Theology and identity

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September 23, 2018

This week, I went to the New Room Conference being held in Brentwood, TN. As an alumni of Asbury Seminary, this was my first time to be involved in a big event with the seminary since graduation. It was a largely positive experience, as we gathered together in hopeful prayer and expectation for God to do something new within our midst.

During the conference, however, something from one of the talks struck me. My bishop from the Mississippi Annual Conference, James Swanson, was part of a conversation on racial reconciliation, particularly as it related to making the conference and work of New Room more involving of African Americans. At one point, he recounted a story of coming into ministry in the South Georgia conference and during an interview being asked by a white man, “Do you believe in ‘black’ theology?” Bishop Swanson, being African-American of course did believe it, but then he explained that black theology wasn’t about being anti-white, but about the relationship of the oppressed to the oppressor.

There is a litany of thoughts that struck me about that conversation. For instance, why we do we hear about “black theology,” such as in James Cone and Black Liberation theology, but not “white theology?” Prevailing social groups with power tends to label way of thinking of minority communities with explicit markers of their social identity whereas they fail to identify their own thinking with such explicit, contextual description of their social identity, which can sometimes be with a condescending, implicit view of “that is how YOU think” whereas “we see things as they really are.” By failing to mark the social identity of the prevailing body of thinking, one a) reinforces it as a controlling ideology that b) has an apperance of objectivity by c) by blinding us to the connection to its context. In other words, because we tend to not label prevailing theology of the Academy and denominations as “white theology,” it is akin to a sleight of hand of the magician, distracting oneself from the magician’s technique that manufactures the (intellectual) results one gets.

But, my focus here is not to analyze the specifics of theology in terms of its actual social context. Rather, I want to take a step back and make a broader observation that can then be useful in analyzing the relationship of theological systems of beliefs/knowledge and social context: the relationship between theology and identity.

A few definitions are necessary, however. Firstly, the concept of identity stands in relationship to the concept of self. By “self,” I mean the total experience of a person in a specific moment, including most notably their experience of their own exteroceptive senses (the classic five senses), interoceptive sensations (the senses of we have our body, such as body position, comfort/pain, etc.) and the way all of these senses are understood via our memories, both conscious and unconscious. Most of all that is happening in our self is outside of our awareness at any one moment, but we can direct our attention to specific parts of our self.

Identity stands in relationship to the self in that it is some aspect of our self that we become specifically aware of. For instance, ethnic identity combines awareness of certain salient ethnic features shared by a group of people, like skin color, along with one’s own memories of the significance of that feature, like being negatively judged for this feature and hearing stories of other people’s similar experiences. Identity as a product of our own conscious attention and awareness never defines all that this happening, nor is it derived from the present moment, but identity derives from a narrow range of our memories in relationship to those specific features. As a consequence, identity aids us in making sense of present experience through parts of our memory of the self in the past.

By analogy, theology stands in similar relationship to faith as identity is in relationship to the self. Theology is a conscious awareness of our faith. But I would suggest the relationship is more than a mere analogy, but rather than theology is an aspect of identity, and it is deriving through similar processes. Faith that takes the Biblical witnesses as its launching point is the experience of trust in God; faith is part of our self as we are looking for and trusting in God. Theology then stands as a conscious recognition of our faith as an attempt to describe and prescribe what it means to have this faith. As such, theology is, in a sense, the identity of our faith or, more specifically, an understanding of this identity. It’s focus tends to narrow down to some aspects our of experience of faith, while excluding other aspects.

If my definitions are apropos descriptions for the things we refer to when we talk about self, identity, faith, and theology, then this means something important: theology is tightly connected to our identity. It isn’t the same thing as identity; this is not a proposal that our God-talk is merely projection of our own self onto God. There are some differences as (self-)identity is explicitly about ourselves whereas theology takes God as its object of knowledge, but insofar as our sense of who we are is impacted by our relationship to this God we trust in and seek to know, then our theology emerges in a similar fashion to our sense of identities.

And how does this emerge? Identity/theology emerges by us focusing on certain salient experiences of our self, including our self as we trust God. As a consequence, as we focus on some aspects of our experience and memories we cease to pay attention to other aspects. For instance, for a non-theological example, I who has an identity as student at a university doing research, will focus on the parts of my memory and present experience that are relevant for my dissertation research. I will not spend as much time in those moments focusing on experiences that are relevant to other identities such as being a friend, a son, etc. So, I won’t think about the phone call I got my from mother an hour ago, but I will spend my time focusing on grasping the nature of ideology in the Roman Empire from my memory of my readings. However, my identity as a student will take less priority and I will transition to being a good son who will call my mom back. But for a brief period of time, my identity causes me to ‘dissociate’ from other aspects of my memory and experience. But what would happen if I were to never really recall my identity as a son, that I suddenly got amnesia and forgot that important relationship? I would never remember that my mother called me, and thereby never really pay attention to that event from the past. I will forget it, with the call becoming forgotten and lost within the ether of the memory. Consequently, I can permanently forget part of my memories and overlook parts of my present experience.

This also happens in theology. Our theology begins to express what is most important for our identities. I focus on my relationship to God that is immediately relevant for my own self-understanding. If I think of myself as a broken person, I may pay attention to my past memories of this brokenness and focus in the present moment on some healing from God for this brokenness. However, this means, as a consequence, we can in that moment block out other understandings of our past and present. The most salient blocking out is when we think ourselves broken, we can overlook how we broke others, as this is the very opposite of our own experience. Consequently, my identity as a broken person can, if I tightly clasp to this identity, makes me avoid seeing myself as a person who breaks others. How can this manifest itself? By a diminished role of repentance in our theology. My theology will be formed in such a way to account for my own victimization and hardships, but not to incorporate my own sense of sin.

I think this is very relevant for the analysis of “white theology.” We white Americans and Western Europeans, bearing membership in the prevailing social group that has intellectual prestige and readily denounces challenges to its status, have construed theology more in terms of the experience of our empowered status. With power comes a sense of entitlement, where there are things that ought to be done for us and to us because of who we are. Consequently, empowerment is prone to see how people fail to meet these expectations and thus is highly prone to think themselves as being aggrieved, but never really themselves be the aggrievers. And what have we observed with (white) Protestant liberal theology as observed by Reinhold Niebuhr about the social gospel: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In other words, the white identity that comes with an empowered and entitled sense of self has a sharp predilection towards mitigating any sense of personal sin and judgment, being an acute attack on our sense of who we are.

(White) Evangelical theology is better to a degree to accepting personal responsibility for one’s own negative actions, but by no means avoids the problem. Because evangelical theology is more constrained to a literal and whole interpretation of the Bible (whereas liberal theology jettisoned these principles in what may be remarked as a Bultmann-ian like demythologization), the notion of one’s own sin plays a prominent role in the Bible and thus within Evangelical theology. But its definition of sin is remarkably defined by the conflicts of the past, such as the intellectual “sins” of science or the sins of the lack of self-control, such as sexual immorality, drunkenness, etc. But the sins of pride, deception, gossip, all of which are actual mechanisms of attaining and maintain power and status, tends to be understated. This is behind the reason that we will commonly hear a preacher or speak acknowledge this sin for a brief moment, particuarly gossip, but not too long lest great discomfort occurs. White evangelical theology as an expression of us white people who have status and a (qualified) degree of power still leads us to minimize the sense of our own sins, even if we occasionally witness some taking a serious, no tolerance stance towards sin. Instead, evangelical theology has also tended to emphasize the status of being aggrieved and hurt.

This is where black theology comes in; as a theology of the oppressed addressing its oppressor, it can create a sense of resistance from white Christians with our white theology. It is rooted in one’s own experience of self of being oppressed because of one’s skin color, which then expresses itself in resistance to the power that white people have had over them, including white Christians. Our sense of status and entitlement has made us pay attention to our own grievances for increasingly superficial reasons in comparison to the often egregious oppression African-Americans have experienced over the years, thereby making “black theology” often uncomfortable to us. It rouses us as white Christians to stop seeing ourselves in terms of our own status as entitled, and therefore easily aggrieved and “broken,” and to recognize that we are part of the people who participate in making people broken.

If I may speak more clearly here, it is through theological witnesses like the black theological witness that a more robust sense of repentance can be restored to white evangelical theology. But it can be a hard word to hear, as we as whites are inclined to think we ourselves in our whole being are being resisted, particularly those of us who have more status and affluence, when in fact it is commonly our actions that are being called out. The black theological witness can help us as white Christians restore a more fuller sense of our self in faith, including in our need for repentance for our sins and to place truth in the faithful God to restore us and redeem us. Our theology has focused more on abstractions of ideas about God, as people in power tend to focus on abstractions more, often times unconsciously reinforcing our sense of identity and expectations for people like us; there are times where our theology needs to be radically concretized and called to deal with the realities of our lives and actions rather than living in the realm of imagination of abstract ideas that can serve more as a distraction than guide. And through this breaking of the scales of our eyes, perhaps we can be people who can pay more attention to a) what God is doing in our midst rather than simply what we want Him to do while b) paying more attention to how we are treating each other.

And this is part of what I appreciated about our time at New Room: we were both called to repentance, fittingly from another African-American preacher, and we were seeking healing for our brokenness. While not being perfect, I found my time at New Room to be a wonderful spiritual experience for myself, both in calling me to repentance to cease to be an aggriever and breaker and my seeking for healing of my grievances and brokenness.

Breaking free from ideology towards Christ

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September 17, 2018

In many of my past few posts, I have been talking a lot about ideology. Ideology is a common term used in modern political discussion to reference what ultimately amounts to a system of ideas that influence how people interpret life and the world. Here ideology fits more within the idea of a conflict of cultures, or political parties, etc. My usage of ideology is a bit more specific; I am referring to the dramatic influence on our thinking that significant centers of power, whether it be government institutions, culture-creators, religious organizations, etc., have to make us think and feel a specific way about certain topics, issues, experiences, so that we are never capable of consider alternatives thinking and behaviors that may be more appropriate. For me, ideology is not a statement about truth vs falsehood or good vs. evil, but rather a statement about how these centers of power narrow our thinking to fit within certain fixed patterns. In saying this, I am not making a veiled argument for antinomian forces of no control and absolutely free expression of anything to be labeled under “creativity.”

Rather, I am critiquing the stranglehold ideologies have on us to control the way we think such that we tend to fit different events in our lives, whether it is something we ourselves are doing or something we are witnessing, into the pattern of thinking and to exclude all other possibilities from the get go. For instance, if a person has a dramatic religious experience, an ideology of materialist science would rule this out as being some naturalistic explanation from the start; it is illegitimate from the start to consider other possibilities and how the events in question may fit with these novel forms of thinking. The power of ideology is to go beyond proposing a good direction we should move towards that is good much of the time; it has a way of ruling out any other possibilities such that our way of thinking about events are fit into specific, repetitive patterns.

Furthermore, the formation of ideology is not necessarily the intentional construction of any one person or organization. It can be when some person or persons have unilateral control in which it is instituted through repressive measures that keep people in outright fear. But, more often than not, the ideologies of larger societies and cultures are perpetrated through this mild aversion to being judged that stems from seeing how people who thought and taught like that were punished. While those who are punished may be evil themselves, they are taken of symbols of something that isn’t necessarily evil itself. For instance, radical Jihadists get punished can subtly perpetuate the notion that to be Muslim, to think like a Muslin is dangerous and evil. Or, take what happens in the media portrayal of African Americans, who are shown to be punishes for various crimes that the community judges severely (ranging from the truly heinous to drug charges) and the formation of thinking is to think these type of people are dangerous, so don’t think and speak like them, such as in musical style of rap or slang language they use. Even if no one consciously thinks “hey, lets portray Muslims or African-Americans in a negative life” or even if “these people we are talking about are dangerous,” there is the often subtle, unconscious, largely unintentional propagation of certain ways of thinking: “don’t be this, don’t act like that” drawing connections between the various aspects of specific religions or ethnicities to dangerous way to think and behave. I use the example of Muslims and African-Americans not to simply propound on the ideological effects or religion or race, but to show how various ideologies can gain control over the power of thinking, even in subtle ways.

I also point to how thinking is control more directly, labeling people who make certain types of arguments as foolish, superstitious, etc. For instance, the often (pseudo)prophetic discourse of preachers who say such and such natural disaster is a judgment against some sin. The repeated denunciation of such false, and in these instances understandably offensive, discourse can propogate an aversion to ever speaking of any sort of judgment, that the only legitimate type of religious speech is affirming and soothing. Or, for something less tame, people who attribute all sorts of events to being a miracle from God can be labeled as superstitious, engaging in magical thinking, etc can propagate the idea that is somehow intellectually irresponsible to see the hand of God working in certain events. But even away from religion itself and to the topic of something like abortion; I was just recently a part of the discussion where I was trying to broadly defend the possibility of abortion in the cases where a mother’s life is threatened by the fetus, it was treated as if I was treading on some sacred ground in the conversation; this has been formulated because in the place I had this discussion, my home state of Mississippi, we have constantly talked about again and again the evil of abortions, to the point that it has an ideological control on even considering that the life of the mother also has value worth and thus can be considered rightly worth saving in life-threatening pregnancies.  Even the way they engaged me were with straw-men, saying I am making more of an extreme argument than I am actually making, would have the effect of treating any discourse that speaks for a certain topic, even in a qualified, nuanced, and limited way, is construed as the pathway towards unrighteousness and evil and therefore a way of thinking that is to be avoided; the ideology of pro-fertility, in many ways similar to but often confused with being genuinely pro-life, can control thinking to such a point that it is a evil, sinful consideration to think that a woman can have the sanctity of life worth saving also.

In all these cases, through various mechanisms, the way we construe people and situations are controlled by thinking patterns enculturated into us as these type of events occur again, again, and again. Ideology makes the way we pay attention to reality very inflexible, inclining us to fit events into nice, tidy categories of knowledge, rather than allowing for a hermeneutical flexibility that considers what we have learned but allows for other construals of events to make sure past learning is an actually good fit for present experience, rather than assuming it is based upon superficial, surface similarities.

How does one break free from such an ideological stranglehold on our thinking? At the core, one provides legitimacy for another way of thinking. One recognizes that while many of the express values of the ideology can have value, there are other perfectly legitimate construals, more legitimate than the ideology, and thus it is the ideology itself that needs to be limited and challenged. This is, of course, hard, because the enculturation of ideology has essentially formed and directed the human proclivites towards cognitive dissonance reduction that psychological defenses such as denial, projection, fantasy, etc. in such a way as to create shields from listening to and receiving any challenge to the extent and breadth of the ideology. For instance, you show the error of a certain way of thinking with harder to argue premises, pointing out not just that they made mistake but how their own way of thinking lead them to their error. It is here that cracks in the cognitive strangleholds of ideology can be formedd.

This is the story of the early Church, particularly the Pauline mission throughout the Roman world. The Romans had an impressive array of religio-political propoganda that through constant repetition would reinforce the vested interests of the present political powers, such as appealing to the goddess Roma as the guarantor of Roman prominence and the quasi-divinification of the Roman Emperor. However, beyond this, the idea of a Roman peace, Pax Romana, legitimated the moral purposes behind Roman power towards a moral value that we can all appreciate; we all want something we call “peace.” Furthermore, Greek Stoicism had become part of the ruling philosophy of the Empire, perpetuating a naturalist ideology and a view of logic, language, and epistemology that was essentially proposed human wisdom is the representation of the natural order and that God is known through knowing this natural order. And don’t underestimate the value of natural order to political powers, because ruling ideologies will often times suggest that they have the right understanding of the way the world truly is and so any sense of instability or possibility for dramatic change would counter the powers legitimacy.

In the midst of this context, Paul’s evangelistic mission would challenge this ideological stranglehold of thinking through two critical pieces of “data” that would be presented to others: 1) the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the tradition of others seeing him resurrected body and 2) the power of the Holy Spirit, both in publicly visible dramatic events and personal impacts within the heart occurring in himself as a weak vessel. These two “data points” would firstly provide a decisive challenge to the religious, political, and philosophy ideology of the period by providing legitimate testimony of events and direct witnessing of events that challenged the ideological control on thinking.

However, Paul was not like a mindless iconoclast who was tearing down everything to simply tear it down to build his own vision among the early Christians. Rather, his own stated purposes in 1 Corinthians but implied elsewhere was to place down the foundation of Jesus Christ and get people to have faith in the power of God. Rome wasn’t the true enemy, as Romans 13 suggests, but there was a need for resistance and rejection of its ideology, of its “wisdom” as saying anything to be trusted about God and therefore the ultimate fate of the world that God created.

It is this breaking free from ideology, which Paul would call the renewal of the mind in Romans 12:2, that would allow people to be transformed so as to truly comprehend God and His will. But this form of thinking wasn’t about abstract principles, rules, and systems, but a thinking that can recognize the way sin manifest controls one’s life in the flesh and to resist its control because of God’s enabling this through the Son’s victory over sin and death that is personally realized in people’s lives through the Spirit. Prior to this, people would be enslaved, with any thinking that attempted to resist the impulses of sin being conquered by the colonial forces of sin in the flesh. Considering the flesh for Paul was not simply one’s own body in a vacuum, but the very way we engage in the larger world, the imperial forces of life, which has sin at the top of the hierarchy in his letters to the Romans but almost assuredly is partially and implicitly directed towards Roman power and culture, exhibits control through this flesh. Therefore, to put to death the deeds of the flesh wasn’t some devaluing of human life and its desires, specifically, but rather the way sin has taken advantage of human desires, including through one’s social relations. A) Through the Spirit’s leading as b) the believer puts to death the deeds of the flesh and c) comes into a mind that is renewed to be flexible enough to think in fresh, new ways free from the stranglehold of ideology, Christians begin to fully realize the impacts of their liberation in Christ.

Thus, the Christian journey is not simply a breaking free from sin as some evil impulse, nor even a freedom from the negative consequences of death, but the very powers that can engender and enculturate a pattern of thinking that resists any other forces that would fight against these forces of sin and death. Liberation and sanctification promotes a novel experiences of life, (but one that is not a pretense for egocentricity and abuse but one centered around the love for God and for people) which had been previously been unconsciously controlled through the insidious power of ideology steaming from reasoning influenced by perceived dangers; this liberation and sanctification can be construed and labeled by others as bearing some resemblance to the obvious sins and errors and injustices as the past based upon surface, or even imagined, resemblances. Both Jesus and the early Christian movement were routinely classified as politically revolutionary and rebellious, seeking to try to overturn the political order, when in fact God was working through His Son and then the Body of Christ to bring forth the realization of His power and love, to order life on the earth in accordance to the will of heaven by God’s earthly presence, regardless of whether that would ultimately include or exclude Roman power depending on how it fulfilled it’s commission as God’s minister (it ultimately excluded it). But, since this put the current ideology and political order into question, it would out of fear and self-preservation be looked upon with suspicion, ideologically labeled by other subversives of the past.

To summarize, ideologies are more than simply a prevailing set of thoughts and values, but they exhibit a rigidifying control of thinking that can control perception of life events without necessarily any intentionality on the behalf of anyone. The early Christian movement, particuarly as lead by Paul, exhibited a resistance to this ideology and the way it influenced behavior and thinking, but this was not in the name of some direct resistance of Empire but rather with the goal of seeing the glory of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit come to and fill the entire earth. Ideology was resisted so that people could be free to come to realize and embody the good life in both their action and thinking that God intended for them and all of creation.

In other words, ideological resistance, new patterns of thinking, and struggles against sin were all instrumental parts of the early Christian movement, but these are not themselves core values that defined the ultimate purpose of believers. Being counter-cultural apart from conformity to Christ is of no value. New patterns of thinking apart from the transformation of the Spirit is of no value. Struggling against some bad actions without living a life pleasing to God is of no value. But rather, the calling from God to journey on the path laid out by Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit brings the resistance of ideology and the controlling strangleholds it has on behavior and thinking into orbit as necessary for the specific goal of seeing the powers of heaven realized on earth in the believer’s lives.

What does it mean to be called?

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September 16, 2018

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how we should be hesitant to talk about ministry as a “calling” in the sense of their being a formal call to be clergy. The way calling is used in many Church contexts, such as the United Methodist Church, it is used to refer to the formal ministry of the clergy in a way that differentiates the clergy and the laity.

Now, the language of calling within the New Testament can be used to refer to a specific purpose that has been outlined for a specific person, such as Paul. If you read the Bible, then there are specific people who have dramatic calling stories; but not everyone has had it in such a dramatic way. While Moses, Samuel and Isaiah had pretty dramatic events, we don’t see such dramatic events for everyone who acts in a prophetic role through Israel’s history; many prophets are introduced and speak in sharp rebuke against the powers threatening Israel, sometimes from without but primarily from within, without any mention of a calling. Similarly for the apostles, most of the apostles did not have a dramatic calling experience (at least dramatic at the time; it may have been after the resurrection though) when Jesus walked up to them in the flesh and said “Follow me!” However, Paul has an experience on the Damascus Road, setting him on the path to be an apostle. The point here is this: the work of proclaiming God’s word in the Bible, whether the prophetic call back to the foundations or apostolic laying down the foundations, is not specifically gated by or reserved for any specific “calling” experience in the sense of a dramatic, clear as day “God is calling you here” sense.

In analysis of the Greek words for calling in the New Testament, κλητός (adjective: “called”) and καλέω (verb: “call”), you see it used in two senses: a specific calling to a specific individual, such as the Apostle Paul, and a calling that applies to believers. However, these two different sense are related to each other, as Galatians 1:6 and 1:15 show.

In 1:6, Paul expresses concern that the Galatians are going off in the wrong direction by listening to other teachers who are urged them to be circumcised and to obey Torah. These teachers probably made some appeals to some dramatic vision or teaching, whether it was something as dramatic as an angelic figure or some dramatic experience in their own life; hence Paul warns against anyone preaching a different gospel, even if they seem to have some impressive credentials. Paul reminds them in his statement of astonishment that they are leaving behind “the one who called (τοῦ καλέσαντος) you in the grace of Christ.”

Now why is Paul astonished? Some might be inclined to think this is merely some rhetorical embellishment. Others might be inclined to read this is a shaming statement, as if Paul is saying “I am surprised at how bad you are being!” But perhaps there is an actual relationship between Paul’s expression of surprise and what follows. Maybe Paul is surprised at how people are making their decisions, as if someone has all the reasons and resources to know the right way to go and yet they still seem to go off track. It is the type of astonishment when someone clearly knows the right way to go, there is no ignorance and confusion, and yet they get misdirected and confused by things that should not confuse them. This is perhaps what Paul is addressing: the Galatians had a calling from God, and yet they seem to be “snookered in” by people who have some impressive experiences but it isn’t from God. It would be like someone having a summons from a high official and then some lower level official saying “don’t worry about going.” Paul is atonished that these people have been called by God Himself through Jesus Christ; why then would they be confused and bewitched by other teachers with other credentials, impressive as they may be to others who did not have the calling they had? This presents the best sense of why Paul is suprised.

I present this point to help provide some insight into the nature of calling. It is something that comes from God; it is an invitation or summons that the people have received and started following.

But this still needs a bit more clarification. Today, when people talk about “calling,” whether it be ministry or a call to be a Christian, it can be used in two senses: one is phenomenological where a person has experienced something, whereas the other is ideological, supposing they are where they are because God called them. For the phenomenological, calling leads to direction or status, whereas for the ideological the direction or status entails the rationalizing that one is called. I would strongly argue that Paul is talking phenomenologically and not ideologically. When you look at Paul recall back to the beginning of the Galatian’s stories in Christ in Galatians 3:1-5, he hearkens back to their experience of the Spirit; there was something that happened in their midst. Then, Paul’s description of how people call out “Abba! Father!” in 4:6 suggests there was something that something happened to the hearts of the believers in how they interpreted their relationship to God, which he assigns to the Spirit. In these contexts, the evidence suggests that Paul is speaking phenomenologically and not ideologically: “Something happened to you! The Spirit came upon you and did dramatic things that you saw and gave you a new heart that saw your relationship to God. This shows you are children of God!”

Now, the calling is not the same thing as this bestowal of the Spirit. Firstly, in Romans 8:29-30, Paul conceives of calling happening before justification; meanwhile, Paul would connect the bestowal of the Spirit to people who are justified, as he does in Romans 5:1-5. So, just because the bestowal of the Spirit is phenomenological doesn’t automatically mean the calling Paul is speaking of is phenomenological, from a strictly logical point of view. But it does suggest that Paul is more conscious of people’s experiences of God and talking about them than he is simply imposing a set of ideas to justify a specific social arrangement and membership in a group of people. Compare 1:6 to Paul’s reference to his own calling in 1:15-16; both of them are said to occur through grace and both of these callings are connected to Jesus. Whereas Paul refers to His calling as one who God “reveals his Son,” suggesting of the dramatic calling he had on the Damascus Road, the similarity of discourse between the Galatian’s calling and Paul’s own calling is suggestive: the calling of the believers was also phenomenological. It may not have been so dramatic as to express anything as particular as Paul expresses about His own calling, but it is probable that Paul understanding the Galatians call as fitting under the same category of his own calling, and therefore a phenomenological one.

In other words, there is a general calling of believers that involves something that happens to them. What this specifically is is not specified. There is no reason to suppose everyone had the Damascus Road experience that Paul had, otherwise Paul would have probably been more specific to say something along the lines of “Hey you dummies! You heard the audible voice of God in Jesus. What are you thinking listening to these clowns over there?” But, there was obviously something that Paul was reminding them as having happened to them, something that would have been enough out of the norm that people would have seen it as God addressing and summoning people.

This is where it is useful to understand what is ultimately so significant about such a summons from God. Obviously, even today if some of us were to have something dramatic happen to you that you can assign to nothing other than the will of God, there would be some strong sense of this being important, but our ideas of God and how God works have been so simplified down to the concept of miracles, that we would not really know how to make sense of this. But how would such a calling be understanding by Paul and the Galatians?

Firstly, Paul was a Pharisee, formerly by membership but the intellectual training he underwent as a Pharisees was still present with him as an apostle. Of the more mainstream Jewish groups, the Pharisees were some of the most apocalyptic of them all, although I use the word apocalyptic very loosely. They believed in a future resurrection from the dead as outline in the apocalyptic book of Daniel in chapter 12. They were inclined to invoke the names of demonic powers, such as in saying that Jesus healings were the works of demonic power rather than the Spirit of God. When Paul was before the chief priest and Jewish council, he divided the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the group by saying what was going on was about the resurrection of the dead, dividing the assembly, and leading the Pharisees to suggest Paul may have had something come to him from an angel or spirit. While there was no singular pattern of what it meant to be “apocalyptic,” the Pharisees has beliefs that saw the will of God being expressed even in the present day through dramatic actions and events, culminating in a dramatic, all-encompassing transformation of human life in the resurrection.

So, understood against this backdrop, Paul’s Pharisaical background would have him investing some sense of apocalyptic meaning to calling. However, this is where I think it is important to note that Paul employs apocalyptic discourse in a way that is unique from what happens in apocalyptic literature. The general pattern in apocalyptic literature is that God makes some revelation, particularly about the political future, to a singular figure, and these people were to record these revelations for future posterity. In other words, a) God’s giving of heavenly knowledge is limited to a singular individual and b) it pertains to the larger, political future that God is going to change. It is my premise, however, that Paul takes the apocalyptic discourse and personalizes to all the believers in Christ. God is providing wisdom and insight to the whole Church, even if there are some people who may have revelations made to them, so theological knowledge appears to be more democratic than exclusive to a special few. Secondly, rather than focusing primarily on God causing political transformations, Paul gives a larger focus to the personal transformations that happen in persons, such as in the apocalyptic language of new creation in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15. The pattern of God’s activity and purposes in apocalyptic discourse has become radically personalized because, for Paul, the life of Jesus Christ is the realization of the apocalyptic-style hopes and believers through Christ then are recipients of and then participate in God’s dramatic works and power.

In other words, the calling is a summoning to become part of God’s powerful work in what we today would call sociology and history, but it had implications for we also refer to as psychology. Using these modern terms to analyze Paul’s discourse, God’s work in the psychological and the historical/sociology are intertwined, although the epistemic methods that provide us knowledge about what is happening in history, sociology, and psychology are dramatically different. What is shared at both levels of explanation, however, is that the resolution of the conflict of other powers with God, as present in the apocalyptic literature, is happening in individual persons, as they move from the fleshy body that has been colonized by the powers of sin and death and towards the power of God through the Holy Spirit. Hence, towards the end of Galatians in chapter 5, Paul reminds them about the difference between the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, reminding them how to live out the liberation God had given them in Jesus Christ. Why? Because by the Spirit through faith they were to wait for the hope of righteousness (5:5), which wasn’t just simply a moral status but a full realization of the way life was to be, both within themselves in how they lived but would also include even the world around them. This was a process to be cultivated within the person over time, however, hence the agricultural metaphor of fruit when talking about the work of the Spirit in Gal 5:22-23; while there may be clear, dramatic periods within the person’s life, such as the experience of the Spirit, what God was going to do was going to occur over time.

So, for Paul, the calling was not simply some nice experience from God that makes people feel loved or gives them a specific status as part of a church/the Church, but it was an invitation to a newness and dramatic change in the future, much as God called Abraham. It is no coincidence that when talking about the faith of Abraham in Romans 4:17, Paul talks about God’s “call into existence that which does not exist,” which prototypically keyed to Abraham and Sarah’s future fertility which had previously been impossible as a way of understanding what happens to the life or those who have faith like Abraham. In apocalyptic literature, God was doing something new in history; in Abraham’s story, God did something dramatically new that is described occurring through God’s creative powers in a person’s life. In Christ, God is doing something dramatically new through the Spirit, to move people from the present realities to a transformation and new creation, which has both historical implications (as in Romans 5) and personal implications (as in Romans 8).

So, calling is a part of this journey from life lived in flesh, being controlled by the ruling powers of the present age, to a new life being formed by Spirit that is being formed into the pattern of the glory of Jesus Christ. Something dramatic beckons people to this journey, and they follow in faith, which Paul wants to be directed towards this creative, apocalyptic power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) that is understood according to the pattern of cross of Christ and made personally known through God’s agents, like Paul, where in weakness the power of the Spirit is demonstrated.

However, this calling would have a special meaning also in the context of the Galatians’ own life. Imagine living in a world littered with various gods and goddesses; one would not be accustomed to having any real dramatic experience coming from any of them but one would be aware of their existence. On occasion you might go to a temple dedicated to one of them, participate in the rituals; you might hear imperial propaganda about the gods in relationship to Roman power. But at the end of the day, you don’t have any real deep, dramatic experiences when it comes to what we would refer today as religion. Instead, everything you learn about this pantheon is that they are connected to the daily process of life, such as fertility, war, love, etc. Essentially, the gods and goddess were ideological constructs used as propogaters of the present material and social order. This type of religion was ideological, functioning principally in maintain identity and status of the powers and providing an understanding of the regular process of life.

Now, here comes this mysterious man Paul who is talking about this crucified man named Jesus off from those eccentric Jews, who believed there was only God. While he evangelizing, some dramatic stuff happens that is unlike any other experience they would have known, to the point that Paul describes what happened then as “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). If 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 is any indication of Paul’s evangelistic method,1 this may have occurred by a combination of Paul’s preaching the story of Christ and Paul’s own weak presence (Galatians 4:13) being joined with dramatic works of Spirit. Somewhere, in the midst of all that, the people saw the crucified Christ that so dramatically moved them that they then had a heart open to hearing this calling summons from God.2

What a contrast from Roman religion! Rather than a religion that legitimates the present status and patterns of life and their own psychological experiences resembling this religious pattern, they experience something dramatic, radically novel, and potentially life-altering from this mysterious man and from within themselves.

So, for the Galatians, this calling was the disruption of all that they had known and understood, all that they were accustomed to; they were enslaved to these things called gods (Galatians 4:8). There was nothing in their own religious understanding of divinity that could really help them to assimilate this experience, to use modern Piagetian terms, but that they themselves had to accommodate themselves to this dramatic event in the disclosure of Christ and the summons from Christ to them.

Consequently, to understand what this calling and faith was all about, they would need to instructed in the story of God’s disclosure to the people of Israel in the (Old Testament) Scriptures. They had within their experience of their calling from Christ and their recipients of the Spirit a hermeneutical key to begin to make sense of what these Scriptures were pointing forwards to in Christ, that they had some basic insights into the culmination of God’s purposes in Christ.

Meanwhile, these other teachers come along, claiming some dramatic experiences from angels, personal calling narratives, or whatever, that do not have the form of this calling from Christ, but come saying they can help the Galatians understand the connection of their calling with these Scriptures, but one that would have them engaging in a pattern of religion that, in the end, wasn’t that much different from the form of religion they had left behind even if it had different names and different discourses. Likely, these teachers were teaching them how to become part of the present Israel through circumcision and Torah obedience, to try to get them to join in the side of Israel over and against the struggle with Roman power, a struggle that would eventually culminate in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD. These teachers were more concerned about a political religion that advocated rites and rituals that were, ultimately, about simply establishing a different political order. They were propogating a different ideological religion of identity and status.

The ambiguity these Galatians would have experienced with their calling would be remarkable, to say the least. They were Roman pagans and now they are following this Jewish God; all this sense of mystery about all of it combined with a legitimacy to the Torah and God’s story of Israel would make them susceptible to some apparently qualified Jewish religious teachers. But Paul’s rebuke is a dramatic attention getter and reminder: “You have been called by Christ. Don’t be fooled by the facsimile authority of people who have what essentially amounts to something inferior to what you have received. You can listen to me because you and I both have had similar calling experiences in Jesus, even if mine is a bit more dramatic, although don’t even give me unquestioned, unscrutinized authority if I go off the rocker in what I teach.”

So, the calling that Paul refers to is something real, of a psychological-phenomemological nature that they can only connect to God in Christ, that summons them into a new way of life, and that this shares similarities with Paul’s experience, even if there are some differences between Paul’s own Damascus Road experience and most everyone else’s.

I said a couple weeks back to not seek to be specially called, but seek to be called in Christ. For those curious what I meant by that, this is what I meant. We are called to Christ, and for Paul, this calling is understood more in terms of God’s purposes, as in Romans 8:28, than it is a specific, fixed status one’s life, such as being a clergy person. It is a call to God’s purposes through a journey lead by the Spirit of God to Jesus Christ, both in this present life and in the life post-resurrection.

The virtues and vices of being in the “middle” and a way forward

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September 15, 2018

Nearly two weeks ago, I expressed my observations about my own journey and struggles with being “moderate” and my ultimate realization that one can not even identify oneself as a “moderate” and faithfully follow Jesus Christ at the same time. There, the critique I offered was rooted in an analogy between Paul’s own struggle with the Roman world and its influence by the wisdom/philosophy, stating that being “moderate” wasn’t any more effective or honest than the “extremes” of progressive and conservatism.

But, I want to offer a praise of virtue that is specific to being in the middle, so that one does not simply treat being “moderate” as the same as being “progressive” and “conservative.” Rather, in identifying the virtue, it can also help us to identify the vice, so that we can identify the mistakes that we make when we try to go the middle route and how going the middle often times simply reinforces the extremes it seeks to avoid.

There are at least four, overlapping motivations behind being a moderate that I can think of. Firstly, it is to keep as wide array of people involved as possibly. Secondly, it is to avoid the damages that people who go off to the extremes can do when they obtain power. Thirdly, it is to recognize the insights and wisdom that various people can provide. Fourthly, it is generally the best route to keep everything together as it is, which is usually in the best, short-term interest of the most people.

Therefore, in order to operate in the middle, one must a) know what a wide range of people are saying and b) trying to combine what everyone is saying in one’s decisions and behaviors so as to find the best-fit for all involved. At the core of being in the middle is a virtue: listening and understanding. One must listen and value the perspectives of various people, even recognizing the value that diversity can have in the process of adaptation and learning and the dignity given to all people. This is a virtue that finds resonances with Biblical notions of love, although we should not reduce the Biblical vision of love to simply attention and dignity or treat those specific features as always essential themselves in order to be operating out of love.

What is the result of listening to diverse sources: ideally, a source of creativity that searches for deeper, transformative principles that can hit at the various concerns from a diverse set of people. When the virtue of concerned listening is performing this function, it is a virtue that may potentially provide exponential benefits to the widest array of people possible.

However, there are many conditions in listening to a wide array of voices does not lead to creative, transformative learning. Let me suggest at least two conditions where this is the case.

Firstly, under conditions of extreme diversity, effective listening becomes nearly impossible. Human resources are limited as there is only so much listening and learning a person can do at a time before their mental resources of exhausted. As a consequence, there becomes a point where ‘listeners’ become more prone to use rigid labels and stereotype due to the lack of motivation and resources to continue in this direction. The result of this is that the ideas that moderates hold in their heads become more a fixed sense of “knowing” what other people think and feel rather than a more fluid, hermeneutical awareness. Moderates express the sides in terms of ideas, but these ideas are not used as much as aids in listening, understanding, and thinking, but as set positions and frameworks. As a consequence, being in the middle can lead people to try to find the middle ground between what ultimately amounts to straw men, stereotypes that bear little resemblance to the reality on the ground. It is here that being in the middle can lead to falsehoods.

One solution to this is to attempt to try to include more and more people into leadership to try to obtain more human resources to listen to a wider array of people. And indeed, this can in certain conditions be a big help when there is a number of voices that are simply becoming noisome. But there are two principles that prevent make this option succumb to the law of diminishing returns. The more people you include in your learning and decision making process, the more time is necessary to spend in order to align the thinking of the various decision makers. Therefore, the more people you include in leading from the middle, the more and more time and resources it can take to make sure the appropriate listening and understanding from within the leadership to come to sufficient decision making capacities. While this cost is relatively minimal the fewer people are in the leadership, just as with larger populations, the more people that are in leadership, the more and more resources it takes to make sure everyone is on the same page. In other words, the very principle of growing populations that can mitigate effective listening and learning is also working against the effectiveness of a growing leadership.

Eventually, the time and resources necessary for keeping the leadership together itself become exhausted, meaning there becomes increasing division within the leadership. At this point, there is very little time, if any, to effectively listen to the rest of the people, but rather more time is spent maintain the interests that have formed within the leadership. Burgeoning hierarchies and leadership almost inevitably devolve into staking out particular interests that make them inflexible to the interests of another. Therefore, the division within the wider population one serves becomes characteristic of the leadership. It is through this process that the leadership increasingly becomes a mirror image of the society the leadership serves: look no further than the 2016 U.S. Presidential race where the two most popular candidates among specific sectors of the population, Bernie Sanders (who was railroaded by the Democratic National Convention) and Donald Trump, were people with rather extreme views. This principle I would suggest reveals the seeds of destruction from the success of the middle when operating in a democratic mode of valuing all people; the more one has succeeded in the past, the harder it is to maintain the necessary institutional cohesiveness that provided the basis for its earlier successes.

Instead, the leadership begins to devolve from this principle, and insofar as the leadership has the respect of portions of the population, it only further stokes the division among the people they served. Therefore, the people become more extreme in their views and expectations.

This leads me to the second principle that is both a condition for failure of the middle and a condition that works against effectiveness of growing leadership: the rise of “tribalization,” where portions of the population grows more insular from outsider perspectives leader to extremization. When parties within the leadership no longer effectively influences their preferred constituencies in a direction that effectively keeps the cohesion together, whether this happens consciously or without awareness, the people begin to cluster together into smaller, sub-groups that begin to take on an increasingly greater significance. These various groups begin to demand more and more, as the degree of their satisfaction with and allegiance to the institution is becoming increasingly diminished by the correspondingly increasing value of the specific sub-group one operates within. AT this point, the sub-groups do not identify themselves within the larger organization or nation, but rather with their subgroup, and instead they begin to see the institution and their processes as mechanisms to manipulate to accomplish their own goals. What ceases here is the spirit of the original agreements and processes and an appreciation of the processes as they stand, but increasing demands to get things to operate according to the interests of the subgroup.

In other words, as people begin to connect more to various smaller tribal, group identities, they demand more from the institution. As the institution can not provide the increasing demands, they become increasingly disaffected by the institutions. Rather than feeling connected to the institutional itself as an expression of something greater, they instrumentalize the institution for their purposes. As they become more extreme, they become more fixed in their views and values, as nothing is more effective to radicalization than repeatedly telling narratives that express grievances. Meanwhile, as the various smaller tribes with more stridently fixed values and expectations clash with each other and as they instrumentalize the institution for their own purposes, they begin to increasingly stereotype the opposing tribes rather than flexibly adjusting to them, force fitting them into their narratives of grievances. Consequently, amidst all of this, the various sub-groups continue to impress higher and higher demands upon the institution, making more radical expectations with lesser willingness to comrpomise.

At this point, those who remain in the middle and have avoided moving towards extremes via the processes of radicalization and tribalization are put under increasing pressure in the way they listen to the various sides. What they hear about in their listening is less and less the actual experience of a wide-array of people, but rather discourse that is increasingly forms to the habitualized narratives of grievances and stereotypes of the oppositions conjoined with increasing demands. At this point, the middle is operating with more of a fixed “knowing” about others rather than a more fluid “understanding.” Listening diminishes in this instance. Secondly, the various tribal narratives and stereotypes will affect the various people in the leadership differently; each individual in leadership will be more emotionally affected by one tribe’s expression than the other. Thus, despite their attempts to be joined to the middle, the emotional impacts of listening pushes them more and more towards one side or the other. This then diverts even more resources necessary for retaining a united front and common mind to make decisions, which only accelerates the process of devolution of the institution.

AT the end of the day of a formerly successful institution, you are left with a middle that is itself being torn to the extremes and is hearing more fixed ideas. At this point, mental and personal resources are cut thin to the point that in order to maintain things as they are, the only options the leadership can think of and prefer is to split the difference down the middle in some manner. Rather than providing transformative leadership that takes the various principles and come up creative solutions, the leadership from the middle is actively hindered from such.

In this case, the future of the institution is spiraling towards its eventually full decay and death. But, this is neither an inevitable future for the institution, or even if the institution fails, the people are not inevitably left with no hope for anything to replace what has failed. There are people who seek to learn and listen from the “middle”, but somehow, whether it be the grace of God, the convergence of circumstances, or both, manage to insulate themselves and/or overcome from the worst of the effects of being in the middle. Those people, and I emphasize people and not necessarily an individual person, may potentially provide a source of renewal for the central mission of the institution. But for those people to be properly identified by the institituonal and successful let them have the work they need to do will entail a few things.

Firstly, a willingness to recognize the failure of the present leadership. This isn’t necessarily a hit to the leadership as people or as individuals, but it is simply a recognition that for whatever reason, whether it be personal capacities or life circumstances, one does not have the resources necessary to lead transformatively. Collectively, the leadership must say “we cannot!” Without this recognition, the next steps can not occur.

Secondly, they must have a trust and hope that there are people who can, even if one can not immediately identify them. Without this faith and hope, the recognition of inability will simply lead to a spiraling of despair.

Thirdly, they must seek to learn to identify and discern what these will people will look like. Now, this is going to be hard off hand because we will inclined to think effective leadership will somehow resemble the values we have had that have blinded us. Instead, people must learn to deattach themselves from all that they think they know, allowing the space in their hearts and minds to receive new insights, and resisting every attempt of their own value and knowledge to force itself upon the shape of their new learning.

Fourthly, in seeking to find leadership, one must avoid the anointing of any one figure as the solution as looming crises tempt us to think. Transformational leadership is rarely perfect; in fact I would suggest there is has been and will only be one person in all of human history, Jesus Christ, who has ever been perfectly suited for the circumstances of entire transformation. Everyone else will have their flaws and their blind spots, so avoid anointing them. Even these leaders will need the help of others along the way to avoid the flaws they have from being a problem.

Fifthly, don’t overly fix on one person as is commonly the cases in periods of looming crises. In cases of overwhelming diversity, you will need a diverse array of leaders, but much, much, much less numerous than those who have lead (otherwise, you simply recapitulate the problems that created the institutional decay in the first place). If these people share a common heart and mind, they can work together.

Sixth, as those who can help are identified, the present leadership will have to let go of the short-term stability. Almost inevitably, this new, transformative form of learning will be deeply unfamiliar and in many ways evoke the rejection of the various tribes and their values and interests, along with the values and interests of the leadership. Moving with these insights will cause a period of destabilization, leaving the institution going through a process of vacillating periods of emerging, yet hopefully temporary, chaos and rigidification.

Seventh, amidst the vacillation of chaos and rigidification, one can still listen and hear in the midst of that, allowing the expression of concerns and thoughts that were either previously muted or were not considered important early on. In other words, you may find important insights in midst of the period of destabilizaiton that the stresses of a specific direction bring to the surface.

Finally, the leadership must accept the risk that what is being done may fail, that the institution is just going to decay and die. Sometimes, this happens. Apart from God’s unilateral Word and powerful Spirit to make it so, there are no real guarantees in life. But without accepting this possibility may come to pass, the leadership will circumvent the struggles that are experienced, thereby hindering transformation in the name of protection from risk.

Of course, institutions may find the resistance to such a pattern too much to overcome, that the vested interests are too strong to allow the necessary humility, repentance, faith, and steadfastness. There is a reason that institutions, more often that not, are replaced rather than renewed from within when the decay has gotten deep: the hearts and minds have been too influenced by the fears to trek towards the new direction they need. But, that doesn’t mean the people who have resisted the worst effects of being in the middle can not help. More often than not, new movements arise that compensate for the failures of what is present, and experience a marked advantage in terms of directing their time, resources, and knowledge that allow it to address the people and bring them together in a way that the older institution can not. These people, if the combination of personal drive and opportunities converge, may find a way to make things come to fruition.

So I will leave this with one comment that is more specific to my present circumstances in the United States and the United Methodist Church. Many are looking towards us Millenials as the future, as we have been told time and time again growing up that we were the future and have been given dreams to change the world. Let me state something really hard to say: most of us are not primed to take on that role. We have been formed with increasingly greater and greater expectations for our future that has made us more extreme in our thinking as the gap between expectations and reality is markedly high: mots of us have not adjusted our actual dreams, but have rather vacillated between narcissism and despair, between outright dread and excessive optimism. Many millenials are really more in need of formative leadership because we have been simultaneosuly protected from smaller, more formative challenges while left to ourselves when left to deal with the great divergences between dreams and reality. Nevertheless, don’t discount all of us millennials. There are some who may have resisted or overcome these effects, but that is not descriptive of my whole generation. Secondly, recognize that if we as millennials are given something we truly believe in and support, we can be a powerful force in change; however, the true goodness of the direction of that change is not determined, because not all change is truly good change even if it feels like it in the moment, but those who lead will determine the true value of the change we seek to create.

The epistemology and hermeneutics of affect

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September 15, 2018

About a week ago, I posted on some speculations I made on the relationship epistemology and hermeneutics, and the subsequent divide between Analytic and Continental philosophy. One premise was that while epistemology and hermeneutics as specific fields of philosophical inquiry are not the same thing, their actual objects of focus in human experience are actually complementary. Put more concretely, analyzing how we derive knowledge and analyzing how we interpret will get you different processes and methods, but knowing and interpreting are happening at the same time and making the other possible in actual human experience.

With this premise in mind, it has lead me to ask the question: what in the human person is responsible for the processing of knowing and interpreting? What determines the direction our knowing and interpretation will take?

Obviously, there are many factors involved in the process as our brains is a complex system/organ that simultaneously bears both specialization of different functions and yet each function impacts every other function. So, it is impossible to reductively localize knowing, interpreting, or any other mental function, to any singular phenomenon within either our analysis of the phenomenons of human experience or our analysis of the brain itself and get a reliable answer. But what in the human person is perhaps the most significant ‘center’ of human experience to explain what happens in knowing and interpreting?

One answer is to try to find it in the processes of the thinking itself. We can seek to derive some basic principles of thinking that we can label some of these principles as rational and others as irrational. Then, it simply becomes a matter of conforming our minds to the rational or the irrational thoughts. This answer exhibits more the bias of epistemology, with its implicit norms of interpretation that determines what is rational and irrational and the expectations that there is some fixed point to work from. Meanwhile, actual life experience doesn’t so neatly fit into the nice, regimented patterns of reasons, but rather there seems to be the element of interpreting life to determine which inferential logics we will use

Another answer is to appeal to memory and experience. One can see the connections between what is focusing on and in past. Emerging from both the continuities and discontinuities of present experience with past memories is a creative expression of understanding that seeks to make sense of what is in common, while the understanding adjusts to the differences. However, this exhibits more the bias of hermeneutics, with its focuses on the processes that form the products of understanding. Meanwhile, it doesn’t necessarily address the question of what among the various memories that relate to experience are deemed best frame of reference to understanding what is in front of us; it is this frames of reference that get repeatedly unconsiously activate and consciously appealed to that can provide us a sense of general fixity in life.

So what is the candidate then? My title has given it away, so there was never any real suspense, but the affective life. More particuarly, I would suggest that there are two abstractions we make about our affective life, which are integral related to each other, which provide good correspondance between the epistemic and hermeneutical focuses.

Firstly, is desire, which is our affect in relationship to a specific object that is needed, wanted, and/or sought after which forms the way we pay attention to experience. I would propose that the relationship of affect to the objects of pursuit relates more to the field of epistemology, where there is a firstly a focus on the right, sought after sources of knowledge and secondly a manner of directing our attention, and thus our patterns of thinking, in relationship to the sources of knowledge. Desire directs us (primarily) to the outer world, just as epistemology has been predisposed to an outward direction, as in Locke’s empiricism and early analytic philosophy’s positivism.

Secondly, is emotion, which is our affect in relationship to our own self. The emotions we experience relate to how we ourselves are related to our experience; what is happening to us in relationship to our experience. Corresponding to this is the activation of certain neural networks of memory systems that are the best fit and correspondence between a) the present experience and b) past memory, which then itself impacts present experience, which then recursively leads to the activation of more neural networks. Emotion directs us to the ever constant, never finishing process of interpretation that takes who we ourselves as a necessary starting point to make sense of anything, as in Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

However, if my understanding of psychology and experience is correct, desire and emotion are not truly separable phenomenon’s in the physiological and neural roots of human experience, but rather they operate together. Rather, the concepts of desire and emotion is the result of how we direct our attention to our own inner affective life. So, even as I initially proposed a more fixed direction to relate our knowing about knowing and interpretation, the way attention as been directed towards affective experience has influenced the nature of this direction. If I were to direct attention differently, I would interpret knowledge and interpretation differently. Nevertheless, despite this continuing fluidity of understanding, I would propose there is something reliable and deeply useful for finding the relationship of epistemology and hermeneutics to our affective life as we understand them through the relationships of our objects of desire and the activation of the person’s own self.

Sanctification as identity conflict

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September 14, 2018

When we think of ourselves as people, there is a predilection to think ourselves as having an identity. Because we typically experience our own life as a flow of experiences, with their being continuity from one moment to the next, we abstract from our experiences a sense of one identity. Furthermore, since I experience my body as unique from all other bodies and that there is not another body that I experience as I experience my body, I am inclined to think myself as a singular self. These experiences of continuity of identity and singular uniqueness of my own self/body blend together to lead us to the conception of “myself” as one. This is not the only way we may construe ourselves, as we conceive of myself as bearing different identities, such as a child, spouse, parent, minister to a congregation, a congregant in a church, friend, worker, citizen of a political entity, etc. So, we can also construe ourselves as multiple identities. Both singular and plural conceptions of ourselves are very possible.

However, in Western society that has placed emphasis on the individual, the one-ness conception of selfhood making this one-ness not just a possible construal of ourselves, but as the default mode of thinking about who “I” am. This is more than simply a statement of how we exist in the social world, as many critiques of individualism are focused upon, but my concerned is more on the numerical nature of how we conceive ourselves.

When it comes to talking about identity, we exhibit a predilection to think ourselves as a singular, coherent person. While we may recognize those plural aspects of ourselves, we tend to construe these all as fitting together into a singular, coherent sense of who we are. Consequently, we are predisposed to construct narratives about who we are as a person that attempts to neatly and tidily integrates into one narrative so as to adequately and reliably expresse everything that is significant about “me” as one person. Here, the singular identity the default mode of self-perception and then we integrate our plural aspects into coherent account of who we are.

But this is not universal pattern; the polarity between integration and the plurality of relationships and experiences can be reversed in cultures, such that we construe ourselves as multiple, typically in terms of our multiple relationships. But this multiplicity isn’t chaotic, but rather there are still attempts to integrate the various identities but they are not integrated as the “one” self/identity. Instead, given that our sense of our selves/identities that treat our social relations as more salient for our attention rather than inner experience, our various senses of who we are tend to be integrated around significant (social) powers that undergird these socially construed identities. Various identities are brought into different centers of coherence, such that identity here may consider one’s political citizenship as primary, such as “I am a Roman citizen” during ancient Rome or “Jesus is Lord” for the early Christians. These identities are not construed as inherently antagonistic, where either one or the other are the only true representation of who we are, but rather as being in sometimes in tension and sometimes being in union with each other.

Because this manner integrates selves/identities around prominent powers in the our realm of existence rather than around personal experience and determination, self-definition of the person is not singular but multi-polar. It is this that defines Paul’s view of the Christian life as a conflict between flesh and Spirit. Far from identifying the “flesh” and “spirit” as singular substances that are joined together in a dualistic composite, flesh and Spirit are expressions of the primary powers that determine who the person is.

Pertaining to the flesh, Stoicism, which Paul is aware of, had developed their own universal account of human life, construing persons as bodies and construing all persons as being citizens, human embodiment was not simply an existential concept but an intrinsically relational and political concept. This is why, for instance, Paul talks about the flesh principally negative relational terms, as in 1 Corinthians and Galatians 5:19-21. The flesh is not merely our body in isolation of the world, but the flesh is the present relation of our body to the present social world where God’s presence had yet to transform. Paul’s conception of the flesh as the present state of our embodied life includes internal emotions and desires, so it does have an experiential-phenomenological component to it, but it has implicit social understandings. Hence, Paul talks about the body as a metaphorical, militaristic stronghold of the power of sin in Romans 7. Thus, the flesh serves as one way of construing the individual person, with its own tendencies and its own narrative that leads to death.

By contrast, the Spirit functions to offer another center of integration of various plural identities. The Spirit is the power of God that relates the believer to Christ, that joins them to a new relational status with God and with others. The Spirit is the other power that influence and impacts the person’s life, creating a different narrative where the person’s life becomes formed to the pattern of Christ.

Therefore, for Paul, there are two centers of human identity for believers, one centered around the flesh as a center of engagement with the social powers and others who share flesh, whereas there is another identity centered around the Spirit as a center of engagement with Jesus Christ and fellow believers that also have the Spirit. There exist two conflicting narratives, one with impulses that lead to death and another with leadings that bring about life. So, for Paul, the struggle is that the Christian ceases to be like the people of the world, whose lives are united around a singular power as influencing them through the flesh, but for them to move to another power, the power of God.1 One proceeds to participate in the narrative of life that the Spirit brings as one puts to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:12), which itself conveys a metaphor of violent warfare. One actively move towards one’s new collection of identities defined around God when one fights against the powers that have colonized the flesh.

I bring all this together to make a point about sanctification within the modern world. Because we are deeply biased construe ourselves as individual person with a singular, central identity and narrative around which everything fits, almost to a point that it is an implicit ideology that can resist any alternative, it serves as a hindrance to the journey of sanctificaton that Paul mentions and Wesleyan theology highlights.

Because we construe ourselves around one identity, we feel the need to integrate everything about who we are into a singular narrative this identity expresses. If it does not all fit, then rather than trying to fit it into another coherent narrative, we are prone to deny its existence. Recognition of aspects of who we are as persons becoming an either-or sort of process, where we entirely accept something as true about ourselves or entirely reject it. Consequently, we find people who have deep struggles with having complex views of who they are and their self-esteem, either vacillating between the extremes of all-good or all-bad as in splitting or having deep identity crises because the truth of who they are cannot be integrated around any coherent account of the self. This is the more extreme forms of dissociation of the person, as can be witnessed in people with certain personality disorders like borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, etc., but this tendency exists within all of us. Rather than a recognition that we contain multiple, interconnected identities that are struggling within the one person, which is to say that we have different centers of coherence about ourselves that are then coherently, but unconsciously integrated into our self-perception as a singular entity, we reject anything that may suggest we are not what this identity and narrative we hold to be true about ourselves. We are prone to see ourselves as either sinner or saint, as a devil or deified, as repelling or compelling, etc. and struggle to see how there are aspects of who we are that do not neatly fit into the primary identity and narrative we wish to hold about ourselves.

But for Paul, sanctification entails the recognition of the flesh so that one can fight the deeds of the flesh, so that one participates in the narrative of life of the Spirit. There is an identification and acceptance of existence of certain powers within ourselves and that there is a spiritual war to fight with it to move towards the other power within our self that is calling us in a different direction. In this war, obedience is construed as the power of the Spirit, disobedience is construed to the power of the flesh. We can recognize the multiple realities of who we are, instead of feeling the need to deny and rationalize away anything that suggests the prevailing self-narrative and identity isn’t entirely true.

Furthermore, the ideological-like stranglehold of ourselves in terms of a singular, coherent identity and narrative makes obedience and disobedience about defining that whole person rather than defining  different aspects of who we are. As such, either successes or failures, either righteousness or sin are prone to be taken as reflective of the whole of the person, with the other valence being rejected, particular the more emotionally intense the judgment about one’s actions is. We obey not in order to live according to and relate with a power that influences us, but in order to maintain our inflexible identity.

So, the end result is that we in the West are prone to obey to maintain self-perception and our identity rather than to be formed by and in relation to the significant powers in our life. We are prone to deny any aspect of ourselves that doesn’t fit within our prevailing narratives. This isn’t destiny being in the West, as it is possible for our sense of identity to be more complex, but it does present two barriers to the nature of sanctification: recognition of sin as contained in repentance and obedience as part of a loving relationship in response to God and His power. Religion becomes more about identity maintenance rather than personal transformation where one power is lessened whereas we experience a great impact from the other power. But it is this movement from flesh to Spirit, from the power of sin to the enslavement to righteousness, that defines the Christian journey of sanctification. This means, therefore, that to help people along the journey of sanctification, it will entail identifying and recognizing the different powers that pervade us as persons, that influence us in different directions to make us live differently in different circumstances.

Is Genesis 2 history?

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September 14, 2018

If you are even remotely familiar with the debate over Genesis, creation, evolution, and history, you are probably familiar with the various ways and people interpret Genesis as to how it does or does not fit within the prevailing Neo-Darwinism’s theory of evolution. While I hope to give more food for thought on the topic as it pertains the purpose of Genesis 2,1 my hope here is not the recapitulate all the different interpretive theories and options from the past. Firstly, it would make this blog post too long. Secondly, it has been a while since I have read on the topic, so it would take too long to research this for what is simply a blog post. But, my hope instead is to shed light on a specific exploration I have regarding the intersection of hermeneutics, literature, theology, epistemology, and Biblical studies. For those who are strongly committed to certain interpretations, especially Genesis is literal history, or Genesis is a spiritual allegory, or Genesis is myth with no truth-value, you will probably find such explorations wrong, absurd, irrational, unfaithful, etc. For the rest, however, who explore the question without fear of it entirely disturbing your view of the Bible, whether you share with me deep respect for the inspiration of the Scripture, or you simply value the Bible at literature, or you see the Bible as an ancient rhetoric of lies, my hope is the following observations are to help you to listen anew and afresh, to see what has perhaps been missed for a while. Hence, aside from one place, I don’t intend to reference scholars on the topic, but simply get you to focus on thinking through possibilities to consider it afresh, to perhaps challenge certain hermeneutical assumptions we assumingly make.

So, should we understand Genesis 2 as historical?

In exploring the question, I would like to point out to a very common observation and explore its signifiance: that there are two creation narratives in Genesis, and they do not nicely and neatly fit into each other. Some attempt to harmonize the two texts to make them fit some coherent history, whereas others call them contradictory. But the question of whether they are cosistent or contradictory is, I believe, a fundamentally mistaken question from the start. It assumes the point of narratives are to give a linear, consistent account of the events, by which we can then judge their reliability by whether they successfully accomplish that goal or not.

While certainly, narratives need to have some degree of consistency to even be coherent to others, there is difference between using consistency as a rule for all narratives versus allowing there may be points of surface level inconsistency in order to foster deeper thinking on a topic. In other words, it is permissible that narratives may employ both consistency and inconsistency to accomplish its communicative purposes. Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative recognizes this function of inconsistency in the narrative:

[A]n essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology… Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision—both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again—continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.2

While I would not draw all the conclusions that Alter may about Biblical narratives, I do think it is important to recognize that whereas we as modern thinkers who value clarity and consistency, to make the process of transmitting knowledge easier, quicker, and more reliable, inconsistency in a narrative is a permissible discursive technique in many other cultures. Inconsistency can transmit meaning by challenging people to read closer and deeper, to pay more attention, and to be engaging in thoughtful reflection on what is being said.

Consider, for instance, the story of the Golden Calf: God’s first response to the idolatry is to destroy Israel, but through the intercession of Moses, God’s anger relents, eventually culminating in a confession about God’s nature that includes God being slow to anger. This seems to be the opposite of the case if you were paying attention to the narrative, but the dissonance at the surface level of reading can encourage people to pay closer attention. I think it encourages people to recognize that what Israel did was somehow a very, deep, deep blow to the relationship with God and His purposes for them. Or, consider Proverbs 26:4-5, giving a surface level dissonance between answering a fool and not answering a fool. Their immediate placement together is no doubt a purposeful technique to encourage a deeper engagement and consideration that will enlighten person to complexities with dealing with people who are obviously off their rocket, which I suggest teaches that you have to consider in the circumstantial appropriateness of action depending on whether you should remain silent and accept the fool make you look foolish to others or to respond to them and accept that their arrogance will grow. I would suggest the possibility for the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: they are intended to create some dissonance in the initial reading.

But if this is the case then it means that the Genesis 2 can not be considered historical in the same way that Genesis 1 is considered historical. When there are intentional inconsistencies, whether it be through paradoxes, narrative dissonance, etc., the resolution of the inconsistencies is to assign different forms of meaning to the two contradictory parts. For instance, the tension that Christians experience when we talk about God being one yet also three amounts to the recognition that the one-ness of God and the three-ness of God are referring to different meanings about God’s nature: God is not one and three in the same way. Similarly for Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Another consideration to make when we are engaging in interpretation over the course of time. What we read first impacts how we interpret what occurs later. In other words, if I am interpreting a passage of text, I will naturally assign meaning to what I first read in sequential order and then the meaning I assign to that will impact what meaning I assign to what follows. Therefore, if there is a conflict between what we first read and what follows that necessitates a changing of our interpretation there is an unconscious bias to treat our interpretations of what we read at the beginning to be right and to instead change our interpretation of what follows, all other things being equal.3 If that is the case, then we should consider how Genesis 1 is intended to mean and then recognize that Genesis does NOT convey meaning the same way Genesis 1 does.

So let’s take a step back and consider what attitude the original compilers who brought Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 together and the audience would have had.4 While we can not be sure when that happened, as we simply do not have the historical data to draw confident conclusions, there is one probable data point that is significant. Genesis 1 is such a dramatically different creation narrative from many of the other creation narratives during the time period it would have been written and/or appropriated; rather than musing on the conflicts within the realm of God/the gods, the center of action takes place on the earth and only with the creation of humanity is there any real discussion of what is happening in the heavenly realms in the 1st person plural speech in “Let us make…”

So, if we can understanding Genesis 1 in light, it is an intentional attempt to relate how God and His power relates to the work that we as humans works and operate within: God made things with a specific order, with certain functions that relate to God’s purposes as being God’s image bearers. By contrast, Genesis 2 focuses the center of action on what God is doing with Adam.

Allow me to suggest from these data point what the inconsistency is trying to do: it invites people to consider the nature5 of humanity as it relates to the created order, but it is not suggesting that the story of creating Adam is simply continuing the same story of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 looks as the functions God assigns to creation as a whole, whereas Genesis 2 looks more at humanity’s relationship within the created order as God initially assigned them.

It is more like the relationship between chemistry and the inner physics of the atom: the two ways of understanding the physical world are obviously related in our minds, but they can only be expressed with different logics as the relationship between specific atoms does not exhibit the same patterns as what happens between protons, electronics, neutrons, and the four fundamental forces that keep the atom together. Now, while science attempts to create abstracted narratives (AKA paradigms) we call theories that can further unify these more basic level theories, we have no such attempt in Genesis 1-2. We who are attuned to obvious dissonance at the surface level as a marker for deeper thinking are encouraged to read the two together, but we can’t simply jump to creating some narrative behind the narratives, that is a meta-narrative, that aligns the together. This is the prevailing mistake of premature harmonization. We should instead consider how the inconsistency encourages us to read the narratives of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 to then make the connections between the narratives.

 Now, allow me to make a point that I think can be inferred from the creation focus of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is intended to relate to our sense of how the world operates as we as humans experience its order, connecting it to God’s own action and intentions: therefore, it is intended to address at some level what we consider history, although it isn’t intended to be historical in the way we want history to be told. If that is the case, then Genesis 2 can be argued to relate to what we call history also because it is in relationship to Genesis 1, but it doesn’t address history in the same way that Genesis 1 addresses history.

So allow me to draw this conclusion: Genesis 2 relates to history, but how it speaks to what we call history is not as readily clear. But allow me to make a suggestion that I will not try to prove here beyond brief considerations: Genesis 2 is a narrative that expresses God’s purposes for humanity. As such, it is more typological in expressing God’s ideal purposes for humanity; this then contrasts with Genesis 2, which is a compression of human activity, encoding in the story of Adam and Eve the all-too-repetitive human cycles that alienate us from God and each other. Genesis 2, along with Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 do relate to history in such a way that it bears truth value. But it is a history of the otherwise hidden and veiled: Genesis 2 relates to God’s purposes as it impacted/impacts human life, whereas Genesis 3 then relates to the otherwise hidden impacts of repetition of human action towards the “knowledge of good and evil” over and against God’s provision in the “tree of life.” The repeated cycle of human action consistently works against God’s purposes set out in Genesis 2.

This is to be contrasted with an allegorical reading, which has a tendency to try to find some hidden, symbolic significance in some other domain of knowledge (such as spirituality, psychology, etc.) than what is expressed in the surface level of the narrative. I am not proposing allegory, but explicitly rejecting it. Rather, I am saying the narrative speaks to the concrete realities of human life at a specific period of time in the world that God has created.

But allow me to clarify the nature of this: in saying that Genesis 2 is typological history, and then Genesis 3 as compressed history, it is not intended to be a universal statement about ALL humanity through all periods of time in history. It is intended to be chronological, suggesting there was some point in the past where God’s purposes were being realizing amongst the first humans and then in Genesis 3, these humans began to repeatedly work against the purposes God has against them. Adam (and Eve) are an expression God’s work and relationship among the first humans, and thus human actions acted in such a way to erode this initial arrangement but eventually lead to a world filled with violence and sexual disorder. Genesis 2, in this light, then expresses the original purposes and intentions of humanity as a whole, and not just with a specific individual person Adam, that relates to God’s original creation intentions in Genesis 1, but Genesis 3 shows how human action (with the help of another agent within creation, the serpent) worked against these intentions. That this is the purpose is revealed by how the ending of the overarching pre-patriarchal narrative concludes with the Tower of Babel, where people were huddling together to build a tower to reach the heavens rather than filling and subduing the earth and God once again speaks in the first person plural speech, revealing a glimpse into the heavenly plans, to frustrate these plans by confusing language. The intention of the narrative is primarily to speak about God’s action in relationship to human action; it is not primarily intended (or intended at all) as a history of singular, momentous events that we normally are accustomed to.

So, my conclusion is this: if we are careful to be attuned to the surface-level dissonances between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, we don’t try to create a flat narrative that treat Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 the same, while also recognizing the narratives are to be related together in their discussion of the world in which we live and operate as God formed it to be. So, Genesis 2 is intended to address what we consider to be history. But we need not think this as of the history of the momentous, singular events that change the course of history all by themselves, but rather a history of God’s purposeful action that sets up the succeeding narrative that outlines human resistance to this purpose.

To give a modern analogy, it could be closer to sociological history, where we recover the history of specific people’s and the way their life operated, but with three distinctions: 1) Whereas sociolological history relies upon science and other disciples of knowledge that have rigorous methods (such as archaeology and anthropology) that rely upon verification of visible, empirical data, Genesis recognizes the invisible God (at least from the perspective of the compilers of the Pentateuch) plays a role in human history. 2) Whereas sociological history would tend to expressive the values of the cultures they seek to represent, Genesis speaks more so about actions, only occasionally describing internal dialogue (such as Eve before eating the tree). 3) Whereas sociological history tends towards a more literal, technical discourse about life/history, Genesis engages in more symbolic discourse where a single couple represents a whole host of people to convey information about life/history.

Genesis 2 is history, but I would contend we need to readjust our expectations of what type of history it is talking about and how it conveys meaning about that history.

Christian. Why are you motivated to learn?

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September 13, 2018

Learning is the lifeblood of human networks. Because we live in a world that is constantly changing, even if these changes sometimes occur in repetitive patterns, in order for any group of people, whether it be a single person relating to themselves, a married couple, a church, a business, a seminary, or a nation, if you aren’t learning, then your adaptability to your circumstances is being hindered.

Sometimes what we learn is something as concrete as figuring out how much money is in your bank account before you make a big purchase (I just purchased a new Amazon Kindle before writing this); it can be as abstract maybe it is learning some previously undiscovered principle of economics; it can be as personal as learning what one spouse feels after a hard day at work; it can be as objective as discovering why the lawnmower isn’t working. Each of these forms of learning have different scopes of impacts, as the specific number in my bank account is not relevant to my life this moment as it is 10 years, whereas the economic theory may have an insightful impact centuries later. But don’t let the different scopes of learning fool you, even though learning that has big, large scopes will be more likely to garner you praise, learning about the little things, and doing that day-in day-out, may not get the level of praise, but it is how you move towards effectiveness. In fact, learning of wider scope ideas can only really be effective in life when it is joined to learning about the smaller things, so you can figure out how to use the big ideas in situations that are perceived to be small. Knowing a theory of counseling won’t make me effective at pastoral counseling if I am not also learning to hear what is specifically going on in the person sitting across from me.

I mention the scope of learning because one of the big motivations for learning is connected to the scope of impact. The more wide ranging the impact of certain ideas, the more these ideas will garner social praise and approval. Those who break new ground are provided awards of distinction. Students are graded on their ability to know and even master these big ideas. People are wowed at presenters who can present big ideas in clear, powerful ways.

But it isn’t just the scope of the ideas, but also the novelty of the ideas. There are ideas that are big and important for life, such as eating is important to survival, but I doubt you will be able to turn that into a captivating TED talk. It is the novel ideas that is not obvious to everyone and that not just anyone could have found that will get people social commendation.

Beyond that, there is the power that ideas have as representing who we are as people. When we evaluate people and their value and importance, we often times assess them based upon how they conform to certain big, important ideas, such as Supreme Court justices enduring scrutiny on their view on the big idea of abortion, ministerial candidates expressing their views on the Holy Trinity, or in political discussions where one expresses allegiance to captialist vs. socialist economic ideas. Expressing the big ideas that your audience supports will receive commendation, expressing what they reject will garner reprobation.

Our formal systems of learning are biased and predisposed to the big ideas, and one of the big ideas for discovering and accepting these ideas is the social motivation. And as effective as social praise can be in getting people to learn, there are a few significant dark side of this otherwise powerful motivation.

Firstly, as is commonly mentioned, it reduces learning to getting the right answer. It can restrict creativity and the ability to explore afresh with new eyes. While there are a few people who break through the criticism and do find big ideas than may then garner praise, this is more likely to stem from people who have a strength to resist and also a more innate love of learning. However, the solution here isn’t to stop the process of social approval, because free thinking without any anchoring point to start from does not itself beget creative learning that is useful for other people; it becomes expression of individuality that is less likely to be deeply meaningful for other individuals. The social motivation of learning being based upon getting the right answer is unavoidable, but the problem comes when this is the primary motivation.

Why is social approval so dangerous to learning? Because it circumvents the most essential part of learning. Learning occurs when we discover something new that we didn’t know. Sometimes we are ignorant and discover something new, and we see to discover what this new thing is. Sometimes we have wrong information, and we become surprised by this new thing. Sometimes, we have an otherwise good idea, but it didn’t really apply in a specific instance, so we explore why it is this good idea wasn’t so good this time around. All of this learning entails recognizing that one is not right, whether due to ignorance or error, and being will to spend the time to pay attention to figure out why one was in error.

By contrast, social approval praises getting it right; there is nothing immediately useful to a brokerage firm about a person who is ignorant of how corporate finance works; there is nothing immediately useful, and may even be dangerous, if a person believes some false myth about the connection between vaccinations and autism; there is nothing immediately useful about a doctor who wrongly diagnoses their patient, even if the diagnoses matches all the symptoms. Praise comes when you have the knowledge for the job, approval when you express what is (believe to be) right, and positive outcomes when you know which knowledge is appropriate for the circumstance.

In other words, whereas social approval is biased towards favoring getting it right, the cognitive ability to learn entails the ability and willingness to recognize when one does not have it right. If these are properly balancing, it can actually foster brilliance that is useful for other people, as the learner discovers not only for their own sake through the feedback from others they adapt what they learn and pay attention to things that benefit others.

However, the problem is the balance has become greatly out of whack. This dynamic would generally be manageable if learning was simply a matter of being able to be effective for whatever jobs or tasks you are to participate in. But, far beyond learning being valued for the specific outcomes, learning is valued as a matter of social status. We learn because our society values smart people because of the value smart people can have. Increasingly and increasingly, our Western society and economy that is built more and more upon the manipulation of cognitive information, rather than the manipulation of physical resources, has begin to bequeath status more and more to people who are the cognitive elite, whether we represent it by IQ, creativity, GPA, degrees, awards, or any other measures. Society is increasingly developing a status for being able to appear as one of the cognitive elite.

What is the net effect of this: people are more and more tempted to try to pursue the appearances of being smart. People feel more and more pressure when they don’t feel like they have the intellectual capacity to learn. It is why there is an epidemic of imposter syndrome among universities. It is why people can get so stressed in academic settings these days. It isn’t that centers of learning are perpetuating this: it is the societal pressure that being amongst the cognitive elite is one of the most important factors for your improvement of life status.

This is not to mention the pressure on learning the right things to belong. An ignorant person may not have high status, but if they at least provide the seminal understanding of the “right” ideas of the communities they are networked to, they can at least have a secure place to belong.  But learning is risky if you are a smart person, because it can have you to stumble upon something that not only are a lot of other people wrong about, but it challenges some ideas that have taken on fundamental value. But even less dramatic as learning leading to the development of opinions that are not shared by the majority of a community can threaten the status one has within that community.

AS a consequence, there is an intensification of pressure to get it right creates, beyond simply the emotional problems it can cause, also hinders the way we learn. If we think learning doesn’t occur unless we get it right and if we only feel a reward when we are praised, then we will experience pain when we get the feedback that we were wrong or unaware. It is this feedback that is necessary for learning to occur and it is this that our hearts are trained to resist as a bad outcome. 

Beyond the resistance to learning, because these process of social approval are so connected to the big ideas, there is a proportional underemphasis, if not devaluation, of learning that doesn’t have a big scope or an immediate impact. We value learning about ideas, and so we overlook the value of the practical aspects of life as it is actually lived, day to day, with people. Listening and learning about what is continuously changing so it’s impact is deeply limited, such as the feelings of another person; insofar as we can, we try to employ a combination of statisticians and technology to take care of this type of learning, giving an appearance of paying attention and learning but of de-contextualized learning, that doesn’t pay attention to significance of the fact at a specific point of time. Thus, our learning becomes more about knowing than interpreting, mastery rather than coming to comprehend, paying attention to what everyone thinks is important rather than paying attention to what is important for this moment.

In other words, in our Western society built around the manipulation of information, we have a predilection towards valuing the big and extraordinary at the cost of the small and ordinary, overvaluing the cognitive elite and undervaluing the cognitively normal, if not even below average. Western society and learning is influenced by a big cognitive bubble. The rising demand for college learning that has lead to increasing costs in the United States is one symptom of this. The use of increasingly abstract ideas and discourses from the intellectual elites that few can fully understand, but that they nevertheless use to persuade others of their views because of the near-mythical status and power ascribed to intellectual learning and appearance of expertise, is another symptom. Western society is living in a big bubble of learning; social bubbles happen when social systems artificially inflate the value of some action or status so that aggregate behaviors do not produce the necessary impacts to maintain the artificially inflated views; in other words, societies place more value on some behavior than it actually provides.

The source of the tension for the cognitive, social bubble is how people are motivated by the wrong things in learning combined with the greater and greater expectations for the future in what may happen due to our learning. Will the bubble burst or will it eventually just go down? It remains to be seen what the future for it will be.

But the solution rests in two concepts that we can find resonance within in the Christian tradition: repentance and love. Repentance entails recognizing the wrongness of what one has done, not by bathing oneself in a pool of shame for hours a day, but a recognition that one didn’t get it right so that there is another direction to orient oneself. Likewise with learning, being will to repent of one’s cognitive errors, not because this devalues you as a person but because it provides you the opportunity to do some real learning by redirecting your mind.

Secondly, love has us paying attention to God and to others. The actions of God and the life of people are not unchanging, inflexible realities. What God is doing isn’t always what everyone else thinks is important and wise. What is happening in people’s lives may not always seem significant in the context of the big, grand narratives that society tells us. But these are people God values and loves. Thus, true, a Biblically attuned type of love attunes us to the disclosures from focuses of our love, disregarding the forms of the positive recognition and status that are imposed on what the nature of this learning and attention should be from the outside, and can even call this type of recognition under the name of “love,” a word that is vague out of context, exploiting the ambiguity (much as experts exploit the ambiguity of their abstractions of learning) of the Bible when taken out of context of the rest of Scripture and out of context of God’s agents speaking by the Spirit, to justify the views.

And what joins repentance to love? Faith. Faith in the power of God that God is doing something even as we can not see it; trust that there is something radically new and novel in the future, whether it be in our lifetimes or not, that when joined to our recognition of error allows us to receive when it comes, however it comes, big or small, extraordinary or ordinary, powerful or weak. Likewise, learning operates similarily, that as our recognition of status of not knowing in joined to a trusting and hopeful expectation that something new will come that brings insight, we can move forward.

But so you know, I do not connect repentance, faith, and love as it pertains our life before God to our own effort to learn to justify me telling you the process of learning, so that I can appear to have some legitimation of my own apparent expertise in this stemming from using the Bible. God’s Word is not a manual on learning. Rather, I point to the analogies so that in learning how to learn, you can also come to see how the similarities between learning and being ambassadorial agents of God’s work of reconciliation by the Holy Spirit. And then, by becoming agents of God’s Spirit, we also become wrapped up afresh in the process of learning, but this learning becomes directed for the purposes and goals of God and His love.

Temporalizing Total Depravity – The flesh’s inability to reach God’s purposes

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September 13, 2018

While the doctrine of predestination if often taken to be the central, most important doctrine of Calvinism, I would suggest the ultimate heart of Calvinism, which was transmitted to Wesleyan theology, is the doctrine of Total Depravity. Whether Wesleyan or Calvin, how one views human nature commonly is the intellectual starting point and ending point for how one’s theological views in between will be shaped and formed; that is, if your theological views a) value consistency and b) take a view on human nature to be foundational for deriving other views.

While I am not recommending that human nature should be treated as a foundational theological doctrine that determines the nature of other doctrines, nevertheless it is a reality as to how we as anthropocentric humans actually think, barring some dramatic, crisis event that forces us to radically break out of our egocentricity, even if it is just for a moment that can not be sustained. This reality shows itself in how much of the theological conflicts between evangelical and progressive theology unconsciously are conflicts around what it means to be human, both descriptively and prescriptively. Take the conflict over sexuality for instance; rarely do disagreements about people’s sexuality ever take the form of a sustained analysis and understanding about some other form of knowledge, either in the sciences such as neurology, the more basic components of biology, cognition, or from theology-proper in talking about God Himself. Certainly, we tend to find references made to God or to science to legitimate one’s views, but the debate over sexuality defaults to and eventually returns back to a view of what it means to be human.

Similarly but outside of a specifically religious debate, we saw this play out in the previous generations debate on race, thinking that different races, based upon what can be ultimately amounted to either a) superficial features, b) environmental adaptions and/or c) cultural differences, reflecting different stages of development in human evolution or progress that was encoded in their intrinsic nature through their genes. Black and white people were seen to more different genetically than the same, overvaluing the differences and diminishing the similarities. At the care was a question of what it was to be human, and in this world that had just discovered the power of the gene, they began to project their own understanding of what it meant to be human onto this “scientific” idea. But at the end of the day, the center of the debate was about people’s working definitions of being human that people appealed to science to either verify or reject.

Throughout human history, the definition and understanding of a human comes under stark challenges. At the core, there is a universal principle that groups of people develop categories for and understanding about organisms like themselves, which we have in words like human, person, individual1, etc. . While there is a general prototype that all cultures will share that our words will share in common, they are not all exact equivalents in the various nuances; even within our own language, the various synonyms to “human” are not exact equivalents. Therefore, as a consequence, how these nuances build from this basic prototype differs. A primary source comes with groups of people interact with other groups of people; as a consequence of many repeated encounters with other people, the alterations that make from the common prototype will be caused by there interactions with other people. Thus, when human networks change dramatically, as occurs in periods of intensifying regionalization and  globalization, the definitions of what it means to be human gets challenged and shifted.

One feature of being human, which is relevant for the rest of my argument, is the aspect of temporality. We can construe being human in terms of temporality, such as going from birth, maturing into adulthood, developing in knowledge and wisdom into older age, and then passing away. We can also construe being human in atemporal ways, such as defining being human based upon certain biological, physiological, and cognitive capacities such as thinking, feeling, desiring, loving, hating, etc. While we can usually be flexible in construing humanity in temporal or atemporal terms in different circumstances, all people have a predilection to favor one sort posture to another such that two people may in the exact same situation and context other employ the different construals of being human.

So, for instance, when talking about humanity and sin, one person may construe it atemporally, thinking that being human is to sin, and thus because of this atemporal construal, draw the conclusion that human nature is evil. However, I, on the other hand, may construe of human nature more temporally, recognizing that humans over the course of time commit sin, construing sin a temporal event. I don’t define human nature of evil, but recognizing that over the course of time, human nature will commit evil.

The nature of temporality and atemporality impacts the discussion of Original Sin and then the doctrine of Total Depravity. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin suggested that due to Adam’s sin, there was a hereditary transmission of sin to his descendants. This doctrine construes humanity in atemporal terms, not considering how Adam’s sin temporally lead to the consequences it did through the alteration of (theological) history of God’s relationship to creation, but rather that something within human nature itself was change. Temporality is only used to construe the event of sin, but not the definition of what it meant to be a human as a consequence of this event.

This pattern of construing the impact of original sin in its atemporal effects of humanity gets transmitted to Calvin, who suggests that Adam’s sin destroyed the whole order of nature and “deteriorated” humans.2 At stake is the reality of being human has been fundamentally altered permanently. As a consequence, built throughout the Reformed tradition and even the Wesleyan tradition is the notion of transformation of nature through some act of God that gives us a nature or capacity that we did not otherwise have, such as the capacity to have faith in God or the capacity of free will. God’s grace is a re-naturing action, changing the experience of being human by changing humanity in and of itself through a specific event that creates a stark discontinuity with the past. The nature of a human and the nature of a human who is a Christian are not just starkly different in terms of their own experiences, but that there is something fundamentally different in their nature and capacities as they are conceived of atemporally.

But within the wider Christian tradition, this view of original sin is not universal. Eastern Orthodoxy rejected this view of sin expressed in Augustine that influenced Calvin. Instead, they appeal to the Devil as the source of the problem as the one in the garden (which the Western Christianity can do also), which I would say is also closer to the apocalyptic worldview in appeal to powers outside of people themselves that influenced the New Testament although it doesn’t, in my opinion, precisely get to how the New Testament employs apocalyptic discourse and concepts. Then, they suggest an environmental change that lead to the problems of sin. I myself share some affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, but I have some reservations. In assigning the problem due to the environment, they are still suggesting there is some temporal event of change to nature, construed in an atemporal way.

However, what if the problem of Adam’s sin and what Paul refers to as the flesh isn’t a problem of human nature, per se, but rather Adam’s sin was an event that put in motion a series of historical events, most notably the separation of Adam and Eve from the presence of God and His provision of the tree of life, than they lead to conseqeuences down the road. What if being human entails sinning not because humans by nature sin, but humans separated from God’s presence and provision sin? What if sin is a product of the experience of being away from God’s presence and provision over the course of time rather than simply being something that is about human nature?

I think the problem stems from misunderstanding how Paul thinks about flesh/σαρξ. Augustine’s NeoPlatonism pedagogically taught him to look for fixed, atemporal ideas/natures and this became transmitted throughout Western Christianity. But I don’t think for Paul, the problem of flesh is that the flesh is sinful, but rather, throughout the course of the experience of the flesh, sin will emerge.

When you read his account of the Torah commandment and sin in Romans 7:7-13, Paul speaks temporally, see a an event of receiving knowledge from the Torah leading to the event of emergence of sin. Then, in 7:14-25, Paul construes the battle with sin as an ongoing war that is taking him captive; the present tense focuses not on an atemporal human nature but rather the struggle that exists within the person seeking to obey Torah while finding their body doesn’t do what their mind ultimately wishes. Paul’s ultimate explanation for this reality isn’t that the flesh is sinful by human nature, but rather that sin has taken residence in and colonized his flesh so that it obeys its dictates. Paul’s metaphor of war and power used to construe the struggle of human nature to obey God entails a temporal, not an atemporal, view of human experience to take the metaphor seriously as it is being used in describing the phenomenological experience. Paul is not construing the flesh in terms of a human nature that is just corrupt by nature, but rather it is experiencing the persistent, temporal control of other, external forces.

Furthermore, this metaphor of war is related to the imperial metaphors in Romans 5, where the effects of Adam’s sin and Christ’s faithfulness is construed of in terms of different political reign. Adam’s sin creates one political reign of sin and death and Christ’s faithfulness inaugurates another, competing reign of righteousness and life, of which both reigns influence all of humanity. Connecting the warfare metaphor of Romans 7 to the imperial metaphor of Romans 5, we can imagine that Paul’s sense of human experience is conceived of in a temporal manner that relates to history and the change that occurs through the course of history, rather than an atemporal manner that relates more to nature. Romans 7 describes the nature of this power as cemented prior to the rescue of Jesus Christ described in Romans 5, whereas Romans 8 describes the nature of the struggle between these two forces, but no longer using the warfare metaphor.

Simply put, the flow of Paul’s argument from Romans 5-8 entails a view of temporality, allowing for change and shift to occur through the course of time. As such, the problem isn’t some atemporal human nature, but the colonizing powers that bind human nature away from God. While there are aspects of the human person that can mentally dissent from these colonizing powers, their resistance is for naught, as because in Paul’s account, they find the body has a life of its own distinct from the thoughts of the mind, which most of us can find true from time to time. We could talk about this alternative today as the difference between heart and mind, because we have had a predilection in the West to conceptually decouple our own experience from the body rather than to see them connected, but the effect of it is essentially the same, one thinking powers experiences a dramatic challenge and defeat by other forces operating within ourselves as persons.

If all this is the case, then it offers a different explanation for what Paul ultimately says about the flesh in 8:7-8: “For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (NRSV) The thoughts of the flesh are different from the thoughts of the Spirit (vss. 5-6), thereby recognizing that human experience that is constrained to the realities of the flesh can not and will not be able to resist the thoughts, wishes, and intentions of the powers of sin that have colonized the flesh, but God Himself must draw near and come to dwell and seek to colonize the person to resist the colonizing dwelling of sin and death through the presence of His Spirit. The course of a person’s life in living by the flesh will only be in submission to the overwhelming dictates of human life that has been influenced and formed by the distance from God’s presence over the course of time, a distance which Adam’s action initiated allowing the powers of sin and death to enter in and colonize.

Put more simply, one is formed by one’s experience. To be formed by the control of the flesh makes us people who do not have a formative submission to God’s Instruction/Torah, even if we can have an intellectual assent and agreement to it. The course of human life directed by the powers of the flesh is not towards God, but towards some other, conflicting destination. Consequently, one’s life never reaches to a point where one actions are what pleases God’s.

The temporal nature of this experience of spiritual bondage provides the undergirding logic for Paul’s explanation in 8:5-6 and his instruction in 8:12-13. The warfare/ metaphor pops its head up through the metaphor of violence/killing in the charge to “put to death the deeds of the flesh,” connecting the Christian experience of flesh in the midst of the dwelling Spirit to the metaphorical warfare described in chapter 7. By achieving domination of the various instances of control by the colonial powers of sin and death, one will free oneself from the future destiny of the reign of sin, death, and experience the opposite, life.

Paul’s constural here entails no atemporal definition of humanity as sinners, or inherently unable to respond to God in any and all fashions, as is commonly detailed in classical doctrines of total depravity. Rather, the simply problem is that whatever capacities that exist in the person to move towards God’s will, they are always thwarted and cut off before they can amount to anything, as the colonial power of sin has control. In this schema, people can be said to have some, very, very, VERY minimal sense of freedom that can be directed towards the will of God as God’s makes known in the Torah, but it will not amount to anything. Temporalizing total depravity entails recognition that our future apart from God’s gracious presence and power will never amount to anything that God is seeking and wanting. While the truths we may derive about human life and our definition of being human derived from human experience may have some value, may have some truth, may have some importance, nothing in all these things are an empowered force for good to bring us to God’s desire for humanity; the mind can recognize the good but has not power to bring it to its ultimate fruition.

The implications of this is the potential, partial repairing of a fracture between evangelical and progressive Christian sensibilities. Taking sexuality as a concrete, prototype case, evangelicals at a more extreme level would view same-sex sexual desire as itself sinful and evil by nature, whereas progressive views tend to emphasize that this sexual desire is good and should be cherished, if not even celebrated. Consequently, progressive theology places its focus on trying to celebrate this goodness, fighting against shaming nature that comes when we define our basic human desires as sin, evil, etc. Temporalizing flesh, and through that temporalizing ttotal depravity, would be to say the problem of human sexuality isn’t a problem of wrong desires or wrong sexual behaviors, but rather the fundamental recognition that nothing in human sexuality provides the basis for redemption and in fact a focus on human sexuality can actually hinder us from the good that God wants; this is true for all forms of sexual desire. But the problem isn’t, like Augustine, that these things are naturally evil or dirty which can lead to a lot of shame, but simply the recognition that these desires do not present a power to rightly direct and form us for God’s purposes and thus should not be valorized and celebrated as necessary or fixed. The problem isn’t our orientations, our identities, or even behaviors in and of themselves, but rather the temporal effects these things have to control us to be formed for purposes other than God’s purposes. Furthermore, while God’s purposes for human sexuality as for male and female, this ethical idea itself is of no real value in and of itself for forming us into the purposes God forms us for, because trying to maintain right sexual ethics in and of itself will do nothing for accomplish God’s purposes for our lives.

Hence, to bring this to my immediate context, this explains part of my own concern about the nature of the conflict of human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. The conflict has caused us as United Methodists to place the emphasis on the wrong place, and insofar as we construe our denomination in terms of stances on same-sex sexual intercourse and marriage, we are not spending our time fighting a battle against the deeds of the flesh but against the ideas of people. This isn’t simply a reformulation of the statement of the common cliche “this conflict is distracting us from the Gospel,” because my concern isn’t simply about denominational behaviors in how we spend our money and time, but rather how our denomination is pedagogically forming a way of thinking that does not actually participate in the type of thinking Paul calls for in the putting to death the deeds of the flesh. So much time is spent thinking about human nature and order, less time is spent over the course of time thinking about conflicts of the flesh and Spirit in our own experience of life.

While not an all-curing panacea, a more temporalized view of human nature emanating from Paul’s understanding of the phenomenological experience of the flesh and the Spirit can provide a) matter of thinking to break many of the intellectual stalemates centering about what it means to be human, specifically in our sexual desires, while b) redirecting the importance of the future of our denomination and the churches to how the people are engaged in the specific experiences of conflict between their flesh and the Spirit in their lives that attunes us more to the peace-making presence of God, rather than the more conflict-oriented motivations and powers that has caused people to repeatedly shame, psychologically harm, slander, attack, and ridicule LGBTQ persons and which also lead to the arrogance of activists to try to control retain control of evangelicals (or at least the property and finances of evangelicals) and shame people for holding to what the Scriptures are pretty clear about, despite the objections of lack of clearity coming from a level of hyper-critical skepticism that are selectively directed towards the text on sexuality but not on all other texts.

The arbitrariness of signs in (post-)structuralism

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September 12, 2018

Ferdinand Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, outlined a theory of how language functioned in his Course on General Linguistics, that centered around two principles around linguistics signs, which he defines as a relationship between a sound pattern and a concept.1 His first principle, the one that is well-known and is more intuitive to many of us today is the premise that the link between the sign and signification, that is the conceptual representation, is arbitrary. The link the sound we make when we pronounce “apple” (or the visual sensation of “apple”) and an actual apple has no real connection. It could just as easily be “mifflesnip,” except social conventions of the language have chosen one set of symbols/sounds.

One major consequence of this is that the meaning of language is determined by the society which teaches us what our language means. Because society teaches us how to language, both the grammar and the specific words, in relationship to other parts of grammar and words, Saussure’s linguistic principle undergirds the formation of structuralism, which believed that meaning of words comes from the relationship ot other words that it is used together with. The word chair has meaning in relationship to table, which has meaning in relationship to dining room, etc. etc. But underlying structuralism was one basic belief: that the meaning of the words were fixed, but you simply had to understand them in relationship to each other. In other words, one sign only has meaning in relationship to other signs.

Then, a critique came from post-structuralists and seriously challenged this notion. They accepted that words had meaning in relationship to other words, but that you could never really know where to fix meaning in the first place. “Table” and “chair” are used in relation to each other, but they really could be referring to anything; you can not really know the significance of the structure in the first place. Furthermore, they rejected the more common-sense notion of meaning that can know what it means from pure phenomenonal/sensory experience, such as my name “Owen” being heard when you see me, so that “Owen” derives meaning from the phenomenon of my appearance. Ultimately, in the end, post-structuralists suggest that the meaning of language is undefined because we can never know where it derives from.

But part of the problem of structuralism is to not recognize the shift in concepts due to usage over time from various sources. Of, more specifically, we can use words in various different contexts, sometimes join together with other words and sometimes by itself. When a mom points to a cow and says “cow” that is forming a neural connection for the meaning of cow in the child, just as when that child hears “the cow goes moo,” modifying the concept of “cow” to include a common noise they make. Over the course of time, the word “cow” will be used in more and more contexts that will expand the child’s knowledge, such as “hamburgers comes from cows.” As they grow, they may even learn a metaphorical usage of the word cow, such as Bart Simpson’s common phrase “don’t have a cow, man” or as a rude metaphor for an overweight female.

Throughout the course of time, their knowledge of cow is mediated by what they are paying attention to when they hear or think the word “cow.” If they are paying attention to speech, then the meaning of “cow” will be impacted by the other words it is being used with, assuming the child pays attentions to the words rather than something else. Or, if they grow up to be a farmer with cows, the meaning of “cow” will grow and modify as they become more familiar with all the biological functions of cows that they have to pay attention to in the course of their work. Ultimately, then, the meaning of language is determined by how our attention is directed with the usage or thinking of words.

What typically happens is due to the very basic social phenomenon of joint attention that is in effect for most people from childhood,2 we learn to pay attention to similar features in language usage. Furthermore, when there are errors in our language usage, others will commonly direct our attention to the error, thereby further modifying the cognitive schema for word usage. As a result, through the normal processes of shared attention, our neural networks are modified so that the cognitive meaning of the word alters over the course of time.

However, this process can happen outside of the context of shared attention. Some people, such as those who have conditions such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, sensory integration disorders, etc., may have their attention directed much more differently than the language users they interact with. Furthermore, there are people, like me, who are naturally interested in language, and spend a lot of time in their own minds about how words can be used. Whereas Wittgenstein makes the argument that language can only have public meaning, this is misleading; language as it is employed by individual people can have private meaning, but language usage can only be successful in transferring meaning insofar as the meanings are more or less shared due to some combination of similar experiences of word usage and directed attention,3 or the contexts we use the words to modify the meanings in the necessary manner (such as the most basic, ostensive act of pointing to something while uttering a word for it).

My point in this: it is ultimately to suggest the relationship between the sign and the signified is not purely arbitrary.

It IS arbitrary in the sense that there is perfectly possible and generally the case that the phenomenal experience of hearing sign and what we imagine when we think of the signified concept share nothing in common. If you were to hear the word “chair” and to think of a the physical entity of a chair, there is no common sensory/perceptual/imaginative aspects to them. Why? Because they come from two different sensory pathways, although there are two notable exceptions to this principle: 1) if a chair has the word “chair” written on it, both sign and signified come in through the same sensory pathway and 2) onomatopoeias, such as “moo” mimicking the cow that makes the noise. These exceptions aside, the arbitrariness of the sign is due to the different sensory pathways between the sign and signified. Because of this, we can imagine scenarios where “ludoscene” is used to refer to the same thing that “beauty” refers to. That is, from the perspective of Saussure langue, signs are indeed arbitrary.

However, the relationship between the sign and the signified is NOT arbitrary in the sense that in the course of our experiences, the sign and the signified are paired together. A word means what it means because it has been used to mean that way. Certainly, nothing in structuralism would reject this premise, but it is a fundamentally important premise to make about how language starts and the analytic implications we draw from it. From the perspective of parole, that is language as it is actually used, the relationship between the sign and signified is not arbitrary.

Signs are not arbitrary in phenomenological experience; that is, signs are not arbitrary from the perspective of the sign user. They are, however, arbitrary from a more abstract point of view, where we can imagine other scenarios where the word can be used in a very different manner. As such, the recognition of the arbitrariness of the sign from an abstract point of view has usefulness for understanding the various possibilities that language can take, but it can not express how language is actually experience. As such, structuralism is chained to an etic, outsider understanding of language; meanwhile, post-structuralism recognizes the more emic properties of how language is actually used that can undercut any sense of fixity that structuralism.

However, the problem of post-structuralism is that it’s critique ultimately comes an abstract manner also. By it’s own abstractions, such as Derrida’s abstraction about the indeterminability of signs, many of the theories of post-structuralism develop other abstract, etic views of language that doesn’t provide an insider look into language. So, just as structuralism provides a useful insight into how language can be used but doesn’t really tell us about meaning itself, so too is it the case of post-structuralism. Their theories abstract certain, salient features of language use and then systematize those abstractions

Meanwhile, this more psychological/phenomenological view of language retains an abstract, etic posture like structuralism and post-structuralism, but of a different nature. (Post-)Structuralism is built upon the abstraction that it is possible for there to be different links between sign and signified. While this is helpful for us to understand the diversity of possibilities such as between cultures, people, etc., it tells us little about the actual meaningfulness of language as it is actually used by people and formed into people.

To which I am bringing this to what might seem to be a surprising connection to theology. Insofar as our societies understanding how language and discourse functions has been influenced by (post-)structuralism, it has an inherent bias to codify, if not valorize, diversity over an against the value of meaningful unity. Far from simply being tools to help us to make sense of other people and their language usage, the currency of (post-)structuralism it has been embedded in various intellectual discourses, which then trickle-down to more average discourses has crafted certain expectations about language and discourse that dramatically alter how we understand theology and the church. Far from recognizing that language can be used differently within certain speech communities, it valorizes and legitimates a diversity of meaning within singular speech communities. Semantic variability is the norm, not the exception.

There is an important implication of this. When theological views change and shift, they frequently undergo a shift in meaning. But usually, this change of meaning is unbeknownst to the wider speech community, but it occurs within a smaller, sub-culture. This type of semantic change is commonly exhibited in prophetic discourse, hence its affinities for more poetic usage of language that challenge language conventions, and then in the new community of God developed around crisis events of the crucified and resurrected Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The possibility of linguistic variability and transformation is the basis upon which the people of God experience changes to the powers and ideologies of the present age, including challenges to the linguistic ideologies.

However, because of the valorization and normalization of linguistic variability and diversity WITHIN speech communities (such, as the United Methodist Church), not simply a recognition of it across speech communities or an allowance for the formation of new speech communities, the prophetic and crisis events have become divested of any true meaning and significance. That which looks prophetic on the surface has been divested of any significance, but itself has become part of the ideology it purportedly seeks to undermine. The significance people make of the cross and the Spirit has largely been reduced to diverse experiences of what we wish for it to mean, rather than it being a challenge to the very structures of meaning and calling us into a new community that is defined by accepting this challenge and critique of these structures, including the linguistic structures. Consequently, the communities of God’s people have little shared heritage, little shared ground, by which they can speak with one, or at least a similar voice, to challenge the ideologies of the age, but the cacophony of voices in communities amidst the diversity birthed by (post-)structuralism prevents challenge the ideologies of the age, but simply retaining them.

But, before one hears this as a rejection of diversity outright, as if the goal is the return to some known, singular pattern for churches, society, etc. it isn’t this. The critique isn’t against the diversity of language and others forms itself, but rather against the way that individual instances are themselves ensured protection from challenge and change. Rather than having one singular ideology, there are many smaller ideologies that have been immunized from challenge and change. Empires beget ideologies by the opposition of challenge, and in this modern case, empires beget ideologies by the formalization and protection of discourses from change. There is much value to this when empires have a plurality they must manage and watch over peacefully; there is no inherent reason the Church should fight the premise of diversity within our socio-political world. But for the Church to act prophetically and challenge, and even for the Church itself to recognize a prophetic challenge to itself, it must resist a view of language that empties the prophetic and divests the crisis of anything unique and substantive, but merely as one instance of diversity to be considered as normatively equivalent to any other instance.

Furthermore, this is not an argument for a unique speech community among Christians that only insiders can even begin to comprehend. We can use words in a manner that bears a family resemblance to the way words are used outside of the Church, but as people grow and learn within Christian communities, they themselves learn the nuances of language used within the community. Put differently, our language is “in the world, but it isn’t of the world.”

In summary, (post-)structuralism can describe the possibilities for different discourses and meanings, including even the prophetic and crisis language of Israel and the Church, but its bias towards recognizing diversity and tendency to miss the meangingfulness, if not even the necessity, of actual speech and discourse need not be valorized or accepted by the Christian communities as normative. It is what it is, useful in some manner, but not to be unthinkingly accepted as an ideology that will stifle the Church’s witness. Put more simply, the more descriptiveness of (post-)structuralism need not be transformed into the prescription of the Church. Signs and their meanings are not arbitrary for the Church, even if it is possible that the signs could have been different.