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Posts Tagged ‘community’

I know I’ve been incredibly silent recently and that might continue for a while. Nonetheless, I thought I’d record some of my favourite insights from the course I’m doing this semester on the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He’s quite prolific so we don’t cover everything, but it’s been exciting to get to know someone who really strived to know Jesus and make him known in his own context and trace the development of this guy’s thought. Bonhoeffer came from an upper-middle class family and showed a greater interest in Jesus as he advanced throughout his teens, desiring to become a minister. I love this: “[His family] sought to dissuade him, claiming that the church was not really worthy of his commitment; it was, they insisted, ‘a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’ To which Dietrich replied: ‘In that case I shall reform it!’¹ Anyway, he’s famous for his theological innovation coupled with his involvement in the Confessing Church, the German church which sought to oppose Hitler’s Third Reich, and his imprisonment and later execution just before the close of WWII for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

On the the person of Christ:

From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ.”

(DBWE 6:54).

I can never think of Jesus Christ in his being-in-himself, but only in his relatedness to me.”

(DBWE 12:314).

The concept of the body as applied to the church-community is not a functional concept referring to the members but is instead a concept of the way in which the Christ exists who is present, exalted, and humiliated.”

(DBWE 12:323).

On grace abstracted from the person of Jesus:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby conveys such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God.”

(DBWE 4:43).

On the suffering of Christ:

The fact that it is Peter, the rock of the church, who makes himself guilty [of attempting to hinder Jesus’ suffering] just after he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ … shows that from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ.”

(DBWE 4:85).

On Christian community:

The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies.”

(DBWE 5:27).

[Christians] need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation… The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.”

(DBWE 5:32).

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will often be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.”

(DBWE 5:35).

On denominations:

The concept of denomination is not entirely clear. It is not a theological concept. It says more about historical, political, and social conditions.”

(Green and DeJonge, The Bonhoeffer Reader, 571).

On fundamentalism. Yes, that fundamentalism.

At the beginning of this year, the journal Christian Century published a series of essays on the topic: ‘How my mind has changed in the last decade.’ … A common thread in all these essays–with the exception of the fundamentalists, who deliberately declare that nothing essential could have changed in their thinking since they espouse the same teaching then and now–is the admission of a decisive theological turn in the last ten years.” Nonetheless, “The failure in Christology is characteristic of all current  American theology (with the exception of fundamentalism).”

(Bonhoeffer Reader, 589-590).

Although this is pretty standard Reformation theology it’s been interesting being introduced to it via Barth and Bonhoeffer:

[A]t Pentecost, too, one preaches about Jesus Christ, the one who is present in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else.”

(DBWE 15:552).

On idolatry and nihilism:

The usual interpretation of idolatry as ‘wealth, lust, pride’ doesn’t seem at all biblical to me. That is moralizing. Idols are to be worshipped, and idolatry presupposes that people still worship something. But we don’t worship anything anymore, not even idols. In that respect we’re really nihilists.”

(DBWE 8:447).

On the ethical failure of duty:

[D]uty is so circumscribed that there is never any room to venture that which rests wholly in one’s own responsibility, the action that alone strikes at the very core of evil and can overcome it. The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty also to the devil.”

(DBWE 8:40).

On ethics and Christian freedom:

[I]t is the arena of everyday life that presents the fundamental difficulties, and which one has to have first experienced in order to sense how insufficient, inappropriate, and unsuitable it is to address it with general moral principles.” Thus “[Human beings] are not essentially and exclusively students of ethics. It is part of the great naivete or, more accurately, folly of ethicists to overlook this fact willfully, and to start from the fictional assumption that human beings at every moment of their lives have to make an ultimate, infinite choice.”

(DBWE 6:365).

The ‘ethical’ merely identifies the limits formally and negatively, and thus can only become a topic at the boundary, and in a formal and negative way. God’s commandment, on the other hand, is concerned with the positive content and with the freedom of human beings to affirm that positive content.”

(DBWE 6:386).

On this-worldliness:

It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future.”

(DBWE 8:51).

OT faith differs from other oriental religions in not being a religion of redemption… To the objection that redemption has a crucial importance in the OT as well (out of Egypt and later out of Babylon, cf. Deutero-Isaiah), the reply is that this is redemption within history, that is, this side of the bounds of death, whereas everywhere else the aim of all the other myths of redemption is precisely to overcome death’s boundary… The Christian hope of the resurrection is different from the mythological in that it refers people to their life on earth in a wholly new way, and more sharply than the OT.”

(DBWE 8:447).

* * *

¹F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). The quotes are translated from Eberhard Bethge’s lengthy biography in German.

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The biblical call to love

Although I wrote an earlier post this year on Christian love, it remains a little clumsy and I’d like to do a lot more thinking on the subject. One thing that seizes me about biblical love is that it is characterised by other-oriented, self-giving. So although Jesus cites the second commandment as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:39), suggesting some basis in self-love for neighbour-love, the temptation is to hastily set this up as the standard by which all acts of self-giving are measured. So Jesus also calls us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), rather than “as they do to you.” He states paradoxically that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39), that life and security are found not in seeking but forsaking. Perhaps this forsaking is what Paul has in mind when he places it in the context of the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3; cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 10:24).

These are all based on Jesus’ own example. So, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul also notes, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Similarly, it is only because of God’s love that our love for one another is possible. So “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Trinity and reciprocity

A problem, however, arises. God is God and people are people. How can the latter love as the former? I consider the Trinity. Good theology will have us know that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have dwelt in reciprocated love from all eternity. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father (and all the other combinations), based not on any feature of the beloved Trinitarian person but each of the lover’s free decision to love. So the idea expressed in the last verse above (and throughout the Old Testament), that God loves the sinner regardless of their qualities, would be an oddity if in the Trinity one person’s love of another depended on its being reciprocated. But, is it an either/or? Having only done the rudimentaries, my reading on the Trinity is yet limited; nonetheless, allow me this: God is not a binity. Perhaps it is this not-so-superfluous third that makes all Trinitarian love possible. Is it at all acceptable to suppose that the Father’s love for the Son “enables” the Son to love the Spirit, regardless of that love being reciprocated?

Before shouting “heresy!” consider, it is too easy to make freedom the defining attribute of God. Where Western anthropology has often accorded human libertarian agency an honourable seat in the definition of what it means to be human, it was inevitable that the ideal of freedom would also be applied to God. This was perhaps also a response to hyper-hyper-Calvinist (of course, no longer Calvinist) definitions of God which placed the god of necessity above God himself, i.e. God acts this way and he could do no other as he is under necessity. In this case, freedom is much to be preferred. Yet, there remains the danger that freedom too stands above God in defining him. Rather, nothing, not even God’s freedom, stands above him in defining him as he cannot be defined; he comes to us on his own terms. (Ignore the contradiction(s) in that last line of argument). Additionally, God is one. No person of the Trinity acts as a libertarian individual but all act together. So while we say that that Son loved that Spirit, and distinctions are necessary, and this relationship is unique from say the Son’s love for the Father, the Father is not absent from the love between Son and Spirit. If he is, we very quickly divide the Godhead and plummet into paganism. Thus, in freedom the Trinitarian persons love each other, independent of its being reciprocated, but made possible by the very nature of God.

https://i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/4434775040/h4456769B/

This provides context for the call to non-reciprocated love in Christianity. Christians are still called to love their enemies, not based on whether their enemies will reciprocate but on God’s perfection (Matt 5:48). As the love between two persons of the Trinity is non-existent without the third, so also is our call to love our enemies impossible without first being reconciled to God and living in Trinitarian community.¹ So the event of Christ’s death for all and his resurrection which provides the hope for all things finally being worked out, propels the believers to live lives as a part of this story (e.g. Rom 6:3-11). So also, God does not call individual believers but a community to himself: In radically acting as if another believer is better than their self, this believer is part of a whole community which seeks to do this, that, ideally, this believer is not only the giver but receiver of grace from other believers. Finally, the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers means the community actually experiences the Trinitarian love of God. How often have I been enabled to see a forlorn aspect of one of my relationships from a completely different, empowered, loving angle after emerging from prayer!

(Before proceeding, it would be a little ridiculous to set up non-reciprocated love as an ideal. The Bible is testament to the fact that God’s people have always struggled to love God, others, themselves, and their environment. I can only say that notwithstanding the life of Jesus, there are many more beautiful examples out there, and with the help of the body of Christ and the work of the Spirit, I somehow hope to join these!).

The awkward contradiction! (?)

After all that, I finally arrive at the reason for writing this post: To offer some scattered thoughts on Christian dating. My main concern is this: If the church is called to self-sacrificial love, and so too the individual in Christian marriage attempts to look to the other ahead of their self, is there a way to go about dating that puts the other before the self? Or is dating based on self-interest? For one individual to say that their interest in dating another is based on concern for that other above the individual’s self is a bold claim! It assumes either that in dating this other they will somehow benefit from the individual’s offer, or at least that the other is interested in the individual without that other having explicitly revealed it or even realised it. Conversely, dating based on self-interest seems to make a lot of sense. People seek intimacy. The silverscreen and the highway billboard both point to its fulfillment in romantic love.² Go, therefore, and make dinner arrangements. However, other- and self-interest is a false dichotomy; any absolute notion of either deserves rejection. I remain unimpressed with this critique of altruism, that nothing is truly altruistic because, although it parades as other-centred, it is sourced in the individual and therefore cannot exist for any reason other than for serving that individual. Every desire is self-interested, etc. But this assumes a perfectly bounded individual. There is no instance and never will be of an individual existing on their own terms. You cannot say individual without saying individual-in-(and-of-)the-world (chur Heidegger), or individual-in-relation-to-others. We are completely contingent on others for our coming-to-be. We live in the same world and share the same atoms. Thus, our other-centred concerns are never a direct result of our libertarian agency and neither are our supposedly self-interested ones; we live on the line between other and self, discovering otherness sometimes even within ourselves.

At least in a limited sense though, dating is based on self-interest. Is it possible to say that the individual does not primarily enter into dating for the sake of the other but their self? Assume so, because my argument depends on this! If so, though, does it not run counter to the call to other-centred Christian love? I can now think of two reasons why this does not matter. Firstly, if something good comes of dating, i.e. marriage, then the other-centred love worked towards in this context will continually overlook the need for the initial stages of the relationship to be attributed to one party. It is not a matter of whether she liked him first, etc, as their current love is independent of any initiation but based in continually putting the other ahead of the self. She is just stoked that he responded to her and he’s just stoked that she liked him in the first place. Secondly, although I hope that Christian love always seeks to acknowledge and minimise any power imbalance between lover and beloved, an other-centred, non-reciprocated romantic love will inevitably result in power imbalance. In a healthy relationship there will be power imbalances due to the strengths and weaknesses of each involved, and sometimes one party will give more and receive less, but in the course of love these are to be worked out. Yet to seek an other in dating where all their needs are put before the individual’s is actually to do a disservice to that other. Imagine basing a relationship solely on the  desire to honour the other’s feelings towards you despite you having no romantic interest in that other. The other is not actually honoured because their love lacks reciprocation. Of course, much dating will start like this, but you would hope that both individuals would at least hold within themselves the possibility for romantic interest in the other, and if transitioning into a relationship you would hope that at least some of that romantic interest had been realised! So “self-interest” becomes very valid in Christian dating: Is there a possibility that my romantic interest will be returned?

In sum, Jesus calls his disciples to radical, other-centred love, based on his own example. This also is the case with the Trinity, and our inclusion into Trinitarian community allows us begin to love others regardless of whether this is reciprocated. A problem, however, emerges with Christian dating, as it is typically founded on self- rather than other-interest. Yet this self-interest is not ultimate and, unwittingly or no, a necessary constituent of other-centered romantic love.

* * *

¹Of course, there are examples of enemy-love outside of Christianity and these need be examined individually.

²To make matters worse/better, there is some biblical support for this! So the story in Genesis 2 presents God making Eve because Adam would be lonely without her. But this is not the only biblical meditation on romantic love. Jesus notes there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30). The eunuchs, sexual outcasts excluded from marriage, are accorded a special place in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12). As Paul writes to the Corinthians, the future has come into the now through Jesus and the Spirit, making the eschatological reality of celibacy possible, even beneficial (1 Cor 7:25-38). This is not to say that romantic love is this-worldly and it will have no meaning in the new heavens and new earth. I am of the opinion that it’s value will be affirmed, fulfilled, and redefined. However, as a Christian, my life is continually re-oriented around what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The question of marriage of celibacy is monumentally relative to the reality of Jesus.

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It’s been an awesome week studying for a single exam I have coming up, Christology and Revelation, with a question on how we know about God (revelation), one on the divine/human nature of Jesus (christology), and two on atonement, or “at-onement,” exploring the multiplicities of what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mean for humanity’s reconciliation with God. Having never really delved into questions of atonement, I’ve drunk deeply of the wealth of material I’ve found this week! Recently though, as in about ten minutes ago, I revisited a nicety which I remember popping up not infrequently in the history of my exposure to all things atonement. It goes something like this:

“Even if you were the last person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you.”

A nicety, indeed. But maybe not the truth. Do we, in presenting the Gospel primarily as it concerns individuals the world over, empty the cross of its power? I wonder why Jesus doesn’t come instead to Adam and Eve and make reparation for their individual sins. And what broken relationships is this last person on earth going to be restored in? What about the cosmological extent of the fall: Even if you were the last moon in the universe, would Jesus still have died for you? What about all the fishes of the deep blue sea who go unmentioned in this metaphor?

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Jesus’ death is the high point of God’s reconciliation of Creation to him (Rom 8:20-21), entering into time at the “culmination of the ages” (Heb 9:26). Neither can Jesus say, “You are forgiven,” without, “Take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23-24). What if forgiveness was not a mere cancelling of our own indebtedness to God but an invitation to take part work of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18)? Even if you were the last person on earth, Jesus would still call with you to join in this work.

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heinrich_fuseli_nightmare

Philippians has for a long time been one of my favourite books in the Bible. I’m not sure if I can justify that. Maybe it’s just because of the overall encouraging message set against the backdrop of persecution and eschatological anticipation. I jumped at the chance then to do my assignment on it for biblical interpretation — that and the fact that it was the shortest out of the books we had to choose from. Reading Philippians this morning was a good time to reflect on one of the book’s most influential verses for my own faith and what that looks like in terms of the whole:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

(2:12-13)¹

Coming to this as a serious new Christian in a Pentecostal context there was only one way to interpret the passage: After Paul has given the model for faith and overseen young Christians as they come to terms with how to live that faith, they must then be weaned off their dependence on him and depend solely on God’s Spirit at work within them, existentially working out the faithful life in their individual relationship with God. This interpretation was no doubt consolidated by my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard and his use of “fear and trembling” for the title of his most famous work, one dealing with how the individual through relationship to God is an exception to the ethical context they find themselves in.

But there are some problems with this approach, especially considering the weight of importance Paul puts on the Christian community in writing to the Philippians. In reading the letter as a whole this sense of the individual working out their salvation in distinction to those who forsake the inner call of the Spirit is not as forthcoming as this reading of 2:12-13 would suggest. Au contraire, the sense is of the faith community at Philippi as a whole working in relationship with God.

2:12-13, starting with the “Therefore”, actually conclude the previous section where Paul sets out life in community demonstrated in the example of Jesus’ incarnation:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

(2:1-5)

As in v.13, God working within is the point from where the community works out their salvation, so at the beginning of this passage “encouragement in Christ” and “sharing in the Spirit” are the points from where the community learns to love each other in godly love. When Paul lays out the model of Jesus’ incarnation (vv.5-11) he only demonstrates in greater detail the point with which he has already begun. Therefore, a few verses later when Paul compares Timothy with selfish people, “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (v.21), the interests of Jesus here referred to are actually those concering the welfare of the community at Philippi: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (v.20). The point is that a primary concern of the Spirit working among the Philippians is not to justify them each as individuals in their relationships with God but to live and love together as community.²

Ok, so Paul in Philippians definitely shows the importance of right living in community but isn’t the community just a collection of individuals whose communal love stems from each of their individual relationships with God? The love does not exist in the community itself but in the collective of individuals who existentially come to terms with the importance of expressing that love. But I don’t see much of a problem in saying that the community itself is something more than a collection of individuals. There is something that cannot be accounted for in community by simply tallying the individual spiritual values of all contained within it. What if the category of the individual for Paul is something completely different to the category we employ today?

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

(1:27)³

Here it is interesting that Paul uses the same context to make his point: Whether he is present or absent should not affect the faithful state of the Philippian community. But in comparison with 2:12-13 there is no possibility of misreading it as the individual’s relationship to God when external support is withdrawn. In this case the external support (Paul) may be with the Philippians or not but the Spirit will lead them as a community into unity with “one mind”: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15). There will be differences among individuals within the community but these are not so much differences between some individuals and other individuals. They are differences between these individuals within the community and the mind of the community as essentially beyond a collection of individuals. The mature within the community mediate the one mind in spirit and together as a community, and the exceptions who are earnest in their commitment to the community will receive help from the Spirit to become fully a part of that community’s revelation.

The community as defined by the Spirit precedes the individuals within it, having a being both distinct from yet dependent on the individuals within it. This has been an attempt to explore that relationship, with more emphasis on the collective which individualistic Christianity, though sincere and a productive ground for people who would otherwise be caught up in the institutions of the status quo, largely ignores. I welcome any alternative readings of the passages and further discussion on the issue.

* * *

¹All scripture quotations taken from NRSV

²Cf. Jesus’ focus on being reconciled to others before reconciliation with God: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Perhaps more difficult are his words on not being forgiven unless we forgive others (Mt 6:15).

³Little “spirit” here can also be read as “Spirit”. The Greek does not distinguish between the two. Also, it is unhealthy to say that Paul meant one or the other because saying this dismisses the possibility that Paul could be talking about both with a particular emphasis on one. Also notable is the use of the plural “you” in the Greek here and throughout Philippians.

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Depending on how seriously you take the story of Adam and Eve, singleness can legitimately be understood as a form of malnourishment. I appreciate the way we can use the Genesis story as a symbol for the human condition (it’s almost like there’s an invisible gradient in the bible that as you go further towards the end you can take it more literally, with a sudden dip at Revelation), but how far should this symbolism go? Are we to say that it’s just a wee parable for something like human depravity, free will (or quite the opposite), or our need for redemption? Or should we embrace the depth of its meaning so the words, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) be taken seriously?

One idea I haven’t yet managed to take seriously is that some people look at the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a euphemism for sex, which can be disregarded in light of the fact that the first commandment that appears in the Hebrew bible seems a little impossible without so doing, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). This positive affirmation of reproduction has often been overlooked.

Papaya, I learnt when in India, means sin (pap-) came (-aya) in some Indian language (Hindi? Marathi?) so it’s a wee joke that Eve tasted papaya.

If, however, we do take God’s observation of the lonely Adam seriously then the context in which he says it should have even greater bearing on our understanding of singleness. In the early chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve participate in their act of disobedience against God, resulting in the Fall, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Mainline Christian theology supposes that before the Fall mankind had everything; Eden is a metaphor for heaven, for perfection. When sin entered the world through disobedience then with that came suffering, death, etc. Since this time God has been restoring his creation through Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the Church, etc. I’m not at this point going to explore some of the problems with this theology, but I do want to examine what it says about singleness when we hold to it. It was in the Garden of Eden, the perfect world, before sin, suffering and death came that God observed something in his creation he could improve on. Adam’s loneliness was a need that had not yet been met, and for Eden to be perfect, there needed to be an Eve.

This is where singleness becomes a form of malnourishment. If health entails good eating habits, then, according to this reading of the Genesis story, it also entails relationship. It was before the Fall, before everything went wrong with the world that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Celibacy is a fast. Celibacy is a forgoing of something essential to healthy existence.

* * *

A danger with the idea of celibacy is a confusion as to its function. Some adherents¹ of monastic orders wear wedding rings to symbolise the exclusivity of their being as wholly Jesus’. They enter into a marital relationship with their Saviour. I really don’t want to mock the sincerity with which they do this, even the positive function that it may have, but I just don’t think the practice is consistent with the idea of biblical celibacy.

The Carmelite monastery around the corner from where I used to live in Christchurch

The apostle Paul’s vision of celibacy is simple, but it gets confused amid his need to address a specific situation. He writes to the Corinthian church at a time when a few of them have problems controlling themselves sexually: “If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Corinthians 7:9 NIV)². The Corinthians had written to Paul in praise of celibacy (v.1), but Paul basically writes to them saying that singleness is not all bunnies and rainbows. Some of you really need to get married before you cause any more trouble.

Paul’s vision for celibacy is purely practical. He himself knows marriage is a good thing but he makes no use of it so that he can better serve the Lord³. He wishes that all those he is writing to could be celibate like him (v.7), and as he begins to conclude he gives some reasoning behind it: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided” (vv.32-34; cf. Jesus’ similar, but more ambiguous, words in Matthew 19:12). In a practical sense, God can use the single person more widely as they are less hindered by external commitments.

When God takes the place of significant other then, it distorts the practical function of celibacy. The celibate are those who can more fully express their relationship with God — they can love God — because they don’t have to give so much of themselves to another person. But really, Adam was alone when he had God in the Garden of Eden. We need each other. The part of yourself that loves God is not the same part of yourself that loves another. This is the sense in which celibacy is a fast: When you fast you go without something you cannot physically live without, which is food. We use our fasting as a way to say that God is all we need, although physically we would die if we went without it. Celibacy can be a way to say that God is all you need, but are you also going without something essential? The call to love God above all is not just for single Christians. The call to love God is a form of universal celibacy, celibacy for everyone, whereas those who are called to singleness are called there for practical reasons.

* * *

“Come be the fire inside of me,
Come be the flame upon my heart.
Come be the fire inside of me
Until You and I are one.”

— Misty Edwards, Jesus Culture, You won’t relent

* * *

The temptation in loneliness is to seek in God what we actually find in people. Note that this is a complete reversal of the warning of seeking in people what we should be seeking in God. I’m not sure if either have the power to fulfil the function we expect of them, unless we move beyond our present condition of humanity. Jesus Culture songs have had a profound effect on me. I have desired to have the same passion for God as I do for ‘worldly’ things such as reading, eating and good company. But my desire for God has been of an altogether different sort. Jesus Culture is made up of people who seem to actually love God (like I’m not mocking them; they probably really do) and they write songs that create the emotional environment for me to  experience feelings of loving God. Jesus Culture is attractive to me because it allows me to bring God into that place where he hasn’t occurred for me naturally.

To confront the state of your heart is, in reality, heartbreaking. I have desire for eternal life as some barely graspable, distant abstract possibility, but the idea that I could live in the Italian countryside, grow my own olives, and make red wine and become old is a lot more appealing. I have desire to know God as a wise life choice and existential experiment, but to woo, spend time with and bear my soul to some idealised form of human perfection is the fantasy that makes my heart beat. You can speak with God but you can hug a human. That these desires come more naturally and intensely to me than spiritual desires creates disillusionment: I signed up for Jesus and I still love the world. Jesus Culture allows me to experience desire for God.

Sigh…

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Contraception and the 20th Century have largely taken the place of celibacy in the West. The monasteries are slowly emptying (not that the monastery is the only place for the monastic). When I lived in Christchurch, the Carmelite monastery round the corner (pictured above, not directly though; that’s Italy) said they were being reduced to about one new sign-up every ten years. If you’re not procreating, then this isn’t a very sustainable alternative. But with reforms (?) in family planning and gender roles, the celibate are all married. You have the benefits of celibacy (practicality because you don’t have babies just yet and both you and your wife are equals), enhanced by the fact that you can have a partner to work together with, as well as the benefits of marriage (companionship, sex, etc — I really don’t know). Marriage is the new celibacy.

And if you think that celibacy is harder than marriage then you missed Jesus’ response to his diciples’ own marital insecurities:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”.

(Matthew 19:8-11 NIV).

It’s as if Jesus’ disciples are saying that all that stuff around adultery and divorce is just so much that I’d rather not risk it. And Jesus affirms them! In celibacy you’re accountable to God, who easily forgives and our experience of him is open to a lot of subjectivity. In marriage you’re accountable to the physical reality of another person in your life, someone weak and irritable like yourself, someone whom you can’t just say, “I bought us a new motorbike with our shared income because I know we’ll both get a lot of use out of it and God was leading me; it was on sale”. If you’re only accountable to God and not another person then you can easily say, “Whoops, that Xbox was a mistake, please forgive me; I’ll sort it out”. Marriage requires more of you. Marriage is the new celibacy.

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Before I conclude, maybe there’s something I’ve missed. Notice that throughout the bible the people of God are referred to as in marital relationship with God? One of my favourites is where God asks the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute as a symbol of his love for an unfaithful people. James echoes this sentiment when he refers to his readers as adulterers (James 4:4). Isaiah makes use of the marriage metaphor to speak hope to the post-exilic Jewish community (62:2-5), as does Paul to illustrate Christ’s love for the Church (eg. Ephesians 5:25-33), as Jesus also does when speaking on eschatological events (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13).

Maybe this is just a loosely balanced observation, but in these examples the marriage is between God and a people, rather than an individual. It is only as part of a community that we experience the marital love of God. God’s love for us in this sense is not love for you, but you all, us. If Jesus is my boyfriend then I don’t experience him as I would experience a boyfriend (girlfriend), because someone does not experience their boyfriend as part of a community. Human relationship holds a private sphere for human desire. If this aspect of human desire enters into the spiritual, it is not between God and I but God and us. The dating-the-deity is unnatural in the same way it is natural between humans because it is always in a communal sense that the marital metaphor is used with God. The words, “It is not good for man to be alone” take on a whole new level of meaning when community is necessity.

I now leave you with Jesus’ words to protect us from getting to attached to the idea of fulfilment in relationship: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

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¹A friend told about this and I have no proof of its veracity. Even so, the anecdote makes a good point I think!

²Interestingly enough, Paul maybe should have gotten married too, according to his rule (see 2Corinthians 11:29).

³”Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1Corinthians 9:5). In this passage Paul lists his rights as an apostle as an example of what he forgoes so that he can better serve the Lord.

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Thinking of leaving church? Do so in style! You have probably already considered:

-Taking up work on a Sunday and whichever other day one of those church groups wants you to attend some group to do something churchy;

-‘Forgetting’ to turn up and hoping that others will return the favour by ‘forgetting’ to ask you to do so;

-Issuing a semi-formal and, over time, rehearsed statement of why going to church is unbiblical or just hasn’t worked for you, etc;

-Relocating to the mountains, or some pagan country;

-Telling former-fellow churchgoers you don’t speak their language (any more), in a thick heathen accent;

– Or, seeking out a new church where everyone spends their time playing Nintendo instead;

* * *

The thoughtful apostate of the church (no! not necessarily of their faith) considers all of these options and more. I can very honestly¹ tell you that I have scraped the bottom of the ecclesiastical barrel looking for a church that spends their time playing Nintendo.

Ocarina of Time is a genuinely spiritual experience

Now pose I a question to the thoughtful apostate: Is it indeed possible to leave church while remaining physically there?

Returns the Querdenker: Yes, in the same way somebody who attends a lecture elects to absent their mind in favour of sleep, yet why sleep in a lecture if you can sleep in a bed?

Pose I another question: What if this kind of leaving church is an active leaving rather than a passive?

Concludes the apostate: I think you’re just trying to trick me into going back to church through your linguistic manipulation, fool.

* * *

How, then, could it be that the most styly way to leave church is to actually remain there? The Old Testament prophet Elijah exemplifies this.

Firstly the Spirit calls him away from his community to live in Zarephath, north of Israel in Sidon (1Kings 17:9). This is a physical departure, and I am sure people before have felt the call to leave their community physically for reasons such as being of better Kingdom use in another community, taking some time to look at the world through different lens or just finding it important to move on from any hurt they experienced in their former community. In Elijah’s new community he ministers to a widow by restoring her dead son to life. While he is gone, God is doubtless working in the hearts of his former community, as God also worked in the heart of the widow before Elijah met her.

After three years of being away from his community, the Lord calls Elijah back there (1Kings 18:1). The situation is dire: There is a three-year-long drought throughout the land, causing animals, people and crops to suffer, and much of the nation has turned to Baal, a foreign god. Prophets of Yaweh (the God of Israel), of which Elijah is one, are enthusiastically persecuted as the monarchy encourages Baal worship. Elijah’s community is fundamentally different to him in both ideology and practice. He can leave again to avoid persecution² or assimilate a large portion of himself to the new community identity. Instead, he chooses to do both and neither. He leaves the community by remaining with them and assimilates himself by retaining his prophet-hood. His value to his community is not as someone who contributes positively to their focus, but as a thorn in their side, an attendee who contributes to his community by steering it in a direction against that in which it is already heading.

Elijah leaves his community in a mini cooper

The story goes that Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a divine showdown: Both are to prepare a sacrifice to their g/God and call upon him to burn it up³, a way of acknowledging and receiving the sacrifice. You may know that the prophets of Baal recite their prayers and do a little dance, etc, of which Elijah later makes light after they get no response. He then soaks his sacrifice in water and prays to Yaweh, who licks it up with fire from heaven, along with wood, stones and water that made up the altar. Thus begins among the people a return to their Lord.

* * *

You may not find the faith to call fire down from heaven to prove your point, but the Spirit can still call people to ‘leave’ a church by remaining there. Your value is in insisting on more prayer when the congregation spends too much time in their heads. Conversely, you may bring to the light the glaring inconsistencies in the faith your community professes. If everyone feels alone, don’t leave because you feel lonely, but be the point of contention in your community. And if you’re among Calvinists, well…

This is not to say that you are the only wedge in a bowl of chips, but that your heterodoxy or counterspirituality may make you mindful of what others at work among your friends have been doing for a long time before you. Moreover, you may reignite some celestial fire in another’s heart or kindle in another a new one. You are not going to lecture because you are required to and then electing to fall asleep; rather you are going to the lecture and electing to be the only one who doesn’t fall asleep. It is better to leave church than remain there.

A further point is not to outline that all gatherings have faults and that you can better remedy those faults by leaving intellectually/spiritually instead of physically, but that departing a church is necessary to its heterogeneity, its life! Although some may be called to specific prophet-hood and steer the church in a particular direction, this departure for all to attend. Each of us is one of the many. Just as Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).

* * *

¹Au contraire dear reader, I am lying for the sake of poetry and possibly irony.

²Later on in the story Elijah does leave, a mix of no results and fear of persecution, but this time his leaving is not initiated by the Spirit.

³This is especially significant as my annotated bible notes that Baal was a god of fire and lightening. The story may therefore be akin to some retired politician (who no-doubt worked out and attended the gym regularly) wiping the floor with David Tua in a boxing match. Tua and the politician switch places and we find that Tua was all talk in the first place.

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Hey friends, this is post #1. As I sometimes had some thoughts to share on Facebook, I thought a blog might be more appropriate. I’m hoping this will continue then!

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The title, which you may recognize, is the three vows monastics (think monks and nuns) take when they enter into the religious life. To some extent all of them have had an effect on my life. In sum — and by this I mean to do injustice to the definitions of the vows by defining them each in a couple of words — you take up to vows to say you’ll live on what you need or less, as a single man/woman, seeking to follow the direction of those above you (in your monastic order).

* * *

In a recent effort to curb the amount of possessions I own, I’ve met with idealism, failure, self-disillusionment, and success, sometimes in a very short space of time within that of each other. Firstly, if you want me to justify myself, I dreamt of the awesomeness of owning very little: You could move around so much. Imagine owning just a pillow, sleeping bag and mat, a couple or few sets of clothes, journal, pencil and a bible, possibly soap included? You could go pretty much anywhere, serving the church or for the sake of the gospel, whatever, and rely on God to feed you and look after you. Pretty keen to fight off wild beasts in Ephesus sometime too! One of the primary reasons for diminishing my stock is itinerancy: You are not bound to a place by the weight of that which you own. What else? Some of you will know how long you and I spend on Facebook. That’s all good, but I wonder how much more time we’d spend in prayer, study, preaching (?), social justice (?) if without a computer. Not that Facebook is evil, but its overavailability can be damaging sometimes, among other things. This question is probably better considered by practicing monastics, but here’s something I don’t think they had to deal with too much back in the day: Immaterial/semi-immaterial possessions. Facebook, bank account, email address, passport, etc. Practically, these ‘items’ don’t take up a lot of space so they might not limit one’s mobility as much as a bookshelf.

One thing I’m still mediating though, is the tension of settling in the land and being ready to move out at any moment. I’m sure many have felt the call to settle down as part of a community and contribute in some way long term. I’ve been slowly collecting important kitchenware to maximize future cooking opportunities, herbs and spices included. My arts and crafts collection is increasingly substantial. My library grows monthly in variety and depth. Some real men collect tools for their toolboxes too, etc. Ha. The difficulty is, at this time in life, making decisions regarding storing and saving or embracing bare essentials when you don’t know what the future holds. People have referred to the early church sharing everything they owned (cf. Acts 2.44-45) and then others have pointed out that it’s an ideal rather than a workable reality for modern times, or whatever. I like the former. What about even working towards it? What about rupturing the idea of individual ownership by freely allowing people to make good, unconditional use of your items? As Barnabas, a writer in the early church, said, “Give your neighbour a share of all you have and do not call anything your own. If you and he participate together in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?”

Another difficulty I have found in loosing the grip of that which I own is that I haven’t managed to be quite as consistent in working with fleeting possessions. In a moment of passion I can give away a trinket, sell a piece of furniture or consecrate and destroy a relic from my pre-Christian life. The effort required to regain the likes of these is withstandable. However, the effort required to pass by some expensive takeaways or a nice night out is a lot more unpredictable. Once a more permanent item has been rid of then that’s it. But the opportunities to splash out on expensive meals and social times are myriad and my dealing with them is often inconsistent. If I one day own less than twenty five items then I can only call myself a fake if my social and eating habits don’t match the humble non-extravagance of my non-perishables.

Where to now? The purpose of this is not so much to warn everyone in their sinfulness in hoarding possessions and expensive living (although, consider Luke 12:13-21), because the very danger of a monastic vow is that it is seen as a requirement for salvation. Rather, I hope you can see some of the ways that this could play out in your lifestyle, as well as some further questions, and some of the benefits for the Kingdom of God that come with that. Be blessed!

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Image from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/The_Great_Traveller_Charles_Alexandre_Lesueur_in_the_Forest_by_Karl_Bodmer_1832_-_1834.jpg

Thank you!

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