Modern

“To each his own!” – What We Mean When We Say This

Have you ever heard someone say this to you in response to something you have decided to do or to say? What was your response when they said this? I have heard this a few times in my life and for some reason I can remember and recall the content of the conversation and who had uttered the phrase “to each his own”. Since my later years in high school, this phrase has irked me; you could call it a pet peeve or a conviction of sorts, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it. The reason it has irked me (which I realize might sound silly to some) is not because the semantics or the choice of words, but rather the sentiment that lies behind the statement.

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I am not sure if you have ever studied the period of time in European history known as the Enlightenment, but if you haven’t, I would recommend that you do so because it is one of those things in history that has had a tremendous impact on our Western world . For the time being, I will simply introduce you to some of the ramifications of this movement during the 18th century in Europe. The essence of the Enlightenment philosophy was an elevation of the human faculty of reason as the highest and most virtuous of human qualities. The aim of the enlightenment was to create a people who were free (this is evident in our Declaration of Independence). What was it that people were to be free from? The Enlightenment was a movement that attempted to free people from the restrictions of tradition and community and move the spotlight on the individual who was the one who contained natural rights and the freedom to fashion their own future. Thus, there was a certain detachment that the Enlightenment created from other people (community) and from history (tradition). My good friend, Stanley Hauerwas, writes this about the impact of the Enlightenment on today’s modern culture:

Yet most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. The goal of this ethic is to detach the individual from his or her tradition, parents, stories, community, and history, and hereby allow him or her to stand alone, to decide, to choose, and act alone.

I think that the phrase “to each his own” actually perpetuates this Enlightenment type of thinking and tends to support the detachment from community and history that our modern culture aptly personifies. First, the community. Every time that I have heard this phrase spoken it has felt as if the person saying it has little care for understanding who I am. Also, while they are in the process of saying these four words they simultaneously seem to be in the process of detaching themselves from me. Does it not seem that way to you too? The sentiment behind this statement keeps people from a true knowledge of one another and thus keeps them at arms length. Just as well, it forfeits the opportunity to dig into life with other people; to know deeply and to be deeply known. This sentiment, birthed from the age of the Enlightenment, says “You do what you want to do and I will do what I want to do, and everything will be cool” or “Just make sure not to infringe on my individuality and we will be ok”. Our culture has a inflated view of the individual and it keeps us from real community and deep relationships and I think these ideas are found in such statements like “to each his own”. We are far too content with remaining strangers with family, friends, and those we deem apart of our community.

Second, the deeper meaning of this phrase tempts to detaches us from history and tradition. As a lover of history, I despise this idea because no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from the past (whether it be our parents, our personal story, or from the far-removed ancients) the more we realize how inextricably connected we are to everyone and everything that has come before us. We are not individuals that are isolated from the people and events that came before us and whether we acknowledge it or not, most of our life is a reaction to what cane before us. It is ironic that we wish to detach ourselves from history when the very idea of individualism taking center stage and tradition or history entering backstage is a direct product of a historical happening! It was the philosophy of the Enlightenment!

At this point you may be wondering why any of this actually matters. Well, I am particularly passionate about these ideas (and openly critical of them) because they have no room in the community of people called the church. The church is a community of people where strangers come to stop being strangers and where those with no story come to realize that they are indeed apart of a story. In the church I cannot see any room for sentimentalities that propose detachment from each other or from history. The church must be a body where people no longer remain strangers to each other nor remain detached from the history and tradition. Therefore, there can be no throwing around of such phrases as “to each his own”. This sentiments has the potential to estrange us from our community and the story of humanity. The church and its practices should oppose Enlightenment thinking and leave behind phrases such as “to each his own” that bring about a worship of the individual. How do we do this? Great question. Thinking would be a good place to start…but don’t think alone, think with others :).

P.S. I welcome all critiques, clarifications, and comments on this matter!

Who is your Favorite Dead Person?

I have yet again submit myself to the sporadic blogger syndrome (otherwise known as S.B.S.-made it up). And for this I apologize, especially to those who read this to remain updated on my life, as well as the ministry with h2o Church at Kent State. Hopefully, I will remain faithful as I have sought to do before, in the coming months.

Anyway, let us move forward to the topic of this brief blog, and that is to discuss one of my favorite dead people (perhaps top three), namely Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Maybe you have heard of him, or maybe not. At any rate, I went to go see the author of Bonhoeffer’s most recent biography this past week with my some of the guys from my life group. Eric Metaxas, the author of this biography, entitled his talk “Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and the gospel”. Metaxas has written on William Wilberforce too, who was one of the leaders in abolishing the African slave trade. To put it simply, both Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce were Christian revolutionaries. Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer were both men who changed the culture of their time because of the profound effect of the gospel on their personal lives. For they both were awakened to the wretched oppression of their own times and cultures. This, I think is why Metaxas decided to study these men, so that others might be inspired and moved to action by their lives.

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I loved hearing Metaxas talk about both men, but he spent the majority of the time on Bonhoeffer since that was his most recent biography. Metaxas spoke in brief about each period of Bonhoeffer’s and traced his growth and evolution as a man and as a Christian. Bonhoeffer’s story does not simply entertain me, it captivates me. In the past two years I have sought to read much of Bonhoeffer’s writings. I have read his Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and finally his Ethics. His writings have convicted and led me to the deeper waters of the Christian life. These works were a direct result of his unique experiences both in Germany and in America. Metaxas noted a period of his life while in America when he went to a African American church in New York City and was astonished by their lives. For what he saw was a group of people who suffered on a daily basis (because of segregation, discrimination, and the like) and yet those same people were the nothing like what he saw in Germany. At last he had seen a people who were living out the effects of the truth of the gospel.

One of the things I love about Bonhoeffer was his tremendous devotion to allow God to form him. Bonhoeffer allowed the experiences that God brought him through to take root in his heart and have their full and lasting effect on his life. He was not simply an academic (who by the way received his doctorate at 21) and a scholar, but a disciple of Jesus and a deep believer that what he knew should directly inform how he lived. This is dramatically evident in his life. Bonhoeffer was one of the few Christians of the time who responded to the injustice brought on by the Nazi Regime. He knew that saying “Jesus is Lord” meant that Hitler was not, and it was this truth that called him into action. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics of his concept of Christian Responsibility. He knew of this reality deeply, for he himself was responsible for where he was and what he was going to do with what was given to him. There was no disconnect between his polished theology and how he lived his life.

Perhaps what I love most about Bonhoeffer is how he sought to justify his rationale in his cooperative attempt to assassinate Hitler. For it is this that remains the question for many of us when we hear his story. We ask, “A Christian tried to kill another person?” in hopes of either condemning or justifying Bonhoeffer’s actions (for that would make us feel slightly more at ease), but it is Bonhoeffer himself who dismantles our theology in this regard. Bonhoeffer early in his life, was indeed a pacifist (to a certain degree). This is evident in his sermons and earliest writings. We are more comfortable with this today aren’t we? Pacifism seems to be the mainline, orthodox doctrine of thousands of evangelical Christians. For we read the Sermon on the Mount and it seems hardly arguable. What changed in Bonhoeffer then? And why is it that so many people love him, even though he may not fit into the neatly packaged ethic of pacifism that we have manufactured? We are right to be perplexed by Bonhoeffer for this reason alone: Bonhoeffer did not seek to justify his involvement in the cooperative attempt to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer echoes the Apostle Paul’s words when he states the following in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For i am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.

Bonhoeffer’s responsible action in standing up for the Jews was between himself and God. He could not, with a clear conscious, deem his actions justifiable before God nor before others. It is because of this that he was misunderstood then, and perhaps even more misunderstood today. We would do well to emulate his courage and his boldness, and to act on what we profess to believe, no matter how radical. For Bonhoeffer, if Jesus was indeed Lord, then that changed everything, including what his response would be to a tyrannical leader. Bonhoeffer believed deeply, and acted profoundly.

This is how Bonhoeffer has inspired me, and continues to inspire me. He is one of my favorite dead people by far. Who is yours?

The Significance of a Building

Ever since Constantine, (Roman emperor in the 4th century) and the declaration of Christianity as the official Roman religion, the church has built a ubiquity of the most magnificent structures that the world has ever laid eyes upon. It seems though, that in the churches recent  history there have been many young people who have a certain disdain for the church because of the construction of these magnificent but seemingly “hypocritical buildings”. The reasons for this stance would vary I imagine, but to get the idea across, here are a couple that ideas that I personally have said and heard. Some, I think, find the church to be hypocritical or simply misguided because they witness the construction if these fancy churches yet do not attend to the poor as they seemingly are thought to profess. So, it has been said that they spend millions on a building and simply in that act, they no longer practice what they preach inside those buildings. Others have said it only serves as a self-glorifying structure-the church wrapped in its own glory and power. This could indeed be true in some pockets of history. Lastly, one I have said before and heard often among young zealots (I use that term in an endearing way) is that the church in its essential form is not a building, but rather a people (could not be more biblical). In years past, we have equated the building as “the church”, and that should never be. I could probably list many more if I sat and thought about it, however that is not the point. The question remains lingering, is there significance or importance in a church building?

I think I have found myself agreeing with most of these previously stated opinions at one point and time, and that is a reason why I have enjoyed h2o Church’s practice in this regard (the church body I am apart of and work with).  If, for a second, we consider the early church (before Constantine), we will see that they met in the homes of church members for goodness sake! What are doing making these grandiose structures then?  In the same breath though,I must caution myself, because this conviction is not explicitly written in the New Testament, but we can glean certain principles from stories of the temple, the New Testament church, and the like. h2o, similar to the early church, doesn’t have a building, but instead we meet on Kent State Universities campus in one of the more homely looking buildings on campus. While the exterior building needs some work, the lecture hall that we meet in is getting a makeover as I write this!

I was with my friend the other day and we had heard about our room (133!) in Bowman hall (the building we meet in) going under a good deal of change. Anything that looks a little less like a rustic lecture hall is always a good thing!

We are excited about the new remodeling happening, and are looking forward to seeing what it will look like when it is done! I am a big fan of the color scheme so far (is that weird?)!

Back to the question-To shed light on this theology of matter (church buildings), I go (as I often do) to my dear friend and conversation partner (although I have never met him) N.T. Wright. In his book Surprised by Hope he deals with this new disdain towards church buildings. Now keep in mind that Wright is an Anglican Bishop and has the traditionalistic view that I need in my life as many others do to balance out their anti-building/hippyish beliefs. He says this about church buildings:

Church buildings and other places where, in Elliot’s phrase, “prayer has been valid” are not a retreat from the world but a bridgehead into the world, a way of claiming part of our God-given space for his glory, against the day when the world will thrill to his praise.

It is nothing short of dualistic folly, then, simply to declare without ado (as many try to do today, supposedly in the interest of mission but in fact in the interest of dualism-or a quick profit) that old church buildings and the like are irrelevant to the mission of God today and tomorrow. Of course in many cases a church building has served its purpose and can now be demolished or given over to alternative use. But many are rediscovering in our day that there are indeed such things as places sanctified by long usage for prayer and worship, places where, often without being able to explain it, people of all sorts find that prayer is more natural, that God can be known and felt more readily. We should reflect long and hard on a proper theology of place and space, thought through in terms of God’s promise to renew the whole creation, before we abandon geography and territory.

Wrights thoughts on this are a slight stretch for me, but I typically need that in my life. I think that I need to renvision Gods redemptive work on this earth to include more than just his people, but the rest of his creation too. To add to Wright, a building, just as a sanctified sermon or a time of blissful prayer, can draw one’s attention more fully to the glory of God revealed in Christ. Can’t one be drawn more fully into God’s presence through the beauty of a sanctuary? I agree with Wright that there is a need to reflect long and hard on a theology of space and matter.

Could we perhaps introduce the women of Bethany in Mark 14 to this conversation? She “wasted” a jar of “pure nard” that was worth almost a years salary on Jesus! Couldn’t that money have been used for something else? Of course, but the women was more concerned simply with worshipping Christ. She wasn’t concerned about what she could do for Him, but rather glorifying Him. Should this not also be the case in constructing churches?

As far as h2o Church is concerned, I could not see us being anywhere else than on campus and in a place that students are familiar with. So, although this doesn’t apply to h2o per se, I think it is still an interesting view to consider the next time you pass a church building.