Tuesday, May 29, 2012

St. Louis Presentation

Recently I returned from St. Louis after spending a week working on my Doctor of Ministry program. We had nine program participants, two others who are not in the Faith-Vocation-Culture track but who were sitting in to fulfill various requirements for their degree programs, another who is looking at perhaps participating in the program at some point in the future and then our two instructors Dr. Donald Guthrie and Dr. Steven Garber. We are at the mid-point of our course work and will begin a mini-dissertation project for this fall (I guess we might call it a "practice dissertation"). Well, I was able to present initial thoughts for my mini-project to the co-hort; if you are interested in wading through it, they are in somewhat a crude format, more-or-less personal notes used to present some ideas. As you might guess, the key point of feedback to me was the importance of narrowing the focus of what I will do for my mini-project. Dr. Guthrie told me that it would be important for me to take some time thinking through the questions I'm trying to answer with my eventual dissertation.

First Assumption: Creational structures are the aim of redemption as much as people, in fact what we as God’s creatures hold in common with the rest of Creation is as great if not greater than that which makes us distinct, … from the dust of the earth we were created.

Second Assumption: in the Church, we look for the evidence of fruit in the life of a follower of Christ. We think of Jesus’ teaching here that a tree is known by its fruit.

The Potential Researchable Question: if fruitfulness is something we “expect” of God’s people, then it’s something we should “expect” of human institutions as well, which are also the aim of Christ’s restoration? (Romans 8:18-27, Colossians 1:19, 20)

Key Influences on My Thinking:

* Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit getting us to see the connectedness between Creation’s groaning, the Children of God’s groaning and the Spirit’s groaning, … a kind of identification with the concerns of God founded in the identification of God with the travails of His people and with His creation.

* Thinking intentionally about the creative activity of God’s Spirit in Gen. 1:2, bringing shape and form to everything that is, was and will be. Also, reflecting on God’s tender and providential care for His creation in places like Psalm 104:30,31: “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works-“ Also, think of Jesus teaching us about His providential care over us by referencing first His providential acts of care over His creation (Matt 6):

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

* Also, Wendell Berry in his article “Creation and the Survival of Creation” reflects on how Solomon’s words that even “the heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee,” how the Apostle Paul says to the Athenians that “the God of heaven and earth dwells not in temples made with human hands,” . . . Berry says “a reference to human structures and comprehensions,” that the work of the Spirit is comprehensive and is not limited to either the heavens or the places of human dwelling (Berry is stretching us here to expand our definition of the Spirit’s activity as being broader than only local congregations).

Reflections: the activity of the Spirit of God to restore and redeem is far greater and comprehensive than the human mind can even begin to imagine. Michael Williams said to us last year at this time that “inside every human heart is a Gnostic,” in reference to how we limit God’s work in our lives and the world. In that same vein, I would say that “inside every human heart is a ‘parochialist,’” … we have a small and narrow vision of the reach of Christ in the world. As evangelicals, we seem to have asked questions about individual regeneration and the work of the Spirit there, we’ve talked much about the dwelling of the Spirit in the assembly, as He dwells with His Church, … but have we asked questions about how we might look for the work of the Spirit in human institutions, in “the world”? If we believe that culture-making and the culture-made stuff of the world is actually a part of the redemptive aim of God, could it be reasonable as well to expect to see some visible fruitfulness regarding the work of the Spirit’s redemptive activity in the world, in human institutions (primarily among God’s people, but not limited to His people)?

The lack of evangelical expectation on this point would explain much of why James Davison Hunter finds the influence of the North American Church to be very much pushed to the margins of contemporary culture, with very little cultural capital.

“. . . Christians who do operate in positions of social, cultural, and economic influence are neither operating within dense social networks nor working together coherently with common agendas, not least because they are largely disaffected from the local church. There are those with fairly high levels of social and economic capital but it is not linked with high levels of cultural capital. It is fair to say, then, that in any social and culturally significant way, Christians are absent from the institutions at the center of cultural production. The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most" (To Change the World, p. 90).

“. . . even the most optimistic assessment would lead one to conclude that Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is also a very weak culture. For all of the vitality and all the good intention among Christian believers, the whole (in terms of its influence in the larger political economy of cultural production) is significantly less than the sum of its parts. And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful" (To Change the World, p. 92).

Summing Up The Problem, … Two Themes:

1)    A Lack of Expectant Hope. Evangelicals don’t pray (or think to pray) with expectant hope that the yeast of the Kingdom could have a leavening effect in the world (think of parable of mustard seed and yeast/dough in Matt. 13)- we’re much more comfortable in the margins (key- margins, not so much as an expression of identifying with the orphan, the widow, etc., … but margins because we’re comfortable in our enclaves Evangelical culture.  JDH concludes that our cultural goods are packaged with language only accessible for other church-goers.

Potential Relief: giving a larger vision of the Scriptural framework of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration, . . . expanding the vision of an evangelical vision of Renewal and Restoration, teaching about a cosmic hope that promises to bring in institutional and structural renewal, along with the redemption of God’s children (Romans 8:18-27).

2)    Lack of Catholicity in the Church. There is very little unity across denominational lines. Jesus said the world would know we’re His by the love we have for one another. In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed for the Catholicity of the Church:

“I find myself driven back to the simple fact that Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, that he still prays for it, and that that prayer cannot be forever denied” (Lesslie Newbigin in Unfinished Agenda, p. 250).

First Observation: James Davison Hunter writes that cultural change most often takes place through the gradual process of the leavening of ideas over an extended time period, often through multiple generations, … also with a convergence of the right events at the right time in history (Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers make some similar observations as well), also from Church history think of the events leading to the Reformation, … consider the Wycliffes and Huss’ who did their work almost 100 years before the Luthers and Calvins as well as the timing of the Gutenberg Press, also the stirring discontentment of the people at the time.

Second Observation: JDH talks about how these moments of change come through the collaborative efforts of key players in elite cultural centers of power- that institutions influence cultural change far more so than individuals. If this is true, then the weakness of the Church as an institution (“schisms rent asunder”- I like the great hymn too and find great comfort from the Church’s union with the Godhead three in one; however, to find comfort in the hymn isn’t to be satisfied with its reality: the “is” doesn’t remove the “can” or “will be.”  Rather, as vice-regents / culture-makers / co-reigners / responsible agents we should find ways to participate with the “can” and the “will be” even if fruitfulness in unity is delayed or a long time in coming), … the lack of vision for coherence in our creedal statements, “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” could also explain in part why in part the Gospel is marginalized in so many parts of our world in which we live, … especially those places where the Church once had strengthen and a kind of cultural standing...

On this point, third observation, the growth to maturity in any movement, let alone the Church of Jesus Christ, could be seeing the movement to places of influence and power as a “stewardship responsibility,” rather than a phenomenon to be “turned down” or refused. Consider Newbigin’s reflections:

“It was necessary for the early church, at crucial moments, to take the heroic path and to accept martyrdom rather than submit to what the vast majority of people took for granted. But it was also right that, when the time came with the conversion of Constantine, the Church should accept the role of sustainer and cherisher of the political order. It is right for churches to be dissenting communities challenging accepted norms and structures. It is right also in other circumstances for the Church to be the church for the nation or the parish, the cherisher and sustainer of the ordinary work of the farmer, the judge, and the soldier” (Gospel in a Pluralist World, p.196).

Potential Relief:

a)           Becoming Students of the World. Learning from “the World”- examples of collaborative work among governments and “secular” agencies, leading to significant collective / cultural impact, … Paul Farmer’s Haiti: After the Earthquake and reflections on 17 years following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Lance Morgan of the Winnebago Tribe, Winnebago, NE.

b)           Connecting Vocation and Catholicity. Teaching not only Vocation as Calling but also a potential place of strengthening for unity among believers from various traditions. Stott once said, if we are to get the Missio Dei right, we must begin with vocation. I would add to Stott’s comment another side of the “Missio Dei coin,” the Catholicity of the Church- Jesus’ vision for Mission was that it would flow from the Visible Unity of God’s people (think here of His High Priestly Prayer). So we might restate Stott’s tagline in just a bit of a nuanced manner, … “if we are to get the Catholicity of the Church right, we must begin with vocation,” which brings me to my next observation …

c)           Working from the “Outside, In,” … from the City to the Church (Jer. 29:7)- seeing love for the city as a starting point for promoting Catholicity. Example of Lincoln Prayer Summit- unites around two basic foci- 1) love for Christ and 2) love for the City, … very basic confession of faith, … Jim Belcher’s “center-set” focus or Thomas Oden’s “New Ecumenism,” … historical orthodoxy, … the “history of the Holy Spirit” (terms from Oden’s Rebirth of Orthodoxy). Side note from To Change the World here, but where the challenges of unity come is on points of political action- maybe it’s good anyways for the Church to take a season of silence away from the political arena to learn how to be humane again, to reverse ressentiment.

The Unifying Principle: Newbigin’s idea of “the Congregation as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel,” coupled with Davison Hunter’s vision of “Faithful Presence.”

“I have already said that I believe that the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations and not through the official pronouncements of ecclesiastical bodies. But the developing, nourishing, and sustaining of Christian faith and practice is impossible apart from the life of a believing congregation” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society p. 235).

“In all, the practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are covenantal. These create space that fosters meaning, purpose, and belonging and by so doing, these relationships and institutions resist an instrumentalization endemic to the modern world that tends to reduce the value of people and the worth of creation to mere utility, . . . To use gifts, resources, and influence in ways that do not translate immediately or perhaps ever into utility may seem extravagant. In our day, such commitment cannot be justified on economic or political grounds for it cannot measure to contemporary standards of efficiency or efficacy. Yet to provide for the physical, aesthetic, intellectual, and social health of the community is a good in its own right and it is part and parcel of the covenant that believers have with the people that God has placed in their lives and the social and physical world in which God has placed them”  (To Change the World, p. 266).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Jason Gray - Remind Me Who I Am

I thought this was just awesome. My friend Kenny Ching forwarded it to me, . . . and I'm grateful.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Having Cut Ourselves Off from Nature and Culture

". . . modern Christianity generally has cut itself off from both nature and culture. It has no serious or competent interest in biology or ecology. And it is equally uninterested in the arts by which humankind connects itself to nature. It manifests no awareness of the specifically Christian cultural lineages that connect us to our past. There is, for example, a splendid heritage of Christian poetry in English that most church members live and die without reading or hearing or hearing about. Most sermons are preached without any awareness at all that the making of sermons is an art that has at times been magnificent. Most modern churches look like they were built by robots without reference to the heritage of church architecture or respect for the place; they embody no awareness that work can be worship. Most religious music now attests to the general assumption that religion is no more than a vaguely pious (and vaguely romantic) emotion.

Modern Christianity, then, has become as specialized in its organizations as other modern organizations, wholly concentrated on the industrial shibboleths of 'growth,' counting its success in numbers, and on the very strange enterprise of 'saving' the individual, isolated, and disembodied soul. Having witnessed and abetted the dismemberment of the households, both human and natural, by which we have our being as creatures of God, as living souls, and having made light of the great feast and festival of Creation to which we were bidden as living souls, the modern church presumes to be able to save the soul as an eternal piece of private property. It presumes moreover to save the souls of people in other countries and religious traditions, who are often saner and more religious than we are. And always the emphasis is on the individual soul. Some Christian spokespeople give the impression that the highest Christian bliss would be to get to Heaven and find that you are the only one there- that you were right and the others wrong. Whatever its twentieth-century dress, modern Christianity as I know it is still at bottom the religion of Miss Watson, intent on a dull and superstitious rigmarole by which supposedly we can avoid going to 'the bad place' and instead go to 'the good place.' One can hardly help sympathizing with Huck Finn when he says, 'I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.'"

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 113-14

Work as a Form of Prayer

"The significance- and ultimately the quality- of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

If we think of ourselves as merely biological creatures, whose story is determined by genetics or environment or history or economics or technology, then, however pleasant or painful the part we play, it cannot matter much. Its significance is that of mere self-concern. 'It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,' as Macbeth says when he has 'supp'd full with horrors' and is 'aweary of the sun.'

If we think of ourselves as lofty souls trapped temporarily in lowly bodies in a dispirited, desperate, unlovable world that we must despise for Heaven's sake, then what have we done for this question of significance? If we divide reality into two parts, spiritual and material, and hold (as the Bible does not hold) that only the spiritual is good or desirable, then our relation to the material Creation becomes arbitrary, having only the quantitative or mercenary value that we have, in fact and for this reason, assigned to it. Thus, we become the judges and inevitably the destroyers of a world we did not make and that we are bidden to understand as a divine gift. It is impossible to see how good work might be accomplished by people who think that our life in this world either signifies nothing or has only a negative significance.

If, on the other hand, we believe that we are living souls, God's dust and God's breath, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves; and if we understand that we are free, within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to other creatures- then all our acts have supreme significance. If it is true that we are living souls and morally free, then all of us are artists. All of us are makers, within mortal terms and limits, of our lives, of one another's lives, of things we need and use.

This, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote, is 'the normal view,' which 'assumes . . . not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler or parasite is necessarily some kind of artist. But since even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably, by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody is an artist- either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not by working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world. This is why our division of the 'fine arts' from 'craftsmanship,' and 'craftsmanship from 'labor,' is so arbitrary, meaningless, and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both 'the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function.' And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.

If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer. We see why the old poets invoked the muse. And we know why George Herbert prayed in his poem 'Mattens':

Teach me thy love to know; That this new light, which now I see, May both the work and workman show.

Work connects us both to Creation and to eternity. This is the reason also for Mother Ann Lee's famous instruction: 'Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live on earth, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.'"

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 109-11

Good Work

"Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no thing without respect, but for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. But such blasphemy is not possible when the entire Creation is understood as holy and when the works of God are understood as embodying and thus revealing His spirit.

In the Bible, we find none of the industrialist's contempt or hatred for nature. We find, instead, a poetry of awe and reverence and profound cherishing, as in the verses from Moses' valedictory blessing of the twelve tribes: 'And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that croucheth beneath, And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sum, and for the precious things put forth by the moon, And for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills, And for the precious things of the earth and fullness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush' (Deuteronomy 33:13-16)."

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom; Community, pp. 104-5

A Book Open to the Sky

"I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. . . . such as Thoreau talked about- a book open to the sky. . . . outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine- which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.

It is clearly impossible to assign holiness exclusively to the built church without denying holiness to the rest of Creation, which is then said to be 'secular.' The world, which God looked at and found entirely good, we find none too good to pollute entirely and destroy piecemeal. The church, then, becomes a kind of preserve of 'holiness,' from which certified lovers of God assault and plunder the 'secular' earth.

Not only does this repudiate God's approval of His work; it refuses also to honor the Bible's explicit instruction to regard the works of Creation as God's revelation of Himself. The assignation of holiness exclusively to the built church is therefore logically accompanied by the assignation of revelation exclusively to the Bible. But Psalm 19 begins, 'The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.' The word of God has been revealed in facts from the moment of the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis: 'Let there be light: and there was light.' And Saint Paul states the rule: 'The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made.'"

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 103-04

The Heaven of Heavens Cannot Contain Thee

"The holiness of life is obscured to modern Christians also by the idea that the only holy place is the built church. This idea may be more taken for granted than taught; nevertheless, Christians are encouraged from childhood to think of the church building as 'God's house,' and most of them could think of their houses or farms or shops or factories as holy places only with great effort and embarrassment. It is understandably difficult for modern Americans to think of their dwellings and workplaces as holy, because most of these are, in fact, places of desecration, deeply involved in the ruin of Creation.
The idea of the exclusive holiness of church buildings is, of course, wildly incompatible with the idea, which the churches also teach, that God is present in all places to hear prayers. It is incompatible with Scripture. The idea that a human artifact could contain or confine God was explicitly repudiated by Solomon in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple: 'Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee: how much less this house that I have builded?' (1 Kings 8:27) And these words of Solomon were remembered a thousand years later by Saint Paul, preaching at Athens: 

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands . . . For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said. Acts 17:24 and 28

Idolatry always reduces to the worship of something 'made with hands,' something confined within the terms of human work and human comprehension. Thus, Solomon and Saint Paul both insisted on the largeness and the at-largeness of God, setting Him free, so to speak, from ideas about Him. He is not to be fenced in, under human control, like some domestic creature; . . . Jesus' own specifications for his church have nothing at all to do with masonry and carpentry but only with people; his church is 'where two or three are gathered together in my name' (Matthew 18:20)."

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Communitypp. 100-01

Creation's Goodness: Everything that Lives is Holy

"If we read the Bible, . . . we are apt to discover several things about which modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet or to which they have paid little attention.

We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: 'The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein' (Psalm 24:1). There is our human law, undeniably, the concept and right of 'land ownership.' But this, I think, is merely an expedient to safeguard the mutual belonging of people and places without which there can be no lasting and conserving human communities. This right of human ownership is limited by mortality and by natural constraints on human attention and responsibility; it quickly becomes abusive when used to justify large accumulations of 'real estate,' and perhaps for that reason such large accumulations are forbidden in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. In biblical terms, the 'landowner' is the guest and steward of God: 'The land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me' (Leviticus 25:23).

We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve but all of it: 'All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made' (John 1:3). . . .

We will discover that God found the world, as He made it, to be good, that He made it for His pleasure, and that He continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to Heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's love for the world- not God's love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus dependent on prior belief in the inherent goodness- the lovability- of the world.

We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God 'gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; all flesh shall perish together' (Job 34:14,15). And Psalm 104 says, 'Though sendest forth thy spirit, they are created." Creation is thus God's presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that 'Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God's hidden Being." This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet George Herbert put it:

Thou art in small things great, not small in any . . .
For thou art infinite in one and all.

We will discover that for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. To Dante, 'despising Nature and her goodness' was a violence against God. We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more, which is why the Bible forbids usury and great accumulations of property. The usurer, Dante said, 'condemns Nature . . . for he puts his hope elsewhere.'

William Blake was biblically correct, then, when he said that 'everything that lives is holy.' And Blake's great commentator Kathleen Raine was correct both biblically and historically when she said that 'the sense of the holiness of life is the human norm.'

The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows it all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?"

Wendell Berry's essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 96-9

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Katerina Maslova in All of Us

In Tolstoy's Resurrection, the protagonist nobleman Dmitri Nekhludov reflects on a meeting with the imprisoned Katerina Maslova. As a servant girl, Maslova had once been Nekhludov's romantic love interest. However, Nekhludov had really seen her as one to be used for his own youthful pleasure and after getting Maslova pregnant, she loses her job and the child ends up dying unbaptized. From there, Maslova falls into a life of poverty and prostitution. Many years later, Nekhludov finds himself on a jury that wrongfully convicts Maslova on a murder charge. Conscience-stricken, he seeks to visit Maslova in prison and, to atone for his sins, means to promise marriage to her. But in that meeting, Nekhludov is struck by the way her heart has become weather-worn by life, really lacking any sort of feeling or conscience for the life she has chosen. In fact, "On the contrary, she seemed rather pleased with herself and proud of her position" (p. 150). Nekhludov had expected to find the heart of the young woman he had known as Katusha many years ago, instead he finds this hardened woman named Maslova. The narrator reflects on the encounter in this way:

No man can play an active role in the world unless he believes his activity is important and good. Therefore, whatever position a man may hold, he is certain to take that view of human life in general which will make his own activity seem important and good. It is generally supposed that a thief, a murderer, a spy or a prostitute, knowing their occupation to be evil, must be ashamed of it. In point of fact, the case is precisely the reverse. Men who have been placed by fate and their own mistakes (or sins) in certain position, however false, always adopt a view of life which makes their place in it good and appropriate. To maintain this idea, men instinctively mix only with those who accept their view of life and of their place in it. This surprises us when thieves boast of their adroitness, prostitutes flaunt their shame, murdered gloat over their cruelty. We are surprised, however, only because the circle, the sphere, of these men is limited, and principally because we are outside of it; but does not the same state of things exist among the rich- who boast of their wealth, i.e., of robbery; the generals- who boast of their victories, i.e., of murder; the rulers- who boast of their power, i.e., of violence? We do not recognize their ideas of life and of good and evil as perverted, only because the circle of men holding these perverted ideas is wider and because we belong to it ourselves.

Maslova held this view of life and of her own place in it. She was a prostitute, condemned to penal servitude, yet she had formed a conception of life which allowed her to think well of herself, and even to feel a pride in her position. . . .

During the last ten years, wherever she found herself, she saw men that needed her; they all needed her- from Nekhludov and the old police officer down to the warders in the prison. She took no notice of the men who did not need her, consequently, the whole world seemed to be made up of people driven by lust and trying to possess her by all possible means- by fraud and violence, by purchase and cunning.

This being Maslova’s conception of life, it was natural that she should consider herself an extremely important person. And she prized this conception of life above all things in the world- could not fail to prize it because, if she were to change her views, she would lose the importance which this conception gave her. And in order not to lose that pre-eminence in life, she instinctively ranged herself with the class of people who shared her views. Divining that Nekhludov wanted to draw her into a different world, she opposed him, foreseeing that in that world she would lose her place in life which gave her confidence and self-respect. . . .

Therefore the present Nekhludov was no longer, in her eyes, the man she once loved, but only a rich gentleman who could and should be made use of, and with whom she might have the same relations as with all other men” (pp. 150-51).

The narrator reflects on the deep self-focus and preoccupation of the human heart that seeks to justify its own existence regardless of the harm it may cause others, also that denies the ways in which that life might be implicated in the larger cosmos as it intersects with the global community. He speaks of not only this "way of seeing" (or "not seeing") in the lowly Maslova but in all of us.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Celestial Affinity

In The Heretical Imperative, in C.S. Lewis-like fashion, sociologist Peter Berger responds to the claim of the atheist that religion is mere projection of human concerns onto the universe, "If men project their own meanings into the sky, their very capacity to do this comes from the fact that they have a celestial affinity" (p. 113).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Work that Lasts

"In God, everything that we have done in cooperation with God will be preserved. In the world to come, our work will not disappear. We ourselves will be followed by our works, as it says in the book of Revelation (14:13). That makes sense if our identity partly resides in our work and its achievements. Even in the world to come, I could not meet Gutenberg and not think of the printing press, or meet Einstein and not think of his theory of relativity, or meet the apostle Paul and not think of the epistle to the Romans. The results of our work- the cumulative results of generations of workers across the globe- will also be preserve in the world to come. They may be preserved just in God's memory, or they may be preserved as actual building blocks of that new world.

The work of each one of us is, then, a small contribution to the grand tapestry of life, which God is weaving as God created the world, is redeeming the world, and will consummate the world. This is the ultimate meaning of our work."

Morally Excellent Work, by Miroslav Volf

"Some years ago at a black-tie cocktail party, I was talking to a person who introduced himself to me as a graduate of Harvard University. We were chatting, so I asked him what he did. He responded, 'You will laugh when I tell you what I do.' I said, 'Well, try me.' He replied, 'I'm making urinals.' I said, 'Well most men need them . . .' And he responded, 'I'm designing and producing flush-free urinals.' What an extraordinary thing to do! Water is becoming a very scarce resource, and he was helping save a lot of it, in fact some forty thousand gallons per urinal per year! This person's work was morally excellent, not just morally permissible."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Sacramental Universe?

My friend Crystal Davy passed this video on to me today. Thank you Crystal. Crystal's music is quite good as well. Check it out: http://www.crystaldavy.com/fr_home.cfm

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Seeking Shalom through Faithful Presence

"To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don't get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do.

This, I would insist, is not a cheap pietism. The fact is that Christ's victory over the principalities and powers was a victory over the power of oppressive institutions- the sense that reality is what it is, that all is as it should be, that the ways of the world are established and cannot be changed; that the rules by which the world operates are ones we must accept and not challenge. We are not bound by the 'necessities' of history and society but as free from them. He broke their sovereignty and, as a result, all things are possible. It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities.

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better."

Silence for a Season

". . . it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better."

Well-Intentioned Unwise Christians

". . . good intentions are not enough to engage the world well. The potential for stupidity, irrationality, cruelty, and harm is just as high today as it has ever been in the past. God save us from Christians who are well-intentioned, but not wise!"

Political Philosophy Undermining the Gospel

". . . most Christians cannot imagine power in any other way than toward what finally leads to political domination. Thus, it is not surprising that, in conformity to the spirit of the modern age, Christians conceive of power as political power. Christians, like most modern people, have politicized every aspect of public life and private life as well- from church/state issues, education, the media, entertainment and the arts, and the environment to family values, sexuality, and parenting. In this, they mistakenly imagine that to pass a referendum, elect a candidate, pass a law, or change a policy is to change culture. In truth they probably know better, but in terms of the amount of energy expended and money spent, the net effect is a view much like this. While Christian activists (conservative and progressive) have been fairly influential in the political sphere at different times in recent decades, they have embraced a means to power that seethes with resentment, anger, and bitterness for the injury they believe they have suffered. The public and political culture of contemporary Christianity have become defined by such negations. There is nothing illegal about any of this, of course. Christians believe that they have a legitimate right to participate in the democratic process and they are, of course, right. The problem resides with the political culture they not only embrace but have helped to create. The tragic irony is that in the name of resisting the dark nihilisms of the modern age, Christians- in their will to power and the ressentiment that fuels it- perpetuate that nihilism. In so doing, Christians undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance."