God and social identity

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May 19, 2019

I love those “aha!” moments that you come across in the course of study when you are studying one topic and suddenly, something else comes along that suddenly makes sense in light of the topic you have been studying. That happened today, as I was enjoying a nice walk in downtown Edinburgh. The last evening, I was reading up on social identity theory as proposed by Henri Tafjel and popularized in Biblical Studies through scholars such as Philip Esler, trying to figure out how it might relate to my own research. Then, as I was walking today, I happened upon a post by an acquaintance on Facebook about another person who was hostile towards Christian faith in virtue of Christianity historically tied to the God of Abraham, whereas faith in this God made one abandon one’s own nation by abandoning the gods of their ancestry. Then it really clicked: our cognitive understanding of divinity and our understanding of our national and social identities are tightly intertwined.1

The heads of an empire, such as Pharoah or the Caesars were bestowed varying degrees of divinity. Rome had the goddess Roma who was a personification of the city. In the more recent past, the United States had a sense of manifest destiny where God has set America for dominance from Atlantic to Pacific. For most anyone with a theological or religious education, the tight, historical relationship between politics and religion is a familiar pattern of human society from the ancient past to the very present day in the form of civic religion and political advocacy.

But, what is not so readily noticed is that this relationship between politics and religion is simply one example of the manner in which religion and identity becoming tightly intertwined. The various socio-political organizations of human societies are but one type of social identity. It is a peculiar form of social identity where we understand ourselves by identities that are shared with each other based upon a common relation to a particular distribution power, where our relationships are centered around a specific person or persons who inherit and/or embody the power that unites and directs the people. Divinity is often an explanation employed to describe how these individuals or political unity possess this power, especially in population groups and societies that do not have some anthropocentric theory about the distribution of power (i..e. democracy as the will of the people, rather than government ruled by the will of particular divinity/divinities).

But there are various social identities that are not structured by power relations. Ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. all are classes of social identities. Religion is often an expression of these social identities. YHWH was the God of Israel, a people defined their ancestry. It has not been infrequent in modern feminist circles to a) switch to talk about a goddess or b) employ the usage of maternal and feminine depictions of God. It is common to hear people of non-heterosexual identities to say “God made me this way.” Whatever the specific social identity, it is a frequent phenomenon to somehow connect one’s sense of social identity with some divine reference, whether it be an (1) appeal to a divinity within a specific tradition (such as God of Judeo-Christian tradition), (2) a call to a different goddess or god, and/or (3) a reference to some other, non-personalistic ontic entity that has a pervasive influence (such as the anima mundi).

Now, for most religious practitioners, they would consider a causal relationship in which the divinity causes their own status as members of the group to which they belong. However, religious skepticism in traditions streaming from people like Feuerbach or Marx would reverse the causal order, suggesting it is our social identities that cause us to conceive of a divinity that aligns with our social identity. Both directions of causality are plausible, if not even probable, under conditions of there does exist a set of divine beings that do interact with humans at some level (i.e. not an Epicurean god). If the God known in Jesus Christ makes the work the Holy Spirit known to me, then I am (a) impacted by God in an “objective” sense while simultaneously (b) developing a “subjective” understanding of God that impacts how I make sense of the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not that different from any other social or interpersonal relationship, where my interactions with other persons or groups lead me to construe them in a specific way. If, however, there does not exist at least one divine being that interacts with people in a such a way that this interaction can be known by at least one individual, then the causality flows one way, from social identity to divinity.

It is at this point, then, that a critical challenge is presented to all of our theological talk. I will use myself to present this: on what grounds can my understanding of God and the relationship God has with people that I share a social identity with (Christian) be considered reliable if my sense of God is influenced by my social identity? This question is connected to a common objection to any sense of epistemic confidence in our theological conviction based upon where we grew up. I had been born in and grown up in Iran, I would most likely be Muslim rather than Christian. Implicit in this objection is the relationship between social identity (nationality and ethnicity) and theology that repeat the skeptical objection.

But these challenges operate on the assumption that to appropriately understand our religious beliefs, we must first proceed from the epistemic known of social identity to the epistemic uncertainty of divinity to determine the right level of epistemic confidence we can have in our belief in divinity. But this implicit assumption only seems legitimate based upon an epistemology rooted in scientific empiricism, where we can have higher epistemic confidence in those things we can sense and readily measure in such a way that the measurement would be generally agreed upon to between ‘rational’ persons. In other words, because social identity is more readily measurable because we can connect specific social identities with specific perceivable actions, speech, symbols, etc. than divinity, the analysis of the relationship between theology and social identity commonly starts from the perspective of the theological skeptics.

However, I would submit that by doing so, theological skeptics end up reinforcing the causal factor that leads to the problem of religious dogmatism and conflict many of them object to. By legitimizing that we start from social identity, our social identity becomes even more salient and therefore becomes a much stronger force in our theology. If our understanding of divinity is tightly intertwined with our social identity, by making social identity more salient, we reinforce the theological understandings that come from social identity. This is why in an age of theological skepticism, religious adherents make more reference to their experiences as people of a specific identity in developing their theology: the age of theological skepticism has strengthened the power that our social identities have on our theological beliefs. Theological skepticism is the fertilizer of “tribal” religion.

But, as a Christian, I would make the claim that the starting point of social identity is the exact opposite of the trajectory of the Biblical narrative about people’s relationship to God. Israel were the people of God, and yet, in the end, God was redeeming the world and not just Israel. Whatever the specific relationship that exists between Israel and God, Israel routinely fell into error when it thought their social identity as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had cemented their relationship to God. The people of Israel did belong to God in a special way to bring the knowledge of YHWH into the world, but God did not belong to Israel as a guarantor of their particular status and ambitions within the world. In the end, I would say the Scriptures tell more about how God “deconstructs” Israel’s social identity rather than reinforces it. In other words, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a God who challenges social identities rather than reinforces them. The boundaries humans create are in the process of being broken down rather than being built up.

But I want to clarify what I am saying here. I am not saying God is abolishing social identity in the Scriptures. God does not reject Jewish identity, nor does he renege on His promises to Israel’s patriarchs. By deconstructing and challenging, I am suggesting that God is continuously re-tearing down the “towers of Babel” that groups regularly rebuild up to God on the foundations of their social identity. God is not the God of Tradition that takes our past as the confident grounds to know God. God is not conservative. Here is something else I am not saying: God is not providing new social identities that replace old social identities. God retains his commitment to Israel, but He surprisingly incorporates the Gentiles into Israel as children of Abraham through faith. Even as these Gentiles do not follow the Torah, they retain their faith and loyalty to this God of Abraham who did make His will known through the Torah. God is not the God of a revolution that abandons the past for something radically discontinuous and new, as if this new identity has now finally the right foundation for understanding God. God is not progressive. Both the conservative and progressive understandings of God still retain the pattern of a specific social identity as being necessary, if not sufficient, condition for having right theological belief.

What I am saying is that from my understanding of the Bible, God does not reinforce the relationship between social identity and theology as much as He challenges the way social identity impacts our theology. There is a two-way causal relationship between God and our social identity, but it is more typically an antagonistic relationship where God and the people whose theology formed out of social identity come into conflict rather than it is sympathetic harmony between God and the religiosity of groups defined by their social identity. The “theologicalization” of social identity is a contribution of our hostility with God, even as we call on God’s name in old or new ways.

Rather, this God is specially and uniquely known in a personal identity: the identity of the individual person of Jesus Christ. But I would go further to say that God does not bestow to us a specific identity that we then possess in virtue of Jesus. Our identity isn’t in Jesus. Rather, God is in the process of forming our identity into conformity to that of Jesus Christ, which includes both the label we use to identity our affiliation with Jesus and our ever developing understanding of what that social identity entails. In virtue of our being part of the body of Christ, our identity is becoming understood by taking on the mind of Christ, in which this process of sanctification is constantly changing and adapting our sense of identity.2

We might be tempted to call this “becoming,” but even then this can serve as a foundation for social identities, such as that of spiritual pilgrims, by which we can then build yet another tower of Babel. Plus, “becoming” often works with an implicit understanding of change, whereas God’s challenge of our identity may keep it the same as it was. If God has formed something good in us, one should stay consistent with that good; development in that specific case is consolidation rather than transformation. I do not think God ALWAYS deconstructs social identities in Scripture, but only by in large challenges more than reinforces, but consolidation is something God can do. In other words, this is not a theology of eternal becoming, but of contingently being and becoming.

Rather, this is a theology that finds much in common with theological skepticism: we do often try to make God in the image of our own social identities. The difference is that whereas theological skeptics say “we form God in our own image” and leave it at that, I go one step further to say “we form God in our own image, but God tears that image down to show His own image instead.”

Thus, in addition to the person of Jesus, God is primarily known by how He challenges and transforms our social identities through the work of the Holy Spirit. But a more generic understanding of this in the idea that God challenges social identity provides a counter-thesis to the modern analysis of social identity and theology. Yes, if I grew up in Iran I would likely have been Muslim. However, it has been my experience as a Christian that God has challenged and transformed by own social identity in what I understanding about being a Christian. I would contend my understanding of God is based upon how my identity has been changed from how my own acceptance of that identity. I would contend that my understanding of God is generalizable to the hypothetical me born in Iran, even if I would not have that same understanding as a hypothetical Muslim, because my confidence in grounded upon the powerful events I have seen challenge my social identity as a Christian that I can only attribute to the God known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

While this might seem abstract and abstruse, let me apply it to matters of sexuality that divides Christian theology for a specific example. However, I need to state that as a heterosexual, I try to be intentional to consider why it is that LGBQ3

A conservative evangelical might say to a gay person “Don’t put your identity in your sexuality, but put your identity in Christ.” The problem with this is that it assumes that there is a sense of our own identity we possess or claim in virtue of being a Christian. It seeks to establish that definition over and against one’s sexual identity, as if one identity has a more secure ground than the other in the life of a person. It is treated as if this is some therapeutic process, as if the Christian identity will somehow solve the struggles of people who experience same sex attraction but desire to hold to a traditional sexual ethic.  One’s religious identity is not necessarily more sure or stronger than another identity. Almost all people, straight or otherwise, when sexually aroused will see themselves in terms of their sexual identity, not their religious identity. One can incorporate one’s religious identity into their sexuality identity, but that doesn’t address their sexual experience. Rather, is the God known in Jesus and the Spirit, not a sense of identity in Jesus, who is faithful, true, and powerful. “Putting your identity in Christ” places faith in the cognitive and affective rather than God.

However, alternatively “God made me this way” also succumbs to the “theologicalization” of social identity in a pretty bold way that borders on the type of theological justifications that kings and emperors made for their own status and identity. There are similar conditions for such theological justification in that it (a) resolves the dissonance that people who bear such an identity have with those who do not agree to their own sense of identity and status by (b) evoking God against dissenters in virtue of the moral power such a claim makes. In other words, empires formed in conflict with other powers and developed theological justifications for their identity, and so too does the “God made me this way” appeal to the same form of theological justification.

What then? (I am speaking generally here and not just with the specific case of sexuality) Don’t seek to find one’s identity or to secure one’s identity. Rather, recognize that you are God’s but that God is not your possession for establishing your own social identity. Rather, seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness, which does not have a specific social identity of ours in mind but rather has others in mind.

Hermeneutical key to the Scriptures: The cross vs. Gnosticism

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May 16, 2019

Early in the life of the church, the defenders of the orthodox faith by people such as Irenaeus of Lyons had to face off against a creek that branched off and the river of Christian tradition: Gnosticism. What Gnosticism taught is impossible to answer because a) there was not a monolithic Gnosticism or a central authority that resembled what emerged in orthodox Christianity and b) the scattered nature of our sources make it hard to systematically reconstruct the various branches of Gnosticism. But one key element that distinguished the orthodox Christians from the Gnostics was hermeneutical: how it is that one should come to understand the Scriptures?

For the Gnostics, there was a general pattern that they laid claim to having a secret teaching that made sense of the Scriptures. Much like the Pharisees used the traditions of the elders that controlled how they understood and applied the Torah, the Gnostics also had an oral tradition from teachers, such as Valentinus, that they used to interpret the Scripture. This secret teaching unavailable to others was contrasted with the public confession that existed throughout the orthodox churches. At one level, the distinction between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism is at the level of public and shared vs. private and secret hermeneutical knowledge.

While this contrast between public and private knowledge is helpful in a historical analysis of the causes behind the pluralism of Gnosticism and the unity of the emergent catholicity, I think this is of a secondary value theology.1  I think the shared tradition of the early churches has a derivative value coming from the central core of the apostolic faith: the hermeneutical key of the cross to provide the right understanding of the Scriptures. A shared tradition ensures a common confession across the churches that protects the epistemic centrality of the cross through a common voice, even if this was not the overt intention of Irenaeus and later Catholic thinkers in establishing the importance of catholicity and tradition for interpreting the Scriptures.2

The deeper theological difference I would suggest divides the orthodox Christians from the Gnostics is that differences they have in how one rightly interprets the Scriptures. But to be clear here, I am not referring to hermeneutics in the senses we usually hear it in referring to a prescribed methodology and principles for right interpreting the words of a text, such as Scripture. Rather, I am referring more so the pre-understandings we bring to the act of interpretation that influences how we construe the meaning of what it is that we read.

For the Gnostics, it came in the form of specific ideas and concepts that they taught. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies immediately catalogs a Gnostic cosmology of Aeons as preexistent powers/beings that they can then see being referred to in the Scriptures. For the Gnostics, the pre-understanding was essentially a form of metaphysical mythology that one can then see mentioned in the Scriptures.

By contrast, the orthodox Christians creeds and practices functioned to maintain the centrality of the cross in the narrative of redemption, even if there was a penchant to address metaphysical concerns like the Arian controversy. While not presenting the cross as a key to interpreting the Scriptures (although, the person of Jesus was early on taken as the center of understanding the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament), they kept the Jesus’ crucifixion front and center in the Church’s worship and life. I would say they value of this is that by keeping the cross in the center, it had the value of training people to understand the Scriptures with the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in mind, even if that was not the intentional purpose a common theology and tradition was used to serve.

So, from a hermeneutical angle, I want to suggest what makes orthodox Christianity so different from Gnosticism: orthodox Christianity makes possible, although does not ensure, that one’s understanding of the Scriptures is influenced by a way of life defined by the cross. The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings, the epistles of Paul, the visions of Revelation, etc. can come to be comprehended by people who have been formed by a cruciform life. One’s own experience, one’s own formation, one’s own memory informs and influences every part of one’s reading of the Gospels, for instance. The necessary (although perhaps not sufficient) conditions for right interpretation rest upon personal participation in the Church’s worship and praxis.

By contrast, Gnosticism appealed to some specific set of teachings as the necessary condition for right interpretation. Once you get these specific concepts, you have the hermeneutical key to find everything else that is important to learn. I want to suggest that there are two problems with this: it leads to (1) a form of eisgesis that leads to interpretations that massively diverge from the basic sense of the words of Scripture and (2) leads to a form of intellectual reductionism that stifles real creativity.

While the former is covered by Irenaeus and others, the latter is of particular ‘interest’ to me. It might sound surprising to suggest that the Gnostics, often times heralded as those fights against the dogmatic powers of the narrow-minded orthodox, would lead to a stifling of interpretive creativity, but I would suggest this is the problem with all forms of interpretation that emphasize specific ideas as the necessary key. When one has a specific doctrine or set of doctrines in mind, be they Gnostic or any other theological system, one’s mind becomes trained to pick up on these specific cognitive patterns in one’s reading. Whatever the idea is, one engages in a form of cognitive entrenchment that leads one to see this idea everywhere one can find it.

Allow me to give another alternative from my own experience. Early in college, I developed a doctrinal obsession with the idea that one could lose one’s salvation. To be clear, this wasn’t simply motivated by some sense of crippling fear that God would reject me. Rather, it was taken up in my intellectual conflict with what I saw to be the bad interpretations among many people from my Southern Baptist background, particularly Hebrews. I was so focused on this that when I started really reading the Old Testament, the Bible I had regularly underlined all the passages I saw that warned about judgment about sin. It was not until years later that I started reading about creation and redemption in the Old Testament that my reading of the OT began to dramatically change. I had developed a doctrinal fixation that impacted what I read and saw in the Bible, as the exclusion of so much more that was there.

I would similarly contend that this becomes a routine problem in modern theology, when certainly doctrinal fixations become paramount. Whether it be a fixation with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, a progressive obsession with love, etc., the end result is that readings of the Scripture emerge that often times overlook and miss parts that don’t directly pertain to that. Doctrinal fixation, whether intended or not, becomes a hermeneutical key that influences, if not controls, our act of reading and interpreting.

I would contend this is a problem, even if one has some doctrine that can be found at some point in the Scriptures. I would contend this is a problem, even has a doctrine that substitutes some moral principle such as love in place of a less emotionally powerful idea that gets labeled as “doctrine.” And it is this that I consider the primary problem of Gnosticism; the key to rightly understanding the Scriptures is some specific idea. That the important ideas are totally foreign to the Scriptural witnesses makes Gnosticism a full-blown heresy, but that it treats ideas as the key to understanding is a more pervasive problem that is not monopolized by formal heresy, but also by even the seemingly orthodox.

On the other the hand, a way of life defined by the following by taking up one’s cross influences one’s interpretation not by specific ideas that one keeps cognitively in front of oneself and masters, but the various experiences of following Jesus that colors how we read everything else. The experience of forgiveness in the midst of extreme hurt from others can help us to comprehend Jesus’ own discourse about forgiveness. The experience of shame and rejection can help us to comprehend the shame of Jesus’ cross. The conflict one experiences in obeying God over other people provides insight into the most important commandment being the love of God before the love of neighbor. There is no single, overarching idea one can find that can express the significance of forgiveness, of overcoming shame, of experiencing the tensions between our social commitments, but as one lives a life following Jesus by taking up the cross, the various experiences of life we have shed light on the meaning and significance of these teachings.

I present that as a narrow set of examples to highlight this: the necessary hermeneutical key of the Scriptures is pointed towards, but not given, by the creeds of the Church. Only when we live out what the creeds point towards do we then gain a hermeneutical perspective that can help make sense Jesus’s teachings, for instance. But this form of life and obedience is not some way of obtaining merit in the eyes of God, but is more like what Paul says in Philippians 3.7-11: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead

This is spoken in the context of Paul’s rejection of his status and excelling as a Jew and Pharisee. What partly undergirds this confession of Paul is his devaluation his prior way of life, which including being a Pharisee that was likely defined in part by the practice of interpreting the Torah with specific principles and ideas in mind. This interpretation of Torah would then lead to the emergence of a behavioral pattern of supposed righteousness based upon the Torah, but rather find one’s bearings and understanding in the crucified Christ and sharing in the resurrection power found in Christ. Through taking up his own cross, through being like Jesus in his death, even if a more muted form of death in suffering and pain rather than the full-blown death of biological cessation, Paul would find a significance far greater and more important than his prior life that emphasized the role of righteousness via specific ways of interpretation.

Now Paul didn’t reject the importance of interpreting the OT Scriptures, as even as a cursory view of Romans and Galatians will show, but the center of his understanding becomes profoundly cross-and-resurrection centered. However, Paul didn’t do what the early churches soon did thereafter in seeing the person of Jesus Christ referenced through archetypes throughout the Old Testament. Rather, he became a better reader of Scripture by letting go of his prior intellectual commitments to his Pharisaical Judaism. Rather than trying to treat Abraham as a prototype of righteousness based upon his obedience to circumcision or willing to sacrifice Isaac (Mattathias’ speech in 1 Maccabees 2.52 see Abraham as a prototype through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac), Paul could rightly emphasis Genesis 15.6 is the place where Abraham was justified in God’s eyes before the commandment of circumcision had even arrived. Why? I would contend because his understanding of the Scriptures became less defined by specific, overarching ideas and more by a specific way of life formed in accordance to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that influenced how he understood the Scriptures.

This is perhaps where Gnosticism was going off track, even as its heresy turned it into a disastrous train wreck: it was tempted by the value of higher cognition as providing the key for understanding, just as like the Corinthian church sought intellectual wisdom from their teachers to help them to grow and mature.

We can define this tendency towards the valuation of specific ideas influenced interpretation as part of a top-down process of higher cognition, where our mind filters out much of what we read except that which conforms to the ideas we have in advance. 

Higher cognition certainly has a value in the church, but it doesn’t provide the necessary criteria for understanding the Scriptures. When the necessary conditions for understanding the Scriptures are being satisfied, such as following Jesus through walking by the Spirit, then higher cognition can help to marshall the other resources that can be helpful, such as theological knowledge. I would even extend this further to even include the higher cognitions associated with Biblical Studies, such as the knowledge of Biblical languages, history, etc., although the higher cognitions of Biblical studies tend to be a bit more diversified than with a knowledge of a particular strand of theology.

However, the ideas and practices of higher cognition don’t provide the secrets to understanding, but they are tools that are of great use.  Their effectiveness, I would say, is conditioned to having access to the ‘secrets’ that emerge in our hearts as a result of trusting and then living in accordance to what is publically confessed by the Church: Christ crucified.

Jesus as an obscurantist rabbi

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May 16, 2019

Any cursory read through the Gospels of the New Testament, except perhaps the Gospel of Mark, will present something very obvious that almost anyone who knows anything about Jesus will know: Jesus was a teacher, or more precisely, a rabbi. Regularly implied in this is a strong moral sense in which Jesus teaches about love, justice, etc. This perception of Jesus has been influential throughout the West, exemplified in many ways. Thomas Jefferson created a rendition of the Gospels that cut out everything that was miraculous but kept the moral teachings of Jesus. It is often common knowledge in the West that Mahatma Gandhi resonated with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount while lamenting the failure of Christians to follow it. The Red-Letter Christian movement has emphasized Jesus’ own teachings and actions about justice and compassion in the face of political polarization on key ethical issues, particularly in the United States. Jesus is a teacher of morals, so the West knows and so would any cursory read through of the Gospels.

Except, there is a real problem to this image if one reads the Gospels closely. Jesus plays the role of a teacher, certainly. But Jesus doesn’t really do the things we today consider key criteria for teachers, one of which is teaching clearly so that one can easily and effectively help as many people as possible understand.

Take his usage of parables for instance. It is common in the halls of a church to hear that the reason Jesus taught in parables was to make his teachings easy to understand. But if that was his purpose, then the Son of God ostensibly failed as his parables often confused more than they clarified. Jesus even had to take aside his own disciples and explain his parables to them. Apparently, his disciples even felt the need to ask Jesus why he taught in parables (Matthew 13.10). Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to use parables so the disciples’ question wasn’t probably motivated by curiosity at some novel teaching method. It might have stemmed from the manner in which people responding to the parables, although we have little further background to that question. However, Jesus’ response in Matthew 13.11-15 actually goes against the normal trends for rabbis to use parables, which was indeed to effectively teach vital principles. Jesus spoke in parables so that the people would not understand, would be further confused. With all but those disciples who were close to him, Jesus could be defined as an obscurantist. Rather than making it easier for people to understand the secrets of the kingdom, he made it even harder.

Jesus routinely told people to keep his miracles a secret. Nicodemus in John 3 left more confused without any answers as to what it means to be born from above/again. His disciples were regularly confused by the things he said and did. If Jesus’ goal was to be understood, the Gospels record his extensive failures at this.

However, it seems to be an expectation that we bring to people we designate in the teacher role. We seek clarity, simplicity, concision, etc. The end result is a pronounced tendency to try to summarize the teachings of Jesus into some pithy moral idea, such as love, non-judgmentalism, etc. We can become tempted to treat Jesus as if he was some sort of early TED speaker, providing some big idea that will change everything. We so assume this is the way good teachers teach that we automatically fit our understanding of Jesus into this scheme.

What we don’t readily accept is that Jesus was teaching something mysterious, that is there is a reason people had a hard time understanding Jesus, including his disciples. His teaching ministry was never about giving a few words that will revolutionize your thinking; it was never about setting about a new moral framework. This becomes clear when you look at the earliest Gospel and the earliest letters in the New Testament from the Apostle Paul.

Mark’s Gospel, which the majority of scholars considers the earliest of the Gospels, is incredibly minimalistic when it comes to Jesus’ teaching, especially of moral teaching. There are spatterings of ethical teaching about divorce and to the rich young ruler in Mark 10; Jesus’ criticism of using the traditions of the elders to avoid the commandments is described in Mark 7. However, the Gospel focuses more so on the events of Jesus’ ministry and his training of his disciples, while painting a picture of the socio-political danger Jesus was wading into. The bulk of Jesus’ extended discourses pertain in some manner to describing the kingdom of God.

Why is this? Because the core purpose of the Gospel of Mark is to point towards the crucifixion of Jesus as the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ first words were “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.15). His last words were the cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” before he breathed his last breath (Mark 15.33-38), after which the temple curtain was torn, causing the centurion before him to make the connection saying “This man was God’s Son.” (Mark 15.38-39) The Gospel of Mark presents the crucifixion of Jesus’ coronation as King and Lord; the cross is where the kingdom is found.

This is perhaps why Jesus tells his disciples that to be His followers they would have to deny themselves and take up the cross. (Mark 8.34). Then this gets soon followed up by a very obscure statement: “Some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9.1) While we might look to that as some reference to the disciples, the generic “some standing here” does perhaps point to Jesus’ own death in an obscure way: he would be one who would taste death before seeing God’s kingdom coming with power, that his own death would reveal to the disciples the way and power of the kingdom is in the cross that they too are called to take up.

We can then say that for the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ pathway to the cross is the story of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ often obscurantist style of teaching provided words that were intelligible in speech, but what they were referring to was veiled and obscured until the events of the cross. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God only finds its true reference, it right point of application, in Jesus’s crucifixion and God’s resurrection power that the Gospel of Mark alludes to the knowledge the early Christian communities would have already had.1

Consider also the lack of Paul’s quotations from Jesus in his epistles. His epistles certainly show evidence of knowledge about Jesus that spans beyond the crucifixion. 1 Corinthians, for instance, shows signs that Paul is aware of Jesus’ teaching about divorce (1 Cor. 7.10) and his words as part of the Lord’s Supper ritual (1 Cor. 11.23-26). I would also make the argument that in 1 Cor. 2.8 Paul casts Jesus in a common Socratic trope of the teacher of wisdom misunderstood and falsely punished to death by political powers, suggesting perhaps some knowledge about Jesus’ examination before leaders like Pontius Pilate, King Herod, the chief priests, etc. I would also contend that Paul was aware of Jesus’ baptism as a model for the baptism of people in Romans 6. Nevertheless, Paul makes rare references to the teachings of Jesus.

Why is this? Perhaps the answer is contained in 1 Cor. 11.23-12.3. In describing Jesus words at the Lord’s Supper, he exhorts the Corinthians to judge themselves when taking the Supper, probably because they had demonstrated little understanding of the significance based upon their behavior that disregarded the less fortunate of them. Then, in 12.1-3, I take Paul to be addressing the practice of a spiritual speech that would be given as these dinners, much like the Greco-Roman symposium dinners where some discussion of philosophical topics would be presented following the meal. Thus, the spiritual speech given at the Lord’s Supper, if it is truly from the Spirit, will understand the Lord’s Supper as a tradition describing how Jesus becomes Lord through the death of the cross, rather than seeing the cross an accursed state that the victims of crucifixion were considered to be under. If Jesus is coronated as Lord through an instrument of torture and control that dehumanized and shamed its victims, to act with such disregard for the less fortunate among them and forget them at the Lord’s Supper is tantamount to not really comprehending the significance of the cross. Jesus’ words about the Lord’s Supper must be understood in a dramatically different way, through the action of the Spirit.

How much more so would this be the case with the rest of Jesus’ teachings that are not immediately pointing to the crucifixion? The Corinthians, for instance, would have desired some wisdom that brought some ethical insight, just as the Roman Stoics regularly emphasized in their philosophy. But if Paul is aware of Jesus’ teachings, he isn’t eager to demonstrate it in his letter to them. Perhaps it is because one can only understand the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings by having become of a mature status in which one can comprehend and understand the things that the Holy Spirit reveals and words the Spirit teaches so that one can then have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.6-16). But until the Corinthians can truly come to comprehend the nature of God’s power as demonstrated in the cross and resurrection that is at work in them and let go of their attachment to the prevailing wisdom and politics of their day, they would not understand the wisdom teaching, including perhaps even Jesus’ words of wisdom.

I would suggest both my read of Mark and my understanding of Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians, makes sense historically if Jesus’ teachings were known to be often obscure, hard to rightly comprehend, and could only be rightly understood by people who themselves have taken up their own cross and allow God’s resurrection power to work in them. To understand much of what Jesus said beyond the intelligibility of the speech to what he actually meant and what he was actually referring to, to go beyond recognition of the words and their combinations to deeper comprehension, one must understand God’s Kingdom going through a cross in one’s own experience and life (and not just as an abstract hermeneutical principle) to know what His wisdom and ethics is pointing towards.

Even the scribe who agreed with Jesus in Mark 12 that the two most important commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, going further to state they were more important than the ritual offerings sacrifices, Jesus simply says “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12.34) Even understanding the summation of Jesus’ most important ethical ideas and the valuation of love over ritual did not bring one into the kingdom, although one was closer to those who had forgotten this.

Jesus was an obscurantist rabbi, who was hard to understanding, if not impossible for most people. Everything he taught only began to make sense to the disciples after the events of His crucifixion and resurrection. While seeing Jesus as a moral teacher is convenient for discussion how the power of politics and morality should be direct, it is only in the cross, through the cross, and from the cross that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God, his teachings about the ways of the kingdom, begin to find their true center around which they become coherent, rightly understood, and appropriately applied.

Jesus was not a TED speaker who gives you some inspirational words that empower and motivate you; Jesus was a hard to understand, esoteric teacher that brought more confusion and chaos than he did clarity and calm. To fail to recognize this and pull the reins back about our sense of confidence about what Jesus taught and meant by his teachings leads us into the failures that much of the scholarship for the quest of the historical Jesus succumbed to: the Jesus they found was actually a self-image. In the obscurity of ambiguity, we readily impress an order and meaning that conforms to our desires and our expectations. But if the cross was the central point and significance of Jesus’ ministry, which is a point that the early church has attested to in the NT canon without as much obscurity, perhaps then when the cross becomes part of who we are in following Jesus can we then understand the more obscure and “erratic” parts of Jesus’ teachings.

Community, way of life, and the missio Dei

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May 1, 2019

Real community is a hard thing to accomplish. Much of what we label as community is often something else. What we call community can be a collection of friends with whom we share life together based upon our personal bonds. Or, maybe it is a small group, which was largely based upon a therapeutic model of small groups as a place where people learned how to share who they are and relate to one another. Or, maybe we call community is actually a small, tightly interconnected network defined by strong hierarchical relations, where relations are primarily ordered around the decisions of a few people whose status gives them a place of leadership. Friendship, therapy, and leadership all have a place in our life and they may even exist within the contexts of a community, but I would suggest none of these are necessary nor sufficient for group of people to be a part of a real community.

Which leads to the definition of community. What is a community? Community is one of those words that most people seem to know what it is but few people would come up with a similar definition of community. For some, community might be defined by something that resembles the local church or other civic and religious organizations. For others, it is a town or village. Yet, for others it is seen in more emotional terms, such as a place where one feels connected, where one feels loved, etc. The task of trying to define community is a tenuous one as it seems to point to some common experience of social life with other people that is valued for its emotional significance, but what makes a community community is not always the same from person to person. This combination of “objectivity” in terms of it being a particular form of social network and “subjectivity” that takes specific desires and emotional experiences being satisfies for it to be community means that “community” can be understood descriptively and normatively. While recognizing that various people would understand the community a bit differently, I will try to provide a definition that I feel best reflects the various descriptive and normative aspects, recognizing that no definition of community will be perfect for all people.

I offer this as a definition of community for my analysis that follows: Community is a group of people 1) who do not have deep relationships with all members but yet 2) have regular interactions with each other 3) based upon having mutual dependence to other community members such that 4) their behaviors are regulated based upon a common way of life.

The first three features are offered to define the community in such a way that community is not reducible to a) a collection of friends but includes other people outside a zone of personal intimacy, b) therapeutic interactions where people experience personal growth or healing but includes interactions that are structured for other purposes, nor c)  hierarchical relations where those in power have little dependence or accountability to those whom they lead. To be clear, friendships, therapeutic interactions, and hierarchy can exist in a community; a community does not negate the existence of these features. However, for a group of people to be a community, there must be another feature that prevents friendships, therapy, and power from determining the nature of the social network.

This is where the fourth features come in. Community member’s relationship to each other is regulated based upon a common way of life. What constitutes a “way of life” can be many things. It can be a specific set of proscribed practices and rules. It can be an assumed pattern of habits that people all share. It can be the behaviors that are necessary to live within a specific geographic area. What specifically constitutes a “way of life” can vary from one community to the next, but this “way of life” and however it emerges, however it is experienced, however it is expressed, serves a vital model for regulating the interactions that people have with each other.

This distinguishes a community from other social networks that are goal-driven, such as a corporation. A corporation is built around a specific goal in which people’s behaviors and interactions with each other is primarily evaluated and regulated based upon pragmatic instrumentality: is one doing what is necessary to help the corporation to succeed in its goals. An employee spends their time accomplishing specific tasks allotted to their job, such as a customer service representative helping customers who call in with questions, so that they can maintain customer satisfaction that ensures repeat business. Employees answer to their managers for their job performance, to make sure their quality continues to help maintain their bottom line. They work together with their co-workers to make sure their specific tasks are accomplished. Corporations are an example of social networks in which participants behaviors and social interactions with each other are regulated based upon a principle of pragmatic instrumentality where specific goals and results have precedence over all others.

A community, by contrast, does not define interactions based upon any specific set of goals that are always given precedence to other goals. A community may have goals, but what goals are selected in a specific moment by its members vary based upon the common way of life. A community of Christians may respond to a member in need based upon the principle of Christian ‘agape’ found in the person of Christ and establish a goal of helping that person; but that community is not defined simply by this specific task so that they only seek to help people in need. They also value meeting together for meals together with the purpose of fellowship, where ‘agape’ directs people to engage in conversations together. Then, during worship, ‘agape’ is directed towards God as they express gratitude and their anxieties and listen to a person who they trust and hope God has formed to communicate a message from God to them. A Christian community defined by a way of life of ‘agape’ will have various goals, depending on the time, people, and circumstance.

I point this out from my Christian perspective to highlight a concern I have with many of the modern ecclesial models built around church planting and revitalization; many of them designate themselves as trying to create missional churches or some other synonymous term for goals, which is usually used in reference to trying to form and lead churches into practices of evangelism, discipleship, service, etc. Now, I certainly have nothing wrong with churches seeking to participate in the missio Dei where we as Christians are formed and directed to take God’s mission of salvation and reconciliation into the world. The problem is, however, is that to define a church “missionally” is to define it according to a pragmatic instrumentality rather than according to a distinctly Christian way of life of agape. The church becomes defined around specific goals that take precedence over others, and this gets reflected and communicated in worship, discipleship, etc. Rather than trying to broaden the understanding of the way of life of agape in its fullness such that we learn, grow, discern opportunities for, and engage in evangelism, discipleship, service, etc. the way of life can be readily substituted for specific missional goals.

However, I would say that churches can participate in the missio Dei without giving up its way of life by understanding the way of life of ‘agape’ by the pattern of God’s love as fully demonstrated in the ministry, cruxifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and empowerment through the Holy Spirit. What God makes known about wisdom, righteousness, redemption, etc. in Christ is realized through the Spirit. Here, worship and discipleship would be patterned are according to two different themes: the worship of the Savior and the enactment of the Spirit’s gifts.

However, what is essential to this relationship of worship and disciple to the Christian communities’ way of life is that the worship of Christ and enactment’s of the Spirit’s gifts are not rigidly fixed to a specific, fixed patterns, such as a perpetually routinized focus on Jesus’ crucifixion as an atonement for our sins (as is commonly the case in evangelical Protestantism) or the valuation of the gifts of tongues (as can be a big pitfall of Pentecostal and charismatic churches). There is a diversity both in how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to be understood and how the Spirit manifests human empowerment according to the same tasks. Jesus was prophetic, even as the Spirit provides prophecy to guide the Church and its people. Jesus was wise, even as the Spirit provides wisdom to build up the Church Jesus was a servant to the well-being of others, even as the Spirit provides capacities for healing and power in service of others.

Through this recognition of the diversity of the ways to construe the ministry of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit, the people of the Church become progressively aware of the fullness of Christ that is to be realized in the the body of Christ as the people are formed by the Spirit to have the mind of Christ. A source of division between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ churches can be partly attributed to the narrow construal of the church in service to very specific types of tasks; progressives can be quite prophetic in seeking to challenge unjust structures, whereas evangelicals can aspire to the rightness of doctrine that approximates what wisdom would often have been understood as. And so, progressives can portray Jesus in this prophetic revolutionary, whereas evangelicals can construe Jesus and his crucifixion more so to fit the specific doctrines of atonement and justification. The diversity and fullness of Christ that the community of Christ is to grow into can be sidetracked by the specific construals of Christ and gifts that are more highly valued for other, pragmatic purposes; various images and gifts are treated as instrumental towards our pragmatic goals , whether it be the realization of a new way of life through prophetic, societal transformation or conservative retaining of an old way of life through doctrinal maintenance.

The net effect of this devaluation of the diversity of images and empowerments is to “missionalize” churches towards specific goals that define the church according to specific purposes within the world and the challenges that they present. When this form of diversity is devalued, even if it is in the name of diversity of another type, then a church becomes an image of the part of the earthly world we live in and it begins to mirror the specific desires, practices, and conflicts that define that specific task and goal. Retaining of the diversity of construals of Christ and empowerments of the Spirit allows the way of life of ‘agape’ in the Christian community to not be defined by particular tasks and struggles that come with a specific type of ministry, even as it engages in those tasks and struggles.

However, even in this diversity, there is a unity; even as there are many gifts, there is one Spirit, and even as there are many services, there is one Lord. All the construals of Christ must, to be authentically Christian, recognize Jesus is Lord through a crucified life; the cross is Jesus’ coronation and so all the rest of how we perceive Jesus in term of various ministries like the prophetic, teaching, and healing are all situated to and pointing towards a crucified and resurrected way of life. Our understanding if the Spirit’s work must, to be authentically Pneumatological, recognize that the empowerment of the Spirit is for building up the Body of Christ as advancing movement of the new creation of God’s kingdom; thus, the empowerment of the Spirit is not for the attainment of personal status or control over the world as it is. Instead, the diversity of the construals of Jesus’ ministry and the diversity of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit function around a central point of coherence: God’s action to bring about new creation through death and resurrection. Any understanding of Christ’s ministry and any employment of the gifts of the Spirit that conflict with this central point of coherence is at the risk of redirecting the church into some other purpose, some other mission, some other task other than the missio Dei.

And where is it that we can begin to understand God’s will for new creation and what God’s work is progressing towards in Jesus and the Spirit? While one might be tempted to answer “In Jesus and through the Spirit,” that is an answer that while it sounds good is liable towards a form of vicious circularity in which we define the images of Jesus and the gifts of the Spirit by reference to themselves. At this point, one can attribute most anything to Jesus or the Spirit and then one finds oneself in a self-reinforcing theology that never finds any source to actually challenge our understanding of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

This task for the community of Christ can only be fulfilled by the Scriptures, which we believe testify to God’s actions in addition to also explaining them. When Paul tries to explain the what God makes wisdom known in 1 Corinthians 1-3, he builds it in the form of a Jewish homily that makes repeated references to the prophetic Scriptures. Understanding God’s wisdom in Christ is understood by God’s purposes expressed in the prophets, particularly Isaiah; God is overturning human wisdom so that wisdom about God will be seen to only come from God. Then, as express in 1 Corinthians 15, the death and resurrection that Jesus experienced was understood in terms of the Scriptures; the shape of God’s redemption spoken throughout the Scriptures without exact definition is now demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Hence, the Scriptures are the way in which the Church comes to be able to reliably understand and distinguish God’s purposes and help understand purpose the Christian way of life participates in.

However, even here Christian communities can tend towards different perspectives of the Scriptures that can redirect and reform the Christian way of life for other pragmatic goals. One tendency in the fundamentalist hermeneutics treats Scriptures as containing various propositions, all of near equality in doctrinal and spiritual value. Holding to six literal days of creation is of near the same importance as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By contrast, one can consider a common hermeneutic in progressive circles to highlight on specific key themes or ideas as most important treat the rest of entirely superfluous, if not even misguided. For instance, Jesus told us to love others and that is all that really matters, so we don’t need to consider with care what we teach about sex and marriage. What these two hermeneutical practices seem are taking specific principles of responsible understanding of the Scriptures and then taking it to the extreme at the exclusion of other principles. To name two of them, 1) certain parts of Scripture bear greater significance and weight to our faith and life than other parts, such as most notably Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, but 2) all of Scripture is useful for Christian teaching. Propositional hermeneutics can prioritize #2 and forget #1 and the prioritization of #1 while forgetting #2 seems to be a driver in various progressive circles. Why? Because these hermeneutic practices are pragmatically instrumental for accomplishing other, specific goals rather than the learning and realization of the specific, Christian way of life for God’s people demonstrated in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and testified to by the Scriptures.

To bring this back to the place of community, it can become easy to change a group of people who live other in a community into so other type of social network, situated for other purposes, whether they be for friendship, therapy, power relations in the form of transformation or maintenance of a specific way of life, etc. But a Christian community is properly defined not by these various social relations that the church becomes instrumental for fostering (although friendship, therapy, and specific power relations may be instrumental for the Christian way of life) but by the way the people live together in a mutual dependence upon each other in accordance to the agape way of life as God’s will testified to by the Scriptures, demonstrated in the crucified Christ, and realized through the charismatic empowerment of the Spirit; by allowing our minds to understand both the appropriate diversity and fullness and coherent unity can a Christian way of life in the body of Christ participate fully in the missio Dei, without having to resort to “missionalizing” through the systematic valuation of certain goals over and against others in evangelism, worship, and discipleship.

Soteriology is Pneumatology

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April 26, 2019

In my research on 1 Corinthians 2, I have noticed an interesting tendency among various scholars commenting on the text. Commentators are inclined to place a lot of emphasis on the places where Paul mentions Jesus in vs. 2, 8, and 16. If you note, very little is actually said about Jesus in those places. Only two pieces of information about Jesus are explicitly mentioned: he was crucified by the political powers and that he is someone who has a particular mental understanding. All of this is something that the Corinthians could have very well already understood about Jesus.

And yet, you will see commentators trying to draw a lot of implications about Paul’s mentioning of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2. Duane Litfin in St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation considers v.2 to establish the parameters of Paul’s preaching by relying exclusively upon the cross; he similarly considers v. 6-16 to be an understanding of the cross from God’s perspective, rather than a human perspective. Or consider Mary Healy’s analysis of 2.6-16 in “Knowledge of a Mystery” in The Bible and Epistemology where she understands the revelation mentioned 10 as defined by the historical event of Jesus incarnation and death. While by no means universal in the scholarship, there is a noted predilection to give much greater theological weight to the mentions of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2, as if Paul’s purpose in chapter 2 is to teach how Jesus and the cross saves, reveals, and defines preaching, even though all the information Jesus references is something we can imagine that the Corinthians already had.

But as I have paid close attention to the structure of 1 Corinthians 2, this is the wrong way to read the passage. While I won’t give it all away as it is part of my research project and I would like to keep that for my final work, chapter 2 is heavily weighted towards the Spirit, not Jesus. Most obvious is the fact that there are seven references to the Spirit, along with two other references to people who are defined by the Spirit.

Why then do commentators focus so much theological weight on the reference to Jesus in that chapter? Part of the reason is a natural problem of ignorance as we are not always clear how ancient texts conveyed meaning.  Thus, we fill in the gaps of ambiguity with knowledge that we do have, which Christians who have studied theology have a lot of knowledge about Jesus. This is a natural and unavoidable part of reading and interpreting.

However, the corollary to this is that many commentators don’t understand 1 Corinthians 2 as giving the greatest weight to the Spirit, even though the Spirit is given much greater weight than Jesus. Certainly, the exegetical overemphasis on Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2 is not universally true. For instance, the Pentecostal Gordon Fee has observed that vs. 6-16 is about how the Spirit brings about wisdom. But it is common to place the emphasis upon Christ, especially when the theology that has influence is a starkly Christ-o-centric theology. For instance, Mary Healy’s analysis of 2.6-16 shares many resemblances to Barthian theology in language and themes.

This leads me to a general tendency that I am making towards Protestant theology prior to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition: there is a sharp emphasis for placing the locus of salvation on the cross of Jesus, or even the resurrection of Jesus, that leads to the diminishing theological necessity for the Spirit. Our theological questions and explorations have been distinctly focused on how Jesus saves, or how our faith in Jesus saves, that has lead to the construction of metaphysical and ontological schemes that can deliver salvation by death on a cross and through faith. If you construct an ontological scheme that makes the connection between Christ’s death and human salvation, then you have a diminished role for the Holy Spirit.

Allow me to reference the doctrine of the atonement as prototype of this intellectual tendency. How does Christ’s death atone for sins? Clearly, the Scriptures speak of Christ dying on behalf of how our sins, but how exactly does the death of Christ accomplish this? The predilection is to come up with a metaphysical explanation to explain this. Most prominently, penal substitution raises guilt and punishment to the level of an ontological necessity to address in order for people to be saved. But what is the role of the Spirit in this? Perhaps to “apply” the atonement in some fashion. However, if I may be bit suspicious at the risk of saying something false, these ways of including the Spirit in atonement smack of trying to be “orthodox” in including the Spirit, but that the role of the Holy Spirit is not really important to the understanding the doctrine of the atonement except as a theological assumption.

However, without trying to prove my argument here, I will counter that Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘atone’ because the work of the Spirit forms human life into the pattern of the incarnate Christ. The Holy Spirit is not some secondary figure in the atonement, but is God realizing the life of Christ in us as human people. Atonement happens because God acts in Christ and the Spirit to change people and creation, rather than any attempt to address some other ontological necessity or reality independent of the God-human relation.

This leads me to a point I would make about Paul: soteriology is Pneumatology, not Christology. To be sure, Jesus is the disclosure of God’s righteousness to the world, both in how God saves and what type of people God saves us to be, but the event of salvation in a specific person is not attributed to the event of the cross, but to the Spirit who brings us into body of Christ.

But this is not some mere ideological and doctrinal talking point for Paul to create a consistent metaphysical system that seems consistent and coherent. Paul is not concerned with a logical, systematic account of Christian theology that ties together all to the loose ends and answers all intellectual questions. Rather, the charismatic empowerment and ethical direction of the Spirit in evangelism, in people’s lives, and in worship are a recurring them in the Pauline correspondence. This is precisely part of Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2: the wisdom that the Corinthians are seeking can only be realized by the work of the Spirit and their cooperation with this work as spiritual persons rather than acting like people of the flesh who engage in conflicts based upon favor teachers as he mentioned in 3.3-4. Chapters 12-14 can be understood as putting 2.6-3.4 into instructions about their worship practices; Paul explicates this Pneumatological reality in worship and how it needs to be ordered by love for the building up of each other through the charismatic empowerment. I would say, in the end, it is only by the Holy Spirit that Christians can have a Scripturally warranted grounds for treating theology as referring to lived life rather than simply understood.

When our theology treats soteriology as Christology, we try to fill in the gaps between the historical event of the cross and our own lives by various psychological practices on our own that we think make us “spiritual” For instance, we are repeatedly told to bring something to the cross of Jesus, whether it be our sins, our struggles, our anxieties, etc. etc. But what does this amount to but a psychological practice and act of devotion? I am not begrudging these ideas if they are treated as a spiritual discipline. However, unfortunately, they can be treated as necessary and sufficient actions that form us as Christians that can readily be universalized.

For instance, the idea of surrendering to God is a very helpful practice for people that have struggle with addictions that manfiests very real spiritual transformation to people. But is it that surrender somehow provides a spiritual benefit to all people, or is it that the Spirit works through those people as they surrender? Now Scripture provides the language of faith, humility, submission, and following as paradigms for understanding the Christian life, and “surrendering to God” can lead one to trust God, humble oneself to God, submit to God, and follow God, but is it that we surrender to God or is it that we allow the Spirit to lead us as we faith, humble ourselves, submit ourselves, and follow Christ?

Consider the counter-example of a person who has come into a state of learned helplessness, where what they do is never provides what they are looking for, and feels like they have no sense of control as it doesn’t matter what they do and feels like giving up? Is trying to get them to “surrender” the best option? Or, do they need to learn how the Spirit provides them power and strength to act according to God’s purposes? The necessary action in faith looks different from those whose keep trying to control and the despondent who feels nothing will ever change.

If the “distance” between the event of Jesus’ cross and ourselves is not bridged by the Holy Spirit but by something else, we will be inclined to frame spirituality by our own experience as a monolithic paradigm of redemption rather than the diversity of the work of God through the Spirit. If we treat soteriology as Christology and are synergists in our theology, like me and my fellow Wesleyans, we might be tempted to think the “distance” between the cross and us is through some specific behavior, attitude, etc. that makes the cross efficacious. At this point we would be in the risk of works righteousness, becoming semi-Pelagian, and allowing the triumph of the therapeutic.

For us as Wesleyans, the only warranted theological basis upon which we can situate our salvation as occurring by God’s action while simultaneously maintaining a very real place to our own human action is through how we  understand our lives in relation to the empowerment and leading of the Spirit. It is Pneumatology that bridges the tensions that we have faced between giving prominence to the work of God and recognizing the place of human action. Without a robust Pneumatology, we Wesleyans will think and act as if we are Reformed in its authoritarian emphasis or as a liberal-progressive in its human-centeredness. But a Pneumatologically-inclined Wesleyan theology will allow us to relate to God, not like a distant King who commands and takes nor as our best friend who tells us what we want to hear, but like a Rabbi who teaches, instructs, and guides as we trust, humble ourselves, submit ourselves, and follow.

Romans 8.10 and the place of pain and suffering in morality and experience

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April 22, 2019

There is a very basic moral principle that guides many of the actions of our life: pleasure is a moral good and pain is a moral evil. It is this basic moral principle that undergirds the morality and ethics of the modern world in its pragmatist-utilitarian ethic; we should determine the goodness and badness of certain actions and states of affairs based upon the pleasure and pain principle.

Now, to be clear, there is something important about this principle. It is part of a our biological ‘programming’ that means we have a visceral reaction to extremes of life, both in mountain peaks of of love and in the valleys of hate. This principle guides us towards those sources that quite literally sustain life and guides away from and to fight those sources that destroy and take it.

But there is a problem with this principle: most of life is not experienced in and lived in the extremes of pure good or pure evil. Life is radically complex and radically mixed between things we would consider to reflect the prototypes of true good and true evil. For instance, imagine a case where the same person can be a genuinely devoted spouse but can also cheat in their workplace. Is this person truly good, truly evil, or a mixture in between? While his spouse might think he is good and his employers think he is evil, it is likely that he is something in between. But, each person’s own experience of them, the pleasure that spouse has received from his devoted attention can mask them from seeing the darker sides. The pain that their employers and coworkers received might make his better side. The problem with pleasure and pain is this: it is a reliable guide at the extremes of life, where what is life-giving and death-dealing is clear and distinct, but it isn’t reliable in telling us the truth about the more complex things in life.

This is true not just for people, but also actions. Lets consider the condition of divorce. For most Christians, it is an obvious wrong that we should avoid. Jesus Himself argues vociferously against the practice of divorce, but perhaps Jesus speaks hyperbolically to get people to recognize the clear evil that comes with covenant-breaking in marriage, but was never intended as a law-like pronouncement that divorce is in every single instance impermissible by all parties. Elsewhere, we do see Paul consider Jesus’ teaching on marriage to be fit to be compared with other teaching on marriage that he himself had in 1 Corinthians 7.10-16, as if Jesus’ words were not intending as a law-like universal prohibition that allows for not consideration of other concerns. So, if a person who has been severely abused divorces their spouse, is the act of divorce a wrong, sinful action? We might recognize the rightness of protecting the abuse victim. But what if it causes a deep sense of pain to the perpetrator? Many of us would intuitively recognize that the experience of the pain of the abuser does not obligate the victim, nor that is makes her actions wrong or evil. Nevertheless, there is the very real experience of pain by the abuser.

In the two examples above, I am seeking to point out something: the experience of pleasure and pain is not a reliable guide to what most of us would consider morally good and evil. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest people whose sense of right and wrong and is strongly and primarily determined by the pleasure and pain principle are actually people who are dangerous to others; that to treat pleasure and pain as a basis for most morality is a moral evil because it actually leads to reversal of how one interprets the extremes, where good is called evil and evil is called good. Many an abuser responds from the pain they really feel and even use to justify their own abuse towards their victims. If the abuser has power and influence over the person and others, they can frame ‘morality’ such that they exhibit increasing abusive control of their victims.

The problem with the pleasure and pain principle is that it is essentially egotistic. While the extremes can evoke a sense of awe or aversion that makes us ’empathetic’ with the feelings of many others who would respond the same way, for the most part, pleasure and pain is egotistic. It imagines moral good and evil from the specific situatedness of the person, or even the persons they empathize with, but it does not provide us a complete picture of complexity reality. Instead, it motivates an instinctual response that does not motivate us to stop and think about what is happening, but to react immediately to appearances.

This is good in the extremes of life: spouses who love each other should ideally not have to stop to think if this love is real, as it can create a distancing from one another. A person faced with an immediate danger should not stop to think, because their life and well-being will be on the line. But most of life is not lived in these extremes. However, the more we make moral decisions about life based upon the pleasure and pain principle, the more we simplistically evaluate the world as it they operate in the extremes. As a consequence of this, we can inflict pain on others who bear no responsibility nor were no threat and we can try to get pleasure from those who share no love for us. Life lived solely by the pleasure and pain principle makes someone see another person in the most egotistic of manners, making others subservient to whatever the emotions, desires, and aversion a person has in that moment.

This does not mean we should ignore pleasure and pain in our moral thinking. It simply means that pleasure and pain of a person or a specific group of should not have the first and last answer on morality and ethics if a group of people seek to move towards a life where we experience the extreme goodness of life and do not experience extreme evil in life.

This brings me to what Paul says in Romans 8.10:

if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.1

Paul’s usage of the terms of life and death are complex, and I can not hope to give a fair and appropriate evaluation of them in this blog post, but I will summarize it to say this: whereas we in the West tend to see life and death in terms of a specific biological state, life and death was understood more so as encompassing both 1) what we consider the specific biological states and 2) the experiences associated with those biological states. In other words, to speak of death is not only a reference to the biological cessation of life, but the experiences of pain, suffering, etc. that are a part of the experience of biological death.

In this case then, I would propose that Paul here in Romans 8.10 is actually giving a fully embodied account of human life lived when one is in Christ. When one is in Christ, one experiences the forces of death that are coming from the body, that is, pain and suffering but one also comes under the forces of life, which can include joy and peace, through the Spirit in virtue of the submission of one’s life being lived according to the Spirit. This then points forward to the resurrection in the following verse: the final, ultimate experience of the life-giving Spirit.

However, Paul does not explain the idea of death and life here much further. He previously expanded on it in Romans 6 as it bears relation to one’s union with Christ before then bringing back up again in 8.10, but Paul gives no real explanation as to the why, as that is not his purpose.

However, if I can try to reach for an explanation, I would offer it as follows with more modern ideas and language: our instinctual nature towards pleasure and pain can lead us to egoticity. However, once we let go out of all our egotistic actions and pursue the good that God calls us towards, we begin to experience the pain that comes from such self-denial. It can be the pain and suffering of those who have previously harmed others learning to be different; Paul is a pivotal example of his. It can also be a very real pain and suffering that can even emerge from the injustice that has been or is being done to us, where we commit ourselves to life and peace. 2 Regardless of who we are in relationship to others and the world, when we commit to follow Christ life and the leading of the Spirit, we are subjecting ourselves to certain experiences of pain and suffering that come from our body. By failing to be egotistic in our behaviors, but rather commit and submit ourselves to a way of life we may not even understand at the start because we trust the One from whom it comes, we are committing ourselves to a very real experience of pain.3

But, this is not the reversal of the pleasure-and-pain principle. It is not to state that pleasure is bad and pain is good. This would be a quick route towards calling good evil and evil good. Rather, it is the recognition that pain is part of the process and that the process is not evil simply because it creates bodily, visceral pain and emotional suffering for oneself. The presence of pain can certainly give us a recognition that something is wrong still, but it may not always be clear what the real culprit(s) are in our pain, whereas when we are instinctively reacting to pain we tend to act with confidence that we know the culprit(s) and their evil action(s).

However, Paul does not envision this experience as pure suffering and pain in Romans 8.10. The life lived in seeking righteousness leads to the emergence of life by the Holy Spirit, which can include joy and peace. Pain is not the only experience of the life of obedience in Christ through the Spirit.

However, we should note something very clear here: while Paul does refer to life and death here and that it probably refers to the experiences that are connected to them, we should not evaluate people’s faithfulness based upon their emotional experiences and expressions. For Paul, life does not come from the body but from the Spirit. But, it can readily happen in some circles of piety to judge people’s faithfulness based upon the emotional experiences people express and show, but this amounts to a form of spiritual elitism. Much as the social elite experiences better outcomes of life and thus on a whole experience more joy and less suffering than those who are not elite, to regard people’s spiritual experiences based upon the emotional content of their lives without regard for context is to act in the form of spiritual elitism; it is to be guilty of giving too much into the pleasure-and-pain principle but putting a spiritual garb on it.

For Paul, joy and other related experiences as marked out as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23 is a process of cultivation by the organizing work of the Spirit. Whereas the gifts of the Spirit are considered to some degree under the control and possession of the one to whom it has been given, albeit in a conditional manner, the fruit of the Spirit is not something one simply possesses or accesses. Rather the agricultural metaphor highlights it is something that emerges from the Spirit. Whereas the “deeds of the flesh” are entrenched and well-established in human life and hence it is referred to in a more straightforward, literal, the life led by the Spirit must emerge and thus is referred to with an agricultural metaphor.

Thus, the life the Spirit gives in Romans 8.10 is not referring to a simple provision of the experiences that we associate with life, but it is that which emerges from the formation of the Spirit. The body has been colonized by the powers of sin and death (Romans 7.14-25) and so the experience of life from the Spirit is what emerges in the bodily life, but not what is necessarily already present. In both Galatians and Romans Paul shows an understanding that there is an already established entrenchment of the patterns and habits of the flesh that is being overturned in Christ and through the Spirit, but it may not immediately become phenomenologically realized through the experiences of emotional joy, peace, etc. until the overlap of formation and context is reached.4

In summary, we are inclined to treat the pleasure-and-pain principle as a source of our moral and ethical thinking, but the more we treat it as the exclusive source we are in risk of actually moving towards calling good evil and evil good. Furthermore, this pleasure-and-pain principle is often times giving a ‘spiritual’ garb to it by Christians. However, Paul’s understanding of the experience of the life in Christ and lead by the Spirit challenges the limits of the pleasure-and-pain principle in order to realize the most obvious forms of goodness that the pleasure-and-pain principle can help us to see.

Addressing racism as a white male

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April 3, 2019

Update: If you read this post a little while ago, there was an error in the formatting of my notes that messed up this post. Problem is now fixed.

Racism scares me. I don’t mean just the history of and the idea of white supremacy. That deeply concerns me after Christchurch taught us that it can manifest itself in the form of terrorism, because there is great danger in people who feel entitled not getting what they think they deserve. But my fear goes further than that. The very matters of racism can scare me some.

They don’t scare me because I am a white male. I recognize and acknowledge the way my background situated me to think about people, particularly African Americans in a way that implicitly communicated race, rather than geography and economics, as the primary explanations for the reports of crime in the news in Jackson, MS.1 I recognize the way that two or the four most personally vulnerable events I have ever felt in my life, one time by a cult leader on my college campus and one time in a near mugging, were done by people with brown skin and I have to deal with those feelings in such a way to not allow those individuals and my memories of them to determine my views of African Americans.2 While I don’t like the reality of such thoughts in the back of my head, I know such doesn’t make me a racist. Racism comes when we ignore and rationalize away the problem, not when we acknowledge it.

What makes me scared about racism, however, is the way in which many people try to address the pernicious effects of race. Although, me fear isn’t how African Americans try to address matters of race. Due to their experiences, most of them are able to differentiate between degrees of racism. The safest people I have ever felt to talk to about matters of race with is African Americans, in fact. From the conversations I have had and from what I imagine, they appreciate someone being willing to have that conversation with them. One of my highlights from my time in ministry were the few chances I got to be a part of Mission Mississippi, a ministry headed by Neddie Winters that tries to accomplish racial reconciliation through building relationships across racial lines. There was a chapter in the Mississippi Delta, a place where the history of racism has left its deepest mark in social organization even as most of the white supremacist elements have passed or gone underground.3 Relationships were being formed that I regret I did not get the chance to more deeply establish due to personal struggles with my energy level due to my own condition and then my leaving to move to Scotland after only two years.4What scares me about racism is about the ways in which white people like me try to address racism.

From my own observations, experiences, and learning, the two most common responses are the white hero and the white denier. The white denier is the one we are more readily familiar with. They come with various degrees and intensities, but they grow readily uncomfortable when discussing matters of race. Bring up social scientific findings, such as how a person with a black sounding name is less likely to be hired than a person with a white sounding name, even after all the qualifications are the same, and they engage in various forms of minimization and diversions. The motivations behind such can be diverse. It can be cloaked racial hostility, but I don’t think, or at least I don’t want to believe, that is the motivation much of the time. Rather, I think there are at least three big other motivations behind minimizing the idea that racism still has a real impact in American life: 1) discomfort in recognizing one’s own privilege, 2) fear of being devalued, and 3) troubles integrating conversations with race with the portrayal of race presented to them the news and their experiences.

The first one is much of what operates behind the rhetoric of “white privilege” and the resistance to the concept. (White) American culture inculcated a sense and value for being a person who works hard, which stems back to the Protestant work ethic that Max Weber. American and Protestants are not the only people who recognize the value of hard work, but it became a driving value during the period of economic and social expansion in European and American history. The result is that hard work was for white people very fruitful in improving one’s position and life. To tell a white person that they are ‘privileged’ isn’t just to say something about race: it is an attack at one of the moral ideals that many white Americans have been inculcated with a sense of. “White privilege” is not intended to deny the role that a person’s hard work contributes to their well-being, but it more so points out how one’s hard work becomes more successful than for others because others are more likely to be negatively judged in virtue of ethnicity. But that isn’t what many white people hear: they hear people denying people’s hard work and industriousness.

The second motivation behind denying and minimizing the realities of racism stems from the social and moral fear people have when they feel they are being labeled with some sort of moral wrong or evil. To be a “racist” is a heinous sin in most of the West, and makes one deemed worthy of derision and contempt. This stems from the fact that our prototypes of racism stem from slavery and Jim Crow laws in the American South along with Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany. As a consequence, there is a latent anxiety with being in any way associated with such evils, when the realities of racism that are more prevalent are the forms of more implicit and stereotype judgments, but most people would reject and be horrified by any sense of racist supremacy. And this is not a fear without basis: as with all forms of morality and ethics, they are those aggressive types who will try to use charges of racism to tear others down.5

The third motivation is more so the type of problem that we all face when it comes to knowledge, our understandings are situated within the life perspective we have. White people who live in white communities, which largely emerges as a result of economics although race can play a factor in some ways, often have a very limited experience of people with black skin. They may have some distant connections with some African Americans that they know (“I have black ‘friends’.”) but their experience and conversations with them are very limited. Consequently, their understanding about race and ethnicity is more impacted by the correlations they see and witness in the news and media. However, statistics courses often have to warn people “correlation is not causation” because we are biased to think correlations suggest a causal relationship. This is even more likely to happen when we are not consciously aware that our thinking is influenced by the correlations within our life experiences. As a consequence, when you expose white people who have been largely insulated from the experiences of black people, it is hard to square away with what they have “learned.”

In other others, the white denier can be motivated by cultural values, fears rooted in self-protection, and the dissonance that exists when one incorporates information from a different perspective than one is accustomed. Sometimes, hatred can be a motivation for such denialism, but the optimist in me wants to believe that these other factors are a much more prevalent factor. However, I do need to make a note of sober caution and mild fear that the tactics of white denialism can, in the context of racial hostility, lead to the emergence of hatred. So, while the motivations behind the denial of the present realities of racism are complex, and most of the time do not lead to hatred for most people, addressing these conversations about race are important for the long term well being of race relations in the United States.

But this leads me to the problem of the “white hero.” Latent within this is one of the common characteristics that comes with being privileged: the opportunity you feel to come to save the day and then reap the benefits of such an action. To be clear, the problem isn’t trying to help other people, including people of different ethnicity, social classes, etc. The problem is associated with the social status of acting like a “hero” conveys.

One motivating factor for becoming a “white hero” is the issue of white guilt. But I want to be clear how I am using the phrase “white guilt” here before progressing onwards. I am not referring to the way the concept of “white guilt” has been used to explain away all forms of political advocacy that conservatives felt problematic. I want to sift the substantive, emotional content of the concept without feeling like I need to fit my intuitions into a conservative point of view. By “white guilt” I am referring simply to the negative emotions white people feel by association to other white people who committed heinous evils. “White guilt” becomes particularly pronounced the more people talk about the problem of racism in terms of “whiteness.” All of us white people who have some sense of moral conscience will feel at least a twinge of guilt in virtue of this association, although it can be amplified based upon the conversations and political discourse. Insofar as we are allowed to think and recognize with social pressure that this feeling of “guilt” is a very normal and healthy feeling that distances us from evil, but is not intended as a slight on one as a person or because of one’s whiteness, white guilt can be a very pro-social emotion that motivate us towards empathy towards those people who by association and due to history have borne the consequences of evil done by white people.

The problem comes in, however, when we don’t respond to such white guilt well. For the white denier, this can lead to an attempt to protect oneself from moral incrimination, as already discussed. This tendency can intensify if one consciously or unconsciously feels any sort of negative feeling towards a minority ethnicity, particularly black people. The combination of white guilt and the (sub)conscious awareness of negative thoughts can lead to a cascade emotional guilt and a personal need to “protect” or “purge” oneself from this feeling of moral guilt.

However, in many cases, rather than being a white denier, being a white hero can also be a way of not adequately addressing the feelings of white guilt. This can lead to some of the political characterizations that have existed around the concept of “white guilt,” but again, I don’t want to try to say all the conservative understanding of “white guilt” is accurate. Principally, I want to avoid that because this feeling of associational guilt can lead people to very helpful responses to the problem of racism and that can lead them to advocate for some “progressive” or “liberal” causes, even if they are politically conservative.6 But, I would suggest more often than not, this form of response isn’t that of the “white hero.”

For the white hero, they have a tendency to use their advocacy against racism beyond any sense of compassion for black people from one of two motivations: 1) to compensate for their guilt and 2) to achieve greater status.

When we act to compensate for strong negative emotions, we tend to engage in exaggerated behaviors that would seem far out of proportion to what most people without such a feeling would normally see. So, a person feeling white guilt would be more likely to compensate through a) projecting their own feelings onto people to emotionally purge themselves of this feeling that creates guilt, b) virtue signal how concerned they are about racism, and c) exaggerated attempts to not appear racist. Now a small degree of this would be a bit normal part of the process of dealing with such guilt, but white heroes take this step further. By people heroic in how they fight against racism, that try to purge their own problems through what they do.

However, there is a second, and I would suggest a much more pernicious problem: that of achieving social status through being the white hero. It can be joined to a feeling of white guilt and compensation, but it can also be a manipulation upon a) the idea of being against racism and b) upon the white guilt in other people. I would refer to this type of behavior as a “moral narcissism” in that people exploit certain moral values and feelings for their own gain. However, it is possible that this “moral narcissism” can be part of a person’s own response against their own feelings of white guilt.

In this scenario, a white person actively tears people down other white people for being racist. It is a way in which they can manipulate their own white privilege to speak against racism to benefit themselves, as it is much safer to speak against racism as a white person than as a black person. The severity with which such accusations are made varies, as some people are only mildly motivated by needs for social status whereas others focus almost exclusively on it.

However, beyond the moral negatives that comes with any form of narcissism, it presents two problems in addressing the realities of racism. Firstly, it treats minorities as a tool for the white person to benefit. The status-driven white hero is not concerned about the benefit of the people they supposedly advocate for; they will not remedy the problem of privilege insofar as it is not something people will notice. Rather, they will accumulate more privilege and status for themselves in the name of fighting racism. Secondly, however, these type of people also lead to greater defensiveness in white people to accept the realities of racism, as they have experience the rhetoric of race in such a threatening and hostile manner. It literally feels less safe to think and speak about matters of race.

It is this aspect that creates the most fear about racism for me. Maybe it is my vigilance because I was the victim of a status driven attack on me many years back by a fellow white person (although, it did not address the matter of race, to be clear and fair). But for me, I have found the majority of black people I have talked to about race to be amenable, even if they are direct and express their anger, but I have found in personal experience and in other observations a reason to find the role of the “white hero” to be one of the biggest barriers to racial equality moving forward into the future.

To bring this to a theological conclusion, I find Jesus’ own beatitude of being “poor in spirit” to be a useful way to approach the realities of race and race relations. Now, I don’t want to try to appropriate ethnicity in the phrase “black in spirit” for a whole host of reasons. Nor do I want to make a direct equation with being black and Jesus beatitudes as I think Jesus speaks to poverty for a reason. And I don’t want to foster a sense of dependent attitude as if black people have to rely on white people that the language of poverty can convey. But, just as Jesus never acted the crusading hero of the poor, but rather he lived with and loved them, empathized with and even identifies with their struggles, an attitude by which whites can live with, love, empathize, and identify with some the impacts of racism on African Americans is a healthier way to address the feelings of guilt. However, this takes time and doesn’t come through the strength of one’s actions or one’s arguments. One doesn’t accomplish it by being the white hero or trying to defend yourself from any feeling of guilt, but allow the feelings of associational guilt to motivate one to hear, to listen, to learn, and to grow together.

The theological importance of language

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April 2, 2019

Of the early Church Father’s that I have found I am in the most agreement with, based upon my limited knowledge of them, I have always been drawn to Irenaeus. His recapitulation theory of the atonement had a profound shaping on my understanding of the atonement during my seminary years and afterward, even if I felt it was a bit overstated. I have also found the concept of the Son and the Spirit as the two Hands of God to be a useful conceptual tool to use in thinking through my research in a Trinitarian epistemology in 1 Corinthians, although I would not turn that into a doctrinal confession. While I have not read all of Adversus Haereses, it is certainly on my radar in the future.

However, I have found one place where I developed my thinking independently of any direct influence from Irenaeus,1 but have found my thinking reflect is in his preface to Adversus Haereses. Here is how he starts:

Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge; and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth.2

Now, my hope is not to try to commend an attitude of suspicion and vigilance that is demonstrated in Irenaeus’s opening. Much as Barth’s harsh response to Brunner should not be imitated, but understood as part of the challenges of the historical period, I would not commend Irenaeus’s attitude as the general attitude we should take when it comes to defending orthodoxy. Irenaeus was dealing with a specific challenge of his time, and this should be recognized, but we should not let such a theological vilgilance color our general demeanor towards theology. To appropriate the Ecclesiastical proverb: There is a time to be at peace and there is a time to be vigilant.

What, however, I find particularly relevant in Irenaeus’s preface is the role that language and plausibility has in misleading people.

Human thinking and language is a complex phenomenon. However, precisely because it is so complex, our conscious thinking is masked from the various effects our thinking and language can have on us; we can not possibly observe and systematically understand the entire experience of thinking and language. In fact, we are disposed not to because in thinking and language, we are disposed to pay attention to the often implied goal in thought and communication, but not the various other functional effects such thinking and communication can have. We are not even naturally disposed to consider the connections we make from one thought and one statement to the next and consider the chain of reasoning that leads to a specific conclusion.

As a consequence, it becomes easy to smuggle in new ideas within a community without conscious detection. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because there are many ideas that are of great benefit. Nor is the possibility of intellectual challenges from new ideas a problem. Sometimes we have beliefs that have serious blind spots. Rather, the problem comes in, however, when a smuggled idea comes in that legitimates itself as a part of the tradition but then simultaneously creates a contradiction within the traditions of the community; combine this with reputed expertise from the people presenting what is ultimately a contradictory and dissonant idea and you have a recipe for a form of cognitive trickery. However, this can happen with or without anyone’s intention, so it doesn’t mean the people are necessarily malicious or manipulative in intention; it could be that they themselves don’t truly understand the heart of the community but are really more outsiders that think themselves insiders. Nevertheless, while intentions do determine the type of actions people take, they do not determine the actual impact of person’s actions, and as such, there are times to be vigilant about the consequences of certain speech, even if we should chasten any sense of hostility to how we treat such people as persons.

I would suggest this is part of what is happening in Irenaeus’ day. He isn’t dealing with simply new ideas. Nor is he dealing with a critical challenge from the outside that motivates a different type of response. He is addressing a problem of teachers who have set aside certain matters taken to be central truths of the Christian faith, but yet acting as authoritative expositors of this faith. Soon afterward, Irenaeus will use the metaphor of wolves in sheep’s clothing to describe such people because “their language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different.”3

Now, some people upon hearing such a response might begin to feel their skin crawling, because they themselves have been recipients and victims of people who in their theological hyper-vigilance have attacked and slandered people for things they did not say, reading into ambiguous statements the worst possible consequences and outcomes. This is a very real problem, and why I would suggest we don’t need to simply adopt Irenaeus’ attitude in any sort of unthinking manner when it comes to protecting orthodoxy.

There are multiple ways one can try to protect against heresy, or any other category of unacceptable theology one uses, but they tend to be broken down by the combination of two different frameworks: epistemology and hermeneutics.

In a pure epistemic option, you set from the beginning a system of knowing and knowledge by which you comparing everyone’s reasoning and claims to. This system becomes absolute, in that you assess the basis of the claims based upon how much it conforms to the epistemic framework one works with. This leads to the subjugation of any interpretive work to the epistemic frameworks and cognitive patterns one has established as normative; one’s interpretation is reducible to litmus testing by which one focuses simply on conformity. We can label the pure epistemic option dogmatism, although I say this with the understanding that I am not wanting to direct this towards the historic Christian tradition but to the broader patterns that can be manifested in those who oppose the dogmatism of the historic Christian tradition, such as the way human experience is highlight as a necessary and essential criterion in some forms of progressive theology, or one’s theology becomes guilty of the “heresy” of being “harmful” or “dehumanizing.”4

There is another drawback from the pure epistemic option, however, that stems from the practice of litmus testing. What if one’s theology passes all the filters; then it becomes consider safe. You want to know one of the best ways to try to transmit new ideas into the Christian tradition without regards for its impact on the theology: make it sound Trinitarian by using Trinitarian sounding words and phrases. Then, the doctrine can more easily gain acceptance and credence, without consideration for what the true implications of the doctrine are. We see this in social Trinitarianism, where the emphasis is on understanding the persons of the Trinity as persons in our modern language. Theologians like Karl Barth detected concerns with such reasoning and tried to find a different way for describing the ontological status of the Father, Son, and Spirit as “modes of being.” For a hypothetical example, imagine someone a) included into the definition of personhood a sense of inviolable personal autonomy that was used to describe the persons of the Trinity that then b) is used to apply to human persons by application of the Trinity to human relations. What is one consequence of such a theological move? The absolutization of personal choice on all matters, and thus one erodes any sense of community including on ethical matters. But it could seem to have all the hallmarks of Trinitarian doctrine.

The pure epistemic option does something to us: it makes us rather poor and unimaginative interpreters. It reduces interpretation to an act of pattern matching.

However, if we are people who belong to a specific tradition that we think has some truth-bearing properties, it is necessary to some degree that we establish some epistemic framework by which we work with, lest we abandon our traditions as simply a heritage of ideas for us to use and appropriate for whatever purpose whatsoever. What do we do then? We focus more on interpretation and hermeneutics than simply theological knowledge.

Again, allow me to state that I think theological epistemology IS important; my dissertation research is focused on it, albeit from a somewhat different angle than is commonly done in traditional epistemology. But for me, such knowledge presents resources that provide truth, although expressing how they provide truth is not always so simply done, but we never consider ourselves as having come to some system of knowledge that allows us to judge the rightness and wrongness of any and all things apart from the careful consideration and deliberation about the theological claims that are being made. The sins of dogmatism and epistemic certainty isn’t the act of making judgments, but the way judgments are made based upon superficial and stereotyping features that avoid dealing with the complexities contained therein. Dogmatism insulates people with a sensee of ill-conceived confidence that prevents them from engaging with the fullness of what someone is saying or doing, but force fits them within set categories at the beginnings stages of perception and interaction. Dogmatism determines guilt at the investigatory phase, or even before an investigation, rather than allowing judgment to be rendered at a trial.

The intellectual cure for this: a deep appreciation and understanding of how language and thinking function. Language and thinking are complex p processes, and because of this, it can be easy to smuggle in bad ideas, but also because of this, it can also be easy to see bad ideas being smuggled in due to the categorical stereotypes our dogmatism as formed in our own head. A deep understanding of language allows us to see the complex and diverse ways meaning emerges, without having to necessarily prejudge positively or negatively the various possibilities.

The challenge with this cure, however, is the initial uncertainty of it. It means we have to let go of the feeling of certainty and justification that our epistemic dogmatism have created in us and rather allow God to be the one that justifies us and creates us anew.5 It means we place our trust first in the wisdom and power of God to lead us and the Church into faithfulness, truth, goodness, and grace and then place our epistemic task as subservient to and formed y that trust, even as our trust in God does not obliterate our responsibility in the epistemic task. It is why I consider the epistemic concept of the warrant as a candidate for knowledge is a useful way to understand our movement towards theological knowledge, without becoming insulated and entrapped within the boundaries of needing absolute justification and certainty.

It is attention to the various hermeneutic possibilities in linguistic and discursive understandings combined with a basic epistemic commitment to the real possibility of moving towards truth, which we see in various forms of critical realism, that allow us to address the complexities and ambiguities that operate in our modern, theological crises created by a post-modernity that has not simply accepted the validity of the diversity in human experience, but insulated knowledge structures emerging from human experience from any and all challenges. So, we now live in an intellectual world that is buzzing with a vast diversity of ideas, conceptualizations, frameworks, etc. that is next to impossible to make meaningful sense apart from the employment of stereotyping if we operate from a position of epistemic dogmatism.

If you look at the patristics, it is commonly an understanding of how language operates that often moves theological development. For instance, reading Gregory Nyssa’s “On ‘Not Three Gods,’” one can see the role this understanding of language works has in defining the problems of calling the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gods. However, to be clear, his logic does have some defects as William Hasker mentions in Metaphysics & The Tri-Personal God. This probably in part stems from the formalist way that Gregory construes language as a formal system that has a right way of functioning, which is often the consequence of trying to fit language into a specific epistemic framework such as Bertrand Russell’s and many of the positivist’s formalist account of language and proper meaning. Nevertheless, we see here and other places in the patristics that language is a central role of making sense of the account of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, the risk epistemic dogmatism can still exist in virtue of understanding language, one can get caught up into an inflexible metaphysical system that functions as an epistemic framework. William Charlton in Metaphysics and Grammar notes how the emergence of grammatical understanding in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle contributed to the emergence of Western metaphysics; we see a similar pattern in the early Trinitarian debates as the focus on language does lead to the emergence of a metaphysical system that then becomes taken as foundational for later Christian theology. Although, to be clear, I don’t find the problem to be the emergence of metaphysics, but how all thought and language becomes tried by the litmus test of a metaphysical orthodoxy. This perhaps stems from a sense of linguistic prescriptivism that says there is only one right way to speak and all others are considered fundamentally wrong.6 Such a strong linguistic prescriptivism can lead to an epistemic dogmatism of metaphysical beliefs. In other words, there seems in my mind a strong correlation between strong linguistic prescriptivism, inflexible metaphysical systems, and epistemic dogmatism.

But to be clear, my critique here is not the place of metaphysics, preference for certain ontological schemas, nor a sense of epistemic understanding that provides truth, but rather how the way a narrow understanding of language and meaning that correlates with inflexibility in metaphysical construal and epistemic dogmatism leads to fundamentally erroneous claims about other people’s thought and language.

One solution is to the acceptance of linguistic diversity as descriptively true, even if it violates our own sense of normativity about language, and make judgments after considerations and deliberations. Yes, it becomes a lot messier and more ambiguous, but I would suggest this is a necessary response in light of the modern age, where the degrees of diversity of thought and language is incalculably complex due to the strong interconnections that have formed with various cultures and identity groups through common informational mediums of the internet. Epistemic dogmatism is not just simply unable to address such a worse of high complexity, but I would contend it fundamentally leads to higher rates of error and falsehood. While a tendency towards epistemic dogmatism was not harmful for an emerging church that had limited political power in the days of Irenaeus or even post-Nicea,7 today the protection of orthodoxy through epistemic dogmatism in a period of hyper-diversity can lead to serious errors that can have many negative effects. It is like trying to entrust your physical well-being to someone who knows a book on medicine inside out rather than to a physician that has been entrusted to deal with many of the complexities of the human physiology.

But, it as the point of understanding language that we can address many of the theological challenges that we face in the modern world. And perhaps this is my extolling the virtues of my own choice to think about linguistics, particularly cognitive linguistics, in my personal time and the value I have found in analytic theology to help address various difficult and knotty theological contentions. But, I find in Irenaeus words the most suitable direction for how the Church can deal with the challenges to orthodoxy in our modern world. 

Something of a partial autobiography

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April 1, 2019

I loathe talking a lot about myself. I don’t mind doing it in the sense of a friendship, but the idea of writing a lot about myself has always seemed a bit of on the narcissistic side. Certainly, there are times to make something known about oneself, such was when one is in need or if you feel other people can benefit from such a personal disclosure, but self-disclosure for me is something that bothers me. And to some degree, if self-disclosures bother you, then you are a normal human being with a sense of humility and propriety. While one should ideally be able to be break through such a discomfort, particularly with people you wish to be close to, it is a good thing to have such inhibition to a degree, I think. In a culture of authentic fakery and manufactured celebrity, a sense of propriety won’t make you the most popular person, but it will prevent you from getting caught in the trap of routine self-absorption that our present culture poisons us while treated it as a healing balm.

The reason why such self-disclosure can be uncomfortable is that we wear masks. We all wear masks, to one degree or another. Sometimes we are doing so manipulatively, sometimes we are doing so innocently, sometimes we are doing so without awareness, but we all wear our masks. No one is a totally open book, if even for the reason that we do not fully understand ourselves. To that end, it is often others who help us to unmask, whether by force, by providing a space to do such, or providing insight. And it is Jesus Christ who I believe will ultimately unmask all the secrets of our hearts in the future eschaton, but with the Spirit occasionally doing such at moments in the present time. 

There are two masks that I have worn in my recent years. Neither of them are morally salacious. Rather they are masks of a different sort.

The first mask is the masking of my pain that has been unmasked in recent months. I have had a lot of pain and suffering in my life. Not so much that I can say my life has been as bad as possible, there have been blessing intermixed within it as I have parents who care about me and financially support me in my studies, a mind when is functioning as it can be is really sharp, and some great opportunities like my present one at the University of St. Andrews. But at the same time, a life of having being bullied, losing a brother to suicide, being forced into sex at one point and then at a later point of life being sexually harassed, and the various struggles with loneliness and isolation of various forms these events have occurred is a lot to carry. And I masked not because I want to project this image of being super strong, but I masked because I did not want other people to be burdened by my burdens; I am all too aware of the pernicious effects of secondary trauma and I much prefer to be careful not to put that onto others.

However, there is another mask I wear. It is the mask I wear about the reason for the journey and direction I have taken in my life. I have masked my calling, and when I say calling, I mean the actually calling and not the thing towards which I am striving towards. While up to this point, various people know bits of my story, no one knows every bit of the story as I have always masked away parts of it. This blog post is my act to unmask this and to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, and let whoever does read this do with it what they will.

My whole life I have always felt different, even in grade school and middle school, I felt different. I acted differently. This was no doubt part of the reason I was picked on so much by the popular kids. If I can define my life my one word it would be “separate”

I was not supposed to be born. I was my mom’s third pregnancy. Her first was my brother Evan. Her second, however, was miscarried. As my mom was reaching later in her 30s, it looked like she would only have one child. But then I came along. I was, in her words, her “miracle baby.” Then, as she told me, she was trying to figure out boy and girl names for her baby, and then one night she had a dream where a lady handed to her a baby and said “His name is Owen.”

But, there were complications late in the pregnancy. My mom had felt me stop moving around for a couple weeks and she was beginning to get worried. She expressed her concern to her doctor, and initially he told her there was nothing to worry about. But then, apparently, he called back later and asked if she wanted to come in and she did. They discovered that I had managed to get my umbilical cord stuck under my arm and I was not getting the oxygen that I had needed. They induced labor, and I was born on May 30, 1984, the day of the last full solar eclipse in North America of the 20th century. 

When I was pretty young, around 3 or 4 years old, my parents, my brother, and I went to the Smokey mountains. One day, we happened upon one spot for my dad to take pictures. My mom was not feeling well that day, so she decided to stay in the car and as my dad, my brother, and I went out to explore. While my dad was taking pictures, I had managed to sneak away and was exploring a fast moving water trench that flowed down a bit into a water mill. My being the adventurous explorer I was, I began to peer into the water in the trench. Meanwhile, back in the car, my mom got a real uneasy feeling and she decided to come out to check on us. As she was approaching she saw me peering over and thought that she needed to hurry over to me. But it was not too much later that I had slipped and fallen into the water trench. As chance would have it, I had on overalls and the strap on my shoulder had gotten caught on a limb hanging over the trench so that I did not get rushed off into the wheel of water mill. However, my head was stuck under water. My mom, seeing this reached for me but the way had made my overalls slippery and I slipped out of her reach. Now, I was not held back by the limb and I start to go down the trench and my mom, in a desperate attempt to get to me before there was no return, manage to grab a hold of me and pull me out. Just like the physician changing his mind to save my life, my mom had a sudden intuition that caused he to act to save my life.

Then, fast foward to my freshman year of college. I had overcome a lot of problems in my life in my primary and secondary education, but I had made it to college and was going looking to trek into the beginnings of adult life. That spring, I went on a leadership retreat with the campus ministry I was going to at the time and while there I had a mental vision that I was going to be a leader of people. (Imagine that! Going to a leadership retreat and thinking you would lead) While I had gone to church since my freshman year of high school and I had a semblance of what I would call repentance and faith during my time in the youth group, it was at that point that I was deeply moved to what I would call a fullest sense of repentance and I first understood what faith as trust in God was about. It was after this point that I, without trying to specifically stop specific behaviors, saw a dramatic change in my life as a lot of the pain and anger that stemmed from my past went away. Additionally, many feelings of same-sex attraction had begun to develop from my senior year of high school (though I never identified as gay or bisexual) and from that point, I only experienced any real attraction for women. It was a profound change that I didn’t anticipate or seek, but it just happened.

Then, the summer after my freshman year, I had two events occur with a little over a week that radically shaped me, even though I never really came to comprehend it. One night, I was alone at my college apartment asleep. Then, at one point, I suddenly jerked up and I heard the words “Follow me.” I look back and I wasn’t quite sure if those words came from my mouth or if they were from somewhere else, as it was all such a rush. Then, a little over a week later, I was at my home with parents. It was a little after midnight, and I was upstairs and on the opposite side of my house where my parents were asleep (I didn’t know they were asleep at the time). I was walking around and I suddenly heard a voice speak “Owen” in a clear tone. Initially thinking it was my dad calling out to me, I called out “Dad.” No response. Frustrated, I walked downstairs and to the other side of the house to my parent’s bedroom, as I walked in, I discovered that my dad was sound asleep and not making any noise, besides his usual snoring.

I present this is in a more ‘objective’ manner, but when I look over the events of my life, I have a profound sense of God’s hand and guidance on my life, although it is something I don’t comprehend or understanding. On the one hand, I have often wondered if I was hallucinating and all the coincidences and happenstances of my life were just the dice randomly rolling that way in my life. And yet, there seems to be a pattern and trend to all the events that give them a greater coherence than just the luck of the draw.

But the part of me that accepted what had happened was from God, which grew more and more over the course of time, felt even more isolated and separated as a result of these experiences. I was familiar with the stories of the Bible of people having such similar events, and I am familiar with many of the parallels, but these were people of the Bible. Who was I? And why was I of all people have

Meanwhile, the only stories I ever heard of anything remotely similar disturbed me. I was a young child when I remember the story of the siege in Waco in 1993. The leader of the cult of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh had reported some sort of vision during his time in Israel, although I forget the details of it now. When I learned about that during college, I looked at everything that had happened with fear, wanting nothing to do with that life even if I felt called to be a minister. Then, I recalled a preacher who came to my college campus that berated and spoke of God’s hatred and judgment towards many people, and I recounted him feeling some sort of calling experience himself (though again, I don’t remember the details). I saw the cultish and controlling way he treated others, including how he tried to wrap me in it, and I wanted nothing to do with that sort of stuff. My experiences scared me of my calling. I wanted to make nothing of it. And yet, it was still something to it I felt. But the more I held onto it without talking about it, the more alone I felt.

I have had many experiences in the years that followed that I can only point to the leading and direction of God. There are things I don’t understand. And even now, I don’t even understand it as I approach 16 years since that summer. I am confident I wasn’t just “hallucinating” in the clinical sense and that there is something that God is doing, but I haven’t the foggiest clue. I don’t feel like I have any real special “gifts” that seems to match the “gravity” of such events, although I do recognize that I have a blend of creativity and intelligence, for whatever that is worth.

But I have hidden it because I thought in sharing, I would be even more isolated and separated than I would be in masking it. Not to mention, it is safer to keep it hidden. Plus, I never wanted to try to pull any sort of “spiritual rank” to say “you should listen to me because of what happened.” All I ever wanted after being faithful to God was to simply no longer feel alone and so different. But, life is not about what we want; I have learned that over my years of pain that it is best to accept that not everything you want will come to pass.

So, I share this with no expectations. I am not asking you to do anything or think anything of me. I am open to questions from anyone curious but do respect that I don’t want to just share anything and everything for any reason. And please, if someone happens upon this at any point in the future, please don’t think I have some great secret to give you or that I am someone who you need to treat as some vaunted authority. But if there is something you see in me, then listen to this one thing and act one accordingly to it: one of the places where I have learned to have faith and I do take great comfort in is that God enables many people by His Spirit for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and even if I do have some rather profound and unique experiences, I am simply one of the many of the Body of Christ and I am no way in a superior or elevated position to anyone else. To that end, it is my appreciation of the giftings of the Spirit that alleviate my anxieties, even if I still feel like I am somehow way different.

And no, this is not an Aprils Fools joke. I felt lead to write about it today, for whatever reason.

The problem with “revelation”

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April 1, 2019

If anyone of a theological background reads this that also knows me and my (chastened) appreciation for Karl Barth, I figure the title might sound shocking. But rest assured, I am not in writing this to abandon the concept of revelation in a theological sense, but rather to present a couple of  problems that comes when it comes to New Testament theology. I would summarize the two problems as follows:

Firstly, there is no singular technical term for revelation in the New Testament. There are two verbs that refer to what we might call an act of revelation: φανερόω and ἀποκαλύπτω. While these two terms are synonyms, which a comparison of Mark 4.22 and Matthew 10.26 would show, they are not exact synonyms, but function a bit differently in the contexts in which they are used.

Secondly,  revelation is often used in one of two senses: 1) a general class of events or 2) a single, all-encompassing event. However, while the usage of φανερόω and ἀποκαλύπτω is used to refer to multiple different events (contra #2), one can not draw any generalization about understanding about these events apart from the a) the God is the initiator and b) the most general epistemic sense these two terms convey (contra #1). In other words, there is no point of unification and classification all things we would call revelation, except that it emerges from God: this includes even the person of Jesus as I will attempt to demonstrate.

In regards to the first problem, I would contend that φανερόω and ἀποκαλύπτω refer to two different aspects of “revelatory” events. ἀποκαλύπτω is used in contexts where some people are let in on something that was not previously publicly accessible and known.1 While not every use must be force fit into this exact description, at stake with ἀποκαλύπτω is the notion of privileged access as God “uncovers” it to them. On the other hand, φανερόω gets used more to describe what is actually seen and understood.2

Romans 16.25-26 is evidence of this difference, as the noun ἀποκάλυψις is used in reference to a previously non-accessible mystery, whereas φανερόω refers to what is made known in the Gentiles. Furthermore, what this passage suggests is that an act of ἀποκαλύπτω is a once-for-all event in a point of history whereas an act of φανερόω occurs repeatedly from that point onwards. That is to say, that once an “unveiling” (ἀποκαλύπτω) has been specifically made, it then becomes accessible through the testimony of the one(s) to whom it has been “unveiled.” Hence, this is why in 1 Cor 2.1-13, Paul will refer to specific teachers receiving an “unveiling” from the Spirit, but then in 14-15 speak of those who hear it, and say that those who accept it are said to be Spiritually discerning it. The “unveiling” is a non-repeatable event that then has lasting epistemic implications through testimony to others.

This is not to suggest that an action of φανερόω that is not traceable to an “unveiling” it is simply a product of testimony and the persuasiveness of the testimony. It is only to suggest that something can be “disclosed” (φανερόω) even if it is not being “unveiled.” That is to say, God can and does act to disclose something about His will and purpose, even if it is not really a secret. Thinking historically here, what can we say about Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. I would not call it an “unveiling” as it was something contained in the Scriptures, but it was “disclosed” to Luther.3 

I bring this up as a concept by which we can understand the possibility of revivals. It would be problematic, if not even dangerous, to suggest that revivals are somehow containing some sort of unveiling of something new. While I don’t want to exclude the possibility of God doing such a new unveiling, it would be dangerous to expect that revivals will entail such. However, I do think it is helpful to think of revivals as a fresh disclosure of what God has already unveiled. We might think of this as the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

The implications of this distinction is important in other way. For instance, many people in recent years have been pining for some sort of new Protestant Reformation, particularly as it comes to sexual mores. In their minds, we have progressed to a new understanding and God is teaching them this. Many of these people would also claim some sort of prophetic status, although not necessary for that specific reason. The problem is that from a reading of Scripture as we have it, such a view is untenable. Perhaps there is something vital that has been overlooked and ignored when it comes to matters of sex that God may re-disclose to us, but when God discloses something that is through an unveiling, the disclosure is understandable in virtue of what is already accessible but such claims of change on sex are incoherent with what we presently have.

However, we do believe such an event that has changed ethical understanding as happened in the history of God’s relationship to Israel and the world: in the person of Jesus Christ. While Jesus never nullified the Torah, with the advent of Christ and a new covenant, revelations were made to the apostle that lead to the conclusion that the Torah obedience was not necessary for the Gentiles. Something dramatic necessitated the people of God move to a new ethical understanding. However, this revelation did not occur in a vacuum, but it occurred as part of what was happening in the person of Jesus Christ; Paul refers to his own ministry to the Gentiles coming from God who was “please to unveil his Son to me.” (Galatians 2.16).

Thus such a change and move in regards to sex would need to be more than just simply a “disclosure” but an “unveiling” on a similar manner to what happened in the early Church. However, firstly, on what basis is such a revelation made? The change from the Torah was made in light of what happened in the person of Jesus. Who has come in the name of the Lord to necessitate such a change in understanding today? Or in what way has the Spirit demonstrably made Himself known that there is a clear unveiling of this new truth?

Secondly, the thing about “unveiling” is this: it is not accepted by others in virtue simply of the testimony, but there is something inherently demonstrable in what gets “unveiled.” An “unveiling” makes itself apparent to those who are able and willing to receive it. But if people outside the Christian circles are more willing to receive it whereas there is greater resistance inside the Church, this means the outside world is more open to this truth. Thus, this has been continued to be “veiled” to many Christians but not to those on the outside. While it is certainly possible, to claim that this has been “unveiled” would certainly seem to suggest leaving behind those who refuse to accept it, just as the early Christians did not seek to persuade all the Pharisees, and form a community on the basis of such a conviction if it is that absolutely necessary condition of one’s faith.

Thirdly, such an “unveiling” does not entail any prior progression or development to the idea, lest it becomes something that was accessible but overlooked, but it arrives without precedent, even if one can after the fact see it pointed to from what has already been given to know.

In other words, no sensible reading of the Bible would disclose a change in the views about sex and to promote any sort of unveiling would be to make strong claims that are deeply inconsistent with the actions taken by those advocating for such a change. While such a theological epistemology is probably not in the minds of most people advocating for a change, for those of us who take the pattern of God’s unveiling and disclosures as testified by the OT and NT seriously, such a dramatic change in the historical belief of the church would fall short of being God’s disclosure or God’s unveiling.

However, nevertheless, such a change is certainly within the purview of possibility. Why? Because we can not derive any sense of pattern about God’s unveilings and disclosures that would give us some advance knowledge and notice about specific unveilings in the future. Revelation is not a science by which we analyze past revelations to determine the shape of future revelations. They are given as is, we learn from them as they are, but we are not given a sneak-peek into further revelation in virtue of them. God’s act of unveiling does not give us the ability to unveil anything further in virtue of any disclosure already given to us. We are still left with the same epistemic dependence upon God’s actions for historically new disclosures to be made, which includes the possibility of new unveilings. However, we can look from God’s past disclosures and find some sense of understanding of future disclosures that are not conditioned upon a new unveiling, as this is taking what is already given to discover afresh more about what has been given.

So while we can accept the possibility of a new “unveiling” from God, we can not anticipate it nor specifically prepare for it in advance. The most that can be done is, like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Lord in repentance. But this still relies upon what has been disclosed, with a receptivity to what God can bring, but not an anticipation of the specific shape or form of what God will bring.

To summarize, the problem with revelation is that it as a concept on its own is ill-equipped for us to construct a theological epistemology for the matters of Christian life and faith that coheres with the witnesses of the New Testament. Rather, a two-fold understanding of “unveiling” and “disclosure” where the two are intrinsically related but are not phenomenologically the same thing, can allow us to insights into the nature of revivals or historically unprecedented changes in teaching and how we should approach such.

As for me, while I can accept the possibility of new unveilings I see no reason to think such has been given, but I can anxiously expect and look forward to the possibility of fresh disclosures for the Church in the West.