Boundary Questions Refuse to Go Away

Imagine that you just moved into a neighborhood and, as you get acquainted with one of your new neighbors, you discover that the two of you share a commitment to community engagement.  The new acquaintance invites you to join a nearby small group that studies, discusses, and strategizes about this very concern.  You gladly accept, feeling both excitement and relief at the prospect of finding friends and participating in the community in your new home.  At your first time attending, you learn that the group has been meeting regularly for a while and have well-established relationships.  They warmly greet you and help  you to feel welcomed.

As the discussions progress, however, you begin to realize that you hold significantly different views than the ones most voiced.  In time, it dawns on you that you appear to be the only person among the members with such convictions.  As the weeks pass, you occasionally hear someone make critical and sometimes disparaging or dismissive remarks about people like you.  It becomes evident that you don’t fit this group.  You are not truly one of them.

This experience is not hypothetical for many people, whether they identify as traditional and conservative or liberal and progressive.  Name any label and someone identifying with it has felt the consternation of finding her- or himself in this position.  Sociologists talk about in-groups and out-groups.  If I identify with and belong to group A, then members of Group A are my in-group.  To us, people in Group B are the “other.”  They are the out-group.  To them, I am the “other” and members of Group A, the out-group.  This empirical observation seems unavoidable to me and it has practical consequences.

Let me continue, therefore, to play out the logic of groups and boundaries.  Groups police their boundaries, if the purpose of the group – its reason to exist – is sufficiently important to its members.  That “if” is crucial.  The reason people form a group is to accomplish something together, whatever that something is.  Again, if the purpose represents something valuable, then any weakening of (or resistance to) commitment to that purpose must receive scrutiny and response, either by formal correction and discipline or informal pressure.

Highly organized groups have formal mechanisms of discipline and boundary-maintenance.  To become a member of such a group involves some kind of ritualized commitment, a signing on the dotted line, so to speak.  The group member promises to uphold the purpose of the group.  Mechanisms of discipline are formal and bureaucratic, as they should be.  It doesn’t matter who the offender is, the group has an important purpose and membership matters.

Obviously, I’m still thinking about The United Methodist Church.  I recently had an exchange with a person who takes strong issue with my views.  He insisted that, no matter how wrong, offensive, and tending-to-injustice my opinions might be, I would always be included in his version of church.  It’s a wonderful sentiment, but I don’t think it’s feasible, or even possible and I wonder more if it’s desirable.  I thus risk the annoyance of being the fly buzzing around the cow’s backside.  Wherever we draw the line, the drawing of the line must be done.  Otherwise, the group has no identity, no purpose, no integrity.

Our formal mechanisms of boundary maintenance often get characterized as cruel, uncaring, unloving, unjust.  But at least they are no respecter of persons, if done properly (I know, a big if, but what are the alternatives?).  In an organization that has integrity, it doesn’t matter who you are or how well-liked, how generous, or how popular and influential you might be.  If you show that you no longer align with the group’s mission and values (beliefs), if you offend the boundaries, then duly-constituted authorities must act.  Either you come back into alignment with the group’s mission or you face established procedures for discipline.  The mission matters.  If you’re not on board with the group’s basic identity and mission, if you persistently transgress its values, then you effectively show that you are no longer a member of the group and formal removal follows, as it should.

The cold, bureaucratic feel of these procedures has received harsh criticism from a number of quarters.  But again, what are the alternatives?  If an organization does not have formal boundary-maintenance procedures, then the only other alternatives are informal, because, remember, a group with a valuable purpose and mission will have boundaries.  Go back to my opening example.  One informal action is for me to “self-select” out of the group.  (I could keep my thoughts to myself, of course, and remain in the group, but for what purpose?)  I’ll stop attending and find some way to beg off when the invitation comes again.  Or I can make my convictions known and start arguing with people.  They may tolerate me and this conflict for a while, but sooner or later, the more influential members – the ones regarded as leaders – will (and must) speak to me about the frictions I am causing and the negative impact I am having on the group.  The group will find some informal means of getting me back in line or helping me find a way out.

If a group’s reason to exist has value, then constant disagreement and prolonged friction eventually endanger the group’s life, even its very existence.  Something must give.  People will move, one way or another, either to get the offending member back into compliance with the group’s ethos or to marginalize that member or excise her or him from the group, lest other members grow increasingly discouraged or disenchanted and abandon the group.  In the worst case scenario, the group dies altogether.

I maintain, then, that, formally or informally, any group with a valuable and valued mission must have (and will have) boundaries and must (and will) police them.  The boundaries can be formal and clear to all, or they can be informal and, therefore, to some degree hidden.  The policing of informal boundaries is left to people with influence (power), which raises all kinds of other questions.  How they handle their power depends on a number of personal qualities, for good and ill.

I have written on more than one occasion in this blog about the inevitability of orthodoxy, if a group is to have any integrity at all.  Orthodoxy clearly has to do with boundaries.  Orthodoxy is a formal term that can be filled with different contents.  A group’s orthodoxy appears in whatever dominant views and practices the group decides are true, right, and good, thus representative of the group.  A group’s orthodoxy can change.  We can find any number of examples of such change, but that a group has such boundaries still seems to me to be beyond dispute.

I wish our leaders admitted more openly that, no matter how much we value inclusion (and we do!), we have boundaries.  We should have boundaries.  We must have boundaries, if we want a church that matters.  The question becomes, then, not that we have boundaries, but what they are and how we establish and maintain them.  All of us who disagree about specific topics must accept this unbending fact.  If we did, we could then re-set the terms of disagreement and argue with one another more productively.  This remains my hope.

An Open Letter to Adam Hamilton and Other Centrists: Where Lie the Boundaries?

Dear Adam (Hamilton) and Other Centrists,

When I wrote, recently, about my conviction that the current United Methodist Church needs to divide, I don’t think I made sufficiently clear that I recognize this admission as a sign of failure. Sometimes, the most sincere and committed people cannot find a way out of their disagreements. I’m convinced that we’ve come to such a point.

I also have been thinking, though, were we – hope against hope – to resolve our differences, what would need to happen? I try my answer to that question in the hopes that it may open up a different sort of public forum than typically happens. I have not been privy to private conversations among top leaders, so this is my attempt to bring to light some topics that don’t get sufficient attention in the wider public conversations, which has led to the conditions we now face.

So, what would need to happen were we to move in the direction of staying together rather than separating? This question raises another one: where do centrists draw the line on what is core for UM faith and practice? What beliefs do you consider necessary, therefore required to be a Methodist in good standing? This question has implications, not only for United Methodist identity, but also for our place within the larger ecumenical body, something I fear is not getting sufficient attention in the heat of our disagreements. Where do centrists draw the line on core doctrines?

Our church has argued fruitlessly, in spite of many sincere attempts, over scripture interpretation and the best use of the Quadrilateral for discerning how to resolve the thorny issues that have demanded so much of our attention. Everyone who has been watching knows the very well-worn paths that proponents have taken in debate. We cannot resolve those matters using the tools we’ve been using, and, as I am desperately trying to convey, we have more basic questions to answer.

Centrists, among whom you, Adam, are primus inter pares, often protest that you share orthodox beliefs with traditionalists, only disagreeing over denominational policy (marriage, ordination) and polity (one church plan, regional conferences).  I hear this frustration in your recent response to Tom Lambrecht, which, of course, generated his reply. You claim – and I accept – your orthodoxy of belief. Taking you at your word demands that I or someone ask you these questions that I’m asking. Where lie the boundaries? Any definition of “orthodox” logically requires boundaries. However wide we draw the circle, there is still a circle.  Even a really big circle has an inside and outside. We therefore must talk about boundaries. Where are they? And why there? Tell us.

Once clearly stated, we must have consequences for breaching them. Otherwise they are pseudo-doctrines and our mission is impossible to identify. Without enforceable doctrinal standards, virtually any activity can be claimed as in keeping with our mission. Therefore, along with clarifying our doctrinal core, we need effective disciplinary action for members of our connection who deny that core, either openly or in practice. What do you think is an appropriate response for someone who shows unwillingness to uphold our doctrines and discipline? If we do not answer clearly and act resolutely, we will remain a denomination with no integrity, not worth bothering about.

Over the years (I have grown old while the UMC has had this argument), whenever I have raised the question of doctrinal boundaries, I have encountered resistance from the same quarters, who resist by raising the specter of misuse of power.  I’ve been told ad nauseum that people who claim the orthodox label are only interested in control. People who talk about power all the time are the ones most interested in power.  It’s hypocritical to charge someone with making power moves while one is making them. If orthodox centrists are willing to affirm and live their loyalty to the core doctrines of the faith, you ultimately will have to stand with traditionalists in resisting the resistors of our doctrinal standards. The only other viable option to insisting on adherence to them is to separate and let competing orthodoxies play out accordingly.

I could see some truly refreshing possibilities opening if every faction within United Methodism recognized and admitted that a denomination must have doctrinal boundaries. We thereby would have a common starting point for talking about which doctrines we as a denomination believe are central to our faith and work. Indeed, it would mean that we truly resolve what was not resolved in 1988. Could (should) a United Methodist clergy be in good standing while teaching an adoptionist Christology and practicing forms of neo-pagan spirituality? May a United Methodist preacher on Sunday preach that YHWH is God on and on Wednesday defend the use of tarot cards as a legitimate practice for Christians? Can I remain in good standing if I claim to be a United Methodist Santerian?

These questions, as far-fetched as they may sound to many, illustrate what inevitably happens in a denomination without clear and enforceable boundaries. Yes, far more basic than our fights about sexuality, we are turning a blind eye to an almost incomprehensible and certainly incoherent diversity of beliefs all embodied in concrete locales and called “United Methodist.” Too much in popular culture, we United Methodists are known as the denomination in which you can believe anything and be United Methodist. It shows our condition, right here, right now. Please correct me, if I’m wrong. So far as I can see, we have no effective means of making sure that United Methodists uphold and teach the core doctrines that we say we believe and we clergy promised to uphold and proclaim.  Until we face this demand honestly, we run the risk of being superfluous to and maybe even adversaries of the mission of God, who is, we need to remember, the final bar of judgment.

What, then, are the core doctrines that centrists are willing to contend for? If centrists and traditionalists have any chance at understanding one another and finding common cause on any endeavor, present or future, the questions I’ve asked need your answers. I am confident you have them.

In my own small way, and with whatever influence I may have, I am committed – as I have been since I joined the ranks of United Methodist clergy – to work for understanding in what we United Methodists share in doctrine and practice. Once more I ask, then, where do you think the doctrinal boundaries lie? What are the non-negotiables? What lines will you not cross? How will you use your considerable influence to defend and uphold the faith once delivered?

In all sincerity, I pray for you and for us all, a blessed, holy, Spirit-filled Easter season.

Steve

 

Church-Like Schools?

As a companion to the previous installment, in this post I want to advocate for a thesis that long ago fell into disfavor. I’ll put it in its simplest and most straightforward form and then explain. Church-related colleges and universities need to become more churchlike. In their institutional cultures, they should warmly embrace and judiciously employ the Christian theological foundations that prompted their formation in the beginning. Most people working in church-related higher education see this call as illegitimate. It’s time to re-consider.

First, I need to be clear about the kind of school I have in mind. It’s the kind I worked in for twenty-five years, colleges and universities associated with the Christian tradition, and, more specifically, a Protestant denomination, but not claiming to be Christian schools. This is a distinction that most people outside the industry don’t recognize. Decidedly Christian schools (sometimes called “confessional) openly identify themselves as Christian. Take a look at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities website and see their member organizations. Pick one and read how they describe themselves. I am interested, for this exercise, in schools who often call themselves “church-related” and may use “non-sectarian” as a way of distinguishing themselves from openly Christian schools. However they communicate their religious affiliation, they approach it with ambivalence, with nervousness about communicating the wrong thing and alienating people. They tend to avoid referring to themselves as Christian schools, for fear of creating the wrong impression with prospective students and faculty.  This concern complicates the school’s relationship to its Christian heritage as well as to its identity and mission. I am convinced that church-related schools, in order for the church relationship to have any meaning, need to think carefully about how they can be appropriately church-like and offer a truly distinctive and excellent educational experience. I will use the term “church-related” with tiresome repetitiveness to keep the kind of school I’m talking about in front of us.

To be clear, as I inch my way into the argument, I love church-related higher education. I could have worked in explicitly Christian schools. I chose the path I’ve trodden. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work in the two schools where I did. One is a small, regional college still in the liberal arts tradition, but often called “comprehensive.” The other is a major national research university. They are both affiliated with The United Methodist Church, even if (now especially) in different and evolving ways. It’s’ interesting, though something I won’t explore in this post, how similar they are in certain features of institutional culture while also very different from one another in all the expected ways.

One important qualifier as we get started: To be sure, a church-related college or university is not a church, even if, as I will argue, it should be church-like. The mission is different. A school has no creed to which everyone is expected to adhere. It includes people of all faiths and no particular faith. Furthermore, the principle of academic freedom demands that scholars, teachers, and researchers have the prerogative of pursuing truth wherever it leads, without the church imposing dogmatic restrictions on that pursuit. Finally, most of what a school is concerned about is not directly linked to the faith of its founding, anyway, so my use of “church-like” comes with an important set of limits. Once we establish the proper limits, however, then “church-like” becomes an essential characteristic for church-related schools.

Once we lay down some of these qualifications, though, we still find plenty of conceptual space to think of church-related colleges and universities as needing to be more churchlike than most of them have become. Every school, for example, has a prevailing set of values, an ethos. This feature is inevitable. The question quickly arises, “What sources are deemed legitimate for shaping those values?” At a macro-level, higher education is controlled by a dominant set of values. How do they comport with the Christian faith? Church-related schools should think about this question, otherwise they lose what makes them truly distinct and valuable.

The dominant values in higher education, affecting every college or university in the country, stand on what amounts to a working anthropology – a view of human nature. A school’s ethos is also shaped by some overarching understanding of human goods and ends. When schools talk about justice, for instance, they are talking about human goods and ends. A dominant view of human nature and ends pervades higher education. This is ground covered by Christian theology, too.

Higher education’s working anthropology is that students are autonomous individuals. (So are faculty.) Proper human development demands freedom to follow one’s own path. (Notice the teleology.) It is very important to protect individual freedom as much as possible. Expressive individualism” as a number of thinkers, such as the sociologist Christian Smith, have put it, is basic to the way we understand what humans are like and what they need.

To illustrate this point, I’ll talk in terms of world view, even though it implies something bigger and more basic than my example addresses. On the campus from which I recently retired, you can find a robust human rights program. You also find a world-renowned business school, with the finance major as one of its most prestigious career paths. In terms of world views, most finance majors and most humans rights majors stand worlds apart. That they co-exist peacefully on the same campus is considered a good. Educational leaders assume that the normal interactions of college life give these students the opportunity to rub shoulders – and opinions – and learn from each other. Most schools assume that such interactions help students gain respect for people who differ from themselves and the  “soft skills” necessary for working in a world filled with diverse peoples. It is through these kinds, of experiences, so the belief goes, that students can develop a healthy sense of self and become responsible citizens.

In truth, that vision is not happening for the vast majority of students populating our church-related schools. For all the diversity found on virtually any of these campuses, most students hang out with people they like and agree with, the people who are like them. Professors, administrators and staff do the same. Outside of brief and limited interactions through some sort of curricular, extra-curricular, or co-curricular program designed to foster honest interaction among differing peoples, homogeneity persists.

Why? Because we prize individual freedom above all else.  It is precisely what a college degree says that someone is getting. Both finance majors and human rights majors assume that individual autonomy is their right and their goal (human nature and ends). A college education equips them to have the kind of life they choose. Some may choose Wall Street. Others may choose Occupy Wall Street. Students in these two groups may vociferously, even violently, disagree with each other about all manner of topics, but they both assume autonomy of choice is their goal. The mission of the college they attend is to grant each student her or his freedom to become who they want to be.

Christian theology has something very important to say about individuality, quite distinct from the expressive individualism of popular culture. If you look carefully at how this vision of individual autonomy plays out in the academy, you can begin to discern a kind of anti-theology, since specific religious claims are deemed inappropriate for shaping the campus community. This prejudice stands in contrast and, in its stronger forms, in open opposition, to a Christian anthropology, with troubling ramifications. The reigning view of human autonomy promises a kind of freedom that it cannot deliver. A commitment to human freedom that has no limits except whatever society justly or unjustly puts on it is no freedom at all.

A church-related school that does not recognize this challenge winds up promoting a view that stands in marked opposition to that of the faith that prompted the start of the school in the first place.  Church-related colleges and universities, in order to keep good faith with their identity and mission, need avenues to think about how the theological grounding of the faith that brought them into existence offers good to all its community members, whether they share the Christian faith or not. This is not about requiring anything religious in the curriculum or student life experiences. It is about an institutional culture that understands how Christian theology helpfully construes true individuality (and its limits) and finds ways of communicating that view through its ethos. Paradoxically, orienting a school’s mission theologically in this way opens up the very sort of liberative educational experience we say we want students to have.

It is in this sense that church-related schools should become more churchlike. They need to recognize that some view of human nature, goods, and ends, will come to dominate institutional culture. There is no neutral ground in which absolute objectivity makes sure everything is perfectly fair to everyone. Church-related schools should have a critical mass of leaders who recognize the life-enhancing value of Christian theology, specifically with regard to human nature and ends, which includes, we should keep in mind, a view of justice.  A Christian view properly embedded in a school’s culture invites and promotes dialogue with people of all faiths and no particular faith. Rather than restricting such conversations, it encourages them. The irony between what the dominant secularist or pluralist bias insists will happen and what is actually taking place with students is palpable.

There is much more to say about these matters, but I’ll save it for another medium. Right now, I am trying to advance a basic, starting point idea.  In helping churches to become more school-like, and challenging church-related colleges to become – in the sense laid out in this post – more church-like, we can develop fertile ground in which people grow and thrive. All of them.

 

 

We Need School-like Churches.

As a kid, I was bookish.  I loved sports.  I took piano lessons.  I participated in 4H.  I liked to hang out with my friends.  But I also loved to read.  Sometimes I got so absorbed in what I was reading that my mom or dad had to almost shout to get my attention.

Reading helps to develop imagination, which worked in me, I think, in one specific way.   It illumined ideas and relationships, that, in the normal course of life, pat answers and careless thinking overlook. I remember many times in Sunday School classes when I had the impression that we weren’t really talking about what the Bible passage was talking about.  Yes, we were dutifully following the curriculum, but on fairly regular occasion something still seemed off to me.  As a kid I didn’t have words for this sense.  Today I might say that those Bible passages were a pre-text for a pre-digested, moralistic lesson, rather than an encounter with God through the text.  But then, I just had a feeling that something was missing.

I think there are many kids in our churches who feel similarly, especially these days.  They see incongruity and feel the strains between church life and the rest of life.  They have questions and thoughts that go unvoiced.  And not only kids.  Grownups do, too.

This sense that there is more, this hunger to go deeper than we typically go, needs encouragement.  We need school-like churches.

A school-like church has a culture of study, which is not (necessarily) the same as a church having a bunch of study groups.  (How many Bible studies have you been in that didn’t actually study the Bible?)  A culture of study means that the congregation as a whole takes serious and sustained study as a normal part of their communal life.  In a culture of study nobody is surprised or intimidated when a Sunday School class member makes reference to what Augustine or Wesley or some present-day scholar/leader said.  Hearing the names of well-known Christian thinkers, on whose shoulders we stand, is taken as par for the course in the Christian life.

A culture of study allows people to recognize various degrees of growth and maturity without awkward feelings.  In the Christian life, we start at different places and we grow at different paces.  We don’t compare ourselves with each other.  We compare ourselves to Christ and give thanks for his gracious Spirit who enables us to grow.  A culture of study helps people assess where they stand in growth to maturity, encourages commitment to grow, and provides guidance and support in that aim.

I’ve been pondering the idea of school-like churches for a while now.  Some of what follows is part of a working paper that I’ve written in support of a proposal for helping churches who want to become more school-like.

The church, as a community of disciples, is a community of learners.  Disciples of Jesus are students of Jesus.  A church is certainly more than a school, but it is a school.  The church must include the seriousness and rigor in its culture that we conventionally associate with “school.”

In seeing this need, it helps to understand  the historical context in which the church began.  The New Testament mentions Stoics and Epicureans, for example, philosophical schools that, along with others, served as early precursors to the modern university.  Pierre Hadot  (Philosophy as a Way of Life) has narrated how these schools, rather than dealing only with the critical analysis of ideas (our modern view of philosophy), thought of their work as spiritual exercises.  To enter into one of these schools was to take up a comprehensive way of life.  Each school had a view of reality that called for living in a way that reflected its teachings.  The Christian faith does the same.  Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians) observed that pagan neighbors often regarded churches as philosophical schools rivaling the ones just mentioned.  What would it do for us today to think of our congregation as something like an ancient philosophical school?

Another model for the early church is the synagogue, especially since the first followers of Jesus were Jews convinced that he is Messiah and Lord who fulfills the scriptures (Old Testament).  According to Lee Levine (The Ancient Synagogue), the synagogue served a number of purpose, one of which was as a place of study.  People gathered to study the scriptures and other works and sought to walk faithfully in their light.  The earliest Christians, Jewish believers in Messiah Jesus, naturally followed synagogue practices.  Imagine Acts 2:42 from that angle, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” in this light.

We need to regain this vision.  In our modern obsession with what we think is “practical,” we have lost a sense of the value of the type of study falsely regarded as only what academics and professionals do.

Congregations need to develop a culture of study.  It needs a group (or groups) of people engaging in serious, sustained, probing, prayerful, responsive study of the scriptures and other resources.  More people need to move from reading the Bible only for devotional purposes and add study.  By all means, keep having your devotions, but spend time studying, too.

For congregational leaders who recognize the need to move in this direction, what do they need?  I have a few basic ideas.

  1. The purpose of all study in the church is to grow in the knowledge and love of God.  Let’s be careful not to equate being well-informed or knowledgeable in content with spiritual maturity.  Being a knowledgeable, well-informed church member is a by-product of serious commitment to studying with Jesus.
  2. Start with the openly, knowingly hungry (you only need a handful, even two or three) and agree to a habit of study.  Ratify the commitment with a covenant.  Participants agree to modify their routines, if necessary, rather than constantly shifting  the group’s practices to accommodate busy schedules.  This is a crucial shift.  Participants need several hours per week for study.
  3. Pastors convene this group, not as teacher, per se (we are trained to take the role of expert in these situations), but as a convener and co-student.  Pastors lead first by example.  Teachers are learners.  Lay people, not formally trained, have insights and teaching gifts of their own.
  4. On the other hand, pastors do have training and knowledge to share and group members should (and will) ask questions.  Striking the balance between sharing from one’s store of knowledge and taking over  the class as teacher is a very important goal.
  5. Current discipleship groupings in the congregation (Sunday schools, various study groups) need practice in thinking about the reason they exist and the purpose they serve.  Encourage seeking God for guidance about how they contribute to a congregational culture of study and how they probably need to adjust in light of the vision.
  6. Accept from the start that this process involves hard work and risk.  Sometimes confusion and consternation will happen.  Sometimes rabbit trails and dead ends will frustrate the study.  Sometimes discouragement sets in.  Group members accept this challenge and persist in prayerful study.
  7. Remember: the goal is to hear God speak and to respond faithfully.  All other aims and hopes serve this priority.

There is much more to be said and thought about with school-like churches, but this is surely a start.  As I shared earlier, as we think about our present cultural difficulties, it’s time for the church to lead.  Let’s start with doing our homework.

 

May We See the Unseen

man holding box

 

A blessed Christmastide to you and Happy New Year.  This time of year always brings on a taking stock frame of mind.  Recently mine has revolved around pondering the dual aspect of reality – seen and unseen.  How does the seen give a glimpse of the unseen?

In Isaiah 6 we encounter the well-known vision of the prophet, who sees “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  And seraphs sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

“The whole earth is full of his glory,” a glory unseen, at that moment, except by the heavenly court and Isaiah.  The first five chapters of Isaiah show the other side of reality – the seen, the usual, the normal.  As we read, we get the impression of life very much like what we in our time have come to expect.  People are busy, working hard, gaining, losing, grasping, chasing the dream and terrified of being left out.  They work hard and they play hard.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  And, oh, yes, there is the 2020 version of the plague.  And too many of God’s people carry on as if God isn’t present or concerned about the way things are going.  We’re fixated on the seen and forget that the unseen is real and present.

And then comes Isaiah’s vision and precisely here the seen Unseen gets interesting.  I can read it as just that, Isaiah’s vision.  We can describe it by how certain psychological factors may have produced this vision (assuming it to be an actual experience and not merely a literary construction).  We might read a neurological study.  We might dip into anthropological theories.  We could go on and on imagining and analyzing, using the best scholarly tools available to understand Isaiah’s experience.  We might, then, better understand human experience in general and be able better to make sense of ours.

Isaiah says, however, that he saw the Lord.  The Lord is the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.  Isaiah shows repeatedly that the Lord spoke to him and through him to the Lord’s people, about real-life circumstances and the attitudes and actions of real-life people.  While we’re focusing on Isaiah’s mystical experience, Isaiah is focused on the one true God.  The Unseen appears, if only for a moment.  And Isaiah tells us about it.  He shows us.  Do we have eyes to see?

Our temptation is to be satisfied with understanding Isaiah 6 through familiar, but strictly human categories.  In Charles Taylor’s masterful study, A Secular Age, he names this tendency the “immanent frame.”  We have been schooled, literally, to think only in empiricist terms and that schooling has become so deeply embedded that we don’t  recognize it as a problem.  We have so habituated ourselves to the seen, to what we call “the real world,” that modern society now has a massive, self-imposed blind spot.

My general psychology class in college was typical for the time: a large, austere lecture hall with hundreds of students.  We read B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two and I don’t remember what else.  Fortunately, the professor was a very engaging lecturer, with just enough quirkiness to keep us interested.  For example, for two weeks, if I recall correctly, he wore a device that sat on his head, like eyeglasses, with two tiny slivers of metal, like pendants, hanging down in front of his eyes.  The contraption somehow responded to his eye movements so that those little metal slivers stayed in the center of his vision, no matter which way he looked.  When he went outside, he put a box over his head, with the smallest of slits just big enough so that he could see to walk.  The box protected the adjustment of the device from the near constant Kansas wind.  I can still see him in my mind’s eye walking across campus.  He was a sight.

The point of his experiment was to try to create a partial blind spot in his vision by interfering with how light went through the pupil to the retina.  And it worked.  He reported to us that, right in the middle of his vision, he could not see.  Not totally blind, just a blind spot.  And thank goodness, only temporary.

I’m sure I don’t remember the experiment accurately, but I swear, as Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.  And I find it an apt metaphor for our condition.  We have a kind of self-imposed blindness.  We’ve come tacitly to “know” that the immanent frame is all there is.  Yes, people have what they may regard as transcendent experiences of beauty and mystery, but we can understand these things to our satisfaction with tools that we have created.  In terms of how we experience life, the transcendent has collapsed into the immanent.  In the final analysis, Isaiah’s experience is Isaiah’s experience.  That’s all.

But of course, that isn’t all.  Much more is needed to help us make sense of that feeling of and hunger for transcendence, that doesn’t and won’t go away, and, in our quiet moments, we know it.  To our great blessing and, indeed, our salvation, the Unseen has become seen.  “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [literally, in the Father’s bosom], who has made him known.”  The Unseen is seen, known.  Not just a category of human experience that we call religious or spiritual, but God.  The real, one, true, God.

We need healing, not just a vaccination.  We need our sight to be restored, so that we can see more of the Unseen.  God is not coy, playing hard to get.  On the contrary, we have trained ourselves right into blindness.  As we turn the corner on a miserable 2020 and look forward to a fresh calendar, my prayer is that, through scriptural therapy, we gain sight.  We see the Unseen.  May the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ enlighten us.  And may that light shine through us to others.