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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Spirit of Antichrist

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 21, 2017

    The Spirit of AntiChristWhen I was a teenager one of my favorite games was "Pin the Tail on the Antichrist."

    Fundamentalist preachers up and down the country were busy identifying first this public figure then another as "THE Antichrist." They needed the Antichrist to appear in order to whip up enthusiasm for their “Second Coming” sermons.

    I began to grow suspicious about this game, first, because every year or two we seemed to get a new Antichrist. Then, I also noticed that Fundamentalist preachers who leaned Democratic (and, yes, they existed back then) always seemed to discover pachydermian Antichrists while Republican Fundamentalists unfailingly pinned the tail on a donkey.

    Perhaps the most entertaining Antichrist was introduced in the very funny novel that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett co-authored in 1990 titled Good Omens.* The novel is about two babies who are accidentally exchanged at birth; the infant Antichrist is taken home from the hospital by a nice suburban family while the innocent ordinary baby is raised by a demonic lot. Hilarity ensues.

    What most Antichrist antics tend to have in common is their global scale.

    Armageddon is often involved, as are sinister international organizations and fallen angels. But, today, I'd like to stay at a more mundane level, at the level of our ordinary everyday lives. I'd like to examine the spirit of Antichrist that rears its head close to home. Specifically, I'd like to explore what happens when we fool ourselves into believing that we can achieve good and gracious goals by employing demonic means.

    I would like to leave to one side for now all the (at least to me) offensive caricaturing of Jesus Christ which seem to have one thing in common: that is, remaking Jesus in our own image. There are plenty of people who want Jesus to represent their values and beliefs, whether he looks like a surfer dude with long sandy hair, a tenured professor in tweeds, a gun-toting vigilante in camouflage, or the marketing director for a Fortune 500 company. It's one thing to want to be more Christlike, and quite another to want Jesus to serve as mascot for our lifestyles.

    Today, I would like us to reflect on something so common, so very ordinary, it tends to slip right through the net of our consciousness.

    What does it mean that we set lofty Christian goals but fail to entrust them to means appropriate to those ends? What does it mean that we pay lip service to Christian virtues like love and gentleness but tend to regard them as weak when the rubber meets the road? What does it mean that we would rather demand that our faith serve as an apologist for vulgar and violent forces than to allow the Christian Faith to call perhaps unworthy goals into question?

    I raise these questions simply because it seems to me that when the way of Jesus is sacrificed for the sake of institutional, political or cultural interests, the first causality may well be the humanity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ. Through the waters of baptism we renounced the powers of evil, yet we appear to believe that we can keep them on speed-dial just in case love, peace and mercy don't get the job done.

    Sociology has a helpful distinction between "espoused beliefs" and "actual values" which I think is especially clarifying, although the distinction may make us a little uncomfortable. Among the "espoused values" of most Christians are a whole range of teachings of Jesus derived straight from the gospels. They include aspects of the mission that Jesus claimed for himself, "to announce good news to the poor ... to proclaim freedom to prisoners ... and recovery of sight to the blind ... . To release the oppressed." They include admonitions that are unqualified, for example, to refrain from judging others, to forgive others without limitation, to return good for evil, to care for the helpless, to welcome strangers, and to act at all times for the sake of mercy.

    I think most of us recognize these and other teachings of Jesus as the real thing.

    Yet, from time to time I hear sermons that attempt to prove, sometimes through the most elaborate exegetical and homiletical acrobatics, that Jesus didn't really mean what he obviously said. I've heard preachers try to justify judgment of others in the name of righteousness. I've heard ministers claim that Jesus wasn't really against violence, he just reserved it for special cases. Despite the fact that virtually all Christians would recognize that the Sermon on the Mount represents the authentic teachings of Jesus, I've even heard preachers who have claimed that Jesus' teachings are really irrelevant. What matters is not what Jesus taught, not the example he set, but the way he fits into their theology of redemption.

    I find such preaching refreshingly frank in attempting to reject Jesus' words and way in the name of another ideology, but I would find the preachers even more honest if they just admitted, "I don't agree with Jesus", or "I would rather not follow Jesus", or "I like the idea that he will get me to heaven, but I'm uncomfortable with what he seems to require on earth."

    Our "espoused beliefs" make us feel better about ourselves while allowing us to go right ahead and justify what we want to do. And, of course, our "espoused beliefs" also tend to be miles away from the "actual values" that guide our decision-making.

    While Jesus teaches us to keep a light hold on our lives, reminding us that to try to save our life is to lose it for sure, we cling to survival and self-interest in every way imaginable, and not just when it comes to preservation of our physical existence. We expend a great deal of energy constructing an image of ourselves to which we are capable of sacrificing virtually everything we say we hold precious and sacred. And, while Jesus teaches us to place our hearts on the kinds of treasures that endure, we tend to live our lives, to borrow a phrase from Don Henley, as though hearses had luggage racks.

    Our hypocrisy is well-documented. But that's not my point today.

    My point is simply this, again: How do we imagine we can achieve the goals of Jesus while pursing the means of Antichrist?

    If the spirit of Antichrist is hatred, violence, lust, bullying, greed, self-seeking, self-justifying, boastfulness, and vulgarity, then what is the Spirit of Christ? The Apostle Paul answered that question long ago by describing the "fruit" of the Holy Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit doesn't represent soft options in contrast to the strong options of violence and force; but the Spirit's fruit may cost us our lives. And what is required of us to bear this fruit is a whole different kind of courage than the kind necessary to demean or destroy others.

    Let's imagine what might happen if we acted as though the fruit of Christ's Spirit is more powerful than the spirit of Antichrist.
    The novel by Gaiman and Pratchett is subtitled, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded).

  • A Bibliophile's Christmas List

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 14, 2017

    Bibliofile's Christmas ListIndependent bookstores appeared to be on the edge of extinction only a couple of years ago. What seems to be keeping the survivors afloat is the staff's knowledge of good books, their service, and a selection that takes us beyond the bestseller list. My favorite independent book shops include Carmichael's in Louisville, Kentucky; J.G. Ford on St. Simons Island, Georgia; Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee (co-owned by author Ann Patchett); and The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The books I recommend today (and the variety should satisfy at least some readers on your Christmas list) are undoubtedly available at an independent bookstore near you. If they are not on the shelf, just ask the staff to order them and rediscover the joy of anticipation.

    Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
    This is the most wonderful weird novel I believe I have EVER read. The review published in the New York Times described it as "a weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life." The word "Bardo" is a Tibetan Buddhist term for an intermediary state between death and one's final destination. Not Purgatory. Really, a sort of way station of the soul where you wait until you're ready to get on the train to your final stop. Saunders intersperses short pieces drawn from actual period newspapers with his fictional accounts and dialogue to draw the reader into the mental and spiritual world of a grieving president, his dead child, and a cast of the most bizarre ghosts you'll ever meet. Funny, soul-rending, joyful and profound: this novel is among the most original and imaginative grown-up novels ever written.

    A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
    My friend Scott Black Johnston sent me a copy of this book with the simple encouragement to "enjoy." It is the story of an aristocrat under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in an elegant Moscow hotel. Beautifully, even elegantly, written, utterly enthralling. About half-way through the book, I realized I was reading it too fast. I wanted it to last longer. So I started rationing myself a limited number of pages each night. I haven't felt that way about a novel since Anthony Doerr's brilliant, All the Light We Cannot See (which won the 2015 Pulitzer). If you buy this one for a friend, do yourself a favor and buy a copy for yourself, too.

    The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old (begun as a pseudonymous diary on the Website of Torpedo magazine), translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans.
    Enchanting, touching, and darkly funny. One reviewer said it is the best book about institutional life since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Set in a Dutch Rest Home for the aged, 83-year-old Hendrik takes us on an odyssey of friendship and loss. The humanity of the narrator had me at the first page. His ability to deal with the many griefs and transient joys of aging, with subjects such as euthanasia, love and how to remain adventurous when life's boundaries constrict is remarkable.

    Silence by Shusako Endo, translated from the Japanese by William Johnston. Originally published in Japan in 1966; in English in 1969.
    Last summer, in the course of trading reading recommendations with my friend Don Frampton, he strongly recommended this book which is back on the bookstore shelves because it was recently made into a movie. The story is harrowing, but the truths embedded in it (complex, contradictory, and disturbing) make the journey through its pages more than worthwhile. The story is set in seventeenth-century Japan in the years after Christianity was forbidden there because of its ties to foreign control and European imperialism. The subjects of faithfulness and apostasy are explored through the eyes of Portuguese Jesuit priests who secretly have infiltrated the country. The book is riveting.

    Russia's Dead End: An Insider's Testimony, from Gorbachev to Putin by Andrei A. Kovalev, translated from the Russian by Stephen I. Levine, with a foreword by Peter Reddaway.
    Get ready to be disturbed by the account of modern Russian history by a high-level official who served at the heart of its government for thirty years, from the fall of Communism through the first years of the Putin era. Andrei Kovalev's father, Anatoly Kovalev, together with Edvard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, worked at the heart of the Soviet government to launch perestroika only to see Gorbachev's stunning achievements unravel, partly due to Gorbachev's own miscalculations, partly due to the arrogant, autocratic, easily distracted and frequently inebriated Yeltsin, and finally due to the triumph of old KGB insiders who, under Putin, returned Russia to a non-ideological and thoroughly corrupt authoritarian regime. This is about as close to a must-read as you can get.

    The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone
    Written by the co-host of NPR's respected program, "On the Media," this essay (the book is only 87 pages) confronts what the author calls the "moral panic" of our time. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I have purchased over ten copies and given them to friends and family. In a chapter, "Lying is the Point," Gladstone quotes Hannah Arendt's depressingly relevant observation made in a 1974 interview: "... A lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie ..., but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people, you can then do what you please." I happened upon Gladstone's book a few days after reading P.J. O'Rourke's book, How the Hell Did This Happen?, a hilarious but also thoughtful series of columns chronicling the 2016 presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath. Gladstone is progressive in her politics, O'Rourke is a delightfully curmudgeon of conservatism. Surely one or the other (or both!) would satisfy the politicos on your Christmas list.

  • The World Within, Part 2

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 10, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    World Within Part 2For St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine movement, the purpose of relocating himself to the backside of a mountain was not so much to get away from the world around him as it was, like the Desert Fathers before him, to remove any distractions that might keep him from paying attention to God and allowing God to anneal him in God's furnace of grace. In other words, the motives of the Desert Fathers and the motives of St. Benedict sound more like one another, and not so much like the motives that are driving many today to abandon a society that doesn't reflect their tradition, family or religious values.*

    Religious Worldliness
    The worldliness with which the early monks struggled in other words doesn't sound much like the worldliness I was taught to avoid in the church in which I grew up. I suspect this may be true for you too, whatever your denominational affiliation.

    Adultery and fornication were the really big sins of "the worldly," or so I was taught. But avoidance of adultery and fornication seemed mostly to do with not dancing and not drinking. Nobody really talked about wealth, social position or power over others as being aspects of worldliness, at least not in our church; mostly this was the case, I suspect, because these were such remote possibilities to the people in our church. There wasn't a wealthy, well-connected or powerful person in that little rural congregation. Frankly, I think the deacons would have been the first to join Tevye in a chorus of "If I Were a Rich Man," except, of course, the performance would have involved dancing. But there was a long list of other aspects of so-called worldliness. Worldliness also included gambling and cursing.  Smoking tobacco was not considered to be a sin in our church; the dads and deacons did that in the parking lot.

    Your church's characterization of worldliness might have looked different from the one I grew up with. But I'll wager (oops!) that the things considered tokens of worldliness were largely external acts that most of the church folk weren't much tempted to do in the first place and found it easy to avoid. Worldliness, in this sense, ironically, was determined by culture, the basic category of social existence in the world. The church in one time and place may reject as chief vices what the church in another time and place encourages as virtues.

    In her recent biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle (the remarkable wife of the literary lion and misanthrope Thomas Carlyle), Kathy Chamberlain demonstrates how new models of an emerging feminism in the mid-nineteenth century were causing social and religious ripples throughout European society. A popular novel of that time, written in Germany by Ludwig Tieck, described the conflict between the novel's heroine and the Church. The conflict was over her organizing of salons, evening gatherings in her home bringing together leading intellectuals and artistic figures.

    In the story, a group of Cardinals assembled to judge this cultured woman of the Renaissance who had transformed her home into a sort of think tank. Implying that the woman had degraded herself by indulging in such "worldly behavior," one of the Cardinals says that she has made "her home into a poetical academy, a rendezvous for foreigners and authors, a stage for the exhibition of public performances, poetical compositions, music and singing, and all sorts of offensive and unfeminine discussions, to which she gave the name philosophy."** The Cardinals left no doubt that she had committed a grave sin and opened the door to even greater vices.

    We Are the World
    Worldliness often seems to be in the eye of the ecclesiastical beholder, and the condemnation of some behavior as worldly has always been a handy way for religious people to try to undermine social changes with which they disagree. And, at the more personal level, the religious condemnation of some social changes as worldly, sinful, secular or at odds with "traditional values" provides a convenient way for some Christians to reinforce their own small-mindedness in the name of their faith while demonstrating that they are "holier than" some other "thou."

    Condemning the sins of others provides a convenient way to keep score. And this is exactly where the Desert Fathers and other early monks such as St. Benedict are so helpful for understanding our relationship with the world. They fled "the world without" in order to flee "the world within." They knew the world within was the more dangerous one. This is why they were dedicated to relentless self-examination under the grace of God. They knew what dangers they carried in their own hearts.

    The monks and hermits were aware that the man or woman who rode through the ancient city market in a litter borne by burly servants might be showing off an ancient version of conspicuous consumption. They understood that the person who wore rich garments of silks might be guilty of wasteful extravagance, that the person who lived enthralled to insatiable appetites for more wealth, finer goods and richer foods might be dangerously self-indulgent. But they also knew that worldliness was not limited to such examples. They knew that the monk who envied the rich and the hermit who hated them for what they possessed were drowning in their own worldly bitterness and sin.

    Worldliness is a moveable famine threatening the lives and spiritual health of everyone. Everyone. Everywhere. It follows us home whether home is in a city or on a farm, in a palace or in a cave in the desert. Simply fleeing to a cloister or an intentional community can't keep out the world. And a community of people seeking to live the same values, however sanctified, are in as much danger of worldliness as anyone living anywhere else.

    Tools for Living a Christian Life Wherever
    Some years after Benedict's initial attempt to escape the degradation of Roman society to live a holy life in isolation, a group of his neighboring monks came to ask him to serve as their abbot. Hesitantly, he agreed. But the arrangement didn't last long. These monks soon rebelled against Benedict and tried to poison him. Now THAT, my friends, is a leadership crisis in a congregation!

    Later, another group of monks attached themselves to Benedict. It was at this time that he established twelve monasteries consisting of twelve monks each. But, because of the envy among local clergy, Benedict abandoned this monastic arrangement too.

    Finally, he journeyed with a few monks to Monte Cassino, high in the central Apennines of Italy, about eighty miles to the south of Rome, to found his new monastery. This one endured, and became the model for cloistered monasticism thereafter.***

    When St. Benedict set down in writing his rules for living in community, he dedicated a chapter to describing the tools Christians need to live the kind of life God wants us to live, a life that focuses our full attention on God. One of the most interesting things about the tools he describes is this: They are as readily available to the woman who sits at the head of a board table moderating a meeting of her company's directors as to the monk who has taken vows to live a cloistered life. They are tools anyone can employ wherever they live and work. They promise to deliver us from the world within, not just the world around us.

    The tools start with: "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself." They include renouncing yourself, relieving the needs of the poor, not repaying a bad turn with another bad turn, and avoiding pride and grumbling. They conclude: "Never lose hope in God's mercy."

    My recommendation to Christians frustrated with living in contemporary society is to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" Benedict's "Rule." Here is spiritual wisdom as old as the mountains and deserts to which the monks long ago fled, but applicable no matter where we live and move and have our daily existence. It will repay our efforts a hundredfold. Our biggest challenge as people who want to follow Jesus is not "out there" (wherever "there" is) or "with them" (whoever "they" may be); our biggest challenge is dealing with "the world within."

    *As in previous blogs, I highly recommend Benedicta Ward's wonderful collection of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003). Also of interest are Thomas Merton's and Henri J.M. Nouwen's books on the Desert Fathers. I also recommend Esther de Waal's Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1984), which provides one of the finest and most eloquent expositions of Benedictine thought available.

    **Kathy Chamberlain, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World (New York: Overlook, 2017), pp. 86-100. Ludwig Tieck's historical novel, originally published in German in 1843, was titled Vittoria Accorombona. One of the real world models for the heroine of the book was a fascinating and heroic woman named Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the Jewish wife of a German aristocrat. Her salons were the stuff of legend in nineteenth century Europe.

    ***The Rule of St. Benedict in English, edited by Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1982), preface, p. 10, and pp. 26-29. I also recommend Brother Benet Tvedten's book, How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job (Brewster: Paraclete, 2006/2013), a resource which would be a great deal of fun to study in a book club or Sunday school class.

  • New York Values

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 07, 2017

    When Debbie and I reached the side door of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday morning, our old friend Scott Black Johnston was standing outside the door, eagerly awaiting someone's arrival. Not ours; though his bear hugs were as enthusiastic and all-embracing as always. Scott was waiting for His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

    New York Values 1Cardinal Dolan was at that moment headed from Saint Patrick's Cathedral, a couple of blocks down the street, for his historic visit to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. This was the first time in the 209-year history of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian that it had hosted a visit in worship from the city's Roman Catholic archbishop.

    On the way into the sanctuary we received the Order of Worship, the cover of which was decorated with the picture of a wonderful icon of St. Peter (symbol of the Church of Rome) and St. Andrew (the Patron saint of Scotland) embracing. After the joyful processional, the singing of the congregation (John Calvin's hymn, "I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art") and anthems by the choirs, our confession and assurance of pardon, and Scott's warm welcome, Cardinal Dolan stood to preach.

    Confirming the Cardinal's gregarious reputation, he began by telling the congregation that, on his way down the sidewalk from Saint Patrick's Cathedral that morning, he had been stopped by two young people who asked to take a picture of him. Touched, he posed. What a delightful thing, thought the Cardinal, two young people so pleased to meet the Roman Catholic Church's leading figure in the city that they would like a photograph of him. After they took the picture, however, the truth came out. They had no idea who Cardinal Dolan was. As they walked away, they shouted back to him, "Great Halloween costume, Dude!" If possible, the Cardinal laughed harder than anyone at his own joke.

    It quickly became clear that Cardinal Dolan was deeply touched to be asked to preach in this Presbyterian Church. A historian and an Irish American himself, he reflected on the often bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics through history. He said that, as a boy growing up in St. Louis, his family could never have imagined that a Catholic priest would someday stand to preach in a Presbyterian church such as Fifth Avenue. Yet, here he was.

    New York Values 2The Cardinal reminded the congregation that the Protestant Reformation of the church begun by Luther in the sixteenth century was not the first reformation of the church. Nor the last. There had been reformations for a thousand years before Martin Luther came along, beginning with St. Benedict of Nursia. Cardinal Dolan talked about other reformations before and after our own before reaching the climax of his sermon. The Reformation of the Church continues, he said, and can never stop, not in this world.

    The Cardinal told the story of a woman who met him at the doors of St. Patrick's one day after mass. The cathedral was, at that time, undergoing repairs and was shrouded in scaffolding. The woman suggested to the Cardinal that they should keep the scaffolding up all the time to remind us that the church is always under construction, always in need of repair. He agreed that it would indeed be a great reminder to us of the continuing need for reformation of the church. Then he added, however, that the scaffolding was much too expensive to keep up. Since Luther came along, there's no way they could sell indulgences to raise money. And there's no way bingo was going to bring in enough. And again he laughed.

    Between the laughter, and the historical and biblical insights, the congregation saw something truly remarkable: Two Christian leaders and brothers, and two Christian congregations, and two Christian traditions with every reason to look for what divides us, celebrating instead what makes us one.

    Someone is bound to say, "Sure, but this happened in New York City, not in a small town in the Midwest or the South." But maybe this is the point. Maybe there are times when we ought to engage in some of the so-called "New York Values" that get criticized from time to time by politicians. I note this in particular because while we were worshipping in Midtown Manhattan, on the Upper East Side another old friend, Michael Lindvall, the senior minister of Brick Presbyterian Church, was exchanging pulpits with the priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Church. Michael reports that both churches were packed, and after he preached, the Catholic congregation gave him the first standing ovation he had received in forty-one years in the pulpit.

    If Reforming might just come to mean re-forming, wouldn't it be a marvel to behold! I've got a feeling that the world may be waiting to see if that old song could be true: "They'll know us by our love."

  • Martin Luther Meets Jesus

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 31, 2017

    Luther RoseMartin Luther came to a religious calling via a thunderstorm on a sultry day in 1505. He was then, as the great church historian Roland Bainton has explained, a student of twenty-one years returning to the University of Erfurt following a visit home.

    Suddenly, a bolt of "lightning struck him to earth," Bainton writes. "In that single flash he saw the denouement of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell." In a flash, Luther cried out to his father's patron saint (the patron saint of miners), "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."*

    Luther's terror was driven by a conception of God that many of us will find strange.

    For Luther, God the Father is wrathful and vengeful, a God of fury and anger, and Jesus Christ is the inexorably righteous judge sitting upon the covenant rainbow, sword in hand. Even after Luther became a monk, he could not shake his terror at the thought of such a God.

    I suspect that he nearly drove his Confessor nuts. Dr. David Johnson, the distinguished historical theologian and friend, once told me that a priest responsible for hearing the confessions of nuns complained to him that it was like being stoned to death by popcorn. I imagine Luther was exactly the same with his Confessor. He was terrified that if he died with a sin - no matter how small - on his conscience, God would take pleasure in tossing him into hell. He confessed everything he could remember but was terrified his memory would fail him.

    Luther desperately tried to earn his salvation, shackled as he was to a strict understanding of "works-righteousness." And, yet, he saw the hopelessness of this approach. No matter how hard you try, you just can't do enough to make yourself good enough to deserve salvation, not if the God you believe in is an obsessive monster whose bloodthirst drives him to hate eternally those who fail to be absolutely, perfectly righteous.

    Luther had some wonderful teachers, such as John Staupitz, who tried in vain to teach him that God is love and that the response God desires from his creatures is love. But Luther, convinced of his concept of God the almighty and unmerciful, just couldn't believe it. And he surely couldn't love and adore the God he believed in. Who could?

    Even the sight of the crucifix frightened Luther. He fled from the vengeful Son of God hanging upon the cross and sought protection from the Blessed Virgin, the merciful mother of Jesus. In light of his understanding of the character of God, it is not surprising that Luther grew more and more depressed. He believed that all humanity deserved to be damned because all are sinners. Luther's scheme of redemption was based on the idea that God demonstrates his capacity to "love" by arbitrarily choosing a few sinners to go to heaven. On the other hand, God demonstrates his capacity for justice by sending all the rest of the sinners to everlasting hell. Luther himself bears witness to the injustice and cruelty of this scheme, saying that the God behind such a plan of salvation must be "iniquitous, cruel and intolerable," and, yet, Luther also believed that this God is God. Thus he says, "I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"**

    It was about this time that Luther was assigned the job of teaching the Bible. He began to study scriptures very closely, lecturing on the Psalms in 1513, on the Epistle to the Romans in 1515, and on Galatians throughout 1516 and 1517. These studies proved transformative to Luther.

    Gradually he came to see that his understanding of God was at odds with scripture. Jesus Christ, for Luther, had assumed a pre-assigned role in his theology, but Luther had not really seen Jesus as he was in the Gospels. Even God had played merely a pre-assigned role in Luther's theological scheme. But Luther had never sought to understand God in terms of God's own self-revelation in Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible.

    Luther came to realize that God is love, as his teacher John Staupitz had insisted, and that the God of the Bible revealed himself as love in his coming to earth in Christ, living, teaching, healing, and ultimately dying at the hands of human beings without seeking vengeance upon those who killed him. In time, Luther would believe that we can only say about God that which God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Luther said in 1518, a person deserves to be called a theologian who seeks to understand God, not through flighty speculation, but through the life and death of Jesus.*** In other contexts Luther said that if you want to know what God is like, run to the foot of the cross; run to the manger in Bethlehem.

    Martin Luther has probably spent more time on the couch of modern psychotherapy than perhaps any other theological figure. This can easily be overdone. But his crisis of faith, the personal-religious conflict he suffered for so long, the self-loathing and guilt he bore without relief, and the despair and depression that wore upon him because of his gruesome concept of God all likely played a part in his eventual break from Rome. There is no way to extricate his theological perspective from his personal. He and his theology changed together. As Paul Althaus once observed, "the knowledge of God is not theoretical knowledge but rather a matter of [a person's] entire existence."**** This is nowhere more true than with Martin Luther.

    When in October of 1517 Luther confronted his church, the Roman Catholic Church, with a series of arguments he wished to debate, one is struck by the energy of this remarkable man, by his passion and his creativity. The treatises he penned over just the next few years shaped the Protestant Reformation for generations after him (including the work of a young Frenchman named John Calvin); his translation of the Bible into vernacular German not only inspired the piety of a people, it helped forge a nation. Luther is a giant of a figure, taking huge strides across history. His mistakes are as enormous as his virtues. But it is impossible to imagine Christian Faith today without him.

    Irony upon irony meets us in the history of the church. Few ironies are stranger than the realization that the conception of God and the scheme of redemption that plagued Luther before his study of scripture was largely reproduced in the scholastic versions of Lutheranism and Calvinism that set in by the close of the sixteenth century. It is ironic that even the great motto of the Lutheran Reformation ("The just shall live by faith") would be truncated into a slogan that either excused the excesses of enthusiastic and pious antinomians or the lack of responsibility of those who wanted merely to excuse their knowingly unrighteous behavior. And, of course, it is ironic that the Reformation turned into an excuse to split the church again and again and again, although the reformers had intended to restore the one holy and apostolic church to its primitive purity.

    There's no way to go back, but there may be ways forward.

    Recently I was riding my bicycle past a Catholic Church in our neighborhood. The church's bells were playing a selection of sacred hymns. I stopped to listen. Some tunes I did not recognize. But one stood out. I knew it well.

    As the evening shadows lengthened that day, I stood amazed to hear Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," ringing out from the bell tower of the Catholic Church.

    Strangely, I felt a surge of hope.

    *This story is told with unsurpassed color by Roland Bainton in his classic life of Luther, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, 1950), p. 25.
    ** Bainton, p. 44.
    *** E.G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, eds. "The Heidelberg Disputation," in Martin Luther: Documents of Modern History (London, 1978), 28.
    **** Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1966), p. 28.

  • The World Within, Part 1

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    The World WithinThe Benedict Option
    There's been a lot of talk recently among some Christians about finding an alternative to contemporary society. Some people are discussing what it might mean to flee "the world" for the sake of their Christian Faith. One approach discussed is represented in the new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

    Dreher's alternative is not all that different in spirit from the perspective proposed by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon several years ago in their book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, expanded 25th anniversary edition, 2014), although Hauerwas and Willimon are more sophisticated in their theological outlook and much more subtle in their ideas about how a "resident alien" interacts with secular society. Their perspective shares something of a theological stance discussed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic study, Christ and Culture, under the category of "Christ Against Culture." So does Dreher's proposal.

    Evoking the name of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), the founder of the first monastic order, brings a new perspective and fresh energy to this conversation, especially given the conservative social and political perspective represented by Dreher and the appeal of his proposal among some Evangelical and Non-denominational Christians. Indeed many people, and from a variety of theological perspectives, are seeking the sanity and balance of what are often called "intentional communities." And, while many of us who would not share Dreher's conservative politics and social agenda, his assessment of what's wrong with contemporary society or his understanding of a well-lived Christian faith, we would probably find some of his observations interesting, even compelling.

    When, for example, he writes of conservative Christians in America who define themselves almost entirely by being against "abortion and gay marriage" while accepting uncritically the "radical individualism and secularism of modernity," I find it difficult to imagine who among us might not agree with him. And when he goes on to say of his own Christian tribe, "We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it means to be Christian," not only would I say "Amen", I would want to take care to examine the beam in my eye. Dreher has listened to a lot of Christians, especially self-described conservative ones, in recent years who want to flee a society they see as increasingly hostile to "traditional values." (Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 2) His arguments deserve our attention, whether or not we agree with his judgments.

    In light of the popularity of Dreher's new book (David Brooks, the New York Times columnist recommended it in a recent essay) and the conversations going on about his ideas, it seems to me a good time to revisit one of the great themes of the early hermits and monks of the church, many of whom sought to flee the world, to put behind them the tangled webs of human civilization, the deceit, the violence, and the vanity of the world they lived in.

    In particular, however, I want us to reflect on the motives these early Christians gave for the monastic flight, because I think motives make such a big difference in the efficacy of any action. And it seems clear that the motives of the early monks, including Benedict, were rather different from those articulated in Dreher's book.

    The Monastic Flight
    The first wave of Christians to flee society, the Desert Fathers, were leaving behind centers of culture where the church had traded its status as a forbidden and intermittently persecuted faith for that of an officially recognized and often favored religion. In some ways, therefore, their experience parallels ours nicely.

    Our American culture is certainly secular, in that it views faith as a matter of choice, an option which may be taken or left (as Charles Taylor has demonstrated), but if we doubt that Christianity (in the form Christianity takes metaphysically and mythically underpinning American civil religion) is the default religion of the contemporary American empire, we are kidding ourselves. If you'd like to test this argument, I encourage you to ask a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Hindu, or a card-carrying atheist what they think about Christianity's de facto role as the "normative religion" in American society.

    Contemporary American culture may only be superficially, conventionally, and reactively "Christian," in the sense of Søren Kierkegaard's anemic 19th-century European "Christendom," but that only makes it more like Byzantium in the days of the first Christian monks and hermits. But even more than this, Christians are not the outsiders, the aliens in America. Not by a long shot. They are favored and privileged. And it is fascinating, I think, and it is troubling, the way conservative Christianity continues to flex its cultural and political muscles while claiming to be a small persecuted minority.

    By the time that St. Benedict came along in the sixth century, social conditions in Europe and Asia had dramatically deteriorated. You wouldn't be speaking metaphorically if you said, of Benedict's time, that the Barbarians were at the gates. The "bar-bar-barians," as the Greeks mockingly named the northern tribes whose language sounded strange to sophisticated Hellenistic ears, literally were at the gates. In fact, they had already breached the gates. Rome had been sacked by the time Benedict was born. What was left of classical civilization was in tatters. And the church was splintered apart, shattered by controversies, schisms and heresies.

    For Benedict, to leave this mess must have felt like jumping overboard a sinking ship. Previous generations of Christian monks had mourned the worldliness of culture and civilization in cahoots with a favored and rich official church and had fled the world for the deserts. Benedict was fleeing a worldliness compounded by chaos in the church and violence everywhere.

    As many early Christians had already discovered by the time Benedict came along, however, it is one thing to flee Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria or even Barbarian hordes, and it is quite another thing to flee "the world." We can change our geography without changing ourselves spiritually. We can trade physical addresses and still have the same baggage, because we carry the world inside of us wherever we go. It is not only the toxins around us in our environment that threaten to kill us but the malignancies within. This is as true of matters of the spirit as of the flesh. The early Christian monks knew this better than anyone.

    More than one early monk bore witness to the fact that the most difficult pilgrimage wasn't over sea and land, but across the rugged terrain of the solitary heart. To be worldly might mean many things, including assessing the value of human life (our own and other human lives) based on how much one acquired and what one controlled: whether the "much" consisted of wealth and possessions, offices, power or authority, knowledge or even external virtues. To be worldly might have to do with dominating others, manipulating others, allowing our souls to become captivated by the forces that diminish creation.

    One might even say that it was the very impulse to keep score (spiritually speaking, to judge others) and to make an image of oneself (spiritually speaking, to worship a false god made of me) that was at the very core of worldliness. This is why pride is the biggest vice of all, and self-righteousness is such a deadly trap. Worldliness often does not look "worldly." Some of the worst aspects of worldliness can be disguised as piety.

    The early Christian monks sought to clear away the clutter in their lives so they could better pay attention to God. They sought to find a place where nothing could distract them from the "real" in distinction from the "illusory," the "eternal" from the "transitory.”

    The earliest monks went into lonely wilderness places so that they could narrow their focus to "God alone" (a phrase that echoes throughout monastic literature and history). Their renunciation of goods was intended to free them so they could face God with open hands. The fasts they undertook and the rigorous lives they lived were intended to discipline them so they would not feast upon one another in anger, jealousy and envy. But try as they might - and many of the early monks gave themselves to the disciplines of silence, solitude, prayer, contemplation, fasting and celibacy for decades upon end - they bore witness to the fact that the world was resident in them although they saw themselves as resident aliens in the world. And they never ceased to wrestle with the world within.

    It is true that a great wealth of wisdom and knowledge was preserved in monasteries, Benedictine and Celtic, through barbaric ages. And while much additional classical wisdom and knowledge, including vital scientific and medical knowledge, only came into Western civilization through Islamic culture, it is important, as Dreher points out, to remember the role Benedictine monasteries, especially on the edges of Europe, played in preserving the culture of the past.

    But this wasn't the purpose of the monasteries. And it wasn't the motive of the monks to preserve a set of values we might describe as "traditional." They sought to focus their entire lives on "God alone," an orientation of life and faith that would as quickly call into question a "traditional value" as it would any other thing that might claim our attention, our loyalty, or our worship. Their motive was not so much to keep the world out, as to discern God in the world.

    For those of us who have long been inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's belief that the time may be upon us for new forms of monasticism that focus our lives upon God alone, it is clear that any such intentional community is also grounded in a worldly Christianity, a faith in a fully incarnate God who created the world in love, never stopped loving it, and refuses to walk through it today holding his divine nose.

  • The Vow of Ongoing Conversion

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 24, 2017

    Ongoing ConversionThe first theological controversy I recall witnessing occurred over the backyard fence at my grandmother's house. She and Lilly Belle, her next-door neighbor, were having a discussion about the difference between Lilly Belle's church, the Redland Methodist Church, and my grandmother's church, the Redland Baptist Church. The two church buildings stood virtually back to back in our little East Texas village, and an outsider would have had a hard time telling them apart. I had often wondered myself why everybody didn't just go to one or the other of them. I had skin in this game because we had family in both.

    "I just don't understand, Cecil, how you Baptists can believe that your salvation doesn't depend on what you do at all." said Lillie Belle.

    "It does," said my grandmother, "but all we do is believe. God does the rest."

    "But the book of James says, 'Faith without works is dead,'" countered Lillie Belle. (These were the days of biblical literacy.)

    "Well, all I know is we believe that once you're saved, you're always saved," answered my grandmother.

    Swinging of garden hoes re-commenced with added vigor. These were formidable women.

    This conversation happened over weeding the garden. I was only a junior partner in the enterprise. And the conversation seemed a lot more interesting to me than the weeding.

    Obviously I have approximated the dialogue, in case you're wondering, but this was the gist of the conversation. Later, over iced tea, I asked my grandmother what the fuss was all about. She told me that Methodists believe you can fall from grace, Baptists don't.

    Several things have stuck with me from that conversation: Our faith is something that regular normal people can talk about. Neighbors can disagree about pretty big questions and still remain neighbors. And doing theology is a lot more fun than weeding the garden, at least it seemed that way to me then.

    Later still, I would be exposed to the distinction between those Christians who believed that conversion is a matter of having a "born again" experience (folks like Billy Graham, whose correspondence course on making a profession of faith I took at twelve) and those who believe that being a Christian is a slow lifelong process of nurture and maturation (like Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, who had been brought up as a Presbyterian). Frankly, I can see a lot of wisdom in both perspectives and can't imagine why one has to exclude the other.

    If I've learned anything in over sixty years of being a Protestant it is that they are wrong who say that "only good wood splits," and Protestants have become expert rail splitters. I wish we were as good at coming together as we are at going our own way. I truly am concerned that we will reach the point sociologist Robert Bellah once predicted when every single Protestant Christian will be a denomination to himself or herself.

    It was much later still in my life since the conversation between my grandmother and her neighbor that I came across another perspective on conversion that I've found to be very helpful. While it is perhaps less familiar to those of us who were brought up as Protestants (and may be unfamiliar to a lot of Catholics too), it is a cornerstone of the Benedictine and Cistercian monastic orders: the vow of the "ongoing conversion of manners" ("conversatio morum"). Thomas Merton has said that this is "the most mysterious of the three vows" monks take.

    Whereas the monastic "vow of stability" binds the monk to live and die in the particular monastery they enter, the "vow of ongoing conversion" is a promise that the monk will submit himself to a continuing process of change in light of God's grace, what Esther de Waal describes as "a commitment to total inner transformation." As she explains further: "Ultimately this is nothing more and nothing less than commitment to Christ's call to follow him, whatever that may mean." [Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 1984), p. 70.]

    More than merely a recognition of the inevitability of change in our lives, and more even than promising not to resist change when it comes, this vow represents a personal, individual devotion to change and to keep on changing as God keeps increasing our understanding of God, of others, and (perhaps most importantly) of ourselves. It reflects St. Paul's commitment to die daily so that he might continue to rise to new life in Christ.

    I find at least three things especially remarkable about this vow.

    First, it assumes that none of us has arrived.

    Second, it assumes that changing and growing is not unlike dying, which none of us really want to do.

    And third, it assumes that it is so hard to stay with this course of action it requires our taking a vow in the presence of the whole community to make us stick with it.

    I think the first point is pretty easy to recognize. None of us has arrived. Our redemption is wholly God's business, into which God invites us to participate. And we all know we've got a long way to go.

    One afternoon over drinks in a pub, an old friend, who was trying to make a point about sanctification, said to me, "I KNOW I'M A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH!" We both were probably on our second pint of Old Peculiar because I blurted out, "No. You're not a diamond in the rough, Bruce. You're a chunk of coal, and God's got a long way to go with a lot of heat and pressure before you're a diamond." We stayed good friends, but I seem to remember having to buy the next round.

    The image of the refiner's fire in scripture is disturbing, perhaps. Maybe we resist imagining that God will burn away the dross to render us pure. But, as someone has said, "Aren't there things about you that you long for God to burn away?" As a Protestant I may not recognize Purgatory as a place, but I surely recognize purgation as necessary to my ongoing conversion.

    This image reminds us that change, conversion, transformation are not painless. Transformation can hurt, sometimes a great deal. Conversion means turning from one thing into another. The humanity to which we are called lies on the other side of a multitude of daily deaths and a multitude of resurrections. New life lies on the other side of the holy fire of God's love.

    I remember sitting with my grandmother as she lay dying. This was the same grandmother who long before argued theology with Lilly Belle. My grandmother possessed a simple but deep and abiding faith in God. At one point, she said, "Oh honey, I just hate this dying. Being dead will be fine. I know I'll get to be with your granddaddy again. But, oh, this dying is awfully hard."

    So it is. The apostle knew this. When he inserts the reality of dying into the middle of Christian living, he takes seriously what he says. Dying is hard. It is frequently painful. It can be frightening.

    This often comes to mind when I meet our newest students in the seminary. They are almost always eager and excited. Usually their greatest apprehensions are about learning the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. But the real trepidation ought to be: To what shall I be asked to die in order to live more fully in Christ? As C.S. Lewis once observed, we all know that God will do the very best for us; we're just worried about how much the very best for us will hurt. The whole Christian life is like this, and not just once or twice. It is every day.

    Finally, the seriousness of this whole business requires that we take the most solemn, sacred vows imaginable and stick with them.

    I often think of something said in that marvelous play, "A Man for All Seasons." In the play, Sir Thomas More is pitted against King Henry VIII who is splitting with the Roman Catholic Church because they won't let him divorce and remarry. The king desperately wants More to go along with him, because More is known for his integrity. But More's conscience won't allow him to discard the vow he has previously made to satisfy the king's wishes.

    More is being badgered by his friends and family to go back on his vow in order to save his life. But More tells them, when you make a vow, you are making a promise to God. It is as though you hold your immortal soul in your hand. Can we expect a person to hold this lightly, casually? Vows aren't just pretty words you say on special occasions, they have eternal consequences.

    I can understand why we would have to be bound by sacred promises to submit our lives to continuing, costly, ongoing conversion, to "total inner transformation." Every day, what courage it will take to rise from our beds knowing that God will place in our paths opportunities to be changed forever; knowing, every evening when we lie down, that God will be ready again tomorrow morning to lead us to face we know not what. Surrendering ourselves not just to a single moment when our ticket is forever stamped, agreeing not just to try to be a better person, but vowing to die in Christ and arise anew each day.

    Of course, this vow which Benedictines and Cistercians take is already embedded in the vows we all take in our baptism. Baptism is an enactment of this vow.

    The next time we attend a baptism, just notice in the midst of the joyful celebration of the family, the beauty of the newborn baby and the pride of his or her family, just notice amid the lace and the water and the music, what is said in the vows. The promise to follow Jesus is there. So is death. So, also, resurrection. We promise God never to stop being changed by him.

  • The Hidden Beginning

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 23, 2017

    Hidden BeginningDriving along wooded byways, it is not unusual to come across a sign that says something like "Caution: Hidden Entrance Ahead." And, sure enough, I have periodically been startled by the appearance of the hood of a pickup truck peeking out between tall hedges as I careened around a curve.

    Consider this essay as such a signpost on the byways of Protestantism.

    Warning: Hidden Beginnings

    If there is anything we tend to miss as Protestant Christians it is the hidden entrances and beginnings of the faith we hold. This can be taken to extremes.

    When I was a boy, I went to my pastor to enlist his help in working on the Boy Scout's God and Country award.* My childhood pastor was a fine man and a very good minister, and I have admired him all of my life. He read the material I gave him on how to earn the Protestant award, but then he told me that there was a serious problem with the award. He said something to this effect: "Mike, we aren't Protestants. We aren't protesting against anything. Baptists go all the way back to the beginning of the church. Even when the church strayed from time to time, there have always been Baptists." Then he gave me a copy of a book that taught that Baptists can be traced through a "trail of blood" through the history of the church, not only back to Jesus, but to John the Baptist.

    Now, however wonderful my pastor was, his doctrine was, of course, simply historically inaccurate. "The trail of blood" was a mythology. What we call the Baptist movement today dates from the English separatists of the seventeenth century, not from the first. And although I never stopped admiring my pastor, it was decided that I couldn't proceed with the God and Country award because there wasn't an appropriate award for our church.

    The "trail of blood" mythology my pastor taught had one thing going for it, however. It did try to connect the Protestantism of today (and I apologize, Brother Bob, but Baptists are Protestants, too) with the centuries of Christianity that went before the Reformation. Among the problems we face as Protestants today, one of the gravest is the inclination to think that "our church" (in my case, the Presbyterian or Reformed branch of Protestantism) began in the sixteenth century when, in fact, the reformers themselves were very clear that they were reforming the Christian Church which was already then sixteen centuries old.

    When, as a seminary student, I was introduced to the full spectrum of the church's history, I was astonished by the range of experiences, beliefs, and wisdom that poured out of the abundant treasure chest of this (our!!!) rich, rich church history. Suddenly, I saw that the saints, sages and scholars of the Ancient Catholic Church, of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and of Roman Catholicism all around the world were our ancestors and our conversation partners just as much as were the Protestant reformers. And, in time, I came to realize that through the gift of faith, I also could say to my children, "We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand." (Deuteronomy 6:21)

    I suppose I've never gotten over the astonishment of that experience. It has only grown.

    What a gift to realize that Gregory of Nyssa is as much a part of our Christian family tree as St. Paul, John Calvin or Elizabeth Johnson, or that John Bunyan can be read alongside Lady Julian of Norwich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And what an opportunity to draw upon the insights of Abraham Heschel as well as Thomas Merton. Christianity didn't begin in the sixteenth century with a German Augustinian teacher named Martin Luther. It began in the life and teachings of a Palestinian Jew who never ceased being a Jew. And the faith our founder represents, despite our worst efforts, is about breaking down the walls that alienate us from one another and from God, not about reinforcing them or (God forbid) erecting new ones.

    As I am writing these words, in anticipation of various Protestant celebrations around the world that will culminate in late October, it is actually still summer, and I am sitting not in my office on the campus of a Presbyterian seminary, but in a small room in the Retreat House of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside Conyers, Georgia. I am the guest of this community of Cistercian monks who spend their lives seeking to praise God, to work faithfully in their fields and in the chapel, and to live according to a set of disciplines that are more than fifteen hundred years old. They have welcomed me graciously and allowed me to pray beside them in the choir and to receive the blessing of their abbot at Compline each evening before we retire. They and their brothers at Gethsemani Abbey have taught me to learn from some Christian ancestors who were, until meeting them, only vague names on the pages of history books, ancestors like John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And they have taught me practices of faith that can nurture the "prospective aspect of redemption" of which I wrote in the previous essay.

    Today, as I watch the soft rain fall on the garden below and the wooded hills beyond, I am reminded once more of the vastness of the being of God to whom our little ways bear witness. If our Protestant Christian faith works to make our minds broader and our hearts more generous, then it has performed well its function as a doorway to faith in God. But if it closes us off into ever smaller ways of believing in ever smaller gods, thus making us smaller of mind and heart, then it and we have failed.

    As we celebrate the Reformation, I think this is worth bearing in mind.

    The world, after all, is not waiting and longing to hear about the history of our various denominations; the people of this world are waiting and longing to hear about the way of life that lies beyond the hidden beginning of this faith.

    So, let's do enjoy the celebration of the Reformation by all means. Everybody loves a good party. But remember, this celebration pales in contrast to the one we get to have every year on Pentecost Sunday!

    * Now, parenthetically, I just want to say something about the Boy Scouts of America, even at the risk of chasing a rabbit into the tall grass. I loved scouting and was active in it from Tenderfoot to Explorer. I am an Eagle Scout. Order of the Arrow. I learned some of the most fundamental lessons of life from scouting. I learned reverence, tolerance, and openness to people who are not like me. There were gay scouts in our troop and they were respected. They were friends and fellow scouts. I learned respect for the faiths of others also. That's ultimately what the God and Country program was all about: teaching us religious literacy both of our own faiths and the faiths of others. I have grieved in recent years at the struggles this organization has had in finding its way back to its own core values, and I continue to hope that it will not fall victim to the polarized politics so common in so many corners of our society.

  • Mountains of Solitude

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 13, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Mountains of Solitude

    "Better the thousandth in love," wrote Evagrius Ponticus, "than one alone with hate in inaccessible caves." His warning was to monks, hermits long ago living in seclusion in desert places, but his proverb deserves our attention today.

    Evagrius understood, as he intimates in another of his proverbs, that living in solitude with love will purify a person's heart, but living alone with hatred only corrupts and agitates. To allow our memories to cling to grievances is like covering a fire with a pile of dry wood chips; eventually a conflagration is bound to break out. His advice is both spiritually sound and psychologically astute.*

    Evagrius received his theological education from Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus (two of the three theologians of the fourth century known collectively as the Cappadocian Fathers; they were largely the source for the third article of the Nicene Creed, on the Holy Spirit). Evagrius served as a deacon under Gregory in Constantinople. He was forced to flee Constantinople under a cloud of scandal involving a woman who is believed to have been connected to the imperial court. Eventually Evagrius became a monk in the deserts of Egypt where he was discipled by both Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria.

    Evagrius seems to have fled not only the shipwreck of Byzantine society, but the shipwreck of his own life.** But perhaps in this he demonstrated the fullness of God's providence because Evagrius brought to the desert a first-rate theological mind and the keen analytical intuition of a psychologist. And he turned both of these resources to the service of spiritual direction for the benefit of all those who sought God in solitude.

    In some past blogs I have dwelt on specific teachings which Evagrius shared, but in today's essay I would like to consider a larger subject. I want us to reflect on the origins and value of spiritual direction.

    One often hears, especially among some Protestant Christians, talk about the recent popularity of spiritual direction, as though it is a new thing. It is also common, in these circles, to hear complaints about the relative poverty in Protestantism of resources related to spiritual direction. Only gradually have Protestants discovered that the history of Christian spiritual direction stretches over some two millennia and always has been, in the largest sense, a catholic issue, that is, a matter of importance throughout the universal church, East and West.

    How one explores one's relationship with God, with creation, and with other persons, how one grows and matures in faith, how one engages in practices, corporate and individual, which nourish the life of the Spirit, and how one learns to resist those forces that erode one's spiritual life and one's humanity: these have been matters of spiritual direction since the earliest days of Christianity. And because spiritual direction operates at the junction of the most personal aspects of human life (emotions, thought, behavior, and relationships), it has always drawn upon sources of wisdom that cross all sorts of boundaries: theological and ritual, psychological and philosophical, ethical and political, to mention only a few. The pattern for spiritual direction was set early in the church by Evagrius Ponticus and another theologian who also spent considerable time in the wilderness of Egypt: John Cassian (c. 365-435 AD).

    Colm Luibheid, in his preface to the "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of John Cassian's Conferences, sums up the core task of spiritual direction as he introduces readers to Cassian:

    "For in his way John Cassian is someone responding as he can to the old problem of what to make of the life one has. And that problem in its turn rests on the deeper one of making sense of whatever reality we have happened to meet. Is reality deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptual capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? The old question refuses to go away. It nags and worries. ... Can this be all of it?" (Luibheid, Cassian, p. xii)***

    Spiritual direction is about learning to live a genuinely human life alongside a wise companion. It concerns the big questions of life's meaning and purpose. That's why it touches on every aspect of human feeling, thought and behavior.

    Spiritual living is living with the "whence," the "why" and the "wherefore" of existence clearly in mind. Spiritual living is living mindful of the origins, terminus and ultimate ends of human life. Spiritual living is living with care and compassion. This is why spiritual direction begins not with a set of rules or a template that all must follow but with the person in direction, wherever that person finds herself or himself.

    Cassian and Evagrius entered into the way of the desert. They shared in the wilderness and spoke from within the experiences of the hermits and anchorites themselves. They understood that the monastics whom we call Desert Fathers were "located" emotionally, psychologically and theologically in the wilderness, as well as just geographically in a desert. These men and women were wagering with their whole lives that everything one sees in this world is an outward sign of an inward reality, that creation is a sort of vast sacrament through which God communicates life and nourishment and meaning with humanity. They believed that we cannot know this deep reality unless we cut ourselves off from everything that distracts us.

    In one of his most moving passages, John Cassian tells us that human beings can see God face-to-face, but only if they go off with him into "the high mountain of solitude." Only in solitude can we be liberated from "the entire swirl of worldly considerations, of worldly disturbances." (Cassian, Conferences, 10:6).

    Owen Chadwick, in his Introduction to this same edition, comments of Cassian's "method," if it may be called that. Chadwick writes:

    "The soul seeks the ultimate unity or oneness of the world, which is conceived variously as a spiritual or an intellectual entity. The soul seeks this One, which is permanence, unity, foundation of the universe, Being beyond all being, ultimate Mind. Its method of seeking is to strip itself of all distractions that turn the attention to anything lower in the scale of value, that is, everything not the One." (Chadwick, Cassian, p. 3).

    One may debate why Cassian felt it necessary to turn attention away from that which is all around us in creation in order to seek the One (if, that is, the One contains all things in its Oneness).**** But we cannot argue, really, with the logic that the various distractions surrounding us do have a way of preventing us from looking more deeply into reality.

    We have found so many ways to drown-out whatever we don't wish to bring to consciousness; even the most ordinary facts of life (for instance, death) go largely unacknowledged, ignored, or denied as facts within our personal experiences. Somehow most of us live as though suffering and death are common facts of life for "other people," but we act as though an exception will be made in our case.

    Anyone who has dedicated time to solitude and silence attending to one's heart knows the terrors which lie therein - and the potential for grace. In solitude and silence one is confronted with one's failures and flaws. They rise up before us in the forms of regret and guilt. But, surrounded by God's mercy, while encountering our sin, we also can know the freedom that only love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness make possible. In solitude and silence one allows reality's chickens to come home to roost - including the personal consciousness of death - but in a context in which we are able to entrust what we are to the hands of God.

    What we find in such solitude and silence is the "space" to sort out our souls in the presence of God. We find space to differentiate between realities, illusions and delusions, to let go of the obsessions and anxieties and the clinging that characterize life unskillfully lived, and to recover compassion for ourselves which, in the secret places of our hearts, is transformed into compassion for others. And it is here, in what Louisville Seminary's own Lewis Sherrill called "the struggle of the soul," that we sense our need for a companion in our spiritual quest.

    As Cassian and Evagrius teach us, we need someone to remind us of the truths we know and to make us attentive of the falsehoods that trip us up. We need someone to keep us personally mindful of the realities of which we are only generally aware. We need someone to encourage us when courage is thin on the ground. We need someone we trust to go with us into the wilderness. This is why we need spiritual direction.

    The greatest spiritual athletes of all time needed that. Certainly we can do with no less.

    *Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399 AD) has often been compared to the Stoic philosophers because of the austere sanity of his advice. His thought is similar especially to that of Epictetus (c. 50-135 AD). Both taught the value of attaining an equanimity that cannot be shaken by life's inevitable ups and downs. But in several of his monastic proverbs, Evagrius arguably is even more like the Buddha (c. 563 - 483 BC), whose teachings established a psychology and a philosophy that nourish the life of the spirit. One of Buddha's most familiar teachings (though often attributed to more recent thinkers) is very similar to Evagrius' "Ad Monachas" 8-10, cited above. Buddha said: "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."

    **There is no better starting point for understanding Evagrius than the volume of his writings in the "Ancient Christian Writers" series published by Newman Press (New York, 2003). Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, translates Evagrius for this volume; he also provides an excellent introduction and commentary.

    ***The "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of Cassian's Conferences (Paulist Press, 1985) is a joy to read. The combination of Luidheid's translation and his brief but eloquent preface and Owen Chadwick's superb introduction make this one of the most valuable volumes in this respected series. One can easily see why Cassian had such a huge influence on the development of monasticism, and why Christians continue to turn to him for wisdom.

    ****The Neo-Platonic worldview saturates the mysticism of the theologians of this period, though it is a Neo-Platonism baptized into Christian faith and subtly transformed particularly through the influence of the early Christian theologian, Origen. Hans Urs Von Balthasar observed that, "there is no thinker in the church who is so invisibly all present as Origen." [Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (Crossroad: New York, 1991), p. 130.] This is doubly true of the fourth century, though one can trace Origen's influence throughout the medieval period; and forms of Platonic idealism are stamped even on modern devotional writers like C.S. Lewis, and to some degree on theologians such as Karl Barth. How to conceptualize reality's ultimate oneness in spite of its apparent divisions and oppositions without resorting to Platonic idealism has remained a challenge for Christian theology and spirituality to the present day. But it is possible.

  • The Neglected Redemption

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2017

    Neglected RedemptionOne of the great insights of the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell was that the dominant Christianity of his native Scotland had reduced the meaning of redemption merely to a release from the penalties of sin. He called this the retrospective aspect of the atonement in contrast to redemption's prospective aspect.

    The distinction he made is crucial. It is one thing to want to be delivered from the consequences of our sin (retrospectively) and quite another to yearn to be delivered from the prevailing power of sin in our lives (prospectively).

    This neglect of the full range of redemption is perhaps the besetting sin of the Protestant Reformation (especially as envisioned by Martin Luther). Although John Calvin, a second-generation Reformer, worked valiantly to correct this problem, for centuries his descendants would continue to emphasize the retrospective at the expense of the prospective, especially because of the way this perspective was codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

    McLeod Campbell, as a young pastor in the town of Rhu, west of Glasgow, even went so far as to question whether it amounted to Christian faith at all just to ask God to save us from hellfire and damnation. If we are only adhering to a set of beliefs in order to save our lives, in the hope that adherence to a creed serves as a kind of everlasting fire insurance, then we are surely missing the core of the teachings of Jesus who taught, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35) So said McLeod Campbell.

    McLeod Campbell paid dearly for his departure from the Presbyterian orthodoxy of his day. He was tried for heresy and deposed from ministry while in his early thirties, going on to labor for the remainder of his long life, serving the needs of the poorest of the poor in the slums of Glasgow. But he never swerved from his teachings.

    According to John McLeod Campbell, God is the ultimate loving parent whose heart's deepest will is for us to share God's own Spirit of love and life. Christ came to earth to empower the children of God to know and to live the love of God, showing us the way of life for which we were intended and sharing with us the Holy Spirit who would make that divine love possible in our own hearts. God does not suffer from a split personality, demanding the satisfaction of his furious anger with a sacrifice of blood to "make" God merciful. Rather, from the heart of the divine parent comes the eternal child of God who lived God's life of love among humanity and was slain by humanity in its fear, ignorance, pride and vanity. In the unjust death of Jesus, we look into the very heart of the triune God. And there we see divine love beyond all measure in God's mercy and refusal to retaliate. In Jesus of Nazareth we also see the life of a human being lived the way God wants us all to live. And we are drawn by the life of Jesus Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit of God to live the human life for which we were created.

    Jesus Christ is not, in McLeod Campbell's view, just a piece of a theological puzzle. Jesus Christ is not just another cog in a theological machine; just another doctrinal ingredient in a vast interlocking system of theological propositions. Jesus Christ is the love and life of God in human flesh. Christ's teachings about the life we are called to live matter as much as the life he lived. And the life Jesus lived matters as much as the divine mission on which he was sent, to unite in himself humanity and God.

    The proof, we say, is in the pudding. The life lived by McLeod Campbell argues more eloquently for the faith he held than anything he might have said.

    When, at his trial before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the full force of the most radical interpretation of federal theology within the Westminster Confession of Faith was brought to bear to condemn him, McLeod Campbell appealed to the verse of scripture that many of us learned first as children: "God is love." The point he wanted to make was that God is love, fully and eternally in his being; God does not merely love arbitrarily this person, whom God created to demonstrate his capacity to love, while eternally and arbitrarily God hates that person whom he created for no other purpose than to demonstrate his capacity to punish sin with eternal damnation. But when McLeod Campbell appealed to the Bible, quoting the Epistle of First John, his interlocutors cried foul. It was, they said, out of order to quote scripture at his trial before the General Assembly because the church had previously determined that the Westminster Confession definitively provided the interpretation of what the Bible means.

    McLeod Campbell's defense rested in his assurance that God would provide, no matter what his church decided. And when McLeod Campbell was declared a heretic and was deposed from preaching any longer in the Church of Scotland, rather than establish a rival denomination or wage a holy war against those with whom he differed, he simply turned his attention to the needs of others. By living among and serving those in great want, he sought to live the life to which Christ had called him. In those years McLeod Campbell wrote extensively, including what many consider the greatest book on the atonement of his time. And his thought was spread abroad influencing the next several generations of young ministers and theologians in his church, so much so, that before the end of his life, the Church of Scotland officially repented of its action in deposing him as a heretic.

    The Protestantism into which many of us were born and which has nurtured us throughout our lives has given us many great gifts. But as we observe this year the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement, and as we remember the significance of Martin Luther's great insight that "justification is by grace through faith," often rendered as "justification by faith alone," it is appropriate to remember that this doctrine is not the whole, it is not the entirety, it is not the comprehensive measure of the message of Jesus Christ.

    Not only are we released from the consequences of sin (retrospectively) by the grace of God, we also are called (prospectively) to live in the Spirit of Christ as we go forward. The retrospective view of redemption shows us only in part the magnitude of God's grace. To understand the wonder of that grace in full we must look forward, following Christ into the humanity to which he calls us, whatever the consequences may be.

  • A Nation of Laws

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2017

    Editor's note: This special post of "Thinking Out Loud" is in response to the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Louisville Seminary extends its prayers to the victims and families of this heinous crime.

    "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." (Isaiah 2:4) NIV

    A Nation of LawsOne thing you can tell about us Texans of a certain vintage is that we grew up on Westerns. I suppose I learned some important lessons from those television shows. But the most important lesson I learned didn't come from a show. It came from my dad one night while we were watching a Western together. It might have been Bonanza, with Adam, Hoss, Little Joe, and Pa. Or The Rifleman. Or The Virginian. Maybe Wagon Train, with my father's favorite actor, Ward Bond. Or Have Gun Will Travel.

    As a boy, I thought it was pretty cool seeing a cowboy saunter down the dusty street, a handgun in its leather holster strapped to his leg, and the gun belt slung low around his jeans. So I asked my dad, "Why don't we still wear guns like that?"

    It was not an unnatural question. I lived in a house where the traditions of hunting were hallowed. My father, in his prime, owned several beautiful rifles, and we always had venison in the freezer. I was given my first air rifle at six, my first shotgun at twelve, and my first real rifle a year or two later. I grew up around guns. So, I was curious. "Why don't we still wear guns like the cowboys in the movies?"

    My dad, a Republican and the proud hunter that he was, answered: "Because we are a nation of laws. That was the frontier. It was lawless. But you can tell when a town got civilized. The police and the sheriff's department had guns, so regular cowboys didn't need to carry them anymore. People could go about their ordinary business safely. And you could tell a cowboy who meant to cause trouble pretty quickly if he insisted on carrying a gun."

    My dad had a keen respect for law and a love for the U.S. Constitution, both of which I inherited. And I recall him teaching me that no right is absolute. He used to say that my rights stopped at the end of my nose. (Did I mention he was an old-fashioned Barry Goldwater Republican?) And, as much as he loved the law, the Constitution, and a beautifully crafted gun, he would never accept the notion that the unlimited, unrestricted, and unregulated ownership of firearms is guaranteed by the Constitution. There are no absolute rights in the Constitution. They are all held in balance with other rights. It galled him that ordinary Americans had to submit themselves to metal detectors at courthouses and airports. And it appalled him that we have failed as a nation to institute sensible gun control to keep our society at least moderately safe from the kind of madness we witnessed most recently in Las Vegas. Clearly someone has decided that their rights don't stop at the end of one's nose.

    This is a dangerous world, and it will never be safe from every sort of peril. I know that, and so do you. But we still have laws to limit speeds, control certain drugs, and even limit speech in some situations, though the right of free speech is also guaranteed in the Constitution.

    Personally, I love to shoot, especially clay pigeons. I have a hard time recalling many afternoons when I was a teen that didn't involve at least target shooting. And I am committed to our nation maintaining a properly regulated militia (which, incidentally, doesn't mean a lot of camouflage-clad nuts and radicals who appoint themselves "militia men" and spend their weekends in the woods shooting off their mouths as well as their Uzis). Our militia is our National Guard.

    I would gladly melt down every weapon I have ever used, owned or touched if we could bring back even one of the lives lost in Las Vegas last weekend, or in Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, or Baltimore last week, or Sandy Hook, South Beach, or any of the other mass shootings and terror attacks that haunt our memories and cast a pall over our days. I know, like a lot of gun enthusiasts, that there is no Constitutional reason why we can't have rational gun laws; and there is every reason, not least for the safety and health of our citizens, that we should have them.

    This isn't a partisan issue. It does not have to divide us. We are a nation of laws.

  • The Green Frog Cafe

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 03, 2017

    The Green Frog Cafe

    "Old men with beer guts and dominoes lying about their lives while they played," sings the Guy Clark song, "Desperados Waiting for a Train." Every time I hear it, I remember my grandfather and our hometown's version of "The Green Frog Cafe" from Clark's song.

    The air inside was thick with the smoke of cigarettes and cheap cigars and the heavy smell of bacon grease and coffee as thick as creosote. Playing in the corner was an old Wurlitzer jukebox with a permanent skip in Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." The brown-and-white striped tin awning that hung out over the windows contrasted with the faded grey of its clapboard siding. There was no business sign. Those who came in knew it was a cafe. It was the sort of place I suppose that doesn't exist anymore. And it stood fifty years ago approximately where the driveway into the HEB grocery store now stands in Lufkin, Texas.

    It was the sort of place you'd never take a child. Except my sainted grandfather did.

    We would walk in, sit at a table and order coffee for him, and a Yoo-hoo and buttered toast for me. I liked the waitresses because they always called us "Honey" and "Sugar" and smiled and smelled nice. Coming to the cafe was a special treat for me because they had genuine factory-made Concord grape jelly in little sealed plastic packets on the tables. I was a country boy, and all I ever got at home was homemade strawberry and blackberry jams, Mayhaw jelly and fig preserves. I felt deprived not getting the factory stuff at home.

    My grandfather came by the cafe most days on the way home after finishing his rural mail route. If I wasn't in school, I got to go with him on his route. We stopped at nearly every country store along the way for a soda-water and gossip.

    Goolie's country store was always the first stop on Route 3. My grandmother made fun of Goolie's family saying they were so country that they ate "taters, maters and nanner puddin'" which sounded good to me and was probably the menu many nights at our house, too. I liked Goolie okay, but I liked his daughter, Wanda, a lot more. She was my first girlfriend. Second grade. Which means that we held hands during the hygiene and civil defense films at school.

    Anyway, back to the Green Frog. We'd sit and talk, my grandfather and me, about serious things. My grandfather never talked down to me. But he also didn't talk to me the same way he talked to the men at the other tables. I noticed that. It was on visits like these that my grandfather would line up musicians to get together to play. He was a natural musician. Fiddle, guitar, accordion, piano. He never met an instrument he couldn't master in a rainy afternoon. He sang a nice tenor he called Irish, though he was a Scot. With a name like Bonnie Corley Fenley, you can't fool anyone about where you came from.

    One of these musical events stands out from all the others. One very ordinary weekday afternoon, we pulled up to a frame house on the outskirts of town. Other cars and trucks were pulling up about the same time. We parked my grandfather's old pickup truck on a long sandy drive. Behind the house was a small frame outbuilding off the side of a carport. It was so decrepit it looked like it should have fallen down years ago. But inside, I swear, was heaven: a room full of guitar players, fiddlers, and accordion players, all warming up. Laughing. Joking. My grandfather had a fiddle case under one arm, a guitar case in one hand, and an accordion case in the other. A weathered piano that looked and sounded like it had survived the great Galveston hurricane leaned against a wall.

    I have played in a lot of bands. Good bands. Jazz, blues, R&B, rock, and country. And I've attended some great concerts headlined by everybody from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to Chicago, to George Harrison, to the Band of Heathen. But I have never experienced music that could compete with what happened in that shack.

    There wasn't a sheet of music in the room. Music just poured out of these guys and their instruments like they were breathing. The music flowed from one to the other, back and forth, like communication, but deeper somehow. They changed keys as though they shared a single mind, maybe a single heart, beating out music. They'd laugh trying to catch each other not paying attention, but they couldn't. I suspect that every band I've ever played in, I was just trying to recapture the joy of that experience.

    At the time I didn't know it, but I was getting my first lesson in the subtle reaches of Trinitarian Christian theology. Or maybe it was my first lesson in reality. And perhaps it takes a whole life to unwrap what we are accidentally taught as children.

    What I felt there in that shack was that somehow the best thing in the whole wide world is a roomful of people making music together, playing off each other, respecting each other, loving what they were doing and what they were making together, enjoying the music that flowed among them, that came out of them and entered into one another and freely flowed to anyone listening. And that, my friends, is what the heady doctrine of the Trinity is trying to say in human languages far less eloquent than what was spoken by the guitars and fiddles of the denizens of the Green Frog Cafe.

    High-flying Greek terms like perichoresis have been drafted into Christian theology to describe the subtle interplay of divine being originating in the one person of the triune God and returned to another, first penetrating, then merging, blending without confusion, like streams of sparkling water or rivers of rich hot blood, giving life and love to all that is. But for me, it will always be the music that says it best without resorting to words.

    Anyone who has ever had the privilege to improvise with other musicians will know what I mean. But I do wish you could have heard those old guys from the Green Frog Cafe who played us into the presence of the mystery of the world in a buddy's derelict shack on a very ordinary afternoon.

  • Zen Masters of the Ancient Church

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Zen Masters of the Ancient Church

    They fled civilization, they said, like sailors abandoning a sinking ship. At first they fled social disdain and sporadic persecution - regarded as early Christians were as atheists by the denizens of the Roman world whose taste for gods was omnivorous and insatiable.

    By the mid-fourth century, however, they were fleeing a nominally Christian empire in which their church had won the status of legal recognition, but had lost something far more precious. If anything, the church's newly sanctioned status only provided new impetus to these men and women who had come to believe that their hope lay far beyond the horizons of history, even though history appeared to be running in favor of the officially sanctioned Church at that moment.

    While many Christians made peace with the world, the men and women who left behind the great cities of the ancient world to live as hermits in the deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt believed that only by separating themselves from society could they follow Jesus.*

    Sister Benedicta Ward writes in the introduction of her superb edition of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003):

    "Detachment from selfish concerns was always of the essence for Christianity. The invitation of Jesus to the young ruler, 'Go, sell all you have ... and come and follow me' (Luke 18:22) provided a central theme for Christians in the first three centuries; it was seen as the most direct way of discipleship, the surest way to learn what it meant to be with Jesus before the face of the Father. ... [T]he phrase 'Maranatha, even so come, Lord Jesus' (Rev. 22:20) was not a vague hope but an immediate and joyful expression; 'Let grace come and this world pass away,' Christians said in their corporate prayer at the Eucharist." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. viii)

    Dr. Ward goes on to quote a visitor to Egypt who, in the fourth century, observed that hardly a village or town could be found that was not ringed by hermitages where these early ascetics waited in the desert for Jesus to return, like loyal children waiting for their parents to come home from the fields.

    Their names resound through the spiritual traditions of the Eastern church: Macarius the Egyptian and Amoun of Nitria, Arsenius of Rome and Agathon; the beloved Moses of Ethiopia, who was one of the most revered of all the hermits; Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute in Alexandria who fled to the deserts of Palestine; Poemen, renowned for his gentleness and grace; and, of course, Antony the Great, the best known of all the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) because he was the subject of the first Christian biography (by St. Athanasius of Alexandria).

    They were virtually all laypersons, these hermits and monks. Most were uneducated, with very few notable exceptions (such as Arsenius, a highly educated Roman of senatorial rank). Though they were hermits, they did favor one another's company upon occasion, for instance, when seeking advice or table fellowship. Their cryptic acts and sayings resemble more closely those of the ancient Zen masters than they do the doings and writings of medieval Christian mystics. Some could be coarse and abrupt in their social engagements, even toward other monks; others were startlingly gentle, as when Poemen responds to the question, "What do you do when a brother monk falls asleep during public prayer?" he says, "I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. xvi)

    The Desert Fathers (and Mothers) did not invent monasticism itself. Solitude, silence, celibacy, prayer, poverty and contemplation were firmly established religious practices before the Christian faith came along, and there were already people living lives devoted to these disciplines. But the Desert Fathers did baptize these practices, and they demonstrated how they could serve the way of Jesus. They also inspired their own theologians, Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian, thinkers of the highest rank who provided guidance useful to the practice of the faith in their time, and who laid the groundwork for virtually every religious order that the Church would know from the followers of Benedict of Nursia to the contemplative monastics of Christianity today.

    The Desert Fathers excelled at what I call "wisdom spirituality." They sought in solitude and through conversation with one another how to live as God would have them live. Their teachings often possess a proverbial and pragmatic feel, as we see in a conversation between Pambo and Antony the Great: Pambo asked Antony how he should live his life, to which Antony replied, "Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. 3)

    Their teachings often could be characterized as advice. But, if so, it was advice of a peculiar kind, advice intended to school a person in the way of Jesus, advice meant to form and nurture particular qualities of life in the Christian, advice intended to increase the follower's dis-ease with this world while it sought to heal the follower's spiritual disease. The qualities the Desert Fathers sought to nurture in themselves and among one another ran against the currents of the third and fourth centuries as surely as they run counter to those of contemporary society. They did not seek to provide comfort, but discomfort, for the sake of nurturing the gospel.

    One hermit is said to have taught that we should pray for God to give us "inner grief of heart" and "humility." He assumed that gaining the virtue of humility will be painful. Indeed, humility, which is essential to being a follower of Jesus can only really be nurtured by the loss of a false image of ourselves. Losing one's good reputation can be, according to the Desert Fathers, a good thing. To be unjustly shamed was seen as a gateway to authentic humility, provided one does not attempt to recover the good opinion of others. This same hermit also discouraged his listeners from entering into argument with others on controversial issues. The drive to win arguments with others, which can trump mercy toward others, must be driven from our hearts if we are to follow Jesus. It is simply too easy to stake out a position which we will defend "come what may," a position that requires us to nail our ensign to the mast and to keep our guns blazing until the antagonist is crushed into submission. If someone tries to tempt us into arguing, the hermit teaches, we must just listen. If the person says something edifying, say, "Yes." If he "speaks ill," don't fight back. Just say, "I don't know anything about that." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. 7)

    The wisdom of the Desert Fathers invites us to sanity. That is why it seems so strange. And it does this so that our lives might be prepared to respond more readily to the movement of the Spirit among us. The Desert Fathers encourage us to seek solitude and silence so that we will not allow ourselves to be distracted from our own spiritual quandary. Only in solitude and silence is there room to see ourselves for who we are and to open ourselves to the grace of God. Crowds, noise, and busy-ness ensure that we will be distracted from our spiritual tasks. In contrast, the Desert Fathers encourage us to slow down, not just to "smell the roses" but to discern the presence of God among us, in one another, in creation, and in ourselves.

    Their teachings challenged conventional logic as much as conventional notions of respectable living. They were deliberately bewildering, at times maddeningly paradoxical in their statements. They assumed that there are no straight lines when it comes to divine wisdom; God's genius for living bends with the weight of the gravity of God's grace, its fractal borders are shockingly uneven. At times the Desert Fathers appear quite insane, but this is because they are possessed by the supra-rational madness of God.

    One hermit affirms the biblical teaching that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), but goes on to notice how often the wood God tries to burn is wet through-and-through, and try as we might to get the fire going, all we get is smoke in our eyes.

    Another hermit, named Sylvanus, describes a vision he has had. It terrified him. In his vision he was transported to the judgment seat of God where he saw many worldly sinners being accepted into heaven while many holy hermits took the down elevator. Utterly confused and disheartened, it is said that Sylvanus retired to his dwelling and only rarely emerged ever after.**

    And to a group of hermits who came to Macarius the Great seeking wisdom, he told them simply to "Flee." But when they said they had already fled to the desert from the world, he placed his finger upon his lips and said, "Flee this."

    Such teachings awaken in the listener the awareness that wisdom is something one must seek, and seek, and seek, again and again. Wisdom requires dying daily, living in conscious awareness of our brokenness and mortality, yet soaked in grace. Wisdom requires risk. It demands sacrifice. You have to search for it with your whole life. Salvation is a gift, but wisdom requires sweat. And sweat these hermits did.

    In ancient traditions, as Bernard McGinn writes, the desert ordinarily was thought of as the place of demons, not of humans. And certainly the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness prefigures this tradition [McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991) p. 136]. But, through their lives and their participation in Christ's own wilderness experience, the early hermits helped sanctify the desert. They helped to make of it the place where godly humanity is born and nurtured.

    The Desert Fathers were indeed tempted in the wilderness. Antony, the Father of the Desert Fathers, was tempted beyond human limits, some say driven to madness.*** However perverse, however grotesque the temptations, the Desert Fathers knew that the desert must test them, because it is a refiners fire, a place where holiness is forged from molten lives by the shuddering force of the hammer blows of God, through simplicity of life, prayer and contemplation, solitude and silence, remembrance of Christ's words, imitation of Christ's way, having entrusted one's precarious and short life to God.

    Later monasticism, however strict the orders became, would be tame in comparison to the Desert Fathers. They never did fit neatly into any approved ecclesiastical mold. They were not - to use the term from the 1950s - "company men." But that was their great and enduring gift to the church and to the world. By their very existence, they called into question the direction the church was taking by fleeing the society in which the church had made its comfortable home.

    Like Zen Masters at the edge of the village, the Desert Fathers remind us what it looks like to be human and to be free. Their lives challenge us to find and forge the wisdom of the wilderness where we live, even if it is at the heart of village.

    *The theological intuition of the Desert Fathers periodically has re-emerged in intellectual history. Franz Overbeck, the distinguished Church historian and one-time colleague of Karl Barth, thought that Christianity as a movement reflective of its founder had more or less ended by the time Constantine granted the church official imperial status in the fourth century. Overbeck himself was an agnostic, and, perhaps for that very reason, was less sentimental than many other historians of the church. He perceived that the vitality and authenticity of the strongly eschatological faith held by Jesus' earliest followers had been replaced by something else, something perhaps socially necessary and institutionally more viable, but something different nonetheless. Barth saw at least a theological connection between Overbeck's strident view of church history and Søren Kierkegaard's critique of "Christendom." The theological connection between Kierkegaard and William Stringfellow has often been noted.

    ** We would wait centuries for Flannery O'Connor to give legs to this vision in her disturbing and hilarious short story, Revelation.

    *** Salvador Dali's "Temptation of St. Antony" expresses his holy struggles, as does Gustav Flaubert's wonderful novella, in its own way.

  • Privileged

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2017

    PrivilegedSomething I've noticed is that people of privilege usually have a hard time interpreting any limitations upon their privileges as anything other than injustice.

    Something else I've noticed is the way people of privilege find it easy to identify the mote of privilege in the eyes of others, but have a hard time seeing the same luxuriating log in their own eyes.

    Why is this?

    Human nature, one might quickly answer. Fallen human nature, or sin, a Calvinist or Augustinian would quickly offer as an amendment. But all we have said with either of these responses is that everybody does it and it isn't good. Such responses beg the question "Why?"

    Why do we not recognize our own privilege? Why do we feel that any infringement on our privilege constitutes an injustice?

    The old saying goes that fish swim in water they can't define. And many of us swim in a sea of privilege we take for granted. In fact, in the United States the overwhelming (OVERWHELMING!) majority of us live with a level of privilege that is virtually inconceivable for many of the world's inhabitants. It is not so much that we are bad or evil (well, not necessarily) as that we are inured to our own condition of privilege.

    Being thoughtless isn't the same thing as being evil. But if we cultivate a habit of thoughtlessness and seek to find refuge in our thoughtlessness so we don't have to face the suffering of others, well, the end result can surely be the same as possessing evil intentions. So, what can we do?

    The nineteenth-century writer Anthony Trollope had a remarkable gift for painting human failings and foibles with an almost bemused divine detachment. In his novel, The Warden, Trollope tells the story of an elderly chaplain of a group of elderly men living in what we might today call a rest home, a small set of cottages near a great cathedral where these elderly working class men (who would have been lonely and indigent but for their small pensions, room and board) lived together and benefited from the church's charity and their chaplain's pastoral care.

    In Trollope's story, a newspaper reporter was tipped off that, while these men lived in total dependence upon the charity of the church, their chaplain, a man of their age, earned a generous salary as a minister. He lived in a nice manse and had ample funds left over to pay for the music he wrote for his cello to be published.

    When the newspaper story hit the public, instead of becoming defensive, the elderly chaplain became penitent, sensing that the men for whose spiritual care he was responsible had suffered an injustice - although unintended - at his own hand. The truth, of course, as Trollope unwraps the story, was much more complicated than the newspaper reported or the old chaplain interpreted. The Warden, the pensioners, the reporter, the church that employed the chaplain and provided the pensions and housing for the elderly men, the newspaper for which the reporter worked and the public that purchased the papers were all part of a system and structure of complexly interrelated privilege, a society that reinforced and replicated roles, all of which were assumed virtually entirely without consciousness on the part of any of the individual players.

    What is really interesting in this particular story is not so much the role the reporter played, though it is easy not to be sympathetic toward him. We learn soon enough that he is not seeking justice but, in his own way, is cynically exploiting the plight of the elderly pensioners to advance his career. The really interesting point in the story is that an individual, the elderly Warden and chaplain of the retirement home, in an act of conscience, attempts to understand and live into a consciousness of the role he plays in this system of privilege.

    Having spent the majority of my adult life in vocations both churchly and academic, I can say that few of us in either of these vocational worlds recognize the incredible privilege in which we live. And, of course, we aren't alone in this.

    I remember a conversation many years ago between Johnny Carson and Kris Kristofferson on the old "Tonight Show." They were talking about the acting profession. Kristofferson described the daily grind of make-up, rehearsals, and filming. At some point Carson said something to the effect that most people probably don't realize what hard work acting is. Kristofferson responded, yeah, but Johnny, we both know that what we do isn't real work.

    It so happened that Kris had actually worked for a living before his songs started selling. He knew as he sat there on Johnny Carson's sofa that he lived a life of unimaginable privilege in comparison to many of the working folks he had known.

    I can't tell you how often I have felt that Kristofferson could have been speaking for my chosen professions and a lot of others. I don't engage in a career as demanding and perilous as the folks who catch the fish I love to eat. And I know full well that I don't work as hard as the folks who make sure that potholes are plugged in the roads along which I drive my car or that my garbage is regularly collected and disposed of. (I know these examples from personal experience because my first two jobs were working on a sanitation truck and laying asphalt highways.) In fact, if pay were linked to the Common Good, sanitation workers would be on scale with heart surgeons and public school teachers would make more than U.S. senators.

    Privileges questioned will be privileges ruthlessly defended. But I guarantee you our arguments wouldn't convince the prophet Amos with his contempt for temples where the peoples' sacrifices were consumed. But, then, there are so many such temples in our henotheistic society.

    This is why I've often felt that if we really want justice to roll down like waters, we might best start by looking first at our own checkbooks, credit card statements and calendars before going on the rampage against OPS (that is, Other People's Sins). Maybe the hope lies in whatever change might occur in the hearts and minds of individual persons, individuals who would be willing to question and to change their own participation in the structures of privilege and prejudice in our society.

    This is something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hinted at in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail back in April 1963: "History," he writes, "is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals."*

    A great cloud of witnesses gathers round us, and angels stand on their tip toes watching to see if finally we can and will transform a society that has systematically resisted sharing privilege. May we not let down the angels. May we not let ourselves down, too.

    * James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperCollins, 1986), p. 292. As those who heard my remarks at the Fall Convocation a few weeks ago, I have asked our seminary community to read or re-read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail, truly one of the most profound and significant documents in American history.

  • What is the Purpose of Education (part 2)

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 19, 2017

    Purpose of Education 2Last week, we explored how a good education helps us learn and learn to keep on learning. It helps us to see the promise in threats and the opportunities in change. As important as adaptation is, however, education does even more.

    Education can make living worthwhile.

    Just having a steady job does not guarantee a life lived fully. There are many people who can make a good living but have no idea what makes a good life.

    In her recent book, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street (Random House, 2017), author Sheelah Kolhatkar tells the story of Steven Cohen, a hedge fund trader who was either a money-making genius or a criminal mastermind of insider trading and stock manipulation. Or, perhaps, both.

    In a review of Kolhatkar's book in The Economist, among the lessons that stood out to the reviewer was the "hollow life" led by Cohen. The reviewer comments: "Clad in a fleece, surrounded by 12 [computer] screens, masseuses, a manipulative wife, a hostile ex-wife and a cast of millionaire sycophants whom he periodically culls, Mr. Cohen cuts a sad figure." Undoubtedly many envy what he possesses, but few would exchange his life for theirs.

    We know that financial wealth and a rich life do not necessarily go together, that fame really is an illusion and the adoring public is notoriously fickle. We know this in our heads. But too often we stand all-too-ready to sacrifice what is most precious to us for something that isn't real and a little more of what we know does not last. And we will find our culture only too ready to reward us in the short term in exchange for what we are willing to sacrifice in life's long game.

    Our culture calls workaholism an addiction while praising it as a virtue, and many ministers, counselors, teachers, lawyers (the list could go on and on) begin every conversation by bragging about how overworked and overbooked they are in an attempt to prove their importance. I suspect planning calendars outsell Bibles, or at least get a better workout on a daily basis.

    We all know people who spend their lives working every waking minute, even when they aren't "at work," because they fear stopping and facing themselves and what they may encounter in the emptiness of silence and solitude.

    We all know people who, when the workday ends, must divert themselves endlessly with activities and entertainments to fill their empty hours before they return to the busy-ness of business.

    We all know people for whom even their moments alone are either occupied with distracting chatter or the endless loops of mental recordings inside their own heads to keep up the false selves they spend their active hours projecting.

    Others we know become addicted to substances or something else to distract themselves from themselves.

    There's another category, of course, those who, when work is done for the day, plug what is left of their brains into a television set, shift their minds into neutral, sitting day-after-day on their couches waiting for God to collect their bodies.

    The purpose of work is to make a living. The purpose of education is to make a life worth living.

    Among the most poignant moments in the Gospels is that moment when Jesus of Nazareth turns down the devil's dinner invitation with those immortal words: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

    There's more to us than our appetites. There's the need to be nourished in our spirits. And the purpose of this nourishment is to make of us the people God had in mind when God first imagined us. Wherever wisdom is to be found, God is its author. And human life is nourished by the words that originate in the heart of God more than by bread alone.

    A good education opens us to this wisdom, makes us learned in this learning, and gives us the ability to think well enough to live before we die.

  • A Stairway to Heaven?

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 15, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Stairway to HeavenIs there such a thing as a stairway to heaven?

    The Led Zeppelin song says yes, and "she's buying" it. But, after more than twenty centuries of debate, Christian theology remains resolutely ambivalent on the question: Resolute, because so many individual theologians, priests and preachers have weighed in "definitively"; ambivalent, because the Christian tradition as a whole can't decide.

    I am very pleased about the ambivalence. It shows a rare humility in a tradition that has sent far too many people to the stake or the gallows because they had the temerity to disagree with the religious majority.

    As we begin our yearlong exploration of Christian spirituality, I want to begin by considering the perspective of a contemporary writer whom I have admired for many years, Karen Armstrong. She is not only a thoughtful writer, she possesses an openness that goes far beyond mere tolerance, and she explores her own spiritual journey under the suggestive title, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Anchor, 2005).

    I've twice read this book, the first time on my own, the second time with a group of students with whom I met weekly for prayer and study of classic literature on Christian spirituality. I was so moved by Armstrong's honesty and intelligence that I wanted my students to consider her perspective.

    Here is a woman who, at seventeen, entered a convent. She did so with the conviction and passion of an idealistic young person seeking to know God better. Seven years later, she left the convent to pursue the study of English literature at Oxford University, feeling herself a failure because she didn't "succeed" at being a nun. She writes:

    "I had tried. I told myself … I had not been the best nun in the world, but I had honestly done my best, and my superiors had tried to help me. But it was just no good. If God did exist, he clearly wanted nothing to do with me, and right now I couldn't blame him." (Spiral Staircase, p. 45)

    The "darkness" in the subtitle of Armstrong's book, from which she says she climbed, included physical illness and psychological struggles that only exacerbated her spiritual crisis. In the midst of a long period of extraordinary personal anguish, Armstrong studied T.S. Eliot's sequence of poems titled "Ash Wednesday." Feeling alone, feeling like a failure, and in the throes of a terrifying illness, she found herself "thrilled" by Eliot's poem, noting especially the lines:

    "Because I cannot hope to turn again
    Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
    Upon which to rejoice."

    She comments on this passage:

    "There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities. It was precisely 'because' the poet had learned the limitations of the 'actual' that he could say: 'I rejoice that things are as they are.'" (Spiral Staircase, pp. 141-142)

    Despite her academic brilliance, Armstrong's life seemed for some time to be tumbling out of control. All the while physicians and psychiatrists tried to help her toward stability and health through a variety of treatments and medications. Even as she was writing her first book, she was fired from her beloved teaching position. Wondering if, indeed, she could ever "hope again," she gradually was able to make peace with the universe. In the midst of her "darkness," she apparently came upon something like what one medieval mystic called "the cloud of unknowing" and another described as a perception of the "groundless ground," the sense of transcendent understanding, of enlightenment, of intuition more profound than mere knowledge.

    Just as everything she tried to make fell apart, she found the key for which she had searched. She writes:

    "This must be the way that human life worked. He who loves his life shall lose it; he who loses his life shall save it. This was not an arbitrary command of God, but simply a law of the human condition. If you cast your bread upon the waters and were prepared to give it up for good, it would somehow come back to you - albeit in another form." (Spiral Staircase, p. 142)

    Her own "loss of life" was far from theoretical. Each time she labored to construct a life, it seemed to fall apart. But when her grasp failed, what she sought was placed in the palm of her hand, though "albeit in another form." The other "form" of life which came "back" to Armstrong arrived through her intellectual interest in the various ways different peoples and cultures experience God. She had been reading about the things that separated - often violently - Christians, Jews and Muslims.

    "Why not explore also the things they held in common?" she thought.

    Armstrong began to explore other faiths empathetically, attempting to understand and articulate the perspectives of other faiths authentically enough that practitioners of those faiths would recognize themselves and their convictions in her descriptions. At the same time, she also tried to articulate the reality of these other faiths in terms that could be understood in idioms more familiar to herself and to those who come either from Christian or secular traditions. She became both a translator and an honest broker of religious pluralism. She refused to smooth over differences, but neither would she resort to caricature others.

    Among the most important insights to which Armstrong came was this one:

    "All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do." (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    The greatest heresy begins in our compulsion to force God to serve as the exclusive representative of our metaphysical opinions and social values. This compulsion may originate in our desire to make gods of ourselves, which itself comes from our insecurities, our fears and sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality, our inability to come to terms with the starkness of reality; therefore, we feel the need to believe that “Someone Exactly Like Us” ultimately is in charge of the universe and that this Someone will guarantee our interests. When we speak of humility, religiously speaking, we are describing the fundamental rejection of the temptation to craft gods in our own image and likeness.

    Armstrong discovered in her quest to understand other faiths, what had eluded her in her struggle to understand her own. Drawing on the thought of Cantwell Smith, Armstrong came to the realization that all our ideas about God are by necessity human constructions, and that the compulsion "to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God" was a modern preoccupation dating from the eighteenth century. (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    This seemingly startling and startlingly humanistic conclusion is shared by some of the most orthodox of Christian theologians: St. Augustine of Hippo and Karl Barth, for example. Both of these great Christian thinkers warn of the "idolatry" of worshipping our ideas of God (which amount to projections of ourselves and our wishful thinking) as though our ideas about God are identical with God.

    Armstrong, though working from a basis of comparative religion rather than constructive theology, comes to a position reminiscent of John Calvin, at least with respect to the meaning of "belief." Armstrong writes:

    "Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary. … The Middle English word beleven originally meant 'to love'; and the Latin credo ('I believe') probably derived from the phrase cor do: 'I give my heart.'" (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    Reformed folk may want to read John Calvin's writings again, this time with his personal motto in mind: "I offer (or give) my heart to God promptly and sincerely." And we may want to examine again St. Anselm of Canterbury's famed statement of faith, usually translated, "I believe in order that I may understand," in light of Armstrong's insight; if we do, we will discover that Anselm might just have meant, "I love so that I may understand."

    Rather than joining the throng ready to go to war over our doctrinal differences, Armstrong proposes "a more excellent way." She rejoices in a kind of faithful agnosticism, again, not unlike what we find in some of the most orthodox Christian thinkers of all time. As St. Augustine once wrote, "If you think you have understood God, it is not God which you have understood." When one considers that this humility in the face of divine incomprehensibility originated from the same pen that bequeathed to the world untold thousands of pages of carefully reasoned Christian theology, one might well pause before demanding one's dogmatic way.

    So, is there a stairway to heaven?

    Maybe the question is just wrong. Maybe the whole intellectual scaffolding for asking the question is just wrongheaded.

    Perhaps we are beckoned by “SomeOne” beyond our knowledge to love that which we do know: the world and the people in it. That seems to be what the Epistle of First John was getting at when it warned us that we can hardly claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we don't love the people we can. And maybe that same love will help us to entrust all that lies beyond the boundaries of our knowledge to the One who beckoned us to love in the first place.

    Maybe taking life "on faith" is less about believing the unprovable and more about loving the unlovable. In other words, if faith doesn't start and end in love, we're not headed in the right direction, wherever a stairway claims to go.

  • What is the Purpose of Education (part 1)

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 12, 2017

    Purpose of Education part 1Trick question: "What's the purpose of education?"

    According to generations of our ancestors, at least since Socrates queried his way through the streets of Athens or St. Augustine sat in northern Africa writing more books than anyone could possibly read, the purpose of education has been to make us knowledgeable and wise.

    Education might also make us more humble, teach us to reflect analytically, cure us of the disease of dogmatic certainty, and make us conscious of the fact that the more we know, the more questions we will have. But first and foremost, a good education has been seen as equipping us with knowledge and wisdom.

    No longer, I am often told these days, is this the purpose of education.

    Politicians regularly get elected these days on the platform that the purpose of education is to get us a good job. And even some educational leaders today draw thunderous applause by parroting this message.

    They are wrong.

    Now, let me be clear about this: I believe that it is a good thing to have a good job, and most good jobs benefit from educated people doing them. Not only do I believe it is a VERY good thing to have a good job, I believe that it is among the most sacred joys of life to work; it is a joy and a blessing to employ the gifts God has given us to earn our daily bread, to support our families, to stand on our own, and to care for those who are less fortunate. I believe that work bestows upon a person a sense of purpose and human dignity and personal maturity that few other things in this life can equal. I believe, conversely, that a person without work is like a puzzle with some vital pieces missing. A person without work often longs for a sense of purpose and worth. Work is good.

    The purpose of education, however, is not to get a job, not even a good one, not even a job to which we believe God has called us. This is especially true today, because no matter how well-educated and well-trained we might be for a particular job, it is entirely possible that this job won't exist in ten or fifteen years. And, even if the job for which we trained is still around, our own vocational aspirations might alter in a decade. Many of us these days will have a half-dozen different jobs before we retire, each requiring its own specialized skills and technical knowledge which will require additional vocational training and continuing professional development.

    Something more is needed from education than job training, however. Something more has always been needed from an education. And this goes double for a theological education.

    One needs the capacity to think well and to think deeply in a disciplined manner and to develop the capacity and skills to keep learning throughout one's whole life.

    One needs the ability to know how to accumulate accurate knowledge and worthwhile information, certainly, and also the ability to rethink what has previously been learned in light of new information.

    One needs a lively appreciation for this very wide world that belongs (every bit of it) to the God who loves it and everyone in it, and one needs opportunities to allow this appreciation to expand previous horizons so that the world becomes even larger.

    One needs the confidence to adapt to changing environments, but also the wisdom and discernment to distinguish between fads and trends, potentially good ideas and potentially bad ones, to "hold fast to what is good," the received wisdom of the ages, not with tight greedy little paws, but loosely with generous and grateful hands.

    And one needs the character necessary to delay gratification (what our grandmothers meant when they expected us to eat our vegetables before having our dessert) and to stay with something to which we've committed ourselves however onerous that task becomes (what Sir Winston Churchill expressed when he said, "When you're going through hell, keep going!").

    These are all the good fruits of a good education. This is why, no matter what happens to job markets, a genuinely well-educated person has the capacity to adapt to changes, maybe even to stay ahead of changes, and maybe to be the author of important changes.

    Cliché Alert: Change is one of the few constants you can count on in life.

    But, cliché or not, it is true.

    There are many cautionary stories, but I will tell you only one.

    The venerable Eastman Kodak Company, which dominated the photography industry for generations, disappeared virtually overnight, and corporate analysts shook their heads in wonder. How was it possible for people who knew their industry so well to misread so badly the moment in which they lived?

    The answer: This company was shackled to one technology (film) as another technology (digital) took over, without ever realizing that they were perfectly positioned to dominate the emerging industry by doing something they had always done well - innovation.

    Unfortunately in this critical moment, they mistakenly thought their mission was to make film. In reality, their mission was to produce images. Because they couldn't imagine producing images digitally, they now make nothing. Keep in mind that photography hasn't stopped. The art of photography continues apace. Great photographers are still taking our breath away with spectacular pictures. But Eastman Kodak is gone.

    A good education helps us learn to learn.

  • A School for the Lord's Service

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 05, 2017

    HumilityOne day this summer, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of our fall term, I decided to read The Rule of St. Benedict straight through.

    What began as an act of discipline, and, frankly, a bit of a chore, quickly became a delight. I had never before read the whole thing in one sitting, but reading it that way, especially right before the school year began, I saw parallels I had never before noticed between the mission of Benedict's monastic community and that of the seminary.

    Anyone who has been following the literature on theological schools for the past twenty-five years or so will know that our seminaries don't suffer from a lack of analysis. That can be helpful. But, then, as one leader quipped a few years ago, most organizations fail for "non-analytical reasons." (They don't do the things they know they ought to do.) Sometimes analysis keeps us paralyzed from taking action, particularly analysis that divides us into opposing camps. And anyone who has followed the literature on theological education also knows that we have been locked in something of a feud over exactly what a theological school is for a very long time.

    One model of theological education sees a seminary as a "school of the church," primarily an institution where future ordained leaders in a denomination are taught what is expected of them by their tradition. Another model sees the seminary as a professional school, where men and women receive the educational qualifications they need to function in their chosen profession of ministry. Still another model understands the theological school as a graduate school, the purpose of which is to provide the latest and best academic scholarship and tools to conduct research in the various theological disciplines.

    All of these models reflect realities. All of these models are reflected in one way or another in every good theological school. And all of them require not only that students be educated but also formed in various ways: churchly, professional and academic.

    There is another model that I haven't yet mentioned, and it is the oldest by far. It is the model that lay the cornerstone for all future theological schools, and, indeed, for all the great universities. It is the model of theological education that is grounded in discipleship, forming persons in the faith with the understanding that such personal formation as Christians is essential to all the knowledge we acquire and every task we undertake.

    This model need not be placed over/against the others, as though it is "the right" model. Really each model needs the others in order to achieve that balance essential for education and formation for ministry. But I would like to single out this last model today because the need is so great for seminaries to take on the role of passing on the faith and forming persons in it. We simply can't take this for granted any more. And to help us see better the potential of this model, I would like to return to its origin. This is the model that dominated St. Benedict's experience and was the result of his Rule, a small document from the sixth century consisting of seventy-three short chapters which, according to some, is second only to the Bible in the influence it has had in shaping Christian behavior for a millennium and a half.

    Benedict envisioned a learning community of a very specific sort. God calls people, says Benedict. But they need to learn and to be formed in order to live the life God calls them to live and to do the work which the Lord calls them to do. "Therefore," Benedict writes in the Prologue to his Rule, "we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service." With a clarity that has never again been achieved in an official church document, Benedict writes what he calls a "little rule ... for beginners." (Rule, p. 96)

    As I think about the students who are just entering Louisville Seminary, Benedict's words, although intended for a monastic community, provide wise counsel to those of us in leadership and those of us who teach, as well as for our students.

    "In drawing up [the community's] regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love." (Rule, pp. 18-19)

    Benedict's Rule sets its sights on the ends and purposes of the learning community. He writes:

    "If you hear [God's call to follow] and your answer is, 'I do,' God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers, and even before you ask me, I will say to you: I am here." (Rule, 16-17)

    Benedict's Rule not only casts a grand vision, it also gets into the nitty-gritty of the way his monastic community should live together. At first I suspected that the sections dedicated to the various offices of the monastery and other institutional details wouldn't be applicable to a seminary, but I was wrong. On virtually every page I discovered valuable lessons we would do well to learn.

    Offices of the community are described (such as the abbot, deans, monastic cellarer and prior) with their responsibilities and authority; tools for living well together are provided in great detail; penalties for not living up to the community's covenant are explained, with restoration to community always the goal; orders for daily prayer, including which Psalms are sung when, are spelled out; principles of governance are laid down, placing a high value on what we would call a democratic approach, though reserving certain decisions for particular offices and bodies, tempered with a deep respect for order and a touch of political realism which I found surprising. The Scriptures provide the atmosphere the Rule of St. Benedict breathes, giving the motivation for virtually every regulation, from obedience to the abbot to the unconditional welcoming of guests (no matter what their faith or nationality or social status) into the monastery.

    Members of the community are to place "the work of God" (that is, the services of daily prayer and worship) above every other duty, but they are also to engage in assigned manual work for the sake of the whole community and in study for their own edification. Repeatedly, woven into instructions in almost every section of the Rule, one finds a reminder that community members are to live together in humility, competing with one another in doing good. Again and again, particularly in what I have come to regard as the heart of the Rule, chapter 4, "The Tools for Good Works," Benedict marshals passages from every corner of Scripture to admonish the community members to love as Christ loved, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to never repay evil with evil, to refrain from judging others, to renounce yourself and to reject pride. Closing this section, Benedict describes the community as a workshop, what we might call a laboratory, where all of these virtues are practiced daily until they become habitual. (Rule, pp. 26-29)

    It was while reading this section that I remembered something that happened several years ago, in the first years of my tenure as the academic dean at another Presbyterian seminary. I led that faculty into a revision of the school's curriculum. Before we began the fairly conventional work of looking directly at the curriculum, what we expected students to learn and how we envisioned that happening, we spent two years engaged in self-reflection and research, asking how we could better serve the church and society. In looking into the results of one of our research projects, as we disaggregated the findings of our study, isolating the responses of lay persons from those of ordained clergy and other groups, we found something fascinating.

    When we asked the lay persons in congregations what they valued above all else in a church leader, they overwhelmingly said, "humility."

    This was especially surprising because, given the variety of populations we were polling, this finding hadn't shown up before. The larger aggregated group included pastors, other church professionals such as Christian education directors, judicatory leaders and other religiously related professionals like chaplains, counsellors, leaders of social service agencies and so forth as well as the lay persons; these other categories of respondents simply had overwhelmed by their sheer numbers the findings from the lay people. The aggregated data told us that people value knowledge, expertise, and character in church leadership, but humility had only shown up way down the list of characteristics.

    But the lay people, when their voices were allowed to be heard on their own, overwhelmingly, said that they wanted leaders who are humble. They said they wanted leaders who were not proud or puffed up. They wanted leaders who listened (as one lay person said) "as if I've got a brain too."

    Someone in a group to which I presented this information asked, "So, how in the world is a seminary going to teach humility?" To which another member in the group responded, "I don't know, but we sure as fire have figured out how to teach arrogance in some schools. Why not humility?"

    Maybe St. Benedict shows us a way to do what we need to do educationally and formatively to provide to the church and society the best leadership possible. We often say that seminary can't put in what God left out. But maybe it is more accurate, with Benedict, for us to say: "What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace." (Rule, p. 18)

    Let us construct a life together in seminary that, while not short-changing the vital theological education we all value and the crucial knowledge that grants perspective and depth to our ministries, also provides the formation of character and Christian faith even more than professional formation, and which prefers wisdom over the mere acquisition of information, so that those who graduate from our theological seminaries will be the kind of persons from whom and beside whom and among whom the people of God will want to learn, worship and live.

  • The Most Important Thing

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 29, 2017


    Ashley HIcksEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by Ashley Hicks White, an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at Louisville Seminary. Ashley is also the seminary’s fall 2017 Convocation speaker. She will deliver her Convocation address, “Toward a Relational Approach to Social Justice,” on Thursday, September 7, 2017, at Caldwell Chapel (1044 Alta Vista Road, Louisville, Ky. 40205). The Convocation service begins at 11:30 a.m. All are welcome.

    Over the last year, I have experienced a number of major life milestones and transitions. I finished graduate school, got married, moved to a new city, started a new job, and purchased our first home. All of these new experiences and transitions were good. I looked forward to each of them with joy and excitement, nervousness and fear. Some would say that in the last year I have accomplished a lot. Friends and family talk about how proud they are of all my new accomplishments. And I would agree, that I am excited and grateful to have been blessed to experience all of these things. I count myself very blessed and privileged to have the opportunities that I have. I know that some are not as fortunate as I, and I never want to forget that I carry a measure of privilege and subsequent social responsibility. However, this summer I was reminded that all of these accomplishments are not the most important thing.

    This summer I have been reading a book entitled, The Relationship Principles of Jesus by Tom Holladay*. It is a book that I purchased over three years ago but never had the chance to read it until this summer. Holladay’s book reminded me of what the most important thing is in life: RELATIONSHIPS.

    In his book Holladay tells the story of how he was reminded of the importance of relationships while reading a book on time management. The quote that stuck out to him and has stuck out to me all summer is this: “God does not demand of me that I accomplish great things. He does demand of me that I strive for excellence in my relationships.” Since reading this quote, I have written this statement on an index card and taped it to my computer monitor on my desk. I read it every day at work, and I come back to it to help ground myself during this busy season of life full of transitions and milestones.

    Relationships are the most important thing. I can accomplish wonderful things in this life, but if my relationships are weak, then what is the point?

    My training as a marriage and family therapist draws this point home to me even further. As family therapists we are trained to focus on relationships. We think about larger systems and processes, interactions, and patterns. This helps us in the therapy room and it helps in our everyday lives. We live in a world that is becoming more and more divided by difference. Tension is increasing, and some relationships are becoming more explicitly hostile than before. As a therapist I can utilize my skills to help facilitate difficult conversations and repair relationships among individuals, couples, families, students, neighbors, congregations, and communities. As a Christian, I am called to prioritize relationships, first with God and then with others. Sadly, it is easy to forget about relationships in our attempt to accomplish good things or to be good ourselves. I am hopeful however that just as I have been reminded of the importance of relationships this summer, you will be reminded of what is most important.

    Ask yourself these questions:
    1)    What do I place the highest value on in my life right now?  
    a.    If it is not relationships, consider what I might have to shift in order to focus more on relationships.
    2)    What is getting in the way of me being all I aspire to be in my relationships?
    3)    What can I do right now to become more like my aspirational relational self?

    * Holladay, Tom. The Relationship Principles of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

  • We Are Pastors

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 22, 2017


    Emily MillerEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Emily Miller. Emily is the Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Louisville Seminary. She is also a Louisville Seminary alum (MDiv ‘09) and a Minister of the Word and Sacrament for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She previously served as Associate for Recruitment and Relationships for the Young Adult Volunteer program of the PC(USA)’s national office.

    The conversation usually goes something like this:

    Other person (OP): What do you do?
    Me: I’m a pastor.
    OP: Oh, what church?
    Me: I’m actually the Director of Admissions at Louisville Seminary.
    OP: Neat! But what church do you serve?
    Me: Well, I GO to church, but I don’t serve one as their pastor. This is where I serve.
    OP: Oh …
    If I had a dollar for every time in the last four years that this conversation has happened, I'd be able to pay off my student loans a lot faster. These conversations don't bother me, as I thought they would when I started my work outside of the congregational walls. In fact, these conversations help me do something that I've hoped to make a part of my ministry and call since my ordination seven years ago: to redefine what a pastor looks like.
    In my current role, I experience the breadth and depth of ministry in an educational context. I regularly have discernment conversations with prospective students who come from different places - denominationally, geographically, and/or in their discernment processes.

    I hear everything from, "This is a dream and call I've had for so long, but only now is it possible," to, "I'm interested in therapy, but didn't realize I could become a therapist at a theological institution. What does that look like?"

    I get to meet people who may know exactly what they want to do, but have no idea how it will translate into life after seminary - or, at the end of the day, if they can get paid to do the work their heart is set on.
    When I began my studies at Louisville Seminary in 2006, I knew that I wanted to go into ministry, in whatever way became clear later, because at the time, I didn't have a plan. As time went on, I realized I wanted to be ordained, and within that, hoped to show that it could look like many different things. Becoming part of the Young Clergy Women International showed me that there are women all over the world who have been called by God to serve the church - inside and outside of traditional contextual walls.

    We are seminary employees, chaplains to persons experiencing homelessness, executive directors of nonprofits, denominational staff, camp directors, faculty, and bi-vocational ministers working part-time in a congregation and part-time in retail. We are pastors. We are called by God to serve those who have been put in our paths, in this place, in this time, and to be ministered to as well.
    Sometimes I look at my desk stacked with the lists of people I have to call, meetings I need to set up, or events I have to register for, and I remind myself that this, too, is a holy call. My friend, Sherry, reminded me recently that our students are not just our students: they will be our colleagues and perhaps our friends in the years to come. If walking alongside those who I will one day call a colleague doesn't help define what a pastor looks like, I'm not sure what will.

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