Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On Redemption and the Spartan Race 30 Burpee Penalty

       I don't think it's too much hyperbole
to describing my family and I as having "fallen in love" with  Spartan Race. It's provided a shared activity that enlists our sense of adventure, promotes camaraderie, gives common goals and offers a fun struggle that we enjoy on even more indescribable levels. Spartan Race has achieved something that many other Obstacle Course Race (OCR) companies attempt (but in my opinion do not do nearly as well); that being, to offer a holistic experience that follows the participant home and promotes an integrated lifestyle - combining fitness, community and networks of fellow racers striving to better themselves. The race itself is at the heart of the "Spartan experience," wherein one trains for the event, participates in the struggles and strives to complete it in the shortest time they can. In concentric circles resonating out from that are the training guides, the inspirational stories, the subculture of being "Spartan" and the group chatting lines from the "300" movie.

       No small amount of analogies come out of this themed fitness cult, and I have not been sparing in pointing them out. Another one came out during a conversation with my son the other day. As we walked together during an 8 mile workout, the subject turned to painful life lessons I had undergone from which he could benefit (learning from some of my mistakes instead of having to repeat them on his own). Around mile four, I shared the difference between the truth of redemption found in Jesus Christ versus the legalism I had been taught in the fundamentalist tradition on my youth. I explained how, in some church traditions, parents are so desirous that their children avoid certain mistakes (sins) that they "over sell" the permanence of consequences and "under sell" the possibility of redemption from those sins. The resulting effect can be that a defeatist attitude, "cursing" the young impressionable believer with a sense of everlasting brokenness. "What? Not a virgin when you got married? You're forever screwed!" Many that grew up in this tradition wound up losing their faith altogether when they realized that the perfection required to be a "good Christian boy/girl" was either not really possible, or was achieved at the cost of necessary wisdom for functioning off the Evangelical "reservation."

       Fortunately, not all react to this by punting their Christian rearing altogether. Some are able to later critique that legalist/defeatist warping of "God's Law" by learning more of the Father's character and the redemption offered through the Lord Jesus Christ. Are there consequences for sin? Often. Are the consequences permanent? Could be. Is redemption available? ALWAYS! The thing about God's grace is that it's not predictable, not expected and not deserved...but it's always there, lingering in the background available to the penitent. It is this same grace that says to the sinner, "Yeah. You blew it. Own it. Take your lumps, and then let's back to work." It's the grace that, no matter how severe the consequences of the failure, keep the penitent on life's track, moving forward in developing the person whose life is meant to glorify Christ. It is this grace that invades the mind of the sinner, during the darkest moments of self-condemnation, and says, "You're not out of it. You're still in the race. Let's keep going. Yes it hurts. Good for you in taking responsibility, but there's still more race to run. Let's get going."

       By analogy, the legalistic tradition of my youth would have said, "Failed an obstacle? You're out of the race. Go home." But not Spartan Race. They require a 30 burpee penalty for missed obstacles. This is in contrast to many "mud runs" that offer no challenge to those failing obstacles, allowing participants to walk around if they don't want to scale that wall, traverse those "monkey bars," carry that weight or climb that rope. Those would be akin to the traditions that so "over sell" grace and "under sell" consequence as to produce in their followers a sense of license to "do as I want." We've all seen those people too. "Pregnant in high school? How can this be happening to me? It's so not fair!" Yeah, we're all sorry for your plight, but cannot join you in the deflection of responsibility onto anyone else. But Spartan Race has offered a living analogy what is closer to the actual truth: unsavory consequences that keep you in the race, able to keep going and finish strong.

       By having the 30 burpees penalty, the motivation is kept to train for the obstacles, to strive for the fitness to complete them when we encounter them. I do not like burpees. They are an excellent exercise technique ahead of the race, but during a race they can deplete valued energy, producing a cumulative effect of making the next obstacle even more challenging. Nevertheless, I'm thankful for them. They mirror redemption in the real world. Only in someone's Pollyanna world are there no consequences for failed ethical, moral, character obstacles in life. But neither does failure kick us out of the "race" of life either. The examples range from the extremes of a recovering from a failed grade in school to turning toward a life of virtue while serving time in prison for a previous crime...and everything in between. No failure, regardless of how many "burpeess" one has had to do in life, ultimately prevents us from making those continuous steps toward the finish line, to take our place among those that never gave up either.

       To be clear: giving up, checking out, quitting...is a choice. I know of racers that performed 300+ burpees at a race, lacking the strength or technique to complete 10 obstacles or more; yet they completed the penalties and crossed the finish line, resolved to train for future races so that the obstacles could be successfully overcome. Penalties are like that. They motivate us to train harder and overcome that life "obstacle" the next time we encounter it. Without them, where is the motivation to grow, to develop, to strengthen those parts of our character that are weak? And yet the penalty, though unpleasant and unwelcome, keeps us in the race, on the course, at the struggle and among those striving too. Some act (and even teach) as though the proper response to a failed life "obstacle" would be to walk off the course in defeat, but the reality is that it is God's grace that says "30 burpees!" so that we will BOTH feel the need to grow AND stay on course.

       This is the analogy of redemption I have seen in the Spartan Race. 30 burpees "redeems" the racer by offering consequence for failure and motivation to grow, but also keeps them in race and moving forward. This is closer to the true nature of grace we see for sinners in this life. The legalists says "Failed obstacle means out of the race." The licentious (also "antinomianism" for theology geeks) think there are no penalties and it's all just a fun "mud run." But the "Spartan" sees those burpees as redemptive penalty that motivates more training, more focus and renewed determination while keeping them in the race, on the course, at the struggle and numbered among pilgrims all doing burpees together and then advancing toward the end with shared understanding of what life is all about.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Does America's "God" Even Exist?

The problem with using the term "God" as a proper name is that it's akin to how people speak to or about the "President." All U.S. presidents have had proper names in the past (i.e. "George Washington," "Abraham Lincoln," "Dwight Eisenhower" or "George Bush"), but in addressing them protocol demands people say "Mr. President." In the future, someone might actually needed to use the term "Madam President." But that use of the title as the proper name only works when addressing them directly, or speaking of them in a conversation wherein all that are part of the conversation know which "president" you're referring to. It doesn't work to simply say "back when the President ordered the buildup of American troops..." because another will rightfully ask, "Which 'president' are you referring to? Lincoln during the Civil War? Roosevelt for WWII? Bush '41 or Bush '43?" The use of the title as a name only works when everyone knows which entity you mean when using the title, either by direct address or through conversational context.

No one would question this principle in referring to U.S. Presidents, yet this truth is assumed not applicable when referring to "God." The title of "god" has, prior to monotheism becoming dominant in the West, been ascribed to those deities that a culture venerated and worshiped, entreating said divine entities for favors related to war victories, health, propagation and timely rains for yielding abundant crops. The famous pantheons of Rome, Greece and even the Vikings have latent cultural influence, shaping our calendars and being preserved in the names of our weekdays (Thor's Day = Thursday); yet none of the proper names of those ancient cultures find their way into our modern descriptions of "God" when we say it. We acknowledge that those bygone cultures had their "gods," but our culture means something very different when we say "God." Or do we?

What exactly is meant in American culture when people use the title "God" as a proper name?

In a house of worship, when everyone is in concert together over a mutual understanding of what is meant by "God" or which "god" they're referring to, then the use of the generic title of "God" is no problem. In a mosque, all of those praying to "God" know that they are referring to Allah as described in the Muslim tradition. Likewise, in a synagogue, referring to "God" has the shared understanding of Jewish traditions and Hebrew Bible to give shape and meaning to the title/proper name. In a Christian context, all in attendance understand that by "God" they mean the Triune God that has revealed himself to eternally be three persons as one (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and clarified this agreement with frequent references to "the Lord Jesus Christ." Thus using the title/name "God" isn't problematic in the least because of the shared meaning in the gathering or religious context.

This shared understanding, though, cannot be assumed too broadly. In an increasingly pluralistic society, the number of world religions represented in the population are growing exponentially. This is not the greatest challenge to a shared understanding of what is meant by "God" though. What makes shared meaning of "God" so improbable is the triumph of individualism in matters concerning faith, religion and spirituality in American culture. Ask one hundred people, who profess belief in "God," and you will get at least seventy-six different descriptions of "God" as people make up, on the spot, a deity that is an amalgamation of all their favorite virtues. "I think of God as being like" they will begin, and then proceed to craft a deity that (1) makes sense to them, and (2) gives them the most comfort and affirmation. Whether or not such a "god" is attested in any ancient literature, or is represented in any of the world's major religions, is not relevant. It IS the deity that they can imagine when using the term "God," and therefore the authority of their own pronouncement is all that is needed to construct it.

The challenge we face, though, is that the deity they have described may not have "existed" prior to them describing it. (1) Is it attested in any literature prior to this person imagining it? (2) Is it represented in any religion other than merely in this person's own mind? If the answer is "no" to both, then it can reasonably be concluded that the person asked "what is God like?" just made it up on the spot. This might be taken as not the most tolerant position to assert, but I think it can responsibly suggested that if you make something up, there's a good chance it's not true (Yikes!). Some atheist skeptics might assert that all descriptions of "God" are made up, but I'd like to suggest that along a sliding scale, the probability increases something is "made up" when someone - on their own - makes it up.

Now, in all fairness, many in America "make up" their "God" having already inherited a Judeo-Christian framework out of cultural exposure. They will "name drop" things like "Bible," "Jesus" and "Father" without any doctrinal association to those terms, not knowing where they first heard them. Nevertheless, even with Judeo-Christian cultural assumptions as a guide, many still make up the rest, often with little regard for how credible their beliefs might be, or if their descriptions of "God" resemble any deity previously worshiped in history. What's more? "God" is the only proper name used along with the elective ignorance as to the history of that "God."

The triumph of individualism, as applied to peoples' views of "God," has been fully realized in America, in that I can make up my ideas of "God" on the spot, unconstrained by the specificity of having to NAME him, or cite historic ideas about him as my heritage. Generic theism is the default setting, and greater specificity is a divisive pursuit to be avoided. In fact, affirmation of the generic "God" is necessary for smooth interaction in the American civil society where the Constitution requires government not legally endorse one religious tradition over another. So then...what is meant by "God" when we say, in the Pledge of Allegiance, "one nation under God," or "In God We Trust" on our money? What "God" comes to mind at sporting events when people hear "God Bless America" sung? Well...frankly...anything you want.

Making up your own "God" is not just a right; in America, it's expected. "Can't you think for yourself?" comes the charge to anyone confessing to adhere to historic doctrines that predate their culture. In addition, keeping God generic is needed as to appear accepting of other religions one encounters. "Tolerance" is such a foundational doctrine of American civil religion, that monotheism (the belief that there exists just one God) must give way to henotheism (the belief that there are many gods, but one is loyal to just one of them; or that yours is your favorite; the "high god"). Though American culture would not revert to polytheism (the belief in many gods; pick your favorite; mix and match; assign each to geography and natural elements), what IS encouraged is a form of relativism in descriptions of "God" to mean whatever people want it to mean. It is distinctly "American" to keep "God" generic and undefined.

To invoke any proper names (e.g. the Lord Jesus Christ) beyond the "proper name" of "God" is seemingly to disenfranchise those that would not call "God" by that name, and to render uncomfortable those that would rather not delve into that specificity. Thus, America's "God" must, by necessity, be the generic construct that anyone - individually - can mean when they hear that "name" mentioned in nationalistic events (i.e. Pledge of Allegiance, money, "God Bless America," etc.). At the time of the nation's founding, a much more common understanding might have been enjoyed that "God" meant that deity traditionally taught in the Christian tradition. Now though, individualism has taken root so that America's "God" must instead be the what one makes up on the spot.

Unfortunately this generic, individually constructed, "God" is not well attested in history and does not enjoy a vibrant following in any religious subculture even today. Within the doors of mosques, synagogues and churches, "God" enjoys a high degree of specificity. Proper names are invoked and God's history with people is rehearsed to differentiate "God" as distinct - NOT generic. America's "God" does not exist outside of the spiritual ambiguity needed for nationalistic elements.

I am not a relativist. I'm a Christian; which means I own the "closed-mindedness" of being not only monotheistic, but also believing that the ONE God has revealed himself through the Incarnation and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, which was subsequently (and faithfully) explained through the writings of New Testament authors ("Apostles"), which have been reliably interpreted in the collective mainstream of later followers (The Church). Christian traditions have differed on some peripheral matters, but enjoyed two millennia of agreement in the doctrine of the Trinity*, codified in ecumenical creeds and confessions of Christian traditions throughout the world. And as a Christian, I belong to a "tribe" that confesses that the God who IS is Triune; and there is no other.

[*Can we finally dispense with the tiresome rebuttal "The word 'trinity' isn't in the Bible"? Neither is the word "gravity," yet evidence of it is found ubiquitously throughout its pages.]

But even if I were not a Christian, but instead were Jewish or Muslim, I still would scratch my head at the American instinct to keep "God" generic and unspecified, so that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean when they say it. Such a "God" is not historical, has no houses of worship, has written no sacred texts, has called no clergy into service, pronounces no moral codes, offers no redemption, provides no comfort. America's generic, made up, "God" does not exist.

Oh God exists alright...and he has existed long before I began trying to imagine him in forms I can manage with my finite categories. He existed long before the invention of American civil religion. He existed long before our culture came into being, and will exist eternally after it has vanished from the Earth. Not only this...but as a Christian I am also Trinitarian (there really doesn't exist a different type). So everyone should know what I mean when I say "God," but I'm also kinda weird that way.

Nevertheless, this new imagining of "God," as an individual creation of any given American, is a fairly recent concept; only about 200 years old. This new "doctrine" has grown though, causing conflict with those seeking to maintain historic specificity. It's not just Christians that may find themselves at odds with the American doctrine of generic theism though; Jews and Muslims may find similar conflicts (but I can only speak as a Christian). I can't be the only one that, when hearing the words "One Nation Under God," wants to ask "Which one do you mean?" Those advocating the return of school prayer never seem interested in specifying "prayer to whom?" Allah? Adonai? Jesus Christ? Odin? Amun?

The conversation goes like this...
Well meaning post: "We, as a country, need to put God first?"
Me: "What do you mean by 'God'?"
Posting person: "Well, to me God is like..." (and they proceed to make something up)

Admittedly, "One Nation...Under the Lord Jesus Christ" doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same, and I don't see any school board adopting that level of specificity anytime soon. However, if that's not what's blaring in the Christian's head as they say the Pledge of Allegiance, then it's possible they are slowly becoming more American than they are Christian, replacing the specific Triune God in their mind with the generic deity required by the culture. The uncomfortable conclusion is this...if the generic "God" of America, the creation of the individual, doesn't really exist, then adherence to American civil religion is - by necessity and practice - a functional "atheism" that is increasingly producing "One Nation Under no 'god' at all."