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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Delight as a Spiritual Discipline

Everyone raised his hand to pick the fruit he best liked the look of, and then everyone paused for a second. This fruit was so beautiful that each felt "It can't be meant for me . . . surely we're not allowed to pluck it."
It's all right," said Peter. "I know what we're all thinking. But I'm sure, quite sure, we needn't. I've a feeling we've got to the country where everything is allowed."
"Here goes, then!" said Eustace. And they all began to eat.
What was the fruit like? Unfortunately no one can describe a taste. All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grapefruit you've ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour. And there were no seeds or stones, and no wasps." 
-C.S. Lewis The Last Battle

I turned thirty five the other day and my family bought me a pair of Enchroma glasses for my birthday. In case you haven't watched one of their videos online yet, Enchroma glasses correct a degree of red-green colorblindness for those who have the condition. I had watched the videos and was really excited when I opened the box. The idea that I would be suddenly gaining access to a world that everyone else experiences all the time was somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying. Now my color blindness is pretty mild. I don't have any trouble with stoplights and I am rarely wrong about any given color (purple is my undoing—I just can't see the red in it so I almost always think it is dark blue). But for my entire life, people have been going on about sunsets and autumn leaves in a way that has convinced me that there really must be something to them even though they generally leave me flat (I experience most sunsets as a fairly drab wash of bleached pastels). Now it was suddenly possible that I would be swept into new beauty—beauty which I could literally not imagine. At the same time, I was aware of the fact that the classes don't work for everyone ("individual results will vary") and the fear of disappointment was almost as keen as the hope for I-knew-not-what-exactly.

Without leaving you in suspense: they worked. At least they make a significant difference in the way I see the world around me. I can't say that with them I see the world as though I weren't colorblind since I don't know what the world looks like through your eyes. But when I wear these glasses purple becomes a whole thing. Also nobody ever told me that green has this much variety to it. I spent the first hours after I got the glasses just wandering around with a stupid grin on my face being distracted by the grass, the spring leaves, and the sky. There is one particular tree just across the street, which I am now particularly taken by. I think the underside of each leaf is a different shade of green from the topside (I hadn't realized it before) so when I look at that tree from all the way across the street, I can still make out each individual leaf, even thought they are all just green. My distance vision is perfectly fine, but I had never seen more than an indistinct blob-with-lines above the trunk before.

I think it must be like hearing harmony for the first time after a life of knowing only the melody. The world is simply more vibrant, more deep, more subtle, more complex, more real than I ever imagined it was.

This experience has left me thinking more and more about the overlapping concepts of delight, longing, and joy. Historically, Christianity has tended to be associated with the idea of asceticism and discipline. The ten commandments are generally thought of as negatives sorts of commands (don't do this, that, and the other), the whole concept of holiness in Christian teaching is popularly understood to be a list of things people are supposed to not do in order to avoid contaminating their moral purity, as well as a few things we are to do (but which are generally viewed as onerous). We are told that we should be able to find delight in this (the psalms seem to get really excited about obeying "the law") but that doesn't actually tend to jibe with our experience of life all that often. Christian-ing just doesn't come across as that much fun.

And while I know that I have just constructed a straw man, that the "fruit of the Spirit" are all actually beautiful and exciting ways of being, there is a genuine sense that "serious" Christians are those who really embrace a dour sense of suffering and sacrifice.

But. But. But.

That actually doesn't describe the people we read about in the bible. It actually doesn't describe the great saints, it actually doesn't describe the very life of Jesus. Those lives are rich and messy. Those lives are balls-to-the-wall vibrant. We find Jesus laughing and yelling and weeping and partying. In order to be considered for canonization, a saint's life has to show evidence of all of the fruits of the Spirit—joy no less than patience; after all Jesus' great prayer for us was that we would have lives lived to the full—abundant lives.

I think Charles Williams, the Anglican mystic poet-scholar can be of great help here. He (following an older tradition) describes two "ways" of Christianity: the way of negation, and the way of affirmation of images (I have written a bit more about them HERE). The first is the way of the ascetic. In the way of negation, the whole deal is to stop being distracted by all the things which are not God and which cause us to think of God in terms of what we see rather than as the transcendent unknowable. The way of negation tends to focus on knowing God directly; the mystical experience, meditation, and spiritual disciplines like fasting and accountability are hallmarks of the way of negation. The latter, the way of the affirmation of images, attempts to see God "though" the images of god's self in the good world that God has made, and it is worth nothing that the mystics have as much of a propensity to wind up here as as they do in the way of negation; think of St. Francis preaching to the animals, or St. Thomas Aquinas' appreciation for the table and attendant unwillingness to impose his weight on a donkey, these are marks of the way of affirmation. Williams is at pains to remind us that each can become disastrous without the other, that people following the one way need to be reminded not to judge those who follow the other—that, in fact, we need the wisdom and input of those following the other—and that each offers insights the other is likely blind to.

That is all well and good, and I am very much persuaded by Williams' account. But I think it can, and should, be taken a bit farther. I want to suggest that the temperament which is drawn to the way of negation also tends towards a dismissal of the physical as such. In the desire to be united to the Spirit of God there seems to be a strong temptation to deny the goodness of the body, a desire to become mere spirit. This is a dangerous thing. We are spirits but we are not mere spirits, we are body-spirits. We are (to borrow once more from C.S. Lewis) amphibious beings of both body and spirit. The impetus to deny the body can easily become a state of discontent, a state of explaining to God that we were not made as the right sort of being.

For all my love of C.S. Lewis, I believe that one critical mistake he made throughout his eschatology is an over acceptance of neo-Platonism. In neo-Platonic thinking, the only utterly "real" absolute is God (or "The Good") and everything else is an "emanation" from God, with all things becoming less real the further they have "emanated" from the center. This view has a lot to recommend it (you will see echoes of it in the writings of Augustine as well). It has given rise to the whole understanding of heaven as another land, better (more real) than the state of being we currently inhabit and to which we will one day go. The problem is that, at the end of the day, it is not a fundamentally Christian view. The promise Jesus made to us is not that there is a Kingdom of God which we will one day get to go to, it is that there is a Kingdom of God which is, even now, breaking into our own existence. As such, following the way of Jesus does not mean distancing oneself from the world, but growing into people who can first imagine, then partner with God in bringing a greater real-ness, a fuller goodness, to this world. That the old world is passing away and that a new world is being formed, does not mean that we will be transplanted. That new kingdom is being formed under our feet. It is breaking through now. It has been breaking through for two thousand years and will continue to break through until it is fully here and nothing of the old, drab, evil, sinful, broken world is left (I am going to refrain from commenting on the the question of whether there will be one final great push before the Kingdom of God fully comes or whether the entire process will sneak in gradually).

And this is why I believe that delight is a spiritual discipline, one which is far too much ignored and even despised by the western church. The innocent enjoyment of the good world God has made—we cannot forget that even the drab "old world" is shot through with resonant images of the vibrant Kingdom—is a training course in seeing the Kingdom God has made us partners in effecting. To feast, to love, to celebrate, to gaze at the sky in wonder, are all acts of spiritual insight. They are all disciplines. Good sex is as holy—and for many as necessary—as a rigorous fast and laughter is no less godly than lament. In the latter we are reminded that we live in a broken world; in the former, that the broken world is being healed.

It has been observed recently that we need a theology of lament, of loss, that too often our theology is entirely about propositions or about ethical duties—a theology for computers and enlightenment philosophes—too rarely is it about being. I agree with this critique, we do need a theology of lament and loss. We need a theology rooted in Ecclesiastes, Job and the Good Friday. That would give us one critical part of a theology of they way of affirmation. A theology of lament is critical to our capacity to honestly, richly, greet the very real world of which we are a part. But we also need a theology of delight. We need a theology of dancing till we collapse on a hot summer night; a theology of the third beer; of laughing under a string of lights because tomorrow has no hold on us tonight. We need a theology of thick time in thin spaces, a theology of the presence of divine joy in every street lamp and blade of grass. We need a theology of the tinny speaker and the spontaneous sing-along to an 80's anthem, a theology of bluegrass and crickets, a theology of lighting bugs. As much as we need a theology of lament, we need a theology of the eternal moment and the laughing earth, for human flourishing is thing of both laughter and tears.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 4: Religious Squabbles and the Third Way

This is the fourth post in a six part series. You can find Part 1, Solus Jesus is HERE, Part 2, Centered Set HERE, and Part 3, Childlike Faith HERE.

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name (you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.

"There are people who take the bible seriously, who also believe that it is OK to be gay."
I realize that it probably sounds hopelessly naif, but I honestly did not realize this was true until I heard Dave Schmelzer explain it at a Blue Ocean conference (I had downloaded the talks) in 2010. Writing six years later, I find this almost embarrassing but the fact remains. Now to be clear, Schmelzer did not enunciate the whole Third Way concept at that meeting; the idea as it is now applied to LGBTQ+ folks was developed a little later on by Ken Wilson and popularized when he turned it into the book A Letter to my Congregation. Back in 2009-2010, if my memories are correct, Schmelzer and the other Blue Ocean folks were in the process of trying to work out what their approach was going to be when it came to the hot button issues of the church. But for me, the real power of taking a Third Way perspective on church controversies became real, the afternoon I listened to that talk for the first time—if was the day I began to understand that being correct is not actually the final goal of faith in Jesus.

This section of Blue Ocean Faith actually contains two of the concepts which I have come to associate with Blue Ocean thinking. Chapter 5, Religious Squabbles Are the Worst (But There's an Antidote!) works out both with the Third Way approach to controversial issues, and also Schmelzer's application of M. Scott Peck's stage theory of spiritual growth (which, I understand, Peck developed in Further Along The Road Less Traveled). This works out pretty well as the stages theory does a good job of explaining why many (particularly religious) people have a hard time with anything like practically applied Third Way thinking, but it also means that I have a lot to reflect on in this post. So please please bear with me.

Stage Theory

Schmelzer's understanding and use of Peck's stage theory works best as a descriptive approach to understanding how a person's approach to, and understanding of, the project of religion or spirituality develops over time, with the additional observation that many people get "stuck" at one stage or another. It has some resonances with spiral dynamics theory as well. Rather than trying to summarize a summary, let me just quote the descriptive paragraphs from BOF:
Stage 1 you might call "criminal." 
It corresponds with being a toddler. Toddlers don't entirely know where the end and you begin, and so they're prone to being grabby and self-focused...Peck suggests two institutions that interact with this stage: jain and the boardroom (or any other position of power. Jail serves Stage 1 people, because it provides clear boundaries—the bars of the cell if nothing else. High-functioning Stage 1 people can also become the kind of effective narcissists that get power because you and I don't realize that they're criminals doing everything for their own gain. Think Bernie Madoff. Or Stalin.
Stage 2 you might call "rules-based."  
Now we're six or seven and we want to obey Mommy and Daddy's rules. Peck suggests two institutions which serve and promote Stage 2. First is the military, which is famously excellent at transitioning young people out of Stage 1 and into Stage 2, at teaching them discipline and honor and making the productive citizens. Second—of greater interest for our purposes—are churches. Peck argues that churches (and mosques, synagogues and other places of worship) famously teach people right from wrong, good from bad. He's at pains not to judge this, pointing out that Stage 2 creates the backbone of most societies. It creates the good people who volunteer, pay taxes, obey the law and raise great kids. 
Stage 3 you might call "rebellions." This corresponds with being a teenager. Suddenly the Stage 3 person is asking, "Who died and made all those Stage 2 rules the rules?" They become skeptics. If the Stage 3 young person is surrounded by a Stage 2 community, they might feel suffocated. Where's the open questioning? Are all these Stage 2 "truths" just shallow grabs for power? Peck says the institution that best promotes Stage 3 is the university. For one thing, universities are filled with kids in this age range, and often their stated mission is quite Stage 3—to get students to question everything they've been taught.... 
What Stage 3 doesn't realize is that its skepticism might not be the final word, that there might actually be answers to its questions, but answers that look quite different than the answers proposed by Stage 2.   
Stage 4 you might call "mystical." 
Stage 4, in Peck's view, isn't the end of the process. At the earliest, we hit this stage in our early 20s, and then we spend the rest of our lives walking out the implications of this. In Stage 4 we realize that many of the things that we were taught in Stage 2 do, in fact, seem true, but in a more expansive perspective than we'd previously understood... 
One way to think about this is that Stage 2 is dominated by answers. If the key is to be a good person and to get things right, we need to know what is and isn't right. In a Christian world, it might take some work to know what you need ot know about the Bible. You might need to read not just the Bible, but the current favorite Christian thinker of your friends. But, after you've done this, you're good. Maybe you won't know everything, but you'll have the answers you need. 
Stage 4, though, is dominated by questions. You've realized that reality is way bigger than you are, and that the way to navigate its vastness is relational. You are the sheep listening to and following the good shepherd. This will make Stage 4 Christians seem slippery to Stage 2 Christians. They seem to use the same language, but they mean different things with it.
It can be a long road but every step is good.

I have found this tremendously helpful (and, for the record, I tend to see myself as probably somewhere in Stage 3 with Stage 4 aspirations) when it comes to thinking about my own spiritual journey. Stage 3 began to break into my Stage 2 thinking around the time I graduated from Bible College, but the process was fairly gradual for me and I don't think I really gave up on Stage 2—that is, on the bedrock belief that there were answers out there for all of my questions and that all I had to do was learn and understand them—until my mid-late 20s. Fortunately for me (and I credit a lot of center-set dynamics, the Truth seeking/always questioning culture of my grad school, and some wonderful spiritual mentors who were not afraid of my questions) the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 did not entail any particular need to walk away from Jesus. I certainly despaired of the institutional church for a while, but Jesus was always "there with me" and was entirely happy to hear my questions, absorb my frustrations, and sit with me in my fears and doubts.

But stage theory helped me to make sense of what was going on with myself and with the Christian world around me. It gave me a grid with which to process things, and it has proved to be pretty robust at that job since I first started using it. The shift, from baseline selfishness to a reliance on rules and answers to structure life and existence to an awareness of the damage caused by those rules and answers and an attendant rejection of rules and answers as such and then beyond into a slowly-unveiling appreciation of the Truth in which at least some of those old rules were grounded but which is bigger than they seem to envision, resonates really well with what I have observed in the world of Christianity.

One of Schmelzer's most on-point observations in this chapter is that much of the contemporary "culture war" in the US, and particularly the conversation and tension between American White Evangelicalism and the Progressive Christian conversation seems to represent a Stage 2 vs Stage 3 conflict which periodically seems to shunt various folks into Stage 4.

As my relationship with Jesus has grown, as I have gotten to know him better and better, and as that has led me farther and farther outside the generally accepted bounded set of American Evangelicalism, I have experienced so much of what Schmelzer talks about here. I remember when I was in Bible college, I generally understood the "business of Christians" to be to learn the answers about Jesus, a task well suited to Peck's "Stage 2" and I genuinely believed that there were straightforward answers out there for me to find. To borrow another metaphor Schmelzer uses in the book. I thought that Truth was something I would eventually be able to comprehend, to fit in my own head. As time went on and my Bible College professors, then the books they recommended, then the books the authors of those books recommended, failed to answer my questions—or more accurately, as the answers they provided failed to satisfy my growing questions—I began to worry that the answers just weren't out there.

One wry observation that Schmelzer makes in the book is that, when introduced to the concept, Stage 3 Christians have a bit of a tendency to identify as Stage 4. He is probably right about that but it makes it hard for anyone to say that they actually are in Stage 4. That may be fairly accurate though, one of the hallmarks of the mystical approach to truth and God is an awareness of ones own limitations which would tend to prevent folks in that stage from having any particular sense of having "arrived", I suspect that a lot of mystical stage 4 people think of themselves as somewhere on the border between the rebellious stage 3 and the mystical stage 4. I certainly do and I am happy to leave it up to those who know me to decide whether that is accurate or indicates that I am actually fairly far gone in mysticism (my penchant for getting into internet debates likely counts against me here).

The Stage theory approach works really well for understanding a lot of the Blue Ocean project itself as well. If you think back to the previous sections (Solus Jesus, Centered Set, and Childlike Faith), all of them smack of this mystical/relational approach to God. They rely on the premises that reality is bigger than we can ever really comprehend and that there is a loving relationship available to guide us through it. Reality is both fundamentally wondrous, dangerous, and good. It reminds me a good bit of the classic line about Aslan from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.

This fundamental assumption that we cannot and need not "know all the things", that reality and Truth are just too great for us, and that Jesus is there to walk with us, is what—in my mind—grounds Blue Ocean thinking, it is the thread that holds all six distinctives together. It is also what I think drives a lot of Evangelical Christians (who represent the "rules and truth" stage 2 group with which I most identify) so crazy. Blue Ocean thinking delights in questions and the exploration of God without feeling the burden of needing answers (though answers can be pleasant and delightful enough when the come around) while a lot of Evangelicalism experiences an almost chronic anxiety in the presence of unanswered questions about reality, and religious cynicism experiences a mirror anxiety in the presence of confident answers. My experience from within both of these latter groups has been almost a deep frustration with the very idea that one could be at peace with questions or with answers. Maybe that is why Blue Ocean Faith feels so much like being able to breath again.

The Third Way (Handling those "Squabbles")

OK, so the Third Way is my jam. The essence of what Blue Oceaners call the "Third Way Approach
to Debatable Matters" is that Paul's advice to the Roman Church about how they ought to navigate their theological disputes over the observance of special "holy" days and the eating of meat which had been sacrificed to idols, can and should be applied to debatable matters in the church (universal and local) today. As I mentioned above, the Third Way was first enunciated and fully developed by the Blue Ocean Ann Arbor pastor Ken Wilson back when he (together with quite a few of the Blue Ocean group's other pastors) was a member of the Vineyard movement. Wilson first presented the idea in paper for at a Society of Vineyard Scholars conference as an approach to arguments over the level of participation the Vineyard ought to allow to LGB individuals. He later developed his ideas into a book A Letter to My Congregation  and it is his more fully developed version which Schmelzer cites as a Blue Ocean Distinctive in his book.

The Third Way approach begins by identifying its own scope. Riffing on the work of Roger E.Olson, the Third Way breaks religious claims into three potential categories: dogma, doctrine, and opinion. Dogma is defined as the basic beliefs of Christian faith, essentially those propositions without which we are talking about something which probably isn't Christianity. Schmelzer identifies the Apostle's and Nicene creeds as good candidate for this category. Doctrine would be those propositions which would seem to necessarily derive from dogma, usually by only one or two steps; most of the theology that people get really heated about online falls into this category. Then opinion is everything left over; it is the category for those propositions which we might hold but don't feel to be at all critical to our overall understanding of the nature of reality. Within this taxonomy, Third Way is an approach to differences over doctrine

The Third Way approach is an approach to what Ken Wilson has called disputable matters. He, and Schmelzer in Blue Ocean Faith, define disputable matters as 1) doctrine; 2) bringing two biblical truths into tension; 3) disagreed upon by otherwise faithfully Jesus-following people. 

Once we have decided that we are involved in a debate over doctrine (and keep in mind that debates over the theology of LGB sex have been the experimentum crucis for the theory) the Third Way approach is to look at which "side" in the debate is arguing for greater liberty of conscience and behavior and which is arguing for a greater degree of holiness or constraint. In Romans, Paul identified one "side"—the one which holds to more laws and have a more tender conscience—as the weak and the other—those with more liberty of conscience—as the strong, and within that framework, each group has a responsibility to the other. In Dave's words:
  • By all means hold the belief that you hold and never violate your conscience
  • Shun contempt and judgement and trust God to judge wisely
  • Make clear to yourself and others that you understand that your belief is not dogma and that reasonable, faithful people disagree with you.
  • Do not exclude anyone from full participation in the community over disputable matters—so long as they also abide by these four principles.
This has meant that Blue Ocean churches are functionally "open and affirming" in that they will not prevent an LGBTQ+ person from participation in the full life of the church, they perform same-sex weddings and have ordained LGBTQ+ clergy. However, they aren't technically "open and affirming" since, to quote Schmelzer (working from Ken Wilson) again:
...the "affirming" part of "open and affirming" seems to go against Paul's command here not to judge. To "affirm" someone, in this context, often means something like to "grant them moral approval." I have to meet them and ask myself, "As best as I can figure out, do I morally approve or disapprove of this person?" Then I decide, "I approve!" Along with Paul here, Jesus profoundly commands us not to judge anyone. The issue in Third Way is not passing judgment positively or negatively on anyone, it's to include all people who hope to follow Jesus as the disputable matter works itself out.
The upshot of all of this for me has been a long term commitment to, on the one hand, hold and advocate for my beliefs on this and other subjects as strongly as I know how (feel free to check out my defense of LGB relationships HERE and my defense of the gender identities of transgender persons HERE if you are curious) while remaining in relationship and spiritual community with people who disagree with me.

So far as I can tell the Third Way is really the only viable way forward for the Church as a whole, but I want to acknowledge that it isn't easy at all and, frankly, still needs a lot of working out. I still have questions about what it looks like to take a Third Way approach when there are people who have suffered spiritual and emotional abuse at the hands of those who are the weak (it is interesting to note how often the weak have power over the strong).

Some Resources

  • For those who are interested, Ken Wilson and Emily Swan maintain a blog series dedicated to thinking about the Third Way over at The Third Way Newsletter, they have even allowed me to contribute periodically.
  • Anyone with questions about Transgender folk and theology would be really well served to check out Austen Lionheart's YouTube channel Transgender and Christian
Click HERE to check out A Letter to My Congregation on Amazon

Product Details
Click HERE to get Blue Ocean Faith on Amazon