Dust and Breath: A Sermon

20 April 2021

Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.


Nee vs. Kuyper

6 April 2021

Once upon a time, Watchman Nee wrote a little book called The Latent Power of the Soul in which he allowed that various paranormal things are possible for the human soul, but all of them are off limits for a Christian. The argument goes that these ‘soulish’ powers are verboten to Christians because we are intended to draw our power from the Spirit.

This has curb appeal for a lot of people, but on closer examination, it’s pious-sounding nonsense. The nonsense is easy enough to see if we apply the same argument consistently to all such ‘soulish’ powers. You are not allowed to go to the gym and lift weights, or practice doing complex math problems in your head, or learn to tell when someone is lying to you, because you are supposed to derive your power from the Holy Spirit. 

The nonsense is easy enough to see there. Of course it’s okay to do all these things. Your job is to take all the abilities you develop and bring them into subjection to Christ.

And that’s the underlying problem with Nee’s view: he brackets out certain admittedly natural human abilities, and then says we are not allowed to bring those abilities into subjection to Christ. Abraham Kuyper articulated a better approach: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So when we’re talking about intuition, specialized powers of minute observation, subtle palpation, manual manipulation, or whatever else, why approach the matter any differently?

“How do we know that these things are even real?” someone will want to know. That is a great question. We should be interested to sift the true from the false.

We may not approach that examination with the bias of, say, a James Randi or a Richard Dawkins. We know something they do not: the materialists are wrong, from top to bottom. The world is not what they say it is. Angels are real. Demons are real. Humans are both body and spirit. God reigns over it all. It is silly for a Christian to approach reality as if all spiritual claims are automatically bunk.

We know better. And whatever human abilities are real, are designed by God to serve Christ’s glory under the direction of the Spirit. Just like physical strength. 


Basics of Barfield: Four Pieces

11 June 2020

Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.

First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness

Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.

The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.

A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.

Second piece: Original participation

Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.

Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world.  Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.

Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.

But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.

Third Piece: The Twofold Cord

Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.

  1. Differentiate matter and spirit.
  2. Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
  3. Come to believe that only matter is real.
  4. Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
  5. Ooops…

First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.

The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.  

The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.

The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.

Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West). 

Fourth Piece: Final Participation

Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area. 

The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.

Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them. 

Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him. 

If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.


One Bad Day on a Road Trip

3 March 2020

Saul of Tarsus: a serious young Bible scholar who ditched everything he’d been taught, betrayed his mentors, and blew up his whole life based on one bad day on a road trip.

Watch out for mystical experience, kids. It’ll wreck your theology….

If we believe that God is who the Bible says He is, we will never deride the search for spiritual experience. God built us for communion with Him. Adam walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, and from that day to this, we hunger to experience the presence of God. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this — it’s only natural to seek it out, the same way we seek out water when we’re thirsty.

The unbeliever’s problem is that he thirsts for God, and at the same time doesn’t like Him (as described in Romans 1:18ff.) That aversion leads to a search for all kinds of other spiritual experiences in the vain hope of quenching the thirst without having to deal with the One he thirsts for. In the Old Testament times, Israel struggled with idol worship for this reason. God cured them of idolatry, and by the time of Jesus, Israel faced a different set of temptations. Many Christians today are so frustrated or bewildered by this proliferation of options that they have given up on spiritual experience altogether. Rather than sift the true from the false, they deride the search for spiritual experience as itself an evil thing, and take refuge in an idolatrous quest for moral or doctrinal purity — as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. 

This is an utter failure of discernment. We are built for relationship with God. We are not meant to just do holy things and think holy thoughts, but to live alongside God, to experience Him. And we are meant to integrate those experiences into our doctrinal understanding. 

Jesus had the antidote to the Pharisees’ temptations: “If you won’t believe the words, believe the works.” He didn’t denigrate experience; He challenged people to take their experience seriously, and seek out the theological ramifications. Jesus provided the people around Him with many experiences that they could not integrate into their existing theology, because their theology was wrong.

What do you do then? 

Fix your theology, of course. Your theology must remain correctable—correctable by Scripture, and by experience.

If your theology cannot be corrected by your experience, then you are in the position of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because He wasn’t what their theology told them the Messiah would be like. (Their theology was wrong, of course — but yours is wrong in places too. And that’s the point.)

Of course, everything can be done badly, and so can this. Someone can experience a personal tragedy, a business reversal, a setback of some kind, and decide that God doesn’t love him anymore. That would be a mistake — unfortunately, a very common one. When people say “Don’t make theology out of your experience,” they are trying to guard against this error. But the way they’re going about it is a mistake.

This person’s theology is woefully inadequate. He had a vending-machine view of God: ” I will live a decent, non-scandalous, red-state existence, and in return, God will shower me with personal comfort and material abundance. Since God’s not holding up His end of the bargain, He must not love me anymore.” That theology is wrong, and experience is showing just how wrong it is. This person certainly ought not cling to his theology and deny his experience. Rather, he should allow his experience to drive him back to God and the Scriptures for an explanation. He certainly should allow his experience — i.e., what God is actually doing — to correct his theology. If a literal act of God can’t correct your theology, what would it take?


Children of a Troubled Marriage

14 January 2020

An orphaned spirit can manifest in rebellion or in religion. It can be the prodigal who runs away or the older brother who stays with a sense of entitlement — either one of which boils down to “Look at me, Daddy!”

In reality, Father God has never looked away, never abandoned us, but it is no accident that we think he has. Mother Church told us Papa wouldn’t talk to us directly; she said he only spoke through her. (Convenient, right?) Because we were children, we believed her, and we lost confidence in our ability to hear God. Then, far too often, Mother Church withheld her love unless we conformed to rules designed for her comfort and convenience, rather than our growth. Within Mother Church, many of us found no breathing room.

Some of us grew up into everything she wanted. Some of us stayed around, but got progressively more angry and sullen. Some of us ran away from home. We were children. Perhaps we did the best we could with whatever we understood at the time. But we have to grow up sometime, and an adult is responsible to re-evaluate.

The truth is, Mother Church lied. She said you had to check all the boxes and do all the things or Papa would ignore you. But it was never actually about performance, and Father God loves you more than you can imagine. He never stopped speaking; you can hear His voice.

Yes, you. Yes, now.

What if you took a few minutes to just listen?


The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God? 


Pevensie Epistemology

3 December 2019

At the beginning of the Narnia series, in the opening chapters of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis uses the four Pevensie children to teach us an important lesson in how to behave in the face of varying degrees of uncertainty. Lucy has gone into the wardrobe, experienced Narnia, and met Mr. Tumnus. Edmund has also gone into the wardrobe. Peter and Susan, the older siblings, have not yet experienced Narnia.

Lucy is maintaining that her experience is real. Edmund is saying it was just make-believe. Peter and Susan don’t know what to do. Lucy doesn’t lie, and yet her story can’t be true. They all know Edmund is a liar, and yet his story is entirely plausible.

Were the roles reversed–Edmund talking about Narnia and Lucy saying it was make-believe–they would blow it off without a second thought. In fact, without Edmund’s contribution to the situation, it would be easy: perhaps Lucy dreamt the whole thing. This would be a promising line of reasoning, except for the fact that Edmund gives an alternate account. If Edmund said he didn’t know what she was talking about, that would be one thing. But since Edmund says they were playing together and made the whole thing up…no. It wasn’t a dream. They were both involved together in something. But what? How do we know?

The professor’s answer is simple: you know the people better than you know the world, so trust your knowledge of the people. The dishonest one is lying, and the honest one–however implausible her story–is somehow telling the truth.

Of course Peter and Susan are still unsure. Further events demonstrate the wisdom of the professor’s counsel, but I want to consider the question of everyone’s duty during that period of uncertainty. Obviously Edmund’s duty is to come clean. Obviously Lucy’s duty is to tell the truth, but we’ll come back to that.

What about Peter and Susan? They are wise enough to seek counsel, but that doesn’t really settle the matter in their minds. Their temptation would be to rush to judgment too soon, to make a premature decision about who is telling the truth and then declare the problem solved. Their job is to hang with the problem until there’s a real solution. They do–and the thing gets decisively settled. Eventually. In the meantime, everyone is profoundly uncomfortable.

That discomfort brings us back to Lucy’s duty. Doesn’t her continued insistence on her Narnian experience create tension and difficulty for everyone? Doesn’t Lucy also have a responsibility to family harmony? (Sure, so does Edmund, but everybody knows he doesn’t care, so the shortest road to family harmony is for Lucy–the dependable one, the one who cares about her duty–to change her story.)

In situations like this, there is a great temptation for the Peters and Susans of the world to put incredible pressure on Lucy to just cave. Change your story, admit that you mighta’ dreamt it, and everything can go back to normal. But let’s talk about this harmony that Lucy has a duty to help create: should that harmony be founded on truth, or on lies? On truth, of course–and so she has a duty to keep telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Suppose you were a servant at that wedding in Cana. You poured the water into the jars yourself, and then drew out the wine. You know what happened; you were there. What is your duty? Keep it to yourself? Or bear witness to what God has done?

To ask the question is to answer it. Of course you are responsible to bear witness.

The harder problem is the one confronting Peter and Susan. What do you do if you weren’t there? You didn’t see it for yourself, and now you have to decide what really happened–tricky business, that.

At one level, it’s a very easy question. The story can’t be true, it just can’t. Wardrobes have backs, not whole worlds secretly hidden in them. Water does not spontaneously turn into wine in a stone water jar. It just doesn’t happen. Besides, we all heard about that wedding–good wine, and lots of it. So much that the servants got into it and got a little confused, apparently. A couple drunk guys misjudging reality. It happens every day. Simple as that.

But Occam’s razor doesn’t apply to history. The real world is full of bizarre coincidences and baroque chains of causality, particularly where people are concerned. And especially where God is involved.


Joel Is Not A Cessationist

5 November 2019

In Acts 2, Peter applies Joel 2 in an interesting way. Some people believe Peter is stating the direct fulfillment of Joel 2: Joel predicted this day, and here it is.

Most commentators, however, notice some end-of-the-world markers in Joel 2, and therefore feel that Joel’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. That being the case, they then say either that Peter was saying Joel 2 was partly fulfilled at Pentecost, or that Peter was just making an analogy.

What I’m about to say here would apply to partial fulfillment positions, but just for the moment let’s accept, for the sake of discussion, that Peter is making an analogical argument (This is like what Joel prophesied…”).

That means Peter is claiming that Pentecost has various points of contact with the Joel prophecy, but the events of Pentecost do not exhaust Joel 2; the actual fulfillment is yet future from Peter’s point of view (and from ours as well, yes?).

In turn, that means—follow me closely here—that all the favored cessation proof texts that are supposed to be telling us that revelation is over, finito, done with, the canon is closed, no fresh revelation, no more—every single one of those passages is in conflict with Joel 2, which pointedly tells us that in the future, our young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams, our sons and daughters will prophesy—in short, that there will be fresh revelation in the future.

If the fulfillment of Joel 2 is future, then prophecy has not yet ceased.


Our Own Elsas

17 September 2019

So I’m sitting in Johnny’s Pizza on my lunch break, and the radio’s playing. “Red Letters” by Crowder. “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel.

Let It Go?

How many songs from a Disney kids’ movie are getting radio play 6 years later?

The movie came out in 2013. In pop culture, that’s ancient history. To put it in perspective, that’s the same year Planes, World War Z, and Iron Man 3 came out. You don’t see anything off those sound tracks getting airtime.

But here is Idina Menzel on the radio, singing the one thing from that movie that turned out to be an enduring addition to our cultural legacy (enduring in pop culture terms, anyway).

The plot of the film follows princess Elsa through her journey:

  • hiding her ability (and loathing herself because she has it),
  • exposure to the whole kingdom
  • her community fears and rejects her
  • she isolates herself from the community, freezing the whole kingdom and nearly committing murder as a result
  • she eventually comes to terms with her ability, the community receives her, and she’s able to use her gifts for the benefit of the community.

Now, taking a look at that story arc, ask yourself: which one of those story beats is immmortalized in the song that has outlasted every other part of the movie?

It’s not the ending, where Elsa integrates with her community. No, it’s when she’s maximally alienated, inadvertently freezing the whole kingdom, and about to nearly kill a few people. (On that last: if this were an action movie instead of an animated kids’ flick, Elsa would definitely have killed the two assassins, with the audience cheering her on.)

When she doesn’t care about anyone. When she is ignoring everyone else so hard that she’s destroying her entire country–that’s what resonated with the culture so well that we’re still playing it on the radio 6 years later. For that matter, that’s what resonated with the makers of the film so much that they built the musical centerpiece of the film around it (no such iconic anthem adorns the narrative climax of the film, or the resolution). Why is that?

Because as a culture, this is where we are. We identify with mid-film Elsa — alienated, isolated, unwittingly destructive, possibly murderous. And you know what? There are some things to repent of there, but there’s also something to celebrate. Elsa’s story didn’t stop there; ours doesn’t have to either.

We live in a cultural moment when the supernatural is making a comeback. We went through a phase of profound materialism; we didn’t believe in miracles; we believed in electricity, vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and 401(k) plans. But we’re waking up. And waking up, many people—who were told their own version of “conceal, don’t feel” in early life—are now going through Elsa’s teenage rebellion.

They absorbed the culture’s fear and rejection until they couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t hide it anymore, and now they’re done. And they don’t care about a culture that didn’t care about them. My hope and prayer for them is that they recognize this as a stage that will pass, and they grow up and reintegrate, as Elsa did.

We like to think that in the church, none of this has much to do with us. Baloney.

We accommodated the culture, hugely. We suppressed the supernatural in our midst — we were (sometimes) happy to believe in miracles and supernatural doings in the past, so long as we could remain safely insulated by the padding of many centuries. Many of us refuse to believe such things even in church history, still less in the present day. When it comes to supernatural doings in the church, if it’s not in Acts, it didn’t happen, and if it is in Acts, it’s “transitional,” not to be expected today. They get you going and coming — and this is why many people with genuine supernatural gifting find no home in the churches.

But we cannot afford such comforting lies. We have our own Elsas out there on the mountainside. It’s time to go get them.


Ditching the Whitelist

19 April 2019

Modernism fancied all spiritual powers a delusion. Nothing was real but matter in motion. The vast majority of contemporary Christians have adopted that worldview, with the exception of a whitelist of powers and miracles in which they feel obliged to believe in order to be Christian.

(As I’ve explored elsewhere, how many of those powers and miracles we feel obliged to believe depends to a large degree on how much academic credibility we aspire to.)

But this is not the teaching of Christianity. Christianity has always believed that the old gods are absolutely real—and that we are at war with them. Their heads are to be crushed; their images burned; their sacred groves cut down: Boniface had the right idea. Their followers are to be called to repentance, delivered from their willing slavery to the darkness into the freedom of the light.

On too many occasions over the past 2000 years, impatient Christians have tried to deliver the slaves by force, whether they wanted to be delivered or not. By now we have—let us hope—learned our lesson. The weapons of our warfare are most assuredly weapons, but they are not the carnal weapons of coercion. Our weapons are truth and righteousness, faith and salvation, readiness with the gospel of peace and the word of the Creator Himself, spoken afresh by us.

We live as invaders among the gods and their people. With word and water, bread, wine, and oil, we retake the territory unlawfully stolen from the Creator and prostituted to demons. Our ally is the whole creation that groans with birth pangs, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God.

Christianity is both relationship and religion. Without the relationship, the religion is empty. Without the religion, the relationship is confined to occasional experiences that, while beautiful in themselves, find no tangible expression in everyday life.

The relationship must be real. This is neither a thought experiment (“What if…?”), an arrangement of mental furniture (“I like to think of it like this”), nor a matter of observing principles (which would collapse relationship into religion). It is a real dealing with a particular Person (three, actually) outside ourselves. That means that we carry out our lives in the living presence of Almighty God. That Person births us into His new family, and thereafter grows us up as His children, with the goal of making us partakers of His divine nature. We engage in dialog; we ask for and receive help; we receive comfort and offer up praise. If we are not mystics in this sense, then we are not Christians; we are merely ideologues whose preferred genre is religion.

Now, with that said, what must the religion look like that gives tangible expression to such a relationship?

In order to function in this environment, we need a religious expression that…

  • embraces the magical nature of the created, spoken world in which we live,
  • addresses the spiritual realities of both human and angelic/demonic realms,
  • integrates empirical knowledge of the fertile fields of natural revelation, and
  • is concrete, livable, and permeates our daily lives.

So what does that look like? Well, that’s the project. I’m workin’ on it. Wanna join in?