A Secular Age – Introduction

I have long been fascinated by the arguments that I have come across found in Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age. I’ve read very small portions of the book myself in the past (mostly when I was doing some preliminary study for my master’s thesis on Kierkegaard). I also read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular which is meant to be a sort of guide through the larger book. I remember that I found it fascinating at the time.

Since then, I’ve mostly taken a break from properly “academic” works. But I’ve never lost the nagging feeling that I still wanted to tackle Taylor’s work someday. Today’s that day. At the beginning of the year, I set very few resolutions. Mostly because I don’t really trust the efficacy of New Year’s resolutions in creating long-term change. Of the few that I made though, reading and blogging through A Secular Age in 2021 was one of them.

I suspect for most people who read this blog (there are a few of you!), this may be a little bit boring and heady. I get that, and don’t expect much interest. That is fine. This is meant to be a sort of personal journey through Taylor’s work, and I want to make sure I internalize the thesis and argument of the book itself.

In a nutshell, from what I can tell, Taylor wrote this book to get at why our current era in the West is so drastically different in terms of religious devotion than it was, say, 500 years ago. He seems to be aiming to do two things:

  1. Define the term “secular” — how might we define this term to be useful and help us gain insight into the current state of belief in transcendence.
  2. Give an overarching answer for “how we got here” — “here” being a secular age.

Given our current moment: the political and cultural polarization that we are experiencing, the lack of a moral foundation for either the right or the left, the religious/non-religious hodge-podge that we live in — this work of Taylor’s strikes me as extremely important. We need not only an understanding of where we come from, but how we got here, and how that has laid the foundation for where we are going.

So, in this first post (as in all the others), my aim is simply to relay his arguments in a digestible format. The plan is not to evaluate — just to understand. I hope that this will help me gain a better grasp on what I and many others deem to be an interesting problem.

In the introduction, the first thing Taylor does is define the term secular in three different ways. Two of these are already used in the common vernacular:

Secular(1) is when we think about the public or political sphere: “In our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God” (1). The modern Western state, in its current existence, can exist without reference to God or some other transcendent guarantor of rights or a common moral foundation.

Secular(2) is the reference to the decline of religious belief and practice. That is, while a _majority_of people still believe in God or some higher power, there has been a sharp decrease in overall religious belief and practice — going to church, praying, etc.

Secular(3) is closely related to secular(2), but is not quite the same. For Taylor, secular(3) focuses on the “conditions of belief.” In other words: “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged… to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (3). This last bit is key for Taylor’s analysis. One option among many, and not the easiest to embrace. We live in a time where it is more difficult to believe in the existence of God or some transcendent reality than to not at all. And it did not used to be this way. “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives” (3).

One thing that Taylor makes note of next after these definitions is existential realities that humans encounter. Historically, these existential realities have been defined in terms of religious belief. He defines these existential realities on a spectrum:

Fullness/Richness ——- Middle Condition ——- Absence/Exile

It is normal to the human condition that we have moments of fullness or richness. Moments or conditions that make life “fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more what it should be” (5).

On the opposite end of this spectrum is absence/exile. I.e., a feeling or condition where we cannot reach or even, perhaps, remember what the sense of fullness even is, or whether it ever was attainable in the first place.

“In between” these conditions is what he simply calls the “middle condition.” That is, the creation of a routine, a standard way of life that keeps away that sense of exile and absence, while (perhaps) steadily moving towards a sense of fullness.

The challenge, however, is that for many non-believers in transcendence, the middle condition is “all there is.” There is no sense of fullness that can be attained outside of the daily routines of life. Any sense of “fullness” is inherently and only a function of immanent material reality. And this reveals the reason Taylor even describes this spectrum in the first place. Secular can’t simply be defined as “lack of belief” in transcendence or lack of practice in religious rituals. Nor can it be defined solely as the public/political sphere absent reference to God. Secular must refer to a condition of belief. Belief and non-belief are “lived conditions” — not simply theories or beliefs “subscribed to” (8).

Another piece of this puzzle is that a sense of fullness is sought after by believers and non-believers alike. The difference here, however, is that believers see fullness as something that is “received” and the self is is in some ways transcended to reach a fullness separate from the self (thus keeping this true for both Judeo-Christian formulations of transcendence and Buddhist formulations).

Non-believers, however, if they do seek a fullness, must seek that fullness “from within.” There is a self, but it need not be transcended because it cannot be transcended. The nearest thing to fullness (in the West) for non-believers is reason. This allows one to remove personal bias and get at objective truth. There are other forms as well, including a deeper understanding of the place of humanity in ecological terms (understanding our place in nature), and also postmodern formulations that largely place self-sufficient reason in doubt, but have no answer to the “fullness” question, as they are primarily concerned with suspicion regarding meta narratives.

Ultimately however, these are different formulations of a condition that affects everyone in the modern West. The condition is such that, while I may seek fullness/richness through my own construal of what the world is like (“worldview” may be a simple term to use here), the explanation I give for that fullness is always haunted by some amount of doubt or possible objection. Here’s a fuller explanation by Taylor:

“This is typical of the modern condition, and an analogous story could be told by many an unbeliever. We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.” (11).

It is this overall change in the background of belief/non-belief in general that Taylor is trying to get at. Historically, non-belief in God or the transcendent was rare. And this speaks to the tacit, unspoken condition of knowledge and belief than it does to simple changes in culture.

These changes in the conditions of belief (“secular(3)”) have come up alongside “a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. In other words, the Christian good (or other religious forms of “the good”) sees human flourishing as a good insofar as it coincides with loving/serving/glorifying God. Human flourishing is not the highest good. Whereas a nonreligious/non-believing good offers as its end goal human flourishing as the highest possible good (for the most part, radical environmental activism notwithstanding).

So, secularity(3) is a condition in which we all live, believers and non-believers alike, and it is a condition in which, for the first time in Western history, an exclusively non-transcendent humanism is widely available as a legitimate option. Further, naiveté regarding other construals is not an option for nearly anyone.

We are all aware that there are other construals. There are other options. The conditions of belief have changed.

The questions are: why? And how?

The Strangeness of Christmas – A Short Reflection

Our familiarity with Christmas takes away from its strangeness. In what is an absolutely paradoxical move, the great ground of being which created the universe at least 13 billion years ago and continues to sustain its very existence houses its essence in flesh and blood and bones and sweat. Love-with-a-capital-L and Justice-with-a-capital-J inserts itself into finite creaturehood.

This thing with no name and every name, “I will be what I will be”: why does it choose humanity at this time, in this place? In a young girl, engaged to be married. Within an oppressed people eking out an existence like so many other peoples, at so many other times.

Is it because this is how love acts? Love is particular, not general. It requires something of us — sometimes the most difficult thing could possibly be required. And so this infinite sustainer and creator chooses the most difficult, most illogical way forward. That which is eternal obeys the law of love and becomes specific.

Who is this God that acts this way? Who can even know or understand? But across the world, billions of people celebrate this mystery every year.

It’s too beautiful not to.

2020: A Year-End Review

Because 1) I don’t want my final post in 2020 to be about the American politics (blech) and 2) this was a remarkable year in many ways, here’s a post of my favorite things from this year, in no particular order:

Music, Movies, & Podcasts

  • Hamilton (the soundtrack and the musical via Disney+). I know nearly every word to every song. My year-end Spotify playlist is literally more than halfway filled with songs from the soundtrack. I think I watched the film five times. It’s a work of genius, a beautiful callback to classic hip-hop and the beauty and tragedy of the American experiment.
  • Tobe Nwigwe. What a discovery. Legitimately good hip-hop that is also pure positive vibes and faith-based.
  • Circles by Mac Miller (RIP), especially “Blue World” and “Complicated.”
  • Not Our First Goat Rodeo by Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan. This wasn’t quite the work of genius as the first album, but a few standout tracks are “The Trappings,” “Waltz Whitman,” and “Nebbia.”
  • No Pressure by Logic. Supposedly his final studio album (we’ll see). But, in my opinion, this is Logic at his best. “Perfect” and “Dadbod” are great tracks.
  • MFDOOM. Still discovering this dude, but he’s a lyrical ninja. “Rhymes Like Dimes” is a fun track.
  • Tenet. Yet another mindbending work of genius by the inimitable Christopher Nolan. Key takeaway: if time travel is possible, it requires physical determinism. In other words, “What’s happened, happened.”
  • Mad Men. A perennial favorite of mine, and a great way to escape our current situation. Don Draper is despicable, but understandable. Peggy Olson is a joy. Roger Sterling is childish but hilarious.
  • The Queen’s Gambit. Another great escape into the 50s/60s. Like many other viewers, I’d love to start playing chess. But even more than that, the story of Beth Harmon’s brilliance and struggle with addiction was poignant yet energizing.
  • Ozark. I mostly avoided this show until this year, thinking it would be a bad Breaking Bad knockoff. I was wrong about this. It’s a great reflection on humanity’s ability to trick themselves into justifying making wrong decisions for the “right reasons.”
  • This American Life. I’m late on this train, but what a delight. My favorite episode I listened to this year was “129 Cars” (which is actually a much older episode).
  • Rabbit Hole by the NYT. An eight-episode deep dive into YouTube, algorithms, and how our thoughts, attitudes, and political beliefs are shaped unwittingly by forces much larger than ourselves (as a corollary to this, The Social Dilemma on Netflix was a great documentary touching on these same subjects).

Books

I’m on track to read 30 books this year. The goal was 60, and that was, in retrospect, a little overenthusiastic. But! 30 is nothing to sneeze at, and I’m proud of the accomplishment. I’m toying with the idea of just going for 31 next year, and spending time with ONE BIG BOOK (maybe Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age — although I am quite intimidated by this tome), and blogging through it for the whole year, thus giving myself plenty of time to chew on its contents.

In any case, here were my five favorite books this year:

  • The Sparrow (and its sequel, Children of God) by Mary Doria Russell. Cheating here with a double. Fantastic mashup of sci-fi and religious/ethical/moral reflection, and even better than Speaker for the Dead at exploring the difficulties of relating to and understanding those who are radically other from us.
  • Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Psychology & Buddhist philosophy. This was practical, and a beautiful meditation on how accepting — truly accepting — reality as it is can truly lead to a well-lived life.
  • The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson. I had never read this all the way through (just portions in high school English). What I found most enjoyable about this read-through was seeing just how deeply Ancient Greek literature has affected Western tradition, philosophy, and culture. Also, Wilson’s translation is poetic and gripping in a really engaging way.
  • Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain (RIP). Funny, witty, raw. This dude had such a talent for seeing things as they were and for enjoying life in a visceral way. We lost you too soon, Tony.
  • The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. This was one of the many books I read with Lyla this year. It’s also the first time I’ve read this book in the Narnia series, and it’s better than the three prior books that revolve around the Pevensies, in my opinion. A flip on the traditional hero story because Shasta is largely being led along by forces out of his control. And I loved Lewis’s pivot to showing Aslan in so many different and unexpected ways.

One interesting thing is that my list of philosophy/theology/Bible books that I read was a really small percentage of my list. I think I needed to take a break from that side of my brain after many years of intense focus on these subjects.

Life & Work

  • Ten years with my love. I know many people who struggled through the pandemic because they were “stuck” at home. This isn’t a comment on our virtue as a couple, because we struggle in many ways. But the truth is, there was not a single moment where staying at home felt like a burden or a chore. Instead, every day was beautiful because I am still so in love with Elaine. She is beautiful, kind, patient with my flaws, silly, and a perfect partner for me. Ten years has gone by too fast, and I still feel like we are just scratching the surface on this beautiful thing we’re calling marriage.
  • Preaching at LIDE. This year provided me my very first opportunity at preaching in a church service. In January (on my 30th birthday!) I preached for the first time at LIDE. It was a pure joy and something I will always look back on with fondness and joy. Due to COVID, my next few times “preaching” were digital. Not quite the same, but still a great opportunity. This year, I preached about belonging & community, the Holy Spirit, thinking charitably about our perceived enemies, pursuing a process, and work & meaning in Ecclesiastes.
  • Learning to edit podcasts. This was and is a pretty big challenge for me. LIDE had to pivot quickly to producing a lot more audio and visual content when the lockdown began in March. With that came the responsibility of creating three (!) podcast episodes per week. Fortunately, so much practice has helped me make my workflow efficient and has honestly made me a better audio listener. It’s cool now to notice the work it takes to make a really well-produced podcast.
  • Homeschooling. Some days were a challenge. Some days were a joy. But overall, this gave us so much more time together as a family.
  • Yoga with Adriene. I honestly cannot recommend yoga enough, and Adriene is a gem. Within a couple of days of doing yoga regularly with Elaine (we started in November), I began to experience zero lower/upper back stiffness in the mornings. On top of this, yoga is probably the closest I got to prayer and meditation this year. It’s a beautiful way of getting in touch with one’s body and spirit in a way that isn’t weird or hokey.
  • Colorado. We visited Colorado in August. Aside from wildfires at the end of our stay that killed some of our plans, it was sheer majesty. Elaine and I got a night away for our anniversary, which included a loooooong hike in the mountains. 10/10 would recommend.
  • Louisiana. Yes, it was probably not the smartest, best idea to see family at Thanksgiving. But, my dad, stepmom, and brother had already had COVID about two months prior, so we felt like we were taking a pretty small risk in visiting the week prior to Thanksgiving. It was warm enough to swim for a couple of days (!!!), my dad’s new house was a great size and the views from his back yard (to the cane fields) were gorgeous, and I just very much love spending time with that side of the family. For the first time in my adult life, it creeped up on me that I might actually enjoy living in Louisiana if given the opportunity. Maybe someday.
  • Completed Super Mario Odyssey 100%. This was kind of a dumb one, but honestly it was super fun. I found every. single. moon. I’m a normally quick completer of games, but I very, very rarely 100% games. There are just too many other things to do. But, the controls are tight, and the graphics are beautiful.

COVID was and is a real piece of flaming trash. But everyone knows this, and I refuse to lament this year. We have spent a lot of time lamenting. That sadness and anger has been appropriate (300k+ American deaths is nothing to be happy about). And yet — many, many of us are still here. And the challenge of being human is often the challenge of living and thriving and being faithful to that which is good and beautiful in the face of suffering and frustration and anguish. 2020, despite its flaws, was marked with beauty and love and joy for me and my family.

For those of you reading, I hope you can find beauty in the madness.

Onward to 2021.

We Don’t Care about Expertise

The Atlantic released an interview with Barack Obama this week. Here’s the full article, but I want to bring attention to this quote from the former president:

If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

Truer words haven’t been spoken.

Let’s juxtapose this with some news commentary I read this morning from The Dispatch (headed by David French, the unrelenting never-Trumper):

  • The Trump campaign was dealt a series of legal defeats over the weekend in their effort to overturn the election results. A lawyer for the campaign on Friday dropped the “Sharpiegate” lawsuit in Arizona’s Maricopa County, acknowledging that not enough votes were at stake to change the results of the election. A few hours later, a Michigan judge denied an emergency motion filed by two GOP poll workers requesting to halt the certification of an entire county’s results. On Sunday, Trump’s attorneys dropped allegations that Pennsylvania election workers violated the president’s constitutional rights by preventing his campaign’s observers from watching the count. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Friday the state would not be conducting an automatic recount for any statewide races, because no candidate finished within the 0.5 percentage point-threshold. Any recount would need to be paid for by one of the campaigns involved.
  • Sixteen assistant U.S. Attorneys charged with investigating irregularities in the 2020 election wrote a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr saying they had seen no evidence of substantial election fraud.

So, here’s what seems to be happening — nearly all of the allegations of fraud, wrongdoing, and electoral conspiracy against the current administration have been either dropped or proven to be baseless or blatantly false in a court of law. This is not surprising to nearly anyone actively following experts in politics, by the way.

But the problem is not really the legal battles, is it? We all know that. What the current president is trying to do is not win in the eyes of the law, or with evidence that passes muster when examined closely. Instead, the president is doing what he has nearly always done: he has thrown as many claims as possible into the air just to see what will stick in the mind of his base, and what might convince those on the fringes of that group. This is a classic tactic of conspiracy theorists. He is in some way aware of the current epistemological crisis, even if it’s an emotional or calculating awareness rather than an academic or intellectual one. I heard Alan Jacobs say on the Give & Take podcast recently that the president is not necessarily an intelligent man, but he certainly is a shrewd man.

So, back to President Obama’s point: we are entering an epistemological crisis. We can see the evidence of this in what has happened this past two weeks in American politics. Many, many of us (including myself) do not have the capability of separating truth from falsehood. Many do not trust our core institutions, our medical experts, our lawyers, our journalists, or our politicians to present facts and evidence. And when we are presented with evidence, we question its legitimacy. We question the bias of the “left-wing media” or the “fascist politicians,” and so we pick and choose our legitimate sources for ourselves. And we do not trust the long, slow work of experts ought to be weighted much more heavily than the baseless claims of those seeking to hold power.

Who wins in such a system? The ones who have the power to exploit the will and passions of the people.

Or, in the evergreen words of Professor Quirrell: “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

Digital-Political-Informational Silos

A while back, I was reading a book called Fall by Neal Stephenson. Full disclosure — I haven’t finished this book. It’s long, and I found that the focus of the book shifted away from what I was really found interesting in the book. That’s probably a mistake, but it didn’t hold my attention about halfway through. This post, however, is about the part of the book that I did find interesting.

It’s kind of a strange, sprawling, not-so-distant future sci-fi. Its focus is split between (roughly) two distinct stories. In the main story, an older man named Dodge dies, and his brain/consciousness is mapped and uploaded onto a server. Many years later, a young programmer figures out how to “wake up” Dodge’s consciousness. This is the part of the book that I lost interest in around the midway point.

The second focus of the book is on the outside world, and the various ways in which humans are dealing with (mis)information, false media narratives, news bias, and social media silos. I really wanted the book to be about this. As an example, near the beginning of the book, a fake nuclear attack on a small town outside of Moab, Utah was staged via a widespread media blast coordinated with an internet and phone line shutdown for that section of the US. There were well-made press conferences, fake nuclear blast videos that looked like they came from airplanes, and widespread uncertainty throughout everyone’s social media and video feeds.

In other words, something that could EASILY happen in a situation like ours. Not-so-distant future, remember? Some of the characters end up figuring out that the hoax is happening (one of these characters is a CTO of a major social media company, so he feels the responsibility to figure out the real story to stop the spread of the misinformation campaign). Suffice it to say, this one moment holds massive impact on the US over the course of the next couple of decades. There are “Moab truthers” (people who believe a nuclear attack happened, when it did not). A new form of the internet is born where people are given private internet IDs so they can be easily identified.

The story skips ahead, and there has been some kind of secession in the US — there is now the regular USA, and what looks to be a sovereign country called “Ameristan.” Further, you find that everyone has a different, self-selected version of their access to the net — including news channels, articles, entertainment, etc. Some people just have algorithms choosing their information feeds for them. Others (the wealthy) tend to have personal news/media curators peeling through news and media and selecting it to go in the person’s net feed or not. These leads to massive polarization, because these feeds bend and shape how each person sees the world — what it is, what it’s not, who’s in control, and what is true of the past and present.


The thing that struck me the most about this depiction is not only its relevance, but just how close this is to our own reality.

I’m not necessarily worried about secession  or a civil war right now. But this whole notion of people splitting their feeds, breaking off into other forms of social media so they aren’t censored, and choosing the kinds of information they get (or being radicalized by information chosen for them) seems especially… prescient right now.

Since election day last week, I have seen multiple people claim that they are getting off of Facebook (not necessarily a bad thing, IMO). But instead of doing that to create a sense of calm or peace, they are simply moving platforms to a place where their information is not censored — Mastodon, Parler, Gab, etc. I don’t know if this is necessarily a bad thing, but doesn’t this come with a cost that we have a difficult time foreseeing? Facebook, because of its massive popularity, is a platform that pretty much everyone can use. Therefore, we have a bigger opportunity to encounter those with differing view points.

Don’t get me wrong. Facebook and Twitter have their own (MAJOR) problems. Their algorithms select for the most outrageous posts, videos, and images. When, as Tristan Harris says, the economics of the social media companies we use revolve around selling our attention, we will inevitably lose any autonomy we might have over what we consume — and ultimately what we think and how we see the world.

But when we start siloing ourselves within a particular social network with only those who agree with us, doesn’t this present an opportunity for radicalism to spread unchecked in these groups? A form of group-think has the ability to emerge, and this can also produce cult-like behavior, where real, lasting harm can be done to individuals.

I don’t know what the proper solution here. Neither do the tech whistleblowers that we see in movies like The Social Dilemma. They see the problem, but (again, like Tristan Harris says) it’s like saying climate change is a problem. That’s true, but any possible solutions here are necessarily complex, because the entire internet, and therefore the entire digital economy, is inexorably interwoven with the attention economy as seen in the behemoth tech companies of Google/Facebook/Amazon/Apple/Twitter.

Eat – Tobe Nwigwe

If it’s a issue pack a pistol

Keep it tightly tucked

Cause they’ll try to early dismiss you

On ya nightly run

Or ya daily run

Either way it’s tragedy

Please don’t try to take my life

That’s a catastrophe

On my soul ain’t no hoe in my anatomy

And I put that on everything like Tony Chachere’s

If Kendrick doesn’t release soon, Tobe might just displace him. Watch ya back K-Dot.

Now, for Something New

Just a reminder that if you’re anything like me, you no longer need to be drawn to the bright orange flame that is DJT.

I have a lot of hopes for the new administration — not least of which is what I hope will be a focus on legitimate and decisive environmental action. But that’s not where my real hope is.

My real hope is that my attention is no longer taken up as much with thoughts about politics. I will grant that it should have been this way all along. That the focus of my work and my life should not be drawn in to political battles I have no hope of winning, to nonsense and abrasive language spewed by people I have no control over. But DJT and his ilk are a black hole. They have done a VERY GOOD job of making the conversation about them, and turning the country’s attention onto their every move. In many ways, this isn’t surprising. He came from reality TV, and so he did what he knew how to do best. He turned our entire country, for the last four years, into a reality TV show.

In a gross way, this past week was the season finale. There was a final battle, emotional ups and downs, and a win by the old, vanilla guy who shouldn’t have really won.

What I really want, what I really hope for: an opportunity for my attention to not be taken up by things I cannot control. To be able trust those in leadership, and do the hard, local work that I am called to do. Perhaps that will be made just a little bit easier with the new administration. May it be so.

What Drives Exclusion?

Exclusion seems to me to be a very natural human tendency.

Richard Beck, in his book Unclean gives at least some reasons for this, though it’s not comprehensive. The main issue he sees is that we tend to mix physical disgust (the trait the helps us retain physical boundaries and keep us safe) with how we think of other human beings. The famous example he uses is the Dixie cup/saliva experiment, where subjects were asked to spit in a Dixie cup, and then were asked to ingest the spit. For complex protective reasons, the body immediately becomes disgusted with the thought of reincorporating our own saliva after it has been expelled.

Another great example is the simple question of how much fecal matter would it take to be mixed into a batch of brownies before you wouldn’t eat them. The answer, for nearly everyone, is a whopping “anything more than 0%.” In other words, even the smallest amount of contamination has the potential to “turn on” our disgust mechanism and reject the whole thing.

Both of these are telling experiments for normal human psychological traits. When we expel something inwards, we cannot help but see that thing as “other.” It has crossed the psychological boundary that we’ve created in our minds about what is “in” and what is “out.” Also, we have a tendency to think that even the smallest contaminant has the potential to ruin whatever it comes into contact with.

The danger of these two psychological traits is not that they are inherently bad. These two traits keep us physically safe and healthy. The danger is that we have a tendency to allow these disgust impulses to bleed into our social, emotional, and religious lives. Allowing disgust to dictate how we build communities, maintain relationships, and reflect on God and the divine carries enormous consequences. It can lead us to the dehumanization of those who are different from us, the building of exclusive communities built on distrust of the other, and the propping up of unjust systems that marginalize and disenfranchise groups.

Jesus Decides Who’s Included (and It’s Not Who You Want)

The Gospels (really all Scripture) are filled, over and over again, with stories about who we think belongs or doesn’t belong. We are by nature boundary-forming, exclusionary creatures. A world where I can know who is in and who is out, or who has it right and who doesn’t, is a much neater world. It’s a world where I get to make the rules — or at least where I get to know what the rules are.

These stories and teachings in the Gospels abound, and they often take one of two perspectives. Sometimes, those who are presumed to be “out” or “excluded” are shown to be included against our expectations. Take the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

The poor inherit the kingdom, those in grief gain comfort, the meek and lowly inherit the land. It’s an intentional subversion of our expectations and our instincts. My instinct is that it is not the poor but those who work and gain and live richly are the favored ones. My expectation is that those who are powerful, great orators, or skilled politicians are the most powerful.

In the second perspective, it’s not simply that those who are normally excluded are now included — it’s that those who think they’re in actually aren’t “in.” Often, Jesus uses his harshest language in these stories. Any kind of Gehenna/hell/torment language is when he’s talking about people who thought they were in because they fit certain criteria. Let’s look at Matthew 23, and Jesus’ famous “woe” language:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

I come from evangelicalism and (mostly) non-denominational Pentecostalism, and we often talked quite poorly of Pharisees (naturally, given the fact that they were the “bad guys” in the Gospels and some of the New Testament epistles). But what we often didn’t realize is that many of us were much closer to a Pharisaical idea of religion, right belief, morality, etc. Evangelicalism has a strong streak of holiness ideals within its expectation of what Christian faith looks like. In other words, if you call yourself a Christian, this means that you ought to 1) actively mentally affirm a certain group of religious statements and 2) act (or not act) in certain ways. If you don’t do these certain things, you are not in or you are shamed out.

There are probably tons of psychological reasons for this — reasons I plan to get into later.

But! I think it’s important to make this particular point when we are talking about “inclusion” within Christian communities. We build communities that usually have clear boundaries that help us determine whether certain kinds of people belong or do not belong. Jesus’ actions, teaching, and parables quite often are meant to short-circuit and subvert our natural inclinations towards exclusion.

It’s almost as if, of all the things you could do as a follower of Jesus, including those whom you want to exclude is of the highest priority. When in doubt, include.

Your Coffee is a Disaster (…among other things)

This is just 17 minutes of absolute delight.

 

Also, I’m so glad that they chose the my top three songs from this album to perform. So fun. So whimsical. “Waltz Whitman” almost makes me cry every time I listen to it.