Participation in the Life of God

“[T]he way Christians eat together, keep time, celebrate, forgive debts, express thanks, show hospitality, demonstrate compassion, live simply, and share their material resources with one another is an actual participation in the life of the triune God through whose Spirit we have been incorporated into a body whose head is Christ.” Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness

Church Involvment

“Church involvement in the New Testament sense means the development of intimate, heathy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” – Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family

When the Church Was a Family

“The evidence is conclusive, and the voices are unanimous. For Jesus, Paul, and early church leaders throughout the Roman Empire, the preeminent social model that defined the Christian church was the strong-group Mediterranean family.” Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family

Benedict Option

Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict Detail from a fresco by Fra Angelico

The blogosphere is teaming with posts and discussion about the Benedict Option, especially since the recent SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage. What exactly is the Benedict Option? Rod Dreher, the leading proponent of it explains:

“[The Benedict Option is] my name for an inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture. The name comes from the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic of moral philosophy, After Virtue, in which he described the state of contemporary moral discourse as irresolvably chaotic — irresolvably, because we have no common source of moral behavior anymore, and have decided, as a culture, that moral truth is something one arrives at by feeling.”

While the term might be new, the idea is very old. In fact, it harkens back to Saint Benedict who is considered one of the key founders of monasticism.

We have always considered our life together as sharing something in common with traditional monasticism. While many tend to have a simplistic, negative and often erroneous view of monasticism, a thoughtful study of it will reveal that monastic orders have been centers of Christian truth and ideals that have helped to preserve society. The Kingdom of God is a counter-cultural reality, initiated by Jesus and embodied by His Church. In a way, you might say that the Benedict Option is just another name for simply being the Church.

Not everyone is called to live in intentional community, but every Christian should be vitally part of Christian community in some form. I believe all this talk about the Benedict Option is really a call to Christians to be the Church. This is how we see it and why we live the way we do.

Here are some links about the Benedict Option:

Podcast links if you prefer to just listen:

Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 3 – Types of Relationships

Dallas Willard, describing the state of our modern relationships, says, “[our] most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal harm, coldness, and resentment.” It’s hard to disagree with Willard when one looks at the society around us. And though there are many healthy relationships we can point to, if we honestly survey our own network of family and friends I think we have to concur with Willard. Relationships currently are not our strong suit. But why?

No help from culture

The answer to the question of why we are experiencing such brokenness in our relationships is complex. Volumes are written to address this very question, but it doesn’t seem to be helping us. In fact, one could argue that we are less successful in our relationships today than previous generations. It seems evident that we lack some basic understanding of how relationships work. Perhaps this knowledge was unconsciously transmitted to previous generations through traditions, customs and conventions. This would explain why today we are apparently lost at sea when it comes to building healthy relationships, since this generation is characterized by the wholesale discard of tradition and conventional morals.

Since we can’t count on culture to effectively educate us on forming intimate relationships that are warm and enduring, we’re going to need to be much clearer about the nature of relationships than our parents and grandparents were. A helpful book I have found for understanding relationships is Vincent Brummer’s The Model of Love. In this theological work Brummer describes three categories of relationships: manipulative, rights and duties, and mutual fellowship. It’s impossible to do justice to this brilliant work in a blog post, but for the sake of brevity I’ll sum these ideas up with three keywords: control, contract, and communion.

Control

A manipulative relationship is characterized by control. One party tries to control another party. The controlled one is not given the respect and dignity of being a free person. They are a means to some end. The controller attempts to use them. A variety of techniques can be employed to manipulate someone – emotional appeals, altering circumstances, and outright force. In each case the controlled is treated as less than a person.

A warm relationship means that there is good will between the partners. A manipulator is primarily concerned with their own good and simply wants to instrumentalize the other in order to achieve it. While a manipulative relationship can appear warm, it’s superficial. Once the controlled person is no longer needed they will be handily discarded. Trust is eroded because one cannot trust someone who intends to only use them. Therefore this kind of relationship fails in the three things that make for good relationshipsrespect, trust and loyalty.

Contract

A relationship of rights and duties is one in which the partners collaborate together for some shared benefit. It’s a negotiated arrangement of cooperation. It’s obvious that working together can bring about beneficial results. Human welfare is dependent upon such arrangements and we encounter them in daily life through commerce and employment. We contract with others, explicitly or implicitly, to exchange labor, money, or other things for some benefit we deem valuable. In those contracts we have some duty (to hand over money or do some work) and we have some right (to get a product or receive a paycheck).

Respect, trust and loyalty make relationships of rights and duties function well. When any of these elements are weak or missing, you end up having a violation of expectations, which ultimately damages the relationship. Our courts are jammed with cases of contract violations. People’s expectations in some shared venture have been violated and the legal system is used to insure that one’s rights are enforced. Employees feel they have been unfairly treated. Customers are disappointed with their purchase. Suppliers can’t collect on their deliveries. Relationships of rights and duties are necessary for our well-being and they require virtue. But they can’t serve our need for communion.

Communion

Mutual fellowship relationships are friendships, or what we might call, love relationships. This type of relationship is characterized by affection and doesn’t serve some mere utilitarian purpose. The partners want to be together because they enjoy one another and are interested in each other’s welfare. Mutual fellowship relationships are full of meaning and are the kind of relationships that make life worth living. If respect, trust and loyalty are needed to have a good contractual relationship, they are essential to experience mutual fellowship. Like no other type of relationship, a person’s very being is on the line when they enter a friendship or love relationship, which makes virtue an indispensable ingredient. Family, marriages, friendships and romantic relationships are all mutual fellowship relations. Communion is the objective and freedom of the individual is the defining characteristic.

As we’ve seen, respect, trust and loyalty make for good relationships. But understanding the type of relationship we’re pursuing is just as important. Confusing the objectives or behaviors associated with one kind of relationship with another is a formula for disaster. If we want a friendship we best not try to pay for it. If we are purchasing a box of cereal we shouldn’t use affection to try to get a better price. And finally, if we trick or force people to relate to us we can only expect coldness and resentment. In other words, we must try to not be relationally dumb.

In future posts I’ll explore these ideas more closely.

Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 2 – Respect, Trust and Loyalty

Tangles of Reciprocal Harm

In my previous post I suggested that even though we have advanced technologically we are going backwards when it comes to managing our relationships. As Dallas Willard says, our “most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal harm, coldness, and resentment.” In a number of ways we are in a relational mess. Relationships characterized by warmth, security and endurance are increasingly rare. We lack the competence and character to sustain such relationships.

I’m not primarily arguing that everything in the past was ideal or if we could only return to the good ‘ole days everything would be fine. There is much to criticize about how relationships were conducted generations ago, and yet, in some things, they had common sense wisdom about relationships that we can’t seem to grasp today. It’s this practical insight I want to explore.

Respect, Trust and Loyalty

What makes for a good relationship? Simply, it’s three things: respect, trust and loyalty. These relational traits are what make up the practical insight we’ve lost. Again, I’m not making a past over present argument, but trying to show what kind of knowledge we apparently lack, which is so basic that, at the risk of sounding censorious, it makes us relationally dumb.

Respect, at its basic level, means recognizing and treating another person as an equal, affording them all the dignity and consideration we expect from others. It can also include honoring someone for their role or accomplishments. It’s refusing to try to control, use or manipulate them. Respect acknowledges the sovereignty of a person and their legitimate right to direct their own life and choose to whom they entrust themselves.

Relationships also depend upon trust to function well. Trust allows us to rely on another to will our good without needing coercion. It enables us to let down our guard and even share the more sensitive parts of our lives with someone. In other words, it allows us to be intimate. When we talk about warm relationships, we mean there is good will in those relationships. Both parties wish each other blessing and goodness and do what is in their power to realize the other’s happiness. Trust creates friendship and it’s friendship, in one form or another, that makes us relationally whole.

Loyalty, our third relational virtue, means that one will continue in a commitment of good will. Loyalty says I will be good to you today and tomorrow. This is what adds the endurance quality to a healthy relationship. Favoring long-term values and priorities over short-term ones is what loyalty is all about.

The Risk of Doing Good

It is important to understand that commitment to your good can include doing things that you may not immediately recognize as being good, for example, pushing you out of the way of an oncoming car. I am so committed to your good that I would even risk you initially thinking I’m harming you. If I failed to push you out of the way because I was afraid of your disapproval, that would show my commitment to your good is limited and not important enough to risk being misunderstood. Of course, this is an extreme case, and after my inaction you might not be around for it to matter, but you get my idea.

Certain assumptions our culture makes today undermine these values of respect, trust and loyalty. Additionally, certain practices that have gained cultural legitimacy actively corrode them. In future posts I’ll explain why this is so and demonstrate how they stunt our relational skills.

Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 1 - Driving with a blindfold

Progress

In many ways the modern world seems to have advanced in just about every way conceivable. Few die of dysentery (at least in the developed world), we carry enormous multi-media libraries in our pockets, and travelling across the globe is easy and affordable. Yet, one only has to survey their family and friends to discover that something has terribly gone wrong with our relationships. You don’t have to wax nostalgic to see that our relational competence has degraded while our technological acumen has increased.

It’s not that previous generations were free from greed, vice and selfish ambition, and we have made evils like slavery and discrimination unpalatable to most, but the sense of general decency and warmth enjoyed by previous generations is harder to find today. How many times have you heard an older person say, “We never locked our doors,” or “We looked out for each other,” or “We would never say things like that in public.”? I’m sure endless examples could be cited that supposedly contradict my point, nonetheless, I think it is hard to ignore the general consensus that we have lost something beautiful and wholesome in our relationships.

Be a Luddite?

Neither do I believe that technology is the culprit behind our relational desert wasteland. Technology is a tool and while a tool can influence how we interact with our world, we are the ultimate deciders of which tools we use and how we use them. Additionally, humans adapt well to new tools and, eventually, once the novelty wears off, we integrate them into our daily lives without much fanfare, and life proceeds as usual. The things that are important to us continue to shape our behavior and the tools end up empowering those choices.

Cognitive dissonance

What has lowered the temperature of our relational culture has more to do with our general view of people and relationships and the intentional suppression of our recognition that how we are acting violates our relationships. It’s the cognitive dissonance (and its impact) that comes from wanting the world to be a certain way and living accordingly, when we know it is not, in actuality, that way. To put it metaphorically, it’s the damage that results from driving with a blindfold. We’re dumb because we refuse to see.

Not Fantastic Four

I suggest that there are four central practices that cause our relational stupidity, which we know, deep in our heart, violate something fundamental about relationships. They are: sexual promiscuity, divorce, abortion, and career obsession. All of these four manners of living strike at the heart of some vital and intimate relationship and force us into a justification mode that distorts our understanding and leads us to live in a way that is less honest, less warm, and ultimately less satisfying.

In future posts I will elaborate on how relationships work, why sexual promiscuity, divorce, abortion and career obsession damage them and the deception we’re forced to embrace if we want to practice these behaviors.

Cruciform Love

Cruciform love takes it cue from the cross; Christ’s death was the ultimate act of selflessness that focused not only on others as individuals (“Christ died for me”) but on others as corporate bodies, as communities in need of reconciliation and harmony (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”). Cruciform loves resists the temptation to make myself the focus of everything, even of my spirituality. Cruciform love refuses to exercise rights, power, privileges, spiritual gifts, and so forth, if their use will do me good but someone else, or a community of which I am a part, harm. It liberates me from myself and for the other. – Michael Gorman, Cruciformity.

Do Not Fear (the right way)

“The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary, is ‘Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.’” John Macmurray