Tag Archives: autonomy

Six soul-killing political pathologies demanding the church’s conformity

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Damon Linker of This Week, Penn, and suburban Philly, says “The lies, corruption, graft, racism, xenophobia, hucksterism, and demagoguery of President Trump and leading members of his administration are so brazen and diverge so sharply from the political norms of the recent American past, it’s easy to lapse into misplaced hope that the pathologies swirling around us will dissipate as soon as the man leaves office.”

I was in a house full of grandchildren as I read that. That made it an even more alarming prediction. Are the children destined to navigate some terrible pathology? I hope not. But if they are so troubled, it will give Jesus an opportunity to prove, once again, that he is greater than our hearts.

Trump may catalyze the worst in us for his own benefit, but he couldn’t do it without the rest of the country providing him opportunity and giving in when he takes it. We of Circle of Hope mildly talk about our “alternativity,” but how far have you been driven, in truth, into some individual bunker from which you plot your safest route to your personal desires? Our recent dialogue about consolidating two of our congregations, although amazing and encouraging (and alternative!), also highlighted what we are up against these days. We are tempted to conform to the pathology around us either by adopting it or endlessly rebelling against it – either way it dominates us.

Linker lists six features of the United States society that often threaten to become features of our church, as well. I hope commenting on his list contributes to finding a way to avoid the pitfalls of our time.

Skepticism about leaders

  • There’s the spread of skepticism, rooted in radical egalitarianism, about the capacity of any authority to judge fairly among competing truth claims.

If we desert our families and can’t listen to our leaders, can we learn to follow Jesus? Aren’t we tempted to perfect autonomy, thinking that is a good thing? I think our pastors talk about our skepticism all the time — but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks it is right to listen to them, or that they actually do listen. People tend to wake up to “who’s in charge” or “what’s the process” when they discover some change actually impacts their “personal lives.” Otherwise, they assume that everyone in charge is self-interested or corrupt and try to steer clear of any process that might require their responsibility or sacrifice. Skeptics need to be questioned: Are all the region’s police self-interested and corrupt? Is everyone in government out for profit? Are the Cell Leader Coordinators unaware of your reality? Are protesters wasting their time?  What kind of person is your skepticism making you?

Virtual extremism

  • There’s the technological amplification of extreme views, which allows those on the ideological margins (and other bad actors) to spread and organize with unprecedented potency in virtual space.

The Russians would not be able to corrupt the U.S. system if the echo chambers in which citizens are trapped intersected and if they were not all atomized into individual interpreters of the day’s news. Our church, designed as it is to span usually-distinct territories and people groups often has a terrible time getting people to follow Jesus together if their ideological underpinnings are not satisfied. I have convictions that I consider elemental to my faith in Jesus and which bind me to prophesy to society, but should they exclude others who don’t know what I’m talking about yet?

Endless entertainment

  • There’s the thoroughgoing transformation of our public life into a forum for mass entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Last week one of my grandchildren so skillfully lobbied for watching the The Two Towers we spent hours of a cloudy vacation day doing it. Afterwords, we had a long talk (long for elementary attention spans, that is) about what the movie means. One of them questioned my authority to begin such a discussion, of course (back to point one), but we talked anyway. I pointed out that the movies corrupt Tolkien’s story, since the filmmakers use extraordinary, powerful technology to tell the story of the meek inheriting the earth. This thought came to mind after I was informed that the spectacle of Helm’s Deep is much more interesting than the Hobbit scenes, and it is time to hit the bathroom when Gollum is dithering about his soul. They might be children of their age, in danger of spiritual lobotomy by the powerful scenes from the entertainment industry. The news is infotainment and the presidency a reality TV show. It is no wonder people have a tough time taking their faith and their church seriously.

Accepted polarization

  • There’s ideological polarization combined with a regional (urban-rural) split along both cultural and political lines, which is exacerbated by our country’s multiple counter-majoritarian institutions.

We passed around an article a few weeks back about the interesting divides in the country. We could see the cultural stereotypes played out in some of our own dialogue as the church. We don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the country’s division among us. One might say many of us are obsessed with what divides us — condemned by their “identities” to perpetual otherness instead of welcomed into the community we crave. Lately, our email list of covenant members has been the scene of some brilliant practical theology after our leaders called us to a course of practical necessity and creative adaptation – a change. I am glad to see we gravitated toward unity in Christ instead of mere diversity of choice.

Distortion as strategy

  • And there’s the willingness of cynical, power-hungry political functionaries to traffic in outright lies and distortions in order to win and hold office.

The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual BiographyI was in Barnes and Noble with five 7-11 year olds, enough said. While we were buying books I spotted a surprising title: The Faith of Donald J. Trump. I pondered it the day after the news of Cohen’s and Manafort’s legal issues came to a head, both which point to the corruption and brazen immorality of the leader, who the books calls, “the one guiding figure who can return us to the traditional values-hard work, discipline, duty, respect, and faith-that have long been the foundation of American life.” It is small wonder there will be a whole generation of people who assume any leader, including a church leader, is lying. After all, we don’t need Trump, just a few bishops in Pennsylvania will make us wonder.

No love of enemies

  • Justice has been reduced to the friend/enemy distinction: Whatever damage is done to the other side in the name of progress for my own mission is acceptable, even laudable.

Are people, in general, really losing all capacity to have conflicts that result in mutually beneficial outcomes? In our church, people often solve difficult relationships by refusing to ever have the conflict they feel. They kill love to avoid conflict. They neuter their faith in the name of some “acceptance” that masks their fear. They don’t want to be a loser and they have reduced love down to not making anyone else lose. This is politics conducted without any notion of a common good. The interests of the whole community no longer transcend the competing, perpetually clashing, and conflicted parts. Such a “politics” could kill a church, of course.

I felt a lot of these influences tempting us during our dialogue last week; so I was nervous. I wasn’t sure I could trust our trust system. We purposely designed our church so people could wreck it by being unloving or irresponsible (since Christians love and care and share or they should not be called Christians). I was not sure we would be Christians when we felt hurt or threatened or needed to fail and change. I went to prayer. Jesus came through and we came through. We’ll all be fine. But we will still be living in a world that is clearly not fine, these days. It will try to drag us down with it, so we’d better keep praying.

2014 #8 — You've probably taken self-reliance too far

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #8 most read post of 2014. In March I lamented the curse of too much autonomy and too little training for God-reliance. 

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The process of getting some personal autonomy is very important. We need to gain the capacity to be ourselves apart from our parents and to become our true selves in relation to our ultimate parent: God. We yearn to achieve this maturity and we also resist it every step of the way. It is a difficult journey. We can end up too autonomous, but we can end up the opposite: lacking in self-reliance. Most of you reading this have probably taken self-reliance too far.

It’s no wonder you are so splendidly alone at the command center of your own private universe. You were trained to be so at a very early age. Our society is pretty much convinced right now that being self-reliant is the epitome of maturation. We start lessons on autonomy early in our culture. We start getting frustrated with what a toddler can’t do by themselves as soon as they can do anything. Gwen and I used to laugh over a book we had when our children were small that was all about doing things by oneself. We still use this little girl’s voice when we are making fun of each other for being too self-reliant because we heard her saying in our imaginations: “I can do it by myself.”

all by myselfI went looking for that old book and I found a LOT of books with that same basic title. We really want people to be able to do it by themselves! I ran across a version by one by my favorite kid’s book authors, Mercer Mayer. What’s more, I found a youtube of someone reading it to us! So here is your training for autonomy, in case you missed learning how to be needless of parents and community…and God: All By Myself by Mercer Mayer.

Continue reading 2014 #8 — You've probably taken self-reliance too far

We need spiritual resources

What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? In Frozen, the main character goes a typical route. First, she withdraws in order to save everyone from having to deal with her and then enjoys the perverse freedom of being alone to be fully herself without any responsibilities.

Her sister goes another route. She teams up with bad people and good, but their combined strength saves the day.

What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? Do you typically go for autonomy? Or do you react by turning to the community? Most of us try both. Sadly, they both supply about equally dissatisfying results.

There is a third, spiritual way

We need what seems like a “third” way to us. We need spiritual resources, not just personal or communal resources. Think of the pursuit of spiritual resources as “paradigm shift.” If you think you have to solve it yourself, or if you think you have to solve it with all these people because, in either case, those options are all you’ve got, then think again.

In Jesus, you have God coming alongside to give you resources beyond what you have inside or at your fingertips. Beyond your ordinary awareness or even your spiritual awareness, is strength from the living God. When we have become a wound or we are being wounded and we can’t stop it, where do we go? Dig deeper? Connect closer? Those are not the worst ideas unless that’s all you think there is to do. Because there is more.

Jesus shows the way

Jesus-in-Gethsemane

In the famous scene of Jesus praying in the garden the night before his crucifixion, Jesus came back from praying alone to find his community. It says in Luke: “When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’”

Luke is generous to say that the disciples are “exhausted from sorrow.” It is also likely that they had not learned to turn to prayer when they are exhausted or exasperated or confronted with their typical temptations. They came to the end of themselves and conked out.

Many of us have a habit of falling asleep right when we need to pray. Many of us come to the end of ourselves and purposely put ourselves to sleep with some drug or media. Frozen has anesthetized millions, for instance. When Jesus is crucified the next day he demonstrates how he has accessed resources beyond his personal strength or the power of his community. When he receives the wounds of the world, he cries out, “Father forgive them.”

Prayer is our access point to life

What do you cry out? The other day when I was praying, I again realized I have a few places in my daily life that provide regular temptations. I have unhealed wounds that are easily injured, typical exasperation points, and things that make me want to take a long nap somehow. I have some things I often cry out, but I need to follow Jesus and access resources beyond myself rather than just sitting at the end of my meager capacity feeling alone and resenting my meager community. What are those places for you? A few of mine are:

  • Leaders who are out for themselves and do not listen, do not serve, do not know.
  • Cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Parents abusing their children because they are at the end of themselves.
  • Being falsely accused by customer service people.
  • When the power of my convictions is eroded by the apathy of my colleagues.

Like Jesus, we are also dealing with the wounds of the world. We are exhausted and exasperated. I think Jesus is sometimes frustrated with us, too, because we prefer sleep to prayer.

But I also think Jesus looks on us fondly even when he is frustrated because he knows we are mostly dust in our own eyes. He is calling attention to that place deep within us that we can access by prayer. We have access to spiritual resources beyond ourselves and our communities. Our perverted instincts might tell us otherwise, so it is going to be a battle to get healed — some things will have to die. But in the midst of that battle, amazing capacity is gained and we give birth to the wonders of God with us.

You've probably taken self-reliance too far

The process of getting some personal autonomy is very important. We need to gain the capacity to be ourselves apart from our parents and to become our true selves in relation to our ultimate parent: God. We yearn to achieve this maturity and we also resist it every step of the way. It is a difficult journey. We can end up too autonomous and we can end up lacking in self-reliance. Most of you reading this have probably taken self-reliance too far.

It’s no wonder you are so splendidly alone at the command center of your own private universe. You were trained to be so at a very early age. Our society is pretty much convinced right now that being self-reliant is the epitome of maturation. We start lessons on autonomy early in our culture. We start getting frustrated with what you can’t do by yourself as soon as you can do anything by yourself. Gwen and I used to laugh over a book we had when our children were small that was all about doing things by oneself. We still use this little girl’s voice when we are making fun of each other for being too self-reliant because we heard her saying in our imaginations: “I can do it by myself.”

all by myselfI went looking for that old book and I found a LOT of books with that same basic title. We really want people to be able to do it by themselves! I ran across a version by one by my favorite kid’s book authors, Mercer Mayer. What’s more, I found a youtube of someone reading it to us! So here is your training for autonomy, in case you missed learning how to be needless of parents and community…and God: All By Myself by Mercer Mayer.

Continue reading You've probably taken self-reliance too far

Wendell Berry: identity, autonomy, privacy, competition

We had a winter wedding and draped the sterile “sanctuary” in ivy filched from front lawns all over town and made into garlands by loving friends. We thus began our somewhat-ignorant stumble into fidelity. On the occasion of our anniversary this week, my very-deep wife found an essay by Wendell Berry that eloquently summarizes much of what we instinctively discovered and practiced. What she focused on was Berry’s piece of wisdom that we have found to be true:

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” We have practiced that in marriage, family, church and city.

The-Unsettling-of-AmericaThe essay she quoted was written in 1977 as part of his book: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berry wrote his prophetic book as the American Empire flowered and turned to fruit, and as the society began to democratize and monetize everything. If you are a Christian who longs to be a humble creature, you might like to read it all: [link].

For today I offer you two long quotes from it that seem to go together to me. Berry makes important points about topics we have been exploring for a few years as a Circle of Hope. He is writing at a time when the adoption of the concept of “identity” and other new definitions are beginning to bud. By our time we have eaten the pie.

“The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the disconnection of body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s “identity” is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being–also known as psyche, soul, spirit, self, mind, etc. The dividing of this principle from the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis. Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work. But “finding yourself,” the pseudo-ritual by which the identity crisis is supposed to be resolved, makes use of no such immediate references. Leaving aside the obvious, and ancient, realities of doubt and self-doubt, as well as the authentic madness that is often the result of cultural disintegration, it seems likely that the identity crisis has become a sort of social myth, a genre of self-indulgence. It can be an excuse for irresponsibility or a fashionable mode of self-dramatization. It is the easiest form of self-flattery–a way to construe procrastination as a virtue–based on the romantic assumption that “who I really am” is better in some fundamental way than the available evidence proves.

The fashionable cure for this condition, if I understand the lore of it correctly has nothing to do with the assumption of responsibilities or the renewal of connections. The cure is “autonomy,” another mythical condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences. This seems little more than a jargon term for indifference to the opinions and feelings of other people. There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence. Inevitably failing this impossible standard of autonomy, the modern self-seeker becomes a tourist of cures, submitting his quest to the guidance of one guru after another. The “cure” thus preserves the disease….”

wendell berryBerry goes on to apply his thoughts on identity and autonomy to marriage. He has a lot to say to us in a time when single parenthood or parenthood by less-committed cohabitors is common:

“…Failing, as they cannot help but fail, to be each other’s all, the husband and wife become each other’s only. The sacrament of sexual union, which in the time of the household was a communion of workmates, and afterward tried to be a lovers’ paradise, has now become a kind of marketplace in which husband and wife represent each other as sexual property. Competitiveness and jealousy, imperfectly sweetened and disguised by the illusions of courtship, now become governing principles, and they work to isolate the couple inside their marriage. Marriage becomes a capsule of sexual fate. The man must look on other men, and the woman on other women, as threats. This seems to have become particularly damaging to women; because of the progressive degeneration and isolation of their “role,” their worldly stock in trade has increasingly had to be “their” men. In the isolation of the resulting sexual “privacy,” the disintegration of the community begins. The energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of the etiquette of ballroom dancing is, or was, that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.” It is no accident that this capitalization of love and marriage was followed by a divorce epidemic–and by fashions of dancing in which each one of the dancers moves alone.”

Identity, autonomy, privacy, and competition have come to “encapsulate” most of the people we know. They are concepts that form new sanctuaries and they can’t be disguised by draping the ivy chains of our Christianity over them.

May you have some time this Advent, away from the monetization of our holy-days, to do a ring dance, to spend some time in the wilderness rediscovering how you are a much-loved creature, and to celebrate your responsible dependence

  • on God (who gives you yourself and gives himself to you in Jesus),
  • on your spouse (if you are given one) and
  • on your community (which you have been given).

We are the sanctuary in which God’s Spirit dwells. During Advent, as we remember how God comes in to our creatureliness in Jesus, it is a good time to remember how that same Spirit makes us God’s dwelling place as a people in our own time and place. This is also a good verse for a Christmas card: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-18).

Wanderlust, Eckhart Tolle and Autonomy

OK. So I am one of the forty-five people who watched Paul Rudd and Jennifer Anniston in Wanderlust, last weekend, before the bomb blissfully sank into the red ink, unexploded. US Magazine will no doubt try to keep it alive for the sake of Jennifer falling for her co-star Justin Theroux. I thought the movie was amusing, even though one character ran around in a prosthetic penis the whole time making normal penises seem abnormal, even though the beloved Alan Alda was inexplicably present, and even though the state of Georgia was accurately portrayed, which isn’t usually a nice thing to do.

Jesus followers should be students of pop culture

That being said, there isn’t much a Christian can receive from the pop culture that isn’t very instructive. There is more philosophy in the typical rom-com than in The Tree of Life. Just looking through the Jennifer Aniston window, herself, is usually a great look at what is infecting and motivating normal people. For instance, I opened up my Facebook page on the same weekend I watched Wanderlust and there was a quote from Oprah’s buddy Eckhart Tolle infecting one of my “friends”:

Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.

Essentially that quote could have been the guiding philosophy being taught by Wanderlust, and is probably much more likely the guiding principle for most people in my church than anything Jesus is talking about or demonstrating. Such postChristian ideas are so common they are the center of little fables on the big screen (almost immediately DVD in this case).

Wanderlust is teaching the meaning of life

If you know me, you know I think meeting God in the present moment is a crucial skill for having a true self in Jesus. So there is some “truth” in what Tolle says. The people in Wanderlust are having the Eckhart Tolle mystical experience with “Life,” not Jesus, and they get “conscious” and “evolve” before our eyes in ninety-eight minutes. It is a comedy, but you can’t write a script without a philosophy someplace. It has one.

Paul and Jennifer play characters who are sick of being abused by New York (also accurately depicted, which is also not nice). Paul’s high-flying finance company goes bust in a scandal; Jen’s documentary on penguins is rejected by HBO. They evacuate the Manhattan microloft they just got suckered into buying and move in to his brother’s McMansion outside Atlanta – the brother who made his fortune renting porta-potties, of course.

I can feel this. What we learn about them is: they hate corporate America and they hate entrepreneur America; they hate being enslaved and they want to be themselves; everyone is a jerk.

“Life” gave Eckhart Tolle a similar experience. He said in an interview: “I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or ‘beingness,’ just observing and watching.”

Back to the movie – Paul and Jen return to the commune they stayed at overnite on the car ride down to Atlanta. They remembered their night there as so peaceful they thought they could make that moment last forever. Drugs, sex, nakedness, and sharing toilet-time follow. On top of that, add Justin Theroux as a yoga-esque guru. They have a commune experience.

I can really feel that. I’ve been there, in my own way. They want to feel something. They want to be honest. They want to experience relationships. Everyone should be friends.

Tolle is there too. According to his official website, “At the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet.”

Well, either Paul and Jen don’t get to transcendence or the commune doesn’t work any better than the McMansion.

The autonomy industry is powerful

The movie ends up with a much more conventional happy ending than the “next step in human evolution.” Paul and Jen wander, like Tolle, through a narcissistic breakdown and emerge with a new image better suited to their passions. They start a small publishing firm back in New York that exploits all the people they have met on their journey up and down the East Coast for mutual profit.

Their solution to their unhappiness is better autonomy. At the end, they are not beholden to a big financial product company or to HBO; they make their own way, selling media products in a much more hippy-like atmosphere. They couldn’t live with themselves; they had a collapse and epiphany and, like Tolle, created a media company to teach what they learned. John Stackhouse says Tolle “gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established, religions.” It is a religion of self, and a self that is defined by one’s own interpretation of experience.

So it was not a good movie. But it was an instructive movie. At the end of it I had to say, “That’s it?” What you learned from your breakdown is that everyone is bad in their own way and the only solution is to be autonomous, create a little pod with your mate (assuming you can find this marvel who will stick with you through infidelity and financial ruin) and create a small niche where you can do what you want by selling deconstructive thoughts about the monster you hate?

For a lot of people I know, that is, indeed, their dream. The movies taught it to them, with a lot of help from Oprah.