Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Reflections: The Anxious Augustine

My classes are now in full swing, one of which is my class on Augustine.  Each week I will write some reflections on a couple points of interest to me in that week’s reading.  I offer these extemporaneous reflections for your consideration, beginning with this:

Throughout books 1-10 in Augustine’s Confessions he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of one’s intention in actions.  One can perform a good task or kind act and still be completely disobedient to God’s desire.  Furthermore, Augustine writes that “things liable to corruption are good . . . therefore, as long as they exist, they are good (124; see footnote 24).”  These two points when taken together make sense of how Augustine could see evil as the privation of good, and how the best thing anyone can do is love and obey God.  I wonder though if Augustine has inadvertently made it harder to follow God by making everything physical a constant source of temptation.  Shouldn’t the truest expression of love and obedience to God come in the way we act in our homes, jobs, etc., in the very physical lives we live?  I greatly appreciate Augustine’s wariness of idolatry, but how exactly can we honor God with our bodies if we are constantly on guard from temptation, as it seems he is in book 10?  This seems to have a very practical import on daily Christian living.  If we spend much of our time focusing on not letting ourselves become too attached to anything in this world, this could easily become a new type of bondage, and ironically a serious distraction from focusing on God.  I am still learning what a proper balance between alertness and freedom is, and while I respect Augustine’s desire for purity, I think he is too sensitive to the potential for idolatry, which leaves him wary and anxious, presenting at times a less than helpful model for discipleship.

The Anxious Augustine 🙂

LeBron James & Discipleship

As many of you know, LeBron James has been getting alot of attention these last several months (for those of you who don’t know who he is, click here).  A couple days ago he announced on a sports network where he was playing next season, which drew huge television ratings & generated much controversy. 

Being a sports nut, I have been been spending some time keeping up with the story, having the token water cooler conversations about it, etc.  In a recent convo over facebook I had a friend mention to me that he had seen this status posted by someone: “Brothers and sisters, remember that were were created to worship Jesus, not Lebron James.”  This apparently was meant to remind us to not care so much about sports, at least not more than God. 

While this seems like a fairly innocuous comment, it really strikes a nerve in me.  Beside the banality of the comment itself, and leaving aside some of the issues attendent with being a “social media prophet,” this comment frustrates me b/c it betrays what Stanley Hauerwas calls a sentimental understanding of Christian discipleship.  To get the essence of what he means by that term, check out this video (note: this is my 1st Hauerwas vid i’ve put on this blog.  If swearing offends you, proceed with caution b/c Hauerwas, who is a professor at Duke, does not share your conviction): Sentimentality from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Now obviously there is a lot jammed into 3 minutes there that is worthy of discussion in itself, but I want to focus on his main points of the accomodation of the church to culture & the sentimentality of its morality. To be blunt, the facebook prophet’s quote is paradigmatic of Hauerwas’ point. We will decry people spending several hours over 2-3 evenings discussing & analysing a pro basketball player’s decision regarding where he will play next year, but often when it comes to the pervasive ingrained sinful habits we all have, greed being an apt example, the facebook prophet falls silent because (a) s/he has capitulated to culture on this broader issue, and/or (b) doesn’t even possess a vocabulary for how critique it. We feel like we have some sort of moral compass b/c we see the “issue” with someone being temporarily being obsessed with a basketball player, all the while missing the real carrot that blindly leads us around daily & kills our souls.  Riffing on Chuck Klosterman, one could argue that the very reason we make critiques and judgments on these sort of matters is because it enables us to feel like we actually do possess some type of moral compass culturally and individually.  Christians are not immune to this reality, thus the appearance of the facebook prophet.  S/he gets to (a) feel better about themselves knowing they posess some type of moral instinct, (b) judge the world & “weak” Christians, & (c) not actually engage in the deep realities of discipleship. Cheap discipleship facebook prophet, much too cheap.

It would be easy at this point to dismiss my borderline rant by pointing out that I am too upset by this. This is entirely possible, but I don’t think so because if this type of interaction forms even a substantial part of our prophetic discourse then we, and here i refer to both churches and individuals, need to do a serious rethink. Is it possible that people being overly interested in LeBron James reveals the triviality of our culture? Absolutely, but until we are able to take out the deeper accomodating logs in our own eyes (can we even name them?), then we have already conceded the game. By centering much of our critique at the level of a temporary media frenzy we merely reveal how blinded we really are to the broader structural issues in society that Christians need to stand against, issues of real substance. At best, this quote reveals a misguided view of spiritual formation, & at worst is blatant hypocrisy.

Brothers & sisters, let’s care about stuff that really matters.

Hauerwas on Being a Successful Theologian

In an interview with Hauerwas i recently watched (HT: Jason), he makes the following observation regarding the proper motivation for theological work:

I think about the worst thing you can possibly be today is a successful academic.  I know that seems bad because it looks like I am a successful academic, but I want the success that comes through being an academic to be that which rides on the back of caring more fundamentally about the Subject itself.

Not earth-shattering, but always a good reminder.

N.T. Wright on Miracles & Character Formation

In his recent writing After You Believe, N.T. Wright calls into question a common western understanding of miracles.  As an example, Wright cites Captain Sullenberger’s act of landing a plane into the Hudson River, a task requiring mind-boggling precision.  After pointing out all that had to be done in a mere few minutes, Wright makes the following observation:

I suspect that calling such events as the safe landing of Flight 1549 a “miracle” may be a way in which our culture chooses to ignore the real challenge, the real moral message, of that remarkable sort of event.  The virtues matter.  They matter deeply.  When the great door of human nature swings open to reveal its truest secrets, these are the hinges on which it turns (35).

Wright’s point is well-taken.  Wright has no problem affirming the role of God in such events, but rightly questions whether western culture has high-jacked the concept of miracles, using it to justify their apathy in seeking godliness.  Such a distortion is understandable outside the church, but is incorrigible inside it.  While we must strive to have a sober judgment of ourselves, we must with equal vigor oppose using God’s providence as the mechanism which abdicates any responsibility to seek to be like our Lord.

Erwin McManus & Ray Anderson on the Book of Ecclesiastes

I recently spent a week out in California at Catalyst, a gathering of pastors and Christian leaders.  There I heard Erwin McManus talk for the 1st time.  Much of his talk centered on the book of Ecclesiates, where at one point he argued that Solomon’s famous dictum “there is nothing new under the sun” was wrong.  For McManus, this conviction was born primarily out of the view that creation is an ongoing process, which occurs (only?) through his people, the church.  Furthermore, despite his professed love for Ecclesiastes, his general posture was at odds with the alleged cynicism he read in Koheleth.  McManus sees much potential, particularly creative potential, in humanity and feared that the despair Ecclesiates expresses can be used to squelch this potential in man to create things that have meaning.  The pessimism of Koheleth appeared at odds with the ability of men and women to acheive significant things and to create things with lasting value.

Leaving aside the issues of Solomonic authorship and the implications of his statements for a theology of scripture, I want to focus on his concern regarding the Teacher’s cynicism in Ecclesiastes becoming a stumbling block to individual believers living lives with meaning.  To state the matter plainly, this concern is ill-founded.  As the late Ray Anderson argued in his recent work on Ecclesiastes, “the vanity of life is its hope.”  This is because Anderson rightly discerns that the Teacher is arguing that a self-contained world has nothing to honor; it is vanity.  The Teacher wants people to understand that they are more than just earth, more than just the span of their lives.  God has “put eternity in their hearts,” and because of that life on earth alone or for its own sake is in fact meaningless or frustrating.  However, that frustration actually serves to point one beyond their feeble attempts for meaning to the One who gives meaning as a gift.  Anderson states this beautifully:

You see the point of all this is that God has put eternity in your heart.  It means sadness if you are aware of it.  But that sadness is the beating of the wings of your spirit against the prison of the frustrations that encompass you.  And in beating your wings and protesting against the contradictions of life, in constantly yearning to know more of life you become more aware, more of an individual, not just a part of the flock; this means suffering, but the spirit is alive (emphasis mine).  

The irony is that in the Teacher McManus does not have an enemy but an ally.  Both feel the ich of transcendence, the frustration of complacency, and the deep desire to have a life pregnant with meaning.  For Koheleth, Anderson reminds us, such meaning cannot be sought until one comes to terms with the limitations of earthly existence.  This does not preclude genuine and radical transformation, but the gift of Koheleth’s “cynicism” is that we can never forget that all such pursuits find their telos in God, not in a life that is full of meaning for its own sake.  Thus, for McManus, and for us all, a meaningful life begins with vanity, a happy life includes frustration.

Rethinking Fasting

For many Christians, fasting is ultimately about (1) losing wieght in a “spiritual” way or (2) approaching God in a manner akin to health and wealth advocates, assuming that obedient fasting earns one God’s favor anda positive response to their query.  One’s fasting often reduces to a narcissistic drive for a hollywood (or at least an improved) physique or to an attempt to bully God.

In Scot McKnight’s book Fasting he challenges his readers to rethink the spiritual discipline of fasting.  Growing out of his background as a biblical scholar, he re-examines the biblical data & exposes these improper views of fasting, arguing instead that fasting is fundamentally a response to a grievous sacred moment.  While these sacred moments can occur in multiple ways (consciousness of sin, death, social injustice, and the absense of God’s presence to name a few), it is these moments in which the Christian is overcome where a mere “spiritual” response is not strong enough: rather, one wants to engage in “body talk” as well, which is where fasting provides a powerful bodily response to sacred moments. 

The point of fasting is not about whether God responds the way we want to our fasting, but whether in the serious moments in life we make a holistic turn to God, not letting our tendency for dualistic thinking to stop us from responding to God with every facet of our being.  As McKnight argues, for the Christian who is not held captive to a dualistic anthropology fasting is an inevitable & natural response to these watershed moments.  Fasting then, is ultimately about identification & communion.  McKnight’s thoughts are a compelling re-presentation of a classic spiritual discipline, and is to be commended.

Narcissism & Evangelical Piety

Narcissism 1

Being situated as i am in a mostly conservative evangelical setting, i have noticed an infatuation with the idea of understanding one’s “identity” as a means of spiritual formation.  In case some are not aware of it, here is a brief layout of the concept:

  1. A relationship with Christ makes one a new creation (eg one is “given a new identity”).
  2. Based largely upon Romans 12:1-2, much (all?) of one’s struggles in spiritual formation can be reduced to negative understandings of one’s self, a misunderstanding of their new identity.
  3. When one grasps their new identity, they are spiritually liberated/mature/in step with the Spirit, etc etc.

Although there are different nuances to this, that is pretty much it.  As (1) makes clear above, it is one’s connection to Christ that is the root of this new identity.  However, i see that often (1) is simply the instrument, the tool to get to the important stuff, which is who I am now.  In many ways, the discipleship process can be reduced to an almost anthropological journey of self-discovery.  It seems that one can fall into a sort of spiritual narcissism in their quest to unlock the awesomeness of their identities, ironically undercutting the fundamental needs for self-denial & an outward focus in the life of discipleship. 

To be fair, bright-minded women & men could respond that an outward focus & submissive life-style are also part of the identities which they must grasp.  Fair enough.  My question is if such a genuine grasping of these dimensions of discipleship is possible when there is a functional, instrumental Christology at work (an issue I recently wrote about here).  Did Jesus come only/primarily to give me a new identity?  Can the scope of the incarnation be reduced to this function, this need of mine?   I am doubtful; something seems fishy to me.  If the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection were only a tool to provide us with a new identity, how else can we understand these acts of God as anything more than just that, a tool for us?  If the Gospel is primarily about me & my need, how can i move beyond myself to genuine renunciation?   

Enough for now; bed time.  I hope to think more on this soon, but anyone have thoughts?  Am I just out to lunch here?