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Greenwich VillageI’m excited to announce a new series of monthly seminars that I’ll be hosting at Neighborhood Church of Greenwich Village in NYC (269 Bleecker Street), always on Wednesday evenings at 7pm.  I would love to see you there if you are in the city, and please consider passing the word to any potentially interested friends in New York.  Here’s a brief description of what is to come:

The God Who Hides (February 13th @7pm)

The modern world is often described—and experienced—as an age of profound disenchantment.  God’s absence is more palpable than His presence, His silence more noticeable than His voice, His existence more doubted and disputed than recognized. The existence of God turns out to be a decreasingly common sense matter for our culture.  God’s “non-obviousness” to our empirical observation and experiential reception of the world constitutes arguably the most powerful stumbling block to faith for most human beings.  Indeed, this is the real objection underneath and behind all the other objections that tend to be consciously set forth in defense of unbelief (such as the problem of evil, the seeming lack of compatibility of science and faith, or the alleged contradictions in Scripture, etc.).

In the traditional language and categories of Christian thought, this dilemma could be articulated as the hiddenness of God.  Though Scripture freely and openly expresses this frustration -“Truly you are a God who hides himself!” the prophet Isaiah exclaims (45:15) – for far too long, believers have been uncomfortable with transparently naming this aspect of humanity’s common experience of the world.  But it has not always been so.  Blaise Pascal once laid down this two-fold challenge: first, that any religion that denied that God is hidden is not true.  And second, that any religion which fails to explain why God is hidden is not helpful.  Pascal went on to assert that the Christian faith meets both of these challenges.  If God exists and desires us to know who He is, what He wants and what purposes He has for us, why is His sheer existence and “there-ness” endlessly ambiguous and disputable?  Why does God not make Himself more obvious and present in the world?  In this seminar we will explore the profoundly complicated and existentially painful topic of God’s hiddenness, in pursuit of light in the darkness.

Apocalyptic Imagination (March 13th @7pm)

It has been said that there are two types of Christians in America:  those who have never read the book of Revelation, and those who read nothing but the book of Revelation. The never-reads avoid it because they find it equal parts terrifying and mystifying. The nothing-buts think they have unlocked the secret code but often twist and distort its meaning in equally comic and tragic ways.  The fantastical imagery and symbolism of John’s apocalyptic vision tends to overwhelm our intellect with its confusing pictures, moral intensity, and its nightmares of cosmic violence and revenge (“the most rabid outburst of vindictiveness in all recorded history,” according to Nietzche).  In this seminar, we will grapple with Revelation in its original context: its literary genre (apocalyptic), subversive political function (resistance literature for an embattled, beleaguered minority in a tyrannizing, seductive empire), theological brilliance and capacity to renew and inspire our moral imagination—the way we see and experience the world, as well as the way we posture ourselves in response to reality as those who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (14:4).

The Suicide of Evil (April 3rd @7pm)

The moral evil in our midst is both undeniably real and overwhelming in its sheer magnitude, regularly threatening to leave those who would oppose it either cowering in despair or checked out in resigned cynicism.  Even worse, the recalcitrance of human evil in society can tempt those who care about the good, the true, and the beautiful to respond in kind, justifying our supposedly utopian “ends” with increasingly Machiavellian “means” that mirror the original problem.  In politics, in relationships, in the workplace, in our private lives, we face the constant question of how to recognize, acknowledge, and resist evil without becoming evil ourselves.

A theme often neglected by students of the Christian Scriptures reminds us that no matter how triumphant and invincible evil may seem in any given time or situation, the ultimate tendency  of everything that exists in blatant disregard of the Creator’s wise and good designs runs toward self-destruction.  Those who devote themselves to idolatry, cruelty, and selfishness, forsaking God and His image bearers, are in fact unwittingly complicit to their own downfall.  Those who maliciously dig a pit to harm or defraud their neighbor will soon enough fall into it themselves.  As Alfred North Whitehead observed, “The instability of evil is the moral order of the world.”  And Jesus promised that those who live by the sword will, alas, die by the sword—no matter how noble their original intentions.  The cross of Jesus Christ stands as the preeminent example of this reality—evil’s suicidal proclivity to collapse in upon its own designs like a black hole.

In this seminar, we will explore evil’s strange proclivity for self-destruction. More importantly, we will consider the practical implications of what it means to engage in God’s kingdom revolution without becoming the next dehumanizing tyrants who need to be overthrown and replaced.  How we engage and respond to evil is as critical a question as whether we are to be active and participate in the struggle for good in the world.

Debtors to Grace (May 8th @7pm)

The relationship between faith and works, between grace and obedience, between gift and responsibility, remains a perpetual dilemma for Christians who take the gospel seriously.  How to preserve and honor the one without defacing or denying the other?  How can we embrace and celebrate God’s free, beautiful mercy in Jesus without falling prey to the perennial temptation that Dietrich Bonhoeffer memorably labeled “cheap grace”?  Likewise, how do we sustain and motivate moral responsibility and the holiness of the church without descending into cold legalism or hypocritical, unloving self-righteousness?  In other words—if the gospel is true, why be good?  Why not sin more, that grace might increase (Romans 6:1), if Jesus has already done it all for us and we are promised eternal life on the sole basis of his death and resurrection?  Voltaire’s lackadaisical dismissal of God’s commands on his deathbed remains memorable, even if tragic: “God will forgive me, that’s His job.”

In this seminar we will look in particular at Paul’s first century letter to the Romans, noticing and elucidating a paradoxical dynamic too often missed: the same letter that most regularly mentions “grace” also highlights a language of “obligation” more than any other New Testament document.  Our goal will be to grapple concretely with the psychology and practical motivation of what a life of joyful obedience in following Jesus by faith through the power of God’s Spirit actually feels like.  Resisting the lure and siren call of cheap grace, genuine flourishing exists in the company of those who devote themselves to the sacrificial, faithful way of Jesus in response to God’s gift of  grace.

wimbush“There was no consistent or mass effort either to go out of the world or to participate in and affirm the world.  The world as seen as adiaphoron [a matter of indifference].  Salvation neither required the embracing of, nor flight from, the world…Paul does not speak to the issue of the rightness or wrongness of slavery, or any other issue or structure of society…In fact, most of the New Testament stands out in terms of its lack of attention to social and political problems…The reason most of the New Testament writers (including Paul) did not address the world in social and political criticism in the manner in which other writers in the Greco-Roman world did, was due to the construction of a different ‘world’…In effect, it took the ‘heart’ out of the Empire not only in its radical allegiance to another power, but also in its creation of whole new basic units of existence—the Christian oikos [household]…

What seems to have inspired Paul’s model of ascetic behavior was his concern that unity, edification, propriety, good order and missions not be frustrated.  As far as he was concerned, the goal for the churches of his mission should be the realization of a quality of human relationships…That Paul and his churches did not revolutionize the shape of social relationships in the larger world of which they were a part is clear enough…That many could and would interpret their perspective as legitimation of a social conservatism that would function to frustrate egalitarian aspirations is, sadly, history, but is due to a confusion of the force of the issues in the original context of debate and discussion.  Again, for Paul and for most of his churches, the central concern seems to have been the quality of social relationships in the churches…

Our contribution has been to help establish more clearly (Paul and) the Pauline churches not as a withdrawn ‘sect’ indifferent to the world around them, but as fledgling communities experimenting with a new mode of existence in the world, struggling to discover what concern for ‘the things of the Lord’ must mean in the world they knew…For those for whom Christian faith demands and is synonymous with a worldly agenda for aggressive social change, the way of Paul and the Pauline Christians will appear embarrassingly weak and irrelevant.  For those for whom Christian faith demands the development of interior piety first and foremost, the way of Paul and the Pauline Christians will appear to be substandard, a worldly compromise.  But the struggles of Paul and the Pauline Christians–and the dialogue that chronicles such struggles–will remain a challenge for every subsequent model of Christian spirituality.” (Vincent L. WimbushPaul the Worldly Ascetic: Response to the World and Self-Understanding According to 1 Corinthians 7, pp. 79-81, 91-92, 96-97)