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Thinking Out Loud
  • Pagan Shrines in the Crypt

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!
    Pagans in the CryptCarl Jung once said that beneath the foundation of every Christian cathedral there lies a sacred pagan site. His comment was more metaphorical than historical, but nonetheless true. I was thinking about Jung's words when my old friend, the Rev. Dr. Alan Gregory, head of an Anglican theological college, took us down into the crypt below Canterbury Cathedral back in June.

    I thought again about Jung's observation, especially its symbolic and spiritual significance, a few days later when Debbie and I stayed in the Kilmartin Valley. As I mentioned in the previous blog, it is almost impossible, at least for me, whenever I visit this valley, not to reflect on the fact that it was set apart for sacred purposes for thousands upon thousands of years, through a succession of different religions.

    Archaeologist Francis Pryor, in his new book on Britain's prehistory, spanning the period from just after "the Ages of Ice" (9600-8000 BC) through the rise of Celtic Britain (1000 BC – 45 AD), reflects on "certain 'natural places' " which were "viewed by Neolithic communities as being special in some ways." In doing so, Pryor makes an observation that deserves further consideration: "Religions tend to come and go, but places retain a more secure hold on people's consciousness." [Francis Pryor, Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from British Prehistory (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 56-57]

    People return again and again to particular places with a sense of expectancy regarding the holy, with a sense of possibility, of hope, but also of dread that they may indeed meet the Transcendent there. This is why, I think, Philip Larkin's poem, "Church Going," is not only poignant but prophetic. The somewhat bewildered cyclist in the poem who enters a small Irish church concludes that the church probably wasn't worth stopping for, but he also recognizes that he was drawn to this patch of earth, "this cross of ground," and that others will likely be drawn there long after the last Christian believers depart:

    "Since someone will forever be surprising
    A hunger in himself to be more serious,
    And gravitating with it to this ground,
    Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
    If only that so many dead lie round."

    [Philip Larkin, "Church Going," in The Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), 35-37]

    Jung's observation not only speaks of the tenaciousness of a people to keep expecting to meet the holy on the same ground, but also the tenaciousness of past faiths to keep their hold on a people. There are layers upon layers of strata buried in the human heart. Just because a new structure of beliefs has been erected does not mean the old is forgotten. The people of a place, out of a sense of reverence (and not just superstition), may be hesitant to let go of an ancient ritual or belief even at the cost of the strong remonstrances of the officers of a new faith.

    A seventeenth-century entry in the Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, from the Western Highlands of Scotland, demonstrates this. The minutes read: "1650 the parishioners of Craignish were rebuked by the Kirk Session for 'goeing sun-gates about the church before they go in to the kirk for divyne service." One might have assumed that hundreds of years of Christianity - first Celtic Christianity, then Roman Catholicism, then Presbyterianism - would have expunged pagan religious beliefs and practices from the people of this place. One would be wrong about that.

    We have considerable evidence that ancient monuments, like burial cairns and stone circles, were used apparently in succeeding ages (for example, from Mesolithic to Neolithic to Bronze Age communities) for very different ritual purposes. But the older rituals exerted their pull even in the midst of the new. For example, there are standing stones in the Kilmartin Valley that were erected around 1800 BC, but the stones used were actually quarried and carved a millennium or more before that and had long been employed by earlier people for their own ritual purposes. It seems that the ancient carved stones were, in fact, chosen specifically because they had been held sacred in the distant past. They were transported to a new location and set up (they had previously lain in the ground) to be re-employed in an arrangement of standing stones.

    In much the same way, ancient rituals and old beliefs survive among the people of a place, although they may be (metaphorically speaking) kept hidden in the crypt beneath the church. And, sometimes, as we see in the Synod Minutes, they are not hidden at all.

    When this happens we tend to speak of syncretism, usually in a derisive tone. And, yet, I would agree with G.K. Chesterton who thought that syncretism was not a curse but a blessing in Christian faith, part of the genius of this Jewish Messianic religion which within just a very few generations of its origin in Palestine had taken on Hellenistic and Roman ways and over time incorporated various elements of the Paganism of its adherents. Each time we put lights on a Christmas tree or utter the word "Easter," the pagan shrine peeks out from the church crypt and gives us a wink. Let's smile in reply.

    Doesn't it make sense that we should? In the name of the God who will not be held captive by any creed and against the puritanism of every age that wants to make God small enough to fit into its own little box, we can celebrate the contents of our crypt. And perhaps we too can walk the sun-gates before going into the church for divine worship.

  • "Together" in the Wilderness of Solitude: An Advent Exercise

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 08, 2015

    Together in the Wilderness"When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself." Matthew 14:13

    Anyone familiar with the gospels will be familiar with the pattern. From the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, one finds the natural ebb and flow of Jesus' presence with the people and his withdrawals into solitude for prayer.

    In the story told in Matthew chapter fourteen, Jesus withdraws "in a boat to a deserted place" immediately after he has heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by Herod Antipas the son of Herod the Great. It is a moment of personal distress and arguably of vocational crisis that drives Jesus into solitude. Earlier in the same Gospel, we are told that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after being baptized by John, though one may prefer the softer reading that he was “led” there (Matthew 4:1). Again and again, we find Jesus in desert places, on a mountain, upon the water, in a wilderness, or in a garden. In such instances we find Jesus alone, in solitude, led or driven into an inner sanctum where he wrestles with temptation or seeks nourishment, comfort or direction.

    What did Christ find in the wilderness? I wonder. And what did he take into it? In fact, the two questions may be closely connected.

    In our contemporary culture, many people endure alienation, loneliness, anxieties and a nagging fear that their lives lack meaning, all the while pursuing an existence of self-sufficiency, self-absorption and self-aggrandizement - immersing themselves ever more deeply in the illusions of self that produce their suffering. Often they seek relief from their sense of alienation and anxiety by receiving regular doses of distraction, whether through the seemingly endless venues of entertainment or through the various intoxicants of the body or the mind. The fact that one is religiously or spiritually inclined does not necessarily alter the picture, although the distractions sought by these folks may wear religious, spiritual or even Christian labels. Indeed, it is often tempting to believe that Jesus is our pioneer, not only in faith (as the book of Hebrews says) but also in finding relief in a particular sort of distraction, in a temporary escape to the wilderness.

    There is an entire ecclesial industry built up around the idea that the church exists to provide whatever numbs the soul or distracts the mind enough to get us back into the soul-depleting business of self-preoccupied existence week after week. The withdrawals by Jesus are pointed to as proof that we all need a spiritual refueling to keep up with contemporary existence.

    On the basis of the evidence presented in the Gospels, however, it does not seem that Jesus found rest and relaxation in the wilderness, at least not of the sort that allowed him merely to enter back into the stream of an existence that pretended to be self-sufficient. Rather, Jesus' withdrawals took him deep into a confrontation with his own absolute trust and utter dependence upon the being, love, reign and will of God. Jesus' experience of the wilderness does relate to our own, but in a way that subverts some popular ideas about the spiritual life as a filling station that gives us the energy to live and cope with an otherwise self-obsessed and soul-depleting existence. Communion with God calls into question business-as-usual, existence-as-usual, challenging us to reflect critically on the things we appeal to for meaning and depend on for security.

    Thomas Merton, toward the end of his life, articulated an understanding of the relationship between prayer and life in a book, Contemplative Prayer, which was written primarily about the monastic experience but has lots to offer those of us who are not monks.

    "Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face-to-face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the 'consolation of prayer' for its own sake. This 'self' is pure illusion, and ultimately he [or she] who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in madness." [Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image, 1969/2014), xxxii]*

    Jesus found in the wilderness of prayer his own emptiness and the trustworthiness of the God who sustains. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, Jesus found God's purpose for him affirmed and clarified and reaffirmed by God, sometimes against the onslaughts of the devil, sometimes in the midst of personal loss, terror and intimidation, and sometimes in the face of exhaustion and the ravages of his own human frailty. Jesus found all of this in the wilderness of prayer because of what he brought into that wilderness. Jesus brought our humanity and God's whole creation into the solitude of prayer and entrusted us, creation and himself to God's love. In this way, as in others, Jesus modeled prayer for us. We are not refueled in the wilderness of prayer merely to enter again a self-absorbed and soul-depleting existence, but we are renewed in and through prayer by being given the heart of God for others and the world around us.

    In the wilderness of prayer, in that solitude and silence where we remove ourselves from all that distracts us and clutters our minds and keeps us from attending to the Word of God, we make the life of the world around us our primary concern. As Merton observes, freed from all distractions, we listen and we question, we try to gain clarity and discernment, and we expose ourselves "to what the world ignores about itself - both good and bad." (Merton, Contemplative Prayer, xxxviii)

    A Lenten Practice for Advent
    As we journey more deeply into this season of Advent, a season of spiritual preparation that parallels the season of Lent (which is why purple is the liturgical color of both seasons), I would encourage us to take the world of others into prayer with us, to invite the world and its needs into the wilderness of solitude as we draw near to God. There are many ways we can do this, of course, but I would like to offer a practice that may seem a little surprising, though it is presented in the new (2014) edition of Merton's Contemplative Prayer.

    This practice of intercessory prayer, which beautifully reflects Jesus' own teachings regarding prayer and love of others in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48; and 6:5-15), is actually provided by Merton's Buddhist friend, Thich Nhat Hahn. It is a form of prayer, Thich writes, "practiced by all schools of Buddhism." For a complete version of Thich's "The Nine Prayers," I will direct you to Merton's book on contemplative prayer for the full text, but I would suggest for us as Christians to borrow one key idea from this practice. I encourage us in this Advent season to commit to offering our petitions not only on behalf of those we love and for whom we feel a natural affinity, but also for those beyond our circle of affection.

    Understanding that the purpose of prayer is not merely to benefit the self, but realizing that we also are in need of clarity and direction from God, in each petition that we pray (whether we are petitioning God for health and wholeness, peace and joy and love, for forgiveness or grace), let us move from praying for ourselves to praying for particular individuals and groups of people. In each petition, following the example Thich provides, let us pray first for ourselves; then for a person we like; and then for a person we love. Next, let us pray for a person who is simply "neutral" to us (someone who is known to us but that is all); and, finally, let us pray for a person "we suffer when we think of."

    By doing this, of course, we will find ourselves following Jesus' teaching not only to pray for our "friends" but also for our "enemies." Following this practice, we can expand our prayer to offer petitions not only for ourselves and individuals but also for groups of people, following the same pattern as above: first praying for groups of people we like, then for those we love, next for those who are merely neutral to us, and finally for those "we suffer when we think of."

    In a sense, we are taking all of these people into the wilderness of prayer with us, in the knowledge that Christ, our Heavenly High Priest, bears us all into the presence of God as though our names were carved on his heart. This kind of prayer is time-consuming and demanding. It is also potentially transformative. It will be, I think, very difficult, if not impossible, to return from the wilderness of prayer with quite the same attitude even toward our enemies having prayed for them in this way.

    As we draw toward the coming of Christ this Advent, let us determine that we will not arrive at the manger in Bethlehem alone, but with our neighbors, with those dearest to us, and those the very thought of whom causes us to suffer. We all need the love and grace of the Christ child. This we have learned in the wilderness of prayer.

    *This year we have observed the centennial of Thomas Merton's birth in 1915. Merton, known as “Father Louis” at Gethsemani Abbey, died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968. There are still seventeen monks living at Gethsemani who served with Merton, including some who studied under him when he was Novice Master. Douglas Steere, opens his introduction to Merton's Contemplative Prayer with a passage from the poet and mystic William Blake, who wrote: "We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love." I know you will join me in giving thanks that God placed Thomas Merton on this earth, though only for a little space of time, to help us all learn better to bear the beams of love.

  • The Gift of Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 01, 2015

    Gift of AdventIf someone forced me to choose whether I would declare myself to be an "Easter Christian" or "Christmas Christian," without doubt I would come down on the side of Christmas. I love Christmas. And it's not just because I love the whole joyful, sparkling, pagan-spangled, Bethlehem-bound discombobulation we call Christmas. Nor is it only because Christmas points to the central mystery of Christian faith, the incarnation of God. It is also because I find myself, along with all of those who have dwelt in great darkness for weeks amid the most hauntingly beautiful of our hymns and evocative of prophetic utterances, at long last emerging into a great light. Advent is the season of doleful expectation, so true to our human experience, that makes me look forward to and love Christmas so much.

    For some, I confess, Advent has become little more than the shabby waiting room outside the doctor's office, strewn with out-of-date magazines, a television blaring carols and visions of sugar plums to distract us from the clock. But Advent is so much more. Advent is the season that reins us in and holds us back, incessantly saying, "Not yet!" True. But, it is for this very reason that Advent makes Christmas more worth the wait: Advent blesses the waiting. Advent demonstrates liturgically the paradoxical wonder of waiting for the God who is present to show up.

    This year I would encourage us to immerse ourselves even more fully into the waiting and not to rush prematurely and headlong into Christmas. Despite the siren songs of our commercial culture that display Christmas decorations shortly after Halloween, I encourage us to enter into these days of expectation as fully as possible, to feel the weight of waiting "between the times."


    We live in a world of terrors and fears, in an age of anxieties and worries. There is so much hatred and violence, suspicion and insecurity. So many wars, so many rumors of war, and conflicts without number. "Upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity... Human hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming to pass on earth," as we are reminded in a text often read during Advent. (Luke 21:25f)  Of course, these words could describe (and have described) virtually every age since the author of Luke's Gospel first put pen to papyrus. "It's an inconvenient time" sang Nanci Griffith years ago. Living "between the times" has always been inconvenient. It is what we Christians have long done and still do. We live suspended between the first coming of Christ and the end of the ages. This is what Advent enacts.

    In the midst of this moment, I suggest we allow Advent to speak to us and to speak for us in its own plaintive voice. Advent speaks in the voice of disenchanted hope on the threshold of the enchantment of Christmas. It beckons us to pause here with the God who waits with us for God's full deliverance of creation.

    Certainly there are gifts to purchase, travel plans to be made, and celebrations with families and friends to be organized. At the very same time, let us also be as fully present as possible in this moment of Advent. For the sake of our souls, for the sake our communities, and for the sake of our world, let us allow the ancient prophets their moment. Let us feel our exile in these Lenten lands and hold here the shadow side of hope.

    To this end, I encourage us to pray the collect designated in the Book of Common Prayer for the first Sunday in Advent, as the BCP itself recommends, each day throughout this season of Advent until Christmas Eve:

    "Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen."

    And as we pray this prayer daily, I encourage us to attend to the strange and remarkable message that underlies this collect: that the grace we need to cast away darkness and put on the armor of light is a grace which God gives us. We simply don't have it in ourselves to live in hope. This is the gift of God. This too is the gift of Advent.

  • Thin Places: Walking with the Dead

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 27, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Walking with the DeadTwilight arrives late this far north in mid-summer, well after eleven o'clock p.m. This fact always catches me by surprise, as it did this past June traveling through Scotland, although by now I should know better. Like the haunting half-light of a waning solar eclipse, when finally darkness arrives, the shadows do not so much lengthen across the landscape as they envelope everything at the same moment. Everything fades from view, including the Ballymeanoch Standing Stones which stand just a few hundred yards from where we were bedding down for the night.

    Driving through the Kilmartin Valley of Argyll, on the western coast of Scotland, twenty-five years ago, I had wondered what it would be like to sleep among those sacred stones and cairns, henges and burial cysts, some of which were constructed a millennium before the Egyptians began to build their great pyramids. Darkness as thick as black pudding came over the landscape replacing the retreating twilight, and I was getting a sense of exactly what this would be like as I looked out the window of a house only a few hundred yards from the Dunchraigaig Cairn. This is one of the darkest places on earth, especially on a night like this with clouds blocking out the light of the moon.

    The cattle that were bedding down beside the standing stones disappeared into the darkness, oblivious to the significance of their pasture. As we curled up to sleep, the bedroom curtain open so we would see the stones at first light, I thought back to previous visits to this valley during the many years we have gone there.

    On one of those visits, I recall standing on the terrace beside the village church. Below me for a couple of miles down through the valley stretched what has come to be called the "linear cemetery," an avenue of burial cairns and cists, standing stones and other monuments running for a mile or more through the glen. The "modern" church is old enough that it would earn a couple of historical markers if it were anywhere in the United States, and it was certainly not the first church on this site. The original church for the village, a medieval structure, was constructed beside the even older Celtic standing crosses which served as a preaching point for priests of that faith almost 1,500 years ago. But even the early Celtic Christians who lived in tiny "beehive" cells in the surrounding hills were Johnny-come-lately.* Or, perhaps, I should say our Christian faith is the latecomer to the area, since I wouldn't be surprised if there are people there today who carry the DNA of the folks who arrived in this area from Continental Europe sometime after the last ice age retreated. And the ice age ended about 15,000 years ago.

    Standing beside the church, I was struck by the awareness that throughout the human occupation of this valley (and human beings are known to have been in this valley for some nine thousand years) and through several successive religious faiths (in most of which we have no idea what the people believed or what rituals they practiced), this valley has been considered holy, set apart, somehow sacred. This is the thinnest of thin places.

    During the centuries from the construction of the henge which stood outside my bedroom window and the building of the first circle in what we now call Temple Wood, and through the use of this valley as a burial place for the families who lived in the vicinity (from roughly 3500 BC to 1800 BC), it appears that the people who built this sacred landscape did not live amid the monuments they built. They made their homes at the boundaries of the valley, just outside the sacred precinct.

    It is sometimes hard for us to get a sense of just how tangible holiness might have been for people like those who built these monuments. For me, this numinous quality was communicated well in a story that one of our guides told us about a burial in one of the cairns. It appears that only one person was originally buried in that particular cairn, whereas in others it seems whole families, perhaps even for several generations, had been buried, and that these successive generations of families entered the cairns periodically for ceremonial purposes. Not so with this cairn, said our guide.

    Our small group stood inside the cairn around a single burial place, a tomb constructed of slabs in which a single body had been found long ago. We were given a few clues as to the identity of the man buried there. Most telling were the multiple carvings of axe heads, such as were emblematic of the Bronze Age, all over the surface of a huge slab that had covered his tomb. The guide told us that it is believed the person buried in that tomb was not just a tribal leader or a shaman, though he may have been both, but a metal worker. He knew how to make implements of bronze.

    "Think about it," said our guide. A metal worker possessed a singular craft only recently discovered. He knew how to turn solid stone into liquid in a fire and how to create from this flowing liquid solid tools like axe handles. This was not just industry. This was magic. Awe surrounded his craft.

    There was no sharp line dividing sacred and profane in that world. The production of bronze tools touched at the very heart of sacred mystery. And it produced not just respect, but awe and fear. The tribe's respect for the bronze worker may be why he was buried in this large cairn all alone. But fear, it is believed, is why the ancient tribe placed several huge slabs on top of the enormous decorated one that covered his tomb. Magic was strong in this man. And no matter how much they respected him, even revered him, once he was dead, they didn't want him getting out of his tomb again. Which is why his tomb is so different from another tomb we entered further down the valley.

    I have never been anywhere else where you can be gripped by such an overwhelming sense of the vastness of scale of a sacred landscape. (Within six miles of Kilmartin there are over one hundred sites with ancient carved rocks and some twenty-five sites with standing stones, many of which are almost two thousand years older than Stonehenge.) Yet, in the midst of this vastness, you can suddenly find yourself breathless with claustrophobia in an ancient burial cairn, your limbs compressed and contorted, your breathing constricted as your chest feels it is being physically crushed by the weight of the ceiling above you and the walls around you, the damp earth and stones, just inches from you on every side. Every sense, smell, touch and sight, tells you that you have crossed the boundary from the land of the living to the abode of the dead.

    Each of our little group dropped down into the next burial cairn, allowing ourselves to slip down the steep tomb wall at one end with the assurance from the guide that we would be able to extricate ourselves from the tomb at the other end. What he didn't tell us going in was that we would be crawling out of the tomb through a hole just large enough for our shoulders to pass through, and only by a process of the most subtle physical twisting and turning. But walking through this tomb made the claustrophobia and gymnastics worth it. Making my way along the passage, it was impossible not to imagine the use of this cairn for centuries upon centuries, not only as a final resting place for loved ones, but as a place in which families communed with that which lies beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.

    At the end of the afternoon, as I made my way up the hillside, climbing back to the terrace on which stands the present village, after this summer's sojourn among Kilmartin's avenue of ancient monuments, I wondered what it might mean that the sacred has been experienced in this place for thousands and thousands of years and through God only knows how many different religions?

    At the very least, it must mean that we would do well to hold our beliefs a little less tightly, a little less dogmatically and with a lot more humility. This is the first thing I learned walking with the dead of the Kilmartin Valley.

    There is at least one thing more I learned from them. Despite the expanse of years that separates us from the men, women and children who lived and died in that place over the millennia past, as we examine the evidence they left behind and deduce from it what we can about their families and societies, it is clear that these were people we would recognize. They were intelligent, inventive, creative people. They liked to eat foods we still eat. They may well have been our first story tellers. They cherished one another, of this we are certain, giving gifts to one another in life and honoring one another in death. They were reverent people. These were people like us. And they believed that they were brushing against something holy in this place. I suspect they were right.

    *Kilmartin gets the "kil" in its name from the "cell" in which a priest lived. Indeed, wherever you come to a village or a church in Scotland or Ireland with this prefix, you have come across the remembrance of a priest's dwelling.

  • The Church's Deaths and Resurrections

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2015

    Church's ResurrectionG.K. Chesterton, the delightful curmudgeon of Christian orthodoxy, once brilliantly described the ironic expertise that the church brings to its own life, death and resurrection. “Christianity,” Chesterton wrote, “has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.” Later in the same essay, Chesterton draws a distinction between mere survival and the power of resurrection. “The Faith [of the church] is not a survival. … It has not survived; it has returned again and again in this western world of rapid change and institutions perpetually perishing.”

    Chesterton points toward the consciousness within the church, historically at least, of a life that does not depend ultimately upon its skill, its wits and wiles, or even its wisdom (or, as some these days might put it, its executive competence, technical expertise, strategic planning and marketing ability). Neither does the church depend ultimately upon its own faithfulness, theological or moral. The church’s life depends upon the power and faithfulness of God to raise the Body of Christ from every death. Our life as church is a continuing participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have a God who knows the way out of the grave.

    One form of ecclesiastical life diminishes and eventually disappears from history, while another surprises us by arising. Resurrection is always historically unprecedented. Indeed, resurrection is always impossible. Resurrection is not a feature or a characteristic of history. It is as unforeseeable as death is inevitable.

    Powerful orders and forms of ministry and expressions of churchly life, seemingly impervious to decay, fall to hubris, intrigue, persecution or simply time’s relentless pace. From the Templars to the Shakers, from Constantinian Christendom to the Orthodox Church of pre-Bolshevik Russia to the Protestant Establishment in the United States, ecclesial entities flow and ebb like the tide. But to rise from the dead is not as inevitable as the tide. It is an act of the divine. And what rises does not always closely resemble what was placed in the sepulchers of the past. Entire movements of the church are hunted down and expurgated from history, while other movements within and of the church simply drift over the brink of historical cataracts and disappear into the currents below the rocks. When the church renders its life to God in death, it does not hold a trump card of its own survival, and it cannot count on resurrection as an indemnity.

    I once quoted Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous quip: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The implication being that impending death, at least the threat of death, might help us focus our attention creatively, might assist us in summoning the courage to respond to the moment in which we find ourselves. But, it is also true that threats to our existence can paralyze us in a state of perpetual anxiety or, alternatively, cause us to become nervous wrecks of unproductive over-functioning or make us became vicious toward one another and voracious in our greed for scarce turf.

    When Jesus (in Mark 8:31-38) calls his followers to lose their life for his sake, knowing that grasping and clinging to their lives will cause them to lose life, I believe that Jesus’ words are not just spoken to individuals but to the church itself. “If you want to become my followers,” Jesus says to “the crowd with his disciples” (surely a wonderful description of the church in every age), “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it.”

    To face death may mean that we collapse in dread, grasping trembling at survival, and clinging to whatever bloodless thing promises another day of existence. But facing death – in recognition of the impossible possibility of God’s resurrection power – holds the possibility that the church may, in fact, face up to its vocation, may own its baptism and offer up its existence in the Spirit of Christ. For what other reason do we exist as the Corpus Christi but to pour out our common life in response to the call of Christ? In so doing we participate in the suffering and death of Jesus. This mission is who we are.

    The irony, of course, is that each Eucharistic feast the church celebrates prepares us and calls us to do precisely this, to offer ourselves up in the Spirit of Christ and thereby to embrace our unique identity in the world. The church meets death in the death of Jesus at the Lord’s Table, week after week. We are nourished by the continual self-offering of Christ. Yet the church does not seem to anticipate its own offering, its own suffering when it moves from liturgy to life, from poetry to prose.

    The world, without knowing it, eagerly awaits the presence and action of a church that does not cling to its survival, but empties itself, assuming the form of a servant. The world longs for a church that is more concerned with the other than with its own survival. Indeed, the world, unaware of its own great needs and hungers, hopes it will witness in action a church careless of its survival, unshackled by the lesser loyalties and the fears for security and safety that preoccupy the world itself.

    We know this to be true, do we not? The call to follow Christ is not just a matter of individual piety. It is the vocation of the church as Christ’s Body. While it is true that the reign of God is not restricted to the church, nevertheless, if the church is not the church, its particular mission will go wanting. No one else possesses the church’s peculiar calling among the nations and peoples of the world. Ironically the church is most attractive when it pursues its vocation unconcerned with its own survival. But this fact tenaciously resists institutional manipulation.

    Editor’s note: This blog is based on my recent revisiting of the first chapter of a book, The Church Faces Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) which I wrote several years ago. I was mostly just curious how well the thesis of the book has held up.

  • Qoheleth's Breath

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 16, 2015

    Qiheleth's BreathWe were enjoying a rare weekend break at a favorite B&B in Nashville, Indiana. It was early Sunday morning. Debbie was, as I remember, taking a walk. I was sitting on a porch of the B&B having a cup of coffee and reading one of the Bibles our hosts thoughtfully provide in each room. As it happened, the translation of the Bible they left us was the New International Version (NIV). I began reading Ecclesiastes (or “Qoheleth,” as the book is titled in Hebrew). It is a book of the Bible I have been thinking about a lot lately.

    The well-known opening passage of the book (actually Ecclesiastes 1:2) in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible which many of us grew up with runs like this: "’Vanity of vanities,’ saith the preacher, ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’." I have often heard it said that "vanity" in this English translation carries the idea of "emptiness" rather than the idea of that other kind of vanity that can't stop preening in the mirror.

    The version I read that particular Sunday morning, however, went like this: "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher, 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless'." (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV)

    Hmmm, I thought. Vanity. Emptiness. Meaninglessness?

    Translation inevitably involves interpretation. Moving from one language to another requires not only knowledge of ancient worlds and languages, it takes imagination and wisdom, too. Words, even familiar words in one’s own native language, are subject to a considerable variety of interpretations and may carry multiple meanings depending on changing contexts and common usages as well as, perhaps, the worldview, creativity and motives of the reader or interpreter.

    The NIV translators are reading Qoheleth through the lens of a particular version of Existentialist philosophy. This is one of any number of ways we might read this text. And you can almost feel the heartbeat of Karl JaspersAlbert Camus or Paul Tillich in the NIV translation of these passages. This approach is not uncommon. It has often been said that Ecclesiastes presents an Existentialist take on life, and a number of extraordinarily constructive commentaries and sermons have found this line of interpretation fruitful and edifying.

    Recently my colleague Amy Plantinga Pauw wrote a superb commentary on Qoheleth, in the “Belief” series of theological commentaries on the Bible, in which Søren Kierkegaard, sometimes called the “father of Existentialist philosophy,” becomes her “theological companion” in reading Qoheleth. As Amy writes:

    “In my commentary on Ecclesiastes, I turn to a more tormented Augustinian soul, Søren Kierkegaard. Like Qoheleth’s wisdom, Kierkegaard’s thought is ‘frequently iconoclastic and rife with tension’; it ‘subverts tidy explication and defies coherent summarizing.’ Kierkegaard’s disillusionment with the philosophical and religious establishments of his day and his frequent recourse to personal narrative and ironic parables echo Qoheleth’s approach. Like Qoheleth, Kierkegaard found that faith in God created space for joy in the midst of the absurdities of life.” Amy Pauw, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 11-12.

    I find Amy’s reading of Qoheleth particularly illuminating because Kierkegaard’s Existentialism (or, perhaps, more accurately his “Proto-Existentialism”) is utterly suffused with a sense of one’s absolute dependence on God in contrast to the more Nihilistic Existentialism that seems to inform the NIV translators and leads them to ascribe to Qoheleth the view that life is “utterly meaningless.”

    As I sat on the porch of the Nashville B&B that Sunday morning, however, reading this ancient text through the lens of an Existentialism that veered toward Nihilism, I remembered a translation of these words which offers yet another alternative. This translation is provided by Norbert Lohfink in the “Continental Commentary” series on the book of Qoheleth. It reads: "'A breath, a puff of breath ... A breath, a puff of breath,' Qoheleth used to say, 'they all are a breath'."1

    “A breath. A mere puff of breath.” Lohfink reflects on the Hebrew word for “breath” which appears in this text, observing that the word is not univocal. In Psalms of lament, he writes, “… ’breath’ is an image of the ephemeral character of human life, its brevity, the fruitlessness of its striving (like shadows or wilting flowers). A similar meaning is found in the wisdom literature, both in Israel and in surrounding cultures. Moreover, in the Deuteronomic writings, ‘breath’ had become a designation for false gods, idols.”2

    While Lohfink indicates that the meaning of this text is ultimately ambiguous, his translation opens up a hearing of Qoheleth that does not close down further reflection by pronouncing that all life is “utterly meaningless.” Rather, this reading invites us to take seriously life’s transitory nature.

    “A breath, a puff of breath.” The often and so easily taken-for-granted act of respiration. Inhaling. Exhaling. Breathing. Fleeting. Impossible to hold or to hold onto for long, a breath, inhaled, exhaled, whether sweetly scented or sour tasting, moving just in this moment, in … and out … and gone, dissipated into the air here and there and forever. Indeed, if we hear an evocation of life’s fleeting quality in this word, “breath,” and we also hear a warning against false gods or idolatry, we may be discerning here both the promise of holding life precious with the caution against clinging to life, making of life an ultimate value, a god, an idol which we fear letting go of.

    The opening lines of Qoheleth, rendered in this way, prepare us to open ourselves to all the chapters that come thereafter in this wondrous book of deep wisdom. In Qoheleth, we have a mature soul of deep faith coming to terms with how very precious this short life is. Here in these pages, we meet a person of psychological depth and spiritual insight, a profoundly enlightened person, receiving life as it comes, accepting each breath and every moment and every season of life as a gift, always with eyes on the horizon beyond which we cannot see.

    Perhaps it is the profound resistance to claiming more than we can know, the restfulness in not-knowing that causes some translators and interpreters to conclude that Qoheleth is pessimistic, cynical, or even nihilistic. Perhaps it is the absence in this book of comfortable expressions of pious certainty that causes some readers to distort the message of Ecclesiastes into something ultimately faithless. But let me invite us to read this book as if we had never before heard a word of it preached and never before heard it sung, as Pete Seeger's great "Turn, Turn, Turn." Let's read it so that, to borrow Marcus Borg's delightful phrase about Jesus, we can meet Qoheleth again for the first time.

    “A breath, a mere puff of breath,” a fleeting sigh. Life is but a breath. We are all just a breath, a puff of air. Fragile. Precious. Like the grass of the field that flowers for a day. We are granted a moment. Just this brief moment of life and consciousness. A moment of breath. A moment to notice. This. All of this. Whatever this is. Before darkness falls again. And we are committed into the hands of the One from whom we come. From whom emerges every breath, every mere puff of breath. Of this. Of this, we are a part. That which rises converges, we are told. The sun sets. The sun also rises. In this world, it has never been otherwise. If this is all. And all this is from God's hand. This is enough.

    So Qoheleth used to say.

    1Norbert Lohfink, Qoheleth: A Continental Commentary, translated by Sean McEvenue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 19.
    2Lohfink, Qoheleth, 35-37.

  • Thin Places: MacLeod's Thin Places

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 12, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook."
    E-mail us!

    MacLeod's Thin Places

    George MacLeod famously said of the Isle of Iona that it is a "thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual." Over the centuries, thousands of visitors to the island have agreed. In the sixth-century, St. Columba established a monastery and missionary base from which Christianity spread across Scotland, northern England and parts of northern Continental Europe. Having visited Iona more times than I can count over the past thirty years, I have experienced its mystical pull - the sense that history and eternity, myth and legend overlap, clash, blend and brush against one another.

    I vividly recall leading a prayer service for a group of seminary students in the ancient chapel one stormy January afternoon after a harrowing and long-delayed ferry passage from the Isle of Mull to Iona. It was a day on which Iona seemed to teeter on an invisible boundary between the known world and the unseen one, shrouded in darkness and buffeted by heavy Atlantic winds. The ages seemed to fold over on themselves, and one could imagine kneeling beside Columba and his monks or standing beside MacLeod and his craftsmen and young followers, as fog wrapped round this small island making it feel even more timeless than usual.

    MacLeod's observation about the thinness of Iona notwithstanding, I also remember the lecture I heard while still a student. It first set me on the path to learn more about George MacLeod. Crowded into a lecture hall at King's College, Aberdeen, other students and I sat enthralled listening to the newly appointed Canon of Westminster and Chaplain to the Speaker of the British House of Commons, the Reverend Donald Gray, as he described MacLeod's pastoral ministry in Govan, an impoverished industrial section of Glasgow. Canon Gray told us how MacLeod translated his belief that the Lord's Table is both a dining table and an altar by serving Holy Communion from house to house on ordinary kitchen tables, reminding his parishioners that God is with us not only behind the stained glass of Gothic cathedrals, but also in humble homes where people struggle to keep body and soul together, and on street corners where unemployed people struggle against all odds to hold on to human dignity amidst the detritus of poverty.

    Not long after hearing this lecture, I came across the small book MacLeod wrote, Only One Way Left (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications) in which he challenged the post-war generation to take the message of Jesus into the center of the city, to raise the cross of Jesus in the marketplace, remembering that "Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves: on the town garbage heap, at a crossroad so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek."

    Thin places where God breaks through: this was a regular theme for MacLeod.

    Perhaps the "thinness" of the Isle of Iona owes much to the historical proximity one feels there to an ancient saint, Columba, who stood virtually as near to the historical moment when Jesus walked the earth as we do to the age of Luther and Calvin. It is worth remembering, however, with Søren Kierkegaard, that Jesus of Nazareth does not merely stand at the other end of a long historical tunnel stretching back two millennia, but is, through the mystery of faith, "our exact contemporary" standing beside us wherever we find ourselves. This, at any rate, was MacLeod's point of view when he offered up the Sacrament of Communion on kitchen tables in Govan - in places made thin by the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

    This past summer, Debbie and I walked the rugged southern coast of Iona. After four hours of clambering across cliffs and traversing hilltop marshes, we were making our way back to meet the ferry to Mull, when, standing on a massive fell, we glimpsed Iona Abbey far below us. The day had turned sunny and hot after a cool, misty morning. We were, as the British say, "knackered," wanting nothing so much as a place to sit and rest and have a cool drink of water. We were not in a frame of mind particularly conducive to the mystical. From where we stood, farther to the north and northeast, you could just make out the hilltops on Iona and Mull, where Iron Age fortresses had stood even before Columba arrived here. You could easily imagine the land unoccupied by human beings as peopled by Irish, Scottish or Vikings, by migrants, monks, raiders or farmers.

    As we made our way down the steep trail, we met a woman, a resident of the island, out for an evening ramble with her sheepdog, and we were brought back to earth, back to the present, and back to MacLeod's theological insight that keeps romanticism at bay even on Iona. The thinness of a place, the fact that its material existence is separated from the eternal by a tissue, does not depend on accidents of latitude and longitude or upon the vagaries of metaphysics, but upon the proximity of God - no less a mystery, no less mystical, but wholly Holy Other. And this "Other" breaks through all over, wherever God pleases to be met.

  • Thomas Merton and Interfaith Communication

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 10, 2015

    Buddha"I am convinced that communication in depth, across the lines that have hitherto divided religious and monastic traditions, is now not only possible and desirable," it may be "most important" for the destiny of humanity, wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, the year of his death. Speaking even of those persons bound by the strictest religious vows, the men and women in monastic orders, he continues: "we have now reached a stage of (long-overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience."1

    Speaking as he did in the late 1960s, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and well before hardened resistance to Vatican II set in, one can sense Merton's exuberance and optimism. His own careful study of other faiths, his writing on subjects such as Buddhism and Taoism, as well as his practice of mindfulness meditation and such disciplines as Zen-inspired calligraphic drawing, enriched his spirituality for many years, even as it perplexed some authorities within his church. In a letter to D.T. Suzuki, written almost ten years before his death, Merton writes: "I'll say simply that it seems to me that Zen is the very atmosphere of the Gospels, and the Gospels are bursting with it. … If I could not breathe Zen I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation."2

    Merton understood as few had (especially) at that time that our consciousness of God is not restricted within the boundaries of a single creed. While we must inevitably experience the presence of God in terms of particular beliefs and practices and in particular times and places, God is not captive to any particular religion. Merton also understood that exploration of other faiths can deepen one's own faith, make it possible for us to see and understand faith anew, and, even more importantly, to know God more deeply. Our engagement with other faiths need not be seen as a threat to our own, though at least some of Merton's censors apparently felt otherwise.

    Toward the close of his notes for the 1968 Calcutta address, Merton laid down five things we should avoid doing if we wish to make progress in deep and meaningful conversation with persons of differing faiths.

    First, he says, we should commit ourselves not to allow interfaith conversations to become just another variety of "interminable empty talk, the endlessly fruitless and trivial discussion of everything under the sun, the inexhaustible chatter" with which people try to convince themselves that they are "in touch with" other people or "reality."3

    Second, "there can be no question of a facile syncretism, a mishmash of semi-religious verbiage and pieties, a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness." Merton anticipated the timely critique of those who reject what recently has been called "McMindfulness," the popular reductionism that abstracts practices such as mindfulness meditation from the deep philosophical and religious beliefs that support these practices, thus trying to convert a faith practice into a mere relaxation technique.4

    If we are to enter into faithful communication with persons of differing faiths, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed, we must remember that faith is the indispensable prerequisite to interfaith dialogue. We must respect both the integrity of our own faith and the integrity of the faith of others enough not to reduce either to elements unrecognizable to faithful practitioners of both. This means that we must take a full and serious account of other faiths and allow that which is not compatible to remain incompatible [an insight that Stephen Prothero expresses in his study, God is Not One (Harper Collins, 2010)].

    Third, however, while "there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences," we must also, says Merton, resist "useless debate." The fact that we recognize differences between faiths does not mean that we must enter into defense of our own or attacks upon others. "There are differences that are not debatable," writes Merton, "and it is a useless, silly temptation to try to argue them out. Let them be left intact until a moment of greater understanding."

    Fourth, speaking specifically of the "monastic quest," Merton pleads with those in religious vocations (monks) to seek after "true self-transcendence and enlightenment," a "transformation of consciousness in its ultimate ground," and "the highest and most authentic devotional love" rather than to chase after "the acquisition of extraordinary powers." Compassion, justice and love of God and God's creation lie at the heart of Merton's quest as a monk, not the private acquisition of spiritual or mystical powers whether they be "miraculous activities" or "visions."

    And, fifth, as we advance our conversations with people of other faiths, we should do all we can to ensure that our different institutional structures and forms of religious observance will be seen as secondary to the higher goals of faith and enlightenment. We should not disrespect such institutional and traditional forms of faith, Merton tells us, but neither should we allow attention to them to distract us from our attentiveness to God's presence in the world.

    To the end of his life, Merton remained a devoted Cistercian monk - a faithful Roman Catholic priest. This is confirmed in a letter he sent to friends in November of 1968, only weeks before he died.5 And, while deeply engaged in the faith and practices that are essential to this Christian path, he found his life of faith deepened by his study of and engagement with other faith traditions. In this year, when we observe the centennial of Merton's birth, it is especially appropriate, I think, to listen to his wisdom.

    1Notes for a paper to have been delivered at Calcutta, October 1968, appears as Appendix IV in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, Naomi Burton, et al. editors (New York: New Directions, 1973), pp. 309-317.
    2Merton's letter of March 12, 1959, cited in Roger Lipsey, "Merton, Suzuki, Zen, Ink: Thomas Merton's Calligraphic Drawings in Context" in Bonnie Bowman Thurston, editor, Merton & Buddhism: Wisdom, Emptiness, and Everyday Mind (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2007). This superb volume grew from a conference held on February 19-23, 2005, at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's Laws Lodge, by The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, with support from Louisville Seminary, The Cathedral Heritage Foundation (now the Center for Interfaith Relations) and the Asia Institute Crane House.
    3All five observations come from the "Notes for a paper to have been delivered at Calcutta," Burton, The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, 316-317.
    4Ron Purser and David Loy, “Beyond McMindfulness.” Huffington Post, July 1, 2013. Accessed September 21, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html
    5"November Circular Letter to Friends," Burton, The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton, 320-325.

  • In Praise of Great Editors

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 03, 2015

    (*and all of the people who quietly work to make others better)

    In Praise of EditorsThe editor's vocation, at its best, is remarkable for bringing good writers and their ideas to the reading public and for making good writers and their work better. Eudora Welty, in the preface to her The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty after appreciatively doffing her cap to her family and friends, dedicated the remainder of the preface to praising the editors and others who believed in her, encouraged her, helped her become a better writer and opened doors for her professionally.

    Welty tells us how John Woodburn, an editor with the publishing house then (in the late 1930s) known as Doubleday, Doran, made a scouting trip through the American South. Tipped off by editors at The Southern Review that he ought to visit with Eudora Welty, Woodburn met the young writer. When he departed from her house, he carried with him to New York a small bundle of her stories. After reading the stories, Woodburn told Diarmuid Russell, who was starting up a new literary agency, that he should consider representing Welty. Russell did, and the relationship between Russell and Welty grew over the years as the agent sought not only to bring Welty's work to the attention of good magazines and publishing houses, but to help her find clearer direction in her fiction.

    Knowing that short stories could only take the young writer so far (publishing houses were hesitant to produce collections of stories even then), in addition to making sure her stories found a home in leading national magazines, Russell took on the role of midwife to Welty's first novel. After reading the short story, "The Delta Cousins," Russell returned the story to Welty with the observation that the story could be the second chapter of a novel that she needed to write. Welty said that it was only then that she saw "where the story had come from and where it was going, and wrote my first novel, Delta Wedding. [Eudora Welty, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), ix-xi.]

    Editors have taken even more active roles. Edward Aswell, Thomas Wolfe's editor, not only shepherded Wolfe as an author, but took in hand his vast rambling unpublished manuscript titled, The October Fair, from which he carefully extracted Wolfe's classic (posthumous) novel, You Can't Go Home Again. Of course, we now know much more about the role Harper Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, played in directing Lee to radically refashion her novel, Go Set a Watchman, with its childhood flashbacks, into To Kill a Mockingbird.

    One aspect of the editor's vocation deserves particular praise. Good editors discover and nurture the next generation of talented writers. This aspect of the editorial vocation should be lifted up for two reasons: first, because the very role of editors is under considerable stress these days; and, second, because it is this aspect of the editor's calling that can teach us so much about spotting and encouraging and opening doors for talented people, especially young people, in other vocations in addition to writing.

    With the financial pressures that conspire against many publishing houses and magazines today, there is a very real danger that editors, such as those who mentored Eudora Welty and others of her generation, are becoming an endangered species. This is a great pity, and a great loss to those who care about good writing, both fiction and nonfiction.

    Terry Muck, Lesley A. Taylor, and the late Sarah Polster, were my editors before they became trusted friends. From them I learned how to write better and for different audiences. The editorial vocation has, however, been best exemplified for me by Jon Pott, who recently retired from William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, where he had served as an editor for nearly 50 years. Jon especially exemplifies why the editor's vocation deserves to be praised. While Jon is, himself, a fine scholar who might have written his own books, instead he dedicated his creative energy and intelligence to making other peoples' work better. He was an excellent talent scout, and he possessed the great editor's gift for perceiving in a potential author the books they could contribute and how those books could be written well.

    When we first met, after a long conversation about various research projects in which I was then engaged, Jon asked me to consider writing a book for Eerdmans, something along the lines of Richard Selzer's Letters to a Young Doctor, but targeted to beginning pastors. I did not immediately say yes. This was not a project I had imagined doing, and I was not sure I was qualified to write such a book. Gradually I came around to Jon's view that Letters to New Pastors was a book I could and should write. Throughout that project and the one that followed, Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, Jon's advice made the books better. That is what good editors do. But Jon also made the books imaginable in the first place. He saw these books in me. Even more important, he saw writing and research projects in hundreds of others.

    Great editors are talent scouts and often selfless developers of the gifts of others. May their tribe increase behind the publishing world!

    A few months ago, as a group of us worked together to find a new executive director for the Louisville Institute, one member of the committee helped us bring our search into clearer focus when he said something like this (and I am paraphrasing): The leader we are looking for is like a great editor. We aren't looking for the sort of scholar whose only goal is to produce books on a shelf with his or her own name on their spines, as important as this may be to scholarship. We are looking for the sort of person who wants to point with pride to bookcases full of other peoples' books, resources full of new and important ideas that will really make a difference. The director's name may not appear on or in any of those books, but the research and thought would not exist without his or her leadership.

    We can all find ways to incorporate this aspect of the great editor's vocation into our lives. All it takes is the willingness to be on the lookout for talented people, to be willing to encourage and nurture and mentor them, and to help open doors so that their talent benefits us all for years to come.

  • Thin Places: Nameless Mystery

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 30, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Nameless Mystery 2The traditional viva voce at the culmination of the British system of doctoral studies can be intimidating. The candidate sits in a room alone with two examiners, one internal to his or her university, and the second, the external examiner, comes from another university. They can ask any question within a discipline, and the experience can be so terrifying that I have known of people, long finished with their coursework and dissertations, putting off this examination for years.

    My external examiner was the late Professor Colin Gunton of King's College, University of London, one of the most brilliant theological minds of his generation and a scholar I had long admired. In the course of my examination, he did something unexpected. He made a personal observation that had a profound effect on my faith as much as on my theological and philosophical inquiries. He observed that John McLeod Campbell, one of the subjects studied in my research, seemed to view the triune God almost like an idealized Victorian family. "Very cozy," Gunton said; but he asked if this is really adequate.

    His comment, in time, rubbed a blister on my soul. I had, after all, only recently and only gradually returned to faith while I was in my doctoral studies.

    Believing in God was a huge step for me. Believing in a personal God, bigger still. But Gunton's question grew there in my mind quietly after I graduated, as I continued to serve as a pastor, and, eventually, when I started teaching. I've noted before in this blog how faith is given by God and, I believe, can be withdrawn by God - how God's apparent absences can be gifts of the Living God who refuses to be at our beck and call. Now, however, I found myself experiencing something rather different from doubt or belief, something different from a consciousness of God's absences or presence. I began to sense the ways God might deconstruct our beliefs and ideas about God, however pious these beliefs and ideas might be, however much we might have learned from them and gained from them, been blessed and even sustained by them.

    The dogmatic chickens let loose by Colin Gunton had come home to roost, and gradually I realized that it wasn't just John McLeod Campbell's concept of God that resembled a cozy Victorian family. It was mine, too. And something in me was outgrowing the parlor in which this family passed its long winter evenings.

    The discontent may have begun long before Gunton said what he said. Perhaps it had begun with my study of the famed Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus; the fourth-century students of Evagrius Ponticus; and, ultimately, of Origen Adamantius. Perhaps it had begun even before this, when as a young pastor I read Paul Tillich and Karl Jaspers voraciously, or as a high school and college student, when I fell in love with Lev TolstoyNikos Kazantzakis and Fyodor Dostoevsky. It could have been so many factors. We all are made up of so many factors, flowing, intermingling, ever changing, never fixed. We are ourselves Heraclitus' stream one cannot step into twice.

    It all came to a head for me in 1999 while I was on sabbatical at Oxford. I was reading God's Funeral, A.N. Wilson's brilliant study* of the loss of faith in Victorian England at the rise of the modern scientific era. Wilson, who is known for his award-winning biographies of Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis, works his way through the nineteenth century when Britain and much of Europe began to see the tenets of Christian orthodoxy as inadequate to explain life's origins and meaning. Ironically, by the end of this book, Wilson finds himself not so much aligned with Thomas Hardy, whose non-belief is expressed in the poem that gives Wilson the title of his book, God's Funeral, but with William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, whose generous agnosticism carries in its heart an affection for humanity, a respect for transcendence and a longing for that ultimate reality we designate as "God."

    This intellectual pilgrimage left me longing for faith larger than my Victorian parlor had afforded, and I found myself in a new place spiritually. And, yet, not a new place at all. Paul Tillich had urged us to consider that while "God is not a person," God "is not less than a person,"** just as Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus had signaled that when we speak of Trinity, of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, we are not speaking the "name" of the unnameable God, but are describing a relationship, the plurality and unity that lies at the heart of Being, that mystery that cannot be named, reverence for whom reduces us to awed silence before the Word that God sent.***

    All of which takes me to my back porch, where a few months ago I sat engaged in mindfulness meditation. I had been sitting there a very long time in silence when something came across my mind that was at first awesome beyond words. It was as though I was looking over into the trackless vastness of limitless space, dark and cold, beyond all whirling galaxies, their black holes hidden at their darkly sparkling centers, their stars only dimly distant. As I looked into this deep space, quite suddenly it was as though a voice said to me, "the universe has no regard."

    The meaning seemed clear. The universe does not care whether I exist or I don't. This field of energy and matter is, what it is and I am utterly insignificant to it. As I said, at first this scene was only awesome. Then, something else dawned on me, not fear exactly, but sadness; then resignation, if not acceptance.

    As one does in the practice of meditation, I sat with these feelings as much as possible without judging them or wishing them to be otherwise. Then without warning, a face appeared in the midst of these thoughts. It was the smiling face of one of my granddaughters, Clara. We have all seen such smiles a thousand times - a smile of pure, simple affection and love, a smile of which only a small child is capable. And, as though my mind were engaged in a conversation beyond me, I was conscious of something like an insight forming: "A universe in which that smile is possible cannot be without love."

    There are moments when a theology comes full circle. Perhaps there is a naïveté beyond the second naïveté. And, perhaps John McLeod Campbell's God, whose every act is motivated by filial love, is not so distant from William James' being behind and beyond all the universes and multiverses that stretch out forever. Perhaps. And perhaps D.S. Cairns also was right when he insisted - against so much evidence that was stacking up against every argument for the existence of a loving God - that at the heart of the universe there beats a parent's heart.**** Or, perhaps, the loving heart of a very small child.

    *A.N. Wilson. God's Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization. London: John Murray, 1999.
    **A statement which Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on in his Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 12-13.
    *** An especially beautiful and accessible expression of this theological insight can be glimpsed in "The Second Theological Oration" of Gregory of Nazianzus; see the edition published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (2002) under the title, On God and Christ: Five a Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, translated, with notes by Lionel Wickham.
    **** D.S. Cairns, The Riddle of the World (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1937), 321-327.

  • To Do A Very Beautiful Thing

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2015

    Beautiful thingThe phrase, "to do a very beautiful thing," is from Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher, and is found in his essay on giving gifts ("De Beneficiis"). For Seneca, a person's attitude toward giving was an essential aspect of character. In the passage where our opening phrase appears, he is encouraging the giver not to allow even the ingratitude of a recipient to prevent him or her from giving. After all, Seneca says, "not even the mortal gods are deterred from showing lavish and unceasing kindness to those who are sacrilegious and indifferent to them."

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca lived at the beginning of the Christian era. He was a public intellectual and a politician. He incurred the wrath of Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the latter of the three permitting him to commit suicide after he was accused of participating in Piso's plot against Nero (whom he had once tutored). Seneca's brother Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, is mentioned in the Book of Acts (18:12); Paul was brought before Gallio's tribunal.

    Seneca's primary goal as a philosopher was to teach virtue, how to live a life according to the will of God. According to Seneca, wisdom is fundamental to goodness. As he famously said, "There is no philosophy without goodness, and no goodness without philosophy." The word "philosophy" means for him, as for other Stoics such as Epictetus, the love of wisdom and not a technical academic discipline. Seneca wants to show the way for people to align their will with the will of God, to submit themselves so thoroughly to God's way that no circumstances of life nor actions of others can sway them from doing that which is true and right. Thus, his reflections on giving, whether the recipient is grateful or not. Why should we allow the ingratitude of a person receiving a gift to prevent us from doing something very beautiful, i.e., giving?

    Seneca's understanding of giving reminds me of something an old friend, Dr. Lou Adams, once said to me. As I recall, I was attempting to determine whether or not I should give money to something or the other. Lou allowed me to talk for awhile. He was good at listening. (His day job was as director of the counseling center at the Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University). When I stopped talking, Lou said something to the effect of this: "Well, of course, from a Christian perspective, God doesn't seem to expect us to evaluate the worthiness of the cause or the person to whom we give. Our responsibility is to give, and that's between us and God, not us and the recipient of our benevolence." As bizarre as it may sound, this had never occurred to me. Then Lou reminded me of Jesus' observation that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust," a saying of Jesus that is similar to Seneca's observation.

    It is striking to me that the Stoic and the Christian so often wind up in the same neighborhood, though we may drive down different streets to get there. Seneca described giving as "the chief bond of human society." The relationship between givers and those who benefit from giving is a sacred bond. And, while our liberality ought not to be conditioned by the gratitude of those who receive a gift from our hand, we may, according to Seneca, discover that generosity begets generosity. As he says, "Even wild beasts are sensible of good offices, and no creature is so savage that it will not be softened by kindness and made to love the hand that gives it."

    Whereas it is conventional to assume a kind of hierarchy of virtue between the giver and the receiver, an expression of a power relationship based on generosity, especially when considering charitable giving, Seneca presents an illustration in which the students of Socrates are placed in the role of givers, and the great philosopher is the receiver. Seneca's illustration does not stop merely at reversing the usual power relationship so often assumed in charity. Seneca tells how one of Socrates' students by the name of Aeschines confesses to his teacher that he possesses nothing valuable enough to give Socrates, except, that is, himself.

    "This gift," says Aeschines, "such as it is, I beg you to take in good part, and bear in mind that the others, though they gave to you much, have left more for themselves."

    Socrates acknowledged the greatness of his student's gift, and promised that he intended to return the gift to him in time. When he did at last return Aeschines to himself, Socrates hoped to return him "a better man" for the education he received.

    Seneca comments on the story: "You see how even in pinching poverty the heart finds the means for generosity." Hearing this illustration, it is hard not to think of Jesus' story of the widow's mites.

    The relationship between the one giving and the one receiving is complex. Humility is called forth in both the giver and the recipient; as Seneca says, "Nature's rule is that a person should first become a debtor, and then should return gratitude."

    The one receiving a gift clearly benefits in this relationship, but so does the giver, who often feels a sense of joy that is unique to giving. And so the bond of reciprocity is strengthened. Even when a gift is freely given, even when given without any expectation of an expression of gratitude, the giving creates the opportunity and invites the possibility of creating a grateful heart, indeed more than one grateful heart, because everyone who gives knows they have first received.

    Doing "a very beautiful thing" encourages us to do even more.

    NOTE: All references to Seneca are to the Loeb Classical Library bilingual edition of Seneca's Moral Essays, Volume III, English translation by John W. Basore (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935).

  • Thin Places: Accidental Pilgrim

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 20, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Accidental Pilgrim 1I made my way up a side aisle of Durham Cathedral to a chair near one of the tombs that stand between the great supporting columns. Looking around sheepishly, I knelt down and stumbled into prayer.

    The day before, I had participated in a tour of the cathedral organized by the university. Among the crowd of "ruin bibbers," as poet Philip Larkin might have called this mixed group of pilgrims and liturgical tourists, I craned my neck peering up into the dim recesses of walls and rooflines trying to discern the difference between Romanesque and Gothic architectural details. I listened appreciatively to the guide's stories, historical and legendary. Along with everyone else, I marveled at the beauty of the building and the ethereal sounds of the choir as it rehearsed.

    We visited, as both thorough tourists and faithful pilgrims must, the tomb of the Venerable Bede at one end of the cathedral and the shrine of St. Cuthbert behind the High Altar at the other. For months I had been pursuing textual rabbits through the tangled hedgerows of ancient English Christianity, and had spent a lot of time in the company of the Bede, reading his  Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the legends of Cuthbert and his contemporaries and other Christian writings from what we have often called "The Dark Ages." But, for whatever reasons, I had not connected these months of historical study with the fact that I would be spending extended time in a place sacred to the memory of these two British saints. But there I was, and being in that place, I had gradually begun to suspect that maybe I had been suckered into this ostensibly secular venture by a couple of long-dead monks.

    I had not come to Durham as a pilgrim, at least not intentionally. Far from it. I had come to explore the possibility that I should "fess up" and leave the Christian ministry. I had come to take an interdisciplinary course on Shakespeare's dramatic cycle of Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V and their relationship to late Medieval English history. My academic interests had steadily but surely strayed from my original discipline of historical theology and philosophy of religion to the areas of history and literature. That was actually why I had begun to read the Bede and other early historians in the first place. I had come to Durham incognito, my clerical dog collar stowed in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I served a congregation and was engaged in research toward a Ph.D. in theology. I had come to Durham, if anything, to run away from just such a situation as the one in which I found myself.

    As I took my seat in the nave of the cathedral and slipped slowly to my knees, I felt about as conflicted as you can imagine. I prayed: "God, I don't really believe you exist. But we really need to talk."

    The past few days in Durham had only heightened my confusion, but the roots of my confusion extended back through months and years of doubt and uncertainty. They culminated in a conversation with my wife, Debbie, on a Sunday afternoon the previous spring. We had just returned to our home following church services at the historic Beechgrove Church, where I served as a pastoral assistant. Our children romped into the house ahead of us and clattered up the stairs to their rooms to change into play clothes. We walked into our bedroom. As Debbie slipped off her coat and hung it in the wardrobe, I took off my clerical collar, studied it in my hands for a moment and tossed it onto the duvet.

    I looked at Debbie and said, "You know, I don't believe any of it anymore." She said, "I know." And so began our conversations about what I should do.

    It is a painful thing for a minister to discover he doesn't believe in God. At least it was hard for me. I have come to believe that profound, even extended, doubt is but an aspect of faith, and an important aspect at that. Doubt, I have come to believe, is like a refiner's fire through which our faith can pass burning away the dross of superstition and sentimentality. I have come to treasure my experiences with doubt as a gift from God. I have even come to believe that the pain I felt during those months in Aberdeen was one of the surest signs of God's love. But, at that moment, all I could feel was sadness and anxiety and emptiness.

    What, after all, is a minister to do if he or she no longer really believes in God? I could not proceed with business as usual, not if I had any integrity. And, so, we decided that I should quietly explore other vocational options. I was, after all, a teacher. I was doing post-graduate research in a university. If I wished, I could change disciplinary fields.

    Therefore, when an opportunity came to take an intensive summer course at another university, a university where I was not known, I jumped at it. This was a perfect chance, I thought, to test other vocational options.

    As it turned out, I was right, but I could not have foreseen the outcome.

    Seldom in my experience does life turn on a dime. I am as doubtful of sudden conversions as I am of faith untested. I didn't "lose" my faith overnight, and it didn't "return" instantly either. I had drifted into unfaith, slowly and steadily, over the period of several years.

    Accidental Pilgrim 2As a pastor, first in a busy suburban parish and later in a black-dirt farming community in Central Texas, I preached and studied and tended the needs of my people. Even more important, I reveled in marriage and the birth and early childhood of our children. After I finished a third degree, Debbie earned her master's degree. She taught school. We both served on professional committees, community councils and in civic clubs. We were deeply committed to the life of the communities in which we lived. We were busy with all of the things that young parents are busy doing, including having a lively social calendar with friends who had children the same age as ours. We loved it all. And I loved to preach, write and study. My intellectual curiosity was like a wonderful thirst that nothing could quench.

    Somewhere in the midst of all of this busy living and all of this loving and all of this ministering to the needs of others, I just stopped believing. It was like my personal faith had been coasting down a long hill. At first, the hill was steep, and I coasted just fine. Then slowly, gradually, the way flattened out, until I realized one day there was just no more momentum. I still loved theology. I really enjoyed the study of historical theology, investigating the historical and social and political sources of beliefs as they emerged in faith communities. I was dead set on pursuing a Ph.D. in the subject. But it had become more of an intellectual enterprise than an affair of the heart, as though the ultimate reference point - the actual subject of the study - had gradually dimmed from my view. I had grown skeptical as to whether theology really was speaking of God at all or was just talking about human experiences, feelings, aspirations, compulsions and anxieties under the cloak of "God-talk." I don't know how it happens with others who experience crises of faith, but for me, it happened so gradually that I simply did not notice until, one day I looked up and realized that actually believing in God had slipped through my fingers like water.

    Within the first few weeks of arriving at the University of Aberdeen, it became clear that the real gap was not between areas of research but between my theological interests and my personal faith. Busyness kept the awareness within bounds. I kept my lack of faith hidden. I was quietly miserable for a very long time, unwilling to talk to anyone about what was going on in my heart and in my head. Not surprisingly, I was also profoundly lonely. Longtime mentors and friends were thousands of miles away. Mail was slow. (This was well before the days of email and international phone calls were expensive.) So I held my peace - or what passed for peace. Until the God I didn't believe in sent me a friend.

    Gary arrived late in that first academic year, a death holding up his family's move to Scotland. We almost immediately became friends, and, as our friendship developed, I eventually confessed to Gary that I no longer really believed in God. Gary didn't try to argue me into faith. He knew that would be futile. In fact, he agreed with my contention that you can't lay one proposition behind another and mount a convincing argument for God's existence. We were both students of philosophy and religion, and both saw this fact clearly.

    One day, however, Gary took what I now realize was a considerable risk in our friendship to offer me an analogy regarding belief in God. He said he understood Christian faith more as a pair of spectacles through which we see and make sense of the world around us than as a set of propositions adding up to a convincing proof for God's existence. The pragmatism of his analogy appealed to me. He invited me to put on the spectacles again to see if the world came better into focus. I was intrigued. But really that was all. When summer came I left for Durham to test other options.

    Arriving the day before the seminar began, I had moved my suitcases up to my small and Spartan dorm room in the residential college that would be my temporary home for a few weeks. I was unpacking when I heard weeping coming from the stairwell. Upon investigating, I found a young woman, perhaps in her late twenties, sitting alone on the stairs crying. She was one of the housekeepers for the college. I asked her if I could be of any help. She invited me to sit beside her and she poured out her heart. After listening to her tell her story, I asked her if she would like to pray. She said she would like that very much. And I prayed with her.

    I went back to my room, and she went on about her business. As I stood beside my small dresser continuing to unpack, suddenly I asked myself, "Why did I ask her if she wanted to pray?" Force of habit? Social convention? I had sometimes found it awkward, even as a pastor, to ask a parishioner if they wanted to pray in the hospital. How was it that I (who didn't believe in God anymore!) offered to pray with someone I didn't even know? What was this tug of vocation in the heart of someone with such profound doubts? Or, to put it even more directly, how was it possible to be "called" when I didn't believe there was someone out there to do the calling?

    As the days wore on, and I engaged in the course of study, I found myself further conflicted and self-stymied (if that is even a word). As the class worked through these wonderful Shakespearean dramas with our tutor, I kept resisting what one might call any "transcendent point of reference." The more I did this, the less real, engaging and interesting the world seemed. Without a transcendent point of reference, the less sense was I able to make of life.

    I have often heard people talk about cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable struggle of the mind to hold together contradictory or conflicting ideas, to make sense of incongruities and ambiguities. Such dissonance can be very creative. Cognitive dissonance can also make you pretty miserable. And it was a miserable person who found himself on his knees one late afternoon in Durham Cathedral asking a deity he did not believe in for help.

    Accidental Pilgrim 3Since that day in 1988, I have prayed in Durham Cathedral many times. If there's a picture by the definition of "Thin Places" in my personal dictionary, it would be J.M.W. Turner's interior painting of the cathedral. I believe it is the most beautiful cathedral in all of Europe. Even with crowds of uniformed school children being herded through its cloisters by their teachers, even with the dim rumble of chatter from tourist echoing through its hallowed aisles, the place whispers holiness, apartness. Its whispers pervade the space and prevail over any din, and it continues to invite prayer.

    Kneeling there recently, I remembered clearly the conflict I felt as I knelt there some twenty-five years ago. I remembered the silence in which I knelt. I remembered also that when I stood up again to leave that spot, I had been given the gift of a glimpse of a promise of a beginning of faith again.

    There was a great deal that lay in the future that day, twenty-five years ago, beyond that moment in the cathedral. Over time, I came to believe that God had been behind my loss of faith. In time, I began to suspect that maybe a couple of long-dead monks were somehow complicit in God's project to bring me back to faith - an idea I find both arrogant and humbling. I also gained a sense that my vocation as a pastor somehow did run deeper than my identity as a person.

    This renewal of faith began so mustard-seed small that I could hardly have seen it if I had held it in my hand. But in time I even engaged in my friend Gary's thought experiment and came to believe that life does come into focus better through the spectacles of faith.

    None of this happened overnight, and there was far more going on in this recovery of faith than I can possibly put on any page. There were ironic turns and roundabouts and long conversations with other friends. What did become clear, and very quickly, was how little control I really have over what I would call "my faith." This awareness has never left me. Whether I find myself in a stairwell, a classroom or a cathedral, faith seems more than ever a gift for which we cannot take credit when we have it. Nor do I think we should blame others when they do not. Wherever we find ourselves, the thinness of our own capacity to entrust life to God is yet another aspect of faith's givenness.

  • Compromise

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 19, 2015

    Compromise“Compromise” has become a dirty word in America. Maybe in the world beyond America, too.

    Some presidential candidates pout and call others names when their ideas are challenged. More than a few fellow citizens demand that their values must rule the day "or else." Political parties thrive on "my way or the highway" demands. Sadly, too many religious groups confess creeds of contempt for those of other faiths, damning those who differ to hell. I want to believe that we, the people, are more reasonable, more humble, and more generous than the polls portray us, but there are days when one wonders.

    As the author of the book of Job asks, "But where can wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?" (Job 28:12) Where indeed?

    Being philosophically minded, I am tempted to place the blame for our unwillingness to compromise with Plato and his ilk who gave us what Sir Isaiah Berlin once called the philosophia perennis. This "perennial philosophy," which has dominated Western thought (and often butted heads with the far more pluralistic vision at the heart of the Bible's multiplicity of contrasting texts and multitude of perspectives), basically holds to three doctrines:

    (1) Every legitimate question has one and only one right answer. Every real problem has one and only one right solution.
    (2) All right answers and right solutions are knowable if you use the right methods of discovery.
    (3) All right answers and solutions are ultimately compatible with one another forming a harmonious whole.*

    The fundamental belief behind this perennial philosophy is that all true values are absolutely universal, consistent with one another and can be formed into a seamless hierarchy. Thus, no true values should ever come into conflict or need to compete.

    In reality, of course, we see values (important and true values) conflicting all the time. Do we value free speech? Of course we do. We enshrine this value in the U.S. Constitution, but we know that there are occasions when even a value as highly prized as free speech must be constrained. Am I free to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater? Of course not. We could run through the entire Constitution finding deeply held values that live in tension with other values.

    From a Christian perspective, we believe that anything which assumes the place of an "ultimate value" (as theologian Paul Tillich put it in his little classic, The Dynamics of Faith) is our God. And no relative value (and all human values are relative values) can assume the place of "ultimate value" in substitution for God without our committing idolatry. The living God who revealed himself by becoming human seems particularly resistant to being reduced to any fixed set of human values, however uncomfortable this makes us, and however hard our hard little creeds work to make God as small as we are.

    The philosophical perspective inherited from Plato et al. has even affected the way we read the Bible. Biblical interpreters have been working overtime trying to come up with "harmonies of the gospel" when the Bible itself is perfectly content to give us four separate accounts of the life of Jesus, each one titled simply "According to" in the Greek of the New Testament. (I'll never forget my shock as a young religion major in college when I discovered this fact the first time I took up the New Testament in its original language.)

    As much as I'd like to place the blame with Plato, I suspect that the problem goes much deeper. I suspect the real problem is not philosophical but theological. Maybe we are simply too arrogant and self-centered to believe that the questions we pose have lots of right answers instead of the ones we have come up with, that problems have lots of good solutions even if they cause us some other problems, and that the values we hold most precious may need to be balanced and compromised when they come into conflict with other competing values.

    As the song insists: Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto. Let's call the whole thing off. Frankly, when "the whole thing" we are tempted to call off is the experiment of this strange republic, which has always been committed to finding a way to hang together when we don't share identical views, I think the price tag on not compromising is way too high. That doesn't even begin to touch on "the whole thing" of trying to live together as a human family - all of us made in God's likeness and image!

    Pragmatists have always assumed that no one has all of the right answers, and we are better, smarter and stronger by integrating our ideas. Pragmatists have always assumed that great solutions surprise us when we listen to one another. Pragmatists have always been suspicious of absolutizing our favorite values at the expense of other values. And pragmatism is a distinctively sane way of thinking and living (and it is even a distinctively American philosophy of life).

    We often hear these days that the folks who refuse to compromise are the strong and smart ones. I'm not remotely convinced of that idea. Certainly the refusal to compromise has not been shown to make us a stronger or a smarter society. In fact, those who are least flexible and most dogmatic are often the most insecure. Compromise is a sign of intellectual and moral strength, an indication that one is realistic in facing the complexities and ambiguities of life and of forging a good society. However difficult it may be to compromise, this is a word we must learn to speak again if we are going to learn to live together in this world.

    Sir Isaiah articulated these ideas in a variety of essays, but I will mention only two. See his "The Pursuit of the Ideal" and "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West" in his book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy (London: John Murray, 1990).

  • Transparency

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 12, 2015

    Transparency"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer" - by debates about transparency in the political world. I'm pretty sure that was The Bard's first draft of this highly ironic passage, or would have been if he were around now.

    The debates about the virtue of transparency have emerged again, whether related to the White House, potential presidential candidates, the continuing fallout from the Snowden affair, or controversies about cloaking in secrecy the decision-making of legislators. We hear highly responsible officials argue in favor of less transparency for the sake of security. We hear their critics equate a lack of transparency with a lack of accountability, implying that any official is irresponsible who does not swear to make every policy conversation public. I have heard one journalist comment recently, with surprising frankness, that despite his general preference for transparency, he admits that there's no way if you are in leadership to be transparent enough to satisfy your critics.

    On the whole I think the debate about transparency is good for the republic. Like so many values in a democracy, the virtue of transparency exists in creative tension with other virtues. It is not, nor can it be, nor should it be, an absolute value.

    Most citizens would accept a relatively low level of transparency in times of war, for example, when the element of surprise is one of the most crucial weapons. We recognize that lack of information on the part of the public is justifiable because we don't want our enemies to know what our troops are planning. Most citizens would expect, however, a high level of transparency when it comes to making decisions like planning a new highway or bridge project. A variety of interests, needs and concerns need to be weighed in such circumstances, and a variety of voices should be heard. We know how often vested interests insinuate themselves into public works projects when fat government contracts are at stake. But most citizens are also aware that a good deal of decision-making in the public interest and for the public good lies someplace on the continuum between these cases of war and public works.

    The late great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, Secrecy: The American Experience, makes a compelling case against the cult of secrecy and the needless proliferation of categories of documents and conversations held in confidence. His experience as a senator convinced him that far too many matters are cloaked in secrecy and far too many pretty routine papers are unnecessarily marked "secret." He knew from bitter experience that the veil of secrecy not only covers the work of the virtuous, but allows vice to operate safe from public scrutiny. (Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.)

    We worry, with good cause, about the balancing of conflicting values such as security and privacy, national interests and individual civil rights, to mention just a few concerns among many. Michael Ignatieff's Gifford Lectures, delivered in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ignited a firestorm of controversy among political policy-makers, ethicists and theologians. But, in many ways, Ignatieff was simply pointing to irreducible stresses which refuse to settle neatly into a hierarchy of values none of which contradict any other values. (Ignatieff, Michael. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.)

    The current debates about transparency leave me without a final conclusion, and that is as it should be. But I have come to some preliminary principles which I think may be of value in a variety of organizations and institutions.

    First, the fundamental quality that transparency is intended to promote is trust, and trust is indeed essential to our common life and common endeavors. An institution, organization or nation cannot long endure where trust has eroded. Leaders who lack the trust of the led are not long entrusted with leadership. Of course, trust is something that people withhold from others for all sorts of reasons, some of which are irrational. So, while we may agree that transparency can engender trust, it is also possible for the withholding of trust to create an environment which makes it very difficult for transparency to flourish.

    Second, the fundamental quality which transparency is intended to preserve is accountability, and accountability ensures that decision makers pursue the ends of the institution, organization or nation above their own narrow or private interests. History teaches us that we are sensible to be suspicious of back-room deals and secret pacts. But transparency alone cannot preserve accountability when a culture determines that the ends of a good society are not worth pursuing, particularly when that pursuit requires placing limits on individual interests or rights. This is one reason why our debates about certain amendments to the U.S. Constitution have become intractable.

    Trust and accountability: these are important principles. But there are other principles, no less lofty and no less sensible, that complicate matters.

    I have found that one of the most bedeviling principles of organizational leadership is the principle of unintended consequences. You can count on this principle rearing its head just when you think a decision is really going to do some good. Unintended consequences, frequently really bad consequences, often attend the very best ideas made for all the right reasons.

    In the spirit of transparency, for example, it seemed a no-brainer to broadcast all sorts of public sessions of our national lawmakers. I applauded loud and long the fact that we would be able watch our legislators at work. I was especially delighted when the votes of each legislator became public. "Now cometh the light," I thought, and no lawmaker will be able to hide his or her dirty little deals in a smoke-filled back room ever again.

    Unfortunately, the fact that the votes of every lawmaker are more visible than ever means in practice that they are even more subject to the pressures of special interests with the deepest pockets. The quiet deals legislators used to be able to make, doing what they knew would be unpopular with a vocal minority or among the richest lobbying groups, but which they knew were good for the many, have become harder to make. The pork barrel politics have not ended, but crucial legislation for the common good is often held hostage by very narrow interests. Score a big one for unintended consequences!

    The principle of transparency does not guarantee that we are privy to every argument, every concession made, and every aspect of the decision-making process. But it should ensure that we will always know who is responsible for making what decisions.

    Of course, we should never forget that venality, self-interest and corruption will find their way in like a persistent water leak in the basement. I am reminded of a passage by Reinhold Niebuhr in which he says the best in humanity makes democracy possible, and the worst in us makes it necessary. So the debate about transparency goes on. And it must.

  • Freaking Out: Some Thoughts on Thinking

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2015

    Think Like a FreakEarly this summer I participated in a panel for the Louisville Institute's Vocation of the Theological Educator program along with two friends: Craig Dykstra, formerly senior vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, Inc., now a professor at Duke Divinity School, and Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Theological Seminary. Our audience consisted of Louisville Institute Fellows - young scholars, all of whom have recently completed their doctorates in areas of theological studies. Through this program, Louisville Institute places them in theological schools around the country for a two-year resident fellowship, during which they teach and participate in the life of a faculty and school. They also explore the vocation of teaching men and women who are preparing for ministry.

    As you can imagine, these young theological educators face some serious questions with immediate personal implications: "What are the trends in religious faith? With most mainline and many evangelical churches declining in numbers, is there a viable future for theological education? With the financial pressures on higher education, is there a future for theological schools? What will students do after they finish their two-year residency? Will there be jobs for them? If so, what kinds of jobs will there be?"

    Being fairly typical of my type, in response to their questions about the future of churches and seminaries, I reported on some studies I have seen and conversations I've sat in on that might give us some indication of where the culture seems to be headed and what we might do in response to it.

    After I finished saying what I said, Craig Dykstra said something amazing, disarming, and really insightful. He said, "I don't know."

    With those three words, "I don't know," Craig suddenly placed all of us in a better position to figure out some things.

    The temptation to speculate on why things are the way they are and to predict the way things will be in the future is really strong. The fact that we have few (and sometimes no) real facts to work with seldom prevents most of us from opining on all sorts of questions. Most of the answers we give are a rehash of party lines and threadbare orthodoxies, conventional wisdom, prejudices, biases and wishful thinking. Relatively few of our responses are the consequence of careful original thought based on evidence.

    As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain in their newest venture into the realm of Freakonomics, Think Like a Freak (New York: William Morrow, 2014), such speculation is strongly incentivized in our society. One is almost always rewarded for speaking up rather than saying, "I don't know." Indeed, in our society, the blame game often starts with attacking people who are willing to leave a question open rather than those who demand that others blindly toe the line of some orthodoxy. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 29.) Incidentally, the orthodoxies espoused are not always representative of some hidebound institutional traditionalism. Many orthodoxies that get spouted are "edgy," "out of the box," just as fraught with conventional wisdom, and just as brutal as the traditions they are meant to replace in their enforcement of absolute unquestioning adherence.

    Indeed, the more dogmatic one sounds, in many contexts, the more likely one is thought to be smart - a person of conviction, "real leadership material." We see this often in the fields of politics and religion. Levitt and Dubner refer to the proponents of such thinking as "entrepreneurs of error," using a term introduced by Edward Glaeser, an economist. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 22.)

    Of course, we often see this among people who speak with great authority on complex issues they know little or nothing about. As Levitt and Dubner observe, "just because you're great at something doesn't mean you're good at everything." They give the scientific name for a malady that has reached epidemic proportions, and not just in church and academic settings: "ultracrepidarianism," or "the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge or competence." (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 28.)

    However, even experts speaking on subjects about which they are experts tend to get it right a surprisingly low percentage of the time. A few years ago, I mentioned in a blog the excellent research of Philip Tetlock who found that experts with postgraduate degrees did only slightly better in their predictions than a "dart-throwing chimp" would have done. (Philip E. Tetlock.  Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.) Levitt and Dubner draw on Tetlock's research as well as on studies conducted by Jerker Denrell and Christina Fang in the field of economics, and Christopher Avery and Judith Chevalier on the subject of betting on professional football.

    The reason experts consistently do so badly in analyzing political, social and economic issues (even if these are their areas of expertise!) is because of their dedication to a particular dogma, "an unshakeable belief they know something to be true even when they don't." (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 24-25.)

    These observations remind me of an experience I had several years ago. A colleague at the University of Texas asked me to serve on a panel with three economists at the business school. He asked each economist to make a presentation. Then, he asked me to respond to their presentations from an ethical perspective. Their presentations were fascinating, but they could hardly have been more different: a Friedmanian Free-Market Capitalist; a Marxist who believed the world has been on a downward spiral since the end of Mesolithic society (I'm not making this up); and an eclectic pragmatist. I took pages and pages of notes, and when they had finished their presentations, went to the podium and told the audience:

    "I felt really intimidated being asked to participate in this panel on economics tonight. Economists, I thought, deal in the world of hard numbers and facts. I'm a theologian. Theologians construct more-or-less logical edifices on the basis of faith assumptions. What I've discovered tonight is that economists are just like theologians."

    Our "biases" and "the incentives to fake it are simply too strong" to allow most of us the freedom to speak the truth about so many of the most important questions confronting us when the truth is that much of the time we simply don't know. It takes courage and a special brand of intelligence to admit ignorance. But this kind of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. When we admit that we don't already know the answers, we are liberated to investigate, experiment, inquire and learn. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 29 and 47.)

    Admitting we don't know is just one aspect of dealing with the really difficult problems and seemingly intractable questions facing us, of course. We also would do well to agree to suspend our dogmatic adherence to party lines, our compulsion to blame others, and to score points on people with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. I suspect this would come hard to some of us engaged in politics and religion. But if we hope to deal with some of the biggest problems facing our society and our church today, we need to learn, and learning requires a genuinely open mind.

  • Thin Places: The World Has a Heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 02, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.” E-mail us!

    Thin Places 3cThe world has a heart, and on a summer night you can hear it beating to the rhythm of cicadas in a southern forest. I was driving home along the two-lane road connecting Lufkin and Trinity, Texas, circa 1971. The night and the forest and the sound of the world's heart poured in through every open window of my car.

    Seventeen years old and preaching my first revival series. I was licensed as a preacher the previous Sunday in an evening service in Lufkin, where I preached my first sermon, memorably and, at least for my family, regrettably titled, "Possum Stew." Calvary Baptist Church, my home church, did the licensing.

    A church that splits from a "First" Baptist Church in most every southern town seems to be a “Calvary” because they want to be closer to the cross, it is said. There were a few hundred people in attendance that night, and the service was broadcast over the local AM radio station. My family was all there. So were most of my friends. I was too young and too dumb to be scared.

    A week later I was preaching my first full-week revival service. As Kinky Friedman said of his gubernatorial bid, "Why not?" Well, Kinky said it with more gusto, but you get the idea.

    Going home from the first night's service, late Sunday evening, there's not another car for miles. The ventilation system of my 1966 Volkswagen bug gulps down every scent as I drive through the Neches River bottom. Sweet, heavy woodland aromas mix with the sweet, rotting smell of roadkill. Possums and raccoons are thick as thieves in an East Texas river bottom, and the blacktop holding the day's warmth is a temptation to which many succumb to their demise.

    Deep East Texas is more like Louisiana or Mississippi than it is the other parts of Texas, typified by Dallas, San Antonio or Austin - a fact that bewilders outsiders. Everyone who isn't from within twelve miles of where you're born in East Texas is an outsider. Driving east, once you cross that north/south line running from Houston to Dallas along Interstate 45, you enter East Texas, and you enter the South. The Southwest is in your rearview mirror. The accents twist and turn, draw out and torture every vowel until they yell “UNCLE,” and the forest hides the horizon. This is not "Big Sky Country" but "Big Pine Country."

    I sing as I drive through the night, indiscriminately skipping from hymns by Fanny Crosby and Thomas Dorsey to the music of Buddy Holly, B.B. King, Lennon and McCartney. I'm slightly intoxicated by post-homiletical adrenaline. That's all the intoxication I'm allowed. Exhilaration runs through my veins and something else too, something beyond exhilaration.

    Surely God is in this place. I can smell God's breath, hot and sweet and heavy. The breath of a deity unashamed to be a creature, unafraid to be born, willing to die, willing to rot alongside the smallest creatures, despite what I later learned of Arius or the Gnostics or the nervous Nellies of Neo-Platonism who always seem to want God to be more spiritual than God seems willing to be.

    A few years after that night - post-college, post-seminary - going through the battery of psychological tests required for ordination in the eminently sane Presbyterian Church, a psychiatrist in Dallas asked me to draw a picture representing my childhood. In pencil I drew a forest. A deep and shadowed wood. Great dark roots gripped dark earth, branches spreading upward into a dark canopy.

    The psychiatrist assumed I must have experienced an unhappy childhood, but "no," I said. Not unhappy at all, except for the loss of my sainted grandfather who died when I was a boy of twelve. Not unhappy. Just deep and dark, rich in smells and senses, like piney woods and hickory smoke and the juice from sassafras roots. Happy, but maybe a little dangerous too. Like the woods. Beautiful, with an occasional cottonmouth snake lurking somewhere in the moist pine straw in the path ahead.

    To this day, when I think of my childhood home this is what I think of first, before faces and before childhood friends. I think of a dark forest. Sacred dark. Numinous dark. Rudolf Otto dark. Holy Jesus dark.

    There's no way for me to tell this story truly, the story of what thin places mean and how we experience God, without starting in a deep wood along a narrow southern road.

    Unlike Dante, whom I would study for the first time in a college classroom a few years later, who found himself in a dark wood midway through his life's journey, I started in the woods and was only later midway through life's journey enchanted by the distant horizons, the trackless plains and later the boundless Atlantic Ocean. And through the disenchantment of disbelief that lay before me, I returned like a child, an older child, to God and that first primal darkness. I was slow in recognizing God in the places I found myself, more like Jacob who confesses, "Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it." (Genesis 28:16)

    I used to joke that I was raised on U.S. Highway 59, on a farm geographically between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, but spiritually between Billy Graham and Tennessee Williams. It was no joke. Elvis drove down that East Texas highway in a pink Cadillac convertible, right past our house, to visit a girl in Zavalla. So said my mother. Maybe Elvis drove by our house at night when I was thrilling to his blue suede shoes. Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, Hank WilliamsBooker T and the MGs filled the dark, wet, sweet air the attic fan brought into the house and across my bed at night. We'd sleep in the summers, our heads across the foot of the bed to catch the breeze in those days before air conditioner made the South more bearable. I'd wake up halfway cool and wholly sticky with nighttime humidity clinging to my skin and the sheets, my radio still going from the night before, the static still buzzing, the dial still tuned to the station that carried Wolfman Jack's late night program.

    Surely God was in these places, all of them, my first thin places, before I ever knew the phrase or its ice-thin ironies, or the human inevitability and the theological problem of tying God to places. Before I ever knew anything except the thin awareness, knife-sharp, that the line separating us from God, separating life from death, is so thin you can't see it at all, but you can't see through it either. All you can see, all I really knew, was the surge of life or the vestiges of death, my first childish tastes of life's longings and death's cold leftovers. All I could figure out from what evidence (if you can call it that) I ever saw was that the line between the sacred and the profane passed through the places where we lived and lit up the ordinary with what I took to be the presence of God.

    But knowing that much, just knowing that much and not knowing so much more, was enough to set me on the road to the Dorcas Wills Memorial Baptist Church in Trinity, Texas, to tell the good people there good news in sermons so bad that God has mercifully erased my memory of them. I pray to Whomever May Be Listening that the good folks who heard those sermons have long since forgotten them too.

  • The Dopeler Effect

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2015

    Dopeler EffectSeminary trustee and friend, Sumpter Logan, sent me an email recently presenting the results of the “Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational.” Each year, readers are invited to take a word from the English dictionary and alter it. You can add, subtract, or change a letter in the word, and provide a new definition. There are some great new words here. Some of the funniest can’t be shared in this blog. But one of my favorites was, “the dopeler effect,” which is defined as, “The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.”

    Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, in their excellent study, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (New York: Teachers College Press, 2012), observe that one of the factors that can improve learning in schools is “mindful teaching.” They mention research done by Liz MacDonald and Dennis Shirley with a group of urban Boston public school teachers who are proponents of “mindful teaching.”

    “One of the seven principles of mindful teaching these teachers developed was simply ‘stopping’ – ‘reflecting on the rush of events and attending to forms of learning … that find scant realization’ in a test-driven curriculum. What prevents mindfulness and reflection, MacDonald and Shirley say, is not lack of willingness by teachers, but a school environment that is overloaded with tests and targets, awash with data and spreadsheets, and overcome by a frequent frenetic rush of endless interventions.” (Hargreaves and Fullan, Professional Capital, 98.)

    Their book, incidentally, which was jointly published in 2012 by the Teacher’s College Press of Columbia University in New York and the Ontario Principals’ Council in Canada, won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Education from the University of Louisville last year.

    Their observation is astute, and not only for schools. Virtually every aspect of our society operates as though it were addicted to speed (both the pharmaceutical and the temporal varieties). Tests and targets, data and spreadsheets, the rush of endless interventions, as well as demands for instant results, instant feedback, instant judgments, instant gratification; we are surrounded by a churning rush of high reactivity that feeds on itself and is aided and abetted by technologies and “news” media encouraging every reply to be as brief and as fast as possible and to be disseminated broadly. In such a culture, “the dopeler effect” threatens to make dopes of us all.

    Hargreaves and Fullan explain further: “Our point is that mindfulness must be cultivated and that the norms and conditions of work must deliberately foster it.” They advocate for “reflection about action,” a concept they have adapted from Donald Schon’s widely-respected work on “reflective practice.” [Schon’s books, the first of which is over thirty years old, remain valuable for teachers and other professionals, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1983); and Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions (Hoboken: Jossey-Bass, 1987)].

    Schon described “reflecting in action,” as the ability to think through a situation or a problem while you are in the midst of it, making adjustments and improvising as necessary in the midst of a changing environment, and “reflecting on action,” as the kind of reflection one engages in when one has completed a task, asking questions, experimenting with alternative scenarios and hypotheses that might benefit future activity. Hargreaves and Fullan advance the practice of mindfulness with their advocacy of “reflection about action,” that is, “reflection about the things in their environment that distract them from what’s important, that get them so immersed in busy activity there is no time left to think, and that are an endless set of responses and reactions to other people’s agendas instead of actions driven by purposes that are teachers’ own.” (Hargreaves and Fullan, Professional Capital, 99.)

    The value of their insight is obvious when one is thinking about a harried middle-school teacher, living under the compulsion to insure that students achieve high test scores on standardized exams while deeply concerned also that students learn the kinds of things that will make the students more knowledgeable and wiser; the teachers pressed and shaken by these demands while also being buffeted by conflicting expectations of politicians, school boards, school administrators, parents and (Oh Yeah!!!) a room full of young people supercharged with raging hormones. But the mindfulness Hargreaves and Fullan advocate, cultivating the habit of “reflection about practice” is also valuable for anyone in leadership who is trying to keep an organization moving forward purposefully while the organization’s energy and assets are besieged and threatened by people who want to co-opt them to accomplish private agendas (to mention just one application beyond the classroom).

    How do we as teachers, pastors, leaders of various organizations and communities, cultivate this “reflection about practice” so that we can experience less of “the dopeler effect”? Like Jesus once remarked about exorcizing some particularly tenacious demons: “This takes a lot of prayer.” I’m reminded of the example of John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement. He was famous for spending hours each morning in prayer, starting at 4 a.m. When asked how it was possible to devote so much time to praying, he replied that if he didn’t pray that much every day, he would never get all his work accomplished. And, yet, prayer, reflection, meditation and contemplation are often scorned by many of those who are most active, virtually guaranteeing that our hyperactivity will be as fruitless as it is frenetic. Indeed, about the only thing that could make “the dopeler effect” worse is the introduction of stimulants. (A sign hung above the coffee maker in the president’s and dean’s suite of a school I once served said, “Drink more coffee! Do stupid things faster and with more energy!”)

    Can we be more mindful, more reflective, thus insuring that our practice is more fruitful?

    I believe it is possible. Of course, there is the problem that another of the Mensa words reminds us of: “Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.”

  • What's Trending in Congregations?

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 21, 2015

    CongregationsThere are a lot of folks today with a lot to say about the state of churches. Some of what gets said is, sadly, of the bloviating variety, an ecclesiastical version of the overblown rhetoric of certain political candidates and self-proclaimed expert punditry. But there are others in the churchly world whose perspectives are extremely valuable and are based on extensive, deep experience and careful, often minute, observations accumulated and analyzed over a long period of time. These folks are often pretty modest about the claims they make, even reticent. You may have to drag their insights out of them, they are so genuinely humble.

    One such observer, who occupies a vantage point somewhere between the 35,000-feet aerial view and the on-the-ground imbedded pastor-reporter, is the Rev. Dr. Timothy Shapiro, President of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The Center is a “supporting organization” of both Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Christian Theological Seminary of Indianapolis. Louisville Seminary is proud to claim Tim as a two-time alum of our school (MDiv ’86 and DMin ’00). In a recent meeting of the Center’s board of directors Tim’s report laid out seven “emerging congregational trends” that he has been observing over the past couple of years. Most of Tim’s observations are of congregations in Indiana.*

    Tim’s observations, while modest in their claims, are simply fascinating, frequently contrary-to-ordinary conventional wisdom, and highly suggestive for church leadership and for theological education.

    With his permission, I will share them with you:

    Emerging Congregational Trends

    "1. Evangelical non-denominational congregations are less isolated from historic practices of Christianity than they were just ten years ago. This is particularly true regarding forms of prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

    "2. Some congregations that have culturally been characterized as mainline liberal have become more explicit about speaking about God in non-Trinitarian terms. The story of Jesus is still honored. Historic formulas about the person of Jesus Christ are not so much challenged as folded carefully and put away for the season.

    "3. Congregations are actively externally focused. Local mission is replaced with community engagement. There is less distinction between helping members live faithful lives and relating to community members who are not members. Even in congregations that have membership rolls, who is and who isn’t a member is less important.

    "4. For leaders in congregations, approaching every congregational challenge through a collaborative leadership style is experienced as limiting. Leaders who have the spiritual and emotional range to apply situational leadership modes are experiencing effectiveness.**

    "5. For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule in Indiana congregations. Sometimes the exception is the congregation with worshipers the average age of twenty-two. Sometimes the exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.

    "6. In many areas, more congregations are opening than closing. However, very small congregations are experiencing prolonged hospice stays.

    "7. Congregations that view the resource base as an open system often are the ones that find deeply spiritual solutions to their difficult challenges. By an open system resource base, I mean resources that are not exclusively from the ecclesial world."

    The Indianapolis Center for Congregations reflects a philosophy which another staff member, Sue Weber, Evaluation Project Coordinator at the Center, put into words beautifully. “We do not see the congregation as a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be embraced.”

    I’d like to leave Tim’s observations with you without any additional comment. They make great fodder for further reflection. And they remind us of the extraordinary value of those people who serve, resource and provide care in a wide variety of congregations. They take careful notes on what they observe and allow those observations to be tested against what they see in other communities.

    May their tribe increase!

    *According to the Indianapolis Center for Congregation’s 2014 Annual Report, the Center held 131 educational events and meetings last year attended by 1,696 lay and ordained congregational leaders representing 695 congregations from eighty-two faith groups or denominations. They are on track to serve even more congregations this year. The Center is non-sectarian, thus it resources churches across the theological spectrum as well as some non-Christian congregations. The Center is funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

    **Those who would like to read more about “situational leadership” may want to look at last year’s “Leadership Notebook” blog, where this subject was taken up in some detail and resources were shared.

  • Thin Places: Trusting What We Cannot Know to What We Cannot Name

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 18, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.” E-mail us!

    Thin Places 2The conventional understanding of "thin places" runs something like this: In some places in the world the boundary between the eternal and the terrestrial is especially "thin." So, when we talk about a sacred geography we're really focused on the places where we are more likely to meet God than in other places. There are lots of people who are happy to chart the location of such "thin places" for you.

    While these blogs will relate experiences of the spirit and they take us to a number of places you can find on a map that have become holy to me and to some other people, "thinness," I have come to believe, is an experience that is eminently transferable. God makes any place thin when God finds us there.

    In other words, thin places are not so much about intersections of longitude and latitude on a map as they are about the intersections of histories, experiences, people and places. There's no particular magic in a particular place, except that God breaks through for us there, or perhaps we break through to God. Or maybe we just discover, in certain places, that the "boundary" between sacredness and profanity is only an imaginary line. The place becomes holy because we believe the Holy has brushed past us there.

    "Thinness" may also be a better way to conceive of the relationship between life and death than the timeline from the cradle to the grave which most of us hold in our heads and which most of us bring to mind whenever we contemplate our mortality. We shall explore this and other ideas more fully as the year unfolds. And we shall, from time to time, even subvert one idea or insight with another that stands in tension or contradicts what we just said. We shall do this because our experience of the Holy demands it. Consistency is not only the hobgoblin of small minds, as Emerson warned, it also fails to convey anything like the depth and richness of our varieties of experiences of God.

    The Hebrew Bible often relates the stories of patriarchs who stumble onto holy ground and take off their shoes to show a proper respect. Others awaken from divine encounters and only then realize that the place where they lay their heads is sacred. Many believed you cannot see God and keep on living. Others reported that they had seen God and survived to tell the tale. Maybe we're always on holy ground. Maybe we're always on the verge of this boundary. Maybe we're always "walking on thin ice." Life and death are always only a hair's breadth apart. God is closer to us than our next breath.

    Any place might in the blink of an eye become thin. Suddenly our eyes open, and we see, not just the whole world, but even its smallest corner as Gerard Manley Hopkins saw it, shot through with "God's grandeur," "charged" with the sacred, "like shining from shook foil," bright, shimmering, radiant beyond imagination. Or we might come to ourselves in a dingy ordinary place, like a prodigal recovered. If you pressed me on the question, then, I'd have to say that the utility room in your basement could just as readily become a "thin place" as an ages-old monastery chapel on a secluded mist-shrouded island.

    The other point I want to make is just as important.

    We meet God someplace. Some "place." We don't meet God nowhere. We don't meet God merely in abstraction. God meets us amid this matter in which we live and move and have our being. God does not abhor nature, but wallows hoggishly in the stuff. I might find it hard to credit some of the elements of certain pagan beliefs, but the idea that God can be found in an oak or a windy granite ridge or a peat bog I'll never contest.

    Often, we remember a place where something extraordinary though hard to define happened, and we remember and treasure the place because of who met us or what happened there. The place becomes wonderful to us, perhaps awesome, maybe thin to us - even holy ground.

    You may be surprised, as I hinted earlier, by the eccentricity of the selection of thin places in this collection of blogs.

    The reasons these places were selected have to do with my own spiritual life and my very limited experience as much as with the lives of saints and sages past. There are other places explored here in which the distant pagan past overshadows the relatively brief Christian history, where our common prehistory speaks in holy whispers. There are other places still at which my engagement with Stoic philosophy and Asian spirituality has taken on larger significance. All these places have become thin to my tread.

    You may be surprised by the lack of chronological ordering of these reflections. I have chosen to present them as they occur to me rather than to present them in any sort of sequential scheme. For me, at least, this is how reflection often operates. One recollection leads to another, but frequently by circuitous paths.

    I'll leave it to you to determine if the exploration of places that have become thin for me is at all helpful in your discernment of the presence of God in your world. I hope, if nothing else, that these stories will assist you as you seek to be attentive and receptive to the mystery that lurks "just beyond" or "just beneath" until it breaks through. As for me, I shall entrust that which I cannot know to that which I cannot name.

  • In the Name of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 14, 2015

    Not in God's NameRabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has been described by Prince Charles of Great Britain as "a light unto this nation," referring to his moral, spiritual and intellectual leadership in the United Kingdom. While recognizing Sacks' distinctive contributions to Britain, where he served from 1991 to 2013 as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and where he continues to be one of the most respected public intellectuals, this is too narrow an assessment of his significance. Jonathan Sacks is an enlightening presence for the whole world, and his message resonates today more powerfully than ever.

    In his influential book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), he lamented: "For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God." Jonathan Sacks won the 2004 Grawemeyer Award in Religion from the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for that book, and his presence in our community and his presentations on the subject of religious pluralism before a variety of audiences are gratefully remembered. Indeed, I am sure his thought contributed to our seminary's own commitment to preparing the next generation of Christian ministers to respect, understand and work closely with people whose faith differs from our own.

    Rabbi Sacks has returned to the subject of religious difference in a new book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015). The book, which was in bookstores in Britain this past summer, will be released in the United States in October.

    Rabbi Sacks opens the book with a familiar passage from Blaise Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions." Sacks' own opening sentence is arguably even more powerful, and it sets the tone for the entire book: "When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps." From the pages of the Bible to the pages of today's newspaper, religiously justified violence meets our gaze. Despite the claims of divine sanction made by those who commit these acts, Sacks writes, "God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamor of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such a time is: Not in My Name." (p. 3)

    Not in God's Name is a passionate exploration of the religious sources of violence, warning people of faith of the danger of legitimizing their own lust to destroy while appealing to divine endorsements. While it is all too easy for us to see motes in the eyes of adherents of other faiths, we continue to resist seeing the beams in our own eyes. Rabbi Sacks provides a mirror so we can take another look at ourselves. And, by doing so, he helps us understand the tragedy of our world's religious justification of violence. As he says in this new book: "To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege. It is a kind of blasphemy. It is to take God's name in vain." (p. 5)

    Sacks uses the term "altruistic evil" to describe violence committed for religious reasons while recognizing that the term includes causes of evil that go beyond religion. All sorts of movements, for example, which see themselves as ultimately benevolent (especially those Utopian ideologies that promise a perfect society in the long-run) have justified all sorts of cruelties, repression and violence in the short-term. His discussion of the most common three ways in which violence is linked to religion de-mythologizes some secular arguments against religion as the principal cause of violence in the world today (in fact, studies show that religion is not by any means the primary cause of violence), while it also corrects misguided and inaccurate arguments that try to minimize any connection between the motives of certain military and terrorist groups and their religious faith. He also critiques the "in-group biases" that operate within us all: "Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority." (p. 11) This is as true for religious groups as for any other. Sacks' discussion of this bias may help us comprehend how it is possible (according to a study not cited in Sacks' book) for only 11% of Kuwaitis and 3% of Pakistanis to believe that those who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Arab Muslims. Of course, Christians have our own biases. Rabbi Sacks reminds us that such biases run deep and can affect people of any faith including his own Judaism.

    Throughout this book, Sacks' analysis reflects an erudite mind fully engaged with philosophy, politics and social studies of the most rigorous kind. It is when he turns his attention and all of these resources to a theological engagement with the connection between religious faith and violence that he makes, what I believe is, his greatest contribution in this book. After reflecting on a variety of ways that various people and states have attempted to intervene in the violence of our time, the spread of religious and racial hatred, he says, "The work to be done now is theological." (p. 20)

    He continues:

    "As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorize unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly? What is God saying to us, here, now? We are not prophets but we are their heirs and we are not bereft of guidance on these fateful issues." (p. 21)

    I cannot think of a more important new book for people of faith to read and study together than this book. It is so important, in fact, that I am tempted to walk through its contents. But a blog of thousands of words is no longer a blog, and you would be better off investing your time in reading Sacks' book anyway. I do encourage you to read this book, especially Jonathan Sacks' exploration of why the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been so often so toxic and how the very texts that divide us can provide a solution to the problem.

    In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Rabbi Sacks asks, "Can the world be changed?" "Yes," he answers. "And the proof is one of the most uplifting stories in the religious history of humankind: the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust." In particular, he mentions a statement written in 2013 by Pope Francis that says: "God's fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and ... through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity." (pp. 261-262).

    Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims share common ideals and commitments deeper than our differences. Because of these high ideals and deep commitments, we "must stand together, in defense of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honor of God. … The real clash of the twenty-first century will not be between civilizations or religions, but within them." (p. 262)

    The problems we face are real problems, problems with long histories and tangled causes, but they are not insoluble. There are things we can and must do, among the first of which, according to Rabbi Sacks, is this:

    "We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world of diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity. There must be an international campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate." (p. 262-263)

    For those of us engaged in theological education, these are badly needed words of encouragement, especially in the face of opposition to this mission.

    Sacks continues:

    "We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbor and stranger, the insistence of peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colors, faiths and races, can live together in grace and peace. These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and none." (p. 263)

    Rabbi Sacks calls upon us to have hope; not mere optimism, but hope grounded in the deepest sources of our faith. Like a builder, digging down to bedrock to sink beams that support a great temple, he recalls the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to our common source. He reminds us that God's love, mercy and justice are not the exclusive possessions of any one faith, but are the gifts of God for the sake of all.

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