Starting from where you are

When you pray, consider what you want and need and never mind how vulgar or childish it might appear. If you want very much to pass that exam or get to know that girl or boy better, that is what you should pray for. You could let world peace rest for a while. You may not be ready yet to want that passionately. When you pray you must come before God as honestly as you can. There is no point in pretending to him. One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want; and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting. In true prayer you must meet God and meet yourself where you really are, for it is just by this that God will move you on from where you really are. For prayer is a bit of a risk. If you pray and acknowledge your most infantile desires, there is every danger you may grow up a bit, that God will grow you up. When (as honestly as you can) you speak to God of your desires, very gently and tactfully he will often reveal to you that in fact you have deeper and more mature desires. But there is only one way to find this out: to start from where you are. It is no good pretending to yourself that you are full of high-minded aspirations. You have to wait until you are. If a child is treated as though she were already an adult, she will never become an adult. Prayer is the way in which our Father in heaven leads each of us by different paths to be saints, that is to say, with him.

Herbert McCabe on prayer in God, Christ and Us.

Easter Morning

But he arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed.

Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.

Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen

The conclusion of On the Passover, Melito of Sardis (2nd century) – discovered via Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

I recently finished Mark Noll’s historical study, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (a full review of the book can be found here). I don’t have any special interest in the Civil War – I am more interested in the “theological crisis” side of things. The crisis Noll explores is summarized like this:

American national culture had been built in substantial part by voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture. Yet if by following such an approach to the Bible there resulted an unbridgeable chasm of opinion about what Scripture actually taught [regarding slavery, God’s providential action], there were no resources within democratic or voluntary procedures to resolve the public division of opinion that was created by voluntary and democratic interpretation of the Bible. The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.

Later in the book Noll offers the memorable line: “The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.” I suppose I was hoping the book would help me understand how and why public theological reflection takes the shape it does in America. It is a sobering book, one that should make anyone who wants to think through contemporary public issue “X” theologically and biblically, extremely uncomfortable. Noll is primarily descriptive, and readers need to draw some of their own conclusions concerning what this might mean for contemporary theological reflection. I very much recommend the book if you ever find yourself thinking/saying “the Bible says … .” Some quotes that stuck out:

Re: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the forms of public discourse:

The significance of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the biblical debate over slavery lay in the novel’s emotive power. More effectively than debaters like Jonathan Blanchard or Francis Wayland, Stowe exemplified-rather than just announced-the persuasive force of what she regarded as the Bible’s overarching general message. The fact that a novelist brought off this task more effectively than the exegetes did not stop abolitionist scholars and preachers from continuing the battle in their chosen media.

Re: nuance in interpretation and debate:

On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the United States, as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.

On the fact that the issue of race was largely absent from the public debate in the US (even among abolitionists) – excepting African American writers (who were ignored), and some foreign observers:

In order for American Bible believers as a whole to have acted on distinctions between slavery as such and slavery as practiced in the United States, or between colorblind biblical slavery and black-only American slavery, a revolution in the nation’s racial attitudes would have been necessary, and that revolution would have demanded a greater alteration in accepted convictions than the American War of independence itself. Even the Civil War that preserved the Union, that broadened out to the Emancipation Proclamation, and that led to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments did not persuade most Caucasian Americans that African Americans were on their level of humanity. To have carried the country in 186o, the argument that a racially discriminatory slavery was a different thing from slavery per se would have required the kind of commitment to racial antiprejudice that the nation only accepted, after immense struggle, late in the twentieth century – if in fact it has accepted it even now

From Noll’s conclusion:

The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil War, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. The second course, though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.

Finding Livelihood

Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking (1973), says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This must be the most quoted definition of vocation in contemporary literature on calling and work, the only problem being that it isn’t really true. It’s a good line, and it sounds good when you’re 19 (it did to me), but easy acceptance of this phrase is quickly challenged by the question of “what happens when the world’s hunger requires something of me I am not glad to give?” A glance at scripture, at history, at your own life and the lives of those around you, reveals that it is a matter of when, not if, you will be asked to give something that hurts rather than provides gladness if you are to follow God’s calling in a broken world. When you’re 19 this reality is perhaps less clear (and not particularly welcome as you plot your glorious plan for your life).

Since I love Buechner, I should note that less frequently referenced is his “Memoir of Vocation,” Now and Then (1983), a book that offers a more nuanced exploration of calling and the lived experience of work. In Now and Then Buechner doesn’t describe the easy convergence of personal gladness and worldly need, but instead describes a journey of wrong turns, of frustration, of set backs, of confusion, of minor victories, in the pursuit of his calling. The most famous quote of that book suggests that in listening to our life the “boredom and pain” of life is no less holy, no less a gift of grace, than its “gladness.” And many find as they grow older that boredom and pain may be the defining features of their working lives, rather than deep gladness.

Nancy Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure speaks to this reality as she explores what meaning can be drawn from the “shadow side” of work, its boredom and frustrations, of trying to navigate the “tension of your planned life and your given life.” It’s less about finding work that will fulfill our deepest desires and more a meditation on searching for “signs of transcendent reality and participating in that reality, even when work fails to satisfy.” It is a book about work and vocation “for grown-ups, “as the promotional copy puts it, for “who but a very small minority” Nordenson asks “can find the exact intersection [of deep gladness and deep hunger] and feed a family? Or at that sweet spot sustain their position for a lifetime?”

In a series of “lyric” essays, Nordenson enters into the details of a working life (she earns her living as a freelance medical writer) that often get glossed over in more abstract and theoretical descriptions of work: meeting deadlines, the pain of being laid off, the frustrations of the job search, of doing work that seems disconnected from “my calling,” of the bills that show up in the mailbox every month and the alarm clock that rings every day. The figures Nordenson references are not the latest productivity gurus, nor the latest behavioral economics studies, but figures like Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Josef Pieper.

This is not a how-to guide, or a book stuffed with answers to the dilemmas many (most, if the statistics concerning work satisfaction are any guide) people face with regard to work. The lyric style Nordenson uses relies on a “nonlinear structure, white space, metaphor and a slant-angle perspective. It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining.” It requires and rewards patience, and leaves the reader with plenty of work to do on her own. It is this style that lets Nordenson explore some areas of work that other more “explanatory” books do not, even if my one complaint with the book is that I did feel as though some of the essays lost a certain amount of momentum and direction. My favorite essays were likely the “Summa Laborum” chapters, modeled on the rhetorical structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The structure of those particular chapters gives shape to Nordenson’s reflections as she starts with questions like “Should money be excluded from a discussion about the meaning of work?” and works through reasons to answer yes, or no.

Finding Livelihood is a vulnerable book, a book that displays its doubts and bewilderment in a way theological reflections are not often willing to risk. It is a book that is honest about the wrestling that occurs as we try and find our way in the world of work with its many kinds: “the work of earning a living, creating, serving; the work of looking for work. The work of marriage. Raising children. … The work of play. The work of the church. Laundry. The preparing of food. What should we call the work happening inside of us?” A reader who is living in the “tension between passion and need, between aspiration and limits, between the planned life and the given life” may find Nordenson’s contemplative essays a welcome companion along the way.

Theology as Therapy: Reading Oliver O’Donovan

In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, John Ames, the elderly Congregationalist pastor who narrates the book, has a conversation about sin and the mystery of salvation (this is the sort of thing that happens in Marilynne Robinson novels) with Jack Boughton, his namesake. Jack is the recently returned the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend, back in town to upset the order of things:

There was an uneasy silence, so I remarked that he might find Karl Barth a help, just for the sake of conversation.

He said, “is that what you do when some tormented soul arrives on your doorstep at midnight? Recommend Karl Barth?”

I said, “ It depends on the case,” which it does. I have found Barth’s work to be full of comfort … But in fact, I don’t recall ever recommending him to any tormented soul but my own.

It’s a funny, bitter conversation, one in which the thing under discussion, sin, which can reveal itself in the tendency of human beings to harm rather than comfort one another (whatever their intentions), is on full display. Barth tends to not be my own first choice during stormy nights of the soul (that would be Bonhoeffer), but I also read plenty of theology for comfort. There are risks with this sort of thing and there are theologians eager to tell you about all the dangers of approaching theology as therapy. I admit that the barely baptized self-help of Joel Osteen et. al. looms on the horizon with its menacing thousand-watt smile. But, it would be strange if moments of comfort were never a part of the experience of reading and studying theology. Some theologians who most passionately protest a therapeutic moment in theology often champion a theology so abstract and distant from lived experience that it forgets that it is human beings, poor and needy, heartsick, fast fading as a shadow at evening (Psalm 109) who are trying to say something about God. While we cannot make humanity the center of our theology; we cannot erase our humanness either. Sometimes theology is born out of the moment when we are “weary with crying out” our throats parched, waiting for God’s arrival (Psalm 69).

I’m thinking about all this after I finished Oliver O’Donovan’s latest book Finding and Seeking. It is the second book in a planned trilogy and considers “ethics as theology”: a finding and seeking in the Spirit of how to live a responsible life in response to God in the world he has created (that’s how I’d try and summarize it at least, but O’Donovan is notoriously difficult to summarize). I found Finding and Seeking to be something of a comfort, even as it challenged, convicted, and confused (at points). And, at one level, the comfort I found in its pages should not be a surprise: while it is a work of reflection on the structure of ethics rather than more straightforward guidance on particular issues, it is reflection ordered to the practical realities of life. It is theology that asks to be lived. Yet, at another level, if you crack open its pages, you may find the adjective “comforting” does not apply for you. O’Donovan is something of an acquired taste – his arguments are often dense, idiosyncratic, difficult. A bit like Ames, I’m not sure I can recommend his work to anyone’s tormented soul but my own.

But, for me, it is comforting all the same. I think part of what I appreciate about O’Donovan is that he is a map-maker; he provides an account of where things are in the world, and where we are in relation to them (I was pleased to discover this matches his own self-description of his work: “In general my thought has a mapmaking character, situating and organising features of the conceptual landscape. This has troubled those critics who distrust ‘architectonic’ ambitions. For me, relations between things are a way of blowing open the questions raised by the things themselves”). He does not supply many concrete answers to particular questions and dilemmas; it is more that he provides frameworks within which to consider the questions we encounter. This sort of map-making leaves readers with plenty of work to do in terms of actually embarking on their own journey, but it also provides a certain flexibility as they try to find a particular path forward in their circumstances. Maps are tricky things, of course. They may reach their edges before you would like and leave unmarked spaces that still need exploring and description, or the mapmaker may have misjudged some profile in his survey so that the map does not match the terrain as it should. I also know that I can spend too much time studying maps and not enough time out on the actual journey. But I, at least, find myself frequently lost and confused in life, unsure of where to step, of where I am, of how the deepest things are related, and so I like maps. Or, more truthfully, I need them, and am always surprised (and sometimes faintly jealous) that some people seem to trundle along without ever asking for directions or noticing that the landscape we are traversing is so strange and difficult.

O’Donovan covers a number of different topics in the course of his map-making in Finding and Seeking as he traces the shape of Christian ethics via the virtues of faith, love and hope (1 Cor. 13:13). O’Donovan seldom repeats or summarizes his ideas in his prose; for a map-maker, he doesn’t always provide all the sign-posts to his own argument one might hope for. This is part of what makes reading him a challenge and also makes him difficult to summarize (as already mentioned), so it is tempting to just highlight a few pieces of wisdom picked from the book’s pages. This doesn’t do justice to the overall structure of the book as O’Donovan walks through ethics considered in light of faith, love, and hope (and the characteristic sins – doubt, folly, anxiety – that are their shadow), but I’m not sure I can manage that sort of structured description in this already meandering blog post. You will have to take a look for yourself, but perhaps I can give you a bit of a taste (I’ve quoted at length below because it gives a better sense of O’Donovan’s prose, and because I’m not entirely sure how to break down some of these paragraphs in a way that actually captures what O’Donovan does – his work does not lend itself to the Hauerwas-ian one-liner).

For example, the following notes on the possibility of finding wisdom:

The call of wisdom is an existential condition, not an episode. What sense, then, can be made of the blessing pronounced (Prov. 3:13) on one who finds wisdom? To “find” is to attain a decisive purchase, to achieve a position where it is at one’s disposal. … There is a point of arrival to be looked forward to, a point of purchase on the world’s order. If Wisdom always presents herself on the horizon of possibility, our arrivals cannot be final, but we should not make the mistake of skeptics in every age, supposing that if we cannot know with finality, we cannot know at all. That would be to impose an abstract ideal as a condition of our knowledge, a condition irrelevant to our temporal situation, making the knowledge actually available to us disappear. Knowledge is offered us, knowledge suited to our pilgrim condition. … The knowledge “found” on the way of pilgrimage is neither ignorance nor speculation. It is valid within its own conditions, makes real contact with reality, allows us to attend to what is of ultimate and penultimate importance.

Consider O’Donovan’s definition of ideology as “a form of truth comprehended within the practical demands of the public order … closing off inquiry in the interests of stable harmony, transgressing the limited capacity of any political order to determine wisdom.” Given my own appreciation for conceptual maps, mentioned above, O’Donovan notes the following caution:

It is the world we are given to know and love, not a representation of the world. Our imaginative representations are not the realities. … If allowed to, reality will correct and renew our imaginations. What we have to guard against is a representation entrenched in our minds, a “subjective object” that stands between ourselves and reality, blocking the view. … Meaning must have a perceptual and question-generating character. The search for connections is an open search, and theoretical positions are subject to the censure of reality.

Or, consider the wise way O’Donovan introduces a discussion of anxiety and hope:

The third elementary form of “possible sin” is that of anxiety, sin in respect of time, a failure to allow the promise of God’s good future to illuminate time given us now for action. Anxiety is a passion, a species of fear. Fear at its most general extends to all futures, and there to everything that will or may transpire, or may be anticipated as transpiring, within and beyond the scope of our capacity to act, but anxiety is the fear we experience specifically in the face of action and its perilous opportunities. It is not to be denied its useful function in focusing our deliberations upon a purpose. An anxiety-free existence could mean only that we were inattentive to the peril of opportunity, either inertly forgetful of our agency or failing to appreciate how our fate must hang on it. We are summoned to display confidence, but confidence must be won by deliberation out of anxiety; we are not endowed with it as a birthright. Passions have their proper place in practical reason, fear and anxiety among them. But passions are not be indulged in. They are the emotional springboards which we must press down upon if they are to launch us into action. So when Jesus declares, “Do not be anxious!” (Matt. 6:31), he means “Cease to be anxious!” It is a call to set the unknown future of life and action in the light of God’s promise. That is to say, it is a call to hope. Anxiety prepares us for our moment of response when the Spirit repeats this call to us, ordering us, as Jesus ordered Peter, to step out of the boat of our anxiety and to walk the waves.

Or, more in a more concrete vein, here is his description of the challenge to ethical reflection posed by our contemporary media environment:

If “new every morning” is the tempo of divine grace and the tempo of personal responsibilities, it is because morning is a time when one can look back intelligently and look forward hopefully. It is the tempo of practical reason. The media’s “new every morning” (quickly becoming “new every moment”) is, one may dare to say, in flat contradiction to that daily offer of grace. It serves rather to fix our perception upon the momentary now, preventing retrospection, discouraging deliberation, holding us spell-bound in a suppositious world of the present which, like hell itself, has lost its future and its past.

O’Donovan ends his book discussing discernment, that point when we try and figure out “what is to be done next.” This search to discern the calling of God in my particular life, in my particular circumstances, leads to a search for a “path … a search for a congruence of normativities, where the ordered demand of the creation, the agential powers which we are conscious of possessing, and the moment of opportunity into which we are thrust all flow together.”  Where does O’Donovan’s book fit within this search? Paths, at least in the sense that O’Donovan is using the metaphor, are not clearly marked and mapped. A work of theology, even a very good one like O’Donovan’s, cannot reveal your particular path, the next step you need to take in the dilemmas you encounter. But, in the search for this next step, I think theology like Finding and Seeking helps identify some key landmarks and can also provide some encouragement to the weary traveler. As O’Donovan admits, in the interview linked to above, theology is not disconnected from our very human sense of need, of confusion, of seeking (even as we find):

In the end the questions I have asked have been the questions that have been important to me. Like C. S. Lewis I can say, “I have written the books I wanted to write.” But “want” must have its full depth of meaning: the books I have written are the books I needed to write — needed in order to go on thinking, needed in order to speak about the Gospel to those who had a right to hear it from me, and why not add, at the risk of being histrionic, needed in order to live. Christian Ethics is a wearisome business when it is aimed at telling other people what to do. My first readership has been myself. But we are none of us alone; if I find myself puzzling over the complex path of Christian discipleship in our puzzling age, I can find others to puzzle with me.