Aterminal theism: Somewhere between classical and open theism

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March 21, 2020

My journey of wrestling with and comprehending the classical doctrines of God have been a long process that has spanned over a decade. I have dug deep into the meaning of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, trying to more thoroughly connect it with a Biblical narrative. I have considered to some degree various doctrines of Scriptural inspiration, trying to come to an understanding of how it is that we can confess that God has revealed Himself and His will through the Scriptures. However, the one area where I have experience the most amount of tension, change, and development over the years is in the three “omni’s” of classic theism: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

My faith was initially trained with these three classical doctrines about God/ God was capable of everything, God knew everything, and God was everywhere. However, as I dug deeper into the reading of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, I came across numerous texts present prima facie challenges to these three classical doctrines: particularly omniscience and omnipresence. Among classical theists in history, many of these texts were treated as anthropomorphisms that were intended to communicate something in terms that people could understand, but that classical theism was the ultimate theology truth that the Scriptures testified too. However, such explanations seem to be too much hand waving without an adequate account for why these passages would have conveyed that to the original composers and receivers of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps one could appeal to a progressive nature of revelation, but then it leads us to ask: why is it that the telos of progressive revelation looks curiously like Greek metaphysics and theology?

To be clear, I am not hostile to the idea of “Greek” influence, as if it is some anathema that must be cleansed from the church in favor the “Hebrew” mindset, an antithesis that is more rooted in the dualist modes of analysis of Western essentialism than historical reality. Greek philosophy was not some categorical illusion that was bereft of any truthfulness. At the same time, though, Greek intellectual thought is not the pinnacle of wisdom, insight, and truth. It’s way of framing the fundamental nature of truth, knowledge, goodness, and reality can be traced more so to how Greek language and grammar was a principle influence in the emergence of Greek metaphysics.1 In other words, Greek metaphysics emerges more so from the processes of a softer linguistic determinism in which the categories and concepts of language become entrenched so as to appear to be fundamental within the nature of the world, rather than Kantian-like aids in processing the world around us.

While I did not have such a robust critique of the Greek influence on classical theology until the past few years, my studies in the Scriptures and struggle with personal experiences of my life left me with a gut-level feeling that the classical doctrines of God were somehow off. I explored alternatives such as open theism and even process theism, but I was left increasingly dissatisfied with what they offered. Open theism placed implicit, de facto limits on God, even as the more open portrayal of the future seem compelling at some level. Insofar as process theism attribute changed to the ‘nature’ of God, the more it seemed to step into wild speculation and lose touch with the Scriptural narratives.

Dissatisfied with classical, open, and process theism for various reasons, where then did my theological exploration take me? A theism that is rooted in the combination of God as Creator, His relation to His creation, and apophatic approach to the questions of God’s power, knowledge, and presence that rejects any limitations placed upon God’s potential while not ascribing sweeping and universal claims as to the actual state of God’s power, knowledge, and presence. Whereas the three “omnis” state that God can do anything, God knows everything, and God is present everwhere, I have move towards what I refer to as an aterminal2 theism where nothing in God’s creation can set a boundary to limit what God can do, what God can know, and where God can be.

Aterminal theism has the benefit of being able to incorporate the various Scripture passages that classical theism points to: because God is not limited in matters of power, presence, and knowledge, the Scriptural affirmations of God’s greatness is readily affirmed. At the same time, it allows for a more open sense of the future and an incorporation of human freedom in some capacity without ascribing a limit to God, particularly to what God know about the future. Furthermore, an aterminal theism can allow for changes in the way that God demonstrates and uses His power, in what God knows, and where and how God is present without ascribing change to the way that God can relate to His creation.

Beyond the potential to more flexibility incorporate various Scriptural witness to God’s nature, there are two, overlapping reasons that I would suggest aterminal theism is a better option for understanding the God of the Scriptures than classical theism.

Firstly, aterminal theism can more seriously incorporate the Scripture witness to God’s outright holiness and distinction from humanity and the world than classical theism. The three omni’s of classical theism can be describe as the perfections of human capacities in power, presence, and knowledge. While humans have some power, God has all power. While humans are in some place, God is in all places. While humans know some times, God knows all things. The classical doctrine of God is, in many ways, about the perfection of human traits. While there is a difference between God and humans, the difference is a matter of degree, whereas the similarity is more categorical. God and humans share the same nature, but differ in matters of degree.

Aterminal theism, on the other hand, reverses the priority of similarities and differences. While recognizing that both God and humans can share similar properties when it comes to power, presence, and knowledge, these similarities do not make us fundamentally like God. Rather, God and humanity are fundamentally different in that whereas humans are limited in what type of power we can obtain, where we can be present, and what we can and do know, God does not have these limitations. This difference goes back to God’s identity as Creator and our identity as part of God’s creation.

Furthermore, as a result of aterminal theism, we do not even begin to have an adequate representation of who God is, which points us forward to having some deeper understanding about God to be able to speak meaningfully about Him beyond His potential. The three omnis of classical theism can almost set themselves as a confession of faith in some general God that we believe and know in som capacity. Aterminal theism doesn’t give us a sense of faith and understand about God that anymore than me believing that there is the possibility that there exist a world similar Earth in the universe gives me any actual knowledge of this world. Such a ‘faith,’ if one wants to call it that, calls for something more specific, definite, and actual for it to be something we can dedicate our lives around.

Aterminal theism, in other words, requires revelation to have faith according to the New Testament understanding of faith. God has revealed Himself to be a God who is faithful to His promises through His relation with Israel and the sending of His Son into the world to be crucified and raised in accordance to Israel’s testimony to God. This specific narrative and the specific actions of God are necessary to really say anything of substance about God’s power, presence, and knowledge. In other words, aterminal theism makes a more decisive break between natural theology, which readily blurs into a natural anthropology, and revelation in order for us to have a specific faith about God who makes Himself particularly known in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

My portrayal of aterminal theism does not just reject classical theism as fundamentally in error, however. In other ways, classical theism makes a clear differentiation between God and humans. I appeal to usage of analogy to explain how language can describe God in a way that is simultaneously different from how language describes the world as an example of this. Nevertheless, insofar as classical theism has been influenced by a perfect being theology to be the conceptual foundation for the doctrine of God, it risks anthropomorphizing God in such a way that the holiness of God becomes a particular and limited property of God rather than a sweeping ontological claim about God. Put differently, aterminal theism is a correction to classical theism that is subtle and yet simultaneously has profound theological implications.

Developing a broader sense of social trauma

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March 15, 2020

In the field of psychiatry, there has been many discussions on whether there is difference between the traditional diagnoses of PTSD and a more specific and differentiate diagnoses known as complex-PTSD. While the DSM 5 did not include C-PTSD, the purpose of the label C-PTSD is to address a particular form of social traumas that relate to being held captive or abused over a prolonged period of time that often has dramatic implications when it comes to social attachments for the victim.

While I am not fit to wade into the complex discussion as to whether PTSD and C-PTSD should be treated as different diagnoses, there is something I want to highlight about the portrayal of C-PTSD that is important for our understanding of social traumas: the traumas that result from long-term exposure to negatively significant emotional experiences.

Before continuing, something needs to be clarified here about my usage of “trauma.” Often, trauma is a word that gets used to be thrown around to garner sympathy and favor from other people, so when we hear the word we can sometimes develop a sense of skepticism to labeling something as trauma. Indeed, I can remember a few instances where a person who got offended by something that said resorted to saying something along the lines of “You are traumatizing me” or other forms of victimizing language. When I use the word trauma, I want you to disabuse yourself of that notion. When I use trauma in this context, I am using it to refer to a series of experiences and memories that negatively change and impact the function of a person for the long-term. Psychological trauma debilitates us in a way that a bowl of ice cream, a long chat with a friend, or a vacation does not take away.

It is also understand with trauma that it is deeply personal to the way people process and function. What traumatizes one person may not traumatize the next person. A serious car wreck may be traumatizing for one person so that they are scared to drive afterwards, whereas another person is perfectly ready to drive. While some people are more susceptible to the impacts of trauma than others, it is also true that what would be considered traumatic differs from person to person.

Also, being traumatized and having PTSD are not the same thing. PTSD is a pervasive condition that can cause the long-term dysfunction of a person’s whole life, whereas many traumas may only impact our functioning in more narrow domains of life. This may seem obvious, but it is important to emphasize that one can have trauma and not have PTSD. While I am not a psychiatrist and can only speak from an outsider perspective, my concern is that much like ADHD, Autism Spectrum, etc., PTSD has become increasingly a catch-all diagnoses for the presence of psychological traumas.

With all of this said, I want to put forward a reason that we need to distinguish between two different types of social traumas that has the potential to impact our relationships with other people. The first relates to single or a handful events of highly negative emotions, such as fear, panic, etc., that come from the way another person treats us. Domestic violence, rape, burglary, etc. are all types of events that most of us recognize and understand how they can create trauma. When we think of trauma, we are inclined to think of these types of events.

However, there is a second type of social trauma that often goes under the radar: traumas that result from a long series of negative social interactions that a person feels they can not prevent or escape. These types of interactions can range from relationships where narcissistic abuse takes place, stalking, repetitive racial denigration, persistent but low grade forms of social aggression towards employees, mobbing, etc.

The reason it is important to make a distinction between these two is three-fold. Firstly, even as both forms of social trauma can impact attachment, we are apt to show greater sympathy to the former because we can readily identify the problems as such traumas leave visible “fingerprints,” whereas the latter forms of social trauma are often too subtle and complex for people to readily grasp immediately. A person whose significant other has consistently controlled their life choices in pervasive but subtle ways often doesn’t some traumatized like domestic abuse would be, leading to them to receive less sympathy. More likely, people would explain to their problems to some other problem they had from their past, whether it be their parents, they have some other psychiatric condition, etc. This hampers recovery because what people need to recover from trauma is stabilization by experiencing the world in its positive aspects. However, a person who has enduring a traumatic series of negative social interactions in a way that is isn’t readily identifiable to others may not be able to get access to the type of positive interactions that they need to recover a sense of their value and positive expectation of social relationships.

Secondly, social traumas emerges from a series of negative social interactions can often times be hard for the victim to understand themselves. A victim of rape often has a hard time in the aftermath dealing with problems of pervasive shame and unworthiness, but their route to recovery often comes with recognizing that what happened to them wasn’t their fault. While there are some forms of rape that are not as clear about how the victimization occurs, much of the time there is a clear sense of what happened and how it was an evil violation. However, for people who experience social traumas from a series of repetitive, smaller violations, it can often be quite hard to quite put their finger on all the problems. This makes it simultaneously harder for them to recover through wrapping their heard around what happened and harder for them to communicate what the nature of the problem and the trauma is. The difficulty of communication then exacerbates the first problem in that people don’t understand them as well.

Nevertheless, such social traumas are not usually attributable to any deep prior problem in the person that lead to the problem. Such people are put into a situation where they are somehow bound to an emotionally and socially threatening situation beyond their perceived control or without high personal price and cost. For instance, given the often ambiguous legal ground that stalking exists under, stalking victims are often left with little legal recourse to stop some forms of stalking and are often forced into situations where they have to endure the unwanted person or they are forced to make changes in their lifestyle that may have serious impacts on their life. An employee whose manager has a vendetta against him may have to either choose to endure the series of humiliations, double-binds, etc. or risk going unemployed. A person dating a narcissist either has to continue to make themselves available to the narcissist and endure the toxic assaults on their well-being or risk the narcissist engage in social aggression through various means, including slandering them to their family and friends. In my case, I had the make a choice between either continuing in my social life and have to endure the violations of boundaries that I was powerless to address or largely socially isolate myself.

Now, perhaps the victim had something in their lives that made them susceptible to being targeting by such people, but focus on that would deflect from the fact that the experiences of the emotional assaults actually changes them for the worse in a way that wasn’t true for them beforehand. These are very real damages that are done to the person, and it can be quite hard for them to recover from the traumas as they are not as liable to receive help and they are often liable to be a bit uncertain about what happened themselves.

There is a third reason I am wanting to point out this form of trauma though. I want to isolate a potential cause for these forms of social trauma: the dissolution of specific social and moral conventions for how we treat one another. The stalker, the narcissist, the hostile manager are different from the overtly criminal in that they don’t violate a clear and abiding “NO!” Instead, they are people for whatever reason do not have a sense of moral virtue and self-control to treat people with a basic sense of boundaries and respect. Most societies throughout history have inculcated a sense of social roles for people that determine how they are expected to treat other people. These social expectations are not always positive forces, but one of the positive functions they have is enculturating citizens of a society how to interact with one another and what is to be consider inappropriate.

While awareness of some forms of such social norms still do exist, they are not taught like they were in the past. The end result is that people’s social interactions is more spontaneous. This may sound good on the surface for those influenced by a more romantic understanding of human life, but the end result is that it leads people to act in a more egocentric manner based upon what is important to themselves, without as much regard for other people. If someone is a naturally empathetic and conscientious person, there is no concern. They may be susceptible to the occasional slip up and faux pas, they will not be a source of persistently negative social interactions. Such people will naturally adjust their interactions based upon the way other people respond to them. However, if some people are more self-absorbed, they will be able to act in certain ways that in the past would have been considered wildly inappropriate. Because there is a less deeply engrained sense of awareness of the social norms, the actions of the self-absorbed are less likely to be censured by their victims or by other people.

In other words, a society without well-defined and enculturated social norms, whatever those norms are expected to be, is a society where these more pernicious forms of social trauma are much more frequent. It is here with the post-modern move of devaluing widely binding moral frameworks, the romantic move of valuing spontaneity over convention, and the globalist move away from treating the local community as the center of life has had the effect of undermining any consistently reinforced sense of norms for social interactions and relationships.

However, there seems a increasing awareness of these types of relationships and traumas, but we don’t necessarily handle identifying them well. For instance, the internet is replete with articles about narcissistic dating abuse, but people are not apt to recognize that narcissistic dating abuse is about a series of interactions over the long haul, not simply a person who was a little rude, decided they didn’t want to date you, or wasn’t deemed as emotionally available. Because we fail to comprehend that such social traumas are the result of persistent negative social interactions over the long haul, whereas we are apt to try to associate the traumas and the characterizations with single actions, we don’t identify these traumas very well.

A "progressive" argument for being pro-family

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March 14, 2020

I am a man of split worlds. On the one hand, I can seem deeply conservative at times in that I have a high value for family and traditions. However, at other times, I may appear to be more progressive to others, as many of the tools of social critique used by the left I am also familiar with and can use on occasion, albeit with more care and caution than those on the left often endorse. One of the areas in which the “split” becomes evident is in my view of the family.

I am pro-family, but not necessarily in the way that the religious right tends to be “pro-family.” To be clear, I do think the home with a married man and woman presents the best, most flexible and stable social arrangement for children to healthily grow up in, all other things being equal. This isn’t become of some idolization of the “nuclear family” as much as it is that type of arrangement provides the potential for the widest array of positive emotional social interactions (PESI) that other arrangements are not usually as fit to provide. This isn’t to say that other arrangements are unhealthy or bad, but only that they present unique challenges to rearing children.

However, at the heart of my reason for being pro-family is less so about valorizing the family and more so targeting what I think to be the biggest culprit in the problems that people face in their life: society. There has been a deep, persistent bias that has tarnished our view of the family: that the wounds of adults were the responsibility of their parents. Now, to be clear, there are many terribly abusive parents out there; we should never valorize the family in a way that diminish or silences these stories. There are also relationships between parents and children where some strong desire of the child may not have been met by their parents.

However, I would put forward that parents have often served as an easy scapegoat for blaming the emotional ills and problems that people have, when there is in fact a greater cause of social harm: society and culture. While parents are the single most likely perpetrator of long-term harm on people, that is because we have more emotionally significant social interactions, positive or negative, with our parents than any other class of individuals. However, that doesn’t mean we have more emotionally significant social interactions with our parents than all other people combined. We have a host of social interactions with people throughout our life time other than our parents that can influence, for better or for worse.

The nature of most of these non-parental social interactions are largely determined by social scripts we have that direct our interactions with certain type of people. Social scripts for how we relate to people of specific ethnicities, genders, socio-economic statuses, specific personality types, age, etc. are responsible for molding the way people interact with others. Even though these social scripts are highly flexible and do not constrain any individual social interaction, these scripts have a pervasive impact in small and subtle ways over the course of many social interactions. Furthermore, since most of our social scripts are influenced by fears about different types of people, those people who have social statuses that are considered more dangerous are the repeatedly the recipients of negative social interactions. People of less privilege and status are persistently the recipients of negatively significant emotional social interactions. 

I have found that it is often my fellow white people who are apt to talk about parental wounds, whereas other ethnicities like African Americans are less apt to talk about parent wounds and more to talk about the evils of discrimination. This is because white people as a group are less aware of the the impacts of negative social interactions, because we have fewer of them; our whiteness has shielded us from them. To be sure, some of us have been the recipients of negative social interactions for other reasons. Having been somewhat socially shy, emotionally sensitive, and overweight child lead to a lot of bullying for my in grade school and middle school. Having developed a sense of a non-aggressive honesty (that is, I will speak my mind and present my case but I don’t berate you simply for thinking differently) popular late in my college years and afterwards, rather than the more smooth-talking style that readily makes people have higher popularity and status, made me a target by aggressive people who did not appreciate my approach. Being white does not immunize ourselves from negative social interactions. However, because most white people as a whole have a positive social status, we have often been unaware of the influence of society on people’s pains and ills. Rather, we have focused more so the most important relationship with personal knowledge of individuals rather than social status has a more profound impact of our social interactions: our families.

Furthermore, it is easy to blame families for our ills because (a) we don’t have as much control over a faceless society than we do our relationships with our parents and (b) blaming society means those of us who have more influence having to risk implicating ourselves in the problem, even if it is only indirect.

Again, parents are a common source of problems for many people, especially in the case of abusive fathers and mothers. However, it has been a pastime of American society to blame the parents for things that are not really the fault of parents. For instance, it was once thought that schizophrenia could be blamed on bad mothers, when in fact schizophrenia is primarily genetic in its origins.

I am pro-family because I think families have gotten a consistently bad rap in American society. Their portrayal in the media and television only exacerbates the problem as people who are foolish, get in the way of their children, etc. Part of this is because adolescence is about differentiating oneself from one’s parents and media companies are apt to try to grab the attention of the younger generations. However, I would suggest the more pervasive problem is our ignorance at just how emotionally harmful a society can be.

This is however, where the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes. Unfortunately, the way the religious right has treated the Gospel as a carrier of family values has largely muted the thrust of the message of the Gospel, while also diminishing the reality of parent abuse. However, the story of Jesus is the story of how God has and continues to overturn the injustice of the wider world that God’s people inhabit and live among as sojourners. The Gospel is the story of how God is victorious over the evils of society, both by redeeming people from the way of life of society and by making the present way of life pass away in the emergence of new creation. The Gospel uses the metaphor of family to describe group of people that live a new way of life as God’s people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ through the transforming power of the Spirit, where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control abide through the transformation of the community.1 The Gospel begins to transform the social scripts that we use in interacting with other people, so that we can cease to be part of the problem.

The value of Thomas

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March 14, 2020

It is one of the most sobering things I ever heard when I was in a class on social psychology as a student at Mississippi State University. People who experience mild to moderate depression are usually some of the most realistic people.1 A person who is mildly depressed does not have the egocentric bias that people who are more optimistic about themselves have, as they are more reliable and accurate in various assessments and possibilities. While severe forms of depression are themselves massively distorting with catastrophizing consequences, mild cases of depression typically lack the excesses of clinical depression while also avoiding the positive illusions.

However, with this sense of realism comes another costs: living in a society dominated by optimists. American society has been founded based upon the pursuit of happiness and so, for various reasons, it has been baked into the culture that happiness is actually the default of what it means to be human. As a result, the mildly depression and severely depressed are treated as being the same, depressed, without a real ability to differentiate between the two.

Speaking as a person who most of my life may be considered mildly depressed in a society that attempts to retain its optimism, it has led to many consequences that have then lead to falling into deeper depression based. The biggest difference is the way people who are more optimistic expect a person who is realistic to be in order to be a well-adjusted person. Latent within the culture of optimism is that positive views of oneself make oneself successful. That in order to be successful you must believe you are successful. That in order to receive love, you must love yourself. In short, there is a kernel of a form of a prosperity gospel, you are not something until you believe it to be true.

There is something very real and often helpful about such positive illusions, as positive views of oneself diminish our sense of the risk that accompany various actions have. This simultaneously allows someone to reach greater heights, but at the same time, also puts people in more vulnerable situations that they may not realize at the time. The more intense the positive self-esteem it, the greater the risks and the greater the vulnerability that such people take and are susceptible to. At the extremes of positive illusions, such people win big and they lose big. At the more moderate forms of positive illusions, such people are able to better themselves without taking unreasonable risks upon themselves.

For the potential positives of the positive self-esteem, there is one distinct problem with it: the higher the degree of positive illusion, the greater the hindrance to a person’s ability to learn. At the core of learning is the recognition that one does not know and therefore an openness to receiving and processing information that one does not yet have. However, people with very high views of themselves are often deficient learners. They don’t learn very well from their mistakes. They tend to process the events of their life and other information at their disposal at a superficial level, without deep reflection and consideration. Instead, the have a marked tendency to forget all their losses and keep pursuing the risky goals they have in mind. They can keep repeating the mistakes of the past because they believe.

To be clear, this isn’t as much of a problem for people who have mildly positive views of themselves. People with mildly positive views of themselves are more able to take feedback that contradicts their positive views and then enter into a temporary period of disequilibrium where they lose a bit of confidence and can learn afresh.

However, it is here with the realism of the mildly “depressed” really begins to shine. As the least susceptible to illusions and always feeling gnawing need to grow and learn from the lack of self-satisfaction, the mildly depressed are more apt to engage in a continuous life of learning. They see the world a bit more for what it is and they can explore the significance of all that more deeply. People who are mildly depressed, or at least in my case, live in world of persistent disequilibrium, where nothing is quite settled but life isn’t usually a catastrophe either.

However, as a result, a sense of the personal well-being for the mildly depressed is more connected to their sense of present circumstances. In virtue of being more realistic, they assessment of their place in life is more based upon how life is operating. For them, the emotional buffers are found more in how their life is presently being lived rather than some ingrained sense of their self. This means that the mildly depressed are more susceptible to stress when life circumstances change. Whereas the more optimistic are not phased as much by difficulties, the mildly depressed becomes more deeply hit by negative life circumstances. However, at the same time, the mildly depressed show a greater sense of gratitude and joy with the blessings of life. They neither take life for granted nor do they ignore the problems, but they are more apt to take in the fullness of life, whereas the more optimistic and the more severely depressed are often unable to adequately respond to the negative and positives of life, respectively. The mildly depressed are may able to respond and learn from the full range of life experiences, both positive and negative;

It can be difficult living in a world of optimism, however, as the more advice of the more optimistic, whether they realize it or not, is rooted in the “believe it to see it” mentality. However, so deeply ingrained in the mentality of the mildly depressed is the reality based principle of “see it to believe it” that trying to believe it before seeing it just rubs against something deep laid within them.

If I were to identify one of the disciples with the mildly depressed persona (although we should be careful of applying more psycho-therapeutic categories to ancient persons), it would be Thomas. Often dismissively referred to as Doubting Thomas, the role of Thomas in the Gospel of John is really more so to provide a dose of realism into the narrative. It is Thomas in John 11.7-16 who rather realistically, yet also with a tone of mild depression, utters that following Jesus into Judea will lead to their death (being realistic doesn’t always mean one has the right conclusions). It is also Thomas who is the most inquisitive during Jesus’ farewell speech, seeking to understand how they can know the way to where Jesus is going if they don’t know where he is leaving, to which Jesus in response gives the most emphatic statement of his own identity and authority (John 14.5-7). It is Thomas who, after seeing the wounds of the resurrected Christ, who gives the most emphatic confession of Jesus as the climax of the Gospel “My Lord and My God” (John 20.28). In other words, Thomas is willing to bear his cross and has relatively realistic assessment of the situation (again being realistic doesn’t always mean that one is right but that one is able to learn) that becomes the opportunity for him to then learn often surprising truths, ending with the deepest, most emotional statement about Jesus at the end of the Gospel.

Unfortunately, the derisive view of Thomas as doubting and as a skeptic reflects the pervasive bias of the more optimistic society in the way the the Gospel of John does not portray Thomas. Thomas has a high place of importance in the narrative of John. The inclusion Jesus’ statement about “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come ot believe” in John 20.28 isn’t there to deride Thomas for a lack of faith as much as it commending those who upon hearing the Gospel of John come to faith, who would come to believe through the testimonies in the Gospel, including the testimony of Thomas, in lieu of direct sensation.

When it comes to matters of Christian faith, there is often the sharp predilection to take a “believing is seeing” approach. This isn’t a wrong approach to the Christian life by itself, as Jesus does commend it at the end of the Gospel of John. However, it can become easy to confuse statements such as “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5.7) and “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1) that are about how one lives in the midst of faith with describing the way we come to and deepen faith. In other words, the New Testament does not rule out “seeing is believing” as a way of coming to and growing in faith, but that as one believes, however one comes to believe, this faith directs the nature of one’s life that is not be dictated by one’s immediate perceptions. The “mildly depressed” and others who see to believe are capable of recognizing and understanding truths without them being constantly affirmed once they believe them, but that they may need a truth to be confirm in some manner before it becomes internalized within them.

Speaking in a world often run by more optimistic people, including many of my fellow believers, who often have trouble with those who take a more realistic, less risk-taking approach to life, I invite you to recognize the value and even the gift that the “mildly depressed” present to you as people who can see what the optimistic often overlook, as people who can learn what you might not have learned. In the church, it is often hard being someone like me, as our mentality is often more appreciated in other fields of life the sciences where the value of a realistic attitude can become more readily apparent when reliability and success are more at a premium. Nevertheless, I continue to struggle to help people in the Church to see that the Thomases play a critical role in the confession of the Church and that the more optimistic are often more dependent on those Thomases to give definition and confession to what they feel but not always understand in a way that spans more than they often realize while also helping people know how to reign in the excess of the “believe in seeing.”

Three questions for leadership in addressing conflict

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March 14, 2020

Even though I am not a leadership scholar nor am I a leader in any real capacity, I have spent much time over my 35 years of like thinking about leadership and authority and how to properly use power and influence to lead people. Having a mother who reached tall heights in terms of leadership in the field of psychiatry and taught me many of her lessons in leadership and adminstratuon, having served myself as a pastor in various roles, and having been under various authorities of wide-ranging quality, some of whom I have sought to model myself on and others who I have sought to be the very opposite of. As a result, I have had the opportunity to think about it thoroughly and critically while also have experience on both ends of the spectrum.

One thing that has become particularly salient is how leadership handles conflict, particularly conflicts with their own authority and influence. Conflicts are inevitable part of life as we each have our own goals and interests, and sometimes these come into tension with each others in ways that we are unwilling or incapable of seeing a different way to address them. Sometimes we get entrenched in conflict because we tire of accomodating and we stick our heels into the ground. Sometimes we get entrenched because neither party can understand the other. Sometimes we get entrenched in conflict because the other people has not played “nice” and we don’t want to play “nice” with those who play “dirty.” There are a whole host of reasons why we get entrenched into conflict.

However, there is one place where entrenched conflicts have the greatest potential to cause long term harm is when conflict is had between parties with asymmetrical power and influence. When one party has more resource than another to address conflicts in a way that can put the more vulnerable party in challenging, threatening, or confusing situations, it ethically behooves people seeking to lead others out of a concern for the people they lead to develop an internal set of questions and metrics they use to assess what happens in conflicts. What may be considered to be rude in a conflict between ‘equal’ parties can be considered threatened when coming from a more powerful party. For instance, if one friend when he gets into a heated argument with another blurts out “you’re a moron,” it has a different impact than when a superior were to say the same thing. Further aggravating the problem is that an aggressive conflict behavior from an equal party can usually be responded to effectively, whereas the same behavior from a superior is often much harder for the inferior to deflect.

As a consequence, one of the first things ethically concerned leaders need to have in mind is the recognition of how their authority can be used when they engage with conflicts with those who are more vulnerable. Leaders who are out to establish themselves and their prestige are unlikely to give anything beyond a passing consideration to how their power has the potential to impact conflicts. However, to those who ultimately want to serve everything through the authority and influence that has been entrusted to them, it is essential to grasp how authority and the perception of power influence conflict dynamics.

Nevertheless, we can have the best of intentions in this matter and still fail in how we use our authority due to two pervasive human problems: (1) we are human and as a result we are too inclined to react based upon our first instincts when we get emotional and (2) we are human and we are often far more ignorant than we can recognize (in other words, there are often way more unknown unknowns than we are often comfortable to acknowledge). We can get readily heated about something we believe that someone has done and act with an illusory sense of confidence about what happened and the intentions that person had. When we get into conflict situations where we are focused on people intentions rather than their words and actions, we are in a place where we are vulnerable to reacting without thinking about the potential consequence of the actions as we are focused on addressing an invisible threat that we can never disprove; in circumstances like this, our emotions and our ignorance combine to lock us in a persistent state of conflict vigilance. When we get into a state of conflict vigilance, we are often only satisfied with the the subduing, surrender, and/or exiling of the other party before we can feel safe. Depending on how much was done to provoke a person in those phase of conflict, the feelings of conflict vigilance can take a long time to unwind down. Once we get into conflict vigilance with the combination of high emotions and epistemic ignorance, we are very susceptible to taking actions that may have long term repercussions.

The key then, as leaders, is to have an internalized set of questions that we can use to both (1) hold back the strong emotions that lead to question people’s intentions and (2) broaden our awareness of the unknowns, turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns that we can seek to understand. However, it is important than the number questions we keep in mind be small, so as to be realistically internalized and usable when we deal with conflicts, but at the same time, broad enough to be able to help us survey the landscape of conflicts as they arise.

Based upon my personal experience, both as leader and subordinate, there are three questions that are vital for us to internalize in order to deal with conflict constructively. The first two pertain to communication and the third one pertains to context.

The first question is: Has the subordinate acted in a way that they reasonable understood interpreted the leader to be communicating? Leaders often times put themselves in situations where they actual encourage the very behaviors that cause them to get agitated. When an authority says “feel free to come talk if there is any concern you have” and then that person takes them up on it and tries to inform them of concerns, some leaders might be irked about negative news. I remember one situation personally where I had an authority who offered to talk to me about any concerns I had about a situation we were facing. The first time I did, they were willing to “listen” but only to correct me, whereas the second time I went to them they became visibly repulsed by my attempt from the beginning. Often times, we as leaders tell people to do the very things we don’t want to do, often because it is the “right thing to say” but we don’t mean it genuinely.

There are other cases where an authority might communicate something with a subordinate, but then the authority changes their mind without either remember what they told their subordinate the first time or informing the subordinate of the change of mind. We often call this moving the goalposts, which sometimes happens innocently due to innocent memory lapses and the changes that varying circumstances can create, but can also happen to do more narcissistic memory lapses or even conscious manipulation.

This first question relates to holding oneself as a leader and authority accountable for one’s own communication. If we recognize that those under our authority may do something we have a problem with but it is due to our communication, then we can do a double check to verify if we are the leaders are the one responsible for creating the situation as it was.

However, it is important that we recognize in this that there are often many reasonable interpretations of something we said or did. If we expect those under our authority to be more or less perfect mind-readers of our intentions and meanings, this question will serve us little good as there is not such thing a mind-reading. Under the conditions of limited communication and interaction, most people are actually very limited in their abilities to fully comprehend what another person means. As most authorities have a large group of subordinates that they can not spend constant time with, this leaves most people under their authority with limitations as to how clearly they can understand the expressed expectations of the leader. So, it behooves an ethically concerned leader to ask the question of whether a subordinate acted in an unpleasing or irritating way because of a reasonable interpretation of what they as the leader expressed, even if that reasonable interpretation isn’t what the leader originally intended.

The second question related to communication seems to be similar on the surface, but it is a bit different: did the subordinate misunderstand something that they should be considered responsible for understanding? While both of these questions relate to questions of miscommunication, the first one relates to the leader taking responsibility for his community, whereas this second question relates to how to address the reasonable responsibility the subordinate to appropriately understand communication. Sometimes, the actions of subordinates is due to their irresponsibility in understanding what is expected of them, such as reading a company wide email that had been sent multiple times or they simply did not show the due care and attention to what had been said to them. While this may be frustrating and something that may need to be remedied, recognizing what can be referred to as a person’s “interpretive irresponsibility” can allow us to understand the conflict as due to communication issues, rather than other interpretations we might provide of the conflict.

However, it is important to not assume interpretive irresponsibility without clear considerations for it. Otherwise, those in the authority might be inclined to put all the communicative responsibility on our subordinates who have relatively little power in compared to those with authority, who have more ability to ask questions and make clarifications of expectations if they are needed. Ethical leadership needs to avoid this: recognize that you have the most communicative power and so don’t be inclined to pass off problems of communication onto those under your authority.

The third questions relates to the circumstances of the subordinate: is the behavior of the person largely due to situations that either pressure them or prevent them from acting in the appropriate manner that is beyond their responsibility and capacity to manage? In other words, are people put in situations where they can not be reasonable expected to act the way leadership would expect?

In conflicts, it is tempted for us to immediately ascribe the cause of people’s behaviors to some problematic trait they have. They don’t trust authority. They are stubborn. They don’t care. They never listen… So on and so on. However, social psychologists have recognized our propensity towards the fundamental attribution error, where we are inclined to explain people’s behaviors, particularly those we don’t like, to some enduring trait in the person. Internalizing a question about circumstances allows us to work against this pervasive bias, allowing us to understand the relationship of people’s actions to their circumstances.

However, this question is more specific in that it addresses a common problem that can happen in organizations that give people very defined roles they have to work within: people being put in positions to fail. Occasionally done intentional, most of the time people without much authority are put in positions to fail because no one is paying attention. When people in such positions act in odd if not extreme manner, it is often critical for leaders to figure out if a person was faced with situation they could not have reasonably been expected to address in a satisfactory manner.

These three questions are not meant to be exhaustive questions about how leadership handles potential conflict with their subordinates. There are many various factors that can go into causing a conflict to take the shape it has. However, by internalizing these three questions (or another other set of similar questions), it provides leadership with a practice that can help them to navigate the often confusing and murky waters that is conflicts between people without jumping to the worst conclusions prematurely, when the time allows for deliberation. These questions include the two most important ingredients for understanding social behavior, communication and circumstance, while also effectively training the leader to think in such a way that they can be open to other considerations that may then come to mind.

Faithfulness in the insignificant things

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March 10, 2020

Tucked away after after the parable of the shrewd manager, which can be a hard parable to really rap my head around, there is a proverbial statement in Luke 16.10 that Jesus gives to his disciples that may be seen as a gloss on the parable, which I translate as: “The faithful person in insignificant things are also faithful in many things; the unrighteous person in insignificant things are also unrighteous in many things.” What is at the heart of the saying and how can it elucidate our understanding of Jesus’ parable?

I think it is helpful to consider how this parable and saying may be seen as an implicit criticism towards the Pharisees, who are explicitly called lovers in money in Luke 16.14 and scoff as Jesus’ parable. A principle concern in the parable and the explanation that follows is wealth. In Luke’s parallel to the Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6.20ff, an abbreviated version of the beatitudes is contrasted with a series of woes, which starts off with a woe to the rich. As the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is clearly directed towards the Pharisees and scribes, we can consider the woes of Luke 6.24-26 are direct towards them. Verse 26 is the clearest parallel to Jesus’ excoriation of public piety in Matthew 6. So, when we get the woe regarding the rich in verse 24, we can hear this also being a veiled barb against the Pharisees. We see a similar criticism of the traditions of the Pharisees that are used to exempt themselves from providing material support to their parents based upon the concept of “Corban” as something dedicated to God. In similar manner, we may consider the parable of the Shrewd Manager to be a commentary on the Pharisees.

What is at stake in this criticism? The connection may begin to be made by the cognate terms ἀδικία and ἄδικος. In the parable, the manager is called unrighteous (ἀδικία). However, later Jesus calls wealth unrighteous (ἄδικος) in v. 11. I want to put forward the premise that the the dishonest manager is an example of a person moving towards faithfulness, although by no means arriving, because he is ‘unrighteous’ about ‘unrighteous’ wealth, making the manager moving away from the unrighteousness power that wealth can have on people.1

The “unrighteousness” of the manager is connected to how he uses the master’s wealth to makes friends with others, rather than treating wealth as the highest good for himself. At the beginning of the parable, he was squandering the property at the beginning, presumably for his own benefit. However, with a word of accusation and impending judgment, the manager changes course to use his position and control of wealth to benefit other people, even if it is for his own benefit. Because of a word of judgment, the manager begins the transition from a self-serving usage of wealth to use it to benefit others.

What is happening here? The focus of the manager is moving away from wealth, which had a place of high importance and Jesus highlights this in the warning against worship wealth in 16.16, to focusing on debtors, who as group would have be considered more socially insignificant due to their indebted status. The manager begins to be concerned about the the ‘”insignificant” rather than the significance of wealth. This is where the saying of Luke 16.10 can make sense as a gloss of the parable: the shrewd manager is the example of a person whose priorities transition to those things that are consider insignificant. Then, following the logic of “how much more so,” if this shift of priorities determines how the manager acts shrewdly, how much more important is it for the “righteous” children of light to also act shrewdly with wealth for the right priorities, even in ways that are not self-serving.

The point of this parable and the saying, then, is to focus on what we today might call priorities and purposes. What are those things that you are most diligent to be faithful in? Is it in the things that our significant social network tells us are most important, such as wealth? Or, does one prioritize in the things that are overlooked, deemed insignificant, trifling, and of little immediate benefit? There is a real difference between these two type of people. Those who are faithful in insignificant things are the type of people’s whose hearts are guided by internal convictions, when there isn’t a lot of “pay off” for how they deal with the insignificant things.

Meanwhile, the Pharisees in Jesus time had become externally motivated by those things that had great societal importance, including wealth, but also visual acts of piety. Their motivations are directed towards the actions that would make them “justified” in the sight of others (Luke 16.15).2 What happens when people are motivated only be external, social considerations and not internally motivated? They will use those very things for their own benefit and not for the socially ascribed purposes. This is the like of the manager who squanders the wealth before the risk of impending judgment comes against them.

In the words of Luke 16.10, Jesus gives us a vision for the life of people lived before God: be faithful in the insignificant things. Be faithful in those things that not everyone considers most important and central. It is those people who are faithful in the wide-span of life in various aspects.

Perhaps as a very distant echo is the righteous person of Psalm 1 who meditates on God’s instructions, who loves and is continuously focused on God’s instruction, is the one who prospers in all they do, much as Jesus says those faithful in a little are faithful in many things. A life of continuous meditation and reflection on God’s instruction leads us to block our attention from obsessing on all the things that the world tells us are most important and lets what God says is important come to our mind, forming our sense of perception and understanding of the world so that we will be faithful to God in the things that the world considers insignificant. Jesus’ proverbial saying is describing the type of people that Psalm 1 also describes, albeit describing such a person from a different perspective determined by the different purposes.

This person may alternatively be described as the person who loves the Lord our God with all their heart as mentioned in Deuteronomy 6.5. The heart (לְבָבְ) being the place where people’s intentions and purposes are consider to come from, the Shema calls people to dedicate the wide-ranging purposes of their lives towards the love of God. This is supported by the premise that God’s words were to be before the people at various times and at various places to guide their purposes and conduct in all manners.

However, this understanding contrasts with the often emotive interpretation we give to the ‘heart’ today, thinking it refers to the excess of emotional and affective life. However, as we find the excess of emotions hard to muster unless their is a strong incentive to provoke the heart, the life of excessive emotionality often leaves us susceptible to valuing the things that the world socially validates us for, leaving us overlooking the smaller and insignificant things that do not naturally draw our emotional exuberance and passions.

This is not to commend a Stoic life as if it is inherently more righteous than the emotional life; far from it as the lack of emotion has it own problems in how we treat and regard others. However, the point is that a person who seeks to be faithful even when they are not driven simply by the throes of strong emotion, but even in the things deemed insignificant, they are the type of people who love the Lord with all their heart.

So how do we get there to place where we are faithful in the insignificant things? As Psalm 1 intimates, through a continuous meditation that keeps people away from the influence of the unrighteous. However, in light of the coming of the Son of God, we begin to continuous reflect and seek to put into practice Jesus’ commandments, which as focused on love naturally calls us to our specific attitudes and not to simply do the things that society considers important.

So, are you seeking to be faithful in the insignificant things? To be clear, it isn’t a matter of being perfect, but it is a matter of your own heart and motivation to be faithful in those things that others do not consider important.

 

Spiritual leadership and hardened disregard

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March 8, 2020

In the decades, the idea of microaggressions, regular and commonplace interactions that communicated negative and hostile messages to others, garnered increasing attention. A search on Google Trends showed that the concept reached a peak interest in 2015 and since has become more increasingly common in search results than it was prior to 2015. I am personally a bit wary of discussions about microaggressions. My concern isn’t that I don’t think they exist; I think they do. The concern is that we can be tempted to label isolated interactions by themselves as microaggressions, without regard for all the various factors that go into how and why we interact with each other as we do. Nevertheless, there is something real that lurks underneath the idea of microaggressions and it is a concept that I am calling “hardened disregard.”

At the heart of a hardened disregard is a person who is wholly unconcerned for the impacts of how they treat other people, even as attempts to make clear communication with them regarding the situation are either being ignored or blocked. A hardened disregard should be distinguish from people who are ignorant or oblivious of the impacts their behaviors have on others, whether their ignorance is due to the lack of appropriate communication, the a persistent deficit to picking up on social subtleties, etc. A person with a hardened disregard is a person who acts in a way that causes stress, anxiety, hurt, fear, etc. to others but is actively resistant to even consider their own actions. It is important that we don’t confuse hardenness with obliviousness.

However, a hardened disregard should also be distinguished from more extreme and overt forms of aggression. There are people who actively and persistently peddle in aggression of various forms in ways that are glaringly obvious if they were to be observed. People with hardened disregard are not necessarily consciously out to threaten or hurt people, but yet their interactions over time do it while they are unwilling to even consider it. Yet, a person with a hardened disregard may become more overt in their aggression when attempts to get address their behavior is directly brought forward to them. Various forms of aggression and avoidance is one of the ways that those with a hardened disregard keeps themselves insulated from having to consider the consequences of their behaviors.

The thing about a hardened disregard is that it often comes from people who on the surface may appear to be good people. At the care of the problem of a hardened disregard is how we direct our attention. People with a hardened disregard may be all too willing to act the appropriate way when all eyes are on them, but when they are doing something that most people wouldn’t consider important, they shift to having little to no concern. Now we all modulate our attention based upon how important things may be, but for people with a hardened disregard, we might suggest their attention operates more along extreme polarities; their attention and focus becomes a matter of an all-or-nothing matter when it comes to behaviors that are and aren’t consider socially prestigious.

So, for instance, when it comes to racism, a person with a hardened disregard will not use racial epithets nor would that treat people of different ethnicities with blatant hostility and disregard. However, when it comes to the type of behaviors that are not as consider socially important, they may be less willing to adjust their interactions and perceptions, but they become somewhat resistant to change in the less salient matters. They may even become angry when it comes to discussion about the more complex matters of racism. We know this as part of the pattern of covert racism, but it can also be regarding as a specific instance of a hardened disregard.

However, there are many, various instances of hardened disregard that span beyond racism. A hardened disregard can be directed towards any group of persons or even individual person. We are all potentially susceptible to it in various ways and at various times. This can regularly happen in marital relationships when there has been a lot of conflict, where the spouses began to develop a hardened disregard towards each other, often due to the way that they both are unwilling to pay attention.

However, even as those situations exist, it is important to recognize that there are some people who have a wider, more persistent hardened disregard that has a more deleterious impact. They don’t just share a disregard for one person or another or one group or another that can be explained by circumstances and direct experiences. There is something that lurks within them that makes them have a hardened disregard in a rather indiscriminate or easily activated way. Put it differently, their hearts do not represent what is shown on the surface by their more salient, socially observed behaviors. In the words of Jesus to the Pharisees, they are like white-washed tombs.

In fact, if I were to suggest what the problem Jesus sees in the Pharisees, it is in large part in their hardened disregard for the people of Israel, which is rooted in a dark heart that makes them also makes them hardened to God. They are people who on the surface are observers and teachers of the Torah. However, somewhere along the way, there is a disconnect between how they observe and teach Torah and what God is willing. In their hardened disregard, they designate people as sinners who are unworthy of sharing meals together with. They put heavy burdens onto the people they lead, while they themselves rationalize away why they don’t need to obey the commandments of God. Jesus is the opposite in that he eats with sinners and does not place heavy, onerous burdens onto people in terms of difficult and onerous tasks that drain people’s life, even as Jesus teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, do call us to do things that are often emotionally difficult. Whereas we might imagine the Pharisees to kill people by a thousands cuts, Jesus gives life by singular acts and words of loving compassion.

Resisting a hardened disregard isn’t about going off and being a hero to everyone. It isn’t about accomplishing great feats of love and sacrifice. In fact, it is these sort of things that can actually reinforce the hardened disregard, as the drain of constantly doing what is big and grand can makes us unwilling to give attention and concern for the smaller things that constitute our relationships with others. This is where the moralizing impulse so prevalent in Christianity often times creates the very problem it tries to resist, by making us more “exceptional” in the big things that we have little energy for the mundane things.

However, what if resisting a hardened disregard comes by seeking to live out God’s purposes in the mundane things, the small things, the things that society doesn’t really care about that prepare us to love also in the bit things, without sacrificing in the small things. What if giving your child those extra few moments of attention is not just building your relationship with them, but also training you for your relationship with others and even God? What if the husband who is just a little more attentive to tell his wife that he loves her when she has gone through a rough period is not just building the bonds of that important relationship, but is a training ground for greatness in how we treat others? What if the church as the Body of Christ is the training grounds for bringing the message hope and redemption to each other, as we by the Spirit speak truth to each other, preparing us to take that very same message to the world? What if it is about giving just a few more percentage points to the things that are seemingly mundane so that we can give it 100% when all eyes are watching?

Unfortunately, the cultural liturgies of society try to tell us do what is important when everyone is watching, but this doesn’t train us so much as it often overexerts us. And, when the unfortunate reality hits that there os a person has been so training by this cultural liturgy that they have developed a deep hardened disregard to others and even to God, sometimes the only way to get through to them is a stark, clear, unambiguous message of anger and potential judgment. This is what Jesus did to the Pharisees in the woe’s in Matthew 23. While rarely does not such a message of judgment immediately change such people’s ways, and it may even lead to a harsh counter-response at times, such a vivid imagery and message has a way of getting into their hearts and minds like a good virus that silently multiplies in the recess of their mind, so that in time a seed may be planted even in them of the way that God loves the world and the way God calls us to love each other. To those who have troubling hearing, something your have to shout to get them to to ever be able to hear in the future, whether it be in one’s tone or in one’s words.

In the end, the ordinary is the training grounds for the extraordinary, where the little, obscure seeds of our life can grow into a tree. However, when we try to go straight towards 100%, trying to focus on going all out, trying to give ourselves to monumental sacrifice in a singular moment, we don’t train our hearts by the word of Christ so much as exhaust ourselves so that we have little to give in the ordinary, mundane, seemingly insignificant moments of life.

Remaining in the love of Christ in John 15

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March 7, 2020

Most of the time, my blog posts are largely “extemporaneous” musings I have had on a specific subjects and passages of Scripture, but I sometimes don’t give a lot of the backstory to them. However, as is so readily the case,  most everything we say or write is to some degree autobiographical, even if the exact relationship between the person and what is said doesn’t follow a strict formula. One thing may be representative of the person’s own feelings, another may be representative of what they heard or saw, and another may be something they imagined. For this blog post, a bit of a biographical prolegomena is helpful to make sense of why I am saying what I am saying about John 15.

Firstly, John 15 had a significant impact on my spiritual understanding during the college years of my journey of faith. Alongside Hebrews, John 15 address a real prominent theme that I hashed out throughout my college hears: can someone lose their salvation? While in college, I had once heard a talk given to high school students in a Southern Baptist setting that the meaning of the word often translated “remove” in John 15.2 (αἴρει) really means that Jesus lifts up the branches that doesn’t bear fruit, not take them away, all in the name of maintain consistency with the idea of eternal security. This approach, I would later come to discover, amounted to selected whatever meaning of a word we wanted to make the point, without further evidence in support of that conclusion. If one reads vs. 6, one sees a strong reason to continue to render αἴρει as remove, whereas the idea that it simply means to “lift up” is wholly lacking in the context. While I didn’t understand these exegetical principles at the time, I could just sense there was something off by what this person was saying.

So, for a while, John 15 became a passage that I went through time and time again, trying to understand what Jesus meant there about the Himself being the vine and we being the branches. I continued to interpret it through the college years against the frame of eternal judgment: you can lose your salvation, so you better do what is good. However, as I began to get into the theology of John Wesley, I began to comprehend the message of God’s love and grace against the theological backdrop of the possibility of falling from grace. Eventually, I moved on from a persistent focus on John 15, and also Hebrews, and began to explore the New Testament with a wider scope.

However, before even that journey of wrestling through questions of salvation even emerged, there was the period during my freshman year of college that I just started reading the Scriptures voraciously. Not necessarily understanding it, but I read and then there came a point of time that what seemed hidden in meaning had simply became obscure, as if I had picked up on something, even if I really didn’t understand and couldn’t tell you what that something I had picked up was. It was around this time, though I can not tell you for sure if it was before or after I noticed my way of reading the Scripture changed though I think it was afterwards, I had prayed to God to give me the spirit of Paul. Since I spent a significant portion of time reading Paul’s letters, it was almost as if Paul had planted a seed of faith in Christ, that he had laid the foundation of Christ in my heart.

However, as I now look back on my college years, my theological and spiritual journey was taking two different directions. The theological questions about salvation had begun to overshadow the seed of faith that had been planted in freshman year. To be sure, my theology was driven by my faith, but the rational reflection I had about theology was not addressing the personal journey of faith I had, but rather the theological contentions I had with my Southern Baptist background. I had been so clearly mistaught, so I desired to find the right and correct and true teaching from the Scriptures, but I never really had a lot of watering the seed that Paul had planted in my heart. In the end, I was trying to address 18th century questions with 20th century lens, while my own faith has been spurred by something written in the 1st century. However, at the time, however, I never saw the difference between the two; they seemed one and the same to me.

Then, life would through me a fire that would burn down all the theological and exegetical frameworks I had built up, first bringing down the building and then the slowly burning fires taking up all that was left. Everything I thought I had known was burning away over the course of a few years. To some onlookers, it might have looked like I lost faith, but yet there still remained that seed of faith that was protected underground, but now free to get sunlight and rain now that the covering of the building I had constructed was long gone.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3 that he planted and Apollos watered to the Corinthians, recognizing that the ministry of bring people to Christ and training them is a tag-team effort of people enabled and empowered by the Spirit. For my life, Paul planted and a friend named Laura watered.

Laura was a friend from many years back, who although we never got very close at the time I had actually begun to fall in love over the course of a few months, without me ever truly realizing it. There were circumstances would prevent me from ever acting on or expressing that to her, while also making me somewhat resistant to dating. Instead, dealing with some unscrupulous characters who had caused me much pain and had even interfered with my attempts to date in the past inluding even potential intimidation, I chose to do whatever I could to protect her from it, even as it mean hiding it from her and even myself at times. The attempt I made to try to be able to simultaenously protect her from it while also making space to see if there was any potential there actually catalyzed a fall into madness and trauma, as the final wounds of a death by a thousand cuts were administered afterwards. I had all but died for my friend to make sure she didn’t go through what I was going through.

I had mentioned her to an acquintance of mine, wanting to just make sure she never got what I had to deal with, but I had said that with the idea that I would never see or talk to her again. However, as I was getting ready to move to Scotland, I decided to check and see what Laura was up to. Somehow, I happened upon a sermon she gave one day that was put online on Psalm 139.  The sermon seemed to be so resonant with so much of what I had deal with and struggled with over the years, almost as if she knew. However, what she could not have known at the time was that Psalm 139.13 was particuarly relevant for me, given that my name came to my mom from a dream while she was pregnant with me. I continued to listen to her sermons over the two years I lived in Scotland. While my mind for theological critique was never silenced, her sermons were able to water the seed of my faith from my freshman year of college that had remained, even as the fires of life had turned to ash all that I had built.

My memories of her, spotty as they were due to trauma from the time period, and watching her sermons served to become an intellectual seed for my research while at the University of St. Andrews. I had been fascinated with NT Wright’s discussion on the hermeneutics and epistemology of love because I was a person who was fascinated with the idea of knowledge, questions of certainty, etc. She became intellectual inspiration for my own reflections of what happens when one loves and how our knowledge is impacted by love. This springboarded other projects, including both directly and indirectly, my interest in the idea of Trinitarian epistemology and research in 1 Corinthians 2. In what some might label a coincidence, I, who am not to apt to just see signs from God anywhere and everywhere, one day came upon a series of words on my tablet that read “Koinonia Kimbre Via Trinity.” For those who know Laura, they would know why “Kimbre” might be applicable to her.1 Regardless of whatever relationship might have come in the future if any, at that point I was confident we shared a fellowship with each other through the Triune God, a type of fellowship that I would come to research to some degree in 1 Corinthians. One might go so far as to say that my research could be considered one large agape love letter to her.

So, John 15 is a fitting Scripture that weaves together significant parts of my life story, as it is both a passage that informed my theological reflections in the past from John 15.1-11 while at the same time I am reminded of John 15.12-14 through my memories of her. To that end, I can say there are good reasons that my theological “building” of the past with John 15.1-11 in mind was burned up, as it was part of a building that was built over the seed of faith, but not on the foundation of faith.

You see… my focus on John 15 was about human effort and striving, what is it was that we do to remain and abide with God. That itself isn’t the problem, however, as Jesus clearly give the disciples something they must do to abide in His love, to obey His commandments. Rather, the problem is a matter of focus. My focus was on the HOW but not the WHO. How is it that I can be a faithful disciple? How is it that I can remain?

In a similar way in my research on 1 Corinthians 2, there is a sharp predilection to focus on how Paul as a person teaches about Jesus and wisdom. However, my research in that chapter came to the conclusion that we should read 1 Corinthians 2 with a theocentric frame, where Paul’s purpose is to explicate the God who teaches, not so much how Paul himself teaches. The signifcance of 1 Corinthians 2 is the “who” of the Triune God, now the “how” of Paul, even as there is a hint of a “how” for Paul.

In a similar manner, I and many of us today might read John 15 with attention to the “how” and not the “who.” Addressing questions from the 16th century onward about questons of divine and human agency, particuarly in reference to salvation, I and many of my fellow Wesleyans are inclined to read Jesus statements about abiding in Him through the lens of a synergestic soteriology, to which we then try to answer the questions of “how” How is it that we can be faithful to God? To this question, we are tempted to try to give explanations for how we abide in Christ.

This reading, however, undercuts the very purpose of the Gospel of John. John, or whoever the author of the Gospel is, is not trying to give us a manual of how we can live our best life before God. He wants people to know Jesus as Savior, as the Word made flesh, the one who makes Gods known. He isn’t trying to teach people how they can be saved, but rather about who it is that can save them.

John 15 comes in the midst of Jesus’ farewell sermon. Jesus was going to leave them, but He was going to send the Spirit as a helper/comforter/advocate in His absence, who would remind them of evetything Jesus taught them (John 14.26). One of the things Jesus’ speech pragmatical seeks to accomplish is to continue to maintain the disciple’s loyality to Him as their teacher in His absence. They are going to face pressures from other religious authorities. In the midst of that, they might be tempted to leave behind Jesus’ teachings, if not even transfer their loyalty to some other teacher. So, the metaphor of the vine and the branches is primarily about casting an image as to why it is important that the disciples remain loyal to Jesus and His teachings.

Jesus’ metaphor explains why their loyality to Jesus is important in 15.1: “I am the true vine, and my Father in the vinegrower.” One of the key themes throughout the Gospel of John is that it is only in Jesus that one comes into a direct knowledge and relationship to God the Father. John 15.1 reinforces that idea here, as it is only by participation in Christ is one going to be a part of God’s vineyard. Many Jews would have been familiar with such an image of the people Israel as a God’s vineyard from the prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. This image was used primary to cast judgment upon Israel for their faithless, as they were not producing the grapes they were expected to create. So, Jesus usage of the vineyard metaphor points to Himself as the one who makes the vineyard bear the fruit that the Father has planted them to create.

In other words, loyal love to Jesus and His teachings is how His disciples would bear fruit. Jesus teachings, and not the teaching of the Pharisees and that which is in the synagogues, would enable God’s people to realize and fulfill the purpose that God had planted them for. Just as Jesus fulfilled the purpose that He had as the uniquely begotten and beloved Son of God by obedience to the Father, so too would the disciples realize the purpose that God has lovingly given to them through obedience to Jesus’s instruction (John 15.10). No other teacher would be able to accomplish this: only God in His Son through the sustained loyalty of the disciples made possibly by the Spirit could makes God’s people fulfill their vocation and purpose.

It is at this point we need to pause and point out how the triumph of the therapeutic has potentially colonized our readings about love here. In trying to develop a sense of secure attachemnt to the world, we are apt to think about love as a persistent ‘force’ that relates two people together. Given the toxic effects that come when significant relationships are highly unstable, we have emphasized the important of “unconditional love” for very good and important reasons. Yet, at the same time, the concept of “unconditional love” is so vacuuous as to make people feel they have an entitlement to some specific outcome or action from another person or even God, despite whatever they might do.

On the one hand, I experience a healthy type of “unconditional love” from my parents, who though they were not perfect as our house was a bit Stoic at times and we did not always see to eye on things, they listen to me, cared for me, and supported me. They had a fundamental benevolence, despite their flaws and mine, that provided a stable base for me to care for other people, even as I had difficulty trusting people because of how my peers frequently treated me. I remember one time in the midst of my struggles with trauma beign tempted to blame it all on my parents, but then I remember the words from James “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” So, I resisted the thought and then I returned back to peace, because I have parents who I can legitimately honor, even with our differences, according the God’s Word, and anyone who who at this point would hint at my need to do otherwise needs to resist the devil to tempt me to illegimately break the fifth commandmenth, as simplified attachment theories without legitimate knowledge of the story at hand can provide seeds for lies and falsehood. 

On the other hand, I am reminded of another female (not Laura) who I was friends with and had shown dating interest, but through a serious of events, we ended up hurting each other very deeply. While I had recognized my faults, the nature of my failures were grossly exaggerated and the consequence I received was far in excess of anything I had done. This person hurt me deeply a second time. So, when the time came for me to try to make peace with her after she had tried to intiative contact with me and offered a bit of forgiveness while also establishing some boundaries and expecting some admission to her problems, the response I recieved was as if I had acted in an egregious manner to her, as if she was entitled to a close relationship with me. It is my suspcion that the concept of “unconditional love” had been used to coopt own willingness to a relationship that I refused to give as I had been deeply hurt and discarded without so much as a word of restoration or even a willingness to acknowledge that pain along the way. It is my suspicion that through the vacuouness of “unconditional love,” it had become a toxic concept, creating feelings of entitlement under the title of “unconditional” and to a specific type of relationship that is labeled as “love”. Even though I parts of my continued to care about her, even in the midst of the conflict, my past feelings for her were for a preferred future that her actions entirely underminded.

In a similar manner, we need to be careful to import an ill-defined or vaccous sense of “unconditional love” when reading Jesus words about love here. Love in the Gospel of John is better understood teleologically, rather than as some sort of emotional force that binds two people together. Put simply, God’s love is about the preferred future for His people, what He has set about for their well-being and thriving. We see this concept of telelogical love in John 3.16, where God’s love for the world is pointing towards a specific telos, eternal life, that is brought to fruition through the sending of Jesus as the Son. We see this concept of a telos expressed in John 15.11, where Jesus explains the reason He is talking to them about obeying His commandments: so that they may have joy and a joy that is complete.

So, it against this backdrop of teleology, we can understand Jesus’ words about abiding in His love: only through obedience to Jesus teachings can the purposes that God has for His people and that Jesus has for His disciples become realized. Jesus connection of obedience to remaining/abiding in love is not casting Jesus or God as a fickle lover, who only loves when things are going well and perfect. However, the way we frame “unconditional love” would makes us have trouble accepting what Jesus says at face value, finding some form of theological rationalization that doesn’t necessarily find its launching point in the Gospel of John. Rather, the teleological purposes God has set out for us can only be realized through dilgence to keep what Jesus instructs, which the coming Spirit will allow the disciples to continue to do.

One other way that “unconditonal love” and the triumph of the therapeutic can colonize our John 15 and our undersatnding of Jesus is by treating the love of the Father for Jesus as a simply analogy for God’s love for us. Trying to ground our feelings of stability in the world in a theological manner, we are apt to hear the words of God to Jesus “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” before Jesus has engaged in His ministry as a direct word that God offers to us as people via analogy with Jesus. So, when we see the analogy of Jesus’ love and God’s love in John 15.10, we are inclined to think that I am a direct recipient of God’s love.

The problem here is that we are confusing the default beneveolence that God has for all creation with the teleological love that God has for us in Christ. God certainly loves the world and loves the world even in the midst of its sin. We try to express this love through appeal to God as the ideal prototype of “unconditional love.” If we were to highly define God’s love to God desire for human well-being and thriving in the midst of our sin to the point that He would always accept the repentance of a sinner, then I wouldn’t protest. This is doing theology from an understanding nature, recognizing that God created the world in love and thus seeks all of our thriving. Even as nature can not tell us definitively waht the full shape and purpose of God’s love is, I think we can legitimatley speak of God’s love in the act of creaton and call it an “unconditional love.”

However, a less well-defined picture of “unconditional love” has a couple theological problems. Firstly, various parts of the Old Testament do not fit with any concept that we would have of love, such as judgment, wrath, and at times in the Psalms explicitly attributed hatred to God. An ill-defined understanding of “unconditional love” leaves us as either practical Marcionites or casting a picture of love that is deeply troublesome. However, an ill defined definition of “unconditional love” can create the theological problem of treated Jesus as simply an example of God’s for humnaity; that just as God loved Jesus, so God loves the world. Yes, Jesus is human like us, but His status as the uniquely begotten Son of God is not like our status as children of God. John 1.12 connects our status as children of God to recieving Jesus. We are children of God by our reception and participation in the Son of God, not children of God alongside Christ. We are children of God by faith because Jesus is the Son of God.

While it is certainly theologically legitimate to draw from our own  nature as humans that makes us children of God in a narrow, limited sense, such as we see implicit in Luke 3.38, to treat this as some widespread theological concept that we ground our theology upon is to essentially make us Stoics, treating natural theology as a confident ground for our theological inferences rarther than letting revelation provide light to nature. However, the temptation to theologically ground “unconditional love” in this narrow sense of nature has the effect of Stoicizing our theology. One implication of this line of thinking of drawing a simple analogy from Christ to us is that our theology would either necessitate an implicitly Arianism that regards Christ as simply a preeminent human among humans or implicitly Mormon in lifting up our own status as human to a divinized status. Orthodox theology must reject any sense of a direct analogy between God’s love for Jesus and God’s love for humanity. And so, an ill-defined sense of “unconditional love” can motivate us towards thinking that can be the seeds of heresy.

However, Jesus does not suggest there is a direct analogy between God’s love for Him and God’s love for His disciples in John 15.10. He doesn’t say “As God loved me, so God loves you.” Rather, Jesus words there can be understood as saying that God’s love for Jesus’ disciple, which is implicit because of hte vineyard metaphor, runs through Jesus as their Rabbi, not apart from Him. The type of love that Jesus is speaking about is only realized through Christ, and not apart from Christ, even if we can recognize a different sense of love in the form of a benevolence that God has for all creation.

Jesus summarizes His teachings in John 15.12-15 as pertaining to this very love that He speaks about: to love one another in imitation of Jesus’ love for them as friends. It is here we see that their loyalty to Jesus as their teacher is not reduced to mere cognitive status, but it is the actions of one person on behalf of another that takes Jesus as their inspiration and guide. It is here that we then do see a sense of equality alongside Jesus: not as children of God alongside the Son of God, but as friends. Those who do as Jesus teaches are Jesus’ friends.

Yes, there is a judgment for those who do not abide by Jesus and do not keep Jesus’ words, but it is not the judgment and loss of status that emerges from God’s overbearing wrath and hatred, but as one’s who did not realize God’s purposes for their lives by keeping Jesus’ words. They are excluded from Jesus’ love because they excluded themselves from Jesus’ love. In other words, they reap what they sow. Fortunately, though, God’s benevolence does not wish the destruction of anyone, and so repentance is open to all who are open to such.

All of this I can say I have learned because of the influence of a woman named Laura. Even thought she didn’t teach me all these things, she water the seed of faith in Christ that Paul had planted, which began to sprout through my research. And so, as a result, God’s love for me is being realizing in the word I had one day in chapel many years ago that I would be a servant of Asbury, to give them a Scripturally grounded synegergism based upon a pedagogy rooted in faith, hope, and love, to invite them to be servants with me so that we can be friends together with Jesus, to live in their blind spot by cetching bist of information that they do not see to help give them the eyes to see. Even if I were never to see Laura again as that is her choie to make, which I hope we do, she has helped me to fulfill the purpose God gave to me during that chapel serivces nearly a decade ago; she was a colaborer with the Apostle Paul to sprout the seed of faith that has always been present in me, even after the fires had taken all they did.

Why it is not about "surrender"

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March 5, 2020

John 15.10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

These words stand at the center of Jesus’ commissioned to his disciples. Knowing that he would leave them, Jesus sets about for them this most basic point: obedience to His words would be the way they would abide/remain in his love.

These are hard words to really accept and hear as they are as Protestants, at times. We have been so trained to think that our faith and God’s love is not conditioned to works, and rightfully so, that we glaze over these words sometimes. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” These words to his disciples are grounded in an analogy to Jesus’s own obedience to His Father’s commandments and how Jesus abided in His love through them.

Now, you might be familiar with Jesus baptism’s story, where the Holy Spirit comes upon Him like a heavenly dove and God speaks from the heavens “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Clearly, God expresses His love for Jesus at the baptism. How then, can Jesus say His own keeping of the commandments allows him to abide in His Father’s love? Is it that God’s love is highly fickle and conditional? No, not if God’s commitment to Israel in Exodus 34.6-7 has anything to say about it. Why then is Jesus’ own obedience to the Father’s commands is the condition for abiding in God’s love?

Because it is through the doing that one realizes God’s will for a person’s life. Hebrews 5.7-10:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,  having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

It is Jesus who obeyed the will of His Father in heaven and Jesus was heard because of this faithful submission. And notice here the language of learning. Jesus learned obedience. The fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom, is how Jesus becomes the source of eternal salvation. It is how He fulfills the Father’s will for His life to be high priest according to the order of Melchizedek and the source of eternal salvation. In His love, God had a purpose set out for His only begotten Son and it is through Jesus’ reverence to the Father and obedience to His commandments that Jesus remains within and recieve what God had set out for Him. This is what we essentially know about in the great hymn of Philippians 2.6-11:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus as the preexistent Logos was equal with God, but he took a rather surprising route: he become born as a human. In so doing, Jesus remained obedient to the point of death. What happens? He receives what our Father in heaven had set out for Jesus, to have the name that goes beyond all names: that of Lord, signifying both Jesus’ authority but also God’s divine name from which that authority springs forth from.

Where is the language in surrender in all of this? Has our training as Protestants so blinded us to this central, crucial piece of language about obedience that we can not see this basic theme for what it is? There is nothing in these passages about an vague, possibly shifty, language of surrender. It is obedience to God’s commands. This theme hearkens back to Psalm 119.1-8:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways.
You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
O that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous ordinances.
I will observe your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.

Surely now, you can see this now. It isn’t about “surrender.” It is about obedience. It is through obedience to God’s commands that a person realizes the blessings God has for one’s life. Surrender is about some attitude we have. Obedience is about what we do. If we wish to teach the word of God plainly, then surely, we as Protestants must speak clearly about obedience and not try to dodge around it with the vague language of surrender.

So, back in John 15.10, Jesus is telling His disciples that their relation to His own teachings to them is going to follow the same pattern as Jesus’ own relation and response to His Father’s commandments. Obey His commandments. Obey His commandments. Obey His commandments. And what is that commandment?

John 15.12-14:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

It isn’t about “surrender.” It is about how we treat one another. It is about how we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for another. It is about setting someone’s own life above your own. Back in Philippians, Paul uses the hymn about Jesus’ own obedience as the exemplar of how believers should regard the interests of others above themselves.

“Surrender” is a potential misdirection if we are not really clear as to what we mean by it, and we usually aren’t as I rarely hear any explanation of what surrender actually is. It risks making the Christian life about some attitude I have, or maybe even my own relationship to Jesus. But it isn’t about loving others, unless your definition of the vague term “surrender” is about how you love others. But why not simply be direct and say love? Why use the term surrender? What is gained by this?

I have searched the Scriptures for anything that says something that approaches either a) the conventional meaning of surrender or b) the more novel definition in religious circles. There are a lot of Scriptures used to support the notion of “surrender,” but I am aware of no passage that seems to explicitly teach anything that amounts to various definitions of surrender. The wikipedia article says that religious surrender is to “completely gives up his own will and subjects his thoughts, ideas, and deeds to the will and teachings of a higher power.” But Jesus doesn’t say to his disciples “set your thoughts, ideas, deeds, will, etc. to my teachings.” He says simply “If you obey my commandments.”

You see… surrender is one of those vague terms that allows for equivocation. Certainly, it can stand for obedience, but it can also stand for so much more. If we think we are somehow in an attitude of surrender by letting our thoughts be directed by God’s commandments, we might be tempted to equate that state of affairs to what Jesus calls of His followers. So, while on one hand we derive a sense of “surrender” from the Scriptures, we then develop subtly different definitions and senses of surrender in our heads that we don’t recognize, then we substitute “surrender” for obedience. But here we would be in error and missing the point. Here, we would let our attitude, whatever that attitude be, become a replacement for Jesus’ words.

So: here is my question to you: Are you “surrendering” or are you obeying Jesus’ commands? I know I have sought to do the latter. Are you listening? Because, let me tell you: “surrender” is of no avail when chaos and evil strike. Only those people whose lives have embodied Jesus’ words, not simply their attitudes, their thoughts, their feelings, etc., can stand against the chaos, as they have a principle within them that keeps them moving forward, that gives them a struggling tenacity against the wiles of the devil. Obedience is how we strength our spiritual muscles to fight the spiritual warfare that Paul challenges us to engage in Ephesians 6.10-17, where Paul in the end describes God’s Word as a sword of the Spirit, which preacher of Hebrews then describes:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Not that we have the power to definitively judge and know the thoughts and intentions of other’s peoples hearts because of our obedience to God’s word. Only Jesus knows the hearts of people (Romans 2.16). However, through obedience to Jesus’ words, you become trained to see oneself and other people in relationship to our various actions as acting in love means you will have to work against your own self-interest. It doesn’t give us the ability to read minds, but it gives us eyes to see and ears to hear to be able to distinguish between that who “surrender” and those who obey Jesus’ words by training our own minds to notice how our own actions fits together. It is these type of people who have done these sorts of things and are continuing to do these sorts of things who are learning how to discern good and evil, as surrender without obedience makes us still need spiritual milk and untrained in the word of righteousness (Hebrews 5.11-14).

If your meaning of “surrender” is to obey Jesus’ commands to love one another and this is how you seek to live your life, then give me your hand because your heart is as mine. But if you mean something else, then I can only say, “Submit yourself therefore to God. Resist the devil so that he will flee from you.” (James 2.7)

So, let us speak plainly about God’s Word and commend our consciences before one another. Is it surrender or love that we seek? I seek love. What about you?

Being a gentle, righteous peacemaker

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February 24, 2020

Here is a riddle I would have for you. How it is that Jesus in the Beatitudes simultaneously valorizes meekness or gentleness, desiring righteousness, and being a peacemaker. A person who sought to be righteous and meek would be kind to everyone and do no one any wrong, but they would not seek to bring peace where there is discord and hatred. A person who sought to be righteous and peacemaker would try to instigate a peace, but with the heavy hand that tears down resistance in their path. A meek peacemaker would just go along with whoever has control without concern for what is truly righteous. It is easy to bring two of these ‘virtues’ together, but it is not easy to bring all three together.

Herein lies the mastery and challenge of Jesus’ beatitudes: what Jesus commends in one beatitude is often held in tension with the other beatitudes, not just between gentleness, righteousness, and shalom-making. There is something formative about trying to live out and understand paradoxes and tensions. Zen Buddhism uses paradoxes to bring about a greater understand of the truth. Jesus differs in that the tensions of His instructions are more subtle and only experienced and understood by those who seek to put into practice his words, and not necessarily accessible to distanced, cognitive thinking, as they are rooted in the tensions that come in seeking to live faithfully before God.  If you haven’t experience the tensions and paradoxes of Jesus’ ethical instructions, such as the initial struggle that can occur when one seeks to live wholly with grace and with truth, then that means you need more time to submit and surrender yourself to Jesus’ instructions.

Furthermore, don’t expect people who haven’t experience the tensions and paradoxes to understand and perceive it, because they are still caught up in a primarily rationalistic mind frame that is much like a person who claims  a mastery of love and yet fails miserably at relationships when love is important. The rationalism trains us to put people into the boxes that are our abstractions have labeled. This is perhaps part of why the Beatitudes also warns about persecution and the worst culprits were Pharisees, as there exist some people whose needs for status and acclaim is so great that when they can not fit you into a specific box built of their own rational reflection to fit into the world crafted of their own greatness and yet can truly find no horrible blemishes will engage in an act of cognitive dissonance to exaggerate and confabulate so as keep a person in line and preserve their own sense of greatness, even when that person they hold with derision speaks with gentleness and righteousness and seeks peace. 

So, how can you combine all three of those virtues? Perhaps by a persistent, stubbornness in seeking what is righteous that seeks no unfairness upon anyone and honors those who deserve honor, hears and learns from those whose words and actions combined evident some degree of truth and consistency, can be patient, but does not stay silent, uses their voice to speak that matches the gravity of the situation, does not wait forever, learns to be innocently shrewd as it is necessary, and bows down to no one but to God in heaven. At least, this is how I have sought to try to embody the Beatitudes in my life, but I would be open to anyone who has a good word of guidance on this matter.