Integrity

Bless me reader for I have sinned. It’s been a while since my last confession.

I had time to write but my mind was focused on other things (read work). My journal is full but my blog has been deprived of new posts. Time to fix that. Thankfully, I was bowled over with inspiration last night. So I write.

A person close to your humble blogger surprised me with a request: marry me! I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist a little clergy humour. I was asked to officiate a wedding. I was taken aback when I should have been well prepared. I fumbled for a response and failed to say something sensible. So here is my redux. A letter to a bride-to-be.

Dear Blushing-Bride-to-Be,

I was honoured by your request to officiate your wedding. I am dissatisfied with my awkward attempt to respond for which I am sorry. I hope I didn’t say anything to cause you to feel rejected. I am happy for you and I am deeply honoured that you asked. But you see, you caught me off-guard. I shouldn’t have been. It’s a request that’s been made before. I should have at least been open to the possibility that it might come. So here is my attempt to clarify and respond more thoughtfully.

Warning: This is going to be complicated so please bear with me.

The problem is, I haven’t been practicing in a church for two years. I haven’t officiated a single service since September 2018. In fact, your request came on the heels of another question that has been flitting about my psyche: I am considering returning my licence to officiate. If you read the rest of my blog, you will see where this is coming from. In it I am flirting with heresy and exploring where my heart is taking me which is often far afield of traditional Christianity. Thus I feel compelled to acknowledge these conflicts with my oath of office as a priest. I don’t feel comfortable presiding in official church services when my beliefs are no longer in line with that church.

When a priest is ordained, it is believed that they are made a priest permanently and cannot be unmade. Once a priest, always a priest. However, in episcopal (bishop led) churches, an ordained priest still needs permission from a bishop to officiate in a church within that diocese. This goes for marriages as well. Except that here it becomes more convoluted with the mingling of church and state regulations.

My licence to officiate in the diocese means that the diocese puts me forward to the government confirming that I am a priest-in-good-standing and may officiate a marriage. Thus I have been empowered by the diocese first and the government second to perform a marriage. But wait! It gets even more convoluted. If I were to officiate a service (any service including communion, funerals, and weddings) outside of my diocese which is the case for your request, I would have to be recommended to the diocese in which the wedding is to be celebrated by my diocese. That is, that bishop will give me temporary permission to perform the ceremony based on the recommendation from my bishop. That bishop will then apply on my behalf for a temporary legal license to marry. In practical terms, this means that I would have to ask my bishop to ask the bishop of your region to give me permission and they will apply on my behalf for a temporary license to marry.

Is that all clear?

This is not as difficult to accomplish as it might sound. It is done all the time. The key here is that I have to be a priest-in-good-standing. Which, of course, I am. For now. Were I to return my license to officiate in my diocese, I would no longer be a priest-in-good-standing. I would be a priest without a diocese. At that point I would no longer be beholden to my denomination. I could do whatever I want. I could even start an ego-church where I am the star of the show without the hassle being beholden to any sort of denominational discipline. But then I would have to get permission to marry from the government on my own which is not possible.

Sort of.

Section 20 indicates that in order to be licenced one must be ordained or appointed according to the rites of the religious body which he is a member, or is deemed to be ordained or appointed according to the rules of that body, is duly recognized by that religious body to perform marriages. The person must also be a resident of Ontario or have a parish or pastoral charge in Ontario. The Registrar General is also entitled to grant to someone who is not resident and has no parish or pastoral charge a temporary registration.

from toronto.ca

In other words, I could apply for a temporary license that lay people get when a friend asks them to officiate. It wouldn’t be backed by the support of the denomination but it would be legal. Essentially, I would function as a lay person, not a priest. In fact, I would be free to do whatever I want within the bounds of the regulations of the government. We even could call it a wedding blessed by Cthulhu if we so desired.

I wouldn’t. But I could.

And yet, this way I could maintain my integrity while also saying yes to your request (did you forget that this is a fake letter?). In this scenario, I would officiate in a way that would not go against my oaths to the church since I am no longer beholden to it. The bride and groom would have to be ok with having a legal marriage without it being officially religious. It would also push me to make a decision on returning my license; the consideration of which was only in the infancy stages of coming to fruition. In truth, it wouldn’t have much practical effect on my life. I haven’t officiated a service in two years, after all. Personally though, it would be one more step away from a life that I had once found so fulfilling which is a loss I won’t fully feel until the decision is made. It might cause trouble down the road were I to want to be reinstated but I doubt it. Nonetheless, the key here is that I could say yes without offending the bride and groom or my sense of integrity.

Except…

Except that in conversation with my long-suffering wife, she saw it as an affront to my integrity. She claimed to love that part of me. She loves that I am willing to do the hard things in order to live honestly. I’ve always seen it as a bit of a burden myself, but the thought that I would celebrate a non-religious wedding seemed impossible to imagine for her. She even said she didn’t like that I was thinking this way. It seemed anathema to the very soul of the man she married. Ouch. My response (inevitably insensitive but honest): I told you I’ve been going through a lot, it’s all in my blog.

She has precedent to back her up. In fact, I have said no to someone in a very similar position. The couple were similarly connected to me and I said no to the request that came from the groom. Sort of. I said that I am required as a priest-in-good-standing to preside at a Christian wedding using the liturgy my church provides. In order for me to marry them, they would have to be willing to say the vows provided which include reference to God as understood in the Christian tradition. If either are uncomfortable with that, I cannot perform the service. He decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate. In fact, they elected to go for a justice of the peace.

I did feel bad, though.

In fact, things got complicated the day before that wedding to which I was still invited. The officiant couldn’t make it, so I offered to do the service if they needed me as an emergency measure. That seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time since the circumstances were exceptional. Luckily, it did get worked out and I didn’t do the service but I have felt conflicted about it ever since.

I wish I could have said yes from the beginning. It was such a privilege to be asked and so deflating to say no. The reasons seem so trivial in light of the weight of the request. I said no because I didn’t feel I could honestly function in my capacity as a priest-in-good-standing. I still think it was the right thing to do but I wish it wasn’t. I wish I could have just ignored the voice inside telling me to play by the rules and just do it. But I didn’t.

Things have changed since that time. I am no longer a parish priest. If I return my license, I am no longer bound by the same restrictions. I do not have to use a particular liturgy. I do not have to demand vows under God. I could even allow vows under Cthulhu, if we were all so inclined which I’m sure none of us are.

Is it that simple? Or does my beloved have a point? How can I say one thing a couple of years ago while saying a totally different thing today and still be the same person of integrity? I tried to explain that I was bound by church regulations, not personal beliefs. My integrity was grounded in my sense of obedience to the church since I had made vows before God. But if I no longer feel bound to the policies of the church, I can make a choice based in what my integrity is now grounded.

Which is what exactly?

A good question to which I have no clear answer.

The only thing I can say now is that I am bound by love. I am not a non-Christian, merely a heretical one. It was you who once suggested I “fake it til I make it.” I got tired of faking it. That is to say, I am still drawn to the soul of the faith. I still believe in love of neighbour. I still try to love God even if I don’t really get what that means. I also love you, dear blushing-bride-to-be. If you want me to do the service, how can I reject such an honour? How can I agree to it?

I do not feel conflicted presiding at a service that brings two consenting adults who love each other into a covenant that confirms that love. Neither of you are active church goers. I believe you still see yourself as a Christian, though probably closer to my brand than the traditional one. I’m fairly certain your glowing-groom-to-be has little time for religion (who does these days?). Does that mean I shouldn’t perform a service that would allow you to include the form of spirituality that fits with your beliefs?

Others might not see the distinction and assume I’m performing a legitimate Christian rite like any other wedding. Worse still if it offends others’ Christian beliefs in that I appear like an official clergyperson when I am not. I wouldn’t be representing a church, only the state. As you well know, I have never been one to worry too much about what others understand of my own overactive sense of integrity. If I don’t think it’s wrong, why should I care if others do?

This was supposed to be a letter to the bride but as is my way, I made it about me. I’m sorry. Here’s the conclusion:

Having said all this and you having read (and hopefully understood) it, here is my answer to your request: I will not officiate an official Christian wedding but I will officiate a non-official Christian wedding. That is to say, if you are ok with working out a service together that is not officially sanctioned by a Christian denomination but still potentially Christian(lite), I can still do it. It will still be legally binding if not sacramentally. I wouldn’t wear my collar or robes, for example. I wouldn’t use an official prayer book. We could have scripture and your vows could be as spiritual as you want them to be. The difference may seem trivial to some but it isn’t to me. It would have to be understood that I am functioning as an acquaintance with a temporary license from the government, not a permanent license from the church. If we do this, I would have to follow through with giving up my license as a priest-in-good-standing in this diocese. I am willing follow through with that process if you still want me involved. I leave it in your hands.

Yours in Cthulhu,

Johannes Ponticus

Miracles

Last week I spoke of struggle. This week I struggled. I didn’t know where to start after watching a show on Netflix I heard about on a podcast. Here’s a trailer for this cause of my cognitive dissonance (NSFF/trigger warning: not safe for faith):

You see, I always held out some openness to the idea of faith healing. I was never fooled by the charlatans on TV, but I have known people who have experienced what they sincerely believe to be healing through prayer. So I partitioned that subset of faith off as a mystery that I may never understand. That is, I knew it would be unlikely to draw me in because I couldn’t buy into the culture of charismatic spirituality, yet I was open to other’s claims to have experienced real spiritual events.

I went to a revival once. I’d been to charismatic worship services and seen people speak in tongues many times. However, this particular event was a travelling show by the people of the Toronto Airport Fellowship. My father had been to one before reported an openness to their legitimacy. This gave me some confidence about their ministry that it was sincere if the spiritual flash-in-the-pan of the era. I was invited to attend from acquaintances who had been. They even lent a car to this poor then-student to get out to the suburbs. Others I knew had also been and recommended it. So I went but with a caveat.

At this point, I was already well into my Anglican transition. I was a sophisticated Christian now. I had put childish things behind me. So if I was going to go to this thing and risk opening old scars from failed charismatic forays, it was to be on my terms. To be sure, I wanted to experience the blessing and was doing my best to be open to it. However, I refused to get caught up in some sort of musically driven frenzy. I felt that if God can heal, God shouldn’t need gimmicks and formulas. If these guys were legitimate, the Holy Spirit could heal me even though I hated their music.

Then the smoking the Spirit like a “cigarette” started. At some moment in the process, we were asked to put up our hand if we smoked. I was a closet smoker at the time since people can be so judgemental about smoking. It’s bad for you, I know. How could I miss the warning labels? But there were people I knew seated behind me and I didn’t want to deal with the judgement.

Needless to say, I didn’t put my hand up. However, I decided I would to still follow along. Then they told us to inhale the Spirit like a “cigarette.” I use quotations because these sweet innocent Evangelicals sheltered from the world were miming smoking a joint, not a cigarette. So we were supposed to be getting literally high on the Spirit as we mimicked the act of getting high on weed. I guess that’s pretty Pauline (Or Pseudo-Pauline if you prefer).

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit

Ephesians 5:18

To no one’s surprise, I did not receive a blessing that evening. Still though, I held out an openness to the experience of others. I couldn’t get my charismatic fix but others seemed to be able. To each our own.

Until, that is, I watched the above show on Netflix. Derren Brown, a magician, recreates a revival without belief. He is a self-proclaimed atheist but still put on a “show” like any revival complete with healings and slaying people in the Spirit. I was more affected by this hour long show on Netflix than the revival I attended. I was rocked. I had held onto some hope that different expressions of faith work for different people. Maybe I was called to litugical worship while others were called to charismatic worship. To each our own.

That openness is gone now.

The near-perfection in which this show was presented all but proves to me that faith healing has more to do with psychology than it does spirituality. It’s a tough pill to swallow but it actually confirms my suspicions of late. Medication does more for me than God ever did. Over the last few months, I’ve settled on a new raft of medication that has helped me improve my life more than anything else ever has. The things I hated about myself and begged God to heal are slowly diminishing as I take my meds and work hard to do the things I need to do for my mental health. I’m exercising, reading, writing, and yes meditating like I haven’t in decades. I’m happier than I’ve been in years all because I gave up waiting for God to fix me. I took matters into my own hands.

I’m sure there is a clever spiritualization of this experience. Maybe God wants me to grow and change by myself because it’s better for me that way. Maybe. Either way, the results remain the same: I am better because I am taking care of myself as opposed to waiting for God to. One of the things that’s helped me is working on my executive functioning skills. These days, if I’m an evangelist for anything, it’s for bullet journals. It’s a day-timer system that actually works for me. Check it out if you like. Or don’t. I don’t care. To each our own.

All this serves to confirm a working theory I have. People need stories and structure to build their life around. For some, charismatic worship makes their life richer. For others, bullet journals do. If it works, do it. This isn’t some kind of hedonism. Quite the contrary! Whatever structure and narrative you need to grow into a fuller human being is good. I suspect that if God truly exists, God wants us to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Maybe we find that wholeness in a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Maybe we find it on a weekly hike into the mountains. Or maybe we need to write a blog about our experiences to help us understand ourselves better. To each our own.

To each our own so that we can come more fully into our own.

Struggle

There are some strange stories in the Bible. The strangest often involve direct encounters with God. Moses meets God in the burning bush where God won’t tell him his name. Abraham invites three angels/God/who knows? over for dinner. And then there’s this beauty:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Genesis 32: 24-30

You know the story. Maybe someone read a sanitized version in an Arch Book or you coloured a picture of it in Sunday School. Maybe you’ve heard it read and preached about in Church. Or maybe you’re not like me and didn’t grow up in a religious family and have never heard the story. Well, you may be better off than those of us who’ve had decades of interpretation imposed on the story. Take a step back and read it again without thinking about the possible meanings. Just enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.

The events leading up to this moment aren’t any less strange. Jacob is an asshole. He steals his brother’s birthright by lying to his father and then heads for the hills. He meets his match in the form of his father-in-law-to-be/cousin, Laban. He makes Jacob work for seven years before he’ll hand over his property daughter. We don’t even blink when we read about Jacob fucking Leah on the night of his wedding to her sister Rachel meaning that now he’s got seven more years to buy Rachel. I mean seriously, how does he not figure it out? Is he so horny he simply has to complete the coital congress? There is a French translation of the story in the TOB that succinctly captures the mood, “Et au matin… surprise, c’était Léa !” or “In the morning…. surprise, it was Leah!” My eternal gratitude is due to Dr. John Simons, one time principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College (my alma mater) for this observation.

Oh yeah, and by the way, does anyone ever ask how Rachel and Leah feel about this? They’re used as prostitutional pawns in Laban and Jacob’s scheming. As far as I can tell, true love stories in the Bible are non-existent. Our concept of mutual free giving love isn’t there. Men often fall in love and buy their brides but what she thinks is never taken into account.

So with his pair of duly purchased brides, Jacob heads home to see his brother. On the eve of their reunion, Jacob wrestles with God. As you do. And God cheats. As He does (apparently). Jacob holds his own, so God has to use magic to touch Jacob’s hip causing permanent damage. Still, Jacob persists. Eventually, God asks him to let him go. Jacob won’t until he gets a blessing. God gives him a new name, “Israel.” We all know that name don’t we? That’s a nation of people as well as a geopolitical nation. How touching!

Except, well, except that it means something as do all good Hebrew names. It means, “struggle with God.” That’s right. An entire nation of people is named after the struggle with God! And struggle they do. The history of the Israelites is the history of struggle. They were a rag tag bunch of misfits who managed to hold onto a small but significant piece of real estate for hundreds of years. They did so by the skin of their teeth. They also spent time in exile and were conquered over and over again while somehow holding onto their land until the Romans got fed up with them in the 1st century.

Israel is defined by its faith in Yahweh. Religion and politics are inseparable. They are intertwined. And yet the nature of this faith in God is cemented in their name. They struggle. Read some of the prophets. Prophets were not unlike political pundits of antiquity. They challenged those in authority and warned of the consequences that would come from immoral behaviour. Hosea got to marry a prostitute. Ezekiel got to eat food cooked on shit (God graciously allowed it to be animal excrement rather than human). Jeremiah seems to spend a lifetime in lament. How long oh Lord!?

This view of God is hard to reconcile with our contemporary focus on God as loving and gracious. The God of struggle can sometimes come off as a jealous lover or abusive husband. “You just get me so mad sometimes, baby, but you know I love you.” At the same time, this view of God is far more consistent with the travails of evolution. Evolution is progress at the cost of overwhelming failure.

This God of struggle also reflects my life experience more than the smiling faces of praise and worship bands. My life of faith has been a life of struggle (decidedly middle-class struggle, let’s be honest here). I wish it weren’t but what are you gonna do? I feel condemned to a life like Jacob or Jeremiah as opposed to… Come to think of it, I can’t recall a figure in the Bible whose life didn’t involve a significant struggle. Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and slavery, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath/Saul/Absalom, and the list goes on. The heroes of the Hebrew faith are all fragile and broken men with some exceptional women too (Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Mary strugglers all). I guess I’m in good(?) company.

So I will continue to struggle. The other options are less appealing. Praying truly means facing hard truths as well as basking in the glow of enlightened ones. The mystics confirm it. Of the mystical canon, in Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross expresses it directly. Praying truly is not easy. And the more I doubt the potential miraculous rewards, the more I wonder whether the struggle is worthwhile. But here I stand and can do no other.

Thanks

I got the job!

What with all my hand-ringing last week, how am I supposed to feel about it all? I didn’t pray for it but my parents did. In fact, they put out a prayer ABP for others to, as well. So did their prayer work and now I have to worry that it actually wasn’t me that earned it? I don’t know. I am genuinely thankful, but if God didn’t intervene, who do I thank?

I prepared for the interview. For someone like myself, the interview process in the bureaucratic world of teaching means that they have strict rules guiding the process. There is a point system and the interviewers (usually two principals, one from the school and another from a different school) are supposed to record everything the candidate says. At the end, they tally up a score based on whether your answers referenced the “right” concepts. Note: it’s not whether the candidate understands the concepts and how to incorporate them into their job. Rather, it’s simply a matter of buzzword bingo. Did you drop enough jargon into your answers? You get the points.

I hate corporate speak. I don’t have an issue with the research behind the concepts or the concepts themselves. But the words are simply names that some academic or guru has given to the concepts. The names they give are not relevant as long as the concepts are understood and, more importantly, actually implemented. The problem with corporate speech is that people think knowing the buzzwords and using them is enough. That’s where it all falls apart. Doing is better than saying, every time.

I instinctively rebel against this stuff. I would rather not say the words but answer honestly and in a way that reflects how I would do the job than simply throw out as many of the right words as possible. So what I did was research the words and ensure that I had them at the ready so that I could use them to explain what I would do. I must have done enough since I got the job. But it was me that did it. Wasn’t it? I did the research. I did the interview. What did God do?

Part of the reason I have stopped praying is that I want to do things for myself. I want to grow and feel that I had agency in the process. I don’t want miracles. I want to improve myself and earn my rewards. I’m sure this isn’t inconsistent with God acting in the world. Prayer doesn’t have to be a simplistic zero sum game. God can encompass the contradictions we formulate. I’m sure there is some way in which both God acts and we act and our responsibility is shared. After all, the most consistent name we give God, as well as the one Jesus used, is “Father.” What is a father but a man who raises a child to become an adult? The jargon we use for that process in the teaching world is “gradual release of responsibility.” See what I did there? I’ve just shown you that I know the words, understand the concept, and can apply it which the interview process doesn’t measure.

The problem with this way of seeing the process is that it is hard to know where God ends and I begin. I guess it’s not that important, but it is meaningful for me to know that I earned something. Perhaps I don’t need to know exactly how much of me earned it as long as I can claim some agency in the process.

All this being said, there is another more deeply held need for me. I need someone in whom to direct my thanks. I am thankful. I have a job. I have a permanent job. The anxiety around changing careers is now over. The risk I took a few years ago to shift careers in middle age with a large family seems to have paid off. I have a good career in a stable sector. I will have benefits and a pension. I am thrilled with the position and hope that it will be as fulfilling as I think it will be. So to whom do I direct my thanksgiving?

In the earlier days of loosing my religion, I felt a loss at the idea that if God didn’t exist, I would have no one to thank for this world we live in. That has always been an important aspect to my spirituality. The most significant “mountaintop” experience I have had was literally on a mountain in the Swiss Alps. As I gazed across the valley before me, it struck me that if I love all this, I love the creator of it too. This was a significant realization because it solved a question I had long had about how to love God unconditionally. If I love the creative spirit that made this world, then I love the who of God as opposed to loving God for what I get out of him.

The natural response to that beauty is giving thanks. But if there is no God, who do we thank for all this.

Thanks too implies responsibility. That is, if we are thanking God for the world, then we are laying the responsibility for its creation in his lap. That means God also bears some responsibility for the things we lament too. This is very Old Testament. The Psalms and the prophets constantly shift from praise and thanksgiving to lament and pleading.

The glass is full. It’s neither half empty nor half full. It’s full but the contents are a muddy mess. The pure spring water of beauty, love, and joy has formed a cocktail with the stagnant muck of evil, pain, and sorrow. It’s a messy business life. However, at the risk of letting the metaphor get away from me, if you are still enough to let the mixture settle, it will separate enough to enable us to see the good for what it is despite being contaminated by the bad.

I am thankful for the good. I am furious at the bad. I don’t know how to rationalize or make sense of this cocktail of contradiction, but I can both thank God for the blessings and rage at him for the curses. The Psalmists and the prophets did. So I guess I’m in good company.

However it all came to be, I am thankful. I am thankful for the good stuff in my life. I’m thankful too for some of the bad. The bad has made me into the man I am. I still resent some of the bad and cannot see how it has had any positive affect. There is so much evil that hasn’t led to good. Some things are just evil beyond any redeeming. So I name that for what it is while I give thanks to God for the good.

I have a job. I am thankful.

Sacralicious

Yesterday was a big day for your humble blogger. I had an interview for a teaching position that I would very much like to get. The transition away from ministry is hard in middle age with a large family. We had to move out of the rectory (a.k.a manse, presbytery, parsonage). I had to start from the bottom of the seniority ladder in a unionized field. That means they are protective against people like me who might expect to use life experience to jump the queue. Unfortunately, their protections mean that all my education leading up to a teaching degree is pretty much irrelevant to them. And, of course, theology isn’t recognized as a teachable subject. Forget that it’s a serious academic discipline that bridges history, literature, and classics. Forget that I had to write a 100 page thesis. None of it matters to them. So the process of breaking into a new field has been difficult and disappointing. Combine all these factors and you find that applying for teaching positions brings all kinds of serious ramifications. It’s a big deal. And yet, I felt conflicted about praying about it.

This is the kind of thing we pray for, isn’t it? It’s a daily bread type need. I’m not asking for a Mercedes. I’m asking for a job so that I can pay my bills and we can raise our children. However, I know one of the people also shortlisted. He has children and a mortgage too. Why should my needs be more important to God than his? I feel guilty even thinking that I’m some how owed it more than another.

Truthfully, I don’t pray much at all anymore. That is, I don’t ask for stuff. I still meditate. I still meditate the way I have for over 20 years. I do my best to emulate my desert father hero, Evagrius. When I pray, I do what I hope is a decent rendition of “the prayer of the heart.” At its core is the holy name of Jesus. Any study of Eastern Orthodoxy will eventually lead to this prayer.

I began like so many fledgling mystics do, with the Jesus Prayer. As a self-proclaimed deep thinker, my intellectual and artistic wanderings led me to Franny and Zooey. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s basically a drawn out argument between Franny and her brother Zooey about faith and prayer. She has shut herself in the family home and lays on the couch all day repeating the Jesus Prayer to herself over and over. Zooey is trying to convince her to get up and get out of the house. To my knowledge, J.D. Salinger never professed faith in organized religion, but Zooey’s arguments are orthodox enough to satisfy The Grand Inquisitor.

Fanny and Zooey was my gateway drug. Franny is inspired to use the Jesus Prayer after reading The Way of the Pilgrim. It’s a story that follows the pilgrimage of a simple Russian peasant who learns to pray the prayer. Naturally, I dove down that rabbit-hole, reading it and its sequel, The Pilgrim Continues His Way. In the early days, I would breath as deeply as possible and use the fullest option of the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s quite a mouthful. Eventually, I slowed the breathing and used just the one holy name, “Jesus.”

This kind of prayer does not facilitate petitioning God for stuff. Rather, it simply points the heart toward Jesus, hoping that through some kind of mystical osmosis we can one day attain theosis (or divinization in Latin). The idea is that the more we pray, the more Christlike we become. Eventually, we become the self we were always meant to be in perfect communion with God. It sounds a lot like Eastern enlightenment but it is definitely derived from Christian theology (albeit probably influenced by Eastern Mysticism). As Athanasius of Alexandria famously put it, “God became human so that humans might become God.” It’s deliciously blasphemous (sacralicious!) to Western ears but it is at the core of Orthodox mysticism.

I haven’t attained theosis. I doubt I ever will. I’m not sure I even believe it is a thing. However, despite my reluctance to affirm doctrine, I am drawn to this doctrine-lite form of prayer. I don’t have to assert any belief. I don’t even have to profess a Trinitarian faith. Arius, whose heterodox view that “there was a time when the Logos [Jesus] was not,” stoked the flames of controversy over the divine nature of Jesus. The Council of Nicaea was called and eventually deemed his views heretical. It marks the beginning of the Dogma of the Trinity. Before him, things were left more unclear. Just the way I like it!

Arius wasn’t an evil man dead-set on destroying the foundations of the Christian faith. He was an ascetic priest who quite probably prayed the prayer of the heart. I’m not going to defend him any further. All this is simply to point out that people faithfully prayed before dogma was ratified. As St. Paul argues,

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”

Romans 4: 13

Whereas Paul is arguing about faith pre-existing the law, I’m arguing that faith pre-existed dogma.

So faith, for a time, was independant of credal formulas. This is putting too fine a point on it, though, as some more simplified formulas did exist in early writings. However, the metaphysical statements we see in the Nicene Creed are definitely new. The statements in and of themselves were controversial because they used non-scriptural language. They chose to describe the essence of God as ousia which is borrowed from Greek metaphysics. The three persons of the Trinity are homo-ousios (one essence) with three hypostasis (persons). The nature of God, then, is being described using human philosophical terms and no longer left in the ambiguity of symbolic language.

If Christians who predate the concilliar pronouncements are still considered legitimate Christians, can I put myself in that era and still be called a Christian?My zealous younger self would say, “No.” My current middle age self hedges and says, “I don’t know.” So I go into all this with my eyes wide open but I will hold onto the hope that Arius was faithful and beloved by God even if the institution of the Church states otherwise.

This is important because I don’t want to buy into an institution. Not out of some po-mo-spiritual-but-not-religious sense. Rather, I love Christianity. I love Jesus, in particular. But my heart and mind cannot make confident claims about his nature. I prefer to just orient my heart toward Jesus whom I still love as deeply as always.

I did tell my father about the interview, though. I knew he and my mom would pray. Did I tell him so that he might pray while I could not? I don’t know my motivations exactly, but I have no doubt this was a way of getting around my pesky overly developed sense of integrity. I could have my cake and eat it too.

Prayer doesn’t work. Or at least, it hasn’t for me. I haven’t performed any scientific analysis. Others have. My understanding is that the results show that prayer doesn’t affect change. The success rates remain the same whether prayed over or not. Of course, these results can be thrown out with a fideistic argument about God not being put to the test. But what else can we go on? And why is God so bothered by tests? It sure would make belief easier.

Pastors will say that prayer changes you more than it does the world around you. I know because I used to say it. Is that a satisfying statement? Does it soothe the soul to know that if you pray hard about something, you probably won’t get it but you will feel better about not getting it?

It doesn’t to me. If I’m asking for something, it’s usually something important. I never pray for Mercedes. I have prayed for work or for the health of my friends and family. I don’t think I have prayed for many selfish things in my life. When I prayed for stuff, I felt right about the possible positive outcome of the prayer. Sometimes I got what I asked for. Other times I didn’t. So what’s the point of prayer?

The problem with prayer is that it seeks to change the way God interacts with the world that God created. If God is good and God made the world the way it is, then who am I to ask God to change it? One response to this is that God includes us in the salvation of the world around us. We bless the broken world with our prayer. That was part of the blessing of Abraham in Genesis,

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:2-3

The truth is, I rarely get it right. When I am most certain that a certain outcome would be best, I find that the actual outcome is often better. This too is what pastors tell us. If God does not answer a prayer, it is because there is something better in store for us. That’s not very satisfying either. I mean, the results don’t change by my prayers, only my own feelings. Why not skip the process and let come what may? Adapt and move on. Either way, as we learn over and over with time travel tropes of affecting the future in negative ways, it’s a comfort to me knowing that I’m not smart or selfless enough to get involved in the alteration of history. I’d rather sit back and let God do it.

Blessing the Mess

I have a suspicion that my quest is quixotic. I’m tilting at windmills thinking I can reach some sort of comforting conclusion. But that’s been the problem all along hasn’t it? Human beings see a mystery they don’t understand and create a theological narrative to help them tame their wild wonderings. I suspect that the whole thing is just a mess. I’m convinced the sorting and selective editing we do distorts rather than clarifies. I’m going to tell three stories to explain why stories are dangerous. One is historical, another is current, and the last is from a movie.

I have been reading a book about Christian history called, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacColloch. If you have any interest in Christian history but are not an academic, this is the book for you. His approach to Christian history is both open to the modern historical tropes that emphasize the influence of politics, power, and sex as well as the possibility that spirituality actually plays a role. How nice! Since I mean to be honest, I will confess that I have tried to read this book many times. Even now, I’m not really reading it. That is, I’m working through a single period of Christian history in the book, namely the Reformation.

Unsurprisingly, the Reformation did not appear out of a vacuum when Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg. There were grumblings and failed attempts at reform for decades and even centuries beforehand. Furthermore, the influence of the Renaissance and humanism were essential predevelopments. The stories we like to tell often romanticize one moment or figure that stoked a fire that had already long been smouldering. Not only that, we often forget what else is going on. Consider that the Spanish Inquisition took place in the 3 decades leading up to Luther’s stand. One of the Royal decrees by the Spanish crown expelling Jews and Muslims from parts of Spain occurred in 1492. You know what else happened in 1492? You know it! Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You know who employed Columbus? The Spanish Crown did. So much is happening around this time that it is impossible to separate the Reformation itself from the messy historical context within which it rests. Oh and MacColloch also manages to include the possible influence of the onset of a syphilis epidemic!

It was a mess. The reformation took place while the world was being opened up to Europeans both in the sense of physical exploration and in the intellectual and artistic sense. Europe was a creative mess.

I am writing in a time of pandemic and mass protest. Shit is getting real and it is a total mess. COVID-19 has spread from China to the rest of the world with alarming speed. As a result, we’ve been ordered to maintain social distance around the world. The US, in particular, is reeling with the poor leadership in response to the pandemic. In the middle of this unprecedented moment in modern history a black man was horrifically murdered by several police officers in Minneapolis. His name was George Floyd. The video recording of the crime was so brutal (almost nine minutes of a man being choked pleading for his life) that mass protests erupted defying the pandemic lockdown and spurring more violence and shock from around the world. These protests are occurring while I am writing and COVID 19 continues to spread throughout the US. Protest and pandemic in an unresolvable conflict. We can’t tell them to stop because they’re cause is righteous but whatever positive results ensue, the historical footnote of the impact of contamination will forever be included.

It’s messy. But there is real hope that systemic change is afoot.

If you can handle the gore, watch the climax from Gangs of New York. The whole movie is leading up to this final confrontation between the Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon and Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The scene opens with a bloody battle to match the brutality of the whole film. I can’t even rewatch it to confirm my memories because it turns my stomach! You’ll have to tell me if I got it wrong. The story’s dramatic arc unfolds into a final confrontation between villain and protagonist as expected. That is, until something truly unexpected interrupts the sanguinary spectacle. At the exact moment of the gang brawl, Civil War draft riots break out and the Union Army soldiers come in guns blazing. While the main characters finally meet, the grand narrative of history breaks through their personal vendetta being fought out.

It’s a mess. The importance of main story melts with the greater historical significance of the mass slaughter called the American Civil War.

I’ve managed to make a mess this spiritual blog. Can I find my way back to some semblance of a narrative? Nothing happens in a vacuum. Every event that we decide is historically significant is set within a context that is rich and complex. But it’s also hard to get our heads around the whole context. So we create more palatable narratives so as to be able to work with them. But the stories we end up telling always have important details left on the cutting room floor. A syphilis epidemic may be scintillating but including it would disrupt the sexy hagiographies we create for our spiritual heroes. Unfortunately, too many historians would rather reduce all spiritual history to power and sex. Neither approach is complete.

The history of faith is a history of power and sex. But it is also a history of faith. It’s a mess. But to clean it up for a PG rating distorts reality for a comforting story and to reduce it to a modern hermeneutical historical perspective is just as naive. If God is and God does act in the world, it’s going to be as messy as everything else in the world God created. Perhaps from the panoramic perspective of the heavens it looks neater on a macroscopic scale.

I can’t see it.


Evolution

I embraced evolution early. That is, while I was still a congregant of a church and amongst fellow believers who rejected it, I decided to affirm it. I still remember proudly proclaiming its falsehood in science class while my teacher smiled patiently to himself. I’m still embarrassed about that moment, even though it’s been decades and I really should get over it. I was a teenager, for crying out loud. Have you met teenagers?

I should be careful here, though. My father was the pastor of my church. While I do remember some occasions in which my parents put forward challenges to evolutionary theory, they didn’t seem to care about it much. The majority of the indoctrination came from well-meaning Sunday School teachers and some less than well-meaning blowhards that find a home in any good church. In fact, my parents’ best friends who are also (naturally) Christians named their first born son Darwin. It took me too long to realize what radicals these family friends were.

Evolution made sense to me. I soon accepted that it needn’t contradict scripture. One could faithfully read Genesis and still accept evolution. The more I thought about it, the more I came to see the two (yes two!) creation accounts in Genesis as in minor conflict with each other. If the writers of the scriptures couldn’t decide, why should we be so rigid in our stance on another much more reasonable story about how the world came to be? I mean it just makes sense, doesn’t it? Our common human experience (thanks phenomenology!) confirms it even without a detailed understanding of evolutionary biology.

The church didn’t see it that way in the 19th century. Broadly speaking, both the Roman Catholic Church and the modern Evangelical movement reacted to Darwin’s brilliant theory by doubling down on their respective sources of authority.

Ex Cathedra was introduced to the Roman Church at the first Vatican Council. This put more authority into the hands of the Pope. When he (gender purposefully masculine for obvious reasons) so chooses, he can make infallible statements. This has only occurred twice, though. Once it was enacted to pronounce the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and another to pronounce the dogma of her Assumption into heaven. This means if the Pope really enjoys his halibut one day and says, “This is good enough for Jehovah!” he will not be making an infallible statement. But if he likes it so much that he decides to state that he is speaking ex cathedra, then that halibut is now infallibly delicious.

Despite this reaction to Darwin, however, it needs to be said that the Roman Catholic Church does not reject Darwinian Evolution. Most non-Catholics would be surprised by how reasonable the Roman Church can often be. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Evangelicals. Care must be taken to acknowledge my simplistic generalization here. “Evangelical,” despite being a perfectly Biblical word, is too vague a term. We all think of something different when we hear that word. The usage here refers to the greater non-denominational evangelical movement that finds its foundations in the U.S. It will never be a very precise usage. Rather, I’m sure it will end up too often being a straw man at which I can hurl my resentment.

The broadness of the term comes with its lack of central authority. Generally speaking, they responded differently to Darwin’s scientific revolution. It is in this period that we find the concept of scriptural inerrancy start to become more popular. New ridiculous arguments arise hoping to debunk Darwin like the concept of a young Earth (only 6,000 years old!) or micro-evolution (fine, we’ll accept that there is some evolution like dog breeding, but that’s it!).

I couldn’t stomach this nonsense. I embraced evolution wholeheartedly as the enlightened individual that I am. As I learned about biblical studies, I came to understand that Genesis was probably edited and updated regularly before it became canon. I learned how similar the first creation story is to Babylonian myths from the same period that the Jews were there in exile. Not only that, but the differences between the Babylonian and Jewish accounts were more striking than the similarities. Take, for example, the fact that God created human beings, both male and female in God’s own image in the Jewish version. That’s unique in ancient religions. So my relationship with evolution was firmly planted and unshakable.

Unfortunately, my relationship with God was not. If I left it there, I would have been fine. Just accept both and move on without thinking. But something started to nag at me. I suspect it came in the form of a particularly pithy quote from that magnificent bastard, Christopher Hitchens. He said,

Evolution is, as well as smarter than we are, infinitely more callous and cruel, and also capricious.

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Callous, cruel, and capricious. He’s right. Or at least, I can’t figure out how he’s wrong. I mean look at the world we live in. There is majesty, to be sure. Ocean sunsets and mountain vistas inspire us to look heavenward. But orcas tossing seals in the air for the sheer fun of torturing another animal? That’s much harder to find the influence of God’s loving hand. There are countless examples of creatures exploiting and torturing other creatures from the ducks’ corkscrew penises with painful spines to sea otter necrophilia. How is this part of God’s loving plan for the creation?

I haven’t been able to find a sufficient answer. Most arguments I have been able to find in regard to evolution refer only to the mechanics and particulars of creation accounts. I haven’t been able to find a theological defence of the horrific process of evolution. The closest I could get was my own attempt at a loose connection between the crucifixion being God’s entrance into the suffering he created within the world. But that feels like a stretch or, at least, my mind can’t make a clear and reasonable argument for it.

I know I’m supposed to conclude with some kind of resolution of the conflict. Welcome to my world. I live in a constant state of inner conflict. I would rather that than living in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. I would rather say nothing than say something wrong about the being that demands to be honoured as almighty. I want to believe a loving God exists and I firmly believe evolution is the best explanation we have for how the world came to be what it now is. Unfortunately, I cannot reconcile the two. I’m ok with that. I’m not thrilled but I can live with it.

I am.

I’ll start somewhere pretentious and clichéd. Set the tone early.

When René Descartes wrote his famous line, “cogito ergo sum,” he was trying to find a purely rational starting point. I think, therefore I am. If I can think, therefore I must exist. The very act of thinking implies there is a someone who is thinking. First year philosophy students love this kind of pretentious egotism. They only know for certain that they exist, but you or me? They can’t be sure. What an enticing concept!

As with many philosophical thought experiments, it is rational but it’s not reasonable. We can’t function in a world in which we have to prove the other exists. The other so clearly exists that we can’t live as if it weren’t the case. Another example is Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Again, the argument is rational, but it’s not reasonable. It’s silly. You can’t just argue God into existence. Admittedly, I’ve only dabbled in philosophy and this blog isn’t a philosophy blog. I’m not interested in arguing for the existence of God. For one thing, much smarter people than me have debated the subject for centuries. Secondly, I find the conversation boring. I don’t know if God exists and I’m sure I’ll never know. But I do feel compelled to live in a world in which there is a being that we name God. It’s not necessarily a rational stance, but I think it’s reasonable.

This is my starting point. Where we go from here is what this blog is about. My spiritual formation and profession were within the Christian tradition. I have explored and fallen in love with all kinds of theological expressions. I grew up begging to feel God like my friends around me appeared to feel God in the midst of high energy praise and worship gatherings. Eventually, I found myself drawn to sacramental worship because I found ritual and beauty to be more effective in that quest. If ever I felt the presence of God, it was in the midst of silence and beauty. I was drawn so strongly to the church where I found silence and beauty that I believed I felt a call to the priesthood within this spiritual context. After all, what better way to encounter God than to live and work in a vocation dedicated to God?

The beauty was always there but the silence was not. More and more I found myself uncomfortable with theological words. This became a problem as I found myself increasingly uncomfortable preaching them. The more I preached from that elevated pulpit, the less confident I became in what I was saying. I was trapped in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance. Depression and anxiety were always lurking, especially on Sunday afternoon as I second guessed the confident words I proclaimed. I decided to pursue an alternative career. I became a teacher in the public school system. Now I don’t have to say anything about God. In fact, I’m encouraged not to.

In my wanderings, I came across a theological concept that has taken my soul captive: apophatic theology or negative theology. The idea, as I understand it, is that God is more knowable by knowing less. The less we say about God, the more accurate we are. One of the great saints of apophatic theology, Evagrios of Pontus, is a heretic (be still my heart). Part of my pseudonym comes from his title. Combine that with my love for Kierkegaard’s love for latinized pseudonyms and you have Johannes Ponticus.

Evagrios wrote my favourite definition of theology: a theologian is one who prays truly and one who prays truly is a theologian. I wrote that from memory (which means it may not be exact). I loved it so much, I made it my motto as I pursued theology in university. If that definition stands, then I stand firmly as a theologian. All I can do is pray truly. It is encoded in my DNA. If that takes me into the realm of heresy, then I shall lay in those green pastures and walk by those still waters because I am content here.

Biblically, this is borne out in that knotty old tale of Moses at the burning bush. When he asks what he should call God, God responds by saying, “I am.” Biblical scholarship has had a romp with this expression ever since. It is ambiguous exactly what kind of tense is being used. It could be “I will be what I will be”, “I am what I am”, “I am what I will be,” etc. Whatever God actually meant by this response, it is one I can get on board with. I was born on board.

In fact, it surprises me when others find it insufficient. Take Ezra Koenig, lead singer/songwriter of indie darlings, Vampire Weekend. He has a lot to say about religion and God, seemingly rooted in a his feelings about his Jewish spiritual heritage. In the gorgeous song, “Ya Hey,” he sings:

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

I love this song. I listen to it frequently. Each time I am struck by his brazenly blasphemous rendering of the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Where good orthodox Jews believe the name God gave Moses is so holy, they won’t even speak it, Koenig happily sings it with playfully mocking twist. What chutzpah! I don’t share his suspicion of the holy name. Quite the opposite. I’m ok with God self-identifying as simply existing. Indeed, I would prefer if that was all that was ever said about God. All the words we’ve added since are never sufficient. They always deter, detract, or distract.

So, this is a blog about releasing God from the bounds of our words. It’s about how letting God simply be affects my life and understanding of the world. I still pray, but mostly it’s meditation free from words. I still attend church, but it’s not easy to be around all those words like substance, trinity, and incarnation flying about. If I’m allowed to call myself a Christian even without being able to confidently confess our creeds, so be it. Those who like to keep score in such matters might feel the need to call me something else. That’s fine. All I can be is what I am.