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Thinking Out Loud
  • An Artist of Wonder: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 25, 2016


    HeschelAll my best ideas I've stolen. Usually from my friends. So it was that I stole my friend Ted Wardlaw's idea of asking our faculty "surprise questions" at the dinners we host twice a year for prospective students visiting our campus.

    In one of those dinners a few years back, I asked our faculty, "Of all the theological figures from the past, with whom would you most like to spend an evening conversing?" Among the people who got a vote were John CalvinKarl Barth and Mother Teresa. But at least four professors (myself included), each from very different scholarly disciplines, selected one person: Abraham Joshua Heschel (pictured).

    I never knew Abraham Heschel personally. He died in 1972, the year I graduated from high school. Yet, from my days in seminary, his wisdom has remained a touchstone for my thought and life.* My high regard for Heschel is far from unique. He continues to exert a tremendous influence on people from across the spectrum of faiths.

    What is it about Rabbi Heschel that causes him to be revered, honored and beloved by persons of so many different faith traditions over forty years after his death?

    In the introduction to a recent anthology of Heschel's thought, its editor, Samuel Dresner, provides at least a partial answer to this question, reminding us of the breadth of soul of this remarkable person. Ten days prior to Rabbi Heschel's death, Dresner tells us, in an interview with NBC, he addressed young people saying: "Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power. … Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art. …" This advice from a man who, the very day before he died (nine days after giving this interview), stood in the snow before a federal prison adding the final brushstrokes to his own work of art, "waiting for the release of a friend, a priest, who had been jailed for civil protest." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, edited with an introduction by Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 2014), 9.]

    As I sit here, near dusk on a mid-winter Sabbath, Heschel's classic study of the Sabbath beside me, I recall why I came to love Heschel in the first place. Here was a scholar, a teacher and a faith leader who, like a prophet of the Old Testament, did not believe that spirituality and social concern are polar opposites that need to be reconciled but are essential aspects of the same character, the love of neighbor flowing naturally and necessarily from our wholehearted love of God. Heschel believed deeply that either God is all-important or not important at all. And his devotion to God led him to claim people the world over as God's children and his neighbors. As Dresner notes, when Heschel died there were two books at his bedside: one a classic of Hasidic spirituality, the other a study of the war in Vietnam. "The combination was symbolic," writes Dresner in his introduction. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as practitioners of other faiths in this tragically torn world, perhaps there is no better example of a person convinced that humanity "dwells on the tangent of the infinite, within the holy dimensions; that the life of [humanity] is part of the life of God." (Heschel, Wonder, 10-11.)

    In a time when people are bewitched by the accumulation of the things that consume their lives, when we feel threatened by the very forces of violence that promise to give us security, and when those who compete to lead us speak out of the emptiness of their own lust for power, Heschel's voice is more than prophetic, it is sane. And it is a sanity which recognizes that the world in which we live is not a mere accident but an act of God, and that this God is both merciful and just. As Heschel's daughter, Susannah, said in an interview in the Catholic magazine, America, in 2007: "For my father, religion may begin with a sense of mystery, awe, wonder and fear, but religion itself is concerned with what we do with those feelings. … God poses a challenge to go beyond ourselves and it is precisely that going beyond, that awareness of challenge, that constitutes our being." (Doris Donnelly, “Lovingly Observant: An Interview with Susannah Heschel,” America, June 18, 2007. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://americamagazine.org/issue/618/article/lovingly-observant.)

    Reading the new anthology assembled by Dresner, as good as it is, only whetted my appetite to go back to Heschel's classics. I started with Rabbi Heschel's magisterial two-volume study of the prophets of ancient Israel, where I came across this passage:

    "Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between [humanity] and God which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.... The prophet's word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven." [Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 1962), Vol. 1, p. 16.]

    And in what is possibly the most remarkable textbook ever written for the study of philosophy of religion, Heschel confronts us, not with chapters on abstruse and abstract ideas of speculation, but with subject matter that places us in the bull’s-eye of obligation, such as: "The awareness of grandeur," "philosophy begins in wonder," "the mystery within reason," "to be is to stand for," "the problem of the neutral," and "needs are not holy." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).]

    Of course, I had to return to The Sabbath, a book that by the sheer power of its evocation of the beauty of God's purpose for humanity puts to shame every pale attempt we make to construct our little imitation "sabbaths" and "sabbaticals." Just a sample must do, as when Heschel writes in this amazing book:

    "For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise. The art of keeping the Sabbath day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation." (Abraham Joshua. Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 16.]

    Few theologians of the twentieth century were better prepared to speak to the modern human condition. Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He was, as one biographer has said, "a prince among Hasidim," the successor to Martin Buber in Frankfurt, arrested and deported from Germany in 1938 by the Nazi regime, and eventually arriving in America where he flourished at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for the remainder of his life. With a voice tempered by human loss and divine hope, Heschel taught and wrote against the backdrop of the Shoah that had devastated his own people, the rise of nuclear armament that threatened the entire world, and the raging wars of post-colonialism. It was, in part, because of Heschel's influence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the anti-Vietnam War movement. He suffered greatly, at times, because of some of the positions he took. Yet, his involvement in the political world was integral to his faith in God. He knew personally the high social cost that must be paid if persons of faith and good will refuse to stand against evil.**

    Drawing this blog to a close is much more difficult than usual. Once one begins, there is so much from Heschel's thought and life one wants to share. But I shall close by returning to Dresner's fine brief introduction to the new anthology. Dresner tells the story of visiting Abraham Heschel in his apartment in New York City when the rabbi was recovering from a heart attack. Quietly, and with great difficulty, Heschel spoke to Dresner about the inevitability of death, and the fact that he was ready and willing to offer his life back to God. "Take me, O Lord," Heschel said, not in despair or resignation, but with great joy. "I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime. … That is what I meant when I wrote [in the preface to his book of Yiddish poems]: 'I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.' "

    Perhaps, of all the gifts we may pray from God, this is the greatest. May we all ask not for success, but for wonder.


    *One of the most joyful activities of my ministry as a young pastor was to help organize, together with Christian and Jewish leaders in Dallas, Texas, an event honoring Heschel's memory some ten years after his death. Byron L. Sherwin, author of the small volume on Heschel for the Makers of Contemporary Theology series published by John Knox Press in 1979, spoke for that event. And one of my greatest joys as a scholar was being asked by Heschel's Dutch publishers to allow an essay I had written on wonder in the presence of the Holy to serve as the foreword to a new edition of Heschel's writings in the Netherlands.

    **Biographical information in this paragraph is principally drawn from Byron Sherwin's book, mentioned above, pp.1-8; also of value was the introductory note Heschel himself wrote for his posthumously published book, A Passion for Truth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), viii-xv.


  • Busy-ness, As Usual

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 22, 2016


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

    Gethsemani Lake

    Sitting toward the back of the auditorium at Southern Methodist University, a harried, distracted young associate pastor in a busy Dallas suburb, I felt as though the speaker at the lectern was talking directly to me. Henri J.M. Nouwen was at the podium delivering the address that would soon be published as a book, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York: Seabury, 1980).

    I would like to say that I have never forgotten the lessons I learned that day. The truth is that I have forgotten them repeatedly. I had even forgotten that I had once learned them. Each time I learn these lessons, it is as though for the first time.

    Of this I have been reminded, because I brought my old copy of Nouwen's The Way of the Heart with me on retreat to Gethsemani Abbey earlier this month. In the back of the book (which I apparently bought in 1980 for the princely sum of $7.95!) were the notes I had written to myself the first time I read the book. Written in pencil, more than thirty years ago, were the things I had learned. Or thought I had learned. Because reading them again on my retreat, I couldn't recall learning these things way back then. Yet, I do recall sitting in a coffee shop with another young pastor after we heard Nouwen's lecture that day mulling over his stark diagnosis of our calendars full of activities and our hearts drained of meaning and life.

    I might have forgotten I had ever learned the cure, but I surely remember commiserating over the disease. And when I re-read the book, sitting in my room at the retreat house with winter skies threatening and winds whistling through the window, the remembrance of my first encounter with Nouwen came back in a flood.

    He wrote:

    "Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.

    "Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying or doing. We simply go along with the many 'musts' and 'oughts' that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. ... [W]e ought to move up the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life. Thus we [ministers] are busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people!"
    (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 21-22.)

    I remember this other young pastor and I, sipping our coffee between comments to one another, reflecting on the accuracy of Nouwen's assessment of the lives we lived. Two stunned young ministers, silence at times hanging in the air between us, as we squinted at the light that came glaring down on our lives and our ministries. "What good are we doing?" we asked each other. Acting compulsively out of our own fears and anxieties, resentment, and anger, greedy for success and starving for applause and approval. "What sort of liberation are we offering our people who are also caught up in the same vicious cycle?"

    The conversation I remember. I just don't remember ever knowing in my heart of hearts, at the core of my being, what I had written in pencil in the back of that book. Here's what I wrote down:

    "We thirst and we hunger after God, but we are not filled because we refuse to be filled. We go only far enough, take only enough of a drink or a taste to say, 'Ah, that is good. Thank you.' But we do not drink to fill or eat the feast provided. In a solitary place God waits for each of us, to show us ourselves in radiant, direct honesty, to show us our abject hunger, our spiritual dehydration. God waits in the desert, in the wilderness of trials for us. And if we want God we must go there alone. This is the painful news: Our need is great, absolute. Without [God] we will die. This is the good news: [God] waits for us in the solitude of transformation. [God] promises to fill us and to send us on changed."

    Maybe I did learn what Nouwen was talking about after all. Or maybe I just regurgitated a paraphrase of his message. I really don't know. I rather suspect I had not yet suffered enough, had not yet thirsted or hungered or hurt enough to really long for the filling and healing about which I was writing. But maybe that is just the arrogance of age now speaking. Surely a young pastor can feel spent and tired and can suspect that his ministry is an act of vanity because he detects the compulsions that drive and motivate him. Surely a young pastor can discern the anger she feels at her people for not living up to her expectations or appreciating her sufficiently, but discerns also that the anger may really come from her own fear of being found wanting. It is a strange thing to enter into this sort of conversation, your contemporary self wondering at whether you were once wiser than you are today. But really, all such speculation is ultimately fruitless because we are perennially pretty clueless at whatever age we find ourselves.

    The author of Galatians speaks of the danger of constructing again and again edifices of self-justification that he had previously torn down. I think he may be reminding us that progress in the life of the Spirit is not linear. We don't rise rung by rung on Jacob's ladder, getting steadily higher and nearer to heaven with each step. Rather, progress in the life of the Spirit is a matter of spiritual proximity. Inasmuch as we entrust ourselves to God, to the degree that we rest in God, conscious of our utter dependence upon God, we may be "making spiritual progress," if that's even the way to say it. Perhaps better, we testify with St. Paul that daily we just keep dying to the self, the false self that wants defending and craves security and longs for validation because it thinks that if it gets enough external confirmation of worth and accumulates just a little more of whatever the world values it will finally and forever we safe. According to St. Paul, the score-keeping that validates the false self has been nailed to the cross, where Jesus died, where we also have been crucified. And the life we live now hangs on trust in the God who promises love for us in the dying breath of the risen Jesus. (See: Galatians 2:15-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:2-16)

    A story from the Desert Fathers that Nouwen relates helps me to understand the nature of the lifelong pilgrimage we are on. He tells the story of Abba Elias, a holy man tormented by demons. The demons persecuted him, taunted him, threatened him. He tried desperately to fight them off. Finally the old man cried out, "Jesus, save me!" And immediately, the devils fled. Just as suddenly the Lord spoke to Elias, who by that point sat sobbing. "Why are you weeping?" asked the Lord. "Because the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this," answered Elias. The Lord said to him, "You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you." (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 29.)

    From time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to find ourselves trying to live as though we could defeat the powers of evil on our own, as though we don't need God to provide every breath of life and whatever strength we possess. And from time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to discover that our attempts to live life under our own power are utterly illusory, that before very long we have become victims of all the demons of hell, the compulsions, fears and anxieties, the anger, resentment, jealousy and greed that become so easily the driving forces behind our actions. In such moments, if we are very fortunate, we will come to ourselves and realize that we are in real danger of losing our souls even while we are preaching the gospel to others.

    The task is to keep turning to the God who is always beside us and within us, always present, though hidden in the solitude of that wilderness to which we can resort whenever we wish, where the Spirit and the Word of God never fail to bring healing. There is a river that makes glad the city of God, the dwelling place of the Holy. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be shaken, though the nations rage and the kingdoms tumble and the earth itself trembles. However distracted we may be by busy-ness, as usual, God waits for us there, while the river eddies, pools and flows.


  • Truth to Power and Privilege

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2016


    The Ethical Legacy of Barbara Jordan


    Power and PrivilegeIf you are of a certain age, you may remember her speech. I was a college student, midway through the summer term, glued to my television set that evening, as U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan spoke. The date was July 25, 1974, and we were in the midst of a national crisis. Citizens across the country were about to receive a lesson in constitutional law and democracy that we would never forget. Please allow me to quote from Barbara Jordan’s comments, and as I do, I encourage you to bring to mind the power of that voice, that utterly peerless, commanding tone and authority:

    “Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States, ‘We, the People.’ It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the People.’ I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We, the People.’

    “Today, I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
    [Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, edited by Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 27.]

    Recently I was reflecting anew on Barbara Jordan’s words as I returned to a book given to me many years ago by my friend Bill Powers, at the time the dean of the Law School at the University of Texas and subsequently the president of that university. The book Bill gave me is Philip Bobbitt’s Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). In his book, surely one of the most fascinating texts in the field of constitutional law, Bobbitt argues that too often, when we think about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, we do not necessarily take ethics into account. In a chapter titled, “Good and Bad/Good and Evil,” Bobbitt writes:

    “Ignoring the existence of ethical arguments has had other costs as well: not only candor, but simplicity too is sacrificed. Most importantly, the exile of ethical argument from the domain of legitimate constitutional discussion has denied an important resource to the creative judge who exploits all the various approaches [i.e., to constitutional interpretation, including the historical, the textual, structural, prudential and doctrinal approaches] from time to time and case to case.” (p. 137)

    Bobbitt’s comments could be used as a sort of hermeneutical lens through which to read anew Jordan’s words, spoken originally on that summer evening in 1974. Our faith in the U.S. Constitution is not an abstract allegiance, nor an adherence to some ancient standard forever fixed in stone. It is a living confidence in the ability of “We, the People” to respond ethically to the challenges of living together with all our differences over the long haul of history.

    Barbara Jordan alludes to the challenge of forging and honoring among us “We, the People” in the keynote address she offered two years later at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.

    The driving question behind her address that evening was, “Who then will speak for the common good?” Again, she began her speech with a historical reference that is also an intimate reference, a very personal reference:

    “It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a presidential candidate,” she said. “But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?” she asked, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.” She continues:  “A lot of years have passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” After reflecting on the variety of things she might speak about on such an occasion, given this historic opportunity, she tells us what she will speak about: “We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, pp. 35-36)

    In the past two years, I have often longed to hear Barbara Jordan’s voice again.* As we have witnessed national tragedies and national disgraces, as we have endured patches of genuine soul-searching, even repentance, but also moments of disappointing denial, I have wished that I might hear Barbara speak truth to power and privilege, as only she could.

    Her historical perspective would, doubtless, have helped us think about how far we have come with reference to race in America; but I firmly believe that she would not let any of us off the hook. She would also remind us of how much further “We, the People” have to go to make “justice for all” more than just a rhetorical flourish on an old document.

    Her deep personal faith in God would remind us that we are not a law unto ourselves, but that we owe our lives and all we are, including our lives as “We, the People,” to God. Her faith in God would remind us of our own limits, our blind spots and our tendencies to corrupt and undermine even our best inclinations and motivations.

    Her profound faith, “whole,” “complete” and “total” in the power of our U.S. Constitution to do good, to speak for the common good, would remind us also that we are not helpless, that we have national resources that transcend party allegiances and ideologies and our own narrow self-interests.

    In a time, when so many citizens are prepared to throw up their hands and give up even trying to construct a common good in the midst of dissent and dissension, I wish I could hear Barbara pray the prayer she offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1978. On that occasion, this daughter of a Baptist preacher and one of the most respected political leaders and teachers of her time, prayed to God:

    “Teach us to know that if we are to be successful stewards, we must be your servants. We know that we cannot solve the many difficulties which beset your people. But you can. We cannot reconcile people whose prejudices and narrow-sighted self-interest prevent brotherhood. But you can. We cannot infuse hope in those who despair. But you can.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, p. 68)

    Amen.


    *I am grateful to Texas State Senator Max Sherman for this wonderful collection of Barbara Jordan’s speeches, which includes a compact disc on which we can indeed again hear her voice.


  • Faith and Political Rhetoric

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 11, 2016

    Faith and Political Rhetoric
    Editor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post was originally published January 31, 2012. Dr. Jinkins felt that, given the current trends in public discourse, this blog warrants further reflection.


    For some time now, a sort of economic and political rhetoric has grown up around the country. This rhetoric belongs exclusively neither to the Republican nor to the Democratic Party, and, indeed, has “liberal,” “conservative,” and “libertarian” supporters. Its variants are many. The premises of this view might be summarized as follows:

    • Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.
    • Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.
    • The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.
    • The middle way, moderation, negotiation, and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.

    In recent years, we have all likely heard various applications of this rhetoric (and perhaps seen it on the silver screen, in the 2011 film Atlas Shrugged, based on the novel by atheist and ideologue Ayn Rand). We have heard this world view articulated by representatives of different political parties. Both liberals and conservatives have been among those who have exalted the “individual” to the point that the “individual” of whom they speak bears little to no real relationship to actual persons in community (the only sort of people who actually do exist!). Some politicians have run for office arguing that if persons do not have the means to afford health insurance society should, essentially, let them die. Others, building on the premise that welfare in certain circumstances unintentionally undermines personal responsibility and industry, go on to argue that, therefore, all social altruism and all programs to help the poor are confidence tricks. Such unyielding positions are correlated with one of the most disconcerting developments in contemporary politics: the rise of politicians who refuse to work together with other elected representatives for the common good if working together means listening, negotiating, and compromising.

    Among those who have critiqued this political rhetoric, there have been responsible commentators on both the left and the right. As Carl T. Bogus observes in his fascinating (and, at points, disturbing) book, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011), one of the most vocal critics of one version of the premises bulleted above was Whittaker Chambers. Another was William F. Buckley Jr. While both Chambers and Buckley were vigorously argumentative and conservative, they recognized the rampant individualism, self-centered rejection of altruism, absolute faith in the power of the marketplace, and arrogance, represented in the premises listed above, as fundamental dangers to society as a whole. They were particularly concerned about the undermining of altruism — that empathy for others which is an expression of generosity of spirit and a commitment to mutuality, and that serves as the basis for the social capital that binds us together as a society.1 M. Stanton Evans, a colleague of Chambers and Buckley, weighed in on the explicitly anti-Christian message of Ayn Rand’s version of these premises, appealing to Christian faith as a belief system "predicated on something more than mere survival."2

    These conservative criticisms of the set of economic and political premises I have enumerated could be seconded by critics in the ideological middle and on the left, of course.3 But perhaps the most trenchant criticism I have ever heard comes from an old personal friend of vaguely libertarian stripe. One day, he and I were having a discussion about altruism, specifically about whether it is right or socially constructive to give to someone in need (a panhandler, for example), or whether one might be simply enabling that person to remain dependent. He shook his head and said that while he could make some really good arguments against helping someone else in need, nevertheless he knew he had to do it.

    "Why," I asked.

    "Jesus told me to," he said.

    This is where I ended up, too.

    The interchange reminded me of something Garrison Keillor said about the Lutheran minister in Lake Wobegon. When the pastor was doing carpentry in his garage and he hit his thumb with a hammer, he was, said Keillor, somewhat limited by his vocation with regard to his vocabulary. So it also happens whenever we as Christians are confronted with the needs of others — needs that call us beyond our self-interests, needs that place on us burdens binding us one to another and obstructing our allegiance to various political premises that might otherwise appeal to us. Our vocation as Christians qualifies our responses. If we don’t like that fact, well, I guess that’s something we will just have to take up with the author of the Sermon on the Mount.

     

    1Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 198-221.
    2Ibid., 217.
    3See, for example, Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, ed. Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 43-48, 56-65; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993); and Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).


  • Behold the Beauty of the Lord

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2016


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

    TOLImage010816The cotton fields that once lined the roads of East Texas between Lufkin and Dallas looked like row upon row of popcorn bouquets by late September, not long after which defoliating would begin. The crop dusters soon would come spraying their defoliants, and leaves would drop to expose the cotton for harvest. I remember the stark beauty of the cotton crops, the thick white tufts set in green foliage against a field of rich black earth.

    One particular drive along these fields stands out from the many. My grandfather and I were in his car. I can't recall how old I was, but I couldn't have been more than eight. We had delivered my grandmother to Dallas to stay a few weeks with her mother (Big Momma), and we were returning home. The little bronze Ford Falcon flew along the two-lane road, windows down. This was the early 1960s BCA (Before Conditioned Air). On the front seat between my grandfather and me lay a sheaf of music with a rock on top to keep the pages from blowing out the windows. There was music from all our favorite collections: Golden Steps, Stamps Baxter Quartet Specials, Happy Haven Radio Songs, and pages of sheet music for hymns and choir anthems. My grandfather, Bonnie Corley Fenley, directed music for the Redland Baptist Church, a nonpaid position in those days. He had a fine tenor voice and never met a musical instrument he couldn't master in an afternoon. He taught me to sing harmony.

    The indelible imprint of that hot September day is of an old man and a boy singing their hearts out, the laughter blending with music. I remember the wind and the love and the songs. I would have stayed in that front seat singing forever if I could have. I would have built three tabernacles right there if I'd known how. It was the house of the Lord on wheels with a standard transmission and dicey brakes.

    I suspect that the reason the highly technical theological doctrine of perichoresis, inherited in Orthodox Christianity from fourth-century theologians like AthanasiusBasil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, made perfect sense to me intuitively the first time I came across it in seminary was because of my childhood experience of singing with my grandfather. This doctrine can appear, at first blush, so abstract, the idea that three persons of the divine Trinity are in such a relationship of mutuality that they almost seem to flow into one another. Yet each person possesses full integrity, the Father as Father, the Son as Son, the Spirit as Spirit. This doctrine, for all its intricacy and sophistication, resonates with my simple childhood experience of love: The singers, a grandfather and grandchild and the music they sang together bear striking similarity (though the dissimilarities are striking too, of course) to the divine Giver, the Gift and the eternal act of Giving; the divine Lover, the Beloved, and the Eternal Love they share; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Here is an "analogy of being" that never stopped holding true, even in the Barthian deluge of seminary. Hans Urs von Balthasar's soaring tribute to the mystery of the triune God, which I would not learn about until I was a graduate student, was fully prefigured for me that day as we drove along singing in that old Ford. Von Balthasar wrote about the primal reality of God's Being, which is not a "statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself; a flowing wellspring with no holding trough beneath it ... the pure act of self-pouring-forth." [Von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed (Spring Valley: 1990), p. 30]. Pouring forth, singing out, joy and love reverberated into the hot Texas breeze that flowed through that car and out over the cotton fields participating in the mystery of God's creative love that will never be contained.

    This reality, the reality of Reality itself - that God's being is in communion, that God's being is in becoming - seemed to me (then and now) concrete and personal and anything but abstract. The church's halting attempts to make sense of the living God as Trinity made sense to me because of the lived approximations of the God in whom I had participated (though imperfectly and unconsciously and after a creaturely fashion "through a mirror in a riddle") as a child. After all, I had sung with my grandfather. I had experienced deep in the marrow of my bones something of the truth of that life and love and trans-cosmic music that is the Spirit shared by God the Father and God the Son caught up in adoration, joy and mutual love.

    Others have done a fuller and more profound job of theologically reflecting on this reality, Eberhard Jüngel and John Zizioulas, among them; and at least one theologian, Jeremy Begbie, has performed a far more subtle and sophisticated analysis of how music and the arts reflect and give expression to God's being.* All I am really qualified to do is bear witness to what I believe I have experienced of this reality. And this experience began early for me.

    Years later, when I performed in jazz, blues and rock groups in high school and college, I discovered the deep magic of musical improvisation. Playing with small bands of musicians who created something among themselves at once practiced, disciplined, but also utterly new and unexpected every time we performed, I felt as though I was tapping into a reality at the heart of creation - this otherness, this beauty, this transcendence, this something indefinable and real woven into life by a prodigiously talented God who enjoys sharing with us and invites us to participate in creation. In many ways, I have always felt like a child trying to tap into the perichoretic wonder that I experienced while singing harmony with my grandfather. Recently, it occurred to me that my lifelong spiritual harmony has also always been an aesthetic journey, whether acknowledged at the time or not, a quest to behold the beauty of the Lord.**

    Sometimes my memories skip like a stone over the surface of the past, and I recall an evening when our youth choir played and sang for church campers on the banks of the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. I recall the exultation, pure and sublime, that I experienced when playing piano for them. I remember the afternoon on a visit home from college, sitting in a darkened room playing blues guitar with my friend Ben, just before he joined the Navy. We traded riffs back and forth in a musical conversation. Remembering these and countless other moments, I realize that there is no way under heaven to express the deep rightness, the in in-sync-ness, I sensed in those moments. In those moments and hundreds of others, playing music with others, it was as though we were tapping into something beyond ourselves, some rhythm, some harmony or melodic line, some reality at the core of creation, something perfect and real and good.

    The stone skips across the surface of something deeper than we can imagine. It is the weight of the depth that makes the stone stay airborne, skipping again and again, before it takes its final plunge and disappears into the darkness waiting below. In those moments as the stone dances across the water, I know, every place we play becomes thin.


    *Eberhard Jüngel's Gottes Sein ist im Werden (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1965, 1986), and John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985, 1997) helped renew an awareness in theological circles of the dynamics of God's being as Trinity. Jeremy Begbie's engagement of Trinitarian theology with the arts is simply extraordinary, Voicing Creation's Praise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991) and Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

    **This blog is extracted from a much longer essay of mine by the same title, which was published in A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Used with permission.


  • Where's Pogo When You Really Need Him?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 04, 2016


    Where's PogoEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post was originally published March 26, 2012. Dr. Jinkins felt that, given the current trends in public discourse, this blog warrants further reflection.

    Many years ago, Walt Kelly's comic character, Pogo, made the painful observation: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

    In a National Public Radio interview with Bob Edwards, Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (Newton: O’Reilly Media, 2012), said that the two things people need informationally to make good decisions in our society are pragmatism and synthesis. And we are getting less and less of both these days from our journalism. People who already agree with MSNBC tend to watch MSNBC, he observed. People who already agree with Fox News tend to watch Fox News. And a growing portion of each group tends to believe members of the other group are unreliable and may even be out to get them.

    Each group finds itself becoming increasingly confirmed in the opinions its members already firmly hold. Each group is carefully shielded from having to face any facts that don't square with its members’ already strong beliefs. Neither group is encouraged to synthesize various perspectives, including perspectives that might differ from either extreme. And no one in either group is encouraged to think in pragmatic terms, which almost invariably require mediation, negotiation, compromise, weighing options and alternatives, and living with the uncomfortable insight that none of us has a monopoly on truth. This is unfortunate, because most of the best decisions result from the collective wisdom of highly differentiated groups.

    It would be convenient but inaccurate simply to blame the present situation with respect to public information on corporate greed or partisan politics, Johnson went on to note. We aren't being forced to consume propaganda in a totalitarian state. We are choosing to propagandize ourselves. If our nation is becoming hooked on the mentally polarizing equivalent of crack cocaine, it is because we are demanding it from the information dealers of our own choosing. The problem, Johnson reports (and his analysis is based on a careful study of our behavior) is that we tend to want to be confirmed in what we want to believe is true. We resist information, data, ideas, and facts that are contrary to our immediate self-interest, or, even more problematically, to our wishful thinking about ourselves.

    Where's Pogo when you really need him? Or, for that matter, where are John Calvin and St. Augustine of Hippo?

    It has become fashionable for even some of the most moderate, the most sensible, voices in our society to try to pin the rap of the progressing polarization of our society on somebody out there. We'd all prefer to believe this is the case. But the enemy resides in every human breast. We really are our own worst enemies when it comes to living in a functional society. The culprits are not simply the venal politicians who will say whatever they think people want to hear just to get elected. The culprits are not just the heads of news corporations pandering to the lowest common denominator in the most sensational terms. Unappealing as their actions may be, they are just delivering the packages we ordered.

    So, Pogo, having met the enemy, how do we love him enough to tell him the truth that will set him free? That is, when the "he" or "she" is us!?


    Walt Kelly created this poster for Earth Day in 1970. The image is copyright(c) 2011 OGPI and used with permission. To learn more about Pogo and his creator, visit http://www.bpib.com/kelly.htm.


  • A City Occupied: A Christmastide Reflection

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 29, 2015


    Christmastide ReflectionI read old books. I read new ones too, of course. But I often read old books. Why?

    Anyone who has read the excellent essays of Marilynne Robinson will see how much we can benefit from allowing our minds to be nourished by texts from the past. Her essay, “On Human Nature,” bringing writers like Gregory of Nyssa into conversation with William James and Richard Rorty, provokes the imagination in ways that a reading of contemporaries alone could never have achieved.*

    G.K. Chesterton has said that listening to the voices of the past – and this includes the voices preserved in what we often refer to as “tradition” – is a way of extending the franchise to the generations who have gone before us. The dead should get to vote, Chesterton says.

    In his preface to a very old book (I’ll turn to this specific book in a moment), C.S. Lewis says that old books help us put “the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” For this reason, he believed that for every new book we read, we ought to read one old book. We keep a balanced perspective by drawing on wisdom old and new. This seems pretty sensible to me. We are tempted to believe that the crises, debates, problems and controversies of the moment in which we live are the worst ever faced. Old books help us to see that no age was ever free of difficulties. They also help us to understand that the assumptions we share in an age may be the very things keeping us from finding solutions. A “new” solution can sometimes come from a very “old” source. “Two heads are better than one,” C.S. Lewis writes in his preface, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” This is particularly true if one of the heads comes from a very different time.

    The book to which Lewis wrote this preface is, as I said a moment ago, a very old one. It dates from the fourth century A.D. and was written by one of the greatest theologians of the ancient church, Athanasius. The title of the book is De Incarnatione or On the Incarnation.**

    I confess that I love this book, although I do not share the general philosophical worldview of its author. I learn something new every time I turn to this very old book. It is without apology a book of Christian doctrine, a theological book of the highest order, and it requires careful study, not only to understand it in the context of its own philosophical and theological world, but to translate it (literally and figuratively) into our contemporary vernacular. But I have often found that it is precisely in this hard work of study and translation that we gain some of the most extraordinary “spiritual” insights.

    Again, in his preface to this book, C.S. Lewis observes:

    “For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

    To show what I (and Lewis) mean, I would like to reflect for a few moments on just one of the many ways Athanasius attempts to plumb the meaning of the mystery of God’s incarnation.

    For Athanasius, our atonement is inseparable from God’s union with humanity in Jesus Christ. Humanity has been atoned with God in Jesus Christ. We have been reconciled with God in the act of God’s becoming human. And now, our human flesh has been taken into the very depths of the Triune God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit; in union with God, our broken humanity is healed.

    Athanasius attempts to explain what this means for us by telling a story. Imagine, he writes, a great king who has entered into a great city that has become overrun by bandits and brigands. These enemies are ruining the city. The great king takes up residence in one of the houses of this city and declares the city to be his own. Indeed, the great king makes it his own by dwelling in this city. The king’s occupation of the city has the effect of routing the bandits and brigands who would not dare to exert their claims or attempt to take advantage of the city’s inhabitants now that the city has been made the king’s own. The king has united himself to the city and to its inhabitants through his presence in it. The city is his. Athanasius then draws the line clearly from the illustration to the theological reality:

    “For since God has come to our realm and has dwelt in a body similar to ours, now every machination of the enemy against humanity has ceased and the corruption of death, which formerly had power over them, has been destroyed. For the race of humanity would have perished, unless the Lord of all and Savior, the Son of God, had come to put an end to death.” (De Incarnatione, chapter nine).

    Speaking as Athanasius did in an age when earthly kingdoms were common and lawless brigands were a regular threat, his example would have been immediately understandable. However, there’s almost a greater effect in hearing the story today when literal kingdoms are few and the threats we face are somewhat different. The metaphor works perhaps even better because of the distance and dissimilarities.

    Metaphors always point to deep truths through their congruities and incongruities. One might almost say that like art (according to Pablo Picasso), metaphors tell us the truth by telling us a lie, or at least only a partial truth. The friction between the metaphor and that of which the metaphor speaks can make the meaning even more intelligible.

    In the time and philosophical world of Athanasius, there was a logic at work in his story that does not work with most of us today. And, yet, there is still a wisdom operative in the notion that God has laid claim fully to humanity by becoming fully human. In our own time when the Christian doctrine of atonement is either ignored as altogether irrelevant or is clung to as an appeasement of a blood-thirsty deity by the death of an innocent, Athanasius’ old book breathes new life into the doctrine, reminding us that Jesus Christ is God’s atonement, that God always acts in love for all the world, that God is not a split personality divided between loving and hating, that when we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating God’s being for us fully and forever.

    This is one idea that never gets old, however old the book is that conveys it.


    *Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 1-29.
    **Lewis’s preface to On the Incarnation was reprinted by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2011 in an edition of the book translated (with an introduction by) John Behr. It provides an excellent and clearly accessible edition of the classic text. For those with more technical interest, I highly recommend the edition edited and translated by Robert W. Thomson, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) which provides both the Greek text and a good English translation.


  • Preparing the Way of the Lord

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 14, 2015


    Prepare the Way of the LordThe great 16th century reformer of the church, Martin Luther, maintained that if we wish to know what God is like, we would do best to run to the manger in Bethlehem or to the cross on Calvary. He was convinced that the source of authentic knowledge of God lies not in abstract speculation, but in an encounter by the power of the Holy Spirit with Jesus of Nazareth.

    As we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ - the Word of God in speechless infancy - I want to share with you three Christmas prayers, each of which reminds us that the incarnation is not a riddle that can be solved but a mystery that reduces us to awe and reverence.

    "God, the Eternal Mystery of our Life, by the birth of Your own word of love in our flesh You have made the glory of Your life in its eternal youth into our life, and have caused it to appear in triumph. Grant us that when we experience the disappointments of our lives we may be enabled to believe that Your love, which You Yourself are and which You have bestowed upon us, is the eternal youth that is our own true life."

    -Karl Rahner, Prayers for a Lifetime (New York: Crossroad, 1984), p. 46.

    "O Son of God, from the beginning you were with the Father, and for us and for our salvation you came down from heaven. Grant us more and more to receive of your fullness and to accept from you the power to become the children of God; for you are the true light of everyone who comes into the world, now and forever."

    -John Wallace Suter, Prayers of the Spirit (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943), p. 18.

    "While all the world, Lord God, lay wrapped in deepest silence, and night had reached its mid-point, your all-powerful Word came down. As year by year the beauty of this night returns, growing old with the aged and renewed in the wonder of children, so may we, grown old in sin but reborn to grace, proclaim with our lives what we chant with our lips: Glory to you, our God, in the highest heavens, peace on earth and in the depth of every human heart."

    -Concluding prayer for vigils, Christmas Day, Benedictine Daily Prayer Compiled and edited by Maxwell E. Johnson, Oblate of Saint John's Abbey and the Monks of Saint John's Abbey (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005), p. 1371.

    May God grant you a blessed Christmas!


  • Pagan Shrines in the Crypt

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 08, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • The Gift of Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 01, 2015


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

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

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

    Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Thin Places: Walking with the Dead

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 27, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • The Church's Deaths and Resurrections

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Qoheleth's Breath

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 16, 2015


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

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

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

    Hmmm, I thought. Vanity. Emptiness. Meaninglessness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So Qoheleth used to say.


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


  • Thin Places: MacLeod's Thin Places

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 12, 2015


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

    MacLeod's Thin Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Thomas Merton and Interfaith Communication

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 10, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • In Praise of Great Editors

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 03, 2015


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Thin Places: Nameless Mystery

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 30, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • To Do A Very Beautiful Thing

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • Thin Places: Accidental Pilgrim

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 20, 2015


    A Spirituality Notebook


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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