The Lavishness of Friendship and a World Beyond Vows

Wesley Hill’s Christianity Today cover story on friendship is now available, and it deserves consideration. The title they gave the online version is terribly misleading, but I’m told (by the author) that the title inside is much more reflective of the piece: “’Til Death Do Us Part: Why Now More Than Ever, We Need to Recover a Rich Vision of Lifelong Friendship.”

Wesley argues—rightly—that evangelicals need to build stronger and more enduring ties of friendship, and that one path toward this would be to recover the “historic Christian practice of vowed friendships.” While he floats the idea of public ceremonies, he recognizes that it is unlikely such rites will take hold anytime soon.

I want to stress how strongly I agree with Wesley’s premise: many of us have very thin understandings of friendship and its importance, and evangelicals absolutely need to disestablish marriage as the only legitimate form of ‘serious’ relationship available to congregants. I’ve written about that before. But while I’m intrigued by Wesley’s suggestion of adoption liturgical rites for non-marital vows, I remain mildly unconvinced by his case. Indeed, I worry that in promoting vows of friendship he actually obscures the marvelous form of love which friendship in its purest form embodies.

Perhaps the way in to my worries is through his deployment of Lewis. Lewis doesn’t come off well in the essay for his claim that friendship is “disembodied,” such that it is an “affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds.” Against that, Wesley suggests that we do not need “disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one anothers’ hearts and stories.” But Lewis grants that our ‘hearts and stories’ are present within a friendship: they are simply not friendship’s substance. As he writes in the bit preceding what Wesley quotes:

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.

Being freed from our contexts is not the same as keeping distance from our “hearts and stories.” Rather, it means recognizing that our contexts, our histories, our biographies are not finally determinative for who we might be. Our narrative is not our destiny, in other words, nor is our union because of the details of our stories. Exploring such histories may be a proximate cause for our gathering together, to be sure, but in its paradigmatic form friendship is not finally determined by them. If that which originally drew us were to somehow fade away, on Lewis’ view the friendship could and should endure. Such friendship is—and I note this with some argument given the thrust of Wesley’s piece—more permanent and universal than the contingencies which make up our respective lives.

Even so, there is no question that for Lewis the friend must “prove himself an ally when an alliance becomes necessary.” When the need arises, friends do what friends do. But for Lewis, friendship is oriented away from such dependencies: as he so elegantly puts it, “The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.” It has a free and lavish quality, which not every bond among us does. Yes, it’s easiest to conceive of Lewis “with J.R.R. Tolkien or Owen Barfield, discussing some scrap of Old English literature over a pint at the pub.” But his closest friend was his brother Warnie, from whom he was nearly inseparable, and their relationship transversed a variety of forms and settings.

My point here is not simply an attempt to rescue a bit of Lewis that sounds strange to our ears. (Okay, yes, yes that is my point. Are you happy?) Instead, I think that Lewis’ account actually illuminates the heart of friendship in a way that Wesley’s essay obscures. On Lewis’ view, friendship is a form of life free of obligations. But that is not to say that it is a form of life free of entanglements in the lives of others, or a life free of being bothered by the intrusions of living, or a life free to spurn each other at will. Rather, on Lewis’ view, the fulfillment of such needs are transposed into another key: it is not need and duty which governs a friendship, but the supererogatory grace of charity which transcends the responsibilities we have toward one another because of our shared humanity.

To put the point differently: it’s possible to think that friendships do not have or need vows because they are a lesser form of union, and that the lack of public recognition is tied to their weakness. It is also possible, though, that explicit vows and promises create obligations, and that friendship moves us into a realm beyond these. The high point of the Gospels, in my opinion, is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer disciples, but that they are now friends. I’m not prepared to speak of the obligations on God which exist because of the covenant established with man in creation: but it is clear that even if there were obligations, they could not possibly include that. Nor does it seem right to me that such a moment could generate obligations the ways that vows unquestionably do: what duty could bind Jesus’ friendship with us? What obligation might provide the shape to the unmerited gift of his grace? To be friends with God is to participate in a form of charity which is not incompatible with vows per se—lest we deny marriages any form of participation in it as well—but the vow-less, obligation-free character of friendship illuminates the unrestrained nature of charity in a way that a life mediated by vows and promises might not.

While Wesley wants (again, rightly) more forms of relationship to be honored and recognized within the church, he seems to blur the distinctions between marriage and friendship in striving for that. While friendship aims at permanence, because it aims at the permanent things, marital vows inaugurate obligations to permanence. To collapse those together leaves the church with fewer forms of life which witness to the manifold glory of the charity of God, not more, and may in fact inhibit the kind of restoration of friendship to its proper place that both he and I are eager to see.

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A Joyful Indifference: A Reply from Tish Harrison-Warren

Matthew, I really appreciate and resonate with your thoughtful response to my piece. I think your point about seeking respectability is true, and I would take it one step further. Since I wrote the piece for Christianity Today, I’ve reflected on how some younger evangelicals (and I’m including myself in this, which might be pushing the boundary of ‘younger’—let’s say late gen-x or early millenials), whose theological identities were formed in reaction to fundamentalism and the culture wars, believe that if Christians aren’t respected, then we are doing something wrong.

There is a deep sense of shame that accompanies rejection, not just because it hurts that others don’t think well of us but because we hold a latent assumption that we have a responsibility to make the gospel presentable, or, at least, a bit more palatable and that the failure to do so is just that—a failure. In other words, it isn’t simply human pride and vanity that drives our desire to be respectable (although that’s certainly part of it, as I address in the essay).  We grew up in a movement that stressed seeker-sensitivity and relevance such that we almost feel a theological mandate to be respectable.  If ‘seekers’ ultimately reject the church and the gospel, we wonder if we were, therefore, seeker insensitive or irrelevant. Were we not thoughtful or kind or interesting or cool or committed to social justice enough?

And of course, we aren’t thoughtful or kind or interesting or committed to social justice enough. That’s true.  We are a community in need of grace.

When Christians are unloving or obnoxious or contemptuous or greedy or, certainly, criminal or predatory, it harms the church and our mission. Failure and sin in the church is grievous and can have dire consequences. Throughout Scripture—perhaps nowhere as pointed as Paul’s rebuke to Peter in Galatians 2 or the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians—it’s clear that the church must take both moral and theological failure very seriously.  We are to be “a city on a hill,” a unique people marked by love.

But the reality is that even if we could “be the church” in the fullness of how God intends, we may still very well be rejected. We must seek to be a holy people who work for justice and walk by grace, but we do that as a response to God’s justice and grace, not as the means of “getting it right” so that unbelievers will respond in a particular way. In the perennial, breathless announcements about the death of the church and the hand wringing about millennials leaving the church, there can be an assumption that the church’s success depends on us and that if the church shrinks, it is necessarily an indictment of our theology or practice. We can begin to believe that if we, as a Christian community, just ‘got it right’ (whatever your particular idea of ‘getting it right’ is) that unbelievers would want to join our number, or at least, think we’re likable and sane.
I am part of the generation that came of age reading Relevant magazine and Blue Like Jazz, exploring the emergent church movement, and celebrating indie Christian bands that rejected the label of ‘Christian band’ and played at bars or trendy cafes. (I remember—with a bit of nostalgic embarrassment—the sense of hope I had when I first heard Jars of Clay on mainstream radio in high school). We got cool tattoos. We began edgy ministries. We made good art.  All of this, for the most part, is good or, at least, not bad—I’m very thankful for and deeply shaped by the renewed evangelical impulse to holistically embrace social justice, creation care, and culture making. But somewhere along the way as a college student sipping coffee from a mug larger than my face while listening to Over the Rhine, I picked up a latent belief that it was incumbent upon the church to make the gospel appealing. And all of this left me unprepared to know how to respond to real rejection due to orthodox Christian belief.

In reality, the gospel—and the church itself—is appealing because salvation is a miracle of grace. Jesus, mysteriously, is what makes the church appealing.  As Flannery O’Connor says (and I quote far too often), “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”

And, here, in the mystery of Christ’s love for and provision for the church, we find roots for your idea that “what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.” In early drafts of my Christianity Today piece, I had real trouble knowing how to wrap the piece up. I didn’t want to be overly triumphalistic, but the reality, the unavoidable, enduring conclusion that I kept bumping into as I thought about that year was simply: “ I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Like you, I’ve been struck by the profound need for and protest of joy. I wonder what would it mean for Christians to be marked by joy.  It seems like the true opposite of the culture wars—and the best response—is not to simply be more progressive or even more moderate, but to be able to walk into the midst of the culture’s bar fight and be subversively and humbly joyful and hopeful, able to love vulnerably and faithfully whether or not we’re rejected.

I don’t mean to prescribe a kind of happy-clappy Christian naiveté. I don’t in any way want to tell believers going through rejection that they have to be happy about it—that year at Vanderbilt was one of sadness, anger, disappointment, confusion, and weariness (amidst a lot of beauty as well), and we need to be honest about those very real, very human emotions both with God and with each other. But I think of CS Lewis’s description of the Narnians’ holy, joyful indifference in enemy territory from A Horse and His Boy: “Instead of being grave and mysterious…they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t.”

Our cultural conversation (whichever political ‘side’ one falls on) is generally marked by anger, grasping, contempt and a general grumpiness about the state of things and, especially, about one’s enemies. But instead of Christians responding to rejection with outrage and belligerence, on one hand, or a kind of tiresome, over apologetic groveling about the sad state of the church on the other, this Narnian kind of joy allows us to extend generosity to those who oppose us because we aren’t overly desperate for approval. We are a well-nourished people, able to persevere in joy because we feed on Christ as a church and, therefore, able to offer real nourishment to others.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity at the University of Texas–Austin. For more, see TishHarrisonWarren.com.

On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

Mere Fidelity: On Sanctification

Update:  We are now on iTunes.  Download episodes and subscribe here. If you’re on Android or some other podcast streamer and need an RSS feed, you can get that here.

Two things of note:  first, we’ve been accepted into Soundcloud’s beta for an RSS feed and iTunes feed.  However, just after we were let in Soundcloud began having technical difficulties for it, so…we don’t have it quite yet.  I apologize for that, and if they don’t get it sorted early this week we’ll have a different plan in place for next week. 

Second: we’ve been talking internally about conversing about books and essays and the like in a way that will still be interesting for those who haven’t read them, but even more informative for those who have.  In two weeks, then, we’re going to start a discussion on the issues raised by Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?which turns 30 years old this year.

Yes, it’s an expensive book, especially since it clocks in at just 86 pages.  However, I’d note two things in its defense:  (a) it’s incredibly relevant and has the single-best theological analysis of trans-gender questions ever written, and (b) the fact that there are virtually no used copies available indicates how important of a book it is. You’ll own it your whole life.  So, join us.

This week:  we consider the doctrine of sanctification, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has been following the Christian blogging world.

As always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

 

The Ethics of Jayber Crow

riverIn The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.

But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.

In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost

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Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

common objects of love o'donovanRecently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)

Alastair – I’ll kick things off.

My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.

I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).

But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

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Words for the Anxious Soul

I have been reading (and singing!) through the Psalms a good deal over the past year. One very valuable aspect of the Psalms is the way they give voice to a broad variety of human emotion. This is the inspired song book of God’s people, and it has a song for almost every mood. Here is one that has been very meaningful to me as of late:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation  and my God.

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me. (Psalm 42:5-7)

These images well describe the turmoil of a soul racked by anxiety and fear. Everyone, it seems, has to experience it to some degree. For most, it is the result of some daunting task, a change of home or job, or some other common challenge. For others, it is all-consuming, wrecking their life with a worry that touches on almost everything. Their nerves are always frayed; stressors that others could shrug off can knock them flat.

Each of these levels of anxiety is a real burden. Worry is wearisome, a weight on body and soul. We can desire to say, “I have calmed and quieted my soul,” (Ps 131:2) but to do so can be difficult. While anxiety is so common, still so much of what we tell ourselves and others only worsens the load. Worse still, even the techniques, behaviors, and mindsets that actually do help break the power of worry can readily be subverted in ways that only strengthen the anxiety.

I will here focus on two flawed responses: commands and maxims. The former are simple, short injunctions like, “don’t be worried”, “quit it”, or “stop fretting over that.” They restate the problem, offering neither mercy nor direction.

Anxiety and an exaggerated sense of guilt go hand-in-hand. A barked order easily fuels both. It doesn’t give the strength of will to climb out of the slough of despond. It only highlights the sense of weakness and inadequacy that comes with anxiety. It is like the terror of Law, except that it drives one further away from mercy and reconciliation.

The maxim hands out insight without wisdom. As I said in my post “A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts”, these simple statements are more of conclusions than starting points. They only make sense in light of practice, reflection, and shared struggle. They need more than only assent, but also to be worked down into the level of habit and inclination. The good words that speak most truly to anxiety and grief are also hard words. Make them soft, and they become ineffectual. It certainly is not a one-stop, quick-fix, one-time-only jump directly to a happy conclusion.

But how do you get yourself, or someone else, on to a better path? By actions and with patient endurance. Often one has to move down the path towards wisdom one weary, half-blind, halting step at a time. If you try to skip straight to the end, you say things that are often true (“You can do this,” “God has a plan,” “It’s always darkest just before the dawn”), but not helpful to the present need.

A good signal of a bad approach to helping an anxious person (whether yourself or another), can be found by an analogy with James 2:15-16:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that?

To say those words in that context is a form of callousedness disguised as compassion. It is an obvious refusal to do anything that is in your power to give practical aid. You might feel better after saying it, but nothing has changed.

There is the first half of our equation: what not to say and how not to say it. The question becomes, what approach should we use?

Paul gives a very direct answer. The first half of Philippians 4:6 says simply, “Do not be anxious about anything.” This seems like the “command” form at first, but context is, as always, key. Let’s back up and see how Paul got there. This is part of the conclusion of the letter, where Paul says words of general advice and encouragement:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything,

He tells us to be joyful, to be agreeable, and then not to be anxious. This is a set of exhortations to wise living. They are also words about how to live in community; recall that these statements come in the wake of Paul’s pleads to Euodia and Syntyche to “to agree in the Lord.”

So Paul means business. “The Lord is at hand;” God will take notice. But is this to be read as a stern word or as a word of fatherly advice, full of love and motivated by mercy?

What Paul says next is crucial:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The word about anxiety is couched not just in exhortations for godly living, but specifically suggests a responsive action to anxiety, and a different way of thinking.

The first part is prayer and supplication. Pray and plead to God over whatever is the source of concern. God is not simply our heavenly shoulder to cry on or some cosmic punching bag. He is the creator of the universe. Yet strangely, he apparently does want to hear our concerns and our requests. God asks us to approach him with confident reverence and reverent boldness. Nothing is too grand for God to comprehend, nor is anything too small.

But Paul suggests more. He counsels “prayer and supplication”, but “with thanksgiving.” This connects well with “rejoice in the Lord always” from two verses back. However large or small the concerns, however little of joy or gratitude our hearts can summon at the moment, it is always a fitting to frame our requests and our bold wailings with a measure of thanksgiving. Even if only for the very breath of life that one still painfully breathes in and out.

And what is the outcome? “The peace peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is not some callow, manufactured peace. This is not forcing a smile and repressing vigorously. It is a strong peace, stronger than what is within us, because it is a peace that can guard and protect. And it comes from a loving Father, by our joining with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This peace of God binds us to the One who became a human being like us.

So as we look to have our hearts and minds guarded in Christ Jesus, let us now look at the guidance that Jesus himself gives. The best go-to place is Jesus’ famous words about worry and toil in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This is calming and beautiful, and it calls us outside of ourselves in key ways.

First, Jesus refers to the beauty of the created world. The flowers are clothed more radiantly than Solomon in his splendor. (Without working a day in their lives!) The birds lack industriousness altogether. Yet they are beautiful and they well provided for. Be comforted, and know that God does not value you below wild plants and sparrows.

Jesus gently offers us a different way of thinking. We are not in control, and we cannot guarantee good results. Can you add an hour to your life? No, God has set that hour. I used to jokingly add (thinking it fit Jesus’ point), “In fact, you could subtract several hours by worrying!” But my former cleverness misses the point entirely. While my behavior and choices may be among the means God uses, He remains in control. I can plan with prudence but die in a freak accident, while some BASE jumper lives to retirement age.

Jesus bids us trust in the Father’s goodness. He loves us and gives us good things.  That is a hard truth and a blessed hope. We may not understand, but we can trust. More than that, we can have confidence that His promises will be fulfilled. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil. Or at least, start to fear less.

Jesus also points us to something greater. Right next to these comforting words, he points out where we should focus our attention: on God’s kingdom, and on God’s righteousness. This is not a prosperity promise. (I’m not asking you to send me a check, for starters.) Neither is this a claim that material poverty is the mark of a particular sin. It is a notice that focusing on God’s ends allows us to trust that our necessities will be provided.  C.S. Lewis gets close to this when he suggests that if we focus on Heaven, we may get Earth “thrown in”.

Jesus proclaimed very high standards. He denounced the falsely righteous with verve and vehemence. Yet Jesus also proclaimed mercy and forgiveness. As Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The same one appointed to bring justice is also the fountain of mercy. If we trust in Jesus, then God’s justice itself can be our relief, His faithfulness our protection, and His mercy our delight.

If you are facing the everyday anxieties and worries of life, I hope you take encouragement from these words of scripture. If you are suffering from a longer term anxiety that is keeping you from everyday functioning, please do seek help from someone who is trained to do so. There is a path through those dark woods, but it can be hard to find unaided.

The Dangers of Appealing to Personality Types

Morgan Guyton recently posted a piece entitled ‘Why English Majors Make Lousy Fundamentalists,’ which was also crossposted on Jesus Creed. Within it, he begins by arguing that different readings of Scripture ‘may end up boiling down to different personality types.’ As an INFP—‘the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic’—Guyton believes that he brings certain instincts to the reading of the Bible that rub ‘fundamentalists’ up the wrong way.

INFPs, Guyton grants, are not unfairly characterized as those who ‘do not like to deal with hard facts and logic’ and ‘don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.’ The first representation certainly makes it easier to account for some of the unannounced yet crucial shifts in his post. The first of these is his conflation of the INFP type with the ‘English major’, a character that frames the rest of Guyton’s analysis in the post. The English major can pull academic privilege over others who lack his training in the reading of literature. Also, as he has associated his personality and sensibilities with that of the English major, the INFP can assume he possesses a sort of natural and peculiar affinity for the reading of Scripture. As God reveals himself in a literary form, and INFPs/English majors have a particular affinity for literature and sensitivity for its quality, they are the ones who should provide the ‘taste test’ of the character of God’s revelation and, by extension, of the sort of God that we find revealed within it:

As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.

A swift swipe of logic to the connections that Guyton draws between English majors, literary reading, and personality type would untangle a significant portion of the knotty mass of his argument. Not all INFPs are English majors and not all INFPs who are English majors are gifted at it. Nor do INFPs have a monopoly on the study of literature: many students of literature have quite different personality types.

We should not accept the fact that INFPs are currently more attracted to the study of English literature as sufficient proof of their greater aptitude in it. The field of literary criticism has undergone a number of significant changes over the last century. INFPs’ supposedly greater likelihood to be English majors may be little more than a result of the fact that they resonate more with the currently prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism and the wider culture of the discipline. A different array of personality types might pursue the subject if these prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism were dislodged and replaced by others. Guyton’s assumptions would then crumble.

I will forgive anyone who feels confused after trying to parse the logic of Guyton’s argument. The rest of his post is a bewildering muddle: he entangles the interpretative supremacy and prerogative of a certain personality type with the eminently sensible notion that we should bring honed literary instincts and tools to the study of the scriptures. Furthermore, he treats the mere invocation of methods of literary analysis as if it validated the inept manner in which they were deployed. ‘He must be a gifted exegete: look at all of the fancy tools in his toolbox!’

Guyton’s post exemplifies the growing popularity of personality typing in many Christian circles (I’ve been surprised to see how widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] is in the Church of England, for instance). Rather than presenting a comprehensive response to Guyton’s post, which will soon be forgotten, I want to highlight this particular feature of it. While many of us have written extensively about orientation and identity in the context of sexuality and gender, personality typing has quietly established a new form of identity and orientation discourse. It is high time that we paid closer attention to it.

We should recognize certain analogies between personality typing and many of the other forms of orientation and identity discourse with which we are more familiar. Many Christians have started to treat personality type as a sort of ‘orientation’ within the world whose equality—or contextual superiority—must be recognized and for which various accommodations must be made. The personality type is fixed and integral to who we are as persons. The fundamental impulses, sensibilities, and instincts of the personality type cannot be called into question: they have the status of an untouchable sensitivity. We are tempted to treat our personality type as justification and explanation for our behaviour, rather than discerning appropriate forms of behaviour and desire from their relation to fitting objective ends. We should observe the measure of circularity that can be present here: in using our personality types as justification for our patterns of behaviour we can forget that our personality typing was derived in large measure from those same patterns.

The problem here is not so much with personality typing per se as it is the entitlement, privilege, and weight of identification that is increasingly coming with it. Personality typing such as the MBTI can be amusing and harmless and can even occasionally serve a heuristic purpose, provided that we do not take it too seriously. Although it is a fairly inexact tool—it arbitrarily splits spectrums of behaviour into binary categories and doesn’t adequately account for such things as the inextricable relation between thinking and ‘feeling’—it can occasionally help to illumine significant patterns and tendencies.

Everyone wants to believe that the mere possession of a particular personality type gives them some sort of privileged access to or claim upon reality, society, or set of skills. Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, closely associated with the MBTI, will assign you an identity on the basis of the result of your personality test. Here everyone’s a winner. It will designate you as an ‘inventor’, a ‘mastermind’, a ‘fieldmarshal’, a ‘champion’, a ‘healer’, or an ‘architect’ on no more sure of a basis than the fact that your personality skews in a particular direction. This is all entirely independent of anything that you have ever achieved or skill you have developed. ‘English major’ may not yet be one of Keirsey’s temperaments, but Guyton employs it as if it were. When I discover that I am an ESFP or an INTJ, I can enjoy a sense of an innate superiority, entirely independent of actual work and achievement, which the world must acknowledge and validate. I am here reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s remark concerning the piano in Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

Psychometric tests such as the MBTI promise to reveal deep truths about our personalities. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, through some mysterious alchemy, they will discern our true nature and assign us a named identity accordingly. The scientific basis of the claims of many psychometric tests such as the MBTI is highly dubious and their effectiveness probably has more than a little to do with such things as the Forer effect.

Nevertheless, personality typing can easily become powerfully constitutive of people’s sense of identity, as they start to think of themselves as their personality type in a fairly uncritical manner. The appeal of such tests is quite explicable: they offer a measure of resolution to the existential discomfort of the question ‘who am I?’, a question which is probably pressed upon us with greater urgency than ever before. While such a test may be an improvement on diverting online quizzes promising to reveal which characters I might be in various fictional universes, at least I do not go through life believing that Gandalf-likeness is a crucial key to my identity.

The cult of personality testing threatens to throw our understanding of the person dangerously off balance. I would suggest that it is here that we find its greatest dangers. Personality testing can foster and encourage the myth of the ‘rich internal self’ and the moral obfuscation that can so often accompany it. On the basis of a rudimentary quiz, a test such as the MBTI offers us a flattering image of who we truly are. It assures us that our personalities are healthy and natural. We are heroic figures—‘crafters’, ‘composers’, ‘protectors’, and ‘counselors’—and the world should learn to value us more. We don’t really encounter sin and fallenness in the world of such personality testing; even pathology does not make an appearance.

With its overemphasis upon healthy natural personality, this new pop psychology that is entering our vocabularies can subtly squeeze out Christian language of fallenness, sin, flesh, and separation from God, slowly dulling us to the extent of our brokenness. In addition to this, I fear that our new focus upon ‘personality’ will lead to a neglect of the category of ‘character’. ‘Personality’ is typically understood to be an innate given and a matter of self-expression, operating largely outside of the realm of morality, chiefly measured by its individuality, and possessing its own prerogative. ‘Character’, by contrast, must be formed and is a decidedly moral mode of regarding the individual subject. Rather than telling us that we are naturally and fairly indelibly what is revealed in the patterns of our behaviour, ‘character’ is something that is gradually formed in us as we faithfully devote ourselves to modes of behaviour that do not spring naturally from our personalities.

Guyton’s argument is a good example of the chaos that can result when personality usurps character in the area of scriptural interpretation. Contrary to Guyton’s emphasis upon personality, we become skilful readers of Scripture as the Spirit conforms us to the word he inspired through the dedicated and faithful practice of scriptural study. No one enjoys this skill merely by virtue of an innate aptitude of personality, nor does our possession of a particular personality type entitle us to approach God’s revelation on our own terms. God’s truth transforms its readers, it identifies expressions of our personality types as ‘sin’, and it makes demands of us that call us to act outside of type. It breaks us down and it builds us up again. I will not discover my true self through taking a personality test, but as I am conformed by God’s Spirit to the image of his Son: not as an act of analysis, but through a historical process of transformation. This is the truth in terms of which all other self-understanding must proceed. When viewed in this light, the personality test has a decidedly diminished capacity for determining my identity.

Alastair Roberts writes.  You can follow him on Twitter

How our Questioning Begins: A reply to Fare Foreward

“How then shall we begin?”

Among the questions that a writer must answer, that is perhaps the most difficult. When it is time to make an ending, we have the entire body of work to that point to draw from to find what might fit. Good ending should unfold from what has already come; they ought do something new, but that newness ought help us appreciate and understand the old with a greater intensity and awareness. But beginnings, well, beginnings are a miracle.

The End of Our Exploring Matthew Lee AndersonAt the excellent journal Fare Forward, Jordan Monge has written the most thorough and critical review of The End of our Exploring that I have seen. Her objection, as I understand it, is that I do not adequately explain how we get going in the life of questioning well and so offer rather cold and unhelpful counsel to those who might not be as “far along” as I purportedly am.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to claim that we are open to the possibility that we are truly wrong if our purpose is to simply affirm what we believed at the beginning. C.S. Lewis suggested, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin and, in the end, despair.” Anderson seems, at a deep level, to understand this. He critiques an immediately defensive posture and suggests wrestling with questions more deeply with great patience. But he also seems to put too much stock in Eliot’s promise that we’ll arrive where we began.

In that sense, I think his book speaks far too much to people who have already gone through the doubting process and far too little to people who are just beginning it. It seems like the sort to get head nods—yes, this is what exploring is like—from those who have been through the process of exploring and come out faithful on the other side. But I can’t imagine anything but incredulous stares from those beginning the journey or coming from a more skeptical starting point. Those who share his experience may rejoice in having found a compatriot whose voice resonates, but those outside could find this an echoing chamber as hollow as the churches they’ve left.

It is true that I write from the conviction that Christianity is true, all the way down and backwards and forwards, and if that presupposition provides little comfort or counsel to those who disagree with it then I can only respond that the book was never written for them. Monge’s review registers disappointment for that limitation, as I fail “to justify why we should be engaged in the project of questioning from a Christian perspective.” But one can only fail at something that one attempts, and nowhere in the book did I give any indication that persuading the unconverted was part of my aim. I am tempted to respond with something like a Chestertonian warning that she need only ask and I will write another book.

Still, how people move between outlooks—undergo intellectual conversions—is a difficult problem. It extends at least back to Plato, who wrestled in the Phaedo about whether these things can be taught. I alluded to it in mentioning the curious opening to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he begins his journey—but how? “Just as Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy begins with him waking to find himself lost in a dark wood—a curious phenomenon, for how can one awake and find himself lost?—so the first step of return begins when we recognize and say that we too have gone astray. We begin from where we are, even if we start from nowhere.” (43)

Or as I say later, “intellectual conversions feel like a sort of homelessness. Our framework orients us in the world: it is how we decide through our reflection and deliberation whether we will do this or that. Calling it into question destabilizes us; our sense of balance and place gets thrown off. And we lose our “insider” status in the communities that shared those commitments, which introduces a new level of unfamiliarity. Such periods of transition can be very difficult and feel very isolating” (95-96).

My counsel there is not terribly substantive, because conversion is not the main point of the book. But the double exhortations to Entishness (“don’t be hasty!”) and gratitude are the sort of dispositions that I think those in the middle of intellectual upheavals should attend to, if only because the repudiation that a conversion necessarily entails is fraught with emotional and spiritual dangers.

But Monge goes pretty far awry in her discussion of doubt and questioning and her reading that I said some questions were “sinful.” As she puts it:

“The problem with this distinction is that particular questions may provoke doubt, because they call into question the character of God as loving and just. How could a God of love command the killing of every man, woman, and child? Why would God condemn to torturous, eternal fire those whom he loves? How can God hold people to account if we don’t possess free will, if he hardwired us to be this way?

Anderson is right that such questions come from particular places. They aren’t neutral. (Take the last question—it assumes that free will doesn’t exist, that God is responsible for all our negative hardwiring, etc.) But just because such questions come from a place of hostility or severe doubt doesn’t necessarily make them bad questions to be asking. They are questions that make us challenge the foundation of the faith: who is God and what is he like?”

I make no judgment on whether those questions are themselves right or wrong, in part because such things cannot be decided in the abstract. I have written before about how to think about the difference between good questions and bad. But I will simply note that it is absolutely right that because questions “come from a place of hostility or doubt” does not make them bad questions. However, it may mean that they are being asked badly. The intentions beneath the questions matter too, not just the forms. Or as I say in the book:

“The man who asks whether God’s mercy allows for justice may be asking a sincere question and faithfully opening himself to the creative destruction of his own false ideas or to a deepened understanding of his true ones. His questioning may be rooted in love and aimed at his growth. Or he may be clinging to the final vestiges of his rebellion, making a final desperate stand against the holiness of God. Or he may be merely playing a game, reducing God to an abstraction for his own intellectual satisfaction. *These possibilities and countless others stand beneath every inquiry that we make.”

Monge’s real worry is whether I am supportive of “questioning the foundations” of our faith, or whether my exhortations to do so are simply a conjuring trick.

“It’s unclear to me, however, how much Anderson thinks we should really probe the foundations of our faith. On the one hand, he says that exploring the possibility of the resurrection and its historical details “is simply the drama of seeking understanding, a drama constituted by the possibility that we might end up on the wrong side of the ledger.” Yet it seems that the purpose of such inquiry is simply deeper affirmation of one’s original purpose. “By reopening our commitments and being willing to inquire into them again, we will remind ourselves why we held those commitments in the first place,” Anderson writes.”

I take it that if it turned out Christianity is not true, we would “end up on the wrong side of the ledger.” But if it is? The commitment to Christianity’s truthfulness means that the inquiry is not a 50/50 proposition, wherein we weigh these things up in a balance and start from—nowhere. We start in the middle, with commitments, and either deepen those commitments or repudiate them. The opposition between the pursuit of understanding and the question of truthfulness is Monge’s, not mine.

If I put confidence in Eliot’s suggestion that we will end up where we started, it is only because I wish as much as possible to live and inquire within the truthfulness of Christianity. Or as I say in a different context about my friend John Corvino, “Even though we think our perspectives are true, we don’t foreclose on the possibility we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere” (148). The book is aimed at the confidence of faith, not the “certainty” (as Monge says) for a reason.

On Doubt and The End of our Exploring

I’ve been gratified by the responses to The End of our Exploring, even if I have said little about them. While it was left off the major “best of” lists for 2013—with sincere apologies to JR Forastereos, who graciously included it—there have been a number of generally positive responses to it.

Like Chris Talbot’s recent review. Talbot kindly notices that while the central theme is questioning, there are a variety of motifs that I develop out of it, yet without leaving it altogether.  One reader told me that they thought the book read more like a series of blog posts; I don’t think that’s right, at least for those who are reading carefully.  But it is certainly true that the book goes places that people might not expect from a glance at the back copy. End of Our Exploring

Talbot also has kind things to say about my footnotes, albeit by critiquing me for not including many of them in the body of the text. Many people who have read the book have found them distracting to the point of annoying. Some of my footnotes are traditional references to other people’s works, while others are more substantive thoughts that didn’t seem to me to fit the main thread with the occasional joke thrown in. Given that Talbot seems to be on the same comic wavelength as I, his opinion on this is probably not to be trusted. But Talbot also has the nicest way of saying that I’m longwinded (“his writing style…can be perceived as prolonged”), which ought to commend him as an ally to any regular reader of Mere-O.

But Adam Thies’s criticism at the Washington Institute was more substantial and worth considering carefully. He writes:

For all of The End of Our Exploring’s good points I can’t help but feel that a person in the midst of severe questioning and doubt might feel like they have simply received a list of instructions—a step-by-step process for dealing with questions that come naturally to us. Anderson calls on us to reform our inquiries through “learning to ask questions along with Scripture,” which may be a great thing for someone learning how to question, but for those who have yet to have their questions answered it may seem patronizing. His recommendation to hold to the church’s liturgies and creeds throughout one’s questions may fall deaf on the ears of those questioning those liturgies.

I find this worry surprising (and troubling), if only because I pretty explicitly note that there is no “technique” or rulebook for questioning well. As Thies notes, I do exhort everyone to hold firm to the faith that we have received—but that is because those are the very exhortations that Scripture so often gives us.

Let me try running a bit further away from that, as if Thies is right then I’ve failed in a bad way.  Thies collapses back together what I struggled to hold apart, namely doubt and questioning. Doubt is often accompanied by a sense of emotional and intellectual upheaval; it is characterized by an instability and unsurety that goes outside an uncertain interest in whether a given claim is true or way of life worth following. In the seasons of my life when I have been afflicted by doubt, I often find I am seeking a kind of vindication—a justification, if you will—that subtly gives my claim on an answer pre-eminence in my outlook. There is a sense of obligation at work in my thinking, a feeling that unless I see in a particular way I cannot move forward, that I am owed the optimal conditions for my willing belief. Ironically, it is that very disposition that undermines the intellectual and emotional conditions for my satisfaction, and that makes me chafe against the very exhortations I need to hear.

There is one story, at least. I suspect Thies has his own accounts here that may be different and more illuminating than my own. But I mention it only to say that in seasons of turmoil and doubt it may be (in part) the simple act of learning to carry on that helps us defang the phenomenon’s bitter potency. One thinks of Mother Theresa’s decision to reserve her struggle for the privacy of her journal while going about her business.

But then, I also don’t try to present my exhortations or encouragements as a method for finding answers the way Thies’s point suggests (“for those who have yet to have their questions answered it may seem patronizing”). If anything, I think my argument is that when we reform our questioning alongside Scripture, a posture of waiting will determine all of our seeking and exploring. (I devote several pages (117ff) to the theme explicitly.) “Answers” cannot be demanded or grasped; they must be given and received, and it may not be until we finally see face-to-face that the anxious toil of working the intellectual ground around us finally comes to an end and we can enter into the rest we long for.