Category Archives: Christianity and Culture

La Résistance

French Résistance

During World War II, the city of Lyon was part of Vichy France (1940-1944) and a center of resistance against French collaboration and NAZI occupation.  On a recent trip to that beautiful and historic city I heard a talk by one of the few living members of the French resistance movement. As a young man, this gentleman was tasked with smuggling weapons past the German soldiers guarding the transportation systems. I was amazed at his stories of defiance, death, and heroism. He has received many honors from his grateful nation for his service. But if you described the actions of the French Résistance, which included theft, assassination, and sabotage, but changed its name and names of its opponents you would think you were learning about a terrorist organization. We so readily admire defiance and resistance when they directed against what we think is an unjust power. Hence it seems that our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on whom it is resisting and to what end.

American Resistance

In contemporary American society we hear much in the media about “The Resistance” movement; or perhaps it’s better described as a “mood.” It’s a mood of defiance and resistance to the current administration, which it pictures as an unjust power in analogy to the opponent fought by the French Résistance. And no doubt its name was chosen for its resonance with that heroic French movement. Resistance and defiance appear honorable and heroic—even when they involve violence, destruction, and hatred—as long as they are directed at the supposed evil and injustice of a greater power. To repeat the principle stated above, our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on the power toward which its opposition is directed and to what end. If you think your cause is just and your opponent’s is evil, you can justify whatever means necessary to succeed at resistance.

Ancient philosophy taught that only “like knows like.” And common sense tells us that only physical forces resist physical forces. Resistance, then, must be of like nature to the thing resisted. The French resistance movement resisted the occupying military and police power with physical force of like nature. The American “resistance” movement resists political power with political power, namely with protest, mobilization, and sometimes violence. To define it crudely but accurately, political power is the legal right to use military and police force to enforce the will of its possessor. It is understandable that people would become distressed when military and police power falls into the hands of their enemies. But we must understand that la résistance whether it has justice on its side or not always meets its enemy with the weapons of its enemy.

Kingdom Resistance

The City of Lyon was founded in 43 B.C. as a military outpost of the Roman Empire. Two centuries later, in 177 A.D, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius instigated a vigorous persecution against the Christian community in Lyon in which its bishop Pothinus was martyred. In 178, Ireneaus (130-200 A.D.) became bishop of the church in Lyon and, in executing the duties of his office, became one of the most influential writers the church has produced. The cause for which Pothinus gave his life and Ireneaus labored exists throughout world today while Marcus Aurelius’ Empire has long since collapsed. Ever since the arrival of Christianity Lyon has been a center of another kind of résistance.

In the New Testament, Christianity is often described in terms that resemble an ideology for resistance, and the church is pictured as a subversive community. However the power we are urged to resist, the means we must use, the type of community we form, and the ends we aim to achieve differ radically from those of the resistance movements discussed above. James, John, Peter, and Paul agree on this:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:11-12).

The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).

According to the New Testament, our real enemy is not the empire, the current administration, evil corporations, your boss, the opposing political party, the guy who cut you off in traffic, or your abusive neighbor. Our real enemies are sin, death, and the devil. And sin is the central player, because death is but the final outcome of sin and the devil needs sinners to do his work. Jesus is the leader of the real Résistance; for he came to “destroy the devil’s work.” And what is the “devil’s work”? The devil’s work is the hatred, selfishness, envy, jealously, rage, cursing, greed, falsehood, idolatry, lust, and fear that dwell in human hearts not yet touched by Jesus and the Spirit he promised. And how does Jesus destroy it? Jesus and his community resist the devil by returning good for evil and love for hate. His resistance strategy takes the form of resisting the urge to resist power with power, violence with violence, lies with lies, and greed with greed; that is, Jesus breaks the cycle of “like knows like” and shows us how to overcome evil with good.

The church is the Résistance that maintains no army, the kingdom that needs no guns, and the community whose cohesion needs no enemies. It desires no police power and collects no taxes. It invites everyone but forces no one. Its soldiers use only the weapons of truth, faith, love, the Spirit, and the Word of God. It gives life and never takes it. Jesus’ people are willing to suffer but not willing to inflict suffering on others.

In an age of resistance perhaps we should be even more wary of taking the putative justness of our cause as justification for using the means of the enemy against the enemy. Thoughtless resistance to an enemy of “flesh and blood” on earth always involves collaboration with the spiritual adversary “in the heavenly realms.”

Note: The picture above is of the Church of Saint Ireneaus in Lyon, France.

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A Culture of Diversion for an Age of Boredom

The deeper you probe human nature the more alike human beings from every class and country and age appear. Language and customs change, but the human condition remains the same. And yet, every age has its signature, a particular way the human condition manifests itself. Each age combines humanity’s perennial virtues and vices, pains and joys, and strengths and weaknesses in a unique way. What is the signature of our age? I admit that seeking an answer to this question is asking for superhuman knowledge, which no human being can attain. Nevertheless we cannot help but wish to understand.

I will leave it to others to describe the unique glories of our age. I am driven to understand its spiritual sicknesses. Every time I think about this question two concepts force their way to the top of my list: boredom and despair. Today I want to explain why I think contemporary culture, if it could sign its name, would write “the age of boredom.” I leave despair for another day.

Perhaps you are already objecting to my thesis: “We live in an age of frantic activity, of 27/7 city life, nonstop entertainment, and ever-present social media. How can you say that we live in an age of boredom?” To anticipate my full response let me say here that your objection actually supports my thesis. I argue that we live in the “age of boredom” because fear of boredom drives us to live the frantic lives you describe.

What is boredom, and why do I think it’s at the root of the spiritual illnesses that plague our age? Perhaps our first thought about boredom is of a feeling of having nothing to do, or more precisely, of having nothing that appeals to us at the moment. We feel restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. We need something with enough power to gather the scattered elements of our souls into one place, focus our attention on one task, and energize us toward one goal. The activity of this powerful object in gathering, focusing, and energizing our souls puts us in touch with ourselves; it enlivens our numbness and fills our emptiness. We feel alive again.

The nature and quality of our revived feelings depend on the nature of the object that overcomes the boredom. Some objects move us by awakening feelings of compassion or love or hope. Others call forth fear or anger or grief. Still others evoke greed or pride or lust. In every case boredom is overcome by placing (or finding) ourselves in the power of an object that possesses our souls in a way that unifies, energizes, and directs them. It seems that the soul doesn’t have the power to unify, energize, and direct itself. Hence boredom is the state of every soul not possessed by a power greater than itself. But not every power is truly greater than the human soul or worthy of its highest love.

We live in the age of boredom, not in the sense that everyone is always in the actual state of boredom, that is, the state of being restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. What I mean is this. Our age is dominated by fear of boredom. For many, much of what we do is designed with one purpose in mind: to fight off boredom for another day. In past ages boredom was a malady limited to the leisured classes. Most people were too occupied with digging a living out of the dirt and keeping their families clothed, warm, and housed to wake up Monday morning feeling aimless. Coping with disease, death, and war left little time to dwell on the emptiness within. But very few people living in the western world today are poor in the same sense that the twelfth-century French peasant or the eighteenth-century Russian serf was poor. We’re all members of the leisure class now! Boredom and fear of boredom have become pervasive problems.

The vast expansion of wealth in modern culture has allowed our spiritual poverty to come to the surface. When struggle for survival no longer possesses, unifies, and directs the soul, we face prospect of boredom. We look for other powers and goals to energize us and give us purpose. Many fight boredom by seeking exciting experiences. Fearing to be alone with their empty selves they seek ways to stimulate the feeling of being alive. They want to feel fear, compassion, triumph, surprise, delight, sadness or desire. And the entertainment industry’s main function is to invent ways of creating these feelings within our souls whenever we desire. We listen to music, watch movies, and go to concerts. We buy stuff. Protest stuff. And eat stuff. We hang out and hookup. We numb ourselves with alcohol and prescription drugs.

Modern life is a gigantic, multifaceted project designed to draw our attention away from the nothingness at the center of modern soul. The present age knows of no power great enough to gather all the soul’s passions and focus them on a goal worthy of all its love. And in my view, this absence is the cause of its sicknesses and the reason it deserves to be called “the age of boredom.”

Some Things Cannot Be Delegated

Never has an age promised so much and delivered so little as ours. Modern culture assures us that pursuing boldly our individual tastes and preferences is the way to create our identities to our liking and escape confining social roles, customs, and prescriptive morality.  Happiness will be ours if only we refuse to conform to readymade social roles and begin to live consistently with our inner selves. And yet, we find ourselves herded into groups whose identity is rooted in ethnicity, a political cause, gender, age, and a hundred other categories. We want to be unique as long as we are surrounded and supported by others just like us. By identifying with a group that vociferously distinguishes itself from other groups, we seek to resolve the conflict between individual and social identity. We self-deceptively adopt the group’s identity as our individual identity, assuring ourselves that we’ve done our duty to “become ourselves.” Becoming a unique individual is not as easy or as pleasant as modern culture makes it sound! Nor is becoming a Christian.

Christian people find the task of becoming an individual no less difficult and subject to self-deception than do our secular contemporaries. Identifying yourself with the Christian faith, a Christian denomination, or a local Christian congregation does not make you Christian. Although becoming a Christian involves adopting an identity that is shared by others and living as a Christian requires that we live in community with other Christians, no one else can become a Christian for you or live the Christian life in your place. The institutional church cannot do it. The clergy cannot do it. Others can guide, encourage, and provide good examples, but you must step into that bright, heavenly light alone and relate directly to your God.

To live as a Christian you must believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No one else can believe for you. Repentance and confession of sin must come from your heart and your mouth. Identifying with a church where communal prayers and liturgies speak of repentance and forgiveness cannot replace your own inner contrition and secret confession to God. You have to change your own life. The two greatest commands are to love God and love your neighbor. To love God is to acknowledge his love for you, to place him on the throne of your heart, and to seek him as your highest good. No institution, no other person can do this for you. And you have to love your neighbor from your heart. You cannot delegate this task to someone else. No one else can pray your prayers, give your praise, and express your thanks. Experiencing God’s presence is not a group activity.

Living a good life and practicing virtue, while done in community, must be done by the individual. Faith, hope, and love cannot be inherited from your parents or distributed like communion wafers. No one can complete your God-given assignment. It’s not like such tasks as cooking dinner, washing the car, or taking out the trash, which you can have done for you. God gave the task to you, and your doing it is part of its nature. If you don’t complete it, it will not be done.

Human beings judge each other on superficial grounds, external appearance, church membership, group associations, social status, and professional accomplishments. God judges the heart. God knows us from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, inside and out, down to the depths of our souls. We cannot hide from God within the crowd, in the audience. To become a Christian, you and I must first give up the self-deception that the secrets of our hearts are known only to us. We must face the fact that we have been found out, that is, we must come to realize that God has always known our sins. And then, under our own names and in our own persons, we must deal with God directly.

 

 

 

“Rules in a Knife Fight?” Or, the Roots of Today’s Moral Chaos

Reason is dead! Requiescat in pace! Or, at least it’s on life support when it comes to morality. Civil discussions of social or individual morality in the public square, in the workplace, in public schools and universities, in social media, and even in church have become impossible in contemporary culture. Moral chaos reigns not only between Christians and secularists but among secular people themselves and among people who claim to be Christian. People don’t discuss moral issues anymore, they fight about them. Discussions are about searching for truth and presuppose people’s desire to know and conform to the truth. Fights are about power, domination, and forced submission of one party’s preferences to another’s.

Believers in truth and reason could gather around reason’s grave and lament its death. We could withdraw into our homes, houses of worship and homeschools and wait for a miracle or for Jesus’s return. And any regular reader of this blog knows that I am not opposed to a strategic withdrawal, especially in contrast to assimilation to dominant culture. On that theme see my May 12, 2017 review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. But I do not believe we ought to acquiesce just yet. To the contrary, I believe Christians should speak up for reason and truth. But speaking up for reason and truth won’t be as easy as asserting that reason is a necessary instrument for finding truth and truth is the way things are whether we like it or not. As true as this assertion is, to our culture it sounds like fighting words designed to exert power and demand submission. How do you reason with people for whom reason is dead, and how do you urge people to submit to truth when for them truth is just another word for preference?

First, I do not believe reason can ever truly die. Nor can anyone ever really abandon the assumption of truth. So, our first task is to probe the contemporary mind, seeking its most basic presuppositions and beliefs, which serve as the hidden foundations of its incoherent moral rhetoric. Where shall we look for these foundations? Every moral theory or rhetorical style of talking about morality presupposes beliefs about basic human nature and the nature and will of God. It is guided by beliefs about what constitutes human dignity, how happiness can be achieved, and what are the greatest threats to human dignity and the most sinister roadblocks to achieving happiness.

Here are three presuppositions that guide the modern mind, which is shared to one extent or another by everyone touched by the western worldview:

  1. Human dignity is grounded in human freedom. And human freedom is the power of the self to decide what it will do and become. Maximum dignity requires maximum freedom. Maximum freedom is achieved when we possess total control over ourselves, our situation, and our destiny. Any limit on freedom is a limit on dignity. And any limit on dignity is an insult.
  2. Happiness is achieved by exercising our maximum freedom to do and become whatever pleases us. What counts as a happy state is determined totally by the preferences of each individual. The modern mind acknowledges no general rules, such as “love God and your neighbor,” for achieving happiness.
  3. The greatest threats to human dignity, freedom, and the prospect of happiness are God and belief in natural law or traditional morality enshrined in law. Since the modern mind links maximum dignity to maximum freedom, the idea of being dependent on and responsible to God, the Creator of all things, is the most serious threat to dignity and freedom. Even people who say they believe in God will not accept any view of God that limits their maximum freedom. They assimilate God to their preferences. The second most serious threat to dignity, freedom and the prospect of happiness arises from other people who are inspired by their belief in God or moral law or traditional morality to impose their morality on others, whether through social pressure or state power.

The history of the last 350 years can be written as the struggle of modern people to free themselves from the “oppressive” forces of God and institutions that support traditional morality. One institution, social practice and philosophy after another has been exposed as “oppressive”. And indoctrination into this ideology has been so effective that the majority of our society can make no persuasive response even to the most radical and total rejection of all limits on the freedom of individuals to do and become whatever they want. We are close to becoming a nihilistic society, that is, of surrendering to the ideology that “all things are possible,” that there is no moral law and nothing real; there is nothing that cannot be or ought not to be changed and shaped according to our collective or individual preferences. This is the relentless logic at work in the hearts and minds of our neighbors and friends, and even in our own; and this is the pernicious logic that makes it inevitable that rational discussions will be replaced by knife fights. Our situation is captured by Harvey Logan’s famous line from the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “rules in a knife fight?”

That famous scene is a parable of contemporary moral discourse:

Hence the first step to addressing the moral chaos that dominates contemporary moral discussions is digging down to the ancient foundational beliefs that led to this chaos. The next step is to demonstrate the absurdity of these foundational beliefs. And the third step is to argue for, proclaim, and live on an alternative foundation, one that secures authentic human dignity, freedom, and hope for happiness. And that foundation is God, the creator and savior revealed in Jesus Christ.

Succeeding at Success

A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?

I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.

What is Success?

In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.

Success at What?

The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imagine actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”

God and the “Little Voice”

Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”

Succeeding at Success

But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.

Guideposts Along Road to Success

What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.

Ron Highfield

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Blessed are the Peacemakers in a Culture at War

In this time of social division and strife, when tempers simmer just below the boiling point and violent speech edges closer to action, how should Jesus’ disciples conduct themselves? I use the term “disciple” rather than “Christian” because some who think of themselves as “Christians” don’t seem to be aware that being a disciple—a real follower!—of Jesus is the indispensable condition of being a Christian. Do I need to prove that this is so? Well, then, recall the words of Jesus after he washed his disciples’ feet:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).

Or the words of John the beloved disciple:

“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).

Or Paul’s oft-quoted plea for unity and humility grounded in Christ’s example of self-emptying:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).

Again I ask, how should disciples of Jesus conduct themselves in this age of division and strife? The answer to this question is not complicated. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays it out plainly. Be humble, meek, and merciful. Don’t speak evil to anyone or of anyone. Bless when others curse, love in situations where others hate, and seek peace when others foment strife. Pray, give generously, trust God, don’t seek honor, and don’t judge others.

In his seventh beatitude, Jesus says,

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

What would it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture at war? Sometimes we harbor an image of peacemakers as those who step courageously between combatants, placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace. In my view, this is a romantic and heroic picture that is just as likely to lead the “peacemaker” to an inflated and uber-righteous self-concept as to any real peacemaking. Perhaps we ought to begin our peacemaking with less fanfare. The first qualification of peacemakers is that they refrain from contributing to strife. Less romantic and heroic I grant, but essential nonetheless! Our first inclination when we think someone has insulted us or something we hold dear is to return fire. And when we disagree with a strong opinion expressed we feel the urge to “set the record straight.” Jesus urges us to not to be provoked. Truth is truth, justice is justice, and God is God even if the whole world rises up in blasphemy. The survival of civilization doesn’t depend on your sharp-tongued retort. Often, the greatest contribution to peace we can make is to hold our peace.

After we’ve learned the lesson of self-control, we can also contribute to peace by substituting blessing for cursing. Genuine peacemakers look for something good to say, some area of common belief or value to affirm with their would-be opponents. They do kind or merciful deeds instead of retaliating for insult or injury. They go “the second mile” (Matthew 5:41).

Here is the secret of the peacemaker: you cannot become a peacemaker until you attain peace within yourself. You cannot “hold your peace” unless you are at peace. You cannot give peace unless you have peace. Outbursts of anger and episodes of strife are but externalizations of division and strife within. Only by relying on God for forgiveness, acceptance, self-worth, and hope can we become immune to insult and provocation from without. Only by trusting God to judge the world with justice can we give up the anxiety that without our words of protest truth will languish. Only by giving the world into God’s care can we give up the feeling that without our frantic actions the world will fall apart.

In a culture at war with itself let us say it again, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

 

Craving Obscurity in a Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Everyone wants to be known and loved, and no one wishes to live and die in obscurity. The “good morning” we receive from a passing hiker, a conversation with a good friend, or the most intimate expressions of love…we need acknowledgement, affirmation and love from others. How else could we feel confident in our own worth and sure of our significance and place in this world? Apart from a sense of belonging we lose our love of life and energy for work. Clearly, desire to know and be known is part of our created nature. But like all other aspects of our created nature this desire can be misdirected and abused.

Jesus warns of the dangers of seeking applause from the public:

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Lk 6:26)

But I want to be well thought of, and I like it when everyone speaks well of me! It feels good. And it feels good because it makes me think well of myself. However, Jesus reminds us that other people are in no position and have no authority to pronounce us worthy of praise. Quite the opposite, the world rarely finds truth praiseworthy, but it loves beautiful lies.

Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ warns against inordinately seeking knowledge lest we look down on others for knowing less or become obsessed with seeking praise for our intellectual accomplishments. He advises seeking something else:

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing (1.2).

In another translation the words “love to be unknown” are rendered “crave obscurity.” Those words cut me to the heart. I don’t “crave obscurity,” and I don’t “love to be unknown.” I fear it. Living in obscurity seems like not existing at all, and dying unknown and unremembered seems like being erased from existence or worse, never having existed. And yet the words “crave obscurity” haunt me because of the falsehood they expose and truth to which they bear witness. Thomas à Kempis is not urging us to “love to be unknown” in the absolute sense. Nor does Jesus allow us to dismiss all knowledge of ourselves that comes from outside ourselves. This is not possible. Instead, both urge us to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God. To know God is to know truth, and to be known by God is to be known truly. If I know the One who knows me truly, I am in touch with truth about myself. And knowing the truth about myself frees me from the endless quest to make myself pleasing to others.

Now I want to apply the principle of “crave obscurity” to the church. Just as individuals need to learn to be satisfied with knowing and being known by God, so does the church. Just as desire for recognition, legitimation, acknowledgement, influence and honor blinds and corrupts individuals, so do such desires blind and corrupt churches. One could write a history of the church from the First Century to today by tracing the church’s efforts to become accepted, honored, respected, visible and influential in the political and social orders of the world.

As soon as a few believers begin meeting in homes or a local rented hall, they begin to dream of “greater” things: greater visibility, greater numbers, greater influence, a bigger staff, a bigger meeting venue, and a larger budget. Their obscurity to the world troubles them. They feel incomplete and insignificant. They crave the things that have come to be associated in the public mind with the legitimacy and permanency of institutions: legal incorporation, property ownership, wealth, visibility in public space and employees.

My question today is this: what would the church look like if it “loved to be unknown and considered as nothing”? What if it “craved obscurity”? What if it put all its energy into a quest to know and be known by God? What if it became invisible to the world? Would it lose anything essential to its existence? Or, would the truth set the church free, free to be the church in truth.