Our Gnostic Masters

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason.

— G.K. Chesterton —

We have become a nation of experts.

They are everywhere: on TV, advising us about raising our children or improving our sex life; in magazines and newspapers, lending a measure of weight to opinion pieces disguised as news; in business, promising to improve productivity and bolster profits through higher productivity, or slicker marketing, or yet another reorganization or “team-building” project. They are ubiquitous in government and politics, lending credence to the implausible and certainty to the unpredictable. Armed with statistics, and studies, and the ethereal proclamations of other unnamed experts like unto themselves, they saturate our psyche with innumerable “facts” and figures, that we may live perfect lives in an imperfect world. The chaos which swirls around us need not engender fear and hopelessness — there will always be an expert to hold your hand, lest you become lost and wander from life’s perfect path.

Intimidated by their credentials and self-assured certainty, we slowly relinquish the uneasy feeling that their advice and conclusions invariably run counter to our experience, and common sense, and the simple wisdom of life acquired through parents and parish, logic and lore. Theirs is a relentless battering of our natural defenses, made ever more potent by lives lived without margin, frantically running to and fro, pursuing the very goals our experts have set forth, while quietly dying to the insight gained by simplicity and satisfaction with life’s precious but fragile treasures. Their strident advocacy drowns out the the quiet wisdom whispered to the soul in contemplation and prayer, found only in reflection and the fertile soil of rich relationships.

The fecklessness of our experts is often utterly dispensable, if annoying, as our guilded guides waffle from truth to contradictory truth: “Take estrogen!” “Don’t take estrogen!” “All fats are bad!” “These fats are good!” “Sun causes cancer!” “Sun prevents cancer!” What is true today will be foolishness tomorrow — and nary a hint of humility will be heard from those who hustled us mere months before.

As our increasingly secular and superficial culture abandons the transcendent truths of faith and the tested wisdom of tradition, we search desperately for a lodestone upon which to ground our lives, and so trade trust and belief in transcendent and transformational absolutes for fear and the desperate desire to control the world which has become our enemy. We frantically cling to every proffered proof, no matter how foolish or feckless, seeking something upon which to ground and anchor our lives. As these sands shift dangerously beneath our feet, we lurch and stumble from fragile branch to broken rail, as we stagger along a path which leads ever downward.

Yet the allure of the experts can prove far more destructive than mere personal angst in a turbulent, fast-moving world: how many listened to the professionals who told us we could not lose in real estate? Leverage to the max, it can only go up! The consequences across the economy have been devastating — except for those who sold us this sage advice. These “experts” understood the game far better than the market, and walked away unscathed and wealthy, leaving only our wreckage in their wake.

Our dependence on the guidance of scientists, economists, educators, and technocrats proves especially toxic when their expertise becomes wedded to money and political influence. Under the guise of shielding us from the complexity of their disciplines, they evolve into closed guilds, guardians of a secret knowledge which we, in our harrowed and hectic lives, have no time and little interest in understanding. As our educational system — itself run by a closed guild — produces generations of students tutored in woman’s studies, postmodern deconstructionism, and the evils of the West, yet ignorant of logic, philosophy, and the rigors of the hard sciences, the problem is compounded. We increasingly are left with little recourse but to trust those who guard and disperse the hidden knowledge we no longer comprehend. Our gnostic masters dispense their wisdom; ours is but to nod, and obey.

Nowhere can this process better be seen than the unfolding drama surrounding the East Anglia email scandal. Centered on one of the three major centers for climate research and data in the world, the hacked emails and software code have ripped open the veil to show us the inner sanctum of science utterly corrupted and politicized. At issue is anthropogenic global warming (AGW) — the theory that recent warming trends in global temperatures are caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide from human activity, fostered by industrialization. It has long been a theory which struggled to pass the sniff test, placing undo weight on a trivial component of so-called greenhouse gases, while ignoring the enormous (and obvious) impact of solar activity, water vapor, and cloud cover. Yet for years we have been told — in increasing shrill and strident tones — that this theory is “settled science,” and there is an imminent crisis at hand.

It has been fascinating to watch this ball of yarn unravel. In what may prove to be the greatest hoax mankind has ever witnessed — most certainly the one with almost unimaginable financial impact globally — we are watching the “settled science” of AGW disintegrate. We read how data was manipulated to hide declining global temperatures and make them appear to be rising sharply (“Mikes nature trick“). The peer review process made sure no contrary or skeptical opinions were published, and efforts were made to delegitimize journals which published such articles. Proxy data such as tree-rings were cherry-picked to ensure that the data conformed to the AGW philosophy. FOIA requests for data were met with stonewalling and destruction of raw data. The homogenization of temperature station data — making adjustments to the temperatures to reflect changes in the surrounding environment, such as urbanization — showed shows striking and arbitrary adjustments to demonstrate a sharp rise in temperatures when no such changes existed in the raw data. Other major climate research centers are similarly stonewalling raw data requests. The data problems just scratch the surface; the software used to generate reports and alarmist graphs was incompetently written by amateur programmers — and could not even reproduce the graphs from the original data without massive software hacks and fudge factors — by the programmer’s own admission.

The response of climate scientists to these devastating revelations? Denial and attack. The response of the UN Climate gurus and American and Western policy makers? Denial and attack. The response of the media to this massive global meltdown of AGW “settled science? Silence.

Amazing.

Whatever the role of human activity in global warning, one thing is abundantly evident: the current “science” of AGW is not really science at all, but more closely resembles a pernicious, cultic religion. Its priesthood holds the secret knowledge about “climate change,” and we the fools who question or challenge them engender naught but condemnation, ridicule, hatred and disdain. For the priesthood and the true believers who bow to them, the payoff for guarding their secrets are huge: for our scientist priests, millions in research grants, often at taxpayer expense; for the evangelists (Al Gore comes to mind), the ability to engender hysteria with wild, apocalyptic climate claims while raking in millions on carbon trading and investments in “green” technology; for the politicians, the opportunity to further extend the control and power of government into every aspect of its citizens lives while pocketing huge political contributions from environmental groups and green industries.

We have been lectured endlessly by our postmodern mentors that religion is naught but ignorance and superstition, while scientific “facts” are Truth. But “knowledge is power,” as the saying goes — especially when the knowledge can be hidden behind a veil of secrecy, manipulated at will to conform to unchallengeable presuppositions and philosophies, then relentlessly drilled into our collective consciences through compliant and complicit channels of media, education, and politics.

The climate scientists are hardly alone in such gnostic gambits; evolutionary biology — whose “scientists” seem to spend most of their efforts proving that God doesn’t exist rather than demonstrating that their tattered and threadbare theories of evolution have an actual basis in reproducible science and genetics, and a demonstrable and reliable predictive value (which all solid science must have) beyond the the pure speculation and projection that comprises most evolutionary science. Think I’m being a crazy fundamentalist creationist? Try, as a scientist, to demand that evolutionists satisfactorily answer any host of devastating challenges to their theories: the irreducible complexity of biological subsystems such as the eye, the cellular mitochondria and intracellular protein factories; the entropy problem (complex systems tend naturally to disorder and chaos, not more complexity); the Cambrian explosion; the impossibly long odds that all physical constants stood at precisely the correct values at the instant of the Big Bang; the enormous problem of free will, higher intellect, and purpose in the human animal which has no precursors in lesser beasts. Challenge these — even with understated, respectful, and serious questions — and watch how quickly the ad hominem attacks begin, how quickly you will be excluded from “peer reviewed” literature, ridiculed and ostracized, and labeled as an ignorant creationist fundamentalist, an enemy of science — or worse.

In our repudiation of a world based on absolutes and transcendency, our free fall into secularization has ironically left us clinging to science as our sole absolute, our foundation in a world which no longer makes sense, in which there are no true absolutes. Yet science cannot bear such weight alone, detached as it has become from notions of absolute truth and the true nature of the creation that is man and his universe. It has become instead a tool of power, and manipulation, and deception. The ship of knowledge no longer has an anchor, and drifts aimlessly toward the rocks of self-righteous deception and the shoals of arrogance.

G.K. Chesterton, writing nearly a century ago, mused that “this is the age in which thin and theoretic minorities can cover and conquer unconscious and untheoretic majorities.” What was true then is ever more true today, as we relinquish our own convictions and the truths which come by faith and tradition for the perilous tyranny of rule by experts. True freedom requires absolute truth, with its liberating transparency and the humility of knowing we are not gods. Science detached from absolutes will not bring progress but peril, not truth but tyranny. In our quest for the Utopia which technology enticingly promises, to forget our foundational truths is to invite disaster and slavery.

Sadly, we are already well on our way.

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Speaking Truth to Power

From Hewitt:

Bishop Thomas Tobin opens a can of whoop-ass on Congressman Patrick Kennedy, on his “I’m pro-choice and a good Catholic, too” shtick:

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. …

There’s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that if you don’t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.”

But let’s get down to a more practical question; let’s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms … being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially?

In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don’t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?

Bravo. Look, if you’re pro-choice, fine. But spare us the hypocrisy of claiming to be a “faithful Catholic” and pro-abortion at the same time. That dog won’t hunt, and it’s long past time our vaunted political leadership got called on it.

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Life in the Necropolis

The recent arrest of Roman Polanski for statutory rape with a 13-year-old girl has peeled back the veil covering our cultural decay. Numerous artists, directors, and other Hollywood celebrities and powerbrokers have come out and condemned the arrest, while rationalizing his behavior and condemning what they see as unjust punishment. The public response to this has been somewhere between shock and revulsion, with many commentators, even the New York Times editorial page, expressing surprise and dismay at Hollywood’s response to a man who drugged and raped a minor.

Yet in the midst of the outrage about the crime and the response of media celebrities, there have been few if any who have grasped the implications of what this event and its response have uncovered. One can sense this confusion in the many commentaries speculating about the motives of an entertainment industry which seemingly approves and applauds such heinous behavior.

In our postmodern and post-Christian culture, we yet collectively retain an innate sense of wrong or evil behavior, while often being unable to define exactly why we find depredations such as Polanski’s reprehensible. We become even more bewildered when we encounter large swaths of seemingly intelligent individuals embracing and rationalizing such behavior. Remnants of a common moral and ethical framework for society remain, but significant segments of it no longer ascribe to the premises upon which it is based. We are faced with a new religion; a secular faith, morally amorphous and maddeningly incoherent. Yet it is rapidly becoming the dominant denomination and worldview of much of our culture.

It seems perhaps odd to describe a philosophical worldview which rejects any notion of God or moral absolutes as religion. Yet it is very much a moral and ethical framework, albeit one with considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, intellectual incoherence, and moral confusion. This growing secular orthodoxy finds its roots predominantly among those whose political leanings are leftist or progressive, although it is by no means exclusively confined to them, and may be found in its variants among libertarians and even conservatives.

What then are the doctrines and dogmas, if you will, of this rather confusing and contradictory confession?

In traditional religious understandings, especially that of the three great monotheistic faiths, the moral framework resides in absolutes established and communicated by a transcendent Being. While the specifics of what such absolutes entail and demand vary from one religious tradition to another, they all share the precept that human behavior is judged against the standards of a God, and that these standards exist above and apart from man himself. They are by their very nature transcendent. The behavior of man is judged against these unchanging principles, and resulting shortfalls ultimately must be redressed, either by compensatory good works, judgment, or by forgiveness and grace.

This secular religion, in contrast, posits the moral compass within the mind, exclusively. It is fundamentally Gnostic in nature. The morality of a given behavior is no longer judged based on a transcendent standard given and administered by a divine judge, but is rather graded by the knowledge or beliefs of the individual (or group) in question. Simply put, it is the belief system of the individual rather than his or her behavior which is the ultimate determinant of good or evil.

This core conviction gives rise to what appears to those who do not ascribe to this worldview to be a rather stunning propensity for hypocrisy. The identical behavior of two individuals, one of whom believes the “right” things, the other of whom believes the “wrong” things, will be judged in diametrically opposite ways. Those whose beliefs and politics are “correct” will have their errant behavior minimized, rationalized, justified, or ignored, while those whose beliefs are “incorrect” will be viciously condemned and castigated, despite high motives and noble intent. Our instinctive inclination to judge behavior against an unchanging moral absolute finds such arbitrary precepts irrational and frustrating — as indeed they are not really absolutes at all. What we are observing in practice is a guiding principle far removed from our instinctual dependence on moral law. That which is contradictory, hypocritical, and irrational when viewed from a traditional moral framework is in fact entirely predictable once we understand that the seat of moral judgment resides in what the individual believes, rather than what the individual does.

Postmodernism posits the notion of “narratives”, which are an understanding of culture and society largely determined by those in power. It specifically rejects the notions of Divine lawgiver or transcendent moral absolutes as mere narratives of religious power centers whose intent is to control. For the postmodernist, all behavior will ultimately be judged against their own narrative rather than an absolute which transcends culture and time. What the religionist views as a transcendent absolute is seen as nothing more than another narrative by the postmodernist — a narrative imposed by religious and paternalistic authority solely for the purpose of controlling the flock. The intersection of these two radically different worldviews makes compromise and communication virtually impossible between them, since there is no common framework of understanding or language to bridge the gap.

Even seeming linguistic commonalities lead to confusion in the interface between these cultures. For the traditionalist, the concept of evil, for example, represents a violation of moral absolutes, by individuals ultimately held responsible for their actions. In the postmodernist vocabulary, evil is corporate, embodied in institutions and groups, and is a social construct rather than a moral one. The rejection of absolute truth, and the resulting repudiation of reason as a basis for judgment, creates an exasperating comfort with contradiction, where cognitive dissonance is the norm, and that which is emotionally compelling or strongly believed becomes Truth by the mere force of conviction driven home by relentless repetition and coercive groupthink. The term “evil” thus no longer serves a universal meaning across the culture, and its use sows confusion rather than commonality. One could multiply examples without end from the linguistic miasma of politically correct speech, politics, and the mind-numbing inanity of popular culture.

The postmodern philosophy, now thoroughly inculcated throughout the culture through the vehicles of media, academia, entertainment, and politics, has created a fertile soil for the disintegration of a culture based on Western values of rationalism, moral restraint, and the sanctity and dignity of human individualism. Postmodernism is ideally suited for two outcomes: the acquisition of power, and libertinism. Power is acquired through the ruthless dismissal of all moral restraints in the achievement of pursued goals (morals serve only to advance the narrative, and may be redefined as the need arises); through the reinvention and redefinition of language to deceive and confuse; through the demonization of all who oppose the goal as the embodiment of evil; and through the erosive and relentless undermining of the traditional societal and moral constraints which oppose the desired cultural and political changes.

While at the cultural and political level this bequeaths a brutish and divisive social milieu, enforcing a collective coerced conformity of thought and speech, at the individual level, paradoxically, the very opposite occurs. Non-conformity becomes the norm, as radical individualism and autonomy breeds a disdain for restraint in appearance, behavior, and speech. With the loss of the notion that man is a reflection of a divine Creator, and accountable to a higher Being or Law, the individual must compensate for his devaluation (for we are, after all, just cosmic accidents) by becoming ever more outlandish and outrageous in ways self-destructive, offensive to others, and hideous. Michael Jackson becomes our Dorian Gray — as the rotting necropolis of the spirit seeps through the grave clothes we have so carefully wrapped, having whitewashed the entombed soul with plastic surgery, slick production, Photoshop edits and high fashion. Our Ferragamos and facelifts, our tattoos and painted toes, are but weathered signposts on the rutted road to the expansive wasteland of our inner desolation.

In this postmodern desert, where higher purpose and divine restraint are nowhere to be found, all behavior becomes subject to the self-referential and self-justifying emotionalism of self-gratification. Tolerance becomes the standard by which we increasingly accept the intolerable; only restraint, tradition, and religion remain as worthy of contempt, bigotry, depreciation, or outright hatred. Since there is no evil, evil thrives, ever becoming the norm in a cultured stripped of decency, respect, modesty, and self-sacrifice. There is but one fixed point on the postmodernist’s map: the self. With no true North to fix its moral position, the compass needle swings wildly in every direction, resting only on its own center.

The ironic truth of godless postmodernism is that its gods are legion — and they are merciless. The cruel god of Age destroys the fatuous goddess of Beauty. Gaia, worshiped in rituals of trivial privations by pitiful men and the emptied treasuries of nations, hurtles her planet relentlessly to chaos and destruction, in turns by heat or cold, despite those proffered drink offerings. The god of Human Progress weaves delusional hopes of Utopia as humankind bewitched by her visions hurtles violently downward toward Hell. The deities of science and technology deliver not sought-after salvation but ever more frightening sorcery whereby man may be enslaved, devalued, depraved, and destroyed. The worship of the trees, the sycophantic paeans to science, the lugubrious celebration of joyless lust, do naught to appease the gods: the world remains utterly beyond our control, dangerous and unpredictable and profoundly unsatisfying.

And so we turn back to the Dream: the Utopian vision of a world at peace, unified and prosperous, where all problems resolve propitiously as Mankind becomes One, while religious bigotry, ignorance and superstition fade to black. It is always but one more revolution away. But the ethereal vision remains just out of reach, its ephemeral promises an illusion. As we grasp at the shadow in the mists, rather than finding hope we find hatred; rather than finding tranquility, tyranny; rather than finding Paradise we discover a sordid pit of perdition, as our promised deliverance devolves into deviancy and our perceived blessings into barbarism.

It is a dark road down which we travel, made the more frightening by the delusional grandiosity of those whose vision propels us forward. One wishes, were it possible, to stand astride a generation gone mad and scream, Stop!! — in hopes that even some might heed, and awaken to the disaster before them. But even such might prove to no avail; the delusion is powerful, and obsessive, and intoxicating, and relentless.

And the road ahead seems likely to be littered with extraordinary wreckage.

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Deep Waters

The following essay was originally posted in June 2005. The story is a true one, although the names have been changed.

 
They say that hell is hot. Sometimes, however, it is very, very cold.

Jim loved Alaska — it had been his home since birth. God’s country: wild, unpredictable, spectacular in beauty–there was no place like it on earth. Cities were a necessary evil, with their services and surliness, but out in the wild was where life could be found. Out among the glaciers, the ragged mountains framing the endless blue sky like jagged, broken glass, out where grizzlies snatched salmon from raging rapids, shortening their march to death as they fought wild currents to reach their spawning grounds. Out where eagles graced the sky, soaring above green fir spires and spotless snow fields. Out where God lived, where a man could see His hand, and hear His voice.

Jim lived a simple life of simple faith. He loved his wife as he loved the land, and together they were blessed with six children–three older girls, the twin boys, and a baby son their most recent gift. Each was a treasure greater than the next. Their lives were story book: The lodge they owned nestled near the shores of Lake Clark, a large inland glacial sea, mirroring the snow-peaked mountains surrounding it. Summers were busy–hunting and fishing tours, visitors from afar seeking trophies and photographs, decked in newly-purchased gear from REI in the lower 48. Jim loved to fly–the float planes lifted gracefully from the lake, carrying their awestruck passengers over endless miles of breathtaking beauty to some far-away stream where tied flies touched water and fish broke airborne for their last meal.

Out in the bush, relationships were few in number but rich and deep. Church was more than a Sunday obligation–it was a place where life was shared, joys celebrated, suffering comforted–a place where faith begot works, where love put on snowshoes and helped stack the winter’s wood. Family life was alive, ripe with blueberries picked, hikes to the falls, and quiet nights beside campfires. Summers passed quickly at Bible camp, concentric ripples of cannonballs and giggles of joy rolling across the lake from the old dock. Dates with dad and high tea with mom found no competition from mindless cartoons, and bedtime prayers thanked Jesus for His goodness and God for His gifts.

Winter was time for quiet reflection, as the short days and deep snows kept sportsmen far away, and school and indoor chores made the time pass slowly but with purpose. The plane was their lifeline: what few roads there were became impassible in deep snow, and flights to Anchorage a necessity for supplies and health care. The girls came along often, although the younger boys stayed with friends and relatives for lack of space.

Jim had tens of thousands of hours of flying experience, a skill which paid rich dividends in the harsh, capricious winters of south Alaska–there was little in the way of flying conditions he had not challenged and mastered. So this flight to Anchorage in February was a pleasant surprise: the low gray skies broke open to display the rare winter glory of sunshine on pristine snowfields, the glorious tinted rim of Alaska Range peaks and deep seas of Cook Inlet. The supplies garnered and the girls’ dental care completed, they took off for the return flight to home and hearth.

The storm struck without warning, a white she-devil blown in from the Gulf, the Cessna buffeted by sharp, hard winds as visibility and ceiling dropped precipitously. The instruments held true, and countless hours of difficult flying forged Jim’s nerves steely and his focus intent. Mom held the girls’ hands, distracting them from natural fears with songs and stories and heads held to breast, her own pounding heart betraying her calm demeanor. “Will we be OK, mommy?” “Jesus will bring us home, honey.”

The GPS told Jim they were indeed near home–the lighthouse in space beaconing safety and rest. By reckoning they should be near the lake, just a few miles out from the landing strip. But Nature had not finished yet, her rage reserved for one final blow.

A whiteout in a small plane is dreadful beyond imagining. Suspended between earth and sky, with no point of reference, no sense of up or down, sensory deprivation in a aluminum rocket. Your training trusts your instruments, but instinct and eyes scream for visual confirmation. There! On the right! Through a brief window in the suffocating white blindfold, a dark line: the outline of the lake shore. Jim banked the plane toward this beacon of hope. “Are we home yet, daddy?” “Almost there, honey.”

But wild Nature held one last vengeance: an atypical winter thaw had opened a long dark crack in the ice, normally frozen solid in February. The line Jim saw was not the shore. The plane hit water at airspeed.

The prop and windshield exploded. The cabin filled instantly with icy water, as Jim craned his neck to reach the fast-retreating air, still restrained by his harness. Years of wilderness training sprung to life, as without a thought he grabbed his Bowie and cut free the webbing. He struggled with the girls’ restraints, hopelessly locked between seats crumpled by the impact. His wife was nowhere to be seen. Time was up–the air was gone. He broke from the cabin, gasping for air at the surface, hoping to dive and try again to free his treasures. It was not to be: the plane sank like a millstone, 600 feet to the bottom of the frozen fjord, entombing the family he worshiped.

In shock, he looked around. His wife, by some miracle, thrown from the plane at impact, had struggled to the surface and clung to a floating berg. Spared from a frigid tomb, they stood on a fragile shelf of thin and breaking ice. Over two miles from the shore, clothing soaked through in sub-zero temperatures, their survival was still a loser’s bet. Slowly they worked their way shoreward, breaking through the ice at times, body temperatures dropping despite their exhausting physical efforts. Guided by some hand unseen, they finally fell exhausted on shore, finding shelter in an empty lodge. Blinded by cold and head trauma sustained in the crash, Jim was led into the cabin by his wife, who cut off his frozen clothes and started a fire.

Friends awaiting their arrival grew anxious, and the Air National Guard was called. A Pavehawk helicopter–battling the same merciless weather–located the crash site, and ultimately reached them at the cabin. Even then, they could not be evacuated, as conditions grounded the rescue helicopter until morning. A friend flew a Piper cub–braving the same horrendous storm–to bring arctic sleeping bags and warm food. Bravery, love, and duty had spared their lives.

Months passed. Physical healing came quickly, but the rawness of heart wept like an open sore, gently salved by friends and faith, prayers and potlucks, tears and thankfulness. The boys were precious as never before, but the emptiness of heart left by a lost child cannot be filled. The rage at God passes–slowly–as strength flows from trust born of countless old decisions to set aside self and act in faith. But the memories remain–the laughter lost, the peace of a sleeping child, the love of a flower picked, the unexpected hug. There is no answer to “why?“–only time, and trust, and talk, and the tender whispering of a gentle Spirit. Yet one haunting regret refused to die: the vasectomy Jim had undergone after their last son–expeditious at the time, financially prudent–was now a self-imposed prison in a home filled with people, yet achingly empty.

And so they sat in my office, seeking my skills to restore what no man should be asked to provide–hope and happiness. And they told their story, my heart aching with each small detail disclosed. Jim was a man of enormous character and strength, his wife still bearing the unspeakable pain on her face–yet there was no shame in the tears that welled up in their eyes. As I gently probed deeper with almost unseemly curiosity, I was drawn in by the most remarkable revelation: these two would stand. Theirs was a strength not merely of hardiness, or training, or steely denial hiding a dying heart, but of power beyond the means of any mortal. They had faced the hell that men fear even to consider, and conquered it. There was glory in their weeping, victory in their agony. They would never be alone, and never be defeated. I, the proud expert, felt strangely insignificant in their presence.

The surgery went well, and early recovery smoothly. As I spoke with Jim before he left for home, he talked about the girls who had loved their daddy and whom he still loved so deeply. “You know, if I could fly to heaven and bring them back, they would not want to come. Their happiness is complete, ours still unfulfilled. Jesus has indeed brought them home.”

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The Sword of Grace

Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace

 
We struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.

If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.

Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?

I was afraid you were going to ask that.

And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.

What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.

It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.

It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.

It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.

It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.

It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.

Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.

We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”

Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.

The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.

When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.

Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.

Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.

After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.

We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.

Sort of.

The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.

And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.

The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.

At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.

The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.

Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.

How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.

But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.

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