The Nashville Statement and an Islamic Tale Walked into A Bar…

926be0ae335555eb4dfe0e3eb9f2c358--sufi-quotes-jalaluddin-rumiI once heard that tortured Irish metaphysicist Peter Rollins tell this little Islamic tale:

A dervish was sitting alone one day, and a stranger came up behind him and slapped the back of his head.

The dervish whirled around, ready to defend himself, and the stranger said, “You can hit me, but first ponder this question with me: did the *smack* that we both just heard come from my hand or the back of your head?

The dervish glared at him and said, “You have the luxury of asking that question, but I do not, because I’m the one sitting here dealing with it.”

So my question to my evangelical friends who crafted and support this so-called Nashville Statement: you have a theory, loosely based on small bits of a huge tome of scripture, and not based at all in historical-critical study, that has to do with people who didn’t have a seat at the discussion table.

You released this in the middle of a huge national disaster, a few weeks after a huge white supremacist march which prompted multiple resignations from an administration that refused to outright denounce it at the highest level (but surprisingly none of those resignations came from within your advisory ranks).  You basically just reissued the same statement you’ve been trumpeting for years, chasing youth into conversion camps and suicide attempts, imperiling marriages as gay people marry straight people because there is no other option for them, continuing to be the genesis of strife in many families as parents are forced to choose between their faith and their out children.

And I want to know: “How’s this going for you?”

Because your little theory that you affirmed in this statement doesn’t take into account the people actually sitting there, dealing with it.  And every theory has to, at some point, wrestle with that refining question, “And how’s living with this perspective going for me?”

Here’s an idea: why don’t you invite a person who identifies as LGBTQ to sit with you at a bar? You bring your Nashville Statement, and they’ll bring their life story, about the fear of coming out to their family, about the shame they had to endure after that first person found out and told everyone, about how they tried to love somebody that convention told them they should and just couldn’t, about the time they contemplated (and attempted?) suicide, about falling in love but not being able to hold hands in public, about wanting children but being told by so many people that kids need a “mom and a dad.”

And then, at the end of the hour, after a few drinks (of whatever you want, don’t worry, I won’t tell), ask yourself, “How’s this statement going for me?”

Because after that, guess what: some of their experience will then be yours, if you have any semblance of a heart.

Oh, and here’s a theory: I bet many evangelicals would absolutely be open to accepting their LGBTQ kids, parents, and friends.  In fact, in their heart of hearts, my theory is that they already do.

Poet Christian Wiman writes in his heart-wrenching memoir, My Bright Abyss, “How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that have made us miserable, or beliefs that prove to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering–or great joy–comes.”

Lord, this is most certainly true.

You know what I think those people in my theory are worried about?  

What other parents, kids, and friends will say.  Will they say something like this Nashville Statement?

And to them…well, I want to just encourage them to come out of the closet.

On Doctrine: A Re-Traction

Lennie and George speak in broken conversation.  George telling, and retelling Lennie about the farm that they’ll have one day.  Lennie basking in the glow of this beautiful thought: rabbits of his very own.

But George cautions Lennie when it comes to cats.  Afterall, every farm has to have cats to keep rodents away…and to generally complete the requisite animal quotiant  to relegate a dwelling a “farm.”

“We’d have a setter dog and a couple  stripe cats, but you gotta watch out them cats don’t get the rabbits.”

And Lennie really only desires the rabbits.

“Lennie breathed hard. ‘You jus’ let ’em try to get the rabbits.  I’ll break their God damn necks.  I’ll….I’ll smash ’em with a stick.’ He subsided, grumbling to himself, threatening the future cats which might dare disturb the future rabbits.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a great study in literature…and a great study in people.  Lennie’s defense of that which he desires most, rabbits (or the feel of rabbit fur, or the idea of keeping fur around without breaking the necks of the furry, or whatever you deem his deepest desire is), is typical of people, I think.  In fact, I would say that this reactionary defense is probably the one lone characteristic in Lennie that is not affected by his cognitive struggles.

We defend most heartily that which we desire most.

I received a communication recently from a good friend and fellow pastor asking about the apparent dichotomy created in my first post between doctrine and dogma on the one hand and the Jesus movement on the other.  This friend was quick to point out that he wasn’t disagreeing, but simply wanted some clarification:

Didn’t the Jesus movement necessarily need doctrine (and the creation thereof) in the face of Donatism, Docetism, Arianism, and other such challenges?

The short answer: yes.  Of course.  In any sort of conception of a theological position there is never an “a-position.”  That is, even if you claim to stand nowhere…that is a stance, a place, a position.  The Jesus movement surely needed to refine, re-think, re-discover it’s position on the role of pastors, on the person of Christ, on the oneness and threeness of God…

Yes, of course.

But they are rabbits, are they not?  Dreams of a possibility that can’t yet be touched.

They’re not imaginary; they’re very real.  But they’re only real in so far as they point to the Real.  If they go further, they become no longer the symbols, the subject, of the desired, but the object of desire.

“I desire Trinity.”  “I desire Orthodoxy.”

Instead of, “I desire the God that the doctrine of the trinity helps me to wrap my mind around, if incompletely.”

Instead of, “I desire the God that orthodoxy (however defined) wants to show.”

We need a re-traction of doctrine.  Doctrine should not give something, but should point to something…point outward, further than itself.

Back to Rollins:

“The job of the church is not to provide an answer-for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine-but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise…the silence that is part of all God-talk is not the silence of banality, indifference or ignorance but one that stands in awe of God.  This does not necessitate an absolute ‘silencing,’ whereby we give up speaking of God, but rather involves a recognition that our language concerning the divine remains silent in its speech.”

We say too much in saying anything, and say too little in saying nothing.

But doctrine, for all its benefit, has become a rabbit.

“Believe this and be saved.  Attack this and I’ll smash you with a stick.”

This past weekend I watched religious TV on Sunday morning…the bed and breakfast had cable.  I flipped through four different religious programs.  Some were complete services, some were snippets of “teachings,” some were call-in shows.  Very different.

Yet very similar.

They each promised to give the viewer something.  One was “The Four Essentials of Faith.”  Another was, “How God can Help your Wealth.”  Fill in the blank here with some other infraction on the Second Commandment, as I am most certain that God does not want to help you, or me, get wealthy in any sort of way that we would identify as wealth…

And they each reminded me of why I’m a reluctant Christian.

These programs are so popular with their lovely memes impregnating the minds of views, both live audience and electronic audience.  And this is the mistaken, idolatrous promise (illusory as it is) of doctrine: it gives you something.

Instead, the real promise of doctrine is that it points to something…points past itself.

Please, Lord, save me from being saved and all the wonky ways we’ve devised to save ourselves from each other, from other doctrines, from, whatever it is we run from.

“The religious individual tears out all the idolatrous ideas that have impregnated the womb of his or her being, becoming like Mary, so that the Christ-event can be conceived within him or her-an event whose transformative power is matched only by its impenetrable mystery.”

Do we need doctrine?  In so far as it points us toward that which is beyond our knowing, yes.

Do we need to be saved from doctrine?  In so far as it has become our rabbits, mice, soft toys to pen, and hold, and pet, and defend with sticks, yes.

The Beauty of Empty


Peter Rollins is changing my life; changing my faith.  His short work How (Not) to Speak of God, has caused me to yell both “Yes!” and “No!”…and I love him for it.

In this work he presents an interesting insight which has since caused me hours of meditation.

He notes that in Albert Camus’ ingenious work The Stranger (published as The Outsider in Britain), we are presented with Meursault, a character who indeed lacks what most theologians, thinkers about God, advocates for faith call “a God-shaped hole” (yes, I hate this phrase as well).  When confronted by a prison chaplain, hours before his impending death, with the subject of why Meursault refused to entertain a visit by the chaplain, Meursault says:

“I replied that I didin’t believe in God.  He wanted to know whether I was quite sure about that and I said I had no reason for asking myself that question: it didn’t seem to matter…I may not have been sure what really interested me, but I was absolutely sure what didn’t interest me.  And what he was talking about was one of the very things that didn’t interest me.”

Rollins identifies Meursault’s response as a “quiescent anti-theism in the sense that it pays not attention to theism or atheism.”  In essence, the religious answer (broadly stroked) is ridiculous because the question that orthodox religion seeks to answer is ridiculous.  God is unnecessary.

But the apathy implied here is misleading, I think, and although I don’t believe Rollins intends to imply that the modern response to religion is one of apathy, I think that is a conclusion (a wrong one) that can be drawn here.  Meursault is not apathetic; rather, he’s gravely concerned…just not concerned with the question that orthodox religion seeks to answer.  He’s not concerned with a “God-shaped hole” being filled.

I’m not either.

Indeed, I haven’t found many people apathetic about God or religion.  Christopher Hitchens, one of the foremost authors of the New Atheism (wrongly named…the ideas are not new, just the vehemence), writes in the first chapter of his oft-cited work God is Not Great that, “I would not prohibit (religion) even if I thought I could,”…and then goes on to write a 296 page book, with eight pages of references, an index, and a study guide explaining why humanity should do away with religion.

It seems that either Hitchens is lying, or is mistaken.  Either way, perhaps Paul was correct in his assessment of humanity, and himself: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Indeed, the passion with which Hitchens writes is evidence that, far from apathetic, Hitchens is ultimately concerned with the “God-shaped hole” question…and he thinks he has an answer: the hole is imagined. And more than that, the ways that orthodox Christianity (and other faiths, Hitchens would say) have devised to fill it are destructive.

I find him to be both right and wrong.

Right in that supposed people of faith have filled the vacuum, however phrased, with destructive devices such as “dogma” and “correct belief,” however defined, and continue to at the detriment of the Jesus movement.  I also find him mistaken, however. Hitchens is delusional if he thinks that he has not done the same act of fulfillment with his atheistic beliefs…to a mirror detriment for his own belief system’s movement.

More on Hitchens in other posts.

But Rollins takes a different approach.

He calls himself an “a/theist”.

I like that. It’s not simple.  Not as simple as “Jesus loves me,” nor as simple as “God is not great.”

It is a phrase that breathes, requires dissection, causes the eye and the brain to pause…everything that breathes is complex.

Rollins embraces the questions surrounding the revelation of God.  That is, God is revealed as hidden.  This should be familiar to you Lutherans out there: Deus absconditus, Exodus 33, Holy Saturday.

For those of you scratching your heads, that’s ok.  It’s not meant to be gotten.  God is revealed as hidden.  Beautiful emptiness.  The phrase can’t be made logical…it makes Logic.

To the “God-shaped vacuum” query, Rollins poses the following question, which I think resonates deep within me…somewhere:

“Far from being something that exists until being filled, the God-shaped hole can be understood as precisely that which is left in the aftermath of God.”

That is, a transformational experience with Divine love sometimes leaves us…me…empty.

If I am seeking to fill that void, I will no doubt fill it with another god, with cynicism, pessimism, naive optimism, with the security that comes in believing that I am “correct” in my beliefs, whether they involve God or not, whether you are Billy Graham or Christopher Hitchens…

The alternative? To sit with the aftermath for a while. Like sitting on a plain after a great thunderstorm, or sitting at the base of a mountain after a spectacular avalanche. Like sitting on the ocean after the waves have died down.

Part of the reason that I’m a reluctant Christian is that so much of the popular Christian movement has tried to fill humanity with things: dogmas, supposed orthodoxy, subscriptions.  It has failed to see mystery as Divine, and has fallen into the same rabbit hole that it’s atheist counterparts have: enlightened, empirical, evidential thinking.  The Enlightenment again.

We must regain the beauty of  empty.