Feelings and Pastoral Ministry

R. Reno has some very helpful reflections over at First Things blog about the recent "relatio" from the Vatican about the church's pastoral responsibilities to individuals wrestling with sexual sin and its results.

The media is going crazy about it. Reno doesn't believe it's nearly as big a deal as CNN would tell you, but he is concerned for the Catholic Church.

An excerpt:

The second thing to say is that the discussion seems to want something impossible: ideals without judgments, goals without rules, principles without “discrimination.” This reflects the incoherence of modern liberal culture, which is also finding its way into the Synod. 

Paragraph 46 exemplifies. The topic is the one that generated the most controversy before the Synod: the status of divorced and remarried Catholics. We read that their situation requires “careful discernment”—certainly true. But the document continues by insisting that pastoral respect for them as children of God (my language) should “avoid any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against.” 

How is this possible? Wouldn’t the mere recitation of Mark 10:11 make a divorced and remarried person feel discriminated against? (That verse quotes Jesus: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”) 

The misstep here is very, very significant. Paragraph 46 makes ourfeelings the criterion of the Church’s pastoral ministry. This is the express route to the dictatorship of relativism. Feelings are feelings, and nobody can question, refute, or debate them. If we make feelings the criterion, then the truth about discrimination (and much more) is subjective.

This is very important for Christians in the West to understand and articulate. Modern liberal culture, in wanting to impose change on the church, often does so through a moral judo, using Christian virtues of grace, patience, humility and hope against her. "Aren't Christians supposed to be kind and forgiving?"

Certainly, pastoral care requires each of these virtues and more. But love teaches us that, apart from truth and holiness, these virtues wither and die. Jesus came with both grace and truth. 

Read the rest here.

"Cracks in the Secular"

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye. (The Little Prince, 1943)

On Monday, I attended a lecture at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco by Marcelo Gleiser, author of The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. Gleiser is a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College who is refreshingly critical of pride in the scientific establishment.

The Limits of Science

In his book and lecture, he examines the limits of science by looking at the study of cosmology (big stuff), quantum mechanics (tiny stuff), and the mind ("person"-al stuff). While humanity has made substantial gains in these three fields, what we know highlights all that we don't know. It is undeniable that most of the universe, big and small and immaterial, is not just unknown but unknowable by way of science. According to Gleiser, our limits should not discourage us but push us onward. "Limits are not obstacles but triggers. It is the search that makes us matter." 

Gleiser is a secular scientist. Elsewhere, he writes, "The starting point of my argument is that only matter exists." He does not advocate for supernatural knowledge. He won't accept divine revelation as a source of information. Gleiser is satisfied with science while remaining aware of its limits. This is admirably different from other scientific celebrities like Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye, and to be appreciated.

The Failure of Scientism

But as I listened afterward to questions posed by listeners, I realized that other people weren't so easily satisfied. They weren't okay with being shipwrecked on an island of knowledge. How can something as personal as the mind be beyond our grasp? There must be some way of knowing more.

Frustrations with science are bubbling up more and more in modern society. Science has given us so much, but scientism feels empty. The urge to procreate can explain turtles on Galapagos, but can it explain what makes us truly human? For scientism to be true, personhood must be reduced not just to biology, but then further to chemistry and further still to physics. How does this not eliminate personhood altogether?

James K. A. Smith writes in the editorial ("Cracks in the Secular") for the current issue of Comment Magazine,

What if an increasingly aggressive secularism (coming especially from secular "elites") is itself a defense measure, a kind of last gasp of a worldview that feels frustrated and even threatened? What if secularism is loudest precisely because it is a final cry before it is unveiled as implausible and unsustainable? Doesn't the emperor shout loudest about the beauty of his raiment precisely when he least believes it himself? What if secularism has its doubts and is just trying to cover it up by pursuing its agenda all the more aggressively lest they have to consider the alternative?

Find Your Beach

Sadie Smith reflects in The New York Review of Books on what it's like to live in Manhattan, a city full of people obsessed with self-actualization. It sounds a lot like new San Francisco.

"You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires”—there is something sociopathic in that ambition."

Read the rest here.

The Paradox of Thrift

In this week's Economist magazine, the Leaders include an article on the struggling economies of Japan and South Korea. Ironically, they're struggling because they have too much cash. Together they are sitting on $2.5 trillion dollars, which is a big problem. The authors explain:

The odd thing about prudence is that too much of it can be deadly. Timid drivers crawling along a motorway create more risk than they avoid. Children who are over-protected from germs end up with weaker immune systems. Economies are the same: too much saving can lead to a loss of vigor or, as Keynes put it, to a "paradox of thrift."

Maybe Jesus was a Keynesian.

"For the kingdom will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money..." (Matthew 25:14-18)

You know the rest. The master returns and rewards the servants who invested their money and punishes the servant who buried his money. In this parable, Jesus equates risk with faith while calling inaction sloth and wickedness.

The paradox of thrift applies to kingdom of God as much as it applies to the kingdoms of men. But how many of us plan our lives around self-preservation instead of obedience and kingdom-advancement? Are our churches losing their vigor because we're failing to spend what God has given us?

God has given the American church so much. We have a lot of money. We live in a country and culture that awards us lots of time, freedom, and mobility. We are highly educated and skilled, with an opportunity to get more if we need it. Most importantly, we've been given spiritual gifts uniquely suited to the Great Commission.

These resources are awesome, but only if we spend it. If we don't, we'll lose our vigor. Our churches will grow dull. And, if we don't make changes, eventually the Master will return and take away anything we have left.

Like Twitter, but with Jesus.

First and Second Corinthians are in my view the most relevant books of the New Testament for church planting in San Francisco.

The Corinthian church was preoccupied with success and prestige. They wanted Paul to speak eloquently and powerfully, like other Roman celebrities. They were ashamed of Paul's constant suffering. They wanted to have the greatest spiritual gifts, and have them in the greatest number. They worried about wealth and status in their worship and communion celebrations. They bragged about their church, even while harboring openly incestuous relationships and suing one another in public court. None of this made them more popular with their pagan neighbors. In fact, Paul said they were becoming a joke.

If we're not careful, the church in San Francisco will fall prey to the same temptations. We'll feel pressure from San Francisco's highly-educated, highly-cultured populace to talk higher than we need to about topics that we needn't address. We'll be tempted to spend our money in the same way San Francisco spends its money. To wield power in the same way they wield power. We'll celebrate our neighborhood's gentrification instead of it's restoration. We'll buzz on buzz words. We'll resort to sales pitches over relationships. We'll fantasize about being the next big startup, "like Twitter, but with Jesus." And, to the residents of San Francisco, we'll become a joke, too.

Paul's Core Values

Whereas the Corinthians saw foolishness and weakness as a liability, Paul believed they were essential to effective gospel ministry.

“And I, when I came to you, brothers,did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1–5 ESV)

“He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10 ESV)

Foolishness and weakness. How would you like those to be your church's core values? "At First Baptist Church, we value foolishness and weakness. It's behind everything we do."

What Does This Look Like?

Paul would not bow to the Corinthian pressure to act like the world. After all, the world's wisdom hadn't proved all that successful. Paul's money was on Christ, the Savior who willingly died on a cross to save his people.

By anyone's standards, Christ was foolish and weak. Yet, it was his gospel that was the power of God for salvation to all who believe. Not the latest techniques or gadgets. Not a TED talk. Just "Jesus Christ and him crucified." And so Paul built it into the very fabric of his ministry. It wasn't just about what he preached. It was about how he lived and served. What tools did he avail himself of? Not lofty speech or plausible words, but tears and trembling and demonstrations of the Spirit and of power.

What does it look like in San Francisco to embrace foolishness and weakness for the sake of the gospel? To eschew worldly wisdom and power? How do we avoid the idolatries of cultural success while still striving to penetrate that same culture with the gospel?

Are we willing to  intentionally choose foolishness and weakness, so that our faith would rest not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God?