Posts tagged ‘identity’

July 1, 2011

the implied restraints of faithfulness

For some time now, I have been growing in my understanding of how many cultural disorders are related to hatred of limits. The aspiration to limitlessness was embedded in the first temptation and the original sin, it informed the earliest docetic and Gnostic heresies, and it inspired the founding intellects of modernity. Many sincere Christians still have some sense that being limited is an effect of sin, rather than a condition of the Creation. Both Genesis accounts of Creation (in chapters 1 and 2) resound with the establishment of boundaries—in time, in space, in ontology, and in vocation. God created all things (including his image-bearers) to thrive within limits, and he then asserted that this circumstance of Creation is very good. After delivering the mandate to serve as his regents and stewards over all Creation, God reminds Adam and Eve that they are creatures who are bounded. They do not exist independently, but must turn to the earth (from which they came and to which will return) for food, for the stuff of life. But not all the food in the Garden was on the menu. Man was limited and needy in his created state, and his continued fellowship with God required the recognition of boundaries.

Almost all human cultures have pursued the task of defining and governing boundaries in human behavior. Philip Rieff argued (in The Triumph of the Therapeutic) that every culture survives “by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” The story of modern Western culture, however—a culture built around the ideal of the sovereign self—is a story of the abandonment of restrictions and restraints in the name of human freedom. Our institutions have increasingly been defined in terms of encouraging liberation from limits rather than cultivating a conscientious honoring of limits.

…With echoes of numerous theologians who have related the imago dei to our essential relationality, Berry questions the understanding of freedom that dominates modern culture. “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom of Words, ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. All this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”

Ken Myers rarely has a thought that is not backed up by much reading and reflection. These thoughts of his from an online posting spoke volumes to me in several areas.

June 25, 2011

endure all things as if foreigners

Eduard Bendemann “The Sorrowful Jews in Exile,” 1832 (from Psalm 137)

This Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus is a strong contender for the earliest Christan apologetic. Chapter five spells out a simple and beautiful attitude of early Christians toward the world around them:

CHAPTER V — The Manners of the Christians.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Today I was at the Society for Classical Learning conference where Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio) challenged us to consider (among many other earnest issues) how the church (the assembly of God’s people) should live together with a distinctive culture of their own, one that is not arbitrary but like a stable, growing and ongoing new nation diffused within and throughout the nations of the world. This favorite passage about the “Manners of the Christians” seems in some ways to say that the church is not called to produce a unique community with a full culture of its own, so it continually came into my mind as a question during this lecture. However, upon reading the passage again, it is hard to imagine how such a tightly-knit and unique community within any nation could help but form a distinct counter-culture that would mature in beautiful ways, presenting a continual contrast and challenge to the culture of the surrounding nation or empire.

June 14, 2011

therefore call one man

Today several friends spent the morning together reading poetry connected to Pentecost (June 12 on the church calendar). I had several other passages vying in my mind for today, but this poem by Czeslaw Milosz drove them all out for now.


Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me–after all I have some decency–
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.

Berkeley, 1961

And here’s a little background on the poet:

Miłosz wrote all his poetry, fiction and essays in Polish and translated the Old Testament Psalms into Polish.

…In 1980 Miłosz received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since his works had been banned in Poland by the communist government, this was the first time that many Poles became aware of him.

…Through the Cold War, Miłosz’s name was often invoked in the United States, particularly by conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr., usually in the context of Miłosz’s 1953 book The Captive Mind. During that period, his name was largely passed over in silence in government-censored media and publications in Poland.

The Captive Mind has been described as one of the finest studies of the behavior of intellectuals under a repressive regime. Miłosz observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily those with the strongest minds, but rather those with the weakest stomachs; the mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much. (

June 11, 2011

nothing to yours

Yesterday, I listened in the car with my family to part of The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis). I teared up a little at this sentence: “The two boys were looking into each other’s faces and suddenly found that they were friends.” There are many goodbyes with family, friends and even brief acquaintances where I have felt that I was saying goodbye to someone that I had known for a long time and would really like to adventure with forever.

There is also the beautiful element of this story where Shasta gets a glimpse of his true self in the person of Corin. Significantly, however, the prince recognizes that, in some sense, the pauper’s adventures are more substantial than his own. It’s a hint, I think, about how we might view our current lives in the light of eternity. (All from chapter 5.)

“I’m nobody, nobody in particular, I mean,” said Shasta. “King Edmund caught me in the street and mistook me for you. I suppose we must look like one another. Can I get out the way you’ve got in?”

After hearing Corin’s story, Shasta adds:

“I’m a Narnian, I believe; something Northern anyway. But I’ve been brought up all my life in Calormen. And I’m escaping: across the desert; with a talking Horse called Bree. And now, quick! How do I get away?”

And here are their parting words:

“Thanks,” said Shasta, who was already sitting on the sill. The two boys were looking into each other’s faces and suddenly found that they were friends.

“Good-bye,” said Corin. “And good luck. I do hope you get safe away.”

“Good-bye,” said Shasta. “I say, you have been having some adventures.”

“Nothing to yours,” said the Prince. “Now drop; lightly I say,” he added as Shasta dropped. “I hope we meet in Archenland. Go to my father King Lune and tell him you’re a friend of mine. Look out! I hear someone coming.”

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