Christ and the Old Testament: Choronological and retroactive relationships

May 19, 2018

The furor over Andy Stanley’s sermon regarding “unhitched the Old Testament” activated many deeply felt attitudes and beliefs that many of us as Christians have about the Old Testament. But if one notes the characteristics of the people compared to their reaction to Stanley, you would note a general, but not absolute, trend: those who have a more evangelical or traditional theology found Stanley’s sermon problematic. Those who have a more progressive and modernist theology did not find much to object in Stanley’s sermon. Why is this the case? Perhaps due to the role of the Old Testament as it comes to our theological expressions. Most salient in this present time is the role of the Old Testament as it pertains to sexuality, where those celebrating sexual freedom finding the Old Testament overly confining, whereas adherence to the Old Testament serves as a way to maintain an espoused orthopraxy amongst more traditional and those who lean evangelical. However, other attitudes may be playing out in one’s reactions, such as views on power, authority, gender, etc. In a sense, the various views on the Old Testament serve as sort of a meta-theology that governs the grammar of faith, hence it can be tempting to either throw out the heretical category of Marcionism in order to maintain doctrinal regulation or to throw out heresy altogether to subvert such doctrinal regulation.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this principle. I happen to be one of them, finding little objectionable in Stanley’s sermons when heard in context and yet I have many strong evangelical and traditional sympathies, even if I don’t strictly identify as such. How is it that I can do that? It is because, in the end, I recognize that there are at least two Scripturally legitimate ways to connect the Old Testament and Christ, while recognizing that both patterns have their own weaknesses: the chronological relationship where the Old Testament leads to Christ and the retrospective relationship where Christ leads to the Old Testament.

Both of these views have been debated in Biblical scholarship and theology. Christian scholars of the Old Testament are often notorious for a chronological relationship. New Testament scholars tend to be mixed. However, many theologians, such as those in a more Barthian mold, have endorsed a more retroactive relationship. This is also consistent with the pattern of the early church, who tended to interpret the Old Testament as it pertains to Christ rather than vice versa. While there is hermeneutical danger in oversimplifying the two perspectives that treat all retroactive and all chronological relationships as essentially the same, I would suggest it is these two basic patterns that are deeply formative for how we do theology.

The chronological relationship expresses a higher view of the Old Testament. You might hear the relationship between Christ and the Old Testament being described as a narrative in which Christ is the climax, as N.T. Wright is inclined to say. The emphasis here will be on the continuity of Christ and the New Testament with the Old Testament. Meanwhile, the retroactive relationship expresses a more ambivalent view of the Old Testament, it can either positive, negative, or somewhere in between. This view was expressed in Stanley’s sermon, referring to the Old Testament as a “background story.” The emphasis here will be on the discontinuity of Christ and the New Testament with the Old Testament, such as Stanley referring to what Christ is doing as something new.

I will suggest that both relationships are justified from within the practice of the New Testament church, being roughly in line with epistemology from a Jewish perspective and epistemology from a Gentile, at the risk of oversimplification. I would suggest the two best contrasts of these views are containing in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul, both of which express evangelistic motivations.

For the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about the Scriptures, which we would know as the Old Testament, as witnesses to him in John 5:39. The problem that the Jesus said the Jewish leaders had was that they were studying them for another purpose, eternal life, rather than instead, to listen and know the heart of God. According to the explanatory paradigm of faith for the Gospel of John in 3:20-21, living in accordance to the truth is the condition upon which one will accept Jesus as the light sent by God. Synthesizing these insights together, the Gospel of John suggests that those of his audience1 who have genuinely put into practice the truth as they pay attention to the voice of God in the Scriptures would accept Jesus. According to this Jewish paradigm, the Old Testament scriptures are instrumental in coming to know about Christ, particularly in faithful practice and obedience.

However, the Apostle Paul had a different context than the Gospel of John. For Paul, he went primarily to Gentiles who would have had little education in the Old Testament Scriptures. Instead, his primary emphasis in his preaching was on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ such as in Romans 10: and 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. For him, the critical point of faith is containing in the event of resurrection and one’s acceptance of that as being true. Thus, as I argued in a previous post on Faith and Wisdom, Paul would employ the death and resurrection of Christ as offering a retrospective justification of the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 15, allowing him to describe the significance of Christ’s resurrection through reference to Adam. Paul’s concern about the Torah, however, is that the letter of the Torah that describes a set of works be compelled upon Gentiles, as Acts 15, Romans 7, and 2 Corinthians 3 all testify to. For Paul, the great error with the Torah is not in its acceptance, but rather in believing that means of transforming persons comes through the teaching of the letter of Torah and the external adherence to the behavioral prescriptions that come from Torah. Nevertheless, Paul will employ Torah as a source of moral reasoning, such as in Romans 13:8-10.

Both approaches, however, share something in common: the focal emphasis on the resurrection of Christ. It is Thomas’ recognition of Christ’s resurrection in John 20 that climaxes Thomas’s confession of Jesus as Lord and God, in alignment with the Prologue of John 1:1-17. This should be understood against the background of John’s implicit Temple theology that N.T. Wright mentioned, allowing that the resurrection of Christ and the confession is understood as the recognition of God’s arrival, emphasizing a continuity. For Paul when he uses the Old Testament as a source of ethical reasoning, he has a tendency to understand it as it pertains to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 and the ministry that results from this reality as in 2 Corinthians 3 while always highlighting the discontinuity from the Old Testament narratives and characters and Christ. Whether one sees the resurrection of Christ as a climax to the Old Testament narrative or a new event that retroactive appropriates but contextualizes the Old Testament narratives, they both have their warrants within the New Testament witnesses.

Nevertheless, both styles have their weaknesses. Chronological relationships will in emphasizing the continuity with their interpretations of the Old Testament will miss the discontinuity. One of my critiques of N.T. Wright’s view on Paul is that while Paul is saturated in the Old Testament world, he still does emphasize the discontinuity more because of the importance of the notion of New Covenant as in Jeremiah 31. Retroactive relationships have the reverse problem; they will minimize or overlook the importance of the continuity, such as in apocalyptic interpretations of Paul that while rightly recognizing Paul’s highlighting of discontinuity, overlook the fact that Paul assumes an incredible amount of continuity between the Old Testament Scriptures and Christ in the way he makes his arguments. This is not to mention the strikingly strong incoherence of their interpretations of Paul with the rest of the New Testament, which I regard to be a negative mark against the apocalyptic interpretations because I find good reasons to assume a relative coherence of Paul with the rest of the NT corpus. Of course, these negatives are reflective of my knowledge in the Biblical Studies world and there may be other weaknesses when it comes to theological arguments. My only point is that within each perspective, there are weaknesses that can become more magnified under certain conditions.

However, we can readily exaggerate the weaknesses and dangers of those espousing a different relationship between Christ and the Old Testament, As with all disagreements, we are inclined to upgrade all potential weakness as actual dangers, thereby denigrating the opposite view while shoring up the confidence in and the necessity of our view. But I think a critical reading of the New Testament that still takes the NT as normative for faith would suggest both relationships have their validity, with their own corresponding potential blind spots. Nevertheless, they are both united under the umbrella of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and also, while I have not mentioned it previously, God’s pouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who believe. Why? Because I would suggest the central epistemological framework of the apostolic church was not based upon how one related the Scriptures to Christ, but upon the knowledge gained from the traditions of Jesus life, death, and resurrection and the power and leading that the Spirit provided. I would suggest that all other forms of knowledge and the ways one acquired this knowledge would be considered in relation to what is known by Christ and bt the Spirit, allowing an epistemic diversity that was contextualized to the epistemic unity of Christ and Spirit. This is essentially what Acts 15 accomplished, allowing there to be a diversity of moral epistemology, allowing Jews to obey Torah and not holding the Gentiles accountable to obeying the Torah commandments. I would simply extend that to more than a moral epistemology, but also a broader theological epistemology as it pertains to how Christ and Old Testament were related.

Countering abuse in the Church – Identifying cloaking mechanisms

May 19, 2018

It is truly an unfortunate reality, but the Church is no stranger to abuse. We are all familiar with Catholic scandals surrounding the sexual abuse of minors. As it turns out, however, this was not just a Catholic reality, as the past few years have brought to light the sins of abuse amongst Protestants. Sovereign Grace Churches has been accused of the sexual abuse of children. However, the scope has broadened to consider other forms of abuse, such as the condoning of spousal abuse or overlooking the sexual abuse of women that Paige Patterson as been accused of. Then, we had the Baylor rape scandal, if we broaden our look beyond churches to institutions of higher education. However, even this is an overly narrow scope of the problem of abuse in the church, as it focuses on abuse in the contexts of sex and marriage, and overlooks the other forms of abuse that can take place in the church. While I would not call it “abusive” I recall a church I was involved with earlier in my college days that was a rather controlling church, with egos that dealt with issues of conflict and discipline in a poor manner.2

So how then can we and should we address the situation? The current trend has been to creates a set of rules that protect people from abuse, such as Safe Sanctuary policies that are implemented in United Methodist Churches. These are a good thing and while they can offer some ways to deal with particular forms of abuse, particularly sexual abuse and the abuse of children, they do not address the wider issues of abuse in Christian settings. AT the end of the day, minus the most flagrant forms of abuse such as assault, rape, the violation of children, etc., abuse is not really a behavior, but a set of behaviors in a specific context. Policies and procedures can protect against the most salient forms of abuse, but they leave a whole host of other ways of harming others unaddressed, for instance, the form of social bullying that can be perpetuated via social isolation and triangulation. However, it takes insight, education, and listening to identify these forms of abuse, and the means it is often too late to prevent the damage to the victim.

However, if we consider that the type of abusers that tend to be in power in churches tend to be a particular sort, those who have a high social awareness (HSA) of what other people think, feel, and expect, including even the possibility of showing cognitive empathy where they can rationally understand what other people including their victims might feel, but little emotional empathy where the feels of their victims prevent them from action, you can begin to address one of the principal contextual factors that allows abuse to occur in the first place. Abusive people who have little ability to manage impressions are quickly caught and punished within organizations and in the legal system. What distinguishes abusers with HSA from them is their ability to cloak themselves and their actions such that they never experience any vulnerability and substantive accountability. What this looks like is their ability to notice what types of actions, words, and expressions are effective at giving positive and/or negative impressions and then accommodate their public persona in accordance to the positive views, mitigating any suspicion towards them, while shift blame towards their victims by mastery of casting negative impressions in skillful ways. This is what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when he referred to wolves in sheeps’ clothing; people like the Pharisees and scribes are effective at garnering social approval through their prayers, giving, manners of publicly judging others, etc. but at the end of the day, they are like ravenous wolves, who have murderous hearts and can do such through their words. In a sense, I would say the Sermon on the Mount is the very way of life that is antithetical to the way of life of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, where moral awareness moves us as people towards the perfection in love that God has instead of moral awareness being used as a tool of power over others.

So then, there is one important form of power that HSA abusers have that enable them: they rely on the habit of human thinking in how we interpret and understand people based upon surface words, actions, etc. to cloak what they are actually doing. Social awareness, including awareness of moral expectations, becomes a tool for avoiding vulnerability and accountability. Any set of values we espouse, any set of practices we employ, any sense of bureaucratic or institutional procedures we set up, any norms of reason we lift up, no matter how truly good and valuable these values, practices, procedures, and reasons are, they are resources to potentially exploit by HSA abusers.

Furthermore, since various nations, cultures, institutions, etc. have different sets of values, practices, procedures, and reasons that would take time to master, HSA abusers will tend to keep their environment the same. They often times thrive in insular cultures and organizations, where there is so little change to how things operate that people have developed habitual ways of thinking within that social networks such that they can readily exploit. These types often times espouse the values of peace and order and will portray their opponents as threat to the peace. However, HSA abusers who are themselves not too alarmed emotionally, particularly of the psychopathic variety, can also thrive in situations of chaos and rapid change, as people exhibit very distinctive and relatively predictable patterns of thinking and emotions when ambiguity overwhelms them. These types can resort to chaos and panic, such as shouting to the masses about massive, widespread injustice, casting their own opponents as oppressors trying to shut challengers down. However where HSA abusers would not easily thrive, however, is in contexts where there a moderate amount of change; here there is enough unpredictability in how people will think in the future that it is hard for them to master the appearances necessary to cloak themselves, their HSA is not sufficient for them to reliably manipulate others.

With that said, here are a list of some practices HSA abusers may employ based upon reading in the psychological literature, hearing people’s stories, and from my own experiences.

1) Justifying their behaviors, such as employing the legal, organizational, or moral authority given to them to explain their behavior

2) Will resort to “reframing” abusive behaviors much akin to public relations, such as calling abusive behavior a “misunderstanding”

3) Will strategically “apologize” if it will immediately allow them to re-establish control and/or allays further attention and suspicion.

4) Projection of one’s own behaviors, emotions, and motivations onto others including their victims, such as calling their victims control or abusive.

5) Notices the faults in other people’s behaviors and will exaggerate them, such as treating the defensive behaviors of their victims as signs of their mental instability and aggression.

6) Tell a narrative of events are frequently a patchwork quilt truth and falsehoods designed to give plausible to their distortions, such as neglecting to mention how their behavior threatened their victims.

7) Will use all resources at their disposal to control their victims, such as getting other people in their victims’ social network involved in controlling the victim through isolation, triangulation, repeating the same judgments, and/or to gather information on the victim.

8) Withholding information from others, such as failing to share important institutional procedures to others.

There are many more examples, but what is particularly insightful about this list is that these are all behaviors all of us can employ. We can justify, reframe, apologize, project, focus on other’s faults, tell narratives that are out of context, try to our resources to influence others, and withhold information. This is all part of what it means to be social creatures; these are things that may have some value or at the least are not signs of malicious intentions. However, it is these very actions that are so commonly the marrow and joints of our relationships that can and do get exploited, particular by HSA abusers.

What is the solution? To assume these actions are covering abusive behaviors will be to isolate us as social creatures; for instance, one of the particular struggles I have is to notice these patterns of relationships and to recognize they are not signs of malice, but I tend to isolate despite trying to remind myself of that. But, instead, it is to avoid our automatic thinking processes when signs of problems start to crop up and to substitute it with patterns of paying close attention, asking questions, listening to stories, etc. but in such a way that we do not automatically discard people who have had to endure a process of investigation. The more we are quick to discard, the more people’s defensive natures will employ the tactics above, making it even harder to sift out the wheat from the chaff. A culture of that gets down to the specifics that would circumvent the automatic thinking processes that HSA abusers can manipulate while being slow to judge but will judge when needed can provide just enough unpredictability and change in the system to prevent HSA abusers from being able to gain a needed mastery while also providing the conditions where well-intended people who make mistakes can get the needed direction without feeling like they too have to hide.

In short, a culture such as this would be moving towards a union of grace and truth, allowing a sense of the truth to come up from understanding specific circumstances, thereby undercutting the means of control that HSA abusers commonly manipulate via treating truth as a manipulation of symbolic communication, while also extending grace to others for their own weakness, failures, and sins when they mess up in their positions, acting in proportion to their actions rather than going beyond. But this is deeply antithetical to the drives for power, control, and predictability that people, organizations, and institutions seek out. The drive for success and protection makes us want to resort to the more automatic forms of social relationships, and the more we employ these forms again and again, they more we unwittingly make ourselves susceptible to manipulation by those with HSA. It is almost as if the Apostle Paul knew what he was talking about in the dynamics of the flesh with its unrestrained passions and enslaving, inflexible forms of fear vs. the Spirit with His cultivation of contenting joy and sustaining love and the struggle to listen to the Spirit is countered by the voice of the flesh.

Faith and wisdom: Why Stanley was right

May 15, 2018

Now that the furor has died over Andy Stanley’s sermon about “unhitching” our faith from the Old Testament, I want to provide a specific reason why he is right on this. Previously, on my blog and social media, I had focused on why I thought criticism was unfair, calling out how his words were being interpreted out of context. The more I read and heard from his critics, the more I felt that way, as every criticism I saw was conditioned upon interpreting Stanley’s words to mean things that Stanley did not talk about in his sermon. However, I suggest that what Stanley was getting at was precisely correct if we read the Bible historically and not simply as a theological document of which everything said is of equal theological importance.

This starts centered around the word “faith,” which is pistis in the Greek. Both words can be used in two, interrelated ways. Firstly, it can be used to describe a relational trust in someone. I have faith that God has forgiven me of my sins. You have faith that your spouse honors you. Secondly, it can be used to refer to accepting some idea, or if we can get technical a proposition, is true. For instance, I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. You believe, if not even know, your spouse genuinely committed to love you at your wedding. Now, I say interrelated because these two senses are commonly related: our trust in a someone or something, whether it be God, your spouse, your friends, the car your drive, etc. is grounded upon what has happened. That is, my hopeful expectations for the future are grounded in what I believe to have happened in the past. In this way, the two interrelated uses of faith/pistis are related. However, these two different meanings can be flipped. Because I trust someone, I believe certain things. Because I trust God, I believe he will raise my body from the dead. Because you trust your spouse, you believe they will be faithful to you in the future. Here, the order is flipped: because I trust, I believe certain things are or will be the case. Hence, trust and propositional belief are tightly intertwined in both causal directions.

I bring up this distinction to make sense of 1 Corinthians 2. There, the Apostle Paul outlines his pedagogical practice with the Corinthians. in 2:1-5, he outlines how the only knowledge he wants people to ascribe to him is knowledge about the crucified Christ, which was have presumably included knowledge about the resurrection. He joins this knowledge with the powerful works of the Holy Spirit that provide a demonstrative clarity. For what purpose? That the Corinthians faith may be in the power of God, rather than in him as some teacher of wisdom. At the most basic point, Paul wants the Corinthians to have a trust in God’s power that is grounded upon the resurrection of Christ and the demonstration of the Holy Spirit, and how this power works in weakness through Christ’s death and the weakness of Paul. Here, certain propositional beliefs are the grounds for forming trust in God.

However, in 2:6-16, Paul’s framework changes. For the mature, there is wisdom to be taught. In comparing the language of glory here with the language of glory in 1 Corinthians 15, at least part of the wisdom Paul is teaching about the glorious nature of the general resurrection that is to happen in the future. Here, the trust in the power of God ground the basis for what one believes will happen in the future. What is significant though is that nowhere in 2:6-16 does Paul refer to faith/pistis. He refers to this as wisdom/sophia. Why? Because in (Roman) Stoic epistemology that would have been prominent at the time in Corinth, a Roman colony, one comes to wisdom by first apprehending what is known as a “kataleptic impression.” Without getting bogged down in the minutiae of it and possible oversimplifying, the kataleptic impression was some prerequisite understanding of what is true that was necessary to gain wisdom/deeper knowledge. In other words, for Paul, one had to have a kataleptic impression of the power of God before one could obtain wisdom/sophia.

In other words, for Paul, before one could get wisdom, one had to come to trust in God and His power, but in order to do that, one believed in the resurrection of Christ and perceived that work of the Spirit. To use Andy’s metaphor, faith was “hitched” to the resurrection of Christ, which Stanley did mention early in the sermon, and the Holy Spirit.

However, adding wisdom to one’s faith was not simply a matter of some sort of acquisition of more knowledge. Immediately following 1 Corinthians 3, Paul derides the Corinthians for being unable to receive this wisdom because they were acting in fleshy/spiritually immature ways. That they were focused on attaching themselves to certain teachers like Paul, Apollos, Peter, or even Christ showed that they had not truly gotten it. Whatever sense of faith they may have had in God was blurred and distorted by the sense of importance they were putting in entrusting themselves to certain teachers. The very practices they were engaged were the problem. Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 15:34, suggesting that the reasons the Corinthians have no real knowledge is because of their sin. What is the type of sin that is the problem? From 15:33, we see that the problem Paul is rebuking is rooted in one’s social relationships. In other words, the very reason the Corinthians were not ready for wisdom was that of their relationships. They set up a competitive atmosphere between the Christian teachers and apparently were willing to put their trust in anyone who had the appearance of wisdom.

In other words, for Paul, because the Corinthians are not loving their fellow disciples of Christ as they should, they are not able to grasp wisdom. Therefore, we can say the fundamental basis for being able to add wisdom to our faith in God is the love of others, particularly the love of one’s fellow Christian community. The problem of sin isn’t failure to adhere to a set of behavioral codes or rules; in fact Paul suggests part of the problem in Corinth is the nature of people’s moral scruples making them arrogant in 1 Corinthians 8. The basic foundations can be summarized by the loving trust in God and the love of one’s neighbors. No other foundations, such as Greek wisdom or Jewish Torah, were given precedence.

So what Andy Stanley accords with what we see in Paul in 1 Corinthians. One’s faith is not in the Old Testament; it is in the resurrected Christ, or as I would say in God through Christ, and the prime commandments to be followed is to love each other. This is not to suggest that the Torah is therefore invalid. Rather, it is to suggest the function of the Old Testament for Paul is to help bring further wisdom and insight, once the foundation of faith in God and love for the Body of Christ has been deeply established. It is in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul attempts to teach the wisdom about glory, which pertains to the resurrection which Paul understands through reference to the OT story of Adam in comparison and contrast to Christ. For Paul, the Old Testament’s primary role is to bring wisdom; one’s faith was not in Torah.

The one place in 1 Corinthians that may seem to be exception to this point actually validates the overall point. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul talks about the death and the resurrection of Christ; in both instances, Paul says it was according to the Scriptures. Now, according to the standard narrative we tell due to the chronological order of history where Old Testament comes before Christ, we might be inclined to say “The Old Testament has prophecies that prove Christ is who he is.” Therefore, we might be inclined to say that the Old Testament validates Jesus and thus is important for faith. This is not entirely without merit in the NT canon; in John 5:39, Jesus ascribes the purpose of the Scriptures as being to testify to him. This, however, does not seem to be the purpose of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul is speaking to Gentile, many of whom presumably did not believe in the OT scriptures when Paul first evangelized to them. Instead of the OT being a validation for Jesus resurrection, it is the resurrection of Jesus that serves to valid the OT Scriptures to the Gentiles; Jesus died and was raised as the most basic point of belief for the Corinthians believers, and if you look and see that this was according to the OT Scriptures, the OT Scriptures are validated. When Paul seeks to validate the resurrection, he goes into detail about the various witnesses. When referencing the Scriptures, however, his references is only the most basic “in accordance with the Scriptures.” This generality is evidence that Paul is treated the death and resurrection of Christ as a ground to accept the authority of the Scriptures; the lack of detail undermines the interpretation that the OT is used to understand Jesus and/or validate belief in the resurrection. So, this sets up Paul’s comparison of Christ and Adam in order to understand the resurrection. In other words, it isn’t that one hold to Torah and then believes in Christ if you are a Gentiles; it is that you believe in Christ first and then the Torah opens up an epistemic source of further wisdom.

In other words, faith and wisdom must be distinguished in Christian theology if we want to take Paul as a normative prototype for how to do theology. Faith has its most basic essential beliefs about the resurrection of Christ and perhaps also the work of the Holy Spirit that grounds the trust in God. This is the necessary grounds to then move into wisdom about what the significance of all this is. There, Paul will incorporate the Torah and Old Testament. There, at the point of wisdom/sophia, or if we were to translate that more according to what it refers to, philosophy, we find the role of the Old Testament for the Christian church; the OT narratives and ethics are an important basis for building a Christian philosophy, depending on how it gets used.1 It is not, however, the fundamental starting point; the Old Testament is not some Archimedean point around which Christian faith starts and builds from. It is God made known in the crucified and resurrected Christ and in the powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit. So our faith is not hinged to the OT; rather, it is our Christian philosophy that promotes a deeper understanding that relies so much on the Old Testament to understand the significance of Jesus and the Spirit and the work of new creation that God is accomplishing in them. Andy Stanley is right: our faith should be “unhinged” from the Old Testament because our faith is in God through what He has done in Jesus and Spirit and is not in a set of narratives from Israel’s past. The Old Testament does not serve as the foundation of our faith or our ethics; it is epistemic material that helps us to build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ. Whatever we might say about some Andy Stanley’s exegesis of Acts 15 or whether his view of discipleship would clarify the importance of the OT for spiritual maturity, he gets it right when it comes to faith as the New Testament uses faith. It is starts in the love of God and the love of one another that is grounded in the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the belief in the crucified and resurrect Savior that grounds faith in the power of God, which then grounds further beliefs, which we call wisdom, about God’s power that pulls in the Old Testament, amongst others sources, to learn from.

Theological Hypervigilance

May 12, 2018

As someone who struggles with the symptoms of PTSD, I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of hypervigilance, where someone is constantly surveying the landscape for potential threats to one’s well-being. In a state of hypervigilance, your mind is prone towards surveying the environment for threats, and if you catch something that sets of a signal, to jump ready to action to protect against this threat. While some state of hypervigilance are in accordance to reality, as one really is being attacked and has to be protective, many times are hypervigilant states are distorting. As a result, we are prone to see threats that aren’t there; furthermore, we are prone to exaggerate the threatening nature of something. For instance, what may be signs of frustration by a person may get interpreted as signs of hostility. I use this phenomenon as an analogy for what I am referring to as theological hypervigilance.

What brought this up is uproar on social media over Andy Stanley, the head pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, about his statement of “unhitching” faith from the Old Testament. Many electrons have been spilled over the discussion on social media as to whether Andy Stanley is a heretic in the mold of Marcion. Despite the fact that Stanley explicitly stated that he believes the Old Testament to be inspired, people are insistent on saying Stanley is like the guy named Marcion from the 2nd century A.D. who believe the God of the Old Testament was different from Jesus and thus cut out the Old Testament entirely, along with significant portions of the New Testaments he believed to be too influenced by Judaism. While I have not watched the sermon, so perhaps I am missing something, but upon reading various articles such as Wesley Hill’s article with First Things and social media commentary and conversation, I have found the ultimate gist of Stanley’s sermon to be this: Stanley endorses a legalistic view of the Torah as a contract, which is a false stereotype, in trying to tell people that their faith is grounded in the resurrection of Christ and their way of life is not defined by Torah. While some of his language riled up people such as the word “unhitched,” what I have seen is guilty of oversimplified and problematic exegetical assumptions, but otherwise is pretty on point with Paul’s style of evangelism to the Gentiles.

My point is this: it seems upon careful examination (again, I did not watch the sermon; only read people’s quotes from it) that Stanley is far from Marcionism. Rather, what has “triggered” people is certain phrases that diminish the role of the Old Testament that many people were immediately prone to read as “Marcionism.” A sermon that is, in my view, guilty of oversimplification and poor exegesis gets upgraded in the eyes of others into a destructive heresy. Why? Because of theological hypervigilance.

In the secularizing and progressivizing Western society, we who are evangelicals stand in a place where we are seeing our views, opinions, values, and ideas being denigrated, disvalued, mocked, and treated with intellectual contempt. While certainly not life and death persecution, the repetitive experience of such disvaluation in popular discourse certainly signals to people their inferior status; it is a milder version of what has happened to minority communites, most particuarly African-Americans. Furthermore, as Christian churches in America have long been more accommodating to the socio-political ideals of the society, as secular and progressive ideals have become more prominent, so too have the church becomes more dividiing into sharp, bitter conflicts in denominations over concerns such as gender, sexuality, race, justice, etc.1 Many evangelicals and those of us like me who have evangelical sympathies but may not identify strictly as evangelical have grown defensive towards this repeated experience of external, societal devaluation and internal strife. As a result, we are in a state of theology, if not also ethical, hypervigilance, trying to protect ourselves and our churches from the shifts away from the truth of the Gospel. As a result, there is a quick readiness to see adulterous distortions of the truth in other people who gives even the appearance of heresy or of those who try to bring some civility and careful thinking to the conversation.

Now let me state something. I understand this. There are a lot of emotions associated with this. There is fear about the future of the Gospel in the West. I get it. I really do. But… this type of theological hypervigilance is unhealthy, sinful, destruction of the foundations of the Gospel of Christ. Instead of a foundation of love that while speaking truth, is quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger, it plants the seeds of anger and suspicion and readily justifies this anger by cloaking it as some righteous zeal. It undercuts the very basis by which the Church can come to grow and share the same confession because its readily treats anyone as a false teacher. If theological hypervigilance were to have its way n the end, it would create a unity of faith by kicking everyone out, rather than by the often slower, more arduous process of bring both grace and truth to our relationships in the church. It is as if people feel that God has selected them to be the defenders of the faith and they can only accomplish that goal by pulling out the sword anytime a sheep seems to move the slightest bit suspiciously.

Also, ironically, in trying to root our heresy, we often times are at risk of reinforcing the opposite heresy. Within the history of the church, heresy tend to come in pairs. The early Judaizing that made Torah necessary to justification is contrasted with the Marcionist heresy of rejecting the story of Israel and Torah. Whereas many engaged in Docetic forms of Christology that did not allow Jesus to be truly human, Arianism came in and said that Jesus wasn’t truly divine. Whereas modalism does not grant independence to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but suggest they are merely three appearances, tritheism would come in and say that there are three different gods. Rarely is Christian heresy a battle between a clear right and wrong; rather heresy is an unrestrained engagement with the extremes. However, when we are quick to label anything that might be construed to bear the slightest resemblance to some heresy and we attack it strongly and viciously, what we are in fact doing is pushing our body of believes more towards the opposite extreme. Witness how some radical Calvinists will reinforce the extremeness of their own views on predestination and unconditional by labeling anything that provides a place for human response as “semi-Pelagian.” Theological hypervigilance plants the seeds of heresy by pushing people towards and extreme.

This is not unique simply to Western evangelicals, however. It is a similar trend I notice in Barthian circles of theology, where the fear of anything like Nazi Germany creates a hypervigilance towards anything that might look like natural theology as distorting the faith; this form of theology where it comes only by direct revelatory inspiration to the person does bear some resemblances to gnosticism; its fight against immanence creates a tendency towards an over-spiritualization of the Christian message. There are other examples littered throughout history, I am not just trying to pick on evangelicalism or Barthian theology. However, the point is this: theological hypervigilance is the result of “trauma-like” experiences as it relates to our theological and spiritual identity, where we have seen the bad and evils of others in either treating us wrong or, more empathetically, treating others wrong so we vow to resist anything that might bear the slightest resemblance to these evils, that we might imagine might open the slightest space for those “heretics.”

However, theological hypervigilance wasn’t Jesus’ method for addressing the leaven of the Pharisees. Paul didn’t jump to conclude anyone, such as the other apostles such as James as in Galatians 2, who may not have been immediately on board with his mission to the Gentiles as themselves standing against the true faith. While there were false teachers, prophets, and apostles that the New Testament warns against, there is nothing that suggests they see the churches just littered with them, sniffing them out by rather arbitrary litmus tests based upon the slightest of resemblances to something false, to protect the churches as every turn. Rather, while they will occasionally talk about false teachers and expelling them, the main tactic for protection against them was more pedagogical, guiding people in their spiritual development so that they will be able to resist the false allures of said false teachers and the devil himself.

Translated into our modern day reality, it would entail helping people to see the difference between what the heresies actually teach (and not some overly genericized, stereotyped, caricatured version of them that we use to delegitimate our opponents) and put them into contrast with the way of Christ and the Spirit that we who hear the witnesses of the New Testament adhere to. However, insofar as our emphasis is pointing out false teachers and we are hypervigilant to find them, rather than training people to discern false teaching from what is true. Sometimes this entails addressing what other teachers have said, but we can critique what someone said as bearing potential problems without labeling them a heretic. I can say “Andy Stanley said some things that falsely portrays the Torah with a negative stereotype and could be taken too far as rejecting the Old Testament entirely, and we refer to this rejection of the Old Testament as Marcionism.” I can say “Karl Barth is fighting against a great evil, but his sole focus on revelation if taken too far may have some bad implications.” There, my focus is on a pedagogy of those I am teaching while allowing myself to see the weaknesses of what some people may teach, rather than engaging in some (often testosterone-fueled) conflict with others persons, falsely imagining that our “righteous” zeal will save the day and make everything better.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul addresses the future fate of different teachers of the church. There are some times when teachers who build with gold, silver, and costly stones; other times they build with wood, hay, or straw. Then, there are those who destroy the building of Jesus Christ. If your theological hypervigilance makes you see fewer and fewer people as building with wood, hay, and straw and more and more people who are destroying the church, you are probably in a state of theological hypervigilance. If your first impression of teachings you find problem with is to think the people are destroying the church, which you justify because you find some superficial or mild resemblance to heresy of the past, rather than to see their teaching as being wood, hay, and straw, then you are probably in a state of theological hypervigilance. When we use the word “heresy” readily upon people and what they are teaching in such a state of theological hypervigilance, we do not respect the power of that word and misuse and abuse in inappropriate way.

Divine election as boundary-breaking, not boundary-forming

May 11, 2018

I have recently been studying “the demonstration of the Spirit and power” in 1 Corinthians 2 as part of my upcoming Master’s dissertation. In the course of studying, it has lead me to look at 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, where Paul uses similar language to 1 Corinthians 2 in the contrast between “words” or “discourse” and the Spirit and power. In so studying, what has pressed me is the questions of how and why power and the Holy Spirit is related to God’s choice of the people in v. 4. Traditionally understood within Protestantism, election has been principally about soteriology: what people has God chosen for salvation and how does God select those? In the Calvinist/Arminian debate, the discussions, arguments, and polemics center around whether God’s decrees make salvation real or if God’s selection of people is reflective of their faith. On the one hand, the language of election and predestination in places such as Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 are very particularistic and the argument seems to posit the emphasis is on how God’s action accomplishes election. On the other hand, there are plethora of Scriptural and theological reasons for supposing that salvation is not as special country-club accessible by special invitation only.

I alluded to this in a previous post, but what if we consider the following: election in Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, is not about who gets in, while everyone is left out. What if, instead, divine election is about being God’s chosen persons to convey the light of the Gospel? After discussing the confidence that Paul has in the election of the Thessalonian believers in vs. 4-5, he proceeds to discuss how their imitation of Paul has lead to them being witnesses to others believer and in various other places in vs. 6-8. It seems, for Paul, the question of being chosen by God pertains to action God takes to incorporate people into God’s mission, not simply who gets forgiven and gets to have eternal life. Certainly, we would suggest that such people are “saved,” but that election is not about who strictly outlining who gets in and left out but about who are the first people in the world, as with Israel, or in various communities, regions, and periods of time, whose lives will serve as witnesses to the Gospel of God. Instead of the Holy Spirit simply being some signal of God’s love towards certain persons, it represents the people God uses to break down boundaries and shine light into darkness. We see this pattern with the dramatic bestowal of the Spirit to the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17, leading to the evangelizing of the Samartians in 8:25, and the Gentiles in Acts 10:44-48 which legitimated acceptance of the Gentiles in 11:15-18. In other words, I would suggest that God’s election of people as evidenced by the work of the Holy Spirit is not about determining the boundaries between persons, but rather God’s breaking down of boundaries to that the light of the Gospel will spread. To use a metaphor, God election is selecting people who will seed colonies of God’s Kingdom.

Under this conceptual schema, we can then rightly accept the emphasis of election occurring on the basis of God’s actions and not human action, while at the same time recognizing the universal invitation of the Gospel to all people. God’s election of particular persons is the very means that the universal invitation to the Gospel is concretely realized in various communities, cultures, and periods of time, entailing the dramatic, often surprising work of the Spirit to establish these persons for this task and to communicate this new direction of God to others.

Language, thought, and truth and the ghost of skepticism

May 6, 2018

In the course of Western intellectual history, the particulars relationship between language, thought, and truth has been hotly contested without ever coming to a firm agreement. On the one hand, intuitive understandings of language pulling back to the Medieval theology1 has suggested that language refers to something we think. However, more modern views of language have reversed that polarity, such as the Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis and Wittgenstein’s language games, in which language controls the way we think. Similarly, the distinction between our thoughts and what is true and rule has been argued against the backdrop of Platonic philosophy, who Allegory of the Cave that metaphorically framed thought as an appearance. From there, the debate has been how to relate thought and truth in terms of naive realism, critical realism, idealism, relativism, etc. as they all try, implicitly or explicitly, to respond to the haunting specter of skepticism, that always whispers “but appearances may not be real knowledge.”

What if, however, the relationship between language, thought, and truth were all reflexive? That is to say, what if language forms our thoughts and thoughts from our language? What if reality molds our thinking and thinking molds our sense of reality? What if the sensory perceptions we take in evoke certain language concepts to come to mind and the concepts also impact how we make sense of perceptions? What if causation runs both ways but there is no clear manner by which we can always designate which way the causation runs? We may notice clear, glaring examples of each type of causation, such as how our expectations a person may project their thoughts upon another and how we are startled by reality in something entirely unexpected that we do not comprehend. However, aside from certain instances where the causal relationships are obvious, we would never able to fully dissect the chain of causality between language, thought, and truth.

This might be a problem if we are haunted by skepticism, that can never give confidence to what we believe. However, if we reject the ghost of skepticism that haunts us primarily because of the way we have metaphorically frame our thinking as an “appearance” that may or may not be connected to reality, the inability to always determine the direction of causality should not concern us. If we thought of thinking in a more ecological metaphor as a part of the whole, wherein which somehow what we think is connected to other things, whether it be subjective linguistic structures, objective, external realities, etc. we could look at thought differently. It exists as a blend of perceptions of reality and subjective concepts, and through the process of discovery, we learn how the part we are aware of can relate to other things we have been aware of, such that through the successive addition of these “parts,” we can begin to discern the general interconnections of our thoughts to our neuro-biological systems and the rest of the world external to us, without ever being able to absolutely dissect any singular experience and precisely defined how it is connected to the rest. Skepticism in this framework serves only as a tool to be used to help increase the reliability of exploration of the “parts” and their connections in order to form a widening sense of the whole, rather than as a haunting metaphorical whispering ghost in the back of the mind, always saying “are you sure?” without any knowledge itself.

Divine justification as performative change of status

May 6, 2018

The history of modern Western Christianity has largely turned on the definition of “justification” and it’s equivalent translations in the Pauline corpus. Consequently, whole theological systems within Protestantism have been built around theological propositions that are based upon a) definition of diakaiow and b) it’s relationship to faith/pistis. This tendency has only been highlighted and furthered by the historical-grammatical forms of Biblical criticism which attempts to formulate the meaning of justification by understanding the semantic content of the term. The assumption is we can understand the cognitive content of the term, we can then get a precise understanding of justification.

However, language is not just a semantic tool; it is also a pragmatic tool. It doesn’t just simply describe or prescribe; language is used to bring forth worlds into reality. J.L. Austin famously observed the difference between locution, illocution and perlocution in his speech-act theory. Whereas locution relates to the words we use and illocution to our intention in using those words, perlocution relates to the world our words create in other persons. For instance, when I performed a wedding and said “I now pronounce you husband and wife” which was also matched by my signing of the marriage certificate, I was symbolically and legally bringing the couple into a new world that would change and impact their future. OR, when I baptized an infant as I called for the parents and the congregation to help raise this child in faith as called this infant “our new brother/sister in Christ,” I was using my words to construct a new world for this infant, with the hopes that they would be brought up to know the love of God in Jesus Christ. In both cases, my words in a perlocutionary manner combined with my actions to bring forth the couple or an infant into a different world, which through the course of time and experience, they themselves would be different from what they were. In other words, my words and actions were changing the status of people in eyes of themselves, the law, the parents, the church, etc. with the hopeful result that these people would be formed, if not transformed, by the experiences that come of how people relate to them, the resources provided to them, etc.

I would contend that “justification” for Paul is the perlocutionary side of this change of status. Rather than attempting to describe justification as the forgiveness of one’s sin as in Protestant theology of the infusion of righteousness as in Catholicism, one can look to “justification” as the fundamental Word God speaks in Christ that changes the status of the person, such that they experience forgiveness and peace with God and they are given access to the Spirit in accordance to this change of status. As such, justification would be about changing the course of the believer’s life, changing the reality they experience such that these experiences transform them. If Paul envisions justification along the lens of a performative act changing one’s status, then all other definitions of justification are reductive, substituting one effect of the change of status for the change of status itself. It would be like saying that the wedding is simply about sex or the baptism is simply about bringing family together. Such thinking fundamentally degrades and limits what is happened in marriage and baptism. Likewise defining justification according to some specific benefit we experience or accept such as forgiveness of infusion of righteousness misses the point.

Justification as a performative change of status would cohere with the various statements that Paul makes. For instance, in discussing Abraham’s faith by which God reckoned righteousness to Abraham, Paul speaks of God in Romans 4:17 as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” We find there the conjunction of action in the resurrection and the performative utterance of a creative word making something otherwise impossible real. Then in Romans 5:1-5, Paul outlines multiple different benefits of this change of status: 1) knowing one is at peace with God, 2) future expectations of sharing in God’s glory, which Romans 8:16 would reveal is based upon suffering with Jesus Christ, and thus 3) the confidence that suffering moves towards that future expectation we can look to. There, there we can see a distinction between status and benefits of said status.

Bringing this to a theological conclusion, in recognizing the conjunction of perlocutionary words and constitutive action, we can look at justification as the joint work of the Word of Christ and Action of the Spirit. Both God’s pronouncement in Christ and God’s bestowal of the Spirit acknowledge and create a fundamental change of status for the believer, that will enter them into a different way of experience that they would not have estranged from God, that will impact the direction their lives take and change the type of person they are, even if they are not aware of this from the starting point.

I remember many years ago, during my freshman year of college, I was attending a Christian leadership retreat that the Baptist Student Unions in the state of Mississippi had organized (I was Southern Baptist at the time). While there, I received a mental vision of being a leader of people (surprise, surprise! Imagine that a vision of leading at a leadership retreat) and it was at that point that my hearts was so deeply moved that I was moved to my first, clear feeling of repentance, wanting to avoid sin in my life, and my first time in having a clarity of trust in the love and power of God. I feel an experience of life and joy that I could only describe years later as a “heart strangely warmed” experience (little did the Baptists realize they had made me Wesleyan!). Without fully understanding at the time but looking back after the fact, I was put on a different path of life that has formed me into a distinctly different person than I was my freshman year, while having experiences that I could only describe as coming from God, and having to struggle with painful  situations that defy and still defy my comprehension or my personal capacity. While I don’t call this the point I got “saved,” or even the point that I was “justified” by God because I had the beginnings of faith and repentance in the years prior, it was at this point that I can look back and say this is where I began to live out from a changed status that I believed God to have bestowed.

So, rather than attempting to obtain a definition of justification from determining some semantic understanding of the word and thereby derive a specific set of propositional statements about our experiences of justification, I would suggest justification for Paul is understood as part of a status-changing Word of Christ that is also joined with the act of giving of the Spirit. Thus, justification refers to what God does, not specifically what happens to us or how we benefit, and only from that point do we begin to explore the different realities that come into place.2 Perhaps then, the course of post-Reformation Western Christianity has been guided by focusing on the benefits we experience in justification and the disagreement that ensues from that rather than focusing on justification as a reference to the Divine act of changing believer’s status, which then operates in a multifunctional way within the course of our lives.

Linguistic salience and the values and limitations of analytic precision

May 4, 2018

Language is a complicated, messy thing. Anyone who reads poetry, or at least tries to ready poetry with only mild success, knows this. When you think you know what a word or phrase means, a poet uses it in a very different manner.

For instance, take William B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” In the first stanza, Yeats reflects on the chaotic and violent status that the world is in3 So, as he starts his second stanza, the poem goes: “Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” For the attentive reader, you would see the phrase “Second Coming,” probably think of the eschatological hope of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and think that while the first stanza has described the suffering and violence of life, the second stanza will speak of a coming, future hope. In the context of the first stanza, the phrase “Second Coming” has a salient meaning through its customary usage in the Christian West: it is about Jesus.

This, however, is where the poem then confuses expectations. Yeats goes on to describe a vision of a troubling future where it is said that “the darkness drops again.” What Yeats goes on to see is a second coming of a different sorts; a second coming of the darkness that had already been.4 So, in the context of the rest of the stanza, “Second Coming” comes to be taken not simply as a reference to Christ, but ambiguously also refers to a return of the darkness of the past.

So, language is a messy thing; any word that we use in a customary way can be used in a new novel way in different circumstances. The meaning of our words are not some absolutely fixed entity residing in our head, but as Wittgenstein has famously observed: “The meaning of the word is it’s use.” Because we use words in new contexts, to describe different things, and use different words to describe them, our words take on slightly or even drastically different meanings through it varied uses, and yet somehow in the midst of it all, we are able to make sense of these different usages if we allow that every usage of a word does not have the mean the same thing each time. The semantics of words are multifunctional and adaptive, sensitive to the ideas that they are used to refer to.

However, while they are multifunctional, most words have specific meanings that automatically come to minds. While we saw how the phrase “Second Coming” could be used in a new, novel way, we are going to have a standard idea come to our mind when we see the word “Second Coming.” A certain type of meaning and usage is much more salient to us when we hear or read language. The reasons these words take on such salient meaning are legion, but some prominent factors are customary usage in our social networks and more idiosyncratic uses of the word to describe someone that is pertinent to oneself. Whereas prose is an example of where words are typically used in accordance to customary usage, poetry tends to create idiosyncratic meanings of the poet that may or may not successfully transmit to its readers and hearers. There exists a tension between the usage of words in dialogues with and monologues from other people and in the way we use our words. So, the way I use a word may not fit the salient meaning of a word for other people. Addition, different social networks use words differently, so what is the salient meaning from one person from one social network is different from the salient meaning from another person of another social network.

For instance, the word “love” has various different connotations. In Christian contexts, it commonly takes on the meaning of self-sacrificial care for others, whether one sacrifices for the sake of God or for the sake of others. In popular music, love takes on a feeling of romantic or sexual exuberance, where one is longs for or is united with one’s partner. In conversations about dinner, love refers to that tastiness of food, such as “Oh, I absolutely love the chicken parmesan here!” While each of these different uses may have a common pre-meaning, the salient meaning of the word will differ depending on what context one is speaking to AND which contexts one tends to participate in that forms our language.5

So, this gets into the value of analytic precision of language. Language has the ability to shift the salient meaning of the word in a context, such as described in the Yeats poem. As counter-intuitive as it might sound at first blush, both poetry and conceptual analysis allow for us to create novel salient meanings by how we use words in our poetry and prose. When I seek to describe the metaphysical concept of identity, I would use language in such a way to describe the metaphysical usage of word “identity” in order to distinguish it from the similar but different psychological use of the word “identity.” If I were to say “Identity is the relation each things bears to itself,”6 I would in effect be telling readers from more psychological communities that I am not necessarily referring to my own sense of who I am in a person.”  Through this act of generating new salience in defining my terms, I increase the probability that my thoughts will more accurately transmit to another person by clear the brush of other salient meanings that might arise in communication. This is not to mention how such conceptual analysis may help to clarify our own thinking so as to get a clearer grasp precisely what it is we are thinking about. In a way, analytic philosophy and theology shares much in common with poetry.

However, there is one important limitation that analytic philosophy that can be a limitation upon it’s value. Through a) the customary, repeated usage of words in order to establish particular, salient meanings and b) the expectation that all usage of this word will be used in a same or similar fashion, it may lead to a particular illusion: the idea that phenomenon we are describing is uniform. Because the repeated usage of the terms to form salient meanings with the execptations that we should use these words in accordance to the customs, our thinking begins to become fixed as it is form by the repeated, uniform usage of language. Our minds become increasingly numb to the subtle variations of novelty that language can bring, so that when we describe a set of entities, processes, objects, or persons with the same term, we presume that each individual member of the set all shares the same features in common that the fixedly salient meaning of the word describes.

It is this temptation towards the inflexibility of language leading to the inflexibility of thinking about sets of things that can describe precisely why analytic philosophy and poetry are so divergent. It is this difference in how language is used that may in part describe the historical differences of style and substance between analytic and continental philosophy. Where this is most relevant to me, however, is in the nature of Christian theology. If we are attuned to a God who communicates to us in symbolic means, such as the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, the Scriptures, etc., and the usage of this language is sensitive to the same processes of salience and meaning, then we who aspire to do theology in an analytic style can see both the benefits and limitations of our style. We can use language in such a way to convey surprising new meanings by precision and showing how this precision makes sense of and matches the sources of our theology; in so doing, we can increase the possibility of the successful transmission of our thoughts to another. At the same time, we have to be attuned to the possibility that God’s meaning is not fixed by our customary and salient uses of words, nor is God Himself to be understood as matching the uniformity of our language usage about Him.

How justification blinds us

May 4, 2018

In using the title “justification” I am intentionally being pretty broad here. We can use it in an epistemic sense to refer to reasons we have for confidence in our beliefs, which we refer to as knowledge. It also has usages in the contexts of ethics and power, where some ethical or more rule is use to clear our actions or ever to warrant us to taking action so that we can feel free from guilt or punishment. Then, in Christian theology, it has taken on a particular meaning of feeling one is in a right relationship to God, such that one is forgiven of one’s sins and will not face the wrath of God. When I am referring to justifciation, I am referring to all these and many other similar usages of “justification.”

How can I do this? Because, I would suggest at the core, these various usages of “justification,” while having different shades of meaning depending on the context, all have a basic pre-meaning that forms the basis of their meaning when used. At the core of justification is the idea of confidence; confidence that my belief is true, reliable, will guide me towards good results, etc.; confidence that my actions will not be juged negatively or harshly; confidence that my relationship to God is secure and that I do not need to fear God’s wrath; and so on. The object of our confidence is different in each usage, which makes “justification” takes on subtly different meanings in each usage, but there is a common pre-meaning that is related to a psychological phenomenon of confidence that can pertain to various different focuses and concerns.

Having said that, the thought of our justification blinds us for particular reasons: the higher the degree of our confidence, the less we actually pay thoughtful attention. We only pay thoughtful attention to what we think, do, feel, etc. when we feel there might be some cognitive dissonance, which is most often times the case between what we think to be true and what we want to be true. In dating, we might want someone to fall in love with us but we are not sure they do, so we pay attention them with that purpose1. In school, we want to learn the subject material and we recognize that we do not know it, so we search or the right answers2 And so on. However, if we feel we are assured of what it is we want, then we do not pay attention. WE believe that someone will always love us, so that we do not pay attention to their feelings or how we respond to them. We think we have the subject material mastered, so we don’t pay any further attention to verify if we truly understand the subject or not, resulting in potentially poor performance in using that knowledge, poor grades, etc.

The feelings of being justified offers us higher degrees of confidence. The more confident we are that what think to be true and what we want to true are the same, the less we pay attention. So, when we seek to find reasons for our confidence, we are in fact reducing the cognitive dissonance between our perceptions and our wishes. And this can be a quite good thing: if someone tells you that you love them, you should have confidence of their love at that point of time. If someone says you have a good grasp of the material, you have good reason for thinking that you have learned. However, often times our thinking can go in reverse: we engage in confirmation bias. We think someone loves us, therefore we find all the reasons they must love us, such as paying you a friendly compliment, smiling at you, etc. and think they will respond positively to your overtures. We are absolutely sure we are smart, so we construct plausible sounding arguments.

In the end, confidence and reasons are reflexive; they can cause each other. I can have confidence because I find good reasons, or I can find good reasons because I am confident. To our minds in the moment of thinking about our justification and reasons for confidence, these two different causal relations are indistinguishable. However, they can exhibit distinctly different patterns of action. In the former case, one is paying attention with an open mind to the possibility that what is true can be what we want or can be what we don’t want. One does not quickly, prematurely resolve cognitive dissonance, but instead lingers in the stage of ambiguity and uncertainty so as to pay attention and find good reasons for one to be confident. In the latter case, one is resistant to any possibility that one should not be confident and instead there is a quick move to resolve cognitive dissonance at such a thought by rationalizing post-hoc reasons to be confident. Ther difference between reasons leading to confidence and confidence leading us to construct reasons is a matter of how much we can deal with ambiguity and focus our attention so as to take in new information that may or may not cohere with your hopes and thoughts at the moment.

However, and this is where the vicious cycle can begin, when we are confident and then we construct reasons, we are not simply failing to pay attention at that moment. Precisely because we think we have found reasons for our confidence, that we are justified, we increase our confidence more and more. Thus our confidence boosts up even more because of these reasons, making us even less likely to pay attention, which then makes us even more likely to rationalize ourselves in the future. IT becomes a vicious cycle where because we “know” we are in the right, we keep imagining “true” reasons that in fact is only true in the most relativistic sense of it being something you feel but bearing little relationship to what is true outside of your mind. This vicious, self-serving, post-hoc rationalizing cycle of premature resolution of cognitive dissonance is the cause of so many situations of divorce, abuse, wide-spread violence and conflict, terrible decision making, etc.

While there are reasons we should feel confident, such as trusting God’s loves for you because of the Spirit of God poured out upon you, knowing that someone else loves you because they tell you, knowing that you know your subject material because people affirm that, etc., there are often times conditions where our confidence outstrips reality. The only solution that I know of to fend of against such a result isn’t to try to reason your way out of it, since it is your reasoning that is tainted by an infelxible need to feel justified and confident, but to ask yourself the questions such as “I feel I am right, but under want conditions might I be wrong?” or “I feel that I am right, but is it possible that the reason things aren’t going the way that I want is because I was wrong?” While these questions should not be forcibly subjected to those who have absolutely no confidence, to those who feel confident, to those who “know” they are in the right, it is the practice of asking these questions and imagining realistic possibilities of how you might be wrong that can keep your hearts and mind open and flexible enough to listen to others, pay attention to what is happening in the world, and, I would even say, pay attention to what God’s Spirit is trying to teach to you.

Now, this entails courage, this entails confidence in other things that can sustain you in case your hopes in something else is falsely place. For instance, I have dealt with some very difficult, painful, and unclear situations over the past few years, but the reason I have been able to face such over the years, even with all the effects of it, is precisely because I was confident of God’s love for me and confident that my parents loved me, even if I was not sure and even fearful of other people’s intentions and their actions and what would happen.

Trust and control

May 3, 2018

A couple days ago I wrote a post about the nature of control and trying to figure out how to resisting participating in a culture of power and control while not abdicating and surrendering up all control. We have distorted views of power and control and through a set of practices we can learn how to reform our sense of power and control and the way we do and not control. However, if we simply look at the act of controlling, as if it is some behavior trait that happens independent of situations and our responses to the situations, we are still engaging in a distorted view of power and control. It is important understand what motivates control.

Erik Erikson observes that in the development of people, the most important theme they are learning about in the first of life is about hope and trust. IS the world trustworthy or untrustworthy? This theorizedzed to be rooted in the parental relationship, whether the parents are responsive to the needs of infants to build trust or not. Then, if we look at the prominent themes at the rest of the life stages Erikson theorizes about, they all pertain to action, such as will, competence, care, or what motivates and directs our actions, such as purpose, fidelity, love, and wisdom.  Put roughly speaking, in the first few months of life we are learning what is and is not to be trusted, which will then determine how we are to be motivated to act. Our actions flow our from our trust.

But I believe there is one critical flaw in Erikson’s work. He contrasts things in terms of trust and mistrust, as if trust and mistrust are the same thing but on the opposite spectrums. However, as more evidence has amassed that positive and negative emotions are not simply different degrees on the same spectrum of feeling, but are actually two distinct emotional subsytems, it would be better to split the trust vs. mistrust dichotomy into two different tensions: trust vs. irrelevance; irrelevance vs. mistrust. As infants, we are not simply learning whether something is to be trusted or not; we are learning what is and is not relevant. A child that is not well nurtured may not mistrust their parents in terms of fear, but rather view them as irrelevant.

In light of that premise, we can surmise the following states of trust in relation to control, at the risk of oversimplification:

Communion – We accept who and what we trust.

Irrelevance – We are unconcerned about who or what we neither trust nor mistrust.

Fear – We control who and what we mistrust.

Ambivalence – We both accept and control who and what we both ambivalently trust and mistrust.

AT this stage then, we begin to have a good understanding of the basic rationale of why people do and do not seek to control. But this is still not well-tuned for real world understanding. There are many different reasons why we trust, mistrust, or consider something irrelevant. One person may fear another person because they have learned that all people are untrustworthy; another person may fear another because that person has actively threatened them. Along a similar line, I remember something my mother, who is a retired psychiatrist told me about people: “Crazy people do crazy things in normal situations. Normal people do crazy things in crazy situations.”

What I am getting at can be (over)simplified into the explanatory categories of trait and circumstance, where we attribute people’s actions towards some internal or external factor. But, trying to explain something through either internal, personality traits or external, circumstantial events can begin to mislead us as all actions are a combination of internal AND external factors. My internal neuro-biological networks lead me to interpret and respond to external events. Thus, there is really no such thing as “controlling” or “untrusting” people. Rather, there are people who control in certain types of circumstances and do not trust under certain circumstances.

The key, then, is to identify both what a person thinks and feels and why it is a person thinks and feels that way. Then, we can begin to assess why people do or do not control. For instance, I am a person who is very wary of situations where people’s words and actions contradict themselves, so if I note a significant contradiction, I will endeavor to engage in a degree of control in how much impact they will have on me and others. Meanwhile, another person’s trust may be simply contingent on whether the person is saying the right things, such as a narcissist who wants everything another person says to reflect whatever grandiose self-impression they have at that moment, and so mistrust people simply on the basis of criticism.

Understand trust and control is a complex issue, and one that can only be reliably discerned by SUSTAINED attention and listening . But once one is willing to discipline thier mind and heart to discern the relationship between interior motivations and exterior circumstances, it provides an effective basis to then move towards ceasing to control others by controlling them and instead fostering trust. Controlling others is the quick, instinctive response to someone’s actions we don’t like and may sometimes be morally necessary to get people acting badly to rethink their actions, to learning what is it one can do to build trust so as to potentially address issues where we think people are wrongly controlling. But this then puts the onus on us to attempt to consider how to build trust with those who we think are controlling, rather than simply putting the burden on them. And who knows, maybe in doing that, you will discover that the person who you think has been controlling has actually has not been controlling as much as you think they have been, but that in fact, it is your own instinct to control that you have projected onto them. For instance, often times, ambivalence may appear as solely mistrust, when in fact there may be grounds of trust, but if we are in the mindset of another being threatening and must be managed, we might miss the degree of openness that they have and miss an opportunity to achieve communion.