Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lusting Like Jesus (Part 3)

Fire. It's symbolic for passion.

So are we to destroy our desires? Should we find a way to siphon off this explosive gasoline? Or should we strengthen our desires for truly good things?

Jesus advice would seem to be the latter. I have been studying the Sermon on the Mount and one of the things that most shocked me was how strong Jesus emphasizes consequences. It's not "because it's the right thing to do" but because, "your Father … will reward you openly." Far from being some obscure verse, it seems to me to be a central theme of the central sermon in the Bible. By my count, 29% of the verses in the Sermon explicitly mention consequences.

And why not? Jesus didn't come to abolish the law, but to fulfill. He gave us desires as he gave us the Law, and Christ has come not to abolish but to fulfill. He comes so that we may have life, and have it more abundantly. Not death, or physical oblivion, or personal dissipation (Nirvana), or reincarnation. Life. Bodily life, with all its rude hungers and thirsts and lusts. Bodily life will not be abolished, but fulfilled. He is the bread of life which fills our bellies, the living water which soothes our cracked lips and dry tongue, the bridegroom who comes as the ultimate fulfillment of our desire for ecstasy and intimacy. And to make sure we don't go floating off into the clouds before the time, He provides us with physical bread, H2O, and holy sex. Aquinas was right when he said, "No natural desire is given in vain."

The problem, as I see it, is that our desires are not strong enough. We are insufficiently lustful. Jesus warns us that if we look at a woman to epithymeō after her, we have committed adultery (Mat 5:28). And then Jesus desires (epithymeō) to eat the Passover (Luk 22:15), the disciples to see Jesus (Luk 17:22), and Paul that the Hebrews would be diligent (Hbr 6:11). Only if we hunger and thirst after righteousness, will we be filled. We need to redeem our corrupt desires, not jettison them.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. -CS Lewis
If we had a Godly lust for food, mere bread would not satisfy. If we had a Godly lust for drink, tequila would leave us feeling inhibited and sober. If we lusted after the Divine mystery, we would be bored with any amount of mere sex. Lewis is exactly right. We are far too easily pleased.

According to the great Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas, proper desire is at the core of the Christian message:  “Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” Contemporary Theologian John Piper also asserts that proper desire is critical to Christian flourishing. In “Desiring God,” he argues that the chief duty of man is, as according to the Wesminster Confession, to “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Desire is like gasoline. It is dangerous indeed, but it is dangerous like a fuel. And Christianity is a religion that needs to move. The world is not where it should be. It needs to move, and we, the Church, are called to be engines of that movement. And to fuel us, the engines, God proposes to use the gasoline of desire. Of course, just as easily as it can get you to go to grandma’s house, gasoline can power your car over the edge of a cliff; gasoline can run tanks or ambulances. So it is critical that our desires be good. Without desire, our dynamic religion is broken down on the roadside, out of gas.

So let us not make sacrifices without benefit, but let us make sure we get a good deal. Let us focus properly on ourselves. Let us have insatiable lusts. And then we will be walking in the footsteps of our Lord.

Christian Sacrifice as Good Business (Part 1)
Christianity: The Egocentric Religion (Part 2) 
Lusting Like Jesus (Part 3) 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Christianity: The Egocentric Religion (Part 2)

There is probably salt on this food. Probably.

Should we be egocentric? Or should we care about others? Should we be selfish, or selfless?

It seems that we like to assert that Christianity is about others, not ourselves. But who did Christ come to save? Individuals. I’s. Ego’s (Greek for “I”). And what is the fate of the individual? The Christian heaven is not an individual soul (e.g. Hindu Ātman) dissolving into a universal spirit (Brahman) like salt dissolving into water. It is every tribe, tongue, people and nation worshipping before the throne of God; a Church full of selves. We do not worship God by becoming less ourselves (selfless). We worship God by becoming more ourselves. Indeed, Jesus didn’t recommend dissolving salt in the ocean, but putting it on food. Salt brings out individual flavors. It makes mashed potatoes and green beans more themselves and thus more different; the potatoes become more potatoey and the green beans more green beany.

The word “Selfless” doesn’t appear anywhere in any popular Bible translations (KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, NLT). “Selfishness” is absent from KJV, NKJV, NIV, and ESV, and appears only twice in NLT. “Selfish” itself is used only a handful of times and never in the Gospels. Being that the Bible does not talk about it at all, I contend that selflessness is not a Christian virtue. Selflessness is a virtue born of a false dichotomy in a zero-sum world. You or them. If you are benefitted, it is because you hurt them. But we don’t live in a zero-sum world. That which most benefits me, most benefits God and others.

Of course we’re supposed to love our neighbors. But that doesn’t require self hatred or self neglect. The more alive we are, the more of our true, uncorrupted natures we express, the more love we give to others. I can love best when I am acting as God created me to be, when I am being more David-ish. So too when you are self-ish. When we are being purely and rationally self-ish, we can truly see the joy of service and perform it; we can remember the satisfaction of charity, and do it. The best days of my life have not been days of taking, but of giving. The days that I really acted or thought in ways that most benefitted me in short-term satisfaction and long-term eternal reward, the days I most expressed myself and my nature, the days I’ve been most properly selfish have been my best days.

Being egocentric, focusing on oneself, on the “I”, and seeing real and true Divine value in it is Christian. The Great Commandment itself is predicated on selfishness. It cannot be completed without self love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It presumes self-love is universal and necessarily central. So, insofar as Christianity is an egocentric religion, it is a realistic religion. There is no alternative. Jesus acknowledges the self-love He created people with, and then uses that to argue for love of others.

Christian Sacrifice as Good Business (Part 1)

Christianity: The Egocentric Religion (Part 2) 
Lusting Like Jesus (Part 3) 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Christian Sacrifice as Good Business (Part 1)

The modern distillation of Christianity seems to be “Don't be selfish, be selfless.” We create a dichotomy between ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness’ and put all the righteousness on the selflessness end. The things that “I want” need to be eliminated for the things that “God wants.” My desires are sinful, and I need to sacrifice my desires to God.

This is more or less what we hear in Sunday school and growing up. But is it true? I recently saw a 1950’s interview with Ayn Rand and her philosophy, based on self-interest, disgusted the Christians I was watching it with. She characterizes sacrifice as evil and says that, “The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.”

We generally define sacrifice as giving up something for nothing. In the proper Christian sense, sacrifice is an exchange. It is the selling of something less valuable to get something more valuable. And usually, far more valuable. The merchant sold all that he had to buy the pearl; the man sold all that he had for the field with the treasure. And it is not just humans which make exchanges. God, too, constrains Himself and follows these principles. These parables work bi-directionally. Did not God also sell all that He had to obtain the Gentile gem, the pearl, or the field of the world containing his treasure, the Church? Not even the most 'selfless' act of the Crucifixion was giving up something for nothing; it was an exchange.

Is there every something we can ‘sacrifice’ to God that will truly impoverish us? How many of us, standing before the Pearly Gates, will have that nagging feeling that we probably helped one too many orphans? Will we regret any hour ‘sacrificed’ to pray? Will any of us deem the Kingdom for which we give our lives not good enough?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Most Popular Posts of 2011

A crowd. I don't think any of them read Arena-Man

Hey everybody! Today I’m going to reflect on the top five most popular (in terms of page views) posts on Arena-Man in 2011. The year was an exciting time for the blog. It’s the first time that I made a concerted effort to write something weekly (and usually post it). So here are the top 5, picked by you! Counting down from number 5:

I’ve long been of the opinion, first expressed by a pastor of mine, that any two Christian people can have a successful marriage. To disabuse me of this notion, a friend recommended I read this book. So I reviewed it and then critiqued it. Warren’s basic idea is that good selection is all-important, even more important than anything else you do in relationship. He’s got a lot of good ideas about what exactly needs to line up, and has since writing this, become the most successful matchmaker in the history of the world (via eHarmony). This post got popular because (in addition to it being totally world-stupifyingly brilliant like all my articles ;) not much is written online about Neil Clark Warren. This article got popular because (probably young) people were told about Warren, and Googled him.

When I was at home, I felt my ambition wane for a brief moment. It was a specific moment sitting on the back porch of my parents’ home, relaxing, spending a quiet morning with God and getting the warm feeling, “This is what life is about.” I think I’ve since shifted myself back into the stream of Action, but it is not to be forgotten that the domestic life is Good, and perhaps the ideal life. “My epiphany was that my sword will one day be beaten into a plow because there will never again be a reason for me to leave home. Man’s destiny is domestic.” I have stories as to why all my other stories got clicks, but I don’t know about this one. Maybe others are feeling the same way.

In this article, I summarized the condition of the present dating world and conclude that Fairy Tale Romance is impossible only because we believe it to be so. It’s natural and proper for men to make early and ridiculous promises and declarations of love, and this would work if men kept their word. But they don’t and so by the time we’re ready to get married, we have a lot of broken promises behind us. My assessment of the present problem is: “We have locked away our still-beating heart in a black coffin. The passions of the living heart seep out of the coffin like a vapor and drive Twilight sales into the millions, while the thick lid prevents any real corporeal Romance in. Perhaps it is irony that Edward, the great romantic hero of our age, is dead. Mr. Darcy has been replaced with a pale, cold, lifeless, blood-sucking, sun-fearing creature of the night (with really sexy hair).” If we are to find love, it will be a risk; prudence is not minimizing it, but in taking it. I love that this article inspired so much discussion. Some people agreed with it. Another made a heartfelt confession about a situation in her life. People were real and honest. It was the closest to web community that I’ve seen.

I was inspired when I took Solomon’s personification of Wisdom seriously, when I actually thought of Wisdom like a girl. I saw the passage afresh, and wanted to pass this experience on to others. But you can’t just say “Hey guys, think anew about something old!” At least I can’t say that effectively. So I decided to play a dirty trick on all my well-intentioned would-be matchmakers (and all friends who are concerned with such personal matters). So I wrote about Wisdom as if I just started dating her (after, of course, changing my Facebook status to “In a Relationship”. I fooled a lot of people and I hope (though highly doubt) many grew wiser by it. The length of time of the deception ranged from zero seconds (someone who figured it more likely that I would change my Facebook status for a teaching purpose than actually get a girl) to several months (people who read the first paragraph of the article, smiled, and never read the part about my explaining it to be a metaphor). It was rather awkward to explain about my girlfriend (in their mind) of 3 months who turned out actually to be a metaphor.

I never guessed at 3am when I posted this, that it’d end up my most popular post for 2011. I defended the racist girl at UCLA as her YouTube rant started to go viral on Facebook. It was a practical lesson in the tides of Internet opinion, shifting and fickle. In the gap between my UCLA Facebook friends freaking out and larger news sources picking it up, Arena-Man was one of the few websites to talk about Alexandra Wallace. And with so inflammatory a title, it got clicks. But more than a lesson on internet traffic flows, it was a lesson on human nature. Hers, mine, and particularly, on those who so violently and perversely hated her. What could have been righteous indignation was transmuted into licentiousness or raw rage evidenced by Googlers who found this article with searches like “Alexandra Wallace Porn” “Alexandra Wallace life is ruined”. This also marks Arena-Man’s first identified troll (message board dissident). A very enlightening experience for us all.