Miroslav Volf on ‘Multiple Faiths, Common World’

That we are living in a time of increasing globalization and pluralization should not surprise anyone. Christians in the West increasingly have to learn how to exist in a world that is increasingly post-Christendom in orientation. I am one that would agree with those who claim the increasing pluralization does not mean we are necessarily becoming more secular. It seems to me at least, that many Christians witness the loss of Christian influence in the wider culture and politics in particular and simply call it ‘secularism’. But the loss of Christian influence in a pluralistic culture does not mean we are becoming more ‘secular’. What pluralization does mean is that our world (and North America included) is more and more religiously and ideologically diverse (having even more non-Christian faiths and ideologies represented) and that these religious expressions and ideologies are increasingly bumping up against each other.

And many Christians, to be honest, are not making the transition well. It saddens and grieves me that so many turn to the wider ‘culture wars’ to ‘fight’ things out and maintain Christian influence. But not only are the culture wars bad, I believe, for democracy (in that they ruin our ability to converse effectively, only increase polarization on both sides, and simply feed into a political system that upholds the already rich and powerful), but I believe fervently the culture wars are also bad for the gospel (in that they have the tendency to make a the gospel a bludgeon, to name just one reason) and hinder the missional faithfulness of a gospel shaped people in our context.

There is a way to contend for the gospel of the kingdom of God in our context, but I do not believe it to be the ‘power over’ way of the culture wars (especially the variety of culture wars that are entangled in American politics). It is so hard to truly love like Jesus when we are all busy ‘warring’ with each other. I would much rather see Christians live out our faith as peacemakers in the line of Jesus and as cruciform agents of self-sacrificial reconciliation – to be those that live the gospel and Jesus story as our core identity among our neighbors (be they Muslim, Buddhist, straight, LGBTQ, Hindu, Black, White, or however else people may self-identify). In order to do this well we have to take account of what it means to live in a common world with multiple faiths.

Miroslav Volf (who grew up in a totalitarian state) has written a very good book called A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good in which he discusses how to live the gospel well in the midst of post-Christendom pluralization. The video below provides a good introduction to the theme of ‘Multiple Faiths, Common World‘.

(HT: Allan Bevere)

May the peace of our liberating King Jesus be with you.

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 2): What Have We Missed?

Yesterday, I posted some preliminary reflections on the need for lament in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like the Aurora shooting. In the wake of this tragedy I suggest that instead of offering words of comfort (however well meaning) up front, instead of offering clichés meant to defend God’s honor or keep other’s faith from failing (ie, ‘God has a greater plan in mind’), and instead of delving into intractable political debate at this time that we…

Stop!

Just stop…

And grieve…

And cry out to Father, Son, and Spirit…

And lament.

To lament is not to offer words of comfort, or to try to solve the problem right now, or even to attempt to come to God’s defense (which raises the question that if God is really as providential and sovereign as people claim, why then is there such a felt need to ‘defend’ God? I really suspect modern apologetics has failed us here). Politicizing the tragedy for political gain is not lament. Delving into a conversation about gun control right now, which in our gun worshiping culture obsessed with violence I think needs to happen at some point, is not lament either.

I want to additionally suggest that many of these things that are not lament still need to be done, but they cannot be done well until we take the time to share the pain of the ‘other’ (incarnation), cry out to God for a creation that is not as it should be, and lament. A couple of people at work today asked me about my weekend. I talked to them about the need for lament. One just looked at me funny … the other was offended and put off. ‘The Lord calls us to rejoice not lament’ they told me … ‘Its not right to question God!’ I wondered if they had ever read the Psalms, or Lamentations, or Romans 12:15.

The language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament.

So, this leads me to the main question at hand in this post: what have we missed that lament is not our first language … that it seems so many do everything they can to avoid lament?

I offer three suggestions (with help from Stanley Hauerwas)…

First, we have missed the inadequacy of our theodicies both formal and informal.

Hauerwas says in God, Medicine, and Suffering (note: I read this book during my year residency as a CPE/chaplain resident and it impacted me greatly, but I don’t own it myself. Therefore, I am having to pull these quotes from the Theology Forum blog)…

Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.

For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. […]

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune [quotes Rom 5:1-5]. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response. […] (48-52, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas here is pointing out the basic inadequacy of theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and justifications of God in the face of such. In general terms a theodicy is simply an account for why evil and suffering exists. In more academic terms theodicies are attempts at the justification of God in the face of evil and suffering (ie, “If God is love, then why…?).

The study of theodicy can be very fruitful … in perspective.

There are numerous academic theodicies one can formulate as well as numerous ‘folk’ theodicies that come out in response to evil and suffering. ‘God has a better plan in mind’ is an example of a ‘folk’ theodicy. We must remember that theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and theodicies are revealed to be inadequate in the face of the real experience of human suffering and anguish. I have learned both through personal experience (which I will share more of in a subsequent post) and as a hospital chaplain, that no matter how correct we presume our ‘explanations’, defenses, or accounts – in the face of evil and suffering all our theodicies are stripped and laid bare. When revealed to be inadequate and laid bare we are simply left with lament.

Second, we have missed how Christianity actually ‘works’.

Hauerwas comes to our aid again (HT Matt Tebe),

[There] is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositionsbut is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance. (emphasis mine)

In the wake of, and under the influence of modernist impulses, much of Western Christianity is proposition or in the words of Hauerwas, ‘text’ oriented. As such, it often seems that what really counts is just saying ‘true’ and ‘correct’ things about God. With the prominence of such propositional thinking, Christian responses to evil, suffering, and tragedies simply reduce to reading from the script with no variation from the ‘text’ … in fact, many people seem to think it is enough to simply quote Bible verses out of context about the ‘joy of the Lord’ and such – as if a Bible verse a day will keep the grief away.

The Christian faith is not simply a repeating of the ‘text’ of the Bible. It is rather like a performance of the story of the Bible – a performance of the drama of our liberating King. Of course this will include propositions, but propositions are not the main thing here. They are instead ‘storied’ and embedded within the faithful performance of the Jesus story and biblical narrative. Propositions without fitting improvisation and faithful performance by a community of practices simply leave us with moral theory and abstraction unable to withstand the weight of the experience of human suffering, grief, and despair. Instead of treating the Christian faith like a ‘text’ we ought to commit ourselves to fitting improvisation and faithful performance – even in the face of evil and suffering. We must recover the cruciform practice of lament.

Third, because of the above we have missed our proper ecclesial response to suffering.

Hauerwas continues from God, Medicine, and Suffering

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations (53, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas contends that what is needed is not a ‘solution’ to evil or a theoretical account of suffering but the proper response. And Hauerwas contends that this proper response is in essence an ecclesial response – a response of a community of care (ie, the church) able to absorb suffering and the ‘destructive terror of evil’.

The upshot here I think is at least two fold…

1) That lament itself is the most fitting response, improvisation, and performance of the drama of the Jesus story in the wake of human suffering (ie, it is intensely incarnational).

2) That this response, improvisation, and performance of lament, while personal, must also be communal (ie, that is intensely ecclesial).

Lament is something that we do even when we are alone, but not something we can simply do on our own. I propose that we must recover lament as a cruciform, sacramental practice both as a daily discipline and as a weekly corporate performance. We must learn to lament weekly as incarnational communities of our liberating King Jesus.

Lament is not optional for those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus. We cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus when, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King. Let me restate: the language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament. May we seek to take up the practice and performance of lament as a cruciform people of the kingdom in the coming days.

A prayer of lament:

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 1): Reflections for the Eighth Week of Pentecost

The Gospel text for the eight week of Pentecost: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (CEB)

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught.31 Many people were coming and going, so there was no time to eat. He said to the apostles, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” 32 They departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place.

33 Many people saw them leaving and recognized them, so they ran ahead from all the cities and arrived before them. 34 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things.

53 When Jesus and his disciples had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret, anchored the boat, 54 and came ashore. People immediately recognized Jesus 55 and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 Wherever he went—villages, cities, or farming communities—they would place the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to allow them to touch even the hem of his clothing. Everyone who touched him was healed.

I had some great reflections for today on the Gospel lectionary reading. As is my practice I started the previous Sunday afternoon and began to soak my meditations in the readings for the week. It came as no surprise that the bolded portion of the text above is the phrase that jumped out at me in my lectio divina readings, and is the phrase that I began to shape my thoughts around for this post. Sabbath … rest … shalom … and my own personal Sabbath rhythms that I follow filled my mind and heart as I meditated all week. It all fit like a glove with the sermon, the most memorable line from Jerry (our pastor) being, “If you feel ministry is like pushing a train uphill, get off the tracks!” Great advice and all this would have been a great post. I was looking forward to it … really I was. But these reflections will have to wait for some other time.

Unless you live under a rock or are a hermit you will have heard by now about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of the most recent Batman movie. A terrible, unspeakable, tragic evil has, once again, occurred. If you’re like me you’re thinking this sort of thing is getting far to frequent – what’s going on here? In the aftermath my Twitter and Facebook feeds were abuzz with all sorts of Christian responses and calls for prayer. Some of these responses were typically cliché like ‘God has a greater plan in mind’. One that I still can’t believe I read said, ‘God took these people so that He could reach more people later.’ I have also heard some say that it’s a sin to question God – ever, even now.

I realize that the first one is meant to be comforting, but as my wife and I have walked through the grief and despair of the death of three of our babies and heard this numerous times … all I can say is its not! Its rather unhelpful speculation that honestly makes God out to be rather capricious. The second quote just renders divine providence down to a cold, calculating mathematics game. Let me say this clearly: in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like we have seen recently, if this is all you have to say, or if you are going to tell people it’s a sin to question God … please for the sake of our liberating King (even if you mean well) at most offer your presence but don’t say anything. I’ve been through this on both sides (the comforting one as a chaplain and the one comforted) and I have never seen these responses help. So stop, please.

But there were still other responses filling up Twitter and Facebook as well. Some prayed that God would use this to cause people realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus would reveal himself in this tragedy. Many others offered prayers that the victims and their families would be able to find and rejoice in the comfort of the Lord. Many posted verses like Romans 8:28 to say that not even tragedies like this shooting can separate them from God’s love. But as one well schooled in the grief of the tangible absence of three of my own children daily it felt like something was missing.

I wondered … where are the calls for lament, the cries of a cruciform people on behalf of a world that needs to be put right?

Lament is something our culture in general and the church in North America in particular is not good at. Lament is no longer native to the language of most Westernized, modern Christianity … and we are all the poorer for it. Sure it may be something some study about, but its not something most actually do; and its sure not the first thing most think about, even in response to manifestations of evil and suffering like we saw in Aurora this past weekend.

I think if we’re honest it would have to be admitted that when confronted directly with anguish, suffering, grief, and despair most are uncomfortable and driven to relieve this discomfort with some sort of explanation. Well intentioned as they may be, they seek to ‘say’ something, perhaps even something good, but in the end skip over the experience of anguish, suffering, and grief altogether. Ultimately, what is meant to comfort actually hurts.

Its kind of like trying to serve someone by bringing them a hot cup of coffee and then spilling the coffee on them.

I’m not saying praying for people to rejoice in the Lord or to find joy in the Lord is wrong … it’s a good prayer – it’s just not timely, it’s not the fitting response up front. In the immediate aftermath of such tragedy it can even come across as insensitive. When evil and suffering enter into our experience, we MUST acknowledge it first before we can authentically rejoice in the Lord or any other way. Lament gives us a way of making this acknowledgement.

Our normal responses, born out of our own discomfort, are generally ways of avoiding ‘going there’ – of acknowledging the experience of suffering and anguish. The act of lamenting is hard. Lament requires that we actually inhabit our own discomfort rather than run from it and requires that we enter into the experience of the suffering of the ‘other’ rather than avoid it. But this is what the Jesus story and mission of God require of us.

We must cry out in lament because there exists the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God, there exists those places where the kingdom is not manifest. We must cry out in lament because the mission of Father, Son, and Spirit moves us into the suffering of the ‘other’ – into incarnation. We must cry out in lament because even our liberating King Jesus cried out ‘Abba, Father’ and ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Daniel Kirk says,

We must remember that Jesus’ cry, “Abba, Father,” is a cry of lament, because here our words are said to echo his.

It is the Spirit of God by which we cry out, “Abba, Father,” showing that we are God’s children and heirs–”if, indeed, we suffer with him in order that we might also be glorified with him.”

This is a cry of suffering and lament.

It is a cry that wells up simply because of how the world is–a place where God’s power has been usurped. And usurped repeatedly.

We cry out, not only for our own suffering, but for suffering with Christ which is a suffering whose deliverance yields the age to come.

The whole creation awaits the revealing of these sons–no longer suffering, but glorified and redeemed.

The creation awaits the answer of God to the laments of God’s people.

God answered Jesus.

He raised him from the dead.

This newness of life spills over, such that it is ours. Now. Already. Even as we live into it by the way of the cross, and by taking up our own cry, “Abba, Father,” on behalf of the many, even as Jesus himself cried out on behalf of the many.

For those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus, lament is not optional.

Inclusion in the triune, divine life of Father, Son, and Spirit means participation in the mission of Father, Son, and Spirit. Union with Christ means participation in the cruciform sufferings of Christ. When we forsake lament we fail to take up the sufferings of our Lord and we lose the language … the liturgy of a cruciform, New Creation people who live ‘in between’.

Kirk continues,

As long as the world is not as it should be.

As long as children are trafficked for sex.

As long as women are enslaved for their bodies.

As long as stomachs rumble with no bread to quiet them.

As long as tongues swell with no water to shrink them.

As long as money defines justice with no one to declare it bankrupt.

As long as bankruptcy overtakes people entrapped in cycles of injustice.

As long as our lives are taken from us by cancer and bullets and cars.

As long as there is a world that needs to be set to rights, there must be a people standing up for that world in the presence of God. There must be a people living out the world’s suffering in the presence of a father with the power to deliver.

There must be a people who cry out, “Abba, Father,” even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This people of lamentation is none other than the people of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus himself.

As people of the kingdom, we cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King.

Prayer for the Week:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer of Lament in the aftermath of Evil/Tragedy:

O Holy One, I can no longer see.
Blinded by tears
that will not cease,
I can only cry out to you
and listen
for your footsteps.

Are you, too, O God,
blinded by tears?
Have you watched this world
pile its hate
onto the faces
of your little ones
until your eyes are so filled with tears
that you cannot see me
waiting for you?
Are you, O God,
deafened by the expletives
of destruction and death?
Have you heard
so many obscenities
that you cannot hear
my moaning?
O God, if you are blind,
can’t you hold out
your hand to me?
If you’re deaf,
can’t you call my name?

How long, O God,
am I to sit
on the plain of blindness?

How long am I to listen
to the profanity
of my enemies
who mock:
“Where is your God now?”

Show them, O my God,
that you remember.
Reach out your hand
and dry my eyes
that I might see
a new beginning.
Open your mouth
and call me by name
that I might know
you remember me.
Claim me that I might
announce in the marketplace
that my God is here.

O my heart,
give thanks!
My God is here even
in the midst of destruction.