Epistemology, psychosocial development, and love

May 28, 2020

Since Descartes’ attempted to try to obtain a certain knowledge about what is true based upon his introspective method, the concerns about knowledge in Western philosophy has taken a sharp turn towards the individual as the locus of reasoning and knowledge. Many discussions about epistemology revolve around the question of internalism vs. externalism. Internalism is the theory that all that we need to have epistemic justification for beliefs is either present or accessible to personal cognition. By contrast, externalism is the thesis that some grounds for justifying beliefs are external to the person’s cognitive awareness and access to them. However, despite the name “externalism,” it might be in some ways be more accurate describe a non-reductive internalism, where knowledge is still understood by reference to the individual knower, even as not all aspects of what make up knowledge are contingent upon cognitive awareness and access.

The point of this, however, is not to try to argue for a change of names in epistemology. I am far too much of an amateur when it comes to the various stances taken by epistemologists to be able to determine how they should label and understood the various epistemic options. Rather, my point is to situate the discussion of traditional epistemology against the background of human experience: the inward, meta-cognitive awareness and analysis of a thinking as thinking and the attempts to try to ensure better thinking, however better thinking is to be understood. Even many epistemic externalists are inclined to construe knowledge primarily in terms of individual cognition, even as they make allowance for factors external to cognition. In so doing, they along with most everyone else of analytic epistemology has situated the understanding of knowledge against the backdrop of a narrow range of human experience.

There is nothing wrong with this, to be clear, as there are many good reasons to consider that our thinking about thinking can have some powerful impacts on the operation and function of our lives. The potential pitfall of the turn towards the self in epistemology is that in the task to find a confident grounds for truth, reliability, justification, etc. that can cement our thinking, we dissociate the process of meta-cognition from the rest of human experience, thereby overlook how the whole of human experience  is responsible for the development of our meta-cognitive capacities, both in terms of the cognitive processes and the norms we use to differentiate what is good, true, and right from what is bad, false, and wrong. It is, however, our bodies that are responsible for generating our conscious awareness of what is and what should be. Our sense of truth and normativity is realized bodily, not simply cognitively.

On one level, this critique isn’t entirely novel, as this can essentially be attributable to a various range of post-modern critiques that have emphasized to various degrees the relativity of truth and knowledge. What is different about this critique, however, is that the implication of this idea is that truth is to be understood in and through the body and its experience, to which our thinking about the body and its experience always filters pieces of our various sensations and perceives and expands upon other parts of our sensations. Then, when we think about thinking, we think perceive, filter out, and expand upon the contents of thinking that already emerged through perception, filtering, and expansion. This leaves fields that rely upon meta-cognition, such as epistemology, to be twice removed from the thing that generates our sense of truth and normativity: the body. This doesn’t mean that cognitive internalism is disconnected from truth and normativity, but only that traditional epistemology can be inclined to overlook some of the critical features that contribute to our possession of knowledge. This leaves it, to appropriate Ecclesiastes, to strive after the wind of our own interior consciousness. There is something real and true in it that we can perceive and recognize, but we will never be able to truly grab a hold of it and understand it.

What then? Perhaps it becomes relevant to situate the traditional concerns of epistemology against the background of how human life forms and develops and how it is that this development gives capacities, processes, and norms that are responsible for the development of epistemic processes. This isn’t that profound if one thinks about it, as developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygostky have observed the way that cognitive processes are condition upon prior stages of cognitive developement (Piaget) and social learning (Vygostky). The cognitive processes that are necessary to meta-cognition and the forms of thinking that epistemologies tend to describe and contingent upon is nurtured, cultivated, and grown through the course of the lifespan, both by individual practice and social training.

However, how is it that this type of cognition grows? Is it because humans have an innate potential to do certain types of thinking that practice and training will nourish (that is, some sort of biological determinism of thinking)? Or, do we have a set of basic cognitive capacities that practice and training combine and develop in specific configurations that determine the way people think (that is ‘higher’ cognition is composited of various biological and cognitive ‘components’ that are uniquely brought together for specific tasks)? I would tend towards the latter, as I have observed, for instance, the type of cognition I employ in exegeting Biblical texts is a very different form of cognition from when I am thinking theological and philosophically about God and the Christian life. While there may be some similarities between the two cognitive tasks, their differences are substantial.

If the development of our higher cognition is compositional in nature, with various unique configurations possible for the development of cognition, it leads to a rather profound conclusion: the cognitive process of knowledge construction are highly sensitive to the cognitive development of persons and the specific contexts that determine the shape of cognition. While we may be able to observe similarities from person to person and from topic to topic, the similarities by themselves are not as important as the differences. While the similarities make help us to consider how different cognitive processes lead to the construction of knowledge, it is only through the various epistemic practices that we come to call our beliefs knowledge.

This allows for a pluralistic conception of knowledge, while at the same time not plunging into a full-blown relativism that suggests there is no “points of contact” between various forms of knowledge by which we can come to recognize and partially evaluate various forms of cognition. However, ultimately, we would need recognize that knowledge is determined by the somatic background of the thinker and how their embodied relationship with other agents help to form their cognitive processes that contribute to knowledge construction.

There is one interesting possibility that this allows for when it comes to Christian theology. If knowledge is contingent upon the background of the person, then leads to the consideration that certain experiences, actions, and attitudes such as love may have a profound impact on our epistemic practices. Those who have read NT Wright should be familiar with the idea of an epistemology of love. I would situated this epistemology squared within 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul contrasts Stoic-like knowledge about divinity and cosmology with a concern for the love of persons. Far from some sort of sentimental enthusiasm about emotional expressivity and experience, Paul is address the very way people think and understand other people and how that relates to the actions they take. While Paul does not give a cognitive account of love that we can look at and tease apart, we certainly see the foundations for a different form of cognitive and epistemic practice. The experience of love should normatively ground Christian thinking, which is the necessary prerequisite for then receiving the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2.6-16).

What this means is that we don’t start from some a priori conception of the right form of thinking that we take as a given that try to fit love in somehow. Rather, it is love that will, through the cultivation of the person by its practice, generate an understanding of the right and wrong type of thinking. Od course, we need to not risk being overly general about this “love,” as if love and any type of love will do, but Paul would recognize that God’s love in Jesus Christ is the shape of human love. This type of love is the type of love that can receive the type of thinking that characterizes God’s wisdom. While Paul does not describe the reception of God’s wisdom in terms of internal, mental representations and cognition, but rather in terms of specific types of action (2.14-15) and sources (2.9-10), we may be able to theologically and philosophically surmise that what Paul is describing may be alternatively construed as the emergence of specific forms of cognitive processes and norms that allow for the comprehension and reception of God’s Wisdom in Jesus Christ when bestowed by the Spirit. If this is the case, we may suggest something of an epistemic “synergism,” where the human response of obedience to love God and love one another (grounded in faith, of course), allows for the reception and comprehension of what God makes know in and about Christ to the community, and not just to the individual thinker in isolation, where the love of God and the love of each other allows one to receive what God gives in His love and what others inspired by God’s Spirit give in love.

The Danielic interpretation of Paul

May 28, 2020

One of the key points of concern that has undergirded my thesis research on 1 Corinthians 2 is the relationship of Paul to the “apocalyptic.” Since Kasemann said that apocalyptic was the mother of Christian theology, biblical scholarship has witnessed a diffusion of apocalyptic interpretations of Paul, such as J. Louis Martyn, Douglas Campbell, Beverly Gaventa, Alexandra Brown, and T.J. Lang to name a few I am more familiar with. However, acknowledging the influence of NT Wright on my scholarship, I have developed particular concerns about the way “apocalyptic” is used to interpret Paul. While concerns about the slipperiness with of the definition of “apocalyptic” and the emphasis over history certainly motivate some of my concern about “apocalyptic,” the primary contention I have come to have with “apocalyptic” interpretations is a historical and hermeneutical one: what historical and exegetical warrants do we have to consider “apocalyptic” to refer to an important set of themes, motifs, language, ideas, and/or concepts that are needed to interpret the letters of Paul? Put more simply, what reasons do we have to suggest that Paul’s letters we influenced by the features we witness in apocalyptic literature?

To my still developing understanding, there seems to be a problematic historical assumption at the core of “apocalyptic” readings: that because (1) we have good historical grounds to consider the existence of pattern of apocalyptic thinking, however we should define it, in Second Temple Judaism (the existence of apocalyptic literature), (2) that Paul is a Jew (the evidence is self-evident), and (3) that Paul’s letters have languages and motifs that resemble what is seen in apocalyptic literature, we can then (4) read Paul against an apocalyptic background. If this representation of the evidence for apocalyptic interpretations is more or less correct, then we have a problem. The same type of evidential grounds can be offered for reading Paul like a Greco-Roman philosophy. There is the existence of Hellenistic philosophical literature during the Roman Empire, Paul grew up in a Greco-Roman environment and was a Roman citizen, and Paul has language and motifs that resemble what is seen in Hellenistic philosophical literature. Both historical, literary, biographical, and linguistic evidences can be offered in favor of reading Paul against an apocalyptic and philosophy background. How do we differentiate between the validity of the interpretations of Douglas Campbell and Troels-Engberg Pederson, who provide starkly different accounts of Paul?

If we are to work under the assumption that we can find a reason to distinguish between these two different ways of interpreting Paul, perhaps the best starting point is the clearest evidence we have about the thinking of Paul: the textual evidence. On what grounds can we differentiate between apocalyptic and philosophical influences on Paul’s discourse? The strongest evidence would be not simply be some a similarity of words, phrases, motifs, or individual ideas between Paul and either apocalyptic or philosophical literature. Two people can use the same symbols and concepts, but that doesn’t imply that one person influenced other. Rather the observation of a shared constellation of words, phrases, motifs, and ideas. The more similarities, the more likely there is an influence.

Of course, multiple correspondences does not tell us the nature of the influence. It is readily assumed in the historical interpretation of the Bible that common language implies share or similar meaning. However, there are condition where shared language may be the result of conflicts of meaning, where one person uses the language and concept of another person or social group to directly or indirectly challenge what the other people or group is putting forward. Without trying to make my cases here, I would suggest that 1 Corinthians is best understood as Paul’s resistance to the influence of Hellenistic philosophy and 2 Corinthians is best understood as Paul’s resistance to other teachers who had made claims about themselves based, upon other things, claims to apocalyptic revelation.

There is, furthermore, a potential mistaken, overgeneralization that can be drawn from cases where we find a high degree of influence. If understand Paul’s acceptance or critical relation to specofic influence as evidence that represent Paul’s view on a whole class of similar literature or ideas, we are risking a hasty overgeneralization. In other words, just because Paul may be understood to agree or disagree with one specific historical instance of a significant influence on Paul, whether it be person, a historical event, or some literature does not mean Paul would reject everything that we can put under a similar label. For instance, just because I think Paul is critical of the Roman empire and its wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2.6 does not mean that I think Paul rejects the governmental authority of the Roman empire entirely (see Romans 13). Similarly, just because Paul may be critical or amendable to specific philosophical and apocalyptic sources does not constitute his view on all philosophy and apocalyptic literature. 

This thereby necessitates that we either (1) have good grounds to think that Paul shared the same classifications and categories we do, such as apocalyptic literature, that would strengthen the case for a more general acceptance and influence on Paul, either amenable or critical (but it doesn’t cinch the case) or, in lieu of that, (2) focus on more specific influences, such as Paul and the Stoics and Paul and the apocalypse of Daniel, rather than the general influences of Paul and Hellenistic philosophy or Paul and apocalyptic literature. While there is some evidence for thinking that Paul might have understood Hellenistic philosophy as a class, there is not the clear grounds that Paul would have shared our categorization of apocalyptic literature. In fact, insofar as Paul is immersed in the culture of Second Temple Judaism and the learning of various texts, Paul would like understand what we today understand as “apocalyptic literature” more as specific pieces of literature and their specific origins rather than as a generic class. It is similar to how those who have not studied Christianity without much depth may primarily categorize the repository of Christian literature as “the Bible” without much thought to the specific pieces of literature, whereas Biblical scholars would focus more on individual pieces of literature, such as Romans or Isaiah.

The question to draw from this chain of reasoning is this: is Paul “apocalyptic” or is Paul influenced by something more specific, such as Daniel? There is strong evidence to consider that Daniel 2 exhibits a remarkable influence on 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, and the entire chapter of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 almost assuredly takes Daniel 12.1-3 as its starting point to understand the resurrection of Jesus. To that end, I would put forward the relationship of Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar’s court in Daniel 2 as a paradigm for then understanding Paul’s relationship to Hellenistic philosophy, particularly Stoic philosophy which enjoyed influence in the halls of Roman power.

My contention from this is that it is better to talk about a Danielic Paul than an apocalyptic Paul, as (1) we may have a stronger, evidential case for that specific influence and (2) more specific knowledge of the various influences, such as both apocalyptic and philosophical, can help us to draw hypotheses about the configuration and coordination of the nature of those historical influences upon Paul in a way that allows us to then consider which configurations make the most coherent sense of Paul’s discourse.

Abraham as the prototype of calling

May 28, 2020

I want to present a key idea that I think will help to make sense of Paul’s understanding of the story of Abraham in Romans and Abraham. In Romans 4 and Galatians 3, Paul makes a concerted effort to draw a connection between the story of Abraham and his faith with believers in the present day. There are at least two implications of this connection for Paul. Firstly, Christians believers are understood to be imitating Abraham’s faith, suggesting that they experience the same justification that Abraham did. Secondly, through a faith like Abrahams, Christian believers are brought into the blessing of the nations that God promised to Abraham. Both of these points is contained in Galatians 3.9 and are well-established in the commentaries and studies.

What is not well-established that I want to put forward is that the comparison between Christian beleivers and Abraham is not reduced to believing and blessing, but also in terms of God’s calling. When one looks at Galatians 3.1-9, there seems to be a incoherency between the content of vs. 1-5 and 6-9. In the first part, Paul focuses on the experience of believers when they came to faith, including their perception of Christ as crucified, the reception of the Spirit, and the outworkings of power. Then, in 6-9, Paul switches focus on Abraham’s faith. On the surface, the content of these two passages share only one expressed point of continuity that draws a connection between them: faith. Such a mininal connection between these two passages would suggest that Paul is simply drawing a single similarity between the two, in which the coherency of Paul’s argument is only connected by a single thread. It is much more likely, in my mind, that the discursive connections between 1-5 and 6-9 should be understood through a much more expansive overlap between the experience of the Galatians in hearingthe Gospel and the story of Abraham.

Thus, it is my contention that Paul intends to draw an analogy between the wider Abrahamic narrative prior to the creation of the covenant in Genesis 15 in his argumentive move towards 6-9. As such, Paul is implicitly drawing upon a deep analogy between Abraham and the Galatians that includes God’s own action and calling to the believers in a manner in some degree similar to how God called Abraham

The evidence I present forward for this is the rather difficult line in Galatians 3.14: “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might recieve the promise of the Spirit through faith.” There are two questions that can be address of this verse. First, what is the relationship between the arrival of the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles and the recieving of the promise of the Spirit? Second, what precisely is the promise of the Spirit?

If we go back to Genesis 12.1-3, we see progression of God’s promises to Abraham regarding blessings. God will (A) bless Abraham, (B) will make Abraham a blessing, (C) will bless those who bless Abraham, and (D) bless all the families of the earth. Upon a closer look, we can break these four promises down to two basic movements: (1) God’s actions to bless Abraham to make him a blessing and (2) God’s blessing those who bless Abraham to make the familes of the earth blessed. There may also be an implicit movement between (1) and (2) where Abraham is blessed in reciprocation from the blessing that comes from Abraham, but that isn’t likely at issue for Paul’s understanding for the Abrahamic narrative. What is at sake, however, is that there seems to be an analogy between Abraham and the families of the earth within Genesis 12.1-3.

However, there is one thing in God’s promise to Abraham that may hinder the blessing of the families, God’s cursing those who curse Abraham. We may this distantly echoed of in the curse of the Torah in Galatians 3.13. While the curse of the Torah is most like a direct reference to the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and the redemption of these curses as a direct allusion to Deuteronomy 30,1 I would suggest the relationship between the curses, the blessings, and the promises in 3.13-3.14 should be understood by reference to Genesis 12.1-3. In favor of this is the seemingly disjointed connection between 3.6-9 and 3.10-14, where the only common content that is explicitly expressed pertains to matters of blessings and curses. Similar to what I state about about the relationship between 3.1-5 and 3.6-9, I would also put forward there is some deeper continuity between 3.6-9 and 3.10-14 other than just simply the idea of blessing and cursing, which could be adequately explained by the notion that the Deuteronomic blessing and curses are an extension of the Abrahamic blessing and curse.

If this is the case, then we may understand the ‘curse of Abraham’ has come upon even Israel itself by not honoring but bringing shame on Abraham by not obeying the commandments of the God of their father Abraham. As a consequence, Isarel’s disobedience has put a stranglehold on God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham, with Abraham’s descendants living under the curse of Abraham.

While NT Wright observes that Israel’s curse under Torah stood in the way of the blessing of Abraham,2 I think it is important to Paul’s overarching point in Galatians 3 to understand the curse of the Torah as a part of the “curse of Abraham.” In that case, the problem of the Torah isn’t simply that the Torah itself stands in the way or that people are automatically cursed by trying to obey Torah, but rather by living under the covenant of circumcision and seeking to obey the Torah, one perpetuates making the Deuteronomic curses as the curse of Abraham operational in the world by virtue of the flesh and human sin. This curse thereby sets itself against the blessing of Abraham to bless the families of the earth.

So, when Christ redeems Israel from the Deuteronomic curse, the “curse of Abraham” is no longer in operation through those who have become freed in Christ. There is a free flowing bounty of blessing that will be working itself out in the world through those persons redeemed in Christ. As such, Israel freedom from the “curse of Abraham” means that they can now become agents of the “blessing of Abraham” to the Gentiles through those Israelites redeemed in Christ, which would moot notably include Paul himself as the apostle of the Gentiles. As such, the arrival of blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles is a description of Paul’s own ministry.

This provides the basis of a connection between 13-14a and 14b: the redemption of Jews’ like Paul enables Paul’s apostolic mission to the Gentiles, with the result that both Jews and Gentiles have recieved the promise of the Spirit. Vs. 14b is the logical conclusion of the condensed narrative of redemption and ministry expressed in 13-14a, as both the redemption from the curse for Jews and the arrival of blessings to the Gentiles through redeemed Jews can be understood as the universal reception of the promise of the Spirit. In this case, the repetition of the ἵνα in 3.14 is not intended to outline two conceptually different things, such as the Gospel and acceptance by God3 or acceptance by God and the power of God in the Spirit4. Instead, the repetition of ἵνα can be understood as a restatement of similar things in different language, which discursively functions to draw an implicit, inferential connection between the two purpose clauses, where the narrative action of 13-14a is then redescribed through the second purpose clause of 14b. In other words, the redemption of Jews and the coming of ABraham’s blessing are both the reception of the promise of the Spirit.

Consequently, this entails that 14a and 14b be understood as somehow referring to same thing , much as the morning star and the evening star both refer to Venus, even as the semantic sense of the terms provide different ways to construe Venus. One may try to suggest that the blessing of Abraham is the promise of the Spirit, as it is was the Holy Spirit who made the promise to Abraham. While this is certainly plausible from a theological angle, it is highly doubtful that Paul would refer to God’s promise to Abraham by naming the Spirit, who is not mention in the Abrahamic narrative. If there is a shared identity between 14a and 14b, then it would likely be between the two verbs, γένηται (came) and λάβωμεν (recieved), describing the same event. I would put forward this event is the event of the Gospel proclamation, which Galatians 3.1-5 is a particular instance of. Whereas “came” describes the arrival of the Gospel as the vehicle by which Abraham’s blessing comes, “recieved” refers to the outcome of believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The significance of this is that the blessing of Abraham and the promise of the Spirit are functionally similar in some manner, even if they are not indentical. I would put forward at this point that the promise of the Spirit belongs to the same class of event that Abraham’s promise belongs to: God’s promissory self-disclosure to individual people. Just as God made a promise to Abraham, so too does the Spirit make a promise through the proclamation of Christ that people come to accept.5

If these exegetical speculations are correct, and I need to emphasize that these are speculations at this point, then this suggests at least a third point of analogy between Abraham and the believer: that they both believe God based upon promises that is divinely communicated to them. Both have some sort of calling from God that lead a response of faith. This doesn’t mean that God communicates the promise to them in the same way, as Paul’s description of the promise coming from the Spirit seems to put it in a different class of God’s self-disclosure than God’s direct speech with Abraham. Nevertheless, it may be the case that Paul understands the relationship between God and Abraham to be paradigmatic for believers in some manner that goes simply having a shared faith or being the recipients of blessing.

Also, if this reading is correct, it is important to clarify that this is an incredibly minor point in Paul’s overall discourse. While the activity of the Spirit is central part of Paul’s discourse throughout Galatians, this particular “promise of the Spirit” is not some concept that will open up the rest of Galatians. Rather, it would be simply a one-off reference to what was already familiar within the Galatians experience and was described as universal for both Jews and Gentiles. It is not, in my mind, significant in understanding the rest of the discourse that follows, although it is significant in helping to highlight how importance the memory of Paul’s proclamation of Christ and the Galatians reception of it may very will be to make sense of other parts of Galatians that may present some thorny issues. That is to state that we need not find deep theological significnace to all the language in Galatians, but sometimes the language is used ot refer to the events that the Galatians were presently familiar with.6

In conclusion, I would put forward that the flow of the argument in Galatians 3.1-14 can best be made sense of by recognizing a deep analogy between God’s relationship with Abraham and God’s relationship to believers that in addition to the already recognize faith and blessing also includes God’s agency in calling and making promises to them.

Romans 1.18-32 as the theological presupposition of Romans

May 27, 2020

In The Deliverance of God, Douglas Campbell makes a creative move in rereading Romans as Paul’s engagement with a Teacher who has set himself against Paul. Whereas, on the one hand, the Teacher proclaims a message of God’s retribution against human sin, Paul proclaims a non-retributive gospel message of liberation. As a consequence, Campbell divides Romans 1.18-3.20 from the rest of Romans as a section where Paul represents the teachings of the Teacher in 1.18-32, with Paul’s rebuttal of them in 2.1-3.20.2

However, the reasoning for this shared critique diverges, as I think Romans 1.18-3.20 is addressing a theological problem that the rest of Romans address: the nature of God’s relationship to the moral life and status of Jews and Gentiles. Romans is not structured to be a presentation of the Gospel message, but more so to rebut the incomplete and ultimately mistaken accounts of righteousness and judgment of the nations expressed and implied in texts like Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Maccabees, and 4 Maccabees. What I would suggest Paul does in Romans 1.18-3.20 is to turn the expectations of God’s imminent wrath and judgment against the ungodly nations on its head by demonstrating Torah-observant Israel’s vulnerability to God’s judgment also. Romans 1.18-3.20 is addressing the perceived problem that is situated in the specific circumstance of Paul’s writing, rather than an overarching anthropological or soteriological problem about one’s sin and insufficiency that is necessary to be able to prospectively recognize and receive the Gospel.

To that end, this account of 1.18-3.20 as addressing a problem in the specific circumstance doesn’t diverge dramatically from Campbell’s account of Romans 1.18-3.20. Either way, Paul rebuts his opponent before presenting his message, as was standard in the beginnings of speeches in classical rhetoric. However, where the difference is significant is how one integrates the theological account expressed in 1.18-3.20 with what follows? Is what Paul expresses in 1.18-3.20 a necessary presupposition of Paul’s own understanding of God’s judgment in order to understand the rest of the theological discourse? Or, as per Campbell, is 1.18-3.20 simply the rebuttal of another, false gospel? In other words: is the theology express in 1.18-3.20 necessary to account for what Paul expresses in the rest of the letter?

My answer to that is a decisive yes. Romans 1.18-3.20 presents a theological axiom that is necessary for understanding the rest of Paul’s discourse in Romans. God’s judgment fo the Gentiles in leaving them to their sin in 1.18-32 is not unique to the nations. It is also the reality of Torah-observant Jews. When Paul discusses the hardening of Israelites in Romans 9-11, it is apropos to understanding it as equivalent to God’s actions in 1.18-32. God’s hardening of people or, in the words of Romans 11.32, God’s imprisonment into disobedience is universal, happening among both Jews and Gentiles.

This universality of hardening is in stark contrast to the Wisdom of Solomon, which, according to Campbell, the Teacher is dependent upon.3 What is notable is that Wisdom 13-14, the section that Paul seems to echo in Romans 1.18-32, is followed up by praise to God for the moral righteousness and status the faithful have in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-4. The descent into depravity is followed up by the ascent of righteousness for the faithful in the Wisdom of Solomon. We can metaphorically think of there being two socio-moral narratives in both Wisdom of Solomon and Romans: a socio-moral narrative of descent into depravity and the socio-moral narrative of ascent into righteousness. For the Wisdom of Solomon, the nations are filled with those who are in a descent into depravity, but faithful Jews are in an ascent towards righteousness.

The expectations an audience familiar with the Wisdom of Solomon might have upon hearing Romans 1.18-32 might have been to think that Paul would extol the virtues of the Torah-observant Jews. However, instead of doing that, Paul takes a play out of the playbook of the prophet Amos, who, after describing God’s judgment to the nations in Amos 1.2-2.3, then indicts Judah and Israel in 2.4-8. Judah is specifically indicted because “they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes” (Amos 2.4), which is similar to Paul’s critique of the Jewish sage in 2.17-24. The surprising turn in Romans 2 is better understood as a form of prophetic speech that tears apart any sense of special favoritism for those who boast in the Torah, rather than an embarrassment and humiliation of Campbell hypothesize Teacher. After all, Paul refers to himself in epistolary prescript as a servant of Jesus Christ, which was commonly used as a prophetic designation4, rather than his more customary introduction as an apostle. Paul is not engaging in a repartee with a counter-missionary teacher teaching a different gospel: Paul is speaking in the tradition of the prophets who regularly called Israel to repentance.

The implication of Paul’s argument in Romans 2 is that Israel is not immune to the judgment that the wicked Gentiles are vulnerable to. This is not, strictly speaking, an argument from “universalization” that Campbell suggests, as if Paul is appealing to some broader, rational principles that would paint an inconsistent particularist into an argumentative corner.5 The universality of God’s judgment is what is in question, not a rational principle to demonstrate the rightness of an argument. The credibility of Paul’s denunciation and pronouncement of judgment in Romans 2.1-11 is contingent on what follows in (a) establishing one’s actions as the basis of judgment (2.12-16), (b) indicting Jewish sages as susceptible indictable behavior (2.17-24), (c) making a familiar, Deuteronomic echo about the meaning of circumcision as defining the person’s way of life (2.25-29), and (d) the Torah being a testimony about the sinfulness of those under Torah (3.1-20). It is more fitting to suggest that Paul’s ‘argument’ in 2.1-3.20 proceeds from a prophetic denunciation and proclamation of an eschatological judgment to offering inductive support for the denunciation of those who affiliate themselves with the Torah, with it being finally clinched by a catena of OT quotations that demonstrate that the Jews are not morally privileged according to the Scriptures, in contrast with what is expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-4.

Put more simply, the socio-moral narrative of descent into depravity in Romans 1.18-32 is also applicable to the implied Torah-affiliating figure of Romans 2. Romans 2.5 represents this figure as being hardened and storing up wrath for themselves just like the people in 1.18-32.

The crux of Paul’s social discussion about Jews and Gentiles in Romans is that the universality of God’s hardening among Jews and Gentiles is also suggestive another theological reality: that God’s mercy is also universally bestowed to the Jew and Greek alike. This is at the heart of Romans 11.30-32, the resolution of Paul’s argument in chapters 1-11.

That Romans 11.30-32 should be understood as summarizing the whole of Paul’s argument from chapters 1-11 is evidenced by the similarity between 1.17-18 and 11.32. Even though 1.16-17 has been marked as the thesis statement of Romans, the grammatical and structural parallels of 1.17 and 1.18 suggest that the concepts of 1.17 and 1.18 are related. Campbell suggests this similarity of form is explained to a deliberate contrast of Paul’s Gospel with the gospel of the Teacher.6 If this was Paul’s rhetorical strategy, a preposition other than γὰρ would have been more clear of this contrast. However, the usage of γὰρ would generally suggest that there some form an inferential relationship between the content of 1.17 and 1.18. As 11.30-32 expresses a causal relationship between God’s imprisoning and God’s mercy, it seems that the relationship between 1.17-18 should be understood as causal, where the revelation of God’s wrath describing 1.18 is somehow understood to instrumental in the revelation of God’s righteousness in 1.17. We see a similar causal link between God’s wrath and God’s mercy expressed in 9.22-23. Thus, it seems that the explicit expressed content of 1.18-32 is a necessary, theological presupposition for understanding the rest of Paul’s discourse in Romans 1-11, even if implicitly Paul’s language would have been understood to be from another source that Paul disagrees with in some capacity.

Without the universality of God’s hardening and judgment expressed in Romans 1.18-3.20, Paul’s argument loses a key concept by which to understand the relationship between Israel’s hardening and a universal mercy in Romans 9-11. Furthermore, the discussion of hardening in 9-11 is seemingly brought up out of nowhere when it is first brought up in Romans 9.14-18. There is no further explanation of what hardening is in the immediate context, as if it is a concept that should be understood by the audience. As a consequence, there is an inclination to provide various theological accounts of hardening in interpreting Paul, often relying on certain metaphysical accounts to explain it. Luther in On the Bondage of the Will thought God’s hardening was forced onto a person and evidence of the lack of free will. Similarly, in his commentary on Romans 9.18, John Calvin considers the hardening a foreordained event. However, if we recognize 1.18-32 as the prototype of what God’s hardening looks like for Paul, we can then understand Romans 9.14-18 as Paul picking back up the topic of hardening, directing it in this case towards Israel. Rather than a concept coming up out of the blue, God’s hardening as already been touched upon in 1.18-32 as God’s response to human acts of idolatry and sin.

One of the weaknesses of Campbell’s interpretation of Romans is that he gives scant attention to the resolution of Paul’s theological argumentation in 11.30-32. It is these verses that are suggestive of an important theological relation of God’s hardening and judgment with God’s righteousness and mercy. However, the mistake that interpreters who resemble Campbell’s portrayal of Justification Theory make is that they seem to assume the expression of a logical relationship between wrath and mercy is a necessary epistemic step one must take to come to faith through the Gospel.

Instead of presenting rudimentary, epistemic stages of faith development, Paul’s concern is to give an account of the outworking of God’s purposes in history by understanding the two socio-moral narratives of descent and ascent. Responsibility is placed on the actions of Adam for universally bringing about the descent into sin and death into the world (Romans 5.12-14). The end result is that even someone who tries to obey Torah resembles Adam in their own moral descent (Romans 7.7-13).7 By contrast, Christ’s obedience has made possible a moral ascent for everyone (Romans 5.15-21). Those who are baptized into Christ participate in this moral ascent and transformation by their union with Christ’s death and resurrection freeing from them sin and enabling them to successfully use their bodies for the purpose of righteousness (Romans 6.1-23).

Paul’s understanding of the universal reality of both socio-moral narratives among both Jews and Gentiles presents a stark contrast with the anthropology of the Wisdom of Solomon, which sees the pagan world living in a moral decline that will lead to their eventual destruction by God, whereas faithful, Torah observant Jews are by God’s mercy on a moral incline that will lead to their inevitable vindication. Paul’s argument is not to reject this view that we see expressed by the Wisdom of Solomon, but rather to show its incompleteness, as both experience and Israel’s Scriptures demonstrate that much of Israel can be on the moral decline and that even Gentiles can live faithfully before God and become part of God’s people. The startling conclusion of Paul’s argument in Romans 11 is that Israel’s hardening by God is instrumental in the merciful inclusion of the Gentiles, which will, in turn, lead to the merciful reinclusion of Israel.

Paul’s argument in Romans gives what, in the words of legendary radio story-teller Paul Harvey, may be understood as “the rest of the story.” Only, this rest of the story challenged some the other narratives that were commonly packaged together with this partial, ethnocentric narrative, such as Abraham’s obedience at the time of testing being the origins of his justification before God rather than His faith8 and that the devil and Cain are complicit in the presence of death and evil in the world rather than Adam.9 While those other narratives were told in such a way that it exonerates those figures that Israel identified themselves with, such as Adam and Abraham as morally exemplary figures, Paul’s alternative telling of Israel’s story tears apart these narratives by putting responsibility for sin on Adam’s shoulders and emphasizing that Abraham was justified through faith before he was every faithful. This implication of these arguments is to demonstrate that there is no some inherent incline towards righteousness among humanity that only Abraham and his ancestors retained in virtue of God’s election and Torah, but rather that the moral decline has universally devastated Israel and all the nations alike, while God’s mercy in the atonement of Christ to reverse this decline is also abundantly given to Jews and Gentiles alike.

In conclusion, Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 is a necessary theological presupposition for understanding the wider argument in chapters 1-11. While Campbell’s argument is on stronger grounds when he rejects the Justification Theory’s prospective, epistemically foundationalist reading of Romans as providing an account of conversion where one moves from recognition of the negative experience under Torah and of one’s sinfulness that leads to faith and reception of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, Romans 1.18-32 is prospective in development of Paul’s discourse, laying an argumentative foundation that will then be used to make sense of significant parts of the argument throughout Romans 1-11. The prospective movement in Paul’s argument is to be understood as part of the rhetorical strategy to undercut the partial anthropological and historical narrative being told by the Wisdom of Solomon, but it is not intended by Paul to be in any way suggestive of the way the Gospel is received by individuals.

Experience, identity, and the Christian life

May 26, 2020

There are key moments in people’s lives can begin to define people’s identities throughout the course of thier lives. Sometimes these are individual events that are unique to a specific person, such as wisdom from a revere figure about an occupation or a wedding, or they are shared events, such as graduation ceremony marking a complete of a degree. Whatever these are, certain experiences in life have a disproprotinate impact on our sense of identity.

This is commonly the case for us who are believers in Jesus Christ. I am aware of a few people who have had rather unique experiences in their life that have go on to defne their identity. I myself have had a couple and David Bennett, a friend and colleague of my from my time at the University of St. Andrews, is an example of a person who has had some profound experiences of God in his life. While I would think I could say the same for myself, I can say that David is an example of a person who keeps a level head about their experiences.

However, I have met another person (who shall remain private and any potentially identifying information keep secret) who also claimed to have dramatic experiences and events in their lives but they went off onto some esoteric journey. I recall one time a person who I was facebook friends with who claimed they had a revelation that amount to a freedom from shame, but I saw them go down a spiral towards religious teaching that didn’t look anything like what we see in the Scriptures in casting aside the ethics concerns of the Christian life. As I tried to dicuss with him about what he was saying and caution him that sometimes our profound experiences of God need to be interpreted and understood down the line with care and discernment, he repeated to me that he had a revelation and proceeded to become increasingly more narcissistic and manipulative when we would engage in theological discussions, including going so far as to delete a facebook post he made of some ‘teachings’ in wich I respond in a polite conversation to some passages that went pretty decisively against what he was saying. A person who I had usually enjoyed some polite theological and Biblical conversations with had become a real burden. Eventually, the antics had become enough and I decide to defriend him. I came across him at a later point on a mutual friend’s facebook page. When he discovered that I was no longer friends with him, he suggested that I was offended by the scandalousness of his gospel, not being willing to consider that his manipulation and antics were the issue. What happened to him?

I can’t know exactly as he was only an acquaintance and it has been a few years ago so my memory is not as sharpe, but the few things I remember about him are suggestive. Firstly, the person admitted to me privately that he had struggled with a pornography addiction and he was now experiencing a freedom from it. Praise God, but his used his freedom from pornography as if it was evidence that he had a special revelation made to him. This is suggestive that his sense of revelation was rooted in his sense of his sense and his identity, as the ‘revelation’ was a tied up with his own feeling of redemption. Rather than recognizing the experience as a work of God’s redemption, he began to identify himself with the experience as revelation of his liberation from shame and frame his whole theology and reading of the Scriptures around this idea. Unfortunately, the idea that was taking shape was a freedom from things that might cause a person to feel shame, rather than recognizing that one experienced a transformation from being bound by shame. The ‘revelation’ was turning into a religious form of advoidance of the ethical challenges of the Christian life rather than a “transformation” that he could face the challenges of the call of Christ without a feeling like a harsh taskmaster was bearing down on him.

In a nutshell, what I would suggest was the problem is that he too tightly identified himself with a specific experience and tried to understand himself and everything about the Christian life through the lens of that experience. What by all accounts was a wonderful account of the epiphany of Christ and a personal transformation was turning into an ideology that control how he saw everything that was treading down the line towards heresy. He exhibited no real sense of caution and humility about himself, but leaning on his own understanding of the ‘revelation’ that made him run off the rails. I believe he was wholeheartedly following after Christ, but then he got derailed along the way.

There is a unique problem associated with a strong identification with specific events and experiences in one’s life: they become lens that forcibly colors everything we see that we are unwilling to take off in order to look at things differently. One of the necessary prerequisites for being able to effectively learn about and navitage life is the ability to be able to look at our experiences through various ‘lenses’ to see which ones really work out and which ones aren’t working. For instance, my relationship to my mother is not colored through by my own calling experiences, even as I retaining a commitment to my calling when I with my mother, but my relationship with her is understood through the lens of relationship that has developed through the years. While I don’t let go my own identity as a follower of Christ, I primarily makes sense of my interactiosn with my mom through the love and intellectual respect we have for each other (both of which are consistent with being a follower of Christ).

In a similar manner, our understanding of God’s will and purposes for our lives and the Scriptures works similarly: we need to be able to put on differently lens to see which makes the best sense of what we are reading and discovering in our lives. For instance, recognizing our freedom from shame should not be a lens by which we abandon any and everything as bad that might cause shame within us, such as the recognition of our own sins and errors or the acceptance of a specific way of life we are called to as Christians. Many a person have unwittingly become people who act narcissistic in response to anything that might provoke a feeling of shame within them once they felt free from shame because they framed their whole understanding of the Christian life around the freedom from shame. The experience of redempion become a law-like rule for how reality and the Christian life must be experienced and understood at all times. When we begin to tightly identify with specific experiences, our experiences can become an ideology that dictates how we read and understand the Scriptures. The end result is that we become a representation of the specific experience, including the distortions of the divine image that we were present within us at that time, rather than continuing in our journey to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ.

What I have learned is this: I do not identify myself as part of my profound events and experiences of God as much as I see them as God’s own knowing, engagement, and partial disclosure to me. This isn’t some potentially superficial “my identity is in Christ” but something that is more profound: I do not know fully comprehend God’s knowledge of me, but as He calls and leads me, I have faith He is bringing towards those purposes in accordance with what has been made known. My own identity and future purposes for life is “hidden in Christ” and I will understand that in due time, rather than now. This has the purpose of both (a) recognizing my own profound experiences of God’s leading in my life as both orienting me towards God and providing images that I would learn about and comprehend through time while (b) recognizing that I am gripped by the mystery of a holy God that I do not yet understand. Consequentl, my experiences do not become an ideology through over identification, but rather my identity is brought into the ever constant formation and transformation.

Divine presence and human experience

May 26, 2020

The idea of communing with God is a central, key theme throughout the Scriptures, with various references to being in Christ, being partakers of God, having fellowship with God, etc. Corresponding to these references is the way that Christ and the Holy Spirit are said to be presence in believers. These descriptions of the Christian life are key, critical components to understanding how the first Christians understood the Christian way of life lived in faith and submission to God, all of which can be summed up in the basic idea that God has drawn near to humanity. I would go so far as to suggest that the fundamental ‘logic’ of the Christian life in the New Testament is bound up with the concept of communion with God. However, if there is one distinction that I feel is of vital importance theological importance for our long-term, spiritual well-being, it is being able to make a sharper distinction between the divine presence and human experience.

When the New Testament was written, the presence of God would have been understood primarily through a social, corporate lens. Being in Christ, being partakers, and having fellowship with God is primarily understood through the shared experiences of believers together. Similarily, when one talks about the inhabitation of Christ and the Spirit in us as persons, the prime emphasis of these discourses is describe the change of our relationships with God and with each other. For the New Testament, the communion of believers with God is the ‘metaphysical’ construal of God’s presence and activity that provides an explanation for the new and reconstituted social identies and realtionships that believers have with God and with other people, particuarly fellow believers.1 Communion is understood through the the more corporate, social construal of identity in the ancient world, where the personal is to be understood as constitued by their ‘memberships; and relationships.

On the other hand, communion is not to be understood as a description of some sort of personal, mystic experience that one has in the presence of God. Internal, religious ‘experience’ was not the central purview of the New Testament authors. Rather, the outward signs and fruits of a person who God has called and drawn near to in the Spirit were of immense social importance, helping people to identify the spritually maturing, the spiritual child, and the outsider.

However, with the modern, Cartesian-inspired turn towards the individual and their cognitions and experienceas as the fundamental building block for understand personhood, there has been a sharp predilection to try to understand communion with God vis-a-vis the individual experience. Consequently, there is a real interest in the idea of mysticism that can become evident among Christians who seek to grow deeper in their faith.

Before proceed forward, I think it is important to say that I don’t think we should rule out all theological and psychological accounts about experiencing God simply because the New Testament does not directly address. If there is a real presence and activity of God that the New Testament desribes and refers to, then the possibility and actuality of God’s activity and how it manifests itself in our lives is not contingent upon our understanding it through the social, communal lens of the New Testament authors. We should still be able to undersatnd God’s activity through more individualistic lenses.

However, we should be careful about reinterpreting and resituating the specific language and symbols of communion with God of the New Tesatment in the context of modern individualism. Being “in Christ” is not a description of personal, mystical experiences of God but the way that believers are related together with each other and God in the very way that Christ trusts the Father and loves us. Being partakers of the Holy Spirit is about the empowerment God gives people to live part this reconstituted community, not some reference to some part or moment of our internal experience that we can securely say “That was God and not myself.” Instead, we can understand our individual experiences of God through the lens of some solitary figures inspired by God, such as the prophet Elijah who recognized God in a calm, quiet voice, which evokes more mystery about the activity of the divine presence in the human life than it does give real clarity. Yet, if we take the confession about Christ in the New Testament seriously, we can not simply look at our experience of God as the telos and purpose of the Christian life, but we must consider how our internal experiences of God are instrumental in our reconstituted social identites and relationships according to the cruciform pattern of Jesus Christ.

The danger that can manfiest itself if we are not careful about how we think about individual experience of God is that we may inculcate a sense of the divinization of human experience, as if we are experiencing God in some direct, not-mediated way. While we can not reduce theological reality to the body, we see nothing in the Scriptures that suggest we reguarly experience God in any specific type of fashion or form other than in and through our bodies. The rare cases that we get glimpses at possible, non-bodily experience and revelation of God, such as 2 Corinthians 12, it is something that is only mentioned briefly and not given further explanation and significance. The normal, regular experiences of God that the Scriptures refer to is the experience of our bodies under the work of divine agency, and what we experience is the effect of God’s presence and agency upon us and not the presence and agency of God in an unmediated way.

Unfortunately, when the New Testament language about God’s presences and communion with Him is colonized and exploited by the focus on the individual, there is a sharp tendnecy to imagine how the symbols and language used to describe communion with God are descriptive of the inner experience of God. For instance, the bridal metephor in describing the relationship of the Church to Christ in Ephesians 5.29-33 has been the source of unending speculations of religious experiences in the form of a love relationship, sometimes evne of a somewhat erotic form. What is missed, however, is that Paul uses the image of Christ and the church in union as a way to comprehend how husbands are to relate to their wives, not as some basis for understanding internal, religious experience.

Certainly, people who understand their religious experiences through the lens of such symbols and metaphors may very well experience a profound change in their life and experiences. We need not automatically attribute this to the experience of God, however, but rather the way that we frame our experiences through various symbols, metaphors, images, words, etc. can have substantive effects in the shape of our experiences by impacted giving cognitive frames that allows us to (a) integrate our various interior and exterior senses into a conscious, coherent whole and (b) direct our attentions to specific senses and how we comprehend those senses. In other words, that we believe a symbol defines our experiences can make us susceptible to novel, even powerful experiences which may make feel as if we have experience God because it is unlikely anything else we are ever felt.

There is nothing inhernetly wrong with the way symbols, even Christian symbols, can modify the way we experience. I would go so far as to say that the concern for attention to God’s word and instruction is actually what is responsible for the process that allows God’s word to alter and reconfigure our own experiences in such a way that we become more open to the will and activity of God in our lives, particuarly through communities and social relationships. The problem, however, is when we treat novel and powerful experiences at any single point of time as ‘divine’ or ‘revelation,’ as if this experience provides some critical idea or paradigm for understanding the Christian life. The potential result of the divinization of human experience is that we go off on some rabbit trail that takes us away from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ and towards some esoteric, idiosyncratic obsession. By understanding the language about communion with God in the New Testament through the lens of individual experience, we risk pushing away from the reconstituted social community and relationships and into an illusory world of one’s own making where we project our own selves onto God.

This is, in fact, part of the reason why I am increasly cautious about theological concepts such as ‘revelation’ and the ‘apocalyptic’ understandings of Paul, even as I recognize their necessity in some fashion in orthodox Christian theology and responsible exegesis, as both of these theological concepts can have have the risk of veering us off into some eostericism by somehow masking us from the human, embodied context in which we normally understand and comprehend God. Any theological understanding of God’s agency in the world, no matter how pious it sounds to highlight God’s activity over human activity, that does not take seriously the embodied status of believers in their trusting God, following Christ, and being lead by the Spirit and which somehow expects to nullify and escape the expectation and demand of a critical discernment of these matters in virtue of it being “revelation” and “apocalyptic” is at risk of going off down a rabbit trail away from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ.

Divine agency and awakening

May 26, 2020

If I were to attempt to summarize the history of theology in Western Christianity around a single theme that most readily describes the development and theological diversity, it would be the concept of divine agency. The anti-Pelagian theology of Augustine who established the need of God’s grace in human life, Luther’s understanding of salvation by faith as a matter of God’s agency rather than human agency, Calvinism’s soteriological program built upon the basic foundation of the divine agency of God’s unconditional election, Wesley’s emphasis on grace throughout the course of the human life, and Barth’s prioritization of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ all present key points in the history of Western theology that have taken the concept of divine agency as a critical, key component in understanding Christian faith.

Why is that about the concept of divine agency stands at the center of religious transformation? For one thing, insofar as theology has consistently been about the awareness and knowledge of God throughout history, understanding God’s significance to human life necessary entails the concept of divine agency. While we reguarly witness various attempts to make theology serve the epistemic tasks of other, various social and psychological agendas, the story of Western theology has had a dynamic, transformational pulse to it because, I believe, of the Augustinian emphasis on divine agency in grace. Why? Because the renewed theological study and imagination about divine agency can function as a protest, resistance, and reversal of various social and cultural realities that human agency is understood to have created.

Barth’s theological bombshell was written in an age where the dreams of the progress of human society, effectively placing hopes in a collective human agency. In Wesley’s day, the sense of divine agency had become increasingly cornered off into a rationalistic deism and colonized the Christian way of life. The Protestant Reformation set itself up against the most powerful social institution in Europe at the time. Augustine was resisting the theological incursion of a conception of free will that would make human agency the center of life and righteousness.

This is perhaps why Romans has been the catalyst of theological transformations throughout the centuries. The repeated emphasis upon divine agency strewn throughout the letter stokes the heart and imagination of believers to dream afresh and anew of God’s activity and purposes in the world, redeeming and transforming us from the various human agencies that have had a hand in creating our life, including even our own agency.

We are, yet again, societally ripe in the present day for another theological transformation. In the present world that has eviscerated most sense of awareness of divine agency in human existence and life, various religious traditions have become tempted to treat God more like a painting made by arists long ago that one is affected by based upon one’s own attention and rumination on the painting. Consequently, the theological conception of ‘God’ has become yet again a legitimation and justification of one’s various personal and social agendas that the idea of God inspires within us (rather than the inspiration of the Spirit which we critically discern), where we think we confidently know and comprehend the will of God at the first glance of the love of Jesus, while trying to avoid any sense of awareness of one’s own remarked propensity towards sin and evil. This ‘God’ has become the supporter of our own social and political agendas, while resisting other agendas, but not the God who says ‘no’ to us and them alike, who says ‘repent and believe’ to us and them alike, who says ‘follow me’ to us and them alike, who says ‘yes’ to those who are in Christ.

Of course, the critical question is this: if a theological renewal and awakening were to occur today, what sort of conception of divine agency will emerge? That is the important, critical question. Even as the concept of divine agency may be a dramatic catalyst for theological transformation, whether this theological transformation will move us closer towards God’s purposes in Jesus Christ or away will be determined by whether our understanding of God’s agency is attuned to and formed by the specific pattern of God’s action. In other words, how do we specifically understand God’s agency? Is He acting like a king, ordering and commanding others? Is He act liking a political demagogue, who tells us what we already believe and want to hear? Is He acting like a liberator, looking to take down the agents of injustice and oppression? Or, is He acting like a servant who gives Himself for others? And is He like a teacher, seeking to gradually inculcate an awareness of His purposes where we are ignorant? Can it be that God is like a healer, seeking to give strength to those who have been weakened, scarred, and maimed by injustice? It is these last three images that I would put foward are the most critical and Scriptural understanding of divine agency that can be put forward.

Understanding worldviews and their relationship to affective experience

May 25, 2020

Since the late 19th century, the concept of a worldview has been an important analytic concept for Protestant Evangelicalism, rooting in the Reformed theology of Scottish Presbyterian James Orr and Dutch Neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, who aspire to a description of Christian faith that was “a robust, systemic vision of the reality” so that Christian could “meet the challenges of the modern world head-on.”1 The concept has become thoroughly diffused witihn the Christian intellectual tradition that it has been taken from it original, ‘rationalist’ presentation of the Christian message in a Calvinist form to a basic building block of historical and theological interpretation of the Bible. Most prominently, n The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright outlines four key features that make up worldviews as the basic presuppositions that determine how people and cultures interpret the world around them: stories, questions, symbols, and praxis.2

However, while Wright’s work on worldview owes to research in cultural anthropological and the social science, the concept of a worldview finds it origins in the Weltanschaung of German scholarship, including notably its one usage by the philosopher Immanuel Kant that Kant’s successors used to refer to the “perspective of the human knower.”5 As anthropologists studied the differences between various cultures more thoroughly, they began to observe the impact that culture had on how beliefs are form.6 Since then, it has been increasingly used to describe the way people make sense of, comprehend, and categorize the world in cognitive terms, as if the way different people and cultures live can be understood through persisting cognitive patterns that generally operate outside of the awareness of the interpreter.

However, the concept of a worldview has not gone without its criticism. James K.A. Smith presents his concerns the modern analysis of worldviews “retains a picture of the human person that situates the center of gravity of human identity in the cognitive regions of the mind rather than the affect region of the gut/heart/body.”7 In place of it, Smith looks to Charles Taylor’s concept of the social imaginary that focuses on the understanding that emerges from particular practices to replace discussions on worldviews.8 Wright’s response to this criticism of worldview is to broaden the concept of worldview to include the affective elements of human life such as desire, love, and worship.9 Wright’s suggesting broadening of the concept of worldview begins to shift the conception of worldview from understand broader cultural patterns of thinking to including the experiential elements of human life, thereby shifting the original purpose of the concept of worldview.

However, instead of broadening the concept of world, as per Wright, or abandoning the concept of worldview, as per Smith, perhaps a better option is to (1) make a sharper distinction between the difference between the shared and diffuses patterns of cognition from the individual experience while (2) recognizing that insofar as a society is able to successful enculturate people within its zone of influence, its members will experience the shared worldview differently. For instance, Christian faith within even the same theological tradition may create different emotional experience from the same share beliefs, such as an emphasis on overcoming anxiety among the more anxious whereas among those who are more ambitious, they may find in Christian faith a storehouse of wisdom for their dreams and leadership. By trying to incorporate the affective into the concept of worldview, we make the concept increasingly unstable in the face of the diversity of human life, affectivity, and experience. On the other hand, replacing worldview with a praxis-oriented conception of social imaginary, we lose a sense of the original ambitions of worldview analysis: to understand the share systems of reasoning people of a culture.

Smith’s mistake, if I may be so bold, is to draw a sharp distinction between affect and cognition, as if affect is the absence of cognition. By contrast, an alternative view of the relationship between cognition and emotion is that while specific cognitive states of thinking do not define our analysis of people’s emotions and affect as we also have behaviors, facial expressions, vocal tone, physiological states, etc. that all fall under different forms of affect, different forms of affect do have corresponding cognitive states that have some sort of mental representation.10 Rather than emotions being non-cognitive, they rather provide a source for specific type of mental representations of the world that are grounded in the present physiological state of the person in relationship to the environment, other persons, and even themselves. As such, affective experiences are different source of people’s mental representations that is available alongside their memories from the past, including their memories that constitute their worldview. Consequently, the mental representations generated by affective experiences can both influence and be influenced by the mental representations that comes from acculturated worldview, leading to people’s cognitive states being a blend of affective experience and worldview.

This distinction between worldview and experience and the unstable, dynamic relationship between the two that allows us make sense of two other observed, social phenomenons: ideology and cultural transformations. On the one hand, ideologies may be understood as those set of ideas and beliefs that have a more or less entrenched status within the members of its society. Ideologies do not simply give us cognitive resources to help interpret the world, but ideologies have the effect of ruling out alternative construals, no matter the circumstance. As a consequence, ideologies often times reject and repudiate any sort of experiences and understanding of those experiences that conflict with the ideology. For instance, with political ideologies, negative feelings of anger and derision towards ruling powers and their philosophies are not just considered unwarranted or wrong, but a source of evil and division. We can understood ideology functioning in this case as an instance where worldview dominates over affective experiences.

By contrast, cultural transformations can occur when worldviews lose their legitimation and status among the members of their society, in which case people’s own experiences become much more important to construing life. The worldview does not simply compete with emotional affectivity, but it is being actively eroded by people’s experiences. Romanticism’s rebellion against the Enlightenment and post-modernity’s incredulity towards the ‘progress’ of modernity represent two instances where people’s own experiences takes precedence over the worldviews.

However, even as worldviews and affective experiences are often conflict with each other like a king seeking to take down a subversive rebellion, more often than not are like two lovers, joined together in an embrace where their hearts and minds can not be readily divided from each other even as they are different, but they must be understood in terms of each other.

This is because worldviews are not just how we make sense of the world in some distant, dispassionate sense, but worldviews are part of our cognitive resources we use to survive and thrive in the world, particularly in the face of threatening experiences of our own mortality. In Shattered Assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman describes a set of assumptions that are part of conceptual system operating outside of conscious awareness that has been variously described (including as a worldview): “developed over time, [the conceptual system] provides us with expectations about the world and ourselves. This conceptual system is best represented by a set of assumptions or internal representations that reflect and guide our interactions in the world and generally enable us to function effectively.”11 These assumptions in the West include beliefs that the world is benevolent and meaningfully, that the self is worthy and that we can control what happens to us.12  However, powerful, traumatic experiences can threaten these assumptions.13 However, one of the problems with Janoff-Bulman’s understanding about the function of these assumptions is that it does not readily explain the trauma that onlookers and supporters of trauma victims who were not directly threatened by an event also experience and who, while empathizing, don’t experience the extreme emotions of those with the trauma experience.

An alternative, based upon Terror Management Theory, is that our worldviews provide us a buffer us from anxities about life, particualry our mortality. Consequently, worldviews may be seen to operate similar to the function of defense mechanisms such as denial, projection, sublimation, etc. by psychoanalysis: to protect a person from unpleasants feelings,14 especially insofar as these unpleasant feelings evoke feelings about our fraility, weakness, incapacity, and mortality. To that end, we may suggest that worldviews actaully function to regulate and modulate our emotional experiences, as the experiene of our more complex emotions are often time contingent upon our cultural learning.15

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the development and diffusion of worldviews is largely contingent upon the operation of these psychological defenses. Whether it is the more mature and ‘reality’ based mechanism or the less mature variety of defense mechanisms, worldviews are built upon the social ‘oughtness’ of specific types of defense mechanisms that are embedded, diffused, and legitimated by specific stories and practices that are treated as normative. For instance, self-denial of the cross may be understood against hte backdrop of sublimation of one’s own desires for another goal, in which case Christian worldviews reguarly contain elements of sacrifice, selflessness, etc. that give people a greater sense of meaning in the face of difficult trials. As the individual person experiences these stories and practices as addressing their affectively in a positive way, they become more inclined to rely upon them in the future. Repeating this again and again as it is deemed necessary, both by social prescriptions from others and personal direction, will fashion a worldview that is motivated by affective experiences and structured by the defense mechanism that provide a satisfactory emotional regulation.

However, this is not intended to be reductive, as the development of worldviews is only contingent upon the function of defense mechanisms to regulate affect, particuarly negative emotions related to one’s mortality. Cognitive and neural causation can not be reduced to single causal factors that we observe in the world, but that our cognitive and neural states are a conglomeration of many causal factors that impinge upon our experience. As such, one can recognize a critical role of the Holy Spirit in the inculcation of a Christian worldview without reject the psychological element of defense mechanisms. Worldviews are sensitive to various aspects of our thinking and experiences over the course of our lives.

What, however, is at stake is the recognition that worldviews are both responsible for and susceptible to emotionally laden experiences that the worldviews can not account for. Worldviews and affective experiences are not the same, but they have a reflexive causal relationship to each other that both blend and contrast with each other.

If this is the case, then Wright’s response to Smith’s critique of worldview is not necessary, as it is Smith who sets the cognitive functions of worldview  against affective experience, working under the (Cartesian inspired?) dualistic separation of cognition and emotion. Rather, there are both synergistic and agonistic relationship between worldview and affective exerience in which both ‘contribute’ mental representations that influence the contents of our cognitive consciousness in a bottom-up manner. Then, worldviews and affective experience can indirectly influence each other in a top-down manner, in which the contents of consciousness modify affective experience and/or the encoded memories responsible for the worldview. The experience of tension between worldview and affective experience in the contents of consciousness would approximatley reflect the psychological tensions between the super-ego and id in Freudian psychoanalysis, but yet also recognizing that worldview and affect can also function synergstically (which Freud’s psychoanalytic theory does not readily allow for).

If this is the case, then one way we can relate worldviews and affectivity is through theorizing how the elements of worldviews, such as narratives and practices, embed specific ways of thinking that function to encourage and activate specific type of defense mechanisms in response to anxieties and threats to the well-being of (1) oneself, (2) people upon whom one feels dependence, and (3) the environment they depend upon for their well-being.

Brief Thought: Atonement as Pedagogy and Redemption

May 22, 2020

In atonement, there are two primary questions that are asked: (1) what does atonement through Jesus Christ accomplish in regards to our sins and (2) how does atonement work? Briefly, I want to put forward an answer the the first question. Atonement is where the death Christ through the Spirit simultaneously (1) instructs the believer about God and His righteous purposes and (2) redeems the believer from their sin. Both work together as two sides of the same coin in Jesus Christ.

If correct, the implication of this, then, is to come up with a theory of atonement that accounts for both instruction and redemption, and not just simply redemption as most accounts focus upon. This inclusion of instruction into the understanding of the atonement of Christ is warranted in light of Isaiah 53.5c reading more appropriately from the Hebrew: “upon his was the discipline (מוּסַ֤ר) that made us whole,” which corresponds to the LXX: “the instruction (παιδεία) of our shalom was upon him.”

Peace in Romans 5.1 in light of the Maccabean thesis

May 22, 2020

In Romans 5.1, there is a difficult matter that complicates the interpretation of the passage. The manuscript evidence has two variant readings: the indicative verb ἔχομεν (“we have”) and the subjunctive verb ἔχωμεν (“let us have”). The latter read has a far stronger support in ancient witnesses, including the church fathers, but the majority of scholars today favor the former reading because they feel it matches the mood of the passage. They read Romans 5.1-5 as declarative that the indicative fits, rather than exhortative which the subjunctive would suggests.

However, not all scholars are convinced, as Bruce Longenecker argues for the subjunctive rather than the indicative. However, he observes that important concern for understanding 5.1 is the notion of peace/shalom (εἰρήνην), which was about “completeness” and “fullness” as much as it was about the cessation of conflict.1 As such, one could argue that the subjunctive is used to encourages believers to proceed from their status as justified to some experience of their relationship with God. This is consistent with taking the whole of Paul’s presentation of Abraham in chapter 4, both the justification ‘event’ and Abraham’s continued faith to the receiving of God’s promise. The subjunctive would essentially function to encourage Paul’s Roman audience to proceed forward from their status as those justified by God towards pursuing the deeper peace/shalom that occurs with continuing in faith.

However, while I do think εἰρήνην can be thematically connected with Abraham’s reception of God’s promise, I do think it is a mistake to minimize the “cessation of conflict” in understanding Paul’s discussion of shalom. If my thesis that I have written on a few times is that Romans is addressing some sort of movement towards a Maccabean-like zeal for resisting Roman Empire that texts like 1 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and Wisdom of Solomon could be seen as inculcating and legitimating, then we would have exegetical grounds to also consider the “cessation of conflict” side of shalom in Romans 5.1. Put simply, the call for the audience to pursue shalom is a call for them to pursue God’s blessings by seeking God’s promises through continuing in faith as part of boasting in the hope of sharing God’s glory (Rom. 5.2) rather than by boasting in Torah as part of a dream of projecting Jewish national power against the Roman Empire. Whereas the interminable stresses and fears of Roman power may have tempted some of the Jewish Christians in Rome to give into the Maccabean-like zeal they witnessed among other Jews, Paul is encouraging them to pursue the blessings of God’s shalom through continuing in faith like Abraham, even as it comes with suffering. To take the zealotry route is to abandon the transformation of character and the attitude of hope that suffering brings (Rom. 5.3-5), seeking instead to take vengeance for the sufferings created by injustice (cf. Rom. 12.17-21).

Consequently, we would have good internal grounds to support the subjunctive reading in Romans 5.1. Rather than construing Romans 5.1-5 as simply declarative of the benefits of being justified, the other indicative, declarative statements in 5.1-5 are seen as providing reasons for pursing shalom, as one has already obtained access to God, one can legitimately boast in God’s glory rather than the ultimately self-deluded boasts in Torah, and one can even boast and find righteous character and hope through the sufferings. This reading thereby joins the overwhelming testimony of the external manuscript evidence with the internal evidence of an interpretation of Paul based upon a plausible and warranted historical and literary thesis.