Middlemarch, the End

You will notice that “Religion in the Balance” is being rendered in a new format. It was time for a change; I hope this format will be easier to read, and cleaner on small devices.

The last paragraph of Middlemarch struck me at the time of reading it, now several months ago, and has lingered in the interval until now. Part of the power of it, is its simplicity; part of its power, too, is how it connects the universe of the epic novel with the moral universe we might inhabit, if we have enough imagination.

Ready for it?

Eliot is describing her heroine, Dorothea, in an epilogue. The action of the novel is over; what is left is to summarize how Dorothea lived her days, from the end of the novel’s action to the end of the character’s life:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill for you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” [emphasis added]

We are always receiving– consciously or not– gifts of grace from those who have lived lives aimed at beauty and goodness, and whose names we don’t know.

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.

Save Us A Vote, Mitt

I saw a hand-painted political road sign this morning– all caps, no punctuation, black lettering on a white-painted square of plywood: SAVE US A VOTE MITT. I briefly wondered if Mitt were somehow hogging all the votes, before realizing that the message was: Save USA– Vote Mitt.

Any use of the word “save” in the political arena arouses my suspicion, and reminds me of the times in Biblical history when the people of Israel cried out for a leader (divinely ordained) to “save” them. Didn’t work then, won’t work today. The story that unfolds in the Christian Bible is a story of the ultimate triumph of a power different from political power– the power of self-emptying generosity and grace, which appears to this world to be weakness and foolishness.

The Biblical account also reminds us that the saving of the USA will come in the most surprising and astonishing ways– in ways that flip our expectations and change our minds beyond any change we think is possible. As unlikely as it seems, saving the USA might come in the contemporary equivalent of a figure who is sold into slavery and then forgives the sellers (Joseph); of a figure who is not a lawyer or businessman but a poet and musician (David); or of a figure whose serpent-like wisdom confronts hypocrisy with truth, and whose childlike innocence heals enmity and brokenness (Jesus).

Christ Carrying the Cross: Behold the Beautiful

Christ Carrying the Cross by Giovanni Bellini-- 16th-century Italian

This oil on wood painting by a follower of Bellini was one of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorites; you can see it today at the Gardner Museum in Boston. It’s an apt image to start Holy Week. I thank my wife Eleanor for bringing it to my attention.

For some who hold onto Christ primarily to confirm their already-held beliefs about the world– I wish that Jesus would be more of a stumbling block to them; more of a goad to examine their unexamined assumptions about life; more disturbing of their already-held beliefs. For others who reject Christ because, well, who has time for fairy tales?– I wish that Jesus would be less of a stumbling block to them. I wish that he would simply come and make himself known, through the strange heart-warmth, and the peace beyond words, that mark his presence.

I’ve been down both roads, and will be down both roads again, sometime or another. Faith is not a steady-state system. The authentic journey has many seasons, each with its gifts and dangers.

Our culture would do well to turn for a moment from its fevered ways to gaze on Christ– not because he is a pattern of virtue that we ought to assimilate (which makes Jesus just another commodity in the marketplace), but because he is beautiful.

Grace is in the direction of beauty. The proper response to beauty is to behold, rather than to grasp or to own. We would be a healthier culture, in all ways, if we increased our capacity to behold– rather than devour– what is beautiful.

Beholding and Beheld: Mutual Vulnerability in the Divine Image

In previous posts I traced the strong version of the conservative argument against gay marriage, and also pointed to where the serious, conservative, theologically grounded argument  for gay marriage needs to go. In this post, we’ll lift up one thoughtful reflection– on God, desire, humanity, and sexuality– that leads, at the very least, to the possibility that God’s nature as Creator and Source of Life can manifest in human sexuality in ways other than begetting children. The author of that reflection is Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

In a piece entitled “The Body’s Grace” (composed over a decade before becoming archbishop), Williams identifies God’s enlivening, life-affirming nature as present in human sexuality itself. He helps us see human sexual intimacy in terms of the grace of reciprocated desire and delight– a grace and a delight that are in the very image of the trinitarian God, whose nature is love-in-relationship. By that grace we learn to inhabit the fullness of the lives we have been given.

From this perspective, the moral goodness of a sexual relationship is not whether it is homosexual or heterosexual, but whether it is characterized by mutual nurture and care, surrender and vulnerability, and a faithfulness over time that can lead to delight, joy, and an enlarged sense of life. The essential nature of human sexuality is not procreation, but beholding and being beheld. This is not to divorce human sexuality from the divine life, but to ground it in a theology of grace wherein we receive the fullness of ourselves as a gift from another, and from an Other.

Where a Conservative Case for Gay Marriage Needs to Go

A January 2010 Newsweek article by Ted Olson makes what is entitled “the conservative case for gay marriage.” You can read his case here. His attempt is good, but he doesn’t go far enough. A truly conservative case for (that’s right, for) gay marriage is actually stronger than what Mr. Olson proffers.

He makes a two-pronged argument. First, since (as conservatives maintain) marriage is the foundation of a stable society, so all the more should marriage be extended to those people (homosexual couples) who want to be married. The more marriages, the better. Second, he identifies equality before the law as a bedrock American principle; marriage equality must inevitably follow.

As I pointed out in a recent post here, the deeper conservative argument on this question has to do with God’s nature as Creator, and humanity’s special relationship with that God. While nodding in that direction, Olson doesn’t go there.

What the conservative case for gay marriage needs to show, is that the union of two committed, loving, same-sexed humans has a place in the divine life: that there are ways to manifest the life of God in and through homosexual unions, and that those ways are life-producing and life-affirming, even if they don’t include begetting children. Rowan Williams, currently the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects theologically on sexuality in a piece called “The Body’s Grace.” His reflections are directly relevant to a truly conservative case for gay marriage. We’ll look at “The Body’s Grace” next time.