Gefühls For Christ

I’ve been gestating, for a long time, a thorough, seething rant about the effects of cultural romanticism on Christian faith. I don’t have time to vent it all this evening — it involves the premise that faith and worship should make you feel good, the notion that everyone’s ideas about religion are equally sound, the arationality of religion, the premise that anything rebellious or heterodox is likely to be truer than anything settled or orthodox, to name but a few of these canards (the creed of the cult of the prophet St. Dan Brown) — but that jeremiad was on my mind as I prepared today’s sermon for the Feast of St Teresa of Avila (which I’ll post in the “extended” section).

I’ll rest with the note that romantic religion makes teaching practically impossible; romantically-conditioned audiences already know everything they need to, they are predisposed not simply to question but to disbelieve authority, and they may expect that anything that doesn’t warm their hearts doesn’t matter. Romanticist theological thought represents the triumph of self-justifying ignorance over diligence, reflection, and discernment.

(Good thing I’m not cutting loose with the real rant.)

Anderson Chapel of St. John the Divine, Seabury-Western

Feast of St Teresa of Avila

Rom 8:22-27/Ps 42:1-7/Matt 5:13-16
October 12, 2005

We ourselves. . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Long minutes, long hours, lonely and frustrating days – days of prayer. Prayer can be a hard job, which explains some part of why it’s often difficult to persuade people to give it a try, and why even here, the chapel is not entirely full day by day. Prayer costs us the illusion that we can do it all, and that the universe rotates around us. Prayer draws us away from tackling the world on the terms we set, and draws us toward a willingness to meet God on God’s terms. Prayer demands that we offer all, but prayer promises us nothing. That, my friends, is a sucker’s bet, and it’s hard to invite people you care about to be fleeced – all the more difficult if perhaps, maybe, sometimes you aren’t absolutely convinced that this prayer business makes any difference your own self.

As if that weren’t enough, somebody has cooked up the notion that even after the first fruits blossom, prayer ought to be easy: a sweet, comforting, restorative balm for our troubled souls. While I can’t rule out the chance that prayer operates that way for some favored souls, what I’ve heard about prayer runs almost entirely the opposite direction. Somewhere, the green lawns of suburbia surround cozy homes with happily active, prosperous nuclear families, where hurricanes never blow, where earthquakes never shake, where the maid never misses a day and the meaning of debt is unknown. Somewhere prayer always comes easily, and always delights; somewhere, but probably not Pakistan or Guatemala, New Orleans, and definitely not Ávila.

We can’t make prayer easier by some clever technique, as though it were all in the wrist action, or as though it just depended on knowing the right words. Difficulty lies at the heart of prayer, as the whole creation moans and stammers along with us as we labor to focus our attention on God to open our wills to God’s direction. Tedium and vexation accompany us as we wait with impatience to make a way out of our homelessness in a hobbling, heartless world into a shelter prepared for us from the foundation of the earth.

Hard circumstances make hard prayer, and when those hard praying times come your way, remember that you are not alone. When your soul is full of heaviness, when your arid prayer bores and frustrates you, bear in mind that others have found themselves in that desert before you. At those times, you know I will be praying with you, this chapel will be praying with you; Santa Teresa y todos los santos will be praying with you. The whole creation will strain and groan along with your heart. The Spirit itself will intercede with sighs too deep for words – and with the work that you devote to prayer, the Spirit will work along to draw us more faithfully together, to shape our hearts to welcome the truth, to kindle in us the light by which our praying eyes recognize, in the communion of our faithful friends and reconciled enemies, in constant prayer, in labor that takes delight in serving and sharing, the patient, sweet, brilliant glory of God.


12 thoughts on “<i>Gefühls</i> For Christ

  1. I, for one, look forward to the real rant with anticipation. The partial rant strikes me as having more sense than the great majority of things I’ve recently read. So… thanks.

  2. Just thought I’d chime in with affirmation for your recognition of where many theological students are these days, and how that makes teaching challenging. I’ve just gotten done leading a discussion on N. Wolsterstorff’s essay in the last issue of Theological Education (sorry, it doesn’t appear to be online). He begins his analysis by pointing to four problems with how religion has been viewed by cultural elites (religion is withering away, religion is causally inert, religion is coercive, and religious belief is irrational) and then suggests that these are no longer operative — but his suggestions for how to deal with the shift do not acknowledge or engage the issues you’ve raised. Until we find ways to dig more deeply into the frames our students enter with, we’re not going to be able to stretch or challenge them.

  3. We need the rant!

    The Wolsterstorff article sounds intriguing. I’m co-authoring a chapter with a couple of psychologists. Just seeing and trying to wrap my head around the ways that they conceptualize religion are wild. At times they sound so sophisticated; others, they haven’t a clue…

  4. I have always wondered – what about praying “in tongues” as part of this schematic of prayer? I lament that it has fallen out of favor in all but the biggest [and scariest] “charismatic” churches. Seems to me it fits the bill of (a) effective/accurate, as regards the world, and (b) balm-ful, as regards my soul. If we could divorce this form of prayer from the insanity that seems traditionally to accompany it (or perhaps more accurately, traditionally accompanies those who teach/propagate/advocate it), I think we’d be liberating a real and very helpful tool-of-prayer for folk today.

    Along the same lines – the Jesus Prayer should really be attended to. (if anyone doesn’t know, it’s “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) A few hours (mind you, I’ve only managed a few handfuls of minutes, at best) of repeating the Jesus Prayer – particularly because of the beautiful and simple Name of Jesus contained in it! – would work deep change in most of us. And perhaps in the world.

    With both of these approaches, the “sweet hour of prayer” (gag) seems suddenly both sweeter and more possible. More achievable. Also more likely to be attempted, at least by lazy-leaning me!

  5. I was at a meeting last night where someone complained that the Hymnal 1982 is “terrible – you’d think no one wrote any music in the past 200 years!” I replied that we seem to find plenty in Scripture that is relevant today despite it having been written several thousand years ago (no, I was not, and am not, elevating the authority of hymn texts to the authority of Scripture). The response? “Yes, well there’s a lot of that we should ignore too!”

    With sighs too deep for words. . .

    PS. PLEASE – keep pushing, eventually we’ll hear you!

  6. Yes, please, finish the rant.

    You seem to have gotten hold of several important strings at once. Perhaps you can weave them together into to something quite useful.

  7. AKMA,

    I appreciate the mini-rant. Like the other respondents, I would love to see this worked out in a longer rant or essay. It is not just theology teachers who face this. It feels sometimes like what Shusaku Endo described as the spiritual “swamp” of Japan in which “real” Christianity could never take root because every doctrine and discipline would get filtered and translated into other thought patterns.
    Grace and peace,


  8. I’m reminded of something Sayers said in a letter describing how she was pressured into confirmation along with her classmates in her youth: “The cultivation of religious emotion without philosophical basis is thoroughly pernicious.”

  9. Your sermon would shame the rant, though I would love to read the rant. That we are brought closer to our enemies through our mutally unanswered prayers is a sweet thought; in the frustration of our fallen natures, as expressed in our rancorous prayers, is the blessing of God. (He prays for confusion to fall upon the Romantics, the Romantic prays the same upon his head; both frustrated find God as and in the obstinate Other.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *