Dostoevsky and Dialectical Theology

Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Hi! I decided to talk about one of my favorite books because I was inspired by a group of students and my academic research. I had fun working on this video. I hope you enjoy it.(It’s a bit longer than I had hoped it would be, but I definitely said the things I wanted to…and could have said a lot more!).

 

In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame

Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me

Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”

This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.

The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.

But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”

The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.

The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed?  College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.

This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.

Prepare the Cabin for Landing

In little over a month, I’ll step in to a new role: religious educator. To be honest, it’s not a particularly new role for me, considering my participation in the church–the very reason I’m am being ordained to the priesthood is based on my calling and gifting to teach, which I’ve demonstrated. So, the newness of the role is more about it being an official, paid, vocation/occupation. I’m excited about this new role and this opportunity to use my gifts in a professional way and, well, receive some perks apart from internal satisfaction.

But in the midst of this excitement and affirmation (for truly I see to have received a call as an affirmation), there lies a hiccup. Every part of me wants to embrace, arms open wide, the level of excitement I want to have, but I wrestle with the ever persistent shadow of the accusation: selfish. To take the call, I’ve asked (demanded?) my family to uproot and move to another state, to another job, to another school, to another life. And this request is contrary to how I’ve lived my life for the past little-more-than-a-decade as a stay-at-home-parent. For these people, my family, I’ve pushed myself aside giving them spots one through four. Even when I was working so hard on the very training that allowed me this very opportunity, they came first; I wove my education and exercise of my gifts into the cracks of my days as not to disturb the ebb and flow of our family life.

It doesn’t help that the mama bear in me is active; I’d do anything to protect my kids from pain and discomfort. However, the very pain and discomfort I wish to always protect them from and that they are currently experiencing comes from me.  This is the internal war being waged in my mind. No matter how hard I shake, no matter how fast I run, I can’t seem to escape the accusation: you’re selfish. Yet, I can neither shake nor run from the reality that this new job is a real good, a good I need to (and want to) grasp with both hands, a good I’ve been training for for over a decade.

It’s here, in the midst of this struggle in my mind, I need to rest fully on the grace of God. And I don’t mean the trite: let go and let God. (Though, I’ll admit that probably colloquialism does apply to some degree here.) What I means is the grace of God that is the rod and staff of comfort that walks us through the shadow of the valley of death (Ps 23:4). The type of grace of God that holds us up as we descend into the darkness that is faith. As I navigate this delicate walk between accusations of selfish and affirmations of good, I am reminded that just as my life has been (for both good and for bad) in God’s hands, my children’s lives are there, too. God’s providence is not for me alone, but also for them and my fear shouldn’t cause such shortsightedness: (once again) this isn’t solely about me.

The accusation is silenced in this grace of God that as I am lead by the hand through this dark valley because it is God leading me into this new phase of my life so are my children being lead; it is God who is the author of this new chapter in my life and in theirs.  I am reminded that this opportunity benefits my children and does not take from them in the ways that I imagine it does/will. I will be stepping out of one way of providing comfort into a whole different version of providing comfort. This job allows my children a new way of viewing their mother and thus women in general. This job allows me to take steps to the side, giving them a clearer view of their own path. This job allows me to start to untie these apron-strings and assure them that I’m fine and that, when the time comes for them to leave–and it will and quick–they not only will but can.

In this job rests the beginning of what I’ve truly been training for this past decade-plus: landing this plan.  Taking this job and making these requests that I have, is me beginning the initial descent. And while this flight has been great–not without  major turbulence–a plane can’t stay in the air forever. So, I flip the switch that illuminates the directive: “fasten your seat-belt.” And my voice sounds out in breaks and crackles over the loudspeaker: Please prepare the cabin for landing.

 

Absolved Motherhood

A few weeks ago there was a study* that concluded that mothers who work shouldn’t feel guilty because their children turn out just as well as children whose mothers did stay home with them. This is good news. I hate that my friends feel guilty who work and feel bad for working and not being home with their children. I’ve long held the belief that if you want to work then work, if you have to work then work, if you want to stay home and can, do it. You any of those very things.  I’ve never believed that because I stay home with my three children that they’ll be some sort of super-humans; but then again, my theology prevents me from believing such lies about motherhood and parenting.

Lies that have come into existence because the axiom has shifted from God to humans and when that shift occurred there was a vacuum and like any good vacuum something was sucked into the void: parenting. If we no longer look to God, then we default to looking to ourselves (I think therefore I am (Descartes) and I have no need for that hypothesis (Leplace about God)).  And, if it’s up to us then we must get to the core of human society and how to keep it going and even evolve it and that is how we end up with the idolatry of parent-hood and parenting. If you don’t want your child to grow up to be a  sociopath/psychopath then you should _____!  For your child to be truly compassionate and intelligent you must never____! I’ve seen this line of thought coming from both traditional and attachment parenting blogs and websites (my husband and I fall in the weird conundrum of both traditional and attachment parenting techniques).  The onus of a productive and good society falls heavy on the fleshy, bony shoulders of weak men and women: if you do this parenting thing right, we’ll not only keep society running, we’ll improve it!

Lies. Horrible horrendous lies.

But what bothered me most about this study and the hype about it was that there was this implicit conclusion that I, as a stay at home mom, somehow feel less guilty because I stay at home.

Lies!

I feel guilty day in and day out. I feel guilty just as much as my friends who work (it might be different, but I doubt the level is any different). I feel guilty because I fail my children daily. I feel guilty because I’m aware that I’m not treating these three human beings, who God has placed in my hands to care for, perfectly.  The reality is that I don’t need a parenting manual to tell me I’m failing, because as soon as my voice raises and that anger over-comes me and I grit my teeth, I know I’m failing.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, first and foremost those who are quite literally bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh and this command I fail daily.  From my experience, motherhood (parenthood at large) is naturally inclined toward guilt. I could search every town in every state looking for that one non-guilt-ridden mother, and I’d come up empty. Facade or not, parents are guilt ridden.

And that brings me to my main point. The hard news we don’t want to hear is this: we are all failing as parents. Failure is failure is failure. Working or staying home, we are all failing our kids because we’re broken human beings. At night, when I lay my head on my pillow, my shoulders are no less burdened by guilt and regret than a mother who works.

Guilt is guilt is guilt.

And it doesn’t matter how many studies are published that say or y about parenting and guilt and that I shouldn’t have it; none of it alleviates my guilty feelings, my guilty conscience, cleans my blood stained hands. At the end of the day, the only thing–and I mean: The. Only. Thing.–that takes that guilt from me is the absolution proclaimed to me from the Gospel, which is the gospel of the justification of sinners. Jesus Christ died for all of my failures as a mother, all of your failures as a mother or father, and he was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). By faith in Christ we are united to Christ and what is His (righteousness, not guilty, beloved) becomes ours (it is imputed to us) to such an extent that we are indistinguishable from it; just as, on the cross, what is ours (sin, guilt, unbelovedness) became His–Jesus became sin (it was imputed to Him) to such an extent that He was indistinguishable from it. And this entire event (or exchange) is ours by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the law; we are entirely justified by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works.  All of me–all of you–now is determined by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.

In the event of justification by faith in Christ, your guilty status is revoked for good and replaced with the status of not guilty. In the event of justification by faith in Christ, in His word of absolution to you, your guilt (all of it) is actually taken from you because in the word of absolution you are recreated not guilty, you are recreated forgiven, you are recreated beloved. In the event of justification and by the word of absolution you stand as one who is not guilty, who is forgiven, and who is beloved.

It is this word of absolution, and only this word of absolution, that will ever take away our guilt for real.

*There were some holes poked in the research supporting the study. On a podcast I listen to produced by Slate, Mom and Dad are Fighting, I heard that the comparisons were drawn between stay at home mothers in the 70’s and working moms of today. I mention this not to discredit the conclusion (mothers who want to/have to work shouldn’t be burdened by guilt of some abstracted idealistic version of motherhood that is fairyland) but to say that I’m aware of the errors.

Silencing the Messy Conscience

Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.
Martin Luther “The Life and Letters of Martin Luther”

You might not know it from the outside but I’m a mess; that’s not a celebratory statement, it’s just the truth.  I’m a mess, but not based on my works. I’m a hard worker, from morning to night. If any one were to say anything to me it wouldn’t be: Work more!, it would be: I’m worried about you…you’re working too hard! I’ve actually heard that before.  You wouldn’t necessarily call me a mess because I’m not a “mess”, at least not on the outside.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

I can cry: I’m a mess! But you might cry: Foul!

Because my mess isn’t (currently) external but internal. My mess is locked in my conscience, under the stern eye of a horrible prison warden that drives me on relentlessly. My conscience is easily pricked by the accusations of the devil and, rather than do what Luther recommends above, I actively try to prove those accusations wrong by my works. I’m a mess because of the chaos on the inside, the storm that wages violently, the guilt that drives me to fear sitting down, to do only my best, to care about/do everything. And daily I have to talk my own self down off a ledge with words of the Law and the Gospel; not only daily but multiple times a day.  I am justified by faith in Christ apart from (both good and bad) works…

And this is the leveling force of the two words of Law and Gospel: we are all messes not purely based on the external state of our persons, places, and things; truly, we are messes because of what is going on with our consciences. And because of this, you and I both want that conscience soothed, to silence the voice of the internal, relentless, prison warden driving us with bullwhip and yoke.  So we do what we know best, we’ll either try to work our way to virtue or we’ll try to make failure a virtue–but nonetheless, it’s a pursuit to justify oneself by works. I will either try to show the other “overachievers” how awesome I am (tell me how awesome I am!) to silence that relentless voice, or I will try to garner some camaraderie among the other “ne’erdowells” (my failure’s ok, right?) to silence it. Both approaches–which most of us vacillate between daily, if not hourly–are self-justifications because they’re centered around works.  Both groups of people are looking for affirmation.

What we need–what our troubled, messy consciences need–isn’t affirmation from our peers but absolution from God. We need the Gospel; we need the Gospel of the justification of sinners. We need freedom; we need the freedom that comes from the words: You are forgiven from your self-justification, from your good and bad works.  We need to be coaxed out, loved out, convinced it’s really safe to come out of our prisons because captivity is all we know and that’s safe; freedom is unknown and is risky.  No one can preach too much freedom to the former captives–even when they are pushing boundaries, asking do you still love me now? Am I still justified by faith now? What about now? ….Annnnd…now?  Because the answer is always: Yes, even now. I love you even now.

For messes like us, there is no such thing as moving on from or getting too much of the doctrine of justification, the proclamation of the Gospel, the pronouncement of absolution, because we are too dull to get it, too skeptical to believe it, too scared to actually leave our prisons behind.  If push came to shove, most of us would rather try to sin less than thumb our nose at the accusations of the devil by drinking more, recreating more, joking more; captivity doesn’t shake off easily, captives maintain their captive mindset far long after they’ve been set free.

For messes like us, one-way love, freedom, and what Jesus has done on our behalf is too good to be true; thus, for messes like us there’s no such thing as too much love, too much freedom, too much Jesus.