The anatomy of unbelief

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August 14, 2019

Multiple Christians with celebrity status have mentioned recently that they have either lost or are struggling with their faith. A couple of weeks agao, Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye in the 90s and pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland from 2004-2015 said he was no longer Christian. Most recently Marty Sampson, the former lead singer of Hillsong, has said that his faith is standing on shaky ground. Such high profile cases of losing faith or struggling with faith grab the attention of Christians and the reasons for such can be speculated upon.

I saw one person on Twitter, who I will not name, suggest it was due to the lack of theological depth. But such an answer sounds more to be like the intellectual pretensions than a solid answer and explanation. While the study of theology can contribute to solidifying faith, it an also run it around. This is not to mention that theology can readily become a source of projection upon God if we think it is our theology and ability to keep ourselves thinking right that keeps us secure in faith. At the end of the day, to explain the loss of faith is due to a lack of theological depth is to treat human reasoning as the condition of faith, rather than theology as the response of faith in God’s power and love.

Rather, I was to suggest a different way to look at the nature of unbelief from those who have had one point had faith. But it will need us to stop asking the implicit question “What did they do wrong?” as if people’s struggles with or loss of faith is solely determined by their actions and thinking. This is to embrace and individualist view of faith that blurs into methodological solipsism: a person’s faith or the lack thereof is solely the consequence of their actions and thinking. When analyzed up close, assuming that people did something wrong that lead them to lose faith is not just exhibit a bad implicit theology, but it also overlooks how human thinking is conditioned to our experiences and environment, much of which they have little direct control over.

This isn’t to embrace a fatalistic view of faith and the lack thereof, but it is only to not assume that people’s loss of faith is attributable to something that is wrong with them. Perhaps, there is something seriously wrong elsewhere, like people being misled about what God is like, people enduring tremendous suffering, etc. But the idea that unbelief automatically condemns one to eternal hell has lead us to place too much of an emphasis on people getting to belief, trying to control their thinking so they come to faith, manipulate them with false ideas to get them to believe, etc. As a consequence, we overlook other factors, including our other people’s contribution to a person’s struggle and/or loss of faith. The sermon to the Hebrews readily exemplifies how in the midst of people’s struggles, others are to encourage people in faith and support them in the midst of their struggles.

I am personally familiar with this. As a Christian who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have had to endure some storms where I seriously questioned my faith and some people who were more concerned with me getting it right rather than helping me became to me like Job’s friends: accusers who could not understand. In Job, we have a story that should be a reminder to all Christians that their response to the suffering can become a source of hurt and, ultimately, risks speaking falsely because they don’t understand what it is they are talking about.

So, allow me to approach an explanation of unbelief from a different direction. I want to explore the cognitive conditions that lead to the lack of faith. And I will take a much broader view of faith in this based upon a certain principle: while our faith in God is specifically conditioned to God’s Word and Spirit, the conditions that allow for any form of faith is  analyzable in general fashion. In other words, the explanation for when people do or do not believe in God is separate from the explanation of how people come to believe in God.

Here is what I posit: the necessary condition for faith is when our remembered experiences are consistent with our expectations. The corollary to this is that the necessary condition for unbelief is when our remembered experiences are dissonant with our expectations.

Allow me to use trust in marriage as an example. A person has a certain expectation of their spouse will not cheat. This expectation itself is not faith or trust, but it is a value. Now, if the person does not have a problem with persistent mistrust, then by a combination of experience the ways their spouse is honest with them in addition to the lack of any evidence of cheating going on, that person’s experience will match their valued expectations. They have not proven that their spouse has not cheated, but their experience is such that what they remember from their experiences, which is most often an implicit rather than explicit remembering.

But even then, one instance of cheating may not entirely evaporate trust. Say a person obtains evidence of their spouse cheating once. This would certainly be a blow to the relationship but does it automatically erode all trust forever? Not necessarily. If the cheating spouse takes responsibility and owns what they did, then a severely broken trust may be restored if the other spouse is willing to risk. In this case, the cheating partner takes responsibility and through that restores trust over time, thereby strengthening the faith that had been seriously weakened.

However, this example I present only focused on the first “variable,” remember experience. However, it tries the expectations as fixed. But sometimes, faith or the lack of faith is also the result of our expectations changing rather than our remember experiences.

For consistency sake, I will use a similar but subtly different example: two unmarried people who are not dating and there are different expectations about what relationship they have. In the ambiguity that often occurs prior to the initiation of a romantic relationship, people’s expectations are forming about the other person, but they do not necessarily form equally. The first person is slower to warm up and thinks they are friends but that they have an interest in the other, whereas the other person is head over heels in love and thinks they are basically in a romantic relationship. Because of these varying expectations, their communication and behavior towards each other can become rather crossed. For instance, the slow and more deliberate approach by the first may make the second person respond evasively or become avoidant. In the case that the first person, thinks the other person isn’t interested because of their avoidant and evasive behavior, they might then develop an interest in someone else. The second person might find out about this and think the first person has essentially cheated on them. At this point, we are left with a situation much like the marriage situation: both people have different expectations that are dissonant with their remembered experiences. This creates a lack of faith: in the first person, they don’t have faith the other person is interested in them. In the second person, they don’t have faith the other person is honest.

Often, these types of problems end up in conflict. Usually, it is because one person or the other does not respect the perspective of the other and refuses to listen to them. However, there are cases where communication can lead to the changing of expectations. Say the second person is actually willing to listen to the first person and the person says “I thought you weren’t interested.” If the second person is willing to believe that this is genuine and not some manipulation, then they might adjust their expectations, which means they would look at their remembered experiences differently. They would no longer think the news that the first person went out with someone else as evidence of cheating but as a person moving on because of a (mistaken) belief.

Now, analysis of remembered experiences and expectations and the way they can change can become endlessly complex as there are various factors that go into what we remember and what we expect. Further complicating the matter is that what we remember can change our expectations, and our expectations can change what we remember, while at the same time being different from each other. So, I don’t present these necessary conditions for faith and unbelief as intending to portray it as being simplistically reducible to two factors. It is rather presented as a lens that can help us to assess what is going on.

What does it tell us about the Christian faith in God? I want to suggest that when cautiously considered, the greater, although not, the sole cause for the struggles with faith is our expectations about God rather than our remembered experiences of God. Now, we see this theme throughout Scripture. For instance, in 2 Peter 3.9 explains that the apparent slowness of God is God’s allowance of an opportunity for people to repent. Whereas humans are inclined to expect God to hurry things up with His promises, God is operating in a way that brings other people into the fold. Whereas we can be rather inclined to have egocentric expectations about God doing what we want when we want it, God works differently than human expectations.

But, rather than just focusing on trying to get people to change their expectations, I want to additionally focus on the source of expectations that can lead us to unbelief. It is what Paul refers to the flesh and what later theologians like Augustine and Barth referred to as incurvatus in se: it is living life according to the expectations of our own embodied nature, isolating our thinking away from the presence of God. We should avoid reverting to some sort of methodological solipsism as if false expectations simply emerge from the errors of individual thinking. The inward thinking of the flesh is why we are unable on our to come to know God, but it doesn’t rule out the social elements that are responsible for expectations about God. The source of false expectations may come from other people, who acting from their flesh, propagate false expectations about God, either directly or indirectly.

One salient way this can happen is in the prosperity “gospel” and its multiple variations. Take, for instance, Matthew 17.19-20. One common way of reading Jesus’ answer to the disciple as to why they could not cast out the demon is as a chiding for the little faith, as if their faith wasn’t even to the level of the mustard seed. As a consequence, the parable Jesus gives gets interpreted as “if you just have enough faith, you can get what you seek and ask for.” This idea then gets spread with the expectation that God gives us what we ask for, especially in an immediate manner. But, many people deeply believe and trust something to come from God, and it doesn’t happen. If their expectation of God is that having enough faith will get them what they seek, then their faith may turn to unbelief the more they are let down.

But allow me to offer a radically different interpretation. Jesus is not connecting answered prayer with the “size” of faith. He is not chiding the disciples for not having even a little bit of faith at the size of the proverbial mustard seed. Rather, I want to suggest that Jesus is directing His disciples to understand the relationship between faith and power. The mustard seed is intended to be a description of the smallness of faith the disciples had, but the employment of seeds also has some agricultural implications operating behind it. Seeds are planted and then they grow. While the disciple’s faith was small, and it was the reason they could not cast out the demon, the point of the parable is to highlight that even a little faith is a sufficient starting point towards being able to cast our demons and move the proverbial mountain, but that the faith must, like a seed, be planted and grown. Rather than portraying faith as the cause of having such power, faith is the starting point that can allow one to grow to have that power that the disciples were seeking. Faith is the beginning of the journey, not the culmination of it. Then, to contextualize this within the rest of NT canon, in faith one can begin to discover the charismatic gifts that the Spirit has given the person and cultivate their using of them for the purposes of building up God’s Kingdom.

Now, I am not claiming this interpretation must be the right interpretation, though I do think it is the right one. Rather, imagine how this expectation changes how people relate to their remembered experiences. Rather than not interpreting their failed prayers as a sign that God is not real, does not love them, they don’t have enough faith, etc., etc., they would see it as part of the journey of discipleship. Their expectations of God change from God as the one who gives us the power to do what we want to the teacher who shows us how to powerfully act on behalf of God’s Kingdom. Remembering experiences that would be dissonant with the prosperity “gospel’s” portrayal of God is not dissonant with the expectation that God is the One who teaches. But thinking according to the flesh and the inward disposition does not respond well to the development across time.

For a more indirect example, people who see themselves as the protectors of orthodoxy, rather than God Himself, can propagate false expectations about God. Due to orthodoxy’s historical reliance on Hellenistic philosophy to express itself, it has an inclination to homogenizing God in such a way that there is no variability of God in any manner as if the God of the Bible must fit into the intellectual, cognitive forms of thinking diffused from Hellenistic philosophy for what the Scriptures testify about God to be true.1 As a consequence, they regard God more like an object that they have scientific theories about. Then, when someone complains about not understanding where God is in the midst of something, they can heap judgment on that person for not seeing God, as if the person complaining automatically has something wrong with them.2 What are they communicating about God in that moment? They are often implicitly communicating that God does not care about your pain and what happened, but only saying and believing the ‘right’ things.

What can happen then in such a hypothetical case? Sometimes, the figure in the position in Job may reject what the human protectors of orthodoxy try to foist upon him. But, in some cases, the protectors of orthodoxy implicitly “convert” the person to this type of thinking and form them into a more radicalized version of that thinking: God simply cares about saying and believing the right things, and not about who we are people. This can then launch that person into a never-ended quest to discover the truth because that’s what they expect God cares about and how he is known. Their faith in God is determined by the expectation that God is cognitively known in a clear, intellectual, analyzable manner, rather than known in the concrete embodiment God in Jesus Christ (and not simply in the abstract idea of incarnation) and the inspiration of the Spirit. But, if in their quest to find the absolute, theological truth to know God because that is their expectation, they find that God is not knowable in the way they expect, their faith can turn to unbelief. Their remembered experiences about their understanding of God is that of confusion, of mystery, of potentially endless skepticism if they discover their theological exploration is nothing but straw with no other expectation about God to replace that failed expectation.

What is the antidote to this false expectation? I would say to help them to grow their faith by changing their expectations from a God who is primarily known in a clear, propositional manner to a God who in Jesus Christ loves and serves through themselves following the leading of the Spirit to become as servants so that they can comprehend Christ’s servanthood, rather than the often implicit competitive attitude that can come with intellectual accomplishment if people’s seeking for achievement is rooted in the flesh. In that case, they will find, discover, and experience the God who serves, because they themselves understand and have that sort of expectation about God. Additionally, by adopting a servant attitude, they can be a servant to those who they deem to be weak in faith, to build them up, rather than act in such a manner to injure the “weak’s” conscience in the name of their “knowledge” much like Job’s friends risked doing.

My task here, in the end, is to offer an illustration of the principle about the way faith in God emerges from the relation of remembered experiences and expectations but is not intended a fuller, analytic description. I offer it as a way to reconceptualize the struggles that people have in faith in the hope that it can help us to let the Spirit direct us in our understanding of and the helping of people struggling with faith rather than addressing it from the perspective and interests of the flesh that often propagates false expectations of God, thereby risking reinforcing unbelief.

The critical weakness of critical theory

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August 12, 2019

Critical theory, the ideological child of Karl Marx, the grandchild of Georg William Friedrich Hegel, is a major intellectual force in present-day politics, being one of the main driving forces behind modern progressive politics around matters of race, gender, sexuality, etc. What critical theory ultimately is a complex question to answer as it, unlike Marxism, is not defined by the ideas of one or a couple people, but rather it started more like a collaborative project between many intellectuals such as Mark Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and more recently Jürgen Habermas.

However, critical theory can be understood historically as a process of the resolution of cognitive dissonance between the hopes that Marxism promise and the failure of it is to accomplish what it said was assured in history. Marx thought his vision of socialism and the emerge of a stateless society was an inevitable development of capitalism. To risk oversimplification and to put in different categories than Marx did, capitalism was a liminal phase in the social transformation from the authoritarian feudal society that would eventually lead to a non-authoritarian society. With the gradual accumulation of capital leading to investment to increase profits rather than given to labor, eventually, the proletariat would rise up against the bourgeoisie and the revolution would lead to the emergence of a stateless society.

This didn’t happen, however, particularly in Western Europe. Marxism failed to predict and deliver what was promised, and so those entranced by its ideals began to try to rationally understand why Marxism was failing. Communist party members like George Lukács in Hungary and Karl Korsch in Germany began to question the orthodox Marxism and set in process a reformulation and new understanding of the ideas of Marxism 1. While Lukács eventually recanted of his work under pressure, their and others work lead to the permanent creation of the Institute for Social Research at Geothe University in Frankfurt, which later becomes colloquially known as the Frankfurt School. It was here that people like Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse met and collaboratively worked together. 

They ultimately found Marxism to have had weaknesses on multiple fronts, such as overemphasis on dialectical materialism at the cost of an understanding of subjectivity. In place of Marxism, they sought to bring the social sciences to bear upon understanding and changing society. However, at the core of their project was a similar vision to Marxism: that of liberation. However, even that changed. Marxism imagined the liberation of an authoritarian society to a stateless one. Critical theory is more concerned about the liberation of individuals. One implication of this is is that whereas Marxism was primarily a political and economic theory, critical theory is more concerned about the various aspects of personal and social life, hence it has been used to analyze and understand race, sexuality, and gender.

What I am going to suggest, however, is a criticism that is consistent capitalism that critical theory sought to criticize, but like the critical theorists criticism of Marxism leading to a view of liberation that is more personal than simply political and economic, I am seeking to understand the social foundations that both energized capitalism and lead to its ultimate dysfunction. It is this: human persons are primarily concerned about bettering their position in life and those closet in their social networks and they seek to position themselves in a way to gain the biggest advantage for the least disadvantage.

What the transition from feudalism to capitalism accomplished was a greater degree of freedom for individuals persons of the lower class to change their position than had previously been afforded to them. But by freedom, however, I do not mean the ability to determine the course of one’s life, but rather the freedom to redirect the course of one’s life. Early capitalism was still brutally oppressive, but there was less resistance to people’s attempt to change the course of their life than there had been previously. The lower class were still devalued, but at least the hierarchical control over their life had become more limited through the increasing recognition of personal rights. The emerge of liberalism allowed people to seek to define themselves, but they were never freed from the presence of social obligations and limitations but there were free, in a sense, to seek the modify their place in life and the limitations and obligations placed upon them.

What is known as classical liberalism had a particular power to it: it marshaled the natural human drive to personal betterment and allowed more people the opportunity to do such. While this freedom to redefine one’s position in one’s life was never universally offered, as various classes of people were neither really afforded the opportunity, such as women or ethnic minorities, or were given the resources necessary to take advantage of the opportunity, such that those living in long-term, systemic poverty, liberalism allowed for the transformation of society by allowing individual persons the opportunity to change their social standing.

However, this sense of liberty is a much more pragmatic understanding of liberty, rather than ideological. Freedom was not some idealized state that people were to reach, but rather it was something people were given and allowed to act based upon. Freedom was the condition of human action, not its consequence. As a result, freedom was moral imperative of a political society that was used to legitimate the potential to change one’s status, but it was not an ideological lens by which to understand society nor was it something to possess in any absolute or existential sense. That is why the United States, a society built on the concepts of liberty and freedom but not on its consistent application, only reluctantly and with struggle gave freedom from women and blacks and it is why libertarians are a rather small and relatively uninfluential political party. Freedom was never an overarching, moral ideology, but it was a moral concept with a pragmatic purpose: to allow people to change their standing in life.

This vision of freedom in classical liberalism and capitalism is different from freedom in Marxism and critical theory. While commentators such as Isaiah Berlin have tried to define positive and negative freedoms, I feel this is a much too abstract description of freedom. What I feel is fundamentally different is that classical liberalism does not free oneself from negative circumstances, but provides freedom to change one’s negative circumstances. Critical theory, by contrast, seeks to free people from negative circumstances. Put differently, the freedom of classical liberalism is about the possibility of creating change, whereas the freedom of Marxism and critical theory seeking some sort of guarantee, whether the historical inevitability of the revolution or the guarantee of rational institutions that govern life.

This begins to explain why I think Marxism failed and why critical theory will also eventually fall under its own weight. Part of what the critical theorists determined is that Marxism failed to bring about the promised and hope for change because of the failure to take subjectivity into account. Revolution happens when people decide to revolt; it is not simply some event that happens apart from people taking it upon themselves to see it out. But if you think it is an inevitable process of “fate,” you are disinclined to really take action yourself because you think it will inevitably occur. Thus, the critical theorists felt that the move towards liberation is only maintained and sustained through the ongoing impulse for systemic change and they sought to organize and educate people in such a way as to perpetually participate in the processes of change.

But herein lines the unsustainability of critical theory: human motivation does not naturally incline towards wide-spread change. While there are individuals exceptions to the rule, most people prefer no or slow change. Those who naturally comfortable with rapid and sweeping change are a rare lot. Rather, the desire for rapid and sweeping change is more of an adaptive position out of feelings of desperation, and so people must be stoked towards change through a sense of grievance and vulnerability. However, *most* forms of grievance by individual persons dissipate overtime in so far as their life circumstances allow them to adapt and better themselves otherwise. Wide-spread and persistent unrest occurs when people “collaborate” together as a social group to remember their grievances in such a way as they see their grievances still operating and existing in the present. That is to state that revolution is essentially motivated by a persistent grievance narrative reinforced by the telling of grievances.

This didn’t occur in the West in large part due to classical liberalism’s defusing of such desperation and unrest by providing the possibility for people to change their circumstances as individuals. That combined with the Christian virtue of ‘forgiveness’2 allowed for the defusing of these social tensions. People’s freedom to try to change their personal circumstances was sufficient to defuse such revolutionary instincts among most people. And that classical liberal societies gradually, even if reluctantly, included more people into this freedom help to reduce the grievances.

As a consequence, the necessary conditions for the type of social change and transformation that critical theorists envision can only primarily develop within educational settings in a classically liberal society. It is in universities and other similar settings that people who have a natural, sustained motivation for a specific intellectual topic and passion congregate. Then, they take willing students who are relatively unformed in their thinking and helped them to see the world in a different way through readings, lectures, and various practices. While this defines higher education as a whole, it is in this setting that critical theory survives. A society that has otherwise immunized itself from long-term grievance narratives is vulnerable to the very institutions that are charged with challenging the way the society thinks and functions.

However, there is a real social limitation of being reliant upon university education. The traditional pedagogical methods of university education is a theory first education. That is to state that one is presented with a set of ideas and theories that are to explain a specific domain of inquiry and then after mastering the concepts, the students then begin to see how the theories apply to life situations and circumstances. The limitation of this is that critical theory requires mastery of the concepts to comprehend, but the ideas of critical theory are not readily apparent apart from the theoretical apparatus that undergirds it.

The result of this is that the impulse towards societal transformation as advocated for by critical theory is limited by its ability to educate people into its theory in the first place. In order for the transformation of society to occur that critical theorists and those they influence seek to inaugurate, it has to effectively escape the confines of the educational institution. That is to state, it must become popularized, much like Marxism become popularized and its popularizations served as catalysts for social revolutions. But Marxism had an intuitive feeling to it in drawing the battle lines in a simple way between the proletariat and bourgeoise, even if Marx’s own theory and analysis of capitalism was immensely more complex. In virtue of its highly critical, intellectual stance, critical theory can not be popularized in such a way as to readily understand its core principles. To try to popularize critical theory is to grievously distort it as its methods of social analysis are incredibly complex out of necessity in understanding subjectivity (a brief read Habermas reveals that readily).

By contrast, classical liberalism didn’t require people to truly understand freedom to transform society: it simply had to remove roadblocks to people’s natural inclination towards bettering their situation. Classical liberalism works with what is more generally true about human nature, whereas critical theory relies upon the nature of the intellectual elite. One can say that the way of thinking and living in classical liberalism can be learned in multiple ways. While one can come into it from a theoretical understanding of freedom to then have the practical understanding of seeking to better your life circumstances, it is much more easily learned by people being taught to act freely to better themselves.

Put differently, classical liberalism thrives due to its ability to appeal to what is more broadly true about people across the board, whereas critical theory thrives only within a bubble. In the West, it thrives in the bubble of higher education that allows for the development of a narrow range of highly intelligent people according to patterns of specific theories. I would compare critical theory more to a religious cult, with an insider language that only those initiated into it can readily comprehend. While religious cults typically do not target highly intelligent persons due to their ability to see through appearances and the rationalizations that occurs when the dogma fail, critical theory is the result of an incredibly complex process of cognitive dissonance (far more complex than what occurs in many religious cults) emerging from the failure of Marxism that it has an impressive set of rationalizations that can sustain even the most intelligent of people.

In presenting this, this is not intended as a criticism of many of the goals of critical theory, but rather the unsustainability of critical theory’s methodology and definition of freedom. The critique could extend further. For instance, the ever adaptive nature of human beings to resist attempts to be controlled in order to better their own life leads people to adapt to and resist the forms of social analysis that they deemed is used against their values and goals, thereby changing the very social landscape. In other words, the presentation of a social theory leads to a form of change and resistance to that social theory that makes the theory less reliably. While a meta-theory can take account for this type of change, one can not create reliable social theories that accurately predict and explain in the face of social and political resistance. But I chose to focus on the topic of human nature and learning to highlight its critical theories ultimately fragile, social standing.

This criticism is not coming from a classical liberal. I am not a classical liberal because I feel that this social and political project of the Enlightenment has grievously failed a wide range of the population. I considered myself to be a Christian that takes the vision of new creation of all people in a very serious way, and I find that classical liberalism and capitalism does not accomplish it. That said, I think classical liberalism is immensely more able to accomplish what it was set out to do in the Enlightenment than what Marxism was able to do and what critical theory will ever be able to accomplish.

Forgiveness, invitation, and liminality

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August 8, 2019

The significance and meaning of forgiveness can be, somewhat ironically, a divisive topic. It gets no more divisive than when we talk about abuse victims and abuse. Should an abuse victim forgive their abuser even when the abuser is recalcitrant towards taking responsibility? Some would say yes, that is a necessary part of their healing and growth. Forgiveness is about what you do as the offended. Others would say no, that that forgiveness requires repentance. To forgive an abuser is to deny the pain and anger, not to mention some abusers expect forgiveness from their victims as part of their repertoire of manipulation to get away with the abuse.

Part of the reason for this disagreement about forgiveness is that the meaning of “forgiveness” isn’t necessarily precise and clear. Does it essentially mean regarding the past offense as if it didn’t happen, as proverbially summed up in the phrase “Forgive and forget?” Or, it is simply about forgoing vengeance, to not engage in an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth sort of vindictive behavior? Further complicating this is the purpose of forgiveness is not always agreed. Forgiveness is often portrayed with a therapeutic purpose. On the other hand, it can be responded that forgiveness is sacrificially about the other person, not one’s own well-being.

While addressing the different ideas of forgiveness is impossible to do in a blog post, and even impossible to do adequately in a full book, the different understandings of forgiveness can be looked at through two lenses: (1) how many parties are involved in the act of forgiveness and (2) what exactly does forgiveness entail? Regarding the number of parties in forgiveness,  the offended party forgives the party regardless of the action of the offending party. In two-party forgiveness, the offending party must respond appropriately (repentance, amends, etc.) for the offended party to forgive. Regarding the question of what forgiveness entails, it can be seen as forgetting the past and acting like it didn’t happen, as not taking vengeance, etc. Additionally added to this question is the nature of the relationship of the two parties: does the offended party allow the offending party the type of access and influence they had that wrongly used in the first place?

What I am offering here is an attempt to treat forgiveness through a different lens in seeing forgiveness as a teleological act that has a specific purpose in mind.

I want to suggest at the heart of forgiveness is the vision of shalom, of life being well-lived. But this shalom is not about a specific individual’s shalom, but the shalom of the whole. In that, I want to suggest that forgiveness is an act that frees the offending party by not purely defining them by their sin such that they can be free to live and act appropriately in a community defined by shalom. Forgiveness is an act of liberation that invites the offending party into a new way of action as part of a community of shalom.

However, allow me to clarify: I don’t take the liberation in forgiveness to be a freedom from consequence. Wrong actions, and especially evil actions, should be met with the appropriate response due to the loss of trust their actions have fostered. Disciplinary actions are a necessary consequence of such actions. However, forgiveness as an act of liberation allows for the possibility and space that the perpetrator can be different. As such, forgiveness does not seek to take disproportionate actions in response to wrong and evil acts that have been committed that would keep the wrong-doers metaphorically “locked up.” To use an example that isn’t controversial to illustrate, a manager who acted in a very irresponsible with the budget and money under their control would not be automatically blacklisted from such a position in the future elsewhere, although it may lead to the ending of their present employment with no possibility of rehire. Furthermore, forgiveness makes an appropriate space and path for the offending party to live and act differently. By appropriate I mean it does not either put the offended party into highly vulnerable situations nor does it put an onerous and burdensome sense of requirements and litmus tests upon the offending party that far outweighs the act done. For the hypothetical manager mentioned above, they would need to show they have taken the appropriate responsibility for their irresponsibility by getting the necessary training for handling money and then show their reliability in the future by working their way back up. They would not be given the same position immediately in the name of “forgiveness” nor would they be submitted to needless requirements, such as having to make amends with their previous employer.

In other words, forgiveness as an act of liberating the perpetrator allows the perpetrator to learn, grow, and live differently. This vision of forgiveness is an attempt to take the language of forgiveness in the New Testament seriously. The primary word used for forgiveness by Jesus in the Gospels is ἀφίημι, which is a word used for release and was regularly used in the context of the obligations of debt, whether literal or metaphorical debts. Then, in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.12, Jesus defines forgiveness as a releasing from one’s debts (ὀφείλημα). Then in the parable about forgiveness in the parable of the unforgiveness servant, Jesus again uses the language of debt and the imprisonment that a person in debt can experience to illustrate forgiveness.

What has happened in a lot of Protestant circles, however, is that we have grown to learn to define forgiveness as freedom from consequence rather than a freedom to be and experience something different. When prevailing concerns about God’s forgiveness is about whether one will go to eternal hell or not, the primary lens by which we have learned to see forgiveness is in terms of its consequence. As a result, we don’t readily recognize God’s forgiveness as our liberation so that we can be freed from the risk of such a judgment. It becomes easy then to transfer this understanding of forgiveness to the social, horizontal acts of forgiveness towards each other as freedom from consequence, rather than a freedom from being irredeemably locked away.

What has furthermore gotten lost is that forgiveness is not about a transfer from an all negative status to an all positive status. Protestant accounts of God’s forgiveness treat God’s love as regarding the repentant sinner as on the same spiritually footing as the long faithful saint. In fact, in Protestantism, it is often the case there can not even be a real distinction between the sinner and saint, but that we are, in the words of Luther “simul justus et peccator.” While the original intention of this was good and needed, it is has had the effect of flattening out our view of people without making distinctions based upon actual actions and practices rather than redirecting people to recognize the heart of the Gospel is the liberation of the sinner and recognizing the process of transformation that is concomitant with the appropriate response to liberation.

As a consequence, we don’t have an understanding of liminality, which is a state in which people are going through a process of change that is positive but has not yet reached its intended goal. For instance, I would say in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul does make a distinction between people who are saved and have faith in God’s power and then those people whose faith in God has grown to the love of God; those with faith are in a liminal phase of transition from the old way of thinking and living to a new way demonstrated in Christ and realized through the Spirit. The consequence of this loss of liminality is that we have a hard time recognizing the state of liminal transformation that forgiveness has the potential to initiate. Forgiveness is seen as immediately getting us to the freedom from consequence and just moving on past what happened, rather than forgiveness allowing us the space to grow and learn to be a new person and appropriately participate in a community of shalom under God’s rule.

To that end, forgiveness as an act of liberation is an act in which the perpetrator is invited into a new way of acting and living, as founded upon the person of Jesus Christ as both the exemplar par excellence of liberating forgiveness that comes from God and the exemplar par excellence for how God calls us to live in this world. But forgiveness is the initial, one-party invitation of the offending party into this shalom, it is not the culmination of shalom. The perpetrator is invited into and given the opportunity for a process of change and transformation that will involve them taking responsibility through repentance and confession, making the appropriate amends to the victims, progress through time to establish one’s trustworthiness where one broke trust, etc. Meanwhile, when that type of process is respectfully engaged in without being used as a form of manipulation and coercion by the perpetrator to try to involuntarily obligate and guilt their victim to a certain type of feeling or response towards them, it also allows the victim an easier path towards shalom through healing.

As a consequence, this view of forgiveness doesn’t define forgiveness along the lines of the interests of specific individuals, although it does preferentially take the interests of the victim at heart as an integral part of the process that forgiveness initiates and makes possible. In the short run, the process that forgiveness invites into takes the concerns of the victims into account, although in the long-run forgiveness is about the opportunity of the perpetrator. Forgiveness is a teleological act directed towards the realization of the shalom of the community that includes both the victim’s concerns for well-being and healing and the perpetrator’s possibility of learning how to live responsibility within a community of shalom and experiencing it afresh again. From the victim, they must allow the possibility for people to be different and accept when the invitation is not taken without vengeance, while not denying the wrong done or being obligated to fit their feelings and behaviors into some pattern that acts as if it didn’t happen. From the perpetrator, they are given a route to move forward, but they need to learn to accept the forgiveness that has offered, rather than think some other definition of “forgiveness” entitles them to anything more than the opportunity for liberation.

1 Corinthians 10.1-13, Exodus 23.20-33, and the problem of language

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August 2, 2019

One of the joys of taking a day off from a research project and writing is that you sometimes get to explore a related topic that branches off, but has your curiosity piqued, but you don’t have to time to really address it. One area of interest that I have had, which I briefly expressed the other day, is the relationship of 1 Corinthians 10.1-13 and Exodus 23.20-23. In brief, I suggested the idea that Paul’s discourse implies a connection of Jesus to the ‘messenger’ (מַלְאָךְ) of the Lord who goes before the Israelites, but I didn’t have space to expand the idea in that specific post.

Before explaining the connection, I want to situate this within the setting of 1 Corinthians as a whole. In 1 Corinthians 1-4, Paul addresses the topic of wisdom; the concern for the Corinthians is that they are failing to comprehend how Gods teaches wisdom. They regarded wisdom to be taught much as they expected in the prevailing forms of Greco-Roman wisdom, in which different people reputed to be wise would obtain a large following (Paul’s near-contemporary Epictetus is an example of the celebrity that comes with being considered wise). However, this leads to social competitions between various people considered to be wise to determine who was right and wrong through the demonstration of their wisdom. The Corinthians had treated the various Christian teachers, apparently including even Jesus, as operating in competition with each other and failed to truly comprehend that it was God who was at work in them in the crucifixion of Christ and the giving of the Spirit and failed to understand the significance of this when it comes to the life of gatherings. In 1.30-2.16, Paul defines Jesus as the source of God’s wisdom and that the teachers collaboratively together, not competitively, have the mind of Christ in virtue of the diverse inspirations of the Spirit working together. While Paul primarily emphasizes God’s work through the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor. 2, what is also at stake is an understanding of who Jesus is. He is not merely a teacher of wisdom pitted against others teachers, but He is the source of God’s wisdom, echoing a familiar theme in Proverbs 8 and Second Temple Judaism of a hypostatized wisdom that was in involved in the creation and operation of the world.

What were the Corinthians primarily thinking about Jesus? It is difficult to pin down exactly what they were thinking because we only have Paul’s side with a few briefs hints. However, a few clues could point us in the right direction. Firstly, the philosophy of Stoicism was the prevailing philosophy of the day in circles of Roman power. One of the bigger themes that the Stoics taught about God is about the providence of God. There is a regular order and function of the world and cosmos, and Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus identified this order as “God” or “Zeus.” Occasionally, noteworthy and virtuous figures of wisdom would come around who exemplified some imitable trait. For instance, Epictetus in his Discourses 3.26.27-28 says the following:

Does any good man fear that he may run out of food? The blind don’t run out of food, nor do the crippled; so will a good man run out of it? A good soldier doesn’t fail to find someone to employ him and pay him his wages, nor does a good workman or a good cobbler; so will a good man fail to find anyone? Does God so neglect his own creatures, his servants, his witnesses, the only people he can make use of as an example (παραδείγμασιν) to the uneducated, to prove that he both exists and governs the universe wisely, and doesn’t neglect human affairs, and that nothing bad ever happens to a good person, either during his lifetime or after his death?

The idea is such that particular people show off the nature of God’s providence to the world. That the Corinthians are thinking about God’s providence is evident in Paul’s demonstration of their contradictory beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection and the general resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.12-19. In v. 19 he concludes his rebuttal of their contradictory beliefs by saying: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (NRSV) This verse here perhaps identifies what is happening with some of the Corinthians: some are thinking that Christ is a hope for the present life alone. While the connection isn’t directly in the text, so we there is no proof of this, it is plausible to suggest that the Corinthians’ believed Jesus to be an example of God’s own caring providence, similar to how Epictetus reasoned. Perhaps some Corinthians thought Jesus as a teacher who taught the wisdom about the way the world presently is, rather than one in whom God has demonstrated His world-changing wisdom in the resurrection. Christ did not simply teach some wisdom about God and the world, but in His very person, the events of His life, crucifixion, and resurrection have revealed the very nature of God’s wisdom to be a world-changing, world-shaking wisdom from God.

Now, this brings us to 1 Corinthians 10.1-13. Before getting into its relationship to Exodus 23, we can imagine one possible purpose for Paul in this discourse for the Corinthians in their hearing. If they have understood Christ as simply a teacher that made known God’s providence, then what is the harm of failing to obey? In the Stoic philosophical, wisdom was in part about aligning oneself to the way the world is ordered. But in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul portrays Jesus as actively involved in the life of Israel in the wilderness. This is no mere providence that failure to obey simply lead to some mild consequence based upon failing to be appropriately aligned to the order of things; Israel’s disobedience leads to God’s displeasure and action even as Christ was providing for them. This would serve as a warning to the Corinthians that even as they are experiencing the blessings of Christ through the Spirit, God could be displeased with their behavior.

What I want to first highlight here is that Paul does not portray Christ as the destroyer. He is Israel’s protector and provider, but as stated in 1 Cor. 10.9, Israel’s response to Christ (or the Lord depending on the manuscript) lead to the appearance of serpents. Paul doesn’t say that Christ sent the serpents, but only suggests there was a connection between the two. But if you take a close look at the passage Paul is referring to, Numbers 21.4-9, the only people being said to be spoken against is God and Moses (v. 5). While those of us who are confessional, orthodox Christians might be tempted to connect Jesus in 1 Cor. 10.9 to God, the Old Testament did not express a latent Trinitarian theology. What I want to suggest, however, is that Christ is identified by Paul as the one that joins God and Moses together; that is, a messenger who both expresses God’s will and guides Moses. To speak against both God and Moses, therefore, is to speak also against Christ.

This is where Exodus 23 comes in. The figure introduced is described in Hebrew as a מַלְאָךְ. If you were to peruse through the Old Testament, מַלְאָךְ would often be used to refer to figures that we ourselves would refer to as angels, such as the angel who comes to Abraham in Genesis 22.9-19. But מַלְאָךְ is not used exclusively for what we would refer to as angels. Numbers 20.14-16, for instance, uses the word to refer to a messenger sent by Moses and a messenger sent from God. The word here can be clearly used to refer to human messengers in addition to the “messenger” that God sent to protect Israel. In other words, מַלְאָךְ doesn’t have to mean angel.

The problem that has occurred with our reading of the Old Testament is what I would describe as an ontic assumption of semantic meaning: that is to state that the meaning of a word is determined by what it is used to reference. For instance, a cat refers to a figure that we know in our head as a “cat.” The ontic assumption of semantic meaning is a regular feature of Western philosophy where to know something is to know its substance/essence/nature. We know something by knowing what it is. When this way of thinking penetrates into language, we think “our language refers to what something is.” So, when we see the word מַלְאָךְ, we are tempted to think “angel.” But then, this type of reading deconstructs in Numbers 20.14-16. מַלְאָךְ isn’t an angel, but rather a messenger. מַלְאָךְ seems better defined as describing the role someone has taken rather than a description of their nature. The sense of the word מַלְאָךְ is not to describe an ontological class of beings, but rather the purpose these entities have in relationship to Moses and to God.

In other words, I would say Exodus 23.20-23 is not referring to an angel, but to an entity that serves the purpose of guiding and directing Israel. We see this explicitly stated of this messenger in 23.21: “Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him.” This figure had the role of instructing Israel as he led Israel along the way. However, as the narrative develops, we don’t see this figure teaching Israel. It is Moses who teaches Israel.

I would suggest it is in this narrative silence that allows Paul sees Christ as guiding and leading Israel, including but not limited to leading them through Moses. Hence, he can consider Christ being tested when God sends the serpents. However, we also see him being the one who followed Israel (1 Cor. 10.4) just as the messenger of the Lord followed the camp of Israel (Exodus 14.19).1 Furthermore, the messenger of the Lord in Exodus 23.20-23 is never spoken of as attacking people, but rather the Israelite’s response to the messenger will determine how God acts and responds to his enemies; likewise Paul does not describe Christ as destroying the Israelites. Finally, and for the cherry on the top, this messenger is said to have “[God’s] name in him.” (Exodus 23.21)

However, it needs to be clarified: if this is the case, this is not Paul reading Christ as appearing all throughout the Old Testament when there are various figures that are sent by God. Paul is not identifying Jesus with all messengers/angels in the Old Testament. To do so is to treat Paul’s reading of the Old Testament like a textbook where specific terms have technical meanings that are used the same way again and against. In a previous post when I mentioned this idea about Exodus 23.20-23 and 1 Corinthians 10.1-13 in brief, I suggested that there was an early heresy among early believers that reduced Jesus to an angel, which I take the letter to the Hebrews to be evidence of. Had the early Church made a connection between Jesus and the messenger in Exodus 23.20-23, those people influenced by a more Hellenistic way of reading might have interpreted the מַלְאָךְ (or ἄγγελος in the LXX) under the direct or indirect influence of Greek philosophy and saw it as a description of the figures nature rather than function. In that case, if Exodus 23.20-23 was an early passage used to connect Jesus to God, a Hellenistic influence might have made them think Jesus was angel, rather than Jesus was the one who God sent. Speculative as that is, what we an say with some confidence is that for Paul, he is identifying Jesus with God’s protective and redemptive purposes in Israel’s story. He is identifying Jesus acting in Israel’s narrative to help the Corinthians understand the role that Jesus should have among them, in addition to showing how God responses to those who disregards His messenger. He is not trying to do Old Testament ‘ontology,’ but rather elucidate the significance of the Old Testament narrative.

To conclude with a final thought, the conjunction of Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the wisdom of God and as the one who directed Israel highlights the nature of his high Christology. Paul does not simply identify Jesus with some figure connected to God in the Old Testament. Rather, it seems more plausible and simply to suggest that Paul identifies Jesus with God, and as a consequence, he then identifies Jesus with the messenger of the lord and with God’s wisdom. What this means, however, is that understanding Jesus in His role as Lord and the Son of God can not be reduced to what is known about those figures in the Old Testament, but that He is one who encompasses those literary references but is more than what those literary references originally referred to.

The Scriptures and collaborative inspiration

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August 1, 2019

In recent months, I have become incredibly interested in the topic of Scriptural inspiration. It largely draws from studies in 1 Corinthians 2 and my growing conviction that 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is Paul describing the way that God’s wisdom emerges in the community, and not individual teachers and believers, in virtue of the Spirit’s diverse inspiration of various teachers and the mature to understand wisdom. While Paul’s account there is explicitly NOT an account of Scriptural inspiration, there is a certain idea that I found particularly compelling to consider for understanding Scriptural inspiration: that of collaborative inspiration of persons.

To understand what I mean by collaborative inspiration, it is first necessary to look at a similar concept of inspiration before I describe the account of collaborative inspiration. Thomas à Kempis wrote in his classic The Imitation of Christ that “TRUTH, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scripture. Each part of the Scripture is to be read with the same Spirit wherewith it was written.”1 In this account of inspiration, we find something that differs from many standard accounts of Scriptural inspiration today. Many understandings of inspiration consider the Scriptural text itself as inspired, with the implication that anyone who reads the Scriptures can then possess the truth. While the author is inspired, the reader doesn’t have to be inspired themselves to possess knowledge of the truth. Instead, can come to know the truth in virtue of rightly interpreting the Scriptures, which among the more dedicated and reflective readers of the Bible may lead to the question of Biblical hermeneutics. However, Kempis’ account of inspiration treats the inspiration of the reader as a necessary condition for understanding, not just the author. While Kempis does not expand this idea further, one can try to provide a model for what can explain Kempis’ account, although we do not need to treat the extrapolated accounts of necessarily being authentic to Kempis.

One way to develop this account is to suggest that the Holy Spirit influences the Scriptural reader to direct their understanding of the words in the right way so as to understand what the inspired author wrote. That is to state that a person can understand the truth from the Scriptures because the Spirit provides what is missing in the mind of the interpreter to make sense of the words that are given. My problem with this account, however, is that it treats the Scriptures essentially as containing a secret knowledge that can not be rightly understood at all (or at least, usually won’t be rightly interpreted if one imagines the uninspired persons are simply ignorant but not being actively hindered from understanding it) unless a person is inspired in their comprehension. It isn’t actually reading the words that provide the ability to comprehend the Scripture. Reading is largely a superfluous activity, but the Spirit comes in to provide the right reading. This feels a bit too much of a “God-of-the-gaps” for human cognitive and hermeneutics for me to be comfortable with the idea.

Another account is to suggest that the inspiration of the Spirit leads the reader to understand the same content as the author, but the inspiration does not come in the act of reading, but it comes through other events prior to reading, such as in prayer, service, or even as per Kempis work, imitating Christ. In this case, the act of reading and interpreting the Scriptures is instrumental for a person to come to a knowledge of the truth, but it can only be done successfully by the Spirit’s inspiration of the person in other parts of their life. I consider this a stronger account than the first model for that reason. In addition, it corresponds to what I deem to be the cause of Spiritual comprehension by the mature in 1 Cor. 2.15: the ethical formation of people by their behaviors that are consistent with the leading of the Spirit rather than working against the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 3.1-4; 6.14-20).

Nevertheless, I think this account falls short for another reason. The problem is with the idea that the purpose of the Scriptures is to provided truth. To be clear, I am NOT rejecting the idea that Scriptures convey something we can call the truth. However, notwithstanding the thorny philosophical problems that are connected to defining what exactly truth is, is a more pragmatic concern: knowledge almost never is SIMPLY about possessing truth. Most forms of knowledge in day to day life can be considered to generally provide other epistemic goods in addition to the epistemic good of truth. For instance, the knowledge that a therapist possesses does not simply help them to accurately understand the thoughts and feelings of their clients; it is also instrumental in helping their clients to change from old patterns into new patterns. The professional knowledge of a therapist provides not just truth but also effective action.

For a more religious example, the Sermon on the Mount is not generally considered to provide a true account of Jesus’ ethics. To simply be able to know ethical truths about God’s will and speak about them isn’t the intention of the Sermon on the Mount. One can simply speak such truths while lacking it in actions, such as the wolf in sheep’s clothing which uses the expression of the truth to cloak their destructive behaviors. Jesus’ words of wisdom should also deliver a sense of moral virtue that is consistent with the truth. And, it seems that the way Jesus distinguishes himself from the common hermeneutical practices (5.17-48) and religious practices (6.1-5) of the Pharisees and hypocrites does more than simply say “This is what is true” but can actively direct the audience to a form of knowledge that directs them to be different in their religious and moral behaviors.

In other words, while the Scriptures can convey knowledge truth,2 the Scriptures are normatively intended to provide more than just knowledge of the truth. It also provides knowledge that can direct people in wisdom, form people in virtue, provide comfort and direction in trying circumstances, etc. etc. Most evangelical accounts of inspiration tend to focus on the epistemic good of truth and overlook the rest.

This is where I can consider a collaborative inspiration fitting in: the inspiration of the Spirit provides the capacity for the interpretation of Scriptures to be direct towards the right epistemic goods, besides or in addition to truth. That is to state that an inspired interpreter is inspired to have the sort of knowledge from Scripture that delivers the epistemic goods that God purposes. An inspired interpreter does not simply reconstruct the thoughts of the inspired author, but rather uses what the author inspired for purposes that the author did not have directly in mind. In other words, the interpreters of Scripture are inspired in the usage and application of Scripture and knowledge that comes from Scripture.

Let me use Jesus’ teaching on divorce as an example. One can clearly see that Jesus teaches against divorce, describing divorce as causing of adultery (Matthew 5.31-32). However, in some very conservative, evangelical circles, they consider the Scriptures to provide an inspired knowledge of the truth, and they consider this form of knowledge to be in the form of as a universal moral rule that allows for no exception. If a woman is in an abusive marriage, they may be encouraged to remain in that marriage rather than getting out of it. For them, the Scriptures are inspired to provide truth, and then through their own ways of transforming the ethical truth into a universal moral rule, apply that knowledge is a way that supports marital abuse.

My account differs in that while the inspiration of the author makes the Scriptures reliable for coming to the truth, the interpreters are inspired to know how to use that knowledge in the appropriate ways that are consistent with God’s will and purposes. For instance, in 1 Cor. 7.10-11, Paul shows awareness of Jesus’ teaching about divorce. However, in 1 Cor. 7.12-16, Paul seems to allow an “exception” to Jesus’ teaching under conditions of an unbelieving spouse who leaves. What I would suggest, however, is that Paul isn’t making an exception, which assumes that Jesus’ ethical teaching on divorce should be understood as a universal moral precept. Rather, Paul considers the Spirit to be leading him to provide instruction about martial matters as he concludes his instructions on marriage in 1 Cor. 7 with the statement “I think that I too have the Spirit of God” in 7.40b. I take this to be Paul’s way of stating his authorization to present the teaching about marriage that he does from 7.12 to 7.40a: the Spirit has inspired him to provide ethical instructions regarding marriage, including providing freedom to the spouses of unbelievers that they are free if their spouse leaves. As Paul’s expression in 1 Cor. 7.12-16 has the knowledge of Jesus’ teaching in the immediate context, one can consider the Spirit to have inspired Paul in the application of Jesus’ teachings. In a similar, an inspired interpreter who recognizes God’s purposes for life could recognize that Jesus’ teaching on divorce should not be used in a way that compels such abuse for the sake of keeping a marriage together.

However, I want to clarify my point here. My model for understanding the inspiration of the interpreter by the Spirit is not that the Spirit simply provides a specific application of Scriptural knowledge. One can come to the conclusion that Jesus’ teachings on divorce should not apply to situations of abuse based on some other form of moral reasoning that doesn’t necessitate the inspiration of the Spirit. For instance, one can interpret Jesus’ norms against the background of a consequentialist ethic that considers the consequences of when and where one applies Jesus’s teaching on divorce, coming to the conclusion that it is wrong because it leads to an evil result in perpetuating abuse. Rather, the Spirit inspires the interpreter to recognize good and evil in a more expanded sense by teaching them to recognize and pursue God’s purposes. The Spirit inspires the interpreter of Scripture to comprehend the larger vision of God’s will that the Scriptures testify to, rather than just getting the application right in a specific circumstance or type of circumstance.

This vision of inspiration can apply to more than just ethical application, however. It can also provide a basis for biblical theology and theological exegesis. Understanding the meaning of a specific passage or even a specific book, which is the task of traditional exegesis, is different from connecting the interpretations of various parts of Scripture together to a coherent whole. On the assumption that God did inspire the various producers of the whole canon of Scripture for the Christian tradition and that this inspiration included true beliefs about God, then the diversity of portrayals of God throughout the Scripture can be considered to be able to be brought together into a coherent understanding. The account of collaborative inspiration would suggest that the authors of Scripture did not have to have the larger, coherent account in mind to communicate within the specific communicative situation, but that in virtue of God’s inspiration, their inspired communication can be regarded as consistent with that of another person’s inspired communication, even if the way to hold the accounts as consistent may not be easily or readily apparent. However, an inspired interpreter could have the ability to make sense of the whole that the original authors of Scripture did not. In so doing, their inspiration provides a form of truth and knowledge that is (a) entirely dependent upon the Scriptures and its interpretation but (b) is not reducible to the Scriptures and its interpretation.

However, once again, this account of inspiration does not state that the Spirit provides a theological account of the whole Scripture and knowledge of God. One might consider it possible that a person who is not inspired to come to an understanding of the Scriptures as a whole can still derive true beliefs about the Scripture. However, it is the Spirit who provides a deeper sense of understanding of God and God’s will that enables theological exegesis.

The distinction I am making between the getting the right ethical application of Scripture of a right theological interpretation and the Spirit who inspires people to understand of God and God’s will that determines the way they interpret the Scriptures is that the inspiration of the latter is reliable in a way that people in the former conditions can not be. Put differently, the uninspired interpreter may get the right application of theological understanding in virtue of some reason other than understanding God, which means that the rightness of their interpretations and applications are contingent upon how much their other reason corresponds to God.

For instance, let’s assume the doctrine of the Trinity is true and an uninspired reader, whether a believer or an unbeliever, and believes the New Testament is rightly understood through the lens of the Trinity. Their knowledge about the Trinity in the abstract sense will impact how they interpret the references to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. However, if the Spirit has inspired a person to understand God in a Trinitarian manner in a more concrete way that resembles God’s own self-knowledge, the way that they might interpret those same references will differ in virtue of their concrete rather that differs from the abstract form of knowledge of the Trinity. In this case, we can imagine that the inspired interpreter will be more reliable than the uninspired interpreter.

To conclude, the reason this account is a collaborative account is that the inspired interpreter is absolutely dependent upon the inspired communicators of Scripture. The Spirit does not provide them a form of knowledge or wisdom that makes them independent of the priests, prophets, apostles, witnesses who were inspired in their communication. They don’t get a God’s-eye view of the God and the world that allows them to judge the inspired communicators of Scripture and accept or dismiss them in virtue of having some criteria of truth to make such a differentiation. A person that God inspires in interpretation is always dependent upon God’s inspiration of other persons. Furthermore, a collaborative account recognizes that the inspired interpreter may bring something new to the table from God that can not be reduced to what the Scriptures say.

However, what is brought “new” isn’t necessarily some new, big idea that everyone needs to accept to be faithful to God part from situation and circumstance, but it is a newness that is for the specific range of situations and circumstances that God intends. While, hypothetically, God could provide a new revelation that all believers should accept, I would say from my own personal feeling and thinking that God’s inspiration is primarily focused on bringing something new not on a universal scale but to specific circumstances and needs. In other words, to be an inspired interpreter is not to have a wide, sweeping epistemic authority across various people that should be accepted, but that God is bringing about His will and purposes within a specific context or contexts through the Spirit’s inspiration of an interpreter.

Finally, this view of inspiration still allows for the role of interpretation of the Scripture through traditional hermeneutical principles and the possibility that they can be instrumental in getting at a right or true interpretation. The inspired interpreter isn’t necessarily getting the true knowledge as directly expressed in Scriptures in virtue of their inspiration, but rather the application of the Scripture as a different epistemic good or the theological comprehension of Scripture as a different type of truth than the form of truth expressed in Scripture. It does not rule out the role of education and learning in some sort of anti-intellectual aversion, but it does place a fence around the role that education can and does have in the interpretation of Scripture for the purposes of God’s Kingdom.

Can one who has fallen away return to faith?

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July 29, 2019

As I am taking a mental break from working on my dissertation, I saw in the news today that Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and popular teacher in the 2000s, no longer considers himself a Christian. There are many questions to ask as to what lead to this, such as the role of repetitive public shaming and pressure in guilting a person for his failures by people who refuse to accept his admission of his failure. However, what has drawn my interest is a post by Michael Brown asking if a person who has fallen from faith an ever return based upon Hebrews 6.4-6. It this question I seek to explore.

But firstly to clarify, this is intended as a time to try to criticize Harris or figure out what he did wrong. In fact, I think he has gone through a struggle that, in some way, resembles the type of struggles that the recipients of the letter (or sermon!) to the Hebrews faced. While I grieve the news, I don’t want to start heaping onto Harris, as the instruction of the Hebrews is to build up those who have been going through a period of persecution, not to judge them.

Nevertheless, there are reminders about judgment in Hebrews that should not be ignored. But, does Hebrews 6.4-6 actually teach that once people fall away that they can never become restored again? Here is the passage in the NSRV:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.

Now Brown suggests that this passage is related to a pressure to return to a Temple-based sacrifice system that no longer saw Jesus’ sacrifice as necessary or salvific. He then suggests that Hebrews 6.4-6 is describing a specific state that they remain in insofar as they continued to rely on the sacrificial system.

The problem I find with this interpretation, which isn’t from Brown but from the commentaries I am sure, is that we nowhere get a glimpse of the preacher of Hebrews dissuading the Christians from relying on a sacrificial system. The problems seem to be the audience’s sustained faith in Jesus and continued faithfulness seems to be in question, not specifically what they are tempted to turn to in response. The stream from which Brown’s interpretation comes from echoes too much the false idea that early Christianity was a religion that was built on the rejection of the Torah, and in the case of Hebrews its sacrificial system. Put differently, it treats the struggle of Paul in Galatians and in the situations of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 as the all-defining disagreements that early Christianity was always defined by.

Now, part of the reasons for this interpretation stems from the fact that there are a litany of references to sacrifice in Hebrews. But to construe this as a warning against going back to the sacrificial system overlooks the more explicit purpose of Hebrews, to point towards Jesus was one has suffered and in virtue of that can offer help to the audience. The themes of atonement are rather in service to how Jesus is an aid to the believers, which can enable them to face their own persecution. Hence Hebrews 12.1-4 can speak of Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of faith and then remind the audience that they have not gotten to the point of shedding their own blood. Jesus’ sacrifice serves as an analogy for believers own lives, although their own sacrifice doesn’t have the redemptive significance of Jesus, who inaugurates a new covenant through His obedience.

Another explanation is to be offered. I would suggest a better explanation is that Hebrew 6.4-6 is describing those persons who have grown and matured in Christian faith to the extent that they understood the significance of Jesus and the powers of the age to come, but then they abandon their faith. This is not a new believer who fell away, but this is a person who finally got it and understood the true power and significance of God in Jesus Christ. For a person to have grown and matured that far and then to fall away is tantamount to an absolute betrayal. Hence, the preacher’s words describe such an action that in effect re-crucifies and treats Jesus as a disgrace; this is a language more describing of a traitor. So much has been provided to them and yet they spurn their faith in Christ.

I think this is best situated with a potential temptation by these believers to resort to the worship of angels. Paul makes a reference to the worship of angels in Colossians 2.18. I would also hypothesize that the early Christians in trying to understanding who Jesus was connected Jesus to the “messenger” who went before Israel and in whom God’s name was in (Exodus 23.20-21), which Paul connects to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 10.1-13. While the language of a messenger (מַלְאָךְ) in Exodus 23.20 doesn’t have to refer to what is described as later in Jewish history as angels, the early Christians identified Jesus as κύριος in part due “my name is in him” in Exodus 23.21. However, such a tradition could have veered differently in some circles and developed the idea that Jesus was an angel rather than One who is identified with God. One possible motivation for this belief was the role that angels regularly played in apocalyptic literature as figures of power and ones who brought revelation. While it is pure speculation, my hypothesis is that would-be “prophets” associated with some of these specific apocalyptic traditions were responsible for what 1 John is resisting in people who deny that Jesus was human and is from God (1 John 4.2-3). In short, an angel Christology seems to be lurking in the wings for the early church that regards Jesus as some sort of revered angel, which would in their eyes make Jesus powerful but not the all-powerful God.

This heresy, which we can safely call it, is evident in the first chapter of Hebrews. There, the preacher of Hebrews begins by establishing that Jesus is identified with God as one who reflects God’s glory and the direct, visible expression of God’s very nature (Hebrews 1.3). Then, he proceeds to establish a distance between Jesus and the angels by pointing to some passages deemed messianic that describe his exalted status. The point is to remind the audience of Hebrews that Jesus is someone more than just an angel. He is the very presence of God, yet also human in every way we are.

So, the audience seems to be tempted in some way to downgrade their view of Jesus and His power and status. The motivations for this can be complex, but we might imagine some it may stem from the experience of oppression and persecution that leads them to ask, “why isn’t Jesus saving us?” Downgrading Jesus to an angel, in which case his death wasn’t a real human death with real human consequences and struggles, would be to limit the shape and power of Christ’s redemption to the apparent reality of the present circumstances. But the preacher of Hebrews endeavors to teach that that what Jesus did on the cross as deep, pervasive power and impact upon them and their lives and future. In addition, the way of life of following Christ would be difficult under such strenuous circumstances: be hospitable? Don’t take vengeance? Be willing to suffer? IF one downgraded Jesus to an angel, one could then justify taking matters into one’s own hands to better one’s circumstance and leave that particular ethos behind.

So then, I would suggest falling away in Hebrews 6.4-6 was in reference to the idea of downgrading Jesus to simply an angel and the rationalization that would provide to engage in sinful behaviors rather than to continue the pathway of faithfulness. To have experienced the depth of God’s power and then to fall away with such an idea was tantamount to treat Jesus’ death as superfluous, a mere mirage, as unimportant, and thus an act of betrayal that brings contempt upon Jesus once again.

Though, to be clear here, though, this is a question about who Jesus is and His power; it isn’t, strictly a question about why Jesus allows bad things to happen and the struggles that come with that. I don’t want to connect falling away here with struggles with one’s faith and understanding, but rather to be the type of person who has experienced and understood the power of God in Jesus Christ and to then downgrade their view of Jesus. This is what the preacher of Hebrews is referring to.

But, allow me to go a bit further here: the preacher isn’t referring to the idea “once you reach such a level and then fall away, you can never come back.” Rather, he is painting an image of a fully constructed building that has then collapsed. In Hebrews 6.1 he refers to the elementary teachers as a building foundation, with the idea that the rest of the instructions constitute the building as a whole (compare this to Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 3; this is one of the reasons I think Apollos is the preacher of Hebrews). The word for falling away in Hebrews 6.4, παραπίπτω, conveys the image of the metaphorical building toppling over on its side.

With this image in mind, I want to suggest the meaning of the phrase restore again to repentance (ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν) in Hebrews 6.6 (although the NRSV and other translations put in n Hebrews 6.4 for the ease of understanding) is best understood as a metaphorical renovation. If the building has toppled over, there is nothing there to renovate and restore. The implication being that a person who has grown so far and collapsed in their faith can’t just engage in repentance of some sin and be restored to the community but otherwise, their faith is still solid. Their entire faith has been toppled. There is nothing left to salvage.

This doesn’t mean, however, that such a person can not return to faith. The purpose of the image is to exhort the audience of Hebrews to continue further in their faith amidst the difficult times they are facing rather than just give up at this point. To give in to what to the tempting heresy they are facing would be to lose all that had been given to them. The preacher of Hebrews doesn’t want all that they have gone through to have gone to waste, essentially. Fall away now, and they will lose everything and will be liable to God’s judgment for receiving the good things from God and not bearing any fruit (Hebrews 6.7-8). It isn’t falling away here, and you can never return, – it is falling away here, and you have nothing to stand on.

So, in other words, the preacher to Hebrews isn’t saying, “once you fall away, you can never return.” Rather, his point is closer to the idea that if you destroy your faith, you can’t just do a little repentance here and there and then be good as new.

How applicable is this passage to Joshua Harris? I don’t know, nor do we really need to focus on that. Whether Harris is going through a dry spell that has made him no longer consciously identify with Jesus but still retains a deeper connection to Him or he has fallen away closer to the sense of Hebrews 6.4-6 is not for me to know from a distance. But, I would hope you, after reading this, would no longer read Hebrews 6.4-6 as describing the inevitable judgment of those who have fallen away, but as describing the implications of losing faith in Jesus as the one from God that abandons all that one has been given and grown from.

Seriously, fellow Christians, can we have a chat?

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July 14, 2019

If you are familiar with the theological blogosphere and Twittersphere, you may have heard about Mark Driscoll’s comments about Calvinism (If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the YouTube video here). To summarize, Driscoll said that he didn’t hold to the five points of Calvinism because “it was garbage.” Now, being Wesleyan, I am not too inclined to defend Calvinism as a theological system, but this is a bit strong of a statement. But where my real concern comes in his rationale for why it is a problem: Driscoll describes the “young, reformed, restless” crowd as “little boys with father wounds.”

This, my fellow Christians, is a potentially abusive type of speech, and we should shun it. I don’t say this because of what Driscoll was known for in the past. I say this with a broader knowledge and experience of how this type of explanation for people’s behaviors, be it religious or otherwise, has a real potential for falsehood and damage to other people.

Let me begin by saying that the single biggest inflicter of psychic wounds are parents. Psychological studies have shown that parents are one of the most significant impacts on people’s lives and damage is done there can have a tremendous impact on the rest of people’s lives. Furthermore, stories of parental abuse are far too common too stomach. But we need to bring a bit of sobriety about this: this isn’t because “parents” are dangerous or that all problems people have can be derived from their parents, but it is because parents more than any other type of figure in a person’s lives have more time with children and more power over them in positions of vulnerability. Statistically speaking, people are put in more vulnerable situations when it comes to their parents than anyone else. This is a basic fact of child-rearing, as the vast majority of children are raised by parents when they are vulnerable and therefore there is the greater chance that the problems of the parent can lead to harm coming to the child.

But, here is where we need to step in and recognize something: parents are not the only possible source of wounds in life. Peers who bully can cause great harm. For instance, social ostracism has the power to induce panic and fear into someone that can become a trauma. Institutions that refuse to be accountable can sow devastation. Need I mention the stories of trauma in religious spaces? Spouses can tear apart the life of another; we know this as domestic abuse. A person who has had good parents can have deep traumas caused by the behaviors of other people. I would know.

Secondly, people’s choices are not solely dictated by their psychological wounds, parental or otherwise. There are reasons, for instance, that someone might adhere to Calvinism, such as its simple, parsimonious way of explaining God and salvation that requires little ambiguity in understanding the role of God’s work. Furthermore, Calvinism can seem like a plausible interpretation of Scripture depending on how one’s faith community defined the terms read in the Bible. This is not due to “daddy wounds” of Driscoll’s condescending explanation.

But when we appeal to Driscoll’s type of language to explain why people do things we don’t like, we are doing something: we are appealing to a common idea within the culture, as we in the West are deeply aware of the damage that parents have inflicted on children growing up, and then treat that as an explanation everywhere we find it expedient for our purposes. After all, if something is due to their “daddy wounds” it means that they are in deep error and that they are the ones who need to change.

This is potentially abusive on multiple levels. Firstly, when wrongly applied, it denies the truth of why people think, feel, and act as they do and instead substitutes it with some explanation that is far from the truth. Secondly, it treats people as simply passive people who have not thoughts and feelings on their own, even when people do have parental issues. There are many people who have such pains in their past and to use it as an explanation for things you don’t like disregards the fact that they may have grown and healed beyond them. Thirdly, it has a way of gaslighting people by making them question themselves unnecessarily because someone doesn’t like what they think, feel, or believe (rather than observation of an actual pattern of behavior). 

Finally, however, and this is getting rather personal, in some instances (though not in Driscoll’s case) blaming things on “daddy wounds” can be a form of blaming the victim and inflicting pain on the innocent. Take my brother for instance, who committed suicide. While never formally diagnosed, he fit the patterns of bipolar disorder. That combined with the teasing blurring into bullying he received in high school were likely contributors to his decision to take his own life. My parents, who were not perfect but did a good job to raise up children who were kind, fair, honest, and hardworking, were devasted. But what then added to their pain is that some people had the audacity to blame my brother’s suicide on my parents. They who think they knew so much had no idea how foolish they truly were. They had little knowledge of the situation, but their unthinking words and implications without any sense of involvement inflicted needless pain on a family that was already suffering. To do this was the blame my family, who were victims of losing a loved one due to a primarily genetic disorder that was beyond our control.

I have heard even similar implications directed towards me as I deal with the effects of my college and adulthood trauma (in addition to the losing of a brother) and trying to return back to a sense of normalcy. People who have never talked to me in detail about the reasons I struggle have made statements to me that imply that my upbringing was the source of the problems I experience and not the experiences of losing my own capacities and sense of connectedness from events in college and later one. While I believe such people to be well-intended, even then, it doesn’t take away from the pain when people make judgments about things they haven’t talked to me about directly.

The problem is this: we in Christian circles have treated psychological and therapeutic principles as tools for our own usage in explaining people and their lives, even though we have not had the necessary training to really do such.1 Since the matters of faith, religion, and spirituality are so connected to psychological concerns, we have been tempted to integrate psychology knowledge into our repertoire of tools to address the problems we see.

And often times, this is often with the intention to help. For instance, I think Driscoll is sincere about what he is saying and trying to help people to see the problem with Calvinism. But the problem with ‘helping’ is that, firstly, we can often be tempted to frame the problems in ways that make us look better and not necessarily with a real concern for helping the people we think we are trying to “help.” This means that we are readily tempted to pull out the psychological explanations that make us look the best, and not necessarily reliably explains the situation or effectively helps the persons. Secondly, because in Christians circles we have often treated our intentions to help as a substitute for thinking well and understanding, we are inclined to think we know what people’s problems are. When it is joined with the refusal to listen so as to learn, it leads to people unknowingly acting in ignorance. People substitute the psychological principles for actual understanding because people feel they have good intentions.

But let me be clear: this is not healthy but a potentially damaging pattern, even despite what we might feel to be good intentions. It needs to stop. Driscoll, as a person who has been somewhat of a bully in the past, seems to be trying to become more sensitive to emotional concerns, but at the same time, he still acts in a way that would be potentially toxic if used in a more interpersonal setting rather than the rather generic discussion of a broad group of people (which can still be harmful through creating stereotypes, but doesn’t tend to have the immediate consequences). Ceasing bullying doens’t come by spouting a few words that show emotional sensitivity, but it comes by a sense of patience that doesn’t jump to extreme explanations for something someone merely dislikes (though, to be clear, sometimes there is bad behavior that needs to be spoken to when there is an actual pattern). “Daddy wounds” are not something to throw around to diminish other people, to explain why people do things we don’t like. “Daddy wounds” are serious matters that should be addressed by people in the know, not talked and gossipped about by those who are ultimately unaware of what the facts of a person’s life are

Trust leading to truth

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July 10, 2019

The question of what is ‘true’ has loomed over the history of the Western intellectual tradition since the pre-Socratics, when philosophers as early as Thales tried to ascertain what was the fundamental makeup of the cosmos. Thales thought the cosmos was ultimately made of water; Anaximander thought the originating principle of the universe was the infinite. Others like Heraclitus and Parmenides didn’t try to explain the origins of what we see but the fundamental nature of the world, with Heraclitus advocated for the fundamentally changing nature of the world whereas Parmenides consider the way of truth to be fundamentally unchanging and everything else to be appearances and opinions. While Parmenides ultimately used truth in the way that has come to influence Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the course of Western intellectual thought, it wasn’t unique to him as the pre-Socrates as a whole were trying to discover something more fundamental that was responsible for what they otherwise readily knew. As a consequence, when we talk about truth, we today use it to refer to some sense of the way things really that appearances do not deliver to us.

But, here is my hypothesis that will probably never be directly validated: what was guiding the intellectual activities of pre-Socrates prior to Parmenides wasn’t a sense of truth that is distinct from appearances, but a sense of discovering what we can reliably understand about the world around us. I would suggest when Thales was suggesting the originating principle as water, he was saying something about the world could be understood in relation to water. Rather than Aristotle’s fitting Thales into his hylomorphism, what if Thales theory of the originating principle was more about saying something about the effects of water upon the world than it was simply trying to discern an original cause. In this sense, Thales intellectual purpose could be considered more pragmatic, concerned about getting to a systematic understanding of how things are rather by finding something that could shed light on all of it. To be clear, it would still entail Thales believing water is the origination of everything as ‘true,’ but for a specific reason: the perceived reliability of the idea. Something that is considered reliable is therefore also true. It was Parmenides who then took this sense of truth and separated it from the world of appearances. I present this hypothesis more so for the purposes of a thought experiment than any full confidence in the idea: what if Parmenides conception of truth was a change from an earlier understanding of truth as something that is reliable?

Allow me to flesh this idea out in a modern context of diagnostic medicine. What is the difference between the symptoms of an illness and the causes of an illness? A symptom is not responsible for all or most of the problems a person has, whereas something that is a cause is implicated. Consider a person who has a painful headache and feels very exhausted. It is likely that a person’s exhaustion is the cause of the headache. In this case, knowledge about the physical effects of exhaustion is reliable to understand the headache and this is the end of the story. However, in another cause, it could also be the headache that is functionally causing the exhaustion. In both of those cases, there is some knowledge we have about one phenomenon that is useful to explain another phenomenon. Still, it could also be the case that there is another cause, such as the person has motion sickness (Thanks WebMD symptom checker!), in which case neither symptom can be considered the cause of the other.

What is at play here is this fundamental idea: our knowledge about one thing is intuitively considered to provide us a reliable understanding of something else that I am aware of (although, what I know about and what I am understanding may, in fact, be considered coextensive upon further understanding). I know one person is sad because I see them crying. I know a computer hard drive is crashing because I hear a clicking. My sense of the truth of the matter of a person feelings and the state of my computer is understood in terms of what could be referred to as appearances. AT the same time, another person may mask their emotions, leaving me clueless as to what they are feeling. My hard drive may be about to crash but there will be a discernible signal of this being the case.

This is how our sense of knowledge and understanding works in day to day life. Truth is delivered by appearances rather than distinct from the appearances. It wasn’t until philosophers tried to analyze thinking itself that we developed a concept of truth that approaches our modern notion of theory. Now, there is a good reason for Parmenides thinking: many ‘appearances’ provide little explanation whatsoever ever. The color of the table I am sitting at doesn’t explain why I can put my laptop on it without it falling to the ground. Then, there are the cases of deceiving appearances. A person’s crying may not be a sign of sadness, but a sign of happiness. The sound of clicking coming from the computer may be a problem with the fan rather than the hard drive. Our inferences based upon appearances are often at fault and there are many appearances that seem to have no significance. It is a small move from many or most appearances do not reliably tell us anything to all appearances are unreliable. While most of our brains are capable of handling the issue of selective reliability of perceptions well by learning to contextualize perceptions and beliefs with other perceptions and beliefs to determine if something is reliable in this case or not, the conscious act of analysis would not discover the contextual nature of reliability that happens largely without conscious knowledge of it, but most of us would have been left unsure how to distinguish between appearances and thereby regarded no appearances providing truth in virtue of our instinctual bias and strong aversion to false positives rather than false negatives.

The point here? Parmenides ontological distinction between truth and appearances is reflective of the failure of conscious analysis to reflect the way most people developed a sense of what is true. It is a reflection of philosophy’s difficulty with understanding the way human thinking generally makes sense of the world; our brains are capable with some degree of success of discerning which perceptions provide a reliable understanding of other things in our experience, environment, and world more broadly. The way we are generally able to determine what is true is by developing intuitions for what is reliable, which is a result the neural integration of the various networks of neurons together that fire under certain specific experiences that occurs over the course of time.1 That is to state that our sense of what is true is (a) largely the result of pre-rational assumptions that (b) are sensitive to experiences but not necessarily rational reflection, and (c) emerges from what appearances our conscious minds would perceive to be reliable due to the processes of neural integration that occur mostly outside of conscious thinking.

To my understanding, the concept of reliability wasn’t a major factor in philosophy until the emergence of it in 20th century philosophy in the field of epistemology. The closest we get to the notion of reliability that I am personally aware of (and I am not a scholar on the history of philosophy) is with Hume’s explanation of causation as constant conjunction as an explanation for our understanding of causation. The pragmatist tradition gets close to the idea in proposing that truth is discernible by the consequences, but, in my admittedly truncated knowledge, it still regards truth as operating more in the philosophical, theoretical sense than investing a sense of truth within our appearances.

However, there is a tradition within Western history that does regard reliability as the conditions for discovering truth and can ‘invest’ this sense of truth within what appears: the Hebraic-Christian tradition. Without going into a full analysis of the tradition, I will simply give a basic exposition on this from the perspective of my orthodox Christian theology: we as Christians trust God and we trust God is known in the historical appearance of the human Jesus Christ. Faith is not the result of some calculated reflective process that determines the truth of the Christian claims apart from the reliability, or to use more Biblical language, the trustworthiness of God. The truth of God is known by the trustworthiness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of promises and prophetic visions of the (Old Testament) Scriptures. Then, when it comes to the Spirit, they do not appeal to some higher methodology to distinguish between various claims to inspiration from the Spirit, but rather they seek the test the true origins of people’s claims to revelation, prophetic inspiration, etc. on the basis of what is considered to be reliable, which is most notably summarized in Jesus as Lord.

Now, in making this claim of a way of knowing truth that is closer to pre-analytic forms of knowing truth, I am not trying to say the Christian tradition is true in virtue of this fact. Even if my hypothesis about reliability as a theory of truth is the right way to go, it could be the case that the early Christians wrongly thought knowing Jesus is an absolutely reliable way to know the truth about God. The point is rather this: there is a distinctly different way of conceptualizing truth within the history of the Western intellectual tradition that has largely been won by the tradition of the Greek philosophers. While it was present in the Augustinian synthesis of the Gospel with Neo-Platonist ontology and in the metaphysics of Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle, it wasn’t until the revival of classical thinking in the Renaissance that lead to the emergence of the Enlightenment that truth as a theory really became the prevailing understanding of what truth is. Furthermore, because of the Enlightenment’s reliance upon reason, rather than reliability, as the conditions for discovering truth, there was a neglect of the way that claims to truth were often times far from the case and become increasingly unreliable.

In this context, post-modernity found its genesis in question the foundation of ‘truth’ in the Enlightenment, with people like Foucault developing skeptical responses to claims to truth as veiled forms of power. When truth is disconnected from an unconscious sense of reliability or trustworthiness that is responsible for pre-analytic conceptions of truth, “truth” becomes increasingly untrustworthy and worthy of the post-modern scorn. But much as Parmenides conscious reflection made him mistrust all appearances even though this was not an adequate reflection of how people generally thought, post-modernity mistrusted all claims to the truth even though most people have an intuition of truth that created an aversion to the stronger forms of relativism. The ultimate consequence of this is that whereas Parmenides thought all appearances as unreliable, postmodernity has simply masked the unreliability of appearances in a veiled attempt at power without being trustworthy and reliable. AT the end of the day, post-modernity reflects the ultimate failure of Parmenides, mediated through the influence of Plato’s Socrates, to take account of the concept of reliability that unconsciously directs pre-reflective thinking; post-modernity is Parmenides without the way of truth, and thereby making the same fundamental error but with one significant consequence: the views of post-modernity are fundamentally untrustworthy to all but those who the various fragmented views represent. Post-modernity and the views heavily influenced by it are incapable of bridging people together to work towards a communities, social networks, and societies that can be trusted by a wide range of people because it has no real concept of reliability and trustworthiness to begin with, but only the suspicion that is ultimately selectively ignored for one’s own claims. 

This is not to suggest that the solution then is to go back to modernity, as its conception of truth did not reinforce reliability but rather the unthinking idolatry of reason, The Enlightenment worked only so far as its conception of truth was ultimately considered reliable, even as it was not capable of giving what the proponents of the Enlightenment promised. The way to move forward is to rediscover a new conception of truth that is really the notion of truth in its more pre-analytic form as practiced in most of daily life. It is in “relying” on reliability and, when applied to social relations, trustworthiness to provide us what is true.

And from a perspective of Christian theology, it would deliver the possibility of re-conceptualizing our understanding of various theological and doctrinal matters that have been influenced by the historical victory of the Greek and Enlightenment philosophical conceptualization of truth over pre-analytic conceptions of truth. For instance, we can consider Scripture is  to be true not because it provides us abstract knowledge about God qua God Himself in isolation (such as the predicates of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. or metaphysical claims about God’s nature as being in opposition to sin) or even that it provides some “witness” to God that is separate from the truth of God (thereby unwittingly recapitulating Parmenides’s distinction of appearances and truth), but because we discover it reliably informs us about God’s will and purposes for our lives and the world. Additionally, the basic formulation of the Trinity as God being three-in-one can be understood as an important reflective account explaining how we can know God through the trustworthiness of our knowledge from Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit that conditions and forms our faith and spiritual life, and not simply as a doctrinal formulation about God Himself. Finally, it can provide an answer to a specific type of apologetic and philosophical questions: how can we know God exists? By finding that God is trustworthy, rather than by some other form of rational analysis independent of discovering the trustworthiness of God.2

The problem of combining athletics and Christian faith

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July 6, 2019

I love sports. I grew up playing them. Throughout the years, I have played baseball, football, soccer, tennis, basketball, and volleyball. I haven’t played much in recent years as I haven’t had the regular opportunity to play with other people, sports has always been part of my life. I love watching sports too. Having been in Scotland the past two years, I haven’t been able to watch much of the sports I love in the United States, especially Mississippi State athletics.

So, what I am about to say isn’t a criticism of sports, per se. However, it is a real pitfall that comes from some of the intended consequences that occur when we blend Christian faith and sports. When sports and faith are combined, there is a real tendency for people to take faith to be some sort of guarantor of victory in the type of things that the wider world considers significant, both in sports and in the rest of life.

Consider, for instance, the oft-stated and oft-criticized ‘praise’ of those who won a championship: “I want to thank God for winning.” While this type of public proclamation hasn’t been as common in recent years, whenever it happens Christians in America looking for some sort of cultural recognition to hang their hat on cheer such public statements on television. Meanwhile, people criticize such prayers, thinking that God has more important things on his hands than deciding who wins a sports championship. Certainly, God is a bigger God than the critics, who can be concerned about everything in life, including sports. But beneath the somewhat false portrayal of God in the critics is something that is of deeper substance: is God out to give them a sports championship? Was that His real purpose?

Or look at how readily athletes appeal to Philippians 4.13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” including doing things such as marking it out in eye black, which Tim Tebow was especially known for.  Once again, many of us Christians will celebrate when we see a figure use a Scripture reference like that. Sometimes the more sober minded among us will point out that the verse is used out of context. However, I would say that critique doesn’t get at the real point. Why? What does this action convey? While it is a mistake to reduce the meaning to one single thing as it can convey and be intended in many different ways, one implication of this message is often “I can win this game through Christ who strengthens me.” The problem isn’t simply that the Scripture is used out of context from the specific situation Paul’s writes about. In fact, I would suggest Paul’s statement has an aphoristic meaning to it that is meant to apply to a variety of circumstances, not the difficulties that come with not having enough. Rather, the problem is that the way it gets used in the context of athletic competitions with the goal of winning.

The risk in the fusion of faith and athletics is that athletics turns people faith into an expectation in competitive, social victories over one’s opponents, whether it be in sports, in one’s career, in one’s relationships, etc. This is the risk that is unique to athletics; it is a risk whenever we try to bridge faith too tightly with another occupation, hobby, career, goal, etc.: rather than letting Christian faith shed light on that activity, we instead define our faith in terms of the goals and purposes of that activity. Politics is a shining example of this, where rather than the light of the Gospel shedding light on politics, it becomes more often the case that politics tries to determine the shape and true importance of faith. Put more generally, when we apply the symbols of Christian faith to other forms of activities, there is the possibility that we define the symbols of Chrisitan faith by the goals of those activities, whether it be the goal of winning in sports and life or the goal of ideologically conformity and societal victory that is deeply entrenched in the practices of political power.

If the fusion of sports and faith were simply contained to the sports field, then the problems this would cause would be relatively contained. However, unfortunately, sports is often an avenue in which we learn, develop, and refine our social skills in how we discipline ourselves and socialize with others in teamwork and competition. It is also often used as a metaphor for life. Because sports are not contained off from the rest of life, the way we join sports and faith will also impact others parts of life that our involvement in sports will impact. This is where my real concern lay: not that we treat Christian faith as some sort of tool of our sports victory, but that we treat Christian faith as a tool we use in the broader, social spaces of our life and we seek to be victorious in those areas, without concern for the impacts upon others. When the Gospel, directly or indirectly, becomes a message about our success and victory in the social arenas of life, it becomes real easy for us to see people as potential roadblocks to our victory, as potential opponents that we need to find a way to overcome to win. Insofar as sports determines the shape of our faith, we can see others who stand in our way as something less than with the intentions of our loving God. Furthermore, since sports often teach us to never give up but to constantly strive to win, it can also create in us a resistance to repentance because that can entail an attitude of submission, which is what “losers” do.

But, the Gospel is not the story of the winners, but of the losers. For, God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. As Jesus says, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is the poor in spirit who are blessed, not the rich. It is meek who shall inherit the earth, not the strong. Jesus does not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. This is not to ‘glorify’ losing, being weak, poverty, sin, etc. There is nothing glorious in them themselves. Why is that? Perhaps, it is because it is in those positions in life that we are most willing to learn, we are willing to look towards someone or something to direct our lives as we feel helpless ourselves, we are most willing to receive a hand of help from those who can teach us. It is in recognizing our sin, that we repent, which isn’t an attitude of shame-filled “I am a terrible person” sort of humiliation that the self-righteous often seek as signs of their own validation and other people’s subservience, but rather an attitude of “I have been getting it wrong, but I want to go in a better direction.” Those who feel they are winning, who feel proud, who feel first, who feel rich, who feel strong, who feel righteous are very inclined to be self-contented, almost to the point that they will see no reason to change and learn. Faith and sports can be marshaled in that direction, to teach the ‘losers’ that they can still get up, that they are not forgotten, and that they can learn and grow from them.

Having been a head soccer coach for a year in a recreational league on two different occasions, I have found that this lesson is more satisfying in my time. While I did not make this conscious connection at the time, there was something satisfying in my time as a coach. Overall, I probably have something close to a 30% win record as a head coach. It isn’t because I don’t know how to play or coach. I played most of my childhood, where I had to learn how to play because I wasn’t as naturally athletic as some others. My father was also my soccer coach growing up, so I learned some from him. It is simply because I didn’t know the league or the players when I got assigned the team whereas the other coaches knew the league, so I got the team that was, intentionally or unintentionally, set up to lose. But, if you were to track my win-loss record over the course of the year, you would see my teams winning more later in the year. Why is that?

Because coaching is about teaching kids as much as it is about setting them up to win the game. In fact, before it is ever about putting them in the places to succeed and win, coaching is about teaching. And I took pleasure in that as I saw players ranging from those who didn’t know how to play to those who had physical talent but not sure how to use it and I saw them get better as the season went along. We were learning; they were learning how to play and I was learning how to coach as neither they or I were able to win.

I remember this one kid who was one of the fastest players on the team but was always out of control and made big mistakes as a result that would give the other teams goals, despite me trying to teach him time and time again how to slow down and take his time. It frustrated me as a coach to see it happen again and again, but as a person he was one of my favorites as he was a sweet and wonderful kid who was always willing to try. He just didn’t quite get it because no one had taken the time to teach him (his home situation was not the best) and I was admittedly having a hard time figuring out how to teach the concept of slowing down to a 9-year-old. But, after nearly a year, towards the end of the season, despite many efforts that were left in frustration, I started to notice that he was beginning to take his time every now and then. He didn’t always have to go 110%, but there were moments when it is better to go 60-70% and figure out what to do from there. Even though I was not the best at what I was trying to do, eventually, the light bulb started to go off. He was learning and growing, along with the rest of the kids, because he wanted to be better at soccer. While he wanted to win, sure, he wanted to do the best that he could. He was at almost every practice even when others wouldn’t show up.

While I never explicitly express my faith in my coaching and teaching the kids, though people knew I was serving as a pastor, I found my understanding of God’s guidance and direction of us impacting the way I tried to approach sports, competition, and coaching. Sports and Christian faith intersect more when it comes to how we live when we are on the losing side, when things don’t go our way, when we make mistakes that cost us, and when the deck is unfairly stacked against us.

God has victories for us in life, for those of us who love Him. Some of those may turn out to be victories in career, in relationships, or even in championships on some occasions. But God’s victory in the Gospel is firstly about how He gives those who are on the losing side due to the way the powers of sin and death have stacked the deck against them. That type of victory sometimes means we lose some of the time, maybe even much of the time, because the deck has been stacked against us. But rather than trying to cheat to beat cheaters, to destroy those who destroy, to tear down those who tear down, the Gospel shows us how to learn and grow in our ‘losses,’ to let God direct and lead us through His Holy Spirit amidst the struggles with sin, injustice, and brokenness towards the type of victory that Jesus experienced and has. Because, unlike the President’s haughty and arrogant derision of people as “losers,” it is Jesus who gives victory to the ‘losers,’ and brings contempt to the self-proclaimed winners.

Paul the philosopher

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July 2, 2019

The more I work through my dissertation on 1 Corinthians, the more I am struck by a simple premise that explains roughly half of Paul’s discursive style in the non-Pastorals: Paul is a philosopher of sorts. Certainly, such an idea might appear to be an error prima facie. Even Troels Engberg-Pedersen, who has advocated for interpreting Paul in light of Stoicism, does not go so far as to say that Paul is a philosopher. However, the more I study 1 Corinthians, the more I am left with this basic feeling: the problems of the Corinthians seeing Paul and Apollos as competitive teachers of wisdom cannot be well accounted for if Paul did not, at least in some form, act like philosophers were expected to act in the day.

But this thesis bears clarification by first answering the question: what is a philosopher? While we all seem to have our images of what a “philosopher” is, there are not necessarily the same thing. For some, being a philosopher is to be engaged in the study of philosophy; a philosopher reads people like the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and the more recent philosophers like Nietzsche or Heidegger, etc. in the continental tradition or Russell and Ryle in the analytic tradition. This definition of a philosopher is largely defined by the study of a particular domain of thinking that is known as philosophy. However, this definition isn’t perfect. For instance, the philosophers of science such as Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc. studied primarily the practice and thinking that occurs in science and formulated ideas about the field.

So, maybe we can define philosophy as a field that studies thinking in its various forms. This gets closer to the image we might get when we think of an academic philosopher, who studies ideas and the logical consequences of those ideas. But yet, this definition of a philosopher doesn’t quite work either unless we add an explicit qualification of being professional. For instance, two friends in conversation in a coffee shop (guess where I am at as I write this!) may talk about the way to approach relationship issues and one of them gives advice based upon some overarching principles about how they think relationships work and the other says “You are quite the philosopher.” While such designation is not serious in terms of defining an occupation, that it can be used to describe someone who thinks deeply about how they approach various life circumstances means that being a philosopher isn’t necessarily about precise logical analysis of abstract systems of beliefs and propositions.

It is in this last sense of the usage of “philosopher” that is closest to what I am meaning when I describe Paul as a philosopher. While philosophy from the Presocratics through to Socrates and up to the Hellenistic period had largely preoccupied itself with more “theoretical” ideas about the world and its constitution, from the Hellenistic period into the Roman era, philosophy took a turn towards focusing on ethical matters. As Europe had increasingly integrated various peoples and cultures towards political integration through the processes of regionalization that Alexander the Great’s empire and then the Roman empire created, the various structures of meaning and norms would begin to break down. Concomitant with that would have been an increase in anxiety about one’s life and place in the world, especially in light of the more familiar local governance that people were closely connected to being replaced by imperial governance and its system of laws that were ultimately enforced by penal and military power. How one is to live in such a context would become highly imperative to determine. Epicurus’ philosophy based upon finding happiness, far the hedonist that Epicurus is caricatured to be, was trying to promote a way of thinking that avoided the anxieties and features that come from the reality of death and the consequences of impulsive, hedonistic behavior. The 1st century AD Roman Stoics of Seneca and Epictetus gave a lot of time discussing ethical matters of how to live within the various circumstances of life. While certainly there were some ‘philosophers’ who had a fascination with the more abstract and logical matters of philosophy, these were regarded as misleading people and a charade; philosophy was practical and it addressed the anxieties that people faced in life.

Philosophers in Paul’s day were helping people to deal with the realities of life: to that end, they are closer to our modern day therapists than our image of philosophers in the modern day. Now, to be clear, this comparison isn’t perfect. Philosophers were expected to have a knowledge of logic and reasoning, although therapists and counselors who employ cognitive techniques may have some basic understanding of reasoning themselves. Philosophers also had certain ontological views on the way the world is and certain definitions of virtue that helped them to determine the norms for how one should learn to adapt in the world, whereas modern-day therapists typically allow for the client’s own values and norms to determine how to adapt. Philosophers also didn’t delve deep into consciousness, but their therapy typically focused on finding the errors of reasoning. Finally, philosophers didn’t do talk therapy like we do today. They may instruct classes in how to think, but their ‘therapy’ wasn’t typically personalized to a single client. Nevertheless, with these qualifications in mind, the goals of the philosopher in Paul’s day were closer to the goals of modern therapists: to help people to live and adapt in the world in a way that maximizes their well-being. Philosophy in the Apostle Paul’s world was more concerned about therapeutic and ethical interests rather than with logic and abstract propositions.

To that end, I would contend that it is best to understand part of Paul’s discourse in his letters as most aptly described as a form of philosophical discourse. Paul engages with Christians across the Roman empire on various matters such as how to live in the face of suffering (Romans 5.1-5), how to become virtuous/righteous by being conformed to Christ through the Spirit (Romans 6, 8). In addressing matters of marriage, he provides practical advice that should impact one’s decision on whether to marry or not (1 Cor. 7). Rather than seeking for one’s own benefit in matters of eating meat, Paul instructs in how one should seek other people’s interest above one’s own due to its association with idolatrous temples (1 Cor 10.23-11.1). Rather than judging each other based upon the appearances of the flesh, one should consider looking at each other in terms of the new creation being created in them (2 Cor. 5.16-17). Paul instructs the Galatians in how to live out their freedom that they have been given in Christ by living by the Spirit rather than the flesh (Gal. 5). Rather than letting anxiety reign, Paul advocates engaging God in prayer and focusing on the good in life (Philippians 4.4-9). The list goes on and on.

Moral instruction was not unique to philosophers, as the Pharisees themselves engaged moral instruction insofar as the Tannaim represents the Pharisees form of ethical thinking and instruction. However, once Paul moved away from a Pharisaical life where righteousness was derived from the interpretation and application of Torah, he could not employ the same style of ethical guidance as his ethical instruction was based upon the power of God at work in the love of Christ to demonstrate what God’s righteousness was ultimately about. The shape of Paul’s ethical reasoning becomes more narrative-driven rather than being based upon a hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. To that end, he shares much more common with the ancient philosophers, who would regularly make use of their mythical and philosophical stories of figures like Odysseus and Socrates as ethical narratives to guide their own behavior. Nevertheless, Paul also does not do philosophy the way that they philosopher did it, at it is the person of Christ who makes known the shape of God’s redemption and the nature of human life rather than simply serves as an example of some noble or lofty ideals.

Furthermore, Paul was a philosopher only in a constrained sense. His vocation was as an apostle who proclaimed the story of God’s redemption of humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus as foretold in the Jewish Scriptures. To whatever degree Paul was capable of philosophical thinking and speech, it did not define his apostolic proclamation (1 Cor. 2.1-5). He primary saw himself as God’s ambassador, empowered by the Spirit to speak to and, through the Spirit, demonstrate the nature of God’s in-breaking love into the world. To that end, his wisdom was more defined by what he did in laying the foundation of Christ down (1 Cor. 3.10-11) than any wisdom exhibited in the form of philosophical discourse. However, Paul could speak in more of a philosophical manner (1 Cor 2.6-16) but even this was due to the inspiration of the Spirit to make known what cannot be known through the normal modes of philosophy in observation, learning, and reasoning (1 Cor. 2.9).

As a consequence, what defined Paul’s philosophical thinking from that of his nearest contemporaries, the Stoics, is that God’s wisdom is unknowable except through specific acts of revelation and that God’s wisdom isn’t based upon the way of the current order of the world, but how God is transforming the cosmos by Christ and through the Spirit to bring about a new creation that is eroding the order of the present age. As such, Paul’s philosophical thinking is more eschatological, if not even apocalyptic in a sense, that persistently relies upon the direction and inspiration of the Spirit for a person through faith to be intellectually and ethically be formed into the ultimate eschatological pattern that Jesus Christ is the source of and first visible appearance of.

Paul is firstly an apostle whose primary task is to proclaim the story of the resurrected Messiah to the Gentiles. However, in guiding the Christian communities he was responsible for teaching and in engaging with the conflicts with other outsider teachers who were leading them astray from the Gospel, Paul could engage in a form of thinking and discourse that closely resembles philosophical discourse in terms of style of instruction and its goals, although radically different in the presuppositions that determine the shape of the philosophical reasoning in taking the narrative of Jesus Christ as constitutive for the content of his philosophical thinking.