Tag Archives: Spirituality

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.

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Two Orientations: Body, Soul and Sex (#1)

[Programming Note: This post begins a new series on Soul, Body and Sex. But it continues the subject of the previous seven-part series on Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis. I recommend reading those essays as a foundation for this series.]

Where are we?

In previous posts I’ve tried to get to the roots of the moral crisis that engulfs contemporary culture. At the origin of this crisis stands the abandonment of the long-accepted notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as communities and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good.

Given its subjective view of the good, modern culture can no longer make sense of the right as a moral rule that conforms to the moral law. Hence the “right” becomes a private assertion of “what is right for me” or it is identified with legislated human law made through the political process. The simmering crisis becomes open conflict when society’s subjective views of the good and right become concrete disagreement about specific moral behaviors. These disagreements can be settled only by coercion in one of its modern forms: protest and intimidation or legislated human law.

Thoughtful (and faithful) Christians find themselves under fire because they submit themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures and retain the traditional view of the good and the right. When Christians oppose the dominant culture’s subjective view of the good and the right they appear backward, oppressive, insensitive, cruel and downright hateful. Indeed, they appear as enemies of humanity worthy of marginalization, legal proscription and even persecution.

Two Orientations

We are now at the point in our discussion of the moral crisis where we need to speak about specific behaviors. And I might as well begin with the body and sex. In the contemporary controversy over the use of our bodies we see most vividly the clash of two irreconcilable moral visions. Though the particulars differ, the clash is not new. The New Testament is replete with warnings about this collision of worlds: two opposing kingdoms (Col 1:3), life and death (Col 2:3), visible and the invisible (2Cor 4:18), the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh (Gal 5:13-26) and many others. One of the clearest contrasts is found in Colossians 3:1-14. Paul contrasts two ways of living as opposition between two orientations: to things above or to earthly things:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

The New Testament clearly views the moral life as an aspect of a comprehensive and internally consistent way of life, at once religious, spiritual and moral. Its specific moral rules are not isolated and arbitrary. The moral prohibitions in Colossians 3:5-11, quoted above, are interrelated. All of them are integral to the “earthly nature.” The list in verse 5 centers on misuse of the natural urges of physical body: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.” The list in verse 8 has to do with misuse of our need for acceptance and fellowship from others: “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” And the physical dimension cannot be separated from the social. We use our bodies to communicate with others and our physical urges almost always involve interaction with others.

The Body

The New Testament affirms the created goodness of the body. But the goodness of the body lies in the possibility for the body’s proper use. The body is not absolutely good, so that whatever we do with it is also good. It can be misused and misdirected. Those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things above” want to use their bodies for the Lord while those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things on the earth” view their bodies as instruments for their own pleasure and power. Those who direct their minds toward Christ desire to learn the purpose for which God created their bodies and the rules for their proper use. To those whose minds are set on earthly things, the Bible’s moral rules for the proper use of the body seem strange and unnatural.

The Bible speaks of human beings as body and soul. We are physical and mental. We possess freedom at some levels of our being, but at other levels the automatic processes of nature operate apart from our choice or awareness. The Bible is not concerned with the philosophical problem of the composition of human beings, with debates about the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and body. It is concerned with the orientation of the whole human being toward or away from God. But the Bible acknowledges what we all know from experience: there is a hierarchical order in the relationship between body and soul. The mind is the ruling aspect and the body needs to be ruled and guided. Our minds enable us to gain wisdom to discern the good and right. The body apart from the mind possesses no conscious knowledge of the good and right. It works more or less automatically and instinctually.

Now consider the two orientations of Colossians 3:1-14 again in light of our created nature as body and soul. Paul speaks of the two ways of living, two possible orientations to God of our whole persons. As whole persons we are body and soul, and the body must be guided by the soul. (Note: the soul is more than the mind, but it includes the mind.) But the mind must be illuminated by moral and spiritual truth from above in order to guide the body to its proper end, which is to serve God. Paul urges us to set our minds and hearts on “things above”. Unless the mind is set on “things above” it cannot lead the body to do good and right. When the mind forsakes “things above”, the body–through its automatic and instinctual urges–begins to dominate the mind and the mind becomes a mere instrument we use to seek out ways to please the body. It thinks only about “earthly things”. Instead of rising higher to become more and more like God, human beings fall to earth to become merely smart animals. Dangerous ones too!

To be continued…

Future questions: what is the body for? Do I have a right to use my body as I like? Does mutual consent make what I do with another human being good and right?

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

Creation–Can You Hear it Sing?

Lately, I have been thinking about the idea of divine creation. For centuries Christians—and most Jews and Muslims too—have asserted “creation from nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). The central point of this idea is that God required no building material out of which to make the universe. For, if God had needed anything other than God’s own power and will to create, we could not think of God as the absolute Lord of creation—a really scary thought! To accomplish this task God would require help from something else. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle understood that beings in the world are ever changing, coming into existence and going out of existence. But they also knew that something had to be eternal or nothing would exist, which would be inconceivable…because if nothing existed there would be no mind to conceive and no concepts to think. For them it was axiomatic that the eternal and unchanging world of intelligible forms and ideas exists necessarily. It deserves to be called divine precisely because it is self-sufficient and necessary. Aristotle was so clear that true being is eternal and unchanging that he declared that “from nothing, nothing comes into existence” (ex nihilio, nihil fit). Hence even matter is eternal and does not come into existence or go out of existence. It is always there to be shaped like the potter’s clay into different beings.

The Christian teaching of “creation from nothing” does not directly contradict Aristotle because it does not say that creation sprang into existence from nothing; existing things come from God and God is eternal. So Christian teaching agrees with Aristotle that “from nothing, nothing comes into existence.” Since God is eternal, there never was a time when there was absolutely nothing. But matter is not divine or eternal or necessary. Christianity asserts only one eternal being, God.

The idea of “creation from nothing” has profound implications in many areas of thought and life. I will mention only one. Everything, everyone, and every event that was, is and will be depends totally on God, and God alone, for its fundamental existence. Taking this truth seriously could change your life. Learn this skill: when you feel yourself relying on, serving, worshiping, working for, overvaluing, fearing or desiring anything in creation let it immediately trigger the realization that that creature also depends absolutely on God. Now let that thing direct you to its God and yours. God is the source of every good thing and the answer to every threat found in creatures, no matter how beautiful, powerful or good. If you learn this practice you might find yourself becoming a more thoughtful person, more aware of God than before. And in a world as beautiful and dangerous as ours that’s got to be a good thing.

I have found the works David Burrell, Robert Sokolowski, Michael Dodds, and Thomas Weinandy very helpful on the topic of creation.

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