This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Defender of the Faith?

Philip Jenkins wrote this great book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died.  I got one big thing out of this book.  It is that Christianity is more harmed than helped by alliances with empires.  It is those who make of themselves protectors of Christians who ultimately do the most damage to Christianity. “Looking at the sweep of Christian history, we are often reminded of… the foolishness of associating faith with any particular state or social order” (p. 260). 
Christianity’s alliance with Rome made the church automatically suspect among the countries to the east that were Rome’s enemies.  Whenever the church endorsed a regime, it was the church that suffered when that regime fell, as all regimes do.  At one point the church was even close to allying with the Mongols; but even the whiff of such an alliance made it suspect when the Mongols were finally rebuffed (pp. 121-124).
Not only that, but the church has had to bear the blame for the atrocities of the governments it cozied up to and often apologized and made excuses for.  This is true even today.  Christians are now persecuted in places like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt because they were  protected by dictators who were overthrown. 
So when Presidential candidates make a point of stressing what good Christians they are, and how they will defend Christianity, it is very dangerous.  Christianity is already overly associated with the West and its values and policies.  To have a President asserting himself as Christianity’s defender and protector will only make things more difficult for Christians around the world.  People will associate Christianity with America, and Christians will have to suffer even more over things that America does.  This situation will only be made worse if the President carries out his promises to escalate the use of military violence and torture.  The persecution of Christians will be ratcheted up.
It is one thing for Christians to be persecuted for their faith.  This is something the church has often faced, and which God has always blessed.  But when Christians are victimized because of their association with the policies and atrocities of a particular secular State?  That is something else.  That leads to the death of the church.  
There were once thriving Christian communities across Asia.  Most of them are gone now.  Often these communities were wiped out because they were affiliated with governments, leaders, empires, and States that were perceived by the local people as enemies.  

When someone’s family is killed by an American drone strike, do we really want people taking revenge on the local Christian population?  If we have a President who has proclaimed himself Christianity’s advocate, this will happen more and more.

Monday, February 8, 2016

If You Die Before You Die Then You Won’t Die When You Die.

Above the gateway of an Orthodox Christian monastery on Mt. Athos is inscribed the epigram: “If You Die Before You Die Then You Won’t Die When You Die.”  Here we find a basic confession of the spiritual life.  It needs a bit of unpacking because taken literally the sentence makes no sense.  It is more like a koan, designed to short-circuit our ordinary mind and drive it to a different way of understanding.  
Moving to a different way of understanding is the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, which we translate, somewhat inadequately,  as “repentance.”  Metanoia literally means having a new mind or coming to a different way of thinking.  This little slogan is designed to force us to think differently.  It nudges us along towards some other kind of mind.
The mind we are encouraged to grow into is one in which words are taken less literally, and more symbolically and metaphorically.  Indeed, the movement out of the literal interpretation and towards a broader and deeper way of seeing, is what the motto is trying to inspire.  This growth enables us to perceive deeper truth than what can be described merely literally.
First, I want to look at how the saying uses the word “you.”  We see that the word “you” means three different things.  The “you” of “if you die” refers to the ego-centric, personality-driven, “fallen” self, what Paul calls the “flesh” (probably because it is so bound to our physical senses and reasoning), or the “old self.”  This “you” is the normal, superficial, ordinary self of our everyday experience.  It doesn’t know it, but this self is blind, lame, limited, deaf, and all but dead, conditioned and controlled by the structures of time, materiality, personality, habit, and social convention.  Most humans live their entire lives unaware that there is any self other than this ego-self. 
The second “you,” of “before you die,” refers to our physical organism, the biological entity that is our material-temporal body.  Together with the ego-self, this is the “you” that most of us understand to be who we are.  The “you” at the end of the saying once again refers us back to our physical bodies: “when you die.”
The saying also has a third “you.”  This appears in the beginning of the second half: “then you won’t die.”  Here, “you” refers to a deeper, higher, broader, more inclusive, universal, and integrated Self, of which we are normally largely unaware.  The first stage of spiritual awakening is always the dawning awareness, or at least the suspicion, that we have this other Self.  This other “you” is our essence-Self.  The apostle Paul refers to it in Galatians as “Christ living in me.”
The grammar of the sentence does not make sense unless we postulate this third “you” beyond the normal way we think of ourselves.  Even if we do wrap our heads around the idea that there is a part of us that can “die” before our physical bodies perish, that there remains a “you” that will not ever die is unintelligible unless we imagine yet a third way of talking about the self, one that is not limited to what we normally think.  After the first half of the sentence, both earlier “yous,” the ego-self and the physical body, are said to have died.  So we are given a choice of dismissing the sentence as nonsense, or entertaining the possibility of yet another “you,” another Self, within us. 
Looking at that monastic motto, then, we see that it means: 

If you die —   If your ego-self dies 
Before you die — prior to the death of your physical body,
Then you won’t die — then your essence-Self will not die
When you die.  — when your physical body dies.

Briefly put, then: we must let go of our ego-self so that our essence-Self will emerge and remain.  If our ego-self dies, our essence-Self will never die.
Of course, the darker side of this is that if our ego-self doesn’t die, and we remain identified with it, we never become conscious of our essence-Self at all.  In other words, if we don’t die before we die, then we just… die.  

In order to live forever, then, it is necessary to identify with something deeper and more real within us, which means acquiring a broader and higher perspective than that provided by our small, limited, conditioned ego-self.  And the only way to discover this and verify it is to allow your ego-self to die, which is the process called repentance, or metanoia.