Danse Dysfonctionnel

The two militant world views afflicting the world right now share a fundamental assumption about reality but arrive at diametrically opposed responses to it.

Islam and secularism are assertive, confident movements.  They agree that human beings have no intrinsic purpose or meaning.

Islam believes that God is a pure will with no obligation to humanity. Islam’s dominant theology, ultimately articulated by  Al-Ghazali in the 12th century, preaches that God  destroys and recreates all reality in every moment.  There is no unfolding plan that involves any of us as unique beings; God has no obligation to anybody or anything.

Secularism, stated honestly, believes that we are accidents of nature.  Events have no ultimate coherence and are only what we experience in the moment.

Thus the cosmos holds no love for us. There is nothing we can expect and nothing to restrain us from what our urgent thoughts and feelings dictate in the moment.

More deadly is Islamic and secular functional agreement that there is nothing to bind us together but action against whomever we perceive to be threatening or offensive.  

For Islam, the only real unity is common action against all that is not in submission to the perfect will of Allah (pretty much everything, as God told Hagar about her son Ishmael, He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen (Genesis 16:12).

For secularism, the only real unity is effort to control or remove those things that threaten the subjective pleasure of the present, which is all we can know and have.

In the case of the Orlando shootings, the Islamic explanation is incomprehensible to most of us as Westerners.  It would be something like, “God made the finger move.  God made the trigger pull.  God made the powder ignite.  God made the bullet spin through the gun’s barrel.  God made the bullet move through the air.  God made the bullet strike X.  God made X’s heart stop. God made X die.” (Repeat except “God makes the bullet strike Y.  God makes but a small nick in Y’s skin.  God lets Y live.)” Etc. etc. etc.

The secular explanation is obvious.  “We are free to do what we want, but some people will react to environmental factors beyond their control and want to do violence that deprives others of pleasure.  So we must remove the means of violence and deprivation, therefore gun control.”

The weird dance is this.  Islam and secularism meet in agreement that the universe holds no ultimate compassion or knowable consequence for humanity (or for anything that exists, for that matter).

But Islam responds with violent spasms of destruction, seeking to knock down vain human creativity that dares to usurp the will of God.  This is why the Taliban throws acid in the face of a girl who goes to school, or why Nigeria’s Islamic terror front bears a name that means “ban Western education,” or why America realized too late that destabilizing Islamic autocracy does not result in democratic “nation building,” but IEDs.

Secularism responds with institutions on steroids.  Build more systems, especially government, to buffer people and their pleasures against an uncaring cosmos.  Much of this is beneficial, as in public policies that eradicate plague-potential diseases.  But eventually the sublime meets the ridiculous, and we are told what we can or can’t think, write or speak.  Secular versions of burdensome old cultic piety emerge: Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (Colossians 2:21).  Social engineering.  5 Year Plans. Cultural Revolutions.  Reeducation camps.

And so Islam sets off bombs in random places to show that no human endeavor should stand against the pure will that is Allah, while secularism pushes a button, watches the drone launched missile’s on-screen descent into the distant, threatening target, then knocks off at 5 pm to party down at the club.

One other assumption that Islam and secularism share is that Christianity is a blight on the planet.  And they share a common response – both can tell you everything that’s ever been wrong with their common enemy.  They both work hard to rid the world of  Christianity’s nonsensical ideas.

Like Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (I John 4:8).

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Raindrops keep falling on my head*

*It’s a song released in – gasp – 1969.  Not going to link to it as it’s not really the point.

Sanford SlendermanWhy do the raindrops fall on my head?  How I answer that reveals my ideas about God.  Is rain part of understandable natural phenomena that God designed, or phenomena that came into being by chance because no God exists, or a sign of God’s (or the gods’) pleasure or displeasure?

When we meet the Prophet Elijah, he announces that the God of Israel has let him in on a significant weather forecast: no rain for several years.  (I Kings 17:1).  Ahab is King of Israel, and has the people dabbling in the religion of his Sidonian wife Jezebel – the cult of the storm god Ba’al (I Kings 16:29 and following).  So Yahweh, the God of Israel, claims the power over nature that some ascribe to Ba’al, and also sets up validation of Elijah as a true prophet, with a message that will prove out.

God’s purposes are clear enough.  He’s upstaging the pagan weather god, showing his displeasure with the people’s apostasy, and establishing a prophet to speak for Him.  But Yahweh’s actions are broad.  There are no particular events tied to the start or end of the drought (I Kings 18:1) and there’s no moral outline in place.  God doesn’t say, “I am withholding the rain until Ahab repents.” The timing of the drought and the rain are not tied to human action, but they are essential to establishing Elijah as a human witness to God’s authority over and purpose for His people.

The Bible isn’t always tidy about moral cause and effect.  Things are much broader, especially from a Christian point of view.  Morally, we’re all deficient, yet, as Jesus tells us, the rain is one of many signs that God deals with us patiently and mercifully,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)

God’s justice lacks mechanical precision, and we don’t like that because we can’t control or manipulate it any more than we can control the weather.  So we tend to revert to aspects of paganism.

In 1993, Juergen Moltmann released his Theology of Hope.  I find his distinction between God as revealed in the Bible and the gods of preceding cultures helpful.  The God of the Bible – of Israel and of the Christ – is the God of “promise and fulfillment.”  This God announces promises to human messengers, and people are gathered in faith to proclaim the promise until it is fulfilled.  This goes on over long periods of time and through good and bad situations.

Moltmann calls preceding cults (he doesn’t fancy the word pagan but that’s what I’m using) “epiphany religions”  (Theology of Hope 2.1),

It is here important to see that these epiphanies have their point in themselves, in their coming about. For where they come about, there comes the hallowing of place, of time and of men in that act in which man’s ever-threatened culture is granted correspondence with, and participation in, the eternal divine cosmos. The threat to human existence from the forces of chaos and of annihilation is overcome through the epiphany of the eternal present. Man’s being comes into congruence with eternal being, understands itself in correspondence and participation as protected by the presence of the eternal.

That is to say, “If the rain comes at the right time for our crops, the gods are with us; if not, we better toss an extra virgin in the volcano.”  Sorry to be flippant, but theologians are dense writers (you can parse that as you like).

The Bible presents God fully and, to our limited minds, as somewhat maddening: yes, personally invested in each of us; yes, mysterious and inscrutable; yes, holding power over nature and history; yes, letting nature and history operate apart from His direct intervention.

This tempts us to explain raindrops in pagan terms.  Christians today grapple with the “Prosperity Gospel,” which turns the God of the Bible into an epiphany god who reacts to our efforts.  Church historian Kate Bowler has studied this branch of the church with some respect and sympathy, and says

Prosperity gospel makes God into a kind of monster. It creates the problem that it tries to solve. It says we can always know the will of God because God has given us a special kind of faith which we can use to act. What that means is every single thing in your life becomes your fault or your reward. That’s a terrifying place to be.

Here’s an example from prosperity preacher Joel Osteen.  Note the rain imagery.  You can also skip to Osteen’s message, intoned at 1:30 of the video.

More terrifying than that is the world’s dominant strain of Islam.  Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind is, like Bowler’s look at Prosperity Christianity, respectful and sympathetic.  It is dedicated to

…the courageous men and women throughout the Islamic world, here nameless for reasons of their own security, who are struggling for a reopening of the Muslim mind.

Reilly uses primary sources, looks to Islamic scholars, and has familiarity with Arabic.  He details how dominant Sunni Islam went through an internal struggle between adherents who were able to engage surrounding cultures and philosophies and those who rejected them.  The latter won out, and are driving much of the conflict we experience today.

The dominant view, so foreign to Westerners,  includes assumptions that Allah is a humanly inscrutable will rather than a personality acting out of love; that every moment is in fact an epiphany in which God alone destroys and reconstructs reality rather than part of a meaningful continuum; and that there is no real cause and effect except the will of God in which we have no active part.

Now that’s plenty to chew on and the book does so with detail and clarity, so I’ll leave it to your reading.  What struck me is that the dominant strain of Islam rejects other cultures in favor of a perception of god created by the harsh desert environment in which the religion originated.  While displacing pagan polytheism, Islam’s one God is capricious like the desert, where the natural forces can turn in an instant and show no regard for human well being.  Here’s a telling quote, featuring, you guessed it, rain:

It is in (Allah’s) power to pour down torrents upon mankind and if he were to do it, his justice would not be arraigned.  There is nothing he can be tied to, to perform, nor can any injustice be supposed of him, nor can He be under obligation to any person whatever.  (Abu Al-Ghazali, Iran, d. 1111, from his work The Incoherence of the Philosophers)

Allah is posited in desert terms.  Long hot months with no rain, and/or freezing nights, and/or abrupt downpours that temporarily fill the wadis, and/or sandstorms, and/or scorching winds.  One big Whatev.  A god not unlike the capricious figures of the Graeco-Roman mythologies that Islam would claim to reject.  Humanity has no purpose but to submit.

Prosperity Christianity and dominant Sunni Islam become two sides of the same pagan coin.  The former posits a god whose epiphanies are contingent upon our “sacrifices,” like the pagan weather and fertility gods of the ancient Near East.  The latter pronounces an impersonal deity who does what he wants, shaped by the desert environment in which Muhammad preached but ironically similar to the pagan deities of classical mythology in other cultures.

All of us, on a day when the rain clouds seem to follow us around, can lapse into pagan thinking.  Faith doesn’t run between the raindrops, but walks between the extremes of assuming that the rain is all our fault on the one hand or that there’s no God who cares that we’re all wet on the other.

 

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Advent looks back, building up awe and gratitude at the prophecies that first pointed to the birth of the gentle Savior.

But it also looks ahead, with promises and warnings about the Savior’s return as the Almighty Lord,

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (Revelation 1:7 ESV)

“Those who pierced him” are not limited to a handful of Romans and Jewish Temple Priests complicit in his crucifixion.  Christian faith sees all of us walking around with hammers in hand.  While Jesus’ Apostles said that ignorance was an excuse for his historic executioners, they also warned how those who’ve lived in the light of his resurrection have no such out,

 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.  (Hebrews 6:4-6 ESV)

God’s love is such that justice is delayed and hope held out to the worst of us – but the call to accept mercy on God’s terms is ultimate and urgent,

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.  (2 Peter 3:8-10 NRSV)

Repentance means turning away from our evil, ceasing to practice it or, if it is something we stopped some time ago, ceasing our efforts to justify or rationalize it away.  Christ “erases” whatever sins label us when we confess them and accept his sacrifice as our only possible justification.

If we don’t repent and accept the only offering that erases our record of evil, we continue to wear the labels and suffer eternal consequences,

But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.  (Revelation 21:8 NASB)

You might have lived a life of sexual license, but in confessing this and laying it at the cross of Christ, you cease to be an “immoral person” in God’s eyes.  You might have wimped out under peer pressure, but if you repent God ceases to see you as a coward.  You might be sitting in prison for a murder, but God will cease to label you a murderer if you are in Christ.

This week two terrorists, espousing a faith in justification by human works rather than by Christ’s sacrifice, murdered 14 other people.  They did not repent – they died trying to kill even more.

They burn in hell.  Forever.

The message of Advent is urgent.  The righteous Judge is coming.  This will be good news for those who’ve confessed their sinful lives and entrusted themselves to the mercy he offers; it will be absolute horror for those who’ve trusted some form of self-justification or ignored the issue altogether to wallow in sin.

We can lose our labels, or we can wear them forever.

The words get stuck in my throat

ISIS.  Boko Haram.  Planned Parenthood.  Pay Day Lenders.  Washington, DC… Like Yul Brynner in The King and I, I say “Etc. etc. etc.”

Our lists might not match up. But most of us have a list of people or behaviors we consider evil.

They mock God and they torment and destroy God’s creation. Their contempt for God’s people seems louder every day.

To which God says,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48 NRSV)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)

That is one tall order. My mouth more readily forms curses.

As for those blessings? Well the words… the words…

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Singing over the blasphemous noise

Christians believe that Jesus shared our mortal flesh and blood to so that we can share his eternal life.

With all people of conscience and good will, we abhor murder for what it inflicts upon and steals from human beings. We must also condemn it as a kind of blasphemy, an insult to God, because in Christian understanding people are not disembodied spirits or drops of some cosmic goo, but the flesh and blood image of God that the divine Word, Jesus, came to share and save. Churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary will hear that affirmed this Sunday,

…through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh… (Hebrews 10:19-20 NAB)

The blasphemous noise of Islamic terror attacks in Paris echoes this morning. How blessed to enter into prayer through the Liturgy of the Hours, and sing over it with a gentle hymn to a tune gracefully (not coincidentally or ironically) sourced to the Paris Antiphoner 1681.

More than that, the contemporary lyrics remind us that Jesus shares the injustice, suffering and death endured by the victims in Paris last night – and is their hope for eternal peace,

Christ is the world’s life, Christ and none other;
sold once for silver, murdered here, our brother;
he, who redeems us, reigns with God the Father:
Glory to God on high!

The first Psalm of the morning is 92, and calls forth a sacred orchestra to sing over the blasphemy with the promise of God’s justice,

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your love at daybreak,
your faithfulness in the night,
With the ten-stringed harp,
with melody upon the lyre.
For you make me jubilant, LORD, by your deeds;
at the works of your hands I shout for joy.
How great are your works, LORD!
How profound your designs!
A senseless person cannot know this;
a fool cannot comprehend.
Though the wicked flourish like grass
and all sinners thrive,
They are destined for eternal destruction;
but you, LORD, are forever on high.
Indeed your enemies, LORD,
indeed your enemies shall perish;
all sinners shall be scattered.

In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus tells us to drown out the blasphemous noise of the world,

“Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” (Mark 13:6-7 NRSV)

Christians must sing the truth about Jesus, carried in the Nicene Creed,

He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

Crimes Against Humanity

It’s getting into late night where I live, and like many I’m still following the awful news from Paris.

Social media is lit up. In response to numerous pious appeals for prayer, one friend sent me this message,

I wonder why are we praying for peace. Why not for their [the Islamic terrorists’] death and destruction?

Another friend invited people of faith to offer the Office for the Dead. I’ve prayed it, asking God to receive His own into paradise. Yet even in those prayers there is an appeal to divine justice and wrath against evil people,

Lo! the book, exactly worded,
wherein all hath been recorded:
thence shall judgment be awarded.

When the Judge his seat attaineth,
and each hidden deed arraigneth,
nothing unavenged remaineth.

Elijah’s messages were condemnations of evil and promises of divine retribution. For example,

Go down to meet Ahab, king of Israel, who is in Samaria. He will be in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. Tell him: “Thus says the LORD: After murdering, do you also take possession?” And tell him, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, the dogs shall lick up your blood, too.” Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me out, my enemy?” He said, “I have found you. Because you have given yourself up to doing evil in the LORD’s sight, I am bringing evil upon you: I will consume you and will cut off every male belonging to Ahab, whether bond or free, in Israel. I will make your house like that of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha, son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me by leading Israel into sin.” Against Jezebel, too, the LORD declared: The dogs shall devour Jezebel in the confines of Jezreel. (I Kings 21:18-23 NAB)

Elijah owns the epithet “enemy” when Ahab throws it at him. There is no pretense of misunderstanding or estranged brotherhood. Ahab and Jezebel are defined by their bloody deeds, and Elijah, messenger of God, is their enemy.

After World War II and, in particular, the Holocaust, the nations of the world framed a body of law condemning Crimes Against Humanity. The code is sadly familiar tonight (emphasis added),

“Crimes against humanity” include any of the following acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

murder;
extermination;
enslavement;
deportation or forcible transfer of population;
imprisonment;
torture;
rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds;
enforced disappearance of persons;
the crime of apartheid;
other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury.

Why has the world lost its moral commitment against this kind of evil? Why is Islamic violence in particular given a pass? Over and over, the cry Allahu Akbar (God is great) goes up as blasphemy, a celebration of violence against people made in the image of God.

Why do we not cast ourselves as Elijah did, as allies of God and enemies of manifest evil? Why don’t we see that Crimes Against Humanity are blasphemy, because they desecrate the humanity that Christ came to share and save?