Why no longer an evangelical

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January 18, 2019

After my highly rhetorical post “No longer an evangelical,” I received some feedback from Facebook friends who are Wesleyan and orthodox as I am. Their point can be summarized this way: the type of evangelicalism I am leaving behind isn’t the brand of evangelicalism that they adhere to. I can understand where they are coming from, because I myself considered myself marginally attached to the evangelical label for a while. I have long wanted to maintain some connection to that identity.

In fact, that was part of the reason I became United Methodist in college, as I wanted to be evangelical but in a different way; I wanted to be faithful to what I know of God through the Scriptures, but I didn’t want to do it the way I had routinely witnessed with my Baptist heritage.1 Although I wouldn’t have it described it this way at the time, I saw in Wesleyan theology the resources to be faithful to the Scriptures but in a different way. However, paradoxically, it is the very same motivation that lead me to try to be a different sort of evangelical that has lead me to drop the identity altogether. In that sense, then, my heart may be very close to theirs even if we disagree on how to treat evangelicalism.

My rationale for no longer being evangelical isn’t exactly the same as a lot of the other stories. Many people have left behind the evangelicals because they don’t like many of the ethical views commonly expressed by evangelicals, such as the exclusivity of sex to a marriage between a female and male, the way women are treated in churches, feelings of judgmentalism towards people, political and social positions, etc. As a consequence, many people who kissed evangelicalism goodbye but did not leave faith have identified themselves with the smorgasbord of other labels. They have gone to what others might label as liberal or progressive Christianity, although they might not self-identify that way.

I do share concerns that may be related to their concerns, such as the way LGBTQ persons have been mistreated, that women have been barred from serving where God has equipped them, a frustration for how evangelical doctrine of ‘sin’ leads to contempt and fear, how evangelicals have engaged in typically conservative politics, the anxiety that evangelicals have about science. However, I don’t share the same responses to this that many who have left evangelicalism have. While I eschew the wrongful treatment of LGBTQ persons, I don’t think there should be a change about how the Church views sex. While I think women can be just as equipped and qualified as a male to be a pastor, teacher, and leader in the Church and should be given the opportunities to demonstrate this, I don’t seek to promote what I call one-model egalitarianism.2 While I think the doctrine of sin in the evangelicalism is deficient if not at times dreadful, I do think a doctrine of sin is very important. While I disdain the political games and dreams of forming the nation into evangelical imagine, I share many of the stated concerns about social and political issues, such as abortion. I do think evangelicals can be a bit too trepidatious about science, I do think it is important to recognize there are real epistemic limitations to the sciences, both in terms of what science can study and what science can say about good and bad.

IF you understand what I am stating, you might see signs of a reformulating of evangelical doctrine, or someone who is evangelical but simply is a different type of evangelical. After all, many of the things I have stated are not radically novel. Many of my fellow orthodox Wesleyans who consider themselves evangelical would echo many of my sentiments.

But here is the thing: so far as these views are simply considered an offshoot off of evangelical faith, as a different form but still under the same label, then these views will routinely be seen as some deviance from the prototypical form of evangelical faith. From evangelical insiders, my theology, ethics, and ecclesiology will always be judged against the standard evangelical form. In addition, if I call myself evangelical, many people who are outsiders to Christian faith and evangelicalism in particular will tend to jump to the stereotype of anti-LGBT, anti-woman, shaming, politically domineering, and anti-science. From the inside and from the outside, to call myself evangelical is to label myself in a way that is misleading and can breed mistrust.

If the label was simply stereotyped by outsiders, but my views would be considered mainstream to the inside of evangelicalism, I would consider keeping the label. If the label was considered of high regard by outsiders, but I was engaged in an internal debate/strife over what it meant to be truly evangelical, I would consider keeping the label. However, from where I stand, to keep the label of evangelical would be to engage in a spiritual conflict on two fronts, one that I do not wish to fight.

So, I have deep issues with how evangelicalism has become expressed in it’s social and political actions.  Furthermore, as I stated in another post “Wesleyan orthodox instead of evangelical,” I think evangelical theology as it is typically understood doesn’t have the resources to remain orthodox while resist the social pressures that formed what the most visible form of evangelicalism has become. However, with this in tow, I would still consider myself according to the label if I didn’t leave me and other people like me who seek to follow Jesus and walk by the Spirit in the form of an authentic Wesleyan orthodoxy on the defensive on two fronts. I would even persevere with labels that identify me as a follower of Christ, such as Christian, under such conditions, but not evangelical.

Know that I don’t judge you personally if you are a Wesleyan orthodox or another theological branch of orthodoxy that seeks to avoid this mess but you still accept the label of evangelical. I get the reasons for it, as it’s original emphasis placed the focus upon doctrines such as personal faith and justification and the authority of the Scriptures. It has a long history with many great Christian teachers and leaders, including even John Wesley. But when I survey the social, political, cultural, and theological landscape, I find the reasons for breaking free from the identity far outweigh the reasons for keeping the identity.

Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps God will do something that will reestablish the original roots of evangelicalism. Or maybe I am not rightly understanding the social, political, cultural, and theological landscape. I am willing to be wrong on this; part of me wants to be wrong about this. But since I am unaware of where I am wrong about where things are in this present day and age in American, I act based upon what I see. And since I do not know God to be one who is concerned about keeping the labels and institutions as much as leading His people to reflect His light through Jesus Christ, I will make my judgment and decision based upon what I can see in the social, political, cultural, and theological landscape.

Wesleyan theology as proto-analytic theology

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January 18, 2019

As I spent my first few months as part of the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews in 2017, I began to engage with a form of theology that had both of a sense of familiarity and a sense of newness to it in the form of analytic theology. I was simultaneously intimidated but yet felt a sense of understanding about what analytic theology is about. I had more of a natural predilection to Biblical Studies, so when I would hear NT Wright lecture, I felt at home. But my early engagement with analytic theology was quite ambiguous, not being sure if I did or didn’t understand what was happening.

Upon further reflection in the later months, I came upon a realization: what analytic theology attempts to do is somewhat similar to what John Wesley did in his developing theology. To be clear: no analytic theologian would read John Wesley and think: this is an analytic theologian. However, as I compared what I read and knew about John Wesley in comparison to other theologians such as Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, Luther, etc. I though that Wesley’s style is much closer to the analytic style that many other theologians of the past two millenia.

By analytic style, I appeal to the definition of the analytic style by Michael Rea:

P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.’
P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.
P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.’
P4. Work as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those.
P5. Treat conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence.1

Of these five prescriptions for analytic theology, I would suggest that Wesley best embodies the spirit of P2. In additional, his theological discourse often comes into alignment with P3. Finally, while he does not engage in conceptual analysis on a wide scale, he shows a familiarity behind the different uses of words.

It is important to consider that Wesley studied logic at the University of Oxford. He was quite at home and comfortable with engaging in discussion and logic and epistemology. For instance, he wrote a somewhat review/somewhat commentary to John Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding. I present for reading, however, a paragraph from his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”

32. You know, likewise, that before it is possible for you to form a true judgment of them, it is absolutely necessary that you have a clear apprehension of the things of God, and that your ideas thereof be all fixed, distinct, and determinate. And seeing our ideas are not innate, but must all originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind: Not those only which are called natural senses, which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind; but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil. It is necessary that you have the hearing ear, and the seeing eye, emphatically so called; that you have a new class of senses opened in your soul, not depending on organs of flesh and blood, to be “the evidence of things not seen,” as your bodily senses are of visible things; to be the avenues to the invisible world, to discern spiritual objects, and to furnish you with ideas of what the outward “eye hath not seen, neither the ear heard.”2

While this paragraph would never pass as part of a treatise in modern, analytic epistemology, one can not how Wesley is at pains to be precise in what is happening in how one’s knowledge of God emerges from sensations, but of a spiritual kind. Meanwhile, his usage of non-decorative metaphor is relatively limited to references to the “hearing ear” and the “seeing eye.” I would contend that this passage exhibits characteristics of P2 and P3.

Meanwhile, a few paragraphs beforehand, Wesley shows an awareness regarding word usage and clarification:

28. We join with you then in desiring a religion founded on reason, and every way agreeable thereto. But one question still remains to be asked, What do you mean by reason? I suppose you mean the eternal reason, or the nature of things; the nature of God, and the nature of man, with the relations necessarily subsisting between them. Why, this is the very religion we preach; a religion evidently founded on, and every way agreeable to, eternal reason, to the essential nature of things. Its foundation stands on the nature of God and the nature of man, together with their mutual relations. And it is every way suitable thereto; to the nature of God; for it begins in knowing him: And where, but in the true knowledge of God, can you conceive true religion to begin? It goes on in loving him and all mankind; for you cannot but imitate whom you love: It ends in serving him; in doing his will; in obeying him whom we know and love.3

Here, Wesley begins to introduce a topic on which he will identify himself in a way that is distinct from his audience on the meaning and understanding of reason. However, it needs to be pointed out that Wesley is probably engaging in a little bit of a rhetorical ploy here. He initially “supposes” that they mean the same thing that Wesley holds to as an attempt to present his own theology as built on reason. Then in paragraph 30, Wesley shifts focus from reason as order/nature to reason as thinking, which serves as a segue for him to present his theological epistemology of the spiritual senses as a form of reason as thinking.

Now, most of Wesley’s works, such as his journal articles and sermons, do not take on such a logical, analytic style. But even if his sermons are not so rigorous, his sermons evidence that analytic style in the ideas he presents.

Consider sermon 85: “On Working Out Your Own Salvation.” He starts of the sermon in describing the truths about God that have been known in “heathen world.” From that point, however, he presents two key doctrines that serve to distinguish the uniqueness of the Christian faith from a heathen faith:

those which relate to the eternal Son of God, and the Spirit of God: To the Son, giving himself to be “a propitiation for the sins of the world;” and to the Spirit of God, renewing men in that image of God wherein they were created.4 

He describes these truths as not available to the heathen world, but only known through revelation, which he describes through the metaphorical language of “light by the gospel.”5 This sermon starts off on establishing a clear foundation for understanding salvation based upon the distinctive elements of Christian faith, the work of the Triune God. Wesley goes on to describe briefly the example of Jesus Christ based upon Philippians 2.6-11. From there, Wesley expounds upon Phillippians 2.12-13 elaborates on describing the ongoing movement towards of God’s works towards salvation.

His description of this work of God is described in II.1 as made up of three elements: preventing grace, convincing grace, justification, and sanctification.6 Preventing and convincing grace relate to God’s action on behalf of people prior to the works of justification and sanctification, which correspond to the two doctrines he mentioned of the Son of God and of the Spirit of God. In describing these four steps in God’s work, Wesley engages in an analytic-like engagement with Christian experience of the work of God. But Wesley has been at pains earlier in the sermon to establish that what happens in preventing grace, convincing grace, justification, and sanctification stems from God’s will to “breath into us every good desire… and every good desire to good effect.”7

In the midst of the sermon, Wesley has an underlying structure to his ideas his sermons presents. His introduction presents what we might term of pre-revelatory and post-revelatory truths. From that point, Wesley’s reading of Phil. 2.12-13 is understand to state that God is at work during each of these stages of human knowing about God, to which Wesley then describes the way God’s saving work manifests itself in specific desires, actions, and experiences.

The thought structure beneath the sermon’s rhetorical structure is very systematic in nature, with clear, yet simple distinctions. While Wesley has been critiqued for not being a systematic theologian, this isn’t because Wesley isn’t a systematic thinker. He is very systematic, but his systematic thinking is typically embedded in discussing the actual modes of thinking and human experience as to relate to the work and nature of God, rather than focuses on God as an object of knowledge. While much systematic theology engages with God qua God, Wesley peculiar focuses engages with talking about God qua Savior of humanity, which stems from his overriding focus on knowing “the way to heaven.” This entails an awareness about human experience and thinking, which can never be as easily present in a the usual systematic forms.

However, my hope is that I have presented to you some reasons to consider that John Wesley was a theologian who might rightly be called proto-analytic and that he contained a systematic impulse in his thinking.

I present this to make the following suggestion about the beneficial relationship that has exist and can be strengthened between Wesleyan and analytic theology. in a couple of my previous posts, I have established myself as a Wesleyan orthodox, while rejecting the evangelical label and identity. But there does lie a specific problem with trying to blend Wesleyan theology with orthodoxy: Wesleyan theology has been used to form theologies that have become very theologically and ethically deviant from the orthodox Christian faith of the past two millennia. Nothing about using Wesleyan ideas reliably ensures retaining orthodoxy.

It is important to qualify what I mean here: Wesleyan ideas, as with any other idea, can be extracted from one context and appropriated for another context. The specific ideas that we label “Wesleyan” can be used in a variety of manners. This is because Wesley exhibits characteristics of both logical and social/relational thinking. One does not have to particularly think in a logically rigorous way to understand and use Wesley’s more social/relational ideas. When one extracts Wesley’s ideas from the logical structure that provides the contours of his theological reasoning, they become more free-floating ideas that can be used in circumstances that Wesley would not have applied them to.

Therefore, to be authentically Wesleyan, at least as I understand it, I would suggest that one needs to be able to engage in Wesley’s logical, proto-analytic style to fruitfully use and reason things out from a Wesleyan perspective to strengthen the connection of Wesleyan theology and orthodoxy. This doesn’t mean we need to reproduce Wesley’s logical education which was principally grounded in Aristotle: I would say there are many warranted reasons for considering more modern forms of reasoning, without necessarily abandoning Aristotelian logic entirely. Rather, it means that Wesley’s theology did have an undergirding, systematic structure that can only be satisfactorily understood by engaging in an intentional understanding and study of reasoning.

My hopes for the future is that the emerging field of analytic theology will find a greater home in the Wesleyan tradition. Scholars like William Abraham and Tom McCall, two of the bigger names in analytic theology, paint a way of how Wesleyans can do analytic theology in service of orthodoxy. While I don’t consider myself an analytic theologian as much as an aspiring Biblical scholar with impulse towards philosophy and biblical theology, I know of a couple fellow Asbury grads who are part of the Logos Institute and a couple other people from elsewhere who don’t identify as Wesleyan but are very amenable to Wesleyan ideas.

Such a fusion of Wesleyan and analytic theology will be very important for the coming challenges that United Methodists who are Wesleyan orthodox are facing and will continue to face regarding questions surrounding sexuality, the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. And if the Wesleyan orthodoxy is going to define itself more on its own terms rather than the American evangelical theology it has been often related to, it will need analytic thinkers who can a) distinguish the Wesleyan distinctives from evangelical theology and b) communicate these effectively to people without the training in logic and analysis.

This is not to say that analytic theology will solve all the future challenges of Wesleyan theology. As Wesleyan theology is increasingly part of the movement of world Christianity, analytic frameworks are often left without the necessary resources to engage in the forms of reasoning that emerges from other cultures. Continental and anthropological thinkers, which the analytic style is often contrasted again, will probably have great importance in relating the various peoples of worldwide Christianity in the Wesleyan tradition. But within anglophone Christianity and even Western Christianity more broadly, investing in analytic theology has great potential to make use of our Wesleyan resources in the emerging days, months, and years.

Wesleyan orthodox instead of evangelical

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January 17, 2019

Yesterday in my very rhetorical acknowledgment that I no consider myself evangelical and the reasons for it, I presented at the what would consider to be my present theological “identity:” Wesleyan orthodoxy. At first blush to disidentify with evangelicalism but to identify with Wesleyan orthodoxy might seem a bit disjarring: aren’t many Wesleyan orthodox persons evangelical, such as many people who participate in the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Asbury Theology Seminary, Free Methodists, Nazarenes, etc.? Or, by saying Wesleyan orthodox do I mean something different from what they would consider Wesleyan orthodox?

The answer is somewhat in between. For me, when I talk about Wesleyan orthodoxy, I am referring to a type of theological and ethical beliefs that strongly resemble what we presently see in Wesleyan orthodoxy, but without the pressures and influences that come from trying to be evangelical at the same time. For me, to dissociate Wesleyan orthodoxy from evangelicalism isn’t as much about looking for something that is altgoether unrecognizable from what is presented now; rather, it is look to a a way of doing theology where the Wesleyan theology of John and Charles Wesley is used as a lens to make sense of the orthodox Christian faith shared a) through two millennia and b) worldwide, rather than using Wesleyan theology to make sense of what we would call evangelical faith today in the United States.

So, my movement is more than just simply dropping an identity, but it is about avoiding the implicit draw and pressures to try to fit a Wesleyan orthodoxy into a present-day evangelical mold. For me, the problems I see with wider evangelicalism, which we might call political evangelicalism, can be derived from the theology and ethical shape that evangelical theology tends to take, which we might refer to as theological evangelicalism. While I don’t think to be a theological evangelical makes one a political evangelical, many of the ways evangelicalism has come to define the shape and contours of Christian faith can have deep, social implications that a) doesn’t have many resources to resist what today amounts to a political evangelicalism while b) having many views about God and people that contribute to the problem when it becomes political evangelicalism. For me, the concern is to search after as Wesleyan orthodoxy that has greater theological resources to resist the political demagoguery while providing a more dignity-giving, and ultimately more Scriptural, theology and anthropology.

The task is difficult and can be a matter of subtle clarifications because a person who see the orthodox faith through the lens of John and Charles Wesley will have beliefs that share a family resemblance to what is typically considered evangelical faith.

For instance, John Wesley never held to a doctrine of the inerrant of Scripture it is commonly talked about today, but I would describe his view more closer to the absolute trustworthiness of Scripture. Scriptural inerrancy often times has a veiled ontology and epistemology wrapped up in it where we think of Scripture as providing propositional beliefs that directly represent truth through literal interpretations. While certainly not all evangelicals would hold to such a specific understanding of inerrancy, the problem is that when one thinks of inerrancy, people generally and unconsciously think about propositional beliefs, representational truth, and literal interpretations, even if they don’t recognize that is what they are thinking about.

While these are not bad themselves and there are certainly many contexts where these three are useful, a brief perusal of the Psalms would suggest how much this trifecta just doesn’t work. Or, read the whole Golden Calf narrative in Exodus 32-34 and realize that trying to describe whether God is an angry God or not can not be answered in a straightforward, propositional manner; God is both raging at Israel and yet slow to anger. The tensions within the narrative about God’s anger invite further reflection rather than propositionalizing. Then there is Revelation, which is highly invested in symbolic language that doesn’t directly represent what is happening and what will happen (at least in the earthly theater of the spiritual war), but rather directs people to a personal belief/trust in God’s power in face of the ultimately cosmic, spiritual war that is being fought.

Then, there is the matter of apparent contradictions in the various historical accounts in both the Old Testament and New Testament. Did God or Satan move David to take a census, and what were the precise options for the possible consequences? What was the order of the temptations that Jesus faced? When did Jesus purify the Temple: early in his ministry at in the Gospel of John or late in the ministry as in the Synoptics? What women were there when they saw the empty Tomb? How many times and when did Paul make his way to Jerusalem? Some of these apparent contradictions may have perfectly reasonable resolutions, but what if there is no resolution and there is no original manuscript that resolves the contradiction? For me, such contradictions would be largely immaterial if I believed that God raised Jesus from the dead.

For me, it is more theologically consistent and important to place our trustworthiness of the Scriptures in the God who makes Himself known rather than in specific, assumed logical, ontological, epistemology, and hermeneutical assumptions that are held a priori. In addition, that the prototypical doctrine of inerrancy subscribes to a specific hermeneutic framework to obtain truth, what role does the Spirit have in conveying the thoughts of God as they are expressed through Scripture? Can the meanings be mined from the Scripture by simply having the right hermeneutics, making the Holy Spirit ‘immaterial?’

This is where Wesley’s trust in the Scriptures can be more valuable, having been expressed before the battle of the doctrine of Scripture took full force in the face of the emerging science and historical/literary criticism. Wesley trusts the Scriptures, but because the Scripture is an expression of God’s promises.1 Scripture for Wesley is how God shows the way to heaven.2 Scripture is ultimately oriented towards a knowing and fellowship with a faithful God. And, as in his notes in 1 Corinthians 2.13-14, the Scripture comes from the Spirit and the things of the Spirit must be discerned through the Spirit.

In presenting this, I am not saying that Wesley has what I would deem a perfect understanding about the function of Scripture.3 I think instrumentalizing Scripture as a way to heaven, if by heaven he means eternal life, is a bit too narrow and can begin feed into the “get to heaven and avoid hell” mentality in evangelicalism. Additionally, I don’t think 1 Corinthians 2.13-14 should be used in analogy to Scripture. This is why I speak of a Wesleyan orthodoxy as trying to make sense of the orthodox, Christian faith through the Wesleyan framework: I give preference to orthodoxy over Wesleyan theology when Scripture and tradition have a strong push back against some aspects of Wesley’s theology, which may mean sometimes Wesley’s ideas get augmented.

But, beneath what I feel to be small differences between Wesley and I is something much more significant: Scripture is part of God’s disclosure with His people. At stake then is a view of Scripture that understands Scripture as it pertains to trusting God rather than necessarily gaining true knowledge apart from God in relation through His Spirit.

I present this as merely a brief, theological case study to demonstrate my point. I think a Wesley orthodoxy needs to be free from trying to fit into an evangelical mold. The more people of a Wesleyan orthodox try to present themselves as evangelicals, the legitimacy of bearing that identity will be judged according to certain ideas within theological evangelicalism. To try to be evangelical as the term has come to mean in this present age is to essentially submit the theology of a Wesleyan orthodoxy to the judgments of (stereo)typical evangelical doctrine, both from inside and from the outside. Rather, instead, I myself think of the relation of Wesleyan orthodoxy to evangelical theology as analogous to the Old Testament prophets to Israel: both the prophets and the religion of Israel as practiced held to a common set of ideas and beliefs pull from Israel’s history, but the prophets saw something insidious and deeply detrimental in the way the Israelite religion was being practiced and taught.

So, this is what I mean by Wesleyan orthodox and why I consider myself that but not evangelical. The identity of “evangelical” has ceased to become trustworthy to others and so I abandon it in part for that reasons. But I also think that theological evangelicalism, while it doesn’t share in the evils of its political counterpart, is unable to really intellectually resist it but in facts tends to lead to supporting of the ideals of its political manifestation when put under specific conditions. To put in perhaps an oversimplified manner, evangelical faith does not have the theological resources to both a) retain orthodoxy and b) love while engaging in deep ideological, social, and political disagreements and conflicts. I think Wesleyan orthodoxy does, but it will take having to set oneself apart from evangelicalism to explore Wesleyan orthodoxy on its own terms rather than on evangelical terms.

The value of brokenness

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January 17, 2019

I am not usually what someone might consider a mushy, emotional type. I have my deep sense of passion and I do feel deeply, but I have an aversion to emotional expressions. Call it the traumas of being an emotionally sensitive young boy or call it the instinct to survive and push forward through painful life circumstances, but it is a rare day when I let someone see me deeply emotional. I don’t mind people knowing that I do I feel, knowing that I do bleed, knowing that I do struggle, but I won’t let you see it in my face and in my voice.

However, there is a deeper, philosophical underpinning to my feelings about feelings. However, it isn’t rooted in some supposedly logical aversion to feeling. I think that emotions, even deep emotions, can be perfectly “rational” in many situations. As I am studying Stoicism for my work on the Apostle Paul, I have found my views on emotions make me no Stoic. While certainly strong emotions can mislead us to do some foolish, irrational, wrong, or even sometimes evil things, they are deeply important in motivating us, directing us, and even stirring up creativity within us. Stoics shun the strong emotions they call the passions that misleading reasoning; I say that the battle to learn to rightly direct one’s emotions, which entails standing on the margins between contained feelings and passion, is an education itself that one should not overlook or besmirch.

Rather, my philosophical underpinning of emotions asks this question: what is the value of this emotion? Not in trying to figure out if it serves some pre-formed “logical” purpose, but rather what is the value that this emotion compelled me towards and is this value something really should value? Certainly, this is a very reflective attitude you can’t really have in the heat of the moment often times, but it is a way that forms my understanding of emotions and feelings.

Granted there are some values to emotions and their expression that go beyond what they are immediately expressions for. Expressing emotions allow other people to know where you are personally in those moments. They allow people to bond, to form connections. Emotions are as much social as they are personal. People will laugh a lot more at something funny if they are around people, whereas they are not as prone to laugh if the same funny thing happens while they are in private. But past this social role, the question is this: what is the value of emotions?

In particular, one question has stirred around in my mind for the past few days. What is the value of being broken? Technically speaking, we wouldn’t say being “broken” is an emotion, but a state of one’s life that causes deep pain and emotional turmoil.

The question came to my mind as I heard a story from a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. She told a story of how she had lost a child of hers, with pain in her eyes. But in the midst of the pain, she shared news of how she welcomed a new baby into her life, but it was going to be hard to move forward.  As I saw a mixture of pain and joy in her eyes, I wanted to hug her that I am happy for her, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to do so. But that story she shared hit me, even in my usually stolid demeanor.

So, why? Why is our brokenness important? What is the value of all the emotions that come with our brokenness? What is the value that comes in lingering suffering, pain, loneliness, etc.? Shouldn’t life be pain-free? Shouldn’t life be full of joy? Isn’t it better that when something bad happens, we get up, deal with what needs to be dealt with, and then move back to joy? What value is there in brokenness?

Now the answer I have worked myself towards is not a valorization of suffering. Suffering is not something we should pursue. We shouldn’t seek it out and play it up. I do have many concerns about how the language of “brokenness” can reinforce this very attitude: that I need to be broken. Similarly, it can reinforce an attitude of victimization in the implicit passivity of being broken. Alternatively, it can make people who haven’t deeply suffered exaggerate the nature of their pains. So in speak of the value of brokenness, there are real qualification and limits to this answer.

The value of brokenness is this: it can uncover the veil from our eyes the fantasies we have chosen to believe about ourselves, about others, about the world.

As human beings, we are prone to pursue what we enjoy and to imagine this. We deal with and cope with many of the struggles in such a way so that we can get back to the enjoying and imagining. To be human means to desire, to want, to crave, to enjoy. And despite the warnings the New Testament gives about lusts, which is more about unrestrained desire (closer to the Stoic sense of the passions) rather than desire itself, this is a good thing about us: to play, to love, to eat, to drink, to learn, to have sex, to accomplish, to laugh: all of these are good things when done well.

But, the pull of desire has an epistemic curse attached to it. We are easily lead to believe narratives of hope that sound plausible if they meanwhile emotionally satisfy us. This is true both in our desires and our immediate response to our aversions: if some narrative provides an ending we want, we are more inclined to believe it if it only sounds plausible. But plausibility is not the same as a probability. To believe something that seems plausible to our minds is sometimes to believe something that is unlikely. Our status of desiring creatures had made us susceptible to the hypnotic hope and seductive suggestion of the pleasing, plausible possibility.

By contrast, if some narrative seems to go against the happy ending we want, we can demand a lot more proof and evidence or even become utterly skeptical and unmoved by anything that favors any such narrative.

The net effect of this is that we are prone to believe pleasing falsehoods over painful truths. This is all the more powerful in the narrative buffet of technological post-modernity, where we are exposed to a litany of narratives through mass and social media, many of which can be made to sound plausible and can appeal to our desires. The phenomenon of “fake news” is the power of the pleasing, plausible possibility in technological post-modernity. So, we become even more solidified in our fantasies as they are reinforced again and again, causing us to become resolute in our dismissal of narratives that do speak real, yet painful, truths.

However, occasionally, the epistemic bias of being a desiring human gets turned off. For reasons I will make clear in a moment, I call this the epistemology of suffering. There are occasional points for some people where our epistemic bias is against what we desire and want, where we don’t believe we get what w want. When it happens, it may look like depression and desperation because these are commonly experience in such a phase. But, not all depression and desperation necessarily meet this epistemic frame of mind, so please do not hear me extolling the virtues of depression. Speaking from personal experience, depression itself is hell.

This epistemic mode emerges out of the context of suffering, but of a particular sort. Not of suffering due to self-inflicting loathing. Not a suffering due to untreated mental illness. These are sufferings that should be treated. But it is a suffering of broken hopes and dreams, of life failing to meet the expectations we had hoped it would be. It is a suffering born out of pain that we don’t deserve that challenge all the meaning structures built from the materials of desire.

This deep challenge to meaning is commonly associated with the idea of psychological trauma, where life events throw out something that undergirded our understanding and hopes about life. But even here, I want to distinguish between the deep pain that challenges our meaning and the traumatic memories that can often emerge. Trauma itself is not good; speaking from personal experience, trauma is hell.

I lack the fullest ability to express what exactly it is I am referring to, but it is the state of mind where a person experiences a prolonged sense of suffering born out of loss and pain such that the epistemic bias of desire is countered by a cognitive openness and recognition that pain does exist, it does occur, it will happen, and it can sometimes overwhelm. In this place, many of the pleasing, plausible possibilities that we have learned to believe no longer sound so plausible or possible. It isn’t that one rejects these possibilities and desires as bad or wrong, but rather there is the refusal to accept the narratives that have told us how life will find that happiness, that peace, that joy.

The value of brokenness is that it takes the veils from our eyes from the hypnotic seductions we have fallen prey to. It doesn’t necessarily provide us the truth, but it wisks away what is false in our own mind or even in the minds of others who look upon them. The value of brokenness is that it produces a receptivity to something new, something different, something one might even say is holy in the sense of unqualified uniqueness and distinctiveness.

Read then the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 in mind as you see him talk about his own fear and trembling as expressions of his own utter weakness and brokenness:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.1

Reimagining Christian faith: reapplication, revision, or rediscovery

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January 17, 2019

In my previous post, I made a rather dramatic and scathing, to be honest, criticism of my evangelical background. I didn’t write that lightly as there was much from my evangelical background that I do cherish and think is important. It is such that if you were to engage me in many Biblical and theological discussions, you might me saying some things that are similar to what evangelicals have said. However, despite these similarities, I have seen the way the Christian faith has become to be expressed by evangelicals in America is deeply problematic.

I am not the first one. One might even say I am somewhat late to the party. Even though I knew of my problems for a while, I couldn’t entirely disassociate myself from the evangelical identity. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the problems, but I didn’t know the right direction to go. So, I considered myself marginally identified with evangelicals as I engaged what could be described as a personal reimagining of Christian faith. It was only as I knew where I was going that I could finally say it isn’t the evangelical direction.

Of course, many people have talked about reimagining the Christian throughout the past few years, across the theological spectrum from evangelicals to progressives. But, as can clearly be seen, there are very different results in the Christian reimagination as evangelicals and progressive reimaginations have come up with a very different set of practices and theological expressions.

You might classify the evangelical reimagination as reapplication of the Christian message. A common motto is that the message of Christ remains the same but the way you express it changes. The question here pertains to how you can apply the same doctrinal teachings and the same ethical and spiritual principles to a different context. This version would see that the Christian churches of the past have become stale as the times have changed, so one has to figure out how to live in a new era. This form of reimagination has a past orientation, looking to the past for foundations that provide the answers for the future.

Another form of reimagination that can be associated with progressives and many exvangelical Christians is the revision of the Christian message. Here, there is a deep dissatisfication with the way many churches have operated, particuarly of a more traditional/evangelical orientation. To them, the problem isn’t that the message got stale; the problem is that the message was very wrong and was responsible for many evils. Thus, these Christians feel the need to revise what it means to be Christian, either abandoning orthodoxy or picking and choosing what of it the past traditions it finds true for today. This form of reimagination has a future orientation, looking to the idealized future to determine how to appropriate the past.

But, there is something that is held in common with the reapplication and revision forms of reimagination: the new imagination emerges as a result of our thinking, whether it be thinking about the doctrines of the past or about the directions of the future. If we can just figure at the right theological and ethical framework, we can fix all the problems that we see our churches have. Meanwhile, Jesus Christ is taken as important in both forms of reimagination.

However, there is a third way of reimagining Christian faith that is starkly different. It takes neither the past nor the future as the starting point of thinking, nor does it take our own analysis and reasoning as the starting point of reimagining. To rediscover the Christian faith is a praying, trusting, and hoping that God brings forth a new understanding. But we don’t know exactly what it is God will be giving, but we wait until it comes.

Consider the disciples waiting in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus. These are disciples who had heard time and time again the words of the Torah and the message of the prophets. They walked alongside Jesus. But there were told to wait. Meanwhile, they were anxiously wanting to know what the future held in store because Jesus had been raised from the dead: is it now that their political world would be set right? But they were told that wasn’t something they should now. Neither knowing what happened in the past was sufficient to prepare the disciples, nor was a sense of the future given to them to direct them.

But, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them as in the days of Pentecost, they suddenly had words to speak as Peter gave a sermon that connecting this present, in the moment outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the present age being under the rule of Jesus Christ. It was after the Spirit had been poured that they proclaimed the message that made sense of who Jesus is and the significance of His death and resurrection. Through knowing Jesus and through the pouring of the Spirit, the disciples discovered the message of God’s Kingdom, even as they did not know what the future would have in store.

Thus, as we see the Christian faith undergoing many tensions and pressures today in the West, some have tried to reapply the message, some have tried to revise the message. But another option is to rediscover, to linger and wait where we are at for God to show us the way to go.

In rediscovery, we discover what the message applies to before trying to reapply the message. In rediscovery, we discover what the message is pointing towards to before trying to figure out what direction we are to head. Then can past and future can be brought together.

But to get here, it will take a caution about our attempts to reimagine based upon our own analysis from past to the future or future to the past. By starting from our own thinking, we will inevitably pick an Archimedean point to start from that everything new will encircle if we hope to have any sort of coherent message. This is unavoidable. But we have no way we can rationally analyze what Archimedean point we should start from without assuming an Archimedean point. And there are a littany of plausible sounding starting points. Even saying Jesus or the Holy Spirit doesn’t fully define because how is that we do understand Jesus and how do we understand the Holy Spirit?

A coherent message that represents God’s will will take God providing the Archimedean point the centers our thinking. This is where rediscovery comes in: the center of our understanding is somehow reoriented, perhaps in a mystery through the mundane moments, perhaps in a miracle of the stupendous moments. But the critical factor is that we wait in faith, and then when we rediscover, one goes from that point in the light of what God has done.

So if we place too much trust in our own theological and ethical reasoning and analysis, we won’t be satisfied to wait. We won’t be open to receive. We will be ready to go now.

However, at the same time, if we disengage from theological and ethical reasoning and analysis in some sort of apathetic mood, raising our hands up in exhaustion rather than prayer, we won’t be ready to make sense of what we receive. Discovery happens because you can receive what you discover, but if you are unaware you will remain unaware.

Rediscovery doesn’t abandon understanding the past or the future, but it simply says: only by your will God will we understand rightly. Only by the action of God in Christ and through the Spirit will we comprehend.

No longer an evangelical

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January 16, 2019

Today, I respectfully submit my intentions to resign my membership as an “evangelical.” It has been a decision long in the making, but I can no longer in good conscience consider myself a member. It isn’t that I hate evangelicalism. It isn’t that I reject everything that evangelicalism has stood for. I can say that I uphold many of the values that evangelicalism has been purported to hold to. It’s just that I can no longer be a part of the direction evangelicalism is going.

You see, for me, my understanding about being an evangelical was that it was a commitment to live my life according to the will of God made known in Jesus and through the Spirit that is expressed in and through the Scriptures. I hear in God’s Word a call to be distinct from the surrounding culture while embracing a love for the people. In the Gospel, I hear a call to action that consider no person or people my enemy, but that we are engaging in a spiritual battle against the deeper, pervasive powers of a spiritual nature. In so doing, I am a part of a long, nearly two millenia history of a Christians confession that Jesus is Lord.

I had hoped my heart could continue to be joined with you in the continuing mission, but I came to the realization that it can’t. You see, I see evangelical as a term of social conflict now. You fear liberals and progressives, you disdain them as people, you want to keep them out of power. Your enemies are people and earthly powers. That is why you have inaugurated all too earthly man, one whose history exhibits all the characteristics of living by the flesh, as the political hero in support of your movement.

And I can get why. Progressives and liberals have engaged in and celebrated many practices that we would consider inconsistent with what we trust to be God’s will for His people. You were scared as the family-friendly society you were accustomed to was being, or at least that you wanted to live in, has been undone with every election of a Democrat and multiple court cases.

But here is the difference between you and me. People who don’t live like me, who don’t believe as me are not my enemy. Sure, they have ideas that I disagree with that I think would have negative, unintended consequences if they become widespread. But guess what? I share the same sentiments about much of your evangelical politics. I don’t think you really understand. You see, I know you are sincere in believing in Jesus Christ, but I don’t think you have yet to understand what it really means to follow Jesus. You talk about it, but what I see is someone who wants to maintain the way things used to be and you use Scripture to justify that. You aren’t really following Jesus when you do that, but you are following the America of the past. That’s why you support making America great again; that’s why you thought someone a qualified leader because he supposedly had great business sense all while news of sexual trangressions that matched if not exceeded the man you sought to impeach a couple decades back. Your politics weren’t about Jesus; it was about America, an America you wanted to return, an America you wanted to keep, an America you wanted to create.

Allow me to diagnose the problem: you thought you understand and knew what Jesus wanted because you read the Bible and treated it with veneration as the infallible Word of God. But even the devil knew and quoted Scripture as he tempted Jesus to use and seek power for Himself. That wily old serpent was aware of God’s command to not eat of the tree as he mislead Eve. And even Peter talks about how people distort the Scriptures along with the writings of Paul. You see, knowing and using the Scriptures makes you no more a follower of Jesus than Satan himself.

The Pharisees searched the Scriptures, but they were searching for something other than God: they were searching something for themselves, eternal life. They wanted a blessed life because of the threatening Roman power that always loomed on their horizon. That is why that didn’t come to Jesus: they were looking for the wrong thing. And what is it that Jesus later said of these same people? As they insisted they were truly God’s people because they were children of Abraham, Jesus said, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do what your father’s desires.”

Now you might say: “But we have faith in Jesus.” Of course, didn’t James say even the demons believe, and yet shudder? But “God gave His only Son so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Read John 2.23-24: did Jesus open Himself up to everyone who thought they believed in him? Coming to Jesus because you read the Bible seeking eternal life makes you more like the Pharisees than you even know.

You see, that John 3.16 you love to quote isn’t saying “Come to Jesus to find eternal life.” It is about the why of God’s purposes and His sending of Christ, not human motivations. God’s purposes and why God does what He does, so that by coming to Jesus we may enjoy eternal life with Him. But you have made it about your own purposes and thus have treated faith as a condition of your security rather than the means by which God transforms us from our fleshly existence into a life being formed by the Spirit. By faith, God leads us to eternal life, that God and people may be reunited in fellowship and love. But many of you evangelicals have only sought the end product.

You will no doubt quote Paul, saying “we are justified by faith.” Indeed, we are. That is the point. God has brought us on a whole new trajectory of life when we place our trust in Him through Jesus, so what is not true of us will become true. But it is Paul who says “to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life.” But you have made faith the condition of your obtaining eternal life, rather than the means by which God brings you into eternal life as you seek after God. In the end, your faith is about what you can possess as a result of your own actions. No wonder, then, that you think you can possess a nation by your own political actions.

So as a physician occasionally has the unfortunate job of making a diagnosis of terminal illness, I feel I have to do the same. Many who considered themselves as representatives of evangelicalism have misunderstood the Scriptures, have misunderstood Paul, have used the Scriptures for their own purposes. And what is the diagnosis: evangelicalism is acting more like they are the people of the devil rather than the people of God.

But as I said, my enemy is not other people; you are not my enemies evangelicals. In fact, there is still much I can say that I share with you, even if there is much I must say no to. Rather my enemies are the deeper, more pervasive powers that bind people. I beg you, leave this behind because you do not realize what is happening.

Allow me to demonstrate: do you not see that as the serpent deceived and ultimately harmed Eve, many of you have deceived women? Many seek to keep them under the curse of being ruled by the male all the while many of them have cried out to the sexual exploitation and abuse they have undergone including in the churches. You might think yourself “Yeah. It is unfortunate. But it happens everywhere.” Indeed! You would be absolutely correct. How wise you are! So, doesn’t that mean the church is acting more like the rest of society; does that not mean you exemplify the deeds of the devil? It is for this reason that the Son of God was revealed to the world: to destroy the devil’s works. If you truly desire God’s will, such abuse would break your heart. And yet, you celebrate a man as your hero who has been accused of such abuse towards women. Lying about a sexual affair was worthy of your contempt, but sexual abuse doesn’t faze you?

Allow me to demonstrate yet again: do you not see that as the devil tempted Jesus to take power for himself, many of you have tempted the Body of Christ to the same? And as the devil offered to give the kingdoms of the world, have you not tempted the Body of Christ to take the nation back? As you use the Scriptures to honor your political hero, as you have repeatedly sought people to win back the nation so that they will inaugurate a vision of American society in accordance to the words of the Scripture, are you not doing the very same thing the devil did?

Do you see it now? The very Scriptures paint a picture of the devil that looks curiously like what I see.

So, I say this in our break up: It’s not me, it’s you. No doubt, like a jilted lover, you will try to convince yourself that I am really the problem, that I am really the faithless one. You might think I am like any of your former, now ‘exvangelical‘ lovers who jilted you, that there must have been another lover the whole time who turned them against you. But that isn’t it. It is just that you weren’t who I thought you were. I was in love with someone that you really weren’t. I thought as your words matched the feelings of my heart, we were one. While you had me and all the others who later left you, you cheated on us with someone who never cared for you but seduced you as you seduced us. But my heart and faith remains the same, but it is you that I can no longer trust.  Your words have masked what is really there, and I would much rather go find someone who I can genuinely love. So really, it’s not me, it’s you.

You can mail my stuff to my address: Wesleyan orthodoxy. I know that some of you have never trekked to that part of town. I know others who have never been there though you might think you have been. And that there are some who have been there, but you just haven’t realized it. But there are plenty of us who would be glad to point you out in the right direction and remind you where it is if you decide to break your current love-obsession off and try to be friends. I just hope that happens before you get really hurt.

Owen

Paul and natural theology

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January 6, 2019

The most famous theological controversy of the 20th century I affectionately called the episode of ontological rage. Emil Brunner makes a well-known attempt to try to incorporate a sense of natural theology for Christian theology through making a differentiation of the material and formal aspects of God’s image in human persons. Karl Barth’s even louder “Nein!” was the theological shot heard around theological world, having nothing to do with this sort of business. While the writings of the two delve into other focuses such as the right way to understand John Calvin, the discussion hinged on a matter of ontology: is the image of God entirely defaced and thus incapable of understanding God or is there still something within the person that can give them a point of contact?

It is my contention the Apostle Paul had a similar split with his Jewish contemporaries from a reading of Romans, where he shifts the focus from natural theology as mentioned in Romans 1-2 to Jesus Christ and the Spirit in the rest of the letter.

Now, at first blush, this doesn’t seem like a novel proposition. Douglas Campbell in his tome The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul makes a case for a reading of Romans where Paul presents the views of his opposition that he responds to with a different position; Romans 1.20 falls under the views of the oppositional teacher that Paul encodes into Romans. In this case, Paul isn’t portrayed as accepting any natural theology but, by implication, is decisively rejecting it.

The strength of Campbell’s reading is that his close reading of Romans has allowed him to pick up the subtle differences in the argumentation that Paul has in different parts of Romans. However, I would contend the greatest weakness in Campbell’s argument is how he relates these two different theological patterns as pertain to two different people with conflicting views. Campbell has set up Romans as essentially a polemical text where the views of antithetical. In other words, Campbell has set up his reading of Romans as if there are two, mutually exclusive views that are expressed. Such way of framing a contention can be apropos when one is dealing with paradigmatic, systematic, and propositional thinking of a more formal logic: mutual exclusivity is profligate in such a discursive and argumentative context. 1 However, I would suggest the way Paul opens and closes the first major section of Romans, 1.18-32 and 8.31-39, suggests that Paul is not engaging in such systematic thinking but that he is engaging in more narratival thinking.

Jerome Bruner succinctly describes the difference between narratival and paradigmatic thinking as “arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.”2 Whereas paradigmatic discourse “is regulated by requirements of consistency and noncontradiction,” the narrative imagination expresses itself in believable accounts but is not concerned about analytic conceptions of ‘truth.’3 This is not to declare that narrative cannot or do not express truth; it only to suggest that because it does not take the expression of truth as its central task, narrative thinking is more amenable to ambiguity, fuzziness, etc. such that one narrative will be considered mutually exclusive with another narrative. However, one narrative may still end up being much more reliable than another narrative, or to put colloquially, one narrative may be truer than the other.

So, rather than portraying the two different argumentative patterns in Romans in the form of two conflicting teachers and as such being mutually exclusive, I would suggest that Romans 1-8 is an attempt for Paul to direct his audience away from one narrative about human sin and God’s judgment to a more significant narrative about God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. It isn’t that Paul rejects the narrative on Romans 1.18-32 as false; rather, it is not the most important narrative. Instead, Paul takes the beliefs that that narrative represents and then argues in such a way that directs the audience to the alternative narrative of God’s faithfulness.

AS many scholars have observed including even Campbell, there are multiple similarities between Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 and the Wisdom of Solomon. For the sake of brevity, I won’t rehash this here, but only to suggest that Paul seems to show knowledge of either the WoS or a stream of thought that share many similarities with WoS. What is pertinent to highlight a particular constellation of the themes of Gentiles, νομός, and judgement shared between WoS 6 and Romans 2.

Wisdom of Solomon 6.1-5Romans 2.14-16
Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule over multitudes, and boast of many nations. For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and inquire into your plans. Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly, or keep the law, or walk according to the purpose of God, he will come upon you terribly and swiftly, because severe judgment falls on those in high places.4When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.5

Before analyzing these two passages in light of each other, it is important to note the role the Roman Empire played in both passages. Wisdom of Solomon provides a rebuke against what ultimately amounts to the Roman Empire, who “rule over multitudes” and “boast of many nations.” Meanwhile, Paul does not explicitly mention rulers in this passage. However, he does later in Romans 13 where he suggests the Roman authorities have authority because it has been given to them by God just as the WoS does. Furthermore, Paul even then goes on to use the metaphor of empire and warfare to describe the controlling power of sin and death, as in Romans 5 and 7.

It is also relevant to mention 1.18-32 may be expressing something that could be construed as very veiled swiped at Nero and the imperial court. As Paul’s address of homosexuality in Romans 1.26-27 may have knowledge of Emperor Nero’s homosexual activity in the background, and thus 1.18-32 may be a very veiled swipe of Nero and the imperial court. Furthermore, as Nero was trained under the tutelage of the Stoic Seneca who thought God was known through the observation of the created world, it would be plausible for Nero to have spoken about God through this form of natural theology. If these resemblance warrant this connection, we might also understand the very ambiguous statement of “God gave the up to the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves” as a very veiled reference to rumors of incest between Nero and his mother Agrippina.

However, even if Romans 1.18-32 is not in reference to the Roman emperor, clearly, Paul has the notion of empire in the back of his mind throughout the letter. Thus, this makes the contrast between WoS and his statement very significant. Whereas WoS speaks only of judgment, Paul does not specifically express what outcome there will be, but that people could be accused or excused by their thoughts in the day of judgment. Thus, whereas the WoS expresses a very stark, judgmental, Paul ends us expressing a more open-ended view of judgment. If Paul is consciously alluding to the WoS or a similar stream of thought in Romans, then he is now turning the sails from the certain judgment that concludes at the end of chapter 1 to a more open-ended possibility in chapter 2. If this analysis is correct, Paul is neither embracing a wholesale rejection nor acceptance of the Romans 1.18-32 narrative, but is providing a more complete story that allows the possibility of condemnation and exoneration at the end.6

What is held in common by both of these narratives beyond judgment, however, is the criteria of judgment: law/νόμος. While WoS 6 does not use νόμος to refer to the Torah, this “law” and Torah would have a common source. Whereas the rulers are directed to learn this “law” through attentiveness and to wisdom (WoS 6.9-11), Torah was considered by many Jews to be an expression of God’s Wisdom. Therefore, to learn wisdom about the world is to be educated about the things that the Torah also instructs Jews about. Since this wisdom is in part acquired through observations in nature (WoS 7.15-22), the WoS expresses a natural theology that would be a source of similarity between God’s wisdom as disclosed in Torah and human observation of wisdom from creation.

There is a similar view in Paul. The Gentile can be judged by νόμος, which clearly is in reference to Torah here, even though they do not have the Torah. Notice that Paul refers to the Gentiles doing the law with/by φύσις (Rom. 2.14), which is the same word used when referring to heterosexual activity in Rom. 1.26. While the NRSV and other translations render this as an adverbial dative and translate it as “instinctively” or “by nature” and treat this as a term describing a person’s character or behavior, the role of φύσις is wisdom, both Stoic wisdom and the wisdom prescribed by the Wisdom of Solomon7 suggests Paul may be describing the instrument by which one does the law: observations from nature as was mentioned in 1.19-20. Thus, it may be better to render this into English as “does the Torah by natural knowledge.” In this case, Paul is similarly expressing a view of a Gentile νόμος based upon natural wisdom and theology.

But here is where things get interesting: whereas this law/wisdom is how God will judge people in Wisdom of Solomon, Paul does not take this route. Instead, Paul suggests this law will be a source of a person’s own self-judgment: they will evaluate their own actions in accordance to this law. This is significant. God is not judging people based upon law and wisdom. Rather, Jesus Christ is going to bring out the secret thoughts of people’s hearts, as if to state that Jesus is more a facilitator of this judgment by bringing to light the knowledge of what is right that everybody had.

Therefore, what we are seeing here is that Paul is created a gap between Jesus and Torah. Because the judgment by Torah, and also wisdom, expressed the thoughts of the people that they had internalized, it is not a direct expression of God’s righteous character. Rather, it is Jesus in His death who demonstrates God’s righteousness (Rom. 3.21-26), not wisdom and Torah. This judgment scene in light of Paul’s larger discourse paints a picture of a gap between God’s righteousness revealed in Christ and knowledge of wisdom and Torah

However, this gap is more than simply an epistemic gap as my usage of the language of revelation and knowledge might. While this gap would also be epistemic of nature, it is also motivational gap: neither natural knowledge of God nor the Torah ensured obedience to God. In fact Paul portrays both as having a role in the increasing of sin.9

At stake for Paul is this: this gap is filled God’s justifying act. God’s justification is God’s proleptic word in crucified and risen Christ to form people into the pattern of Jesus Christ through access to the Holy Spirit; it speaks forth the future reality of the people to have a righteous character before it has come to pass temporally. Hence God can justify the ungodly, putting the person on a different trajectory.

If this gap between God and Torah and nature is filled by Christ, what then of Torah and natural theology? Paul takes pains to make clear throughout that he is not rejecting the Torah.10 If the previous similarities between Torah and natural wisdom hold up here, then Paul would think equivalently about natural theology. Paul isn’t proclaiming an outright rejection of natural theology like Barth does. Whereas the instructions about righteousness is made effective in Christ through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.3-4), so too will God redeems the whole creation. (Romans 8.19-23) It is warranted to suggest then that in Christ, God redeems natural theology rather than discards it. However, one must have a hope set on the unseen (Romans 8.24-25) so that what the Christian understanding is not reducible to observations of nature. Instead, Christian thinking can embraced a redeemed natural theology, where nature is imagined in relationship to the redemptive activity of God in Jesus Christ.

This view doesn’t treat revelation and natural theology as two mutually exclusive sources ala Barth. Rather, as the narrative of 8.31-39 gives epistemic priority of God’s action in Jesus Christ over the painful human experience in creation, Paul implies that there is a priority in God’s disclosure of Himself in Jesus. The problem is that the κόσμος has been corrupted by sin and death11 so that not everything that is experienced and observed in creation is representative of God’s will and purposes. This does not abandon natural theology, but rather provides into question how reliable natural theology is on its own terms: if it both expresses God’s power and divinity while also ‘expressing’ the powers of sin and death, how can one reliably differentiate from nature what is of God and what is not?

The answer: the life, death, and resurrection Christ provides the hermenutical key by which an understanding can be made sense of; people come to understand this through living by the Spirit and putting the deaths the deeds of the flesh so that their lives increasingly become an expression God’s righteousness. Because in Christ and through the Spirit, one’s life and heart reflect God, one has the capacity to then reliably differentiate what of nature is of God and what is not.

Thus, if my presentation is correct, one partial strand of Paul’s argumentive progression from Romans 1-8 is to provide a different perspective of the relationship of the believer’s knowledge in relation to creation. It is tertiary to his primary point of establishing God’s redemption in Jesus Christ and the Spirit and the second premise that the Torah is good but does not ensure faithfulness, but I would suggest it his natural theology lurks in the background.

This contrasts with the Barth-Brunner debate. On the one hand, it sides with Brunner to the extent that one can allow for natural theology. However, natural theology on its own sake does not deliver anything that is necessary for God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. However, Brunner attempts to ground theology in a metaphysics of God’s image and an artificial distinction between the formal and material aspects goes in the wrong direction. Not only is such a definition artificial, it overlooks the role that Paul assigns to cosmology as it pertains to sin and death in Romans. For Paul, the gap between God and nature isn’t found in how the image of God was defaced, but the way creation itself was negatively transformed by human sin.

Being inextricably a part of creation that both reflects God’s wisdom and the enslaving powers of death and sin, even if our minds may glimpse some true knowledge about God through nature our hearts are being tugged away by nature. Only redemption in Christ can allow natural theology to a) reliably proceed in the epistemic task while also b) effectively directing people towards God’s purposes in the new creation. This I would suggest is more faithful to Paul’s view of natural theology, that doesn’t demand a mutual exclusivity of the epistemic sources of revelation and nature, but rather grounds the epistemic effectiveness and reliability of using natural knowledge to understand God only insofar as the redemption of Jesus Christ has been actualized in people through walking by the Spirit.

Faith and fantasy are not the same thing

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January 4, 2019

America’s most popular preacher is a man commonly derided by Christians for being a charlatan, Joel Osteen. Most of the people in the circles I run in think he is a shallow propogater of the prosperity gospel, but one of the biggest circles I operate in is a social network of those educated at seminaries and theological institutions. Outside of these circles, he is much more popular. It is not an uncommon happenstance that I will walk into a Barnes & Noble to indulge my addiction to books that I will happen upon one of Osteen’s books prominently displayed.

What stands at the center of Osteen’s charisma and influence? Titles such as The Power of I AmYour Best Life NowEveryday a Friday, and You Can You Will provide insight into the influence of Osteen’s preaching. Each title contains a condensed narrative that evokes the imagination: personal empowerment and changed life circumstances. Just the titles alone convey micro-narratives that stirs the imagination that seeks for something different and better.

Consider the fact that Osteen’s primary audience tends to be people with less control over their life and less influence due to less wealth and less education, they often live in powerless circumstances. Living in such conditions, there is something within impoverished and powerless people that desires, seeks, and longs for life to take a different course. Osteen’s titles, books, sermons, etc. reaches into and appeals to the wounded core of these people and gives them a reason to hope, to dream, to imagine life afresh and anew.

Nevertheless, understanding the way Osteen does genuinely touch people and my belief that Osteen is sincere, I recognize that his way of reaching down to people in his charismatic manner also leaves many of them trapped in a world of fantasy. By legitimating his message through appeals to Scripture that treat the Bible as if they are to be read as a list of promises to be mined for personal posterity, people who hear his words feel this sense of rightness to Osteen’s messages that inaugurate into a world that does more to comfort than to change, that does more to help people cope with their lives rather than transform their lives. At the core of the power of Osteen and many other similar preachers is coping through fantasy.

It is here, however, that I want to distinguish my usage of the terms imagination and fantasy. By imagination, I am referring to the capacity of the human mind to think up possibilities that are not bound to actual sensation. For instance, I can imagine a horse in my mind without actually seeing a horse. In fact, seeing the word “horse” activates my imagination. On the other hand, fantasy refers to the belief in a world that can not be taken as credible to exist. Strictly speaking, I don’t mean fantasy to mean false but rather closer to unverified; however because unverified believes are routinely unreliable, it will often lead to believing something that is false.

Thus, imagination is a necessary ingredient for fantasy to emerge. By being disconnected from perception, the conditions are possible for imagination to lead to fantasy. Fantasy as unverified beliefs general entail being disconnected from sensation. However, not all imagination is fantasy as there may be other ways to verify the reliability of what I am imagining without direct, sensory perception. For instance, when I am doing historical study, I don’t have direct perception of the events in question but through the practice of multiple attestation in various primary sources, I can attempt to verify a historical belief. To believe that Jesus exist and even that He was raised from the dead engages my imagination, but through historical study I can verify it such that it isn’t fantasy. Verification does not ensure the truth of the proposition I hold to be true, however, but that it gives me good grounds to believe as I do, albeit defeasible if genuinely relevant information comes to light. So, I imagine through the reading of the Scriptures that Jesus was raised from the dead and I verify it through historical study, but I am still left with something I imagine and have no direct, sensory acquaintance with.

Why this distinction between imagination and fantasy? Firstly, I want to highlight the difference to show that what makes us engage in fantasy isn’t simply someone who evokes imagination such as a gifted speaker, but imagination turns to fantasy when we ourselves cease to engage in the process of verifying what has been brought to our minds and hearts. Put in different terms, we are seduced because we play the part in our seduction because of our own feelings of desperation. The relationship between Osteen and his audience is a two-way relationship, where Osteen provides a story they deeply long to hear and people believe it because it comes from a figure they consider having authority.

At the core of moving from imagination to fantasy is treat our imaginations true based upon narratives that 1) have legitimacy based upon a) a seeming plausibility of the narrative and/or b) the appearance of credibility of the messenger and 2) are emotionally satisfying to our desires and emotions. When we are seeking to cope with life’s difficulties, it is easy for us to accept narratives that present a nice resolution for us and only rely upon very superficial premises to think the story is true. The charisma of the speaker, including the appearance of confidence, and a narrative that simply seems possible are all that is needed to transformation narrative imagination into our fantasy, because the narrative that delivers emotional satisfaction needs only a deficient degree of verification, if even that.

Typically, in these circumstances, we would place the blame on the teachers, like Osteen, labeling them as charlatans. But, in a democratic and capitalist world, the balance of power between leader and the people is often decidedly shifted towards the people; their own wants and dreams are considered a moral necessity to address, otherwise you will be deemed irrelevant, callous, etc. and given no voice. While there are charlatans who are good as using imagination turned fantasy to manipulate the masses, more often than not, leaders are entrapped by the necessity of being ’empathetic,’ where they must deeply care across the board. But the reality is that so much of life and the deprivations we feel have no easy solutions or answers. Particularly as pastors, we can feel emotionally compelled to offer hope by using the idea of God and faith to present a hopeful narrative, lest we lose our relevance and influence. What happens here is that faith is turned into fantasy.

Now, faith, or trust, itself is itself a form of imagination. For instance, when a person trusts their spouse is faithful, they do not have the capacity to see how the spouse as acted every moment since they have been married, nor can they see the future. To trust one’s spouse is to imagine something to be true that is not immediately connected to anything they have seen or heard. Or, when we trust a physician we are seeing for the firs time, we will have no observational proof that they are competent and well-manner; we imagine a way things are. Used in reference to God in Scripture, it entails a trust that the God who has been at powerfully and lovingly at work will continue to be so. That isn’t based upon perception, as the Apostle PAul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5.7)

Since both faith and fantasy are forms of imagination, it is easy for the boundaries between the two to get blurred, that religious faith gets used to facilitate fantasy. But there is an important distinction between the two. Faith pertains to our relationship to and expectations of another, but faith does not entail a specific epistemic framework.

In other words, different forms of faith will have different ways of legitimating what one trusts in. Blind faith operates in the face of contrary evidence, such as a person who believes their spouse is faithful even when all the evidence suggests the opposite. Then there is a form of an assumed trust where people believe something to be true, even though they have no real to verify it or doubt it. But, then there is a testable faith, where trust has been shown to be verified, which is to be distinguished by a lack of trust.1 All these three examples suggest that there is no single epistemic manner for trusting.

Consequently, when faith moves to forms of faith that are blind or assumed for the sake of coping with struggles, faith becomes a form of fantasy, where no verification is needed for what one believes to be true and may even be immune to falsification.

However, when faith is a tested faith, one begins to discern the cognitive chaff from the cognitive wheat, between what is unreliable and what is trustworthy. This is a form of faith that avoids fantasy. However, because it is a type of faith that is amenable to verification and even falsification, it can experiences shifts or even become extinguished depending upon how flexible people are, their degrees of patience, and how willing they are to adapt the content of their faith to what occurs. Because this type of faith can blur into the margins of unbelief at time, blind and assumed faith looks on the surface more sure, more resilient, and thus more legitimate. But it is only a tested faith that has endured the fires of trials but has come out verified that can reliably avoid falling into fantasy.

Furthermore, there is a dark side of fantasy: people who live in fantasy typically engage in aggression and avoidance to maintain their sense of fantasy. Any news that would call their fantasies into question is a pretext for fighting or avoiding the “evildoers who would destroy them,” although these are often people who are simply telling them the truth and puncturing holes through their fantasy.

I provide two examples of how faith has turned into this form of fantasy to a toxic degree.

Firstly, in the United Methodist Church, we are dealing with a struggle of division over sharply opposed understandings about sex most prominently but also theology and faithfulness to God. As it is, even though its numbers are dwindling in the United States, the UMC is an institution with many resources and a degree of respectability and influence in some circles. Furthermore, many people across the ethical and theological divide have formed cooperative and friendship bonds with each other. Thus, there are many reasons to desire to keep things together as they are; there are many vested interests from the bishops to the clergy, and even the laity. However, this has lead to rising tensions and hostility in the denomination over the decades that have compelled many people of the evangelical persuasion to say, effectively, “We need to get our act together or we are gone.” On the other side, there is a growing discontent that the church has not been deemed sufficiently inclusive. Two opposing forces with growing emotional intensity have been in direct and indirect conflict with each other for decades.

In the midst of this potential divide of the denomination, there are many who keep on trying to hold on to hope that the denomination will stay together without any sort of exodus. You will see people who continue to hold on to ‘hope’ that some unity will be salvaged, while being hostile to anyone they deemed to be agents of division, most particuarly evangelicals. This despite the fact that the hostility has only grown, not abated, over the decades. But there is sense that God will faithfully preserve the denomination as it is, but God hasn’t answered this prayer in the decades either. While some of the stories of God’s faithfulness can take decades to come to fruition, such as a promise of descendants Abraham, when Abraham tried to take ahold of the promise himself through his own action by having a child through Hagar, he wasn’t trusting God but himself. Similarly, when people continue to invoke God for the purposes of keeping the denomination together through all these years of rising anger and division, their faith in God has formed into a fantasy that is distant from the realities on the ground, the lack of a clear provision and direction from God, and overlooks the role their own power has had in controlling the circumstances. The unity of the United Methodist Church is a fantasy that has power behind it to keep it working just as it is, but the power that is accomplishing it right now is not God’s power but a social, institutional form of power that using God to legitimate itself.

This isn’t to say the denomination is over with and there is no hope at all for the future. But people will not be open to what God is actually doing and leading until they let go of their fantasy.

However, there is a second way that faith turning into fantasy is causing problems of churches: it pertains to the rising scandal of sexual abuse in churches. For over a century, traditional churches associated with orthodoxy have had a penchant for resisting many of the intellectual and scientific developments of the modern age. Consequently, a fundamentalist spirit has developed that in the face of huge challenges to the way it is understood that God works (as in the creation-evolution debate) and the way to interpret the Scriptures (as in the conflict with higher Biblical criticism) that began to turn a blind eye to anything that would create substantial change. This fundamentalist spirit wasn’t simply an attitude of critical appropriate and engagement with modern science and intellectual culture, but it propogated a view of faith that made it resistant to any sort of challenges. Traditional Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have been tempted through the years to abide by this fundamentalist spirit, pushing them to have a form of faith that is more blind. As a consequence, conservative forms of Christianity in seeking to maintain orthodoxy have often been tempted to abide by this fundamentalist spirit to protect orthodoxy from challenges.

Then, the sexual liberation occurred in the 1960s. The response of conservative Christianity was to try to control this rising tide of sexual power through more rules and regulations. Rather than engaging critically with the science that stands behind sexual experiences to understand how sex works, there was this semi-institutionalized fantasy throughout the leadership that if you simply trying to create more rules and regulations that are legitimate by Scriptural texts referring to sexuality, the church will be able to maintain its sexual praxis as is along with its orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the sexual problems were considered to mainly exist outside the church amongst those others who have forgotten God; sure, occasionally bad things happen in churches because the churches are made of sinners, but it was never really of a terrible sort.

Conservative and traditional forms of Christianity had been influenced by the blinder versions of faith that fundamentalists essentially espoused, allowing them to maintain religious fantasy about the nature of the church. But as scandals in the news and twitter have brought to the forefront, this is far from the case. Sexual abuse has been a very real part of the church. It hasn’t necessarily been worse across the board than it has been in other types of organizations and institutions. However, whereas most business and institutions that were accountable had to take some measures to address these problems, the persistent lack of accountability of churches allowed those seduced by the thinking of fundamentalism’s faith-turned-fantasy to become blind to the problems and thus dramatically slower to address this injustice and abuse, if not outright resistant. It is certainly no coincidence that the most egregious offenders that we know of in the new of are the traditional Catholic Church and the fundamentalist Independent Baptist churches.2

All this is to say, Osteen isn’t the only propogater of fantasy amidst Christian circles. We can all readily turn our faith into a form of fantasy, and it can often times have deleterious results. Perhaps it results from leader marshalling the power of imagination, perhaps it is because the people of the church think the truth looks like a fantasy. However, it is only when we are willing to risk our faith to be challenged and formed can we hope to escape the comfortable confines of fantasy as God moves us into a mature faith.

A Word for a New Year: Integrity

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January 2, 2019

Integrity. It is a word that speaks to us a character of a person, someone who does what is right even when all the pressures seem to be to push to do something else. Someone who is honest even when there is much to be gained by dishonesty. If you were to imagine a person of integrity, you would think them as someone you can rely on and trust, someone who will have your back.

However, this picture can be a bit misleading meaning: a person of integrity will be a person who will generally found to be honest, but honesty or trustworthiness themselves do not make a person have integrity. An abusive person may be honest about their thoughts, but they are still an abuser as their distorted accusations cause great harm. You may be able to trust someone because you share common goals, but if their goals were to shift, so would their allegiance. One’s trust is conditioned to the potential outcomes.

Rather, we can see that integrity is more about who someone is rather than simply what they do. A person of integrity is honest in the right way and trustworthy for the right reasons. Integrity exists at a deeper level of a person’s character that determines more than what people do, but how and when they do it. A person of integrity does not readily speak their mind to a person on the emotional edge, but rather speaks judiciously and cautiously so that everything is true but everything is not needlessly revealed; meanwhile they may then excoriate those in power who use it to harm another. A person of integrity is someone who you can trust because they will not waver based upon personal benefit, but they may shift course if they realize there is great harm that will be done by following the present direction. Thus, a person of integrity will speak truth judiciously, which may make them seem like they are masking at times and hostile at others, and may change their course of action, which may make them seem fickle on the surface. Why? Because the difference between people of integrity and those who lack it isn’t in the opinions of other people who only look at the surface, but in the deeper rationale that motivates and directs their actions.

Consequently, people of integrity may be seen as lacking integrity by the people who seek to control them for their own purposes if the motives of the powerful lack integrity themselves. People of true integrity adapt to the circumstances on the ground and do not allow themselves to be puppets for others. If they find deception or faithlessness lurking behind what they honestly committed themselves to faithfully attend to, they will shift course due to their integrity. Thus, to be an integral person may mean being seen as one who lack integrity. This is why a faithful God will be found loyal to the loyal, blameless to the blameless, and pure to the pure, and yet be seen as shrewd to crooked people (Psalm 18.5-26).

Thus, integrity is less about public reputation derived from the perception of a person’s actions but is a more personal, inner characteristic. Consequently, integrity is not manufactured by doing the things people of integrity do; trying to obtain integrity by mimicking behaviors will leave you only playing the puppet to other people’s perceptions. Trying to be a person of integrity by trying to satisfy other people’s expectations will leave you a jumbled mess, as what is considered right and good by one person may be considered wrong by another. In the midst of the conflicting messages one will pick up from others about what it means to be good, one will selectively choose the messages that most appeal to one’s own inner desires. If not careful, this pathway of pursuing integrity may form you into a ‘moral’ narcissist, whose actions are determined by the deemed praiseworthiness they will receive.

The true pathway to integrity is different. This pathway is hinted at by the deeper meaning behind the world: the word integrity conveys a sense of wholeness, of being complete. There is a deeper degree of inner consistency that doesn’t rest on the surface level of behavior.

But all these words of wholeness, completeness, and consistency are to some degrees analogies and metaphors to the personal traits that allow a person to be a person of integrity. Consequently, it is easy to project onto these terms personally or cultured favored definitions.

One such definition of wholeness is emotional wholeness, where we feel like our life is all brought together; this is often associated with therapeutic healing and integration. But, insofar as unfairness and injustice exist in the world and people of integrity face hurt for changing in the face of the awareness of such, people of integrity will not have complete emotional wholeness. Their hearts will be tugged and pulled at from various directions. If all is truly well, the person of integrity will grow to heal and be truly well; in fact, I would suggest a person of integrity heals as they live in a healing environment in a way that people who lack integrity would not. But if not all is well, neither will the person of integrity be so. To be emotionally ‘whole’ will entail sacrificing being faithful to the truth as it is found to be so that we are not alarmed, taken aback, bruised, etc. This is not to say that therapeutic healing and integration has no place the life of a person of integrity, but only to state that becoming a person of integrity is not found in therapeutic healing.

Another definition may be connected with a sense of cognitive consistency. It might be imagined a person of integrity believes what they believe and does change or deviate from it. This seems sensible on the surface, except life is incredibly complex, people are diverse, and circumstances are constantly changing. To always be consistent at a cognitive level will be to sacrifice the truth of what is to maintain the cognitive status-quo: it is to resolve cognitive dissonance by dismissing and minimizing what is perceived in favor of what we imagine and wish to be true. Now, there are many aspects of reality that do not deviate; in which case, a person of integrity will be cognitively consistent about what is unchanging, whereas a person without integrity might vacillate regarding that as it suits their personal interests. Thus, a person of integrity retains cognitive consistency about which is consistently true, but will also be cognitively adaptive and flexible to that which is consistently changing.

A third definition of these cluster of words might be connected to what motivates a person’s behavior so that their behavior will always be consistent. But as mentioned earlier and for similar reasons as to cognitive consistency, people of integrity will not always act the same way on the surface. Take their response to deception: a person of integrity will not treat the deception of the powerless person who has been threatened on the same level as the deception of the powerful person who has been threatening. Consider God’s response to bless the powerless Hebrew midwives who lied to Pharaoh to protect infants (Exodus 1.15-22) in contrast to the exile God allow the privileged Moses to face when he tried to cover up a murder (Exodus 2.11-15). People of integrity may honor one person who lied while punishing the other liar. Or, consider Jesus, who extended a verbal welcome to paradise to one criminal on cross who despite his sentence was able to see the injustice Jesus went through but not to the other criminal who chose to mock Jesus. (Luke 23.39-43) Meanwhile, people seeking to appear consistent to others, who often ignorant of context, will treat each type of action with equal strictness and severity, unless it somehow suits their own interests. Thus, motivating the person of integrity is an extension of mercy where it should be offered and can be received, thereby entailing behavior that might look inconsistent on the surface.

Thus, while integrity is connected to the inner nature of a person, it is not to be found in emotional, cognitive, or behavioral motivations, even if people of integrity will have a different emotional, cognitive, and motivational life than other people will. But if the pathway to integrity isn’t through emotional wholeness, cognitive stability, or behavioral consistency, how then one does become a person of integrity?

The pathway can be boiled down to one basic idea that permeates the Scriptures through words and progress such as “deny yourself and take up the cross” (Matthew 16.24) and “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” (Romans 12.1)

What distinguishes the person of integrity from a different person is the relationship of personal desire. Our desires, our goals, our dreams, our ambitions present a powerful force that determines how we make sense of life and the world. We are constantly evaluating people, objects, circumstances, etc. in terms of how they align and cohere with our present direction and focus. Our desire determines what emotions we experience based upon our desires being matched or not; our desire determines the shape our beliefs about the world take, determining from what perspective we evaluate life from; our desires form the basis for our behavioral motivations, direct the ways we seek to attain our desires.

IF this sounds egocentric, it is. And here is a further bit of information about this: there is no turning this psychological reality off; if you are alive and conscious, you are evaluating everything in your life in terms of how they match your desires and purposes of the moment. Everything you seek is something you yourself personally value. There is no escaping the reality of egocentricity.

What can differ, however, is what specific desires and purposes you allow to give voice in your own heart. Firstly, we can choose between one goal and another, between one desire and another. For instance, when faced with a person who is helpless, I can choose to respond out of an inner desire to show compassion rather than an inner desire to establish my dominance over them. Or, secondly, we can choose to find vicarious joy in another and becoming other-seeking rather than simply seeking to find joy in one’s own life circumstances, being self-seeking. Our own desires are not inherently connected to our own, most immediate and personal experiences. In addition, thirdly, we can choose to let go of personal well-being in the short run for the sake of long run benefits. Differing values, distance from personal experience, and discount yourself in the short run for the sake of the long run all allow us to life in our egocentricity while not being dominated by it.

Consequently, it is the way we deny ourselves by shifting the values that direct our actions, by reducing the importance our own immediate experience has in comparison to other people’s experience, by discounting the immediate present for the sake of the long run that makes the difference for people of true integrity. We can distance ourselves from the most physiologically relevant values and goals of the present moment. Once we learn this, which we can call self-regulation, we begin to internalize a way of seeing life and the world that is not controlled by our strongest desires and our most salient perceptions. As a consequence, we can begin to approach seeing ourselves in the same way that we see others, and as people of integrity, adjust our own behaviors in accordance to the standards and expectations we would hold others to; our own self-perception is not enslaved to the lusts of eye and the heart, causing us to construe everything in a more positive light for ourselves rather than others. It can lead us to recognize even when our integrity was not perfect, where we did something we find to be deeply inconsistent with who we are, and coming to a place of repentance.

However, here is a painful lesson in the midst of this: integrity will never be learned so far as doing what a person of integrity does benefits oneself. For instance, if by valuing compassion over dominance you attain status, then you may not have let dominance go but may be instrumentalizing compassion for the end goal of dominance. If by taking joy in the life of another you immediately receive benefits from that person, you haven’t truly extricated yourself from the other. If by seeking the best in the long run you also routinely receive immediate short-term benefits, you haven’t learned to let the immediate moment go.

Integrity, true integrity can only be learned when one not only denies themselves but endures the cross amidst their self denial so that there is no “having your cake and eating it too.” Only in denying yourself as you endure the cross can you learn to be a person of integrity even when you are seen to be the opposite. Hence, it is why after mentioning the blessed status of peacemakers, Jesus then mentions the blessed status of being persecuted (Matthew 5.9-10); only in persecution will a peacemaker truly discover their place in God’s kingdom, to be agents of salt and light for God’s heavenly descending kingdom and purposes rather than a seeking a kingdom of their own.

I mention this is a word for this new year, and for a reason. We are faced with a social crisis in the life of Western society. Numerous stories of sexual abuse have repeatedly come out since 2017. While it is hard to reductively describe all the causes to one singular factor, it largely stems from the cultural revolution of the 60s that unlocked the Pandora’s box of human sex. And this was a whirlwind of universal devastation, like EF-5 tornado, blasting everything within its zone of influence, impacting even the churches that were reputed to stand against it. If the various twitter hashtags are any indication, sexual harassment and abuse is cultural pandemic, being transmitted to church congregations and leadership.

However, many of the churches themselves have not responded effectively to it. There has been a slow recognition that the way sex was taught to youths in churches in response to the cultural whirlwind did not address the deeper problems, but only tried to maintain behavioral conformity to the ‘pristine’ sexuality of “family values.” In the name of maintaining the pristine reputations of churches and religious organizations as being sexually pure, many of these stories of sexual abuse would be swept under the rug and/or denied as happening. Then, as churches failed alongside the rest of the nation to take seriously the increasing amount of inappropriate and even predatory sexual behaviors, there was a concomitant naivete overlooking one of the best places to hide these behaviors is as one who was reputed to be against them while being free from accountability due to one’s reputed status. Meanwhile, maintaining a patriarchal bias towards men in the church left many female victims statusless to break through the gender stereotypes that protected men and dismissed women. The truth of the matter is, the predominantly evangelical culture of our churches did reinforce many of the problems rather than address them.

Here is why integrity is important in this. Firstly, a person of integrity is a person who retains a respect for other people as sexual creatures. While people of integrity are not necessarily perfect, crossed boundaries are relatively minor and are repented of.

However, the importance of integrity extends beyond just not personally contributing to the problems. The Church needs more than people who will do no sexual harm, but people who also do good as it comes to the harm that has been done. Integrity is essential and necessary to address the throngs of pain and trauma that has been committed under the umbrella of the church, along with respond with the deep anger that is thrown against churches as a consequence. It will take people of integrity who can endure this rising tide of hostility rather than engaged in a defensive dismissal of it out of a desire for self-preservation. If churches in America and the rest of the West are to respond to this social crisis as healing agents that become beacons of light rather covers of darkness, it will take followers of Christ in their integrity wading through the deep pain, seeking to discern how to heal and protect in the future, all the meanwhile not giving in wholesale to the sexual progressivism that uses the realities of abuse as an opportunity to misleadingly treat their cultural values as superior, overlooking the way their brand of sexuality is a large driver of the problem. If there is no integrity that can look at Christian churches without a self-defensive style for self-preservation in the immediate moment, we will only see a battle of culture wars, of embittered people while recognizing the problems in word more so than with our actual deeds. It is through the integrity form by self-denying and bearing our crosses that Christian leaders, ministers, teachers, etc. can wade into the social and sexual chaos and whirlwind that is and be the peacemakers God calls us to be as His children.

So, I offer this word of integrity as a word for this new year. May we who follow Christ grow in our integrity so that we can bring peace and healing where there is pain and mistrust as we courageously face the powers of those who would seek to dominate and dismiss us.

Reflection on Christmas

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December 24, 2018

It has been nearly a year and a half since I gave my last sermon. While I certainly appreciate the time I have taken off from pastoring to pursue further education, I am left at times with a preaching itch that I can’t exactly scratch. So, in lieu of that, here is a reflection I offer based upon what I would probably preach about if I were preaching today or tomorrow:

Matthew 1.18-25 (NRSV):

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

One of my favorite movies is “The Prestige” from 2006. The movie is about two competing magicians in which Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, who originally were part of the same magic show. However, during one magic show, Robert’s wife Julia dies in a tragic drowning accident because Alfred tied her hands in a risky knot, at her request. Robert blames Alfred and Robert bitterness never goes away. Eventually, the two go their separate direct, Robert to success and fame whereas Alfred struggles to get by. However, Alfred has one magic trick that absolutely stuns everyone, as he enters into one door and then a distance way immediately walks out the other door. Robert becomes aware of this trick and in his bitterness, jealously ties to discover the secret of this magic trick. Eventually, he succeeds and performs it to great success to adoring audiences.

I won’t spoil how the movie goes (go see it if you can!), but there are a couple twists along the way as to how the trick works for Alfred and Robert. But what strikes me about this move is that it is one of those movies that has great replayability: you watch it the first time you are in suspense as to the big secret. Then, after completing it the first time, you watch it again and with your knowledge of how it all ends, you begin to catch up on all the hints and signs place along the way to pointed to the ending surprise. Your eyes opened, you see it from a whole new perspective. Not only that, but you begin to appreciate how the events earlier in the movie really do set up for the ending conclusion, as if the true significance of the events that take place won’t be realized until years later in movie time.

This is where we are as Christians, hearing the Christmas story. We know how the story ends, Christmas over the course of over three decades leads to the Cross, so we look back and hear the Gospel stories about Jesus birth and hear them as pregnant with deep meaning and significance. We hear in the words “God with us” not simply a statement of God’s faithfulness and presence, but a radical surprise that God came to us as human person, the Word made flesh. We know this because we know how the story ends, Jesus is raised from the dead and we hear in the words of Thomas “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28), so we can look back on the birth of Jesus and the words spoken over him as having deep significance and meaning; deeper significance than it would have had if you were encountering these events for the first time without knowing where it is all going. We see in the birth narratives, and then in the stories of Jesus ministry, significant themes and events that would have passed up by if it was the very first time to hear this story.

I want to invite you for a moment, however, to put some distance between yourself and your post-Easter knowledge. You don’t know Jesus is God Incarnate; you don’t know that Jesus will die and be raised from the dead. You are draped in a veil of ignorance about what the future holds, and so when you hear stories of angels coming to speak to human people, you can imagine something important is happening but you wouldn’t exactly be sure exactly what it is. A virgin birth would be quite surprising, a sign of the hand of God in this matter, but what to make of this baby and his future? Perhaps a future king, perhaps the one who will restore the throne of King David. But in all of the excitement, who will Jesus grow up to be is not for certain. There is not sign post saying “This is God in the flesh!” There are no angels shouting “By the death and resurrection of Jesus the world will be saved.”

So what happens after the early events surrounding Jesus birth? The Gospel of Luke records a story about pre-teen Jesus trekking out on his own from the oversight of his parents, going to the temple and amazing everyone with his insight and understanding. But other than that, nothing of great significance is recorded about Jesus’ life until he is past the age of 30. All these dramatic events about angels, the Magi, shepherds, and a virgin birth all signaling something marvelous about this young baby and nothing remarkably significant happens for thirty years. Thirty years! Thirty years and nothing has happened resembling the fulfillment of mother Mary’s hopes:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1.46-55)

In fact, the entrance of Jesus didn’t immediately bring blessings to everyone aside from the joy of a family to Mary and Joseph. In fact, it ushered in a widespread massacre of Bethlehemite infants by a jealous and fearful Herod. Rather than dreams being fulfilled, the dreams of many families had been dashed; rather than hope stirring in the air, the fog of despair hovered over Israel, waiting and longing for God to do something, even after God has done something in becoming present as a person.

Now, this might seem depressing on first glance, but there is an important truth here that is hope for the depressed: God’s redemption doesn’t happen in an instant. In a day and age where we look for the technological or medical miracle to immediately fix our problems but are more often than not left disappointed, we have missed the miracles that takes months, years or events decades to fully come to fruition. Missed in the pursuit and desire of the immediate is the miracle of the mundane, where God is working and waiting for the current chapter of time to develop and be ready to set the stage for a new chapter.

Why? Because God is not like some parent who upon seeing a child’s room in disarray, immediately comes in and puts everything in place. He is a God who rather expect others to have their flesh in the game, as if they are a parent who will help their child clean but they expect their child to be a part of the work. This takes time to involve others in this cooperative action. And as Jesus is witnessed by humble shepherds who are right there, the Magi wise men from the east, the awe-inspired onlookers at the pre-teenage Jesus, and then the forerunner John the Baptist, God is setting the table, getting others involved. And yet, just as a child may not be able to clean up all the messes they have made; there may be shelves that they are too short to reach, so too God does something dramatic and powerful that only He was prepared to do, over three decades later. Then, with time and attention, the young child can learn to take clean their room on their own and even do the very things their parent did for them; they may even look back on those times where they cleaned their room and see the significance those early times with their parent had on them: a significance they didn’t understand as a young child, not knowing what they would do themselves. So, we too look back on the significance of the story of Jesus in light of, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story and see the traces of its influence on our own lives.

The story of the birth on Christmas isn’t the story of a miraculous birth. Rather, it is the story of the beginning of a miracle that spans over thirty years, that we can make sense of in retrospect. It is the story of the beginning of a miracle that spans millennia also, that we are still making sense of to this day. It is story of how God is working a miracle amidst the brokenness, despair, and hopelessness. God’s work takes time and we often won’t understand the significance until we take a look back after everything has happened, when the new chapter has written and we can reflect on all that happened in the chapter before.

This miracle that occurs over time is expressed well in the words of our communion liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ risen, Christ will come again.” God’s work of redemption in all our stories and the story of the world is connected by discrete events, all strung together as part of a long-term process that holds them altogether. So too, the significance of the birth of Christ held together and made effect by all that follows.