Archive for December, 2010

On Barth, Faith and Advent

A key element of living with Advent anticipation is faith. What I’ve discovered about a life of faith is that it generally does not come with precise boundaries. It’s less about a journey with GPS-like precision and more about discerning the ink-blot movements of God with all the help from Rorschach I can get. ¬†We want Advent to be the season in which all uncertainty is banished. And in a way, it is. The certainty of Advent is that God has made his way to us in the form of the God-child Jesus and that he one day he will make His way back again. Only this second coming will be a triumphal one in which the restoration of all things is made complete. Until that day, we live in the season of Advent and every season of life by faith.

Karl Barth, in his Epistle to the Romans, writes this about the demands of living by faith: “If we fix our eyes upon the place where the course of the world reaches its lowest point, where its vanity is unmistakable, where its groanings are most bitter and the divine incognito most impenetrable, we shall encounter there – Jesus Christ…the transformation of all things occurs where the riddle of human life reaches its culminating point. The hope of His glory emerges for us when nothing but the existentiality of God remains, and He become to us the veritable and living God. He, whom we can apprehend only as against us, stands there for us.”

As the Advent season marches toward its culmination on Christmas day, may we be reminded to fix our eyes on the Christ-child.

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Of Advent and Coterie

“Reaching out is an act of wholeness, not only for others but for us.” I read those words by Eugene Peterson this morning as I sat comfortably in my favorite leather chair in the coffee house that is my second home. The people who frequent this establishment have reached out through an Angel Tree Christmas program to help a needy family in my faith community. My daughter asked me yesterday why these people would do something so kind for someone they don’t even know and will probably never meet. I think Peterson’s quote goes a long way toward answering that question.

Peterson goes on to suggest that we cannot be whole enclosed in our own habits even if they are pious habits. We cannot grow to maturity confined within what he calls our own “coterie” (an intimate, exclusive group), even if it is a very orthodox coterie. We cannot grow oak trees in a barrel any more that we can grow a human in isolation. The larger the world in which we live, the larger our lives must develop in response.

Faith communities tend to betray this reality. We huddle and retreat within our buildings. We forget and even ignore outsiders. We go about life and faith as collecting friends who look and think alike. It’s anonymous people like those who participated in the Angel Tree who go beyond the people and places that they know who find wholeness in this Advent season.

On Advent, Kierkegaard and Crowds

The great Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard insisted “the crowd is untruth.” Consider this quote from his classic text The Point of View: “There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were to get together in a crowd – a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd – untruth would at once be in evidence.”

Kierkegaard goes on to qualify his position: “Perhaps it may be well to note here, although it seems to me almost superfluous, that it naturally could not occur to me to object to the fact, for example that most preaching is done or that truth is proclaimed, even though it were to an assemblage of hundreds of thousand…but if they should put the truth to the ballot, that is to say if the assemblage should be regarded as the authority, if it is the crowd which turns the scale – then there is untruth.”

Author Eugene Peterson suggests that approval by the masses is accreditation. Engagement of a majority of people in an activity is thought to give evidence of legitimacy. The result is that truth is flattened to fit in a slogan – Just Do It! Image is Everything! You Deserve It! He goes on to say that any part of our lives that is turned over to the crowd makes it and us worse. The larger the crowd, the smaller our lives.

So what do crowds and Kierkegaard have to do with Advent? My friend Michael Blewitt says this about advent: “Jesus comes not just for a visit, but to take up residence. He comes not to elicit kindness, but to establish a Kingdom. He comes not for a meal; He comes for communion.” Advent is about creating margin in our lives to live in expectation of God’s fulfillment of His promise to restore all things. While the crowd calls for us to reduce this season to a time of conspicuous consumption, Advent calls for us to practice the disciplines of faith. Every time we retrieve even a small part of our life from the crowd and respond instead to the still small voice of God, we are that much more ourselves. We are that much more human.