I was in one of those brain-bending conversations the other day with a few friends about how evil entered the world. Being as we are the created and not the Creator, that our faculties are depraved from sin, and he is Goodness, we cannot fully comprehend such a question. But I did remember reading something years back from Augustine’s City of God that stuck with me. So, I dug it back up and worked through some of his thoughts on it.
How did some of the angelic beings fall? Did they have evil wills to begin with? That would mean that God created something that wasn’t good. How were they corrupted, then?
Augustine defines blessedness as “cleaving to Him who supremely is.” And he defines misery as having “forsaken Him who supremely is, and have turned to themselves who have no such essence.”
So then, “What made the first evil will bad?” Was it first corrupted by another evil will? No, then it wouldn’t be first. Was a good will existing in some evil nature? If not by nature, it couldn’t exist at all. But the answer to this can’t be yes either because an evil will could not survive in an evil nature, evil would vitiate and corrupt the nature. “And therefore the evil will could not exist in an evil nature, but in a nature at once good and mutable, which this vice could injure. For if it did no injury, it was no vice; and consequently the will in which it was, could not be called evil. But if it did injury, it did it by taking away or diminishing good.” Therefore, he concludes that an evil will cannot be from eternity. I know, this is a bit mind-bending, hang on.
“All of us bounce between the illusion that we are in control and the world’s demonstration that we are not.”
This sounds like bad news. But Kelly Kapic wants us to understand that our finitude is actually good news in his book, You’re Only Human. He was led to reflect and write about human finitude as he realized just how under-developed our doctrine of creation is. We seem to conflate finitude with sin, rather than seeing it as a creaturely gift. Finitude is not sin. It means that we are not God. Kapic speaks of finitude as “good, created human limits….that are part of God’s original act of making us, which he called ‘good.’” Too often, we want to reject and transcend these limits. We easily fall into the temptation that the serpent deceived Eve with, and that Adam willing participated in—“rejecting love to gain power.” He later builds on Augustine’s work saying, “It is not our creaturely limits that make us sinful, but rather the absence or deformation of love.”
Instead of a full review, I want to recommend this book and reflect a bit on Kapic’s chapter on humility. But first, I want to note something he says about our salvation. I believe that the church today needs this recalibration, which is a grounding in God’s goodness and love which overflows in creation. It’s life-giving water to the parched, transactional focus that is so prevalent in our thinking and teaching. And so he says:
“Most of us do not experience the God of the exodus in our daily lives. The God of the exodus is visible and vocal, and appears through fire and smoke. But the God of our lives is mostly silent, and many times we may feel as if he is unresponsive to our calls. Although there is no reference to the name of God in the book of Esther, many readers cannot help but think of him as present. In the same vein, in the absence of the beloved, the woman in the Song of Songs desires even more intensely than in his presence to be with him. She so longs to be with him that she is sick with longing. From the beginning to the ending of the Song, she continues to yearn for him. She oscillates between her lover’s presence and absence. She repetitively yearns for him, but this results in ‘I sought him but I did not find him’ (Song 3:1; 5:6,8). Still, she continues her seeking.”
How many Christians are asking this question? Where is God? They are praying to him. They want him to show himself. How many are trying to make it through the days in the pain of abandonment from a spouse? The hurt, the longing to go back and make it work before it got like this, the loneliness in trying to process it all…wondering where God is when they cry out for help… How many are unwell, questioning whether they will be alive next year? Will they be there for their loved ones, will they live a “full life?” Where is God in their pain? Will he at least let them know how much of a future they have? How many are striving to make ends meet? They just want the basics of comfort, but they don’t have the social capital to even give wind to their giftedness. How can they serve others and contribute to society when they are in such need? How many don’t have terminal illness but are afflicted with a thorn in their side for the rest of their days? How many are caring for loved ones, trying to uphold their dignity while they are losing their very sense of self? How many Christians are in bad marriages, lonelier than a single person, unloved by the very person who vowed it to them? How many are struggling with the same sinful desires, over and over? Or, what of those who have been praying continuously for God to answer them and are left with silence? “I sought him but I did not find him.”
Is he not there?
Or—maybe even a worse thought to consider—is he not there for me?
That’s the big word now—deconstructing. Some, who have been grossly harmed by their spiritual leaders, are using this word as they realize that they have a lot of unbiblical teaching to unlearn. Others are realizing that their faith was based on a cultural construct—they have no firm foundation. And so, some are using this word as they are leaving the faith, saying none of it is real. It’s also a label being pasted on those who are revealing harmful patterns of an unbiblical, hierarchal anthropology in the history of the church. For example, the recent 9Marks article which affirms Kristin DuMez, Beth Allison Barr, and Jamar Tisby as leaders of the “deconstructionist project.” This tactic is divisive—it villainizes brothers and sisters in the faith, sets oneself or one’s organization up as the answer, and leads by fear. It’s also a distraction.
Can we just stop and take a look at the condition of Christ’s church?
What do all the stories of abuse and cover-up that have been exposed this year alone reveal? What do the church leader’s reactions to survivors who ask for help reveal? What do some of the books, such as the ones written by DuMez, Barr, and Tisby—and the reactions to them—reveal?
On a larger scale than we want to see, instead of evangelizing, the church itself is the mission field.
Instead of giving the world a beautiful picture of Christ’s bride and a glimpse of our telos in communion with him and one another, we see much ugliness and abuse of power. In multiple denominations. How did we get here? What is church supposed to be? What is our witness to the watching world? Some are so battered by spiritual abuse that they can’t bear to walk through the church doors. Some observers of Christianity are glad they never took the leap. And many still within her walls are so factioned and polarized that they’ve lost sight of what church is supposed to be.
I can’t open closed ears or hearts. I’m not really writing to 9Marks, CBMW, or any of these denominations full of wreckage. I’m writing to those who are still trying to hold onto their faith after being disillusioned by or clobbered in the church. Where do we go from here?
Earlier, I posted Part 1 of What We Really Want, which is eros love. If you haven’t read that, it makes more sense to begin read that first. You can find it here. Now, I will continue with a meditation on Song of Songs 1: 2-4.
Oh, that he would…
The first voice in the Song is that of the woman’s. Pause for a moment and think about this. In a patriarchal world, within the canon of Scripture, the Divine Author gives us the initiating voice of the woman for us to learn from and identify with. Gregory of Nyssa refers to her as “the teacher.” Here in the opening, she is talking to us. And she begins with desire. “Oh that he would…” She’s talking to us. God wants us to freely ask for what we want. And as we learn from the bride, he wants us to develop that want—to dig deep down and find it. Tell it to others. It’s an evangelical want. Nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what we all really want. We want the kisses of his mouth. Isn’t it interesting that the bride says, of his mouth? Where else would kisses come from? Why add the obvious?
Sure, we are unique individuals with personal aspirations. And these are important to explore, examine, voice, and properly pursue. But our individual desires are all headed for the same end, or telos. And it’s an overwhelming, ecstatic longing. We all really want eros. The problem is, we don’t understand eros and its power. We don’t understand its sublime and transformational goodness. So we reduce it, pervert it, and try to consume it. We try to make it manageable to us. We settle for counterfeits.
We have a hard time even acknowledging this want. We struggle to understand it and so we can’t articulate it. We stuff it down and it resurfaces as projections onto more debase faux-wants. How do we express what we really want? And what will people think of us? Yet we have this aching that won’t die. We put false expectations on other people to give us eros. We put burdens on people that they can’t carry. And we reduce them and fracture our relationships.
Two years ago, the curtains were drawn back for me regarding reviling behavior towards me and others from officers in my own denomination. I tried to confront it at the denominational level, as well as locally since one of my elders was participating in this group.
I tried to go through this process of exposing darkness, seeking care, repentance, reconciliation, and justice in a godly—and presbyterian—way. I have failed at times. Even when my actions were acceptable, often my heart was not. Please forgive me if I have led anyone into sin in that way.
I have been documenting the public parts of this process on the denominational level, not the local, more personal level. The links are below. Because of this, other women who have suffered through abuse in the OPC began reaching out to me. Most of them never even had access to the system. Others were battered by it. Their stories are far worse than mine and most of them have not been heard. Some shared that they were experiencing healing from my writing, as it expressed the same patterns and actions that they encountered in seeking help. It helped to name it. To see that it isn’t them. And they were getting hopeful that something may be done about it. I carry these women and stories with me in my own writing.
My experience in trying to follow this through has made visible to me why I have been writing all along. I’ve been writing to prove my own existence, and that of my sex, as disciples in the church. Ones that think. And contribute theologically. And yet I still didn’t realize how bad it was. How pervasive the views of women’s’ inferiority and lust for men’s power are. The process in seeking help made me feel less like a part of the household of God, less like a sister in Christ, and less like a gift.
If you’ve been following my case with the OPC, I am posting the response of the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE) to this sustained complaint from July’s General Assembly meeting:
That the Presbytery of the Southeast acknowledge its error in allowing Mr. Spangler to use reviling language in his trial, damaging the good names of Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, record this in its minutes, communicate this to Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, and offer to both, in writing and in person, if possible, whatever expression of regret it deems appropriate.
Here is what the PSE deemed appropriate. It was sent to me in an email by the clerk of the presbytery, saying “Dear Aimee, please find attached.”
Perhaps is a pivotal word, a humble posture, and call to wonder in our great Lord.
That’s how I ended my last post, reflecting on Josh McNall’s new book, Perhaps. There’s so much in the book to reflect on, so many invitations to the theological imagination. But one area really sparked my wonder in God’s gift of friendship.
It is found in the chapter in which NcNall sets up guardrails to help us “say perhaps in faithful ways while avoiding crippling doubt and arrogant dogmatism.” One of the guardrails is “don’t go it alone.” Here he talks about cultivating community not only in our present but placing ourselves within the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. It’s a good section. I’m not going to summarize all his arguments here; I want to sit in wonder over the gift of friendship that was opened up to me in it. And this has to do with real, embodied friendships in the present.
There’s a rising market of books geared toward the rising audience of ex-vangelicals, those deconstructing their faith, nones, and young adults who are also struggling with doubt in the Christian faith they were raised in. There are multiple reasons for this rising audience. How many were spiritually abused or saw abuse in their own churches or denominations? How many were shamed when they were honest about their doubts? How many saw the disconnect between the truths confessed and lives lived in the church? How many observed the tribalism and anger in debating (and squeezing out) over secondary issues? How many never saw or experienced love in the church and delight in Christ? How many realized their faith was really in an ideology that could not bring them peace? How many were just going through the motions, so when it came time to bear their cross they were seduced by the world?
One of the things that I love about this book is that it is playing my jam on the importance of the imagination in the Christian life. God created us with something amazing—the ability to discover, envision, and embrace beauty. And he continuously ignites our eschatological imaginations in his word. Here’s McNall’s challenge:
The importance of what I define as “faith seeking imagination” increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism. Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the “resounding gong[s]” (1 Cor. 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say “perhaps.”