No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

“But you have a choice…”

Once again I have had a conversation about sexual ethics that goes something like this. 

  • I articulate a confessional Christian understanding of right sexual behavior, i.e., that marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman, and that those for whom marriage isn’t an appropriate option are called to celibacy. 
  • My conversation partner then tells me that celibacy is a fate worse than death and expresses outrage that I would condemn others to this terrible way of life. 
  • I reply that as a celibate person myself I am insulted by this way of characterizing my life, that celibacy is quite survivable, thank you, and that indeed the New Testament presents celibacy as the most honorable form of Christian life. 
  • We may go back and forth a bit about what the Bible really says, about whether celibacy is honorable or horrible, whether being celibate is the equivalent of living without love (it isn’t), etc.  But eventually, this other person will say to me, as if it’s the clinching argument: “Yes, but you have a choice.”  The implication is that I, as a heterosexual person, am free to choose whether to marry or not to marry, and that this somehow delegitimizes everything I’ve said about the value of celibacy for homosexual people, who have no choice.

Which makes me begin inwardly grinding my teeth in frustration.  But by that point, the conversation is usually so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to make a clear argument.

So here’s the answer I ought to give at those moments.  (I’m going to set aside for now the question of the extent to which any choice is ever free, and how the liberty of secondary causes interacts with God’s providential care.  Save that for another time.)

First, yes, I have had a choice.  Twice in my life I have been close to getting married, and each time I walked away because I became convinced that marriage would have been disobedient to God’s will.  In each case, I was dating a man who was at best spiritually immature (in one case, perhaps not really a Christian at all).  If I had been truly discerning and obedient, I wouldn’t have dated either of them in the first place, but I believed that I was in love, and yes, love can be blind.  At least I saw the truth before I made the decision to get married.  So yes, I had a choice – the same choice that confronts anyone for whom marriage would not be obedient.  I could choose to obey or to disobey.  I chose obedience, which is the same choice I ask other people to make. 

Second, no, I haven’t had a choice.  After those two early relationships, I fell seriously in love with a godly man, whom I wanted to marry.  He didn’t want to marry me.  That’s the nature of marriage: it needs to be chosen by two people, not just one.  This is not a consumer decision, as if spouses could be ordered from a catalog to fit one’s timing and needs and desires.  Most of the single people I know didn’t make a decision that they really, really wanted to be single.  Singleness is the situation within which we find ourselves for a whole host of reasons, some of which have been under our control, some of which have not been; we’re called to be obedient within that situation.  The Bible does not tell us that we only need to be chaste if we’re single by choice.  Singleness that’s unchosen must still be obedient, and yes, like many single people of no-matter-what sexual orientation, I know about that.

Third, yes, I have had a choice.  In the years since I wanted to be married, I have listened to God, and obeyed God, and come to a place of peace with God’s call on my life.  I’ve been able by His grace to consent to the choice that God made for me, which is indeed a way of making a choice of my own.  At this point in my life, I have come to be grateful that I didn’t get my way many years ago.  I have surrendered.  Again, this is the same choice I ask other people to make, though I recognize that it usually takes years and years to make it.  Sometime the things we freely chose once are now the source of our pain, and sometimes the things we didn’t choose at all become the source of our blessing.     

Fourth, since when are we only ethically responsible for situations that we’ve chosen?  Most of life’s ethical challenges happen precisely in situations that no one would choose – situations of trial, of temptation, of pain, of hard choices.  Should you be exempt from the commandment to be faithful to your spouse because his Alzheimer’s was not your choice?  Should you be exempt from the commandment not to steal because your financial troubles were not your choice?  Should you be exempt from the commandment not to kill because you didn’t choose to feel threatened or angry?  Of course not.   All of us are always dealing with a mix of things we have chosen and things we have not.  God requires obedience in all of it.

 

 

The Christian Reformed Church: A Familiar Trajectory?

When I saw R. Scott Clark’s blog posts about some recent Banner articles (here: http://goo.gl/AC204o and here: http://goo.gl/NEKoUi), I decided I had better get caught up.  What I’ve discovered is a very discouraging fiasco.  Why is it that confessional Reformed folks are so often entranced by liberalism?  Why does the surrender of ethical and confessional standards look so appealing to people raised in the CRC?

I know something about trying to live out a Reformed identity without recognizing the normative value of our confessional tradition.  Just over a year ago, I left the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination I had loved and served since 1987 and in which all my pastoral work has been exercised.  The PCUSA has grown more liberal in many ways over the past decades, and it was becoming more and more difficult for me to remain a member of this denomination with integrity.  In the summer of 2012, I transferred my ordination from the PCUSA to a new denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  (Our website is here: http://eco-pres.org/.) 

The PCUSA likes to think of itself as “a big tent,” in which a variety of theological approaches and moral views are accepted.  The problem is that such “tolerance” only works for those who think that matters of theology and ethics are relative and contextual, in which case it makes perfect sense to be accepting of those with whom one disagrees.  The only people who are not welcome in the big tent are those who reject a relative view of theology and ethics, who believe that the Bible and our Reformed confessions continue to speak authoritatively to questions of faith and practice and that the denomination should be held accountable to those standards.  The relativists will say to such non-relativists, “Of course you’re welcome here, but you need to be as accepting of us as we are of you,” refusing to recognize that requiring non-relativists to become relativists isn’t really accepting their position on anything at all. 

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and educated at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary.  I became a member of the Calvin College faculty in 1999, and in 2003, when I became the college’s Dean of the Chapel (a position that no longer exists), I was ordained into the ministry of the CRC (while still retaining my Presbyterian ordination).  I’m part of the CRC.  But the current state of conversation in the CRC about theology, about cultural engagement, and specifically about sexual ethics exasperates me, because I hear us making the same mistakes that the PCUSA made before us. 

Some of my friends in the CRC seem to think that this would be a good thing.  They speak to me with wistful longing about the “freedom” of the PCUSA.  This is a romantic vision that is unrelated to the truth.  The PCUSA is not a place of freedom, but a place of chaos, lacking any clear direction, and losing members at an alarming rate.   It is a denomination without a spiritual or theological center that is unequipped either to offer sustenance to its members or to proclaim the gospel to the world.  There are faithful pastors and congregations within the PCUSA, many of whom are my dear friends, but they are working in a difficult mission field, and their situation should not be envied. 

The CRC has resources in our confessional heritage to keep us from falling into this same situation.  We need to regroup around them.  As long as we insist on defining the Reformed tradition as nothing more than “engagement with culture” we are destined to end up following the PCUSA in its descent into irrelevance.  The Reformed tradition is not simply a posture of engagement toward the world (which is what passes for the Kuyperian vision in many parts of the CRC).  It is a theological and confessional tradition that has real, objective doctrinal and ethical content on which we must insist.  The Banner should be a place where we read thoughtful articles about the meaning of that tradition, perhaps even articles that disagree with one another about exactly what our confessional commitment require of us.  But there should be no place in The Banner for articles that simply call for discarding our theological tradition.  Let people who advocate such positions publish in one of the PCUSA magazines instead.    

 

“Our Gaze Is Submarine”

I just bought a book of villanelles. I think it’s a fun form, and as I was reading a few I remembered that once, a long time ago, I tried writing one myself.  Here it is  The main image is shamelessly borrowed from T. S. Eliot, but then Eliot said that poets ought to steal, so he shouldn’t object.  It isn’t a finished poem, but I think it’s a good beginning.  

I stopped writing poetry when I came to teach at Calvin.  Make of that what you will.  One of my goals for the next few years is to start writing it again.  Sharing a few efforts here might help me do that.   

 

LIGHT

“Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward

And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.

We see the light but see not whence it comes.

O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!

T. S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”

 

Our gaze is submarine.  Our eyes look up

And see the fractured paths of blue and green.

We see the light but see not whence it comes.

 

We live immersed in evidence of what

Exists beyond this underlit demesne

In which our gaze is submarine.  Look up!

 

No one has seen the Father but the Son,

Our holy periscope to the unseen.

We see the light but see not whence it comes.

 

Light is reflected through all Light has done.

We are distracted by reflections’ sheen.

Our gaze is submarine.  Our eyes look up,

 

As do a puppy’s, hoping for some crumbs

Beneath the table.  We can’t see the feast.

We feed on light but see not whence it comes.

 

We kindle little lights to offer Love

And place them on an altar newly clean.

Our gaze still submarine, our eyes look up

And see the light, though still not whence it comes.

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Malala Yousafzai – Evidence of Grace

My transcript from Jon Stewart’s interview with Malala Yousafzai on October 8:

JS: “Where did your love for education come from?”
MY: “We are human beings, and this is part of our human nature, that we don’t learn the importance of anything until it’s snatched from our hands. And when in Pakistan, when we were stopped from going to school, at that time I realized that education is very important. And education is the power for women. And that’s why the terrorists are afraid of education. They do not want women to get education because then women would become more powerful.” . . . .

JS: “You spoke out publicly. What gave you the courage?”
MY: “You know, my father was a great encouragement for me, because he spoke out for women’s rights, he spoke out for girls’ education. And at that time I said that, why should I wait for someone else? Why should I be looking to the government, the army, that they would help us? Why don’t I raise my voice? Why don’t we speak up for our rights? The girls of Swat, they spoke up for their rights. . . . I raised my voice on every platform that I could. And I said I need to tell the world what is happening in Swat. And I need to tell the world that Swaat is suffering from terrorism, and we need to fight against terrorism.”

JS: “When did you realize the Taliban had made you a target?”
MY: “I just could not believe it. . . . I was not worried about myself that much; I was worried about my father. Because we thought that the Taliban are not that much cruel that they would kill a child, because I was 14 at that time. But then later on I started thinking about that, and I used to think that a Talib would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, If he comes, what would you do, Malala? Then I would reply myself that, Malala, just take a shoe and hit him. But then I said, If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education. Then I said, I’ll tell him how important education is, and that I even want education for your children as well. And I’ll tell him, That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”

The video of the extended interview should soon be posted at TheDailyShow.com

And here’s Malala addressing the United Nations:

Aesthetics Chez Glinda

I’ve always been fascinated and appalled by this moment. And yet I do believe that Beauty is a mark of both the True and the Good. So why is this so obviously wrong?

Perhaps because the sort of beauty on offer is so shallow, so unrelated to the ontological beauty of allowing one’s truth and goodness to be perceptible.
Yet I’m afraid that what Glinda means by beauty is what most people mean by beauty. We all know what’s meant by the “beauty department” in a store or a “beauty magazine.” Does this mean that Glinda’s equation is what most people think when they’re told there’s a connection between the Beautiful, the True, and the Good? Scary, if true.

God’s “Homelike Loving”

Today in my intro theology class, we looked at this passage from Julian of Norwich:

“And at this same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual sight of his homelike loving.  I saw that he is all things good and comfortable to us for our help.  He is our clothing, for love wraps us and winds around us, hugs us and teaches everything, hangs about us — for tender love — so that he may never leave us .  . . . 

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hozelnut, lying in the palm of my had, and to my understanding it was round as any ball.  I looked upon it and thought: What may this be?  And I was answered generally this way: It is all that is made.  I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might fall into nothing because of its littleness.  And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always shall, for God loves it; and so all things have being through the love of God.” 

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Not What My Hands Have Done

In church this morning we sang a great old hymn by Horatius Bonar.  Some people might hear this as a depressing hymn about our powerlessness, but I find it very comforting.  I already know through hard experience that I’m powerless to be good.  I don’t have the will power, or the clarity of purpose, or the love of what’s good and true to pursue virtue with any consistency.  Left to myself, I will never be the sort of person I’m supposed to be.  Since that’s not news to me, I don’t find admitting it at all depressing.

But I always need again to hear that there is grace to carry me where I need to go.  “No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through,” and that strength is offered.  Therefore, “I rest on love divine.”  Given how messed up the world is, I’m grateful that I don’t need to depend on my own power to resist the darkness.  Given how messed up I am, I’m grateful that I’m not only accepted just as I am; I’m given strength to become something different.  

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Magnanimity – Hard to Say, Hard to Practice

I’m starting a big project on magnanimity, and it’s likely to come up a lot in what I write over the next year or so.  It’s not a word that we use a lot in everyday conversation, but it’s really fun to say once you get your tongue around it.  Whenever I talk about this virtue, I feel like Mr. Rogers:  Can you say mag-nan-im-ity?  

Naturally, I’ve come to the virtue of magnanimity via C. S. Lewis.  In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that contemporary education produces people who lack the integrating virtue of magnanimity to unite intellect and appetite.  Quoting the 12th-century monk Alain de Lille, Lewis says, “The head rules the belly through the chest.”  Our intellect or reason (the head) governs our appetites (the belly) by means of disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire, i.e., magnanimity (the chest).  In the absence of such disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire, the intellect doesn’t have a prayer of controlling our appetites.  Knowing what’s true isn’t enough.  We have to find the truth compelling.  We have to be drawn to the truth.   

Now any virtue that’s about the discipline and ordering of emotion and desire must be primarily an aesthetic act.  Since theological aesthetics are my thing, this is what especially interests me about magnanimity.  Lewis doesn’t say this, but I don’t think he needs to.  The classic definition of beauty is “the object of desire” or “that which attract and draws us.”  So a virtue that’s about desire is necessarily about beauty.  Magnanimity is essentially training yourself to experience truth and goodness as beautiful and desirable.

So how do we train ourselves to do this?  By means of imagination – also an aesthetic act.  In his essay “Bluspels and Flanlansferes” Lewis says that the reason deals with truth, but the imagination is “the organ of meaning.”  It’s not enough to know what’s true.  We have to be able to see the significance of that truth, to imagine what living it out might be like.  We can’t move from one way of being to another without imagining the new thing first.  Imagination is the only way we have to know what’s not yet actual, just potential.  (I have a chapter on this in Loves Me, Loves Me Not – the chapter on imagination.)   So the truth that we understand and know needs to be imaginatively appropriated in order to have control over our appetites and actions.  

And in order for that control to be lasting, the imaginative vision has to be habitual, stable, and ordered – not some impulsive dream that entrances for a few moments.  Magnanimity is the virtue of using our imaginations to embrace a vision of virtuous life as desirable and beautiful.  When that vision is really compelling, then the reason can control our appetites, but when the vision is missing, our appetites just take over.  

The frightening corollary: those of us in the Church who are committed to passing on the great Christian tradition to the next generation need to do more than teach what’s true.  We also need to present that truth in a way that is so beautiful, so desirable, so enticing that it captures people’s imaginations, and not just for a few minutes during a sermon but for the rest of their lives.  

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Which is why I quote C. S. Lewis so often.  He did this for me.  He continues to do this for me.  But I find the challenge of doing it for other people pretty daunting.