Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Continual Conversion: Entering into the Spirit of Lent

"The Fall of Adam," Hildegard of Bingen
William James observed in his The Varieties of Religious Experience that there are once-born types and twice-born types.  Once-born types seem naturally predisposed to happiness.  They feel at home in the world, and never really doubt their place in it.  Suffering and evil are unable to challenge their fundamentally positive outlook on life.  These types have a hard time “getting into” the penitential tone of the season of Lent. 

Twice-born types feel acutely the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it ought to be.  The reality of suffering and evil can sometimes overshadow their ability to perceive what is right with the world.  The tension between their perception of evil and their desire for good can occasion an existential crisis requiring a profound conversion experience for its resolution.  For this type, every day is Ash Wednesday!

The once-born take God’s grace for granted.  The twice-born are surprised by grace.  The former experience conversion as a process of embracing more fully the grace they always have known.  For the latter, conversion is an event, a reorientation to graceful life from which one has strayed.  Once-born folks can’t point to any one particular experience of conversion.  Twice-born folks can point to several or, perhaps, one major turning point. 

One can certainly make too much of such typologies.  People and congregations are often more complicated than such either/or distinctions allow.  Yet, there is enough truth in William James typology to suggest that the season of Lent may need to be “framed” differently for once-born and twice-born types if they are to embrace the season fully.

In that spirit, I offer this reflection on the meaning of the season.  The origin of its observance offers us a clue.

Recall that our Lenten observance – the forty days before Easter – developed to meet two different but related needs.  It was set aside as a special time of preparation for those who were to be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter.  It was also during this time that public penance was available for those who had committed “notorious” sins, so that they could be restored to the communion of the Church at Easter. 

The season was therefore an invitation for the whole church to embrace Christian life as a process of continual conversion.   Whether that conversion marked a deepening commitment to an ongoing experience of grace, such as those preparing for baptism, or a radical reorientation to a grace from which one had turned away, as in the case of penitents, or both, Lent underscored that God isn’t done with us yet. 

For the once-born, Lent means that there is even more grace to experience – we have not yet plumbed the depths of God’s love and the joyful response that it calls forth from us.   For the twice-born, Lent means that this grace is still available – we have not exhausted God’s love and the possibility for renewed life offered in the shape of forgiveness.   Lent is the time to consciously renew our awareness that there is more, more, more:

More Love, more Love!
The heavens are blessing, the angels are calling,
O children, more Love!

If we love not each other in daily communion,
how can we love God, whom we have not seen?

If we love one another than hope dwells within us,
and we are made strong to live life in joy.

More Love, more Love!
The heavens are blessing, the angels are calling,
O children, more Love!  (Shaker hymn, adapted)

This “more” may lighten your heart and confirm the deepest truth about yourself and the world that you’ve always known:  we are held in Love.  This “more” may bring you to your knees in contrition and repentance over the sin that has kept you from realizing the truth:  we are held in Love.  For all of us, Lent is a time to cultivate a deeper compassion for a world that needs more love: a Love which is always, already available.  Lent is a time to become more transparent to that Love for the sake of the world.

Once-born types remind us that this Love is always available.  Twice-born types remind us how desperately we need that Love.  The two types need each other.  And so we need Ash Wednesday to prepare us for Easter, and Easter to sustain us through Good Friday.  All of us are called to continual conversion: to an ever-deeper acceptance of our grace-filled mortality and to an ever-deeper openness to more Love.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The End of Religion

This morning I’ve chosen to reflect on our second reading, the text from Paul’s letter to the churches in Corinth.  This text, as theologian James Alison has remarked, tells “a tale of two spirits.”[1] The first is the spirit of religion.  The second is the Spirit of God.  Allow me to explain.

In the opening verses of First Corinthians chapter twelve, Paul is distinguishing between two forms of spirituality.  The first, which I am calling the spirit of religion, leads people to worship idols and to create a sense of community by defining themselves against some other, who is “cursed.”  This is the dynamic at the root of religion, the basis of all human culture.   In the course of human evolution, tensions and conflicts reach a point of crisis that spills out into violence, or at least its threat, and are resolved by the unification of the community over and against some person or group, set apart as a scapegoat. 

The expulsion or murder of the scapegoat produces a renewed stability and peace.   So powerful is this experience of relief and reunion that an aura of sacredness gathers around the one sacrificed for the sake of this unity.  The one cursed paradoxically attains a divine status.  The dynamic is repeated whenever conflict remerges, which it inevitably does, and gives rise to increasingly complex sets of prohibitions and rituals associated with the sacrifice.   The sacrifice itself moves from humans, to animals, and then to an increasingly abstract ideal.  The elaboration of myths and rituals covers over the founding murder and obscures the violence that creates and sustains cultural order. 

Religion, then, becomes the cornerstone and justification of the continuing dynamic of sacrificial violence, the scapegoating mechanism that preserves order through the identification and expulsion of victims.  When Caiaphas, the high priest, says with reference to Jesus, “better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,”[2] he was basically giving voice to the spirit of religion.   

This is why Jesus will say of the religious leaders, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[3]   Satan here is the personification of the whole system of sacrifice upon which civilization is based.  Religion lies about the murder at the foundation of culture, serving to mystify and justify sacrificial violence as something that God requires, rather than admit the innocence of the victims whom we curse.[4]

Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, intuitively understood this dynamic when he wrote that “Religion is not the sure ground upon which human culture safely rests; it is the place where civilization and its partner barbarism are rendered fundamentally questionable . . . Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell, make up the reality of religion.”[5]  Barth, to his credit, following St. Paul, subjected Christianity to this same critique. 

As we see in our reading from Corinthians, Paul is alert to those who would say, “Jesus is cursed” and thus fashion from his death yet another religion based on sacrificial violence.   Already Jesus’ death and resurrection is being interpreted on the model of the sacrificial victim, one who dies because God requires it, and because we need such a murder to restore our sense of unity and goodness.  

Paul will have none of this.  It smacks of religion to him.  The spirit of God does not lead one to say, “Jesus is cursed” but rather “Jesus is Lord.”  He is “Lord” precisely because he has revealed that the sacrificial victim is innocent, and that such murder is a purely human attempt at creating order.  It has nothing to do with God, who is the source of endless creativity and life. 

The spirit of religion creates a false sense of community on the basis of division and expulsion.   It is only concerned with the welfare of “our people.”  It projects violence on to God to absolve us from taking responsibility for our own violence.  It leads to death. 

Notice how different the true spirit of God is.  It does not feed on human death by demanding sacrifices, but rather generates the giftedness of every human being that sustains life.  These gifts are not given to favor one group or person over another, but rather for the sake of the common good.  God is not the source of order based on sacrificial violence.  God is the source of community based on the sharing of gifts.  Unity is not secured through pitting us against them (much less all against one), but rather through the recognition of mutual interdependence.   It is the energy of love, not of violence, that expresses the Holy Spirit.

In his death, Jesus reveals the truth of human culture: that it is based on sacrificial violence.  In his resurrection, he reveals that the sacrificial victim is innocent.  God is identified with giving life to victims, and not with requiring or justifying their perpetuation.  In his renunciation of violence and in his practice of forgiveness of enemies, Jesus opens up for us a way of being human that is truly creative of community because it is not defined over and against anyone.

It is important for us to affirm this, perhaps especially as we prepare for the national commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   In doing so, we must place his renunciation of violence at the center of his witness.  Like Jesus, Martin identified with the victims of sacrificial violence and proclaimed their innocence.  He invited us to realize the Beloved Community, a community rooted in the recognition of our common humanity and the common good manifest when the giftedness of each and all is acknowledged and expressed. 

Martin revealed the murder, the violent lie, at the very foundation of American culture as only the son of slaves could do.  But he didn’t stop there.  He also said, “I identify with those people you call gooks and enemies and Viet Congs and those who must be burned to death.  I identify with them; they are my sisters and brothers.  Those are my children running aflame.”[6]  It would have been tempting for Martin to resort to religion, to sacrifice the Vietnamese enemy as a means to create a new unity between blacks and whites in America.  This same temptation arises in the form of making Martin himself a sacrificial victim, around whose death we forge a unified, post-racial America.  That would amount to yet another religious mystification, covering over our responsibility for the murder that created such pseudo-unity.  It was not Martin’s death that should inspire us.  It is his life.

Legend has it that Martin carried around a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited wherever he went.  “Thurman was saying, if you are living the spirit of Jesus, then you cannot live in the spirit of fear, you cannot live in the spirit of deception, even for good causes; you cannot live in the spirit of hatred.  None of those is the way of Jesus.” [7] This was the spirituality, the spirit of God, which Martin tried to embody.

It was a spirituality that Martin learned from Thurman, among others.  There is a passage from Thurman’s book, The Luminous Darkness, that illuminates the meaning of Martin’s life and the nature of the Spirit of God with great poignancy:

The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I don't know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one's fellows as human beings. It means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him [or her] ethnically or "racially" or nationally. He has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men [and women], and between him, all other men [and women], and the total external environment. As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived. In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing, breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world.[8]

Thurman is well ahead of his time in realizing that the community to which we belong, and whose good is commonly held and collectively realized, extends beyond even the human species.  His is a truly prophetic word in a time when the very “kingdom of life” could become our next, and final, sacrificial victim.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  When we recognize this, we can no longer make victims with a clear conscience; no matter how well they may or may not conform to our notions of good and evil.   To know this is the end of religion.  It is the beginning of Resurrection life.

[1] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 147-149.
[2] John 11:50.
[3] John 8:44
[4] Rene Girard has exhaustively analyzed the anthropological and biblical witness to the dynamic of sacrificial violence.  See his Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World.
[5] See Kart Barth, Commentary on Romans, pp. 258-259, 266, 268, 270.
[6] Vincent Harding, “Dangerous Spirituality,” Sojourners, accessed at
[7] Harding, “Dangerous Spirituality”
[8] Quoted in Harding, “Dangerous Spirituality”

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Mystery of the Disappearing Baptism

January 13 is the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism.  It is an odd celebration because it actually points to something of a mystery: the mystery of the disappearing baptism.  In the course of the development of the Gospel traditions about Jesus, his baptism slowly disappears.  Now you see it, now you don’t. 

In Mark, the earliest Gospel, the very first word is arche:  beginning.  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and the ministry of John and his baptism of Jesus inaugurates this good news.[1]  This beginning alludes to the “In the beginning” of the priestly creation narrative in Genesis, alerting us at the very start of Mark’s Gospel that this baptism is the inauguration of a new creation.  God is making all things new in Jesus. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, as in Luke’s, this new beginning is pushed back in the narrative to Jesus’ birth.  His significance is apparent already at his nativity, and his later baptism becomes almost an embarrassment.  In Matthew’s version, John is hesitant to baptize Jesus saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  He consents to baptize him only at Jesus’ express instruction, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”[2]  Jesus sounds almost Anglican here:  the proper forms must be observed!  But we’ve moved some distance from Mark’s image of the heavens being torn apart as a new world comes into being.

In the account we heard today, from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism is marginalized further.  The verses omitted from today’s reading refer to John’s arrest and imprisonment by King Herod.[3]  Jesus’ baptism occurs after John’s arrest, and so we are not told who baptized Jesus and the whole event is referred to in the past tense with barely a backwards glance.  While all three of these accounts include the descent of the Holy Spirit and the announcement “This is by beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” in Luke this dramatic moment takes place while Jesus is praying after his baptism. 

By the time of the Gospel According to John, the latest Gospel, the baptism has disappeared altogether. John the Baptist witnesses the Spirit descending like a dove upon Jesus, indicating that he is the One for whom John has been preparing the way, but this is not connected to water baptism at all.  He serves as the forerunner to Jesus, bearing witness to his coming with the words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”[4]

John baptizes with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and it is made abundantly clear which baptism is greater.  We have a curious echo of this distinction in the reading from Acts, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, which reports that the Samaritan converts who received water baptism did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John laid their hands on them.  Water baptism is commended, but it is in service to the manifestation of Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, in our lives.

So today we celebrate a baptism that, by the time of John’s Gospel, has disappeared completely.  Why this disappearance in the course of the development of the Gospel traditions?  It is an interesting question.  Some commentators refer to rivalry between the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus.  In response to this increasing tension, the later Gospel writers seek to downplay John’s significance and make his subordination to Jesus explicit. 

As the theological understanding of Jesus’ divinity develops, the revelatory moment in which we discover his significance is pushed back further in time from the baptism, to the birth, to the “In the beginning was the Word” of John’s Gospel.  Thus, the baptism of Jesus becomes a reinforcement of what we already know or becomes altogether unnecessary theologically speaking; it doesn’t add anything new to our understanding.  Baptism doesn’t make Jesus anymore divine than he is already. In fact, in so far as it is a sign of forgiveness of sin, baptism, in the case of Jesus, who is without sin, becomes something of an embarrassment that needs to be explained away.

There is, however, another force at work in the disappearance of Jesus’ baptism.  It is the identification of Jesus’ baptism with his crucifixion.  This begins already in Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus asks James and John, who are jockeying for top dog status among his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  Here, Jesus is not looking back to his baptism with John, but forward to his Passion and to the martyrdom of James and John.[5]  The significance of water baptism lies in its being a sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection.   Jesus’ baptism disappears into the Cross.

It is worth noting that the Church understands martyrdom to be equivalent to baptism as a sign of initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus.    There is a “baptism of blood” as “well as a” baptism of water.”  The Church also has taught that there is a “baptism of desire”: even an implicit desire to follow the way of Jesus suffices for salvation.  What unites all of these forms of baptism is the commitment to follow Jesus in his practice of self-giving love for the sake of the healing of the world.

It is ironic that the meaning of Jesus’ baptism is revealed in the midst of the rivalry among his disciples, and that his baptism is nearly eclipsed altogether by the rivalry between his disciples and John’s disciples.   Jesus’ death, into which we are baptized, is the death of rivalry.  It is the refusal to become caught up in the violent dynamic of insiders and outsiders, superiors and inferiors, the attempt to secure our identity over and against others.  It is the willingness to die an innocent victim in solidarity with outcasts and sinners, rather than to participate in their violent expulsion from the community for the sake of a false sense of security and superiority. 

Through the Cross, we come to see that Jesus’ baptism, and our own, is an embrace of our identity as God’s beloved children, such that we can become transparent to the divine compassion and forgiveness that conquers death and brings healing to a broken world.   Baptism does not confer or legitimate some exalted status that sets us apart from others.  Rather, it puts to death the false sense of self that takes its identity from anything other than God’s unconditional, life-giving, forgiving love.

The heavenly announcement:  “You are my Son, the Beloved” proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism is an allusion to Psalm 2:7, a reference to royal enthronement in the line of David.  But Jesus receives no royal anointing in his baptism.  Rather, he is the suffering servant in whom God delights of Isaiah 42:1:  not a king on a throne, but a servant who is despised and rejected, one who stands in solidarity with a suffering humanity and a desecrated earth.

As Andrew Marr has noted, “Far from receiving a royal anointing that, by definition, could not be shared, Jesus received an anointing that, by definition, must be shared, that must be available to all.  This means that Jesus’ anointing is still available to tax collectors and prostitutes and the ‘brood of vipers’ who engineered his death.  That is to say, this anointing is even available to you and me.”[6]

Jesus’ baptism disappears into the Cross – into a suffering world – and appears again in the Resurrected life that we share with him through our baptism into his death.  His baptism finds its meaning in our own embrace of compassion and forgiveness, in our sharing in his identity as God’s Beloved, finding there the source of our own true self and security.

In a world torn apart by violent, greedy rivalries it is all too easy to see Jesus’ baptism – and our own – disappearing into an abyss of suffering; disappearing into the Cross.  The Gospel writers are clear-eyed realists in so far as the developing traditions about Jesus replicate this very disappearance.  What they also perceive, however, is the reappearance of this baptismal identity in the Body of Christ  - in you and me – vivified by his risen Presence in our midst as the Forgiving Victim.  We make his Presence visible to others through our practice of compassion and forgiveness, recognizing in them Jesus’ own identity as God’s Beloved. 

[1] Mark 1:1
[2] Matthew 3:14-15
[3] See Luke 3:18-20
[4] cf. John 1:29-34 and John 3:22-30
[5] Mark 10:35-45; cf. Matt. 20:20-28, Luke 22:24-27
[6] Andrew Marr, “My Beloved Son:  Jesus Anointed by Baptism,” accessed at