Poem: Mixed up

April 18, 2021

You say no more
Nothing was there
But hard to ignore
Of what I am aware

An untruth I suspect
But my will bound
Your word, your affect
This I believe sound

Mea culpa perchance
Maybe I was to blame
Yet struck with a lance
My trust becomes lames

Move on you say
Another I have found
Because love is my way
My heart begins to pound

What the future brings
I can not forsee
Will it end in a sting
Or she a devotee

Weaving love and pain
A path to discover
As God sends the rain
A hope of family to recover.

The veiling of Jesus’ glory and the exile of the Church

April 17, 2021

John 1.14-18:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The uniquely born God, who is close to the Father, has explained Him.

2 Corinthians 3.14-16:

But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the breading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

2 Corinthians 4.3-4:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Christianity in the United States is in the midst of a slowly, unveiling crisis (along with the West more broadly). For many years now, church leaders, ministers, theologians, etc. have bemoaned the increasing secularization and lack of faith in the American population, particularly among the younger generations. Many plans have been put forward to try to address the wave of increasing secularization and try to reach the younger generations, more particularly. Yet, nothing has seen to have taken hold and solved the perceived problem.

What I want to put forward, however, is that what is perceived as a problem may actually be the will of God. What if God has actively put so many churches that claim His name into an ongoing exile? What if it is God’s will to empty many of the churches now, not for the sense of an ultimate abandonment of Scriptural faith, but to bring about a spiritual exodus from forms of Christianity that have ultimately strayed farther and farther from the heart of God to lead towards a genuine renewal that isn’t simply rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic?

This is a bit of speculation on my part, but rooted in what I understand in how God will act and operate in the Scriptures. For instance, in Leviticus 26.30-31, we see God telling Israel that if they persist in acting hostile towards God, He will bring about the tearing down and desolation of their places of worship. Jeremiah laments the fact that God had abandoned the Temple to destruction (Lamentation 2.7). Ezekiel speaks a word against Israel, saying that God would strike down their places of worship, implicitly due to the idolatry that was taking place, among other reasons (Ezekiel 6.3-6). In brief, when the people who lay claim to God act against God and even raise up idols, God may go so far as to render desolate the places of worship. What if that is what is happening today?

To be clear, if this is the case, it isn’t due to overt forms of idolatry in the stricter sense of the term. While we do occasionally see various forms of power, whether it be money, nationalism, etc., given worship in the name of God, most churches do pay homage to the name of God of the Scriptures alone. Yet, what if these portrayals of God that we see across the Christian landscape is semi-idolatrous in its nature, saying things about God that are foreign to what God has clearly made known about Himself? What if the problem is that those who bear the name of God are not speaking clearly about God in the way God has already spoken and acted?

This is part of the problem that the Apostle Paul is facing in his proclamation of the Gospel. He recognizes a zeal for God among many of his fellow Jews, probably most significantly the more zealous of his former, Pharisaical colleagues, yet his criticism of them is that in ignorance they have constructed systems of righteousness that opposes what God has made known of Himself (Romans 10.1-4). Some Jewish sages thought they had in the Torah a basis for confidence in their relationship to God, believing they could know His will, and having access to knowledge and truth, yet Paul notes that their moral hypocrisy leads to the blaspheming of God by the Gentiles (Rom. 2.17-24). Because they thought the Torah was a source of righteousness, rather than what Paul calls the knowledge of sin, they could not recognize God’s own revelation of Himself and His righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.20-26). Elsewhere in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that when the Torah was read, a veil was laid over the hearers’ minds (2 Cor. 3.14-16). They were unable to perceive the glory of God in Jesus Christ because of their adherence to the Torah.

Because of this, Paul warns in Colossians 2.8 for his audience to not mislead by philosophies and empty deceptions that were transmitted by human speech and traditions that could take them away from Christ.1 It was customary among his former Rabbinic colleagues to prescribe various ethical rules and principles about what one should not eat or touch so as to keep oneself clean and pure (it is these type of traditions that Paul likely has in mind when he talks about the “works of the Torah”). Yet, for Paul, the traditions of his Jewish background were a source that could lead people away from Jesus Christ. It isn’t that the Torah was opposed to God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. In fact, the Torah and the Prophets actually pointed to Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.21). However, many Jewish teachers thought they could divine the will and purposes of God through their deeper study of the Torah that would lead to the formulation of various principles and practices to guide people in Torah observance. In other words, the teaching of the Jewish sages and scribes functioned to obscure their hearers from beholding Jesus Christ because the systems of righteousness they taught conflicted with what was to be beheld in Jesus.

We see a similar sentiment expressed in the prologue of the Gospel of John. The tension between law and grace in John 1.14-18 can best be explained not as two oppositional poles that conflict with each other. Instead, it is the grace of Jesus Christ that explains fully God’s purposes in the Torah, because Jesus is the one who is close to the Father. As a consequence, to understand God, one had to understand the grace that was seen in Jesus Christ, not as some ethereal power or force that affords us salvation, but the very way that Jesus in His flesh and blood related to people. It is Jesus’ abundant kindness and concern for the life of others demonstrated throughout the Gospels that we get an exact portrayal of who God is and what God is concerned about, including what He expressed in the Torah. To know God’s will, to know God’s righteousness, to know what it is that God is seeking after and wants, one begins to behold this by coming to understand and comprehending the person of Jesus Christ, in what He said, in what He did, and in what the Father and the Holy Spirit did in Him and through Him.

It is for this reason that when Paul originally proclaimed the Gospel in Corinth, he was concerned only to tell the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and not try to mix it with words of wisdom (1 Cor. 2.1-5). To perceive and know God’s power, one had to know the story of Jesus, not some human thoughts about God. Similarly, in the greetings to 1 John, it is stated that the Word of life was seen, heard, and touched and the witness to Jesus transmitted this (1 John 1.1-3). What was most significant and crucial for the Gospel was that people know what Jesus said and did, that through coming to know what Jesus was like, one was coming to know who God was. Jesus Himself alluded to this reality in saying that those who continue in His word would come to know the truth (John 8.31-32), to only later tell his disciples in a private dinner that He is the truth that His disciples have come to know (John 14.6-7).

For the apostolic Church, it was vital that people come to know God by knowing God the way He made Himself known. Other sources of trying to describe what God’s will and purposes were, including even the Torah when it treated as the embodiment of knowledge and truth, were a source of distraction away from the true and living God known in the fullness of Jesus Christ. However, this distraction could come from non-Jewish wisdom also. When Paul talks about the god of this age blinding unbelievers from beholding the glory of Jesus Christ in the Gospel story, he is most likely making reference to the way that popular Stoic philosophers had taught about the idea of one god who the whole cosmos ultimately inhabited and could be known from (Stoic theology was essentially pantheistic or panentheistic). Consequently, Gentiles that had been accustomed to thinking about one God in terms of the Stoic wisdom would be resistant to comprehending how the glory of God was known in the person of Jesus.

What is the point of this as it relates to today? It is my contention that in the Church today we have a semi-idol that is similar to Jewish tradition and Stoic wisdom. It is called theology and tradition. Not that all theology or all tradition is automatically wrong to use. Jesus did not universally eschew scribes who were familiar with Jewish traditions but thought they could potentially be a great source of insight (Matthew 13.52). Even though Paul would not proclaim the Gospel in a form of intellectual wisdom, he was certainly capable and willing to teaching wisdom that was taught by the Spirit among those who were more mature (1 Cor. 2.6-16). Yet, the problem is the way the traditions and wisdom were what people leaned on to understand God, much in opposition to what sage speaks in Proverbs 3.5-8. Similarly, when our introduction to the Gospel comes through theological and ethical ideas we find to be significant when growing in discipleship and maturity in Christian faith is taken to be consistent with mastering the theological traditions, etc., it can have the same effect that Jewish traditions and Stoic wisdom have: to blind people’s eyes to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

At one level, it functions to distract people to seek the wrong sort of knowledge, distracting us from what we can know of God in Jesus to what we think we know about God in the form of abstract knowledge. To illustrate, consider this example. The most basic, fundamental way we grow to learn about a person we love is to engage our five senses when it comes to the person we love and then our minds interpret this information to tell us something about the person. Yet, we could be tempted to have a different sort of knowledge about people in the form of abstract knowledge, such as psychological, sociological, spiritual knowledge, in which we focus on how a person or people fit into specific general categories we have about humans. While such abstract knowledge may be fruitful in helping to get to know people, such as a psychiatrist whose expertise in medicine and psychology can help them to identify the core medical and mental problem at the heart of a person’s malady, the abstract knowledge is used in service of the personal knowledge of that person, principally through conversation, to identify patterns in the information obtained about the person. To love a person in order to get to know them entails that one knows a person as they are in all their concrete realities and specific disclosures. Similarly, to get to know God in loving Him entails knowing God the way He made Himself known in those concrete realities, particularly the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the specific disclosures God made of Himself in those realities. While abstract theological knowledge may be helpful in certain instances to help people to perceive patterns in God’s own self-disclosures, when used as a source of knowledge of God in and of themselves, they distract people away from the concreteness of God.

However, some theologies and traditions go further than just simply distracting people from knowing God the way God makes Himself known. They, instead, actively teach things that actually conflict with the way God makes Himself known. Most notable in this is the idea that any sin, no matter how light or severe, makes one deserving of God’s eternal wrath to send one into an everlasting hell (unless one then believes in Jesus as a punishment in our place). Noticeably, this idea is absent within the Scriptures, but is read primarily as an assumption as the meaning behinds various passages, such as the idea that a person can be righteous only be being morally perfect (a definition that is never stated as such in the Bible). Yet, this idea of a quick-to-wrath God is opposed to what Israel learned about God after the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 34.5-6). But, even more significantly, when we look at the person of Jesus Christ, we do not see such universal wrath towards everyone, as everyone had sinned at some point. Jesus was gracious, merciful, and gentle, showing us that God is not a wrathful God hell-bent on sending everyone to hell except those who believe. As a consequence of this very wrathful, condemning picture of God, there are many people who struggle to hear Christians talking about God. In fact, many of these people witness the hypocrisy and great sin of many teachings of this wrathful God and reject both the teachers and blaspheme God because of this portrayal. As Stephen Crane’s poem “A god in wrath” reads:

A god in wrath
Was beating a man;
He cuffed him loudly
With thunderous blows
That rang and rolled over the earth.
All people came running.
The man screamed and struggled,
And bit madly at the feet of the god.
The people cries,
“Ah, what a wicked man!”
And —
“Ah, what a redoubtable god!”

At the end of the day, perhaps much of what we are hearing in churches in the United States is more rooted in the various theologies and ethical frameworks that people are eager to teach and transmit as the truth that people need to vitally hear and accept, rather than come to know God in the very way God makes Himself known. Consequently, maybe we are existing in a state of spiritual exile, where God Himself isn’t going to be leading a new wave of people to the sanctuaries and fellowships of those whose talk about God is controlled by theology. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t churches being deeply faithful to God; there are many reaching out to new people, including the church I presently attend that I feel is much closer to teaching people to know God the way God makes Himself in Jesus Christm and even through other people in whom the Spirit truly inhabits and leads. However, if we are indeed in a semi-idolatrous state in the United States as a whole, why would we expect God to abundantly call and lead people into such congregations? Should we not expect God to, at the least, let the churches die a slow death and even potentially becoming a reproach so that God can raise up new ministers of the Gospel who can then be distinguished from so much of what has been bandied around as Christian faith, both in progressive and “evangelical” forms?

Such a possibility would sound abhorrent to those who believe that everyone but those who believe are destined for hell. But if Paul recognizes that there are people who, even though they don’t believe, may stand at the judgment day because they sought what was good (Rom. 2.7-16), then perhaps the exile of the Church in America isn’t a sentence to hell to those who do not believe. Maybe it is an act of God’s grace to save people from being made twice the child of hell insofar as the churches have failed to represent God but instead various other interests, including selfish ambitions, which has lead to a litany of stories of abuse and harm throughout congregations and ministries that have used the name of Christ to their benefit (Matt. 23.15; cf. Matt. 7.21-23). Could it be the case that the exile of the Church is saving people from God’s wrath judgment to those who obey wickedness in the name of God, while God at the same time will raise up people who truly proclaim the person of Jesus Christ in His extravagant, abundant, gracious, merciful, patient, gentle love, and not the ideas and benefits we want to associate with God and Jesus? If that be the case, may we pray and hope that God is raising up many people to lay afresh the foundation of Jesus Christ Himself in all His glory so that people can come to have a “justified” assurance and certainty of their justification in God’s eyes by being in/joined to Christ in His death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit, all of which brings about a sanctified harvest of righteousness in the course of time.

The problem of pride

April 16, 2021

Proverbs 3.5-8:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body.

We live in an age of pride in the United States. As we are engaged in various cultural liturgies and habits that engage in the promotion of oneself and one’s ideas, as we are encouraged to think deeply about our own wants and what it is we want to pursue, etc., we live in a world that slowly sculpts our hearts and minds to become immersed in pride. Ultimately, the problem of pride is how it excludes, minimizes, and disregards others, including even the true, living God, while at the same time seeking to include our, maximize, and rationalize our own place; this leads to the “colonization” of our relationships with others for our own purposes, numbing and blinding us to the (potential) harm we can cause others.

Before proceeding further, it is important to clarify what pride really is. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency to associate pride with (a) positive self-esteem and feelings about oneself and (b) unwillingness to relent to the opinions, thoughts, or demands of another. As a consequence, accusations of pride can be readily used to make people feel bad or to try to press them to slavishly submit to the dictates of another. While those who have pride have positive self-esteem and are often unwilling to accommodate to others, these are not the same things. A person may have positive self-esteem while not thinking of themselves to be the epitome of goodness,  rightness, etc. A person may refuse to accommodate to the wishes of another person because they have good reason to think it evil, harmful, unnecessary, etc. Confidence in what is good and what is bad can lead us to positive self-esteem and resistance to control, but this is not the exact same thing as pride.

I have come to find a useful distinction between confidence and pride. Confidence is the belief that what I think, feel, want, seek to do, etc. is good and/or right. Pride, however, pushes further and suggests that what I think, feel, want, seek to do, etc. cannot be bad or wrong. Confidence allows us to act but it doesn’t immunize us from accepting any feedback that would suggest we are in fact going down a bad or wrong direction. By contrast, pride cements us in our course of action, hardening our hearts into our course of action, making us increasingly resistant to any word to the contrary. (I myself have had to learn this distinction because, throughout the course of my life, I often eviscerated any sense of confidence in myself, believing it to be prideful and, thus, wrong.)

At the root of pride is often a sense of fear, ultimately of our mortality. If things don’t go my way, if things aren’t the way I see things, if I am not in the right, then we often feel this deeply unconscious/subconscious sense of fear for our well-being, whether it be a direct fear of death or simply a fear of our current place and status in the world. To that end, pride leads us to re-up on our sense of rightness and goodness so as to stave off this deep-seated fear of mortality. This is especially the case as our sense of survival is often tied to the way people socially perceive us, such that by coming across as more confident, we can have a greater chance to receive the approval and acceptance of others. Pride reinforces such confidence by removing any sense that one can be wrong, thereby reinforcing personal confidence in the midst of threats and challenges. At the end of the day, pride is a way that we perceive ourselves that buffers our confidence in a more general sense, whereas confidence is more ‘local’ to specific things we think, feel, seek to do, etc.

When the Proverbs tell us to not rely on our own insight, the language does not ask people to simply discard any and everything they think as somehow being wrong. It is not calling people to eviscerate any and every sense of our confidence. Rather, it distinguishes between insight and how we relate to our insights, warning against putting excessive confidence in what it is that we believe to be right. Similarly, when the sage warns us against thinking ourselves wise in our own eyes, it isn’t asking people to think they are worthless, foolish, etc., but rather to not develop a sense of pride in one’s own understanding, as if they are assailable and certainly good and right.

In light of the Proverbs, we can then say the problem of pride is ultimately this: it prevents people from receiving direction and healing from God. Being excessively self-assured, one seeks to protect oneself from any perception of threats and challenges to one’s status and well-being, which means we would become increasingly brittle in the face of perceived challenges that we deem that we can not escape. Pride makes people ultimately brittle. As a result, we become resistant to allowing God to lead us down a new direction for our life, one that can heal us and brings us into a new place. We are sure we are in the right, we will often find ourselves having to wrestle with God if He seeks to lead us in a different direction. Similarly, we can become resistant to others who provide us insight into a different direction for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, seeking to rigidly preserve ourselves and what we have built in the face of perceived challenges. Pride thus sets us against the will of God and the love of others.

This is why the antidote to pride is not ultimately the tearing down any and all sense of positive self-esteem and confidence, but rather to coming into the fear of God. To be clear, the fear of God is not a crippling fear that God is about to strike you down. Yet, it isn’t simply a reverence for God. Instead, the fear of God is the recognition that if I were to oppose God, God could push me out of the way, get rid of me, bring painful discipline and punishment, etc. The fear of God opposes our pride, because we are then left with the recognition that there is One greater than “I” who can demonstrate my foolishness, pronounce me guilty, and alter my course of life without an ability to resist it if God chooses to act forcefully. One can not maintain such an excessive self-confidence in the recognition of such a capacity. So, in lieu of pride, the fear of God keeps up open in our mind for the will of God, to allow the true paths of life and well-being that God seeks to lead us into. It is not that we believe that God is authoritarian or dictatorial, as if we should believe that God will strike us down for the slightest infringement, but that instead, if we act in a way that continues to harmfully oppose the life and shalom that God wants to cultivate in His creation, God will in His time take us out of the way (ultimately, for all, as the resurrection and judgment) if we don’t allow God to take it out of us.

To that end, the cross is the ultimate act of turning upside-down nature of the pride of human life: facing suffering and the perceived threats to olur mortality is the route towards joy and life rooted in the will of God. Human pride, being rooted ultimately in self-preservation, suffocates and shrivels in the acceptance of the experience of the cross, whereas it is God who gives new life and health to our bodies (potentially even now in this age and fully and eternally in the eschaton) and insight to our minds through the cross.

Dreaming the dream of God’s Kingdom

April 16, 2021

Psalm 37.4:

Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 145.5-20:

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The LORD is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.

All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

The LORD is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The LORD is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The LORD watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.

Matthew 6.31-33:

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Colossians 3.1-11:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Desires. Needs. Wants. Longings. Human motivation is central to the core of what it means to live as a human being. There are things we scout out to find, look to acquire, etc., because the biological imperatives of life are rooted in addressing our physiological states, seeking to find homeostasis, which is cognitively and emotionally experienced in a sense of contentment and feeling of security. Yet, even as we have these basic, physiological drives that motivate our behavior, our brains receive the signals from our bodies and learn to direct the basic biological imperatives towards specific goals, purposes, etc.

For a rudimentary example, we all experience the craving for food, but our cultures teach us the good and delicious things to pursue to satisfy that craving. In some cultures, insects are considered delicacies, but they aren’t in Western cultures. Our brains are wired to learn how to satisfy our basic biological imperatives through various, specific means. Our personal experiences form our brains to do this, whether it be from our surrounding culture, idiosyncratic experiences, etc.

When we come to the Scriptures, we see a strong concern for human motivations to be rightly directed and to avoid acting on desires that can lead to harm. Negatively, Eve eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as she was tempted by her desire for food, beauty, and wisdom. Positively, Psalm 37.4 calls for people to delight in the Lord, then they will receive what they desire. In Galatians 5.16-17, the apostle Paul talks about the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. The regular usage of the language of the heart extends far beyond simply our modern notions of emotional state to describe who and what a person trusts in and seeks in their life.

At the risk of oversimplification, it may be appropriate to suggest that the Scriptures are a pedagogy in desire in the things that are the good, right, and righteous things that God would have for us to have and how we can come to receive them as gifts from God. It is God’s instruction that gives light to us to our paths, to know what to seek and how to go about seeking it, and what to avoid and not to seek. In that case, there is this implicit recognition throughout the Scriptures that human desires need to be trained, needs to be discipled, needs to be directed.

Unfortunately, we in American live in something of a distorted picture. On the one hand, we see an increasing hedonism in the surrounding culture that emphasizes searching for and exploring one’s own personal desires and needs. Yet, as tempting as it might be to speak an unequivocal condemnation to this, this form of hedonism has in part been a response to the desire-denying brands of Christianity that have tried to portray the Gospel and Christian life as desiring God alone. On the one hand, we see an earthly orientation towards human desire and, on the other hand, we see a “heavenly” orientation to deny desire on the other (I call it “heavenly” because I don’t take it to be a Biblical understanding of heaven).

This gets manifest into what I refer to as two types of spiritually dysfunctional dreaming: earth-serving dreams and earth-denying dreams. In the former, one develops dreams for a life based upon what they seek and witness here in the earth. Our dreams for relationships, dreams for careers, etc. become determined by the various cultural liturgies and practices we see in the surrounding society. Sex is most notable for this, as people’s sense of sexual pursuits becomes defined largely by what they have seen in what surrounds them. On the other hand, earth-denying dreams often envision some “paradise” away from the present world, where one will inhabit when one denies, without having concern for addressing human motivations and concerns. Both of these types of dreams, unfortunately, have a way towards leading to pride, whether it be pride that comes from achieving what one dreams or pride in considering oneself above the fray of others.

Beyond pride, the problem with these two types of dreaming is that they leave desire fundamentally unshaped. They become controlled by the world, by either combination of succumbing to whatever it is we immediately consider our desire and need, leading to increased reinforcement of the desire, or by perpetually repressing it, leaving it the basic physiological drive and neural integration of that drive largely unchanged while out of our awareness.

But there is a third way: dreaming big about the kingdom of God that will, in turn, lead to God’s fulfilling of the desires of our heart. Unfortunately, various types of (implicit) asceticism and a fear of a prosperity gospel have often lead to a blindness to this dimension of desire and divine fulfillment. God wants to fulfill the desires of the heart, but desires that are ultimately righteous, pure, and holy. While many of our desires on the surface are not immediately harmful, if we were to gratify them in the way we often dream and imagine fulfilling them, they could lead us down a darker path. To that end, God calls us to look towards Him, the giver of good gifts, who can reorient desire so as to bring it to a place where it is healthy and holy to fulfill.

Yet, this dreaming big is not dreaming about how God is going to fulfill our desires. This is the error, if not heresy, of the prosperity gospel. It is a dream of God’s kingdom as a whole, where the will of God as it is done in heaven is longed for and sought for within the earth. Within that big dream, we can begin to place a holy version of our desires within the scope of God’s will and kingdom.

To get to the point of being able to dream this dream, however, we have to be able to break the stranglehold our earth-formed desires have on us. Our dreams are seeded by what we desire, but if what we desire is in conflict with God’s will, that is, if it is a desire of the flesh, then our hearts and minds are impeded from seeking and dreaming of God and His heavenly will. It is at this point where we have to learn to crucify our flesh, both in adhering to God’s instruction to not engage in certain types of behaviors and the willingness to face the suffering that comes where our present ideals, dreams, and desires do not come to fruition.

At this place, our hearts and minds begin to break the connection our minds have formed between the unconscious, physiological drives and the way the brain has been formed to (sub)consciously seek the fulfillment of these cravings. By facing the suffering, we begin to detach from the present way we have come to desire, making our hearts and minds open to a new way of having these basic physiological drives become fulfilled.

Then, as God, who is faithful, makes Himself known to us who are faithful to follow in a cruciform fashion, we begin to experience a newness of life as the same power that raised Christ from the dead begins to operate in us. It is here, where losing our life leads us to begin to find life. We discover new reservoirs of strength, of hope, of possibilities, but yet a type of strength, hope, and possibilities that is open to the potential of God’s power and kingdom. The work of God’s Spirit who raises us has begun to reform our bodies, which would include new connections between our physiological motivations and drives and neural encoding for seeking to fulfill our biological imperatives.

It is here at this point where our mind is open to the work of the Triune God to help us dream the heavenly dreams. It isn’t that we suddenly have the power to perceive heavenly realities by our own perceptions or rational faculties, but that our minds are trainable by the Holy Spirit to come to comprehend the will and purposes of God. In this place, we can place our deepest longings and cravings that would function to serve our well-being into the appropriate context of the love for God and others that brings shalom.

This, in turn, leads to a different way in which we relate to the fulfillment of our desires and the lack thereof, particularly in the face of frustration. So often, when we have a desire that we expect the fulfillment of, we become defensive or even aggressive when we perceive (potential) roadblocks. We can be tempted to various sorts of behaviors that are against love and (mutual) well-being, such as getting angry, becoming aggressive, getting others involving in our problems, thoughtlessly jumping towards immediate, alternative forms of gratification, lying, etc. These behaviors lead to the breakdown of relationships and, if it gets extreme enough, the inflict of harm and pain upon others. Yet, when one’s desires have been formed by the big dream of the heavenly, we exhibit greater self-control, gentleness, patience, kindness, etc. in the midst of frustration. It is here where love is increasingly maintained, even in the midst of disappointments, struggles, etc. Our lives are more able to seek to act in a way that maintains the goodness of the whole, even when individual pieces don’t fit together immediately like we wish they would.

The death of current dreams and desires doesn’t necessarily mean the ending of our deeper longings and drives, but the transformation of those longings and drives so that they can be fulfilled in God’s righteous kingdom. By taking up our cross, by offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, we come to a place where we can begin to seek and dream the dreams of heaven. Perhaps one could say that at the heart of the cross, both in Christ’s cross and our own cross, is a pedagogy of human desire so that we can become the type of people whose desires are compatible with God’s kingdom, where the desires of the flesh progressively give way to the desires of the Spirit.

To be clear, here, though, there is no way around the experience of taking up the cross for this. We can come up with various models for Christian discipleship and formation, but there are no steps, no procedures, no ways of orienting our thinking, etc. that accomplish the pedagogy of desire as the cross does. At best, these models provide people pointers and directions so as to how they can appropriately take up their own cross in order to then experience the fullness of life in Christ. However, when they diverge from this, they do not rise up to anything more than the principles of human psychology dressed up in the garb of Christianese, which too often subtly reinforces the fear of mortality that ’empowers’ fleshly desires.

Poem: “Is it love or is it lust?”

April 11, 2021

Is it love or is it lust?
This question to ask we must
The answer I have found
Which I believe to be sound:

Lust seeks to acquire
It can barely wait
Love begins to inspire
It looks to the date

Lust desires the part
Inflicts sacrifice to service the heart
Boundaries to breach
Forming the other as one will

Love beholds the whole
Becomes sacrifice for life to impart
The other to reach
Formed by their pleasure and goodwill

The longing to join
Do not despise
But let your desire
Attune your ear to love’s melody
In step to dance
With another to find

For love excited
God’s song to hear
As the other delighted
Draws to you near

With time to acclimate
Your feet to calibrate
With the delay
Will come the day
Love that is real to find
As two become aligned

Solving the problem of natural theology?

April 10, 2021

My theological journey has been largely influenced by an ambivalent relationship I have with the theology of Karl Barth. Karl Barth’s famous and decisive “Nein!” to Emil Brunner simultaneously expressed something important and yet, at the same time, said something false.1 On the one hand, any responsible theologian would recognize that identifying God and His purposes with the creation risks falling into idolatry. Beyond this, the amounts of historical evils that have been perpetuated by a sense of a natural order of things that Christians have fallen into, including notably the German Holocaust, behooves us to be, at the minimum, incredibly frightened by natural theology. At the same time, despite protests and attempts to suggest that Romans 1.20 doesn’t mean what it seems to mean prima facie (or, ala Douglas Campbell, suggest it isn’t reflective of Paul’s own thinking), any highly warranted reading of that passage and the rest of the Scriptures, such as Psalms 19, would recognize that nature is a critical component of the understanding God.

To that end, perhaps the problem with natural theology is not the problem of nature, but rather the problem of theology. The act of doing theology makes an implicitly bold claim: that the mind comprehends God’s nature and purposes in such a way that a person who possesses such understanding can reliably communicate this knowledge to other persons. We have been accustomed as Christians to think we can possess such theological knowledge in virtue of the Bible being the embodiment of theological knowledge about God, Paul’s words in Romans 2.20 to the hypothetical Jewish sage who think they possess in the Torah as an embodiment of knowledge and truth should give great caution and concern about seeing the Bible as an embodiment of theological knowledge. Ultimately, God’s Word and instruction is about giving us light for the path we should follow in our life, not so much about light to the inner recessing of our minds (Psa. 119). Nevertheless, certainly, we can suggest that knowledge about God and His veiled purposes is transmitted not by the words of Scriptures, but through the Scriptures in the formation of the heart so that the person is prepared to receive God’s Wisdom. Through the work of the Triune God in our life, we can hope to arrive at such wisdom.

Yet, because the pursuit of theological knowledge from the Scriptures has been taken to run through the rational analysis of the interpretation of the Scriptures, there has come to be the slow but steady emergence of the idol of the mind: that through one’s rational faculties one has the power to reliably arrive at truth and correct knowledge about God and His purposes. While this rationality may generally be taken to combined with the interpretation of the Scriptures, once this sense of rationality takes other sources for its thinking, such as tradition, experience, science, the claims of theology begin to dramatically diverge from a theology grounded in a doctrine of sola/prima Scriptura. Beyond that, however, it is implicitly inculcated that the mind is the primary tool one uses to understand God.

When nature becomes the source of rational, theological reflection, there comes to be a problem. If God is holy and distinct from us and the creation, how can I reliably move from an understanding of creation to the knowledge of the Creator? How can one distinguish between one’s interpretation from another to discern the nature and will of God? It is here where the boldness of the claim to theological knowledge may very well blur into pride and arrogance: unless you have the mind of Christ, how can you know what the ultimate significance and order of creation is?

However, when we look at Psalmist 19.1-4, we see the Psalmist recognizes that nature communicates knowledge about God, even though it communicates without words. The type of thinking that is generally considered to be rationality is largely a function of how language forms and influences what concepts, ideas, and inferences are valid and invalid. The logic of most forms of rationality is largely “internal” to the system of language that a person thinks within, even if it may have some “external” input from the external world. Yet, the knowledge that creation provides is largely non-linguistic, and if one is willing to blend this with modern concepts of the mind, perhaps largely rooted in the subconscious.

What if the primary purpose of nature in the life of the Christian isn’t to be like some text that we directly interpret the will of God from, but rather to be an experience of God’s loving purposes in creation that forms the heart and mind? Then, God’s instruction mentioned in Psalm 19.7-9 can be seen as building on the work of creation. God’s Instruction takes the good gifts of creation that God gives and seeks for us to have in the creation and then refines us so that we are refreshing, become wise, giving light and understanding, and helping us to live righteously. In my mind, God’s Instruction helps us to live within the creation, providing verbal guidance for human action and thinking that modifies how we understand the creation. In other words, God seeks to teach us about His creation.

In this case, then, creation is a source of theological reflection. It isn’t about understanding God’s ontological nature or even discerning some overarching, general order that God supposedly intended, but rather we understand the glory of God, distinguished from God Himself, and the ecological functioning of what God created. But this doesn’t come by our rational reflection upon creation, but our submission to God’s instruction, which allows us to then begin to truly perceive the goodness of God that fills creation. Then, once our hearts and minds have been formed to understand and seek the good things of God through the practice of God’s Instruction teaching us, including most important in the word and example of Jesus Christ, in such a way that what is (subconsciously) implanted in our hearts becomes manifest to our minds, we are then prepared to understand God’s Wisdom, the Wisdom that formed creation in the first place.

Moving from total depravity to utter deprivation

April 9, 2021

As I am continuing to engage in theological reflection on what I have witnessed in Christian theology and discourse as it intersects with my reading of the Scriptures and personal experience, there are five common doctrines within conservative, particularly Reformed, wing of evangelical Christianity that I think simultaneously (a) causes great harm and (b) do not have a robust grounding in the Scriptures. Those five doctrines are (1) the universal, persistent wrath of God that is sending everyone but believers to hell, (2) a vision of sexuality that looks at sex through the lens of cleanliness and impurity rather than life and death, (3) the Scriptures as an embodiment of theological knowledge about God rather than a pointer to knowing God Himself, (4) the idea that God instituted an eternally fixed creation order that deviance from automatically amounts to sin, and (5) humanity is totally depraved in wickedness.

Each of these five doctrines are, I would say, rooted in some of what the Scriptures do speak to, but ultimately I would suggest these errors emerge because of the way that propositional content of such theology has often been structured like an idealized vision of philosophy, with clear, precisely delineated categories that cut asunder any ambiguity, that then structures the meaning they attribute to the words of Scripture. By contrast, I read the Bible with a different mindset that seeks to discern differences without then creating, large, all-encompassing, sweeping theological and ethical claims from single texts. Instead, it is my hope that through reading the Scriptures, along with its practice, that the goodness of the living God is testified to me from the whole of Scripture, saturating the deepest recesses of my mind and letting God’s Spirit then guide me to see what good and pleasing and teach me to see what ideas are worthy of acceptance.

It is not my intention to try to dive fully into this thesis here, however, but rather to analyze why the doctrine of total depravity as it is traditionally conceived is an understandable misreading of the Scriptures. Yet, as it is been construed and used, I have found that it has ultimately turned God’s Word into a nuclear bomb that destroys rather than a nuclear reaction that provides the energy that facilitates life.  While I am not theoretically against a doctrine of total depravity, I would suggest that because of the associations it has taken on, it may be better to describe a different doctrine of utter deprivation.

The doctrine of total depravity at its most basic point stipulates the following: humans are utterly incapable of choosing to follow God and are enslaved to sin until God’s grace free us. At this point, I would agree with the doctrine of total depravity. However, after this, I diverge from the traditional explanations of total depravity. Firstly, the traditional doctrine of total depravity suggests that the Fall changed human nature in its essence, something that is lacking in Genesis 2, whereas my understanding suggests that the problem of sin is attributable to the combination of the knowledge of good and evil and the absence of God’s close presence and provision of life (done to limit the harm humans possessing the knowledge of good and evil could do). The effect of this is to propose a different theological anthropology that understands the origins of sin in our life differently, which leads to different conclusions as to how we are transformed through the grace of the Triune God.

Secondly, whereas the traditional doctrine of depravity tends to separate the saving grace of God that leads to conversion from common/prevenient grace, I prefer to think of grace primarily as an attribute of God Himself who is indivisible in His absolute reality, although experienced diversely in different people at different points of time along the pathway towards God’s gift of life and shalom. This means that people come to the righteousness of God from different directions in their life, that there is not a single process or formula of anthropological transformation.

Thirdly, total depravity tends to think the problem is of sin in and of itself that the mere existence of leads us to eternal punishment. This means that it inculcates a mentality of avoidance and aggression in fighting against what is perceived to be evil. This also means that the doctrine of total depravity tends to put the focus on what is bad, what is ugly, what is wrong rather than what is good, what is beautiful, what is right. By contrast, I would suggest that the ultimate problem is that humanity has blindness to and the absence of God’s goodness and that the practice of sin reinforces this blindness and absence, but that the primary purpose of mortifying sin is not to avoid some punishment but rather to discover the glory of God and His gifts of life. This inculcates a different mentality of focusing on being a healer that brings about shalom and well-being.

Fourthly, and branching off from the third point, the doctrine of total depravity often has the effect of eviscerating any sense of moral decency (I intentionally use this term in distinction from goodness) from the person prior to conversion, and often in such a way that the human body is permanently denigrated as being a bad thing (the way this overlaps with a harmful view of sex is apparent here). Instead, I would say that the problem isn’t of an utter absence of the potential for decency, but rather the source of true, abundant, full goodness in our life not reside within us apart from God’s grace.

There are three Biblical texts that I think this deficient version of total depravity primarily depends upon, but upon further reflection, it seems to be poor interpretations of the text, attributable to various causes.

First is Jeremiah 17.9. Most translations read something along the lines of “The heart is deceitful, it is perverse.” The effect of this is that people have treated the human heart as something to be thoroughly mistrusted, as circumspect. Instead, one should look to other sources for the truth, most particularly the Bible. Yet, if this translation were correct, that would put us quite in a bind, as it is our ‘heart’ that colors everything we think, say, and do. If it is inherently deceitful, then you should be utterly skeptical of anything and everything you think if you were to fully and zealously put this into practice. I tried this pathway, believing that my heart, its desires and thoughts were inherently wicked, and I found it to be a pathway that leads to death.

Yet, Jesus doesn’t seem to think the heart is by nature deceitful. Matthew 12:33-35:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.
You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.

Here, Jesus envisions a good heart that brings about good fruit and words in contrast to the evil heart. Perhaps, then, our translations of Jeremiah 17.9 have gone off track. Indeed, I think that is the case. I have previously written about it (http://owenweddle.com/rethinking-our-view-of-the-heart/). In short, I think there are good reasons to think the translation refers to how uneven and unpredictable the heart of a human is, but God understands the heart. This makes better sense of Jeremiah 17.10, where God is said to test the heart and reward them according to their ways. This is said in the context of the cursed man and the blessed man in Jeremiah 17.5-8, suggesting the human heart that has the potential for either depending on their trust in God. This is much more consistent with what Jesus says about the human heart.

Secondly and thirdly, are two passages from Romans. But before addressing those passages specifically, I want to make a point that much of the evangelical doctrine of sin has been derived from Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is an understandable reason for this as Paul talks much about sin and unrighteousness in the epistle. Yet, Paul talks less about sin in the rest of his epistles. Perhaps, then, it is fruitful to think that Paul’s discourse about unrighteousness in Romans was not as much about propounding a full-fleshed doctrine of sin and depravity, but that he was instead trying to address the understanding of sin among the (Jewish) Christians in Rome. I would put forward that Paul was trying to present a different understanding of sin that had become prevalent among his fellow Jews, particularly as it was written about and described in Second Temple Jewish literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees. Instead, if we pay attention to Paul, he is more concerned that his audience moves away from knowledge about sin, which has lead to the judgment of the pagan, Gentile world, and to instead see the vision of God’s righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.20-22).

This leads us to the catena of Old Testament passages that Paul quotes in Romans 3.10-18. It has often been understood that Paul is propounding anthropology of human sinfulness in which people are utterly locked into evil and sin to the fullest degree. Yet, this entirely overlooks Paul’s discourse. He is intending to quote from the Torah and other Scriptures to show that Israel is not ethically superior in virtue of their possession of the Torah. The various Scriptures that Paul alludes to demonstrates that Israel too can fall into utter evil and darkness, even as it possesses the gift of Torah. The tendency to try to derive widespread, sweeping theological and anthropological knowledge has led these passages Paul quotes from to be understood as universal statements about humanity at all points of time, rather than being expressions, sometimes hyperbolic, of the people at particular points in time in Israel’s history.

Now, Paul does say that all humanity has sinned (Rom. 3.23), but this statement is intended as a continuation of the point in Romans 3.19-20 about the accountability of the whole world to God, not an expression of some unstated anthropology of utter wickedness. The consequence of this, then, isn’t some eternal judgment into hell, but rather to fall short of and be deprived of God’s glory, which is remedied by Jesus as the mercy seat, the place of atonement above which the cloud pillar of God’s glory was present. In other words, the revelation of God’s righteousness is ultimately about the return of God’s glory that has been lost and forgotten due to sin, not salvation from otherwise certain wrath (though, for some who have been utterly wicked and would be set to condemnation, even for them faith may lead to their justification and thus save them from judgment).

With this in light, we can look at the next passage, Romans 7.18 differently. Firstly, it is important to note that Paul is not, again, giving a sweeping statement about human nature here, but he is instead trying to poke a hole in the idea that the Torah is the ultimate source of righteousness in a person. If Paul’s “I” in Romans 7, whether autobiographical or not, is a realistic portrayal of the experience of someone’s experience of trying to obey Torah, then the legitimate conclusion to be drawn is that the Torah does not itself lead one into righteousness.

With that in mind, when we see the phrase “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is the flesh,” the doctrine of total depravity has tempted us to see this as the utter rejection of any good, decent, right impulse within the person. Yet, this actually goes against Paul’s point. The point is that the person has an inclination to seek what is right and good in their mind, but they find that they are incapable of accomplishing what they want to bring to fruition. Furthermore, the “good” here is not describing individual behaviors, but the persistent practice of what is good (Rom. 7.15). That absence of goodness in the flesh does not mean that the person is inclined towards sin and evil constantly and persistently, but, instead, they find that they regularly and persistently fall short of the good they want to accomplish. A person who seeks to obey Torah may be a decent person, but they find that they consistently fall short of the ideal that they have set before themselves in their mind. The divine solution to this problem, then, is that goodness comes to dwell in the person because the Spirit of Jesus Christ has freed them and has come to live in them (Rom. 8.1-11; contrast οἰκέω in 7.18 and 8.9).

What seems to be undergirding Paul’s understanding of human sin and righteousness in Romans, then, is the idea that people have become deprived of God’s glory and goodness because of their sin. Consequently, they are locked into the realities of the flesh, with its pangs of mortality, and can not live a bountiful life that is wholly pleasing to God (Rom. 8.8; do not assume that the only other option then is that God’s wants to send them to hell and finds nothing decent in them). Yet, because God is a God who forgives our iniquities, loves us, and finds human life to be most precious, He provides a way for us to discover His righteousness in Jesus Christ and come to embody Christ’s life in ourselves through the Holy Spirit, so that by taking our own cross and offering ourselves as living sacrifices, our minds may be transformed so that we can then come to discern all the good that God seeks to bless us with, some in this age but even more abundantly in the age to come.

In short, our hearts and lives are not utterly untrustworthy and wicked, but we are wholly ignorant of the true goodness of God until we come into fellowship with God. But through the Triune God, we come to have a good, right, and holy fellowship with God that then becomes manifest with shalom and fellowship with others. We are utterly deprived, but the Father seeks to bring us from exile into what is good by our beholding the crucified and resurrected Savior and becoming united with Him through the Holy Spirit.

There is someone special who God used someone to help teach me these things, to see the Scriptures, love, and the Triune God in an entirely new light.

Why does God wants our praise and thanksgiving?

April 8, 2021

Is it because we don’t see God in the way we see people, so in praising Him and giving Him thanks, our hearts become more primed to see the greater good that God is seeking to bring if we love Him and those whom He loves in the way He love? Does praise and thanksgiving open up the eyes of the heart?

Poem: “If I had the chance”

April 6, 2021

If I had the chance
To mend your heart
From a failed dance
But we are apart

Like a child
Who intends right
Wants to be mild
Yet an unintended slight

As I explore new terrain
Figuring where to go
It can be hard to ascertain
I sometimes fall below

Listening to
the words of a Guide
Accepting a
mother’s chide

You show me what is good
Giving knowledge and skill
Guiding me in adulthood
For the promise to fulfill