Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.


Book Review: For the Life of the World


Alexander Schmemann. For the Life of the World.
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY. 1973. 151 p.

Occasionally there are books that just keep coming up, that keep being mentioned by multiple people. For the Life of the World was such a book for me about 3 or 4 years ago. I just finished reading it for the third time as part of my year of rereading.

Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox priest and a professor at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His book is about sacramental theology. While that may not sound very enticing, it is a beautiful work and a true speculative-affective synthesis.¹ Schmemann is not just writing about the sacraments, but about a sacramental view of the world.

He views the sacraments (the seven recognized by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) not so much as isolated liturgical acts to be examined, but as representative of larger truths and the overall grace of God to us. He uses them to teach about the contrast between the church and the world, as well as between the church and some of the modern corruptions within the church.

But this is not an anti-Protestant polemic by any stretch. Schmemann acknowledges differences between Rome and the East in a few places but his point is not to debate against other Christians. This small book is written very much from a position of love and respect. He speaks of what he knows, and he does so eloquently.

His chapter on marriage is one of many jewels in this book. It provides a coherent view of marriage that counters our modern challenges decades before they appeared in earnest.

Here is the whole point. As long as we visualize marriage as the concern of those alone who are being married, as something that happens to them and not to the whole Church, and, therefore, to the world itself, we shall never understand the truly sacramental meaning of marriage…. (p. 82)

He is right. Our individualization of marriage has led to the crisis we now find ourselves in. Marriage is not just an act between two people. If it were, the state, and even the church, might not have much reason to be interested. But it is not; it is a union that society is built around and that exemplifies the love of God for his Church.

There are too many topics he addresses well to go into detail on all of them in a short review. Here is another quote that reveals the attitude of the larger work.

For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. (p. 99)

One of the last lines in the book succinctly captures what he means by a sacramental life.

A Christian is one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in him. (p. 113)

The book also contains two articles as appendices which address the overall topics in slightly different fashions and are also worth reading. The discussion of symbol and reality in one of them caused the book to first be recommended to me by another priest.

Unless you have absolutely no openness to a sacramental view of acts we perform as part of our religion, I highly recommend this book. I echo Thomas Merton’s blurb on the back cover, “One of the best books I have read in a long time…. It is very simple and really good, and I suggest that every novice read it twice.”

¹ This is a term I borrow from Martin Thornton. In short, it is the combining of emotive and intellectual streams into one coherent whole. Few writers, maybe even fewer theological writers, manage to do it so well.

Only If You Mean It….


I have been reading through the history books of the Old Testament as well as the prophets lately. Yesterday morning juxtaposed Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 28) and Hosea 6. Hezekiah, one of the few good kings of Judah, sought to bring his kingdom back to the Lord. One of the ways he did that was to renew the sacrifices to the LORD in the temple. Then I flip over to Hosea and read this familiar verse that we usually hear interpreted along the lines of “God doesn’t really like sacrifices.”

    For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6 (ESV)

I think we have been misreading this verse, at least in circles in which I have spent most of my life. If God didn’t like them, he would not have been so exacting in explaining to Moses how Israel was to offer them.

If we shift from God-man to lover-beloved and think through this, it makes sense. (There is a reason God equates idolatry with adultery in many of the prophets—most graphically in Hosea with his marriage to Gomer.) Consider a wife whose husband is being unfaithful. Maybe not even full-blown adultery; perhaps he is just showing a lot of affection to someone or something else.

Our hypothetical wife will notice the shift in two areas, the more quantifiable being “you don’t bring me flowers anymore.” The less quantifiable, but more serious is, “you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.” Addressing the former doesn’t necessarily fix the latter. Our wife doesn’t want flowers for their own sake. She wants the affection and attention of her husband.

This is the same situation we see in Israel (and Judah after the kingdom split). They repeatedly left God in order to engage in idolatry with other Gods. When they did this, normally the proper worship in the temple faded away. Even when it remained, it was hollow and more of an offense to God than no worship at all. Flowers don’t fix the effects of a one-night stand with your secretary.

With this is mind, we look at Hezekiah. He seeks to bring Judah back to God and away from the other gods they have been chasing. The temple worship resumes. Is he violating the injunction issued by Hosea? (For now, never mind that Hosea was a prophet in Israel not Judah.)

The answer is that it’s hard to tell. I tend to be quick to attribute good motives and the work of the Holy Spirit to the actions of the few “good kings” in the Old Testament. But just as I wrote the other day, sometimes it doesn’t seem to be enough. Only God can truly judge the heart. We have a very difficult time trying to do it from a few paragraphs written long ago and far away.

God likes liturgy and the words of Hosea 6:6 do nothing to abrogate that. What it says is the same thing an angry, jealous spouse says when presented with flowers. “You don’t mean that.” God wants our heart and he wants our actions to flow from that love. He desires our sacrifice and worship.

The problem Israel often faced is that they tended to view the temple as their vending machine of divine blessing. We put bulls and sheep in, God’s blessing comes out, just like all the other gods we serve. To that, God says, “Keep it.”

God desires our gifts as a token of our affections, not in place of them. Let us pursue steadfast love and knowledge without abandoning the other. In fact, the more we know and love him, the more we will want to give him.

In But Not Of

I just came across this and found it a worthy exhortation on how Christians should live in the world but not of the world. It captures some good distinctions. It is certainly applicable given our current cultural and political climate in the United States and elsewhere.

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus¹

Chapter 5

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. (2 Corinthians 10:3) They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. (Philippians 3:20) They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. (2 Corinthians 6:9) They are poor, yet make many rich; (2 Corinthians 6:10) they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; (2 Corinthians 4:12) they are insulted, and repay the insult with (honour); they do good, yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

¹ Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm>. The date and author are unknown, yet generally ascribed to the second century AD.


How do you get to know someone? You spend time with them, you watch them, but more significantly, you interact with them. You talk to them, listen to them. You observe their reactions and actions to you and to the world around them.

How do you get to know about someone? You spend time reading about them. You watch them, read things they have written, examine things they have made. You might be able to observe how they interact with others.

What’s the difference? Relationship. To know someone, they must also know you. We can know about people who do not know us, but we cannot know someone who cannot know us. It does not have to be a peer relationship, but it seems there must be interaction in order to really know someone.

I know a fair amount about C.S. Lewis. I’ve been to the Eagle and Child, I know he preferred dip pens over fountain pens and abhorred typewriters, and I’ve read many of his books and books about him. But I don’t know him. In some manner, I don’t have the same knowledge as those who really knew him. I may know some things about him that his students never knew, but all of my knowledge is second hand.

Perhaps that is the key distinction. Knowing someone is primary source knowledge. Our perception isn’t mediated by a third party. Everything I have learned about Lewis has passed through another person, be it an editor, publisher, or writer. I lack any direct access.

With that in mind, let us consider whether we know or know about God. Do we have any direct interaction or does all of our knowledge come through someone else? Consider the Desert Fathers. Anthony and his spiritual descendants went into the desert to seek God. They did not chose the desert because there was a great library, church, or monastery there. Some of these things developed as by-products to their seeking, but they were not there to begin with. Many of the desert fathers seem to have had little access to the Scriptures. So how did they come to such knowledge of God?

Contrast them with others who have sought to know about God and had the assistance of scholars and priests, libraries and churches, and yet seem to have little, if any, relationship with God. What is the difference? There are certainly various motivations at work and trying to paint these two groups with broad brush strokes will miss that, but perhaps there are a few things I can offer as possibilities worth pondering.

The primary difference seems to be motivation. What is it we are seeking? Do we want to know God (and be known by him—if my definition above is correct, this is crucial) or do we want to know about God? If I am willing to know God, I am willing to take risks for the relationship. Studying about something is seldom risky. If I seek to know God, what if he makes demands of me? We see this happen when we read some of the “call stories” of the Desert Fathers (and other saints). They heard or read the Word, often just a small piece of it, and were moved to be obedient to it, often at significant personal cost.

If I seek to know about God, my motivation may be to have information to use for my own benefit. This is certainly a temptation for professional clergy. We need to have something to give to our benefactors if we wish to continue our employment. We are engaged in an exchange of information. Perhaps we should instead be engaged in an exchange of introductions?


To twist Thoreau’s famous introduction to Walden, maybe we need more mission statements for churches along these lines:

I went to church because I wished to meet God, to front only the essential facts of his life, and see if I could not learn what he had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not known him, or been known by him. I did not wish to know what was not him, he is so dear. I wanted to live deep and to throw myself at the mercy of God, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not him, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive distraction into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest level, so that I could focus on God, and seek his face, and gaze upon him as the angels do. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about him, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to live lives of liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness.

What is this Liberty?

The Apostle Paul wrote much about being set free from the law. But what exactly are we set free from? It is not that Paul is throwing the entire law out. Otherwise, passages like the first two chapters of Romans and Galatians 3 make no sense. He clearly still believes that we must obey some moral rules.

I think it is instructive that many of the places where Paul is more vehemently railing against the law he is also decrying circumcision. (Galatians is a prime example.) It provides a hint as to what Paul means by this law that we must be set free from. Paul is not the only one, however.

Peter had his vision in Acts chapter 10 that reinforced Jesus’ earlier teaching that we can eat bacon (and some other stuff, too—see Mark chapter 7). Let us not forget that Jesus himself was continually running afoul of the predominant Pharisaical practice of the Sabbath as well. He seemed to spend a fair amount of time redefining what the fourth commandment was intended to produce.

Jesus, Peter, and Paul all inform our idea of “Christian liberty.” Yet none of them could really be accused of “taking it easy” on morality. What are we set free from in terms of the law? I think we are set free from having to be Jewish. We don’t need circumcision, food laws, or elaborate Sabbath rituals to define us as a people. Jesus gave us our defining characteristic, and it had nothing to do with prayer shawls, beards, or yarmulkes.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:35 (ESV)

When followed, the ritual laws of Judaism produced a distinctive culture in the midst of the surrounding nations. From the physical marks of circumcision to the dietary restrictions, Israelites were to be different from Canaanites, Amalekites, Philistines, Hittites, and everybody else they spent most of their time at war with. God was trying to forge a people for himself and in order to do that he had to call them out.

He had dramatically called them out from Egypt, but he had to set them apart from the nations they were soon to be neighbors with. Failure to do so would mean they would intermingle, intermarry, and idolize. (Which is exactly what happened anyway.)

When the church was born in the book of Acts, the focus seems to have been on calling people to Jesus from every tribe and nation. Instead of forging a group to represent God, Jesus came to call everyone to God.

The law that we are set free from is the sacrificial law, because Jesus was our ultimate, final sacrifice. We are also set free from the “ceremonial” or “cultural” law pertaining to those things that served mainly to set the Jews apart—circumcision, clothing restrictions, food restrictions, some of the civil regulations.

How is this good news? Why was it worth Paul fighting over? Two main reasons come to mind. First, God has opened access to himself through his Son to all people. Second, while the old covenant had provisions for proselytes, there weren’t very many. By removing many of the barriers, this change made it easier for people to approach God and become part of his church.

What’s the catch? While it is now simpler, it is still hard. Jesus did nothing to lower the moral bar we are expected to clear. But we can solely focus upon following him in love and obedience without having to change cultures. (Or at least without changing cultures entirely. To make the changes Jesus calls us to will have cultural effects, though.)

Tyranny of Choice

In a 2014 article, Yuval Levin examines the notions of liberty and freedom, and the ideas that underpin our modern interpretations. His insightful piece demonstrates that both progressives and conservatives in America share a fundamental view of human flourishing. Unfortunately, this view is too low, too utilitarian, and too shallow to produce citizens capable of the grave responsibility of living in a free society.

Levin echoes a thought I have entertained for several years. As the church and state have separated, largely through the splintering of the church, the state has ceased to concern itself with the souls of its citizenry. Religious freedom, in many ways, means religious apathy.

The Reformation and the ensuing wars left us with governments content to not care about our souls because the price of caring for them became too great. Defending the realm from heresy was possible when it was an outside threat as in the Crusades, but once the enemy was within the gate in the form of Christian pluralism, the war was seemingly lost.

While it is right to be careful not to romanticize the life of a feudal serf, we also need to be mindful lest we despise it as well. We project our own ideas of liberal freedom upon people who had no such ideas. Peasant farmers had no ideas of liberty in the modern sense, but only a deep understanding of obligation—obligation to work in order to eat; obligation to provide for self and family; obligation to take care of neighbors; and obligation to the princes and kings who provided security.

We have largely replaced obligation with entitlement in our western world. It is hypocritical to sneer at the taxation of the farmer by the prince and yet champion our governmental institutions that subsist on the same taxation. We gladly villainize the king as a despot who stole from the poor for his own benefit, yet we seem comfortable with those who tax the working to subsidize those who don’t.

Perhaps in the Reformation we made the shift from preservation to progress as our great societal aim. Instead of conquest, competition became our noble drive. Once choice was introduced as an option, it soon sprang up as an ideal. It has been a seamless journey from “Protestant or Catholic” to “Iced, Half Caff, Ristretto, Venti, 4-Pump, Sugar Free, Cinnamon, or Dolce Soy Skinny Latte.”

When I took a marketing course a few years ago, we discussed the “Tyranny of Choice“. In a nutshell, it is the idea that we are being paralyzed by having so many choices in so many areas of life. On a governmental level, I think the tyranny may be even worse than psychological discomfort.

As choice reigns supreme, we have crossed a threshold from religious freedom to viewing religion as an enemy because most religions restrict choice. Put another way, religions teach that some actions are acceptable and others are not and this competes with our idolization of choice as the greatest good for humanity.

We find ourselves in a situation where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been reduced to “pursuit of happiness.” That’s what liberty means to most modern westerners: the freedom to do whatever I want without anyone making me feel guilty about it. (Forget about life. That fell to “choice” over 40 years ago and is continuing to crumble as euthanasia and assisted suicide gain traction on the other end of life.)

We need a better definition of human flourishing, yet I am unconvinced that a pluralistic one will suffice. William Penn, whom we uphold as a pioneer of religious toleration, would be considered a bigot and religious zealot in our day. Consider the Frame of Government he authored for his colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, especially sections 34-36.

We will likely not see a return to religiously-allied government anytime soon in the west, but I am not convinced we could make that transition well at this point anyway. With our idolization of choice, we can expect tyranny to increase rather than lessen.