Archives For UVA

Guyton-bookMorgan has been hounding my ass for weeks for a review of his new book, How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity and I still have not done it. I’ve reviewed other books for other websites. I’ve written blog posts several times a week and composed sermons. But I haven’t been able to write a review of Morgan’s book. Since he sent me a galley of it this fall, his book became for me like the girlfriend you don’t know how to break up with because you don’t want to hurt her.

And by that, I don’t mean that his book sucks. It doesn’t.

I think it’s because I care for Morgan too much (and I respect him too much) to do a shitty job of it. I’ve had book reviewers block. And we have a history together that is more substantial than the rather spare amount of time we’ve spent together.

So it’s about time to do a quick review for you of Morgan’s book.

A handful of years ago I was asked by Beth Downs, the Ms McGonagall of the United Methodist Church, to lead a class on preaching to a group of ordination candidates. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in the classroom anymore than I do in the pulpit but I said yes. My first session, attempting to be too clever by half, before opening with prayer I opened with a scripture reading. An auspicious one: Numbers 22. For all these earnest preachers of the word, who elbowing each other out of the way to impress members of the Board of Ministry, I offered a reading where an ass- a donkey- is able proclaim a word from the Lord.

I was met with confused, silent, stares. Except one- a nasally sort of chuckle. I looked over towards it: ‘Morgan?’ I asked ‘Is that you?’

I first Morgan Guyton when we were first years- not freshman- at the University of Virginia during a gathering of the First Year Fellowship, which was a college extension of Young Life’s para-church ministry. I’d only become a Christian maybe 18 months before coming to college and, having found the local Methodist churches ‘sleepy’ at best, I’d decided to check out First Year Fellowship. Initially, it seemed awesome. It was on campus. Everyone was my age,  looked like me, thought like me. It was led by a few charismatic older students armed with acetate overhead sheets, acoustic guitars, and Jesus in my pants praise songs.

In hindsight I can say that First Year Fellowship was a tribe of evangelical students of a particular Calvinistic strain but I did not have such categories at the time. I only knew after a few gatherings that I did not belong. The performance of my worship was not demonstrative enough. My certainty was short on such things as substitutionary atonement. My questions about unbelievers, my gay friends, and prayer were not welcomed. My pushback was push-backed. The Christianese slang and idioms felt ill-fitting on me. Having come to the faith in a United Methodist New Church Start, Woodlake UMC, a seeker sensitive church,  I was not prepared for Christians who took their beliefs seriously enough to stigmatize other Christians.

The usually unspoken exclusion I felt at First Year Fellowship eventually kick started a long running commentary in my head that I was not a good enough Christian which inexorably led to unproductive and even shaming attempts on my part to justify myself before God rather than rest in Christ’s justification of me.

What I know now was that I was a victim of a form of toxic Christianity. And it was, toxic. It made me feel physically ill. It made me ashamed, physically and emotionally, of who I thought I was as a Christian.

I met Morgan at that First Year Fellowship- at a fall retreat, actually, in which we all went skinny dipping, and Morgan sports a bear suit underneath his clothes so you can imagine that left an impression- and my first impression of Morgan was how I thought he’s so completely different from me but the two of us are completely different from this group. The thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common with this gathering of Christians. Neither of us belonged.

I count it is a source of pride that, though Morgan and I agree on very little or, rather, we disagree on much, he and I were the only two disqualified by the Young Life Organization from being leaders of First Year Fellowship. Given my experience, I’m not sure why I applied- whether it was masochism or infiltration. I was blackballed because I would not concede to my interviewer that his deformed and useless hand had been ordained by God for a higher purpose.

I’m not sure why Morgan was rejected, but I suspect it’s because, as a Christian, he can be hard to take. During First Year Fellowship gatherings, Morgan would frequently raise his hand and stand to share what Jesus had compelled him to do or say, or whom he was called to love, this week, or what he was wrestling with in the Spirit at present. Honestly, listening to Morgan in those moments was exhausting.

In other words, Morgan was the kind of guy that made you realize why people wanted to kill Jesus.

There’s only so much urgency of faith that sinners and almost Christians can tolerate before they respond with a cross.

If Morgan wears his heart for God on his sleeve, then there’s a piece of it on every page of his book, which is better understood by the title he originally gave to it Mercy Not Sacrifice, for Morgan’s refrain is the prophets’ own reminder that God does not desire the practices and gestures by which we try to ameliorate our situation vis a vis God rather God wants a beautiful, poured out life from us. In How Jesus Saves Us, Morgan uses his own story, revealing some of his own saddness, insecurities, and shame along the way, to expose the ways in which our piety and practices mask the very sorts of ideologies from which Jesus has already saved us.

I’ve no doubt that Morgan’s book will be life-giving because his oddness in a way all those years ago helped to save me from the self-loathing that self-justification inevitably begets. He was part of God’s antidote for me of the toxic Christianity which had infected my newly chosen faith.

If prophets are not welcome in their hometowns, it’s understandable that we’d be uncomfortable at times with them in our pulpits. I’m not sure I possess the truthfulness, spiritual energy, or courage of my conviction to ever want to be a part of Morgan’s congregation (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I’m grateful that Morgan is a leader in my Church with a capital C and that though this book his voice will afflict many with the right kind of nightmares.

Buy the book here.

david_bentley_hartMy former teacher and current muse, David Bentley Hart, will be lecturing on his new book, The Experience of God, at UVA on March 25. As a way of rejoicing, here’s an essay by Father Robert Barron which is inspired by Hart’s work in his most recent two books. If anyone wants to road trip down to Cville with me to hear DBH, let me know.

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word “God” in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

 

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all.

The Russian cosmonaut from the 1950’s who, having pierced the heavens, confidently asserted, “I have found no God,” was speaking so much nonsense, though he would have been right had he changed the “G” from large case to small. This is why the new atheists and their army of disciples are committing a category mistake when they confidently assert that scientific advances cause religion to retreat onto ever-shrinking intellectual turf or when they stridently challenge religious people to produce “evidence” for God. No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God.

So how do we get at the true God? Hart clarifies that real religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all. We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don’t have to exist. The computer on which I am typing these words indeed exists, but its existence is not self-explanatory, for it depends on a whole range of causes, both extrinsic and intrinsic. It exists only because an army of manufacturers, designers, technicians, etc. put it together and only because its molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure sustains it. Furthermore, it is situated in an environment that conditions it in numberless ways. The technical philosophical term for this caused and conditioned existence is “contingency.”

Now a moment’s meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don’t explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist. This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word “God.” I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn’t say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

David Bentley Hart’s book helps us to see that the question of God — the true God — remains the most beguiling of all.