Why experience is the sole source of theology: How the Wesleyan Quadrilateral gets it wrong

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April 2, 2018

Ever since Albert Outler developed and propagated the idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the idea that John Wesley used Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, United Methodist theology has existed in a state of perpetual disagreement in terms of how to value and relate these four sources together. On the more traditionally evangelical end, it is said that Scripture is the highest value and the norming norm that determines how tradition, reason, and experience are understood and appropriated. However, it is often times the case that these four sources are treated on the same level, allowing for more progressive theologies that value human feeling and perspective. In a large part, the source of the divide over sexuality and marriage in the United Methodist church relates to precisely this division: what role do the other sources, particularly experience, play in theology. To that end, I am going to agree more with the sentiment of my more progressive United Methodists; experience is important; really important. In fact, I would suggest all theology is based on experience.

By that notion, I mean this: every act of thinking about God and life is based on our experience; what determines the thoughts I have and hold are the experiences I had. For instance, the very act of reading Scripture is an experience; my thoughts about God and life does not arrive in some way independent of the very experience of reading. Or, if I am reading reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, the very recitation of it influences how it is I think about theology. When I am weighing different proposals for how God can be both one and yet three, the act of reasoning itself impacts the very neural networks of my brain that “store” the metaphysical ideas I hold to. There is no getting around; experience is the only source of theology we have…..

However, not all experiences are of equivalent value. Certainly, all but the most skeptical of us would agree that the knowledge that a physicist gains from the experience of hypothesis, observation, theorizing, collaborating with colleagues, etc. is more reliable than the ideas that a person has in a state of hallucination. Even if one wanting to shy away from the word “truth,” I am sure almost everyone would be much more willing to place more trust in what the scientist says over what the person who is hallucinating is saying. Almost all of us intuitively recognize that certain ideas are more reliable because of the state of mind we attribute to the persons who produced and disseminated those ideas.

However, for some reason, when it comes to religion and theology, we operate as if one person’s experience is of equivalent reliability as another person’s experience. It partly roots in the way Western society has treated God and religion as a personal thing that no one can really know anything about; it is simply a matter of personal opinion and thus all opinions are of equal levels of validity. It is perhaps also rooted in what is a very humane idea, that we should not deny the experience that a person is having. However, a person describing their experience is different from a person making claims about something that goes beyond their own experience. If I am speaking of God as result of my experience, then I am not only talking about myself but I am talking about someone who is different from myself, that is unless I hold to some pan(en)theistic or have some delusion of grandeur about my own self.

But if we questioned the presuppositions that all experiences that lead us to think about God are of equal reliability, which is simply an a priori assumption that is not clearly true but is only believed because culture ridicules any challenge to this methodological agnosticism, then we are left with quite a different view of the relationship of theology and experience: some experiences are more reliable for theology than others. All things being equal,1, we who are more evangelical leaning can say that the experience of reading Scripture is more reliable than the experience of reasoning, for instance. Or, that my experience of working in my tradition is going to be more likely to give me something true and valuable than my own experience of sexual desire. In saying this, there is no denying the reality of my own sexuality and its desires; it is only a recognition that my sexual experience may not be something I can use to say something reliable about God as saying what I may get from the experience of reading Scripture. In other words, this suggests that claims about God that are warranted are determined not be an experience itself, but by what it is that determines the form and shape of my experiences in the first place. Or, to put it in Pauline terms, reliable knowledge about God is derived from experiences that are influenced by the Spirit, whereas faulty ideas about God is derived from my own fleshly experience.

In other words, the experience is only theologically reliable when the causal conditions of that experience are somehow the work or inspiration of God. Many Christians believe Scripture is inspired by God, so one can say that God via the reading of Scripture is a cause of our experience. Or, one could say that the Spirit influenced the formation of the Nicene tradition. However, we need not analyze things simply in terms of direct inspiration; I am not trying to derive a strong theology of revelation that excludes any and all possibilities of theology from below.2 My only point is to demonstrate the proposition that it is the nature of experience that makes it reliable. Thus, theological reflection entails contextualizing our own experiences, recognizing the causes and sources of the experience before determining its reliability and usefulness for the task of theology.

I would suggest at least four different, overlapping factors that impinge upon experience: attentional focus, cognitive patterns of processing, the wider context of experience, and the desires and purpose of the knowledge we derive. The attentional focus is essentially are epistemic sources; what is is we are paying attention. Is it reading a letter of Paul? Is it study of the patristics? Is it a meta-cognitive introspection, sensing my own thoughts, feelings, etc.? Pattern of processing relates to how it is our minds make sense of the sources. Our worldviews, the types of reasoning we have learned to use instinctively, etc. all impact how it is we make understand what is it we are paying attention to. Context relates to all the other things that are impacting and influencing my thoughts and feelings but my attention and focus in not on that. Hearing the Scripture read in the context of a community of believers who I share life with may alter the way I understand God through the text. Then, the desires and purposes of knowledge is, for the lack of a better term, the agendas that determine what type of results I am looking for. Commonly right now, people read the Bible on sexuality because they are trying to get knowledge on what it does or does not say on the topic, but someone reading the same passage who is not focused on that agenda may make sense of what is said differently.

Now certainly, this is not feasible for giving quick and easy instruction on theological method. It has a high level of complexity that could never hope to be exhausted in an easily understandable and digestible form. However, my point is to suggest that instead of labeling “experience” a source of theology, we should instead pay attention to the very nature of the experience and explain the conditions upon which experience provides reliable theological knowledge. In so doing, something important is done: it will unmask the arrogance of theologies that equate one’s own religious experience as somehow telling us something about God. While not exclusive to progressive theology, there are plenty of conservative/traditionalist minded people who think their thoughts exactly resemble God’s, many versions of progressive theology has that veiled arrogance about oneself: that my own experience is sufficient grounds to speak about God in a way that other people must respect and include. This arrogance goes beyond simply accepting what a person experiences, but that one is allowed to teach whatever one feels about anyone or anything else, including God, because of their own experience and it should not be challenged but instead should be allowed the same level credibility as anything else, regardless of the nature of my experiences in the first place. By moving towards recognizing the different types and sources of experience, including prominent Scripture reading, engaging with tradition, reasoning, and introspection, we would be more equipped to call certain experiences that are used for the basis of theology as self-centered navel-gazing, whether it be our own personality, our own culture, our own nation, etc. Beyond simply recognizing the reality of their own experience, culture, and nation, they find their attentional focus is on their own self, on the ideas of their own culture, on the values of their own nation, and it is this we would call the flesh and as having nothing reliable to say about the God who we believe to be revealed in Christ and the Spirit.

Reflection on N.T. Wright’s Gifford Lectures – The Questioned Book: Critical Scholarship and the Gospels

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March 29, 2018

My first response is on a more methodological level before I address the specifics of the content. In this second lecture, N.T. Wright shifts his frame for analysis away from principally connecting certain philosophical/metaphysical systems of thought in Epicureanism and Enlightenment to instead analyzing ideas and events within Biblical scholarship based upon their contemporary socio-political circumstances. However, in doing so, he connects the events of Biblical Scholarship facing the socio-political questions and crises to this larger, Epicurean framework. In other words, Wright’s first lecture engaged more in a top-down style of analysis of categorizing/labeling system of ideas, interpreting the Enlightenment as essentially Epicurean due to some substantial similarities. However, in his review of Biblical Studies, he engages in a more bottom-up style history, connecting the conclusions of Biblical Scholarship to issues and questions of their time. My guess is that this in large part due to the fact that N.T. Wright is a Biblical Scholar, a historian of the Second Temple and Early Christian period, and at times at theologian, so his analysis of the history of Biblical Scholarship will be much more bottom-up based upon his knowledge of the relevant issues and practices; but since he is not a scholar of philosophical history, so his knowledge will be much more constrained to more broad and paradigmatic categories and labels, particuarly those labels that he is more familiar with in his studies as Epicureanism would be a part of his study of early Jewish and Christian history. This does not invalidate his comparison to the Enlightenment to Epicureanism but only to contextualize his observations and recognize the need for further nuance and to not to tidily connect the travails of Biblical Scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century with Epicureanism.

In addressing the more substantive content, I highlight Wright’s mention of how the “end of the world” interpretation of apocalyptic was rooted in a false either-or narrative similar to Lessing’s tension between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Reinterpreted in my own language, if you associate the heavenly world with unchanging ideas, much as in Platonism, and the earthly world as defined by change and conditionality, which echoes the Heraclitan flux, we are left with two largely incommensurable ways of understanding these two different domains. As Wright observes, this leads to apocalyptic meaning the end of the world because the two could not conceivably coexist at the same time. However, Wright’s narrative seems to imply, at least to me, that the reason for this division was due to ideological influence in the top down-manner, whereas I would consider attributing it more to a bottom-up explanation of certain epistemological practices as characterized by an object epistemology, as described in my previous post in the series, leads to unchanging ideas becoming “metaphysicalized”, whether the metaphysical domain is the heavens as in Neo-Platonism and much of popular Christianity or reason as in Stoicism and the Enlightenment. Knowledge based upon the object epistemology is based upon control of the object for our desires, and therefore seeks to extrapolate a reliable cognitive schema that 1) is abstract and thus processes away all the “unnecessary” and “irrelevant” properties of the studied object, which 2) we can then use to control the studied object for our purposes. Repeated practice of this style of epistemology will eventually reinforce the stability of the cognitive schema such that it doesn’t simply become reliably, but it becomes a static, unchanging, “truth” that looks nothing like the world of our senses that is complex, with multiple, interacting properties with unpredictable and messy change as a consequence. Thus the cause of the Enlightenment view is not ideological from the start as much as it is rooted in an epistemic praxis, where certain methods construe knowledge as taking on certain patterns that become habituated and inflexible.

I would suggest this observation is relevant for topics in Wright’s lecture in at least two ways. Firstly, this pattern of knowledge would still become spread in a more ideological manner from the esteemed practitioners of philosophy, science, etc. being heralded as shining examples and their work being prescribed for others; then through imitation and enacting of their methods by Biblical Scholarship would be dramatically influenced by it. Thus, I also want to hypothesize (and I can only hypothesize since I am not intimately familiar with the Biblical Scholarship that Wright refers to) that the problem rested in the very methods of gaining knowledge in Biblical scholarship itself as semi-independently recapitulating and thus reinforcing the very ideological views about knowledge, metaphysics, politics, God that influenced them in the first place. Furthermore, the very reason people like Strauss, Bultmann, etc. were popular was that the results of their scholarship resonated with the basic assumptions about the definitions that the larger society and culture they participated in shared. This resonance would be a strong basis for the “assured results of scholarship” as often times our own sense of confidence in our work is based upon its reinforcement in our social environment; the confidence in my work increases because I see similar results in other people and I find people praising my work; the basis of such epistemic confidence becomes more socialized but in a more subconscious, implicit way. Far from simply arrogance, as Wright attributes such overconfidence to, it is the result of insularity that allows such arrogance to grow. As a result, there is little flexibility in how these societies would see the different ideas of knowledge, metaphysics, politics, God, etc.; if one did not share the similar methodology one would be considered lower-status and thus unfit to really marshall much prestige. Alternative conceptualizations and alternative arguments would not be seriously considered but thrown into the waste-bin of ideas of lesser thinkers. So, the confidence in the world-view would allow for no real change to the concepts.

This inflexibility leads to an all-or-nothing sort of view where if one’s ideas of power did not manifest the desired for goals, then one was to abandon the whole endeavor entirely. One could not simply seek to adjust one’s conceptualizations about power, metaphysics, knowledge, and God; one must whole-sale forget it as entirely false. The very definition of history and power is fixed and inflexible and then the only appropriate response is abandonment. For instance, as the very definitions and nature of political power as coming into conformity to a rational order in the world as in Hegel, which is closer to a Stoic view than Epicurean, would often times constrain how political power was conceived in the two options of the more steady progress of right-wing Hegelians or revolutionary events in response to crises as in the left-wing, as Wright mentions. Therefore, once history had failed to accomplish the longed for goals, the prevailing Biblical scholarship would fall short of adequately relating to the whole of the Biblical world and its sources; one’s own socio-political interests now redefined by the entire rejection of history continues down the same line of treating the primary sources as objects from which to mine relevant information and then throw the husk away. Hence, Bultmann’s demythologization. Hence Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology despite its presence in Scripture and the wholesale adherence to a dramatic, vertical revelation; these theological and exegetical patterns were useful to address certain socio-political concerns but in doing so, it engaged in the practice of culturally appropriating the Biblical texts, extracted from them what was useful and discarding the rest as inconsequential or even dangerous, such as Wright’s mention of the negative evaluation of Luke’s Gospel for being too historical. The intellectual insularity of the German thought had left its heritage in people like Bultmann and Barth in the terms of the flexibility of thought, even as they reject the prevailing definitions about God that the German world had produced and propagated. They did not practice the necessary cognitive flexibility so as to consider alternative construals of power, politics, knowledge, God, etc. that would blur the boundaries of the categories as that were constructed in their Protestant and German culture.

However, as a side note, I would suggest that I do think Barth successfully breaks the Enlightenment paradigm, even if his definitions and concepts are still somewhat beholden to Germanic culture. As the Enlightenment philosophy drew its sense of knowledge and metaphysics based upon the practice of object mods of epistemology, it relegated the personal epistemology I mentioned in my previous post to the sidelines. When Barth tries to emphasize the subjective nature of revelation as Christ Himself being conveyed, he begins to hit at the epistemological antithesis of the object epistemology that had formed the Enlightenment worldview and German culture. Barth’s theology is representative of a transition from object epistemologies to an emerging form of personal epistemology as it pertains to God.

To that end, I would contend this bottom-up epistemological analysis might be a single note that is in harmony with the overall symphony Wright is describing. However, I do think the employment of the Epicurean historical analogy, which admittedly is backgrounded in this second lecture, can somewhat blur our what I believe to be the more important historical causes. In short, I would contend that the epistemic praxis of the Enlightenment combined with an insularity from the outside contributes to the way apocalyptic and natural theology is (mis)appropriated; Epicureanism becomes a useful metaphor to tell the narrative because of the resemblances of the two, but it overlooks some possible resemblances to Stoicism and, more pertinent to this second lecture, does not adequately open up the possibility that the Enlightenment and what follows creates its own, rather unique epistemic problems.

United Methodist ecclesiology as the ongoing cause of our divide

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March 29, 2018

A couple days ago, Scott Kisker wrote an article that is making the rounds on how the bishops of the United Methodist church are potentially usurping the ecclesiological status of the denomination. In delaying the votes at the 2016 General Conference on matters pertaining to sexuality and discipline, when it looked like there was going to be a clear movement towards the traditional, historic view of sexuality in Christian history to a specially called General Conference in 2019, the idea was justified as a way to work through the issues that divide United Methodists.

And indeed, I celebrated it because while I largely stand with the traditional, historic view, I lamented because the very nature of enforcing church discipline through such legal mechanisms while occasionally necessary, should at all be avoided if possible due to the unnecessary pain it can create. It was my personal hope and prayer that it would be an opportunity to simultaneously provide clear definition to the theology and ethos to the United Methodist church while simultaneously extending meaningful grace to those who stood in on the other side; I didn’t know how exactly that would occur, except that I favored something akin to a Methodist communion. Furthermore, it was my fear that a traditional, evangelical “victory” on sexuality would lead to a potential hardening and oversimplifying on the realities sexuality and gender. But whatever the way to accomplish a hopeful future for United Methodists, that would entail a truly creative spirit that would be open to dramatic changes, as the current system is perfectly designed for the present dysfunction of the United Methodist church. The 2016 GC would not have been able to accomplish such, as mild tweaks weren’t going to be able to break the dysfunction that both affirming truth and grace. However, as indications are coming that the bishops will be recommending a “contextualization” option, where the traditional statement on sexuality will be removed and the practices pertaining to marriage will be, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will not make the needed types of changes. “Contextualization” only tweaks things and in a way that doesn’t really address the root causes of our theological and ethical conflict. While we need to wait and see what formally comes out, if indications are true, then we are facing more than a theological or ethical crisis; we are the midst of an ecclesiological crisis.

That we are in an ecclesiological crisis is witnessed by the fact that the option that the bishops as a whole seem to be preferred is the option that in the end, best suits all their interests. The movement towards affirming the traditional stance on sexuality and enforcing the church discipline would cut against the interests of many bishops with more progressive leanings. Moving towards a “Methodist communion” where we have separate branches that each define themselves but are united at the higher level would also take away much of the power of bishops through the change and restructuring. Contextualization is the “safest” option and one that best preserves the interests of the bishop.

In making this criticism, however, I am not criticizing the bishops as persons nor am I criticizing all of them as individuals (in fact, as far as I know about his leadership, I appreciate the bishop of Mississippi), but rather the power the role has upon anyone to form what their values, interests, and how they relate to them. Therefore, it is a criticism of the very nature of our ecclesiology. Our ecclesiology as United Methodist is essentially a combination of governing principles contained in monarchy and in democracy. Firstly, our Wesleyan roots are rooted in the Anglican form of episcopacy, which derived from Roman Catholicism, treating power as flowing from the top-down from a kingly figure, the pope, and then moving downward. The power of the bishops largely rests on more monarchical principles, although without a singular pope-like figure. On the other hand, as Methodism was so entangled with the spirit of the thriving American democracy, it’s ecclesiology began to adopt democratic principles, particularly in the legislative power given to the Annual and General Conferences. What we have witnessed with GC 2016 and now probably in the Commission on the Way Forward is the battle between these democratic and monarchical principles of church government.

Why is this a problem? I would strongly contend that the early church neither worked under monarchical or democratic principles but existed more as a charismatocracy, where the more general leadership of the church was bestowed upon those who evidenced special giftedness from God via apostolic and prophetic callings. There was no regular order of succession as in idealized versions of monarchy or transitions of power via a majority vote and put into place through bureaucratic-like rules as in more democratic ways of ordering power. The spiritual leadership of the wider church Church was a gift from God given to the church and bestowed various individuals, but it was not a regularized possession of the Church itself. While the Pastoral letters in the New Testament, which I do take to be from Paul, suggest one could aspire to leadership within the context of an individual body of believers, there was no regular set of rules and processes by which people would attain to leadership within the wider Church; apostolic and prophetic leadership was not a matter of ambition but it was bestowed upon people through a special calling. This calling would be confirmed, as the church in Antioch sent out Paul and the other apostle’s recognized him as containing divinely-given authority; it was not to be marshaled by mere claims of such a calling of ambition to pursue. Furthermore, even as apostles had authority, the basis of the authority they had over the churches they oversaw was a further recognition of their spiritual status; it entailed the local churches recognizing the authority of the apostolic or prophetic authorities; Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth, particularly his second epistle, establishes their authority was constantly up for negotiation and that his apostolic authority would have to have evidence of such authority, to which Paul appeals to his likeness to Christ in his suffering. Wider leadership in the Church came from calling of the individual, sending form a local church, confirmed by other apostolic authority, and reestablished in the local churches. There was never a point where the spiriutal leadership has any basis for their authority in the wider church except based upon the on-going recognition of God’s enabling.

You might say as United Methodist’s we have a similar process. People coming for ordination in the United Methodist church are people who feel called, they are recommended at charge conference, which is the meeting of the local church, and they are confirmed as at the district and then ultimately annual conference level. However, the fourth step does not happen, as short of a chargeable offense, clergy will remain in their authority; I remember it crudely being said to by a laity as coming from a pastor who shall be unnamed as “so far as you keep your pants on and keep the finances of the church in check you have a job.” However, while these processes exist, it is really addressing leadership at the local church level as the effective authority of individual clergy is in the individual churches they are appointed to. However, it does not work in such a clear manner in regards to our episcopal authority; they do go through the same process as clergy, since bishops do not form a separate class from clergy, but in matter of actual reality, their movement towards episcopal leadership fails to come under the fourth step of having to routinely establish their authority to the local churches they exhibit authority over. While they are generally limited to 2 different annual conference appointments for 8 years each, a bishop is a bishop for life. As such, they need not continue to “negotiate” and reestablish the divine calling on their present ministry; it is presumed to be their “secure” possession unless they do something egregious to disqualify themselves. So their attention and focus will gradually be shifted in their role towards other interests, including those who try to win and charm the attention of the authority for other purposes; instead, the bishops will need to keep their attention on the churches themselves as much as those people who are closer to them and those situations that are more immediately important to themselves.

Now certainly, in this day and age of a church that has millions of people and in which bishops have oversight over hundreds of churches, you can not expect an individual bishop to constantly validate his ongoing calling from God and persuade every one of them. However, what would be more reasonable and in general alignment with the principle of the ongoing reestablishment of a divine calling is if there was a way that the bishops at both the general and annual conference level (and even jurisdictional?) could be evaluated by the churches over whom they exhibit leadership. If there was some manner in which the leadership of the bishops could be called into question by the churches themselves, and not the bureaucratic process that sometimes does and sometimes does not represent the churches adequately, that the churches as a whole may make a vote of “no confidence” in the leadership, particularly on all the bishops as a unit. In a circumstance like this, it would be in the best interests of the episcopal authority to actually address conflicts and divisions, rather than putting lipstick on the same pig that keeps getting trotted out. They would be accountable for dragging their feet; they would be accountable for how they employed their spiritual authority; they would be accountable for their continued faithfulness to God. The sources of the division must be addressed, rather than subtly stoked by failure to manage. But a mechanism where the churches themselves can hold the bishops accountable might entail having to create many more small annual conference with fewer churches, so this may be some organizational difficulties with such an arrangement on the surface.

Furthermore, and this is a bit more radical, but what if the church was structured that it did not take bishops as an automatic role that the church was to have; rather, the church was less hierarchical in its organization, except that it recognized the possibility that unpredictably on our end persons would be called towards such general authority, but still that this authority has to be strenuously discerned by the individual, by the churches, and by the rest of the authority so that it is never a secure possession to be msrhalled and manipulated by those whom the role falls upon. Maybe that is untenable and maybe the apostolic nature of the early church is not something we should expect today; but I believe that every set of churches that we call a demonation should and that seek to be faithful God and believe the Bible to by inspired Scriptures should constantly wrestle and honestly acknowledge the distinctions between the charismatocracy of the early church and the monarchical and/or democratic principles of modern ecclesial organizations, rather than baptize the modern ecclesiology as true to the work of the Spirit in the early church (maybe because the Spirit is leading in another direction in the present circumstances) and thus automatically assume it represents and fosters the embodiment of God’s will in the church.

However, to summarize, insofar as our power of decision making and granting authority in our church ecclesiology is regularized, we should open our eyes and ears to the possibility that God’s will for the Church can be co-opted by other interests and concerns that have mastered how to control the system of ecclesial ruling principles with effectiveness. The spiritual leadership of the bishops can be coopted and thus I believe it would be wise that we have some way of holding bishops accountable by the churches. Those who lead the larger church are not to be like kings or presidents who have the clear prerogative of authority over others for a lifetime or for a clearly outlined period of time, but in the body of Christ they are to lead insofar as they are capable of being genuine servants, which God’s ongoing empowerment makes possible.

Reflection on N.T. Wright’s Gifford Lectures – The Fallen Shrine: Lisbon 1755 and the Triumph of Epicureanism

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March 28, 2018

From mid February to early March, N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, where I am presently doing a Master as part of the Logos Institute, presented a series of 8 lectures as part of the Gifford Lectures as the University Aberdeen, with the focus of addressing topics as it pertains to natural theology. Natural theology has been a particular topic of interest for many of my classmates, particularly those influenced by Karl Barth which includes myself in a qualified sense, so it has been talk of the Logos program the past few weeks. However, despite hearing about it, I never attended nor had I yet to watch any of them, until I watched the first one today. So, my hopeful attempt is to do an eight post blog series with my own personal reflections, responses, and meanderings from Professor Wright’s lectures. For those interested, YouTube links to the entire series may be accessed here, but I will embed the YouTube video for each post.

1) I am not qualified as a historian, therefore to evaluate the historical relationship between Epicureanism and the Enlightenment needs to be qualified only towards what a comparison of ther system of ideas in Epicurean and Enlightment philosophy and not how and to what extend Epicureanism was historically transmitted to 18th century Europe. I certainly can see and understand the similarities between Epicureanism and the world we live in following the Enlightenment. However, my critique rests in the tendency to label an event by one period of history as a recapitulation of another period of history, either in the form of retroactive anachronism or attribution of historical causation and influence leading to the diminishment of novel ideas of later cultures. In their basic epistemological notions, Epicureanism (or should say Democriteanism) and Enlightenment do share many similarities in their metaphysical view of the material world as a combination of smaller parts. As such, understanding is derived from trying the functions of the smaller pieces in order to how they make up the whole. As a result, there is a certain resistance to the idea of external causation, where some entity, particularly God, comes from the “outside” to influence the system; causation is principally limited to internal causation with only qualified allowed of external causes if they were material of origin, such as Darwinian attributing the diversification of the specifies in part to selection pressures of the environment. Thus both Epicureanism and Enlightenment thinking have an epistemology that 1) by default looks towards internal causation and 2) if it must look outward, must attribute it to sensible/material causes.

But with these similarities, there are some important differences between Epicureanism and the (Post-)Enlightenment, both of which pertain to metaphysics. Epicureanism is more methodical than metaphysical, in that the emphasis on knowledge is placed not on materiality, as in the Post-Enlightenment, but on the senses. For Epicurus, all sensation is true. Now certainly, we can certainly derive the Enlightenment definition of the material world as being grounded upon all that can potentially be observed by the classical senses, particularly sight and sound, and then can be extended to include anything can be detected by our instruments and every justifiable theory that we metaphorically derives from the material world (such as the modern ideas of dark matter and energy as metaphors of “regular” matter and energy.) But in deriving this definition, we should note that a subtle difference is that modern sciences are more expressly metaphysical than simply focused on an epistemological method that values sensation as true as in Epicureanism.

Secondly, Epicureanism posited different domains for the world we live in and the gods that were mutually excluded from each other. The importance of this difference was rooted in the management of people’s emotions so as to avoid concern that they might anger the gods. As with much of Hellenistic philosophy, it was much more concern with practical matters about a way of life in avoiding mental discomfort, which Epicurus referred to as ataraxia. In that sense, Epicurean metaphysics was much more in service to how one should live. By contrast, the pronounced trajectory of Enlightenment thinking is towards the metaphysical rejecting of anything not material in materialist reductionism. Even if one does not take such a strong stance, the reason a “rational” person does not really put too much stock into that whole religious thing boils down to the high value of “reason”, however that is to be defined, rather than a sympathetic concern for human existential worry.  To that end, the Enlightenment shares more in common with Stoicism’s value of reason, minus the shearing off of Stoicism’s pan(en)theistic cosmology.

The end result is that the modern world influenced by the Enlightenment has more of a metaphysical basis for its views towards religion than Epicureanism. And as such, it also reflects distinctly different ways of addressing theological questions.

2) However, insofar as the similarities do exist between Epicureanism and the Enlightenment due to historical influence and other shares factors, there is a valid point to bring forth about the basic epistemological framework of Epicureanism and the Enlightenment. When we try to make sense of the world, there are two different modes we employ that lead us to draw inferences in different ways: knowing our focus as an object and knowing our focus as a person.3 This is to recast Martin Buber’s famous distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships with a more expressly psychological/phenomenological understand. In knowing our focus as an object, we are focused principally on how an object we perceive through our sensory data is relevant to our desires, whether they are more basic, physiological desires or less immediately visceral desires such as those stemming from asking questions out of intellectual curiosity.  Our knowledge is reduced to what can be immediately perceived and is analyzed in accordance to their relevance to what it is we desire. By contrast, in knowing our focus as a person, we necessarily must project our own mental life onto the other person since we have no direct means by which we can sense another person’s mind; we necessarily and always fill that gap in with our own experiences, both in the moment but also the experiences embedded in our own memories that we can use to simulate another person’s feelings if even we do not share that same feeling at that moment. In this context, the relationship between desires and projection exists in such a way such that we tend to see our desires occurring in the other person. However, often times our projections are in error, and so our focus may provide feedback that can shed light on when we are in error and adjust our thinking accordingly.

Epicureanism works principally from an object(ive) epistemology; Epicurus’ explicit concern was to facilitate human well-being and happiness so that his focus on knowledge was related to the desire for happiness and avoidance of worry. His focus on sensation is consistent with objectification. Similarly, the Enlightenment employed a similar methodology, although via the claims of the distinterested knower the Enlightenment often times cloaked the way desire controlled the acquisition and formation of knowledge. However, this heritage in the sciences continued such that science has attempted to understand people in a manner that resembles the object(ive) mode more than the personal/subject(ive) mode. In its most blatant form was the psychological field of behaviorism, but it is common in various other social sciences such as sociology measurement of people groups via statistics or cognitive psychology’s metaphor of the mind as an information-processing machine/computer. As a result, modern scientific theory about people falls short in actual practice of relating to persons, and I would even say about God. This practice reflects the more metaphysical nature of the Enlightenment and modern science., whereas Epicurus was much more at home engaging with people as he extolled the virtues of friendship; he did not objectify people, or even the God or the idea of God, as modern Enlightenment/scientific perspectives are apt to do. In this way, the Enlightenment more resembles Epicureanism’s cousin Stoicism, which tended to minimize and eschew the nature of personal attachments.

Thus, when it comes to the question of natural theology, and even theology as a whole including revelation, there are differences in what we will come to believe based upon whether we are attempting to understand God via an object epistemology or a personal epistemology. The different methodologies stemming from these two basic modes, both in implicit forms and when they become more explicit, leads to very different results as they value epistemic sources differently and they will employ differing grounds of justification. However, insofar as natural theology is done via observation, it will be primarily determined by forms of object epistemology. Thus, this will create a natural tension with the idea of God as a personal God and with a marked tendency to “objectify” God as understanding Him only insofar as we try to infer his relationships to our own desires. Additionally, the personal epistemological mode fits into the idea of Wright’s “epistemology of love,” albeit with the recognition that personal epistemology does not necessarily entail knowing a person, or even God, through the lens or emotion of love but can include other emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, etc. Thus, while Wright did not expand upon his “epistemology of love” in this lecture, I can certainly imagine why and how his perspective represents a decisive rejection of the object epistemology of Epicureanism and the Enlightenment but also a more decisive critique against standard modes of natural theology.

The Gospel is not “contextualized” and why we shouldn’t be as United Methodists

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March 28, 2018

Context is important. As an aspiring Biblical exegete, I recognize how important context is for interpreting the Bible. Awareness of the customs and cultures of the world the texts were produced within, along with the people who originally created and received them play a big role in helping to correct any erroneous presuppositions I might have from my way of life as a white, male, educated, millennial, American. My desire to understand the Scriptures as I believe they convey something to us about God means that I find paying attention to context an important instrumental process to help me reach my end goal. As someone who studies psychology and highly values the study of interpersonal relationships, understanding the situations and circumstances people are facing is critically important if one wants to facilitate relationships, groups, and environments that are more defined by peace and justice. Being aware of people’s contexts is a vital instrument to accomplish my pro-social intentions. So, context is important. However….

Context is not God. Context is not Jesus Christ. Context is not the Holy Spirit. Context is not the Gospel. Therefore, for us who take the Scriptures as definitive for defining the nature of the Church, since the Church is God’s chosen earthly embodiment of the love and power of Jesus Christ through the giving of the Holy Spirit, defining our ecclesiology by reference to anything that is not known about God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit is deeply problematic. It becomes a form of metaphysical reification, where we take some idea or concept such as “context” and treat it as something inherently right and good and therefore try to form people, institutions, groups, etc. in accordance to this idea. Put more colloquially, “context” becomes an idol.

The idea of context is sort of a modern fad due to the increased influence of hermeneutics in our post-modern world that has thrown skepticism on what we thought we knew; we look to hermeneutics implicitly and explicit as a guide for navigating ambiguous and unclear experiences and symbols. So, as with all fads and buzzwords, they exist sort of like an economic bubble, where people assume the idea is reliable and good to use in more and more situations and because of that, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and uses it because everyone else is using it; then the concept gets used in more and more places. However, in the end, it gets used without actually verifying the idea is actually descriptively true or is accomplishing its assumed purpose and goal; its truthfulness and usefulness is simply assumed. Using the word “context” that is derived from fields focused on hermeneutics and interpretation to define the Church would be much like me studying the Old Testament Torah and trying to force people to act according to some rule or law I find of use in the Old Testament. Why? Because context of something is important. But what is ironically happening is that context is being decontextualized.

So that foray into the abstract analysis of context and theology is to make this point: when the Commission on the Way Forward for the United Methodist Church puts forward a “contextual” resolution to address the difficulties our denomination faces regarding marriage and human sexuality, there is a deep theological and spiritual problem with it. It is defining and organizing the Church by some idea other than what we trustingly know about the Triune God. It’s solution for organizing the church by “contextualizing” the issue of human sexuality to local congregations is to try to embody an idea that we call “context” and that we use because it tries to serve certain power interests of trying to have one’s cake and eat it to in trying to lose no one, and by doing so, potentially lose many while simultaneously not creating the types of change that would challenge the interests of the bishops and leading authorities in the United Methodist Church. While the Church should pay attention to context in how it lives out its mission, the ultimate organizing principle of the Church should not be based upon the idea of context and embodying this idea of contextualization; the Church is God’s chosen earthly embodiment of the power and love of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Instead, we should not employ the idea of context  to define God or the Body of Christ, but rather it should be contextualized back to its hermeneutical roots as a necessary, instrumental step by which we come to understand more reliably and effectively. Otherwise, beside the issue of sexuality itself, we would be committing intellectual idolatry.

What forgiveness is really about…

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March 27, 2018

Today over on Seedbed, J.D. Walt posted on their Daily Text a devotion on Ephesians 4:31-32 and the importance of forgiveness. There is much to commend in it; that forgiveness is something I do apart from the action of another is a critical part of what forgiveness is; conflict between others can be a way of derailing the mission of the Church. However, part of how forgiveness is defined presents some problems that I am particularly sensitive to myself. While exegetical and theological precision is not something to expect to be given in a devotion, and as such, it can be easy to misconstrue what is intended, an analysis of forgiveness and Ephesians 4:31-32 is important. At the core of the concern is the idea that forgiveness itself is about management or changing of one’s emotions.

The problem boils down to our translations and how we think about our emotions in the present-day world. Most translations will use emotional terminology in v. 31, particularly in talking about anger. However, Paul’s language is not typically used to refer to a description of a type of inward emotion that we feel towards others. It can give the impression that Paul is saying “All of you should just get along and like each other.” However, the word choices of Paul reflect an emphasis not on the inner world of feelings, but on particular types of conflict behaviors. In a couple instances where Paul refers to thymos or orge which are frequently translated into emotional terms such as wrath and anger. However, these terms themselves are commonly used to refer to certain types of impassioned actions, such as acting in rage or seeking retribution from others. The word often times translated as bitterness, pikria, can also be used to refer to a type of hostile behavior towards based upon some sense of grievance. In our modern world, we are more inclined to translate and interpret psychological terms with an inward sense of what I feel and think, whereas for Paul and that world, emotions were more typically viewed from the perspective of the behaviors one does in the throes of passion. Hence, I would translate verse 31 to say something along the lines of “You should remove all of bitter fighting, displays of rage, seeking for retribution, shouting in arguments, and abusive denigration from yourselves, along with all evil.”

Therefore, when Paul talks about forgiveness in the following verse, his focus is not on inwards feelings. It isn’t about my mental state and my thoughts about another person. Rather, it is focused on the actions that members of the body of Christ direct towards others. Forgiveness is not about getting rid of negative feelings; it is about not acting with vengeance and acting with a level of openness towards the person who has hurt you (although, the nature of this openness can and should be qualified is cases of abuse). When Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35, the emphasis is placed upon the servant’s unforgiving actions. When Jesus says one should forgive from the heart in v. 35, it isn’t about changing one’s emotions towards the person as much as it is about acting with the genuine intention to not make a person pay back their (moral) debts.

Why is this important? Because in our modern psychological world, our inclination is to interpret the language of heart and emotion in an inward, psychologizing manner, where what is forbidden are angry thoughts about someone who hurt you. When we then start to expect and tell others to forgive, we begin to create a potentially damaging dynamic where we engage in an act of emotional manipulation and control of other person’s emotions. When we realize someone is angry at us, it can be a quite threatening feeling, and so we as Christians can often time employ “forgiveness” as a moral burden upon the ones we hurt so that we can avoid dealing with the discomfort and difficulty of our own behaviors and place the burden upon the one who feels harmed. Put more simply, when we blend the Biblical language of forgiveness with an interior, psychological focus on emotions rather than being more action and intention specific, forgiveness can easily turn into a form of spiritual gaslighting that is used by people who feel threatened by other people’s negative feelings towards them and refuse to deal with the truth. In the end, treating forgiveness as emotional change is all too frequently not really about grace, but rather as a way to avoid dealing with the truth of consequences of one’s action, even if one is not truly morally culpable for what happened.

Furthermore, for those people who have been victimized in deep, traumatic ways, they have little ways to actual control what they feel. Emotions are a visceral, bodily reality that often times overwhelms us; this becomes even more true in cases of trauma where the activation of memories of what happened actually automatically activate the physiological components of emotions and stress, such as releasing of cortisol in the system. The reality is, we don’t have direct control over our emotions; but we can do have some control over how we intend to act based upon those emotions. But if people are deeply victimized and hurt, they will only experience a sense of failure and weakness if they can not stop feeling angry and hurt by what happened. Thus, trauma victims are put through a double bind where they either feel they have to deny the pain to be faithful to God or deny forgiveness so they can own what happened to them. Even when we operate with the best of intentions, teaching that forgiveness is about emotional management or emotional change rather than about one’s intentions we set up an unhealthy dilemma.

In the end, forgiveness is about withholding all acts of retribution to seek to make people pay for what they did (but this does noy forbid discipline or truth-telling if it is needed for other reasons), allowing for the space for reconciliation and even the potential to show charity towards those who harmed. Thus forgiveness puts a stop to the tit-for-tat, negative reciprocity type of conflicts and instead allows for the real possibility of a better way of engaging one another. That is the type of forgiveness God shows the world; that is the type of forgiveness Jesus shows to his enemies. Often times as a result, a change of emotions occurs as the result of forgiveness: a person acting in a pro-social way may find the intensity of their anger diminishing a bit. Furthermore, by acting in a pro-social way, they in some cases be the recipient of more respecting and honoring behaviors and this will help allay their emotions. But the emotional change and cessation of negative feelings comes about as a result of forgiveness and the response from others; emotional change is not the condition of forgiveness but its hopeful result.

However, the moment we define forgiveness by some pop psychology theory, and often times we select the psychological theory based upon how it validates and comforts us and how it explains our own personal experience and not on its truth, reliability, and validity for all people (we often times project our psychological experiences as other people’s psychological experience), we begin to shift it from the demonstration of God’s forgiveness in His actions through Jesus Christ and into some realm where we can define forgiveness however it best suits our own interests. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a psychological theory.

You Can’t Control Change

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March 21, 2018

Change is a part of life. Christian faith puts hope in a radical transformation of a person in Christ. Evolutionary theory places an emphasis on the adaptability of species and even individuals to adjust to their environments. Economics recognizes how consumer behavior will change in accordance to prices. Etc. Etc. To be human is to change. While there are different degrees of change occurring with different frequencies, such as changing apperances, changing behavior in certain circumstances, change in one’s personality, etc. it is a part of life. Even the most pessimistic views of people that see people mired in evil and sin recognize some degree of change, even if it is simply on the surface level without any real substance. However, while being human entails change, that doesn’t mean change is something we can control. As a follower of Christ, I can’t just make my heart conform to any set pattern I want it to. When economic theories that prescribe centralized control of the economy, the government often find themselves incapable of managing and creating what they envisioned. Evolutionary theory radically pushes out the idea of a purposeful intention in change; it is a bottom-up change that occurs in relation to the environmental context and circumstances and not a top-down imposition. In other words, I can make things change but I cannot reliably control what someone or something will change into. If I get angry at someone for hurting me and I then react with that anger, they might change their behavior, their attitude towards me, etc. But more often than not, I will not get the violator to change their mind and admit their violation. At the core of the problem is that I can not fundamentally account for every single factor that impacts a person and makes them as they are; and even if I could account for everything, that doesn’t mean I understand how my actions would successfully lead to the change I want to see.

Despite this reality, there are often times naive dreams often associated with utopian visions of the future where we believe we have the power and know-how to produce the very person and society we wish to create. Often times, there is the presumption that a select group of people have a special power and insight that everyone else does not have and that through their program you will achieve a desired change. In its more innocuous forms, it is witnessed in the set of supposed self-help gurus, or even Chrisitan preachers, selling books and videos on how you can reach some longed for goal, if you only follow this specific formula. These can be dangerous when consumers have unrealistic expectations about them, but this damage tends to be limited to only a few before it comes out that the program is a sham. However, in its more vicious, dangerous forms, it takes the form of governmental authority trying to institute mass change in the populace with tragic results, such as in the USSR and Maoist China. Then, there are various degrees in between voluntary, self-help gurus and coercive, top-down domineering governments. However, at the end of the day, there is the dangerous belief undergirding all of them: that you can control change.

Why is this dangerous? It comes through a combination of judgment against those who “fail” to reach the ends and the power the authorities have other those who fail. The people with credibility and authority may designate the reason for failure as due to something in the person/people: they didn’t try hard enough, they weren’t genuine, they are resisting, they are mentally ill, they are a lost cause, etc. etc. In the end, those with authority in such contexts will come up with rationales that single out certain people; it clearly isn’t their methods, or their ideas in their mind. With that comes the social judgment of the “failures” and with that the power to control a response in those failed persons. In more voluntary contexts, the guilting and shaming will be met with more products they can purchase to finally “breakthrough.” In coercive contexts, the failure is put to death or abandoned. Always, the problem lies in the intentions and abilities of the “failures;” it never rests in the inability and incompetence of the authorities to do what they originally set out to do. To be clear, the problem isn’t the explanations as to why things don’t go according to plan; it is the fact that those with the authority uses the explanations for failure as a justification for self-serving an/dor destructive ends. The implicit belief that we can change people, or even the world, is beset with a fundamental justification of one’s power over who and what one is trying to change, where the failure of change in the person(s) being control then further justifies the power of the authority. All the explanations offered are self-serving in that they reinforce the power of the authority over and against the powerlessness of those they stand over.

Undergirding this implicit belief that we can control the way people change is the idea that people are essentially tabula rasas, blank slates onto which anything can be written. A different variation may not say that people are “tabula rasas” but it treats people as all people fundamentally the same, so that the knowledge of changing that occurs in one person will work with another person. Whenever people advocating for change propose beliefs that people are basically like sheep that will do what you instruct them or that people are all fundamentally the same, be very cautious. At the end, these beliefs all justify the power of the (would-be) authority with the idea that their efforts to act will produce the desired for results because people are something we can easily mold and change. However, as reality doesn’t conform to this view, Inevitably conflicts arise due to the lack of understanding and lack of skill by the authority to accomplish what they set out to do.  So, in the end, there is the false belief that there are people with power to create and control change and that all events that fail to conform to that belief are rationalized as problems with the people being controlled rather than a problem with the ones in control. This isn’t to say that people can not facilitate change in a desired for direction in others. It is simply to recognize that people do not readily and easily conform to our wishes and that it is self-serving and destructive in the long run to think that you can reliably change other people.

For Christians leaders, it is vital that we recognize this. Even God Himself, although He is portrayed as a potter who can mold us as clay, does not exhibit such a unilateral control of people’s choices.1 God’s great power to change creation and the people within it is done not through a top-down, unilateral act to push people into conformity or to “miraculously” change the neural structures of the brain of every person so that all people will do what God wants of them. No. Rather, it was Christ taking on human life and weakness and submitting Himself to human power, which oppresses and destroys. Christ changes the world be His powerlessness becoming the scene where His power is made known. Thus, as in the sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, people are moved not by some fiat of the divine will, but by realization and recognition that they were on the wrong side of those who crucified Jesus, when the resurrection showed that Jesus was on God’s side. God let people realize the consequences of their actions. People repented and were baptized in the name of Christ not due to some top-down imposed program of change, but rather because Christ provided themselves the way to realize and know about themselves, that that they were not who they thought they were. If I may generalize, Christ and His followers change the world through being the sort of people who when heard and seen catalyze changed perceptions in other people; they didn’t impose a program upon others, rather their witness and faithfulness serve as a conduit for people to perceive themselves, others, and even God differently. While Jesus and later the apostles, particularly Paul, would offer explanations why people saw and did not understand what they saw and come to faith, often times attributed to a hardened heart, the missional program of Jesus didn’t take theses explanation as a justification for trying to control the unbelievers more; it simply meant that one should shake the dust from their feet and leave them to do as they do.

Hence, the missional program of the followers of Christ is that of witnesses. The prime action by which God’s will is made known by His people is not described by some success verb, such as influencer, change agent, etc. Rather. the disciples are described as witnesses and also their own lives are also witnessed. The way Christ facilities change through His Church is grounded upon the change of perception that comes from seeing. The mission of the Church is not tasked with some term of success, but simply a term that leads people to speak to truth in a clear, vivid way. Then, only once people perceive the same way as the disciples then do there occur more directed involvement in mentoring communities into spiritual growth and maturity. In other words, one must begin to see and understand the same as others, explained as the event of new birth, before the authorities of the early church would begin to enact spiritual and nurturing authority of then. Thus, one only facilitates change in others when there is already the necessary change occurring in the first place; then the apostolic authority acted as midwives to help facilitate the birth pf what God had conceived within a person.

In short, change is not something we can control. We can sometimes facilitate it and we can catalyze change in others, but we can not reliably control the when, where, how, and who of change. So, it is important to be aware of individuals, governments, religious authorities, socio-political movements of both the right and left, etc. that suggest we can make the who;e world into our idealized imagine; that way lurks control, self-serving manipulation, and oppression. Nor should the church accommodate to the unrealistic optimism that permeates Western, society based upon science and technology which justifies the belief we can reliably change and control things; we do not need to define our mission according to success verbs that place the emphasis on the act of changing people. Rather, being witnesses and being witnessed serves as the central task of the Church, and through that, people who we would never expect and imagine will change in ways that we would never have been able to do and manage.

Ordinary vs. Extraordinary in the Christian life

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March 20, 2018

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley addresses the purpose of God’s pouring out of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost:

It was, to give them (what none can deny to be essential to all Christians in all ages) the mind which was in Christ, those holy fruits of the Spirit which whosoever hath not, is none of his; to fill them with “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness;” to endue them with faith, (perhaps it might be rendered, fidelity,) with meekness and temperance; to enable them to crucify the flesh, with its affections and lusts, its passions and desires; and, in consequence of that inward change, to fulfil all outward righteousness; to “walk as Christ also walked,” in “the work of faith, in the patience of hope, the labour of love.”

Instead of the pneumatic experiences of the early church being focused upon the extraordinary gifts, a phrase that Wesley uses, which come in dramatic fashions, the ultimate telos of the giving of the Holy Spirit is that the Christian will be patterned in their life in accordance to Jesus. As Wesley concludes this sermon, he criticizes Oxford for lacking these traits and calling for this “scriptural Christianity” to be restored. This sermon marked Wesley’s departure from Oxford, the educational center of high status, as he went on to become an evangelist. While Wesley was certainly an extraordinary figure himself, his focus was calling people to repent and renew their faith so that they would be sanctified into the “ordinariness” of love.

A similar issue seems to be at hand in Paul’s first correspondence to the Corinthians. They had seen the powerful demonstrations of the Spirit that paired with the preaching about Jesus’ cross (and implicitly, resurrection) brought them to understand the nature of God’s power at work in the world (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). However, they seemed to lack growth into the ultimate purpose of living as the people of God. They were instead still stuck interpreting the world and people in terms of who seem to have the best charisma, who evidence the best wisdom, who showed the greatest amount of power. They looked for the extraordinary in knowledge and power and it reflected in the very way the Corinthian church lived. They were dividing themselves according to what teachers they would associate with; they fought against each other, to the point of bringing lawsuits against each other; they were more concerned about their own knowledge and how it justified their own actions rather than how their actions would do harm to another; their worship was hectic as people were only too eager to interrupt one another so that their special “giftedness” could be demonstrated. In focusing on the extraordinary, as it is common human, fleshy instinct to notice those who far exceed the average and to be noticed as such, they were resisting the work of God’s Spirit to form them into the pattern of Christ. That which was truly the more important thing to long for than the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit is the type of love that does not seek one’s own way, as in 1 Corinthians 13.

The fascination for the extraordinary can take on many forms in Christian circles, many of which existed in Corinth. It can be about the overvaluation of intellect. particularly in the mainline denominations. It can take the form of overvaluing extraordinary experiences such as tongues and miracle in some charismatic circles. Or it can be the over-esteeming of charismatic figures and those who master rhetoric as I have seen prevalent in more evangelistic circles. While intellect, dramatic experiences, and charisma are not regarded as inherently evil by Paul, nor by Wesley by my estimation, the problems lies in how our social circles tend to overvalue them and thus tempt others to pursue the appearances of such for greater prominence and status for oneself. But righteousness and holiness come as individuals and communities let go of the fleshly temptations and desires to overvalue such things and more appropriately value the powerful demonstration of sacrificial love.

Insofar as our own personal faith and hope rests in finding and seeking the extraordinary, we are still thinking in terms of the flesh, as Paul would talk about, acting as spiritual children who need clear, dramatic signals to differentiate between the goodness of the Spirit and the flesh. It is like thinking that life is all about learning from Sesame Street; sure it is fun and it helps instill clear, basic ideas for children to grasp, but if all you ever do is want to watch Sesame Street, you will not grow into mature adulthood. Longing for the extraordinary from God is good when it is genuinely and truly grounded upon a desire for the power to demonstrate God’s powerful love in the world, but even this is not the final goal of evangelistic hope; it is the “ordinariness” of 1 Corinthians 13 style love that is the end goal of even the extraordinary signs and gifts. Extraordinariness as an end to itself is the flesh; the ordinariness of love exhibiting in extraordinary ways as an end is the Spirit.

 

Love as Knowing: The relationship between desire and epistemology

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March 20, 2018

“Love” is a word that everyone loves to hear and speak of. It is the topic of numerous songs, the plot to many romantic movies and novels; it is the platform of many socio-political movements. It can evoke images of parental nurture and direction. It unites friends together. Love litters the landscape of our larger Western culture. There is so much that we think we know about love, but at the end of the day, there are many different expressions of love that each are subtly different. In the end, we are apt to proejct our definitions of love onto other’s definitions of love, and so we become unaware of the true power and nature of love. Our knowledge about love is based upon simply our personal experiences of love, but we fail to see the wider power of love in its various forms. That is not to mention the tension love has with desire; both love and desire are intricately related to each other, and yet love and desire are not coterminous. As such, what we know about love is often times overly specific to our own experiences and thus often times is more about ourselves and our own desires than it is about that which we love. However, I would suggest that love is more than an experience, a feel, or even a behavior. Love is a form of knowledge; love is epistemic in which we both know about a person or object as they relate to our own desires and about the desires that person has or the reality of the object that goes beyond immediate gratification of our desires.

In his chapter on epistemology in The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright attempts to outline a brand of critical realism for addressing the study of Biblical texts, which he calls a hermeneut of love. Wright says,

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed. 1

Wright’s framework operates to allow both the existence and power of the interpreter and the one or thing being interpreted. While it primarily functions to justify his own exegetical and theological work, Wright hits on something that is more existentially fundamental about the nature of love. On the one hand, there is the desire the lover has for the beloved that frames how the beloved is seen, the power of the love and the reality of their desire impacts engagement, understanding, and knowing about the beloved. However, this type of love extends beyond simply egocentricity where the beloved is understood simply in terms of the egocentric desire of the lover, but that the lover also recognizes the independence of the beloved that goes beyond that immediate desire. Therefore, the lover also comes to want to be aware of what it is the beloved desires and wats, and therefore the lover comes to desire what the beloved desires in what I would refer to as empathetic desire. However, this is certainly idealized, as the difficulties and realities of life certainly cut short this twofold power of both lover and beloved, where the lover has, for whatever reason, been caught up in ceasing to be concerned about the desires of the beloved, or becoming unaware of their own desire and being subservient to the desire of the beloved. In the end, this idealization of love is all too frequently short-circuited by various events, including even the passage of time, that breaks apart the delicate tension that exists between the power of both lover and beloved. But while the tension is maintained or when it is restored once again after it has been lost, there occurs dramatic changes in the lover 2, such that what the person thinks, believes, feels, and knows is altered.

However, this is not the only way two people may relate to each other. They may see each other as rivals in which their interests and the other’s interests are in conflict with one another; this can often time be the case even in marital relationships. Both the power and reality of both persons are accepted as real, and yet it produces a very different form of understanding. Instead of knowing the other person’s desire as something that is good for oneself, one knows that person’s desire as somehow against themselves and their own desires. In this pattern, the very same thing about the other person can be understood and known in a very different way. Instead, the person may seek to force the other person to fit into the categories of desire they have for them, whether it be through trying to “fix” the person in accordance to what is desired, avoiding them because the desire is entire avoidance, etc.

I point these two patterns out to illustrate how knowledge can be tightly bound up with our desire and the persons or objects that our desire causes us to focus upon. Both ways of relating have their own potential epistemic base; it may indeed be beneficial for me to desire what my beloved desires and it can be the case that what another desires could be seen as to my detriment; sometimes both can be potentially true in the same instance. Then, where it gets even more messy is that two people may relate to each other with opposite perspectives, and often times in that case the actions of the other is projectively construed in terms of one’s own perspective, thereby missing the real motivation of the other person.

Thus, love, fear, compassion, anger, etc. all impact not just what we do and what we feel, but what it is we pay attention to in other people and objects and how we interpret that which we notice. At the core, our knowledge about other persons and the world is built upon the framework of our desires and how we see other person’s and object relating to those desires. Put more provocatively, knowledge boils down to desiderata3 and the observations we make aout how things do or do not conform to desiderata. This is not to submerge all knowledge simply to subjectivity and to allow no objective element to knowledge. It is simply to recognize that whatever it is we “objectively” notice is due to the relevance it has for our desires.

This brings the Biblical message about love within a new perspective. Love is not just behavior or feelings. Love is a way of knowing God and knowing others. For instance, when Adam “knows” Eve, it entails Eve being the appropriate mate for what Adam needs,4 so that when Adam “knows” Eve, it is not to be reduced merely to a euphemism for sex or even for emotional intimacy, but it is coming to know about the person in relationship to one’s desire. Desire forms knowledge through the motivation to act towards another, elicting a response from the other that is then observed, interpreted, and understood as either consonant or dissonant with one’s desire. This relationship between knowledge and desire becomes more explicit in Genesis 3, where it the desire of Eve to eat the tree of knowledge of good and evil that leads to the fateful event that leading to Adam’s disobedience;5 it is Eve’s love of her own life through her own desire to be wise that contributed to the action. And indeed, she gained the knowledge that the serpent pointed out to them, they would become like God and they would not die on the very day they ate.6 In other words, when the lover and the beloved are the same person, we may gain a particular form of knowledge, but it it is a form of knowledge that breaks down the relationship with others.

This becomes even more evident within Israel’s story, as it is Israel’s love of their own life that makes them immediately fearful of the trials they faced in the wilderness. They consistently grumble in a way that they would rather go back to Egypt than be lead through the wilderness to the land that God had promised them. It wasn’t the grumbling or disappointment that serves as the fundamental problem, however; God was all too willing to meets the concerns of the Israelites such as providing manna in the wilderness. Rather, the problem rested in what it was that they most wanted and loved. They so valued their own life, which is an all too natural reality, that they were quick to observe and notice potential threats to their own lives to the extent that it fundamentally conflicted with their trust in the God who had delivered them from Egypt. This was not merely the grumbling of the lament psalms where one is expresses strong emotions of fear, complaint, anger, and abandonment towards God but yet still feels a fundamental reliance upon God and His instruction. Rather, it is the intensity of fixation of one’s own life and desires that enslaves and controls what one thinks to the point that it leads to the breakdown of faith and faithfulness. This is a form of knowing God that is all to consistent with modern religiosity: God only matters insofar as he addresses the immediate concerns we have. This becomes most evident in the problem of evil is an effective argument against unbelief because far from simply lamenting God’s lack of action in the face of evil, the problem of evil is taken as evidence of the fundamental distrust in this idea of a loving, powerful God such that we either must a) change our definitions about God, love, and/or power or b) reject the existence of this God. Our desire for peace, joy, and freedom from suffering and death so takes precedence that the type of knowledge we have about God is framed by the intensity of that desire, such that the existence of great suffering and evil goes beyond motivating lament and pursuits of justice but active changes in what one believes, knows, and trust about God. It is the love of self, whether it be direct thinking about myself or thinking about the others and their experiences in such a way where I project my pain, fears, onto them, it is the nature of the desires of the flesh that Paul refers to, that fundamentally breaks down the relationship God would have with the world and His people. While human desire is not inherently evil or bad, when my own egocentric desires are taken as supreme and of most important, it can motivate actions and beliefs/knowledge that can resist and distrust God’s loving work in them, through them, and for them. God either becomes objectified as an object for fulfillment, God becomes avoided as one who does not comply, or God’s existence is denied.7

Thus, when Deuteronomy recounts Israel’s lack of trust and obedience to God8, it makes a renewed call for obedience through the intercession of Moses9 that climaxes in the the great Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”10 The answer to disobedience and distrust ultimately calls upon renew the very foundation upon which obedience and trust are built; a love for God that encapsulates the entire person, including their desire. Love becomes the foundation upon which then God’s instruction will be known in the heart of the person.11 It is this type of love that will be attentive to the desires of God the Beloved expressed through the occasional voice speaking from the heavens and more frequently through the voice of Moses.

Understood in this light, when Jesus lifts up the love of God and the love of neighbor as the two most important commandments, he is not engaging in some ethical reductionism echoed in the Beatles’ song “All You Need is Love.” Jesus speaks of these two commandments not as all you need to know, but rather he says the whole Torah and the Prophets “hang” on these two commandments.12. This metaphor is similar to the metaphor of “foundation” that informs certain forms of epistemology where all knowledge is directly or indirectly justified by certain, bedrock ideas known as self-evident beliefs. However, where Jesus differs from foundationalism is that Jesus grounds all that is known about God in the Torah and Prophets based upon an affective, relatonal attitude towards God and then towards others, and not simply an idea or belief. Thus, love is not the completion of knowledge, including our moral knowledge, rather this relational bond of love is the all essential foundation for the start of knowing about God and the wisdom of God has about the world, including people. That if one loves God in such a way that one pays attention to Him and His instruction, one will do the things God asks and instructs; that if one loves other people, one will come to observe and understand these people in terms of their own well-being, although with God’s instruction taking precedence over another person’s expectations if the two are in conflict.

At the core of Christian faith then is the epistemological foundation of a particular pattern of love; it is the desire for God’s will and then within the range of what is consistent with God’s will, it the desire for other people’s wellbeing. This entails an attunement to others and their desires, an attention to them such that we desire these things over and above ourselves. This is not to state we are the only ones who have knowledge when we love; there are other forms of knowledge that come through self-love, fear, hatred, etc. Rather, it is the state that when we love in the specific pattern that the Scriptures point to, most fully and visibly manifest in the self-giving, sacrificial love of Christ who saw others not in terms of what he could get from them but rather in what he could do for them, we are brought into a form of knowing something, or rather Someone, that will fundamentally alter the totality of life. Whatever other knowledge there may be, the knowing of God is a knowledge about the most important, fundamental nature of reality itself, the One who created, sustains, and will renew all there is.

It is like the different forms of knowledge about computers. Firstly, I can know about that technology in terms of what it does for me. For instance, I can know that the computer I am typing on can provide me a way to communicate with others via social media and email, can provide my videos for personal entertainment, and can provide a quick way to search for information that is related to my academic studies. Or I can learn how the technological fundamentally works and operates and thus understand the broadest range and potential of this piece of technology.13 In this case, I would understand theoretical knowledge about the computer programming and the hardware, and thus also understand how the software and hardware work together to interface with the users. This type of knowledge may initially be less connected to my immediate personal experience of gratification or frustration with the operation of the computer, but this knowledge can put my immediate experience into context, along with the immediate experiences of others. But this theoretical knowledge about computers will entail paying attention not simply to what the technology does for me immediately, but understanding its hardware and software even though such knowledge may not have an immediate payoff. But this will entail a desire for understanding technology in such a way that fundamentally recognizes computers can fulfill my desires through the “immanent” experience and usage of the computer while also recognizing it is something that “transcends” my desires that I must love for its own sake if I am to be able to learn about it fully. This deeper knowledge is more impactful and it pertains to more people than just myself and people like me; it is through my love of this technology that I can then begin to use that knowledge to help others using that technology. While God is certainly no object, the premise remains the same; it is this deeper, “theoretical” knowledge of God build upon the love of God that is attuned to Him through listening and learning that give us a knowledge that tells us more about the fundamental nature of our world that we live in and experience and that is more useful for putting other people’s experience in context so as to seek their well-being.

Biblical love is epistemological where the lover and the beloved are not the same. And in this sense, it is a form of epistemology that cuts against the epistemology of self-love, where lover and beloved are the same. Unwittingly undergirding the well-intentioned notion that you can not love another till you love yourself14 is that your desires for others which you label “love” will be determined by the desiderata that stems from self-love that justifies, highlights, feeds, and engorges one’s own desires. Putting Biblical visions of love into practice reverses this all too natural trend: it is a knowing of the other, most importantly the all-creating Other, in such a way where our own desires as related to the other no longer share center stage, but we come to know about the Other/other in ways that do not immediately address our own desires.

Christ and other religions: How can United Methodists live faithfully yet openly engage other religious and philosophical ideas?

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March 16, 2018

Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin, a professor and chaplain at Southern Methodist University, posted yesterday about the idea of the United Methodist church having a magisterium much like the Roman Catholic church does. Rankin’s concern pivots on the problem that many United Methodist clergy do not make religious distinctions between the faith in God through Jesus Christ as in the New Testament from other religious traditions such as Buddhism. A magisterium would, if we are being honest, attempt to control the doctrine that is taught by clergy. While I certainly share his concern for the United Methodists teaching Jesus Christ as something unique from and eminently more true than any other form of religion, simply having an institutional mechanism given to a few leaders responsible for enforcing doctrinal standards causes me much concern.1 The concern isn’t in and of itself a fear of any governing body controlling doctrine; there are many reasons within the New Testament to suggest there should be some form of doctrinal accountability, along with pragmatic reasons around such an authority helping to maintain effective teaching, ministry, and meaningful unity.

Rather. my concern rests on the tendency for institutions to promote oversimplified epistemological structures. By that I mean that institutional authority and bureaucracy are inclined towards reducing ambiguity and in so doing, allows for only one type of legitimate body of knowledge. If something appears to potentially be off base from the normative standards and policy, such as a theological teaching that can be imagined to lead to a contradiction with theological standards or a particular action that is on the margins of policy, such mechanisms have a tendency to shut down these possibilities in lieu of maintaining conformity to the standards. Therefore, the only legitimate basis of knowledge within the organization is particular expressed values and policies. Any other knowledge is treated as either wrong, false, or if they are feeling charitable, inconsequential for the mission and purpose of the organization. All other forms of knowing are considered illegitimate, at least for the purposes of the organization.

The problem with that as it pertains to Christain faith is that this flattened, oversimplified epistemology is not witnessed in the New Testament or the early Church. While the New Testament maintains the unique and unsurpassable nature of the faith and knowing of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, they did not treat all other rivals systems of knowledge as automatically illegitimate. Paul in 1 Corinthians is engaging with a congregation that is influenced by a street variety of Stoicism. Stoicism taught what amounts to a pantheistic cosmology, whereas Paul had a more robust sense of God’s transcendence. They were certainly competitors when it came to knowledge about God; this is not to mention the disagreements on some ethical matters. So this Stoicizing of Christian doctrine certainly lead to a lot of problems in what is going on in the church at Corinth; Paul attempts to address it in the various ethical topoi of the letter. However, Paul’s tactic isn’t to say “that Stoicism stuff is pure rubbish; you need to abandon all of it and just follow Jesus.” No. Rather, Paul uses some Stoic ideas and terminology throughout the letter on behalf of his own argument, as if there is some legitimacy to some of the Stoic ideas, but to evaluate this knowledge critically in light of the knowledge of God in Christ and the Spirit. In his later correspondence to the Corinthians, he refers to “tearing down every discursive argument and heavenly speculation that has been built up against the knowledge of God, and taking possession of every idea for obedience to Christ.”2 For Paul, other rival systems of knowledge must be challenged as it pertains to knowledge about God, but they are not to be rejected as entirely off base about any theological truths, nor does Paul reject them as stating anything true about the world itself.

Similarly, the early Church did not develop an outright rejection of anything not Christian. Justin Martyr saw the Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates and Plato highly. Tertullian, not one for avoiding hyperbole in drawing a distinction between Christan faith and philosophy in his famous “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” still spoke of the Stoic philosopher Seneca as “often one of us.” 3 Many of the early church fathers we perfectly capable of appreciating and appropriating insights from rival philosophies. Rather, the rivals the early Church tends to treated as entirely illegitimate were paganism, Gnosticism, and, at times, Judaism; what was characteristic of paganism is the teaching about others divine powers and the liturgical worship of then, Mean the other two intellectual forms explicitly taught very different things about Jesus; Gnosticism tried to fit Jesus into a Neoplatonic mold; Judaism rejected the legitimacy of Jesus as Messiah. Thus, the main times where the early Church fathers sought to delegitimate rival, intellectual and religious systems as when they tried to offer vastly different pictures of the heavenly realms and the nature of divinity and/or they reinterpreted Christ. Otherwise, there was a qualified openness to other religious and philosophical systems.

An epistemological framework that can make sense of Paul and then the early Church fathers is the idea that there is a knowledge about God that must conform to Jesus Christ; this type of knowledge is exclusive and particularistic. All other spiritual and heavenly speculations are criticized and then either used differently or discarded. They may even have a very broad, basic idea that has some truth as it pertains to God; Paul allowed for the possibility of theological knowledge based upon knowledge of the created order,4, but that this knowledge was neither full, exhaustive knowledge nor was this form of theological knowledge effective in saved people from their sins. In other words, whatever might be true in other rival intellectual and religious systems isn’t worth basing your life upon. However, there is also other bodies of knowledge about the world that other religions and philosophies may provide true ideas about. For instance, the Buddhist tradition has many useful insights into human psychology, particularly as it pertains to consciousness and attention. In fact, a focus on present experience to allay anxiety and worry is similar to what Jesus teaches about focusing on the matters of today so as to not worry.5 The one caveat is to not treat this psychological knowledge as knowledge that is true about God and God’s will, or that God must act in a way that is consistent with this knowledge. This is to metaphysicalize natural knowledge, and this would be inconsistent with Christian faith. However, one can appropriate insights from Buddhism,6 for instance, for understanding certain “worldly” matters. But in light of Christ, this is not knowledge I would put my trust in for the totality of my life, nor would I teach others to put their trust in this knowledge for their whole life either.

This may seem complicated, but I would suggest it only seems that way because in Western Christian circles, we are only familiar with flattened out epistemic practices in the first place. Either only Christianity is true or all knowledge is true; there is no multiple tiers of values and truthfulness of different bodies of knowledge. It is complicated only because we are not familiar with it. However, if church liturgies and discipleship took on epistemic forms that are more authentic to the early church’s epistemic practices, particularly as it pertains to God’s divine self-disclosure through Jesus and the Spirit, I would suggest that both the clergy and laity would be much more equipped to critically evaluate and discern the two different tiers of knowledge and other rival intellectual and religious systems. Then, a magisterium-like authority would be less likely to enact a flattened, oversimplified epistemology. Then pastors would be able to say “We put our faith for our wholes lives in God knowing through Jesus and the Holy Spirit” while at the same time saying “there are some true insights elsewhere that may help address very specific, particular problems.” This form of discipled and liturgically formed epistemological imagination will not so easily collapse into either exclusive particularism where all other religions and philosophies must be rejected outright or inclusive pluralism where all religions and philosophies are treated with equal legitimacy and value.