I hope everyone is staying safe today. If you’re wanting some semblance of Good Friday liturgy, I know many Churches will be doing services online, and there’s even our (TMI Episcopal) chapel service recording. (I’m Judas. Also, we practiced social distancing and all the participants are residents on campus. We gathered at All Saints Chapel on our campus to do this.)
There’s a lot that can be said on this solemn day. Instead, I want to share a Facebook post and a couple of articles that stood out to me.
This 2018 Facebook post from my friend Joshua Paul Smith was a reminder of the upside-down nature of ‘Good’ Friday:
We hear this narrative yearly, at least. We hear it alluded to more often than that: ‘On the night that he was betrayed…’ But we hear it from different perspectives. This is the first time I’ve heard it during a pandemic. What does this do to my hearing of this story?
It emphasizes our agnosticism toward the future. Most of us didn’t know we’d be in this situation on April 9th, 2020. While there were a few people who could make decision that could’ve impacted the trajectory of this pandemic (see ‘South Korea’) most of us aren’t those people. We can respond only to the world as it unfolds before us.
This experience highlights the disciples place in the Maundy Thursday tradition. Jesus seems to have expected something. Each Evangelist gives Jesus more or less of an understanding of his fate. But in the Gospels, his disciples seems uniformly unaware. Tragedy is coming. They don’t know it. They can do nothing to stop it.
This night the disciples will be shown their inability to control things. This night most of us recognize this helplessness in ourselves. We’d like to be the masters of our destinies but we’re not. Personally, this Maundy Thursday preaches that message as loud and as clear as it ever could.
But there’s one thing we can control. Jesus commands us to do so. We’re told to love one another and he loves us. In our powerlessness, we can do something powerful; we’re commanded to do something powerful: love one another. We see this in the work of our medical professionals but they’re not alone. We can all contribute in some way for we can all love in some way.
In this interview with Prof. James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, we talked about the Christian doctrine of the Ascension, how it has been understood, how it should be understood, how it connects to the Parousia, and why any of this matters at all. I hope you enjoy!
Here are the questions I asked Prof. McGrath:
Explain to my students why I’m talking to you about this subject. In other words, what’s the focus of your research and academic career?
This week my students will be reading the Resurrection Narratives in the (canonical) Gospels. They’ll notice that only the Gospel of Luke mentions Jesus’ ascension directly (though there’s a sense that Jesus will be departing soon in the others). Why is this?
If I were living in the first century, and I was told that the Messiah had gone to be with the Father but would return, and that when he had gone to be with the Father he ascended into the sky, how would I have understood this? Would I have thought he went into the sky, literally? Would I have understood this to be a metaphor?
What purpose did the doctrine of the Ascension serve for early Christians and their proclamation of the Gospel? In other words, what’ the point of the doctrine?
As modern people, our cosmology is different from that of the ancients. In your opinion, how should modern Christians understand the doctrine of the Ascension? Does it have worth today?
The Ascension seems to be connected closely to another doctrine that my students will encounter soon: the Parousia or ‘Second Coming/Appearing’ of Jesus. What’s the connection between the Ascension and the Parousia?
While many of my students identify as Christian, many others don’t. In your opinion, why is studying ancient texts like the Gospels of the Book of Acts, and thinking about Christian doctrines like the Ascension, valuable exercises? Are they valuable for Christians only or is there a reason that non-Christians should have at least an academic interest in these topics?
I’m excited to share my second interview with you. This morning I spoke with Fr. Kevin Daugherty. He’s a Priest within the Convergence Movement (specifically the Convergent Christian Communion). Fr. Daugherty talks about how the Convergence Christian Communion brings together aspects of Christianity that are rarely found in a single expression of the religion: (1) being open and affirming; (2) being charismatic; (3) being evangelical; (4) being sacramental. For those who are familiar with the writings of Dr. Robert Webber or Dr. Thomas Oden, this movement embraces much of what they imagined Christianity might be. (FYI, in the interview, Fr. Daugherty mentions a charismatic Episcopal service on YouTube. Here’s the video: Charismatic Episcopal Church in Paris.)
Here are the questions I asked during this interview:
Please tell everyone why I’m talking with you about this topic. What’s your relationship with the Convergence Movement?
What is the Convergence Movement and where did it come from, and when did it come into existence?
We’re doing this interview because (1) I teach at an Episcopal School, so my students are familiar with Episcopal liturgy (experientially) and (2) my students just spent some time studying Pentecostalism. Can you explain how Anglican/Episcopal and Pentecostal spirituality intersect in the Convergence Movement?
One critique many people have of Christianity, in general, is that it seems to birth new denominations daily. Why the Convergence Christian Communion (CCC)? What not being a charismatic Episcopalian or a liturgical Pentecostal assembly?
On the CCC website there are four main points listed in the section on your ‘identity’: (1) We are open and affirming; (2) We are charismatic; (3) We are evangelical; (4) We are sacramental. Can you explain what each of these means to the CCC and why they’re important?
This interview is being recorded primarily for my class ‘Religion in the United States’. What does the American context have to do with the formation of the Convergence Christian Movement and its particular emphasis on the aforementioned points?
Finally, what’s the best thing about being in the Convergence Christian Movement? What do you like most about your tradition?
This morning I googled icons of Jesus’ triumphal entry. The one posted above, by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Antonyuk, stood out to me not just because of it’s unique visually—the proportions of Jesus’ head and the shape donkey’s body stand out the most—but because it’s lonely. Palm Sunday 2020 will be a lonely one. We won’t be gathered together. We’ll be at home, maybe with family, maybe live-streaming a service, but not together as we’re accustom.
There’s something odd yet fitting about celebrating Palm Sunday during a pandemic. I’ve often told my students that the Gospels are probably easier to embrace for those who see the world through the lens of disorder and brokenness. If life’s going well for you it’s hard to resonate with the desperation of narratives that climax with execution by crucifixion.
But then a pandemic breaks us. Even the most comfortable are uncomfortable. And those who already were suffering, sadly, are even more vulnerable to the harshness of our world. It’s one of those rare moments where we’re all sharing in some form of struggle even if it’s not being felt evenly. But it’s being felt and that opens us up to stories we’ve heard already but needed to hear in a new way.
Palm Sunday does exalt Jesus as King but it also highlights the reality of shattered expectations. Jesus isn’t that kind of King. Jesus will not experience that kind of enthronement. The paradox of the Gospels is that Jesus is the kind of King who rides a humble donkey, whose enthronement is a Roman cross, who in the Johannine tradition has a Kingdom that’s not from this earth. His disciples don’t understand this. His adoring crowds don’t know this. In just a few days their worldview will be shattered.
Many may be asking ‘why?’ this pandemic is happening just as Jesus and his disciples will ask (in a few days, liturgically) how Palm Sunday could morph into ‘Good’ Friday. As regards the pandemic, we can talk about humanity’s responsibility another time because in this situation there’s a lot of it. But for a moment I want to think about divine responsibility as relates to expectations. One reason I enjoy teaching the Book of Job, and why it’s the last part of the Hebrew Bible I cover when I do, is because it undermines all the theodicy of Books like Proverbs and Deuteronomy. It’s (IMO) an absurdist response to the idea we could comprehend the divine mind even if the divine plan was explained to us. I don’t like this for theological reasons, per se (I’m not linking with many Fundamentalists who rebuke us for questioning God), but for literary, human reasons: I don’t think we can understand our suffering and our world in ways that satisfy us when we’re experiencing that suffering. All we can understand is we had expectations about how the world should work, or God should act, and those expectations were wrong.
Like Job, we feel alone when this happens. We feel like we’re the only one being targeted by God. Did Jesus feel this during the Holy Week we’re about to remember? It seems like he did. He asks, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He asks this less than a week after he rides into Jerusalem as the King, as the Messiah.
But Job isn’t alone. He represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And Jesus wasn’t alone, he represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And now, during this pandemic, we’re not alone. We may feel alone, or at least lonely, but this is a microcosm of the human condition. Our expectations are high, they’re broken, and we’re left wondering why things are the way they are. This pandemic has magnified this reality. And all we can do is let it color this particular Palm Sunday for us so that we read these stories afresh.
Holy Week exists, liturgically, to be experienced. Usually, this is sacramental in nature. Now, it’s in the midst of a world shattering pandemic. We have no choice but to go through this Palm Sunday alone, like Job, and like Jesus, and allow it to speak to us about our expectations. But I don’t say this is to encourage reflecting on Palm Sunday isolating from the rest of Holy Week. For today, yes, let it sink into your soul a bit. But this isn’t the last day. We have six more to go.
I’ve seen this image appear across social media the past few days and while humorous it’s also a seriously accurate take. While I wish this pandemic had never come upon us, it seems that if we have to go through it, Lent is the perfect season. As Richard Beck wrote:
Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve been grateful that it’s been Lent during COVID-19. Lent has helped me during this season–pondering mortality, dealing with losses and restrictions, dealing with disappointment, facing my idols of security and self-sufficiency.
What seems to be a lifetime ago, I mentioned that I’ve been practicing vegetarianism for Lent. It’s coincidental with this decision that COVID-19 became a global problem, in part, because of how animals were captured, treated, and consumed. I didn’t decide to try vegetarianism as a response. While it would be foolish to make an eternal declaration about my diet, I can say there’s a good chance I’ll continue this lifestyle, or at the very least practice some sort of meat-minimal flexitarianism. The origins of this virus have shown me that we must be much more thoughtful about how we treat animals and how we consume them if we do.
I live in Texas, so Wuhan is the other side of the world, but I can’t think of anything that has driven home for me the concept (which Buddhism made clearest to me) of our interconnectedness/interdependence more than this pandemic. I’m may be a human animal but I’m an animal and an animal that’s connected to other animals. I may be an American but I’m an American human and a human that’s connected to other humans. I don’t think I’ll ever go a semester teaching Buddhist concepts such as dependent-origination and interbeing with referencing this pandemic because nothing has made these ideas as real. As Thomas Friedman wrote many years ago now: the world is flat. There’s no indication that nationalist and populist impulses will change this. China may be on the other side of the planet but it’s also right next door.
This week, Bishop Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, recorded a Lenten reflection video where he reflected upon Matthew 22.34-40. He interpreted this passage as being about how we live in uncertain times, in uncertain territory, as Jesus was living as he prepared for his Passion, and as we’re living during this pandemic. His take-away is that Jesus’ words here—love God, love neighbor, love yourself—are words that can guide us. And he’s right. For those of us who believe in a good, loving Creator (sometimes against the odds), we must hold to our hope. We practice this hope by loving the invisible God through loving the visible neighbor and the visible person in the mirror.
My wife used to teach her students this Mayan precept, In Lak’ech, that is fitting for us today (English version):
You are my other me If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.
Whether it be Jesus’ Great Commandment, the Buddhist doctrines of Interbeing and Dependent-Originatation, or the Mayan precept of In Lak’ech, we must live through this together. We have no other choice. May the Lenten season remind us not only that we come from dust and to dust we shall return but also that we are one in this process and no one of us is free from the destiny of all of us.
Originally, I thought I’d limit this blog to commentary on the interface of Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, pedagogy, and adolescence. I’ve decided I’ll broaden things a bit. On occasion, I may write on topics outside of the study and teaching of religion. I may write a little on the practice of religion as well—areas related to philosophy, theology, and ethics. That said, as a high school teacher, I think it’s wise to avoid writing on politics and many current events. Hopefully this topic doesn’t make anyone irate!
Today, I had a brief conversation with a colleague about animal rights. This isn’t something I’ve pondered extensively but it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, at least since the days when I used to co-blog with Joshua Paul Smith. My thinking about the matter has intensified over Lent as I chose to use this year’s Lent to ponder meat consumption, it’s various implications, and to see how my body would handle a vegetarian diet (so far, so good). My encounters with Wesleyan-Anglican Christianity, my teaching on traditions like Buddhism, my own philosophical wrestlings with the grounds for moral behavior, and reports I’ve heard regarding the state of industrialized animal farms, has pushed me to begin thinking seriously about whether my worldview needs vegetarianism to be consistent. (Also, I’d add the adoption of Frida into our family, which gives me a daily interaction with an animal.)
I’ve not arrived at a conclusion. I don’t want to be preachy about it. I do want to be able to articulate why I can live with this or that level of suffering in sentient beings (or not live with it) and better understand my own practices in light of realities such as climate change. I will say that the recent two-part interview with David Clough on the Panpsycast has been one of the best articulations for why vegetarianism needs to be considered, not only from a philosophical perspective, but also from a theological one within Christianity.
If you’ve thought about this matter, or tried practicing vegetarianism, I’d like to hear your thoughts on these matters as I continue to use Lent to wrestle with what I believe and how I think I should act.
David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).
David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Savedis a direct, unwavering rejection of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, but also the ‘softer’ versions like annihilationism. Oddly, for many Christians (those Hart calls ‘infernalists’) there are few doctrines as precious as the belief in an eternal hell. Many Fundamentalists hate this book: do a quick Google search! On the other hand, I found it to be less a rejection and more of an embrace—an embrace of a God who is ‘the Good’ in this God’s very nature; an embrace of a God who won’t let even one evil or misfortune go without resolve as all things are reconciled back to this God.
In ‘Part 1: The Question of an Eternal Hell’, Hart spends two chapters dismantling (in my opinion) defenses of the compatibility between an eternal hell and a good God. In some sense, his abrasive rhetoric shows little interest in convincing the ‘infernalists’. Instead, he’s preaching to the (admittedly, very small) choir of Christians who either affirm the doctrine of universal salvation/reconciliation or who are seriously considering it but need to hear a voice that’s as filled with righteous indignation as often is heard from defenders of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment.
In ‘Part 2: Apokatastasis: Four Meditations’, Hart works through these four meditations: (1) Who is God?; (2) What is Judgment?; (3) What is a Person?; (4) What is Freedom?. Those who come to this book prepared to reject his arguments will do so. Those who come to this book prepared to consider his arguments, or like myself come ready to fully embrace them, will encounter a presentation of God that aligns with the Christian tradition while also being incredibly beautiful and hope-inspiring.
Some of the more important observations that Hart makes have to do with his meditation on personhood. Hart’s ideas echoed concepts on personhood in Buddhism that teach that we are all interconnected. As someone who teaches comparative religion, this resonated with me. In short, Hart argues that if even one person were to rot in hell forever, no one could be fully saved because there’s no me without you. His example would be a parent whose child was damned forever. If God wiped away that parent’s memory of the child, then the parent would enter eternity having lost something of their personhood. If God allowed them into the heavenly state as indifferent toward the suffering of their child, then we might ask how they are redeemed in any meaningful way. If like some theologians have suggested the parent rejoices in God’s justice and in their own salvation, well, this is just disturbing. Ultimately, our salvation is tied into the salvation of others. While there’s much more to say about this book, my advice is read it, especially if you’re a Christian who wants to embrace your religious tradition but fears that you can’t because of the doctrine of hell as it has been presented to you.