Category Archives: The Pilgrim Path

Don’t Get Fooled Again

             “Will you walk into my parlor?” said the Spider to the Fly,

              “‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.

                The Way into my parlor is up a winding stair,

                 And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”

                                                     — “The Spider and the Fly,” Mary Howitt, 1829

 

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Very few people on either side of the debate seem to understand what “separation of church and state” is really all about.  The original intent was to protect poor Pilgrims against the corrupting influence of entanglement with the power establishment – not the other way around.

Ever since the Emperor Constantine conquered his rival Maxentius “by the sign of the cross” at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312), most of Christendom has assumed that it is not only possible but even proper and necessary to maintain a solid connection between the government and the kingdom of God.  The Radical Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries – the so-called “Anabaptist” followers of Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and Jacob Amman – disagreed.  They were convinced that the gospel had been sullied and the church corrupted by this unholy alliance.  As a result, they adopted a principled and conscientious stance apart from the state.  Many paid for it with their lives.  It is primarily to them that we owe our modern concept of “separation.”

Fast forward to the present.  On January 20, 2017, on the occasion of the inauguration of the forty-fifth President of the United States, Franklin Graham stood up at the podium and praised the new American Head of State in the following words:  “Mr. President, in the Bible rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”

The tragic irony of this spectacle is not lost upon some of us who remember the pilgrimage of Graham’s father, the Reverend Billy Graham.  During the early days of his ministry Billy maintained personal ties with many governmental and political figures.  It was his habit to invite presidents and governors to share the platform with him at his evangelistic crusades.  In the late 1960s he kept up a fairly close relationship with President Richard Nixon.  All this came back to bite him in a big way after Watergate.

In 2011, at age ninety-two, Billy Graham was asked if he had any regrets over his long career.  His response?  “I would have steered clear of politics.”[i]  This wasn’t a new idea for him at the time.  As a matter of fact, it reflected a conviction that had taken hold of him as early as 1979 when, in an interview granted to Sojourners magazine, he said:

 

     I have gone back to the Bible to restudy what it says about the responsibilities we have as peacemakers.  I have seen that we must seek the good of the whole human race, and not just the good of any one nation or race.

     There have been times in the past when I have, I suppose, confused the kingdom of God with the American way of life.  Now I am grateful for the heritage of our country, and I am thankful for many of its institutions and ideals, in spite of its many faults.  But the kingdom of God is not the same as America, and our nation is subject to the judgment of God just as much as any other nation.[ii]

 

The words of the elder Graham ought to give us pause – especially at a moment when his son appears to be granting unqualified support to a government leader whose mantra is, “From now on it’s going to be America first!”

“Franklin Graham,” says Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “seems determined to repeat his father’s mistakes.”[iii]  Perhaps so, but the rest of us don’t have to follow in his footsteps.  Far better to embrace his father’s change of heart.  Like Billy, we’ve all been tricked and trapped and co-opted by the political establishment too many times in the past.  Let’s pray we don’t get fooled again.

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[i] “Evangelist Billy Graham Says He Now Regrets Involvement in Politics,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, March 2011.

[ii] “A Change of Heart:  Billy Graham on the Arms Race,” Sojourners magazine, August 1979.

[iii] See footnote 1.

Weakness

(Originally published January 22, 2015)

     The renunciation of power is infinitely broader and harder than nonviolence (which it includes).  For nonviolence allows of a social theory, and in general it has an objective.  The same is not true of nonpower.

         – Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity 

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the brave men and women who served alongside him as architects of the Civil Rights Movement were people of high ideals.  In every situation they strove to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of truth and virtue.  Their words and actions were chosen with grace.  They kept a constant eye on the quality of their witness for Christ.  They cared deeply about individual integrity and collective responsibility.  And yet it would be neither unfair nor inaccurate to say that their decision to make nonresistance the keystone of their social and political strategy was never a matter of mere principle.  It was also a pragmatic consideration.  They were convinced that nonviolence would work.  They knew it could work because they had seen it work for Ghandi.  They adopted it because, for all the pain and anguish it entailed, it was still the plan most likely to succeed.

The case is very different with the Pilgrim.  The Pilgrim has no good earthly reason for embracing weakness.  He embraces it because it is central to who he is.  He gets nothing by turning the other cheek – nothing but a lashing and a cross.  He has no worldly goals.  His only objective is to identify with his Master.  He belongs to that looking-glass kingdom where reality is a mirror-image of the kosmos and heaven simply the world turned upside-down.  He shuns force as a means to noble ends.  He rejects the notion that truth, in order to be true, must have the backing of the state, the validation of the law, and the endorsement of film stars.  He cares nothing for the pillars or powers that be.  Presidents and kings in his estimation are merely marginal.  He has no network, no connections, no lobbyists in Congress.  The definitions in his dictionary have all been turned inside-out:  loss is gain, debility is power, failure is success, ignominy is glory, and death the pathway to life.  He is the wisest of fools and the most foolish of the wise.

In the first century the oppressed inhabitants of Judea were still dreaming of Judas Maccabaeus.  In their deception they looked for a hero to smash the Roman yoke.  What they got was a baby in a manger.  They looked for a political strongman to set the world to rights.  What they got was an itinerant poet-preacher.  They looked for a king to lead a liberating army.  What they got was a convict on a cross.  Many never grasped the point.  But there were a few who eventually fell under the spell of the devastating, earth-shattering truth:   My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

It was of such the poet was thinking when he wrote, “They went forth to battle, but they always fell:”

Their might was not the might of lifted spears …

            Their wreaths are willows and their tribute, tears;

            Their names are old sad stories in men’s ears;

Yet they will scatter the red hordes of Hell,

Who went to battle forth and always fell.*

 

This is why the Pilgrim, if he boasts at all, will always boast exclusively about his weakness.  In contradistinction to political operatives, cultural strategists, and ambitious men and women of every stripe, he understands that to fulfill his true destiny he must learn to be content with infirmities, insults, distresses, and difficulties; for when he is weak – and on no other occasion – then he is strong.

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*  Shaemus O’Sheel, “They Went Forth To Battle But They Always Fell.”

The Pilgrim and the State

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          “Render to all what is due them:  tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

           ”Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

                                           – Romans 13:7, 8

 

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Those who have closely followed the exposition of Pilgrim values set forth in these pages over the past couple of years (not that the author presumes anybody would do such a thing, of course!) will understand that the most recent installment – “My President or My King?” – is entirely consistent with everything else that has been said here.  It contains nothing new.  The theme it briefly attempts to apply to current events has been examined time and time again, and from a variety of angles, under such headings as “Apatheia,” “Allegiance,” “Death,” “Defeat,” “Defenselessness,” “Failure,” “Indifference,” “Irrelevance,” “Impracticality,” “Kenosis,” “Madness,” “Meekness,” “Martyrdom,” and, in particular, “Anarchy.”  Readers who want know more are referred to these entries.

The last-mentioned post followed author Vernard Eller, late Professor of Religion at the University of La Verne, in describing “Christian Anarchy” as “a Christ-centered disregard for the claims of ‘government’ in all its forms.”  It went on to say that “because he owes allegiance to one Master, and one only, the Pilgrim’s attitude toward every other so-called authority is necessarily ‘disinterested, skeptical, and nonchalant.’”[i]  This provides the background for our assertion that the Pilgrim, as a subject of the One King, “owes no allegiance whatsoever to any earthly president or temporal authority.”

Romans 13:1-7 is often cited in contradiction of this view.  This text is generally understood as bestowing a kind of unqualified divine legitimacy upon the state.[ii]  It’s worth noting what Eller has to say about this.  He makes the highly sensible and rather obvious point that Paul’s instructions to Christians have to be read against the background of the Old Testament perspective on humanly instituted authorities:  that from Babel onward God has never been a “fan” of the state; that in asking Samuel for a king, the people of Israel were in effect rejecting the rule of Yahweh; that God, after warning them they’d be sorry, went ahead and gave them their druthers, determining in the meantime to go on working with them in and through the state despite the setback; that He continues to use rulers of all kinds, both “bad” and “good,” to accomplish His purposes in history without necessarily lending them His stamp of approval; and that, in view of all this, Christians should follow His divine example by cooperating and getting along with (“submitting to”) human authorities so far as it is possible to do so without violating the law of God.

Taking his cues from Karl Barth, Eller insists that the phrase “be subject to” (Romans 13:1) “has absolutely no overtones of ‘recognize the legitimacy of,’ ‘own allegiance to,’ ‘bow down before,’ or anything of the sort.  It is a sheerly neutral and anarchical counsel of ‘not-doing’ – not doing resistance, anger, assault, power play, or anything contrary to the ‘loving the enemy,’ which is, of course, Paul’s main theme.”  He concludes:

 

           This interpretation of Romans 13 reads as anarchically as all get out.  It carefully declines to legitimize either Rome or resistance against Rome.  It will give neither recognition nor honor to any political entity whatever – nation, party, ideology, or cause group.  There is only one Lord of history – and that is God.[iii]

 

It’s crucial to underscore Eller’s point that Romans 13:1-7 has to be read in conjunction with Romans 13:8.  This is often conveniently overlooked.  We are to pay what we owe, says Paul, but he qualifies his statement by adding, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.”  And that casts the subject in an entirely different light.

Bottom line:  the Law of God – that law which must never be violated at the behest of any human ruler – can be summed up in a single word:  love.  It is out of love that we “submit” whenever and wherever we can; but it is also in response to love that we say “no thank you” when invited to adopt attitudes, embrace policies, or engage in actions that contradict the very meaning of the word.

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[i] See Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy, 1-2.

[ii] “The support for this reading falls into a most interesting alignment.  Of course, the Christian Right (along with conservative evangelicalism in general) welcomes this theological view of Romans 13 as confirmation of its own politically conservative commitment to political establishment as being God’s chosen means for governing the world … Yet curiously enough, the Christian Left also accepts, if not welcomes, the legitimizing interpretation – although under an entirely different rationale and for a totally different purpose.”  Christian Anarchy, 196.

[iii] Ibid., 204.

 

My President or My King?

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         “… The biblical view is not just apolitical but antipolitical in the sense that it refuses to confer any value on political power, or in the sense that it regards political power as idolatrous, inevitably entailing idolatry.  Christianity offers no justification for political power; on the contrary, it radically questions it.”

                                                 Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity

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“Not my president.”

For the moment this has become the rallying cry of millions of disgruntled Americans, but it’s nothing new to the Pilgrim.  That’s because the Pilgrim has no president under any circumstances.  Never has had, never will.  The Pilgrim serves a King.  And as a subject of the kingdom of that King he owes no allegiance whatsoever to any earthly president or temporal authority.     

The Master of all Pilgrims, when asked to comment on this sensitive subject, replied with this sorely misunderstood maxim:  Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and unto God that which belongs to God.

This statement has been commonly misinterpreted as implying that the Pilgrim is a person of divided loyalties:  that he owes so much to the State and the civil authority, and so much to God.  Case closed.  But this is not what the Master intended.  On the contrary, in making this enigmatic pronouncement He was actually posing an open-ended question.  He was tossing the conundrum back into the laps of those who hoped to trap Him in His own words.  In effect, He was placing the responsibility squarely on their shoulders and asking:  “How much do you think is owed to Caesar?  How much do you think is owed to God?  How far, if at all, do the two overlap?  To what extent do they cancel one another out?  What will you do when it’s impossible to reconcile or harmonize their conflicting demands?”

We, too, must answer the question:  What happens when the claims of the president run counter to the claims of the King?

What do you do when the King is the embodiment of gentleness and meekness but the president is Arrogance Incarnate?

How do you respond:

  • When the King says, “Love your neighbor as yourself;” but the president says, “These aren’t people, they’re animals”?
  • When the King says, “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword;” but the president says, “I will get rid of gun-free zones in schools”?
  • When the King says, “He who loses his life for My sake will gain it;” but the president says, “I’m the toughest guy. We’re gonna start winning so much that you’re going to be sick and tired of winning”?
  • When the King says, “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself;” but the president says, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”?
  • When the King says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy;” but the president says, “As far as I’m concerned, you can go a lot stronger than water-boarding if you’d like.”
  •  When the King says, “Love your enemies, do good to them that persecute you;” but the president says, “I would bomb the sh– out of ‘em”?
  • When the King says, “Blessed are the peacemakers;” but the president says, “I’m really good at war, I love war in a certain way”?
  • When the King says, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations;” but the president says, “Make America Great Again”?
  • When it is said of the King, “He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall;” but the president says, “Nobody builds walls better than I do”?

What do you do in a situation like this?  The Pilgrim knows.  You don’t say, as evangelist Franklin Graham and others of a similar mindset have said, “that prayer – and God’s answer to it – helped Donald Trump and Mike Pence pull off ‘the biggest political upset of our lifetime.'”  On the contrary, like Peter, James, and John, you stand firm and declare, “We must obey God rather than man.”

Anfechtungen

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The way of man with God cannot be tranquil.

                      Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther 

 

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A typical born-again-believer testimony might begin something like this:  “My life used to be a mess.  I was into _____, ______, and ______, and was about as miserable as a person could possibly be.”  At that point the old Hank Williams standard usually kicks in:

 

          Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night –

          Praise the Lord!  I saw the light!

 

          I saw the light, I saw the light,

          No more darkness, no more night;

          Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight –

          Praise the Lord!  I saw the light!

 

If you think this sounds a bit too much like an advertising jingle, you’re not alone.  Many of the most celebrated followers of the Pilgrim Path would agree with you.  If you asked them, they would probably tell you that seeing the light isn’t always a pleasant experience.  That’s because the light reveals too much.  It shows you who you really are.  When you’ve got warts, pimples, and other less-than-attractive features, the light doesn’t feel like a friend.  Darkness comforts and covers like a big soft blanket, but the light introduces a lot of uncomfortable truths.

The prophet Isaiah knew all about this.  When God’s glory (light) washed over him like a flood in the temple sanctuary, he wasn’t moved to say, “Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight!”  On the contrary, he covered his face and cried, “Woe is me, for I am undone!”

Plenty of others have felt the same way.  Take John Bunyan, for instance.  It was only after he had set out on the Pilgrim Road – not before – that Bunyan fell into the real-life dungeon of Giant Despair.  As he recounts it in his autobiography:

 

        Now I evidently found that lusts and corruptions put forth themselves within me, in wicked thoughts and desires, which I did not regard before … All my sense and feeling were against me; and I saw I had a heart that would sin, and that lay under a law that would condemn.”

 

Teresa of Avila, too, though regarded as a saint in her own lifetime, always considered herself a great sinner.  The early period of her life was marked by almost constant inner conflict.  Though she prayed many hours a day, it was nearly twenty years before she was able to find “any joy in God or pleasure in the world.”

Perhaps the best known exemplar of this type of spiritual struggle is Martin Luther.  Oddly enough, as the light began to dawn in his life, Luther’s bouts with depression, self-loathing, anxiety, and despair only got worse.  So frequent did they become, in fact, that he felt compelled to coin a word of his own to describe them:  Anfechtungen.

In standard German, Anfechtung simply means “temptation” or “challenge.”  In Luther, the word takes on a much deeper, richer, and more all-encompassing significance.  For him, Anfechtungen included “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation” that are capable of invading the human spirit, especially within the context of man’s relationship with God.  It was in the midst of a tempest of Anfechtung that he hurled his famous inkpot at the devil.  But it was also during a fit of the same distemper that he was driven to a realization that revolutionized the course of his life:  The just shall live by faith.

Had Luther been born in our era, his Anfechtungen would probably have been medicated away.  In that case he might have lived happily ever after.  As it was, he continued to have such episodes for the remainder of his life.  In his view, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Near the end of his days he wrote, “If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God.  He does not know the meaning of hope who was never subject to temptation.”

Why would Martin Luther say such a thing?  The answer is simple:  he knew, as did the apostle James, that one cannot step into the light and draw near to God without encountering his fair share of grieving, mourning, and weeping; and he understood, as did John Bunyan, that the Delectable Mountains are reached only by way of the Slough of Despond.                              

 

 

 

 

 

Impracticality

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     What you want is an unpractical man.   That is what people always want in the last resort and the worst conditions. 

                                           G. K. Chesterton, The Poet and the Lunatics

 

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Does “faith” have practical benefits?

We’ve all heard this claim many times before.  In the past, it emanated primarily from the “religious” community, where it appeared under the guise of “positive thinking,” “possibility thinking,” and “the health and wealth gospel.”  More recently it’s been championed in less likely quarters:  among sociologists, psychologists, and even medical doctors.

“Results from several studies,” reports the University of Maryland Medical Center, “indicate that people with strong religious and spiritual beliefs heal faster from surgery, are less anxious and depressed, have lower blood pressure, and cope better with chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and spinal cord injury.”[i]

Jonathan Ewald, writing in Life + Health, assures us that “faith” has a far-reaching, deep impact upon more than our spiritual condition:  “It also affects our physical, mental, and social well-being.”  Ewald even goes so far as to say that “being part of a faith-based community is an important piece of the longevity puzzle.”  The moral of the story?  “If you have never done so before, consider submitting your life to God.  By exercising faith, our lives can be more fulfilled, balanced, and peaceful than before.”[ii]

This is not the Pilgrim perspective.

The Pilgrim is not accustomed to speak in terms of possessing “a faith.”  He is not interested in becoming part of a “faith-based community” as a way of securing prosperity or longevity, nor does he submit his life to God with an eye to what he can get out of it.  For him, “faith” is simply a question of total allegiance to a Person.  It’s all about attaching himself to and following the Master of his soul.  And this, he knows, is often an extremely impractical thing to do.  As history clearly demonstrates, this kind of “faith” does not always bring balance, peace, wealth, or temporal fulfillment.  Sometimes it leads to misunderstanding, rejection, defeat, and death.  In the eyes of the practical men of this world, it can look very much like an unforgiveable piece of pure folly.

There are several different words in the Old Testament that get translated into modern English as “faith,” “confidence,” or “hope.”  One of them is chislah, a noun is derived from a verbal root that means “to be foolish.”  In Psalm 78:7, the Hebrew poet wants the Children of Israel to “set their hope (chislah) in God;” but a few Psalms later (85:8 – verse 9 in the Hebrew text), the same word is used to express the idea that the Lord will “not let His people turn back to folly.”  Similarly, in Job 4:6, Eliphaz the Temanite accuses Job of placing false confidence (chislah) in his own integrity.

What’s the connection here?  Simply this:  there is a fine line – or perhaps no line at all – between faith and folly.  Indeed, in the eyes of the kosmos the two are frequently indistinguishable.  To pick up one’s cross and follow the Lord of Pilgrims wherever He may lead is not necessarily the best way to “get things done,” to “come out on top,” or to “make America great again.”  Just ask those heroes of “the faith” who were mocked, scorned, tortured, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in half, and slain with the sword for their troubles.

All this is just another way of saying that the Pilgrim life can be extremely impractical.  It’s not about doing what works (a good definition of politics).  On the contrary, it’s about doing what’s good and right – even if it doesn’t turn out so well for you in the end.

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[i] “Spirituality,” University of Maryland Medical Center.

[ii] Jonathan Ewald, “The Important Relationship Between Faith and Longevity,” Life + Health, December 6, 2012.

Skepticism

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              “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”  

         — Variously attributed to Alexander Hamilton, Peter Marshall,                                       Gordon A. Eadie, et al.

 

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For reasons that desperately need to be explained at greater length, cynics and skeptics have been given a bad name in the church and most “religious” circles.  This is a great tragedy.

Our word skepticism is derived from the Greek skeptomai, “to look at, check out, put to the test.”  The skeptic is a person who doesn’t take things at face value.  He subjects everything to a rigorous examination, searching for the substance that lies beneath the surface.  He adheres to the highest possible standards of good and bad, real and unreal, and he accepts only those assumptions and assertions that are solid enough to pass the test.

The true Pilgrim is an indefatigable skeptic – perhaps the only real skeptic left in the modern world.  He knows that gullibility is no asset to those who travel the road beyond the Wicket Gate, for it is a road lined on either side with persuasive counterfeits and attractive shams.  He remembers the word of warning given to all who dare set foot upon this path –

                                               Upon a world vain, toylsom, foul

                                                A journey now ye enter;

                                               The welfare of your living soul

                                                Ye dangerously adventure

 – and, accordingly, he arms himself with the shield of suspended belief.  This is just another way of saying that he equips himself with genuine faith.

Nathanael, one of the first followers of the Original Pilgrim, was a skeptic to the core.  When his friend Philip came to him and said, “We’ve found the Messiah, and he comes from Nazareth,” Nathanael responded by asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nowadays he’d be labeled a “downer,” a “defeatist,” a “rotter,” or a “negative thinker.”  His sarcasm would be condemned as hurtful, insensitive, and “bigoted.”  But Christ called him “an Israelite in whom is no deceit.”  Nathanael was honest and transparent, but he was something else as well:  he was intent upon finding the Real Thing and determined to settle for nothing less.

True skeptics are an endangered species.  That’s because you can’t have real skepticism where no one cares about Truth.  Under such conditions, all you get is a lot of pretentious, mushy, and insincere “tolerance” for “beliefs” that don’t mean anything to anybody anyway because everyone assumes that they’re all equally imaginary and irrelevant.  People who are convinced that the Real Thing doesn’t exist have no need to defend themselves against counterfeits.  They’re as happy as clams with or without them.  The skeptic, on the other hand, is on a quest, and he can never be satisfied until it is achieved.  If he ever gets to the place where truth-claims no longer matter, he will find himself out of a job.

The Pilgrim, then, is a genuine skeptic for the simple reason that he still believes in Truth.  It’s precisely because he cherishes the Real Thing so deeply and intently that he remains so resistant, critical, iconoclastic, and “intolerant” in his response to all substitutes, replacements, impostors and phonies.  Like Peter, when asked if he is on the verge of turning away from his Master, he can only say, “Lord, where else can I go?  You alone have the words of eternal life.”  Having seen the glory of the One and Only, he cannot and will not brook the claims of any other.

 

 

 

The Tradition of the Elders

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That night old Arrowmaker found his fire warmed by boys come to sit around him as in his youth, before everyone had guns.  Once more they came to watch him as he trued the shafts with his scraper and notched them for the feathers. 

                      — Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn

 

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Citior, altior, fortior – “faster, higher, stronger.”  That’s the official motto of the Olympic Games.  It’s also a neat and tersely symbolic summation of what it takes to be a “somebody” in the modern world.

The coiners of the Olympic slogan could easily have added iunior – “younger” – to this list of desirable comparative adjectives, but that would have been superfluous.  Everybody already knows that youth is prerequisite to speed, strength, and skill.  In fact, it would be fair to say that almost all of the qualities associated with “winning,” not only in the Games but in the kosmos at large, belong exclusively to the young.  That’s particularly true in the “First World” of the West, and truest of all in the good ol’ USA.

“Our American culture does not esteem the elderly,”[1] says one astute observer, summing up the situation in eight short words.  His observation has become a truism in a culture where the economy thrives by commercializing youth and keeping “grayness” carefully out of sight and out of mind.

It wasn’t always this way.  Not that “ageism” – bias against the elderly – is an entirely new phenomenon.  Far from it.  But in the recent past it’s been ramped up, hyped up, and exacerbated to an unprecedented degree.  It’s not hard to see why.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been living in a technological rather than a traditional society.  The two operate on the basis of radically different assumptions.  Traditional societies depend upon the faithful transmission from one generation to the next of a long-established and unchanging body of practical know-how and life-skills.  Under this kind of system, older people are naturally valued and respected as the indispensable keepers, preservers, and propagators of the “tribal lore.”  Younger people look up to them because they desperately need them.  Their expertise is the key to survival for future generations.

It’s altogether different in a technologically based society.  Here there is no fixed body of “lore” to be passed from grandfather to father to son.  Here the practical knowledge required for economic survival changes on an almost daily basis.  In this context, it’s not familiarity with and command of a tradition that counts, but innovation, inventiveness and adaptability – qualities we naturally associate with the young.

In the 1870s the Northern Cheyennes of Wyoming and Montana were still a traditional society – one of the hundreds of ancient and distinct North American cultures to be crushed to dust and swept away before the relentless advance of “The Technological Society.”  It’s a measure of how rapidly and efficiently the new system supplants the old that, after surrendering to the juggernaut, it only took about five years for the tribe’s younger generation, many of whom had spent a significant portion of their lives on or around the government “agencies,” to begin losing touch with the tradition of their ancestors.

All that changed drastically when two Cheyenne Old Man Chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, made a decision to lead their people out of captivity in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and back to their home on the Yellowstone River.  On the night of September 9, 1878, about 300 Cheyennes, men, women, and children, went AWOL with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few supplies and firearms.  By a strategy of constant running, fighting, and hiding some of them managed to elude the military might of the most advanced nation on earth for nearly seven months.

This was a remarkable feat on any reckoning, but it wouldn’t have been possible apart from the tradition of the elders.  In a very real sense, those few Cheyennes who eventually made it as far as Montana owed their lives almost entirely to the skills of the aged Arrowmaker, who knew how to shape bows and shafts when guns and ammunition ran low; to the Grandmothers, who understood herbs and plants and the preservation of game meat; and to the old hunters and guides, who taught them how to cover their tracks “so the earth seemed touched only by the wind.”[2]

In many ways, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus is a picture-perfect parable of the Pilgrim Path.  It’s the story of a ragged band of hassled and harried travelers struggling to find their way home through unthinkable trials and against horrendous odds.  More than that, it’s a testimony to the indispensable value of the Old Ways.  Seen from the right perspective, it serves as a reminder that Pilgrims, like the younger Cheyennes of Little Wolf’s band, are in many ways dependent upon the wisdom of those who have trod the path before them:  veterans of faith with the experience to act as wise custodians and purveyors of a precious body of eternal truth – truth that never can and never will change.

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[1] Steven J. Cole, “Psalm 71:  Growing Old God’s Way,” © 1993.

[2] Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1953), p. 153.

Faithfulness

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     “They, therefore, brought him out, to do with him according to their law; and first they scourged him, then they buffeted him, then they lanced his flesh with knives; after that they stoned him with stones; then they pricked him with their swords; and last of all they burned him to ashes at the stake.  Thus came Faithful to his end.” 

                           — John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part I

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

As he makes his progress through this world, the Pilgrim finds that most of the real dilemmas, difficulties, and challenges he encounters can be boiled down to a choice between two antithetical options:  either he can prevail or he can remain faithful.  In most instances the two are mutually exclusive.  They represent an unavoidable fork in the road.

The reason is simple:  it’s all part of the elemental opposition between kingdom and kosmos.  After all, there’s nothing easy about being in the world but not of it.  Sometimes it’s no fun at all.  If you’re willing to play by the rules, you have a chance of winning the game; if you aren’t, you’re sidelined.  Going against the grain creates uncomfortable friction.  And when individual conscience comes into conflict with entrenched power, the outcome is rarely in doubt:  those who march to the beat of a different drum generally get the worst of it – provided they keep on marching and don’t look back.

Christian, the hero of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and his loyal companion Faithful found this out the hard way.  They hadn’t been long on the road together when they came to a town called Vanity where a “lusty fair” – in contemporary speech, a bustling market – was kept all year round.  The merchants who plied their trade at this fair had a great deal in common with the advertisers and marketers who crowd the thoroughfares and jam the airwaves of our own modern Babylon, for in it they hawked such attractive commodities as “houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.”

It was inevitable that Christian and Faithful would get into trouble at Vanity Fair, and it didn’t take much to precipitate the crisis – nothing so bold as overturning tables or raising a cry in the streets.  Their offense was something much simpler and, from the perspective of the locals, far more heinous:  they refused to buy.  When one of the hucksters asked them, “What’ll you have, boys?” they answered, “We buy the truth.”  That was enough to get them locked up, beaten, and exposed to public ridicule.

When the case came to trial, they were convicted of disturbing the peace and causing a ruckus.  When Faithful asked to speak a few words in his own defense, he was told, “Sirrah, thou deservest to live no longer, but to be slain immediately upon the place.”  In the end, he was cruelly put to death for his crimes.  As for his companion, Bunyan tells us that “He that overrules all things, having the power of their rage in His own hand, so wrought it about, that Christian for that time escaped them and went his way.”

Like most of Bunyan’s allegorical characters, Faithful was well-named; and in this connection it’s worth mentioning that, in the language of the New Testament, faithfulness and faith are merely two sides of the same coin.  Translators use these two English words in different contexts to render a single Greek noun:  pistis.  Significantly, pistis, at its root, is all about persuasion (Greek peitho).  When I place my faith in someone, it’s because the evidence persuades me that he is steady and trustworthy, regardless of circumstances; and when I am faithful, I am behaving in a manner that persuades others to draw the same conclusion about me.

Here’s the point:  Faithful remained faithful to the end.  He was a Pilgrim of proven character.  Unable to prevail against the powers that be, he declined to save his own neck by becoming a cooperative consumer in the market of Vanity Fair.  Instead, he stood his ground and suffered for it, thereby making it clear to all concerned exactly who he was and what he stood for.  In the words of the song, “He fought the law and the law won.”  And in this silent but eloquent testimony to Pilgrim truth lay his victory – a victory the kosmos cannot possibly comprehend.

 

 

 

Watchfulness

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    “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme …”

          “Awake!  The Voice calls us …”

                              — Philipp Nicolai, 1599

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

To watch, in Pilgrim parlance, is not simply to look and stare in dumb amazement, as one might watch television.  As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite.  To watch, in the good old Anglo-Saxon sense of the word (OE wacian), is to stay awake and be aware.  It’s to maintain close contact with one’s surroundings and keep a sharp lookout for the approach of unexpected threats.  It’s about cocking your ear for the rustle of every leaf and the cracking of every twig.  In this respect it is precisely parallel to the Latin vigilare, “to wake, remain vigilant, or stand guard.”

The Pilgrim knows how important it is to stay vigilant.  He understands that the world is a dangerous place, a perilous enchanted wood where enemies prowl like roaring lions seeking whom they may devour.  Because he lives by trust, he knows how important it is to guard his trust.  He realizes that to invest it in an unworthy object would be a fatal error.

Little Tom Thumb, inhabitant of a world almost as depraved and dangerous as our own – the world of fairy-tale and romance – grasped the importance of keeping vigil.  Tom, having taken lodging in the house of a child-eating ogre, knew better than to doze off in the middle of the night.  Lying there in a great feather bed beside his six snoring brothers, he concocted a daring scheme.  In the wee hours, he slipped out from beneath the covers, crept to the bed where the ogre’s daughters lay, and exchanged their seven golden crowns for the boys’ seven felt caps.  Soon the ogre came tip-toeing into the room and began fumbling around in the dark.  Feeling the golden crown on Tom’s head, he muttered, “What a mistake I’ve nearly made!  I must have drunk too much last night!”  With that he went straight to the other bed and cut the throats of all his seven daughters.  When he was gone, Tom and his brothers made their escape into the night.

The point of the story is that watchfulness and cleverness trump brute force and violence every time.  But the Pilgrim knows that physical dangers are the least of the perils he faces as he travels through the kosmos.  Far more formidable are the ogres that lurk within his own heart – those natural, inborn inclinations to evil that lie in perennial ambush, looking for a chance to leap out and link up with the first suitable opportunity that comes along.  Those inclinations and opportunities can be subtle, inconspicuous.  They can also be deceptively familiar and comfortable; for as the prophet Jeremiah saw so clearly, it’s the heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”  Fearsome are the monsters that dwell within:  fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

When Lord of all Pilgrims returned from His prayers only to find His most trusted followers sleeping, like Tom Thumb’s heedless brothers, in the midst of invisible perils, he roused them with these unforgettable words:  “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).  The same Voice calls to us today.  Those who complete their pilgrimage successfully will be those who have ears to hear.

 

 

 

 

    

 

Resourcefulness

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“Never travel far without a rope!  And one that is long and strong and light …  They may be a help in many needs.”

              — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 8

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Roget’s Thesaurus suggests three adjectives as possible synonyms of the word resourcefulcunning, skillful, and versatile.  Webster’s Dictionary offers the following terse definition:  “able to meet situations; capable of devising ways and means.”  Ironically, both Roget and Webster seem to have overlooked the word’s simplest and most obvious meaning:  “full of a resource.”  They’ve placed all the emphasis on the native inventiveness and cleverness of the individual rather than on the raw material he must manipulate or the supply source upon which he depends.  This is a serious error – one that the true Pilgrim seeks to avoid at all costs.

To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Nothing comes from nothing.”  Only God can create ex nihilo.  In the same way, the Pilgrim knows that he cannot “meet situations” or “devise ways and means” unless he has something to work with, something to draw upon.  He is also keenly aware that this something has to come from outside himself.  On his own he’s an empty vessel, a mere clay pot.  Unless he is filled and empowered by this outside resource, he can do nothing.

The best of all resources is the one that is both the simplest and the most universally applicable.  The heroes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings understood this.  That’s why they regarded a strand of rope – perhaps the most basic of all mankind’s technological innovations – as one of the most important items a traveler could pack when setting out on a perilous journey.  Again and again throughout the course of Tolkien’s epic our hobbit heroes find themselves asking the question, “Got rope?”  It happens often enough to make the reader wonder what it’s really all about.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins catches sight of a small boat resting against the farther bank of Mirkwood’s enchanted river.  “Can any of you throw a rope?” asks Thorin Oakenshield, chief of the dwarves.  A few stout lengths are produced and, sure enough, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, the boat is snagged and drawn across the water.

Filled with excitement at having discovered a secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain, the treasure-hunting dwarves make their way up the precipitous path, each with “a good coil of rope wound tight about his waist.”  With these ropes they haul up provisions from the valley while Bofur and Bombur remain below with the pack ponies.  Later, they must use the same lines to hoist their two companions to safety when the dragon becomes aware of their presence and emerges from his lair.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee, setting out from Rivendell, checks his pack and discovers he’s forgotten rope.  “You’ll want it if you haven’t got it,” he tells himself.  Fortunately, several coils are supplied in Lorien; and, as one of the elves there predicts, they prove to be “a help in many needs.”  “What a piece of luck you had that rope!” says Frodo after safely descending a sheer cliff-face in the rocky waste of the Emyn Muil.  “Better luck if I’d thought of it sooner,” replies Sam.

Interestingly enough, G. K. Chesterton – a writer whose works Tolkien and his friend C. S. Lewis knew well – once made some similar observations about the value of rope:

 

     If a man found a coil of rope in a desert he could at least think of all the things that can be done with a coil of rope; and some of them might even be practical.  He could tow a boat or lasso a horse.  He could play cat’s-cradle, or pick oakum.  He could construct a rope-ladder for an eloping heiress, or cord her boxes for a travelling maiden aunt.  He could learn to tie a bow, or he could hang himself.[i]   

 

Naturally, Chesterton wasn’t suggesting that it might be a good idea to go out and hang yourself.  He was merely attempting to illustrate that the best tool in the box is the one with the broadest range of uses.  He was saying that a bit of rope can be a good thing to have no matter where the journey takes you, whether out into the desert, up the side of a mountain, or over the edge of a cliff.

In the same way, the Pilgrim is resourceful not because he is brilliant, talented, inventive, or brave in and of himself, but simply because he has a good bit of “rope” – a versatile source of strength capable of meeting any challenge, a reliable lifeline to which he can cling when the rocks give way and the earth crumbles beneath his feet.  His confidence is not in himself, but in the solid truth that God “is a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  It’s this that determines and defines his very identity as a traveler and sojourner in this world.

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[i] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World; Part III, Chapter 2, “The Universal Stick” (Mineola, New York:  Dover Publications, 2007, originally published in 1910), 89-90.

Hagneia

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     “But I, wretched young man that I was – even more wretched at the beginning of my youth – had begged You for chastity and had said:  ‘Make me chaste and continent, but not yet.’  I was afraid that You might hear me too soon and cure me too soon from the disease of a lust which I preferred to be satisfied rather than extinguished.”

                                    — Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7, 17

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

In our last installment we spoke of the Pilgrim’s dedication to simplicity, understood as integrity, wholeness, single-mindedness, and purity of heart.  This leads necessarily to the consideration of a related subject which is as indispensable to the Pilgrim life as it is difficult to broach in the contemporary social context:  something the New Testament writers call hagneia.

Hagneia can refer to purity in the general sense, but during the earliest years of Christian history it very quickly assumed the narrower connotation of specifically sexual purity.  In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul instructs the young pastor to make himself an example of hagneia to the other believers in his community (1 Timothy 4:12).  The full meaning of this charge becomes clear when he goes on to exhort Timothy to treat the younger women in the church “as sisters in all hagneia” (5:2).  In both cases the Latin Vulgate version renders the original Greek as castitas, or chastity.

Chastity, which has also been called continence, is the ability to contain, restrain, and confine one’s sexual impulses within their one proper arena:  marriage.  Marriage, in turn, has been very neatly and succinctly defined for us by Christ Himself:  “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:5).

Chastity, then, is about abstaining from all kinds of “sexual immorality” and “knowing how to possess your own vessel (body) in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  It’s a question of disciplining yourself to keep sexual energies in check – of “drinking water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15).

In our day, of course, chastity has either been forgotten or else dismissed as a laughable anachronistic joke – something to be lampooned in the movies and on Saturday Night Live.  The very idea of sexual restraint of any variety is totally inconceivable, entirely foreign, and completely offensive to modern Americans, who fiercely believe that the freedom to express themselves sexually in any and every way imaginable is yet another unalienable “right” guaranteed them in the United States Constitution.

All that may be well and good for modern Americans.  Unfortunately, it will not fly for the Pilgrim.  And this is something that his friends desperately need to comprehend if they really want to understand him.  Difficult as it may be for them to grasp, the Pilgrim does believe that there is such a thing as sexual morality.  He cannot buy the idea that “anything goes” in the sexual realm.  Nor is he free to compromise on this point.

Does this imply that he “hates” those who do not walk the narrow path he has chosen to follow?  Does it suggest that he regards himself as under some kind of obligation to buy an AR-15 rifle and blow such people off the face of the earth?  Of course not!  How could he when the same Master who calls him to a life of hagneia has also commanded him to “love his neighbor as himself?”  Nevertheless, he does feel very strongly that he cannot in good conscience join the party when folks around him want to celebrate the sexual diversity and license on which contemporary culture prides itself so highly.

It’s crucial to conclude by pointing out that hagneia or chastity is not just a matter of submitting oneself to a set of prudish and repressive rules.  Its true aim is something much bigger:  the unfettering and uncluttering of the heart and mind so as to make room for the advances and inroads of the great Lover of the soul.  St. Augustine, whose early adulthood had been as sexually promiscuous and debauched as that of any contemporary college senior, possessed a keen understanding of this truth.  As the desire for God was birthed and began to grow within him, the young man found himself torn in two directions.  “I desired wisdom,” he writes, “yet I was still putting off the moment when, despising this world’s happiness, I should give all my time to the search for that of which not only the finding but merely the seeking must be preferred to the discovered treasures and kingdoms of men or to all the pleasures of the body easily and abundantly available.”[i]

In the end it was complete surrender to purity – physical as well as mental and spiritual – that set him free.

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[i] St. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 7, 17; tr. Rex Warner (New York:  Mentor Books, 1963), 173.

Simplicity

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      Simplify!  Simplify!  Simplify!

                                                                   — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Thoreau (as we observed in an earlier installment) went to the woods because he wished “to front only the essential facts of life.”  Such has been the goal of many famous “simplifiers,” past and present – everyone from Jean Jacques Rousseau to the editors and readers of Real Simple magazine.

Simplicity, in the minds of many, is primarily a matter of doing or not doing:  dropping out of the rat-race, clearing away the clutter, getting rid of useless “stuff,” making life easier by stripping it of unnecessary distractions.  This is all well and good so far as it goes; in fact, it is the very lesson Christ was trying to teach when He told the busy Martha that “only a few things are necessary, really only one.”  But for all that, there’s a sense in which the Pilgrim’s notion of simplicity runs in a different – or perhaps a deeper – vein.

Old theologians and ancient Church Fathers had much to say about the simplicity of God Himself.  There’s something important to be gleaned from this apparently antiquated concept.  According to Systematics professor Louis Berkhof, God’s simplicity – or, as it used to be called, the unitas simplicitatis – is “expressive of the inner and qualitative unity of the Divine Being:”

     When we speak of the simplicity of God, we use the term to describe the state or quality of being simple, the condition of being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness.  It means that God is not composite and is not susceptible of division in any sense of the word.[i]

God’s simplicity, then, is not centered in doing but in being.  As the Latin term unitas simplicitatis (“the unity of simplicity”) suggests, its focal point is located in His oneness.  “Hear, O Israel,” declares the Shema, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” – by which is meant not merely that He is the “One and Only God,” but also that He is One in and of Himself.  As Berkhof explains, God is not “composed” of “parts.”  Instead, He is single and the same from top to bottom, from start to finish, from outside to inside and back again.  Like a square of real Van Briggle tile, He is completely, thoroughly, and genuinely Himself through and through – no veneer on the surface, nothing hidden underneath.

As a Reflector of the Divine Image, the Pilgrim sets his sights on this same kind of oneness or simplicity.  To put it another way, he places a high value on integrity.  In mathematics we employ the term integer to refer to a whole number.  In life we use the word integrity to describe the unmixed, undivided, unadulterated wholeness or oneness of the person who is the same on the inside as on the outside – with whom there is no seam, no crack, no line of demarcation between seeming and being.

Soren Kierkegaard rightly discerned that “purity of heart is to will one thing.”  Such unity of purpose is the Pilgrim’s watchword as he sets out on “the road that points toward the chosen Vale.”[ii]  In a world of “multi-ness” his heart is set upon singleness.  Reaching for the only true prize, he bundles all his energies and powers into an overriding desire to become one by uniting with the One.  The result is simplicity in the profoundest sense of the word:  plainness, unaffectedness, and an inward consistency that remains intact even in the face of kosmic complexity.

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[i] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1939), 62,

[ii] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book First.

“Nerdiness”

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     Levin replied, “It seems to me that [these new institutions] are useless, and I cannot feel interested in what you wish me to do …”

— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Have you ever been called a “nerd”?  If so, take heart:  you are not far from the kingdom of heaven.

Not all nerds are Pilgrims, of course.  But it would be fair to say that one can’t very well be a Pilgrim without also being a nerd.  In an important sense, pilgrimage and nerdiness go hand in hand.

Just what is a “nerd” anyway?  If you’ve never heard the term adequately explained, you may be interested in what Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has to say about it:

 

     nerd \nerd\ n [perhaps from nerd, a creature in the children’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel)]:  an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; esp:  one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.

 

This definition is instructive on several different levels.  Let’s dismantle it and examine its component parts.

We can begin by noting that the epithet “nerd” is most often employed as an insult.  If this weren’t already obvious from the snide tone in which it’s generally applied, one might be led to the same conclusion by the dictionary’s use of the negative modifiers “unstylish,” “unattractive,” and “socially inept” to describe the “nerdy” individual.

There’s an important corollary here.  The compilers of our dictionary are apparently working on the assumption that stylishness, attractiveness, and social aptitude are good and desirable attributes.  If “nerds” are frumpy, ugly, and socially “out of it,” it follows that “non-nerds” are the opposite – that their “coolness” is measured in terms of trendiness, good looks, and sophistication.

“Slavish devotion” is another quality that leaves the “nerd” open to derision.  No surprises here.  In a society that prides itself on skepticism, cynicism, urbanity, street smarts, and high-browed contempt, “devotion” (let alone “slavish devotion”) to anything but self is usually looked down upon as foolish and naive.  Most of us are above that sort of thing nowadays.

Finally, this “slavish devotion” is especially odious when it attaches itself to “academic or intellectual pursuits.”  Why?  For the simple reason that “intellectual pursuits” are not particularly conducive to or compatible with “slavish devotion” to pop culture.  And since pop culture is the standard by which all things are measured, anyone who fails to take a keen interest in it must necessarily be viewed as a moron, if not a public enemy.

If the Pilgrim is not invariably “intellectual” in outlook, it must be nevertheless be conceded that he is often what people today describe as “religious,” and that is something far worse.  After all, the dominant religion of mass culture cannot possibly brook any rivals.  Those who direct their attention to aberrant pursuits like prayer, reading, and scriptural study while neglecting such cultural staples as Twitter, YouTube, CNN, professional sports, and Saturday Night Live can only be regarded as a threat.  They have to be labeled appropriately – as “nerds” – and relegated to the margins of collective life.

In the last analysis, a “nerd” is simply a conscientious non-conformist.  In the case of the Pilgrim, he is someone who chooses remain outside the sphere of the kosmos and the assumptions of the present age – someone who has been radically transformed by the renewing of his mind.

That’s what the life of the Pilgrim is all about.

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Individuality

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Peter therefore seeing [the disciple whom Jesus loved], said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”  Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?  You follow Me!”     

John 21:21, 22

 

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In recent times a great deal of ink has been spilled and a lot of hot air spouted on the theme of community and corporate life, both inside and outside the church.  As a necessary corollary, so-called “rugged individualism” has been given a very bad name.  We are constantly told to “Come Together,” “Celebrate Community,” promote “Team Spirit,” and look upon “I, Me, and Mine” as dirty words.  Speech has been altered and ancient hymns edited (e.g., from “Be Thou My Vision” to “Be Thou Our Vision”) to reflect the correct viewpoint.  Oddly enough, all this is being done at a time when “selfie” is one of the most commonly used words in the English language:  the Oxford Dictionaries named it “word of the year” for 2013, and its frequency in everyday parlance has only increased since then.  Is it possible that we’re protesting too much?

It’s time someone pointed out that there are two sides to this coin.  Certainly community is essential to kingdom life.  We have already said that the true Pilgrim places a high priority on koinonia and fellowship.  “You fill up what is lacking in me, just as I supply what is lacking in you” – or, to use Dante’s terminology, “I inyou as you inme.”[i]  This kind of spiritual sharing and intimacy is one of the primary principles of the Pilgrim way.  But having said this, it’s vital to pause and add that koinonia and community are not the same thing as “collectivism.”  The Pilgrim knows that any kind of “community” that places the group ahead of the individual and asks him to sacrifice his soul to the interests of the corporation is nothing short of a deadly fraud.

“It is like looking at pictures which are too near or too far away,” said Pascal in his Pensees.[ii]  “There is just one indivisible point which is the right place.”  For the Pilgrim, that one indivisible point is the place where the value of the individual and the claims of the community can be held in reasonable balance.

Eradication of the individual personality and enforcement of a group-based identity are hallmarks of totalitarianism in all of its various forms, including fascism, communism, the military, and religious cults.  Tyranny establishes itself through the implementation of three classic steps to total control:  1) disintegration of the individual; 2) creation of a collective conscience, plus re-indoctrination; and 3) self-criticism and full integration into the system.[iii]  In Mao’s China, for instance, the theory of the “mold” became fundamental to the Party’s approach to mass education:  “The point is to press man in a mold, placing him there periodically, to ‘re-mold’ him systematically.”[iv]  Similarly, in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia there was no room whatsoever for dissent or deviation from the “norm.”  And we all know how the People’s Temple, the Children of God, the Alamo Christian Foundation, and the Church of Scientology, to name just a few, have cultivated “group-think” as a way of holding members to a rule of strict conformity.

All of this reflects a dangerously misguided conception of human nature.  Important as fellowship and sharing may be, the fact remains that man originated not as a member of a community, but as a distinct individual.  This is brought out rather strikingly in the first chapter of Genesis, where every other type of living creature is said to have been created en masse.  But not mankind:

 

     Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.”  So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind … Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind:  cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind;” and it was so …

Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness …”

 

Unlike the other animals, man in the beginning was not made to be part of a herd.  In contrast to all other species, he was created as a single individual – Adam.  Only afterwards did God say, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  And at that point He brought onto the scene not a community of people, but another individual.  What’s more, this second individual was not simply a copy or clone of the first one.  By no means was she cast in the same “mold.”  On the contrary, she was in almost every way Adam’s opposite number.  Herein is wisdom:  for oneness is not the product of sameness.  Only in the coming together of the opposites, differences, divergencies, contrasts, and complementarities represented and symbolized in male and female does the true unity of inyou-inme fellowship have a chance to flower.

Meanwhile, you and I live in a society that seeks relentlessly to press us into its ever-hardening mold.  Commercialism, advertising, television, technology, pop culture, professional sports, entertainment, news media – these ubiquitous manifestations of conformist propaganda are working round the clock to transmute the unique individual into the standardized mass man or woman.  The Internet has compounded the problem on a geometric scale.  Armed with our “mobile devices,” we have willingly and almost worshipfully granted it the power to keep each and every one of us locked into the same thing hour after hour, day after day, and year after year.  There is no longer an inch of ground left to genuine solitude or original thought.  “America voted … ,” Ryan Seacrest used to say, apparently assuming that everyone in the country tuned into American Idol with religious regularity.  He was absolutely right, of course.  Modern people always do as they are told.

Read John Bunyan’s book and you will find that this is not the Pilgrim way.  Christian set out for the Holy City entirely on his own, with neither wife, child, nor friend.  Why?  Because that is the only way anyone can ever really respond to the Master’s unique call upon his life.  “What do you care what others are doing?” said Jesus.  “You follow me!”

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[i] Paradiso, Canto IX, line 81.  Italian “m’intuassi, come tu t’inmii.”

[ii] #21.

[iii] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (New York:  Vintage Books, 1973), 313, footnote 6.

[iv] Ibid., 309.