Disclosure and discourse – Fusion vs. intimacy

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September 11, 2018

One of my favorite poems of my life from my mid 20s is “Revelation” by Robert Frost. It is a short poem which is included here:

 We make ourselves a place apart
  Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
  Till someone find us really out.
 
’Tis pity if the case require
  (Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
  The understanding of a friend.
 
But so with all, from babes that play
  At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
  Must speak and tell us where they are.1

I never really knew exactly why it was my favorite at the time. At one level, the poem had clear theological underpinnings, being entitled “Revelation” and talking about God. However, this is not a theological poem, at least on the surface, but it a poem about human relationships, on the surface at least, exploring the realities of human relationships, where we do not always speak what we think and feel. Speaking very personally here, having felt that I always lived in circumstances where I feel like I was always on the outside looking in to the world, seeing a world of people that didn’t pay attention, I found personal echoes in this distance. But then, I heard it about a poem about the pain of being disconnected, a poem that agonizes over the situation where someone feels so distant that they have to speak literally to be heard. However, I have come to understand this poem a bit differently.

The first stanza describes the vast gap between what we say and what we feel for people that care about each other. This transitions to the second stanza, that at one level suggests it is a pity to break this sort of relationship, that we ideally should not have to speak literally to get someone to understand us. This is where my understanding of the poem has shifted, moving from it describe the personal tragedy when we are so distant that we must speak literally, to rather the social customs we place upon people to not speak literally. Frost’s parenthetical comment “or so we say” suggests that what is happening here is not a personal, inner feeling about disconnection but rather how societal and relational expectations place norms for how people are to relate. There is often times an ideal in relationships where it is a bad thing to speak honestly and straightforward; that the nature of friendships are disturbed when what is underneath is brought to the surface in a clear manner.

But it is the third stanza that entirely subverts this norm; it has to be broken when the (cognitive and emotional) distance between people is far. Both babes and God have thoughts that are so far from our own, using this as a metaphor to describe human relationships: even if its seems regrettable to speak literally and clearly, sometimes it is absolutely necessary because people can be worlds apart.

What I wish to tease out here then is expectations we have in the way we make ourselves known to each other, particularly through our words, and the expectations we have about how this is to happen. I suggest that there are two different ways we can construe how relationships and disclosure is built and maintain through our social discourse: fusion and intimacy.

By fusion I mean the often implicit, unconscious feeling of a person who feels the other person shares all the same feelings they feel.  But they sense of shared feelings goes beyond a simply recognition that we are alike in some ways: rather it is the notion of an (almost) entire sharing of values and feelings. Not just some of what I feel, you feel, but all of what I feel you feel. At the most extreme, people can think about friends, or even potential romantic partners, that they have found their soul-mate for life in this state of mind. Fundamental to this way of relationship is from the psychoanalytical literature projection and introjection, where who we are is true of the other and what is true of the other is true of me. The boundary between you and me does not exist, or it did exist but it has all but been obliterated, treating the other person as simply an extension of oneself but simply in another body.

By contrast, when I refer to intimacy I am referring to the recognition of two people coming together to share the same thoughts and feelings, but as people who are recognized as two separate persons. What I feel you may feel, but I can also recognize there are other feelings of mine than you do not share. In intimacy, there is the recognition of the other person as another person that allows each other to disclose themselves in such a way that we learn about the other person. Two people may, over the course of time, come to share one heart and one mind, but not with one person as an extension and possession of the other but with one person and another person sharing together in life, through communication and common experience, together.

Now in distinguishing these two types of expectations between relationships, I want to probe the relationship of speech in these type of relationships. In fusion, there is the expectation, whether descriptive as it really is or prescriptive in that it should be that way, that the other person (should) already feel what I feel, that they (should) already think as I think. If this is the case, for a person to speak literally what they think and feel will often times break this illusion. When this emotionally significant expectation is broken, it can cause great emotional disarray and alarm. To speak literally is to say what is ultimately forbidden to be the case in the mind of the person with fusing expectations. Consequently, to speak literally is downplayed and avoided, for the avoidance due to the reality that life is not always as you wish it to be. Fusers are afraid to speak and hear literal speech from others because they do not wish their romantic dreams, whether of a sexual or non-sexual type of romance, to be disrupted.

By contrast, in intimacy, there is an acceptance of some sort of distance, even if we are not exactly sure how distant we ultimately are. I may feel another person and I are close, but I do not presume to know what a friend or lover always feels, nor do I think they always know what I think or feel. Here, literal speech, discourse that is about communicating oneself clearly, is responded to differently; it is an often necessary thing that must happen for people’s thoughts and feelings to reoriented to be on the same level. While all of the relationship is not ruled by constantly occuring, literal speech, because there is such a thing as reptitive overcommunication, without this type of clear self-disclosure, there is the real potential for people to think and feel very different things.

Now, I present this not to simply pontificate on the nature of human relationships, but rather to express how the relationship of disclosure and discourse impacts our expectations for our horizontal relationships with others, it can also impact our expectations for our vertical relationships with God, and then through that, reinforce, if not even exaggerate, how we then relate to each other as persons in the name of God.

Allow me to make a theological connection that is not readily apparent but I will not fully prove here. Fusion discourse of disclosure is analogous to Reformed, monergistic theological conceptions, where when God act, where God speaks, when God is doing something, the person is brought into union with the will of God. However, this mechanism for this union of the person to God is never the audibly heard and clear expression of God, but rather there must be some non-literal effect and disclosure to the person that transforms them to understand and be responsive to God. By contrast, intimacy discourse of disclosure is more analogous to Wesleyan, synergistic theological conceptions, where God acts and humans receive and respond and it is this reception and response that is an (often or always, depending on theological flexibility) necessary condition for people’s hearts to be joined with God. Another person must consciously receive from God as a separate being before they moved towards oneness with the heart of God.

But it should be clarified that this Wesleyan theological pattern doesn’t necessarily entail the value of the clear self-disclosure of God; Wesleyan theology can become adapted to some more sort of religious practice of mystic-like, non-literal expressions where the speech of God is not valued itself as important as the non-literal experience of God through the Holy Spirit. One can be synergistic in theology and still, ultimately, engaging with a fusion assumption about our relationship to God. On the flip side, intimacy discourse can make room for the more mystic, charismatic, non-literal aspects of relationship to God, but it places the highest value to the relationship between God and humanity in the form of God’s clear Word/speech to humanity. God makes himself clearly known, whether He is received or not, and it is this that ultimately reorients our minds and hearts to turn to and receive all the other, non-literal, more mysterious aspects of relationship to God.

To put this against the background of Wesley’s conflict between the overly doctrinaire Christianity prominent at the time and the chaotic enthusiasm that pervaded other parts of the churches and Methodism, Wesley clear draws a line between the two, both in his expectations for others and is his own life. Ever curious about the nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit, he didn’t reduce the life of faith to the literal expression and reception of God’s truth; there was something that was happening that went on beyond this literal speech. On the flip side, however, Wesley has a logic-like manner in which he sought to make clear what he believed was and was not happening in the course of the Christian life. It is here that I would suggest that Wesley fits within my category of intimacy type discourse when it comes to His relationship to God and his expectations for others. Of course, this really wasn’t the case with his well-publicized rift with his wife, although Wesley could certain be intimate is letters to others, including other women (which may have been the source of the marital frigidity).

As a brief excursus, it is this two-person intimacy type of model that was implicit with Wesley’s theology and was baked into Methodist theology that is a partial contributor to the influence of more progressive theology in Methodist circles. If our relationship to God is as two separate entities, then this will influence how we view others. However, one big distinction between Wesley and modern liberal/progressive intepreters of Wesley is that while God and person are two different entities, the relationship is not symmetrical, but is asymmetrical. While we as people have a role and responsibility in our relationship, it is the gracious God who is really responsible for who we become; God is the prime authority, we can choose to go along with God or not but we aren’t response for the start or the end of our journey. Wesley’s theology was not an expression of a democratic type relationship of symmetry of power between separate subjects that often undergirds a sense of theology in more progressive/liberal wings of Methodist and Western theology. That intimacy can be had in the context of power asymmetries may seem foreign to many people’s ears who have been influenced by many (very legitimate!) progressive ethical concerns, but the “wrongness” of this idea is not actually about the possibility of whether there can be intimacy in context of an asymmetrical relationships, but rather the recognition of much of the damage and harm that has been done in asymmetrical power relationships in the name of intimacy/love/etc. (but I would suggest some, if not most of these terrible instances, are actually relationships with fusion expectations that objectified and possessed another with pthe ower embedded those relationships used to enforce the objectification). But enough of this excursus to distinguish what I am saying myself and Wesley from more modern, liberal/progressive perspectives.

My point is this: the way we conceive our relationship to God can be influenced by the models we have for ideal social relationships. One prominent theological trend will suggest that God’s disclosure happens in a principally non-literal fashion as happens in contexts of fusion. Another theological trend will suggest that God’s disclosure happens in both literal and non-literal fashions as happens in contexts of intimacy. (We could also say that many doctrinaire versions of Christian treat God’s disclosure simply in a literal fashion, but I did not explore that here).

But I would suggest if we are to at all make sense of the pattern of revelation through the narrative of Scripture, we must embrace the intimacy discourse of disclosure model, where there are times where God speaks in more elusive, not always clear and dramatic ways, but then there are occasional points where God’s dramatically, powerfully, and clearly discloses Himself (although, we don’t have to suggest this always happens in the form of literal words of speech). It is in the sending of His own Son Jesus Christ, where God’s own self-disclosure becomes the clearest and most distinct (albeit could still be rejected or ignored) in order to align the hearts and minds of Israel and then all of humanity to God’s own will.

Using the words of N.T. Wright, God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel (and indirectly to the world) climaxes in the most clear, dramatic, distinctive self-disclosure that makes God’s will and thoughts most clearly manifest. While all the other forms of disclosure of God, particularly as witnessed in the Old Testament, are important, have impacts on Israel relationship to God (and indirectly on the world’s), and can even have some preparatory role in receiving God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ as testimonies about Jesus, one must attune and pay specific attention to Jesus (and also the Holy Spirit, as the Pentecost experience has a deep significance for Acts and the Epistle) to really and truly know who this God is, what this God is about, and what this God is doing. Incidentally, this is why I think it is permissible to say that our faith can be unhitched from the Old Testament, as Andy Stanley said, because just as relationship should ultimately pay attention and be formed by the clear communication couples have, the most significant, the most important aspect of our faith in God comes by what God discloses of Himself in His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. True intimacy between God as one subject and a person as another subject entails our faith being reoriented to God through the clear demonstration of God’s own love and power. That is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 in a nutshell.

So, in short, intimacy between God and humanity and then person to person entails clear disclosure and communication, even if it also includes non-literal forms also. I would suggest this model makes the best sense of Scriptural narrative and is also the best model for the Church to organize herself around.

Conflicting truth-makers, the apocalyptic, and the problem of natural theology

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September 10, 2018

In the famous Brunner-Barth debate on natural theology, Barth issues a sharp, decisive NO! to Brunner’s attempts to make any place for a natural theology. Brunner tried to make an argument for natural theology from there being a distinction within humans being in God’s image between a remaining formal aspect of the image, while the material aspect of God’s image had been erased from humans due to the fall. If some formal aspect remained, therefore some capacity for natural theology could be retained. However, for Barth, this distinction would not do and he tore into his former friend due to the threat he perceived for making any place in natural theology. While the disagreement strayed into various matters, such as an appropriate understanding of John Calvin, at the end, the distinctive theological question that undergirding the possibility of natural theology is the image of God. However, in the end, I would say both Brunner and Barth were trying to appeal to the wrong idea to make their points about a natural theology because I don’t think the image of God was ever meant to portray any sort of ontological capacity or status, but God’s purpose humanity or, at N.T. Wright commonly refers to, vocation. If humanity being in the image of God is a matter of telos/purpose or vocation, then one would be hard-pressed to determine how a description of epistemic capacities can be derived from what is not ontological but purposive.1

Furthermore, the apocalyptic school of interpretation of Paul has read the Apostle Paul in light of what they label as “apocalyptic” but, as Wright has argued, are using apocalyptic to describe what are ultimately Barthian readings of Paul. While not wanting to oversimplify what the various proponents such as Martyn, Campbell, etc. or overstate my familiarity with their work, it seems to me that the construe the significance of apocalyptic for Paul and the wider Second-Temple Judaism in terms of a discontinuity with the past, much as Barth wants the revelation of Jesus Christ to be distinct from all other forms of knowledge and justifications.

In short, there is a distinctive pattern within Barthan theologies and exegesis to reject any “a priori” concepts that aids in receiving God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ; it is epistemically mistaken to suggest there is any helpful continuity between some other form of knowledge and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, Barthian epistemology derives from specific ontologies about God’s image, ontologies of revelation, suggesting we have some clear and precise ontological knowledge about God, whether in terms of ontological affirmation or ontological negation, that shapes the nature and form of theological knowledge about God. The leads, in my opinion, to perceptions of apocalyptic in the Second Temple as some sort of literature and movement that has embedded within it specific ontologies and epistemology.

Now, indeed, there are some similarities between apocalyptic literature and Barthian theological epistemology. What God discloses, either directly or through mediating agents like angels, is often quite portraying as surprising, dramatic, and unlike anything the recipients of revelation would be familiar with. But the cause of the significant difference is the reason for false knowledge in apocalyptic: without overgeneralizing, there is false knowledge because there are hostile forces in the world that distract people’s hearts and minds from the true knowledge of God. Whereas Barthian theology would have skepticism about human knowledge due to ontological concerns about the person’s inability to receive knowledge about God, unless God Himself makes it happen, in apocalyptic discourse the prevailing reason one can not have true knowledge is that there are opposing forces that can mislead and misdirect people to think in the wrong manner. In other words, there are similar, but not the exact same, epistemic concerns but for different ontological reasons: for Barthian theology, it relates to the definition of what it means to be human and ontology of relation and revelation between God and humanity, whereas for apocalyptic it is often entails an ontological of cosmological agents/powers that are in a fight in God.

Now, the Apostle Paul clearly works from within the apocalyptic mindset and discourse at times, although the apocalyptic mindset is not a fixed, unmalleable thing. Rather, it is could use and appropriate for one’s reasonablycontext, so to suggest Paul is “apocalyptic” doesn’t tell us he is using the apocalyptic ideas and discourses in the same manner as they are in the apocalyptic literature. In fact, I would hypothesize that one of the distinctive differences between the Christian tradition in the New Testament and what is labeled as apocalyptic is that novel way the apocalyptic is used and transformed around the person of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus and the Spirit do not fit into the apocalyptic mold, but rather the apocalyptic discourses are being fit to the primary datum of the testimony and tradition of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the community’s experience of the out-poured Holy Spirit, but this isn’t a reappropriate of apocalyptic discourse due to a Barthian theology but rather due to my own linguistic theories about how language and discourse shift and function surrounding dramatic events that challenge and defy previous structures of meaning. In other words, I have a more “naturalistic” reason due to my understanding about cognitive structures, events, and language for explaining how the apocalyptic discourses were re-appropriated and that explain how the events of cross and Pentecost can change theological thinking, along with some historical speculation. However, I allow that this “naturalistic” reason is still justifiably exegetically and theological significant also, as it is God’s decisive action that impact the effects of the otherwise natural processes.

Which leads me to my point that I will then use to bring my narrative up to this point together: nature can reveal God when God acts to make nature reflect God’s will as the Truth-maker Creator and Redeemer that silences and contains all other, lesser truth-making powers. The problem with knowledge about God, and particuarly knowledge about God from nature, is that there are other truth-making powers that alter and change way nature functions, such that it makes nature unreliable and misleading to understanding the will of God.

To make my point, I will gratefully appropriate a wonderful metaphor from a friend from my past and colleague, David Hull, but for a somewhat different direction than he originally used it. Imagine a painting from a masterful artist that is on display in a museum. That painting as it is expressed something about the artist, even if it isn’t always immediately clear the full significance of the artwork. Then, imagine some thieves come in, steal it, and malign and destroy it, they pour beer upon it, rip and tear it, and make it look only vaguely like the original painting. Now, whatever knowledge people might gain about the artist is blurred, to the point of any reliable discernability of what they really painted. Because of the opposing actions, one can not readily know anything about what this painting conveying about the mind of the Artist, in and of itself. The conflict between different truth-makers, that alter the truth of what that painting is and conveys, makes reliable knowledge about the Artist impossible. At best, to momentarily shift metaphors, one would be shooting a target in the dark while having a gun that does not have the range to hit the target.

However, say this Artist had created His Masterpiece painting, that was the best, most absolute expression of His distinctive style. Now, with this image in hand, someone else could begin to compare the masterpiece with the defaced work, and begin to make sense of the mess that is the defaced work. With this understanding in tow, the defaced painted can begin to be carefully and discerningly understood in relationship to the Masterpiece, and so one could begin to use the otherwise defaced artwork to make sense of the Artist’s intentions and purposes, even if it is still somewhat obscured in some fashion and not absolutely clear. And despite the conflicting truth-makers for the defaced painting, the Truth-maker has created a Masterpiece that can be used to interpret the other painting; the Artist even protected it from other thieves who tried to destroy it but He immediately found it and restored it in three days.

This metaphor is used to make a point. God’s handiwork in nature, including us as human persons, are not on their own reliable conveyers of knowledge about God because there are other truth-making forces, whether one considers is demonic powers, political powers, people’s own free will choices, etc., that can distort what nature originally pointed to. One might manage to see some signpost here, some glimpse there, but none of these appearances that stem from God have the proper sense of context to make real sense of what they are about. While we can see God’s style, we can not see God’s meaning and purpose behind it. But, in Jesus Christ, and also the Holy Spirit, God has entirely limited other, hostile truth-making powers, so that the will of God can then become discerned and seen throughout creation. But one must have the hermeneutical key of God’s own self-caused disclosure that no other force mars of distorts in order to make sense of the rest.

Meanwhile, one might say it is possible that the nature of the Masterpiece/Jesus Christ could be identified in a vague way by comparing to the defaced works/creation. What little can be made from the style of nature can be used to identify God’s style in Jesus Christ, but we can only know the significance of the style once we see it in context of Jesus Christ.

So, this is what I think is a more fruitful metaphor, analytic framework, and theological paradigm for understanding the epistemic framework of the apocalyptic discourse used in relationship to Jesus Christ for the New Testament, particularly the Apostle Paul. If valid, there are many implications for this framework, such as the relationship between theological hermeneutics and theological epistemology, etc. But at the end of the day, this theology doesn’t entail us relying upon certain ontologies that are more veiled and hard to a get a grasp of and define, such as what it means to be human to be in a (revelatory) relationship to God, but an ontology of agents and causation that is a) more intuitive to understand when you think about it, b) more closely resembles human experience, c) can allow a more synergistic understanding of salvation as in Wesleyan theology, and d) can be circumstantially brought into coherence with other forms of knowledge like empiricism, while e) retaining a role for mystery amidst the conflict, f) assigning reliable knowledge only to God’s action who make sit possible, g) fitting within the apocalyptic-discursive context of the New Testament, h) and employing an ontology of agency which seems to be more primary throughout the Scriptures.

Put differently, given this agentic focus contained in my implicitly personal usage of the Truth-maker ontology, this is a more subject-based epistemology that I referred to in the past, that avoids the problematic distinction between nature and revelation that object-epistemologies directed towards theology have created.

Should theology progress?

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September 9, 2018

Let’s start off with a basic axiom that should be obvious to most anyone with a basic sense of church history: theology evolves. By theology, I am not referring to change with God as the Truth-maker of all that is true; this is not an ontological statement about God akin to process theology. Nor, am I even specifically referring to the basic sense of faith that comes from the whole person in relation. Rather, I am referring to the body of beliefs that attempt to explicitly describe this faith that contains certain beliefs we have about truth and the Truth-maker. I am talking about the attempt to make explicit what is largely unconscious and what was largely formed in us in an unconscious manner. Theology as our attempt to generate and express an understanding of our faith in this Truth-making God does evolve and adapt over the course of time. This truth of theological change is present throughout the history of the Church.

However, the question is this: should theology change? This is to move from a more descriptive recognition that theology does change to ask the more prescriptive question: should it change? If so, how should this change occur? In what ways should theology change?

I would firstly contend that if we take the Biblical canon as normative for faith and theology, then the answer is, yes, it should change, because there are clear shifts, irruptions, and transformations throughout the history of God’s People. Israel’s most ancient confessions believed God had spoken and made promises to the patricarchs shifted to then a period of monarachy where people believed God had set aside the Davidic monarchy; they did not forget the promises to Abraham, but Israel’s theology progressed. Then, the prophets uttered many critiques against the powers that ruled over the people of Israel, including the monarchical regimes. Move forward to the coming of Christ, and the whole of theology dramatically shifts in light of the two fundamental data points: the death and resurrection of Christ, showing His Lordship, and the global outpouring of the Holy Spirit, manifesting the love of God for the people. Rather than a tradition of rising hostility among many Jews towards Roman overlords, Paul expresses in Romans that following the suffering Messiah entailed honoring the imperial powers while subtly expressing limitations to the nature of this honoring; but then this view shifts within Revelation, where is a coded but distinct call to resistance to Roman power.

If we were to define theology as an explicit explication of an otherwise implicit faith, and not import any assumptions on the form and genre this expression must take (i.e. doesn’t have to be systematic, analytic, literal, metaphorical, coded, etc.), then clearly the theology of God’s People from Abraham to Revelation experienced adaptations and transformations over the course of time. However, there are many who have certain a priori views of how theology must express itself, that truth itself is timeless, so any sense of change and discontinuity is an inconsistency that entails something is false and wrong. So allow me to tease out what I deem to be the fundamental problem against this objection to theology’s progress.

At the core of the view that truth is unchanging and timeless are two interrelated but different ideas. More explicit is the idea that truth is timeless because God is unchanging. But more implicit and more descriptive of what is happening to the person in a cognitive manner is a rejection of any change to the cognitive structures of their belief. That is to say that the belief that truth is unchanging functions to serve both as belief about God AND a unusually unconscious belief about our own beliefs. In other words, truth is eternal and unchanging is often a statement about one’s meta-cognitive belief that wants to assure a fixity as it is about the nature of faith in God and His nature. This form of theological statement frequently veils also hidden anthropological/psychological commitment. More than seeking to affirm and solidify faith in God, it also solidifies oneself.

So allow me to make a theological argument that I think is much more consistent with the whole Biblical narrative, although if it is consistent with the Biblical narrative, it expresses it in a way that is different from the whole Bible does. God is not simply truth, in the sense that we are talking about fundamental facts about the nature of existence, etc. but is the Truth-Maker. God makes true what would otherwise not even be. This is getting into metaphysics, but I want to clarify what I mean by this.

To clarify, I am not making a statement on what the specific relationship is between the categories of the Truth-maker and truth as it relates to God and our perceptions and knowledge; I am not engaging in defining a specific ontology that provides a strict outline of how things really are. Rather, I am providing ontological categories that can help to give us a lens in how to make sense of everything that allows there to be a uniting coherence between various truths, that allows both unity and diversity. In other words, I am proposing something that I think makes the best sense of all of the sources of faith knowledge we as Christians have, while still be sensitive to the concrete, particular, specifics of each of those sources and their specific discourse.

If God is Creator and what we know about God is mediated through our embodied life in creation, then God’s status as Creator means He is not simply Truth, but that He has a higher status of that as Truth-maker. It is by God and His actions that what we find to be true are actually made to be true, even if there are other truth-makers, of a vastly different and lesser degree, that impacts our sense of truth.

For a brief excursus: At first glance, this might sound similar to Tillich’s “God as the ground of existence.” Indeed, there are similarities as both the ground/existence and Truth-maker/truth conceptual schemas entail a causal connection from one (ground/Truth-maker) to the other (existence-truth) that is applied to God in such a unique way that can not be applied in the same way to others.1 However, there is a difference. Whereas Tillich’s distinction between existence and the ground is used in a mutual exclusive way to say that God is only one, that is the ground, but the other is not true, that is to say that God does not exist, I would reject this mutual exclusivity of these categories. To describe God as Truth-maker does not mean I can not at the same time say that God is a truth; in fact, it would be almost senseless to say that God is simply a Truth-maker but is not himself a object of our understanding of truth, as it would tear asunder the causal connection that the concepts of Truth-maker and truth have towards each other. It is certainly possible that the truth of a Truth-maker may not be known to us, but then we would not be able to speak anything of this Truth-maker as true, including the truth of someone’s or something’s status as a Truth-maker. To say someone or something is a Truth-maker entails a cognitive sense of truth from our own end. So, this is not a Tillichian expression in the end, even if there seems to be a similarity on the surface, because there are very different relationships between the concepts of existence and ground for Tillich and between Truth-maker and truth as I am using the words.

So, return to the question of the unchanging nature of truth, if God is the Truth-maker, then that means truth remains the same insofar as a) God’s Truth-making is consistent over the course of time and b) to the extent that God’s Truth-making status is unchallenged by other, lesser truth-makers. I would connect these two conditions then to two prominent themes about God throughout the Scriptures: God’s faithful love and God’s overwhelming power. God’s faithfulness entails God’s consistency, meaning God’s Truth-making status keeps truth the same. Secondly, to the extent that God’s Truth-making power places limits and renders other truth-makers powerless, truth will remain the same. Put differently, the consistency of true perceptions across time is a function of God’s love and power, and is not itself a statement that must be true for truth to be truth. Truth is not true because it is timeless, but rather truth is timeless insofar as God in His faithful love and power make truth remain true. But, if the shape of God’s faithfulness and demonstration of power changes, as it does from Torah and Monarchy to Christ even as God’s work in Christ retains continuity with Torah and Monarchy, then so to does truth change.

So, should theology change? From my analysis, there are two specific conditions it should progress and adapt. Firstly, if the specific way God demonstrates and acts upon faithful love and power adapts, then yes, so too should theology change. When God does this though, it doesn’t occur with some random religious teacher presenting a discourse and instruction that we should change and progress. Rather, God makes it clear in a dramatic way that this new thing is from God and not anyone or anything else. The resurrection of Christ is the fundamental datum that motivates a shift in theological understanding; this fundamental datum doesn’t reject all the data points of God’s self-disclosure and action from the past, but they themselves are assimilated into an understanding about God known in this most fundamental datum point. There is something that can only be understood as God’s works that necessitates a transformation of faith and theology to adequately express, response, and be in attunement to God’s Truth-making power.

There is a second condition, that was implied in my earlier discourse: when what is true changes based upon the impact that other, lesser truth-makers, then our theology should change also. But the rationale here is very different than what happens when God demonstratively makes Himself known in a new way. Here, the question isn’t so much what our faith in God is ultimately expressing in terms of the purpose that God’s power and love are working towards, but rather how this purpose is concretely realized itself in relationship to other truth-makers. If political powers are resisting what God’s ultimate will is, then our theological understand will and should adapt to this different circumstance; our fundamental hope in our hearts remains the same, but the way we understand and express this within the context of the struggle between truth-making powers will need to adapt. This can explain how Paul’s expression of a limited accommodation to Roman political power can be brought together with the later call to resist Empire in Revelation; the nature of the truth-making power of Roman Empire and its political discourse and actions, including as it is specifically directed towards the Body of Christ, entails a shifting understanding of theology. There is a deeper continuity between Romans and Revelation, but at the same time, but the continuity is not to be found by interpreting the surface level discourse between the two but in reconstructing and discovering the common core of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that comes to expression.

In this condition for progressing in theology, adapting in theology occurs via a different mechanism. It doesn’t necessarily entail the clear, dramatic action of God as He disclosed Himself through the resurrection of His Son. Rather, this adaptation occurs because people’s eyes and ears are open to understand what is happening, to see the nature of the other truth-making powers, and to come to discern and comprehend the truths that are changing in the realm where God’s Truth-making power has yet to fully limit and control other truth-making powers. This can occur through various methods. When Israel and their leadership had forgotten their mission and were working against God’s purposes, God sent prophetic and inspired their discourse, sometimes to open the eyes and eras and sometimes to harden the hearts of those who opposed God. But this shift can occur through more reasonable, rational, and theological discourse that is shared together in the community of God’s People, where the listening of everyone can, prayerfully and hopefully, bring to light the present truths of things as they are.

But this type of theological shift does not alter what we fundamentally trust to be true about God as Truth-maker, but only how the conflict between God’s will and the flesh is concretely realized. Insofar as God’s power surpasses other powers that other powers can not molest or touch or alter, there are things we trust to be true throughout time; that Jesus is Lord, that the Holy Spirit pours out upon God’s People, etc.

So, I reject the notion ontological notion that truth is timeless, but rather I trust in the faithful love and power of God the Creator and our Redeemer, that makes truths true, keeps truths true, and restores previous truths to become true again. Hence, I would say that theology that attempts to express the nature of our faith in God as we are embodied in a world where other truth-making powers pervade should change, adapt, and progress. But there is not defined telos or point of development we can confidently assign, but we can only say that theology should progress if God makes something new about His own will and purposes known in a dramatic, clear way, or as God’s work of redemption and conquering hostile truth-making powers is being realized.

So, when people argue that the Church should progress, are they making claims about God’s will and purposes? Then they should be able to point us to the manifestation of God’s dramatic and clear power that clearly outlines this new shift and change. But if, rather, this change is argued from a discourses that are more prophetic or rational in nature, then it is only legitimate to suggest this change is due to change in the way God’s redemption is being realized and not due to a change in God’s ultimate will and purposes. But to claim a change in God’s expression of faithfulness in love and power without this is to trying to legitimate our own interests through our own discourse, and to illegitimately project human interests as God’s purposes.

This, in the end, is why I believe theology should progress, but I reject much of what is expressed in progressive theology. Insofar as they do not express a change in the nature of the truth-making powers of the world that should resisted in our hearts and actions, but rather either a) make claims about a change in God’s purposes or b) to share divergently different epistemologies pertaining to how God has made Himself known through such that what we used to trust in was false in the first place, then it is something that should be soundly rejected. The former is a statement of human arrogance, even if it is done and justified in the name of “love,” whereas the latter is to in fact express a different faith, even if we use similar words.

Brief reflection on epistemology, hermeneutics, and the divide between Analytic and Continental Philosophy.

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September 9, 2018

For those curious, this is not a fully fleshed out thought but a seminal premise.

What is the relationship and differences between the Continental and the Analytic is essentially the relationship of epistemology and hermeneutics. Epistemology addressing the questions of what do we know, whereas hermeneutics addressing the questions of how do we make sense. On the one hand, Gadamer thought epistemology and hermeneutics were opposites. And in one way they are, questions of interpretation come from different cognitive schema and processes than questions of certainty. However, at the same time hermeneutics and epistemology as fields are complementary, as they address different aspects that co-occur in concrete human experience and that these different aspects influence each other. In other words, I can address questions about the degrees of confidence I can have in my interpretations, while at the same time, I can try to interpret whether I have reasons for my confidence in my beliefs. They are like a married couple, complementary and yet ideally joined together. This joining together doesn’t always happen, as various philosophers and intellectual have their own process and methods of developing their intellectual systems and then try to protect them in a turf war from others whose ideas seek to come into contact and potentially threatened their own. But what if the divide between analytic and continental can be derived from people’s and traditions’ varying emphasis on confidence in beliefs, i.e. epistemology, or processes of developing understanding, i.e. hermeneutics, but that they can be joined together in mutuality rather than antagonism, if there is a relinquishing of turf wars and rather an openness to what each provides to the other and that can change the other.

This can perhaps be witnessed in the styles of discourse. Analytic philosophy, is well, analytic, dry, technical, concise, and to the point when it is done in an ideal manner. Its discourse is a reflection of its earlier, more British empiricist roots (sans Frege) that was ultimately influenced by Locke’s empiricism. It entails a more ostensive, direct description of what you have, leaving commentary and exposition to a minimum, because you should speak of what you have in front of you, an implicitly epistemic influence on analytic discourse. Meanwhile, continental discourse is more free-flowing, esoteric, reveling in the beauty of metaphor. When you think about it, however, metaphor is essentially hermeneutical, transforming our understanding of something in terms of something else we are aware of. This helps us to make sense of the often subtle and hidden realities and causes that lack clear, direct, sustainable perception

But in reflection, it seems we interpret what we know, and what we know helps us to determine how we interpret. Past experiences of the same type of event over and over again can give us a set of abstract and metaphorical schemas that can help us to make sense of similar events in the present; because we know through experience, we can then interpret. Similarily, our present experience can help us to sift through the schemas we developed from past events to determine which schemas are more valid; we can interpret because we know.

Where this goes is anybody’s guess, but I leave it here now for potential future exploration.

Consistency in the context of Spiritual formation

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September 8, 2018

In his essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson extols the virtues of, essentially, non-conformity to the conventions, expectations, and dictates of society. Midway through his essay, he penned a paragraph that contains an oft-quoted proverb on consistency:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.–‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’–Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.[note]https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html[/note]

Meanwhile, others tend to expect consistency from us, because, as Emerson explains: “the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts.” To appear as inconsistent to others is to be unpredictable, hence society trains people to be reliable, predictable, etc. Consistency is a virtue, significance to the point that is a common argument in ethical and political disagreements to point out the inconsistency of the opposition’s argument seems to imply there is something wrong with the positions of the opposition.

And yet, great men, in Emerson’s eyes, fail to hold to an unthinking consistency. They march to the beat of their own drum, you might say. But let’s also recognize, some forms of mental disorders exhibit characteristics of inconsistency. People afflicted with schizophrenia can be quite inconsistent and unpredictable, which makes them so frightening to people at time. So is inconsistency a mark of greatness or disorder?

But let’s look at the other side of this, for a moment. Is consistency truly the virtue that we tend to think it is? Obviously, predictable people are easier for us to work with, but there are disorders that are also associated with consistency. For instance, people with OCD often times obsess about anything that is off-kilter, that doens’t fit the pattern they expect. So, is consistency a virtue or a vice?

So what of consistency and inconsistency? Which is good and which is bad? Neither is automatically good or bad. Daniel Siegel presents in it Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, the metaphor of the river of integration where there are two banks on the sides you want to avoid in chaos and its opposite of rigidity.1

Chaos is the unpredictable patterns, whereas rigidity entails unchanging patterns. According to this metaphor for mental health, one wants to trek through the middle to find wellness.

But as much as I value this perspective, allow me to demythologize the metaphor of integration and put its significance into what I believe to be its appropriate psychological context. Integration isn’t some secret of the universe or even of our spiritual life. Rather, it is the pattern of life where we on average will experience the least amount of problems, struggles, and crises. By being flexible, we can adapt to the unique circumstances of everything event we face. By being consistent, we can connect the experiences from one event to others to help us respond more effectively to similar events. Thus, the middle is the pathway of least resistance, allowing us to learn from the past while at the same time allowing us to pay attention to the present.

But let me propose something: what it is that you notice in your present experience and the type of connections you make from your past experiences to the present is determined by your desires. Your deepest wants, values, longings, etc. unconsciously significance what aspects of your experience you pay attention and consider significant. We are looking to see whether things will go the way we wish and hope they will, or if they are headed towards a direction we fear and are anxious about.

I make this point to say this: the middle between chaos and integration is not necessarily the pathway towards anything that is ultimately true and good beyond what we ourselves would believe to be true and good. Rather it is the pathway to effectively realizing our own desires. Of course, along the way, our own desires may change due to our experiences, where we find what we previously cherished isn’t as important as we thought, such as that position you wanted not being what you thought it would be, and we discover something we were deeply missing but never realized it, such as unexpectedly falling in love. But, these changes to our desires tend to be more incremental, making small adjustments along the way, even if we are not consciously aware of them until a later, moment where the epiphany is reached where we thought we wanted and what we actually wanted had become different. These epiphanies are dramatic shifts in self-awareness, but not dramatic shifts in who we ultimately who we are as persons; we make smaller these smaller, almost always unconscious shifts because we learn what in our present experience what matches and confirms to our expectations we have developed from the past and what has not. 

Put differently, the river of integration enables a basic-level of consistency and continuity of our desires and how we attempt to acquire these over the course of time.

However, what if our desires are not what is ultimately good? What if, as the Apostle Paul talks about, that the desires of the flesh are something we should overcome, as being people of the flesh make it impossible for us to please God? If our desires control what it is we pay attention to, when can not our desires block hearing the leading from God? So, what if the problem isn’t solved by incrementally changing our desires, but a total, utter reformation of our desires are necessary? Then, the river of integration isn’t going to take you there.

What does this mean about dramatic change? It means there isn’t a nice middle pathway that will get us there, but it will take us through the unpredictable experiences that will cause experiences of rigidity in one instance and chaos in another instance. It means that it can make us look either like a great and moral person, or a dangerous and inconsistent person, depending on what the people around us value and expect from us. Whatever consistency may be there on the surface, will be repeatedly punctuated with routine events of disequilibrium that others can not predict or grasp and will make you stand out, for better or worse.

In other words, consistency is not always a virtue, but can be a vice. Inconsistency is not always dangerous, but people on the pathway towards the truth can weird a veil of unpredictability. But might I suggest that there is the dramatic reversal of virtue and vice, of danger and truth when the consistency of the world we inhabit is vice masked as virtue and danger masked as truth?

But lest someone mythologize the principle of reversal as some deep secret of the universe, of God, etc., the usefulness of the principle of reversal itself is itself only circumstantial. Furthermore, if God is at work and in specific instances God’s work leads to this reversal of consistency into an immersion of the unpredictable vacillation between chaos and rigidity, it is a false logic to assume the reverse is true: unpredictable vacillation does not itself the work and leading of God. Many a cult use techniques that can create the experience of unpredictability through extreme experiences that would be commonly be classified as neglect and abuse in order to facilitate an experience that can seem like a spiritual experience after the fact that justifies and cements the effects of the brainwashing after the fact and legitimates the power of those in control.

So, if the transformation of desire is necessary for the pursuit of God, but it can often times entail periods if marked disequilibrium, does the work of God or religion entail brainwashing? Before answering, a bit of narrative behind this type of question: I have always been struck by this question about religion, since college where I witnessed an angry, harsh, judgmental preacher on my college campus, who spewed hate to the public but when I had personal conversations with him, he was very polite, kind, and nice but then would have more subtle pressure tactics such as getting others of his entourage to pressure me in the midst of the conversation. It was then I realized he was a cult leader that was taking advantage of people experiencing vulnerability that is common on college campuses. Having come from a church experience that left me pretty hurt at the end of my freshman year of college combined with my mothers’s instructions on not believing anything because people tell me to not to, including religious figures, I was pushed towards the question of the distinction between the Gospel and cults. How does one separate the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the controlling nature of cults? While the categories of analysis and levels of awareness surrounding the topic were not as refined as my understanding now, the relationship being the marked disequilibrium and brainwashing stems from this.

The answer I have come to the question is this: God is not the direct cause of these experiences of disequilibrium that can so dramatically change the way we think and feel, but rather through his leading hand and for believers, the leading of the Holy Spirit, uses the way the world can throw us into these crises and molds them in a different direction and can even lead us into those situations. God didn’t send Joseph into slavery and prison, but He used these events. God didn’t persecute Paul in his various missionary trials or give him his thorn in the flesh, but God allowed them to occur so that He could use them. This fits the pattern of God’s love that is most clearly demonstrated on the cross: God didn’t crucify his own Son but He did send him to this but through the cross his Son was glorified as it demonstrated Jesus’ own faithfulness and as the opportunity to demonstrate the vindication and power of the resurrection. God may call people into a way of life that will bring them suffering from others, God may send people into dangerous situations, and God may even dramatically challenge the order and control we have on things, but God takes the suffering and death that the world throws at us and sovereignly uses it for a transformation of the person into a greater glory. God is neither the direct cause of such extreme events, but nor does God avoid them either and may lead people into these experiences.

[As a side note, this may not seem a satisfactory answer to either the more extreme Calvinist who says God ordains everything that happens or the opposite reaction against Calvinism that tries to dissuade us that God never leads us into pain. But I would suggest it is the most consistent explanation of the whole Biblical narrative, at least as it seems to me because it is the most consistent explanation of my own experience.]

So, the difference between the Gospel and the cults are this: cults manufacture crises that produce a pseudo-spiritual experience. When we follow Jesus through the leading of the Holy Spirit, we often times walk into and are lead into situations that will create these crises within ourselves, and through challenging them, unleash the dynamics of a crisis that the present order had kept managed and checked.

So, as followers of Christ being lead by the Holy Spirit, we are often thrown into events that challenge the middle ground of the river of integration, that will lead us into periods of unpredictable vacillation between chaos and rigidity, that will transform our desires, that can make us look either like a visionary or deranged. But, when God is at work, these events are used to lead into a new normal, a new consistency, a new pattern that may look entirely unfamiliar from the outside because our hearts have been dramatically changed towards the direct of the Spirit, rather than simply another configuration of desires of the flesh. So, the appearance of inconsistency may remain after the change, but this is because people rarely understanding people who have dramatically different values on the surface. In this sense, then, being transformed into the glory of Christ will entail appearing inconsistent, but it has its own inner consistency that is not always readily apparent to others at first glance.

However, as those who seek to apprentice others into following Christ and being lead by the Spirit, we do not create the events that cause such a pronounced disequilibrium to try to create this transforamtion; to do this is to go down the route of the cult. Rather, we recognize that when people commit themselves to following Christ, their attempts to fiathfully follow will lead to events that marked by deep struggles from within and/or conflicts from without as people battle between the desires of the flesh as they are enculturated in a specific place and forms within us as individuals. We are patient, letting the experience of suffering that comes with these struggles arise as they do, going to them to strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble and helping them to understand and comprehend the nature of this struggle. Following Christ comes with its own challenges, and our role in spiritual formation is to help people to understand and identify this and to support them in this, and this will entail a patience as the unpredictable vacillation between rigidity and chaos works itself out until, eventually, a new equilibrium emerges, which hopefully and prayerfully is an equilibrium centered upon the leading of the Holy Spirit as He makes Jesus Christ known to us and being formed within us.

To conclude: if this seems abstruse, a difficult train of thought to follow, or overly abstract, I will say it is necessary because there is a tendency to connect psychological dynamics with Spiritual dynamics, as if there is a one-to-one consistency and corresponding between the two. So, making critical distinctions between the relationship of psychology and Spirituality is necessary to make the important discernments that prevent us from either drinking wholly of the wisdom of this age as expressed in its therapeutic discourse while, at the same time, taking all these thoughts captive for Christ and finding the places and contexts they have value for what is true and good. Trying to connect two very different forms of thinking and discourse without simplistically blending them together can entail complex and sometimes hard to follow thinking. Plus, this is something that is on the margins of my understanding, so it will also seem somewhat difficult to express and therefore may be difficult to fully follow.

Why I stand with Asbury Seminary and the Wesleyan Covenant Association

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September 8, 2018

Today, Jeremy Smith over at Hacking Christianity has made a post publicizing the opposition towards Asbury Theological Seminary and the Wesleyan Covenant Association as it pertains to the work of the Commission on the Way Forward. Smith, true to his own theological and ethical convictions consistently presents a plea for people to stand against these two people for what he deems to be the future of Methodism in the One Church plan.

For whatever it is worth and whatever little attention I have, this has motivated me to speak up myself. While I have much pain that stems from my time at Asbury Theological Seminary that has never fully healed, while I have reticence about the potential directions the WCA could take that has made me hesitant about being involved, while I can share some concerns that many of my colleagues in the United Methodist Church and fellow alumni from Asbury who would support the One Church plan, and while I have qualms about the potential for the Traditional plan that is put forth that ATS and WCA support, I choose to stand with them.

My reasoning isn’t simply about sexuality, marriage, and ordination. While I certainly support a more traditional view of sexual behavior and marriage in the context of the Church, I am not conservative in this manner. I am deeply concerned about and recognize the complexity and diverse factors when it comes to people’s sexual orientation and identity. I am disturbed by the attempts of many of the supporters of the traditional, Biblical view of marriage to try to institute this vision through secular, political mechanisms on those who have never wholeheartedly confessed Jesus as Lord. I share no desire to join in the masses of conservative who would seek to pressure people to change their sexual orientations. My heart goes out to the many people who have been excluded, ostracized, and abused for actual or perceived sexual orientation, as in my past I had been made of fun for being gay and a target of such rumors. In short, if it were not for my support of the traditional pattern for sexual behavior and marriage, you would probably not be able to categorize me as a conservative/traditional on the topic of sexuality.

But to date, I have yet to ever find what I deem to be a theologically responsible and robust account for why the Church, in whole or in part within a specific denomination, should change our practice as it pertains to matters of sex and marriage. In fact, I would suggest the arguments I typically hear have deep theological problems.

But before I expound upon that, allow me to say this so people do not misunderstand what follows: to the many colleagues who share alternative views on sexuality and/or alternative ecclesiastical views on how the Church should address diverge opinions, I recognize your faith. I recognize many of you deeply love Jesus. I have no doubts that many of you have the Spirit of God stirring within your hearts and you have gifts and graces. Furthermore, I have not doubt that there are many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who have a love for Jesus and themselves have experienced the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. In what follows, I do not wish to deny what I believe to be a spiritual reality for many of you. Nor, will what I am saying is intended to imply this reality will be different simply due to your support and response in the future.

But let me state this clearly: the One Church plan is a step toward being drunk on the wisdom of the Empire of this present age, and the theological reasoning I have seen in favor of changing the stances on sexuality and marriage only confirms this concern for me. I refuse to be bewitched by it; I refuse to support the Body of Christ taking a step forward to partake in the Empire of this world.

At stake is the fundamental question: what is the Gospel of Jesus Christ ultimately about? For so long, the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations have defined the Gospel in part by its American world. This is in part due to the evangelistic success of these denominations, such that they wielded political influence. When this happens because the Gospel is spreading, while it can have unfortunate consequences that should be avoided if possible, it is a reality we tolerate because the expansion of God’s Kingdom doesn’t come to perfect people, but it comes in the midst of the realities of life, including our political realities. However, let me be clear, the more the Church resembles its political contexts, the more it risks sacrificing its witness and message.

The decision to go towards the One Church will be a step towards Americanizing, Imperializing, and Capitalizing the United Methodist Church even more. No doubt, many people would resist this characterization, as I know many of the people who support the One Church plan have spoken against political national idolatry, empire, and capitalism. But if you are one of these, I invite you to think a second: if we go to the One Church plan where every clergy and church gets to pick their views on sexuality and ordination, how much more like the present American world will it make us? And you who speak about being on the right side of history, are you not simply marshaling the political currency your views have to pressure other people to change, much as empires have done in the past, are you not participating in the process of imperialization? And, by trying to make it easier to include people within the church, are you not adopting the capitalist ethos that seeks as many customers as possible? As far as I see it, the One Church plan is a decisive step to further Americanizing, Imperializing, and Capitalizing the United Methodist Church. You may disagree with me, and that is fine, but I don’t think you can consistently decry political idolatry, empire, and capitalism with one hand and while with your other hand you clutch to this despised trinity. I encourage you to open your eyes and see, your ecclesiology is encouraging the very thing you fight against.

Nevertheless, it isn’t fair to suggest that support for the One Church plan is simply a matter of Americanizing, Imperializing, and Capitalizing. I can imagine one could make an argument for the One Church plan that would avoid this trifecta, and it be done with all authenticity. But let me ask you: imagine a Church where it is said “I am for same-sex marriage” and “I am against same-sex marriage?” That is what we have right now. Do you see growing unity and peace in the midst of this, or do you see continuing division? How will the “One” Church plan actually make us one? It appears to me that the “One” church plan will simply codify the divisions that already exist. To me, it would be like the Apostle Paul saying to the church in Corinth, who would say “I am of Paul,” “I am Apollos,” and so on, as follows: “I know you have different opinions and different knowledge, so let us celebrate each other’s knowledge and join together in spite of this; you each get to have your own piece and corner for you to do as you want.” But is it not the Apostle Paul who says that “knowledge makes arrogant.” Is it not the Apostle Paul who called everyone to abandon their allegiances that had them dividing so that they come to be defined by Jesus Christ? Do you think the Apostle Paul would say “Let us form a church that formalizes our disagreements into a permanent arrangement?”

Absolutely not! Paul condemns this way of the Corinthian church as really being beholden to the wisdom of the present age, to the present empire, whereas Paul has a different wisdom he wants the Corinthians to know about in Jesus Christ. But the reason the Corinthians cannot receive this wisdom that comes from God is because the faith they have is still being shaped and formed by human wisdom. And this is what I will say to the supporters of the One Church plan and the theological reasonings provided: it is a wisdom rooted in American politics, ethics, and economics; it is a wisdom that is derived from one of the most powerful and prosperous places in the world. If you want to go the way of America, if you want to become more authentic to American dreams and ideals, by all means, support the One Church plan.

But I will not be going with you in if the One Church plan passes. Because, it the end, we have very different visions of what the Gospel is ultimately about. You see, for me, as I understand the Apostle Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about new creation that is not constrained to the current arrangements; it is a wisdom that can not be seen, heard, or imagined apart from the Holy Spirit. My faith is in the power of God, who does far more than anything I can imagine or know with my own mental powers. It is a Gospel that is radically inclusive in who can be included in the work of transformation and radically counter-cultural from the powers of the present day and age. But when I hear inclusion from others, I hear a buzzword that is more about membership and status than it is transformation and when I hear counter-culture from many of them, I hear simply a resistance to the more traditional past of America but not to the culture of the Empire itself.

But let me clear despite this strong rhetoric, I don’t think you who support the One Church plan are outside the Church. Paul believed the Corinthians who were still beholden to the wisdom of the Empire had faith, were justified, and had the marks of hte Holy Spirit working in their life. But at the same time, Paul doesn’t think their faith is truly in the power of God. I don’t think you understand the implications for the future, whereas I would suggest I have a glimpse of understanding, as blurry as it is.

If you can hear in my voice, I do not echo any substantive support for the other proposals. There are concerns I have with them. Beyond that, I have come to learn that I don’t know what the distant future must contain; I don’t know everything the United Methodist Church or the global Church should have for its future. The more I have learned, the more I realize I don’t have any answers for all of that. But, I do believe that God has transformed me through the renewal of my mind so that I can discern the will of God, which isn’t about me having a whole system of knowledge or a clear, expansive vision for the future. Rather, I believe God has transformed, as He calls for all of us to have, to have the capacity to discern the will of God in specific situations and concrete circumstances, be this arrogant to believe about myself or not.

To me, the One Church plan is in effect to ignore Paul’s letters to Corinth and in so doing, hinders people from hearing and understanding the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. If the United Methodist Church takes a step towards the One Church plan, it will be a step backwards. If the One Church plan is the future of Methodism, then it will push itself away from the future of God’s Kingdom. America and her wisdom, as powerful and knowledgeable as it is, is not the salvation of the United Methodist Church; Jesus Christ is. I intend to trust in the power of God rather than the wisdom of Empire.

The opportunization of virtue

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September 8, 2018

Disclaimer: In what I am writing, I am not being critical of Kaepernick’s original decision to kneel at the National Anthem. While I could personally imagine other ways that might have been more effective in bringing to the forefront issues of racism and injustice, I understand many of his sentiments and feel that people’s responses towards him reveals a deep idolatry of the flag and America. Nor is this even a criticism of Kaepernick himself, as there is so little I know about him personally to be able to say much towards him. This is more commentary on how the narrative has morphed into an all-too-familiar patterns.

Unless you do not have a television or access to the internet (in which case, how are you reading this blog post?!), you are familiar with the following advertisement that came out this week, featuring hero to some, traitor to others, Colin Kaepernick.

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The responses to this ad have been rather predictable. Cries for boycotts and some videos and pictures of people burning Nike products, all in some misplaced, worship of a symbol of noble ideals that has turned into an idol within someone people’s hearts. Then, there are those who valorizes Nike in some heroic for being on the right side of history, like this tweet in response to President Trump’s usual twitter antics.

Nike was thinking that it’s a good business decision for a company to be on the right side of history. https://t.co/aqBUgrNm7L— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) September 7, 2018

Then, there are the usual cries against the capitalization whenever a corporation does something like this.1

We are living in an era of woke capitalism in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism.— Clay Routledge (@clayroutledge) September 6, 2018

Embedded in these reactions to this basic narrative around Kaepernick and later Nike’s ad are three different larger narratives of idolatry, ethical valorization, and a critique of capitalism. And most people who propound their larger narrative thinks there is something deeply important within their narratives that others somehow fundamentally miss. But what if each of these three narratives require co-existence in order for each narrative to have their own plausibility within the populations that support them.

I would suggest the Nike advertisement and the reactions to it has a basic ‘skeletal’ structure that exists in all societies that have a) basic freedoms of speech and b) mechanisms for broader communication to the population.

  1. Some behavior is valorized (occasionally, it can be vilified instead) on the basis for some other interest. – In this case, it is Kaepernick’s past against of protest against racial injustice that serves at least two interests: a) Nike’s association of their products with moral virtue and b) Kaepernick’s valorizing in the public eye. 
  2. A notable proportion of population hears this message, reacts negatively to it due to violation of some values they hold, opposing it  through counter speech and demonstrations.
  3. This negative reaction itself becomes notable and known, activating the responses of other people who are inclined to support the valorized and valorizing persons/entities and/or oppose the type of people who are objecting. This increases the power of the original valorization.
  4. Because of the way the conflict gets directed at people on the other side, both directly and indirectly, it invokes the sympathy of like-minded people to support those who take a visible stand, giving everyone some sort of affirmation for signals of their own virtue even as they face opposition from outside.
  5. In the end, everyone demonstrates their own ‘virtue,’ as determined by specific communities, and the original message becomes more effective in its original purposes.
  6. Then, there are those who make commentary on the more hidden, veiled forces surrounding the events (this includes this blog post), creating a haven of people who feel they rise above the fray, providing justification for their intellectual prowess and insight.

My point is this: the historical progression of events like this where people’s virtue is opportunized for other interests creates a set of outcomes that can only occur with each side’s playing a rather predictable response. If there is not protest against the ad, the effectiveness of the ad is diminished. If there is not conflict in the response to the ad from two sides, few people get valorized for their words and actions. And if there is not conflict working along predictable lines, then the those who seeks to act as part of the cognitive elite can not understand enough to comment on the hidden forces behind the debate.

Here is what does not happen: those who oppose the original message do not defeat the message, but give it greater power. Those who oppose those who opposed the original message do not defeat their opposition, but through their own opposition of the opposition they provide the context in which people are supported and become more emboldened in their actions. Meanwhile, the cognitive elite do not provide anything substantial to change the way things are approached, but they peddle the same intellectual narrative that has been peddled in the past before with the same results. 

Here is the more cynical point behind this: if anyone was actually successful in creating any real, substantial change, then all the other motivations and interests for each party will begin to fade or diminish. If people were successful in silence the ad, silencing the opposition, etc. etc. then the other motivations, particularly the opportunity to be valorized, profit, etc. will diminish.

Herein lies my point: in events like these, there is an inherent antagonism between the various goals, both expressed and unconscious, of the various groups. The more one is successful in changing things and getting things to go smoothly in your favor, the less opportunity for other opportunities. Put more simply, obtaining a valorized status within the population and their sub-groupings will not happen unless there is the ever present existence of the conflict itself. We valorize those who struggle, not necessarily those who succeed; the struggle is necessary for the pursuit of status. We look for and crave the narrative of good and evil to obtain our own sense of status; the exhibition of virtue needs an enemy to make this virtue known.

This in and of itself wouldn’t be the problem except in the sense of identity that forms based upon people’s valorization. People’s identities are formed based upon the structure of the events that defined them; consciously or unconsciously, we become accustomed to establishment of people’s moral status against the backdrop of the struggle. It isn’t simply that a person is valorized because of their actions in face of the struggle, but there is the implicit understanding that one retains and maintains this status within the continuation of the conflict. Put more simply: status entails conflict, and conflict breeds status to those deemed victors. Insofar as we pursue status, we work against any sense of changing the world, because it will often require the world to be dysfunctional to obtain the status one wants.

So, do you want to change the world? Let go the possibility of status, don’t see the need to participate in the pattern of signaling virtue and commendation of those who express opinions consistent with such virtue, and cease to join in with the all too common responses that routinely maintain the status-quo of conflict even as people consciously express a desire to change the status-quo. Instead, recognize that the world changes often in silent and invisible manners, that people can not readily see, predict, or understand, and that we participate in that insofar as we are attuned to this work that is occurring in the background, far away from anyone’s consciousness and capacity to oppose it. To participate in God’s work of new creation that we have not vision, that we have not heard, nor that we can imagine on our own entails an often silent faithfulness, only occasionally coming to the forefront when something is deeply and truly important that entails a crying out.

Our visions for the future and sin

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September 7, 2018

In his singular epistle in the New Testament, James addresses communities of Jewish Christians who are experiencing conflicts among themselves. I would hypothesize two main problems for the conflict they are experiencing. Firstly, there are a lot economic struggles that these believers have experienced; whenever money is involved, particuarly when life and  well-being are at stake, you can imagine conflicts. Secondly, during this period of time, there were heightened tensions between Jews and the wider, Roman society that would later come to culmination in the Jewish rebellion and the war of 66-70 A.D. In other words, socio-economic struggles impacted this community, leading to hostility within the community.

However, it appears based upon James 2:14-26 that a distorted version of Paul’s message of grace and justification has permeated the church, where people think firstly a) justification can be had by faith at the exclusion of works and that b) faith and works are divided among the people like the spiritual gifts. This may also be combined with Paul’s struggle to manage the two different patterns of life that are had by Jews and Gentiles, that is in a misunderstood way used to reinforce the separation of faith and works. My speculative intuition would suggest that his distortion has come from the Corinthian community.1 James and 1 Corinthians shares many similar themes, such as faith and works, distinctions between two contrasting forms of wisdom,2 the role of internal desire in sin, etc. If this connection is the case, then the problem of ambition and status in Corinth may have also had a contributory role to within the Jewish Christian community that James is addressing.

Whether my Corinthian hypothesis is correct or not, however, my hope is to highlight the role of status and ambition in the problems James addresses. This provides the setting for what James writes in 4:13-17:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

NRSV

What strikes me as particularly opaque about this passage upon first glance is the relationship between people’s ambitious visions for the future and then the committing of sin through omission of the right thing to do. James uses the logical conjunction of οὖν so there is clearly a relationship, but it doesn’t appear clear to our modern eyes. What does ambition have to do with sins of omission? It doesn’t seem immediately apparent to us. I would suggest the Western ideology of objectivity has, ironically, blinded the more intellectual of us in unrealized subjectivity such that we can readily overlook the impacts our own purposes and dreams can have upon what actions we perform.

But, to draw an illustrative analogy some of us may be familiar with, either personally or from a distance, imagine a male who grew up in the lowe socio-economic class in a some northeastern US urban area, such as Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. He spends their days after school with his friends who are also in the lower economic class, seeing a world that surrounds them that only sees them as a potential cheap source of labor but otherwise a potential nuisance or, even worse, latent criminals. Under such conditions, they form bonds with each other as a family, what anthropologists would call a fictive kinship. But during high school, he manages to make really good grades and intellectual promises and gets accepted into an Ivy League school with a scholarship. So he leaves, and get acclimated to a different socio-economic class of people, where they fraternize among the rich, the affluent, the high status, the cognitively elite. He gets big dreams for their future, thinking he will become a leading thinker in their field. Then, one day he returns home to visit his parents and sees his former friends when he makes a trip to the supermarket. One of them says “Hey! It is good to see you! Do you want to go down to the pub later?” This isn’t the first time an event like this has happened, and what happens goes down happens in sort of a script-like fashion: the intellectual elitist feels ambivalent, knowing they were friends from the past, but thinks that they are just in different worlds now, and says “No. I can’t tonight. I have some work I need to do.” His former friends, finally frustrated by rejection after repeated attempts, say, “You changed when you went off to school. You think with all of your education that you are better than us!” In the eyes of his friends, they saw the deformation of their friend who was part of them into one who loved the wider world that had looked down upon them. The ambitions and status of this cognitive elite made him dramatically change who and what he valued, making him overlook the warmth and fondness he had for his friends and make a different choice because of the ambitions he had.

When we develop ambitions and big goals, our decision making changes. As we experience the movement towards these longed for dreams, our thinking will change along the way. What used to be a good time with the friends changes into a waste of time. What used to be an opportunity to care for someone who is in need becomes a distraction from pursuing one’s own goals. Ambition and the pursuit of a new status, whether it be a different identity, different financial circumstance, etc. entails a changing of what we value and the way these values impact the decisions we make in specific, concrete situations. We move from one metaphorical world to another and in social relationships, move as if one is a part of one community to becoming part of a different community. This is so much of what James is admonishing against in his warnings about being friends of the world in James 4:4; one’s values and relations change and it isn’t a harmful change but it can potentially set oneself against God and His purposes.

This establishes the probable connection between ambition and the sins of omission that James exhorts against. If one is ambitious, thinking they will engage in a somewhat respectable business trade and make for themselves a better financial situation for themselves and their family, one can become susceptible to sins omission, as their values and decision making begin to shift. Their decision making becomes more and more defined by accomplishing these longed for goals, and, if not careful, can lead them to see the world only through these goals. Therefore, they hesitate to live in the proper relationship to each other in the community, particularly when it comes to people in need, seeing the giving of their owns goods for the desperate needs of others simply as a roadblock to their own goals. Herein lies the devilish temptation of ambition, which will have its own form of wisdom that seems good and seems to have some truthful, substantive sense of understanding of how the world is.

However, James instruction isn’t a criticism of dreams of a better future in and of itself. It would be unsympathetic, if not downright unempathetic, to suggest that people’s whose lives are mired in struggles should not wish and hope for a better future, that they should have no ambitions or dreams. It is understandable and even commendable under certain conditions to want to experience a different life. James is not proposed some resigned fate, some veiled asceticism that legitimates remaining in the misery of one’s circumstances. Rather, he identifies what is the critical failure of faith in their ambitions: they fail to say within their hearts “If the Lord wills.” For them, their ambitions are entirely the works of their own hands: they find, they pursue, they make, they obtain. There is no Divine contingency to their futures, but it rests solely within their hands. This creates a hyperfocus on one’s goals, thinking everything rests in one’s own ability to pursue the goal.

As a consequence, one’s view of the world and life becomes increasingly abstract, where we focus on simply the features of our experience that are relevant to our most cherished, valued goals rather than to all that is happening and occurring. Everything else becomes inconsequential and out of consciousness in the impassioned pursuit of a better life.

However, acceptance of the Divine contingency stipulates that we are not in entire control of our futures. It isn’t a denial of human action, as if we develop some sort of deterministic, divinely ordained fate that is automatically ours, whether we want it or not. God is not some legitimate-er of the prideful who feel their positions are assured and their entitlement. Nor is God heartless to the circumstances of the poor and oppressed. There is no hint of a Divinely determined fate in James’ letter, but his own rhetoric from the OT Scripture about God’s opposition of the proud and grace to the humble implicitly contradicts the notions of some secured fate. Human circumstances can change for the better and one can potentially enjoy a place of status and security, but it entails a basic attitude of the person who will “Submit to God and resist the devil.” (James 4:7)

When we accept the Divine contingency upon our lives, we do not deny our own responsibility or even the possible pursuit of dreams and hopes. However, it entails a degree of distancing of ourselves from our ambitions, to not let the determination of whether we are on the right path in life being made solely upon whether we are accomplishing these specific dreams and goals. When we do not give our ambitions center stage, our hearts are flexible and malleable enough to shift the way we evaluate the different circumstances we face in life. While in one circumstance, we may sacrifice time with friends so we can study and pursue our goals, in another circumstance, we can let go the furthering of our ambitions for the purpose of helping those in need. We can still continue to know the good thing to do and not allow the pull of temptation for one’s ambitions to overwhelm one’s sense of what is truly good and to be most valued.

However, when ambition and pride enter into people’s lives and the community, it can tear them apart, inside and out. The people whose ambitions have been legitimated by their positions and status can marshall this power against those who they deem a threat to their ambitions, whether this is true or not. Those who have been looked down upon and forgotten may resist, and themselves pursue an ambitions to compensate for the pain they experience. In the world whose understanding exhibits and is determined by the ‘wisdom’ of competitiveness in alignment with the realities of survival of the fittest that Darwin and others have observed, it can overlook the wisdom of love, peace, and compassion that is at the ultimate heart of the Creator God. Selfish ambition motivated by competitiveness, whether this desire for competition is rooted in compensating for injustices done to you or simply pure selfishness and sense of entitlement, selfish ambition that thinks God has guaranteed and legitimated your ambition and status so that you are free to pursue this goal no matter the other costs to yourself and others, this is the friendship with the world that James warns against and that injures people consciousness, so that the good they know is something they fail to do.

I remember during my time in seminary my own ambitions and dreams. I had a purpose on my life, a purpose that I felt God was leading me into, where I would pursue a PhD in Biblical Studies and try to be engaged in the life and work of the local church. I wanted to combine the academy and the local church in my own work as hopefully inched towards being a teacher, ideally of future Christian leaders and ministers. Meanwhile, I wanted a family of my own. I had, essentially, embraced the standard American dream, to make something of yourself and to have a family. I was conscious of this, and even initially knew that I could not let these things define me. Furthermore, I knew they were no guarantees, and I had a long ways to go both intellectually, relationally, and in terms of leadership to ever accomplish this that I might not reach these goals. But, as conflict and pain entered into my life due to a failure on my part, leading to other people who felt their own ambitions and entitlement, including in what they felt they deserved from me and my own life that they covered with, legitimated with, distorted from, and overgeneralized from their sense of grievances against me, I saw myself progressively change from the naive and occasionally immature but ultimately well-intended and caring person to a person who was rushing headlong towards my dreams to compensate for the pain, to win in life and to shame those who had crossed more boundaries and caused more pain than they could even imagine, and one could even begin to see the emergence of vengeance, to inflict the pain onto them that they had so callously inflicted onto me. Meanwhile, people would see who I really and was capable of and see me as someone who had enough value as friends, perhaps even for a female to grow close to and find me worthy Meanwhile, growing irritation and hostility towards others began to emerge from me, deforming my normally mild but friendly sarcasm into an increasingly biting cynicism. In the end, my life was becoming defined by my ambitions in a self-protective and hostile way, even as I started off in a genuine manner with good intentions.

But, as life would have it, my ambitions would not materialize. My academic progress was halted by the lack of acceptance to a further degree, my mind having been overburdened by the pain, my relationships to other people becoming reduced to the most basic attachments to my immediate family, fearful of any potential romantic attachments, my capacity for ministry in the local church hindered as I dealt with the ever present fear, anxiety, and exhaustion that made it next to impossible for any sense of sustained fruitfulness from me. My life had become an abject failure, inept, incompetent, incapable, unloved, dismissed, out of touch, and unstable. My dreams were burnt to ashes, my hopes thrown into the dust bin of life. and with it, anger towards God. Why should my life be thrown away, my future cut short when it was I who had repented of my own sins and failures and genuinely sought to take responsibility for my mistakes and immaturity and sought peace at the beginning, while others hypocritically and callously ran me into the ground and threw me under the bus?

But, as I have grown to realize with the benefit of hindsight, prayer, further experience, and more study, while yes I was subject to a deep sense of unfairness that would make anyone grow defensive, brandish their anger and even make them lose their mind, in the end I never truly distanced myself from my ambitions with the Divine contingency. They were mine to possess, as I even had my own confident reasons for God’s leading of me; they were mine to protect, because it was God’s calling on my life; they were my entitlements, because in my mind God had made it so. And while certainly and truly, we are responsible for being faithful and unfaithfulness can potentially undercut and hinder any future that God may preferentially set out for us, never did the Divine contingency distance my own hearts towards the pursuit of these ambitions. Even as I was the recipient of injustice, I myself had a heart that was torn between peace and love and the developing attitude of mirroring the competitive, status-oriented, ambition-protecting, feeling of entitlement that had molded and controlled the nature and shape of the conflict in the first place and the latter was progressively encroaching upon my heart more and more. Darkness was prevailing over my heart as I began to embrace as fixed and fated the reality of the darkness I was thrown into.

It can be good to dream; it can be good to have ambitions. But if these ambitions and dreams are not embraced in our hearts in faith that recognizes the Divine contingency, our dreams and ambitions became the source of the problems, they can became what tear people, relationships, and communities apart, they become what draws the people of God into the friendship with and love of the wisdom of (hyper)competitiveness that the world provides and can spread like a wildfire. And even as I stand, not sure if a PhD and teaching is in my future, whether I have the heart to continue in and return to ministry to bear fruit, whether I can even have a family of my own, I can only say now “If the Lord wills,” because it is this that is the foundation of God’s People, because it is God’s power that unites us to the Body of Christ even as we live in this flesh, it is God’s power that brings forth new creation even as we experience of unsuitability of this one, it is God’s power that provides the pathway of insight leading to sanctification, even as we struggle with the mundaneness and profaneness that we can experience; it is God’s power that resurrects even as we feel the slow creep of death upon us. May the Church, as people come to a rightly directed faith in God through the crucified Savior and the outpouring Spirit, say in unison, “If the Lord wills.”

Sanctification through thinking

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September 7, 2018

When some people think about holiness, an image of a church out in the country, where people live life as it is still the 1950s, with women wearing dresses down to the ankles and men dressed in a tie. Or you may think of a “holy roller,” who is lost in some weird actions during worship. Holiness may come with connotations of being stuck in the past or being irrational. The last idea that probably would come to your mind when you think of holiness is deliberate thinking and consideration. However, this is precisely the image of holiness that Paul conveys in his letters to the Romans.

In Romans 6, Paul establishes the freedom from the power of sin and death by the believer’s union with Christ. As a consequence of this freedom, Paul encourages them to live free from sin and to present their “members” as slaves to righteousness for the goal or result1 of sanctification. However, throughout all of Paul’s discourse in Romans 6, nowhere does Paul specifically establish the power that makes this union with Christ and directing our lives for righteousness possible. If you are familiar with 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, you will notice that it is the Holy Spirit that baptizes people into (the body of) Christ, whereas Paul leaves the role of the Spirit absent in Romans 6. Why is this the case? I would suggest because he waits to present the role of the Spirit in our union with Christ and avoiding sin and pursuing righteousness in Romans 8.2 In 8:5-8, Paul transitions to talking about the cognitive thought patterns of the flesh and of the Spirit, which is then combined with the resurrecting power of the Spirit in 9-11 to lead to the exhortation that people should put to death the deeds of the flesh and live by the Spirit in vs. 12-13. In other words, the realization of Romans 6, both the resurrection of the body and the moral sanctification of the person, is realized through the work of the Spirit in the believer. To summarize Romans 6-8:17 in a more abstract manner is to suggest that there is a redemption in Christ of both the body and of the mind by the personal presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

This same pattern of body and mind repeats itself in Romans 12:1-2, in calling people to consider their bodies as sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds. Romans 12 onward highlights the personal implications of this power of redemption that Paul outlined in 1-11, so we don’t see the language of Spirit being explicitly evoked here, but it is implicit from Paul’s previous argument. What is highlighted here, however, is the cognitive responsibility people have to experience a “renewal of mind;” implicitly, the thinking that comes from the Spirit as mentioned in Romans 8 is to impact the thinking of believers. This renewal of the mind is the basis upon which they can/will experience transformation, which like sanctification in Romans 6 echoes the concept of change towards a specific pattern.

Taking these observations of larger structure and pattern of Pau;’s discourse, if I were to summarize the relationship of the Spirit, thinking, holiness, and behavior for Paul in Romans 6-12, it would be as follows: through the Holy Spirit, the believer is influenced to think in such a way that will direct their behaviors so that they will be sanctified/transformed. Put more analytically, 1) the Spirit causes/presents a set of cognitions in the believers, that 2) the believers are influenced by in the choice of actions they take that fulfill specific purposes, which 3) through being enacted forms habits that can be alternatively described as holiness and transformation.

Therefore, for Paul, the way we think is a critical part of our journey towards sanctification. Being holy isn’t about being backwards, resisting the tide of change, or getting lost in some ecstatic enthusiasm. Rather, holiness comes from thinking that is properly directed and formed by the work of the Holy Spirit. But this thinking is a practical thinking about the concrete nature of our actions and not simply lost in the imagination of intellectual abstractions. But, this isn’t exactly what we tend to call ethics or morality per se, which seeks to determine what is right and wrong, but rather deliberation about what actions will fulfill the purposes of the Spirit towards life and peace. It is closer to a behavioral science than it is to a reasoning about ethics, where believers discern the purposes and impacts of their actions. Put differently, the Christian is called to a concretely critical awareness of what they are doing and how it is consistent with the leading and purposes of the Spirit.

Furthermore, when Paul refers to this as a renewal in 12:2, he is characterizing as something that models a new birth. Given that people’s thinking and habits have been determined by the flesh, people must “unlearn” what they have learned. Renewal entails more of a starting over of our knowing and thinking. Of course, the language of renewal/rebirth throughout the New Testament is a metaphor and therefore, as it applies to thinking, doesn’t necessarily mean one must truly forget all one has learned in the past and be ignorant in the way that an infant is. Rather if we are to follow Paul’s own examples in his epistles, renewal of the mind probably entails a critical distance from all that we have learned and “known”, recognizing it as flawed, leading us potentially astray, maybe even having served as a cognitive idol. As we create a distance from our old patterns of thinking, neither entirely rejecting it as entirely false nor idolizing it as absolute and full truth, we are open to a new form of critical awareness, where in the space of openness of our hearts we are receptive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

An important distinction here to make, however, is that renewal is not the substitution of one pattern of thinking for another, as often times “critical thinking” is treated as substituting one supposedly irrationaly form of thinking for a rational form of thinking, but rather a new receptivity by the distancing of ourselves from the past attitudes and thinking in repentance. So, for instance, critical awareness is not code for being formed into a specific type of thinker such as idealized in Marxism, which is commonly referred to as critical theory, as there are distinctly different and implicit purposes in Marxist analysis and the leading of the Holy Spirit. But, like Marxist criticism, the sanctifying thought that Paul encourages abandons the old ideologies and rationalizations that had us unthinkingly acting in certain ways and instead engaging our hearts and minds in paying fresh attention to the direction and purposes of our actions.

For the Jewish Christians who felt persecuted by and were antagonistic to Rome, it would have them rethinking the narratives they told themselves, distancing themselves from the narrative of judgment as presented in Romans 1:18-32 and reading and understanding the story of the cross and Pentecost afresh to lead them into a narrative of God’s faithfulness as in Romans 8:31-39. Similarly, for the Gentiles Christians, it would challenge their thoughts of superiority to Jews and to recognize they are being grafted into Israel as Paul mentions in 11:13-24. Both transitions in thinking should then encourage them into a critical awareness about the nature and purpose of their actions and how it impacts their community of Christ and their relationship to the larger society, which summarizes Paul’s ethical exhortations in Romans 12-15.

Put simply, for Paul, thinking is an essential tool for sanctification. Just as you can not build a house without a hammer, you can not become sanctified without proper thinking. Granted, a hammer is not all you need to build a house, nor does Paul present thinking as some panacea for human sin. Nevertheless, if one wishes to pursue holiness because one is in Christ, it will entail unlearning that allows for an openness to the Spirit that can lead us into a critical awareness of our actions.

The dynamics of shame

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September 6, 2018

Shame is a painful, pervasive phenomenon in human relationships. At the core of shame is the emotion of disgust.1 Mick and Dalgeish suggests that shame is disgust that is directed towards oneself as a whole, whereas guilt tends to be focused on a person’s specific action. The propose that shame stands at the root of many emotional and psychological disorders, such as depression.2 However, if one were to take this cognitive concept in terms of the self-direction of disgust as the definitive definition of shame by itself, it would be potentially misleading; it is overly individualistic, thinking that emotion of shame is defined by what as individual agents make us think. Rather, in understanding shame, it is importance to consider the context in which the emotions of shame and its corresponding thoughts manifest themselves. Mick and Dalgeish do not treat the cognitive phenomenon as a reductive definition, however. They recognize the importance of social relationships when it comes to the emotions of shame.3

I mention this to make a larger point: shame, whatever thoughts we have when we experience shame, is an intrinsically relational/social emotion. When disgust is direct towards oneself, it isn’t just that we are disgusted with ourselves, but rather we are imaging the disgust that other people have for us. Our sense of self and identity is so tightly intertwined with the social relationships we consider important, that we view ourselves with disgust because we believe that others view us in a terribly negative light, whether this belief is actually true or false. There is some value to this emotion when it is based upon reality, because it will lead us to distance ourselves from those who view us so negatively that they might further hurt us. It can also lead to reconciliatory behaviors in some contexts, although often times the attempt of reconciliatory acts during the deepest throes of shame can be quite clumsy, extreme, or immature.

Consequently, there are two things that can cause shame. 1) Something we said or did that we believe, against whether true or false, that makes important people view us negatively. 2) Important people actually distancing and rejecting us, even if we are unaware of anything we did. In other words, shame is the result of being rejected by people we consider important or imagining something we did has or will lead them to reject us. While the emotions of shame in certain cases of pathology may take on a life of its own that becomes very distant from this social reality, the basic foundations of shame is rooted in the feelings of separation from those who we value, esteem, and/or need for survival.

Given that shame is a very painful emotion as it can also lead to the emotion of loneliness and panic due to feeling isolated, we tend to want to avoid shame. Therefore, there are various tactics we tend to employ to avoid shame relate to behaviors and perceptions. Firstly, we try to control our behaviors so that we don’t do something people might view negatively. We can call this the behavioral route. Secondly, we try to influence people’s perceptions of ourselves and our actions, by trying to tell them what things we did or did not do, providing an interpretation of their significance, and trying to manage people’s impressions of ourselves; this is often times joined with placing blame on others if there is a question of fault. We can call this the narrative-hermeneutic tactic. Thirdly, we can emotionally distance ourselves from those people, reducing their importance in our lives, so that we don’t feel the pain of rejection. We can call this the distancing tactic. Fourthly, it is not something we really do but we receive people’s positive responsiveness towards us, recognizing that we are not viewed negatively because people are letting us in, whether it be due to false perceptions or due to the provisions of forgiveness. We can call this the receptive tactic. Fifthly, we can try make some sort of amends to try to change people’s perceptions of us, whether it be buying gifts, saying we are sorry, etc. We can refer to this as the conciliatory tactic.

Whether it is the behavioral, narrative-hermeneutic, distancing, receptive, or concilatory tactics that we employ, we can tend to use these tactics in some habitual, nearly instinctive manner whenever our unconscious brains or our conscious mind can sense the possibility fo shame occurring. The more we become avoidant of the feelings of shame, the more we try to employ these various tactics to try to stave off shame.

But herein lies the problem; when the attempts to avoid shame lead us to ignore our own responsibilities or distort perceptions of other people. For instance, some people who are instinctively avoiding shame may use the combination of the behavioral and narrative-hermeneutic tactic. They avoid any obvious failings they feel would them to be rejected, but then they do not remain so vigilant with their less obvious, more ambiguous behaviors, but instead instinctively rationalize and justify these behaviors in positive lights so that even they themselves are not aware of the potential impact these behaviors have on others. Many people who zealously pursue righteousness so as to avoid shame fall victim to this, as they stave off shame by preventing any sort of conscious awareness.

Another example can frequently happen in relationships where there are feelings of intimacy and closeness by one person but they come to believe it isn’t shared by the other person and feel rejected. One common tactic is the combination of the narrative-hermeneutic tactic combined with the deattaching tactic, where a person will construe all the reasons why that other person instead of themselves are a bad person, which can then help rationalize deattaching from them, leading them to not feel shame. However, when such a tactic is done in response to rejection from an important persons, rarely does this pattern actually address the feelings of importance in the long term. Most of the time, those feelings of importance eventually return to the surface, leading them to try to reestablish a connection, commonly through the conciliatory tactic. When more “mature” people employ this tactic, it can lead to the feelings of ambivalence, where they feel uncertain about what to do. When immature people employ this tactic, however, it can commonly lead to extreme and chaotic patterns of behavior as they arbitrarily flip back and forth from wanting reconciliation and wanting to deattach and acting in contradictory ways to establish those ever changing desires.

A darker example is people who routinely mask themselves through the narrative-hermeneutic tactic, where they always control people’s impressions of them to the point that they lie about what happened and consistently portray themselves in a positive light and/or others in a very negative light. People who are telling the truth can do this also, but what commonly distinguishes the truth-tellers from the maskers is how consistent their narratives and interpretations tend to be. All other things being equal, truth tellers will tend to have a more consistent and coherent narrative that doesn’t dramatically change from one situation to the next. Maskers, by contrast, pay more attention to the perception’s of others to the point that they will dramatically change their narratives and interpretations to suit different circumstances.

One final example of one I am pretty familiar with personally is the avoidant tactic of deattaching. Some people to avoid shame just simply disconnect themselves. Whenever they don’t get the type of response they want from others, they tend to distance themselves. Depending on how many significant relationships that have and whether those relationships are enough for them, they may try other tactics such as conciliation or narrative-hermeneutics if they feel the pain of isolation and loneliness.

However, while some of these tactics and style can sometimes be employed in ways that does not contradict with what is true and to be valued. Our perceptions of reality and who or what is good and bad are determined by our instinctive usage of these tactics. Much of the time, these instincts are based solely upon perceived needs for survival and not based upon reflective deliberations on what happened or thoughtful consider of what we should value. Put differently, the habitually instinctive attempts to avoid shame can disconnect us from the goodness of grace and the realities of truth.

However, there is one tactic that really falls upon others to address the feelings of shame: the gift of presence that those who feel shame can receive. This stands as one of the foundational points of the Gospel, where instead of God keeping distant from us due to our sin, overlooks our sin and draws near to us to show us who he really is; this undergirds the Apostle Paul’s point in Romans 3:25 and in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. God’s drawing near challenges many of the feelings of shame we can have, at least insofar as it relates to any sense of rejection from God. Similarly, as God’s People are called to be forgivers and to give the grace and forgiveness as they have been given grace and forgiven, they too can provide the gift of openness and presence. Here those who feel shame receive the gift of presence, challenging the constant need to engage in the other tactics. Sometimes, the gift of presence comes with some rockiness, as commonly the parameters and boundaries for the giving and/or receiving of the gift of presence need to be established for it to be truly received and understood for what the gift of presence really is, and this act of contextualizing and clarity can sometimes activate our sense of fears and need to avoid shame, but God is gracious and patient and ideally so should we as the Body of Christ learn to exhibit that same grace and patience for those whom we wish to reconnect.

In other words, the dynamics of shame are not something that can be readily satisfied with most of our tactics that we try to employ. The best, most effective form of eradicating shame is seen in the work of Jesus Christ, who as the Son of God is both simultaneously the fullest demonstration of God’s holiness and righteousness and yet also the fullest demonstration of God’s grace and mercy. In other words, the gift of presence entails both grace to receive us and the truth that can convict us, but in the context of the grace we are confident we are receiving. And so, we too, as much as we fumble with doing it at times, can learn from the same example.