What We Fight is So Tiny: Trust and Rainer Rilke

“God has a plan for all of us.”

That’s a truth that exists in my brain that occasionally gets dredged up when I’m talking about theology, but I don’t think I really know it in my heart. Not when it matters, anyway. When life gets frustrating, I lose myself to anxiety, stress, and disappointment. God’s plan may be a theory I’m aware of, but it’s not a reality I’m living into. To put it in meme terms:

It’s not all that Christian of me.

I’ve been wondering, “How can I trust more when things are going wrong?” This poem by 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Rilke told me exactly really helped me reframe things:

The Man Watching
Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on 
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, 
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny! 
What fights with us is so great. 
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm, 
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things, 
and the triumph itself makes us small. 
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us. 
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews 
grew long like metal strings, 
he felt them under his fingers 
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight) 
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, 
that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

Gorgeous. One line that especially stands out to me: “When we win, it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” My worries are so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Christians throughout time have been subject to starvation, torture, and the threat of death, and they trusted God. Here I am, terrified about tiny things. I’m fighting over details, and that fighting makes me small. What would it take to give up my fighting and surrender to something far greater? To willingly be defeated by God and trust that it’s for my benefit?

I also love Rilke’s tone. It is, to quote the poem itself “seriousness and weight and eternity.” In contrast to so many modern preachers that portray the life of faith this carefree and delightful romp, Rainer doesn’t shy away from the challenge of faith. God will demand everything. He is the storm on the horizon. His angels will handle your sinews like strings. God is terrifying. The solution isn’t resisting the storm; it’s giving in.

We won’t be the same after the encounter. Jacob, the patriarch that he’s referencing, walked with a limp after his wrestling match. I doubt he wanted a limp, but he got one. He wrestled with the divine, and he was transformed. Not in the way he expected, mind you, but he trusted that this new self was a better self. So many of the heroes of faith were transformed through events that I can’t imagine them asking for. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. Noah was asked to watch a civilization-ending flood. Elijah hid while he was hunted by the authorities. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into a cistern. Even Jesus, the grand revelation of God himself, was crucified. God’s action isn’t all sunshine and roses. It’s scary, but we have to trust that it’s good.

Rainer challenges us to trust with the full knowledge that it won’t end up the way we sinful beings would like. The only victory worth having is our own defeat. I only hope I can stop trying to squeeze out victories over tiny things and start losing the battle that matters.

The Acts of Pilate: Jesus Conquers Hell

I’m doing a little class about the cross at my church, and this week we’re looking at the Christus Victor model of atonement.  It presents Christ’s death on the cross primarily as a victory over evil.  In ancient times, it was usually tied to the ransom theory of atonement (Jesus was given over to Satan/evil as a payment in exchange for humanity), so you can find these great old stories about Jesus going to Hell and wrecking everything to save the saints.

The book we are using for the study (The Sign and the Sacrifice by Rowan Williams) mentioned one such account from the fourth-century apocryphal book The Acts of Pilate (aka the Gospel of Nicodemus). Naturally, I wanted to read it firsthand!  Unfortunately, there’s no accessible copy online.  The best I could find was the version in The Apocryphal New Testament by Montague Rhodes James, published in 1924, which translates everything into Shakespearean English.  There’s thee’s and thou’s and all those other old words that make reading infinitely harder.  I went ahead and paraphrased the translation there so it was actually readable and I thought I’d share it.  This is not a translation!  It’s my attempt to make the James translation readable for a modern audience.  Feel free to check out the original here (at the bottom of p. 117).  I started paraphrasing at Christ’s descent into Hell (about halfway through The Acts of Pilate), and I stopped just shy of the real end of the text (I ended with Jesus leaving Hell, but all of the saints give praise and hallelujahs for a few more paragraphs).  This is based on the Latin A manuscript.

If you don’t know anything about apocryphal books or atonement theories, you might be asking, “Why on Earth would I want to read that” Well, it’s basically a fourth-century fanfiction about Jesus going to Hell after his death on the cross. He fights Hell (yes, Hell is a being in this one) and Satan, and he busts Adam and his friends out and takes them to Heaven. It may not be Scripture, but it’s really cool and well worth your time.

To make sure this isn’t the longest blog post ever, here’s a link:

https://classictheology.org/the-acts-of-pilate-christs-descent-into-hell/

Enjoy!

Sanctify this Work: George Herbert’s The Altar

I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!

George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”

I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:

The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.

George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3

That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.

In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):

It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.

I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.

How African is Christian Orthodoxy?

Home to the Church fathers? Victim of Christian colonization? Both?

Back in seminary, I remember one of my friends getting frustrated about the syllabus of our theology class.  It focused on 3 theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and Kathryn Tanner.  She pulled me aside and vented, “How dare they present this as theology? It’s an ethnocentric, biased, racist presentation of what ‘theology’ is.” Being a little more moderate (and excited to delve into Augustine), I responded, “Well, you’ve got more diversity there than you think. You’ve got an Italian guy from the middle ages, an American woman from today, and Augustine is ancient and from… what… like modern Algeria or something? That’s 2 genders, 3 continents, and 3 eras.” Her response was simple: “Augustine has been co-opted by white people for generations. He’s effectively white at this point. You can’t count him as a diverse voice.”

I don’t want to argue about whether the class was biased. Of course it was! There is no unbiased presentation of information. In choosing which voices to include, you always create a bias. If anything, I think the voices from that class have a more Catholic bias than anything else! But that’s neither here nor there. I’m more interested in her response: Augustine isn’t African. He’s effectively white.  For those unfamiliar with him, Augustine is the father of Western Christian orthodoxy (Protestant and Catholic) and was born in Algeria when it was under Roman rule.  Admittedly, I don’t know that I’ve heard a lot of people discuss him as a non-white, non-Western source. He usually makes his way into discussions as a primarily Latin-speaking, Roman source (a factor that I assume made her consider him “effectively white”).

There are reasons for that! The Roman Empire stretched across continents and encompassed multiple nationalities. Ideas about who is “white” wouldn’t have been relevant in that era.  Racial stereotypes still existed, but not in the form that they take today.  When we say things like, “Augustine was not white,” it’s an anachronistic statement.  But still, we view the past with the lenses that we wear today.  Why is it that the ancient fathers of the Church born in Africa are often seen as basically European?

Thomas Oden took a solid stab at this question in his book, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.”  It’s relatively readable, but he is pretty bad about name-dropping.  Any given chapter includes the name of 10 or more ancient theologians, most of which the average person will not recognize. I’m just going to pick three theologians that he named that are worth talking about: Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony of Egypt.  Auggie is the father of traditional Western Christianity, Athanasius is a bishop from Egypt that helped officially establish that Jesus was equally God with the Father (some people at the time were saying he was a lower-tier assistant to God, rather than the real deal), and Anthony is the father of monasticism who I’ve written about previously here.  Each one of these men is African, but rarely has that aspect of their identity acknowledged.

Oden takes a solid stab at uncovering Augustine’s legitimate, non-white ethnicity:

It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber background from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a military officer with a Roman-sounding name. Augustine was born and raised in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in Numidia show occupation dating back ten thousand years. Among Augustine’s known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman and even Libyan names.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Kindle Locations 528-532

Someone with a family rooted in Northern Africa is logically probably from Northern Africa.  Latinized names were gradually adopted by native populations during their time in the Roman Empire, so they certainly aren’t proof of ethnicity.  Either way, a man that was born in Africa, worshipped in Africa, spoke to Africans, and died in Africa ought to be considered African.  When Romans based their logic on Augustine’s theology, they were following the foremost thinker of Africa, not Europe.

Then we have Athanasius of Alexandria.  Again, we have a similar situation regarding name. Athanasius’s Greek-sounding name that would have been popular in the region after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, but Greeks would have been a minority population in Egypt.  The average person, even in metropolitan areas like Alexandria, was Egyptian.  Greece left the imprint of their language and their philosophers, but those ideas were taken up and developed by the people who did the majority of the eating, breathing, living, and thinking across that landmass.  As a bishop, Athanasius worked regularly with churches that stretched deep into modern Egypt, almost bordering modern day Sudan.  This population wouldn’t have known Greek!  They’d have spoken a language like the native Egyptian Nilotic.  He was someone who spoke to, cared for, and related to the people of Egypt.  Even some of the metaphors that he uses reflect a mind that is distinctively Egyptian!  When people like Athanasius talked about eternal life or spiritual ascent, those terms were packed with meaning that were inherited from ancient Pharaonic religion. They spoke to him and the people he knew because of their cultural heritage.

And then there’s Anthony.  Favorite saint of mine, Anthony.  Anthony helped popularize Christian monasticism and is often considered the first Christian monk.  Not only was he Egyptian, but the ultramajority of people that followed him out to the desert would have been Egyptian peasants.  The academics among them may have written in Greek to make their ideas accessible, but they would have regularly spoken Egyptian Nilotic. As people throughout Europe started monasteries, they were taking on a pattern of life that was developed by Africans.

With these three examples alone, I think it’s clear that the achievements of Africans in Christian theology have been unjustly ignored.  Orthodoxy flowed from the South to the North for centuries!  Europeans don’t get to lay claim to these men simply because they enjoyed their work.  And it’s equally unjust to say that their theological work didn’t find lasting roots in African communities.  There are churches in these regions that have been active for about 2000 years.  If anything, those regions have a better claim to the title “traditionally Christian” than most places in Italy, England, or France.  So why is there a bias in favor of Europe when it comes to claiming ownership over Christian thought?

That bias didn’t always exist.  A popular story in medieval Europe was the legend of Prester John.  He was this grand king from beyond the Islamic lands that controlled an ancient and powerful Christian kingdom.  There were a lot of journeys to try to find him and ask for help!  Mind you, he didn’t actually exist.  Maybe they meant the King of Ethiopia, who fits the bill reasonably well?  Apparently when Europeans made contact with Ethiopia, they insisted on calling the King “Prester John” (much to his confusion).  Whether or not the myth had any grounding in reality, Europeans were aware that there were Christians elsewhere in the world.  They were wise, they were important, and they were very much alive.   Christianity wasn’t understood to be a European phenomenon.

Today, the cultural legacy of colonialism lives on in how we view theology:

We can hardly find these prejudices against Africa voiced anywhere where in Christian history until we get to the nineteenth century, especially to the writings of the French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism. It was not until [then] that these prejudices became so standardized that they were accepted without question by educated Westerners-and by Western educated Africans.

Ibid., Loc. 555-557

In an era where Europe was casting off the vestiges of tradition and claiming an unbiased, “scientific” worldview, real Christianity became an intellectual property of Europe.  Good ideas were emphasized as primarily European.  Augustine became a Latin theologian.  Athanasius and Anthony were assumed to be working from their Greek intellectual inheritance.  Anything good that they wrote was suppposed to have come from their Western sensibilities; any anything that was obscure or odd was a product of unenlightened, superstitious nonsense that Europeans were fighting against.

Orthodoxy was redefined and reframed to fit the presiding worldview, and some of the diverse voices of the early Christians were whitewashed.

There’s something to be gained by seeing the famous theologians of the past for the diverse people that they were.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely redefine the way we read them!  If we try to wrap their faith around their ethnicity, we could end up creating the same kind of ethnocentric faith that the enlightenment brought us. We might be tempted to think about Augustine in terms of how African he was, or to have conversations about Anthony as primarily an Egyptian thinker.  That’s all well and good, but both men would much rather be weighed by a more important measure: in terms of the truth that they were a witness to.  Oden put it well:

Orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will. African Christianity is not primarily a racial story but a confessional story of martyrs and lives lived by faith active in love.

Ibid., Loc. 545-548

The benefit to recovering the full story of these saints is seeing just how vast the workings of God have been.  Europe isn’t the alpha and the omega of historic Christian faith. Christianity belongs to the whole world, and it always has.