What's Tony Thinking

The HPtFtU


Here’s the link to the recording of session 2 of the webinar on UnApologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. It begins with Josh Munnikhuysan’s singing of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” which is just beautiful. I’m a big fan of Josh’s music, and both of us are particular fans of Jason Isbell, whose songs Josh sometimes plays an openers to sessions.

Last night’s conversation focused on Spufford’s Chapter 2, “The Crack in Everything.” Again, his approach to Christian faith is different than standard “apologetics.” Those try to present a reasoned case for various Christian doctrines, or in some instances they pile up “evidence” which “demands a conclusion.” Never been my cup of tea.

Spufford starts with an emotional experience, not a doctrinal proposition. He describes what mercy or grace feel like. Here’s the key lines. “It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.”

This fits with my own experience of faith. I’ve tried over my lifetime to sort out the doctrines, which truly are important and have their time and place. But faith for me, as for Spufford, is grounded in particular emotional experiences like being lifted from the slough of despond by a Mozart clarinet concerto (Spufford’s story) or even just a great hymn.

While we might, then, like to dwell on the uppers, like mercy, grace or awe, Spufford begins with the experience of screwing up or being screwed up, of doing what we have said we didn’t want to do, or of not doing what we have said we do want to do, of breaking things like promises, relationships, and hearts. The tradition’s word for this is “sin.” Spufford’s term is “The Human Propensity to F-things Up.” Whether it is “sin” or HPtFtU, the claim is we all got it, we all participate in it, not just discreet acts, but a condition.

This may be hard to buy, to acknowledge or face up to. We are pretty heavily invested in the idea that we are good people. We have a strong capacity to deceive ourselves about our f-ups, either just blanking them out altogether or blaming them on others, or on circumstances, external pressures, etc. We tend to divide the world into two big categories, the good people and the bad people. Guess which one we’re in?

Spufford describes what the HPtFtU feels like when we’re in the midst of it. But in contrast to much talk of “sin” and “guilt,” where this leads him is not to dividing the world into the good and bad and to judging others. It leads, as I believe Jesus intended, to compassion. We’re all caught. None of us are “good,” not really.

Here’s a bit from the chapter that I particularly like:

“So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such . . . This I realize goes flat contrary to the present pre-dominant image of it [Christianity/ church] as something existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves far from life’s messier zones and inclined to get all ‘judgmental’ about them . . . What’s it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Not all guilty of the same things, or in the same way, or to the same degree, but enough for us to recognize each other.” (emphasis added)

F-up’s, in need of grace and mercy, getting together with others like ourselves, extending some compassion to our fellow travelers.

Somehow (see HPtFtU) we’ve managed to F that, i.e. church, up too. We’ve thought this was where the really good citizens, the above-average Americans, the Enlightened People hung out. With the result that it’s like the worst sort of Christmas letter (all the kids get straight-A’s, we go on the most amazing vacays, but also help needy people tons) without end.

That shit will wear you out. Moreover, and as we note in session two, if that’s your version of Christianity you really have no need for Jesus, no need for a Savior. Why, really, the whole idea of being saved is sort of embarrassing!

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