Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”

Pandemic Grief

Jessica Wrobelski speaks graciously regarding the grief connected to this pandemic in her article, “Jesus Wept: Pandemic Grief and the Fifth Sunday of Lent.” She notes that, while we in the United States are likely facing more suffering here on account of illness and death from COVID-19,

“we are nevertheless collectively experiencing a kind of grief right now due to the practice of social distancing and other early impacts of the pandemic on our lives. The loss of daily interaction with friends and coworkers, the cancellation of travel plans and events that we have looked forward to, the economic losses, and our inability to gather as communities of faith—these losses are real, and so is our grief.”

Wrobelski highlights that the gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of Lazarus’s death, presents Jesus’ own grief in light of loss. She highlights that Jesus does not “‘skip over’ the experience of human grief.” Recognizing this “should free us to acknowledge our own grief—to experience all the emotions of sadness and anger and disappointment and frustration that come with real losses—even if we ultimately have faith and hope in God’s promise to bring life from death.”

She concludes by encouraging as “to allow ourselves time and space to grieve, to name our sorrows and losses and even to bring our accusations before God. Faith in these times does not mean stoically denying our human emotions, but trusting that God is present in and through all of it.”

Science vs. Faith?

While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).

The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.

The following are some of the challenges that we face:

  • Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
  • Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
  • Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
  • One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
  • It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
  • There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).

The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:

  • It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
  • Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
  • Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
  • Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
  • It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
  • The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.

Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).

Pub Theology as an opportunity to explore

At Campus Edge we’ve been hosting Pub Theology for several years now. It’s an opportunity for people to talk about how faith and spirituality interact with current events and topics of interest (e.g., sexuality, racism, politics, technology, etc.). Pub theology is a place to learn how to listen to each other and make space for people who see the world differently from me. Its intent is not to convince people of the Christian position but instead to facilitate people learning from each other, being both encouraged and challenged that there is more than one way that Christians (and others) have approached difficult topics. 

Pub theology has also been a place where people who are exploring Christianity can join us, and we’ve been delighted by how God has brought different people from different backgrounds to our conversations. People are free both to lament negative encounters with Christians and to ask pointed questions about what believing in God looks like. It is meant also to be a safe place to have one’s own views about Christianity and the Bible be refined.

Bryan Berghoef, who originally started pub theology, wrote an article about how pub theology might seem like a waste of time. After all, what real good does sitting in pub talking to other people really do? But Berghoef suggests that:

“One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice [of pub theology] in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking. . .

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up.”

Bryan Berghoef, “Pub Theology is a Waste of Time.” (January 2014)

Fall Chapel Service: Hope of All Creation

This October we partnered with three other campus ministries – MSU Wesley, One Community Lutheran Campus Ministry and The Peoples Church – to host a weekly communion service in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at MSU. During this service we reflected on Jesus as the hope of all creation and supported each other in our mutual ministry with MSU students.

In our liturgy we lamented through prophetic texts the ways in which the earth is being destroyed: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have … broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:5). This ancient witness should stir us to think about how our institutions have contributed to the destruction of the earth. In keeping with the CEF spirit of intellectual inquiry, we also reflected on some unusual scripture passages including God as a mother in labor (Isa 42) and a “springtime rhapsody” in the Song of Songs 2.

Chapel services offer an opportunity for worship in the midst of busy academic life. The Alumni Memorial Chapel is not usually used for religious services and our continued relationship with the sexton Steve Aikin has allowed us to produce quality worship experiences in an ecumenical Christian tradition and witness to God’s presence on campus.

In our service and our gathering we shared hope together—hope that through Christ all of creation will be liberated from decay (Rom 8:21). Still we wait for the reign of God to come to its fullness. when new leaves will grow and they will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern

Welcoming young adults into church/community

Rachel Beveridge, in a helpful article articulating some of the reasons she’s seen young adults leave the church, notes that her generation (millennials) “know that we have to be vulnerable in order to have authentic connection.” Because of this, “when conversations at church or any other community are superficial, sometimes millennials choose to leave. But when someone—perhaps someone whom we disagree with, theologically or politically— asks questions that show real interest in us, or they themselves show vulnerability, we might stay.”

So what does this look like? At Campus Edge, it has meant that we don’t avoid the difficult topics. We regularly have conversations topics like sexuality, racism, justice, politics. In those conversations, people share opinions and I (as a CRC pastor) often share the CRC perspective on things. Everyone’s experience and perspectives are welcomed; yet, in order to practice both authenticity and intellectual honesty, everyone’s perspective (including mine, the pastor’s) is open to being challenged and critiqued. This can be hard, but we’re also learning to be vulnerable with each other about our lives and perspectives, recognizing our need for community and how much we can be encouraged and support by each other, especially in the middle of the challenges of grad school.

Acts and the Gospel of Hope

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Book of Acts records the earliest proclamations of the gospel after the time of Jesus. Peter, Paul and others preach to Jews, Greeks, philosophers, politicians, kings and foreigners all around the Middle East. Extraordinarily, Peter and John were “ordinary, uneducated men” (4:13), working in the face of intense opposition from political and religious leaders.

In his famous sermon on the Areopagus, Paul preaches to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the through-leaders in first century Athens (17:23-31). Paul tries to contextualize the gospel for intellectuals who “spend their time simply and solely in telling and hearing the latest novelty” (17:22). Academic discussions often veer into obscure topics, of interest to only a few people. How does the gospel enter into these spaces? The sermons in Acts affirm a multi-faceted gospel message, expressed in different ways for different people.

Contemporary Christians have often shortened gospel message to “Jesus died for your sins.” While calls for repentance are an important part of the gospel (3:13), this statement fails to capture the breadth of the message of Jesus found in the gospels, especially as it pertains to Old Testament history and prophecy (7:1-53). Gospel preaching in Acts reveals more details about The Way (18:24, 26) and the extent to which “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (10:34).

In Acts, the Gospel message is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the expectation of a messiah to rule over God’s people: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (3:13). For example, Peter discusses the hope of God’s personal presence in Psalm 16 (2:25-28) and the hope of God’s spirit in Joel 2 (2:17-21).  This means that the gospel is a continuation of the covenant made with the God who created of the universe (14:15, 18:24) and liberated the Israelites from Egypt (7:35-36, 13:17). Along with forgiveness of sins (5:31, 13:38-39), the messianic reign brings God’s Spirit to all flesh (2:17, 2:33), healing for the oppressed (10:33) and the resurrection of the dead (17:18, 23:6, 24:15).  The expansive good news found in King Jesus establishes an entirely new way of being human: by living in the kingdom of God.

Several conflicts with authorities in Acts are a reaction to the proclamation that Jesus is king. The believers’ prayer for boldness (4:24-30) recognizes that “the kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have governed together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” When ordered by the chief priests not to preach in the name of Jesus, the believers proclaim “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Later earthly authorities fall Herod Agrippa dies suddenly he flaunts his charisma in front of a crowd (12:20-23). While earthly authorities see the Jesus movement as a threat to their power, Christians recognize that Jesus used his royal power to be a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

The Book of Acts also demonstrates that there is room for everyone in the kingdom: disabled people (3:2), the sick (5:16) and sexual minorities (8:26-40). As Peter exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (10:34). As much as we like to believe that “Christian values” inform our policy making and interactions with other people, our modern societies sill fail to support the same groups of people that early followers of Jesus embraced.

My hope is that church will return to the vision of the blessed community that shares their possessions (2:44), breaks bread (2:46), confronts unjust authorities (3:14-15, 5:29-30) and appoints servant leaders (6:3-5). The “acts of the apostles” demonstrate that a sense of solidarity and community rooted is at the heart of the Gospel. We live in the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ and await the “restoration of all things announced long ago” (3:21).

– Mitchell Eithun, campus pastor intern.

Hope for all Creation: Ezekiel 47

As part of our chapel series on Hope for all creation, I gave the following short reflection on Ezekiel 47:1-12.

While I have grown to love the book of Ezekiel, I often find it strange. And this passage, despite the beautiful image of life-giving water that it presents, is no exception. It is filled with odd repetitions and details. Why does it matter to us, the readers, which directions the water is coming from? Why are we given measurements?

Going back a few chapters in Ezekiel, there are more measurements. Measurements of doors and walls and rooms and instructions for priests. These chapters look like building instructions for a temple, and many people over the centuries have interpreted it that way. If we build the temple, then Christ will return – and the vision presented here of the water that gives life – will finally come true. It’s one interpretation of Ezekiel 43, which says that these words are written so that people might be ashamed and turn to God, and then they must follow these instructions. And God will dwell among them. And who of us doesn’t want God to dwell among us?

I find something deeply appealing in the idea that maybe – if we just follow this formula or these instructions – then everything will be the way it should be. The water of life, as depicted in this passage, will overflow: “the fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Except experience and history have taught us that God cannot be contained or controlled. I – we – cannot do enough to make and ensure God will come to dwell among us. Any effort we might make to build the temple pictured here actually can’t work: the text doesn’t give building materials, the dimensions are too large to fit on the temple mound, and probably most noticeable, it’s lacking a roof. The temple isn’t meant to be built. It isn’t meant to be one more thing to do; instead it’s a vision of what already is. It’s a vision that is calling us to turn to God, to turn away from our own efforts to control God – or even try to control and run the world around us. The temple is a vision of God’s presence and another reiteration of God’s repeated refrain throughout Ezekiel – I will be your God and you will be my people. I will dwell among you.

God will dwell among us because that’s what God does. God dwells among us. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation but many scholars recognize that the language is more than just a description of the world coming into being. It is a description of a world that has been formed as a temple: God’s temple where God dwells. Since creation, God has dwelt among us, inviting us to see God through the beauty and power and wonder that creation instills in us.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was shown to the Israelites through the temple in their midst, but God’s presence was hardly contained to the temple. And this vision of a new temple here in Ezekiel makes that even more clear: no roof, after all, could hold God’s presence when God’s presence is throughout all of creation.

Because God’s presence is not always obvious, despite the beauty of creation, God came among us in the form of Jesus, and today God is present with us in the Holy Spirit. And we can take great comfort that it is not on the basis of our own efforts that God dwells among us, but simply because that is who God is. It is part of how God formed creation. And since then we have been given many gracious reminders of God’s presence: a vision of life to its fullness, full of the water of life.