The UMC at the Valley of Elah

During the later stages of the controversy over Donatism in Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo took a major role. It is a long and complicated story and not without controversy still today, but I wanted to share some of Augustine’s words that remain relevant to the church today. While writing in response to an opponent in the controversy, he had these words for his allies in the church.

These things, brethren, I would have you retain as the basis of your action and preaching with untiring gentleness: love men, while you destroy errors; take of the truth without pride; strive for the truth without cruelty. Pray for those whom you refute and convince of error. — Answer to Petilian the Donatist

In my branch of the universal church, United Methodism, we need these words.

We have within our denomination two groups who are convinced of the truth. We stand arrayed like the Israelites and Philistines on the hills surrounding the Valley of Elah. In our struggle, each side believes itself to be the bearer of the banner of truth. Each side has come to this conviction with earnest, thoughtful, and prayerful effort. Neither side holds its convictions loosely, and for most on both sides those convictions are closely tied to a whole network of beliefs and convictions that are central to their entire faith. Neither could easily set aside their convictions on the issue of human sexuality without unraveling many other beliefs. The roots of their convictions are deep and tangled up with much else that defines their faith.

Both sides are tempted to see and portray the other side not just as wrong but as evil, led astray by devil and in the legions of the anti-Christ. Both are tempted to see the other as not just in error but as the enemy of God. Both are tempted to attribute to the other all manner of vices and dark motives.

Standing separate from these two groups, a third group calls for an end to the struggle. They do not appear to see how deeply rooted the convictions that drive the two contending sides are and appear to assume that they can be laid aside as easily as a person takes off a baseball cap and puts on another. They imagine a unity in the church that could only come if the contending sides both admit that what they hold as truth is not truth but mere opinion and not essential to what it means to be a Christian.

Maybe the image I have drawn here is not right, but it is how the situation appears to me. It is not a new moment in the life of the church, which has sadly always been rent asunder by disagreements, heresy, and sin. And this morning I turn to the wisdom of Augustine to help me in this moment.

I do not think either side can or will lay down their banners and return to their homes. And so I pray that we might hear and heed the words of Augustine until the Lord brings our church through this crisis. Act and preach and speak with gentleness. Love those with whom we contend. Set aside both pride and cruelty. Pray for those we believe are in error.

I am not wise enough to see how God will lead us through this. If I am in error, I pray the Lord will break me gently. If I am in the right, I pray my words and speech honor Christ.

Behind enemy lines

The very first time I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I remember being deeply taken with the following observation:

Christianity thinks that a Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied terrority — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Lewis was an Englishman writing during World War II. As I read these lines, I am reminded both of that war and of the legends of the English hero Robin Hood, who fought against an evil king until the rightful king returned to claim his throne.

Our metaphors might be different and our frames of reference are not those that Lewis used. I’ve worked a bit on mapping this image onto the Star Wars movies, which also feature a rebel movement within a vast evil empire. Whatever metaphors we use, though, I find the basic idea compelling.

To me, this basic idea — that the universe is in rebellion against its Creator — creates a lot of tension with the way we often think about the state of the world and our place within it. It is a rich and creative tension that calls us into forms of life and ways of being Christian that do not sit easy with cultural Christianity, but it also has risks. This “fighting religion” view of Christianity can lead us into grimness and its own kind of darkness. We must be careful of that even as we recall that the world is not as God intends it to be. It is bound by a dark power, and as servants of the light we are unavoidably at odds with it.

Are we playing at religion?

I’ve started reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again. It is a dated book, but only in ways that are not terribly important. I find it a wonderful book. To the extent I can, I am going to share some reflections from reading through it, perhaps as a way to restore life to this moribund blog.

To begin, a quotation from the first section of the book:

God is the only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. … Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing at religion.

One thing that strikes me about so much religiosity I encounter is how little it regards the “terror” side of the above equation. In the church, we seem unaware of the the fact that if God is ultimate goodness, and expects us to be good, we are in a bad way.

In his book, Lewis begins with two foundational claims. First, that we as human beings believe that there is such as thing as right and wrong. We have the sense that there is a way that other people ought to behave toward us — not out of mere social convention but because it is “the right thing to do” — and we are upset when people do what is wrong. Lewis’ second point is that we ourselves often fail to act toward others in the very ways we believe they ought to act toward us. In other words, we believe in right and wrong, and we often do what is wrong.

Of course, we often justify our wrong acts. We come up with lots of reasons why it is okay to cheat a particular person or institution, why it is okay to lie, even why it is okay to commit violence against someone else, but we do not rest easy in our justifications. Indeed, the fact that we feel the need to justify such actions is often all the proof we need that we know we have done wrong. You do not need to offer excuses for why you do the right thing, after all.

Lewis argues that the source of this sense of right and wrong  is God and this sense is itself evidence of God. (You can read the book to get the full argument. I am not doing it justice in this short summary.) At this point in the book, Lewis is not arguing for a Christian conception of God. He is merely arguing that we bear within us testimony to existence of a right and wrong that is beyond human creation and above our control. The vast majority of human beings throughout time have shared the conviction that there is a moral order, that a god or gods expect humans to live in accord with it, and that there are consequences for failing to do so. We long for those consequences for other people. We often reject the notion that they should apply to us. We imagine standing before God and inexplicably are not the least bit weak in the knees.

All of this leads me to ask, “How many of us in the church today are still merely playing at religion?”

How many of us have ever seriously contemplated the fact that if God stands resolutely against the wicked, he stands resolutely against us?

Sure, we have all our excuses. My wickedness, my selfishness, my sinfulness is not as bad as someone else. It’s not like I am Adolph Hitler. Or the wrongs I do are justified by some harm I have suffered or some defect that I cannot control. In the end, we tell ourselves, if God is good then that means he will ignore my sins even as he punishes the sins of others, the ones who really deserve it.

We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of God and refuse to the possibility that there might be some terror involved in coming face-to-face with a holy and good God.

We who remember what it felt like to dread having to confess to our parents some petty childhood wrong we had done think we will stand at ease in the light of God’s goodness without the least bit of worry or fear.

As Lewis says, we are playing at religion.

It is for good reason that the Bible tells us that the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of God. We should be afraid. We know our own hearts. Only if we have known the grace of holy fear of God can we truly know the grace of the relief and comfort from those fears. Yes, I am paraphrasing John Newton. I hope next time I sing his hymn, I do not gloss too lightly over that line: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved.”