Some Notes on Why I Became a Christian

The language of art and music is most appropriate to describe why I became a Christian, because my religious belief is more analogous to my appreciation of, say, a Brahms symphony, than it is to having been convinced of the veracity of a set of truth claims. I find religion more like a song to sing, than a string of propositions leading to a conclusion. So:

I became a Christian because it rings true to my ear. He are some of the resonate notes:

Grace. We live only by receiving love that we don’t deserve: it is gift, unearned and therefore free. I am not talking about god. I am talking about babies. All they do/we did is eat, cry, soil diapers, and sleep. We arrived on the planet entirely helpless and dependent, devoid of skill, co-ordination, and language, and through our parents’ acts of sacrificial love, we lived. Now, as adults, the giving and receiving of this grace to one another makes life meaningful: the gifts of generous hearts.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include something as basic as the grace of sacrificial love, seems true.

Vulnerability. Intimate human relationships are impossible without vulnerability, and yet we are (for good reason) terrified of vulnerability. We can get hurt. We open ourselves to rejection. But we know that deep living requires our willingness to put ourselves out there, to take the risk of openness, to touch people that others shun. Vulnerability is the only way to abundant living, because it’s the only way to form meaningful connections with others.

A religion that understands the divine essence to include vulnerability, seems true.

Bodies. Bodies are important. While distinguishing between bodies and spirits helps us conceptualize two aspects of our being that feel distinct from one another, Christian anthropology, in keeping with the Hebraic understanding, sees bodies as spiritual; or, conversely, sees spirit as enfleshed. This is unlike the Greek understanding, where the immortal soul finds temporary housing in the body, only to be freed at the body’s death. Resurrection, while beyond what reason can think, is consistent with a refusal to regard our bodies as mere receptacles of the soul. I like a religion that sees bodies as inseparable from spirit.

via Christian Images.

Limits to Knowing– Donald Hall and Poetic Greatness

Recognizing limits is a mark of wisdom. One of Benedict’s instructions to the monks under his care was “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” To death-denying Americans and kindred spirits, this sounds morose; in truth, the recognition of the limit of a human lifespan is the narrow portal to a wide joy.

In a delightful recent New Yorker article, poet (and New Hampshire resident) Donald Hall reflects on a life of reading poetry. I snipped a bit of it for highlighting, and you will find the snippet below– but really, if you have the time, I recommend the whole essay.

Hall’s particular point is that a poet cannot know if her work is “any good,” “goodness” being measured by both quality and durability. Awards and accolades are nice, says Hall, but prove nothing. Extrapolating Hall’s point about poetic work to all human endeavor is apt: this stripping away of the importance– and even the authority– of outward, worldly accomplishment can leave a person momentarily untethered, suddenly weightless and unsure of the ground.  If we are not to be measured by our trophies, plaques, certificates, pay stubs, contact lists, and badges, how is a human life measured? Even if your answer doesn’t refer to a god or gods, it’s still a religious question: how is a human life measured?

Here’s the snippet from Donald Hall:

It’s O.K. to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treat you as deathless, but you must not believe them. If a poet is any good, how would the listeners know? Poets have no notion of their own durability or distinction. When poets announce that their poems are immortal, they are depressed or lying or psychotic. Interviewing T. S. Eliot, I saved my cheekiest question for last. “Do you know if you’re any good?” His revised and printed response was formal, but in person he was abrupt: “Heavens no! Do you? Nobody intelligent knows if he’s any good.” No honor, no publication proves anything. Look at an issue of the Atlantic in 1906; look at a Poetry from 1931. A Nobel Prize means nothing. Look in an almanac at the list of poets who have won a Pulitzer Prize; look at the sad parade of Poets Laureate.

via Thank You Thank You: Donald Hall on a Lifetime of Poetry Readings : The New Yorker.

Havel on Hope

Vaclav Havel

This is a found item that stands on its own. To distinguish hope from optimism is to distinguishing Christian realism from all banal naivetes, religious or otherwise. There is no reason whatsoever to be optimistic; there is every reason– in the world and beyond– to be hopeful. (From “Pro Ecclesia,” reprinted in “The Christian Century”):

The late Václav Havel… differentiated between hope and optimism. Hope, he said, “is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . . It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. . . . [Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

via Search | The Christian Century.

WWLD: What Would Lenin Do?

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs contains a fascinating collection of analysis and commentary. Taken from  the journal’s archives, the collection reads  like a first-hand account of the unfolding of the last 90 years. The apt title of the collection is “How We Got Here”; the aim is to “tell the story of the ideological battles of the past century and the emergence of the modern order.” The first articles in the collection are on Lenin, from the perspective of two thinkers (Harold Laski and Victor Chernov) who themselves were writing in the 1920s.

The question of “how we got here” arose more sharply when I read the following report yesterday on Gazeta.Ru:

“Three gay-rights activists were detained on Friday night, having conducted a flash-mob in Red Square, at Lenin’s Tomb. The three activists opened placards with slogans supporting the rights of gays and lesbians….”

The cognitive dissonance for me, is the linking of “flash-mob” with “in Red Square, at Lenin’s Tomb.” Having spent childhood and young adulthood carrying pictures in my head of Soviet power and control, and hearing about all the tight restrictions on information and expression, I do wonder: How did we get from 5-Year Plans to flash-mobs? Of course we know that the Soviet Union dissolved, and the Berlin Wall came down. At that level, how we got here is well-known. The fascinating part, however, is trying to figure out why: which big ideas and grand schemes were true and wise; and which of them were false and brutal.

В Москве задержаны три активиста гей-движения, проводившие флэшмоб у мавзолея Ленина. В Москве на Красной площади в ночь на пятницу были задержаны три активиста гей-движения, которые развернули у мавзолея Ленина плакаты с лозунгами защиты прав геев и лесбиянок, сообщил «Интерфаксу» источник в правоохранительных органах.

via Новости дня — Газета.Ru.



One theme in Religion in the Balance is the ultimate failure of market-ism and consumerism to provide us with what we need: meaning, connection, purpose, relationship. This shell of a building is suggestive, the perfect location for a declaration of current emptiness.

What’s hopeful is the humor– the playful, self-deprecating irony that implicates all of us as accountable for the depletion of the stock. Accepting responsibility is an authentic religious act.

(Thanks again to for the lead)

Banksy – Sorry – The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

Functioning as Religion

I’m reading William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. This is one of those books that gets you to re-assess long-held assumptions about the way the world is ordered. I’ll have more to say about Cavanaugh’s thesis; for now, here is a sampling from his chapter “The Invention of Religion.” Cavanaugh is arguing that what counts as “religious” is “any binding obligation or devotion that structures one’s social relations.” Whether such a binding obligation or devotion involves God, or not, is not essential in this definition of “religion.” He then goes on to quote from David Loy’s The Religion of the Market:

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. If, however, we adopt a functionalist view and understand religion as what grounds us by teaching us what the world is, and what our role in the world is, then it becomes obvious that traditional religions are fulfilling this role less and less, because that function is being supplanted– or overwhelmed– by other belief-systems and value-systems. Today the most powerful alternative explanation of the world is science, and the most attractive value-system has become consumerism. Their academic offspring is economics, probably the most influential of the “social sciences.” [I] argue that our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. (Cavanaugh, 107-108)

SAT Pressure: To What End?

Ticket to Where, Exactly?

I’m surprised we don’t hear more stories like this one [excerpt and link below], in which a recent high school graduate was paid about $2000 by 6 current high school seniors to take the SAT for them– ostensibly to get higher scores, in their names, than they could have gotten themselves.

Some of the sources quoted in this story [excerpt and link below] cite the pressure that parents put on their offspring to get into “good” schools. If the pressure felt by these boys is enough to lead to fraud, something’s amiss: another sign of a culture gone out of balance.

I can’t read this as a “lapse in ethical standards” story, although that is a subplot. The real story here is the pressure, and more pointedly the questions that go unraised as we uncritically accept the status quo of school and college admissions as “the way things are.”

Questions like: What is education for? What counts as a “good” school? What is success– how is it defined? Is the way that our culture defines “success” a way that I value, reject, or some of both? What kinds of opportunities are important, in order that a person may lead a meaningful life?

Life has pressure and is stressful. The things that pressure and stress us, say something about who we are. May the sources of our pressure and stress be worthy of our high calling– a calling to live into the fullness of the lives we have been given.

The case of a Great Neck, N.Y., man accused of being paid to take the SAT for high school students is once again prompting questions nationwide about how much cheating goes on in the world of high-stakes testing. It’s also renewing concerns that the pressure placed on students to score well on a single test, which plays a big role in determining the academic future for so many high-schoolers, may be encouraging them to cheat.

Six students at Great Neck North High School are facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly paying $1,500 to $2,500 to Samuel Eshaghoff to take the test for them, according to a news release Tuesday by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice….

Great Neck is a wealthy community, and the fact that such a scandal is playing out there “is an illustration of the SAT arms race that takes place, particularly in very affluent towns where kids think they are failures unless they go to a school where their parents would be proud to put the bumper sticker in their back window,” says Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Boston, Mass., which tracks and critiques standardized tests….

via SAT cheating scandal: Are stakes getting too high for college admission? –