Minimalism and Mysticism

“Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the center of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings.” ~ Pope Francis

“Over against this whole array of materialistic infidelity, now, we owe it to ourselves to make sure at least of our own personal hold on the realness of things unseen and eternal; so that the spiritual world shall not be for us a shadowy utopia simply, but a positive substantiality, coming close home to our daily interest and thought. Such habit of mind cannot be in us with the facility of mere natural growth. It requires heavenly planting, and much inward attention and culture. It would carry us too far to go here into the details of this culture. Meditation, prayer, the right use of God’s disciplinary providence, intimate converse with the Word of God, where the powers of the spiritual world are always at hand as indwelling ‘spirit and life’.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Spiritual World, 1876

When it comes to a blog with a primary focus on deeper spiritual living, the topic of minimalism may catch some by surprise. Minimalism is normally thought of in terms of material possessions and responsibilities. Minimalism is not about being lazy and only putting in the minimal effort needed to get by. The purpose of minimalism is to seek to reduce the amount of things that ultimately do not matter in order to be able to better focus one’s time and resources upon what matters most. Therefore minimalism is to some extent an essential part of mysticism. Sure I realize that many people turn to minimalism as a way to get rid of the mountain of unneeded stuff that is weighing them down. The truth of the matter is that simply getting rid of stuff for the sake of being free is not a long-term solution. Likewise, a hoarder that simply gets more stuff for the sake of feeling secure is also not a long-term solution. Minimalism is a tool, and like any tool, it is important to understand not only what it can do but also what it can not do. As let’s face it regardless of how high quality of a hammer that one has, a hammer is useless when it comes to fixing a clogged toilet. As a tool minimalism can be useful to help one regain and maintain control over runaway amounts of material possessions. Although minimalism alone cannot change anything deeper than the surface. The materialist can focus on how much stuff that they have just like the minimalist can focus on how little stuff they have. The frugal minimalist can focus on how little money they spend on stuff. And the only the best minimalism can focus upon the quality of the few things that they own. Although in the end all of the above are still slaves to their stuff. Given that obsession over their stuff demonstrates that their material possessions possess them. The real problem is not with minimalism. The real problem is that the deeper problems are ultimately spiritual in nature. Many of us have even been duped into thinking that we can treat the spiritual with material things and activities. Meaningful living requires having a spiritual purpose and meaningful life goals. Thus a radical minimalist living out of a single bag can be equally spiritually malnourished as a hoarder that has most of the rooms in their house filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with stuff. Given that a healthy level of detachment from physical objects, it can be impossible to make progress on one’s spiritual journey. You do not have to go to the extreme of getting rid of everything and forsake personal ownership of any material object through a vow of poverty. Just realize that spiritual and even life development can be hindered until one is able to put physical objects in their proper place. Material possessions are tools that help you accomplish things and not a source of meaning and purpose in your life.

Gift Giving

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 6:19-21 NRSV)

In our culture the celebration of Christmas includes the giving of gifts to others. Christmas is ultimately the celebration of the greatest gift ever given. God’s gift of Jesus as the Incarnate Christ in the world to bridge the gap between God and humanity. Which is why as a society we traditionally give gifts in remembrance of God’s gift to us. I realize that some people question if our emphasis upon gifts is healthy. Their concerns are reasonable given our culture of consumerism obsessed with material possessions.  Although I do not believe we should feel threatened by the materialist nature of gift giving. This is because material possessions can not meet our deeper spiritual needs. Thus at their worse

Regardless of your age, more likely than not somebody has already asked you what you got for Christmas by now. So let me ask you a slightly different question: What did you get for Christmas that will still be around in 5 or even 10 years from now? And by be around, I mean things that you would still regularly use and enjoy. Not something like a book that you may read once (if at all) and then put on a bookshelf only to be touched when dusting. Nor an article of clothing that you were for a time before it gets neglected in the back of your closet for the next decade. No, I mean gifts that will last in the long haul both physical durability and usefulness. Objects that continue to serve a meaningful purpose in your life on a regular basis. This immediately excludes all electronic items and the latest music albums and movies. While it will be safe to assume we will still be using technology in 10 years. Any new computer, smartphone or tablet  even if they are still functional in 10 years will almost certainly no longer be in regular use. The same goes for all sorts of household goods such as blenders, and the latest high-tech coffee maker. I know this may be shocking to think of what our new items will look like and mean to us 10 years from now. That is what makes it helpful as it helps us gain a long-term perspective on what is really important in our lives. Keep in mind I am not saying that it is wrong to give and receive gifts that will not last. Just that it is important to realize that their meaningfulness and usefulness is temporary. They are no different from clothing. Regardless of how well they are made, they will wear out with regular use. This is fine as objects that wear our have served their purpose and were not wasted. This point is the easiest to see in “consumable gifts” such as candy, flowers, gourmet coffee & teas, homemade jam or wine. All gifts that we can give and receive a humans are temporary in nature. Only the gifts given to us by God are eternal and  the greatest gift by far is the gift of Jesus as the Incarnate Christ. This is the best way of viewing the giving of gifts regardless of the time of year, as well-meaning shadows of the true eternal gift given by God.

The Anxious Bench

“An Anxious Bench may be crowded where no divine influence whatever is felt. A whole congregation may be moved with excitement, and yet be losing at the very time more than is gained in a religious point of view. Hundreds may be carried through the process of anxious bench conversion, and yet their last state may be worse than the first. It will not do to point us to immediate visible efforts, to appearances on the spot, or to glowing reports struck off from some heated imagination immediately after. Piles of copper, fresh from the mint, are after all something very difference from piles of gold.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench

“Vows and pledges that spring from excitement rather than reflection are considered fanatical, and as such neither rational nor free; and thought in certain cases men may seem to be strengthened and supported by them in the prosecution of good ends belong to a lower sphere, they are ever to be deprecated in the sphere of religion tending only to delusion and sin.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench

The Mercersburg Theology movement began as a reaction against the rise of the anxious bench in the 1840’s. At the time, John Williamson Nevin was the professor at the seminary of the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  In 1943, Nevin published the first edition of “The Anxious Bench”. In it he attacked the growing use of the anxious bench within the American church. The anxious bench, was part of a new style of revivalism ministry. The anxious bench is an emotionally manipulative method of evangelism. The anxious bench seeks to overwhelm one with a sense of guilt and hopelessness as a sinner in the hands of an angry God. The goal is to get the person worked up in the desired emotional state before presenting them with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The anxious bench emotionally attacks and tears down upon the person as being a worthless sinner before God. The anxious bench pretty much tells the person that they are no good and will never amount to anything apart from Jesus Christ. So figuratively the anxious bench confronts one with the choice of accepting the Gospel or suicide. At the time the anxious bench proved to be effective when it came to getting people saved at revivals. Which is why the anxious bench style ministry continues to live on to this day. The anxious bench lives on today especially in altar calls and street preachers. Nevin opposed the anxious bench because it lacked any deeper substance. The problem with the anxious bench is that it relies too heavily upon a sense of urgency under the pressure of emotional manipulation and fear. Thus anxious bench conversions tend to be too shallow to be sustainable long-term. Which makes sense as a conversion build upon the foundation of emotion hype will start to crumble upon the person calming down. Much like the typical New Years Resolution which rarely lasts long enough for the person to be able to give it up for Lent. The most tragic part of the anxious bench is that it often leaves the person in a worse spiritual state than they were before they “got saved”. The frequent failure of the anxious bench is not surprising as it goes against Jesus’ model of ministry. We need to keep in mind that while Jesus calls us to follow Him, that God never asks us to follow in blind faith. This is because Christianity is an invitation to follow God based upon what God has already done for us, is doing for us now and will do for us in the future. In the Gospels Jesus does not rush us but encourages us to pause and consider the cost: both the pros and cons of choosing to follow Him. Decisions that are carefully thought out when being rightly informed lead to much stronger long term commitments. With that in mind I invite you to reflect upon the nature of your relationship with God. If you find yourself relating to God primarily in terms of fear and obligations, I encourage you to reflect upon the nature of God’s love in your life. Ask yourself what is it about the love of God that is causing fear and if that is a rational approach or merely an aftertaste of the anxious bench in your life.

 

Backing Up Your Computer

“In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.” ~ Proverbs 21:20 (NIV)

A few years ago, I got a Windows system pop-up message on my computer. The message was that Windows believed that my hard drive was about to fail. I am sure this would have been a source of panic if not absolute terror to most people in my situation. Yet in my case I remained calm. This is because I had an up to date backup of my computer data. So the worse case situation would only be the moderate inconvenience. The act of having a current backup of your computer will free you from a lot of computer related anxiety. According to the Bible, being ready for potential setbacks in the future is a trait of the wise. Contrary to some current “folk theology” this is not at all a sign of having a lack of faith in God to provide. Given that the Bible calls us to also be responsible and take reasonable precautions. Your files on your computer and phone likely account for hundreds of hours worth of work and irreplaceable pictures. So it only makes sense to take a few minutes a week to back up your data from potential loss.

Please keep in mind that my intention is not to write an all-inclusive backup guide. My goal is to give simple backup suggestions that can be quickly put into action. A simple backup is better than no backup but if you want to do a more complete job, by all means do more reading on this topic. The most important thing is that if you do not already have a backup is to create a simple backup today. Then once you have a simple backup you can start to think about what type of backup system would be best suited for your needs long-term. Trust me if you ever have a need for a backup, you will be glad that you maintained a backup. Likewise even if you never need to use your backup, you will enjoy the pace of mind that having one provides.

When it comes to backing up data that is of high value, you should follow the computer backup rule of three. The rule of three in computer backup is that you should have at least three copies of your data. It is also important for at least one of your three copies to be stored at a remote location. The classic example is that if your computer and backup are in the same place, both can be destroyed in a fire or flood. Your remote backup does not have to be anything fancy. A remote backup can be as simple as a USB memory stick in a safe deposit box, gym/work locker or secure place at work or school. You can even swap USB flash drives with a friend or relative for your remote backups. If you use a remote backup on physical media depending upon the nature of the data you may want to encrypt the data. Especially if it contains any sensitive information such as business or financial records. Another quick and simple option for personal use would be to pick up a USB flash drive for your key-chain or extra-large SD card for your phone to store copies of your most valued files and pictures. Just keep in mind that physical storage works best with files that are constant like pictures.

For data that changes more often, cloud storage would likely work better. Cloud storage includes services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and Microsoft OneDrive. The act of syncing your data across your devices with an online copy doubles as backup. Cloud data syncing services are also computer backup rule of three compliant. So placing your active working document in your Dropbox folder, will provide real-time backup. As an added bonus all of the above services include mobile app versions with an option to auto upload your pictures as you take them. So your pictures will not only be backed up automatically but also synced to your computer for easy access.

So remember be smart and choose to be among the wise in making sure your computer has an up to date backup. The few suggestions that I gave were only quick and simple things that anybody can quickly and easily put into practice. I encourage you to do further reading about the best backup for your current needs. There is no one size fits all solution, when it comes to the best method of computer backup. So please do not consider me the final authority and seek out more information for your computers. If anything every happens you will be glad that you had a current computer backup.

Christianity and Technology

When it comes to deeper Christian spirituality, computers are rarely considered a good companion. In recent years I have heard of people giving up social media sites for Lent. I have also heard many people talk about fasting not from food but from the Internet. Much like there are now  unplugged spiritual retreats that outright ban electronic devices. This is enough to make one wonder if Christian spirituality is Luddite in nature. Given how it is clear that a lot of Christians today feel that deeper spiritual focus does not mix well with computers. The detail that we need to remember is that computers in all shapes and sizes ranging from desktops, laptops, smart phones & watches and tablets are simply tools. Tools by there very nature are neutral and this it is impossible for a computer to be hostile toward Christianity or any other religion. It is true that computers, just like any other tool, can be used in ways that are either helpful or harmful to one’s spiritual health.

I wonder what it was that more recently changed the church’s view of technology. Christianity has a long legacy of being on the cutting edge of information technology. Early Christians soon became known as the people of the book to those outside the church. This not only refers to the value the church placed upon the Bible but also to their advanced technology. At the time, the codex was the latest breakthrough in information technology. A codex is the oldest form of organizing written pages that we would recognize as a book today. In short a codex is a stack of pages with handwritten content that are bound together on one side. I am sure it comes as a shock to a lot of us today how big of an information technology breakthrough the codex was at the time. Compared to the scroll, the codex is superior at every level. A scroll has sequential access memory which makes it awkward to use and even handle. As compared to the codex with its more advanced “random access memory” which makes it much easier to use. This new style of data access forever changed how people of all faiths read their sacred texts. The ability to turn to any page with ease was what led us to index the Bible into chapters and verses. The codex was also much more economical than the scroll for several reasons. First the codex is bound in a way that allows for easy use of both sides of the papyrus, vellum or paper. The second is that codices are more durable because the pages are bound within a protective cover. The Bible was the first major work to be widely published as a codex. The codex was developed by the Romans and not the church. Yet, the church’s early adaptation of the codex happened at just the right time. This is why the spread of codex technology is associated with the rise of Christianity.

The next major point of early information technology adaptation was the printing press. The first modern book to be mass printed on a printing press in the West was the Gutenberg Bible. The Gutenberg Bible was produced over several years in the early to mid 1450’s. The Bible was also the first book that was electronically indexed in a computer system. The Univac Bible of 1955 was both the first ebook and the first instance of computer Bible software. The Univac Bible was used to create a concordance for the Revised Standard Version Bible. This was so ahead of its time that few people realized how big of a deal it was. The first Bible ebook predates Microsoft(1975) by 20 years and Apple(1976) by 21 years. Yes the first electronic Bible came decades before the first household personal computers. (Click here to see pictures of the Univac Bible project) 

Unfortunately, the technology explosion created by the computer revolution has become a stumbling block. The church is not alone in the struggle to adapt to the increasingly computer driven world. Now is not the time to get bogged down pointing fingers at each others in the blame game. Even if it was possible to name names and explain how we dropped the ball with computers, it will not help. What matters most is that we week to get back on track with information technology. As the church we need to work on figuring out how to best use computers to our spiritual benefit. We need to find a way to develop deeper Christian spirituality in the increasingly shallow cyber-world of our Internet driven culture.

Our Present Reality

“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” ~ Karl Rahner SJ

“My own religion was constitutionally of a mystical tendency and turn. It is not necessary to say what exactly it amounted to in myself more than this, that there was in me a sense and feeling of much in Christianity which was not to be reached in the way of common thought; but needed for its discernment and apprehension a deeper and more vital mode of knowledge.” ~ John Williamson Nevin

In recent years, many have declared that religion will soon be dead in America. And by religion, they mean Christianity. These claims of certain doom to Christianity are almost always rooted in some culture shift in society. If religion has its foundation in culture, they are right in saying that religion will soon be dead. People do not attend church on Sundays, just because it that is what we do as part of our duty as Americans. So if religion needs culture pressure to survive, then it will not survive a major culture shift. The debate over if the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation does not matter. Even if the United States of America was at one time a Christian nation, it is not a Christian nation now. So to try to insist upon a past that most historians consider a myth is not helping anybody. It is only betraying a position of fear and panic in the midst of weakness. In fact this type of reaction is what gave birth to prediction of the coming demise of Christianity.

Karl Rahner predicted the current crisis of the Western church. In his famous statement, he declared that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” To Rahner, a mystic is a person who has a genuine experience of God emerging from the heart of their existence. In other words, the time is coming when there will no longer be any middle ground in the church. The future of the American church will be like Jesus’ parable of the sower who spreads the seed. In the end it is only the seed that falls upon the good soil with deep roots and away from choking weeds that will remain. The challenge that remains is the church adapting to the new reality that surrounds us. In today’s world it is not unusual for people to spend more time with computers than other people. The rise of computers and the Internet at the birth of the information age has been another game changer. So how does one seek to develop deep and meaningful Christianity spirituality today? I believe that Mercersburg Theology is a good starting point. In a nutshell, Mercersburg Theology primarily focuses upon the Incarnation. (The Incarnation was the act of God becoming fully human in the person of Jesus Christ.) Mercersburg Theology has two obvious advantages when it comes to Raner’s vision. First, the focus upon Christ in the world makes it more adaptable to changes in the world. The second is that Mercersburg Theology tends to be more mystical in nature. In fact Mercersburg Theology has a history of leading people into mysticism. Starting with John Williamson Nevin, a founding theologian of the Mercersburg Theology movement. I will get into more detail about Mercersburg Theology in future posts. It is my goal to write practical posts that are able to benefit anybody that has a computer. I realize that people rarely mix topics such computers and deeper spirituality. Which is why I feel that it is all the more important to explore the neglected areas.