I've been shelving-up a whole storehouse of things to write about how the good Bishop of Durham. N.T. Wright has reached out with his big English hand and has given me the final push, or smack in a paradigm shift that has been going on with me in the past 3 years, or maybe since I was 12.
I am not easily influenced by modern preachers and theologians. I am by default suspicious of any Christian Guru who owns a collection of hair gel and rectangle glasses, or the one who wears a monk's robe but isn't really a monk. Its not that I don't enjoy hearing the teachings, (sometimes) its just that the ones that try to give modern Christian critiques always "feel" nothing short of bitter and jaded, no matter how soothing their voice. Not only that, but they sort of seem like a character in a painting trying to step out of the painting and critique the painter. In short, they've been and felt like searchers who "sound" like they have the answers but are really looking for an "atta boy, you sound like you've got it figured out! How much is your book? And where DID you get those glasses?" As a result of this attitude, I have essentially retreated into the Orthodox teachings of the Roman Catholic and the Easter Orthodox Churches and even Judaism (Messianic, of course.) and, yes, last but not least, my buddy Joel Osteen. (Seth pauses to revel in the gasps he has just inspired.) And I've struggled with bitterness.
N.T. Wright has reached into my little protective huddle and smacked me around like a good pastor should and has awakened questions that I always thought were the "wrong" questions and when I've asked them I've been told that I am on the road to universalism and towards the old social gospel. One gets tired of being told that they are crazy, liberal, prosperity-lite, and Catholic/hellward. The mouth glues shut, the eyes zip from author to author at B&N and the heart grows nastier and nastier to the criticisms leaping forth from their pages. Negativity sets in, and that is poison. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I like Osteen so much. The man doesn't claim to be some theological bigwig, and sure his context is off at times, but the News he is telling is at least Good. And it is Good News, my friends. Don't try to convince me otherwise by whacking me with your suffering-club.
There has always been something that has always bothered me about my faith since, well, since I've been a Christian. I've known the Gospel is true no matter how many times I've tried to privately test it, or rather, I believe it is true by faith and the enormous historical likelihood that the Gospels are true has served to aid that faith. But that faith has always seemed costly. And not costly in a good way as in: "thinking of others before yourself," but in the bad way, as in: "I've got to figure this thing out and deny 'myself' and be 'born again" ... and somewhere in there I end up denying everyone else even exists... "wait a second... did I just ignore my grief-stricken neighbor?" The one has often canceled the other when it should not have.
The notion that "the world and all our passions are crap" has always felt at odds with the renewed spirit that came alive in me when at my best, when thinking clearly, because contrary to all that you've seen on ... certain channels, the Holy Spirit brings an unbelievable clarity and humility (humility=thankful), or contrary to what you've seen coming out of modern fatalistic, when-we-all-get-to-heaven hard-core pulpits, it does not make you a judge, but rather an giver of grace, mercy and forgiveness, as you have been shown grace, mercy and forgiveness.
He gives a true synergy to your body and spirit, even despite horrible circumstances or dire physical maladies. People filled with the Holy Spirit start rejoicing in their suffering. They do not feel sorry for themselves even though they seem to have every right to feel that way. They even walk to their their death in the Lions den, speaking words of forgiveness and love for their executioners, or they lie on their death beds in agonizing pain and share the Gospel to their grieving loved ones with a Joy that one can only reckon with as more real and true than any visible suffering.
And what is the "Good News?" Many times the Good News seems like the "Big Downer News" rather than Good News. More on that later.
No, it is the Holy Spirit that truly ignites your passions. When you seek first the Kingdom God and his righteousness, the passions make sense, and they need no explanation. They need no justifying. The become one great big sign post towards obedience. My tendency has always been, if by chance any passion ever surfaced that was outside the normal Christian mold of things, to quell that bad fleshly passion by becoming a religious zealot and retreat so far from the living breathing world that I damn near wore a white robe and petrified into a praying marble statue. I made the journey very complicated and noble one, when all along it was really a wrong perspective of the Kingdom, fueled by a fear of failure beneath the robes of religious zeal.
"Well, Seth, this is an awful lot of talk about what YOU want and YOUR passions... what about Loving your neighbor?" Well, my friends, loving your neighbor takes on a whole new synergy when you aren't feeling sorry for yourself and you are walking in obedience. There is actually Good News to be shared rather than News that you wish was good. Another Irony of the Christian life is that the weight of our Cross is carried by our supernaturally created passion to obey. Taking up your cross is not sacrificing all that God has made good in you and suffering the pains of that severing (as Philip Pullman tried to portray the children in his Golden Compass novels being severed from its daemon, or soul by the "Magistrate,") it is stepping out into world with that recreated and healed passion and into whatever trial that comes your way because of that faith and obedience.
I believe that that true clash going on in me has NOT been between a natural state of agnosticism and a striving for faith, but between my western-civ-Aristotle-Plato Gnostic roots and the supernatural and synergetic love of God that was and is always turning me towards the reality of "Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven" with my heart, mind, soul and strength. Not just number 2 in that list.
(Yes, I finished my dissertation, btw. I'll probably do a few small revisions but as of yesterday, I turned that sucker in.)