisputably and dramatically on the rise.[i]

When the present day is all shouting and spin, it helps to draw wisdom from the past, including the spiritual wisdom of folks like St. Paul. Much that is implicit in Paul’s swirling metaphors and pleas for people to treat each other more kindly is out front and explicit in Aristotle. That’s because Aristotle was a prosaic philosopher while Paul was a poetic mystic. But they agreed on some basics.
Aristotle said, Humans are political animals. He didn’t mean we like jockeying for power in partisan contests. He meant we are wired to live in relationship with a community.[ii] It is not good for the man to be alone. Genesis 2: 18 Aristotle taught that we are all born with a destiny, not to do something or acquire something, but to become someone. We are each on our way toward becoming the person we were made to be – though whether we become that person or not is up to us. It depends on how we live. We are all meant to become fully human. We become fully human through the development of our characters. A character is a deeply engrained pattern of behavior. Aristotle called a good pattern an arête or virtue. We form and strengthen virtue though life in community. Modern philosophers like Emanuel Levinas, Jurgen Moltmann, and Martha Nussbaum and depth psychologists like Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott agree that we become ourselves through relationship and conversation. That is why the Bible is consistent in saying we are called to live in covenant with one another.

Pause here to notice the difference in how we understand our city, state, nation, and world. They are not a necessary evil, not a regrettable infringement on our individualistic liberty, but the field on which we exercise virtue and become who God made us to be. Aristotle thought the city-state should be organized precisely for the purpose of growing virtue – not maximizing wealth but growing virtue.[iii] The Pilgrims founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a society where Christian virtue could flourish. Calvin did the same in Geneva.[iv] The forefathers forged American democracy with the notion that participation in democratic processes – if we do it right – would grow our characters. There are always people who want to withdraw from the fray and take refuge in the private life of self, family, and friends. They deny any responsibility for what happens in the public square and embrace passivity. Similarly, many hope the Church will be a sanctuary where we do not think about real life issues of justice and mercy. But those escapist strategies deny our nature as wired for community and the role of the Church in expressing the moral side of public issues.

The 19th Century French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville did a classic study of American society, Democracy In America. He examined the American character with the question: why does democracy work there when it hasn’t fared well elsewhere?[v] He found that we were doing democracy quite well but that American culture had a tragic flaw that would likely sooner or later spell the doom of democratic society – individualism. Think I Did It My Way. Or My Life.
Spiritually, individualism denies our nature as wired for community and rejects the hard task of becoming fully human through relationships. Politically, individualism is the path to the everyman for himself riot that, according to Thomas Hobbes,[vi] we establish government to overcome. The Biblical book of Judges recounts one disastrous story after another, explaining each with this recurring one-liner explanation, In those days there was no king in Israel and each man did what was right in his own eyes.[vii]

But de Tocqueville said there was one hope for us. He believed our participation in voluntary associations, especially and above all churches, would allow us to cultivate the civic virtues necessary to live together in peace and govern ourselves wisely. For Alexis de Tocqueville a church is a gymnasium in which we strengthen the virtues without which civilization is impossible. I would agree but say that cultivating those virtues is not just for a political purpose – it how we grow into the likeness of Christ.

And we, who with unveiled faces, contemplate the glory of our Lord, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory.  2 Corinthians 3: 18

For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son so that he might become the firstborn of many brethren. Romans 8: 29

Do not merely look after your own interests, but also the interests of others. Have this attitude in you that was in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2: 4-5

The goal of the Christian life is to become fully human as Christ is fully human, to cultivate in ourselves the qualities of character that made Jesus the Christ.[viii]

If de Tocqueville is right that the virtues we learn especially in Church, but also other voluntary associations, are necessary to democratic society, is it any coincidence that the decline in Church attendance and membership in other voluntary associations has occurred at the same time as the current dysfunction of our political life?[ix] If the departure from the Church produces this political disarray, then political disarray is a symptom of an even more serious spiritual malaise in society. That’s what Parker Palmer says in Healing the Heart of Democracy.[x] Palmer argues that we need to form groups to intentionally practice the virtues that are essential to civic life.

This brings us back to St. Paul. It is often said that Paul junked the law in favor of a libertine life in which all is forgiven so anything goes. Not so! Paul shifted from the rule-based ethics of the Torah to a virtue-based ethics like that taught by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and other great minds of the Ancient World. Instead of thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do that, Paul wrote, But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5: 22-23 Paul rejected rule-following ethics in favor of growing a character with a skeleton of strong virtues.

Paul’s virtue ethics became the basis for Christian morality to this very day.[xi] The foundation of Christian moral life is The Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, & Love)[xii] and The Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude)[xiii]. We grow more like Jesus through practicing these seven virtues intentionally in our relationships with each other. Church is the best place to work on forming our characters, but we spend most of our time in the secular world, so that is where the virtues must be practiced day in and day out.

Any understanding of Christian morality begins with knowing and understanding the Big Seven Virtues. The words don’t always mean exactly what we might expect from how they are used ordinarily. So, we need a bit of vocabulary clarification.

Faith is not holding the right theological opinions. It is closer to what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called basic trust. It is the capacity to trust others enough to be in relationship with them. At the psychological level, it is the first step in psychosocial development. But theologically, it is even more important. It is trust in God which amounts to trusting Reality itself to be meaningful and good. Without trust, we live in fear and loathing. Faith set us free from that misery and makes life possible. Faith in the coherence of the world is the essential foundation for science. Faith in the meaningfulness of words is the foundation of language. Without faith, we are lost.

Hope is believing in the good no matter how hidden it may be. It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. The things that are essential are invisible to the eye. Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Hope is the heart seeing the invisible beauty of the world, and daring to believe that it will one day flourish. There is in all things visible . . . a hidden wholeness, wrote Thomas Merton. Hope is the antidote to despair. Despair is suicide, mass violence, addiction, and cynicism. Hope is the Man of La Mancha dreaming the impossible dream.
The practice of all the virtues is rooted in the transcendent hope for our own transformation into the likeness of Christ. We are God’s children now. It does not yet appear what we shall be. But when he appears, we shall be like him. I John 3: 2 Emily Dickinson said:

         Hope is the thing with feathers
         That perches in the soul
         And sings the tune without the words
         And never stops at all

         And sweetest in the Gale is heard
         And sore must be the storm
         That could abash the little bird
         That kept so many warm.

Love in this sense is not romantic or sentimental. It isn’t the special affection we feel for our lover, friend, or child. It is appreciating and caring for another person just because they are a person. It is loving their humanity. That applies to all people equally. Other kinds of love single out people for preference. They are not wrong, but this kind of love is the greatest love of all and is the foundation for doing all other loves well.[xiv] This love extends to everyone. It is what we mean by the Baptismal Vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

Prudence is the “mother of all virtues,” the virtue without which none of the others is possible. in day to day speech prudence means being careful -- but not in moral theology. Prudence is the wisdom to see things as they really are – not as we wish they were, not as we are afraid they might be, but as they really are – not through the lens of any ideology or prejudice. It is daring to look reality in the face. There is a crude but apt illustration in the movie LBJ, when the President says to his fellow Texan, Senator Ralph Yarborough, Ralph, you’ve got a goooood heart, but s%$* for brains. Faith, hope, and love would all be a fantasy if they were just make believe, and not facing the world as it is, people as they are. Prudence sees thing as they are and acts wisely in the situation, like a gambler knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, etc.

There are two things we have to know first before any other prudence/knowledge is possible. First, we have to know ourselves because everything else we see, we see through the lens of our own psyches. The Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks inscribed the proverb everywhere know yourself. The Greeks had story after story of people who had been told true prophesies, but rushed headlong into disaster because they did misread the prophesies – misread them through the lens of their own selves. We have to know ourselves to see rightly.

The second thing we have to know is how much we do not know. Certainty closes the mind. Curiosity opens it. Wisdom is possible only if we are not too sure of ourselves, only if we dare to turn to wonder. We are usually wiser when we wondering.

Temperance in moral theology isn’t just about how much you drink. It’s balance. Parker Palmer says that the big truths of life are usually paradox, two conflicting propositions or attitudes. For example, he talks about the wisdom of chutzpah and the wisdom of humility. They are both essential to a well-lived life. But they pull in opposite directions. It is hard to hold the tension, to live in the tension; so, we tend to drop one half and live in the other. We may be brash fools or timid shrinking violets. A virtuous life has both chutzpah and humility. That is just one example. Life is full of paradox. It can only be lived fully if we are disciplined and strong enough to hold the tension. Political extremism of either right or left, like religious fanaticism, is a flight from paradox and therefore reality. Temperance is wise action, right action the Buddhists call it, in the actual situation. It is knowing what time it is. It is restraint when restraint is needed, boldness when boldness is needed. Think of the Serenity Prayer. That is temperance.

Fortitude is strength and courage. It is determination to live bravely. For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power (fortitude) and of love and of a sound mind (prudence). 2 Timothy 1: 7 This is a particular time of anxiety, a time when the spirit of fear seizes so many and they lash out in anger against the people and the forces they perceive as a threat. Fortitude is living boldly out of faith instead of cringing or reacting in fear. Let us not be naïve. Practicing the virtues isn’t easy. It will get us into all manner of trouble. But as Zorba the Greek (Nikos Kazantzakis) said, Trouble? Life is trouble. Only in death is there no trouble. Theologian Paul Tillich called it The Courage To Be. Life takes courage. We grow in courage thorugh daring to take the risk to be virtuous.

The imperative sentence Jesus spoke most often to his disciples was do not be afraid. Notice he did not say do not feel afraid. He said do not be afraid. Do not live in fear. Do not act out of fear. Do not let fear block the gate between you and your real life. Scott Bader-Saye has written an excellent short book on how the fearless life of a disciple sets us apart from the fear-based culture of our time, Following Jesus In A Culture Of Fear. When I see all the racist, nationalist, nativist, religious and other forms of hatred rampant today, I find that when we scrape the veneer of hatred just a little, we almost always find cringing fear beneath it. Fortitude – strength and courage – are essential to the fully human life. That’s why we pray over our confirmands, Strengthen O Lord your servant . . . ‘

Justice is a tricky word indeed. We generally speak of four kinds of justice: distributive (a fair division of resources); procedural (a level playing field process in which all voices are heard); restorative (putting people back in the position they were in before suffering a wrong), and retributive (punishment that fits the crime).[xv] Clearly justice is at the core of Biblical morality. Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream. Amos 5: 24; Follow justice and justice alone that you may live in peace . . . Deuteronomy 16:20.

The four kinds of justice listed above make sense in a society but what is justice as a personal characteristic? What is a just person? We cannot hope to make a just society without just people. Three sources help us understand how justice can be part of who we are inside. First, the Bible links justice to right relationship. Think of proper boundaries, such as an employer who does not abuse power in relationship to employees. It involves promise keeping, but in the Bible, it also means care for the needy. Their need constitutes a relationship, makes a claim upon us. Listen to the weeping of my people. Jeremiah 8: 19.

Second, our old friend Aristotle sees justice as a kind of balance related to temperance. A just person wants only what is fairly his own – in terms of wealth, fame, attention, etc. The just person wants others to have their fair share. Injustice is overreaching, greed if you will.

Third, the theologian who translated Aristotle into Christianity was St. Thomas Aquinas. He said, Justice (is) . . . the habit by which one renders to each his right or due with a constant and perpetual will.[xvi] But what is their right or due? Here’s the Christian spin: Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And who is my neighbor? the lawyer asked. Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan – wrong race, wrong religion, wrong nationality – but he showed love across those lines of difference. The neighbor is anyone we have the opportunity to help. Luke 10: 25-37 According to St. Thomas, the habit of offering such help with a constant and perpetual will is the mark of a just person.

Conclusion. This is a challenging time. Challenging times are the crucible in which character is formed. I invite you to imagine a society, not a utopia, but a society in which the Big Seven Virtues prevailed more often than not. We would not always agree, but we would manage our disagreements according to the virtues. We would not avert our eyes from facts that do not fit our ideology. We would not let fear override our natural impulses of compassion We would practice loving others as ourselves instead of putting ourselves first.

Now imagine practicing for that kind of public life in our congregations. Imagine treating each other according to the teachings of Christian morality. Church is rightly said to be a hospital for sinners, not a resort for saints. We would be foolish to expect congregations to be populated with people who have mastered the virtues. But we might expect congregations to be populated by people who are working on them. We might expect congregations to make striving for the virtues a norm of church life. If we did that, parish life might become de Tocqueville’s moral gymnasium.

Now imagine yourself, growing day by day in each of these virtues. It would not make us richer or more powerful, but it could not fail to make us wiser and happier, kinder and more serene. That is the life to which Christ invites us. May we have the wisdom to hear his invitation and follow his call.

[i] Hate crimes increased in 2016, especially religious based hate crimes, with violence against Jews significantly higher than violence against Muslims. 2016’s increase of 5% was considered significant. So, far cities of over 250,000 population are reporting a 20% increase in hate crimes for 2017!
[ii] Literally he meant we were wired to live in a polis, a self-governing city-state in which the people decided how things should be done.
[iii] Marcus Aurelius said that these virtues were the true goods of life, as opposed to wealth or things that conduce to luxury or prestige.
[iv] Most of us would say the coercive approach of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Geneva were not a good way to help people internalize virtue. But the point is they worked from the premise that the name of the game is shaping the soul.
[v] The French Revolution had seen a democracy movement collapse into a reign of terror. Another wave of democratic revolutions would sweep Europe in 1848 but all be beaten down. Democracy in Europe was still decades away in de Tocqueville’s day. So, Americans were a curiosity.
[vi] 17th Century English political philosopher, author of Leviathan
[vii] Judges 17: 6; 18: 1; 19: 1; 21: 25.
[viii] The common notion that Christianity is all about going to Heaven and avoiding Hell is unfortunate. Biblical Christianity, which is also traditional orthodox Christianity, is a religion focused on who we become for the sake of our relationship with God, and that relationship happens at least for now primarily in our relationship with each other.
[xi] In the 18th Century, philosophers like Kant attempted to reconstruct a rule-based ethics based on reason. That was not a total failure but it was mostly a failure. Philosophy today has returned to virtue ethics. The leading example is Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue.
[xii] 1 Corinthians 3: 13
[xiii] Wisdom of Solomon 8: 7; Plato, The Republic; Aristotle, The Rhetoric; Cicero, De Officiis; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
[xvi] Tomas Aquinas, Treatise On Justice, Question 58