Monday, November 18, 2013

The Desert and the Real: Part 2

“…now we see as if in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 12

Here I continue, and finish, Part 2 of explanation of the ascetic life, which sprung from the story of Fr. Maxime. Part 1 is HERE.


Having been driven to the desert, the choice to go there is, itself, a renunciation of the lesser reality of material things. The favor for spiritual things over material things is affirmed in a life defined by a constant habitual rhythm of contemplative prayer. It is spiritual things that are contemplated in contemplative prayer, of course. The willful poverty (part of the monastic vows) and ascetic lifestyle of the monk, particularly one in solitude in the wilderness, is a practical extension of that analogical choice to listen to the Voice that drives a man into the desert. Do note that, in the short video of the chanting from Abbaye du Thoronet (there was a link to this video at the end of Part 1), you can’t see from where the voice is coming.

“…the ‘unreality’ of material things is only relative to the greater reality of spiritual things…When we let go of [material things] we begin to appreciate them as they really are. Only then can we begin to see God in them. Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road of dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.” - from Thomas Merton's Thoughts in Solitude

*Note: from here on out, all quotes will be from Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, unless otherwise noted. Thomas Merton, by the way, was a Trappist monk in Kentucky in the mid to late 1900’s.

Historically, the prayer life of the ascetic, which Merton refers to as “dark contemplation,” is bathed in this idea of renunciation of sensory, created reality. The “darkness” of contemplative prayer is not intended to be the “darkness” through which the worldly wander. The “darkness” of contemplation for the ascetic is associated with the awe, wonder, and mystery of the cloud that surrounded Elijah when he fled to the desert after confronting Jezebel. This is the same cloud that descended upon the completed Temple in Jerusalem. The idea of contemplative prayer is to see the face of God, to have an encounter with the Uncreated. In this sense, the “darkness” of contemplation is the pillar of fire by which Israel made it’s way through the desert.

The image depicted above is a crayon coloring I did as I traveled through the desert on the way from Bilbao to Barcelona, Spain while studying abroad in my fourth year of architecture school. I had much of the idea of this blog post in mind as I did that drawing. What Merton refers to as renunciation of sense and visibility very strongly corresponds to what I meant by “Silence” in the title or caption. Just as the darkness of contemplation is not the absence of light, Silence is not the absence of sound. Silence is penitent quieting of the self, heard in the spirit of the monk’s vows in the first place and seen in the image of the dry barrenness of the desert bathed in sunlight and grace.

The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
” – 1 Kings 19: 11-13


“Detachment is not insensibility…If we are without human feelings we cannot love God in the way in which we are meant to love Him – as men….The control of emotion by self-denial tends to mature and perfect our human sensibility. Ascetic discipline does not spare our sensibility…We must suffer. But the attack of mortification upon sense, sensibility, imagination, judgment and will is intended to enrich and purify them all. Our five senses are dulled by inordinate pleasure. Penance makes them keen, gives them back their natural vitality, and more. Penance clears the eye of conscience and of reason. It helps us think clearly, judge sanely. It strengthens the actions of our will. And Penance tones up the quality of our emotion…We must return from the desert like Jesus or St. John, with our capacity for feeling expanded and deepened, strengthened against the appeals of falsity, warned against temptation, great, noble, and pure.”

Again, the mad thirst of the desert forces a choice upon us. Because the desert is so explicitly a picture of what is not there, going to the desert is a completion (perfection) of our Christian walk. The desert becomes a picture of that for which the ascetic is truly grateful. The Christian is not grateful in the desert for worldly things, the things enjoyed by the Saducee within.

“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.”


“The grace of God, through Christ Our Lord, produces in us a desire for virtue which is an anticipated experience of that virtue. He makes us capable of ‘liking’ virtue before we fully possess it. Grace, which is charity, contains in itself all virtues in a hidden and potential manner, like the leaves of the branches of the oak hidden in the meat of an acorn…Habitual grace brings with it all the Christian virtues in their seed. Actual grace moves us to actualize these hidden powers and to realize what they mean: - Christ acting in us.”

The ascetic life is conceptually shaped by contemplation, by not doing anything (in every sense of the phrase “not doing anything.”). But for the desert fathers, renunciation of sense serves a bigger but rather pragmatic end: to, through penance, overcome despair and defeat and become more like Christ. Contemplation does not serve a purely intellectual end. Life in the desert is meant to be the fruition of virtue.

“Laziness and cowardice are two of the greatest enemies of the spiritual life…sooner or later, if we follow Christ we have to risk everything in order to gain everything. We have to gamble on the invisible and risk all that we can see and taste and feel. But we know the risk is worth it, because there is nothing more insecure than the transient world. ‘For this world as we see it is passing away’…Without courage we can never attain to true simplicity. Cowardice keeps us ‘double minded’ – hesitating between the world and God. In this hesitation, there is no true faith – faith remains and opinion.

“There is no neutrality between gratitude and ingratitude…if we do not love Him we show that we do not know Him. He is love…Our knowledge is perfected by gratitude…A man who truly responds to the goodness of God, and acknowledges all that he has received, cannot possibly be a half-hearted Christian. True gratitude and hypocrisy cannot exist together.”


“We are never certain, because we never quite give in to the authority of an invisible God. This hesitation is the death of hope. We never let go of those visible supports which, we well know, must one day surely fail us. And this hesitation makes true prayer impossible…”

We are driven to the desert, but the thirst found in the desert forces us to make a choice as to how we will quench it. We go to the desert to see what lies there, or we go to become the desert. The seed of our heart can remain closed, or the choice to go to the desert can be the seed splitting open to make room for the shoot to rise to life. Contemplative Silence is the barrenness of the desert. The monk doesn’t hear Silence; he becomes quiet. This is the death of the self. “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies…”

“If we know how great is the love of Jesus for us we will never be afraid to go to Him in all our poverty, all our weakness, all our spiritual wretchedness and infirmity. Indeed, when we understand the true nature of His love for us, we will prefer to come to Him poor and helpless. We will never be ashamed of our distress. Distress is to our advantage when we have nothing to seek but mercy…The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God’s love for us is in the appreciation of our own poverty in the light of His infinite mercy.”

Being bathed in the barrenness of the desert is a becoming of a self-portrait. By that, I mean to say that the desert becomes a self-portrait. The ascetic becomes what he sees of himself in the poverty of the desert. Need for God is part of what drives him there in the first place.

“Hope is the secret of true asceticism. It denies our own judgments and desires and rejects the world in its present state, not because either we or the world are evil, but because we are not in a condition to make the best of our own or the world’s goodness. But we rejoice in hope. We enjoy created things in hope. We enjoy them not as they are in themselves but as they are in Christ – full of promise. For the goodness of all things is a witness to the goodness of God and His goodness is a guarantee of His fidelity to His promises. He has promised us a new heaven and a new earth, a risen life in Christ. All self-denial that is not entirely suspended from His promise is something less than Christian.”

The desert becomes a reminder of God’s promise. The fullness of hope is present in the dry wasteland. When the ascetic closes his eyes in contemplative prayer, the fleeing from this world and the renunciation of sense becomes an expression of the not yet. In faith, he opens his eyes to heavenly virtue. The desert becomes a picture of this opening, and the opening occurs in the desert. Life in the desert, then, becomes a picture of life as a pilgrim in tents blowing in the wind of the Spirit.

“My Lord, I have no hope but in Your Cross. You, by your humility, and sufferings and death, have delivered me from all vain hope. You have killed the vanity of the present life in Yourself, and have given me all that is eternal in rising from the dead…Why should I cherish in my heart a hope that devours me – the hope for prefect happiness in this life – when such hope, doomed to frustration, is nothing but despair? My hope is in what the eye has never seen. Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards…Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources. If I trust You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.”

The Desert and the Real: Part 1

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality…When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve…The death by which we enter into life is not an escape from reality but a complete gift of ourselves which involves total commitment to reality. It begins by renouncing the illusory reality which created things acquire when they are seen only in their relation to our own selfish interests.
- from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude


I grew up as a protestant mainline evangelical. I am Christian, and to this day a practicing evangelical, but I am by no means completely sold out to my protestant evangelical roots. For a while now, I have been having an ongoing conversation with a very good friend of mine, who is much more evangelically evangelical than myself, on Catholicism. I’m not so sure he would say Catholics in general aren’t Christian, but his attitude towards Catholicism is much less amicable than mine. As part of that conversation, he sent me THIS LINK with a note saying he didn’t really get it. Upon questioning, he didn’t get why someone would isolate himself like that while waiting on God.

This blog post, then, serves as an attempt on my part to try to explain, as best I can, what Fr. Maxime was doing and why. That doesn’t mean I’m an expert. This is merely my attempt at an explanation. I have engaged in some study of the desert fathers and the ascetic life, and I have also practiced contemplative prayer, partially, and however distantly, based on the teachings of the desert fathers. That, by no means, then, makes me an expert or “master.” It does, though, mean that I feel like I, at least to a degree, “get” what Fr. Maxime is doing. It also gives me some means to begin to try to help pass what I got onto my very good friend. This, as the title indicates, is Part 1. Part 2, meant to be read as a continuation of Part 1, can be found HERE.

First, I am aware that Fr. Maxime is neither Catholic nor a desert monk. I think the spirit, purpose, and history of the ascetic life in the wilderness is the same, regardless. I have studied and been attracted to the theosis of the Eastern Orthodox churches (to which Fr. Maxime belongs), so I suspect there are differences between what Fr. Maxime is practicing and the ascetic life of a Catholic monk. My conversation with my friend, however, is on Catholicism, so I plan to use Fr. Maxime’s story as a springboard for discussing some of the extraordinarily rich historical corners of the high church in general and of Catholicism in particular.


The history of the Christian ascetic life as we think of it today goes back to the monastic desert fathers who fled the threat of becoming Saducees in the cities of Constantinism in the late 4th century to early 5th century A.D. They fled Constantinism for the desert to remind them of their true home.

The Saducees believed that partnering with the power of Rome would bring the Messiah more quickly. Their selfish interests, their desires for worldly power and gain, were interwoven into the very fabric of their eschatology. With Constantine, the church became Rome. Suddenly, some of the men who were serious about imitating Christ were afraid of becoming Saducees.

“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it has no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit…” – from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

*Note: from here on out, all quotes will be from Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, unless otherwise noted. Thomas Merton, by the way, was a Trappist monk in Kentucky in the mid to late 1900’s.

As part of the rejection of the teachings of the Saducees, the lifestyle of these men who fled to the desert around the time of Constantine became known as that of an ascetic, known primarily for austerity, discipline, regular daily rhythms in harmony with nature, continuous prayer and worship, and a particular kind of Christian prayer that might be termed “contemplation.”

Stylite was the name that came to be taken by one of the offshoots of this ascetic life. They took the ascetic life in a bit of a different direction from the desert fathers, but the general purpose was the same. Click HERE for more information from Wikipedia on the Stylites in general (the tradition in which Fr. Maxime is participating). Click HERE for similar information from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

That is the tradition in which Fr. Maxime entered when he left prison, made a decision to go in a new direction, and took the vows of a monk. Click HERE for a much less watered down and more informative reporter’s story on Fr. Maxime (as compared to the yahoo story linked above).


The original reasons for fleeing to the desert, so to speak, are present in contemporary life, but having put on a new mask.

“…totalitarianiam…the murderous din of materialism…has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person…It is all very well to insist that man is a ‘social animal’ – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine…since faith is a matter of freedom and self-determination – the free receiving of a freely given gift of grace – man cannot assent to a spiritual message as long as his mind and heart are enslaved by automatism.”

Notably, when Paul said, “Give your all to what you do, as if working unto the Lord,” he was speaking to slaves. But, as I will touch on more, the ascetic life, if one chooses it, is one of penance. In other words, Merton is here taking the ascetic life to be a response to materialism, as opposed to working as a slave for the totalitarian machine. The monk’s vows, however, are not an angry rebellion against an inhuman, omnipresent materialistic Master. The ascetic is attempting to turn away, rather, from his own desire for the appeal for power that the totalitarian machine offers and presents to him.

“You look at the deserts today. What are they? The birthplace of a new and terrible creation, the testing-ground of the power by which man seeks to un-create what God has blessed. Today, in the century of man’s greatest technological achievement, the wilderness at last comes into its own. Man no longer needs God, and he can live in the desert on his own resources. He can build there his fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice. The glittering towns that spring up overnight in the desert are no longer images of the City of God, coming down from heaven to enlighten the world with the vision of peace….They are brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil upon the face of the wilderness, cities of secrecy…cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood, and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction.”

When Merton says “a new and terrible creation…by which man seeks to un-create what God has blessed,” he is referring to the nuclear bomb, which ended WWII. It was tested in the wilderness of the desert in the Western U.S. The “glittering towns” he refers to are ones like Las Vegas, whose growth into what we know it to be today WAS LARGELY DUE TO THE SCIENTISTS AND STAFF OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT.

These are the two indications of man’s completion of his modern project: his ability to create something out of nothing (so to speak), and his ability to destroy the entirety of his known world through one swift, powerful weapon of his own technological achievement. At the completion of the modern project, man and Satan have a meeting in the desert that is quite different from that of Christ and his adversary. Christ threw Satan into the wilderness to wander there then went there to overcome him. The ever-crafty Satan then used the allure man’s crafted images of his own power to lure man to the desert to become like him.

Having become like Satan, man, of his own resources and not only without God but in bold defiance of Him, “turned stones to bread” when he created his cities out of the nothing to him that was the desert. In my research on coming-to-fruition of the atomic bomb, I found that the scientists involved treated it with all the awe and veneration of a devoted worshipper taking a trip to the temple. Just as when Satan tempted Jesus with the idea of jumping off the roof of said temple, you get that feeling of a kid playing with fire for the first time. None of the scientists quite knew exactly what distance to keep between themselves and the bomb, and no one quite knew who would be how safe, or even what safety might mean in such circumstances. They knew they were playing with something that could rather swiftly wipe out all of creation as they knew it, and so it was treated, in kind, with appropriate awe and an air of mystery. But, from their confidence in their calculations, you also get the same sense of invincibility that Satan offered to Jesus, based on the scripture saying that not one of his bones will be broken. “’All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’”


“Can we watch the growth of these cities and not do something to purify our own hearts? When man and his money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere. Everywhere is desert. Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance and fight the adversary and purify his own heart in the grace of God.”

The ascetic life is like a continuous fast. Many men fast intermittently. If it is true, though, that the Devil was thrown into the desert, and that, by man’s own doing, the desert is now everywhere, then a continuously repentant life of thirsty fasting is appropriate. Extreme measures might sometimes be an appropriate response to extreme circumstances.

“That is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown into the ‘wilderness of upper Egypt’ to ‘wander in dry places.’ Thirst drives men mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence…So the man who wanders into the desert must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage.”

The madness of thirst makes the purpose of the choice to be in the desert explicitly obvious for the ascetic. He glimpses a taste of the madness of Satan in order to overcome him. The ascetic is driven to the desert, and the desert drives him to thirst. Our thirst becomes a question of where we quench it. And being driven to thirst means not asking where our thirst is quenched only when we chose to entertain the question. Our very bodies become a voice shouting in the wilderness. “Come, all who are thirsty…”

*Note: the image above is of the interior of the main chapel at ABBAYE DU THORONET (a former residence of Catholic monks who lead this ascetic life). There, THIS happened (enjoy the drink)…

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Thanks, But No Thanks

From 1 Peter 3: 21: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth now save us…”

Figures are always fleeting vestigial images of what made them appear. When you see a figure, then, it begs the question: OF what is it a figure?

A coin always has two sides. Those two sides bear the image of the head and foot of the fleeting vestigial image con-figured by the whole of the coin. The figure con-figured by the coin is not fleeing and vestigial because of the coins rusting away into oblivion. The figure is fleeing, because one side can never bear the whole image of the figure. We can only reflect upon one side at a time. The coin is vestigial, because our one sided reflection upon it serves as a didactic representation of the human condition.

The image on the visible side of the coin appears to us as an expression of the substance which composes the coin. But the truth is the image was first made to appear by means of an impression. This impression is made by an original of the image that stands outside of and beyond the coin, and from which many other coins can be formed. That original is the TEMPLate. Noah entered INTO the ark; we go INTO Christ through baptism.

A modern building is a configuring of modern man, with a modern plan of action. An ancient baptistery is a configuring of ancient man, with an ancient plan of action. Baptism is a configuring BY God, which reveals His plan (of salvation). The believer IS the figure.

A plan of a modern building has Nothing at its center. Modern man says, “I think, therefore I am.” An ancient plan as something in its center. In the center of an ancient baptistery is a baptismal font, of the Campidoglio is an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, of a room in the Parthenon is a statue of Athena. The existence of an ancient was not defined by his thinking. An ancient Greek was defined by his deeds; his actions left his legacy after he was gone.

The ancient Jewish man is not so simple and easy to read. There was Something at the center of the garden (a couple of trees, you may remember). The ancient Jew was also a man of action (unlike modern man). What occupied the center of the garden, however, inherently displaced man from the center of his world. The purpose, the end, of the Greek man’s glorious deeds, however was to give others something by which to remember him. The “telos” of his action was for his name to live beyond his short, fragile life. An ancient Greek man’s glorious deeds in politics or in military valor made him immortal, like a god.

Contemporary religion is a coin. The “heads” side bears the image of Calvinism. It is modern religion. “Faith alone” (Calvinism appears to me as the logical extension of current Lutheranism) does not refer to affirming ACTS of faith, like those of David in the STORIES of the Hebrew scriptures. I recently encountered the “tails” side of the coin in the Church of Christ. Think of something “Reformed”; the Church of Christ is probably opposed to it. Confusingly, the Church of Christ is not ancient. Only modern coins are in circulation these days.

Where Calvinism forcefully posits “faith alone”, the Church of Christ stresses obedience. Luther and the Calvinists interpret with doctrinal principles. The Church of Christ interprets facts at which they arrive from a rigorous and mechanical analysis of commands, examples, and necessary inferences (about a given topic). A Calvinist’s doctrinal principle belongs to a predestined believer. The “facts” at which the Church of Christ arrives are potentially agreed upon by any reasonable believer. Where a Calvinist’s sainthood is forever preserved and his justification is assured, the salvation of the believer in the Church of Christ depends on how much of himself he puts into it and on his ACTIONS. And last but not least, where a Calvinist’s baptism is “just a symbol,” baptism is apparently an absolutely necessary component of salvation in the Church of Christ. One is Reformed by a big, loosely defined “conversion experience;” one enters the Church of Christ through the act of baptism.

The images that appear on both sides of the coin are the result of impressions from the same God. Baptism is the revelation of one plan. The Baptized believer is con-figured by one God. I grew up in neither church (I mean “grew up” here both spiritually (so far) and physically), and I don’t really associate myself with either side of the coin. And yet, when I associated with the Church of Christ, I was expected to choose between those two sides of a particular fleeting and vestigial figurative coin that bears images that have been being formed by the sands of thousands of years.

More specifically, actually, I was told I was not saved, because I don’t bear the image of the believer on the Church of Christ side of the coin (figuratively speaking). Being told I am not saved initiated quite the journey for me. I printed out 160 pages of research on a wide variety of topics for a wide variety of reasons. I have dug deep into scripture in a very rigorous way, asking myself at every questioning step how or where the possible answers correspond to scripture.

Since being told I’m not saved, I have learned more about and intimately connected with more scripture than I ever have in that short of a period of time. I would also say that, as a result of my time with the Church of Christ, I have taken my giving “every effort” to a whole new level. I am giving my whole self to Christ, over an extended period of time, in a way that I never have before, not only by my action or inaction, but by my desire to commune with and get to know God’s son through His Word. I truly believe that, for these reasons, God lead me to The Church of Christ. So, both to God and the Church of Christ, thank you. I also truly and genuinely am thankful to the brothers in the Church of Christ who poured their time, energy, and care into me. It was a considerable amount of time, energy and care, actually, a fact not lost on me. Again, thank you.

To the Church of Christ, however, no thank you. I cannot commit myself to you. In response to the previously mentioned time, effort, and care you poured into me, I feel I owe you an explanation as to why.

Lines always divide. When I was told I am not saved, I had to ask two questions: where was the man coming from who made that statement, and what, really, is salvation? What is the bigger figure to which the line that I’m not saved belongs, and on which side of the line will I stand?

The claim of the Church of Christ is a return to the first century church, but the figure that appears there is drawn along very modern lines. Fittingly, one of the key leaders who started the movement from which the Church of Christ came – Alexander Campbell - was a student of and heavily influenced by key Enlightenment thinker John Locke! Their hermeneutical approach is also historically heavily influenced by the methods of Francis Bacon, one of the very fathers of modern science! Locke’s voice is heard through Campbell’s desire to “REDUCE religion to a set of essentials upon which all reasonable persons might agree.” Those “essentials” are arrived at by an analysis of commands and examples in the New Testament, which lead to supposedly NECESSARY inferences (here we see traces of Francis Bacon).

I see these lines being taken necessarily in the Church of Christ. I do not often or even usually see the necessity of the inferences. In fact, I stand strongly against the use of modern science to interpret the bible and against the use of modern scientific methods in apologetics. Many of the lines drawn by the Church of Christ, therefore, necessarily put me, at least in this way, on the outside of the figure of the man drawn by the line.

Baptism is a configuring by God. The believer is the figure. Figures are drawn by lines. Lines set definitions. Modern man is defined by tension between the ghost and the machine; the line between them is difficult to trace. The churning operation of the modern machine obliterates the fleeting appearance of the figure (figuratively speaking). As stated by Alexander Campbell, “The Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions.” Mature believers come to appear on the horizon of the church through growth, like fruit. Facts are not so nebulous, as are fleeting and vestigial figures. Facts are the concrete, shiny, metallic parts of a machine that churns along in perfect synchronicity and uniformity. How facts appear can seem just as mysterious as ripe fruit, but, also being vestiges, concrete, factual machine parts give a much less complete picture of man than do fruits. With the locomotive force of fact, the figure that appears on the ancient Temple’s face is shattered by a heap of cinder blocks, glass panes, and metal panels.

A coin always has two sides. Those two sides bear the image of the head and foot of the fleeting vestigial image con-figured by the whole of the coin. The figure that appears in the Church of Christ very definitively and one-sidedly falls on the tails side of the whole of the coin that is the figure of modern man. The head of the figure of modern man is the ghost; the foot is the machine. The facts he uses as his blueprint serve as solid, precise, and reliable pieces of his mechanical church. His HEAVY emphasis on acts of obedience adds weight and solidity to the parts of his machine. His actions are operations; he is like unto a crane operator. His obedient operations save him, give him eternal life. As a disclaimer, I am aware that this statement, taken purely at face value, is an over-simplification. My point here is one of emphasis, not of doctrinal exposition.

Heavy modern machinery, bearing the weight of concrete facts and perfect obedience, must operate very precisely, or else it will fall apart. The Bible is seen by the Church of Christ as a PRECISE blueprint or “constitution” for the church. An ancient architect worked on site with an architect, using a rather lose and Formal model for the edification of the building. In the end, it tends to appear as a figure. A modern contractor reads a very detailed and precise set of blueprints, without the architect present with the builder, and uses the blueprints to construct the building. In the end, the modern building tends to appear as a machine. The man’s relation in Church of Christ to a contractor (and a machinist) is also found in his HEAVY emphasis on (and conflicts over) “methods and procedures” derived from essential “concrete facts” to be used as a “blueprint” for restoring the first century church by the influence of 19th century Enlightenment thinking.

There are no gaps in the operations of modern machinery; machine parts have very definitive edges. For the Church of Christ, salvation DEFINITIVELY occurs in a moment in time (when we do something) rather than as a process of fruition. God planted the seed, but from a distance. Scripture has evidence for both moment and fruitional process. Falling so decisively on the tails side of the coin, the Church of Christ takes salvation to very DEFNITIVELY not occur by faith alone; salvation requires obedience.

I might lean towards agreement with that, to a degree (if I use the term “requires” loosely), but scripture also emphasizes faith as THE means of salvation pretty heavily. The man in the Church of Christ is very definitively NOT “once saved, always saved” because of his emphasis on works of obedience (and because of the intolerance for gaps in properly functioning modern machines). As another disclaimer, the works of obedience of the man in the Church of Christ spring from faith. I am presenting what I take to be a picture of this man that is heavily WEIGHTED on one side, a figure that heavily emphasizes one side of the coin. Again, for me, the question is not one of doctrinal truth NECESSARILY. It is a question of emphasis weighted on particular lines in the bigger figure.

I was told by the man at the Church of Christ that I’m not saved, at least partially because my salvation didn’t turn along the steps of their process presented by the essential facts necessarily and scientifically inferred from the commands and examples found in the New Testament. A key cog in my supposedly broken mechanical operation is that I was baptized as a baby rather than as part of the process of my salvation.

The problem is, I’m not so sure that this baptism is such an absolutely NECESSARY cog in the process. If being baptized “for” my salvation NECESSARILY meant “in order to get” my salvation, a different Greek preposition would have been used (“hina”), rather than the “eis” that was used. The Greek word actually used in Acts 2: 38 for “for” actually means “because of” or “on the ground of”; neither the Greeks nor the Jews were modern machinists who only sought to understand material causation. Ancient man understood formal cause; that’s why he made figures appear in his scriptures, as well.

Baptism is not one of the gears of a clock, nor one of the station points in an assembly line to heaven. There is a recent trend in the Church of Christ towards emphasizing more heavily the transformational aspect of baptism rather than con-figuring it as nothing more than a legal requirement or a sign of something that had already happened in the past. The very fact that this trend was “necessary” reveals the weight and direction of the Church of Christ. That original figure still predominantly appears there, as far as I have been able to discern. The lines that draw this mechanical figure say that faith is the how we are saved, and baptism is the when. These lines necessitate a precise time stamp on each individual’s salvation. I can’t tell whether the clock stands against the figure of the dove, or if, in modern man’s having interwoven himself with his machines, the clock and the dove sing in presumed silent harmony.

I was also told by the man at the Church of Christ that I’m not saved because of the sin in my life that has been there since I feel I was saved; I was told that I need to repent. I genuinely and sincerely thank that man for helping me to see again the need to repent, as well as for helping me to see that necessity in particular places in scripture.

Another reason cited for my lack of salvation by that man at the Church of Christ is that I haven’t been making disciples. Again, I genuinely and sincerely thank that man for leading me to a place of desire and hunger in which I have and am still seeking for an understanding of salvation that is clear, powerful, truthful, and scriptural enough to more effectively pass onto others. It has been a dizzying and exhausting search, but AS FAR AS I CAN TELL SO FAR, the idea of salvation presented by the Church of Christ is too one sided for me to accept. My lack of full ability to accept it, I now know, leads me to be unable to commit to the image of salvation expressed on their heavily weighted tails side of the coin.

As part of his reaction against a Calvinism that I do not follow, my experiences that I take to be from and with God not only carry no weight with the man in the Church of Christ, but he, with the necessary force of a scriptural command with examples in mind, instructs me not to base my idea of salvation on those experiences of divine Grace. What about the other side of the TEMPLE into which we enter, the Inside, which lies beyond the curtain that was torn in two? “....let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ's blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Necessity has a very pragmatic meaning for modern man. Necessity, however, is death. What is necessary is that which is inevitable; without necessities, we die. Pragma is a material concern and harkens back to the Greek word for “a thing done, a fact.” This is why concern for “methods and procedures” is expressed on the tails side of a coin that is a con-figuring of modern man. This is also partially why a prescribed (like a blueprint), formulaic and sequential process of salvation that occurs in a precisely defined moment is expressed on the tails side of the coin.

The hermeneutic approach of the Church of Christ is even primarily FUNCTIONAL. Facts arrived at with an analysis of commands, examples, and necessary inferences function as cinder blocks of the church. Even the Holy Spirit is taken to operate functionally. Historically, they hold to the rationalist idea that the Holy Spirit works ONLY through the influence of inspired scripture to draw people to salvation. Again, this was a conscious reaction against the opposite side of the coin, which emphasized nebulous Spirit-induced and emotion laden conversion experiences. Major historical strains in the Church of Christ even pragmatically intended or hoped to hasten the millennium through human progress, supposedly spurred along by this return to first century Christianity. The head is immersed in a cloud with the Holy Ghost. The tail is a well-oiled machine. Can they not become one man, one (Baptized) figure?

Lines always divide. When I was told I am not saved, I had to ask where was the man coming from who made that statement? What is the bigger figure to which the line that I’m not saved belongs, and on which side of the line will I stand? After exhausting amounts of research, I realized that the line was being drawn by a figure composed of multiple one-sided truths found in scripture to the neglect of the other side and shaped by a very particularly modern con-figuring of those truths. I realize that I haven’t completed all of the studies offered by the Church of Christ in their process of salvation, but I do know enough to have made my decision.

As I stated multiple times above, the point, for me, is one of emphasis rather than of explicit, absolute, or prescribed doctrinal truth. I see the value in their doctrinal stances. After my research, I might even tend to lean in that direction in some instances or in some ways. I must, however, take my stance outside the line. I can’t give myself to the bigger figure to which belongs the line that states I’m not saved. I can’t commit to a way that claims so strongly and necessarily to be THE way as to consider me unsaved.

The man at the Church of Christ draws that line, because his way is so much different from much of what I’ve been taught, which is expressed on the heads side of the coin. The point at which I realized I couldn’t place myself on his side of the line, however, was when I realized that the whole of the figure of the man at the Church of Christ, although composed of individual lines taken literally from scripture, is directed by modernity (in ways that I not only can’t accept but stand against). On top of that, the modern direction of the lines that compose the whole of the figure appears to influence the line stating that I’m not saved. To say it pragmatically, I can’t continue a process of salvation in a church if I believe I’m already saved.


I have studied many scriptures that (supposedly or not, depending on which side one stands) stand for or against faith alone, the perseverance of the saints, imputed righteousness, imparted righteousness, salvation in a moment, salvation as a process (yes, some scriptures do potentially support the idea), baptismal regeneration, baptism as a public proclamation of faith and of new life with God (rather than as a “necessary” component of salvation), and the “New Perspective on Paul” (N.T. Wright). In most of these, I’m not so sure scripture presents such an either/or picture as is usually supposed (by both sides). I also re-studied Pelagianism. I don’t plan to rehearse all of that here.

My intention was to make clear, if I could, why I can’t commit to the Church of Christ, considering how much time, energy, and care they have poured into me. Also, my reason for being unable to commit to the Church of Christ is not a desire to hold onto my sin. I don’t. I like that the Church of Christ is discipleship driven, more locally governed and (in some cases) more concentrated on local mission. I like that I was challenged by their emphasizing obedience more than the tradition(s) to which I am accustomed. I like that the leadership and preaching is more dispersed, the heavy emphasis on trying to do things the biblical way, and the lack of a big, expensive building. Some of those things drew me to be interested in the Church of Christ, and I found that I liked some of them as I began to attend. Considering the bigger figure formed by all those lines, though, I must necessarily say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]