What Is The Purpose of Sexuality?

 

josh-felise-36093We’ve been exploring this question (the purpose of sexuality) in our weekly Formation | Catechesis class at 9am on Sundays the past 3 weeks. We’ve been approaching it from a particular angle which has proved clarifying: Sexuality in reference to Christ.

It may not be intuitive to take our basis for talking about sexuality from a single, celibate man who walked the earth nearly 2,000 years before Freud, Kinsey, and Masters & Johnson. But starting with Jesus is the most Christian starting point imaginable. And, I might add, it’s the most fruitful in establishing a beautiful and compelling portrait of the meaning of sexuality for all people – married and single alike.

The first thing we need to establish is that Jesus Christ was/is sexual. He had a sex (which is necessary and foundational to sexuality). In Jesus’ case, He was male. He lived and died as a male. Upon His ascension, Christ went to the right hand of the Father where He took His resurrection body, which again, was male. But, there’s a mystery here that complicates this seemingly simple account of Jesus’ sex. When it comes to the sacramental dimension of Christ described by Paul in both Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, we who are baptized are incorporated into Christ’s body. But it turns out, paradoxically and very importantly, that this Body belonging to Christ is described as feminine. The Church, the Body of Christ, is consistently pictured in the Scriptures as feminine, as a woman. So it turns out that the total Christ (Christ as head combined with His collective body, the Church) is a male + female union. This isn’t accidental.

Paul is explicit about this in Ephesians 5:31-32 when speaking about marriage between a man and woman. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Paul is alluding to what is perhaps the deepest, most beautiful mystery in the universe – that God inscribed the gospel into our very bodies in the form of our complementary sexuality. This means that your body and your sex is not a merely incidental aspect to who you are and what God is doing in the world. As Pope John Paul II says, sexuality is “a vector of aspiration along which our whole existence develops and perfects itself from within.” By this he means that our sexuality, if understood and seen in its proper light, points the way to our ultimate salvation.

Thus, sexuality from a Christian perspective is a much bigger deal than many of us typically think it is. Sometimes Christians suggest that our secular society is too sexual. If anything, though, the truth is the exact opposite. Granted, our society is extremely sexualized in a particular way – i.e. animalistic and utilitarian notions of sexuality. But when viewed from a truly Christian perspective, the problem is that our society is not nearly sexual enough. In other words, it has a very truncated, narrow, and distorted notion of sexuality.

This is echoed in that insightful quote from C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory)

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So let’s explore a robust Christian perspective on sexuality…

Fundamentally, sexuality is about communion (communion literally means “with union“). The word “sex” has etymological roots meaning “cut” or “separate” (from which we get related words like “section”). It refers to the fact that to be sexed is to be part of a whole. In other words, sexuality is a witness within us to the incompleteness of any individual human being. The creation account in Genesis 2 paints a poetic portrait of this truth. It isn’t accidental that the woman and man are separated from each other by God in the second creation account. And then with their (re)union there is joyful exuberance: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” the man exclaims! The separating / creating action of Genesis 2 speaks to our universal, holistic longing to be joined to the other. But this isn’t just any “other”; to be complete it must be a sexually complementary other—an other that when brought together is generative of another other.

This “generative otherness” gets at what is meant in Genesis 1:26-27 when the text states that God made humankind in His image (“In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”). The image of God is not complete in a mere individual or in a group of individuals of the same sex. While it’s not inaccurate to speak of individuals as “image-bearers”, it’s only when we think of humanity as a whole species (i.e. male + female) that we have the full expression of the image of God. —Note that the text is explicit that the image of God is male + female. But why? Because amongst other important qualities that make human beings uniquely Divine image-bearers, the male + female combination embodies two essential traits of the Trinitarian God: 1) That God is a union of otherness—that there is real otherness within the Trinity (The Father is not the Son who is not the Spirit, and so forth). And, 2) that the self-donating love of the Trinity finds an expression in the creation of the universe, i.e. it is generative of another other (creation is not God).

The male + female combination is uniquely able to create new life. In the complete self-donation of husband and wife to each other, space is created for another. So, the image of God is not merely about human dominion and authority (though these are important and distinguishing markers that separate animals from humans); it’s about self-donating love in the context of generative otherness.

We see this further articulated in Colossians 1:15 where Paul refers to Christ as “the image of the invisible God.” This language intentionally echoes Genesis 1:26-27. If you reflect for a moment about it, this image is not actually different than the Genesis 1 image. Christ is the new Adam (the Hebrew Adamhumanity in Genesis 1, not the individual named Adam). And per the “total Christ” sacramental aspect mentioned above, what Colossians 1:15 together with Col. 1:18 are pointing to, again, is a male + female image. It is the feminine image of the Church combined with the masculine image of Christ as head that in their union culminates in New Creation. Isn’t that beautiful?!! It’s a retelling of Genesis 1-2, but fulfilled (filled full) and completed in and through Christ. Rather than it merely being two finite humans coming together (Adam & Eve) to produce offspring, it is humanity being taken up into and joined permanently to the Divine life – what the Eastern church calls Theosis or what II Peter 1:4 means when it talks about becoming participants of the divine nature.

So, it’s not accidental that the Bible begins and ends with a wedding. Genesis 2 describes the first human pair being joined together as a sign, symbol, foretaste, and instrument of what Revelation chapters 19, 21-22 describe as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb – the culmination of our sexuality. This is nothing less than the communion of heaven and earth, of Christ and the Church; it’s what our deepest sexual desire is pointing toward. This is far deeper, more meaningful, and more beautiful than mere procreation or pleasure or erotic bonding between two people.

This isn’t just an attempt to “spiritualize” sex, it’s to point out that the physical and material aspects of our sexuality sit within a profoundly spiritual dimension. For humanity, sex is never merely about biology (though the body and biology clearly matter); it’s never just about body parts, hormones, natural instinct, and procreation (though these all play their part in the story). Sexuality is deeply sacramental. It’s the primordial mystery revealed as gospel (good news) in Christ. If we’re on the right track, it means we must redeem the very nature of the term “sexual” before we can talk about what to do with sexuality. That is what I’ve been trying to do.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the significance of this account of sexuality for married and single people (yes, single people are sexual too)…

Sexuality: Offense or Defense?

Detail of the painting "God reprimanding Adam and Eve", by F. Zampieri (1625)If there’s any subject matter that is likely to cause a rift in a church these days, it’s convictions about sexuality. If there’s any subject that is likely to make small “o” orthodox Christians want to hide when it comes to the public sphere, it’s convictions about sexuality. What this looks like in practice is a strong dose of anxiety and fear about this subject being brought up – both in public (say, in the workplace or on a Facebook post) or in the congregation. The temptation of many faithful, small “o” orthodox Christians these days is to privately hold to traditional sexual ethics and hope that nobody asks them about it. Many churches downplay the importance of sexuality – they avoid teaching about it, they post an innocuous or evasive faith statement that strategically avoids mention of sexuality, and they try to deal with any sexuality issues that emerge in private. I know all about this model since I’ve spent a number of years addressing sexuality at churches I’ve led in this manner.

There are numerous problems with this strategy. First, if you’re downplaying sexuality when there isn’t a crisis, it will be whiplash for the congregation when there is a crisis. People will be up in arms: “wait, since when is this an essential issue? Oh, I didn’t know that we as a church have convictions about this. Why can’t we just agree to disagree? Isn’t this a private issue… a matter of personal conscience? How come nobody ever said this was an important issue?” Essentially, if you downplay sexuality as an important category from the outset, you’ve already made a significant theological decision… and it will have implications.

Also, it’s disingenuous to the whole history of the Christian faith (with the possible exception of the past 50 years in a few limited sectors of the Church) and the unanimous witness of the Bible to pretend that sexuality is merely tangential or a second or third tier issue with regard to Christian faithfulness. This is a contemporary heresy first espoused by “progressives”, but now widely accepted by “conservatives”. It’s non-sense. See Paul’s teaching in I Thessalonians 4:3-8 about the essential connection between holiness and sexuality or any of the “vice lists” in the New Testament (including those of Jesus – Mark 7:21-22 for example) where sexual sins, more often than not, lead the way. I could provide oodles of evidence from the Scriptures and the whole history of Christian thought, but I’ll spare you the pixels.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, those who address sexuality in this way are permanently posturing themselves such that they will be on defense. What I’ve noticed is that there is a subtle but strong sense of shame that is associated with this posture. It’s driven by fear. If you are seeking to be faithful to Christian orthodoxy/orthopraxy, you personally can’t come to terms with giving up your convictions about sexuality, but equally, you’re terrified that you’ll be called out on them for fear that you’ll be seen to be a bigot or a hater or morally regressive. You’re forced, in an ironic twist, into the proverbial “closet.”

But I’d like to suggest that the closet is better suited for prayer than the place to hold our views on sex. Sexuality, by its very nature is public; it has public, communal implications. We who are conservative on sexual issues seriously undermine the basis of our own convictions by allowing them to be privatized and individualized. Privatization means that our liberal society (liberal in the sense of being primarily committed to liberating individuals to be autonomous, self-defining, etc.) sets the table for the conversation. And, in case you’re unaware, that’s not a table at which Christian convictions about sexuality fare well. It goes about as well as asking a group of protestants to consider the notion of papal primacy.

So, what is the alternative? If strategic avoidance and burying our head in the sand won’t work… i.e. if playing defense won’t work, what will? I’d like to suggest that Christians play offense when it comes to sexuality. What I mean by that requires a couple of clarifications: 1) playing offense should NOT be misunderstood as being offensive – as in brash, rude, hateful, and proud. Definitely not! 2) I’m not suggesting that if you follow what I’m saying you or your church will be popular and that suddenly our society will see sexuality and Christianity in a new, positive light.

Quite the contrary. What I’m proposing is heightening contrast between the paradigm of the Church and that of our society… but not by talking primarily about the problems of our culture’s model of sexuality. Reactivity is not helpful (again, that’s playing defense). Reflective, carefully and thoughtfully articulated contrast is helpful. Christians have an entirely different vision of what it means to be human that is muddled and lost when we try to accommodate it to, or fit it into, our society’s paradigm. Right now, the way Christians talk about sexuality is not sufficiently contrastable with how our society talks because we’re talking on society’s terms. I’m suggesting that we need more contrast, not less.

The basic problem: Christians have lacked a sufficiently well-thought-through positive vision of sexuality. What is the purpose and meaning of sexuality? There’s nothing compelling or beautiful about what you will hear about sexuality at most “conservative” churches. This is tragic. In the absence of this positive vision, it would be hard to expect that Christians themselves, much less anyone else, would be inspired to celebrate the Christian vision of sexuality.

Yes, there’s much to CELEBRATE about the Christian vision of sexuality. That’s what I’ll write about next.

 

Politicians, Protests, Nation-states, and the Church

closeup_of_protesters_at_ginowan_protests_2009-11-08

What a confusing era we live in! Committed, orthodox Christians living in America find themselves between a rock and a hard place in many ways. I imagine there are others who feel like I do.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him (…or the other candidate). I’m deeply disturbed by his entire persona – his highly reactive, childish and petulant way of communicating, his bullying with Twitter, his disgusting and appalling way of talking about women as objects of sexual conquest, his xenophobic-inspiring demonization of others, his audacious hypocrisy, his unfettered ambition and greed, and his cavalier approach to his office as president. Very rarely have I ever observed a public person with such thinly veiled narcissism.

But my opinions do not alter the fact that he is in fact the president of the country in which I live (and, let’s be honest… Christians have lived under far worse leadership conditions – need I mention Nero, or Decius, or Diocletian). So I pray for him on a nearly daily basis out of obedience to the scriptural admonition to pray for those in leadership and authority (I Tim. 2:2). I pray that he would come to understand himself as one under authority who must give an account of himself. I pray that he would be restrained in using the terrifyingly-massive arsenal of weapons and military force at his disposal.

Even though I’m extremely disturbed by President Trump, I’m hesitant to devote my passionate concern to a movement of resistance as it is currently being carried out in our society. I’m all for resistance… just not in the way it’s imagined by most Americans. So I haven’t yet gone marching and am withstanding the urge to post a bunch of angry comments and/or articles on social media (which is only adding to a sense of alienation). This doesn’t mean I see no value in marching or posting, it’s just not how I imagine my primary means of resistance.

Does this mean I’m some sort of a political “quietest” or that I don’t care about what is going on? No. I have a deeply robust concern for the public sphere and a legitimate fear for people in the crosshairs of Trumps policies. But here’s the thing: My priority as a Christian (and pastor) is that I choose my path of resistance carefully, strategically, and in a way that doesn’t accidentally undermine the greatest instrument of resistance we have: Christ and His Body.

I believe the most powerful form of resistance at our disposal to the ugliness we see in politicians and their policies (of whatever stripe) is full participation in an alternative polis / society that is, by definition, international, historical, and from every class, nation, people, and language. I’m, of course, talking about the Church. This is the only body that has any hope of restraining the terrifying force of a nation-state as powerful as America. For a fascinating historical example of this in action, read William T. Cavanaugh’s book “Torture and Eucharist” about Chilean Christians and their resistance to the tyrannical rule of Pinochet in 1970’s and 1980’s.

Remember, it was the weakened state of the Church in Germany (with a completely washed out and individualized gospel and a gutted, liberal theology) that allowed Hitler to rise to power… and before that allowed for the god-awful atrocities of WWI to transpire. It was the Church’s accommodation to the nation-state’s interests that allowed Christians to justify killing other Christians simply because they represented another flag/nation-state. This was only possible because of the subversion of Christian identity by the nation-state.

So here’s what I’m saying: I am cautious about over-investing myself in a battle for the policies of the state if it means drawing the focus away from the actual Body that has the substance, history, power, and gravity to resist the state.

Here’s my concern: When Christians pretend that the nation-state and its policies are the essential territory for determining, enacting, and exercising their communal ethical commitments, they merely act in such a way as to reinforce the actual power of the state. This is only deepening the problem, Christianly speaking.

What if there was a way to subvert the power of the state by living and acting from an identity that is anchored in a completely different authority structure, story, tradition, etc. that has different ends and different means? This is what I mean by the Church as a communion of resistance. Granted, this cannot happen overnight. And much of the Christian faith present in America right now is far too mixed up with the notion of being American to be able to do this. So, what I’m suggesting would require a radical transformation of what people understand the Church to be and how they imagine Christian faith/salvation to begin with. But what I’m describing is not utopian. It’s how the church of the first three centuries existed: an alternative society of resistance.

The way we got to where we are now is the long saga of how Christians in the West ceded the public sphere to the nation-state (which is a modern creation not to be confused with “nations” of previous eras that operated differently). All of this is a part of the legacy of the creation, and then crumbling of, Christendom. What’s now left in the imagination of Christians in a place like modern America is for them to either wrangle the nation-state in such a way that they have power over it (religious right’s tactics), or get on their knees and plead with it for a limited set of protections as individuals from its all intrusive power (the more modest/pragmatic approach taken by Christians whenever they fear they have lost power). Either way, the nation-state is the main focus and the assumed place of significance for the public realm.

Everything centers around the individual and the “rights” promised by the nation-state and the nation-state itself. Between the individual and the nation-state there is no significant body or social space (with the exception of perhaps the business corporation). All that’s left is for individuals to band together in order to resist. But this resistance is far too limited. It doesn’t really get at the real problem.

William T. Cavanaugh argues that one of the meta-problems that confuses Christians in our era is the notion of the nation-state as the keeper of the “common good.” He argues extensively against this notion showing how this is simply not a good understanding of what nation-states do in practice. In practice, nation-states are continually involved in “boundary disputes” through regulation. He quotes John Milbank: “More of life becomes economized and legalized, as legislation seeks—hopelessly—to catch up  with every instance of “overlap,” and institute more detailed rules of absolute ownership, whether by individuals, or legally incorporated groups…”

Cavanaugh summarizes, “The result is not the common good, but an (ultimately tragic) attempt to ward off social conflict by keeping individuals from interfering with each other.” 

The alienation in our culture is directly related to this phenomenon. The goal of the state is not primarily to foster belonging or communion (thus cultivating the common good), but the protection of individual liberty (thus the societal vision of “good” is transformed into what we now recognize as autonomous individualism).

Out of a necessity in order to create a sense of national loyalty, the nation-state does, however, cultivate a kind of “belonging” through civic quasi-religious experiences using symbols (flag, constitution, architecture, etc.), rituals (inauguration, pledge, 4th of July, etc.), music (national anthem), poetry (The New Colossus), narrative, heroes (national “saints”), etc. This cannot but result in tension with the Christian faith. Both the state and the church are vying for people’s ultimate commitment and loyalty. Supreme loyalty is the only way that nation-states could hold the power of taxation, the power of imprisonment and violence, etc. How else do you get individuals to go and sacrifice their lives in conflict against peoples of other nation-states… even to the point of killing others of the same faith?

In service to the protective (Enlightenment inspired) notion of “separation of church and state” we’ve lost the vision of the Church as an alternative society and have allowed it to merely become an interest group within, and subject to, the boundaries set up by the nation-state. The Church has been effectively neutered from a public role, limited to private expressions of piety, making it the equivalent of a weekend hobby group – a coming together of like-minded individuals. That, of course, isn’t anything like what the Bible means by Body of Christ or Household of God. This way of imagining Church is hardly capable of resistance.

Both politically left-leaning and right-leaning Christians share a lack of imagination for what the Church is and should be. Both have been hypnotized by the drama of the nation-state. Wrangling or protesting the nation-state as disaffected individuals joined in movements of temporary solidarity is only able to move the markers on the field this way and that way a few yards. It cannot produce the common good. At best, it can try to protect groups who might be trampled on by the nation-state. To that end, Christians in America have a responsibility to participate in the political process. If that means marching or holding signs, I will do so. But let’s be honest… this is merely a stop-gap measure. It’s far from a real solution to our world’s needs. No government, politician, or movement can provide the common good. Only Christ through His Body, the Church can truly do this.

Here is how William T. Cavanaugh summarizes much of what I’ve been trying to say.

“In the first place…then the nation-state is simply not the universal community under whose umbrella the Church stands as one particular association. Not only does the nation-state carve the world up into competing national interests, but internally as well, it is destructive of forms of commonality that do not privilege the sovereignty of narrow individual self-interest. In the second place, the Church is not a merely particular association, but participates in the life of the triune God, who is the only good that can be common to all. Through the Eucharist especially, Christians belong to a body that is not only international, and constantly challenges the narrow particularity of national interests, but is also eternal, the Body of Christ, that anticipates the heavenly polity on earth. Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history, but simply is the story of God’s rule— not yet completely legible—over all of history. God’s activity is not, of course, confined to the Church, and the boundaries between the Church and the world are porous and fluid. Nevertheless, the Church needs to take seriously its task of promoting spaces where participation in the common good of God’s life can flourish.” (the whole article is here or you can buy his book which I heartily recommend “Migrations of the Holy“)

 

Thoughtfully and Faithfully Managing Wealth

blueberry

Our Eucharist Church Community Group discussions over the past 7-8 weeks have been helpful in sussing out a number of the complexities of handling wealth as a Christian in our current setting. A sampling of our questions: How much money should we give… to whom? What are needs versus wants? Is everything really relative, financially speaking? Are there any universals? Who should know about our finances? How does the Bible and the larger Christian tradition guide our thinking and action? What should we do about poverty and wealth – both locally and internationally?  

Below are some principles that have begun to emerge that we think should be considered in developing one’s approach to managing money as a committed Christian.

  • Repentance: To be a Christian in 21st century America with our particular history, our economic philosophy / system (which is not spiritually neutral), our structural idolatries, and our historical (and ongoing) exploitation of others to achieve our wealth is to be implicitly involved in a certain amount of sin and injustice that is beyond our direct control. Some things are within our control; we ought to do whatever we can to prevent injustice. But much is not. Overall, this is an invitation to humility and repentance – throwing ourselves on the grace of God. This is a truly Christian place to begin thinking about money/wealth.
  • Faithful Obedience (general): All truly Christian financial decision-making begins with an overarching commitment to the Lordship of Jesus over all things. Apart from this way of approaching life, I cannot make a truly Christian financial plan.
  • Remaining situationally responsive to the Holy Spirit’s leading: There is real diversity in where / how God directs our paths and where He stations us in life. We should not presume uniformity (see John chapter 21: 20-23 for example). Jesus did not treat every person’s situation the same in the gospels. He did, however, demand total devotion to Himself. For instance, in regard to our wealth – in Luke 14:33 “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Yes, Jesus is totalitarian. But but that means He sometimes asks for full renunciation (Rich Young Ruler / St. Francis style) and other times leaves a certain amount of wealth (in some cases quite a bit – Matthew 27:57 for example) in our hands to use and distribute as He leads us over time (Zacchaeus and many others). Either way, it’s all actually His if He is Lord. By the way, it is actually much more difficult to manage wealth situationally than just to default to a rule (renunciation or “tithing” for example). Perhaps this is God’s way of growing our capacity to listen, trust, obey, and exert a certain measure of authority.
  • Contentment: I will almost certainly not make truly Christian financial decisions when I’m working from a sense of restless desires – which often arise from comparison, greed, anxiety, fear, etc. As Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have…” – Phil. 4:11. Paul meant that literally. He lived it. Until we have that perspective, our financial decisions will be warped by the forcefield of our un-discipled desires.
  • Sacrifice: There has been a fairly strong consensus coming out of our discussions that part of what ought to guide our sense of how much to give is this idea of sacrifice. The basic idea is that we ought to feel our financial giving or it’s not much of a gift. If it doesn’t really impact our overall finances, we’re probably not giving at a “gospel” level. This is why tithe (10%) as a strict rule is not terribly helpful (nor is it part of the New Testament teaching for Christians, by the way). Tithing (as in 10%) for people living right on the edge of survival involves a sacrifice, to be sure. Tithing for people who have their needs met and who live in luxury is not much of a sacrifice. Perhaps some people ought to reverse tithe – live on 10% and give 90% away. Of course, “sacrifice” is a very fuzzy term and open to wild amounts of subjectivity. For some people “sacrifice” means not going on a second luxurious European vacation this year. For others, sacrifice means forgoing vacation at all and fasting meals each week in order to be able to give. This leads us to our next principle. 
  • Being in relationship and community with people of differing levels of wealth: Our vision of sacrifice, “enough”, and luxury are powerfully shaped by benchmarking off of others. The Bible is clear that the Christian community is not to be structured by, or segregated by, economic class or financial means. This means that the poorest Christian and the richest Christian are brothers with equal seats at the table of Christ (actually in His teaching, Jesus repeatedly gives priority to the poor). Christians will work increasingly toward financial equity and the removal of social barriers that go with differences of wealth if we are thinking in gospel terms. See this post for ancient perspective on this.
  • Transparency with others: We live in a highly individualistic era. Our autonomy and anonymity, financially speaking, makes wealth/giving/etc. a very difficult aspect of our lives to be discipled in. We need people to speak into our lives – to help us, to encourage us, to challenge us, to keep us accountable, etc. It’s not appropriate for the whole church to know everything about my personal finances. However, I should have a handful of trusted people – ideally of different socio-economic statuses – who know something about my spending, giving, saving, etc.

 

Wealth & Poverty: Wisdom from Chrysostom

St.-John-Chrysostom

I was struck recently by this passage from John Chrysostom (“On Wealth and Poverty” – Six sermons on Lazarus and the rich man). Chrysostom is brilliantly vivid in his imagery. I would love to have heard him preach if I lived 1650 years ago.

“For just as on the stage actors enter with the masks of kings, generals, doctors, teachers, professors, and soldiers, without themselves being anything of the sort, so in the present life poverty and wealth are only masks. If you are sitting in the theater and see one of the actors wearing the mask of a king, you do not call him fortunate or think that he is a king, nor would you wish to become what he is; but since you know that his is some tradesman, perhaps a rope-maker or a coppersmith or something of the sort, you do not call him fortunate because of his mask and his costume, nor do you judge his social class by them, but reject this evidence because of the cheapness of his other garb.

In the same way even here, sitting in this world as if in a theater and looking at the players of the stage, when you see many rich people, do not think that they are truly rich, but that they are wearing the masks of rich people. Just as that man who acts the part of king or general on the stage often turns out to be a household servant or somebody who sells figs or grapes in the market, so also the rich man often turns out to be the poorest of all. If you take off his mask, open up his conscience, and enter into his mind, you will often find there a great poverty of virtue: you will find that he belongs to the lowest class of all.

Just as in the theater, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.”

The “Sacramentality” of Money

sacramentality of money

(This is post #3 in a series on Jesus & Money)

In this post I would like to suggest something that may sound a bit radical. I suggest this: money functions in our society as a kind of humanistic sacrament. Fiat money (currency such as the US dollar) works by a sacramental logic and operates in our world in many parallel ways to the way the Eucharist has traditionally operated. Keep in mind that a sacrament is a physical/material object that conveys an invisible (spiritual) reality.

  • Money conveys invisible power, but is virtually worthless in and of itself. As I explained in the first post, paper money (“fiat money”) is worth next to nothing in and of itself.

In a similar way, bread and wine are relatively inexpensive in and of themselves. They were the basic elements of ancient near eastern meals. But the Early Church understood the bread and the wine in Holy Communion to convey the very life and powerful presence of Christ.

  • Money must be handled within certain rules and must be destroyed (taken out of circulation) in particular ways. To mishandle bank notes (US currency) is to risk being fined or otherwise held accountable to the law. Note that nobody has rules or legal regulations about how people handle gold – which is understood as inherently valuable. Fiat money has to be protected because it conveys invisible power and operates in a system that could be messed with if people dishonor the physical bank notes.

Money and the Eucharist parallel each other here. The consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is subject to church regulations precisely because it is spiritually valuable, not inherently physically valuable. I realize I’m headed into something of a historical theological battlezone about the precise nature of what is happening in the consecration of the bread / wine. But at a very basic level all I’m trying to say is that what is going on in the Eucharist is more than meets the eye – same with fiat money. I feel no qualms about throwing away a half eaten peice of unconsecrated bread in my home, but I don’t do the same with consecrated bread/wine. Traditionally, the consecrated bread and wine must either be consumed or buried properly in ground no one will walk on.

  • Money conveys value to those who have placed their trust in it. It’s fascinating to me the degree to which money is connected to faith/trust. This was illustrated to me recently when I was re-watching the charming, cult-classic movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” There is a scene in which the white South African biologist tries to figure out how to compensate the Bushman from the Kalihari desert who has helped him do some tracking. He tries to give the Bushman some money (paper currency), but the Bushman is confused and has no use for it. He discards it as useless, dirty paper (we’re shown it blowing away in the wind). It illustrates that you have to believe in money to perceive its value.

In a similar way, the Eucharist is just bread and wine to those who lack faith (though objectively it possesses the very presence of Christ invisibly and may even on occasion be dangerous for someone who is not properly “discerning” to receive – see I Cor. 11:30). But for those of us who believe, we recognize that the Eucharist conveys the Presence of Christ.

  • Money establishes value. Everything in our society is valued according to the dollar. It is the standard and the means of valuation. When we want to know something’s worth, we ask in terms of dollars. For example, when a person wants to purchase an artist’s painting, it is purchased by establishing a monetary value based off the dollar.

In a similar way, humanity is valued according to a sacramental logic. Humanity was forever imbued with value when God took on human flesh. We measure value according to the incarnation, the ultimate sacrament—Jesus Himself, fully human, fully divine. Why else is human life any more valuable than other creatures or environmental systems? (Yes, I’m aware of the Genesis 1 argument about being “made in the image of God” – but that is itself sacramental/incarnatinoal when you come to Colossians 1:15 – He is the image of the invisible God). Of course, outside of a Christian setting, this is all up for grabs.

  • Money connects people together who would be unconnected were it not for their mutual trust in it. We might ask: what unites the American people? It’s not a common ethnicity, not a common language, not a religion, not a shared culture, not a common history, not a shared vision of politics. I would argue, at its most basic level, it’s one thing: The dollar. The wide variety of people in America share an economic marketplace built on the dollar. I don’t need to speak your language or believe what you believe about God or agree with you politically or socially. As long as I show you a dollar, Americanly speaking, you and I share what we need in common to make it work.

The Eucharist is not merely a vertical experience (connecting us in Communion with God). It is very much a horizontal reality as well, connecting us together as the united Body of Christ. The one thing that the church around the world holds in common is Christ. It’s not language, economy, culture, tradition, ethnicity, class, nation or anything else. It’s Christ and His Kingdom. In our world, as in the Roman world, the economy is what unites empires and relates people to each other. In terms of the vision of Christianity, it’s the Eucharist (the Living Jesus).

  • Money is widely understood to change those who experience a lot of it. Have you ever seen someone you know come into a lot of money? Money changes a person. It is immensely powerful (like highly enriched uranium) and changes the entire “forcefield” around a person who has it.

Christians believe that the Eucharist is powerful. It changes us. Experiencing Holy Communion on a regular basis has a transformational effect on us.

  • People consume money but often realize in hindsight that they have been consumed by money. Money is perhaps the primary means by which our desires get awakened and then fulfilled. We want to aquire. The process of aquiring is the exciting part, not just what we purchase. But very quickly, the item we purchased is less exciting and we must consume more. Soon we are consumed with the desire for more money. It’s circular.

The Eucharist is this strange thing in which we consume Christ (aka consecrated elements of bread/wine), but find ourselves consumed by Christ. We become what we eat. We become the Body of Christ by taking the Body/Blood of Christ.

There are probably a half dozen other ways we could see parallels between the Eucharist and Money. If you think of one, post it in the comments.

Jesus, Wealth, Government, and Fiat Money

Fiat and wealth

There is wealth and there is fiat money. They’re not the same thing. Wealth can be held in many different forms. Holding wealth in fiat money is the default setting in our culture/era (though anybody with significant wealth knows to “diversify”). Fiat money is different from many forms of wealth in that it involves an additional layer of power, control, and trust in a human institution: the government.

Jesus warned against mammon, which means “wealth” or “riches” (in general, but surely inclusive of fiat money). But in my reading of the gospels, He also seems a bit hostile at times to the notion of fiat money (or more generally, government controlled currency) in particular, or am I reading that into the gospels?.

For example, why was he bothered that money changers were on the temple grounds? Was it merely that they were doing financial transactions in a sacred place? But isn’t a wealth transaction at the heart of sacrifice? – i.e. a person brings something of worth to give to God and the priests/Levites. Or was Jesus bothered by the fact that there was a measure of power, control, and trust involved in exchanging tangible assets (animals, etc.) into a central currency controlled by the religious and political elites? – Jewish temple leaders had created their own currency that people had to use.

roman coinThere’s also the story about the taxation question where Jesus famously said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Seems like there is a layer in the story about fiat money to me. Note that Jesus isn’t carrying that currency (the Roman coins with Caesar’s image on it). He has to ask the questioners to provide a coin – which proves they’re invested in the Roman state and Caesar’s empire. (More on this below.) 

Ultimately, though, both wealth and fiat money run a risk becoming a substitute for God (idolatry), a means of establishing a sense of “god-like” autonomy, and a means of vastly expanding our will/influence (having “god-like” power). So maybe this distinction doesn’t matter.

But I would argue that fiat money adds an interesting additional layer of complexity into the mix. When I use fiat money, I am implicitly trusting in, and enmeshing myself in, a financial system which is dependent on a nation-state that issues/controls the currency. When I use fiat money, it’s a political act. To hold any significant amount of my wealth in fiat money is to be invested in the political success of the state whose currency (fiat money) I hold.

zimbabwe-banknotes-50-trillion-frontThere is a reason why I don’t hold my personal wealth in the (now defunct) currency of Zimbabwe. I have a 10 trillion dollar Zimbawe note sitting on my desk, but it’s worth nothing. I tend to hold my (not-so-considerable) wealth in US dollars. But by doing so, I have an interest in the success of the US (assuming I hope to maintain my meager wealth). Interestingly, the fact that much of the world uses the dollar as its standard and holds US currency in reserves means that much of the world also has an interest in the American political drama. Why do we wonder about the world’s interest in our elections? If other nations hold dollars in reserve or peg their currency to the dollar, isn’t it appropriate for them to have an opinion? Their wealth and well-being are attached to our politics. 

This connection between holding wealth in fiat money and its implicit enmeshment in the success of the state is not always obvious to us. It becomes more clear in certain moments—like when, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W Bush told the Americans who wanted to be patriotic to go shopping. Feeling threatened? Go out and buy something. Fiat money is inherently unstable. It’s only as stable as the trust people put in it. That’s why in a moment of national insecurity President Bush told people to go out and buy stuff with it. It deepens the enmeshment we all have in it when we have to pass it around and value stuff with it.

“You still take that green stuff?” -My dad used to make this joke when he was standing at the counter with the cashier as he was purchasing something. It was a humorous way of establishing rapport. The cashier would usually chuckle or try to say something witty in return. I always thought it was kind of a dumb joke. Of course people take money. What else would they take? I guess in Zimbabwe, it’s a real question. But I’m an American. My pre-conscious imagination has been so saturated with the notion that fiat money is as good as wealth and trustworthy that I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

For us who are Americans, not only are we disproportionately wealthy (generally speaking), we’re the holders of the world’s fiat money standard. As such we’re deeply entangled in the biggest ponzi scheme ever dreamed up. Keep in mind that if everyone tried to withdraw their cash from their bank accounts at the same time, we’d have a SERIOUS problem. Yes, make no mistake, it’s a ponzi scheme. And yes, we’re all in on it. It’s not ultimately the banks that are too big to fail, it’s our faith in the American economy and finance system.

This blog entry is not a revolutionary attempt to convince people forego their use the dollar or fiat money (Although rumor does have it that somebody recently tore up a $20 bill in front of church). To be honest, I’m not sure that we, as Americans, even can extract ourselves from this system we’ve created. It’s global and has its tentacles in everything. Also, the notion of exchangable currency of some kind is not in itself a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s quite helpful as a means of financial transaction (more efficient and effective than bartering).

I guess my purpose in writing is to help us be aware of our own implication in the giant, complicated financial system that acts as perhaps the greatest idol ever created. Folks, solving our problems is not as simple as buying fair trade chocolate. We’re talking deep, deep issues. The problems are systemic, historic, philosophical and, I would add, theological. And we’re all in it up to our ears. It’s the water we swim in. This doesn’t mean we can’t work for good; we must. We should be as ethical and generous as we can (more on this in future blog entries). But we should do so recognizing that our faith in the fiat money system of America is just that: faith. Hopefully we can put that faith in its rightful place and not confuse it with our faith in God.

Perhaps the takeaway is the need for profound humility and a call for Christians to constantly return to repentance – not only our personal greed and idolatry around wealth, but for our part in sustaining a giant system of trust in something that, when you spend any measure of time looking into it, is not worthy of such trust.

Lord have mercy.

Next post: The Sacramentality of Money

The Spirituality of Money

money

We misjudge money when we think of it only in instrumental terms. We can probably all agree that money is highly useful as an instrument of exchange. It’s a lot more efficient and effective as a way of exchanging goods and services than merely bartering. But I’d like to suggest that money is more than instrumental. It is spiritual.

Let me explain.

Most of us use money without ever stopping to think about what money actually is. I’m not an economist or a finance nerd; I’m just a curious person. So, I’ve been poking around to try to understand money. What I have discovered is half fascinating/half terrifying.

400-oz-Gold-Bars-AB-01It turns out that money, as in currency (such as the dollar), is only as good as the faith people put in it. As is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a second, it’s just fancy paper. Ever since the 1970’s, when the Federal Reserve intentionally unhitched the value of the dollar from the price of gold, there has been nothing concretely undergirding our money except for our collective confidence in it. This is explained concisely in this 1 minute video

It seems that most of the world has also joined the party and decided to peg their currency’s value to the dollar. So that means that the pool of people invested in trusting the value of the dollar is quite a bit larger than just the American population. Economists can attempt to justify the value of the dollar by pointing to the size of the American economy and the assets undergirding it. But it seems clear that ultimately its stability is more about the fact that there are too many people invested in it to allow it to easily fail. Check out this short clip explaining this.

So, the bottom line is that when we use money, we’re actually dealing in a kind of currency of faith—faith in the American government and its fiscal policy, faith in the American economy, faith in the collective commitment of others to keep playing the same game of trust, etc. This explains why the economy is so deeply psychological and emotional (and I might add, spiritual—i.e. non-material). Everything about it ultimately hangs on faith.

Faith/trust is an inherently spiritual thing (whether one is “religious” or not). By spiritual I mean that it is non-material. The practical need for faith/trust in human existence points to the contingent nature of life—that none of us are self-sufficient; we’re vulnerable creatures.

Faith/trust (I’m using them interchangeably) is a fairly abstract concept. One way to picture faith/trust is to imagine it as invisible, non-material/spiritual threads of connection between persons, or toward institutions and objects. If you think of money in these terms, it’s not hard to see that there are vast amounts of spiritual threads of connection that run through money. This is part of what I mean by saying money is spiritual.

Jesus seems to assume this. He goes beyond merely recognizing the spiritual nature of money to seeing it as having an almost personified kind of power. He uses the word Mammon, a Syriac and Aramaic word meaning “riches” or “wealth” in a personified manner. He says in Matthew 6:24,

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

mammon_and_the_greedy_wolf_by_lorenzolivrieri-d7v0saeLater writers pick up this notion of Mammon and conceive of it as demonic. Dante, for example, presents Mammon as a wolf-like demon of greed (see the picture to the left). Gregory of Nyssa even more boldly suggests that Mammon is simply another name for the devil or Beelzebub.[1] Clearly these writers sensed that Jesus was speaking of more than a material reality when He spoke of wealth. He had a kind of spiritual force in mind. You don’t have to go as far as Gregory of Nyssa did to still acknowledge the spirituality of money. But most of us need to have our purely materialistic account of money expanded (puns all intended).

We miss a major aspect of Jesus’ teaching about the dangers of wealth if we think He is merely concerned about unequal distribution of wealth and issues of justice. He is concerned about those issues (see Luke 16:19-31 for example), but He seems to locate them first and foremost in a larger spiritual framework.

Next post – Jesus, Wealth, Government, and Fiat Money

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammon

Ascension Day is Essential to Our Conception of Church

AscensionThe ascension of Christ is one of those overlooked doctrines in the Christian Church. Is it because Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday? Some churches celebrate it on the following Sunday. But I agree with the Church–historic: it deserves its own day (with feasting!)

The ascension marks the end of the physical, bodily presence of Jesus with us in the old, material creation. He has departed to be enthroned on high as the rightful King of the universe. We need not imagine that Heaven is located at some great distance or occupies a physical place in the universe in order to accept the doctrine of the ascension (quite the contrary). The realm of God might better be imagined as a vast ocean in which the material dimension of our universe exists like a buoy bobbing along, sustained by its very presence, yet distinct (“In Him we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28). Yes, heaven and earth are distinct; there is some kind of “membrane” separating the two. The separation of the two is the essential backdrop of God’s work of atonement/reconciliation. The longing of heaven and the deepest desires of our hearts are that the two would become one in roughly the way that husband and wife become “one flesh.”

So, back to the ascension; its about how Christ has physically departed. But here is where the nature of the sacraments and the Church become essential. As I’ve begun describing on this blog previously, our world has not been left without a tangible sign of God’s presence. Quite the opposite. Jesus said that it was better that He should depart to the Father–in order to give the Spirit (John 16:7). It’s the Holy Spirit who takes the faith-filled followers of Jesus and forms them into the BODY of Christ.

How? Through the sacraments: Baptism (initiation into the Body) and Eucharist (continuous renewal of the Body).

01a94-bodyofchristIn the sacraments (which are “mysteries”), WE the church, become the continuation of the incarnation of Christ. Does that sound scandalous and crazy? It ought to!

After the ascension (and then Pentecost), the world doesn’t merely have a single embodied person as the place of God’s tangible presence (the historic, physically embodied person, Jesus). It doesn’t merely have a fancy box (Ark of the Covenant) where the presence of God is kept or a building (Tabernacle/Temple) that contains His manifest presence, or a city that is the seat of His glory (Jerusalem). The world has a living temple made up of living stones (I Peter 2) who are being built into an international dwelling place for God.

Yes, the Church is the continuation and expansion of God’s tangible presence. We’re a work in progress; He is refining us and building us to be the New Jerusalem where God will dwell without mediation, without Temple (Rev. 21-22)–when heaven and earth become one again.

So, the ascension is essential. Jesus must go to the Father to reign over His Church, as Head of the Body. He must send the Spirit to form the Body (this is what we celebrate at Pentecost). And as the Body grows and develops it becomes the vehicle through which God will ultimately reconcile all things (Colossians 1:19-20). May it be so!

Unity: How? And to What End?

Unity_Slider600x346

William T Cavanaugh, in a thought-provoking article written for the ABC religion & ethics opinion page, hits on some important themes that have relevance to this blog. Cavanaugh is interested in teasing out the difference between the way the “City of God” and the “City of Man” (to use St. Augustine’s famous images) pursue unity.

Unity is often held up as an ideal within our fragmented, secular culture (“can’t we all just get along?”). It is also, without question, part of the essential vision of the Church (see Jesus’ prayer in John 17). These two calls for unity can often look similar. But are they?

First of all, Cavanaugh suggests that unity in and of itself is not necessarily good. As Cavanaugh points out, there was a remarkable amount of unity in Nazi Germany. Unity can just as easily be one of the tools in the devils tool kit as it can be a virtuous good. As he says in the article, “evil is often a parody of the good… vice imitates virtue, and …sin is often committed by those seeking after real goods, even if in the wrong way.”

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William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh continues, contrasting the two cities and their understanding of unity:

For Augustine, the unity of people is the goal of both the heavenly and the earthly cities. The heavenly city sees that God’s purpose in history is to gather humanity into the unity of Adam before the fall. God’s creative purpose is for unity – since Adam has fallen and shattered, like a china doll, into countless pieces, the purpose of redemption is to bring them all back together in the body of Christ.

The earthly city, according to Augustine, also seeks unity, and in a sense it seeks to imitate God’s unifying power. However, since it believes that goods cannot be shared, it is a unity that depends on external enemies to function.

Christian unity is a unity that can only be found in Christ (not merely best illustrated or idealized). Cavanaugh goes on to highlight the importance of the Eucharist as the essential means to this end. He then contrasts this with the violence (or threat of violence) of the state as the secular means to unity. If you’ve ever read Cavanaugh, you know that this is his one-string fiddle, one he plays brilliantly (read his “Eucharist and Torture” or “Theopolitical Imagination” if you want more of this).

At one point in the article, Cavanaugh makes a very clarifying insight about the limitations of secular unity: “The basic problem is that the unity of humanity can never be an end in itself.” This is perhaps one overlooked, but substantial problem with the liberal democratic vision of society. It’s one point (among many) at which the Christian vision of unity in the Body of Christ departs radically from the secular vision. Cavanaugh points out that unity pursued outside of the Body of Christ is inevitably an exercise that leads to some variety of idolatry (idolatry being understood as loving anything more than God).

Christian unity is only and always unity in and through Christ. It is a participation in the life of God available to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit (Communion). The end goal is not merely a civil or nice place for all of us to get along and pursue our own good; the goal is the glory of God and Communion with Him.

All too often in the Church we’re lulled into a false vision of unity, the unity of the City of Man; the unity of the lowest common denominator. This is often cloaked in City of God language with references to John 17 no less. We should be clear though, unity at cost of faithful Communion with the Trinity is never a unity that accomplishes God’s vision of redemption. That can only be accomplished in Christ. Perhaps this is why in the Creed, the “oneness” of the Church is not the only mark mentioned; oneness (unity) stands alongside the marks of “holy” and “catholic” and “apostolic” as the vision of God’s Church.