The problem with the popular personality profiles

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October 16, 2019

During my time at seminary, I remember going on a long drive with a couple of friends. On hour plus drive, I proceeded to talk to my friends about the Myers-Briggs personality profile, although my friends probably felt more like they were held hostage by my ramblings. Often reserved and introverted owing to my INTP profile, if I got into a topic I was hyperfocused on, I could give a long ‘lecture’ about it. I had become passionate about the Myers-Briggs as an insight into human personality. Having gone through trauma during my youth and in college, the Myers-Briggs offered a way of trying to make sense of myself when I was left often unsure about myself and the reasons I felt often disconnected from other people. Being an “INTP,” I had a good explanation for some of my patterns of thinking and how that could create a felt sense of distance between myself and others.

It seemed credible because it was “scientific.” In fact, Myers-Briggs was a combination of some basic insights into some parts of human psychology but was never found to be valid scientifically. In hindsight, I can recognize the credibility I gave to the Myers-Briggs was also rooted in how it made me feel about myself and giving me a set of ‘answers.’ After I had begun to distance myself from the Myers-Briggs because of its problems, I noticed another friend began to get really defensive quickly when I started to mention the limitations of it. From what I knew about them, they were someone else who seemed to have been trying to figure out themselves and their place in the world.

There is something quite powerful on a personal level about many personality profiles like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. On the one hand, the very way they categorize people and explain each of the profiles can give the impression of depth and understanding that can make people think “they know what they are talking about.” Furthermore, as our description of our personalities is made up of the various things that make us human, such as cognition, emotion, motivation, relationships, activities, aspirations, etc., they seem actually applicable to our life. Add in any appearance of being rooting in some other authority, such as science, spirituality, etc., and we are inclined to believe they are reliable sources to understand ourselves.

And, to a degree, they can help to illuminate something about ourselves. When I discovered my profile as an “INTP,” I began to notice the way I endeavored to be logical in my understanding of the world. Our personality profiles can be like a mirror that we peer into and notice the handsome and attractive features of ourselves, or, if we are comfortable seeing our weakness or have a terrible low-self regard, we may even see some of the metaphorical smudge marks, pockets of skin and fat, and the scars that make us feel unattractive. Insofar as the personality profiles help us to discover what is already there: they can be of some use.

However, in a post-modern societal paradise of contradictory paradigms and confusions about what we should consider being true, we are often left with a sense of an unclear and incoherent sense of our selves. Particularly those of my generation were not encultured to have any one central identity that holds all the rest of our self-perceptions and identities together. Consequently, we look to personality profiles to serve as more than mirrors to look at ourselves. They became more like virtual reality that we don’t realize is a virtual reality; our personality profile gives us a certain skin that we then think we are and play as in accordance to the expectations we generate from them.

Being an INTP, I often told myself that I was a logical, analytic person, which was often the case. But at the same time, there was an aspect of myself that I was increasingly overlooking: that I was naturally deeply sensitive and empathetic. Instead, I increasingly took on the persona of an INTP because thats who that is who I ‘am;’ people even subtly reinforced this perception of me by focusing on and only see  Something that was partly descriptive about myself became subtly and implicitly normative: I am to be as this profile says that I am. The process of answer questions for a profile can be likened to creating a relatively simple character1 in a video game. We may create a character that resembles some aspect of who we are, such as a virtuous, law-abiding hero or, and thinking that idealization which is sometimes the case is always the case. The difference is that we don’t come up with the character, but the personality profiles slots us in a category based upon how we respond to specific inquiries. Whereas we can usually recognize the limits of our own imagination, if we allow our imagination to be directed by an ‘authoritative’ personality profile, we can put on the profile as if it is a ‘skin’ in virtual reality but think this is really who we are.

Now, here is the real kicker: because our own conscious self-perceptions and identities are formed from both personal memories of ourselves and experiences and external, social categories and expectations, we can never really be sure if we are using personality profiles like a mirror or as a skin in virtual reality. Further complicating matters is that the personality profiles can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by our belief in them, leading us to submit ourselves to a mental ‘plastic surgery’ that fits in the skin that has been assigned to us that we will then eventually see in the mirror.

In other words, personality profiles can help us to identify something that is there or, alternatively, they can form us into the image of the creator(s) of the personality profiles that we submit ourselves to. It largely depends on the makeup of ourselves when we use them. If we have a relatively entrenched sense of who we are that is reliable and not built upon some sense of denial, then personality profiles like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram will be like a mirror. However, if our sense of self is highly fluid and unsure, our own self-perceptions are going to be more influenced by what the profile tells us we are, making it more like a skin in virtual reality that can eventually turn into psychological plastic surgery.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with a little bit of playfulness, exploration, and openness to trying out different personas that the personality profiles can guide us in, insofar as we recognize that we aren’t finding our true ‘essence’ by doing so. Where the real problem is when we give these personality profiles an authority to reliably help us to see who we actually are. In this case, we are being formed into the image of its human creator(s) fashioned from their own selves that they ‘projected’ onto their understanding of human personality, along with other people who use and propagate the various personality profiles.

From a Christian angle, a simply playfulness and imagining ourselves based upon the personality profiles such as the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram isn’t bad or wrong. Insofar as we as humans are formed into the pattern of God’s image, our own thoughts about human life can reflect the image of God. If our own sense of our self is relatively secured, then the personality profiles can help us to identify something about ourselves that is true to how God made and formed us.

However, insofar as the image of God has been defaced and erased in ourselves corporately and personally, the image of humanity imagined from the creator(s) of the personality profile will reflect their brokenness and sin, both corporately and personally. The impacts of the brokenness and sin can be hidden in the ways the creator(s) and propagators divide up the human life and personality into ways that separate different motivations, traits, cognitive patterns, etc. from others that can reflect the way they divide the world up. Put differently, personality profiles rely upon our cognitive dissociation of the various aspects of human personality from each other to be able to provide in language a clear and coherent account of human personality. Their own humanness, both in its glory and its shame, is embedded into the very way their thoughts on personality is communicated used. As a consequence, when we submit and unconsciously surrender ourselves to the authority of the human creator(s) and propogaters of the various personality profiles, we risk inviting the brokenness and sin of their lives into our own lives. In addition, insofar as we consider ourselves able to understand and use these profiles for self-awareness, we can also exacerbate our own brokenness and sin within our lives by filling in the gaps with our own brokeness. If we are not careful, the end result is that we can come up with an extreme, distorted personality that we have created by our psychological plastic surgery, taking us further and further from God’s given image.

More scientifically rigorous personality profiles have many hedges against this form of unconscious self-mutilation. Personality profiles like the Big Five and the MMPI have specific definitions that constrain the significance of the findings. The scientific processes used to determine how reliable the tests and results are and why they are reliable means that their usage is less susceptible to the fancies of an undisciplined human imagination. Their often technical, less evocative language offers hedges against the misunderstandings that other personality profiles can readily fall prey to. While not perfect, more scientific personality profiles keep their imperfections more contained.

Furthermore, the scientific nature of these profiles reminds us that we are by nature more ignorant than we are knowledgable and that the truth about something as complex and frequently hidden as the human heart only comes through sustained learning and reflection that allows itself to be falsified and challenged. However, the usage of other personality profiles (or even the more scientific ones when their original intentions are not well understood) offers us an illusion of our own self-understanding and expertise about other people. They can engender within us an illusion of epistemic confidence about who we are ourselves and, if we are not careful, even others. The blindspots of an exaggerated sense of self-awareness will reflect the motivations of our heart and our own ideals, subtly blinding us and denying within ourselves the very things that go against the ideals laid within our hearts. To that end, personality profiles can also offer us a way to escape from learning about ourselves, to escape from things that we worry or even feel are true about ourselves.

My own understanding of being an INTP, as true as it may have been in part, was also a way of escaping the deeply sensitive and empathetic part of myself that had been scarred over from bullying, from the suicide of my brother, and from the violation of my significant personal boundaries. It offered an escape from the burdensome realities that I didn’t want to believe and accept as the way the world is, or the way the world could be. Insofar, as I was rational and reasonable, I could continue see the world as a reasonable place. My own exuberance from the Myers-Briggs reflected a person wanted to solidify a sense of self and identity that would drown out the howling, shrill pitch of the ghosts of past trauma. It helped to create a sense of myself as a person that ultimately became increasingly susceptible to the emotional breakdown that came when faced with other difficulties. Insofar as the Myers-Briggs is actually rooted in the psychological theory of Carl Jung, who himself underwent an episode of psychotic breakdown, could one say that my exuberance for the Myers-Briggs lead me to ultimately be formed into the image of Carl Jung? Maybe that is taking it too far, but maybe there is something to it.

The value and limitations of sociology in New Testament studies

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October 14, 2019

In recent decades, there has been an increased interest in interpreting the Gospels and letters of the New Testament in light of sociological theory. Pioneering scholars like Gerd Theissen and then later scholars such at Wayne Meeks paved the way for the use of sociological models in the study of the New Testament. Nearly two decades ago, Philip Esler in Conflict and Identity in Romans helped pioneer the use of social identity theory in New Testament interpretation. More recently, Francis Watson in Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles interprets Paul’s discussion about justification as part of offering an ideological explanation for the split of Paul’s apostolic mission from Judaism, turning Paul’s mission from a reform movement into a sect. 

As I have read parts of Theissen, Meeks, Esler, and Watson, there is no doubt that sociological/socio-scientific studies on the New Testament can bear some great fruit in helping up to understand the early Christians. For instance, if I had a PhD and were a professor teaching a more advanced NT exegesis class, I would tell every student that they need to know a little bit about social identity theory. Knowing how our sense of shared identity is constructed and impacts daily life and our interactions with others is a source of incredible insight. While I don’t ultimately agree with Esler’s interpretations of Romans, many of the issues Paul raises can be helpfully understood using social identity theory.

Nevertheless, I am left finding that the use of sociology in NT studies is also deeply problematic. As I am working through Watson’s Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, I am struck by how he suggests the combination of denunciation of opponents, the usage of antitheses that differentiate good and bad, and the act of reinterpreting something different from another group is evidence of a sect, which Watson takes to refer to a (religious) group that is pessimistic about society. Do these combinations of three behaviors really serve as evidence of separating and disconnecting from others? Or, can they be more appropriately understood as evidence of a stark conflict? Many conflicts revolve around people denouncing the behaviors of others, contrasting thems and the others in terms of the antithesis of values, traits, practices, etc., and disagreements about how to interpret events, specific actions, texts, etc. While certainly a sect will probably engage in a combination of denunciation, antitheses, and reinterpretation, there can be other social causes for the behaviors of conflict and disagreement. As Watson does a quick overview of Qumran, Johannine Christianity, and Paul in light of these three behaviors to say each of these three groups are sectarian, I am left to think that Watson is unconsciously engaging in the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent.

What is happening here? The problem is that whereas social reality is complex, the science of sociology is unable to adequately represent this complexity. There are multiple causes for any sort of social behavior.  For instance, hostility by one group of people against another can be caused by a sense of unmet entitlement, a desire to remedy injustice, an attempt to protect oneself from oppression by the others, serious disagreement on matters that are considered significant, etc. Hostility can even be caused by a combination of these causes. Any theory I can formulate to explain hostility between social groups is going to inevitably privilege certain types of explanations over others in order for the theory to be actually usable. For a sociological theory to say “it is complex and we can’t explain it” may be good reasoning, but it isn’t a usable theory or explanation. Rather, sociology, as with many other forms of science, have to regular need to place explicit or implicit limitations on what type of phenomena their theories do apply to and explain.

While some scientists understand this, albeit not all, even fewer people who appropriate science would understand that there are limitations to application. As a consequence, whereas an expert in sociology may have a refined intuition as to what circumstances familiar social theories can apply to, non-expert appropriators of sociology may unconsciously treat sociological theory (a) as sociological laws that (b) explain all or most phenomena one can imagine the theory to apply to. The end result is that we can be left with what ultimately amounts to interpretations that engage in the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Is a specific set of behavior predicted by a theory? The inclination is to regard that theory as being a successful application in that specific instance. However, if a set of behaviors can be explained variously, one may be going down a rabbit trail away from the true explanation.

The point being that sociological theories value isn’t in how it helps us to interpret specific parts of the New Testament. Rather, it’s value is how it can allow us to make connections throughout the New Testament and our understanding of the history of the time period. For instance, I would propose the social theory of Terror Management Theory can be used to help make a connection between Paul’s description of baptism into Christ in Romans 6.1-12 and that one must suffer with Christ to be glorified with Christ (Romans 8.17). Paul’s discourse about the participation in Christ functions in part to alleviate the sense of anxiety and fear that comes to Jews who would live as second class citizens in a city and society that negatively stereotypes them and regularly expels them from Rome. To persistently fall under the judgment of the Roman Emperor would have been a source of fear of death, leading to the rise of sin in Paul’s understanding. As such, Paul’s discussion of participation in Christ invites the Jewish Christians in Rome to see their relation to Christ as more than simply the inheritor of David’s dynasty (Rom 1.3), but that by being united to Christ one dies in his death so they may be rendered free from the bondage to sin and death that holds them back to live a new, transformed life.

In proposing the applicability of TMT, I am making a connection between four things (1) Romans 6.1-12, (2) Romans 8.17, (3) my interpretation of Romans being addressing to deconstruct the theological narrative that taught that the vindication of the righteous Jews would come through God’s judgment of the evil Gentiles, and (4) knowledge of how ethnic tensions caused by a group with greater power being threateningly used against another group can contribute to the increasingly severe moral denunciation by the socially weaker ethnic group. I imagine that TMT can be used to help bridge connections between other points.

Furthermore, in drawing the connections between other observations and explanations, I am minimizing the extent to which my usage of sociology contributes to making my interpretation of Paul an etic description from my own modern, social perspective, rather than moving towards an emic perspective. While Paul’s discourse can be understood as helping the Jewish Christians in Rome manage their terror under the hands of the Roman Caesar (Nero at the time), Paul is not consciously thinking about trying to help them manage such terror. He is not a modern psychologist. Rather, he presents his understanding of the Christian experience of being in Christ as a response to the fear and hostility that he supposes to have been felt in his audience. The usage of TMT is simply used to help us recognize that the management of fear and terror is a common motivator for various behaviors and beliefs that seek to address these problems.

As a consequence, focusing on simply making connections minimizes running the risk of reducing Paul’s understanding of participation in Christ to a set of beliefs about one’s own self-esteem to mitigate fear, which TMT theorizes about. There is a good reason to consider that Paul’s account of union with Christ is due to the combination of his Damascus Road experience and the outpouring of the Spirit, but in Romans, he uses the theme of participation to address the specific circumstances in the primarily Jewish Christian audience living in the center of Roman power. Etic descriptions often risks reducing causes and sources of people’s thinking and behavior in another culture in terms of our own expectations, explanations, and values. However, as the complex of social life also includes many causes co-contributing to a single effect, focusing simply on making connections does try to use sociological theory to offer the most significant explanation for a specific type of discourse in the New Testament.

In summary, the application of sociological theory should be limited by the recognition that there are explicit and implicit limitations on the applicability of theory to specific phenomena, particularly something as complex as social life. Rather, the value of sociological theory can bring is more so in bridging connections in what we already have and believe/know. Put differently, we should be wary in using sociology to try to construct explanations and interpretations of the various parts of the NT, but we can more safely use it to try to offer a coherent account of what we do have in the NT.

The future of evangelism and the Church in the West

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October 3, 2019

Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, posted an insightful blog article yesterday on the future of the Wesleyan movement. Describing the “crystallization of discontent” of many of us United Methodists over what we consider to be serious problems facing our denomination, Dr. Tennent advocated for a serious revision to our denominational Discipline that is more missional, with a strategy for church planting over the next decade.

In reflecting on his post, I have been led to think more broadly about the challenges that the Christian faith has experienced within Western culture, most particularly in the United States. It is well understood that people are decreasingly identifying as Christian and that many denominations are quickly dwindling in size, such as my own United Methodist denomination or the Southern Baptists. While those churches that are holding steady or growing tend to be evangelical, the gradual decline of the Southern Baptist denomination reveals that it isn’t evangelical doctrine that guarantees any sort of church growth. The denominations that are experiencing the most growth in recent years tend to be (a) evangelical off-shoots from historically mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church of American (from the PCUSA) or the Anglican Church of North America (from the Episcopal Church), (b) smaller denominations with a Wesleyan background like the Wesleyan Church, the Nazarenes, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church and (c) charismatic/Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).

In looking at these three categories of denominations that I outline, it is hard to draw any single principle that explains all of their growth in an increasingly post-Christian era. Nevertheless, I think there are a few principles that may define the future of Christian faith in the West if it is to spread on a wider-scale. While these thoughts may in the end be more reflective of my own spiritual and intellectual journey than coming in contact with something closer to the heart of church renewal, I offer these as food for thought for others.

Evangelism will move from persuading to believe to story-telling

Much of the evangelism that has taken place in the United States have largely relied upon some motivation for people to believe. Whether it be escaping eternal judgment or finding God to be a source of help for a person’s personal struggles in one’s marriage, career, etc., evangelism has largely been a persuasive endeavor. However, in an age of secularism, the traditional means of persuasion will no longer have the force they did in the past. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, one is not persuaded to become a follower of Jesus Christ. This is even true in a society that has a deep sense of skepticism towards anything that smells like smuggling fear or a sales-pitch.

It is my conviction that evangelism in the future will be more like evangelism was for Apostle Paul, when Christian faith was more suspect in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Paul endeavored to tell the story of Jesus Christ in ways that people could readily comprehend, rather than trying to directly persuade people to believe. Far from Paul’s sermon in front of the Agora in Athens being some attempt make the Gospel “relevant” that it is often made out to be, Paul used the type of language and concepts the Stoics and the Epicureans would have understood. Before getting interrupted by the scoffers, Paul began his story-telling by using the ideas on an unknown God and the idea of being made like God to lead up to the story of Jesus’ resurrection. However, Paul didn’t think his evangelistic task was to persuade people based upon what the audience valued and expected (1 Corinthians 1.22-23). Paul’s main evangelistic task was to tell the story of what happened to Jesus Christ and how this was part of God’s story testified to in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 2.1-2, 15.3-8).

Evangelistic persuasion will be more dependent on the Spirit and people’s personal experiences

This is the flip side of the focus on story-telling. Rather than trying to describe and provide motivations for coming to faith, effective evangelism will focus more so on the signs of God’s work on people’s behalf and in their lives. In a day of skepticism of sales-pitches, people want more first-hand experience of what it is that they commit to. Evangelism will become more like guiding people on tour of a college campus rather than outlining all the accolades of the school and the benefits of choosing to attend. Paul believed that it is ultimately the demonstration of Spirit that was responsible for persuading people to faith (1 Cor. 2.3-5), not his own preaching.

Churches that grow will focus more on the small than the large

In the past few decades, megachurches have discovered that one of the keys to church growth and retention have been vital small groups. Most people don’t come to faith and remain in faith due to attending one service on a weekly basis where one person is part of a large crowd. While traditional worship and preaching will still have a place in churches in the West, the center of Christian life will make an even more decisive shift towards the small and personal. The conventional church and its staff will be focused more so on encouraging and providing basic oversight to small social connections in the church, with less emphasis on big program ministries and large gatherings aside from weekly worship.

This is in part because the organization and maintenance of that which is large, complex, and with many moving parts primarily relies upon those who have special training and pedigree (i.e., clergy) and the motivated few (i.e., super-spiritual lay Christians, the clergy’s favorite laypeople, laity seeking to boost their reputation, etc.) whereas the small and less formal is more inclusive of responsibilities and roles of its various participants (i.e., laity as a whole). In the 20th century, churches could grow due to the more to the efforts of “specialized” evangelists and “professional” teacher; it was easier to speak a Christian message that could resonate with the people due to the culture being more uniform and the Christian having a default plausibility and recognition. However, in a pluralistic world without a default recognition of the validity of Christian belief, “professional” Christians will no longer be critical to evangelism. Evangelism, discipleship, and church growth will be the task of the various gifts of the laity in a smaller, less formal setting.

We can think of this move analogous to the early Jewish believers retaining a connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, but the center of evangelism and teaching about Christ happening in the “smaller” settings of homes. In fact, the shift towards the smaller and more communal over the larger and more social tends to be the pattern for renewal movements that culminate in broader, evangelistic growth. The earliest Christians were seeking a reformed Judaism in light of the teachings of Jesus that lead them to gather separately. Similarly, the Wesleyan revival in England placed a greater emphasis on the small in terms of meetings in bands and personal conversations, while they still retained their involvement in the churches.

Churches will focus less on capital campaigns and focus more on planting campaigns

How did churches in the 20th and in the turn to the 21st century try to support evangelistic growth? Build a bigger sanctuary with more parking space. Build a large meeting area or activity center such as a fellowship hall or gym to house various program ministries. Insofar as the Christian message had a de facto credence with people, churches could try to engineer church growth by simply making more space and providing more activities to get involved. However, the net effect was to grow churches bigger and bigger.

But in an age where bigger isn’t better, churches that want to fulfill the Great Commission will focus less on growing big and more on helping plant other churches. There will still be some churches that grow larger facilities because they will have a natural reach to a large population or they will operate as a central station for some traditional ministries of the church such age-level ministries and program ministries that supplement other churches (more on that in a moment). However, individual churches that grow big will grow big more out of necessity than ambition.

Instead, churches that successfully contribute to evangelistic growth will have more focus on giving birth1 to new church plants. It isn’t enough that church planting becomes the purview of a centralized decision-making process of a denominational bureaucracy, but that local churches are actually the primary agents in church growth.2 We are already witnessing the early signs of this trend with larger churches moving towards multi-site models of churches. This trend can be modified and transformed into a practice of support church plants by churches that lack the overhead and staff to support a multi-site model.

Of course, a question needs to be asked: why would churches be motivated to plant other churches? Churches that have developed a culture of church-planting might develop this as an instinct, but what about the already established churches. Why would they be motivated to do that? Firstly, for many established churches that have shown no signs of growth at this point, it can provide an alternative to trying to change what the people are presently familiar with. While from my observation it seems that the “worship wars” of the last 20th and the early 21st century have largely become a cease-fire, there are still strong emotions attached to not messing with “what we have. Second, for churches with large facilities and the corresponding bills to pay but no longer having the number of people to make use of the facilities, partnering with a new church plant provides a way to ameliorate the cost. Thirdly, aiding in church plants can be a way to help “dying” churches a way to die well with spiritual dignity in passing on to the next generation. Rather than fostering the feelings of fear and crisis of a church death, it can be seen as a time for passing on to a new church while they still have the resources and energy to support one.

Many of the traditional age-based and program-based ministries will be done through small churches partnering with larger churches

While the age of the small may be arriving for churches in the United States, there will still be a need for some of the traditional ministries that larger churches have provided. Specifically, week-to-week programs for children and youth will still have a place. Yet, optimistically, I would think these would be accomplished more through a partnership between churches, especially with churches who have similar theological traditions and commitments. The effect of this would be fewer resources being dedicated by smaller churches to reproduce what other churches who are more economically empowered to do in a much more efficient and effective way. This will, however, require much more trust and collaboration between churches, which means that would likely be the case in church networks where the people share a strong sense of shared identity and theology.

The relationship between clergy and laity will neither be monarchical  or democratic in form, but rather work more as a covenantal partnership

In the present time, we are witnessing two great problems with various Christian denominations. On the one hand, in those denominations where there is less wide-scale accountability, such as the Southern Baptist church, we have heard many, many horror stories of sexual harassment and abuse defiling the halls of the church. With little accountability, abusers are able to move from one place to another with little real reporting or discipline. On the other hand, a less morally evil but a problem that nevertheless threatens are denominations that are more traditionally lead from the top-down have experienced greater dilution of denominational identity and greater degree of conflicts between Christians. In the United Methodist denomination, we have witnessed how many of my fellow “professional” clergy have used their positions to actively subvert our ‘covenant’ in ways that the ‘covenant’ does not otherwise allow for3 because the local churches and laity are not able to hold them accountable for their duplicity and manipulation.

In both monarchical and democratic forms of governance, there tends to be one center of power that other people are accountable to. In the traditional episcopacy, the leadership makes the decisions that determine the direction of the churches. In the congregational model, the people of the local churches tend to hire/fire their ministry ‘leadership.” Because there is only one center of power, both models are highly susceptible to charmers, charlatans, and manipulators who can effectively play and navigate the one source of power.

A more genuinely covenantal model of church governance, where there is a greater separation and distribution of responsibilities and resources between the clergy and the laity that allows both some freedom but both some ability to hold the other side accountable is a way navigate away from the heinous evil of sexual abuse and the less heinous ecclesial hijacking that also presents a challenge to American Christianity. How that would be realized is up-for-grabs, but it is necessary if we wish to fight against both problems that our denominations are facing right now.

Theology will become less about abstract reasoning and more based upon reasoning from well-taught and well-understood narratives

For evangelism and discipleship to occur through more decentralized and smaller churches and groups, it will be necessary that the theological teachings of the church be more widely understood and disseminated to the laypeople. In other words, the culture of our churches needs to be more formed by our theology. While a return to catechesis can be instrumental in decentralized evangelism, the problem is that the way we typically engaged in theological reasoning in thinking is a massive road-block. The implicit assumption that the normative way to do theology is by understanding various conceptual doctrines about God, Jesus, the Spirit, etc. that you then apply to life, we effectively divide comprehension and application in such a way that only the more cognitively elite and trained can really participate in. Theological concepts that require a high-degree of abstractions and disciplined imagination4 to master, use, and teach are less accessible to people. Such theology is the theology of professionals (i.e. clergy and religious academics), not the amateur (the laity).

However, a theology that takes narratives, not concepts, as the primary source material for theological reasoning is much more accessible to a wider population. Most people can more quickly understand and reason from narratives. This would equip more people to engage in evangelism as presented in the first principle I outlined as they are not responsible for knowing all the “hidden theological meanings” of the cross, but proclaiming the story of death and resurrection. 

However, the move away from abstract reasoning can be very messy. There is a reason the early church prior to Nicea faced so many different threats from the formulation of various heresies. While there is still a place for traditional theological formulations, for a messier narrative base of  theology to remain orthodox, it would need to be a theology based upon a small, repetitively, and well-waught set of highly significant narratives (that is the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and other prominent narratives in the Scriptures such as Abraham, the Exodus, Pentecost, etc.) that are also provided a rather uniform understanding of their central, but not exclusive, significance (such as, Jesus Christ’s death is a death for people’s sins, Jesus’ resurrection is the overcoming of the power of death, etc.).

Liturgy provides one avenue for teaching such narratives, although liturgy alone without other acts of narrative pedagogy and instruction will simply become mindless rote. Catechesis is another resource that can be used, although the traditional forms of catechesis that I am personally familiar with still seem to work from a more paradigmatic, abstract mode of instruction rather than a narrative form of reasoning.

The role of the clergy will be focused more on teaching theology (as outlined above) and responding to the crises and challenges of life and community and less on the regular maintenance of day-to-day function.

Presently, due to the professionalization of churches due to the demands of the “big,” pastors are expected to wear many, various hats in serving churches. We treat pastors as “professional church people” are our hired to who provide the services in the church that others don’t provide, such as preaching, teaching, counseling, administration, etc., etc. If you are in a church big enough, multiple pastors may be hired to provide each of these individual services, but in moderate size churches with one or two pastors, they become treated as do-it-all types. However, with the dramatic shift towards the small, pastors and other clergy will be freed to take on a more apostolic role in terms of teaching and instructing people in the Gospel and tackling the challenges that require specially trained skills to effectively address (such as various life crises).

However, to produce a church and denominational culture that engages in evangelism and theology in the manner previously outline as described above to be accomplished, it would entail clergy becoming the chief story-tellers of the Gospel who ensure the proper transmission and comprehension of these narratives.

I offer these either principles of churches in the future to imagine how evangelism and discipleship may need to adjust into the future in order for the Chrisitan faith and churches in America and the West to have the capacity for a powerful and clear witness in a post-Christian culture. Again, these may be more due to the way my own lenses used to understand the Church has shifted through my own personal story and change, so treat them with all due caution and deliberation.

Paul and the Torah

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October 2, 2019

It has almost become something of a cliche within Biblical Studies: the Lutheran reading of Paul as rejecting the works of the Torah as an act of self-salvation is a seriously caricatured one, both of Paul and of Judaism. While E.P. Sanders decisively argued that the modern Lutheran readings of Judaism were way off the mark, it has become axiomatic within larger portions of Biblical scholarship over the decades since. While many evangelical circles still try to hold on to something of the traditional Protestant view (although some are more amenable than others to the critiques of the New Perspective), the trajectory of the Biblical scholarship has steadily and increasingly moved away from the early Protestant understanding of justification. However, it is also increasingly becoming common to also observe, to the point of it also becoming a cliche, that the New Perspective on Paul hasn’t developed a consensus on what exactly Paul is saying about Torah.

However, talking about the disagreement between the traditional and newer reading of Paul and between the various newer readings can give the intimation that there is little we can say about Paul’s view of the Torah. That, however, is decisively false. There is much we can say about Paul’s view about the Torah. We have some statements that Paul makes in epistles that provide a clear description on some matters. What the scholarship lacks more so is a satisfactory explanation for Paul’s view on the Torah. For instance, how critical is Paul of Judaism? Is he an opponent of Judaism or is he basically a Jew who accepted the Messiah? Or, is Paul’s statements about the Torah more ad hoc for the specific circumstance he is addressing, even to the point that Paul is being incoherent about the Torah? Or, does Paul have a coherent, somewhat systematic account undergirding his understanding of the Torah?

My own answers are that Paul considers himself to be opposed to a prevailing form of Judaism that has become ‘nationalistic’ and ethnocentric, at the risk of anachronism by using terms that are primarily used to describe modern social phenomenon. My present research on Paul’s epistle to the Romans leads me to the conclusion that Paul sees the Christ-movement as being true to the Scriptural narrative, particularly to the story of Abraham, that the prevailing ‘orthodoxy’ of that day had grievously misinterpreted.1 Furthermore, I believe Paul’s understanding of the Torah can be integrated into a larger understood by (a) Paul redefining in his mind what God’s purposes for the Torah were (b) as a result of his understanding of God’s agency through the Spirit that (c) manifests His power through transformation people into the image of Christ. God never intended the Torah to be the means by which human righteousness spreads, as human obedience to it is incapable of dealing with the fundamental cause of sin, death. This doesn’t mean Paul thinks the Torah was a mistake, full of errors, or that doing the works of the Torah is an attempt at self-salvation. It is simply to recognize that apart from God’s Spirit, human interpretation of the Torah and obedience to it is incapable of bringing humans into God’s glory.

However, what I have provided above is a coherent explanation of Paul’s view of the Torah, but this explanation is simply an explanation and not a substitute for what Paul actually said. It is here where much of the reading of Paul has gone astray and has impacted the church: Paul doesn’t say abandon the Torah as a source of knowledge about God and His will. In fact, Paul will use the Torah on occasions as a source of instruction in righteousness. In Galatians, Paul simply warns the Gentiles that trying to change their course by being circumcised and seeking to do all the works of the Torah is to go move away from the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Romans, Paul argues that the obedience to the Torah isn’t what distinguishes the righteous from the unrighteous, but it is those redeemed by Christ through the Spirit who are righteous, whether Jew or Gentile. All attempts to try to systematize Paul’s views of the Torah into some overarching soteriological program, including most notably the Luthern paradigm, misses the point. While there may be more overarching reasons behind Paul’s instructions, Paul doesn’t think it necessary to give a more overarching explanation. Romans is the closest we get to a presentation of a systematic view of the Torah, and even it doesn’t provide that.

Why? Because it is death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that saves people through their faith. Paul is not trying to address some overarching theological errors. Rather, he addresses specific problems that function as a roadblock to their live out their faith. Paul isn’t warning against self-righteousness as it is is the ever-pervasive threat to the Christian life. He is warning against the impact of trying to add obedience to the Torah for the purpose of being righteous before God that will (a) cut oneself off from Christ (Galatians) and (b) create a division between Jewish an antagonism Gentile believers (Romans). The popular Protestant fear of self-righteousness is another concern insofar as it cuts against the life of faith, but it isn’t the all-pervasive existential threat lurking in every corner. Nor is it what Paul was addressing.

A persistent problem with Christian theology since the Reformation has been that faith has been principally defined by whatever theological boogeyman we construct to read as the problem with “works” and “the works of law.” While Luther was right to see that his own neurotic fears about his condemnation if he didn’t do enough was a roadblock to Scriptural faith, along with many of the other criticism of the Roman Catholic church at the time, Luther’s was in an (understandable) error to think refer to this sense of self-righteousness. And later Protestant theology compounds the error when it thinks the primary enemy of faith is this sense of self-righteousness and the idea that people think they have to earn God’s love and favor. Yes, some people do think that, and yes it can be a barrier to life-giving faith that the Gospel brings. But that isn’t the problem Paul addresses, nor is it the only issues that stymies faith.

For Paul, the primary roadblocks in a life lived before God isn’t self-righteousness. Nor is it even the Torah, though he mentions it. It is the flesh; it is the powers of sin and death that inhabit the flesh; it is the unredeemed human body prior to the eschatological redemption of the body. Christ didn’t come primarily to redeem us from our own efforts to save ourselves. Christ didn’t come to discard the Torah. For Paul, Christ came to redeem us from sin and death. The roadblocks that the flesh provides are manifold, but the power of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit has a creative power that brings order out of the manifold chaos. Obedience to the Torah reduces living to matters of the flesh; self-righteousness relies on human, fleshy strength. But it is the flesh that is the ultimate source of hostility to God and His redemption.

When we get locked into specific, monolithic theories that explain how our lives fail to reach the idealized state of Christian faith and righteousness, we risk falling prey to the common social phenomenon of the self-fulfilling ‘prophecy.’2 By assuming people’s struggles is a problem of “self-righteousness,” “legalism,” etc. without there being actual confirmation of the problem, we can unintentionally direct people to actually act in that way. By directing people to imagine themselves having a problem they don’t otherwise have, we often subtly cause them to actually be tempted to think and act that way. Meanwhile, any other struggles they may be having are distracted from.

For Paul, his comments about the Torah is made within the particular setting of the Gentiles relation to Israel’s story and way of life. For instance, principally in response to E.P. Sanders’ description of covenantal nomism in Second Temple Judaism, Francis Watson argues that “the concept of ‘covenantal nomism’ is used to highlight the irreducible particularity of Pauline polemic.”3 Paul’s discussion of the Torah was not intended to provide an overarching anthropological/existential dilemma to his audiences.

In fact, I would say to generalize Paul’s comments about Torah to something more general is to actually go against Paul’s own way of presenting and framing the issue in Romans and Galatians. I contend that Paul’s understanding of the Torah is a specific application of Paul’s antithesis between God’s Spirit and human flesh to the ethical dividing line between Israel and the Gentiles. I think it is more suitable to consider Paul’s hermeneutical approach to understanding the Torah is in part dependent on a philosophy-like understanding of the Spirit and flesh, in addition to a closer reading of Israel’s Scriptures and history, especially the Abrahamic narrative.

If this explanation for the origin of Paul’s understanding of the Torah is correct, it would suggest that theological concerns to apply Paul’s letters to the Church in the modern age should focus less on the antithesis between faith and works and more on Paul’s theological anthropology expressed in the antithesis between Spirit and flesh. Instead, the dichotomy between faith and works can be regarded as a specific case study of Paul’s overarching theological anthropology. This is part of the reason that Barth’s reading of Romans and the later apocalyptic interpretation of Paul seems rather compelling in comparison to traditional Protestant-Lutheran readings: Barth’s theology of revelation and the apocalyptic school’s epistemological approach to understanding Paul do a better job touching base with Paul’s theological anthropology. For instance, Douglas Campbell in The Deliverance of God provides an almost compelling alternative to the traditional justification theory’s interpretation of Paul.4 While I feel that Barth, Campbell, and others do fall short of getting at the center of Paul’s theological anthropology that is evident in Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians, they are touching base on something that has more potential to provide a coherent account of Paul. Meanwhile,  the traditional Protestant understanding of Paul’s comments about justification are incapable of providing this coherence without engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics and interpreting Paul’s particular discourses into expressions of more general ideas that are not directly expressed anywhere else.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean the concerns about self-righteousness and saving oneself are not legitimate theological and spiritual concerns. It is only to state that Paul’s letters do not directly express these concerns and that for the purpose of theological and ethical thinking, it is important that we don’t take Paul to be expressing a proto-Lutheran/Protestant theology.

On making amends

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October 1, 2019

I have been a Christian and regularly attending church for nearly two decades now, including my seven years as a pastor. During that period, I have heard and even given sermons on forgiveness. Some have been rather prosaic, but others have been rather powerfully moving exhortations to the central place that forgiveness have in the Christian life. But recently, I have come to realize that I have a hard time recalling a sermon that addressed those who sinned and on the place on making amends. I recall a couple times saying something along the lines of “if you mess you, fess up” in a couple of sermons that talked about repentance, but in the end, even I don’t recall preaching on making amends.

On the surface of it, it seems that the theological traditions I have belonged to do more preaching to those who have been wronged than those who are wrongdoers. Of course, this isn’t actually true as there are many sermons that have warned against a litany of sins against God and against others. Then, we will hear of sermons about confessing our sins to God and repent before God, while recognizing there is nothing we can give in return to God. But, amidst all this, we aren’t very good at exhorting people as to how to respond to those they have wronged after they have wronged. Why is this the case?

It isn’t because it isn’t in the Bible. In Matthew 5.23-24, Jesus extols the importance of trying to reconciled to a brother that one has offended. While the New Testament doesn’t delve much further into the place of making amends, the Torah has multiple commandments that provides specific instructions for making restitution to those who have experienced a material loss due to someone else’s negligence or malice. But, perhaps precisely because the Torah has been relegated as irrelevant in many Protestant circles, these commandments don’t get much focus. Furthermore, as the bulk of the material of New Testament is primarily addressed to people who are prone to be taken advantage of and persecuted, especially by those with more power and status than them, the ethicizing from the Gospel focuses primarily on forgiveness in light of Jesus who forgives.

In addition to the lack of mention of amends-making in places where (Protestant) Christians tend to look to the most for ethical guidance, I want to suggest a few other reasons why you rarely hear sermons on amends-making.

Firstly, amends-making can be confused with placation. On the surface, amends-making and placation can look very similar in terms of actions. Given that Western individualism has taught us to not willingly put ourselves in an inferior position to another, we can be averse to anything that smells of placation. However, amends-making and placation have very different motivational and relational concerns behind them, At the heart of making amends is a concern for the person who has been wronged. The goal for making amends is to try to mitigate the relational damage and breach of mistrust that has occurred due to one’s own sin or error. Meanwhile, placation is principally about satisfying another person’s sense of entitlement or expectations, often joined with a sense of wrath. In amends-making we humble ourselves before those who we feel we have hurt or harmed, whereas in placation we surrender to those who feel they have been wrong. Amends-making is about the restore the social fabric that our actions have ripped, whereas placation is principally about ensuring our own well-being.

This leads to the second reason: the meaning and importance of amends-making can only be well comprehended when we see ourselves as fundamentally participating in a web of relationships. When we primarily think about ourselves as individuals pursuing our own well-being, our response to the possibility of our own wrong-doing against others is to preserve ourselves and our status as much as we can. When individualism becomes a persistent mindset, it leads to the fundamental devaluation of the relational bonds that have been damaged by our actions. As a consequence, we don’t give much consideration to the social bonds of trust and the way our actions strengthen or weaken those bonds. Instead, as individuals, we implicitly work with a sense of entitlement and expectation that other people should trust us, regardless of what we have done and how we have responded to another person’s pleas and complaints.

Thirdly, sermons about forgiveness can make both the sinner and the person who is hurt by others feel good about themselves. For the parts of us that have been victim, forgiveness is provided to make them feel some sense of moral self-satisfaction. For the parts of us that have been wrong-doers, we feel the burden of our past sins not haunting us and us being accepted as we are. The message of forgiveness can appeal to us as individuals. Meanwhile, amends-making doesn’t provide that sense of individualistic self-satisfaction. It can stir up feels of pain and resentment in those who have been hurt without ever feeling restored. It can make people who judge themselves for their own sins feel that much more judged. While the acts of amends-making can be very therapeutic and healing to both parties, sermons about amends-making aren’t necessarily so.

Finally, within many Protestant Christians circles, we have a predilection to regulate our relationships with each other according to a substitutionary view of Christ’s atonement and forgiveness. An orthodox understanding the atonement of Jesus Christ is the idea that God does in Jesus Christ what we could not do ourselves.1 However, the New Testament never suggests that the problem of human weakness is the inability to pay back to God what our sins have taken from him. Rather, the focus is on the inability of humans to live in right relationship with God apart from God’s action to transform us. Nevertheless, because we have understood the orthodox understanding of the atonement and forgiveness in terms of restitution, we then are inclined to draw the conclusion that forgiveness excludes any expectations of amends-making. To be called to make amends seems to be the opposite of being forgiven.

To boil this all down: we don’t comprehend the significance of amends-making because our individualistic culture mixed with a particular way of defining God’s forgiveness in Christ means that we fail to comprehend the importance of amends-making. The most we are told to do is to apologize for what we do (which may be regard as part of repentance), but we don’t really get much instruction beyond that. Because our thinking about ourselves is inundated with thoughts of ourselves as individuals, we experience a blind spot to the importance of trust in our relationships with each other. We just don’t get the importance of amends-making.

Nevertheless, there are signposts in our lives that continue to show us the importance of amends-making. Most anyone who gets married either learns the importance of making amends or they probably don’t have a long-lasting, happy marriage. The rates of failing marriage in the West are perhaps contributed to by our individualistic mindset creating a large blindspot to the importance of trust and amends-making. Some people never pick up on it. Meanwhile, those who have good, healthy marriages learn how important the bonds of trust and amends-making can be for relationships. Intimacy requires trust and so amends-making is a critical part of allow for intimacy to build.

However, beyond just marriage and intimacy, trust and amends-making is an important part of keeping our social fabric together. Trust isn’t just important for having intimacy, but it is important part of cooperation, sharing, and collaboration. Without the establishment and maintenance of trust, people will spend more time protecting themselves from potential vulnerabilities and less time working together for mutual benefit. When this trust is gone, communities, organizations, institutions, nations, etc. either experience a high degree of conflict for control, they splinter and separate, or the people become increasingly apathetic.

When people have been hurt, whether it be a spouse, a friend, a colleague, a subordiante, etc., the person experiences a rift in their social relations that can not be reduced to specific material damages or general sense of their psychological harm. They feel devalued and unimportant in relation to that person who wronged them, in addition to any other persons or social groups that facilitated or protected the wrong-doer. Thus, amends-making is not simply about restitution for material damages or offered an apology to try to reverse any psychological harm that has been done. Amends-making seeks to show that wronged person that they are worthy of being treated fairly and appropriately and that the wrongdoer is humble enough to acknowledge their responsibility to act fairly and appropriately. Apologies and restitution may be instrumental in making amends. However, they don’t themselves constitute making amends as they are about to acknowledge responsibility and addressing any material damages, but they don’t necessarily restore the bonds of trust.  If apologies and restitution are not understood to be a symbolic representation of the wrongdoers own responsibility and recognition of the value of the person who has been wronged, then they don’t actually make amends for broken trust.

With this in mind, I think we can begin to comprehend the context for Jesus words in Matthew 5.13-14:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (NRSV)

There are a couple points of important to note: Firstly, Jesus’ words here are in the context of discussing the problem of acting out of anger (Matthew 5.21-22). However, Jesus does not address merely emotional anger, but rather an anger that a person has acted upon. Jesus focuses his exhortation on the person who has acted angry in such a way that their brother has something against them. When Jesus addresses anger, he is addressing the person who has done wrong because of their anger, reminding them that they are accountable for what they do in their anger. Overlooking what one has done simply because it wasn’t as severe as murder doesn’t mean one is not accountable for what one has done. There are plenty of ways to breach trust that goes beyond the Torah’s commandments against murder.

Secondly, Jesus words are not simply talking about the importance of amends-making. Rather, Jesus is reminding people whose religious activity has made them forget the importance of amends-making. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus targets a form of religiosity that exalts the self and one’s own purposes. In Matthew 6.1-6 and 16-18, Jesus targets specific religious practices of piety that are done for the sake of one’s own benefit rather than one’s own relationship to God through fasting and prayer and relationship to the poor through almsgiving. Jesus is addressing a similar problem in Matthew 5.13-14. In providing an offering before God, the person is acting on the assumption that there is a reconciliation between them and God. However, in so doing, they may overlook or forget what they have done to another person in the community. In focusing on their own presumed reconciliation to God through their offering, they forget the importance of their relationships with other people in the community. Their sense of their own relationship to God has made them devalue the importance of their relationship to other people. So, we can take Matthew 5.13-14 to be part of Jesus’ larger criticism of a specific pattern of religiosity.

We can perhaps refer to this form of religiosity as a proto-individualistic religion that the more highly exalted Jewish religious teachers, that is the Pharisees, would have begun to engage in, focusing on themselves and what was of most benefit to themselves. Their religiosity had created a huge blindspot not only of their actual relationship to God, substituting social status in place of God’s approval, but also their personal interactions and relationships with other people in the community.

In other words, Jesus reminds people of the importance of amends-making because their pattern of religiosity has caused them to become numb and blind to the importance of their social bonds. However, people who have learned to become part of a community by seeing themselves as members of the community, which is more than being an individual who participates in something they label community, would intuitively understand the importance of trust and amends-making. It would be readily comprehended as part of the life of love. When one is being perfected in love, one doesn’t need a specific law to teach the importance of trust and seeking to reestablish that trust when it has experienced fissures; the very experience of loving one another2 implicitly teaches this through experiencing the social bonds of trust.

This may offer an explanation as to why the New Testament doesn’t address amends-making, whereas the Torah has various instructions about restitution. As many of the cultures of the Meditteranean were group-oriented, it would have been readily understood that living in part of a community entails making amends when one has wronged another. They would have implicitly understood the importance of trust. What would often be forgotten, however, is the importance of forgiveness. The Greco-Roman culture actually celebrated some acts of vengeance and the Jewish culture felt the deep antagonism towards their Roman occupiers who also often made derisive judgments towards Jews. In such an environment, amends-making would have been implicitly understood, but forgiveness would not have been regarded as important.

However, by contrast, the Torah was God’s instructions given through Moses to establish the relationship of a people who were divided into multiple tribes. Furthermore, their experience of enslavement would have made them tempted to live our their newfound freedom through the exodus by seeking their own pleasures and concerns. The prescriptions for restitution in the Torah would serve to remind the people of their responsibility to each other when they caused some sort of harm to another. Not only should one seek to make restitution to God through the sacrifice, but one should also seek to restore to another what one has taken from them. Thus, the instructions of the Torah seeks to form a fragmented people, tempted towards self-indulgence to be responsible to each other. Among other things, the Torah would teach Israel to be a people in right relationship to God and to each other.

To conclude: this point here is that perhaps we as Christians should give more time and consideration to how we teach and thinking about amends-making. Not only would it help us to built trust in a culture that does not trust because we have forgotten the importance of trust in the first place. It would also aid us into living into the fuller aspects of the Gospel, as amends-making is also an act of practicing the very attitude and mindset we should have for other people that would help prevent our sinning against them in the future. Insofar as wrong-doing and sinning against others is due to our devaluation of other people, the practice of amends-making also trains us to live in humility in relationship to other people.

However, allow me to point out one potential minefield from personal experience. One time I had lost my cool in anger and said some things that I felt needed to be addressed, but I did it in a very immature manner. As a result, I hurt another person who I felt had hurt me. After learning of this and with the passage of time that had been requested, I sought to try to reach out to this person. I was seeking to make amends for what I did, as clumsy as I was. My attempt at amends-making was met with suspicion with little early recognition that it could have been a genuine act of contrition; I tried to explain that I was trying to “clear some brush” but I was lectured on how it wasn’t that. Making amends is not always taken to be such. When trust has been lost and people are blind to the importance of trust and amends-making, a person trying to making amends may not be percieved as such. It likely won’t even be considered a remote possibility. In a culture as our, genuine amends-making will be seem very unfamiliar, especially to people who have not experienced another person acknowleding and taking responsibility for the hurt they caused. So, learn from my experience and recognize that not everyone wants people to make amends.

Trauma and the healing of Job

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September 30, 2019

Commenting on the response of Mike McQueary, the key witness in the Penn State child sex abuse case, when he said that he did not comprehend what he was seeing for the 30 to 45 seconds when Sandusky was victimizing a child, sportswriter Jane Leavy has the following to say about trauma:

Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief.1

Trauma overturns our systems of meaning that we hold dear, even of those who are onlookers. Even a brief glimpse of evil by those who are not directly being harmed or victimized can overturn so much of what we hold dear and true.

In Shattered Assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman explains the theory that people developed basic worldview assumptions about the benevolence and meaningfulness of the world and personal self-worth. These assumptions color how we understand ourselves and our experience day-to-day. If one is raised in a supportive environment, one will develop positive views about the world and oneself. However, according to Janoff-Bulman, “powerful situations” that are out of the ordinary and a threat to one’s own life and well-being can challenge these assumptions2

Janoff-Bulman’s does fairly well in trying to explain the trauma of victims and of those who are affected by severe natural disasters, who are all directly effected with basic threats to their security and well-being. However, it doesn’t explain as well the trauma that on-lookers can experience who are not directly threatened. We are today increasingly familiar with the effects of secondary trauma, where people exposed to traumatic events happening to others through direct witnessing the events or indirect accounts of the traumatizing events. Why is that people who witness or hear of traumatizing events experience traumatic symptoms themselves if they are not immediately threatened? One might suggest the helpers and onlookers of victims vicariously experience the threats to their own survival. While this may be the case in some instances of people who are directly involved in the matter, it doesn’t explain how people indirectly exposed to the trauma can also experience symptoms.

Another idea that explains trauma is that our worldviews provide us a set of meanings that buffers us from feelings of anxiety.3 According to Terror Management Theory, we deal with our recognition of our mortality by (1) our cultural worldviews which provides a sense of meaning, orderliness, and consistency of the world and (2) views of our own personal significance.4 In that case, our understandings of our self and the world actively prevent us from feeling the terror of our mortality. Our understanding in part functions as a defense/coping mechanism to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability. However, if we either directly experience a threatening event or we are simply witnesses and onlookers, the very set of beliefs that help us to manage our anxieties and fears are brought into stark dissonance with direct or vicarious experience. Our worldviews no longer become as credible in the face of such threats.

In other words, trauma is not a single cognitive reality of an overturned worldview assumptions, but rather there are two factors involved: the basic, instinctual need for survival and the beliefs we have that allow us to feel safe so that we can direct our goal and purposes towards something other than survival. In most people, their worldviews are strong enough that they feel a sense of optimism to focus on other goals, dreams, and ambitions.

This view is consistent with the agonist relationship between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), where the former actives the fight-or-flight instinct whereas the latter works against this instinct to help people to relax and take care of others physiological needs and desires. Whereas the SNS is always on to maintain homeostasis, the PNS can be “dialed” up or down. In that case, trauma can be hypothesized as the weakening of the cognitive worldview that dials down the PNS, leading to the ramping up of the survival instinct.

However, there is something that differentiates trauma from merely feeling threatened. Both can lead to the dialing down of the PNS, leading to the activation of the SNS. But with momentary threats, the person eventually believes that the threat has been handled and there is no immediate threat. However, with trauma, the fear is more ‘existential’ rather than being tied to a specific person or thing. In the case of non-trauma, the very ways of making meaning of the world that lead us to realize that the people we come into proximity to, the places we travel, the activities we participate in, etc. are to be given a basic sense of trust even though we have no direct evidence of their safety. But, after trauma, the very systems of meaning that allow us to have this sense of safety are now challenged and weakened; people, places, and activities we are not intimately familiar with are potentially dangerous. Even if the traumatized person is able to consciously recognize that there is no evidence that the people, places, and activities are dangerous, the weakening of one’s basic worldview assumptions means that the traumatized person will physiologically react as if there is a possible threat they need to be prepared to protect themselves from.

This leads to a basic premise about trauma and healing: since trauma is a disruption of meaning that makes us unable to stave off anxieties about survival, one does not reverse trauma by directly trying to strengthen their systems of meaning. While in non-traumatized people, basic assurances of the integrity of one’s worldview can ameliorate any sense of threat that might emerge, this is because the worldview is not fundamentally weakened. Rather, basic assurances allow the basic worldview to be brought to memory and regulate one’s sense of feelings. Their worldview is still by default trustworthy. But in trauma, the strength of a person’s worldviews are weakened. Trying to then directly strengthen a traumatized persons’ belief system doesn’t happen because their worldview is by default suspect, even though they may not be able to really identify where and how.

Now, our systems of meaning are largely a product of abstractions and associations that are used in the production and comprehension of language. While meaning and language are not coextensive, they are tightly related to the point that for the vast majority of people, people are often constrained to think in the categories given to them by their own proficiency and familiarity with the language. But, there are occasionally experiences they are ineffable as defy any encompassing verbal description. Feelings of romantic love can happen largely without the person realizing or understanding it is happening. Events that inspire awe, whether it be a majestic scene of beauty of the worship of God, can not be so easily encapsulated by words. Many a mystic can only describe their anomoalous experiences with metaphors.

So too can trauma operate in this way: a person lacks the language to fully comprehend the threat that is happening to them. While a person may be physiologically reacting to a threat, their conscious mind does not necessarily understand what is happening to them at the time. If this threat is severe or repetitive enough, this ineffable experience will be encoded into memory in such a way that it can haunt them. In trauma, physiological need for survival may overwhelm any ability to comprehend and understand what is happening to them: their deepest held worldviews do not provide them the cognitive and linguistic resources to describe and comprehend what has happened.

However, talk therapy soon after a traumatic event has not been found to be ineffective; in fact, it may even exacerbate trauma. Why is that the case? Perhaps it is because trying to verbally describe and comprehend the victimization actually begins to develop a system of cognitive meanings and understandings that further challenges the worldviews that enabled them to physiologically feel they can be at rest and peace. For instance, a rape victim describing their rape may further entrench the image of their victimization through the usage of language, thereby further weakening the worldview assumptions that allowed them to cast aside feelings of anxiety for their survival.

When faced with events that powerfully under turn our personal systems of meaning, whether it be falling in love, a religious vision that defies comprehension, or an event of trauma, the belief systems we hold onto may become life chaff. Hence, we can look at the story of Job, a man overwhelmed with indescribable loss and disaster and the feeling of despair, and comprehend his words to his friends in Job 16.2-3:

I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? (NRSV)

Job’s friends attempted to comfort Job by letting him know that his misfortune was due to some sin on Job’s part. Why in our modern world that eschews judgmentalism may find this to be terribly insensitive, what Job’s friends were doing actually makes sense if you live with a worldview that all suffering is due to some sin. And far from this being terrorizing, it can actually be a source of comfort, as this would mean that ultimately one’s suffering is under one’s own control. If the solution to suffering was simple as be good and do good, then this would be wonderful news for many people. But, the problem is that Job knows the truth: he is not guilty of anything. His loss and suffering is ultimately not under his control. As a consequence, he finds his friends theological discussions to be a dagger to his heart, as that very worldview he experiences to be absolutely false. Their words are like chaff.

Instead, Job continues to implicate God amidst the suffering. Interestingly enough, God vindicates Job’s speech (Job 42.7) while he condemns the words of Job’s friends. This being despite the fact that Job is not actually correct in what he says about God. God Himself spoke out of the whirlwind, challenge Job’s contention with God. Furthermore, God did not bring this calamity on him, but as the opening narratives of the first two chapters describe, it was Satan who brought this calamity upon with while God simply permitted it to happen. Why Job who spoke in error actually vindicated?

In our modern era where we think right theology in terms of representational truth (that is, to rightly describe what is the case in precise, descriptive terms), it can be hard to fathom why Job’s error is vindicated. But if we recognize that within Job’s complaints is a man who is open to hearing from God, then we can begin to make sense of both Job’s vindication and also Job’s healing. For Job’s friends, the reality of the matter was already settled: Job was guilty of some sin. In so doing, they were in error about Job. But not only that, they were wholly incapable of consoling Job. Their confidence made them poor comforters as they were no just simply in error, but they were locked into their error. Job, by contrast, was in error and many might feel a bit brazen in wanting to contend with God, but he was willing to hear from God.

And yet after God’s two speeches from the whirlwind, something happens. Job repents of his feelings. But why? Burton Cooper suggests that Job receives an image of a vulnerable God rather than a monarchical image that convey an unlimited God.5 Cooper’s reading is not to be found in the text of Job, as he acknowledges is the case, but rather in the tensions within the story. However, I think Cooper’s explanation is a bit too creative, as I don’t think there is anything within the story of Job that would convey an image of God as a vulnerable God. Yet, I do want to affirm that the answer to why Job repents of his feelings is due to something that is only briefly glazed over without much further explanation. Job says in Job 42.5-6:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (NRSV)

This is the only explanation given for Job’s repentance. Notice the two different sensory modalities mentioned: hearing and seeing. Previously, Job criticized his friends for his words, but Job has now heard from God. But Job doesn’t speak simply of hearing but he is also given a vision of God. It is this vision that serves to change Job’s response to God. In other words, Job wasn’t convinced and persuaded by theological arguments; implicitly, not even God’s own words by themselves were enough to persuade Job. Rather, Job also had a vision of God.

What exactly the content of this vision is, we can not really say. Perhaps it is related to the imagery of God’s powers of creation or the humanly uncontainable power of Leviathon. But the point here is that Job was changed through something more than words that conveyed a sense of meaning. Job had a more intensive experience of a vision that he received because he wanted to hear from God, even if his original intention was to accuse God.

This brings me to by point about trauma and healing. Because trauma is the weakening of our worldviews that allow us to feel safe and hopeful for the future by allaying the anxieties about our well-being and survival, one does not heal trauma by trying to directly fix the worldview. Because of the default suspicion of the worldview, trying to directly fix the worldview may only makes things worse and not better. This is especially cased in the worldview is fundamentally inflexible in the face of error, as was the case with Job’s friends. However, simply trying to comprehend and understand the trauma doesn’t itself provide healing either, as it may reinforce a worldview where one is perpetually threatened.

Rather, healing comes through something more cognitively powerful than the meaning of our entrenched worldviews and language. Just as trauma is created by a powerful experience that tears apart our worldviews, healing is created by a powerful experience that builds an understanding anew. While with Job, it comes through a direct experience of God that few can say they have had, the point that I think the book of Job tries to make in the end is that overcoming of suffering happens not through the batting around of theological ideas and concepts, but through something more visceral and more defining. In the book of Job, we witness a nascent form of a theology of revelation, which in the apocalyptic literature is customarily received through a two-fold act of vision/image/dream and word/explanation. This vision of God, whatever it is that Job saw, is the source of his change of mind that eventually leads to his healing that transitions into the reestablishment of his well-being.

My own speculation leads me to hypothesize that through God’s speech from the whirlwind, Job received an image of the terror Leviathon that was also being tamed and controlled by God. God’s speeches simultaneously (a) gives a vision of the threat and (b) provides the solution to the threat in God’s power. At one level, this vindicates Job from any wrong-doing, as his misfortunate is attributable to someone other than God, or himself. At another level, it would convey an image of God’s sovereign victory over Leviathon. At this point, we are then ready to transition into the revelation of Jesus Christ as the victory over the uncontained chaos in the powers of sin and death.

A hypothesis about spiritual awakenings

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September 28, 2019

I was just outside of Nashville this week, attending the New Room conference organized by Seedbed, the publishing arm of Asbury Theological Seminary that works for the purpose of sowing for a Great Awakening. While there, we heard from multiple speakers, including from my bishop in the Mississippi United Methodist Annual Conference. However, one speaker that particularly struck me was Jon Tyson, pastor of Church of the City in New York, and his talk about sowing for an awakening. He recounted his personal story of taking a trip with his family to the British Isles to see various churches and sites that saw a wide swath people come to Christian faith in the past. This spurred me to do a little bit of research on religious revivals, at least within the British and American context.

In so doing, I wanted to bring up a hypothesis about religious revivals, at least within the Anglophone world.1

However, a couple of clarifications are in order before presenting the hypothesis. Firstly, God is not an object of scientific theorizing, so I am not intending my language of ‘hypothesis’ to be a theological claim in the direct sense. My hypothesis is a sociological one about us as humans, or at the least humans in Anglophone culture, and when we witness wide-spread change in spiritual awareness and faith. However, there is an implicit theological belief that stands behind this hypothesis: the nature of God’s action in bring people to faith and salvation, however we defined salvation, is to be understood ‘synergistically.’ In other words, the factors that influence human beliefs and decisions about God are a factor in people coming to faith, even though I think it is an error to reduce people’s faith as simply a byproduct of their life experiences and choices. As a consequence, when it comes to the overlap of soteriology and metaphysics, I think that God’s saving action works in a more universal manner to accomplish what no person could ever do, but those who hear a calling from God have an openness to a spiritual awareness that the rest of the population does not have.2 

So, with these basic theological and social assumptions expressed, here is the hypothesis I present: Christian spiritual awakenings (1) occur during periods of a wide-spread social disequilibrium that (2) erode people’s confidence in prevailing cultural and social beliefs, (3) resulting in people’s greater openness to spiritual awareness.

This hypothesis works on a particular model of how people think, feel, and reason about life. From early infancy, our minds are immersed with a wide array of perceptual experiences that we don’t know how to make sense of initially. However, as infants we have early biological ‘programs’ that allow us to distinguish between the vast array of perceptual data to find what is important and significant, such as the ability to attach and be attuned to a parental caregiver. This allows us to focus our attention on certain features of our experience that are more important for our immediate survival, while we push the rest to the margins of awareness. This happens automatically, without any real awareness of our lack of awareness. As we grow older, we learn more and more about what we should consider important from what important people teach us, from our own experiences, etc. As we do this through childhood into adolescence and into adulthood, we experience this automatic filtering out much of our experience from our attention and thinking in more and more situations. In part, the idea of ‘maturity’ is the process of developing this automatic way of thinking that allows us to act and respond in ways that one’s culture considers to be reflective of a responsible adult.

This filter of human experience becomes particularly important to observe when it comes to societal and political themes and ideas. The cohesion of societies largely depends on the population more or less sharing a common set of beliefs that lead them to think along similar enough lines. Any sort of thinking or awareness that leads to doubts and skepticism about the prevailing political and social ideologies undergird this social cohesion.

For instance, a nation at war readily resists the idea that the enemy are decent people that love their families, dislike violence, give to charity and help the weak, etc. An awareness of the morally good aspects of the enemy would lead to hesitation in supporting the war. So, people are informed and educated about the importance of the war effort, not necessarily with the intent of vilifying all of the enemy combatants (though that can be the case through broad-based stereotyping), but establishing the importance of the war effort. If people who initially have reservations due to the decency of people on the other side are convinced by this effort, they may not villify the enemy themselves, but they think less about the moral decency of the people on the other side. As a result of being convinced that support the war is important, their attention and awareness will be directed away from those aspects that might cause them to question the war.

Another example is the way the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” has controlled the way we think about the legal system, crime, and victimization. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a staple of our modern justice system, that is primarily concerned about the damage that can be done to people who are innocent of any crimes. As a consequence, it can be rather difficult to persuade people to care for the victims of various crimes, as the belief in the accused’s default innocence leads to the marginalization of victims’ accusations. To maintain this view, people will diminish and be skeptical of the stories of victims, including even blaming them for what happened. Blaming the victim allows the maintenance of the belief in a person’s default innocence, diverting attention away from the pain and suffering of victims. Put differently, innocent until proven guilty can lead us to put out of our awareness the suffering of accusers.3

This can also happen when it comes to religion. In fact, it can be argued that religion and spirituality are one aspect of human belief and life that are most susceptible to this process of numbing awareness. Religion and spirituality are often expressions of what we find most important about life as a whole. As such, political and social power often utilizes religious instruction and teaching to help craft an image of society. But at the same times, only certain types of religious and spiritual awareness are supported by the prevailing social and political beliefs. If you hold a view of society as being ordered hierarchically through the obedience of the people to a ruling authority, you would tend to diminish and devalue the experience of most negative feelings in religious faith, as most negative feelings are usually a hindrance to conformity and obedience. On the other hand, if you view society as a voluntary association of people based up their own free choice, you would relegate any awareness of doctrine as of minimal importance as the creative expression the person is more important than the ability to regulate one’s thinking along specific lines. Put differently, the way we see ourselves and others relating to the larger group and society influences what aspects of religious and spiritual experience we are more aware of and what we relegate to the margins.

Now, some societies are able to tolerate greater degrees of dissent on various social and political topics, issues, and themes than others. Many nations in the Western world have institutionalized diversity within their ruling and political structures, allowing the expression and political support of various ideas that are regularly in conflict with each other. Even though people living in these societies may experience various attempts at non-coercive persuasion and minimal degrees of social pressure to adopt certain views, the beliefs and values they hold become largely a function of their own learning, reasoning, and decision making. However, people’s held beliefs are never purely a matter of self-determination, but we rely upon the ideas transmitted to us from family, friends, authorities, experts, etc. to provide the raw materials that we use to form our own beliefs. In societies that have institutionalized diversity and degrees of tolerance, people are put into a situation where political and social power does not dominate human thinking and consciousness, although they are still influenced by the various ideas and values that get regularly expressed.

As a result, people often experience a form of dissonance or conflict about what to think and feel. This experience has largely occurred outside of people’s awareness, as the cognitive processes of awareness and the numbing of awareness occur largely outside of our awareness. Nevertheless, people’s minds are often left in a state of enduring, unresolved tension, unable to definitively direct how they should think, feel, act, and live. In such a case, people are increasingly more sensitive to becoming cognizant of things they were previously unaware of and oblivious to. This greater potential for novel awareness becomes especially the case when the tensions people experienced are at ‘deeper’ levels of human existence, such as the meaning and purpose of life, society, the world, oneself, etc., as the beliefs we hold here color so much of life.

Under such circumstances, people who have no real specific religious faith nor identify as particularly spiritual may become more open to an awareness of the religious and spiritual dimensions of life. This experience of deep dissonance and tension doesn’t mean that they suddenly become religious or spiritual people, nor does it determine what type of religion or spirituality they are prone to embrace. However, they are more open to becoming cognitively aware of these dimensions of experience as they are not able to as effectively direct their thinking in a way that filters out parts of their experience that are dissonant with specific beliefs.

If we look at the history of the Great Awakenings in the British Isles and the United States, we will notice that they tend to occur during periods of social transformation and upheaval. The first Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s happened under the dramatic change of society that was taking place as a result of the Enlightenment. In fact, it was the English Enlightenment and its values of tolerance propagated by figures such as John Locke that helped form a society where people would experience a greater dissonance in terms of what they believed. With the increasing tendency of higher society and religious teachers to teach and persuade through rational means, the first Great Awakening brought back to the forefront the non-rational, affective experience of the Christian spiritual life back to people’s awareness.

The Second Great Awakening happened in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century. As the United States had finally begun to establish itself as a new country, there was not an established political and societal tradition that controlled how people understood themselves and their relationship to the larger society and world around them. This was especially true the further away from the political center of power in Washington, New York, etc. where the US government would have less direct influence of people’s way of life. So, the states west of the original thirteen colonies where people were left with a greater sense of uncertainty, were sites of revivals where people became more aware of the presence and power of God.

The Third Great Awakening from the mid 19th to the early 20th century occuring the midst of great societal rift that lead to the Civil War, with the consequences determining the course of the country for the next few decades. The Welsh revival at the turn of the 20th century occurred during a period of time where the population of Wales more than double in the course of six decades due to the spread of the industrial revolution. The Fourth Great Awakening in the United States during the 1960s and 70s took root during socially tumultuous times. 

The point being is that in history of the Anglophone societies after the rise of the values of social tolerance, religious revivals occur during periods where the fabric of society and politics are being radically challenged and/or transformed. In such periods, people become more increasingly open to and aware of the spiritual and religious dimensions of life. 

At these points, then, people become more influenced by the process of social ‘contagion,’ in which other people witness and become aware of the experiences of radical religious change. In periods of social and personal tension, we are more open to the experiences of other people and their testimony. In other words, testimony and contagion through vicarious experience take on a more pronounced effect under such conditions, allowing for religion revival to spark and spread once it has obtained a “critical mass.”

There are actually some useful similarities I want to highlight between modern religious revivals in the Anglophone world and the early movement of Jesus and the apostles. While I don’t want to make an exact equation between the two as if they are fundamentally the same and numb our awareness as to the historical and social differences, I do want to highlight some useful similarities between the two.

Firstly, both the populations of Judea and the wider Gentile world would have experienced greater dissonance regarding their own beliefs and their place in the world. The Roman Empire, far from being an overbearing dictator on individual people’s lives, were concerned for integrating the conquered nations into their political system by protecting and even adapting the ideas and values of the conquered cultures. Greek culture was appropriated by Roman power; Jewish faith in one God was given established protections. While not the paragons of the modern Western virtue of tolerance, a society under Roman rule afforded basic freedoms that allowed for a more pluralistic society. Such an experience would leave people feeling a sense of ambiguity about their place in the world.

For the Israelites, is their place as God’s people to live autonomously within the land that God has promised? If so, how shall this be realized? Or, should they accommodate to the current political structures? Or, should one resist those who accommodate to the political realities, feeling they have become corrupted and unfit to be religious leaders? While I think N.T. Wright’s view that there was a sense of an “ongoing exile” in Second Temple Judaism is a bit overstated, I do think there are important reasons to consider that many Israelites would have experienced a marked conflict between what they deemed to be God’s promises to Israel and the present political reality of Roman political, social, and military hegemony. Amidst the diverse ways people could respond, people of the Jewish faith would have been uniquely open to understanding God in a new and fresh way.

Meanwhile, many people of the Gentile nations would have similarily experienced a sense of uncertainty and tension, as their own local and cultural traditions would come up into tension and conflict with Roman influence. This could spark an openness to hearing a voice calling out to them in a way that the gods and goddess of the pagan temples and religious cults did not speak or do. This is why I think Paul tends to prefer the word calling in his letters to describe the phenomenon of people’s spiritual awareness of the God of Israel.

Secondly, in the result of such a state of uncertainty and tension, people would become much more open to considering the place of other people’s testimony. In 1 Corinthians, Paul notes that Jews and Greeks as a whole found his preaching about the cross, which was primarily a recounting of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, as unpersuasive for various reasons. However, people who experienced a calling and witnessed in some fashion a demonstration of the Spirit were open to seeing and hearing Paul’s preaching about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the power and wisdom of the God of Israel’s Scriptures.

Thirdly, the spread of awakenings and awareness of God as demonstrated through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit often worked through patterns of social contagion. The early portion of Acts catalogs events where there is very no real structured and organized mission, but the apostles were almost trying to catch up to what was spreading and happening everywhere, to the point that the Spirit is even bestowed upon the Gentiles. Furthermore, if the Roman Jews who heard Peter’s message at Pentecost (Acts 2.10) were the ones who helped establish the church in Rome, then Paul’s discussion of the sharing of spiritual gifts in Romans 1.11-12 may reflect something that powerfully defined the Roman Christian community at that time: the emergence of spiritual experience and giftedness that came as a result of Pentecost.4 This is consistent with a model of contagious (spiritual) experience.

In conclusion, then, I want to note that the present period in the United States and the broader Western society is ripe for a potential religious revival. As we witness the clash of right-wing nationalism and left-wing cosmopolitanism in an increasingly diverse society of the post-modern dream, many people are caught in the middle, not aware of what to think and feel. Consequently, people have an increasing openness to an awareness of religious and spiritual matters. However, at the same time, this openness is not the brand of Christianity that is a fusion with right-wing and nationalist politics that has now become a common stereotype for evangelicals in the United States. Nor, is it simply a rebranding of left-wing values and politics in religious garb either. These sets of views are simply reinforcing the various options that are continuously argued and politic-ed for, often vehemently. Such religious movements will not promote a greater awareness of spiritual matters, but a greater awareness of the doctrines and values of those specific, established centers of religio-political instruction.

The present state of matters does not ensure a distinctly Christian revival, however. Firstly, while we can have faith that God is at work, the specific ways God is at work isn’t something we can just assume and take for granted.5 Secondly, an openness to religious and spiritual experience does not logically lead to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Gospel is revelation that defines the Christian life when received. It is not the culmination of human questions, struggles, longings, and experience, but the Gospel provides the fundamental questions and matters of God that we become aware of and then come to understand and grasp. Thus, the tension amidst the societal ambiguity can be lead to awareness of various things and doesn’t entail a particularly Christian revival. Thirdly, while Christian revivals may be sparked, the nature of their long-term sustainability will in part be influenced by people who align themselves with the work of God in their lives along with the newly awakened and renewed people, keeping the social momentum going through witness/testimony and social contagion that keeps the embers growing hot.

Faith as awareness, not knowledge

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September 22, 2019

Over the years, I had many intellectual struggles with my life of faith and following Jesus Christ. I grew up in a household that highly valued rational thinking. Both of my parents were physicians, but my mother was a psychiatrist who was intimately familiar with the way people who had severe disorder of thinking were able to rationalize their beliefs. I grew up implicitly understanding the way that the human mind can try to preserve itself from challenges to what it feels and thinks. While this post is partly a reflection on how my own background contributed to my struggles with faith, I am deeply grateful to this background, as I think there is much value in being able to think that way.

However, as is usually case, when a parent transmits a practice, a custom, a way of thinking to their children, the child doesn’t always pick up the significance of the practice that the parent attaches to the practice.  We see this all the time in a Christian household, where the child may have faith themselves, but they own it because it is how they great up, but they had yet to own their faith as their faith. They had not found the significance to faith that their parent has. This usually becomes apparent as the child grows more independent around high school or college. The child also frequently doesn’t directly learn the usually implicit rules that determine when we engage in a specific practice and when not to. A parent may use Scriptures to teach their children how to think and act in a particular situation. However, the child may come to think you use Scripture to correct anytime they see something they deem bad behavior rather than to teach someone who one already has a relationship with. In the case of growing up and learning, what is transmitted from parent to child undergoes a change in terms of significance and application. Sometimes this is bad when the parent has a wisdom, but sometimes this is good when the parent has some bad practices. The imperfection of transmission has its potential benefits as well as its problems.

In the same vein, I didn’t pick up the significance of critical thinking about oneself that my mother had for it. What I essentially did is I took my rearing to be a critical thinker and then I applied it to a more extreme level than my parents. In some places, I feel there were benefits to this, as no parents are perfect, but there was some instances where this became a hinderance. Most particularly, I had a deep problem with the often hard-to-define gap between having a good reason to believe something and knowing something to be true. We can call this the pursuit of certainty, confidence, epistemic justification, etc. Whatever one wishes to call it, it left me with a real problem: the inability to act based upon what I am aware of, for fear of the possibility that I might be in fact mistaken. I kept trying to find the way to improve confidence and reliability in what I thought and believes.

What I never picked up is that there are some situations where you can not become more reliable about what you think because there is nothing more you can possibly learn at that specific point in time. In the pursuit of higher confidence, I often assumed that the truth is knowable at any point of time and that I simply had to think better and more critically to get there. The net effect of this underlying meta-cognitive belief was this: I devalued what I had already been made presently aware of. What I had become aware of was never good enough. My thinking may have been better than it was in the past, but it wasn’t actionable. I wanted to be more than aware; I sought to know.

There is place where the value of trying to move beyond awareness to knowledge can be a very good thing. If a CEO is aware that one of their company’s products are not selling well, rather than making a rushed decision, it is helpful to try to pursue more information to see to comprehend why the product isn’t selling well. A CEO may assume they know the reasons behinds the problem and jump to fix it immediately; they immediately jump from awareness to knowledge. However, a thoughtful CEO may wait to try to find more information before determining how to react. Maybe it has a serious design flaw that needs to be addressed. Maybe the product just doesn’t serve a real purpose and the products needs to be pruned. Maybe economic realities have temporarily thinned the wallets of their prospective customers and the company should just hold tight. The point is that a good CEO is one who does not presume their awareness equates to actionable knowledge, but that they need to press forward for more information.

However, there is certain type of conditions where trying to move from awareness to knowledge can become dysfunctional: when it is impossible to expand one’s information so as to move from awareness to knowledge. For example, imagine a situation of communicative incompetence that commonly occurs when someone gets angry. A person may have one of their friends unpredictably blow up at them, but they were entirely unclear in expressing what they were actually angry about. The person may try to reach out to their (perhaps now former) friend, but they refuse to talk about it. The person can try to think back to their memory of their past interactions and not remember anything that can explain the blow up. They have an awareness of their friend’s anger, but they do not comprehend and know what their anger is about. But, if they work under the illusion that the reason for their friend’s anger is knowable at that point of time, then they may begin to try to imagine and conjure up possible scenarios that can try to explain what happen. But, what happens at that point is that the person starts to fill in the gaps of ignorance with their beliefs about themselves or beliefs about how other people perceive them. They may be the type of person who feels self-assured about themselves and conjure up an imagination that their friend is just being irrational. Or, they may be the type who isn’t very confident and think they did something really wrong and conjure up all sorts of criticism of things they remembered doing. However, ultimately, their thinking likely doesn’t pick up on the actual cause of their friend’s anger, but simply their own thinking about themselves and thinking about how other’s perceive them. However, whatever the source of the conjured up explanations, it is enabled by an epistemic illusion that we can move from awareness to knowledge at the present point of time if we just think and try hard enough to understand.

Applying this to matters of faith, some of us Christians have an implicit assumption in our pursuit after God and seeking to follow Jesus: that we can move from being aware of God to knowing about God in the present moment. We may act as if our understanding about God is solely our responsibility at this point, and so those of us who are intellectually inclined can seek to engage in better exegetical, theological, and philosophical thinking so that we can become clearer and more reliable about our understanding of God. It isn’t simply that we can take what God has given us and seek to learn from them (from Scriptures, our past experiences, etc.), but the implicit assumption that we can now at this point in time know about God if one we rightly direct our thinking

This can lead to one of at least two potential problems. Firstly, one can have a sense of self-assured confidence about one’s own thinking, that all of one’s thoughts are reliable. In this case, one can develop a theological arrogance and superiority. However, this arrogance can fail to differentiate between what God has revealed and their theological explanations of God’s revelation, treating their understanding as God’s revelation. In this case, they then apply their theological understanding to more and more situations, unaware that they may not understand the significance of God’s own revelation from God’s perspective or that they may be applying what they learned about God in a way that God would not. The end result is the imperfection of transmission combined with a sense of self-assuredness can lead a person to a place of self-deception about their understanding of God. We can call this the pathway of theological rationalization.

The other problem, the one that I struggled with, is that one can fail to find the needed information to further validate what one thinks about God. In the struggle to find validation, one can increasingly devalue what one has already been made aware of. Scripture and past experiences aren’t good enough right now, and so one can begin to lose confidence in those sources of awareness of God. The end result can be a weakened faith, or pushed further, to the loss of faith. We can call this the pathway of theological despair.

To be clear, the problem here isn’t the willingness to challenge our thinking and push ourselves further. The problem is that we work under an epistemic illusion of God’s knowability at the present moment based upon our own thinking. Sometimes, we can’t proceed beyond our awareness of God to knowing about God, because God is free to make Himself known as He chooses to do so. The whole of Scripture would testify that He is a personal being, who responds to us but is not controlled by us. Nor, is He a God who is reliably known by anything and everything we observe in the world, which is a source of idolatry and taken to its unhinged conclusion ultimately leads to pantheism or some variant (e.g. panentheism). Rather, He makes His will known in particular actions, at particular times, and through particular persons. We aren’t always immediately aware of the how, when, and who, nor is God obligated to make His will known through the ways, times, and people we think He should. For instance, He chose Israel to bear His light into the world from the Exodus, then He became incarnate in a specific Israelite named Jesus Christ to makes Himself clearly known, and then He chose some Gentiles in addition to some, but not all, of Israel, to bear witness to Jesus Christ through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then, there is our personal experiences of God and His work. But our understanding of those experiences aren’t necessarily inspired, but that sometimes God, for whatever reason, leaves us in a place off ignorant awareness.

But, if we recognize that the faith comes in response to God’s redemption of us is about our awareness, and not so much about our understanding and knowledge, we can work against the epistemic illusion of God’s immediate knowability through thinking. At the core of Christian faith is the awareness of God’s goodness and ability (e.g. love and power) demonstrated on our behalf in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit that is an actionable trust; faith isn’t the epistemic confidence in our ability to define, articulate, comprehend, and predict God, espcially in all the specific details or across the board. While Anselm’s ‘faith seeking understanding’ is certainly a noble goal that is in some instances possible, the resistance to recognizing that sometimes authentic faith can do nothing more than be faithful to what one has been made aware of and wait to receive something anew can lead us into episodes of conjuration of an undisciplined imagination that culminates into theological rationalization or despair. It isn’t our comprehension that saves us from the sin and illusions of the world, but it is through faith that God justifies and sanctifies us so that we can be brought into a transformed way of life in the image of Jesus Christ.

The idolatry of anti-idolatry

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September 1, 2019

Let me say something briefly before I explain it: it is a form of idolatry to call idolatry every moral and pragmatic value you see in other people holding that that you think is wrong. For instance, not to pick on Jonathan Merritt but let me show the tweet in question that inspired this post:

Now, before criticizing, I want to affirm something that Merritt is understanding. There is an increased predilection of the existence of a pattern among “conservative evangelicals” that can place an undue value on the place of marriage and family in human life. I can wholeheartedly agree with that criticism.

However, notwithstanding the slippery, the ambiguous, slippery language of “many conservative evangelicals” that can sound more like a stereotyping “the majority of conservative evangelicals” rather than a “non-substantial among of conservative evangelicals,” his usage of the language of “idolatry” is strongly reminiscent to the Christian who is hyper-vigilant about doctrine calling heresy every teaching he disagrees with, whether it is deviance from historical orthodoxy or is a divergence on some matters regarding salvation (such as a hyper-Calvinist’s aversion to “semi-Pelagianism” anyone).

In part, the problem with such rhetoric is that it is a rhetoric of exaggeration or hyperbole that we can not longer recognize as such. Such rhetoric is often use to gain a social advantage in terms of personal standing in relation to an opponent, which in this case is a particular theological strand. But most people are able to recognize such exaggeration and hyperbole as exactly that: exaggeration and hyperbole. But, when this form of rhetorical aggression is no longer recognized for what it is, it becomes a deeply divisive form of rhetoric. Even if it is not intended as such in a specific instance, such exaggerated rhetoric becomes increasingly divisive over time as people’s perception are gradually altered to see things in such stark terms of spiritual disobedience as conveyed in the term “idolatry.”

Often, the definition of “idolatry” as used today is something along the lines of taking something that is good and overvaluing it to the point that we distort our understanding of God as a result. But, let me make a point from the New Testament. Neither Jesus Christ nor the apostle Paul after him called the Torah-observant Jews as engaging in idolatry through their usage of the Torah. If they didn’t use the language of “idolatry” in their conflicts over understandings of righteousness, we should probably be a bit wary ourselves of using that language to call out moral and practical values that we find problematic.

The main situation where we see idolatry used to refer to something other than the cultic worship of a human-made image/human-constructed deity is when it comes to wealth. Paul calls greediness idolatry in Colossians 3.5. Notice that Paul does not refer to the rest of the earthly vices he refers to as idolatry; he reserves that designation for greed. We see a similar thing against in Ephesians 5.5. Then, in the Sermon on the Mount as in Matthew 6.24, Jesus portrays wealth as a master whose service is in entire conflict with the service of God.

What is it about money that leads Jesus and then Paul, likely inspired by Jesus, to refer to money as a form of idolatry? I would suggest it has something to do with the type of power that money has on human thinking. Read these words from Samuel about idolatry and returning to the worship of YHWH in 1 Samuel 7.3:

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the LORD, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

Notice what is happening here: idolatry is portrayed as the worship to others gods that diverts away full devotion (“all your heart”) toward YHWH. Notice what the concern of Samuel is, though. Samuel isn’t engaging in some form of philosophical reasoning that suggests idolatry is a mistake in theological ontological. In other words, Samuel isn’t making an argument about an error of deviation from monotheism as understand in modern terms as an ontological claim about the existence of one and only one God. While it is a mistake to go to the reverse and think Samuel thinks there are the existence of multiple gods as ontology is simply not Samuel’s concern here, what can be stated is that Samuel is concerned about Israel’s devotion to YHWH.

Idolatry engages in a form of illegitimate devotion that distracts people’s devotion from God. However, its illegitimacy isn’t simply that it distracts from devotion, however. The illegitimacy is rooted in Israel’s traditions as God expressly commanded Israel to not have other gods before Him in the Decalogue. To engage in idolatry not only distracts from devotion, but it utterly repudiates the very thing God called Israel not to do in the first place. Idolatry is not just lost devotion, but it is the flagrant denial of the type of devotion that YHWH Himself had called of Israel. It is YHWH that regarded idolatry as mutually exclusive or worship and devotion to him.

So, when Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth, he is playing on the familiar theme of mutually exclusive worship. But why money? What is it about wealth that is idolatry? The reason for this is not as apparent to us today, who have learned to see money as simply as a form of economic exchange, but according to Jack Weatherford in The History of Money, money during the Roman era was intertwined with Roman religious cults:

Money occupied a sacred place in many temples but particularly in the one dedicated to Juno Regina, the highest Roman goddess, who reigned as the queen of heaven and occupied a position much like the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, in Greek mythology. Juno represented the genius of womanhood and was the patroness of women, marriage, and childbirth. As Juno Pronuba, she watched over marriage negotiations; as Juno Lucina, she protected pregnant women; and as Juno Sospita, she presided over labor and childbirth.
As an extension of her role as protector of women and guardian of the family, Juno became the patroness of the Roman state. According to Roman historians, in the fourth century B.C., the irritated honking of the sacred geese around Juno’s temple on Capitoline Hill warned the people of an impending night attack by the Gauls, who were secretly scaling the walls of the citadel. From this event, the goddess acquired yet another surname—Juno Moneta, from Latin monere (to warn).
As patroness of the state, Juno Moneta presided over various activities of the state, including the primary activity of issuing money. In 269 B.C., the Romans introduced a new silver coin, the denarius, which they manufactured in the temple of Juno Moneta. The coin bore the image of the goddess and her surname, Moneta. From her first name, Juno, comes the name of the month of Junonius, or June, the most auspicious month for marriage. Also from Moneta came the modern English words mint and money and, ultimately, from the Latin word meaning warning.1

Furthermore, coins printed during the reign of Tiberius Caesar read as, “Tiberius Casear, son of the divine Augustus,” which is the type of money Jesus uses to answer the question about paying taxes in Matthew 22.15-22.2 In Jesus’ time, money was not a neutral medium of exchange that we are accustomed to think of it as now, nor was it simply a form of governmental “propoganda” as some modern people with anarchists tendencies might interpret money as, but ancient money and wealth was reguarly tied up with forms of cultic and theological idolatry.

But, it wasn’t just simply the mere presence of idolatrous origins and associations with money that grabs Jesus’ attention. It can explain why wealth was labeled as idolatry, but it was the power that wealth had one one’s own heart that took away from the exclusive devotion to God. Right after describing the mutual exclusive worship of God and wealth in Matthew 6.24, Jesus describes the life that trusts God for what one needs in Matthew 6.25-34. There is a connection in the sermon between the two indicated by the phrase Διὰ τοῦτο in v. 25. While Jesus does not explicitly describe money in vs. 25-34, there seems to be a strong thematic connection. How is it that you would take care of your concerns for tomorrow when you can control them now? By doing what you can to pursue wealth today to purchase what you need for tomorrow. One of the most pressing reasons for the desire for wealth is not the need to survive today, as it is with people who live in poverty, but so that we can feel safe and secure for tomorrow.

The net effect of being anxious to take care of your needs for tomorrow through wealth is that you start making decisions based upon calculating one’s material, financial advantage. One’s decision making radically changes. Rather than making decisions based upon what is in the benefit of God’s kingdom, one makes decisions that are intended to ensure one’s own provisions for tomorrow. There is thus a stark “disinvesting” from God and His Kingdom as the One upon who one depends. Wealth as a form of idolatry disentangled the relationship of Israel to her God, and, in fact, created a form of dependence upon its imperial overlords, propagandizing with idolatrous honorifics.

However, the effects of wealth on decision making and devotion to God would not have been so readily apparent. Unlike the sins of sex, theft, deception, and violence than would have been readily understood by someone who was morally formed by the Torah, the Torah made no overarching commandments about money and wealth because it was never a major part of life early in Israel’s history. While economic exchange and basics goods was a part of Israel’s memory and there were forms of ancient proto-money in the distant past, money itself did not become a standard unit of economic exchange until the 7th/6th century BC in Greece.3 The Torah just did not refer to the phenomenon of money as it was practiced in the Imperial era. So, to liken money to idolatry was more than some bare moral pronouncement by Jesus: it was a way of helping people to identify the type of power and negative influence that wealth had that the Torah did not specifically speak to. Jesus and Paul are directing people to understand the way that money distracts from devotion to God.

They are not, however, simply using the category of “idolatry” as way of criticizing moral and practical values that they find morally wrong. Our modern Western minds, trained to think about ethics in terms of conforming to a particular truth as outlined by a set pattern, are inclined to treat the “category” of idolatry as a form of cognitive error. We see this going back to Francis Bacon’s four idols of the mind. But this is the result of thinking about religion in terms of representational truth and error rather than in terms of devotion and distraction. As a consequence, we are inclined to label moral problems we see in other Christian traditions as “idolatry” because they are making some error in ethical reasoning. To that end, it is simply the moral reasoning equivalent of “heresy.”

However, whereas ‘heresy’ has a place in describing the boundaries of orthodoxy which is a discussion about theological ideas, which can ultimately be determined and adjudicated with relative clarity, using idolatry in an equivalent sense to address a much more murky, complex, and ambiguous form of moral and practical reasoning is a recipe for disaster. Without a clear set of anchors to keep our judgments about “idolatry” tied to, it will be the case that we just see idolatry everywhere.

And herein lies the problem: this leads to the emergence of the very form of distract worship of God that idolatry was originally meant to guard against. Devotion to God was not merely some cognitive, disembodied state of spiritually or religiosity, but that devotion to God was done through attention to and keeping the very commandments God had given, as in Deuteronomy 6.4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Now, Deuteronomy does not employ our modern ethical concept of values, but what is described here is functionally similar to our conception of value. Here, the love and devotion to God is realized through the way in which Israel will remember God’s commandments through the instruction God has given them. Devotion is expressed through the shaping of one’s ethical memory, which direct one’s actions much as what we call ‘values’ does. And what are some the commandments Israel was given by God? While there were many (613 depending on how you count), there are two commandments that have a large importance in Israel’s life: the commandment to honor one’s father and mother and the commandment against adultery in the Decalogue. One lived one’s devotion to God through one’s family.

Before one says “That’s the Old Testament, but we follow Christ,” it is important to remember that Jesus say he did not come to abolish the Torah (Matthew 5.17-20) and Paul quotes from the Decalogue including the commandments about honoring one’s father and mother (Ephesians 6.1-3) and against adultery (Romans 13.9). Devotion to God throughout the Scriptures, Old Testament and New Testament alike, is actualized through one’s family life. To talk about family as an idolatry is to go against the very way that the broad sweep of Scripture talks about one’s devotion to God being realized through the family. To call this idolatry is, paradoxically, itself pushing towards idolatry by redirecting one’s love and devotion from God.

Now, there is an error in thinking that in order to be faithful to God, one must be married, have children, etc. Both Jesus and Paul not only commend celibacy as an option but actually commends it as a superior way of life under certain conditions.4 But, this is an error in moral reasoning and understanding about God’s will, but it is not necessarily a distraction in one’s devotion to God. The real problem of what we can call filial-normativity is that it can wrongly exclude people from the communal fellowship and participation in God’s People who either through choice do not marry or because of circumstances can not marry. This is hurtful, and it can even amount to sin in the way it leads people to treat those living celibately but to call this idolatry is a categorical confusion: idolatry is about misdirected devotion away from God.

While the love of God entails us loving others and serving them, it becomes the idolatry of humanity to suggest the exclusion of specific people is itself idolatry. We should call it the error that it is, sin, and not what it isn’t, idolatry. But, that would bring back in the language of moral wrongness and evil to describe what exclusion via filial-normativity. But better that than to implicitly treat people as gods. That is to state that to call the value of family an idol has a more pervasive form of idolatry laid underneath the surface.

Can we call Paul’s letters theology?

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August 31, 2019

In The Theology of Paul the Apostle, James Dunn starts his first chapter with the following statement about Paul: 

Paul was the first and greatest Christian theologian. From the perspective of subsequent generations, Paul is undoubtedly the first Christian theologian. Of course, all who think about and express their faith as Christians can quite properly be called “Christian theologians,” or at least be described as functioning theologically. But Paul belongs to that group of Christians who have seen it as part of their calling to articulate their faith in writing and to instruct others in their common faith, and who have devoted a considerable portion of their lives to so doing.1

This view of Paul has a long pedigree amongst Protestants, primarily for the reason of highlighting justification by faith as the center of Paul’s theological thinking. Particularly within the Reformed tradition, one can trace a set of ideas that Paul expresses in the letters that provide a systematic expression of Christian faith.

However, in recent years, this portrayal of Paul and his letters has come under fire by Biblical scholars who word from a social perspective. For instance, in Conflict and Identity in Romans, Philip Esler makes the following observation about the tendency in Biblical scholarship to read Paul as if he is a theologian:

Paul did not restrict himself to the ideational dimensions of being a follower of Christ, nor did he produce systematic treatises of “theology,” and it is therefore anachronistic to describe him as a “theologian.” It is difficult not to gain the impression that to refer to Paul as a “theologian” serves the useful social purpose pose of enrolling him as an honorary member of the same club to which those who wield such designations already belong.2

Undergirding the social perspective on Paul is the idea that Paul’s letters were intended to address particular situations. In their mind, they are like an academic lecture on a particular topic, but a more pastoral response to exigent circumstances. While this style of reading Paul doesn’t necessarily deny anything that can be assembled into theological content that can describe what Paul believed, it highlights the situatedness of Paul’s communication.

But to draw an analogy, the difference between seeing Paul’s letters as presenting theology vs. a response to circumstances in Paul resembles a tension that more generally exists in the psychological and social sciences: can we define people according to a set of enduring traits, emotions, habits, thoughts, etc. or should we highlight the role of circumstance in what people think, say, feel, and do? In social psychology, one of the first things that are taught to students is the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the tendency to overstate dispositions in explain people’s behaviors while underlooking the role of situation. Similarly, in the study of anxiety, there are distinctions that are made between trait anxiety and state anxiety.

The tension between enduring characteristics and situational exigencies can be described as not being any sort of ontological “way things are” but rather the default approach we take to as people to explain other people. “Traits” and “circumstances” don’t exist in some real, ontological sense, but are rather a way of making sense of patterns. But the two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If we recognize that enduring characteristics have a tendency towards overgeneralization and interpretations of situational exigences have a tendency for undergeneralization, we can come to an approximate synthesis of these two approaches: enduring characteristics are those thoughts, feelings, words, and actions that reproduce itself in more diverse circumstances. This approach does “favor” the enduring characteristic approach, but it recognizes that there is a set of circumstantial constraints that determine when and how the characteristic will be expressed.

To bring this to the particular question about Paul and theology, we can ask a fundamental question: to what extent are Paul’s letters expressing ideas of enduring characteristics? If Paul is expressing theological ideas that are used and explained in various circumstances, then the possibility remains that we can see Paul’s letters as being theological. This would then lead us to the question of communicative intention and purpose in the letter: does Paul intended his audience to take the ideas that he is expressing to be applied more generally, or is he only address the specific circumstances? If so, are these ideas about God?  On the other hand, if there is not an enduring core to his communication, then Paul’s letters can not be adequately described as theology.

There is one major epistemological constraint on this project, however. In virtue of extending the perspective of modern social science to the study of Paul, we are using a framework of explanation that works upon a larger quantity of observations and data. Whether dealing with an individual person or a large society, the explanatory frameworks of modern social science require a lot of ‘information’ of a wide sample before they become reliable. We do not have that from Paul. In the approximately three decades of Paul’s life as a follower and apostle of Jesus Christ, we have anywhere from seven to fourteen letters depending on how narrow or broad one considers Paul’s authorship to be in the New Testament. Then, we have the books of Acts that presents some biographical data, depending on how much reliability one attributes to it. Even if one has a maximalist approach, what we have from Paul is a very small set of “snaphots” from his life.

Further complicating matters is that some of Paul’s letters seem to be addressing same or similar circumstances. For instance, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and maybe Phillipians all seem to be written to address the circumstances created by divisions between Jews and Gentiles, including the role of the Torah which was the most salient dividing line between them. While the circumstances for each of these letters are somewhat different, they all share very similar situations. While exegesis of these four letters can reveal a set of ideas that seem to endure across them, the question would still remain of to what extent those ideas should be considered ‘applicable’ to situations outside of ethnic tensions. Similarly, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians address the same congregation that is influenced by Greco-Roman wisdom, particularly philosophy, and the socially competitive spirit of the Greco-Roman world that influenced the pursuit of wisdom. For instance, should Paul’s discourse about God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself in 2 Corinthians 5.19 be taken as a central key to Paul’s theological thinking? Or, is the language of reconciliation primarily used in response to the competitive, agonistic culture that is influenced the Corinthian’s response to their teachers, including Paul?

In other words, a more inductive, semi-empirical approach to determine the theological nature of Paul’s letters is not doable. This does not mean, however, that the question is left unanswerable, but rather that we are going to need to take a closer look from another angle that the typical, information-driven, implicitly foundationalist, approach of Biblical scholarship. A more abductive explanation that provides a coherent account of Paul’s letters individually and in the aggregate can provide us a different way of approaching the question.

However, the problem with abduction is that our appeal to the best explanation is limited by the type of explanations we are aware of and can appeal to in the first place. If a person looks out and sees the ground is wet, but for some reason has no prior knowledge about dew and the condensation process, they will be limited to explaining the wet ground to rain. Put differently, abduction is more appropriately described as an appeal to the best *available* explanation.

Since we are talking about Paul’s letters and whether they possess an enduring theological meaning, we are addressing the phenomena of cognition. But the two sides of the debate implicitly and unconsciously structure the cognition of Paul in one of two forms. Theological interpreters typically consider Paul’s letters to provide ideational or propositional content, whereas social interpreters of Paul implicitly frame the meaning of his letters in terms of goals and purposes that emerge from the circumstance. Both the representational and utilization forms of cognitive thinking are a part of our cognitive repertoire, but there is another form of cognition that serves as a functional link between representation and utility that is known as expectations. Expectations emerge as the result of the construal of our circumstances through the usage of our ideational-conceptual resources to make implicit predictions of outcomes that then generate responses to either ensure or alter the expected outcomes.

I want to suggest at this point that Paul’s letters can be more adequately made sense of within the framework of expectations: both his own expectations about God and what he deems to be the good and problematic expectations of his various audiences. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1-4, Paul addresses the false expectations that the Corinthians have of their human teachers as teachers of wisdom, whereas it is actually God who is the Teacher of wisdom in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit who collaboratively inspires the various teachers. Or, in Romans 7, Paul addresses the false expectations that some Jews may have had about the effectiveness of the Torah to make people righteous; Paul instead appeals to the Spirit and Christ as those who enable human righteousness in Romans 8. This similar theme of expectation in relation to righteousness gets expressed in Galatians 5:5: “through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Then, in Romans 1.18-32 Paul deals with the Jewish expectations of judgment against a pagan society, to then surprisingly turn that narrative of judgment against Jews who act in similar ways in the next chapter, which we might consider motivates the Corinthians to consider adopted a different eschatological narrative of God’s faithfulness as ultimately expressed in Romans 8.31-39.

I give these samples from three of Paul’s letters not to decisively prove my case, as that is impossible given the relative paucity of data, but demonstrate that trying to explain Paul’s discourse in terms of cognitive expectations about God, Torah obedience, teachers, etc. can serve as a fitting abductive explanation of some of the material. Furthermore, appeal to cognitive expectations can give an account for the eschatological material that is strewn throughout all of Paul’s letters.

If Paul’s letters are primarily addressing specific expectations, most particularly about God and those beings or things that come from God as in Jesus, the Spirit, Torah, etc., then we have a basis for interpreting Paul’s letters as theological, but not in a simplistic, systematic sense. Rather than providing an overarching, representational sketch of God and other theological events like justification, sanctification, glorification, etc., Paul engages more so with the expectations of what God is doing and will continue to do in the narrative of human redemption. Justification isn’t about some idea of being forgiven by God as much as it is about God’s forgiveness bringing human life into a distinctively different life-arc through their faith. Rather than the Holy Spirit as the intellectually necessary explanation for human faith and understanding of God, the Spirit is the expected agent of transformation in the various events of believer’s.

It is here where I propose that we can find a reliable, enduring cognitive thinking that permeates Paul’s letters individually and aggregately that is not as reliably present in the ideational interpretations of Paul’s theology. Paul’s expectations have been radically changed in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ to him such that his expectations are saturated in the full narrative of Jesus Christ’s teachings, baptism, trial, death, resurrection, and glorification and the Holy Spirit who is the vital link between believers and Christ. God’s actions in creation are directed towards a specific, eschatological telos, which Paul expects to be understood through the pattern of God’s righteousness as made known in Jesus Christ.

With this in tow, I would then suggest that the aspects of the circumstance of Paul’s discourse can be observed in the various implications and offshoots of this core set of theological expectations. Theological ideas such as justification by faith are not the core of Paul’s theology, but rather they help to explain the way God as known in Jesus Christ is at work in specific circumstances, such as addressing the role of Torah.

Furthermore, since the cognitive expectations we hold are largely influenced by our experiences and interpretations of the past, this account also provides an integral role to history, particularly the history as outlined in Israel’s Scriptures. The Old Testament Scriptures are seen as being fulfilled in Christ, which fits within an expectation-realization scheme of cognition. But these expectations do not mere from an ideational reading of the Old Testament that gives a specific, precise representation of what will happen in the future, but rather the very character of God as seen in His actions and relations with Israel is “pregnant” with Christ. Jesus as the image of God is the prototype/πρωτότοκος of humanity (Col. 1.15). Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham (Gal. 3.16). Jesus is the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10.4). The story of creation, Abraham’s promise, and Israel’s journeys are “pregnant” with Jesus Christ, even though he is not being directly described by the passages. These narratives of God’s actions and promises provide the broad shape and contour God’s nature that provides the expectations for what is realized in Jesus Christ. While Paul’s coming to Christ did not develop in linear progression from interpreting the narrative leading to the emergence of expectations that he then recognizes as fulfilled in Christ, this pattern of cognitive expectations nevertheless provides an explanation for how Paul conceives of the relationship of Israel’s Scriptures to Jesus Christ.

So, are Paul’s letters theology? I would say yes, if we are talking about theology in terms of theological expectations. They are not a systematic exposition on a set of overarching, representational ideas about God, but rather they express a core of expectations about the nature of and shape of God’s redeeming action in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. It is this core that determines the more ideational/propositional content of his letters that are expressed in response to various, circumstantial exigencies. Put in metaphysical terms, Paul’s expectations fit within a particular understanding of God’s agency and human, experiential phenomenon, rather than the Hellenistic categories of substance and essence.3