Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Review: Inventing Hell - Dante, The Bible, and Eternal Torment, by Jon M. Sweeney


As a former Catholic and Evangelical, I spent a lot of time wondering about Hell.

So has Jon M. Sweeney.

His book, Inventing Hell: Dante, The Bible and Eternal Torment does a deep dive into the quintessential pit.

Sweeney begins by explaining that most of the Christian concept of Hell came from Dante (author of the Inferno) who was heavily influenced by Virgil and used him as his guide to the underworld.

Sweeney writes that Dante had high esteem for Virgil “because he believed the myth Virgil created some thirteen hundred years before Dante was born… the ‘Myth of Empire’ the notion that the city of Rome, the Roman Empire, its emperors, and by extension Christianity itself, were all created by divine ordination. It wasn’t unusual for Dante to believe the Roman Empire was God’s favored way of governing the world; every proud Roman of the Middle Ages did.”

“These elaborate legends were supposed to explain why and how Rome had become so adept at empire-building. Whereas the Greeks had valued discovery and beauty, the Romans valued power and consolidation… [T]hey treasured their heritage as God’s new chosen people. The Christian Church would be born into this Rome and their empire…”

Of course, when Dante was alive, the Roman Empire had been in existence for over a century. As Sweeney sees it, around 312 Christianity began to rapidly spread, piggy-backing on Rome’s strong infrastructure. “As the empire conquered more lands and people, Christianity marched in behind them, and even after Rome’s collapse, Christianity expected and demanded the hegemony that they believed was theirs by divine right.”

Dante was heavily influenced by a strong sense of empire (political power) linked to religion.

And he was also influenced by Greek myths, Socrates and Plato to believe in an afterlife, including an immortal soul, which all predate the Bible. Hence, his keen interest in Hell. Sweeney makes the point that the idea of Hell didn’t originate in the Bible but with human beings.

Sweeney contends that St. Paul and Plato would have believed “the soul is a pure spiritual essence It contains nothing material, nothing that is essentially of this world. It is uncreated and eternal. After death, the soul once again belongs to the world of the invisible.”

Along with the belief in an afterlife, the Greeks, through Plato, introduced the concept of justice after death. And the beginnings of a belief in Hell.

Jon M. Sweeney

Sweeney points out that the Hebrew Bible “offered a picture of human beings possessed of body and soul, connected by life that comes from God; and when God took that life away the entire person went to Sheol to lead a shadelike existence. Plato sees something else. Plato separates the human person into two very distinctive halves, only one of which [the soul] truly matters.”

All of this to say that the idea of Hell predates Jesus and the Bible, but Sweeney makes the case that it was Dante, not Jesus who perpetuated the idea.

“When a Christian preacher threatens his [or her] audience with Hell, it is Dante’s Inferno that he’s [she’s] most often depicting, whether he [she] realizes it or not. We must not forget that the Inferno is an allegory… In that case, is Dante’s Hell still useful? Yes, great art brings things to life. Is it real? Yes, it can make sense in people’s lives. But is it literal, historical, or geographical? No.”

Sweeney makes three complaints against Dante’s work.

First, “the Inferno is more the stuff of Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy that it is the Bible. Old Testament or New. And all of that myth and legend would be fine in and of itself… except that Christians have adapted Dante’s vision of divine justice and used it to threaten for centuries.”

Secondly, Sweeney takes issue with the Inferno for “the virtues that it extols. Homer, Ovid, Cicero and Virgil were more interested in heroism and courage than they were in peace and humility, and it is those latter virtues that Christianity and Christ were all about.”

Thirdly, Sweeney disagrees with Dante’s politics. “Church and state were one in his worldview. He couldn’t conceive of them apart… Politics interested him, as did affairs of state and the repair of Rome as ruler of the world – more than the message of the Gospels.”

As Sweeney wraps up his discussion of Hell, he writes “I became a Catholic at the age of forty-two for a number of reasons, and one of them was the official teaching of the church that a person does not know what will happen to him [or her] after death. ‘Faith combined with good works’ is the old mantra of what it means to be a Catholic, as opposed to the view of the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century who argued that salvation was about faith alone. The principle of ‘faith combined with good works’ means that there is rarely ever a triumphant tendency among Catholics to proclaim any certainty about life after death.”

“We need more than Hell as a deterrent, for ethics is not the same thing as loving your neighbor. Virtue is not borne out of fear.”

Sweeney concludes: “[O]ne of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown older is that there is no single image or description of God that is the unvarnished truth… I’ve also come to accept that that Christianity holds what seem to be contradictory images of God almost simultaneously. That’s why I’m convinced that each of us has to choose.”

But Dante, to Sweeney’s mind, offers up only one image of God. “All we have is a vivid, sad vision of a God who judges, punishes, tortures and abandons… Ultimately, I choose not Dante’s vengeful, predatory God who is anxious to tally faults, to reward and to punish. Instead I choose the God who creates and sustains us, who is incarnate and wants to be with and among us, and the God who inspires and comforts us. That God is the real one, the one I have come to know and understand, and that God has nothing to do with medieval Hell.”

Friday, September 10, 2021

Loving Well in a Broken World, Discover the Hidden Power of Empathy by Lauren Casper: A Review

Lauren Casper
In her book, Loving Well in a Broken World, Discover the Hidden Power of Empathy, Lauren Casper takes on the challenge of indifference.

She starts with the premise, as did Elie Wiesel, that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Casper approaches the dilemma from a Christian perspective, but actually most major religions will work just as well.

She uses the example of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. She notes that the Samaritan in the story, himself branded as an outsider, was more willing to help a Jewish man who had been beaten and robbed, because, “[T]his man would have known what it felt like to be despised, tossed aside, and ignored. Instead of seeing only costly inconvenience in a heap of bloodied flesh, the Samaritan saw a physical representation of how he had been treated all his life. He saw more than what was readily visible. He saw a person… a neighbor.”

Wiesel was himself a victim of Nazi persecution and had spent time in a concentration camp. This experience caused him to devote his adult life to the issue of discrimination. He said of indifference: “The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.”

Casper suggests that “[I]f indifference is the disease, empathy is the antidote.”

Casper gives us the example of a trip to the emergency room with her infant adopted son. It was a life and death situation and she felt totally helpless. Ironically, just a few days before, she and her husband had come across a similar situation and walked by, for the most part, unemotionally unaffected.

“Our experiences over that twenty-four hours taught me two things: First, no one is immune to tragedy. And second, we actually have no what we’ll do when our turn comes.”

“The self-righteous idea that we’ve somehow set up our lives in ways that protect us from certain kinds of crises, implying that those who are experiencing said crises have not, is what keeps many of us from entering into the painful places in another person’s life… Our own pain might be the one thing that causes us to stop closing our eyes… It’s easy to ignore or judge suffering when we naively assume it will never be us… I may be a slow learner, but pain is an effective teacher.”

When we center on our own experiences, writes Casper, the experiences of others “seem far away, uncommon, and not part of our world.”

Casper continues, “We miss a lot when we center our experiences by assuming they are the norm.”

She writes about the experience of Daniel, one of the Lost Boys, displaced during the bloody civil war in Sudan. Daniel and three of his friends eventually make it to the United States. Two of them eventually adjust to the new culture. But not Daniel who points out that Americans don’t seem to look out for each other.

“’You’re born for others, and others are born for you,’ Daniel says, trying to make sense of a culture that makes no sense to him – and implying that maybe American culture doesn’t offer as much as we might think it does.”

For Casper, the ability to listen is an important ingredient in empathy. She gives the example of her autistic young son, who, during a church picnic, asked several times, to go home. His request went unheard and he simply walked to the family’s van to get some peace and quiet.

For a few panic-stricken minutes, Casper and some of the picnic attendees searched for her little boy before they found him.

“Are we willing to hear what our neighbors are trying to tell us, even when it makes us uncomfortable? Or are we determined to remain in the comfort of our echo chambers… that’s a choice we get to make every day. We can choose to listen and learn and ask rather than point and accuse.”

Casper uses her own life experience to offer hard-earned wisdom, which includes the importance of emotions. “If we are brave enough to honor our emotions, they can point us toward our hurting neighbors and help us to love them well. When we’re honest, our feelings can show us what’s missing in our neighborhood and where a need might be waiting that only we can fill. A world without emotions is a world without grace and compassion. A world without feelings is a world without understanding and care.”

Casper points out that there is a balance to the emotion equation. Being honest doesn’t include ripping open emotionally broken hearts to reveal the source of the pain publicly.

Another roadblock to empathy is fear.

“The challenge this poses in our current culture is that our affinity for similarity has led to polarization and, subsequently, fear. It’s the fear of others that causes us to act in ways that are apathetic or even hateful rather than loving. That fear is often because we simply don’t know each other. As a result, our social fabric – locally and globally – is unraveling… Research has shown that our empathy is diminished to the point of being virtually absent when the suffering person is a member of a different social, racial, or cultural group... If we want to love our neighbors, we have to break out of our bubbles.”

Midway through Loving Well in a Broken World, Casper gives an example of how to do this. She describes Project Connection, started by a teenager living in Charlotte, NC, who had a heart to connect acceptance between high schoolers and children with special needs. With some initial trepidation, Casper signed up her own two special needs kids to be part of a local PC network of teenagers in Lexington, VA.

Another way of gaining empathy is through developing friendships among people who don’t look, think or act like us.

For Casper, this happened when an Afghani woman who moved to the US became a close friend. Through her friend, Casper writes, “I learned what it was like to grow up under the Taliban and the challenges faced by girls seeking education in that environment… When the news reports that bombs have exploded in Kabul, I no longer change the channel but grieve that destruction of my friend’s hometown and the loss of her former neighbors. When refugees are vilified in the news or in conversation, I am resolute in my defense of them.”

Another motivating factor for Casper is her faith.

“I have been afraid of so many things: the mental and emotional toll that justice work would take, the discrimination and dangers that await my children, the attacks and judgment from peers, and the list goes on… My fear is nearly extinguished by the light of the gospel and Christ’s example of turning toward, rather than away from, the brokenness of the world.”

Casper advises, “Don’t turn away from whatever it is that makes your heart break and your eyes well up with tears. Sit with it a little longer and see where your heart might take you… Where is empathy leading you to love? You might be scared, I know I am, but the next right thing is simply showing up – and we can do it.”

At this point, Casper puts down a challenge, specifically to those of the Christian faith.

“It may seem uncomfortable, unnatural, and awkward to step out of comfort zones and challenge the status quo, but maybe that’s because we Christians have forgotten that’s what we’re made to do. We weren’t created to live up to society’s standards and remain comfortably in our bubbles; we were made to be misfits and rebels and to embrace the unexpected. If we claim to follow Jesus, there is no other way to live.”

Another part of the empathy equation is repentance.

“One of the most necessary and inevitable acts of love that empathy naturally leads us into is that of repentance… It’s the recognition of how our words, or lack thereof, and our actions, or lack thereof, have impacted our neighbors. It is the experience of true remorse for that impact and the decision to no longer behave in a way that brings pain to those around us… Repentance requires empathy because we cannot stop our harmful behavior and life differently without it… Repentance screams humility and empathy.”

Casper contends that empathy should lead us to consider people living on the margins. Bringing us to a much fuller understanding of life around us. “When tales of conquests of land and resources are only told from the colonizers’ perspectives… they become the hero of the story, and the voices of those who were oppressed and enslaved and stolen from are excluded from the narrative. We learn an incomplete history, which prevents us from understanding the struggles some nations and communities face today. So instead of understanding and even repentance, we offer judgment and ridicule.”

Crucial to the growth of empathy is the ability to receive criticism.

“When I am criticized or rebuked, pride can push me to believe I’m being persecuted, but humility and love usually reveal areas for growth, for being more considerate of others – and if I stay with the discomfort long enough, I’m thankful for it. This is how we allow criticism to increase our empathy.”

Casper concludes: “The in-between – the interval between where we came from and where we’re going – may be long, hard and painful, but we started from perfect love and to perfect love we will return. So, we press on, hopefully ever after.”

Loving Well in a Broken World offers a template for a way out of our divided, wounded and troubled world.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Laura Moulton: Bringing Books to the Streets

Laura Moulton
Laura Moulton
writes, teaches and does projects in Portland, Oregon. Her work has taken her into public schools, prisons and shelters and out onto the streets. Participatory projects have featured postal workers, poets, immigrants and women incarcerated at the Coffee Creek Correctional facility. She teaches for Lewis & Clark College, Sitka Center for Art & Ecology and for Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program. She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University.

In 2011, Laura founded Street Books, a bicycle-powered mobile library serving people who live outside and at the margins. It was supposed to be a three-month art project, but at the “end,” a library patron named Keith (who lived in Forest Park) checked out books and said, “See you next week.” Laura realized if she didn’t show, he wouldn’t have a place to return his books. Now it’s 10 years later and Laura is the Executive Director and there’s a whole crew of really stellar people keeping the street library in operation. Laura is co-writing a book about Street Books with Ben Hodgson, a former library patron who now lives indoors and works as a street librarian in Old Town.


Would you explain the basic concept of Street Books? And why you started it?

Street Books is a bicycle-powered mobile library serving people who live outside and at the margins in Portland, Oregon. Bikes carry about 40-50 titles (mostly paperbacks) of all genres and set up the same time and place each week, so that our library patrons know where to find us. Street Books was initially started as a 3-month summer art project after I got a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council. I think the initial seed for the idea was planted after a conversation I had with a guy named Quiet Joe, who lived outside. We had a favorite author in common (AB Guthrie) and I wound up gathering a few books for him and giving them to him. Years later, I decided to do a participatory art project that invited a group of people who I figured rarely got included in these sorts of projects. That’s when Street Books was born. I launched it with some trepidation – would people living with so few resources really want a book? But of course, they did. At the end of the three months, I had library patrons asking where they would be able to find me, and I realized that I had to keep it going. I had no idea that more than 10 years later, we’d still be operating, but I’m very glad we are.

 

A New York Times article about Street Books, published in 2014, mentioned that one of the aims of Street Books was to break down the barrier between “us” and “them.” Can you elaborate?

Part of the original concept of the art project that first summer was that I wanted to document with photographs the library patrons with their books of choice. Whatever narrative existed about people living outside, (that they were lazy or using drugs, that it was wholly their fault they were on the street, etc.) I wondered if seeing a library patron holding a book of poetry or say, a novel by Thomas Pynchon, might offer the opportunity to re-think assumptions about people living without shelter. Practically speaking the library has also created opportunities for housed folks to stop through and talk to people who don’t have a fixed address, and some of those conversations are really powerful. We have an annual fall celebration that gathers our library patrons together with the larger housed community for a meal and entertainment and those have also been powerful opportunities for people to talk to one another. Literature and conversation about books have served as a bridge in the Street Books project. Since the very beginning, I’ve never used the term “homeless,” not out of any effort to be politically correct but instead because I felt like the difference between the average library patron and myself was more about access to a house or apartment and a shower. It felt to me that it’s too easy to label a person and discard them, when there is always a more complicated story going on.

 

You’ve been doing Street Books since 2011. What lessons have you learned? What keeps you going?

Man, it’s been such an amazing journey with the Street Books project. So many lessons learned. I think first of all, I’m struck by the resilience and good humor of so many of our library patrons, who face daunting challenges just to survive. I learned early on that if you build something, good people will show up and offer their help and talents. There is no way Street Books would still be in operation if it weren’t for the stellar folks who showed up to be librarians, to volunteer to be on the Board and to help us create a vision going forward. This sense of family in the Street Books team and a solidarity with our library patrons is what keeps me going.

Photo Credit: Christian Science Monitor

If you were to offer one or two pieces of wisdom to someone reading this interview who is thinking of starting their own version of Street Books, what would it be?

I would first tell them that we have a book coming out that touches on this very question! Loaners: The Making of a Street Library is the story of how Street Books came to be, and it documents the friendship between myself and a man named Ben Hodgson who co-writes the book. We met at Skidmore Fountain in 2011 and have been friends ever since. At the time he lived outside in Old Town, but he’s since moved into an apartment and we were able to write a book together that features alternating viewpoints. He is a great writer and I’m glad we were able to capture these stories on the page together. The book features a How-to guide to starting your own street library. More information here:

https://www.perfectdaybooks.com/shop/loaners

I would say that if people are interested in starting their own library, I’d recommend first getting to know their city and what efforts are already being made – sometimes there are solid collaborations that can be created. I’d also emphasize giving folks plenty of space who are living outside – just because I had something to offer didn’t mean they wanted to immediately talk to me or participate. A friendly greeting and curiosity go a long way, but it’s vital that folks are given space and respect. Last thing I’d say is just that it’s important to show up pretty regularly so that people know they can rely on you, so that they have a place to return a book and can check out something new, (one note: during Covid we have stopped with the card/pocket system we were using to reduce contact – now we invite patrons to take a book and have them return it if they’re able, or pass it on to someone who will enjoy it).

 

Street Books targets folks living outside. What have you learned from individuals living without a home?

I’ve been thinking of this a lot because during the pandemic and especially when we were quarantining in our home with our teenagers, we started watching “Alone,” the series about people dropped off in the wilderness (often British Columbia) who have to craft their own shelters and create whatever tools (and food) they can. It struck me that as a culture, we were obsessed with watching people try to survive harsh situations, but when it comes to appreciating the grit and resourcefulness of the folks in the encampment down the block, it’s harder to love the story. I’ve learned that people are tremendously resourceful, despite a system that often fails them from very early in their lives. And I’ve seen the ways people look out for one another when they live outside, extending kindness and assistance despite their own challenges. My biggest takeaway (and this may sound obvious) is that we have a major shortage of affordable housing in Portland and on the west coast. It’s true that there are factors like mental health and addiction that can contribute to a person’s struggles, but our first step should be to ensure that all people have a safe place to call their own.

 

You’re also a college professor at the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College. How has your experience with Street Books influenced your teaching? And vice versa.

I love teaching and it’s been very cool to combine my work at the university (and sometimes high school level) with the Street Books project. I developed a course called “Writing & Service: Documenting Lives in the City” in which students were able to visit the Street Books library in action and talk to library patrons. Their final assignment asked them to interview and document someone’s story and this led to some compelling conversations and final projects. I remember that a Lewis & Clark student was particularly moved after hearing Ben Hodgson read from an essay about his time living outside (which became part of our book Loaners) and the student said, “Now when I see a woman pushing a shopping cart on the street or a guy setting up a tent, I just keep thinking ‘What if they are as funny and smart as Ben Hodgson?’” And of course, the answer is, they are like Ben Hodgson, (whether or not they are as funny or smart). This student saw people living outside in a new light and he couldn’t set them aside as easily as he may have done before. I had a very talented writing student at Marylhurst University who had fought addiction and overcome challenging circumstances to be able to attend college and he was particularly engaged in the Writing & Service class because he knew the streets very well and he wrote very movingly about those experiences.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Thanks for this opportunity to talk about Street Books and about our new book. This project has taught me to approach people with curiosity and has offered opportunities to extend kindness when I’m able to. The world (and our country) feels extra amplified and harsh right now, and sometimes I think the only thing left for us to do is: Try to be curious and try to be kind. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Conversation with Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, Author of Mixed-Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community

Photo Credit: Katzie and Ben Photography
Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is a writer from the cold north where she raises kids, maxes out her library card, and is usually late for church. A former housing advocate for refugees, Stina loves to talk about public policy, parenting, and her neighborhood in Minneapolis. She works as Director of Communications at the Collegeville Institute, where she is also the managing editor of Bearings Online. Stina has a graduate diploma in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies from the American University in Cairo, and a B.A. in Political Science from Wheaton College. Blessed Are the Nones, Mixed-Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community is her first book.

I love this quote from your book, although, on the surface, it can seem disconcerting. “[T]he older I get, the more Moscow [a city that has only six minutes of sunlight a day during December] seems like a metaphor for the spiritual life... For whatever reason, faith can become more distant as we travel through life, encountering disappointment and twisty turns." Do you still feel this way?

I continue to feel this way about my faith journey. That said, I recently took a canoe trip with my family in a wilderness area here in Minnesota. It’s a place where I had my most significant faith experiences as a teenager and being back there made my faith closer and more real than it has felt in a while. The Christian experience, for me, is about repeatedly forgetting, and then remembering, God’s promises. I love how Saint Benedict writes that we are ALWAYS beginning again in the spiritual life. No one has it mastered.

 

You go on to write about many millennials, and others, being spiritually nomadic. "Denominational wandering is not unusual for modern Christians, nor do I think it's necessarily a bad thing. For millennials, the schisms over finer theological points, such as child versus adult baptism, or what happens at Communion, matter less than the authenticity of the congregation and its activity on issues of social importance... Fewer and fewer of us are centered in just one denomination. We are spiritual explorers, and when the church shows its ugly underbelly, many of my generation are looking for God outside institutional religion's walls."

I’m especially interested in going deeper with your thought of what matters is the ‘authenticity of the congregation and its activity on issues of social importance…’ And do you think that this pursual of authenticity could be fueling some of the movement of Christians among different denominations?

Authenticity of the congregation is, in a nutshell, about whether people are living differently because of their faith. Anyone can find community in a CrossFit or book club, but where else than church are people called to give radically, act prophetically, and love their neighbor as themselves? Personally, I’ve been willing to jump denominations in search of genuine expressions of this kind of beloved community, whether it’s in a Mennonite intentional community, Catholic monastery, or in the homeless ministry at my American Baptist church. I can’t speak for an entire generation, but I do think many people are less loyal to denominational identity and more interested in seeing Christians live out their faith in a very chaotic world.


You write in detail about your experience with the Visitation [Sisters of Holy Mary] Monastery and your relationship with the sisters there. You describe the sisters as being "[O]rganized and persistent, having endured decades of common life in-community pre-and-post Vatican II. They are neither passive nor timid, remaining faithful to their vows. They are the hearty ones, who have stayed in the church amid decline, who have seen their traditions devalued and mocked, who devote their lives to singing the Psalms and embracing vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience."

That’s quite an endorsement! Are you still a Visitation Companion? And, at the time of your initial encounter, how much of a spiritual anchor were the Sisters for you?

Yes, I am still a Visitation Companion, though I haven’t prayed in person with the sisters since the pandemic began. I have participated in zoom prayer, virtual retreats, and attended the funerals of two sisters that died in the last year. The sisters were and continue to be a spiritual anchor because they model the relationality of the Gospel, showing me that no Christian is a Christian alone. Just like in the Visitation Bible story, Mary needs Elizabeth’s affirmation. It confirms to her God’s calling in her life. Even though my life and marriage haven’t turned out the way I imagined, my relationship to monastic women calls out my vocation as a Christian to love, serve, and follow Jesus.

 

You mention the difficulty of carving out a new spiritual path for an interfaith family. "The thing about blazing a new trail in your interfaith home is that it costs something. The path is arduous, and no one has cleared the downed trees. There are no obvious faith practices to mutually draw from; instead, you must decide on family rhythms as you go."

I’m wondering if the same doesn’t apply to anyone who moves outside of a traditional commitment to a single denomination or congregation. I’m single, so I haven’t experienced what an interfaith family would experience. But even in that singleness, there are times of massive disconnect. Especially when trying to communicate with members of the former evangelical church I attended. What are your thoughts?

Massive disconnect is a great way to put it! Many people have become alienated from the church and, in the process of trying to reconstruct their faith, struggle with rituals and spiritual practices. In writing this book, I realized that my struggles in this area are not unique to Christians in interfaith families.

 

One of the more insightful thoughts you have is on the subject of living a "solution-oriented culture, that often seems to value the final result over respect for the process. And that faith is a gift that continually evolves. I once believed that a steady, certain faith in God and the Nicene Creed and the Bible was an absolute requirement for being a Christian. But in my own faith journey, the temperature keeps fluctuating and I can't seem to control the weather."

I’m curious to know what you think about how much the “solution-oriented” culture actually gets in the way of spiritual growth? And how do we face this challenge?

Humans don’t do particularly well with ambiguity. When I was part of the evangelical tradition, the clear black-and-white understanding of faith was comforting because I thought that, if I did and believed the right Christian things, life would work out okay. Jesus was presented as the solution for all my problems. There was not a lot of room in this theology for doubt, struggle, or failure, and so, when I experienced those things, I didn’t know what to do. I was focused on the product – that I should be a new creation in Christ, fully transformed. I was scared that I didn’t have all the answers anymore. But I’ve learned that I can still work out my salvation in community by living the Christian values I do know to be true, things like service or humility. I think God cares more about how I live those values in my relationship to God, to my faith community, my family, my neighbor, than about having a “solution” for living my best life now.

 

There’s a compelling argument you make for having a more flexible margin for doubt that Western Evangelicalism seems to have. "The evangelical tradition in which our faith was formed always hammered down the importance of right belief. All it took to be a Christian was believing that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died on the cross for our sins, and that we must accept him into our hearts to achieve eternal life. Having all the right answers seemed so simple. Is it any surprise that many former evangelicals, who took this emphasis of right belief so seriously, eventually walk away when their doubts begin to feel overwhelming? Being part of any religion is less about how we feel or what we believe at any given instant, which changes moment by moment, and more about our commitment to wrestle with our faith."

I’d love to hear any further thoughts you have on this! Including what this no margin for doubt may have in contributing to the loss of professing Christians in the U.S.

Doubt is part of faith and to pretend otherwise is a huge disservice to the lived experience of Christians from across the ages. Read about the lives of the saints and you will see how many struggled with belief. I love the Bible story of Jacob wrestling with God, where he stays engaged in the struggle and refuses to leave without God’s blessing. It’s a great model for faith. I hope that church leaders teach that it’s okay, and even necessary, to wrestle like Jacob. I hope they communicate that someone can still belong to a community and engage in spiritual practices even if they aren’t always sure about doctrine.

 

I appreciate your quote from Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, founder of the Nuns on the Bus social justice movement, noting that she “has written extensively about the vows of religious life, criticizing their outdated framework. She wrote: 'What the world needs now, respects now, understands now is not poverty, chastity and obedience. It is generous justice, reckless love and limitless listening.’"

Does this tie in to what you wrote about people searching for authenticity (question #2 above)?

Absolutely. Generous justice, reckless love, and limitless listening are things not commonly found in our culture. They are infused with God’s good grace and inspire us to see God’s movement in the world. We ache for God to make all things new. Seeing the Visitation Sisters live their vows gives me courage and greater trust in God.

 

Your love for your husband Josh, who left the Christian faith, shines through in your book. "As Josh stops to identify fungi growing on a downed log near our path, I remember [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer's warning to love people more than my visions for life - whether that vision is for Christian community or the perfect religious upbringing for my kids. It's a struggle. I wonder if the work of love begins when our ideals shatter, when we're forced to sort through the broken pieces together."

The quote from Bonhoeffer is very powerful stuff! And your honesty in admitting that, at times, it really can be a struggle is well put. I’m wondering if you’d care to go deeper with your observation about “the work of love begins when our ideals shatter…” 

Josh and I are both idealists, which means we had a long way to fall when the realities of life contradicted our lofty visions. It doesn’t mean that we don’t still have ideals, or values, or hopes for the future, but we hold them more loosely. Instead of projecting into the far distance, the work of love is daily and quotidian. In marriage it’s the way we listen to each other and turn toward each other. It’s much, much, harder than dreaming about the perfect community.

 

Continuing with the same subject of your marriage. You observe: "Loving each other doesn't mean giving up our distinct beliefs or practices. Loving each other means we each seek to understand and honor what the other holds sacred.

… it's how I practice the [wedding] vows we made to mutually obey one another. Kathleen Norris writes that, at its root, 'The word obey means 'hear.' And listening in that sense as mutual obedience, is fundamental to marriage... Such intimacy is a great gift because it also contains the challenge of doing what is necessary, every single day, to maintain the relationship.'"

You point to some very solid ways to face the challenges of an interfaith family, or being spiritually nomadic. First, the idea of mutual respect and seeking to understand different beliefs without being threatened by them. And then the importance of listening, to hear what the other person is saying.

Would you care to elaborate on any of this?

Love in a marriage is not about merging identities, but about spurring one another onward in our unique callings in life. In this busy season of life, both of us working full-time and raising two elementary-aged kids (during COVID!), our biggest challenge is taking the time necessary to “hear” one another during a time of great stress. Lots of people are dealing with this tension. We are all exhausted and burned out. For me, I must make a concerted effort to continue my individual spiritual practices while being open to what Josh holds sacred. I encourage him to go for long bike rides, and he encourages me to take the kids to church. It’s never perfect, or balanced 100 percent equally, but we carry on because we have that mutual respect and regard for each other.

 

 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Facing the Pain With Jesus & Glennon Doyle

Glennon Doyle
Author Glennon Doyle has done a TED talk and a Super Soul Session in-between writing books.

The main takeaway she wanted for the audience of her live events is we should learn to embrace pain, even run towards it. 

It's only by facing whatever is causing pain in our lives that we grow. In her words. first the cross, then the resurrection, she points out.

There's no doubt whatsoever that Doyle has paid her dues. Years of bulimia and addiction fueled by a Western Culture that teaches us to hide our truest selves.

Haven't we all felt like we didn't fit in? Like fitting in was more important than realizing who we truly are? 

Jesus With Barbed Wire/Friar Robert Lentz
Towards the end of her Super Soul Session talk, Doyle mentioned a few of the people she admires, like Jesus.

And it is true that Jesus was one of the few human beings who walked the earth who seemed to be perfectly comfortable being who he was. 

Jesus was also comfortable in freely admitting that living involved a lot of pain. He told his followers to be aware that they would face persecution and death. 

But he also taught them not to be afraid. In fact, one of the first things Jesus said to his followers after his resurrection was "peace to you."

Maybe he was figuring they were thinking, "if they killed our leader, then what are the Romans going to do to us?" 

Facing pain has never been very popular.

Doyle says it took over twenty years for her to finally get to that point. 

Jesus had three years of public ministry, but those years were action-packed with rejection, misunderstanding, and poverty. Followed by crucifixion.

Yikes!

We want shortcuts, but wisdom and healing don't come from side-stepping around the truth.

As I'm writing this, I'm still mourning the loss of my two cats, Abbott and Buddy. We lived together for almost 17 years. I'm mourning the loss of five classmates from high school (class of 1970) who have passed away this year. I'm mourning the continuance of the Covid-19 pandemic via the Delta variant. I'm mourning the loss of life happening as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and for thousands of Afghanis whose lives have been changed forever because of our involvement there. 

It's a lot to consider. 

Most days I do a terrible job of bringing these things to mind. Some days I reach out and do something positive in retaliation.

On the whole, I've chosen to keep slogging through pain and disappointment and confusion.

Sometimes, slowly, miraculously, hope appears. 

Oftentimes in the strangest places, and at the oddest times.

Most of the world's religions tackle the challenge of pain.

The better ones point the way towards love.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Challenging Christian Classic

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938. 

It was a time of tremendous spiritual upheaval in his native Germany. 

By that time the Nazi party was firmly entrenched, extending its influence into most of the Christian church. And Bonhoeffer had already been asked to help the "Confessing Church," (Christians who refused to become affiliated with Nazism). 

He was leading a Confessing Church community when he wrote Life Together.

This context is important to remember because a good portion of his insights could be glossed over as being irrelevant outside of abstract theological discussion.

But, in fact, Bonhoeffer was committed to the Confessing Church and was eventually arrested and executed by the Gestapo for his beliefs and work. He was no 'pie in the sky by and by' theologian, but very much involved in life around him, having been part of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

With razor-sharp focus, Bonhoeffer states, fairly early on in Life Together, that Christian life "is not an ideal, but a divine reality."

"One who wants more than what Christ established does not want Christian fellowship. They are looking for some social experience which they have not found elsewhere... Just at this point Christian community is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful idea of religious fellowship."

"Christian life together depends on whether it succeeds at the right time in bringing out the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God's reality, between spiritual and human community."

"Spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother [or sister]. It originates neither in the brother [or sister] nor in the enemy but in Christ and his Word. Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new and incomprehensible to all earthly love."

Bonhoeffer makes the point that "human love constructs its own image of the other person...[S]piritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which they have received from Jesus Christ."

He warns against excluding those on the margins from the Christian community, saying "the exclusion of the weak and insignificant from a Christian community may actually mean exclusion of Christ." The Community of the Ark and the Catholic Worker movement are examples of living out this principle.

Throughout Life Together, Bonhoeffer points out the importance of reading and understanding the Bible. For him, it's one of the cornerstones upon which Christian community is founded and flourishes.

He writes, "We are the reverent listeners and participants in God's action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also... It is not in our life that God's help and presence must still be proved, but rather God's presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ."

Similarly so, Bonhoeffer argues that, "It is not our heart that determines our course, but God's Word."

He talks about the importance of a balance between being alone (in solitude and silence) and being part of a community. "We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only the person who is alone can live in fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship... Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the world of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair."

He notes the importance of intercession in Christian community. "A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother [or sister] for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. Their face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into that countenance of a brother [or sister] for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner."

Along with intercession, Bonhoeffer spends significant time discussing the importance of confession. In fact, he says that "In confession the break-through to community takes place."

He sees sin as isolating and destructive to community life. Confession to one another, even if it be difficult, is the antidote. Bonhoeffer gives the example of the public humiliation of Jesus on the Cross as actually being the very thing that sets us free to follow his example.

Life Together is not an especially difficult book to understand, but its lessons can be very difficult to accept and apply.

Life Together is not a call to neglect social justice in pursuit of doctrinal purity.Bonhoeffer's own life and death attest to this. These tensions continue to make his book powerful and timely. 

Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, wrote of Bonhoeffer's book, "Most books can be skimmed quickly; some deserve careful reading, a precious few should be devoured and digested. Life Together... belongs to the third category."

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Getting Back to the Basics of What Jesus Taught

Photo Credit: Relevant Magazine
I've recently read three very interesting posts from two different online newsletters - two, from the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) and one from Rick Warren (Daily Hope).

Richard Rohr is the primary writer for the CAC online newsletter

He writes in one post, "We must be honest and admit that most of Christianity has focused very little on what Jesus himself taught and spent most of his time doing: healing people, doing acts of justice and inclusion, embodying compassionate and nonviolent ways of living." 

That is the main point Rohr is making. 

It's straightforward and if you look at the recent history of much of the U.S. Christian Church, I'd say it's valid.

How often does the Christian Church get in the news for doing acts of justice, compassion and nonviolence?

On a related subject, Warren pointed out the difference between a witness and an attorney. He said that Christians should remember this distinction. He defined the difference between a witness and an attorney by giving a clear example.

In court, if you're on the witness stand, testifying about a car accident involving a red car and a green car, you tell what you know. "I saw the red car run into the green car." That's it.

We can get into trouble when we over-explain and complicate the things Jesus did and said - which are actually very simple.

Photo Credit/Learned Religions
In another post from the CAC, Megan McKenna writes: "Knowing Aramaic, the language of Jesus, has greatly enriched my understanding of Jesus' teaching. Because the Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation, we sometimes get a wrong impression. For example, we are accustomed to hearing the Beatitudes expressed passively: 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.  

"Blessed” is the translation of the word makarioi, used in the Greek New Testament. However, when I look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, I find that the original word was ashray, from the verb yashar. Ashray does not have this passive quality to it at all. Instead, it means “to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent...'

How could I go to a persecuted young man in a Palestinian refugee camp, for instance, and say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” or “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? That man would revile me, saying neither I nor my God understood his plight and he would be right.

When I understand Jesus’ words in Aramaic, I translate like this:

Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied.

Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.

To me, this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately."

Maybe, the challenge for Christians in the U.S. is to realize what we are called, primarily, to be witnesses, not defenders of the faith. And focus on actions that promote active blessing, instead of being condescendingly self-righteous. 

Maybe, this combination - remembering what we are called to say and what we are called to do - could be a way to get out of the spiritual inertia present in much of 21st Century American Christianity. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the Christian religion is on the decline in the United States. Significantly so within the past decade. 

Perhaps now would be a good time for Christians to become more focused on what they do and say to help get back to the simplicity of how Jesus lived and what he taught.

A Review: Inventing Hell - Dante, The Bible, and Eternal Torment, by Jon M. Sweeney

As a former Catholic and Evangelical, I spent a lot of time wondering about Hell. So has Jon M. Sweeney. His book, Inventing Hell: Dante...