You can’t have it both ways

A further thought from Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

He spends considerable time exposing the clever way so-called modern thinkers both undermine nature and reify it. On the one hand, they are quick to denounce religious activities as being the projections of humans on nature rather than inherent in nature itself. On the other, they maintain that certain features of human society are ‘natural’ and therefore, unassailable. (Latour calls this the “double denunciation.”) (51-53)

In the first denunciation, objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of the sciences that have produced them remains invisible. 53

It’s a clever trick and one can see it on display in contemporary culture. Two examples will suffice.

1. We are told both that sexuality is fluid and that genders are social constructs. On the other hand, we’re told that certain people are ‘born’ one way or the other. 
2. We read the reports that men are programmed by evolution to disperse their sperm as far and as widely as possible and that males are naturally more aggressive. Meanwhile we discourage sperm-spreading sex (use protection!) and encourage college men to attend seminars on taming their masculinity. 

And both of these points illustrate one of Latour’s broader points. He begins the book by pointing out that in spite of modernity’s supposed interest in segregating the spheres of science, politics, and ethics, “hybrid” issues (Latour’s term) proliferate. There is no tidy separation science and ethics or science and society. Grand social and political movements are being made in the areas highlighted above alternately appealing to science to shape the policy or the politics to fund the science.

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Spiritual IRA

This time of year it is common to hear people making resolutions about their personal habits. Among Christians this often includes the practices of prayer and Bible reading. These are often referred to as “Spiritual Disciplines” and traditionally include other practices such as memorization, meditation, silence & solitude, fasting, stewardship, worship, journaling, and serving. The list varies from author to author.

The term ‘discipline’ captures a part of the reality of these practices; most of them require dedication and perseverance to become part of our lives. But the term carries mostly negative connotations for most of us and may contribute to our lack of enthusiasm at developing them.

Developing these practices is further complicated by the fact that though we may call them disciplines, we often treat them as if they were transactions. That is, we want them to function the way most of our purchases do. We give the “payment” of prayer, reading, a donation, etc. and we expect to receive a “good” in return. The goods expected may be material “blessings” as we sometimes call them, but they may be more nebulous things like personal peace, or immediate insight, or a sense of God’s presence, or personal recognition. We seem to default to expecting a nearly one-to-one correspondence between our acts of personal piety and identifiable outcomes. Further, we want those identifiable outcomes to be nearly immediately recognizable. This usually doesn’t work.

It would perhaps be better to think of these practices as spiritual “investments.” With most of our investments we contribute a certain amount of money and hope to receive something beyond that amount at some later date. The length of time and the scale of increase are largely out of our control. But we know that, by and large, consistent contribution to these investments compounds the accruing benefits.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but it holds true that the dividends of spiritual disciplines are paid out most often in the long term. Much like our retirement funds, Scripture calls us not to occasional, frantic, outbursts of spiritual passion, but to small, regular, honest acts of devotion submitted in faith to the market forces of the Father’s mercy.

Praying the Kingdom

As if there aren’t enough other barriers to meaningful prayer, the question of how to pray ‘according to the will of God’ is a stumblingblock for many people. In one sense this is a good thing. It means that they have moved beyond thoughtlessly praying for the easiest things that come to mind. They genuinely want to pray, “Not my will but yours be done” but they get hung up on “What is God’s will in this situation?”

For example, they want to pray for someone who is suffering from some medical condition. It seems natural to pray, “Lord, please heal Jane.” So they start to pray that and then it occurs to them, “But what if it isn’t God’s will to heal Jane right now? Will I be praying against God’s will if I pray for healing?” Not surprisingly, this line of thinking often takes the life out of prayer.

Same Idea, Different Angle

Scripture certainly encourages us to pray in line with the will of God. The Disciples’ Prayer is representative: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But God did not intend this concept to paralyze our prayer life. In fact, a way forward may be found in the very context of those familiar words.

Directly preceding the call for God’s will to be done is the phrase, “Thy kingdom come…”. The concept of God’s “kingdom”, though not necessarily immediately clear to all of us, carries a bit less baggage than the idea of “the will of God.” While we may not be able to express exactly what the Kingdom of God is, we have at least a general sense of what it will include. At the very least we have some idea of what life will be like in the end when Christ’s kingdom comes in its fullness.

In fact, it is likely that these phrases are intended to interpret one another anyway in the prayer. What is God’s will? The coming of the kingdom? When will the kingdom come? When God’s ways are done on earth as they are in heaven.

Praying the Kingdom

So let’s return to ailing Jane. While we do not know what God may be intending for dear Jane in the near future, we are confident that when the kingdom comes in its fullness such things as physical illness will not be a part of it. Jane will not suffer in the kingdom. Accordingly, we can pray that God might make this aspect of the kingdom present now for Jane with confidence because we know that such things are in line with God’s ultimate plans. “May your Kingdom come upon Jane in physical healing.”

The careful prayer will also recognize that other, perhaps even more important aspects of the kingdom might be called for in the situation. We might pray that Jane perseveres or has peace in spite of her condition. These, too, are kingdom realities and ones that we can be more sure God intends for Jane in the present.

God’s kingdom WILL come. His will WILL be done in his timing. Don’t let fear of praying against God’s will keep you from praying earnestly for God’s vision of the future to become reality sooner rather than later.

Because we are all wisps

candle smokeI love to watch the tendril of smoke rise from a candle recently blown out. The smoke is so responsive to the merest whiff of air and the pattern is never the same. The remaining smoke from the still barely-glowing wick stretches to the ceiling and spreads farther than one expects. Then, without a sound the last glow winks out and soon the smoke disperses.

It is not all beauty, of course, especially if you do not like smoke. While the flame provided light or ambiance, the smoke just lingers and catches in one’s throat. Far easier to cut it short with a quick, sizzling squeeze with spit-gloved fingers.

This was brought to mind recently as I read Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah regarding the Messiah, “A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out.” (Matthew 12:20 from Isaiah 42:3). It seems the Messiah is not into making quick, painless work of the wounded and dwindling.

Our society has not much time for the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are quickly becoming not only widely accepted but even socially expected. Doctors counsel abortion to parents of babies with birth defects. The prospect of an imperfect life and our final days of senility or illness are regarded as unproductive and noxious as the smoldering wick. The obvious solution is to cut the slow burn short with a quick, syringe squeeze with latex-gloved fingers.

In our quickness to dispense with the bruised and smoldering among us, we may be well served to recall that elsewhere in Scripture our lives are described as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Perhaps we should not be too quick to clear our lives of the too-long lingering mists of the lives of others.

I was blessed to be with my grandfather in his waning days. Amazingly, as his wick smoldered, his memory re-fired and I heard stories from his youth that he had never shared in our many years together. To be sure, those last weeks were difficult. But the pattern of beauty that rose from the smoldering wick of his life lingers in my vision to this day.

The Gift of Prayer

I am slowly reading through Jacques Philippe’s small book on prayer: Time for God.* What I have read so far has been simple yet helpful, so I thought I would pass it along.

Philippe’s first declaration is that the life of prayer comes to us as a gift from God not as a result of our efforts nor the application of techniques. He contrasts Christian prayer with the meditative practices of other religions that seek to achieve mystical experience through the performance of specific practices. But these are based in the efforts of humans. Christian prayer is a gift from God. This does not completely remove a human part to play. He writes:

Although–as we shall see later–a certain human initiative and activity has its place, the entire edifice of the prayer life is founded on God’s initiative and on his grace. We must never lose sight of the fact that one of the constant and at times most subtle of temptations in the spiritual life is to base it on our own efforts and not on the free mercy of God.

I particularly appreciate that Philippe brings in the aspect of human personality. He notes that there are always some people who are much better at employing techniques, being disciplined, or forming ‘spiritual’ language (‘hermosos pensamientos’ in his phrase). But since the reality of a prayer life is a gift from God, these abilities are not the sum and substance of a good prayer life. “Each one, by cooperating faithfully with the divine grace according to their own personality, with all their gifts and weaknesses, is able to have a deep prayer life.” Each of us has a God-given personality that has features that both help and hinder our prayer life. We must learn to work patiently with our own graces and limitations to receive God’s gift of himself through prayer.

While there are not “tricks” or “techniques” for the Christian prayer life, Philippe suggests that there are attitudes, certain dispositions of heart that set us up to receive God’s gift of prayer more readily. About those anon.

*For the record, I am reading it in a Spanish translation of the original French. Therefore, any of the English quotes you read below are my clumsy translations. The book is available in English. Since I have not yet read the entire thing I cannot at this time make a blanket recommendation.

(This post was simultaneously posted on the website of Union Christian Church).

What’s the big deal?

I recently discussed the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 with some friends. The text is often used to suggest that Jesus dismissed the woman’s sin, excusing her. If Jesus had done so it would have been in defiance of the law. Would Jesus do that?

But Jesus does not dismiss her sin. Rather, the passage ends with Jesus instructing her to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus clearly regarded her and her assailants as sinners.

Perhaps we want to see Jesus overlooking the woman’s sin in this story because we are much more comfortable with having our sin excused than having it forgiven. C. S. Lewis once admitted:

When I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.

What is the difference?

We excuse people all the time with phrases like, “It’s no problem,” “No worries,” “Think nothing of it,” etc. We are communicating that there has been no offense, no violation.

When we ask God to excuse our sin we are asking him to act as though there has been no offense, as though no sin has been committed. We are asking that He see our sin as we do, as “no big deal.”

Asking for forgiveness, on the other hand, involves our recognition that there has been offense. There has been a violation. A party has been wronged. It cannot be merely overlooked. In asking for forgiveness we see our sin as He does.

On the part of the offended party, offering forgiveness requires grace. Excusing a behavior only requires personal flexibility or moral laxity.

Asking for forgiveness requires humility; we are at the mercy of the offended party to dispense grace or justice. Truly seeking forgiveness involves both our emotions–we are grieved over the offense–and actions–we ‘repent’, change direction. Asking for our sins to be excused includes no remorse and implies that there will be no change in behavior since “it was no big deal.”

Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to ask for; it is hard to give. No wonder we look for substitutes. But when we do, the loss is ours. Because both sin and grace are a big deal.

Sacramental Creation

When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, the uncreated and the created, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human became united.  This unity meant that all that is mortal now points to the immortal, all that is finite now points to the infinite.  In and through Jesus all creation has become like a splendid veil, through which the face of God is revealed to us.
-Henri Nouwen