The Second Aspect: Loyalty
I recently heard a phrase in a new way. It’s a common phrase, one you might also hear on any given day: you do you. I was talking to a friend – about how surprisingly natural the agglutination patterns in Mongol are, and how quickly you can learn to use them to form new words, and how – when he looked at me, and said, “Right, um, well. You do you, man” And then it hit me: Jesus wants you to do you too!
First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what is meant by “you do you.” Note the context, I was talking about something inherently anathema to the interests of the other person, and in saying “you do you,” he was pointing that out. The phrase is surprisingly heavy; and as many colloquialisms are, it is resplendent with nuances useful for theological application. “You do you” is a comment-phrase, characterizing what is being said around it. It means, what you have just suggested is not something to which I am constitutionally amenable. For instance, my roommate might say “Hey, brah, it’s time for our nightly pushups; we’re up to 340 now.” To which I would undoubtedly shrug and say “yeah, you do you, man” before walking off to study Mongol somewhere far far away from the imminent threat of exercise. In this way, “you do you” acknowledges alienation. That might seem rather heavy, given the innately bro-ish gilt of such a phrase, but it nonetheless is the right word for the function it fulfills. When I wax poetic about Mongol morphemes or when my roomie gets gung-ho about pushups, we invariably have acted out an expression of an irreconcilable difference between the two of us. He will never feel the same way about the Altaic language family as I do, just as I will never have the relationship with my biceps that he does. “You do you” flags that difference, marking it as a deviation between our personalities, if nothing else.
Now, you might think “but differences are what make life fun” or “variety is the spice of life” or even “let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend!” And in one way, you’d be correct. Differences are certainly what make human beings interesting to each other. Furthermore, differences in interest areas, lifestyles, etc. are similarly a factor in us being interesting to us. But that is not what is going on here. Please note, the other party was not amused by agglutination patterns, just as I was not relishing what a diverse creation the Good Lord had decided to make when a piece of that creation was trying to get me to attempt ten more clap pushups just so we could “end on a good note.” That was not the situation, because this wasn’t diversity. It was alienation: a relational breakdown between natures. Alienation is “you do you,” because the implicit statement is that the other party is not willing to co-participate in this doing of you.
Beyond alienation though, “you do you” can have a second layer of meaning. It is not always there, but when said in a certain way (say, with a laugh, a smile, or any other time honored means of expressing amusement) it means that the existential difference is moot. I am me and you are you, and so it goes. This is unbelievably central to our Christian faith. We have to have the ability to “do us” as Christians, thus seperating ourselves from the world, whilst simultaneously bridging the relational damage such differences should cause.
We see this in our ultimate role model: the very nature of God. God is forgiving, yet stands in judgment. God is love, yet God is also holy. God is divine, yet God became a human being, and walked among us. In this way, at some the level the very crux of our faith is the contradictory nature of God. Really then, you should laugh at all Christian philosophers, oxymoronic as such a label truly is. In a precise sense, there is no place for philosophy in Christianity. (There is a place for philosophy, of a type, but what we have in Christian philosophy is a tool of our own creation for our own uses. I speak about a certain type of self-glorifying philosophy in what follows). Philosophy, for all intents and purposes is the divinization of human thought, of human logic. It says we are able to understand reality before us. Even in the most constructionist/relativist circles, philosophers are pinning their proverbial hats on the fact that they know reality is what you make of it. This thought process is idolatry though. Human logic alone will never help us understand God.
The divine nature of God is often emphasized in quantitative terms. (If I may take a well-worn quote egregiously out of context), one might talk about how “the billions and billions of stars” are nothing compared to the size of God. (And yet God came to Elijah in the still small breeze… what kind of God is this!) Let’s think of God qualitatively now though. Think about the nature of God, and realize- we can’t. The nature of God is so palpable, and yet, it’s completely unintelligible. You can’t tell me what it is coherently and precisely. We have to speak in a roundabout way, limning the Divine, creating a pointillistic composite that we know to be the space filled with God. At the end of the day though, the God who made us did not make us to understand him. Don’t take my word for it though. Give it a try. Is God truly equitable with anything specific? (This is the Bible Trivia section of our show by the way) Have you logic-ed out anything new to tell me in an A=B sense about what God equals? Probably/hopefully not. What we do know about God we do not know philosophically, but rather kerygmatically. (e.g. God is love). That is, what we know we have learned by hearing it preached; we learn from Christ’s example; we learn from Scripture, the source of our knowledge of the divine. We then test our conclusions with logic, because not to do so would just be silly. However, it stands repeating, we cannot logic out God. God is ineffable contradiction.
“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say, He traps the wise in the snare of their own cleverness. And again, “The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise; he knows they are worthless.”
1 Corinthians 3:19-20 (NLT)
“You do you” is a contradiction we are called to as Christians. Contradictions are things we are called to as followers of the Immortal one, who died for us, that we might live, even as we killed him. Do not merely tolerate contradiction then, love contradiction as an aspect of God. By this, I do not mean be inconsistent in your faith, or be lukewarm in your adherence to the principles of the faith laid out for us clearly since before you were born. Rather, the desirable contradiction is the one in which you do you, whilst allowing the other to do his or her own thing.
What is meant by this and moreover, what is not meant by this? First, you doing you is loyalty. You need to be loyal to your faith even as it causes you suffering. This much is intellectually simple, and experientially very, very difficult. There is nothing more to be said on that front though other than the immortal words of wisdom “just do it.”
Alongside of that though, loyalty to the other is necessary. We are relational creatures, inextricable from our fellow humans by our common form, the image of God. You must be loyal to the other even in the face of the alienation that inevitably results from adherence to the Gospel. You can’t ever decide the other isn’t good enough for you, even subconsciously. You’re not even allowed to think an aspect of the other is lacking. Love completely. That doesn’t mean “tolerate sin.” No, but it does mean, in a limited sense, “hate the sin, love the sinner” as the oft-said, rarely made real, adage goes (and I would challenge you that showing your hatred of the sin, insofar as the sin is still yet part of the other’s nature, is by extension a sin on your part for your re-actualizing of the interpersonal alienation in the world; the work of Satan, not of God). Simply put, your nature will change as you act in a God-like way, and you will become unlike those around you. It is often said that we are to preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words. And this is true, by our example we may bring many into the fold of the Good News. However, I would posit that a positive example is inherently alienation. As you become a better person, so to speak, you become different. Not worth more in the eyes of God, but rarified nonetheless. Alienation is a result of following the Gospel message, and you have to overcome this unintentional side effect. It is a contradiction, but one we must accept, that adherence to virtue can result in alienation, whose original root is sin.
Oddly enough though, the Gospel message is nonetheless one of overcoming alienation. We were alienated from God, but Jesus came, as a bridge over that gap. [An example of that is Philippians 3:20 (NLT): “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.” This demonstrates that Christianity is actually about coming home. Additionally, The Prodigal Son comes to mind, and we are the adopted ones returning to the father’s embrace]. In turn though, we must be Christ’s face to an alienated world, a bridge over the relational gaps of this world. The Sheep and the Goats expresses this particularly well, I feel. We are to seek out the materially alienated (poor) and show them restorative justice. This restorative justice, this loyalty, this overcoming and subsequent reconciliation, it is all one and the same.
Christ’s message was not merely a material one though, and so the bar is raised (and it wasn’t very low to begin with). Look at the Beatitudes: we are called to restore the relationships that our fallen little selves have broken to pieces. We’re going to walk through the Beatitudes now because it’s the main thrust of the argument if you will. It’s the part you really need to internalize. Having laid the groundwork up to here, we know that we are worshippers of a contradictory God. We know that our faith is one of I & Thou; that is, not only is my faith made real in how I interact with the other before me, but what’s more, my relationship with God is wholly inextricable from my relationship with the other before me. This letter is about Loyalty, because within this I & Thou system, there are superficially two loyalties: the loyalty of me to my Christian faith and the ethical actions it demands of me, as well as my loyalty to you and to the Christ-like restoration of our alienated relationship. However, these are inseparable and thus one loyalty: as with “you do you,” (when said with a smile) me doing me is only fully done as I acknowledge that my Christian faith is the source of my full (And full does mean everything) embrace of you.
Matthew 5:1-12 (NLT)
One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2and he began to teach them.
3“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
4God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5God blesses those who are humble,
for they will inherit the whole earth.
6God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they will be satisfied.
7God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
for they will see God.
9God blesses those who work for peace,
for they will be called the children of God.
10God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
11“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.
I don’t claim to know the full meaning of what I’m arguing. In full and fair disclosure, I think I know the superstructure, and that’s about it. For instance, verse nine, when applied, means that you and I are to be at peace. That’s already incredibly heavy. I don’t know if I’m fully at peace with anyone, and yet I must try. Verse six means our relationship should be one in which everyone gets what they deserve, but then verse seven means I really shouldn’t worry about what I deserve. Or does it? How do we make our relationship one that demonstrates a desperate need for God, as seen in verse one? I might know how to do that, but I really am not sure of the specific virtue of mourning in this context. I’ve rarely mourned in my short life, but it felt like death. I don’t think part of me died, but it was, in a sense, one of the few moments in which I was experiencing a death of the self. In that moment, reality was so awful that I mourned it, I mourned the potential that was not there, my total rejection of what was before me, and in that moment I was fully open to God. There may be other moments of absolute openness, but never have I experienced anything like mourning. When I was absolutely alienated from apparent reality, God moved. And then there was hope. The often-underappreciated member of the triad “faith hope and love”, hope returned and I could continue. How do you make that experience, the experience I had of existential desolation and restoration, real in a relationship between I and Thou? I have no concept. And yet, we must all try.
In these moments of theological paralysis, I like to think of Thomas Merton.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
When writing this kind of thing, I like to think of myself as part teacher and part author (talk about alienation from reality), and as I write this, the author part of me wanted to end it right after the Merton prayer. Such an ending might have even qualified as poetic. You don’t need it to be poetic though. I want it to resonate, but I truly desperately want you to understand what I’m saying too.
This is an excerpt from a message a friend recently sent me: [names of theology teachers changed]
I decided to try to avoid getting too involved in college, and work on myself a bit more than my resume. This idea held up for a whole semester more or less, but it worked pretty well. As an environmentalist, I shored up my views in what I wanted to see in the future and why I feel a connection to the planet. Socially, I was definitely a better friend than I was in high school. Not that I was an asshole or anything, but now I bake cookies for people every once in a while or make time to drive them to Wal-Mart (or any alternative I could convince them to shop at instead…). And spiritually, that’s always in flux for me, but as time goes on I always see something divine in more and more places. I was always been struck by people like Mr. Smith and Bob who seemed to operate under a different set of guidelines than the rest of us. they just weren’t…efficient. Mr. Smith sucked at actually teaching material. But somehow the broad picture he painted was more moving than that of any other class. I was always struck that he had the…patience to trust in his rambling, inefficient paintbrush to end up doing something good in the end. I’m always caught up in pragmatism and practicality, so seeing that was a beautiful thing for me. I think that served as a partial model for my first semester. I tried to operate out of something other than efficiency. My thinking wasn’t time+money=cookies cookies+people=appreciation for myself, but just I think people would like cookies, even if they don’t know me, and I think Centre would be a better place because of it. And I’ve tried to find really meaningful things. A lot of my time here has been focused on becoming an unleader. I’ve never been a part of a group or project that I could not be in charge of as a whole or in part. And unleading takes effort, not just to wrest my mind from the natural desire to take charge, but to wrest my mind from resume-building, and ultimately, to wrest my mind from the idea that my time must be spent in the most efficient way possible to build social, academic, and experiential capital.
I was struck by a couple of things in reading that. First, I was thinking about writing this when my friend’s message came in out of the ether. Reading it, I heard the Sound of Her Wings. That is, I believe I felt the Holy Spirit move. Because what my friend has here is called relational holiness and my hope for you is relational holiness.
Also, in writing this scattered contradictory piece on loyalty, I struggled with how to communicate a unitary point out of this fragmentary diatribe. The parts I write seem to be moving in many directions, at times contradicting themselves. I had serious thoughts about revising this piece into a linear version of itself. My friend’s message though convinced me otherwise. I hope to be, like our mutual theology teacher of old, a rambling painting whose ultimate meaning arises out of unorganized, inefficient, disjointed, broad strokes. We learn from Kerygma not Philosophy; we learn from stories; we learn from seeing others’ less than perfect examples of the perfect one. If that was frustrating I apologize, but the goal here was to provide a self-referential work, whose very form demonstrated its ideas: that we might be less concerned with externalities than emergent properties.
Last but certainly not least, my friend has demonstrated an immense amount of bravery (which is the subject of next week’s letter) in the managing of his time (which was the subject of last week’s letter). It takes bravery to reorder reality as God would have you do, more than I can fathom, especially as time goes on here at Harvard. For when I finished reading his letter, I closed my laptop, I bussed my tray, and then I rushed off to class. And from that moment on, I spent the entire day doing nothing but thinking of myself.
Yours in Christ,