Wednesday Miscellany

A few unfinished scraps and fragments are cluttering up my “drafts” folder, so it’s time for another “Miscellany” post. There’s a common thread that runs through what follows—something like “the truth and how we tell it”—but nothing cohesive enough for a single post, evidently. 

***

Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s impossible for human beings not to have a religion, “even in our secularized husk of a society.” I happen to agree with him—both about humans being irreducibly religious and about our society being a “secularized husk.” What a great description of a society that claims not to have left religion behind but is morally zealous in ways that rival the most enthusiastic evangelists from days long past.

According to Sullivan, our religious impulses have not disappeared, they have simply migrated to other domains. In America, the right’s religious fervour is concentrated in the attaining and securing of power. Salvation comes via the levers of politics. The left embraces an activistic narrative of social and moral progress. Here, too, salvation often comes via politics. Both views function as religions for their adherents.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in this paragraph where Sullivan compares the “Great Awakening” with the “Great Awokening”:

And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke.

The article has me thinking that whatever else the old religions may or may not have going for them, at least they were explicit about what they were. Few things get as tiresome as politics and irreligion masquerading as religion.

***

Those I work with on the preaching schedule for our church regularly hear me say something like, “We need to have a guest speaker soon. I’m getting sick of hearing my own voice.” I usually say this with a bit of a grin on my face. Sometimes I’d just like a break from sermon prep. But there’s a deeper reason. I really do believe that people benefit from encountering Jesus through a different set of theological goggles than my own.

The other day, I heard a preacher I respect talk about a mid-life/mid-faith course correction he had undergone. He finally encountered the “unvarnished Jesus,” he said. I wonder about that. I know what he’s trying to say. He came to a truer, deeper understanding of Jesus, one more faithful to the gospels, one less encumbered by the trappings of his own culture and the theological biases in which he was raised. I get all that. But do we ever encounter an “unvarnished Jesus?”

I don’t think so. This is one of my worries as someone who preaches 40+ times a year—that my congregation gets a Jesus that is heavily varnished by what I think is important, through what I prefer to ignore, through my agenda for the church, through my constellation of existential anxieties. It’s not that I think my Jesus is wrong or deficient. But I’m just barely smart enough to know that he’s incomplete.

Thank God for other voices. And thank God that preaching is only one way that the risen Christ encounters people on the road.

***

One of the albums that’s been getting regular play in the headphones these days is Muse’s new one, “Simulation Theory.” I’m a sucker for anthemic rock full of grandiose lyrics, and Muse has always supplied both of these in abundance. Usually, after a few songs I’m just about ready to march out to protest something or stick it to the man. Just about.

There’s a song on their most recent album called “Thought Contagion” that takes direct aim at our post-truth, fake news times with its megalomaniacal leaders spurred on by populist mobs.

You’ve been bitten by a true believer
You’ve been bitten by someone who’s hungrier than you
You’ve been bitten by a true believer
You’ve been bitten by someone’s false beliefs

Thought contagion
Thought contagion

It’s an understandable response to a truly odious cultural phenomenon. But the language is interesting, isn’t it? Nasty beliefs that we disagree with are described in the language of predation and disease. It’s “true believers” that are the problem. They spread their ugliness like a virus and if we’re lucky (or smart/virtuous) enough, we’ll stave off the infection. Our beliefs (i.e., right-thinking people’s beliefs) are the result of rational reflection and general decency. We are not “true believers” but “free thinkers.” At least so we are pleased to tell ourselves.

My skepticism of human nature and how we form/maintain our beliefs has a broader application than Muse’s, I think. “Thought contagions” seem to me come in all kinds of different strains, and we’re all more vulnerable to them that we might want to admit.

***

I was recently invited to speak on a panel next year about evolution and faith. One of my co-panelists evidently comes from an apologetics organization and wanted each of us to articulate our “positions” on evolution beforehand to aid in his preparation. I’ll confess that I groaned inwardly when the email came through.

There are two reasons for my groaning. First, the thought of going into battle in the Christian apologetics wars holds pretty much zero appeal to me. There was a time when this might have excited me, but that time has evidently passed. Haggling over the age of the earth, the mechanism(s) of divine creation, and the one correct interpretation of a handful of bible passages isn’t something that exactly sets my pulse a-racing these days.

Second, I really dislike this assumption that we ought to be able to produce a “position” on an “issue” on demand. “Positions” on “issues” very often end up relegating more important things (like people) to the sidelines. I’d much rather talk about what’s going on behind the positions about issues. What views of God are operating? What existential hungers are being fed or starved?  What unspoken hopes and fears are lingering around the periphery? And so on.

I’ll likely lose the battle over the age of the earth. My “position” probably isn’t as well-fortified as it ought to be. But who knows, maybe an interesting conversation or two will materialize once the swords are set aside and truth is treated less as an artifact to protect than a puzzle to explore.

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11 Comments

  1. You encounter an unvarnished Jesus in a cancer ward, waiting on good news about your sister. In a hospital waiting room hoping that your twice resuscitated brother in law survives open heart surgery, trying to “meet” your son through the fog of autism or just holding and stroking the hand of a dying parent. When life is stripped of it’s varnish, that’s where you meet Jesus.

    “When Jesus knew for certain
    Only drowning men could see Him
    He said all men shall be sailors then
    Until the sea shall free them”

    “Free at last
    Free at last
    Thank God almighty we are free at last”.

  2. I like the Muse lyric and read, “contagion” to mean, “spiritually unwell and spreading fast”. If that is so, then I think they are spot on in their diagnosis. The primary malady affecting western civilization is spiritual in nature. The right politic is not accessable to peoples who are not oriented around a “do unto others as you would have done unto you” spirituality. Sacrificial love cannot be chosen, it must be embodied.

    No amount of politics can ever remedy our inhumanity towards one another, the roots of self interest run too deep. In the end all politics are only different by degrees of malevolence and greed.

    Prayer, acts of charity and self denial that strengthen the Spirit, and over time create a person who simply IS love, is the only way through.

    We may never fully become love on earth but by recognizing our crisis as spiritual and seeking both right understanding and solace from spiritual practices, we will give truth and justice a platform human politics will never provide.

  3. I’ve never listened to the band. Given I am at best lukewarm regarding U2, 🙂 I’m not likely to be interested in a band that you describe, to my understanding, as U2 lite. So yeah, you are most likely correct.

    I have encountered the term, “true believers” on a couple of occasions recently and I thought it was referring to social justice zealots. Based on that I was hoping that their intent was similar to my understanding. Satanic Spirit is well described as thought contagion.

    I see the, “Awoken” trend as dangerous and a real threat to social order. This politic sees those who disagree with it as enemies. As deplorable people, worthy only of contempt and public shaming. They behave like the Nazi’s did towards the Jews in the mid thirties. Once you dehumanize the people with which you disagree, history shows atrocities against these people are sure to follow.

    1. Sadly, they’re not the only people whose politics see those who disagree as enemies to be scorned and shamed. This seems to be our cultural moment.

      1. I just meant that it’s not just the “Social Justice Warriors” who trade in scorn and shame. There’s plenty of that language on the far right, too.

  4. As always there is much to reckon with when you write.

    I wish you well in your debate. You are a superb mind and I am always well informed by you. You dont have much appetite for these things far as I can tell and it seems like a set up. A zealous evangelical you are not and other then this fringe phenomena I dont meet any main stream Christians who care about this issue much less prioritize it. Sounds like you are being invited to a fight unarmed and your opponents have knives. Id pivot away from this issue as quickly as I could and start preaching faith and love as the antidote to our present culrural malaise. As for not keeping on point, I have natural gifts in this regard as you are well aware. Bring you best, “Paul Johnston” and dont back down. I think it would be wise to assume the proposed issue isnt the priority here. I dont think most people care, one way or the other. You are likely there to be a really smart guy, a pastor no less, whose faith and work can dismissed because you are unable to defend an indefensible position.

    Can truth be both an, “artifact to protect and a puzzle to explore”? I mean if there isnt an, “artifact to protect” why do we bother to teach anybody, anything?

    1. Yes, very true Paul. It is surely both, not either/or. Without the artifact there is nothing to teach, nothing to puzzle over, nothing to grow into.

  5. True but unless a, reactionary right is the dominant political expression and has the military strength and military will to turn on it’s own people, reactionary efforts eventually dies out. To my way of thinking, in a democratic society, that which is essentially a protest of other advocacy’s can only restrain or temporarily deny the inevitable change that a younger culture of people is determined to live. The only rational, secular means of retaining parts of a previous status quo and power arrangement and make no mistake it is always about accommodating both new and old power bases, is if subsequent generations buy into the ways of the past. The time of traditions being maintained as a matter of western political ethos is over.

    Long story short then, if my theory is credible, and our nations remain democratic, it will be the forces of what we call the political left that will create the new paradigms. We must hold them to a much higher accounting then even a radical right fringe that I honestly think has no traction at all with the young. Unless the social policies of the new left that is developing throughout the west, put a minority politic into a corner, it isn’t likely in my estimation to come out fighting.

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