Why I now identify as post-charismatic

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July 16, 2018

Much of my spiritual life, which I define from my freshman year of college, has been defined by two very different mindsets that were battling themselves out with each other. On the one hand, I inherited the mode of rational, skeptical inquiry from my mother, who had felt burned by churches and taught me to never believe something simply because someone told me I must. While there was room for faith in the shape of my skepticism, I was always quick to observe how religious people could be quite, shall we say, stubborn and off the rails in some of their beliefs. In my earlier days of rabid debate, I would always observe how various people in discussions about theology had a penchant for engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics. Of course the same could probably be said of myself, I am sure as skeptics are commonly selectively skeptical about everything but themselves, but I applied such a skepticism to myself routinely.

On the other hand, there was this wonderous side of profound changes and dramatic experiences that surrounded my life, and the desire to have that to happen to me. Soon after experiencing a dramatic deliverance in my life after coming to a profound sense of faith and repentance, I could read the Scriptures with a new eye; I don’t mean that to say that I was interpreting the Scriptures correctly but only that when I read the Bible it seems to be less of an unlockable mystery to a world I could peer into, as if I replaced blinders with really blurry lenses. Then I remember one day in my freshman year, timid as I was, asking God for the “spirit of Paul,” wishing I could be courageous and bold as he was. That summer I had a couple events that I will only describe as a clear calling from the Lord, but yet a calling that was as mysterious as it was clear. I never tried to make a big deal of all of it, until I got to seminary and was trying to comprehend it. This and many other events or experiences nurtured what I might call a latent charismatic faith.

However, my skeptical faith was always ruthlessly questioning everything I had experienced, thinking I could use it to puff myself up. However, my latent charismatic faith was always trying to break through the iron-clad rationalism that my skeptical side had, never letting my skepticism become a lack of faith. I was a man of two different mindsets, each one rubbing up against the other. Which side is right?

In the modern church, the divide between non-charismatic and charismatic churches tends towards mutually exclusive views. Either the spiritual gifts have ceased and to practice them is some sort of error rooted in ecstasy or mislabeling of natural, although uncommon, psychological processes or the spiritual gifts are very real and those who do not have them are somehow blind or somehow less spiritually inclined than they are. My discovery: both are right and both are wrong, at the same time.

During my time at seminary, I was worshipping one day in chapel and I had a word to my heart saying that I would be a servant. This was both exciting and disconcerting. On the one hand, what would this mean? What role would I take? On the other hand, I had become personally drained from some of my relationships prior to coming to seminary, so I didn’t want to just take on a lot of other stuff; I felt isolated and wanted to feel at peace amongst friends. However, I had a group of people with whom I spent regular time with, going to homes to worship and even participating in the practices of prayer and seeking for the leading of the Holy Spirit. There was one day where we had all gotten together and I had suddenly felt a sense of belonging; I had felt cared for and loved and I was willing at that point to move forward with whatever things meant.

And as I look back, it was when I committed myself to that direct I felt God had given to me that the very people whose brought me the comfort I longed for became the very people who would participate in the greatest pain and suffering in my life. Embroiled in a sharp conflict, I had seen many things during it or afterwards said towards me that I could specifically pin to the behaviors of the people it would have come from; controlling when I was being controlled, building walls and when walls of silence and exclusion were built around me, calling me passive aggressive in a very passive aggressive way through using other persons, treating me as if I was a sexual player looking for “friends with benefits” as I was the one being looked at and spoken to lustful ways and treated in objectifying ways, regarded as a narcissist when I was the one being treated with outright contempt, spoken as if I was a deceiver when I was repeatedly told things that turned out to be false and misleading. All these projects were masks trying to be forced upon me, and when I tried to speak my true feels of fear about what was happening, which emanated from a growing feeling of absolute isolation, my fear based upon what was happening was treated as a cover, pathologized, and spiritually gaslit with Scripture about not fearing. As what I felt was routinely invalidated, overlooked, and ignored over the course of many months, I eventually broke down and began to accept the iron masks people tried to foist on me as my actual person and then I projected my fears outward as what people felt about me. For a brief period of time, I wanted to die because since I was a kid I was always a sensitive kid who wanted to do good for others and the very thought of being what people treated me as was as if to deny the very thing I wanted as a kid.

As I recovered and over the years as I came to my senses and unlocked the iron mask that had been forced onto me, I looked more and more back upon the experiences and how I see the truth of both my skeptical faith and my charismatic faith. On the one hand, my skeptical faith can identify how the religiosity of many of these people was joined with a strong projective nature, as if their faith function to give them the basis to deny their worst qualities by externalizing them upon others and wear a mask of righteousness they believed to be their person. Deliverance here functioned as a deliverance of the person from seeing themselves as they can be, to externalize their negative characteristics as false and to internalize their positive characteristics of the truth. However, my charismatic faith sees the word of God in the call to be a servant, seeing in it echoes of the songs of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah as someone who was treated as guilty for the very things others were guilty of. Not to suggest grandiose role to myself as I am not perfect person in the situation or in life, but God was calling me to be the very thing all of us as the Body of Christ are to be in following Jesus the redemptive servant of God. Deliverance here focuses on the image of the very person put to death who provokes an awareness in the onlookers of their blame they scapegoated onto others, by shifting what we externalized as not being part of who we are as truly being a part of us and in need of forgiveness and real redemption.

In my interpreting the past through a hermeneutical-ized faith, which I wrote about previously, I see both the skeptical side wary of charismatic and ecstatic elements and the charismatic side open to seeing God’s hand and hearing God’s word being brought together in a complementary rather than antagonistic fashion. And, as I have spent the past year in returning to academics, I found my understanding of the Apostle Paul developing in a sharp, dramatic way. In the past year, I have come to the supposition that Romans is primarily focused on the plight of faith for Jewish Christians who would have been tempted to Maccabean-like zeal for glory against their Roman overlords, but Paul pleads with them to suffer with Christ to receive the glory of Christ instead. Secondly, I developed an interest in the idea of a Trinitarian epistemology, which through a winding path took me to Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 and the Corinthians correspondence as a whole. It is there that I realized Paul struggles with two forms of fleshly “charismaticism.” The “charismaticism” of 1 Corinthians where people have spiritual gifts and yet act in very arrogant and self-serving ways, rather than focusing on a love for one another. Then there is the “charismaticism” of the “super-apostles” of 2 Corinthians who forced Paul to mention his own spiritual experience in an indirect way because they themselves claimed such dramatic experiences; Paul referred to these people as bearing a disguise, much as Satan disguises himself in light. In response, Paul appeals to his own suffering along the lines of Christ as his own credentials. Paul himself was simultaneously a charismatic and skeptic, it seems to me. Unless my own traumas have blinded me, I would say that God answered the prayer to have the spirit of Paul in a sharply unexpected and surprising way.

So this is why I now identify as post-charismatic, even though I never at any point in time truly identified as charismatic, despite my latent charismatic side. The early Church clearly believed they had experiences of a dramatic fashion that came from God, but yet they also saw immature and counterfeit versions. Nor did the leaders place a huge emphasis on the charismatic experiences in their teachings. Paul primarily addresses such charismatic giftings in the context of letters that explicitly or implicitly address growing divisions, as in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, or where people are about to abandon Christ as evidence of how God actually works, as in Galatians. Whereas perseverance in faith and love in the face of hardship and suffering is a consistent, prominent theme of Paul and the whole New Testament. Put differently, for Paul, charismatic experiences are only addressed when the love of Christ is threatened by division or apostasy. The charismatic gifts are a part of the experience of the Spirit of God’s People, and yet they are not the center of faith and life, but they aid in the rightly directed faith and life instead. But when treated for their own sake and the power of God given to people is valued as a personal possession and source of experience, it can lead to either a spiritually immature charismaticism as in 1 Corinthians or to the sheep’s clothing charismaticism of 2 Corinthians.

At one time I knew who to blame for everything that happened, but then I came to realize that naivete is different from complicity. When so many great things seem to happen, it can be easy to lose the discerning edge, particularly in this day where there is a strong predilection for religion and spirituality to be therapeuticized and thus be subtly triumphed over by the therapeutic, where religious and Scriptural language are code words for psychological events and processes, rather than psychology and therapy being Spiritualized (and I mean, the work of the Spirit and not some generic set of ideas and practices we label spirituality) self-consciously and a critical eye and brought into orbit around the love of Christ. It can be hard at first to see the differences between mature charismaticism, misdirected and immature, yet genuine charismaticism, and fraudulent charismaticism. It is here where a tempered skepticism provides the basis of discernment.

United Methodist division: What I do know, don’t know, and trust

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July 13, 2018

I KNOW that the United Methodist Church is in the midst of serious disagreement from people who interpret the Bible and understanding God in very different ways.

I KNOW that sexuality is poorly understood across the board and there is a tendency to try to fit the Scriptural texts, psychological, and sociological data to pre-built theological and anthropological narratives.

I KNOW that every party in the conflict has their own ideas of what part of the United Methodist church should stay the same and what parts should change. I ALSO KNOW that every party has a tendency to think what other parties want to change is wrong.

I KNOW that systems are perfectly designed for the results that they are getting, so to get significantly different results means making significant changes.

I KNOW that there is a present dysfunction within our denomination that has manifested itself in various ways.

I DON’T KNOW who all is specifically responsible for the various dysfunctions that the United Methodist Church is having.

I DON’T KNOW what is truly the best direction for the United Methodist Church as a denomination in terms of policies, procedures, structures, etc. I DO KNOW anyone who claims to know with confidence is fooling themselves.

I TRUST that God will lead those people who are truly repentant, who value the Gospel of Jesus Christ and individual persons more than a specific social, property, financial, hierarchical, and bureaucratic arrangement.

I TRUST that that the in-breaking of God’s new creation in the present time always comes with conflict and suffering, because I TRUST the boundary lines between Kingdom of God of the powers of this world are entirely sketched out with external conflict between persons and/or internal conflict within persons, between the natural human reality of the flesh and the transforming power of the Spirit.

 

Wesley’s problematic definition of faith

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July 13, 2018

The shape of understanding of my faith is Wesleyan. The appreciation of the Wesley taxonomy of prevenient, convicting, justifying, and sanctifying grace I take to be the closest to the Pauline understanding of grace of all the traditional Protestant theological frameworks.1 I furthermore appreciate how Wesley does endeavor to incorporate human experience under the purview of theology, attempting to understand the specific experiences of Christian conversation and transformation in light of the Scriptures.

However, where I find myself pushing back against the Wesleyan theology is the understanding of what faith is. In his correspondence with a “Mr. John Smith” regarding Wesley’s views assurance and witness of the Spirit, Wesley explains his definition of faith: “The term ‘faith’ I likewise use in the scriptural sense, meaning thereby ‘the evidence of things not seen.’2 There are a couple problems with this definition of faith.

Firstly, this definition of Wesley seems to be too overly constraining, assuming that every usage of faith in the Scriptures always is employed with this evidential sense. Wesley, the student of logic, had a logician’s tendency to fix certain, specific definitions to key terms and treat all uses in a univocal way. Logic is averse to equivocation, whereas most communication has some degree of equivocation. But this is not the only sense of faith in the New Testament, including the very passage he pulls that definition from.

Secondly, The very definition of faith is problematic. Wesley avers this is a Scriptural definition, no doubt knowing it as a quotation from Hebrews 11:1. The translation of ἔλεγχος as “evidence” assumes as the preacher/author of Hebrews was describing faith as something epistemic as if faith is about the degree or nature of confidence one has in things they can not see. The Enlightenment had swept over Western Europe and with it a certain skepticism about dogma and tradition that lead to beliefs having to be epistemically justified based upon reason, whether of the more rationalistic or empiricist varieties. The end result is that Wesley, living in England where a Lockean evidentialist-empiricist epistemology had influenced the intellectual landscape, was inclined to understand faith as pertaining to an epistemic confidence in what one believes about the invisible God. Later in the same letter to Mr. John Smith, Wesley avers: “That a rational assent to the truth of the Bible is one ingredient of Christian faith.”3 Then, in his next corresponds XXXX later, Wesley attempts to address in what way the witness of the Spirit is infallible, he observes: “When they have this faith, they cannot possibly doubt of their having it; although it is very possible, when they have it not, they may doubt whether ever they had it or no.”4 In the end, Wesley finds that faith is something is absolutely sure and convicted of, without doubt. Beyond just epistemic culture of the Enlightenment, this also echoes Wesley’s own struggle with certainty and confidence in his spiritual formation.

This definition is a problem because Hebrews 11:1 is not providing an epistemic definition of faith. The first sense of faith is as “ὑπόστασις of what is being hoped for.” Hebrews uses ὑπόστασις three times: 1:3, 3:14, and 11:1. In 1:3 it is employed in an ontological sense of God’s own nature. Obviously, 11:1 is a bit different usage as it is describing faith and not God. But 3:14 is closer to the usage, as it pertains to something that believers have. Many translations render this confidence, as if the concern is about people assurance of the things the hold to. But this doesn’t appear to be the exact issue at hand at this point, although it was a bit sooner in 3:6. Rather, the issue is, put in modern terms, about the cognitive contents of what they believe. In 3:12-13, the concern is that through the hardness of heart they would not believe in God but be taken in by deception. It is thus more likely that ὑπόστασις in 3:14 is about fundamental ideas one believes; more so it is probably about the faith one has in the ὑπόστασις of God, which Jesus himself has as the exact imprint of God’s ὑπόστασις. It would be a better fit both contextually and semantically to translate ὑπόστασις as “essential beliefs,” as expressing the most fundamental convictions. This usage probably holds over to Hebrews 11:1, as both 3:14 and 11:1 talking about ὑπόστασις and a future hope/realization. In that case, faith is being described as that which pertains the central apprehension of what one is to receive from God. Thus, the first sense of faith is about cognitive beliefs believed, not an epistemic, meta-cognitive confidence about that belief.

This leads to the second sense of faith, which Wesley refers to: “ἔλεγχος of things that are not seen.” ἔλεγχος is a New Testament hapax legomenon, with no other uses elsewhere to compare this usage to. However, both the LSJ and the BDAG lexicons suggest the meaning of the word is related to the evaluation and the arguments made on behalf of something or someone. But is prototypical usage is as a term of rhetorical argument based upon a particular idea, which is known as stasis in ancient rhetorical theory. This aligns with the usage of ὑπόστασις as a basic belief that is being evaluated. However, Hebrews 11 isn’t about aligning rhetorical arguments about what one believes, but rather the examples of people in Israel’s history whose faith pushed them to act when there was no immediate proof or confidence that would obtain what was promised to them by God. Allowing this rhetorical term to be reappropriated in this context, faith is being portrayed as testing God’s promises by believers acting upon it themselves. In other words, faith is putting God’s faithfulness to His promises to the test by acting according to it. Faith is an opportunity to understand discover God’s faithfulness, which entails acts of interpreting what God is doing rather than epistemic evaluations of that.

In neither instance sense, then, is the author of Hebrews referring to a meta-cognitive confidence that rules out any questioning or doubt. Rather, faith is about people who act on the most fundamental convictions in God’s promises, allowing God to be faithful. Thus, Wesley’s understanding of faith as being about an absolute inner assurance about what one believes is a bit misplaced, echoes his own struggles with confidence in his faith than the NT’s concern about the content of who and what one has faith in and the way one’s actions put that faith into action. While certainly, Paul places an important emphasis on the witness of the Spirit, Paul does not address issues of confidence but the issues of content: one recognizes oneself as a child of God as recipients of the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises of the inheritance to the descendants of Abraham through THE descendant Jesus Christ, THE Son of God; the witness of the Spirit was a way in which one made sense of one’s life and experience as signifying something about one’s relationship to God in a hermeneutical fashion. But the Enlightenment shifted the question from content to epistemic justification, thus influencing Wesley to read the New Testament as centrally focused upon epistemic concerns rather than hermeneutical ones. While Paul occasionally addresses epistemic considerations, such as in 1 Corinthians, Paul is more hermeneutic than epistemic, in contrast to the Enlightenment’s and Wesley’s epistemic orientation.

In summary, then, my critique from within the Wesleyan tradition is an overemphasis on the individual’s meta-cognitive confidence in one’s belief. This has made the Wesleyan movements susceptible to the erosion of the core doctrines of Christian faith into a mass of pluralistic ambiguity, fostered by an epistemic faith that is susceptible to erosion if one simply forgets the confidence Wesley ascribes to faith that comes from the witness of the Spirit. At that point, skepticism begins to intrude more and more into the sense of faith, question all that one believes with equal veracity. If faith is defined epistemically, then subtle alterations of the epistemic framework alters the entirety of the way people relate to the content of what they believe. Meanwhile, a hermeneutic conception of faith would allow for degrees of epistemic skepticism about various things, but would not be defined by a specific epistemic outlook. Instead, a more hermeneutic conceptualizing of faith would be more cognitive, rather than meta-cognitive, focused on putting into action what one believes rather than being focused upon searching for certainty or tearing down what is not certain.

And perhaps this is simply a reflection of my own experiences, much as I spoke of Wesley’s. My own experience is one who combined a flair for epistemic skepticism with Wesleyan theology produced a deep spiritual struggle that I experience in the midst of some very difficult moments amongst the rest of my life. The result is a person who was looking for epistemic confidence for what I thought or believed, rather than a hermeneutical ability to make sense of the leading of God, but never able to find that confidence because of my epistemic skepticism. In that, I feel a resemblance to Wesley’s spiritual development, but I break with Wesley’s formative pattern into a person who sought to find absolute confidence based upon an experience of the Holy Spirit. I rather move to a shift with a better balance between hermeneutics and epistemology, in which I trust that the Spirit will provide the eyes to see and ears to hear if I am faithful, but still retaining a healthy caution, although not impassioned skepticism, towards the excesses of overexuberant ‘spiritual’ confidence.

Forgiveness, reconciliation, and social perception

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July 10, 2018

In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul engages with the Christians at Corinth as his authority has been sharply challenged. Many of the Corinthians were unimpressed with Paul’s “charisma” and thought he was sort of a shifty, untrustworthy character who would promise to visit but wouldn’t deliver. That isn’t to mention that Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian behavior, some of which is contained in 1 Corinthians but much of which probably occurred in correspondence we do not have today, probably ruffled some feathers. As a consequence, the Corinthians were susceptible to some opportunistic teachers, who Paul sarcastically refers to a “super-apostles” who tried to present themselves as religious authorities via letter of recommendations and report of having dramatic visions purported to be from God. To put it in modern day analogy, imagine congregationalist church, which hires their own pastors, have a pastor with whom they have become disgruntled with and in the mist of this some opportunist comes in to try to wheedle their way in as the future pastor. What is being witnessed in 2 Corinthians is Paul’s engagement with an attempt to oust his apostolic authority and replace him with others.

Such events can be quite painful, where people you love and care for regard you in a way that you believe to be unfair or untrue. In his opening, he talks about being afflicted and consoled, disclosing a heart that is experiencing pain over the conflict with the Corinthians.1 Paul expresses both the hurt and the consolation regarding his relationship to Corinth is for the benefit of the Corinthians, rather than being about himself. Paul believes he has suffered faithfully like Jesus Christ, and it is this willingness to experience and go through suffering that serve as his apostolic credentials. In disclosing his own heart and understanding of his emotional trials, Paul is making an appeal to the Corinthians: he has the true marks of apostolic authority in his suffering love, whereas his opponents try to appeal to traditional status-bearing criteria such as charisma, recommendation letters and dramatic religious/apocalyptic visions.

For Paul, the critical question then is how do the Corinthians learn to identify God and God’s agents. Paul’s concern is that their social perception is skewed when it comes to God, believing that the signs of God’s bestowal of authority is grounded in these traditional status-bearing criteria, rather than the demonstrations of suffering love. Thus, the Corinthians fundamental problem is that they fail to truly understand the heart and mind of God. They do have a form of faith in God, but they don’t really “get” God. God is like what is known in Jesus Christ. The Corinthians obviously believe in Jesus, but they fail to appreciate that the light of Jesus is carried and born through brokenness and frailty, both in Jesus’ own mortality and death and then the mortality of his apostolic representatives. They know Jesus according to the flesh, but Paul urges them to move beyond this way of understanding Christ.3 that keeps the door open to relate to His people through the chosen human agent, which Paul sees himself. God’s relationship with the Corinthians is not currently in a smooth state, but it is going through a rocky phase, but God keeps the lines open. It is Paul’s hope that the Corinthians will finally rightly understanding God’s purposes and nature in the right way, and as a result, rightly understand the way they are to relate to people, including spiritual authorities.

At the core then is a analytic relationship between forgiveness, reconciliation and social perception. Often times, we construe forgiveness as being about consequences, not punish another person, or about feelings, such as not being angry with a person. But the nature of forgiveness in Paul’s discourse is neither behavioral or emotional, but it is about social perceptions; despite the Corinthians behavior which has grieved Paul and shown they do not truly understand God’s heart, God in his grace and forgiveness keeps a line open to the Corinthians. Forgiveness is about social perception and identity; how is it we will make sense of people based upon their hurtful and painful actions. The lack of forgiveness will treat a person’s negative behaviors as entirely eroding the relationship.

When Israel worshiped the Golden Calf, God’s initial response before Moses intercession was to entirely reject Israel and lead them into destruction. However, after Moses’ intercession, God was not planning on being present in the pillar of cloud, but he still maintained an active concern in Israel’s affairs in the wilderness by sending an angel to guide them instead. But even after God’s retains his concern to be involved with Israel but in a distant way, Moses continues to intercede for God to remain present, and God commits to remain present with his people. This narrative, which is the prototypical narrative of God’s forgiveness in the First/Old Testament isn’t simply about punishment or action, but God’s openness to a relationship with Israel despite their betrayal shows that the way one sees and relates to another is what forgiveness is about. It isn’t about the lack of all consequences, as Israel’s relationship with God was persistently altered as a result of their idolatry and then later lack of faithfulness, but God allows the space for Israel to relate to Him as God desires.

Forgiveness then is the basis for reconciliation to occur by seeing those who trespassed not as simply treacherous and incapable of every being in right relation, but as capable, even if some pain will be cased by speaking the truth of the offenses. Thus, through the joining of forgiveness and the speaking of the truth and hope, reconciliation can result as social perceptions are rightly aligned. Both parties come to rightly understanding each other and each other desires and to genuinely value the other in that way. Thus, true reconciliation occurs not by righting the wrongs, but in seeing each other in terms of what is true, both the negative and positive truths with the appropriate emphases on those different truths, along with a genuine alignment of hearts on what is truly most important. Then, as the social perceptions are rightly corrected, a repentant change of attitude about one’s past behaviors in light of this new understand leads to a reconciled relationship bearing the fruit it should bear.

Thus, Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians is that God and Paul himself as who one embodies God’s righteousness, because of what Christ did has done, has forgiven the Corinthians and his heart is widely open to them, with the hopes of them rightly seeing him, his authority, and what is his ultimate concern, how the Corinthians see God. While a skeptic might suggest the alignment of God’s interests and Paul’s interests might be Paul trying to appeal to God as a way to maintain his own interests, it can also be seen the other way: Paul sees himself as an agent so that through his own struggle, the Corinthians will learn how to rightly relate to him and, through his own struggle in ministry, God in Jesus Christ.

[PS as a matter of self-disclosure, this has been a reflection of my heart from my own experiences of the pains of conflict. Hopefully, it is my experiences that gives me the lens to see rightly rather than seeing what isn’t there.]

Abraham’s seed and Christ

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July 9, 2018

In Galatians 3:16, the Apostle Paul is engaging in an argument about the nature of the promise that God made with Abraham, quoting the words καὶ τῷ σπέρματι σου (“and to your seed”), a phrase that repeatedly recurs in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 17:7, and 24:7. For the traditional Jew, this would have been a reference to Abraham’s lineage through Isaac, then Jacob/Israel, then all of Israel. However, Paul identifies Christ with this seed, saying ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός (“which is Christ.”) Is Paul telling the Galatians that the promises to Abraham were specifically prophecies regarding Jesus? If so, this implies that Isaac was not a recipient of God’s promises, which seems to undercut a traditional Jewish understanding. J. Louis Martyn says of this: “Were one to judge solely from the present verse, one would conclude that for Paul there were, prior to Christ, no sperma, no children of Abraham.”1 But is this actually the case? Is Paul saying the promises of Abraham were only about Christ and treating Israel’s history as incidental history?

Not at all! We get a glimpse of Paul’s understanding about the descendants of Abraham and the promise to Abraham in Romans 9:6:9. Not every one of Abraham’s children is a child of the promise; Ishmael wasn’t a recipient of the promise. Rather, it was Isaac. The promise was transmitted to one descendant but not the other. But that doesn’t end Paul’s argument; Romans 9:10-13 shows the principle of one descendent being the recipient fo the promise continuing onto the next generation as Jacob is chosen. The thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 9 is to say that being an Israelite and one’s behavior does not automatically confer the promises onto them. Paul has a similar, although subtly different purpose in Galatians; one is not a recipient of God’s promises by becoming an Israelite through circumcision and doing the works of Torah. God’s promises are realized through one descendant, not through all of them, whether by natural birth or by proselyte conversion and circumcision.

This provides a context for understanding the meaning of ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός. These words are intended as a clarifying gloss from Paul as a matter of to whom are the promises of Abraham is given. It is identifying the present fulfillment of God’s promises in the person of Christ. The mistake is to think that Paul is interpreting the meaning of the Scripture in its original utterance. Paul says the promise was ἐρρέθησαν (“were spoken”) with the aorist tense, indicating a past event. But he speaks of the seed being Christ in the present tense. While we who are inclined towards interpretations of texts might read this present tense as insignificant, assuming that Paul is simply doing an act of interpretation, this is not at all what Paul is doing. Paul is not engaging in interpretation of the text, aside from an emphasis on the singular nature of the seed. He is talking about the present reception of the promises via the action of Christ as in 3:13-14; Paul is identifying how these words have been realized in Christ. Ηe is engaging in historical hermeneutics about the present situation as a fulfillment of the promises spoken to Abraham, not a textual hermeneutics about the original meaning of God’s utterance, in saying ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός.

Instead, we can refer to Christ as the lineage of Abraham that received God’s promises, and it is through the πίστις Χριστοῦ (“faith/faithfulness of Christ”) that the promise is realized and the rest of the world receives that blessings that come. Just as God transmitted the promise to Isaac, then to Jacob, then apparently Judah who was to rule2 which would be tightly connected to living in the promised land as people, it eventually reaches the person of Christ. To put it in a different way, Jesus is the one who has the right lineage as being the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. This is consistent with the importance that both Matthew and Luke attach to the genealogy of Jesus;3 it isn’t simply important that Jesus was an Israelite, but that he had a specific lineage as a child of Abraham and David, which are necessary markers of his chosen status. Paul’s statement in Galatian 3:16 may simply presuppose this genealogical understanding of God’s promises, while Paul is focused on identifying how God in the present time has fulfilled the promises he made to Abraham in the past. Thus, both Isaac and Christ are the seed/lineage of Abraham to whom the promises are given, but it has become fulfilled in a dramatic way in Christ that was not previously known in the giving of the Spirit as people looks towards the future of God’s faithfulness, rather than the implicit socio-political purpose connected to the inheritance and land of Israel in amassing more numbers of people as part of the Jewish people.

The Bible is Dangerous

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July 9, 2018

For the vast majority of us Christians, particularly here in the West, we have lived in an ignorance when it comes to the Bible and the way many people see outside of faith see the Bible: The Bible is dangerous. It is actually more appropriate to state that the West is ambivalent about the Bible, both wanting to celebrate much of what it contains, particularly the message about Jesus, but also finds a lot of stuff in there they deem dangerous. They see narratives about war and divine justification for widespread violence, maybe even genocide, and they are aware how Christians have fought religious wars like the Crusades. There are texts that can be used to justify slavery and have indeed been used to justify it. There are passages of Scriptures that speak against sexual intercourse between two men, and they are aware of how these texts have been used to treat lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as dangerous, disgusting, condemned to hell, etc. Most recently, it has been witnessed how government leaders can justify oppressive immigration policies under the premise of the rule of law being a government’s right based upon Romans 13. Consequently, many see the Bible as a dangerous.

And you know what: they are correct. The Bible is indeed dangerous. When we have our agendas, the Bible is a convenient book for us to pull out some passage, some story, some text that we can use to try to persuade people for our agenda. Sometimes the problem is a wrong interpretation, such as slavery never being treated as a necessary institution. Sometimes the problem is the right interpretation but used with the wrong motivation, such as the Bible’s views of sexuality being used to attack, exclude, threaten, and demean others in a sense of social superiority,  with the motivations of either making ourselves feel superior or as a convenient trope to stir up the troops for political battles, rather than being a word of how we ourselves are to represents ourselves as part of God’s people in our sexual lives. Furthermore, the Old Testament records the story of God leading a people amidst a very dangerous socio-political world where war, disease, famine, etc. were common occurrences, and so Israel is a people who both must survive in this world and yet also be something holy in the midst of such a dangerous world. If we were to import the Old Testament in a 1-to-1 manner in a world where the forces of war, disease, famine, etc. are not the ever-present threat, although they still exist, what was intended to make Israel holy and rise above the danger just a bit to reflect God’s holiness would actually submerge us into living more dangerously in the world than is merited, thereby undercutting the love that God has for us and wants us to have. Jesus himself recognized that the Torah was written to a people with a hardened heart. For this, and many other reasons, the Bible is dangerous, very dangerous.

Consider nuclear power. Nuclear power has been used for very destructive purposes, such as the atomic bomb. We are even aware of instances where nuclear power plants have experience nuclear fallout, and radiation has spread everywhere. Despite these dangers, nuclear power provides a lot of benefits that far exceed the inputs in terms of the energy provided. Nuclear power has a much greater energy density than fossil fuels, which our world runs on. Compared to the power of oil and coal, nuclear power is a miracle. But at the same time, nuclear power used with wrong intentions or without the appropriate care can have disastrous consequences.

I would liken the power of the Bible in a similar fashion. We who follow Christ believe that if used correctly, the Bible can lead us into great personal and social power that is life-giving through the working of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, much as nuclear materials of uranium can do the same with a physical power. But used inappropriately or with the wrong goals in mind, that power can be used towards dangerous ends.

Of course, I would suggest the metaphor falls short in that while power for both good and bad uses of nuclear materials comes from the exact same source, good and poor use of Scripture would not have the exact same source: God will act differently towards the faithful than he would to the faithless and careless. Nevertheless, the Scripture would still contain the same normative power in the eyes of many others whether the Bible is indeed being used consistent with God’s will or not. The metaphor also breaks down in another way. The danger of nuclear materials makes it highly regulated by governments, that only a few people who are appropriately credentialled can have access to and use it. But the Bible is not something that should simply go into the hands of a few elite users of it; the Scriptures shouldn’t be controlled by a magisterium: we have learned how that goes in church history. Despite being dangerous, the Scriptures should be diffused, while recognizing the risks that come with that.

But it is only when we recognize the danger that is the Bible and employ the Scriptures accordingly that we as the Church can begin to really understand and speak to a society that has seen the Church and her Scriptures as dangerous at worst, a mixed blessing at best. While sometimes the Church has historically been considered dangerous because the righteousness and holiness of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit challenges the powers of the communities, societies, nations, empires, etc., this is different from being threatened when people who associate themselves with the Church marshall its power in threatening and harmful ways. The former is to suffer as a Christians because of one’s righteousness, whereas the latter is to be in conflict because of one’s unrighteousness, even if one self-righteously labels it righteousness.  To speak to a skeptical and mistrustful society because the people of the Church has acted in very sketchy and damaging ways, the Church must recognize how this power has been used for intentions contrary to God’s own loving, redemptive purposes. Discipling the people to hear and read the Scriptures with care, to not be seduced by political, commercial, or even some religious uses of Scripture, to not employ the Bible principally as a rule book to decide the right and wrong arguments, morals, idea, etc. but to first and foremost to attune our hearts and minds to be open to hearing and understanding God and to be formed through that listening receptivity (even though God can still form us in the midst of our ignorance).

The Bible has a dangerous power, but the Church can take great care to make sure that power is used with the right care, so that the Church can be a more faithful witness to Christ rather than being the reasons the people blaspheme God.

Sexuality and the image of God in the concrete: My own struggle

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July 8, 2018

Yesterday, I wrote a post on the realities of sexuality in the current age in the West, particularly the United States, proposing a view of sexuality within the Church that is grounded in God’s image, rather than the other views of sex, such as through the lens of purity and the lens of liberation and fulfillment that I did mention, or other lenses I didn’t mention. Part of my concern underlying it, besides what I think to be the more appropriate Biblical narrative pertaining to sexuality, is that both purity lens and the liberation and fulfillment lens have many harmful, albeit unintended, consequences. However, we are familiar with those two ways of seeing sex, so mentioning something like seeing sexuality through the lens of God’s image can seem quite odd, at first. If one can get past the oddness of the idea, however, then comes the problem: what does it actually mean to view sexuality as part of God’s image? What I presented provided a sketch in broad, general outlines, but didn’t really establish much clear in terms of the specific whats and hows. In part, because there isn’t a list of specific do’s and dont’s, and in part because it isn’t something we have been taught in to have an intuitive sense of what it would entail. So I present here my own story as an example of what dealing with sexuality, particularly in the trauma I have experienced, can begin to look like in relation to God’s image.

My story is one where, simply put, that while I know what it is to be loved and cared for in non-sexual/non-romantic relationships, that I don’t know at all what it is like to be loved and cared for while also being desired. For me, the last part of this equation has only lead me to immense pain because I have never had any sustained relationship where desire was met also with care; I have experienced a string of objectifying interactions as a guy. One time in college, my words “no sex” went ignored, and then when I had a huge emotional reaction to the events, I get texted being told that “you wanted that.” leading me to blame myself for everything that happened that night. A little over a year later, I was engaged in the beginnings of a relationship with emotions I did not truly understand, and when I handled it poorly, she implied she would commit suicide and threatened to hurt me. Then a little over a year later after that, I went out on a couple dates with a female who was very manipulative and playing games that I decided to give a cold shoulder to; I was then told my a mutual friend that if I wasn’t careful, that she “might get a gun and shoot me” (although, I am not sure if that was the mutual friend’s overreaction to the situation, or based on something she heard). Then, a couple years later after that, I was left in an incredibly confusing, contradictory, and threatening situation that had me lose my cool towards a female, and as a result, I got simultaneously and contradictorily blamed as a terrible person yet encouraged to pursue a relationship with them, without much opportunity for me to tell my story or to know what the problems were, to the point that I had a mental break down and lost all trust with those I formerly associated with as I felt my only value to many was as a potential partner to this person, despite my other romantic interests, resistance, and protests.

I don’t tell you these stories to evoke a “oh, how terrible!” response, nor to convey that I am just hard on my luck. I tell you this story because to illustrate the absolute emotional complexity that comes from sexuality. As a result of these and other experiences, I live with the existence of two mutually painful thoughts about relationships and sex: 1) if you have a desire for me you might be dangerous and 2) it is unlikely someone will care about me as a person. I can challenge both of these thoughts individually, because I have spent time with women with whom there was an attraction but no attempt to possess, control, or take and there are people in my life that do care about me as a person, in a non-romantic fashion. But being able to resist both thoughts in any attempt to establish a relationship with a female beyond the most platonic is next to impossible: I will vacillate to protectiveness to withdrawal. Then, if I can manage to find a point where I can keep both feelings at bay, I am left absolutely unsure how to proceed with dating and relationships at this point in my life, as I don’t really trust any feeling I have. This can make dating for me really messy and confusing, as I don’t know how to respond and feeling it is premature to share why I feel so confused to someone at such an early stage.

The salve to my problem would be positive experiences can help me to figure things out. However, I am so deeply messed up relationally that there are not many people who would want take that along in their life, nor is it appropriate to expect anyone to want to deal with that. So then, instead of dealing with the inevitable pain that comes with the all too likely quick failure of a relationship, I eventually decide it isn’t worth it. Then I am left either in a pattern of avoidance where I occasionally enter into the imagination of some sort of ideal relationship, which I cut off because there is nothing realistic about my dreaming at this point. Or I feel the temptation to just pursue some sexual fling to at least feel something different, but I firmly reject that as incompatible with following Jesus.

If you were to look at my situation on the surface with a little bit of psychological knowledge, you might label me as having an avoidant attachment style. And you would be correct: the penchant to dream about idealized romance but then to avoid it is a part of it. Except that much of what is known about avoidance attachment styles aren’t true about me. I grew up in a loving household, where I feel comfortable being with my family, despite the tragedies we have faced. I also know that I have the problem and I am simply left with the lack of ways to actually challenge myself. Even in my awareness of possibility of coming into a good relationship, I can never realistically expect an opportunity for things to be different. While it is always possible for the circumstances to align for change to occur, it is also technically possible that someone will give me a million dollars tomorrow to allow me to pursue all my academic dreams, but it isn’t something you should count on happening. Even as I personally wish I could have a family, I firmly expect to be single all of my life as things stand.

So, taking off my self-disclosure hat and putting on my analytic hat,  what can one say from this? Firstly, some broader observations before getting into the nature of God’s image and sexuality.

1) Because sexuality is filled with so many emotions, it means that we are highly sensitive to develop certain habits, fears, and desires based upon our sexual and relational experiences. As all of the experiences accumulate, we are more impacted by than we are most experience, such that sexuality and romantic relationships can be incredibly complex and messy. There is no set of psychological theories or insights that will adequately exhaust the different possible permutations of people’s thoughts and feelings about relationships and sex.

2) Given the inadequacy of psychology to address the high sensitivity that our sexual behavior has to our various past experiences, psychological insights are at best tools to help us listen to our experience or other’s experiences, but they are not iron-clad laws that describe individual persons. If you are wanting to appropriately help people, there is absolutely no substitute to listening. If you were to figure I am just feeling lonely try to just set me up with someone with the idea that maybe I could just hit it off with them, that wouldn’t help my situation by itself at all.

3) People can not just will themselves to change their sexual desires and relationship practices to fit into some desired goal or outcome. I can not just change my heart to suddenly be suitable relationship material for most women. People who are attracted to the same sex can not just will themselves to feel attraction to the opposite sex. Change is certainly possible, but it is neither inevitable nor can the nature of the change be reliably controlled by some process (so, conversion therapy is out the door).

But moving towards the relationship of God’s image and human sexuality

1) Since being in the God’s image is not about some ontological state, but about our purpose within God’s creation, while sexual relationships between men and women is a way to realize that purpose, being in God’s image is not about being in a sexual relationship but how we are engaging in the world that God created. Loving creativity in a way that is consistent with the world that God lovingly created is the way we fulfill our purposes in being in God’s image. That purpose can be fulfilled in marriage but it can be fulfilled in singleness. I would hope you wouldn’t tell me who has served as a pastor and who has dedicated time, money, and energy to academic study for the church that I am not serving in God’s image because I am not married; one may justly criticize my pastoring or my academic work but my marital status should be seen as A way of life to realize God’s image not THE way of life.

2) Relating our sexuality to being in God’s image is about the direction we dedicate our life to, including our sexual life. That can be done in marriage through faithfulness to one’s spouse, through bearing children, through working together with one’s spouse to form our world in a way for our children or for others if they have no children, etc. But in a state of singleness, it can be realized through dedicating our creative energies into care for others, life-giving works that can serve to support and sustain, which this very post is an attempt to put my seminal thoughts together such that this may bear fruit with greater thought, reflection, and study in the future, etc. Soren Kierkegaard stands as a shining example of whose works have nourished the church while he struggled in his own romantic life; the sublimation of our sexual energies into other avenues can be manifested in other forms of loving creativity than marriage and family.

3) Since sexuality is focused on being in God’s image but it isn’t necessary to it, churches, seminaries, etc. should spend less time focusing specifically on marriage and family and making those families, but instead focus on instructing people what it means to be in God’s image, both in marriage and familiy and in other non-marital avenues of loving creativity. This would still entail discussing family matters, but it would more explicitly ground the purpose to our larger divinely-given purpose rather than to simply focus on having a “good” marriage and family. If well done, it would endow us as people with a clear sense of purpose and mission that clearly impinges upon our relationships; there wouldn’t simply be a moral imperative to loving faithfulness in families but a sense of mission and purpose. Meanwhile, people who struggle with the possibilities of marriage can learn to explore other avenues with that mission in mind; my otherwise unwilling state of singleness has afforded me the opportunity to study at one of the world’s elite universities in theology so that I can hone my academic skill and rigor with the hopeful purpose of serving others, both in the Church and outside it.

4) However, since we as the Church is formed into the image of God through THE image of God, Jesus Christ, the one necessary criterion of realizing our purpose of being in God’s image in either marriage and in over avenues is through the faithful love that endures sacrificial suffering. While marriage has specific goals, such as sustaining intimacy between partners, making sure the children are loved and well-directed etc., and other avenues have their specific goals, such as the well-disciplined study in academic work that I participate in. However, each of these goals is centered around the ultimatle goal of realizing this faithful, sacrificial love in every avenue we participate within, marriage or otherwise.

5) Because my ultimate purpose is to be part of God’s image, it is not my expectation that I will ever have a family of my own, but that God will enable me to participate in his loving creativity in my own life. The healing that I long to occur may never restore that dream; it may be long broken and lost unless God does something. But I trust I will be prepared and sustained so as to realize that bigger purpose. Even as I experience the suffering, I can have a life where that suffering does not define my life.

 

We’re not in Kansas anymore: Addressing the realities of sexuality today

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July 8, 2018

As Christianity became the guiding religious ideology of Western Europe, and then later her colonial nations, the Christian view of sexuality became the de facto public norm of these societies. However, in the past century the West has witnessed a paradigm shift in it public norms about sexuality, from one built upon sexual complementarianism and reproduction to personal sexual fulfillment. As a consequence, the Church in the West inhabits a world of sexuality it is largely unfamiliar with within recent tradition, although there is a familiarity with it embedded in the memory of the Scriptures. Of course, you will hear a many conservative social critics bemoan the shift towards sexual liberation and propose solutions to the problem that essentially amount expecting people to have relationships and sex as it was from the 1950s prior, with hopes of returning to bygone era long past. As Adam and Eve ate the tree of knowledge of good and evil and irreparably let loose a set of forces into the world that could not simply be reversed, the Pandora’s box of human sexuality has been irreversibly opened in the previous decades, from which we can not just simply fit things back to the way things used to be. Sex has become a public religion, with its liturgies diffused into music, entertainment, business, advertisements, politics, etc., having obtained the recognition to ascribe to people their primary, most cherished personal and social identities that define our sense of belonging.

I use the mythical reference to Pandora’s box intentionally, as what came out was a mixed bag of blessing and curses, as all religious practice bestow, including Christian faith. With the upheaval of the Western Christian sexual ethos, which was actually a blend of Biblical sexuality, Augustinian disgust towards sex, and Roman valuation of manliness and patriarchalism, came the liberation of women and healthier views about sex in general. But at the same time, far from simply rejecting Biblical models of sexuality, we actually witnessed many ills that have occurred. The rates of rape in the US increased from the 60s onwards indicated at a rate that matched and exceeded the corresponding rise in rates of other crimes.1 That sex could be used in a very public way lead to the unrestrained formation of human imagination, altering how it is that we see people leading to an increasing objectification of women, who were paradoxically liberated, and even men. As sex has become idealized and worshipped, unrealistic views about sex and relationships have propagated, leaving many people used, confused, and abused from the torrent that comes when uncaring hearts trained by an unrestrained desire finds the power of control and seduction.

While I don’t have the statistics to back it up, I would hypothesize that while there have always been sexual abuse, brokenness, confusion, etc. that the present day and age has witnessed an unparalleled increase in sexual and romantic traumas due to the way the widely propagated liturgies of sexuality have dramatically altered how we relate to and see each other, particularly in the United States. With it comes to the rise of the stories of pain and tragedy that our collective hearts reach out in compassion to, compensating for the damage the religion of sexuality has not seen, conveniently scapegoating the past so that it can simply celebrate its virtues. Perhaps this intuition is simply due to my own traumas that come from being used and objectified making me see it, or perhaps it is my traumas that have allowed me to see it as one of it’s increasing number of victims.

The Church in the West lives in the midst of this and there is no reversing it by some collective, cultural action, wishing as some might. We can’t try to fashion the world into our idealized image, but instead, we can simply become witnesses to God’s image as it pertains to sexuality. How?

1) Ground sexuality in the image of God rather than in purity norms – While many of the religious myths contemporary with ancient Israel would anthropomorphically portray the gods and goddesses as sexual creatures, Israel never succumbed to this notion. Instead, they suggested that when God created humanity, he created them male and female. Sexuality was a fashioned means by which humanity could learn to be in the image of God, which wasn’t about sexual ecstasy but about joining with God in his creation project; reproduction, fashioning a world for one’s children, and the interjoining of different forces/persons, relationships of faithfulness, etc.  are all acts and aspects of loving creativity in conformity to God’s image. This is a world apart from seeing sex as some ugly, dirty thing that we only reluctantly give into to satisfy some urge or for the business of keeping life going.

2) While accepting that well-directed sexuality is a way to participate in the image of God, sexual activity is neither necessary nor sufficient for being in the image of God – There is a common, standard assumption, at least in the West, that you are only truly a full person if you are married/sexually-active/etc., depending on how conservative or progressive one’s sexual ethos is. But sex and marriage is not the only way to realize our purpose as being in God’s image, nor is it necessary to it. While the First/Old Testament do not present celibacy as a serious option, the words of Christ and the instruction of the Apostle Paul both treat celibacy as a real option. However, the reason celibacy is an option isn’t so that we are free from any relational and romantic entanglement to pursue our own projects, but rather as it frees us to pursue the interests of the inbreaking of new creation in God’s Kingdom. Singleness and celibacy are also perfectly acceptable states by which we can direct and sublimate creative energies that would otherwise be directed towards romance, relational faithfulness, and family as part of the first act of creation towards advancing God’s Kingdom in God’s present acts of new creation. Thereby, whether married, a long-term celibate, or single wishing to be married, one can participate in the loving creative action of God. Furthermore, simply being married, celibate, or single wishing to be married isn’t itself going to transform us into God’s image; the life of Christ and the leading of Holy Spirit are jointly necessary to help form and guide us in ways that our marriage, celibacy, and singleness can operate as part of God’s image and creation.

3) Recognize the important roles of both faithfulness and suffering in coming to realize God’s image in His creation, including through our sexuality – Romantic love and sex is a mixed bag, with much to celebrate and much to suffer. God’s type love is something we must learn ourselves, learning how to establish faithfulness and trust that comes with honoring one’s commitments, which can clash with many of our other desires and interests. Furthermore, insofar as we either have desires that conflict with God’s purposes or things have been done to us that conflict with God’s purposes, suffering is an often painful necessity in our life to realize what God has in store for us. Suffering from unfulfilled desires can chasten and discipline us and mourning our broken desires can redirect our hearts from what was taken from us and can never be recovered. However, it is important to state that this suffering should never be outwardly inflicted by others, nor should the instrumentality of the experience of suffering be a reason not to help reach out and alleviate that suffering in reasonable ways; these acts of compassion are acts of faithfulness and trust-forming. Then, when we join the experience of faithfulness from others to us and from ourselves to others is joined with the experience of suffering from unfulfilled desires and stolen dreams, we will find the way to direct our sexuality within either marriage, celibacy, or singleness so as to formed into God’s image in His creation.

4) Know that God’s image is about our purpose within God’s creation, and not any specific ontological status, so that we can realize that our sexuality can be fashioned towards lovingly creative purposes. – Being in the image of God isn’t about any particular state that I am in, nor is it something possess as an individual person, nor does it inhabit me. Rather, it is a statement about God’s purposes for humanity to be reflections of His glory in creation and co-workers in His project of creation. As a result, the way we direct our sexuality is something we come to realize through the learning that comes from growth and maturity, which as with some much else can be quite messy and awkward. There is a specific telos and goal we ourselves in our humanity in general and our sexuality specifically are directed towards, which entails the ability to tolerate the messiness and appropriate mercy and grace for the sin2  that comes with trying to realize the rightly directed purpose.

This, of course, would entail a different set of liturgies and prescriptions; ones that do not simply reproduce the purity ethos of the bygone era but put it in new packaging, but seriously and radically digs deep into the Biblical narrative of creation and God’s image and brings out how those themes address and impinge upon sexuality. Perhaps and hopefully, a rightly grounded sexuality in that meta-narrative would counter the controlling harms and abuses that so readily emanate from the emotions of disgust associated with purity violations, working towards eventually establishing a space of integrity, grace, compassion, and trust with those who have a more progressive sexual ethic and those who have been harmed by errant sexuality within the Church, without having to sacrifice what is important to the lives of those who are conformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit..

Christian wisdom as faith without knowing

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July 7, 2018

St. Anselm’s famous motto fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) has long been an idea that has warranted the pursuit of theological knowledge and understanding within Christian circles. Being a Christian is about having faith, and not about what we know, but there is a certain pursuit and drive to comprehend the nature of what it is that we believe about God. But what if understanding cuts against the fundamental nature of what faith truly is? Now, some anti-intellectual understandings of faith might agree with this, presuming that reasoning and thinking somehow spoils Christian faith. However, that is not the only basis by which we can critique a faith that seeks understanding. An argument that is respecting intellectual inquiry can be made that theology risks spoiling faith, but not because intellectual inquiry is the problem.

Much that we label knowledge is a product of social constructive process, where an emphasis is commonly placed upon the people presenting certain “knowledge. Firstly, we can place a focus on who it is that taught us the knowledge we obtain. In academic circles, a high value is placed on citing the sources whom you pull from. Many churches are known by the style and content of pastoral teaching. Our social nature means that we place a certain emphasis upon particular authorities who we can deem to trust for understanding. The sources we attribute knowledge to obtain a certain status within the societies and communities they inhabit and are listened to within.

Secondly, the knowledge we obtain and retain has a personal significance to it. The knowledge we possess and acquire has a certain pragmatic purpose of helping us accomplishing goals we want to pursue. I learn how to do research because I both want to expand my own intellectual horizons and pursue an academic career. One can learn about the nutritional facts about various foods because they want to figure out a healthy diet. Put differently, “knowledge” places an emphasis on the authorities who provide that knowledge and upon ourselves in how we use that knowledge.

In other words, knowledge is commonly, tightly intertwined with social status and personal desire.

In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul explains how his pattern of ministry was structured so that people’s faith would be in the power of God, rather than in any knowledge and wisdom he might have provided. In other words, right propositional belief was not the most important motivation, but focusing one’s attention rightly onto what God does. Then, in 1 Corinthians 8, he criticizes knowledge as making people arrogant, making them oblivious to the way their actions that are “legitimated” by their knowledge makes them overlook the harm they are causing to Christians who do not possess the same knowledge.

At the core, the problem of knowledge is not the intellectual employment of our cognitive capacities towards understanding God, but rather the way we gain and use knowledge tends to promote a bias towards knowledge-propagating authorities and/or towards our own inward goals and desires that we use the knowledge for. Knowledge as a form of belief that has been strengthened with confidence via intellectual justification entails the people with the praiseworthy skills to provide that, such as engaging in ontological inquiries about the nature of God, the cosmos, etc. And, knowledge as a form of confidence entails a quieting of any dissonance in our own hearts about other concerns that might conflict with the desires our beliefs serve.

This isn’t to say the process of justification and quieting of dissonance are automatically false or sinful from the get-go. It is only to state that the advancement and attunement of our heart towards the loving power of God is not built on the foundations of intellectual justification and the quieting of inward emotional disturbances that come via the processes of knowledge construction and acquisition. For Paul, when faith is rightly directed towards God’s power as made known in the resurrection of Jesus and the visible demonstrations of the Spirit, everything else can begin to come into line to serve God’s purposes. But when faith is directed towards knowledge construction in the form of expertise or to knowledge acquisition to quiet any inner emotional tension and dissonance, our faith becomes more and more formed to look for human expertise and to accept what is immediately useful for us in our circumstances.

Hence, for Paul, wisdom starts with faith, but without knowing; as the proverb states, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is this basic epistemic attitude and orientation that is moving towards being centrally attuned to the being of God in a trusting manner. rather than either to other entities, objects, ideas, etc. or towards God with a different attitude, which determines the way knowledge functions in our life. So, before true spiritual maturity can be built, the right foundation must be set. This plea to move towards paying attention to God in His power as made known in Christ and seeing the world through that lens can summarize Paul’s pleas in the Corinthian correspondence. For instance, as Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5, reconciliation with God only truly occurs when the epistemic attitude of believers shifts matures past the a fleshly faith that focuses simply on the customary badges of the authority of human groups and societies, which can be easily manipulated and seduced, to a faith that is grounded upon Christ in His glorious state as the precursor of new creation, which forms how other people and the world are to be seen. Until this shift of attitude from a misdirected faith in what is true to a rightly directed faith in the Truth, there is no true reconciliation with God, but only a gracious God whose will is being overlooked, whose mercy has not been truly understood, whose grace is simply something we acquire rather than something that forms us. In other words, one can believe specific propositions that are factually true, that are epistemically justified, and are pragmatically useful for our lives but one’s heart is resistant to the fullness of the Truth, as such a directed faith would entail many other propositions and attitudes that would challenge our authorities and shed light on our self-serving legitimations.

True repentance and resistance

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July 6, 2018

Repentance is a key vocabulary term of the Christian faith, as it is grounded upon the very words of Jesus that starts his public ministry: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven/God is near.” People came to John the Baptizer to be publicly baptized for repentance to prepare for He who was to come. When the church of Jerusalem heard Peter’s report on the Holy Spirit being bestowed upon the Gentiles, their first response of praise is “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”1 After having to painfully rebuke the whole Corinthian church and then having to explain his actions, the Apostle Paul goes at length to distinguish between two forms of grief, the godly version of which produces repentance.2 At the center of all of these episodes of repentance is a specific focus, on God in His Kingdom, His Son, His Spirit, His action in bringing about repentance, and His will in taking God’s perspective.

This God-centeredness is important to the New Testament definition of repentance. Commonly, we can portray repentance as pointing to a wide array of actions or attitudes such as saying “sorry,” acts of making amends, trying to correct one’s behavior, feeling terrible about one’s actions, etc. In correcting for the over-emphasis on behavior, many scholars think about repentance as orientation. At first blush, the orientation would seem to be consistent with a God-centeredness. Repentance is about rightly aligning ourselves with God, being focused in the right direction. But there is a distinct problem with this: repentance in the New Testament is understood as behavioral and not simply orientational.

John the Baptizer tells the Pharisees that their repentance, which they would have gladly done as a public act to show how contrite they are, must be accompanied with fruit/actions.3 Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:11 believes godly repentance to lead to certain corrective attitudes and behaviors. Paul explanation about his message to the Gentiles in Acts 26:20 included his purpose of bringing the Gentiles to repentance and turning to God to do deeds consistent with repentance. Jesus to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:5 warns them about judgment if they do not repent so as to do the works they used to do. Repentance is deeply connected to our behaviors.

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to state that repentance isn’t merely behavior management. μετανοεω is a cognitive term that relates to changing one’s thinking, attitude, etc. How can repentance be both cognitive and behavioral? When repentance pertains to the way we change the evaluation our behaviors; repentance is about a changing of attitude about our behaviors, lifestyles, etc. It is to no longer accept them as the right, good, fair, appropriate, etc. actions we might have been inclined to think them in the past, sometimes as the result of the resolving of cognitive dissonance by positively evaluate our behaviors in order to maintain positive evaluations of ourselves, but to recognize there is something fundamentally off about our actions and the motives that existed behind them. Repentance is a recognition that our behaviors have been wrongly guided, and thus to desire and seek to align our future life in accordance with God’s will. In short, repentance is the change of attitude where we accept God’s perspective on our wrongful actions and misdirected life, so that our future actions will come into alignment and attunement with God’s will.

But this type of repentance can be particularly difficult for at least four reasons.

Firstly, to see our actions negatively can entail a strongly negative evaluation of ourselves. If we have either engaging is a lot of wrongful behaviors or we are highly sensitive to any negative evaluation of our behavior, the thought of re-evaluating our actions can be very painful, as it can be a deep challenge to our ego, self-esteem, and pride. For this reason, we often automatically avoid repentance. Instead of dealing with such a painful emotional step, we can be tempted to try to substitute such a negative evaluation with the behaviors we associate with repentance, such as saying sorry, making amends, etc. so as to hastily make up for problems to quickly restore our own esteem. A predilection towards narcissism resists accepting any faults except those that can be quickly redeemed and restored because of the pain that will come with such a negative self-evaluation.

Secondly, while repentance is to humble oneself, one can resist it for fear of being humiliated. We all know of people who can excoriate people for their faults in exaggerated and extreme ways; far from simply pointing out the problematic behaviors from others, these people will take molehills of failures and make them into mountains, and take mountains of failures and turn them into whole mountain ranges. This creates a subtly different resistance to repentance than narcissistic resistance. It is rooted in a belief in abuse from others that comes with acknowledging one’s failures. Having been humiliated, humility can seem quite threatening.

Thirdly, if we recognize our own faults and failures in the eyes of God along with the breaking of trust with others, that means we may feel we are no longer entitled to certain privileges, statuses, rights, etc. Sometimes this feeling is true, such as abusers no longer being entitled the positions or power, and sometimes this feeling is false, such as a person who lost their cool in a relationship once feeling they are no longer worthy to be in a relationship. Nevertheless, the fear in the loss of privilege, status, access, opportunities, etc. can hinder our acceptance of our own behaviors, as our feeling of survival is threatened.

Fourthly, repentance can be difficult because of the necessary behaviors that come with repentance. While there is no set rule of what behaviors come with each and every event of repentance, repentance does entail taking the appropriate behaviors to address the wrong done in one’s relationship with God and with others. This would mean admitting one’s fault to those one has harmed, doing what one can to address harms and damages that were wrongfully incurred (while recognizing that some harms and damages are irreparable and can never be undone), publicly admitting fault, stepping away from one’s positions of authority, etc. etc. Our lack of willingness to appropriately address the actions because it might entail a loss of face, reputation, resources, etc. etc. so we are tempted to either refrain from doing anything with our repentance except promising in our mind to never do it again or either take the easy route out by only taking the actions that do not cost us what we value, even though those actions that cost us are appropriate if not important for addressing happened. As a result, we don’t take the step of actualizing our repentance in action, never allowing it to form a new set of habits and attitudes, but our “repentance” exists only in our mind as something that is not really connected to and influencing our behavior.

There may be other reasons for resistance to repentance, but the core take away is this: the reason for resistance to repentance are diverse and on the surface, one should not automatically jump to conclusions.4 For instance, narcissistic resistance may look similar to resistance to humiliation, but they can diverge critically in the inner, unseen life as narcissism entails a positive self-evaluation, often rooted in a narcissistic supply of other people’s positive-self evaluation, whereas resistance to humiliation entails a fight against the belief that others are out to threaten us. While most narcissists also resist humiliation, not all people resisting humiliation are narcissistic; sometimes resistance to humiliation is often resisting narcissists who are doing the humiliating. Therefore, if it is indeed necessary to discern the reasons for resistance5 then it can not be known from initial appearances but it takes getting to know the person(s), which can be risky as it entails getting to know sinners.

Most of the reasons people resist are outside of our influence. You can’t make a narcissist recognize the truth of their own sins. People who fear being humiliated, even if there is no one seeking to humiliate, are commonly disinclined to make that step. People who have a basic fear of well-being and survival will not engage in true repentance. People who value things other than God’s type of love and faithfulness/trustworthiness will avoid taking the appropriate responses. Nevertheless, there are a few things we can rightly do: speak with both truth and mercy. We speak with truth only insofar as it is necessary to bring something to light that has been covered in darkness, but not to beat a person down. We speak with mercy not to shield others from the consequences of their failures nor to steal the gift of repentance from them, but only to make them know that repentance is safe enough that you will not be abandoned, even if it means there is some necessary losses that come with repentance. Grace and truth do not automatically beget repentance, but it is an act of fertilizing the ground such that repentance may sprout and the fruit of repentance may grow. And it is this life of grace and truth that offers a mirror of God’s grace and truth, leading to the possibility that repentance will become God-centered