Asking “God?”

question“God” is not an answer, but a question.

To wonder about God, to think about God, to pray, to worship, is to ask the question: where is this coming from? “This” being all that we experience: whatever we think, whatever we sense, whatever we imagine, whatever is extended in space and time before us. Now, this question may not occur to everyone. Many people seem to assume that what-is is; it just is. It’s there. But under careful reflection, this credulity starts to look rather strange.

Our lives, the whole ebb and flow of existence, of experience, of living, is marked by contingency. Contingency, in this broad cosmological sense, simply means that whatever-is did not have to be. Whatever is happening, we know something else could be happening. It’s important to note that this is true even if one is a strict determinist. Even if you believe that every event that has happened since the Big Bang has been caused without any possible variation by the preceding set of events, that whole collection of events (that is, the universe) is still utterly contingent: first, because the rules that govern those events seem to be contingent themselves. The fundamental forces of physics, for example, do not seem to be necessary. As far as I know, no physicist argues that these forces or rules are absolute or necessary in the strict and final sense. And when these forces or laws are expressed mathematically, there are a range of constants and operators which we know could be otherwise, at least in theory. The fundamental forces of physics are actual but not necessary. They are, thus, contingent.

But contingency runs even deeper. It’s not just that what-is could be other than it is, it also seems that what-is could simply not be at all. This is often expressed in the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s important to understand that when philosophers and theologians pronounced “nothing” here, they are not talking about empty space and time, but rather no-space and no-time, no-actuality and no-possibility, even no-necessity. Nothing means no-thing, nothing at all. Often, when people talk about nothing, they mean not-this-thing. But not-this-thing is not nothing, it’s just something else. Empty space and empty time–an endless black expanse with no matter or energy for eternity–would still be something. Extension of space and time is not no-thing, it is something, even if it’s a something that appears as almost nothing to human thought.

So why is there something rather than nothing? The idea of “God” is not the answer to this question! When we use “God” as an easy answer to such profound and unanswerable questions, we both disrespect the intelligence of atheists and belittle the power and mystery of God. God is not an answer, God is not an idea, God is not a topic of discussion. The idea of God is simply the mental response of taking the question seriously. “God” is the horizon of all being and knowing.

To say that one has faith in God must mean that one simply says that the contingent universe, the actual but not necessary flow of whatever simply is at each moment, and indeed the very ground of that existence–extended space and time–that all of this, all of this, proceeds from something other than itself. God, then, conceptually, is the Whence of existence. I use this archaic English word “whence” here because I think it captures something that is harder to communicate in contemporary English.

Centuries ago, in addition to the question word “where”, we also had two other location words in English: whence and whither (not to be confused with “wither”!). To ask “whence” was to ask “from where”, and to ask “whither” was to ask “to where”. So, if I asked “whence cometh thou?” I would be asking “Where did you come from?” And if I asked “whither goest thou?” I was asking “Where are you going to?” Where told someone my current location; whence and whither told them where I had come from and where I was going.

To say that God is the Whence of existence is to say that God is that from which existence flows. Once we have seen that existence is utterly contingent–that it is actual but in no way necessary–asking after this Whence makes sense. But if we see existence as both actual and necessary, if we think that what-is just is and needs no further comment, then we won’t ask after this Whence. This is what it means to say that “God” is a question. When we say “God” we are asking ourselves and each other, “whence comes all that is?”

It is crucial to see one important consequence of understanding “God” in this way. If it’s true that all that exists flows from God, then it is not true to say that God exists. Now, this is not to say that we would agree with what people mean when they say “God doesn’t exist”. Rather, it is to say that the category of existence is simply not able to capture the reality of God. In other words, to believe in God is to believe that existence–the events of extended space and time, and even the rules that govern this extension–does not include everything that is real. “Real” here covers the fullness of all that is in the broadest and deepest possible sense, where “existence” refers only to reality as it appears to humans, that limited degree of reality that we can sense and cognize (for more on this, see Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal).

This is why it is truer to say that “God” is a question and not an answer. Prayer and worship are not confident acts of certainty, but the opening of humanity to the mystery at their very center, an attempt to gaze back at the very fount of existence, to ask the great Whence. For Christians, to admit that “God” is a question should not challenge our faith, it should deepen it! For Jesus made this point himself when he instructed us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7-12). Once we have understood that our actuality depends on something other than itself to be, we have taken the first step towards God.

The Flat Self and the Deep Other

Julian-of-Norwich-&-hazelnut-798183Early in our lives, our sensory and mental life is all we can imagine; it fills not only our immediacy but also the boundaries of what we think possible. However things appear, whatever thoughts come to us, that’s reality, as far as we can know or imagine. It doesn’t seem like there could be anything else. As we get older, things start to change a bit. We have new experiences, new ideas, new conceptual relations. We begin to realize that there is more to reality than what appears to our consciousness at any given moment. We come to realize that other people’s experiences could be different–perhaps radically different–from our own, and yet also reflect reality just as truly as our own.

Once we begin to admit and accept that not all is as it seems, that there is more than meets the eye, and indeed more than meets our conceptual models, a funny thing happens to us. Our sensory experience, our mental life, which before seemed so full and so rich, starts to flatten. We recognize that what occurs to us is superficial. It’s almost as if our world goes low-definition; we thought we had three or indeed four dimensions available to us, but we begin to see that our world, the world as it appears to us, is more like two-dimensional. Something is missing. Maybe a lot is missing! We begin to fill a bit hemmed-in by the horizons of our immediate consciousness.

This can be deeply unsettling, because our grip on certainty loosens here, and we have to give up control. Especially for people raised primarily as English-speakers, this can be even more troubling, for the culture of English-language philosophy is primarily a culture of empiricism: a confidence that, if we analyze our sensory experience closely enough, we can uncover all truth. To begin to see that this may not be quite true is to relinquish not only a view of the world that is important to us, but a view of ourselves too. The real world is somewhat veiled to us; not all mysteries will yield to our probing.

Yet this realization is, ultimately, liberating. To relinquish this world of our creating is to relinquish a small, sad, dead world. So long as the world is only what we see and think it to be, so long as we are the measure of reality, we know that we can never go beyond ourselves, we cannot transcend our limitations; we know we are trapped. To realize that the world we know is flat and superficial, ironically, allows us to see the world’s true value. Its flatness points to a depth somewhere else; the world we make doesn’t speak the whole truth, but it is spoken by a deeper truth. If there is more to reality than what we see and think, that more is real and is worth turning towards, even if its beyond our sensing and thinking. To see the world as flat is actually to begin to appreciate its real depth.

To see our world–and ourselves–in this way, however, is not easy. It means relinquishing not only that control and certainty, but also easy and convenient answers. It means accepting that life is, at its very core, infinitely mysterious, that we are given to ourselves from a place beyond our understanding. So it is not only that our world is stranger than we imagined, but we are stranger to ourselves than we imagined or want to accept. It’s not always a totally pleasant realization. But in the face of this troubling mystery lies our truth and the only possibility of real freedom.

Most of all, this realization, of the otherness of reality from our immediate experience, is the true foundation for faith in God.

Questions for Christmas and Epiphany

shepherds&angelsDuring Advent, I found myself seeking new directions in my devotional practice. I found that I was less attentive during private times of prayer. After thinking on this for a while, I decided to begin using questions as a part of my prayer life. At a time when I wasn’t sure how to pray, I figured spiritual honesty was the best approach. So, during Christmastide, I reflected on three questions as a part of my devotional and prayer practice: what does Jesus’s Incarnation really mean? How is Jesus incarnate with us today? How can we live that incarnation? I say that I reflected on these questions, rather than “asked” them. I wasn’t seeking a straightforward answer–from myself or God. I wanted to really meditate on these questions, to enter the depth and mystery of Christian life.

Now it is the season of Epiphany, when we in the western Church reflect on the visitation of the magi (or “wise men”) who had been called to a new land to meet a new human who would inaugurate a new kind of life. So, I find myself reflecting on new questions: what New Thing is God doing with the birth of Jesus? How can we have eyes to see and ears to hear, so that we can understand this new thing? How can be be prepared for a New Thing to happen today?

What I have found interesting–and surprising–is that my Epiphany questions seems to almost provide answers to my Christmas ones. What does Jesus’s incarnation mean? It means that God is doing something truly, radically new in the world. How is Jesus incarnate with us today? By opening us to the possibility of more new and radically unexpected possibilities.

Jesus is so familiar to us Christians–and, indeed, even to many non-Christians–that we forget how strange, how uncomfortable, how truly and ridiculously new he was and is. We often domesticate him, make him an easy ally and friend, a crutch for our own personal or political beliefs. We lean on Jesus when it’s convenient, but ignore his inconvenient teachings, his challenges to popular ideas, his call to radical discipleship.

To say that Jesus is a New Thing that God is doing in the world is to accept and admit that, in Jesus, God is changing things. God is not only changing other things, other people, God is changing us. And that’s not easy to hear. We want God to be an insurance policy for who we are now, we want eternal life to be us staying who we are now, forever. But that isn’t what Jesus is offering. That isn’t who Jesus is.

Salvation means being changed. It means being made new. This is, I think, the hard teaching Jesus offers us in the third chapter of John, where we hear that we must be born “again” (or “from above”). Jesus is bringing a new life so radically new that it’s like being born again. We have to die to our past selves so that we can live as new selves, true selves, the selves that God always meant for us to be. This is the promise of God’s love, but it’s not easy. It’s not convenient. This view of Christianity doesn’t allow us to maintain the status quo and feel self-righteous. It forces us to be honest with ourselves, to ask how we have to change to be True.

So let us have eyes to see and ears to hear the New Thing God is doing in Jesus Christ. And let us be gripped by this New Thing, let us be changed, let us become who we truly are.

Mary Junior: An (Advent) Sermon for Dec. 24, 2017

The readings for this sermon can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I focus on the Gospel reading and mention the OT reading as well.

maryAnnunciationGabrielWe’re just a few hours away from Christmas. Yet our Gospel reading for today does not place us hours before Jesus’s birth, but instead hours before his conception. We are stepping nine months back in time. If Christmas is the New Beginning for the world, then today, we hear about the beginning of the Beginning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary with a strange–and ridiculous–message. She will give birth to a special child, despite the fact that she is a virgin. Now, Mary is a sharp young woman, and so she explains to this over-excited angel that this just isn’t how the world works, this isn’t how babies normally come into the world. What the angel is suggesting is impossible.

Then Gabriel responds to Mary: it may well be impossible for humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible for God. This is no normal situation, and her child will be no normal human being. Something truly new is about to happen. So Mary is left with a choice: having heard that impossibility is no barrier to God’s action, what will she do? I think this is the crux of our story today. It all comes down to this: how will Mary respond now? Well, she simply says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She signs on to God’s crazy, impossible, ridiculous mission.

Now, some people have speculated that perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman Gabriel approached that night. Maybe God had spoken to a dozen, two dozen women before her, but each had said “No!” to God’s crazy plan. Perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman visited that night, perhaps she was just the first woman to say “Yes!” to God, to agree to this ridiculous mission. Of course, such stories are not a part of our canon of Scripture. But I think they make something very important clear: Mary had to choose to take on this mission. God was calling her to an important work, but wasn’t going to force it on her. She had a decision to make.

This reminds me of some other stories from the Gospels. Over the coming weeks and months, as you listen to the Gospel proclaimed here in Church, or as you read the Gospels at home, I invite you to pay particular attention to the stories of Jesus healing people. Almost every time, after he has healed someone, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Jesus doesn’t say that he, Jesus, made them well, or that the Holy Spirit made them well. Their faith made them well. Even with the physical presence of God Incarnate standing before them, they could only be healed if they turned and chose to receive God’s gift of healing.

This means that we humans have an incredible power in in our choices. But of course, that power also means we have great responsibility: we have to have the faith and courage to hear God’s call, turn, and accept God’s mission for us. And that’s what we hear in our story about Mary today. Here was a woman with the faith and courage to accept God’s crazy and ridiculous mission. If the faith of those individuals allowed them to be healed by Jesus’s presence, then we can truly say that the whole world, the whole universe, is healed because of Mary’s faith. Through her faith, the Incarnate Word was able to enter the world. By her faith, we are made well.

Now, in our Old Testament story today, we hear about a very different divine-human encounter. King David has just united the twelve tribes of Israel, and he makes a public announcement that he will build a temple for God. The king is ashamed that while he sits in his palace, and his people are building home for themselves, God has no house. But through the prophet Nathan, God speaks to David, and tells him that he’s got it all wrong, he doesn’t understand: God has no more need for a house than God has need for food or water. In truth, wherever there are faithful people, God truly lives. Moving forward many centuries, Mary’s story is the culmination of Nathan’s prophecy. In her, God truly dwelt as the Incarnate Word.

Through the decision of one humble–but faithful and courageous–woman, God was able to act; through her faith and action, God came to heal and save the world. We Christians today have a lot to learn from Mary’s example. Like her, we should choose to become vessels of God’s love in the world. Like her, we should sign on to God’s crazy, ridiculous, impossible mission: a mission where, somehow, love defeats hate, and life defeats death.

So my hope and prayer for us, in these last few hours of Advent, with Christmas on the horizon, is that each one of us will choose to be little Mary Juniors, that we will choose to take on this mission, and bear the image of Incarnate Word in this world.


The Reason(ing) for the Season

nativityIs Christmas a real Christian holiday? It may seem like an odd question, but it’s one that gets a lot of attention in some quarters. It’s become something of an online tradition, really: this time of year, a few articles and videos will surface that claim to expose a Christmas conspiracy. The piece will argue that, although Christians claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, in fact, that’s not the case at all. They then go on to make a number of claims in a quasi-conspiratorial tone. These articles and videos tend to repeat the same claims with the same mixture of out-of-context historical data and slippery argumentation to suggest that, somehow, Christmas is not really a Christian holiday at all. I think this conclusion is demonstrably false and even silly, and I’d like to explain why.

First, let’s establish the core claims at the heart of many of these videos and articles:

  1. We don’t actually know when Jesus was born, therefore December 25 isn’t really Jesus’s birthday.
  2. Other religious groups–e.g. those who worshiped Mithra–celebrated December 25 as a major feast. Christians chose this day in order to compete with such celebrations.
  3. Some Christians (e.g. Puritans) actively suppressed the celebration of Christmas, in part because it was often celebrated with lots of alcohol. This suggests that, for many, Christmas was more about partying and gifts than about religion.
  4. Many Christmas traditions–including the use of pine trees–have nothing to do with Jesus and come from pre-Christian European customs.

Now, each of the above claims has a solid historical fact behind it, and so, taken just as historical facts, there’s little to argue with. The problem is that people will take these well-established points and try to fashion a further argument from them: namely, that Christmas “isn’t really a Christian holiday at all.” This is the sticking point. People move from solid claims to a mangled conclusion through fallacious reasoning. I’d like to address each claim in turn and show that, although the historical kernel in each is solid, none suggest in any way that Christmas is somehow an illegitimate holiday or some kind of elaborate ecclesiastic conspiracy.

First claim: we don’t actually know Jesus’s birthday

Claim one begins with an undeniable truth: although the vast majority of historians and text-scholars interested in the subject agree that Jesus of Nazareth existed, we have no idea when he was born. So, December 25 could be Jesus’s birthday, but it seems no more likely than any other date. But to argue that this means that December 25 can’t be properly celebrated as Jesus’s birthday, or that this date could not become fixed as the day on which Jesus’s birthday ought to be celebrated, is fallacious.

To see why, consider this example: many Somali refugees share the same birthday on their government-issued documents: January 1. This puzzled me when I first noticed it, but after asking around, I learned that this date was assigned to these particular refugees because no one–not even the individuals themselves–knew when they were born. (Exactly why is a little unclear to me. It may be the case that Somali culture simply doesn’t stress celebrating birthdays, or it may be because so many Somalis were orphaned at a young age during the civil war(s) in that country, or some combination of these and other reasons.) January 1 was assigned as their date of birth for government documents simply for bureaucratic expediency.

Now, say that I wanted to throw a birthday party for three different Somali refugees, each of which had January 1 listed as their official date of birth. I could just throw one giant part on the first of the year, but this seems like a bad idea for a number of reasons: first, each man would not feel that he was being celebrated himself, he would have to share the day. Second, none of the men might feel that this date held any significance for them; indeed, throwing a party on this date might simply remind them of sad realities about their past. Third and perhaps most significantly, most Americans will have celebrated New Year’s Eve the night prior, and probably won’t be interested in attending a birthday party the next day.

What should I do? Here’s one solution: soccer is popular in Somalia. Let’s say that each man has a different favorite player: one loves Cristiano Ronaldo, another prefers Lionel Messi, the third is more old-school and thinks that no one has topped Pele. Perhaps we could have each man celebrate his birthday on the birthday of his favorite player: February 5, June 24, and October 23, respectively. That seems like a solution that will spread the birthdays out, let each man feel that the day has some real significance for him, and hopefully avoid conflicts with other major celebrations.

Of course, the likelihood that any of these men were actually born on their newly-adopted birth-dates is exceedingly low. But I doubt that anyone would arrive at the party and then loudly explain that today isn’t really Abdihahim’s birthday, because we don’t actually know when he was born. In fact, such a person would not only be rude, but also misguided: a birthday is not a celebration of a day, it’s a celebration of a person. The date of their birth is just a convenient day to set aside for this celebration.

Christmas, too, is the celebration not of a date, not of the particular angle at which the sun sits in the sky, but is rather a celebration of a person–in this case, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we Christians regard as the Messiah. Not knowing the date of his birth in no way prevents us from celebrating his birth and his life. December 25 is at least as good a day to choose as any other.

Second Claim: December 25 was a common pagan holiday

That December 25–or other days just before or after it–was a common day for a variety of religious celebrations in the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago is uncontroversial. The date may have been celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, and it seemed it was definitely set aside for the celebration of Sol Invictus. Some of these differing holidays may also have been conflated and combined by some syncretistic groups (Constantine himself worshiped both Jesus and Sol Invictus; he may also have conflated Jesus with Apollo). Furthermore, it seems likely that the Church chose December 25 precisely to compete, as it were, with these varying mystery religions and local cults. Again, this is all more-or-less well established historically. No argument here.

The question is: what significance does any of this have for contemporary Christians who celebrate Christmas on December 25? Some people seem to think that Christmas is not a legitimate Christian holiday because its date was chosen in the way that it was. But it is not at all clear why this would be the case. Again, since we don’t know Jesus’s actual birthday, December 25 is just as suitable as any other day. If Christians decided that this day made especially good sense as a day to celebrate Jesus’s birthday because it would allow them to party on the day when their pagan neighbors (and frequently, their pagan friends) partied, then, so what? It’s not at all clear what harm has been done here. Again, none of this has been hidden by the Church. Sometimes people will post memes about Mithra and Jesus as if they are disclosing some deeply hidden secret. One gets the sense that such people have read The DaVinci Code and confused its fiction for history.

The Christian church has a long-standing policy regarding human cultural practices: there are some–like, say, human sacrifice–that the Church definitely opposes, and so, if the faith is spreading to a community that practices human sacrifice, that practice must be opposed and ended. There are other cultural practices–like caring for the sick–that the Church actively agrees with, and so, if the faith were spread to a community that already valued caring for the sick, then the Church would probably simply amplify this existing practice. Meanwhile, there are a host of practices that the Church neither supports nor rejects. The attitude to such practices is to simply strip them of any offending element (say, the worship of a pagan deity), and then allow them to carry on otherwise as they did before. This point will come up again below when addressing the fourth claim, but let’s make it clear here: there is a lot of human culture that is simply neutral, as far as the Church is concerned. Having a party on December 25 is just such a cultural practice. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a thing people can do.

Now, one option for the Church would have been to simply insist that Christians who wanted to party on December 25 do so without engaging in any pagan religious practices. What the Church did instead was to start its own version of the December 25 party, and link it to Jesus’s birthday: a classic two birds and one stone scenario. Celebrating Jesus’s birthday was already something many Christians would have wanted to do; why not celebrate it on a day when people already party, and thereby strip away any religious elements that would have been problematic for church members?

This history to the celebration of Christmas doesn’t showcase some kind of conspiracy on the part of the early Church. Instead, we just see how pragmatic early Christians were. Any day could have been used to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, but December 25 made sense for the reasons listed above (and probably many others, such as its proximity to the winter solstice, and themes of the renewal of life in the darkest and coldest time of the year). Admitting all of this, though, does no harm to the contemporary practice of Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Having admitted this pragmatic genesis to the holiday, we Christians can certainly carry on celebrating it regardless. When Christians gather on Christmas Eve, we really are celebrating Jesus’s birth, despite the fact that December 25 probably isn’t his real birthday and despite the fact that December 25 was probably chosen for all kinds of pragmatic cultural reasons.

Third Claim: Christmas is about drinking and presents!

The third claim one will often hear as a critique of Christmas as a religious holiday is that many Christians–especially the Puritans–actively tried to suppress Christmas because it was often a day of drinking, idleness, raucous games and general laziness and fun. But those who take this historical fact and spin it into an argument against the legitimacy of Christmas are making at least two massive logical errors. First, they are conflating the practices of one very particular (and rather small) Christian group with the practices of Christianity as a whole. Yes, some Christians thought Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated (for a more contemporary example, see the Jehovah’s Witnesses) but most Christians have celebrated this holiday it since its inception. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion, Lutherans–these groups have recognized the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord as an important holiday for centuries. Yet, many people in the US, at least, seem to think that because Puritans were against Christmas, all Christians were, at one time, opposed to it. But this is simply false.

Secondly, those who argue that because there was drinking and partying and laziness and games on Christmas, it wasn’t really a religious holiday are basically engaged in a continuation of the error outlined above: Puritans were definitely against drinking and laziness and fun, but most other Christians love those things. Jesus himself drank with prostitutes. In fact, those who seem to think that Christians should be scandalized by Christmas’s history as a day to drink and party only expose their own ignorance: feast days are, and always have been, days set aside especially for partying and drinking alcohol. As one of the principle feast days on the Christian calendar, of course Christians would have been drinking and having fun on Christmas. That’s the point!

Fourth Claim: Christmas traditions are really just pagan practices

The fourth and final claim made by those arguing that Christmas isn’t really a Christian holiday is that so many of the practices associated with Christmas–like decorating a pine tree–are linked with pre-Christian practices that have nothing to do with Jesus. Now, again, the core claim here is perfectly right: there’s nothing particularly Christian about pine trees or tinsel or long socks or mistletoe. But there’s also nothing un-Christian about them either. As I mentioned above, in the section on the second claim, the Church has had a long and very public policy of accepting cultural practices that are good or “neutral”. Decorating pine trees and hanging stockings and kissing under mistletoe are all, in and of themselves, perfectly fine things to do. So, as Germanic people converted to the Church, many of them retained such practices as a part of their Christmas celebration, because they were things that they did beforehand. And Church leaders….said that was just fine. So long as such practices were de-coupled from any worship of a pagan deity or other practice that the Church would have been opposed to, such cultural acts were seen as inoffensive and fine.

Again, this wasn’t some grand conspiracy to crush paganism or fool people. It was rather a completely pragmatic approach to dealing with diverse human cultures. Christianity itself has no fixed language, clothing, cultural practices, aesthetic preferences, etc. It is meant to be a universal faith that can integrate into the full diversity of human cultures. Of course, as mentioned above, at times Christian teachings will conflict with certain practices, and in that case, the Church has (or should have!) insisted that new Christians cease such practices. But the vast majority of human culture is neutral from a Christian theological viewpoint. How we dress, the shape of our houses, what kind of art or music we like–this is all up for individuals and communities to decide as they please.

So: Christmas trees are neither obligatory nor forbidden for Christians (and, of course, it’s worth pointing out that Christian communities not heavily influenced by Germanic culture celebrate Christmas without decorating pine trees. That so many in the English-speaking world seem to assume that all Christians engage in this cultural practice at Christmastime speaks to a broader and un-reflected upon ethnocentrism, even among people who likely think of themselves as worldly and tolerant…) Cultural practices associated with winter that have become attached to the celebration of Christmas among some Christian groups are just that: cultural practices. They are fine, but they are not essential to the celebration of Christmas as the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

Now, all of that said, considering that so many of these practices are basically Christo-neutral certainly does mean that non-Christians can decorate trees and kiss under mistletoe. There’s nothing Christian or un-Christian about doing those things, and if people want to re-constitute the cult of Mithra or decorate a tree in celebration of the solstice, that wouldn’t bother me as a Christian one bit. Have at it! It is only once people start to argue that Christmas is somehow not a legitimate Christian holiday–simply because the celebration of Christmas has been fused with such cultural practices–that I have a problem. Such reasoning is fallacious and, to be honest, lazy.

Of course, there is a whole ‘nother article to be written on this subject pointed in the other direction: we Christians ought to be less worried about decorations and presents and festive music and more concerned to really discern what it means to celebrate Jesus’s birth. But considering the length of this post already, that point will have to wait for a future post. I hope that I have shown that many of the arguments made against Christmas as a Christian holiday are faulty ones. Though built on solid historical claims, such arguments use poor reasoning to arrive at false conclusions. Christmas is a Christian holiday, and an important one at that.

The Task for Advent: Awakening the Already-Awake

flight_egyptThroughout my 20’s, my spiritual life was a process of asking, searching, and wondering. Around the age of 21, I realized that I was not convinced by the idea of Jesus’s divinity, and so I began to seek a spiritual community where that doctrine was not espoused, or at least not essential. I ended up worshiping with a Friends’ meeting for more than two years. But I ultimately felt that there was something still missing, and so I ended up searching farther afield–I began reading about Buddhism and Islam and attempting to practice some form of meditation, as well as integrating elements of Islamic prayer into my prayer life.

Ultimately, by the age of 27, I found myself returning to Trinitarian Christianity. After having actually studied the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity more closely, I came to realize that my earlier repudiation of them had been based largely on my own ignorance. I joined the Episcopal Church at the age of 28, and my spiritual and religious identity has been stable since then.

After spending the better part of a decade searching, seeking, and asking, this stability was welcome–I felt that I was finally able to really dig into the tradition I was committed to, instead of constantly gliding over the surface of various communities. Yet, over the last year or two, I have felt a sort of dis-ease in my spiritual life. Although I think there are many causes to this–the process of discerning ordination, the grind of academic life, raising a young daughter–lately I have come to recognize a new dimension to it. I think that I have begun to miss the sense of seeking and questing in my spiritual life. Throughout my 20’s, spiritual truth was this elusive quarry I was chasing, and though at the time I only wanted to end my search, now I find myself missing that chase.

Or–not missing that chase per se, but missing the sense of wonder and discovery that came with it, To accept that, somehow, in Jesus, God is revealed and present is, in one sense, to end the journey of seeking and discovering. To rest in the peace and power of Jesus Christ is to accept that no further search is going to reveal a greater or deeper truth. Of course, I might still research other faiths, both out of curiosity as well as respect towards the diverse systems of human spiritual and religious thought. But the sense of yearning, even of desperation, that drove me before, is no longer there.

This is, of course, a good thing, and yet it has also led to a stultifying of my spiritual life to some extent. Not feeling that desperate yearning, prayer and meditation now have less emotional and existential draw. Because I now have a spiritual and religious life that is intellectually satisfying and more or less complete, I don’t have the same energy behind my spiritual practice.

But reflecting on these thoughts and feelings has only revealed to me how foolish I am; even at thirty-five years of age, I am still so ignorant. Just as I showed my ignorance at 21 in rejecting doctrines I didn’t even understand, these last few years I have shown my ignorance in thinking I know and understand far more than I do. It’s one thing to say that in Jesus, God reveals Godself to me. It’s another thing to really know what this means. I can say that God is revealed and even present in Christ, but I then have to immediately add a qualifier–this revealed presence is utterly mysterious. If I utter the name of Jesus, or reflect on the Incarnation, or receive His body and blood in the Eucharist, I do not suddenly have some total conceptual clarity about what it means to call Jesus divine. I can–and do–say these things, think these things, and do these things, all without really uncovering the mystery of what it all means.

In truth, then, my sense of spiritual stability was really rather temporary. My identity as a Christian is not changing, and yet what it means to be Christian remains really beyond my comprehension. I stopped journeying, asking, seeking, and questioning, not because I had actually reached some final point of truth, but because I was both tired of the search, I think, and also because I put too much stock in my own intellectual abilities. I thought that the deepest mysteries of being, of life, of existence, were just puzzles to be solved, instead of realities beyond the horizons of human consciousness. I stopped the journey, but I was not at the destination.

So one of my tasks, I think, during this Advent, is to really accept my ignorance, to recognize the depth of the mystery of Jesus’s divinity, and to thereby rekindle my spiritual curiosity, and to reengergize my prayer, meditation, and devotional practices. Christ calls us to remain awake, aware, and vigilant. This is a call meant, I think, most of all for those of us who think we already are awake, aware, and vigilant.

Forever Stewards: A Sermon for Thanksgiving, 2017

giftThe readings for this sermon (Thanksgiving Year A) can be found here. I focus on the passage from Deuteronomy.

What are we thankful for? This is a question some of us have been asking ourselves this week, and especially today. In some homes, families will ask each person at the table to say at least one thing they are thankful for. What will we say? Family: we are thankful for our families–at least most of the time. Those of us with work will be thankful for that, and for the money to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Those of us in good health are thankful for this, to be able to get up in the morning and go about our day without pain or difficulty. Those of us living in the US are probably thankful for the relative peace and security we enjoy here.

The truth is, of course, that whatever we have that is good or valuable, we should be thankful for. As Christians, we know that God created the world as a free gift–God did not have to create anything, but out of an abundance of love, God chose to. This means that not only everything we have–all our possessions–but even all of our skills and abilities, and indeed our very lives: it’s all a pure and free gift. This is why we hear God warning us in Deuteronomy today:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth

Everything we have is a gift. So how can we give thanks? How can we thank God if everything we have that we might give in thanks, God already gave? If everything is a gift from God, then, in truth, everything already belongs to God. How do you thank the God who already has everything?

Those of us gathered in church might begin by saying: through prayer, worship, and praise. And this is certainly important. But our thankfulness cannot and should not end here. If we are thankful to God for God’s generosity, let us be generous with God’s gifts. Let us pass on God’s loving gifts to those in need.

Churches around the country are now wrapping up their stewardship seasons, a time when members of churches discern how much they can financially support their parish. And this is certainly important. But stewardship does not begin or end with our pledgecards. Stewardship is a way of life, it is our response to God’s love and gifts. To be a steward simply means to be responsible for what belongs to someone else. If everything we have, and everything we are, is a gift from God, then our whole lives are a time of stewardship. We are looking after what God has freely given. So what does this mean?

Well, it means that if I give food to a hungry person, if I clothe a naked person, if I help a homeless person find a home, if I help a sick person get the medical care they need–I am not giving away anything that belongs to me. I am simply passing the gifts God has given to me on to the next person. I am being generous because God has been generous. This is Christian stewardship.

We come to the altar to receive communion. Another word for this communion is the Eucharist. Now, “eucharist” is a Greek word that means–you guessed it–“thanksgiving”. In the Eucharist, we give thanks. We give thanks to God for creation and all the gifts of life, but especially for God’s work of healing and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. God didn’t have to do this. Just like in creation, God chose to freely give because of God’s infinite love for a broken world. And we come to the altar and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood–we receive the gift all over again. And for this, we give thanks.

My hope for us today is that we will not let our Eucharist, our thanksgiving, end at the altar. When our deacon dismisses us, and we extinguish the candles, and walk through those doors, let our Eucharist continue! Let us give thanks, not only on Sundays or on one day in November, but every day of our lives. And if we are thankful, let us be generous as God has been generous with us.

To conclude, I can think of nothing better than to repeat the collect our priest prayed just a few minutes ago:

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.



Superstore’s Super Disappointing Health Care Episode

superstoreCastThe sixth episode of the third season of Superstore got a little political. The episode opened with employees of the store “Cloud 9”–a not-so veiled stand-in for Wal-Mart–commiserating about how they were avoiding routine medical care because they simply couldn’t pay for it.  One of the employees has an idea to start a “health fund”–they could donate money to the fund each month, and then when one of them had a really serious health concern, they could draw money out to pay for medical care.

The episode then unfolds by showing how this innocent and worthwhile intention would be wrecked upon the rocks of reality: employees were giving $20 a month, but frequently wanted to withdraw thousands. By the end of the episode, the two employees who had spearheaded the idea were coming up with solutions that will be familiar to anyone who has shopped for health insurance: various tiers of care based on how much a given employee paid, for instance, and having the sicker members pay ten times what healthy members did. The episode concludes with the employees admitting that coming up with a solution to the healthcare crisis was far harder than they had imagined.

The episode is disappointing because it begins with an honest portrayal of a problem that millions of Americans face–but by the end, the episode basically mocks those who criticize our current healthcare system, and seems to suggest that, for all its faults, this is the best we can hope for. But the episode only reaches this conclusion by misrepresenting the problem and obscuring the real issues at play.

The health fund that the employees pull together functions by having the very-low-income employees pay into a fund to help each other. While the employees’ willingness to contribute to this kind of mutual-aid arrangement is itself laudable, it should be obvious from the outset why such a plan will never work. You can’t get blood from a stone, can you can’t get the fortune you need to pay for medical care from a group of poor people. They just don’t have the money.

The real question here, of course, is: why are these people so poorly paid to begin with? Why don’t they have the resources they need to pay for basic needs like medical care? In short, the healthcare crisis in this country is not really about technology, or government red tape, or poorly-managed corporate bureaucracies–although we could be doing better in each of these areas, of course. The healthcare crisis in this country is simply one of justice. People can’t access healthcare because they are not paid a just wage for their work. It really is that simple. If people were paid a living wage, they could afford healthcare. Because they are not paid a living wage, they cannot.

So while I was happy and excited when this episode of Superstore began, because I thought the writers might take this opportunity to address a serious topic, by the end of the episode it was clear that no serious discussion of the facts was forthcoming. In fact, by presenting the mutual-aid health fund as the only option to respond to the problem of exorbitant health care costs, this episode may actually deceive its viewers. It is telling that none of the employees ever mentioned political action, or, say, a strike as a way of securing better healthcare (to be fair, it is worth mentioning that the employees did successfully strike on a previous episode, so this topic has been positively addressed by this program). And the characters never once raised the simple question of whether they were being justly paid. Their poverty was simply taken for granted, as an unfortunate but unremarkable feature of the world that they simply had to accept.

This is a pernicious message to present to viewers, and those of us who want to see a more just world should be concerned–though, of course, not surprised–to see this message reinforced on network television. While we should not expect any show that is broadcast on a network owned by wealthy interests to speak honestly about the injustice of our economic system, we should consistently call attention to this kind of deceptive, bait-and-switch messaging on serious topics. I say all of this as a fan of Superstore; it’s one of the few current sitcoms my wife and I consistently watch. But if we can’t criticize things we like when they misstep, then we really can’t criticize anything. I hope this criticism of the episode can be the beginning of a more serious conversation about the injustice of our healthcare system.

Spending Our Inheritance: A Sermon for Nov 19, 2017

The Readings for this Sermon (Year A Proper 28) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. My sermon focuses especially on the Epistle and Gospel readings:

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 — Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30 — Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what appears below is a version written from memory.

hands-moneyHow do we think about God? How do we talk about God? How do we picture God? We Christians draw on Scripture to talk about God, and Scripture provides a wealth of images and ideas: God as a parent, God as a king, God as a mighty warrior. These images are especially prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. From the New Testament, we hear about God as a shepherd, tending the flock, and about God as both priest and as as sacrifice, at the same time. We also hear about God even as an inanimate object: God as a rock, as a castle, as a stronghold.

Now it’s crucial that we don’t make the mistake of understanding any of these images literally. God is not actually our biological father, and God is not literally tending sheep on some hillside. And God is certainly not actually just a rock! But to say that these names for God are not literally true is not to say they are not true; indeed, these words are the Truth made accessible to us humans. Our minds cannot grasp the mystery of God, and so we need such language to try and reach beyond ourselves. These images of God are in fact true because they are not literal.

Today Jesus gives us another image of God in our parable: when you come across the words “lord” or “master” in Scripture, there’s a pretty good chance it’s referring to God. And in this case, it refers specifically to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. I think that’s pretty clear. As for the slaves or servants, who might they be? I think this is relatively clear, too: if the lord is Jesus, then his servants are the disciples–not just the original twelve, but we here in this room today as well. We are Jesus’s disciples–or, at least, we are trying to be.

So far, so good. But what about this journey that the lord takes? What’s going on with that? This isn’t so immediately clear. But if we meditate on this for a moment, I think the answer will appear: Jesus frequently tries to teach his students about the inconvenient fact that he will die and leave them, and about the mystery of his eventual return. I think this is what the trip signifies: Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension is the beginning of the trip, and the return his Jesus’s second coming.

So we have our characters and the basic story: Jesus, his disciples, and the time between his ascension and his return. But there’s a lot more here; Jesus is trying to tell us what we should be doing during this long absence. And so we come to the last piece of the parable: what are these talents? What is this inheritance? This is really the center of the parable; if we are going to understand it, we have to get this right.

The first thing we need to make clear is that the “talents” here are not referring to our skills or personality traits, as the English word might suggest. Here, a talent is a unit of measurement. It’s a weight. Gold and silver were measured in talents. When I was researching earlier this week, I came across one scholar who explained that a talent of silver might have been worth as much as 38,000 denarii–a denarius was basically the daily wage at the time. So think about how much you make in one day, and multiply that by thirty-eight thousand, and you will have some idea of what a talent was worth. Millions, maybe even billions, of dollars. A lot of money.

So, what does Jesus mean by this? Was he being literal? Was he giving investment advice? Was he saying that at the second coming, he’s going to bring his accounting book and demand some pretty serious donations? I don’t think so! First off, all evidence suggests that Jesus himself was rather poor. The idea that he left some huge sum of money to the early church doesn’t hold water. And indeed, all the evidence suggests that all of his disciples were pretty poor too. Furthermore, whenever Jesus did talk about money, he pretty much told us we should just it all away.

So Jesus wasn’t being literal–just like the images of God we discussed before are not literal. So what does he mean then? It’s a difficult passage, but I think that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us here. Paul is talking about the same issues–he is discussing the “night time” that the church lives in, after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, yet before his return. It’s a dark and difficult time. Yet Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, and so we must not be discouraged. And we don’t have to struggle here alone. We are called to do the work Christ has left for us to do, and we have been given tools to do that work. Paul uses a military metaphor–just as we talked about before, Scripture sometimes describes God as a mighty warrior–and Paul draws on this tradition. He says that we have a breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of hope. These three–faith, hope, and especially love–are a favorite theme of Paul’s writing. And they are doubtless essential to what it means to be a Christian. If we have faith and hope, it is because we know God loves us.

What if this is the inheritance that Jesus has left, the talents from our parable? We have no record of Jesus leaving any money or property, but we have ample evidence, not only of his love, but that he called on his disciples to love–each other, and neighbors, and even their enemies. If it is love that is the inheritance that Jesus left us, what does this parable then teach us?

Well, the first two servants, they took their inheritance of love, and they went out into the world and traded it, spent it, shared it. Yet when they got home, they found that they not only had all the love they started with, but actually twice as much! This isn’t how money works–if I have $10,000, and I give you 8,000, I only have 2,000 left. But God’s love doesn’t play by the rules of our world, of our economy. The more I give freely the gift of God’s love, the more love I know and feel and have.

The third servant tries a different strategy. He takes God’s love and buries it in the ground. He tries to save it for himself. And if this were money, that might make sense. He’s trying to keep it safe. But what he finds, at the end of time, is that when he goes back to dig up his treasure, he’s lost it all. This is how it is with God’s love. If I try to hold on to it for myself, I find that it withers away, it shrivels and dies, and I am left with nothing.

So what does this mean? Well, I think it means we are called to spend God’s love recklessly. We should take this gift and share it. If we do, we will find that the more we share God’s love, the more love we have. So to conclude, let us remember that prayer we pray every week, and which many of us recite daily. It begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed by thy name

God’s will, God’s kingdom–not mine! And then we continue:

thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven

We are calling for God’s kingdom, not just at the end of time, or in some metaphysical place somewhere else, but here and now, in this place. Sometimes, people think of prayer and action as polar opposites. They think that if we pray, we don’t need to act, or if we want to act, we shouldn’t bother praying. But this isn’t what prayer is about. Prayer is preparation for action. We should pray, and then act. So if, on Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, let’s go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and act on that. Let’s make it happen.

So my hope for us is that when [our deacon] dismisses us today, and we walk through the doors of this church, each one of us will ask ourselves: “how can I spend God’s love recklessly today and in the days to follow?”


An Inverted Spirituality

guruWhat do we seek when we seek spirituality or a religious community? It’s a difficult question because the terms “spiritual” and “religious” are so vague and broad; many people mean many very different things with each term. But if we don’t even know what spirituality is, then how can we seek it? How do we know if we’ve found it?

Now I certainly won’t propose to dictate the definition for such an old and complex term, but I think that a historical comparison can shed some light on this question and help us understand what we may mean by “spirituality”. In short, like many terms, I think this one’s meaning has shifted and changed over the centuries. And that shift itself can tell us a lot about ourselves and what we may be seeking when we seek the spiritual.

If one reads a traditional religious text, whether its an account of the life of Siddhartha Guatama the Buddha, or one of the gospels describing the ministry of Jesus Christ, one will find a common theme: strangers come up to the teacher seeking knowledge, truth, or peace. They assume the teacher has some kind of special wisdom, and they want to learn that wisdom. The student tends to assume that they will need to submit to a certain kind of discipline in order to access or attain to this wisdom, and they also tend to put real trust and authority in the teacher.

Consider, for example, Matthew 19:16-22:

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

This young man comes to Jesus to ask him how to attain eternal life–a spiritual question if ever there was one! And he clearly thinks that Jesus has some kind of information or wisdom that he, the young man, lacks. Jesus has authority, and this young man recognizes it, and seeks to learn from it. Notice too that when Jesus gives him the answer to his question, the young man grieves because he doesn’t like it–but he doesn’t argue with Jesus. He seems to accept the strength of Jesus’s authority, even if he isn’t pleased by the outcome.

Now, how easily could we imagine this scene in a 21st century church, synagogue, temple, or other religious community? Do we expect people today to approach spiritual communities or teachers with this same attitude? I don’t think so. Spirituality today, generally speaking, has a rather different quality. It’s not marked by this student-teacher relationship, but is rather generally presented as a personal quest that an individual engages in more or less on their own. Indeed, if spirituality in the past was more or less equivalent to seeking wisdom, spirituality today might be summarized as equivalent to “self-actualization”.

Obviously this is a generalization, and it therefore won’t apply to every spiritual “seeker”. But I think it’s accurate enough to apply to many and indeed perhaps most seekers in the West. If this is so, two questions arise: first, why has this happened? And secondly, is it good or bad?

The first question is as important as it is complicated, and I won’t endeavor here to try and give some exhaustive social explanation for why spiritual and religious life has changed over the last few centuries. Needless to say, spirituality is not the only thing that has changed over this timespan, and so we might guess that spirituality has changed precisely because society has changed so much overall. Political, technological, cultural, economic, and other aspects of our lives have been transformed since the 17th century. So it stands to reason that our understanding of spirituality, the problems that spirituality is meant to solve, and the means by which it might to do so will also have changed. If spirituality is always a human response to questions of meaning, then as human lives change, then it makes sense that human means of interpreting meaning and purpose will adjust as well.

The second question–Is this change good, or not?–is complicated as well. Answering this question will ultimately involve us taking a closer look at what each of us really thinks spirituality is all about. Before we go there, however, let’s survey the ground we want to cover:

First off, if we reflect on this question for a moment, we should see that we are unlikely to have a straightforward answer. We might–and, I think, should–expect to find that this change in spirituality is good in some ways, and not so good in others. We should resist simplistic and polarized answers to such a serious question.

In particular, we might say that this change in spirituality is good for one of the historical reasons it probably arose–the corruption, hypocrisy, and abuse of power by religious authorities. Many people today, quite understandably, have little trust for clergy or other religious teachers, and so what I have presented as the old model of student-teacher spirituality might immediately appear to them as inherently problematic. Furthermore, many people are suspicious of anyone who seems to take spirituality or religious faith too seriously, and assumes that they are up to something devious. This speaks, to some extent, to the cynicism of our age, but it can’t be denied that that cynicism has its root in real, and tragic, experience. Stories of sexual abuse, financial corruption, and egoism among religious leaders are all too common to deny. So, perhaps spirituality has changed because the old approach was inherently broken? Perhaps the authority entrusted to religious leaders was always a mistake?

Doubtless this lack of trust and the reality of religious hypocrisy has played its role. Yet we might just as easily turn the tables around, and ask about the social and material basis for the rise in individual-centered self-help spirituality. First, as a general observation, we might point out that such spirituality seems self-centered and even selfish at its core; spirituality in this form often looks like little more than an effort by an individual to cover their own opinions and interests with the mantle of the numinous. Secondly, we might go further and argue that this mode of spirituality actually reflects a very specific set of economic and cultural values and perspectives: that it arose from, and reinforces, a certain kind of middle-class or bourgeois attitude towards society and reality. If this is true, then modern spirituality is not an inherently liberatory or postive thing, a progress in response to changing circumstances, but actually an effort to shape individuals and society in particular ways. We might ask who wins and who loses under such a model of the spiritual or religious.

Thirdly and finally, we might ask whether the individually-focused spirituality actually solves the problems it seems targeted at solving. Does it really challenge religious hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse? When we think of such modes of spirituality, movements like the Prosperity Gospel or pseudo-Eastern self-help communities come to mind–and such communities are actually rife with deception, egomania, and hero-worship. And even when such a spirituality seems to work as advertised, it seems to replace an out-sized authority and respect for an elder with an even more out-sized authority and respect for ones own self. It’s not immediately clear that this is necessarily an improvement.

Nonetheless, even if one is fundamentally opposed to the changes in the way spirituality is conceived of and sought, it would be foolish to simply dismiss the changes as bad across-the-board, or as having no value. Ultimately, to address the question of whether this change in spirituality is basically good or not, I think we need to address what, at root, we really mean by spirituality in the first place.

In seeking to answer this question for ourselves, we might find that the two models of spirituality we explored above: the old and the new, the traditional-authority model and the self-actualizing model, actually reflect not just differing historical and social contexts, but actually differing sets of values. Do we fundamentally believe that human life is a search for Truth (with a capital “T”!) or do we fundamentally believe that human life should be centered on personal fulfillment, pleasure, and comfort?

Such questions should be taken seriously, for they reveal ever deeper layers of philosophical concern. Some people today, for example, might deny, right off the bat, there there really is any Truth to seek in the first place. For such people, the above questions will have been answered before they were even asked. To recognize this level of the question about spirituality is to address topics like postmodern thought and what, exactly, is the modernism to which postmodernism is responding to and critiquing. In the interest of brevity, I will not attempt to address such a thorny topic here and now, but I want to conclude both by promising to address this question in a future post (or posts) and also by encouraging you, the reader, to reflect on your own values and assumptions when it comes to these big-ticket questions. What do we value, at a foundational level? What do we really care about? I think our questions about the nature of spirituality in the 21st century will be answered by these more fundamental questions.