The virtues and vices of being in the “middle” and a way forward

0
September 15, 2018

Nearly two weeks ago, I expressed my observations about my own journey and struggles with being “moderate” and my ultimate realization that one can not even identify oneself as a “moderate” and faithfully follow Jesus Christ at the same time. There, the critique I offered was rooted in an analogy between Paul’s own struggle with the Roman world and its influence by the wisdom/philosophy, stating that being “moderate” wasn’t any more effective or honest than the “extremes” of progressive and conservatism.

But, I want to offer a praise of virtue that is specific to being in the middle, so that one does not simply treat being “moderate” as the same as being “progressive” and “conservative.” Rather, in identifying the virtue, it can also help us to identify the vice, so that we can identify the mistakes that we make when we try to go the middle route and how going the middle often times simply reinforces the extremes it seeks to avoid.

There are at least four, overlapping motivations behind being a moderate that I can think of. Firstly, it is to keep as wide array of people involved as possibly. Secondly, it is to avoid the damages that people who go off to the extremes can do when they obtain power. Thirdly, it is to recognize the insights and wisdom that various people can provide. Fourthly, it is generally the best route to keep everything together as it is, which is usually in the best, short-term interest of the most people.

Therefore, in order to operate in the middle, one must a) know what a wide range of people are saying and b) trying to combine what everyone is saying in one’s decisions and behaviors so as to find the best-fit for all involved. At the core of being in the middle is a virtue: listening and understanding. One must listen and value the perspectives of various people, even recognizing the value that diversity can have in the process of adaptation and learning and the dignity given to all people. This is a virtue that finds resonances with Biblical notions of love, although we should not reduce the Biblical vision of love to simply attention and dignity or treat those specific features as always essential themselves in order to be operating out of love.

What is the result of listening to diverse sources: ideally, a source of creativity that searches for deeper, transformative principles that can hit at the various concerns from a diverse set of people. When the virtue of concerned listening is performing this function, it is a virtue that may potentially provide exponential benefits to the widest array of people possible.

However, there are many conditions in listening to a wide array of voices does not lead to creative, transformative learning. Let me suggest at least two conditions where this is the case.

Firstly, under conditions of extreme diversity, effective listening becomes nearly impossible. Human resources are limited as there is only so much listening and learning a person can do at a time before their mental resources of exhausted. As a consequence, there becomes a point where ‘listeners’ become more prone to use rigid labels and stereotype due to the lack of motivation and resources to continue in this direction. The result of this is that the ideas that moderates hold in their heads become more a fixed sense of “knowing” what other people think and feel rather than a more fluid, hermeneutical awareness. Moderates express the sides in terms of ideas, but these ideas are not used as much as aids in listening, understanding, and thinking, but as set positions and frameworks. As a consequence, being in the middle can lead people to try to find the middle ground between what ultimately amounts to straw men, stereotypes that bear little resemblance to the reality on the ground. It is here that being in the middle can lead to falsehoods.

One solution to this is to attempt to try to include more and more people into leadership to try to obtain more human resources to listen to a wider array of people. And indeed, this can in certain conditions be a big help when there is a number of voices that are simply becoming noisome. But there are two principles that prevent make this option succumb to the law of diminishing returns. The more people you include in your learning and decision making process, the more time is necessary to spend in order to align the thinking of the various decision makers. Therefore, the more people you include in leading from the middle, the more and more time and resources it can take to make sure the appropriate listening and understanding from within the leadership to come to sufficient decision making capacities. While this cost is relatively minimal the fewer people are in the leadership, just as with larger populations, the more people that are in leadership, the more and more resources it takes to make sure everyone is on the same page. In other words, the very principle of growing populations that can mitigate effective listening and learning is also working against the effectiveness of a growing leadership.

Eventually, the time and resources necessary for keeping the leadership together itself become exhausted, meaning there becomes increasing division within the leadership. At this point, there is very little time, if any, to effectively listen to the rest of the people, but rather more time is spent maintain the interests that have formed within the leadership. Burgeoning hierarchies and leadership almost inevitably devolve into staking out particular interests that make them inflexible to the interests of another. Therefore, the division within the wider population one serves becomes characteristic of the leadership. It is through this process that the leadership increasingly becomes a mirror image of the society the leadership serves: look no further than the 2016 U.S. Presidential race where the two most popular candidates among specific sectors of the population, Bernie Sanders (who was railroaded by the Democratic National Convention) and Donald Trump, were people with rather extreme views. This principle I would suggest reveals the seeds of destruction from the success of the middle when operating in a democratic mode of valuing all people; the more one has succeeded in the past, the harder it is to maintain the necessary institutional cohesiveness that provided the basis for its earlier successes.

Instead, the leadership begins to devolve from this principle, and insofar as the leadership has the respect of portions of the population, it only further stokes the division among the people they served. Therefore, the people become more extreme in their views and expectations.

This leads me to the second principle that is both a condition for failure of the middle and a condition that works against effectiveness of growing leadership: the rise of “tribalization,” where portions of the population grows more insular from outsider perspectives leader to extremization. When parties within the leadership no longer effectively influences their preferred constituencies in a direction that effectively keeps the cohesion together, whether this happens consciously or without awareness, the people begin to cluster together into smaller, sub-groups that begin to take on an increasingly greater significance. These various groups begin to demand more and more, as the degree of their satisfaction with and allegiance to the institution is becoming increasingly diminished by the correspondingly increasing value of the specific sub-group one operates within. AT this point, the sub-groups do not identify themselves within the larger organization or nation, but rather with their subgroup, and instead they begin to see the institution and their processes as mechanisms to manipulate to accomplish their own goals. What ceases here is the spirit of the original agreements and processes and an appreciation of the processes as they stand, but increasing demands to get things to operate according to the interests of the subgroup.

In other words, as people begin to connect more to various smaller tribal, group identities, they demand more from the institution. As the institution can not provide the increasing demands, they become increasingly disaffected by the institutions. Rather than feeling connected to the institutional itself as an expression of something greater, they instrumentalize the institution for their purposes. As they become more extreme, they become more fixed in their views and values, as nothing is more effective to radicalization than repeatedly telling narratives that express grievances. Meanwhile, as the various smaller tribes with more stridently fixed values and expectations clash with each other and as they instrumentalize the institution for their own purposes, they begin to increasingly stereotype the opposing tribes rather than flexibly adjusting to them, force fitting them into their narratives of grievances. Consequently, amidst all of this, the various sub-groups continue to impress higher and higher demands upon the institution, making more radical expectations with lesser willingness to comrpomise.

At this point, those who remain in the middle and have avoided moving towards extremes via the processes of radicalization and tribalization are put under increasing pressure in the way they listen to the various sides. What they hear about in their listening is less and less the actual experience of a wide-array of people, but rather discourse that is increasingly forms to the habitualized narratives of grievances and stereotypes of the oppositions conjoined with increasing demands. At this point, the middle is operating with more of a fixed “knowing” about others rather than a more fluid “understanding.” Listening diminishes in this instance. Secondly, the various tribal narratives and stereotypes will affect the various people in the leadership differently; each individual in leadership will be more emotionally affected by one tribe’s expression than the other. Thus, despite their attempts to be joined to the middle, the emotional impacts of listening pushes them more and more towards one side or the other. This then diverts even more resources necessary for retaining a united front and common mind to make decisions, which only accelerates the process of devolution of the institution.

AT the end of the day of a formerly successful institution, you are left with a middle that is itself being torn to the extremes and is hearing more fixed ideas. At this point, mental and personal resources are cut thin to the point that in order to maintain things as they are, the only options the leadership can think of and prefer is to split the difference down the middle in some manner. Rather than providing transformative leadership that takes the various principles and come up creative solutions, the leadership from the middle is actively hindered from such.

In this case, the future of the institution is spiraling towards its eventually full decay and death. But, this is neither an inevitable future for the institution, or even if the institution fails, the people are not inevitably left with no hope for anything to replace what has failed. There are people who seek to learn and listen from the “middle”, but somehow, whether it be the grace of God, the convergence of circumstances, or both, manage to insulate themselves and/or overcome from the worst of the effects of being in the middle. Those people, and I emphasize people and not necessarily an individual person, may potentially provide a source of renewal for the central mission of the institution. But for those people to be properly identified by the institituonal and successful let them have the work they need to do will entail a few things.

Firstly, a willingness to recognize the failure of the present leadership. This isn’t necessarily a hit to the leadership as people or as individuals, but it is simply a recognition that for whatever reason, whether it be personal capacities or life circumstances, one does not have the resources necessary to lead transformatively. Collectively, the leadership must say “we cannot!” Without this recognition, the next steps can not occur.

Secondly, they must have a trust and hope that there are people who can, even if one can not immediately identify them. Without this faith and hope, the recognition of inability will simply lead to a spiraling of despair.

Thirdly, they must seek to learn to identify and discern what these will people will look like. Now, this is going to be hard off hand because we will inclined to think effective leadership will somehow resemble the values we have had that have blinded us. Instead, people must learn to deattach themselves from all that they think they know, allowing the space in their hearts and minds to receive new insights, and resisting every attempt of their own value and knowledge to force itself upon the shape of their new learning.

Fourthly, in seeking to find leadership, one must avoid the anointing of any one figure as the solution as looming crises tempt us to think. Transformational leadership is rarely perfect; in fact I would suggest there is has been and will only be one person in all of human history, Jesus Christ, who has ever been perfectly suited for the circumstances of entire transformation. Everyone else will have their flaws and their blind spots, so avoid anointing them. Even these leaders will need the help of others along the way to avoid the flaws they have from being a problem.

Fifthly, don’t overly fix on one person as is commonly the cases in periods of looming crises. In cases of overwhelming diversity, you will need a diverse array of leaders, but much, much, much less numerous than those who have lead (otherwise, you simply recapitulate the problems that created the institutional decay in the first place). If these people share a common heart and mind, they can work together.

Sixth, as those who can help are identified, the present leadership will have to let go of the short-term stability. Almost inevitably, this new, transformative form of learning will be deeply unfamiliar and in many ways evoke the rejection of the various tribes and their values and interests, along with the values and interests of the leadership. Moving with these insights will cause a period of destabilization, leaving the institution going through a process of vacillating periods of emerging, yet hopefully temporary, chaos and rigidification.

Seventh, amidst the vacillation of chaos and rigidification, one can still listen and hear in the midst of that, allowing the expression of concerns and thoughts that were either previously muted or were not considered important early on. In other words, you may find important insights in midst of the period of destabilizaiton that the stresses of a specific direction bring to the surface.

Finally, the leadership must accept the risk that what is being done may fail, that the institution is just going to decay and die. Sometimes, this happens. Apart from God’s unilateral Word and powerful Spirit to make it so, there are no real guarantees in life. But without accepting this possibility may come to pass, the leadership will circumvent the struggles that are experienced, thereby hindering transformation in the name of protection from risk.

Of course, institutions may find the resistance to such a pattern too much to overcome, that the vested interests are too strong to allow the necessary humility, repentance, faith, and steadfastness. There is a reason that institutions, more often that not, are replaced rather than renewed from within when the decay has gotten deep: the hearts and minds have been too influenced by the fears to trek towards the new direction they need. But, that doesn’t mean the people who have resisted the worst effects of being in the middle can not help. More often than not, new movements arise that compensate for the failures of what is present, and experience a marked advantage in terms of directing their time, resources, and knowledge that allow it to address the people and bring them together in a way that the older institution can not. These people, if the combination of personal drive and opportunities converge, may find a way to make things come to fruition.

So I will leave this with one comment that is more specific to my present circumstances in the United States and the United Methodist Church. Many are looking towards us Millenials as the future, as we have been told time and time again growing up that we were the future and have been given dreams to change the world. Let me state something really hard to say: most of us are not primed to take on that role. We have been formed with increasingly greater and greater expectations for our future that has made us more extreme in our thinking as the gap between expectations and reality is markedly high: mots of us have not adjusted our actual dreams, but have rather vacillated between narcissism and despair, between outright dread and excessive optimism. Many millenials are really more in need of formative leadership because we have been simultaneosuly protected from smaller, more formative challenges while left to ourselves when left to deal with the great divergences between dreams and reality. Nevertheless, don’t discount all of us millennials. There are some who may have resisted or overcome these effects, but that is not descriptive of my whole generation. Secondly, recognize that if we as millennials are given something we truly believe in and support, we can be a powerful force in change; however, the true goodness of the direction of that change is not determined, because not all change is truly good change even if it feels like it in the moment, but those who lead will determine the true value of the change we seek to create.

The epistemology and hermeneutics of affect

0
September 15, 2018

About a week ago, I posted on some speculations I made on the relationship epistemology and hermeneutics, and the subsequent divide between Analytic and Continental philosophy. One premise was that while epistemology and hermeneutics as specific fields of philosophical inquiry are not the same thing, their actual objects of focus in human experience are actually complementary. Put more concretely, analyzing how we derive knowledge and analyzing how we interpret will get you different processes and methods, but knowing and interpreting are happening at the same time and making the other possible in actual human experience.

With this premise in mind, it has lead me to ask the question: what in the human person is responsible for the processing of knowing and interpreting? What determines the direction our knowing and interpretation will take?

Obviously, there are many factors involved in the process as our brains is a complex system/organ that simultaneously bears both specialization of different functions and yet each function impacts every other function. So, it is impossible to reductively localize knowing, interpreting, or any other mental function, to any singular phenomenon within either our analysis of the phenomenons of human experience or our analysis of the brain itself and get a reliable answer. But what in the human person is perhaps the most significant ‘center’ of human experience to explain what happens in knowing and interpreting?

One answer is to try to find it in the processes of the thinking itself. We can seek to derive some basic principles of thinking that we can label some of these principles as rational and others as irrational. Then, it simply becomes a matter of conforming our minds to the rational or the irrational thoughts. This answer exhibits more the bias of epistemology, with its implicit norms of interpretation that determines what is rational and irrational and the expectations that there is some fixed point to work from. Meanwhile, actual life experience doesn’t so neatly fit into the nice, regimented patterns of reasons, but rather there seems to be the element of interpreting life to determine which inferential logics we will use

Another answer is to appeal to memory and experience. One can see the connections between what is focusing on and in past. Emerging from both the continuities and discontinuities of present experience with past memories is a creative expression of understanding that seeks to make sense of what is in common, while the understanding adjusts to the differences. However, this exhibits more the bias of hermeneutics, with its focuses on the processes that form the products of understanding. Meanwhile, it doesn’t necessarily address the question of what among the various memories that relate to experience are deemed best frame of reference to understanding what is in front of us; it is this frames of reference that get repeatedly unconsiously activate and consciously appealed to that can provide us a sense of general fixity in life.

So what is the candidate then? My title has given it away, so there was never any real suspense, but the affective life. More particuarly, I would suggest that there are two abstractions we make about our affective life, which are integral related to each other, which provide good correspondance between the epistemic and hermeneutical focuses.

Firstly, is desire, which is our affect in relationship to a specific object that is needed, wanted, and/or sought after which forms the way we pay attention to experience. I would propose that the relationship of affect to the objects of pursuit relates more to the field of epistemology, where there is a firstly a focus on the right, sought after sources of knowledge and secondly a manner of directing our attention, and thus our patterns of thinking, in relationship to the sources of knowledge. Desire directs us (primarily) to the outer world, just as epistemology has been predisposed to an outward direction, as in Locke’s empiricism and early analytic philosophy’s positivism.

Secondly, is emotion, which is our affect in relationship to our own self. The emotions we experience relate to how we ourselves are related to our experience; what is happening to us in relationship to our experience. Corresponding to this is the activation of certain neural networks of memory systems that are the best fit and correspondence between a) the present experience and b) past memory, which then itself impacts present experience, which then recursively leads to the activation of more neural networks. Emotion directs us to the ever constant, never finishing process of interpretation that takes who we ourselves as a necessary starting point to make sense of anything, as in Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

However, if my understanding of psychology and experience is correct, desire and emotion are not truly separable phenomenon’s in the physiological and neural roots of human experience, but rather they operate together. Rather, the concepts of desire and emotion is the result of how we direct our attention to our own inner affective life. So, even as I initially proposed a more fixed direction to relate our knowing about knowing and interpretation, the way attention as been directed towards affective experience has influenced the nature of this direction. If I were to direct attention differently, I would interpret knowledge and interpretation differently. Nevertheless, despite this continuing fluidity of understanding, I would propose there is something reliable and deeply useful for finding the relationship of epistemology and hermeneutics to our affective life as we understand them through the relationships of our objects of desire and the activation of the person’s own self.

Sanctification as identity conflict

0
September 14, 2018

When we think of ourselves as people, there is a predilection to think ourselves as having an identity. Because we typically experience our own life as a flow of experiences, with their being continuity from one moment to the next, we abstract from our experiences a sense of one identity. Furthermore, since I experience my body as unique from all other bodies and that there is not another body that I experience as I experience my body, I am inclined to think myself as a singular self. These experiences of continuity of identity and singular uniqueness of my own self/body blend together to lead us to the conception of “myself” as one. This is not the only way we may construe ourselves, as we conceive of myself as bearing different identities, such as a child, spouse, parent, minister to a congregation, a congregant in a church, friend, worker, citizen of a political entity, etc. So, we can also construe ourselves as multiple identities. Both singular and plural conceptions of ourselves are very possible.

However, in Western society that has placed emphasis on the individual, the one-ness conception of selfhood making this one-ness not just a possible construal of ourselves, but as the default mode of thinking about who “I” am. This is more than simply a statement of how we exist in the social world, as many critiques of individualism are focused upon, but my concerned is more on the numerical nature of how we conceive ourselves.

When it comes to talking about identity, we exhibit a predilection to think ourselves as a singular, coherent person. While we may recognize those plural aspects of ourselves, we tend to construe these all as fitting together into a singular, coherent sense of who we are. Consequently, we are predisposed to construct narratives about who we are as a person that attempts to neatly and tidily integrates into one narrative so as to adequately and reliably expresse everything that is significant about “me” as one person. Here, the singular identity the default mode of self-perception and then we integrate our plural aspects into coherent account of who we are.

But this is not universal pattern; the polarity between integration and the plurality of relationships and experiences can be reversed in cultures, such that we construe ourselves as multiple, typically in terms of our multiple relationships. But this multiplicity isn’t chaotic, but rather there are still attempts to integrate the various identities but they are not integrated as the “one” self/identity. Instead, given that our sense of our selves/identities that treat our social relations as more salient for our attention rather than inner experience, our various senses of who we are tend to be integrated around significant (social) powers that undergird these socially construed identities. Various identities are brought into different centers of coherence, such that identity here may consider one’s political citizenship as primary, such as “I am a Roman citizen” during ancient Rome or “Jesus is Lord” for the early Christians. These identities are not construed as inherently antagonistic, where either one or the other are the only true representation of who we are, but rather as being in sometimes in tension and sometimes being in union with each other.

Because this manner integrates selves/identities around prominent powers in the our realm of existence rather than around personal experience and determination, self-definition of the person is not singular but multi-polar. It is this that defines Paul’s view of the Christian life as a conflict between flesh and Spirit. Far from identifying the “flesh” and “spirit” as singular substances that are joined together in a dualistic composite, flesh and Spirit are expressions of the primary powers that determine who the person is.

Pertaining to the flesh, Stoicism, which Paul is aware of, had developed their own universal account of human life, construing persons as bodies and construing all persons as being citizens, human embodiment was not simply an existential concept but an intrinsically relational and political concept. This is why, for instance, Paul talks about the flesh principally negative relational terms, as in 1 Corinthians and Galatians 5:19-21. The flesh is not merely our body in isolation of the world, but the flesh is the present relation of our body to the present social world where God’s presence had yet to transform. Paul’s conception of the flesh as the present state of our embodied life includes internal emotions and desires, so it does have an experiential-phenomenological component to it, but it has implicit social understandings. Hence, Paul talks about the body as a metaphorical, militaristic stronghold of the power of sin in Romans 7. Thus, the flesh serves as one way of construing the individual person, with its own tendencies and its own narrative that leads to death.

By contrast, the Spirit functions to offer another center of integration of various plural identities. The Spirit is the power of God that relates the believer to Christ, that joins them to a new relational status with God and with others. The Spirit is the other power that influence and impacts the person’s life, creating a different narrative where the person’s life becomes formed to the pattern of Christ.

Therefore, for Paul, there are two centers of human identity for believers, one centered around the flesh as a center of engagement with the social powers and others who share flesh, whereas there is another identity centered around the Spirit as a center of engagement with Jesus Christ and fellow believers that also have the Spirit. There exist two conflicting narratives, one with impulses that lead to death and another with leadings that bring about life. So, for Paul, the struggle is that the Christian ceases to be like the people of the world, whose lives are united around a singular power as influencing them through the flesh, but for them to move to another power, the power of God.1 One proceeds to participate in the narrative of life that the Spirit brings as one puts to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:12), which itself conveys a metaphor of violent warfare. One actively move towards one’s new collection of identities defined around God when one fights against the powers that have colonized the flesh.

I bring all this together to make a point about sanctification within the modern world. Because we are deeply biased construe ourselves as individual person with a singular, central identity and narrative around which everything fits, almost to a point that it is an implicit ideology that can resist any alternative, it serves as a hindrance to the journey of sanctificaton that Paul mentions and Wesleyan theology highlights.

Because we construe ourselves around one identity, we feel the need to integrate everything about who we are into a singular narrative this identity expresses. If it does not all fit, then rather than trying to fit it into another coherent narrative, we are prone to deny its existence. Recognition of aspects of who we are as persons becoming an either-or sort of process, where we entirely accept something as true about ourselves or entirely reject it. Consequently, we find people who have deep struggles with having complex views of who they are and their self-esteem, either vacillating between the extremes of all-good or all-bad as in splitting or having deep identity crises because the truth of who they are cannot be integrated around any coherent account of the self. This is the more extreme forms of dissociation of the person, as can be witnessed in people with certain personality disorders like borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, etc., but this tendency exists within all of us. Rather than a recognition that we contain multiple, interconnected identities that are struggling within the one person, which is to say that we have different centers of coherence about ourselves that are then coherently, but unconsciously integrated into our self-perception as a singular entity, we reject anything that may suggest we are not what this identity and narrative we hold to be true about ourselves. We are prone to see ourselves as either sinner or saint, as a devil or deified, as repelling or compelling, etc. and struggle to see how there are aspects of who we are that do not neatly fit into the primary identity and narrative we wish to hold about ourselves.

But for Paul, sanctification entails the recognition of the flesh so that one can fight the deeds of the flesh, so that one participates in the narrative of life of the Spirit. There is an identification and acceptance of existence of certain powers within ourselves and that there is a spiritual war to fight with it to move towards the other power within our self that is calling us in a different direction. In this war, obedience is construed as the power of the Spirit, disobedience is construed to the power of the flesh. We can recognize the multiple realities of who we are, instead of feeling the need to deny and rationalize away anything that suggests the prevailing self-narrative and identity isn’t entirely true.

Furthermore, the ideological-like stranglehold of ourselves in terms of a singular, coherent identity and narrative makes obedience and disobedience about defining that whole person rather than defining  different aspects of who we are. As such, either successes or failures, either righteousness or sin are prone to be taken as reflective of the whole of the person, with the other valence being rejected, particular the more emotionally intense the judgment about one’s actions is. We obey not in order to live according to and relate with a power that influences us, but in order to maintain our inflexible identity.

So, the end result is that we in the West are prone to obey to maintain self-perception and our identity rather than to be formed by and in relation to the significant powers in our life. We are prone to deny any aspect of ourselves that doesn’t fit within our prevailing narratives. This isn’t destiny being in the West, as it is possible for our sense of identity to be more complex, but it does present two barriers to the nature of sanctification: recognition of sin as contained in repentance and obedience as part of a loving relationship in response to God and His power. Religion becomes more about identity maintenance rather than personal transformation where one power is lessened whereas we experience a great impact from the other power. But it is this movement from flesh to Spirit, from the power of sin to the enslavement to righteousness, that defines the Christian journey of sanctification. This means, therefore, that to help people along the journey of sanctification, it will entail identifying and recognizing the different powers that pervade us as persons, that influence us in different directions to make us live differently in different circumstances.

Is Genesis 2 history?

0
September 14, 2018

If you are even remotely familiar with the debate over Genesis, creation, evolution, and history, you are probably familiar with the various ways and people interpret Genesis as to how it does or does not fit within the prevailing Neo-Darwinism’s theory of evolution. While I hope to give more food for thought on the topic as it pertains the purpose of Genesis 2,1 my hope here is not the recapitulate all the different interpretive theories and options from the past. Firstly, it would make this blog post too long. Secondly, it has been a while since I have read on the topic, so it would take too long to research this for what is simply a blog post. But, my hope instead is to shed light on a specific exploration I have regarding the intersection of hermeneutics, literature, theology, epistemology, and Biblical studies. For those who are strongly committed to certain interpretations, especially Genesis is literal history, or Genesis is a spiritual allegory, or Genesis is myth with no truth-value, you will probably find such explorations wrong, absurd, irrational, unfaithful, etc. For the rest, however, who explore the question without fear of it entirely disturbing your view of the Bible, whether you share with me deep respect for the inspiration of the Scripture, or you simply value the Bible at literature, or you see the Bible as an ancient rhetoric of lies, my hope is the following observations are to help you to listen anew and afresh, to see what has perhaps been missed for a while. Hence, aside from one place, I don’t intend to reference scholars on the topic, but simply get you to focus on thinking through possibilities to consider it afresh, to perhaps challenge certain hermeneutical assumptions we assumingly make.

So, should we understand Genesis 2 as historical?

In exploring the question, I would like to point out to a very common observation and explore its signifiance: that there are two creation narratives in Genesis, and they do not nicely and neatly fit into each other. Some attempt to harmonize the two texts to make them fit some coherent history, whereas others call them contradictory. But the question of whether they are cosistent or contradictory is, I believe, a fundamentally mistaken question from the start. It assumes the point of narratives are to give a linear, consistent account of the events, by which we can then judge their reliability by whether they successfully accomplish that goal or not.

While certainly, narratives need to have some degree of consistency to even be coherent to others, there is difference between using consistency as a rule for all narratives versus allowing there may be points of surface level inconsistency in order to foster deeper thinking on a topic. In other words, it is permissible that narratives may employ both consistency and inconsistency to accomplish its communicative purposes. Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative recognizes this function of inconsistency in the narrative:

[A]n essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology… Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision—both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again—continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.2

While I would not draw all the conclusions that Alter may about Biblical narratives, I do think it is important to recognize that whereas we as modern thinkers who value clarity and consistency, to make the process of transmitting knowledge easier, quicker, and more reliable, inconsistency in a narrative is a permissible discursive technique in many other cultures. Inconsistency can transmit meaning by challenging people to read closer and deeper, to pay more attention, and to be engaging in thoughtful reflection on what is being said.

Consider, for instance, the story of the Golden Calf: God’s first response to the idolatry is to destroy Israel, but through the intercession of Moses, God’s anger relents, eventually culminating in a confession about God’s nature that includes God being slow to anger. This seems to be the opposite of the case if you were paying attention to the narrative, but the dissonance at the surface level of reading can encourage people to pay closer attention. I think it encourages people to recognize that what Israel did was somehow a very, deep, deep blow to the relationship with God and His purposes for them. Or, consider Proverbs 26:4-5, giving a surface level dissonance between answering a fool and not answering a fool. Their immediate placement together is no doubt a purposeful technique to encourage a deeper engagement and consideration that will enlighten person to complexities with dealing with people who are obviously off their rocket, which I suggest teaches that you have to consider in the circumstantial appropriateness of action depending on whether you should remain silent and accept the fool make you look foolish to others or to respond to them and accept that their arrogance will grow. I would suggest the possibility for the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: they are intended to create some dissonance in the initial reading.

But if this is the case then it means that the Genesis 2 can not be considered historical in the same way that Genesis 1 is considered historical. When there are intentional inconsistencies, whether it be through paradoxes, narrative dissonance, etc., the resolution of the inconsistencies is to assign different forms of meaning to the two contradictory parts. For instance, the tension that Christians experience when we talk about God being one yet also three amounts to the recognition that the one-ness of God and the three-ness of God are referring to different meanings about God’s nature: God is not one and three in the same way. Similarly for Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Another consideration to make when we are engaging in interpretation over the course of time. What we read first impacts how we interpret what occurs later. In other words, if I am interpreting a passage of text, I will naturally assign meaning to what I first read in sequential order and then the meaning I assign to that will impact what meaning I assign to what follows. Therefore, if there is a conflict between what we first read and what follows that necessitates a changing of our interpretation there is an unconscious bias to treat our interpretations of what we read at the beginning to be right and to instead change our interpretation of what follows, all other things being equal.3 If that is the case, then we should consider how Genesis 1 is intended to mean and then recognize that Genesis does NOT convey meaning the same way Genesis 1 does.

So let’s take a step back and consider what attitude the original compilers who brought Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 together and the audience would have had.4 While we can not be sure when that happened, as we simply do not have the historical data to draw confident conclusions, there is one probable data point that is significant. Genesis 1 is such a dramatically different creation narrative from many of the other creation narratives during the time period it would have been written and/or appropriated; rather than musing on the conflicts within the realm of God/the gods, the center of action takes place on the earth and only with the creation of humanity is there any real discussion of what is happening in the heavenly realms in the 1st person plural speech in “Let us make…”

So, if we can understanding Genesis 1 in light, it is an intentional attempt to relate how God and His power relates to the work that we as humans works and operate within: God made things with a specific order, with certain functions that relate to God’s purposes as being God’s image bearers. By contrast, Genesis 2 focuses the center of action on what God is doing with Adam.

Allow me to suggest from these data point what the inconsistency is trying to do: it invites people to consider the nature5 of humanity as it relates to the created order, but it is not suggesting that the story of creating Adam is simply continuing the same story of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 looks as the functions God assigns to creation as a whole, whereas Genesis 2 looks more at humanity’s relationship within the created order as God initially assigned them.

It is more like the relationship between chemistry and the inner physics of the atom: the two ways of understanding the physical world are obviously related in our minds, but they can only be expressed with different logics as the relationship between specific atoms does not exhibit the same patterns as what happens between protons, electronics, neutrons, and the four fundamental forces that keep the atom together. Now, while science attempts to create abstracted narratives (AKA paradigms) we call theories that can further unify these more basic level theories, we have no such attempt in Genesis 1-2. We who are attuned to obvious dissonance at the surface level as a marker for deeper thinking are encouraged to read the two together, but we can’t simply jump to creating some narrative behind the narratives, that is a meta-narrative, that aligns the together. This is the prevailing mistake of premature harmonization. We should instead consider how the inconsistency encourages us to read the narratives of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 to then make the connections between the narratives.

 Now, allow me to make a point that I think can be inferred from the creation focus of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is intended to relate to our sense of how the world operates as we as humans experience its order, connecting it to God’s own action and intentions: therefore, it is intended to address at some level what we consider history, although it isn’t intended to be historical in the way we want history to be told. If that is the case, then Genesis 2 can be argued to relate to what we call history also because it is in relationship to Genesis 1, but it doesn’t address history in the same way that Genesis 1 addresses history.

So allow me to draw this conclusion: Genesis 2 relates to history, but how it speaks to what we call history is not as readily clear. But allow me to make a suggestion that I will not try to prove here beyond brief considerations: Genesis 2 is a narrative that expresses God’s purposes for humanity. As such, it is more typological in expressing God’s ideal purposes for humanity; this then contrasts with Genesis 2, which is a compression of human activity, encoding in the story of Adam and Eve the all-too-repetitive human cycles that alienate us from God and each other. Genesis 2, along with Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 do relate to history in such a way that it bears truth value. But it is a history of the otherwise hidden and veiled: Genesis 2 relates to God’s purposes as it impacted/impacts human life, whereas Genesis 3 then relates to the otherwise hidden impacts of repetition of human action towards the “knowledge of good and evil” over and against God’s provision in the “tree of life.” The repeated cycle of human action consistently works against God’s purposes set out in Genesis 2.

This is to be contrasted with an allegorical reading, which has a tendency to try to find some hidden, symbolic significance in some other domain of knowledge (such as spirituality, psychology, etc.) than what is expressed in the surface level of the narrative. I am not proposing allegory, but explicitly rejecting it. Rather, I am saying the narrative speaks to the concrete realities of human life at a specific period of time in the world that God has created.

But allow me to clarify the nature of this: in saying that Genesis 2 is typological history, and then Genesis 3 as compressed history, it is not intended to be a universal statement about ALL humanity through all periods of time in history. It is intended to be chronological, suggesting there was some point in the past where God’s purposes were being realizing amongst the first humans and then in Genesis 3, these humans began to repeatedly work against the purposes God has against them. Adam (and Eve) are an expression God’s work and relationship among the first humans, and thus human actions acted in such a way to erode this initial arrangement but eventually lead to a world filled with violence and sexual disorder. Genesis 2, in this light, then expresses the original purposes and intentions of humanity as a whole, and not just with a specific individual person Adam, that relates to God’s original creation intentions in Genesis 1, but Genesis 3 shows how human action (with the help of another agent within creation, the serpent) worked against these intentions. That this is the purpose is revealed by how the ending of the overarching pre-patriarchal narrative concludes with the Tower of Babel, where people were huddling together to build a tower to reach the heavens rather than filling and subduing the earth and God once again speaks in the first person plural speech, revealing a glimpse into the heavenly plans, to frustrate these plans by confusing language. The intention of the narrative is primarily to speak about God’s action in relationship to human action; it is not primarily intended (or intended at all) as a history of singular, momentous events that we normally are accustomed to.

So, my conclusion is this: if we are careful to be attuned to the surface-level dissonances between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, we don’t try to create a flat narrative that treat Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 the same, while also recognizing the narratives are to be related together in their discussion of the world in which we live and operate as God formed it to be. So, Genesis 2 is intended to address what we consider to be history. But we need not think this as of the history of the momentous, singular events that change the course of history all by themselves, but rather a history of God’s purposeful action that sets up the succeeding narrative that outlines human resistance to this purpose.

To give a modern analogy, it could be closer to sociological history, where we recover the history of specific people’s and the way their life operated, but with three distinctions: 1) Whereas sociolological history relies upon science and other disciples of knowledge that have rigorous methods (such as archaeology and anthropology) that rely upon verification of visible, empirical data, Genesis recognizes the invisible God (at least from the perspective of the compilers of the Pentateuch) plays a role in human history. 2) Whereas sociological history would tend to expressive the values of the cultures they seek to represent, Genesis speaks more so about actions, only occasionally describing internal dialogue (such as Eve before eating the tree). 3) Whereas sociological history tends towards a more literal, technical discourse about life/history, Genesis engages in more symbolic discourse where a single couple represents a whole host of people to convey information about life/history.

Genesis 2 is history, but I would contend we need to readjust our expectations of what type of history it is talking about and how it conveys meaning about that history.

Christian. Why are you motivated to learn?

0
September 13, 2018

Learning is the lifeblood of human networks. Because we live in a world that is constantly changing, even if these changes sometimes occur in repetitive patterns, in order for any group of people, whether it be a single person relating to themselves, a married couple, a church, a business, a seminary, or a nation, if you aren’t learning, then your adaptability to your circumstances is being hindered.

Sometimes what we learn is something as concrete as figuring out how much money is in your bank account before you make a big purchase (I just purchased a new Amazon Kindle before writing this); it can be as abstract maybe it is learning some previously undiscovered principle of economics; it can be as personal as learning what one spouse feels after a hard day at work; it can be as objective as discovering why the lawnmower isn’t working. Each of these forms of learning have different scopes of impacts, as the specific number in my bank account is not relevant to my life this moment as it is 10 years, whereas the economic theory may have an insightful impact centuries later. But don’t let the different scopes of learning fool you, even though learning that has big, large scopes will be more likely to garner you praise, learning about the little things, and doing that day-in day-out, may not get the level of praise, but it is how you move towards effectiveness. In fact, learning of wider scope ideas can only really be effective in life when it is joined to learning about the smaller things, so you can figure out how to use the big ideas in situations that are perceived to be small. Knowing a theory of counseling won’t make me effective at pastoral counseling if I am not also learning to hear what is specifically going on in the person sitting across from me.

I mention the scope of learning because one of the big motivations for learning is connected to the scope of impact. The more wide ranging the impact of certain ideas, the more these ideas will garner social praise and approval. Those who break new ground are provided awards of distinction. Students are graded on their ability to know and even master these big ideas. People are wowed at presenters who can present big ideas in clear, powerful ways.

But it isn’t just the scope of the ideas, but also the novelty of the ideas. There are ideas that are big and important for life, such as eating is important to survival, but I doubt you will be able to turn that into a captivating TED talk. It is the novel ideas that is not obvious to everyone and that not just anyone could have found that will get people social commendation.

Beyond that, there is the power that ideas have as representing who we are as people. When we evaluate people and their value and importance, we often times assess them based upon how they conform to certain big, important ideas, such as Supreme Court justices enduring scrutiny on their view on the big idea of abortion, ministerial candidates expressing their views on the Holy Trinity, or in political discussions where one expresses allegiance to captialist vs. socialist economic ideas. Expressing the big ideas that your audience supports will receive commendation, expressing what they reject will garner reprobation.

Our formal systems of learning are biased and predisposed to the big ideas, and one of the big ideas for discovering and accepting these ideas is the social motivation. And as effective as social praise can be in getting people to learn, there are a few significant dark side of this otherwise powerful motivation.

Firstly, as is commonly mentioned, it reduces learning to getting the right answer. It can restrict creativity and the ability to explore afresh with new eyes. While there are a few people who break through the criticism and do find big ideas than may then garner praise, this is more likely to stem from people who have a strength to resist and also a more innate love of learning. However, the solution here isn’t to stop the process of social approval, because free thinking without any anchoring point to start from does not itself beget creative learning that is useful for other people; it becomes expression of individuality that is less likely to be deeply meaningful for other individuals. The social motivation of learning being based upon getting the right answer is unavoidable, but the problem comes when this is the primary motivation.

Why is social approval so dangerous to learning? Because it circumvents the most essential part of learning. Learning occurs when we discover something new that we didn’t know. Sometimes we are ignorant and discover something new, and we see to discover what this new thing is. Sometimes we have wrong information, and we become surprised by this new thing. Sometimes, we have an otherwise good idea, but it didn’t really apply in a specific instance, so we explore why it is this good idea wasn’t so good this time around. All of this learning entails recognizing that one is not right, whether due to ignorance or error, and being will to spend the time to pay attention to figure out why one was in error.

By contrast, social approval praises getting it right; there is nothing immediately useful to a brokerage firm about a person who is ignorant of how corporate finance works; there is nothing immediately useful, and may even be dangerous, if a person believes some false myth about the connection between vaccinations and autism; there is nothing immediately useful about a doctor who wrongly diagnoses their patient, even if the diagnoses matches all the symptoms. Praise comes when you have the knowledge for the job, approval when you express what is (believe to be) right, and positive outcomes when you know which knowledge is appropriate for the circumstance.

In other words, whereas social approval is biased towards favoring getting it right, the cognitive ability to learn entails the ability and willingness to recognize when one does not have it right. If these are properly balancing, it can actually foster brilliance that is useful for other people, as the learner discovers not only for their own sake through the feedback from others they adapt what they learn and pay attention to things that benefit others.

However, the problem is the balance has become greatly out of whack. This dynamic would generally be manageable if learning was simply a matter of being able to be effective for whatever jobs or tasks you are to participate in. But, far beyond learning being valued for the specific outcomes, learning is valued as a matter of social status. We learn because our society values smart people because of the value smart people can have. Increasingly and increasingly, our Western society and economy that is built more and more upon the manipulation of cognitive information, rather than the manipulation of physical resources, has begin to bequeath status more and more to people who are the cognitive elite, whether we represent it by IQ, creativity, GPA, degrees, awards, or any other measures. Society is increasingly developing a status for being able to appear as one of the cognitive elite.

What is the net effect of this: people are more and more tempted to try to pursue the appearances of being smart. People feel more and more pressure when they don’t feel like they have the intellectual capacity to learn. It is why there is an epidemic of imposter syndrome among universities. It is why people can get so stressed in academic settings these days. It isn’t that centers of learning are perpetuating this: it is the societal pressure that being amongst the cognitive elite is one of the most important factors for your improvement of life status.

This is not to mention the pressure on learning the right things to belong. An ignorant person may not have high status, but if they at least provide the seminal understanding of the “right” ideas of the communities they are networked to, they can at least have a secure place to belong.  But learning is risky if you are a smart person, because it can have you to stumble upon something that not only are a lot of other people wrong about, but it challenges some ideas that have taken on fundamental value. But even less dramatic as learning leading to the development of opinions that are not shared by the majority of a community can threaten the status one has within that community.

AS a consequence, there is an intensification of pressure to get it right creates, beyond simply the emotional problems it can cause, also hinders the way we learn. If we think learning doesn’t occur unless we get it right and if we only feel a reward when we are praised, then we will experience pain when we get the feedback that we were wrong or unaware. It is this feedback that is necessary for learning to occur and it is this that our hearts are trained to resist as a bad outcome. 

Beyond the resistance to learning, because these process of social approval are so connected to the big ideas, there is a proportional underemphasis, if not devaluation, of learning that doesn’t have a big scope or an immediate impact. We value learning about ideas, and so we overlook the value of the practical aspects of life as it is actually lived, day to day, with people. Listening and learning about what is continuously changing so it’s impact is deeply limited, such as the feelings of another person; insofar as we can, we try to employ a combination of statisticians and technology to take care of this type of learning, giving an appearance of paying attention and learning but of de-contextualized learning, that doesn’t pay attention to significance of the fact at a specific point of time. Thus, our learning becomes more about knowing than interpreting, mastery rather than coming to comprehend, paying attention to what everyone thinks is important rather than paying attention to what is important for this moment.

In other words, in our Western society built around the manipulation of information, we have a predilection towards valuing the big and extraordinary at the cost of the small and ordinary, overvaluing the cognitive elite and undervaluing the cognitively normal, if not even below average. Western society and learning is influenced by a big cognitive bubble. The rising demand for college learning that has lead to increasing costs in the United States is one symptom of this. The use of increasingly abstract ideas and discourses from the intellectual elites that few can fully understand, but that they nevertheless use to persuade others of their views because of the near-mythical status and power ascribed to intellectual learning and appearance of expertise, is another symptom. Western society is living in a big bubble of learning; social bubbles happen when social systems artificially inflate the value of some action or status so that aggregate behaviors do not produce the necessary impacts to maintain the artificially inflated views; in other words, societies place more value on some behavior than it actually provides.

The source of the tension for the cognitive, social bubble is how people are motivated by the wrong things in learning combined with the greater and greater expectations for the future in what may happen due to our learning. Will the bubble burst or will it eventually just go down? It remains to be seen what the future for it will be.

But the solution rests in two concepts that we can find resonance within in the Christian tradition: repentance and love. Repentance entails recognizing the wrongness of what one has done, not by bathing oneself in a pool of shame for hours a day, but a recognition that one didn’t get it right so that there is another direction to orient oneself. Likewise with learning, being will to repent of one’s cognitive errors, not because this devalues you as a person but because it provides you the opportunity to do some real learning by redirecting your mind.

Secondly, love has us paying attention to God and to others. The actions of God and the life of people are not unchanging, inflexible realities. What God is doing isn’t always what everyone else thinks is important and wise. What is happening in people’s lives may not always seem significant in the context of the big, grand narratives that society tells us. But these are people God values and loves. Thus, true, a Biblically attuned type of love attunes us to the disclosures from focuses of our love, disregarding the forms of the positive recognition and status that are imposed on what the nature of this learning and attention should be from the outside, and can even call this type of recognition under the name of “love,” a word that is vague out of context, exploiting the ambiguity (much as experts exploit the ambiguity of their abstractions of learning) of the Bible when taken out of context of the rest of Scripture and out of context of God’s agents speaking by the Spirit, to justify the views.

And what joins repentance to love? Faith. Faith in the power of God that God is doing something even as we can not see it; trust that there is something radically new and novel in the future, whether it be in our lifetimes or not, that when joined to our recognition of error allows us to receive when it comes, however it comes, big or small, extraordinary or ordinary, powerful or weak. Likewise, learning operates similarily, that as our recognition of status of not knowing in joined to a trusting and hopeful expectation that something new will come that brings insight, we can move forward.

But so you know, I do not connect repentance, faith, and love as it pertains our life before God to our own effort to learn to justify me telling you the process of learning, so that I can appear to have some legitimation of my own apparent expertise in this stemming from using the Bible. God’s Word is not a manual on learning. Rather, I point to the analogies so that in learning how to learn, you can also come to see how the similarities between learning and being ambassadorial agents of God’s work of reconciliation by the Holy Spirit. And then, by becoming agents of God’s Spirit, we also become wrapped up afresh in the process of learning, but this learning becomes directed for the purposes and goals of God and His love.

Temporalizing Total Depravity – The flesh’s inability to reach God’s purposes

0
September 13, 2018

While the doctrine of predestination if often taken to be the central, most important doctrine of Calvinism, I would suggest the ultimate heart of Calvinism, which was transmitted to Wesleyan theology, is the doctrine of Total Depravity. Whether Wesleyan or Calvin, how one views human nature commonly is the intellectual starting point and ending point for how one’s theological views in between will be shaped and formed; that is, if your theological views a) value consistency and b) take a view on human nature to be foundational for deriving other views.

While I am not recommending that human nature should be treated as a foundational theological doctrine that determines the nature of other doctrines, nevertheless it is a reality as to how we as anthropocentric humans actually think, barring some dramatic, crisis event that forces us to radically break out of our egocentricity, even if it is just for a moment that can not be sustained. This reality shows itself in how much of the theological conflicts between evangelical and progressive theology unconsciously are conflicts around what it means to be human, both descriptively and prescriptively. Take the conflict over sexuality for instance; rarely do disagreements about people’s sexuality ever take the form of a sustained analysis and understanding about some other form of knowledge, either in the sciences such as neurology, the more basic components of biology, cognition, or from theology-proper in talking about God Himself. Certainly, we tend to find references made to God or to science to legitimate one’s views, but the debate over sexuality defaults to and eventually returns back to a view of what it means to be human.

Similarly but outside of a specifically religious debate, we saw this play out in the previous generations debate on race, thinking that different races, based upon what can be ultimately amounted to either a) superficial features, b) environmental adaptions and/or c) cultural differences, reflecting different stages of development in human evolution or progress that was encoded in their intrinsic nature through their genes. Black and white people were seen to more different genetically than the same, overvaluing the differences and diminishing the similarities. At the care was a question of what it was to be human, and in this world that had just discovered the power of the gene, they began to project their own understanding of what it meant to be human onto this “scientific” idea. But at the end of the day, the center of the debate was about people’s working definitions of being human that people appealed to science to either verify or reject.

Throughout human history, the definition and understanding of a human comes under stark challenges. At the core, there is a universal principle that groups of people develop categories for and understanding about organisms like themselves, which we have in words like human, person, individual1, etc. . While there is a general prototype that all cultures will share that our words will share in common, they are not all exact equivalents in the various nuances; even within our own language, the various synonyms to “human” are not exact equivalents. Therefore, as a consequence, how these nuances build from this basic prototype differs. A primary source comes with groups of people interact with other groups of people; as a consequence of many repeated encounters with other people, the alterations that make from the common prototype will be caused by there interactions with other people. Thus, when human networks change dramatically, as occurs in periods of intensifying regionalization and  globalization, the definitions of what it means to be human gets challenged and shifted.

One feature of being human, which is relevant for the rest of my argument, is the aspect of temporality. We can construe being human in terms of temporality, such as going from birth, maturing into adulthood, developing in knowledge and wisdom into older age, and then passing away. We can also construe being human in atemporal ways, such as defining being human based upon certain biological, physiological, and cognitive capacities such as thinking, feeling, desiring, loving, hating, etc. While we can usually be flexible in construing humanity in temporal or atemporal terms in different circumstances, all people have a predilection to favor one sort posture to another such that two people may in the exact same situation and context other employ the different construals of being human.

So, for instance, when talking about humanity and sin, one person may construe it atemporally, thinking that being human is to sin, and thus because of this atemporal construal, draw the conclusion that human nature is evil. However, I, on the other hand, may construe of human nature more temporally, recognizing that humans over the course of time commit sin, construing sin a temporal event. I don’t define human nature of evil, but recognizing that over the course of time, human nature will commit evil.

The nature of temporality and atemporality impacts the discussion of Original Sin and then the doctrine of Total Depravity. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin suggested that due to Adam’s sin, there was a hereditary transmission of sin to his descendants. This doctrine construes humanity in atemporal terms, not considering how Adam’s sin temporally lead to the consequences it did through the alteration of (theological) history of God’s relationship to creation, but rather that something within human nature itself was change. Temporality is only used to construe the event of sin, but not the definition of what it meant to be a human as a consequence of this event.

This pattern of construing the impact of original sin in its atemporal effects of humanity gets transmitted to Calvin, who suggests that Adam’s sin destroyed the whole order of nature and “deteriorated” humans.2 At stake is the reality of being human has been fundamentally altered permanently. As a consequence, built throughout the Reformed tradition and even the Wesleyan tradition is the notion of transformation of nature through some act of God that gives us a nature or capacity that we did not otherwise have, such as the capacity to have faith in God or the capacity of free will. God’s grace is a re-naturing action, changing the experience of being human by changing humanity in and of itself through a specific event that creates a stark discontinuity with the past. The nature of a human and the nature of a human who is a Christian are not just starkly different in terms of their own experiences, but that there is something fundamentally different in their nature and capacities as they are conceived of atemporally.

But within the wider Christian tradition, this view of original sin is not universal. Eastern Orthodoxy rejected this view of sin expressed in Augustine that influenced Calvin. Instead, they appeal to the Devil as the source of the problem as the one in the garden (which the Western Christianity can do also), which I would say is also closer to the apocalyptic worldview in appeal to powers outside of people themselves that influenced the New Testament although it doesn’t, in my opinion, precisely get to how the New Testament employs apocalyptic discourse and concepts. Then, they suggest an environmental change that lead to the problems of sin. I myself share some affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, but I have some reservations. In assigning the problem due to the environment, they are still suggesting there is some temporal event of change to nature, construed in an atemporal way.

However, what if the problem of Adam’s sin and what Paul refers to as the flesh isn’t a problem of human nature, per se, but rather Adam’s sin was an event that put in motion a series of historical events, most notably the separation of Adam and Eve from the presence of God and His provision of the tree of life, than they lead to conseqeuences down the road. What if being human entails sinning not because humans by nature sin, but humans separated from God’s presence and provision sin? What if sin is a product of the experience of being away from God’s presence and provision over the course of time rather than simply being something that is about human nature?

I think the problem stems from misunderstanding how Paul thinks about flesh/σαρξ. Augustine’s NeoPlatonism pedagogically taught him to look for fixed, atemporal ideas/natures and this became transmitted throughout Western Christianity. But I don’t think for Paul, the problem of flesh is that the flesh is sinful, but rather, throughout the course of the experience of the flesh, sin will emerge.

When you read his account of the Torah commandment and sin in Romans 7:7-13, Paul speaks temporally, see a an event of receiving knowledge from the Torah leading to the event of emergence of sin. Then, in 7:14-25, Paul construes the battle with sin as an ongoing war that is taking him captive; the present tense focuses not on an atemporal human nature but rather the struggle that exists within the person seeking to obey Torah while finding their body doesn’t do what their mind ultimately wishes. Paul’s ultimate explanation for this reality isn’t that the flesh is sinful by human nature, but rather that sin has taken residence in and colonized his flesh so that it obeys its dictates. Paul’s metaphor of war and power used to construe the struggle of human nature to obey God entails a temporal, not an atemporal, view of human experience to take the metaphor seriously as it is being used in describing the phenomenological experience. Paul is not construing the flesh in terms of a human nature that is just corrupt by nature, but rather it is experiencing the persistent, temporal control of other, external forces.

Furthermore, this metaphor of war is related to the imperial metaphors in Romans 5, where the effects of Adam’s sin and Christ’s faithfulness is construed of in terms of different political reign. Adam’s sin creates one political reign of sin and death and Christ’s faithfulness inaugurates another, competing reign of righteousness and life, of which both reigns influence all of humanity. Connecting the warfare metaphor of Romans 7 to the imperial metaphor of Romans 5, we can imagine that Paul’s sense of human experience is conceived of in a temporal manner that relates to history and the change that occurs through the course of history, rather than an atemporal manner that relates more to nature. Romans 7 describes the nature of this power as cemented prior to the rescue of Jesus Christ described in Romans 5, whereas Romans 8 describes the nature of the struggle between these two forces, but no longer using the warfare metaphor.

Simply put, the flow of Paul’s argument from Romans 5-8 entails a view of temporality, allowing for change and shift to occur through the course of time. As such, the problem isn’t some atemporal human nature, but the colonizing powers that bind human nature away from God. While there are aspects of the human person that can mentally dissent from these colonizing powers, their resistance is for naught, as because in Paul’s account, they find the body has a life of its own distinct from the thoughts of the mind, which most of us can find true from time to time. We could talk about this alternative today as the difference between heart and mind, because we have had a predilection in the West to conceptually decouple our own experience from the body rather than to see them connected, but the effect of it is essentially the same, one thinking powers experiences a dramatic challenge and defeat by other forces operating within ourselves as persons.

If all this is the case, then it offers a different explanation for what Paul ultimately says about the flesh in 8:7-8: “For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (NRSV) The thoughts of the flesh are different from the thoughts of the Spirit (vss. 5-6), thereby recognizing that human experience that is constrained to the realities of the flesh can not and will not be able to resist the thoughts, wishes, and intentions of the powers of sin that have colonized the flesh, but God Himself must draw near and come to dwell and seek to colonize the person to resist the colonizing dwelling of sin and death through the presence of His Spirit. The course of a person’s life in living by the flesh will only be in submission to the overwhelming dictates of human life that has been influenced and formed by the distance from God’s presence over the course of time, a distance which Adam’s action initiated allowing the powers of sin and death to enter in and colonize.

Put more simply, one is formed by one’s experience. To be formed by the control of the flesh makes us people who do not have a formative submission to God’s Instruction/Torah, even if we can have an intellectual assent and agreement to it. The course of human life directed by the powers of the flesh is not towards God, but towards some other, conflicting destination. Consequently, one’s life never reaches to a point where one actions are what pleases God’s.

The temporal nature of this experience of spiritual bondage provides the undergirding logic for Paul’s explanation in 8:5-6 and his instruction in 8:12-13. The warfare/ metaphor pops its head up through the metaphor of violence/killing in the charge to “put to death the deeds of the flesh,” connecting the Christian experience of flesh in the midst of the dwelling Spirit to the metaphorical warfare described in chapter 7. By achieving domination of the various instances of control by the colonial powers of sin and death, one will free oneself from the future destiny of the reign of sin, death, and experience the opposite, life.

Paul’s constural here entails no atemporal definition of humanity as sinners, or inherently unable to respond to God in any and all fashions, as is commonly detailed in classical doctrines of total depravity. Rather, the simply problem is that whatever capacities that exist in the person to move towards God’s will, they are always thwarted and cut off before they can amount to anything, as the colonial power of sin has control. In this schema, people can be said to have some, very, very, VERY minimal sense of freedom that can be directed towards the will of God as God’s makes known in the Torah, but it will not amount to anything. Temporalizing total depravity entails recognition that our future apart from God’s gracious presence and power will never amount to anything that God is seeking and wanting. While the truths we may derive about human life and our definition of being human derived from human experience may have some value, may have some truth, may have some importance, nothing in all these things are an empowered force for good to bring us to God’s desire for humanity; the mind can recognize the good but has not power to bring it to its ultimate fruition.

The implications of this is the potential, partial repairing of a fracture between evangelical and progressive Christian sensibilities. Taking sexuality as a concrete, prototype case, evangelicals at a more extreme level would view same-sex sexual desire as itself sinful and evil by nature, whereas progressive views tend to emphasize that this sexual desire is good and should be cherished, if not even celebrated. Consequently, progressive theology places its focus on trying to celebrate this goodness, fighting against shaming nature that comes when we define our basic human desires as sin, evil, etc. Temporalizing flesh, and through that temporalizing ttotal depravity, would be to say the problem of human sexuality isn’t a problem of wrong desires or wrong sexual behaviors, but rather the fundamental recognition that nothing in human sexuality provides the basis for redemption and in fact a focus on human sexuality can actually hinder us from the good that God wants; this is true for all forms of sexual desire. But the problem isn’t, like Augustine, that these things are naturally evil or dirty which can lead to a lot of shame, but simply the recognition that these desires do not present a power to rightly direct and form us for God’s purposes and thus should not be valorized and celebrated as necessary or fixed. The problem isn’t our orientations, our identities, or even behaviors in and of themselves, but rather the temporal effects these things have to control us to be formed for purposes other than God’s purposes. Furthermore, while God’s purposes for human sexuality as for male and female, this ethical idea itself is of no real value in and of itself for forming us into the purposes God forms us for, because trying to maintain right sexual ethics in and of itself will do nothing for accomplish God’s purposes for our lives.

Hence, to bring this to my immediate context, this explains part of my own concern about the nature of the conflict of human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. The conflict has caused us as United Methodists to place the emphasis on the wrong place, and insofar as we construe our denomination in terms of stances on same-sex sexual intercourse and marriage, we are not spending our time fighting a battle against the deeds of the flesh but against the ideas of people. This isn’t simply a reformulation of the statement of the common cliche “this conflict is distracting us from the Gospel,” because my concern isn’t simply about denominational behaviors in how we spend our money and time, but rather how our denomination is pedagogically forming a way of thinking that does not actually participate in the type of thinking Paul calls for in the putting to death the deeds of the flesh. So much time is spent thinking about human nature and order, less time is spent over the course of time thinking about conflicts of the flesh and Spirit in our own experience of life.

While not an all-curing panacea, a more temporalized view of human nature emanating from Paul’s understanding of the phenomenological experience of the flesh and the Spirit can provide a) matter of thinking to break many of the intellectual stalemates centering about what it means to be human, specifically in our sexual desires, while b) redirecting the importance of the future of our denomination and the churches to how the people are engaged in the specific experiences of conflict between their flesh and the Spirit in their lives that attunes us more to the peace-making presence of God, rather than the more conflict-oriented motivations and powers that has caused people to repeatedly shame, psychologically harm, slander, attack, and ridicule LGBTQ persons and which also lead to the arrogance of activists to try to control retain control of evangelicals (or at least the property and finances of evangelicals) and shame people for holding to what the Scriptures are pretty clear about, despite the objections of lack of clearity coming from a level of hyper-critical skepticism that are selectively directed towards the text on sexuality but not on all other texts.

The arbitrariness of signs in (post-)structuralism

0
September 12, 2018

Ferdinand Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, outlined a theory of how language functioned in his Course on General Linguistics, that centered around two principles around linguistics signs, which he defines as a relationship between a sound pattern and a concept.1 His first principle, the one that is well-known and is more intuitive to many of us today is the premise that the link between the sign and signification, that is the conceptual representation, is arbitrary. The link the sound we make when we pronounce “apple” (or the visual sensation of “apple”) and an actual apple has no real connection. It could just as easily be “mifflesnip,” except social conventions of the language have chosen one set of symbols/sounds.

One major consequence of this is that the meaning of language is determined by the society which teaches us what our language means. Because society teaches us how to language, both the grammar and the specific words, in relationship to other parts of grammar and words, Saussure’s linguistic principle undergirds the formation of structuralism, which believed that meaning of words comes from the relationship ot other words that it is used together with. The word chair has meaning in relationship to table, which has meaning in relationship to dining room, etc. etc. But underlying structuralism was one basic belief: that the meaning of the words were fixed, but you simply had to understand them in relationship to each other. In other words, one sign only has meaning in relationship to other signs.

Then, a critique came from post-structuralists and seriously challenged this notion. They accepted that words had meaning in relationship to other words, but that you could never really know where to fix meaning in the first place. “Table” and “chair” are used in relation to each other, but they really could be referring to anything; you can not really know the significance of the structure in the first place. Furthermore, they rejected the more common-sense notion of meaning that can know what it means from pure phenomenonal/sensory experience, such as my name “Owen” being heard when you see me, so that “Owen” derives meaning from the phenomenon of my appearance. Ultimately, in the end, post-structuralists suggest that the meaning of language is undefined because we can never know where it derives from.

But part of the problem of structuralism is to not recognize the shift in concepts due to usage over time from various sources. Of, more specifically, we can use words in various different contexts, sometimes join together with other words and sometimes by itself. When a mom points to a cow and says “cow” that is forming a neural connection for the meaning of cow in the child, just as when that child hears “the cow goes moo,” modifying the concept of “cow” to include a common noise they make. Over the course of time, the word “cow” will be used in more and more contexts that will expand the child’s knowledge, such as “hamburgers comes from cows.” As they grow, they may even learn a metaphorical usage of the word cow, such as Bart Simpson’s common phrase “don’t have a cow, man” or as a rude metaphor for an overweight female.

Throughout the course of time, their knowledge of cow is mediated by what they are paying attention to when they hear or think the word “cow.” If they are paying attention to speech, then the meaning of “cow” will be impacted by the other words it is being used with, assuming the child pays attentions to the words rather than something else. Or, if they grow up to be a farmer with cows, the meaning of “cow” will grow and modify as they become more familiar with all the biological functions of cows that they have to pay attention to in the course of their work. Ultimately, then, the meaning of language is determined by how our attention is directed with the usage or thinking of words.

What typically happens is due to the very basic social phenomenon of joint attention that is in effect for most people from childhood,2 we learn to pay attention to similar features in language usage. Furthermore, when there are errors in our language usage, others will commonly direct our attention to the error, thereby further modifying the cognitive schema for word usage. As a result, through the normal processes of shared attention, our neural networks are modified so that the cognitive meaning of the word alters over the course of time.

However, this process can happen outside of the context of shared attention. Some people, such as those who have conditions such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, sensory integration disorders, etc., may have their attention directed much more differently than the language users they interact with. Furthermore, there are people, like me, who are naturally interested in language, and spend a lot of time in their own minds about how words can be used. Whereas Wittgenstein makes the argument that language can only have public meaning, this is misleading; language as it is employed by individual people can have private meaning, but language usage can only be successful in transferring meaning insofar as the meanings are more or less shared due to some combination of similar experiences of word usage and directed attention,3 or the contexts we use the words to modify the meanings in the necessary manner (such as the most basic, ostensive act of pointing to something while uttering a word for it).

My point in this: it is ultimately to suggest the relationship between the sign and the signified is not purely arbitrary.

It IS arbitrary in the sense that there is perfectly possible and generally the case that the phenomenal experience of hearing sign and what we imagine when we think of the signified concept share nothing in common. If you were to hear the word “chair” and to think of a the physical entity of a chair, there is no common sensory/perceptual/imaginative aspects to them. Why? Because they come from two different sensory pathways, although there are two notable exceptions to this principle: 1) if a chair has the word “chair” written on it, both sign and signified come in through the same sensory pathway and 2) onomatopoeias, such as “moo” mimicking the cow that makes the noise. These exceptions aside, the arbitrariness of the sign is due to the different sensory pathways between the sign and signified. Because of this, we can imagine scenarios where “ludoscene” is used to refer to the same thing that “beauty” refers to. That is, from the perspective of Saussure langue, signs are indeed arbitrary.

However, the relationship between the sign and the signified is NOT arbitrary in the sense that in the course of our experiences, the sign and the signified are paired together. A word means what it means because it has been used to mean that way. Certainly, nothing in structuralism would reject this premise, but it is a fundamentally important premise to make about how language starts and the analytic implications we draw from it. From the perspective of parole, that is language as it is actually used, the relationship between the sign and signified is not arbitrary.

Signs are not arbitrary in phenomenological experience; that is, signs are not arbitrary from the perspective of the sign user. They are, however, arbitrary from a more abstract point of view, where we can imagine other scenarios where the word can be used in a very different manner. As such, the recognition of the arbitrariness of the sign from an abstract point of view has usefulness for understanding the various possibilities that language can take, but it can not express how language is actually experience. As such, structuralism is chained to an etic, outsider understanding of language; meanwhile, post-structuralism recognizes the more emic properties of how language is actually used that can undercut any sense of fixity that structuralism.

However, the problem of post-structuralism is that it’s critique ultimately comes an abstract manner also. By it’s own abstractions, such as Derrida’s abstraction about the indeterminability of signs, many of the theories of post-structuralism develop other abstract, etic views of language that doesn’t provide an insider look into language. So, just as structuralism provides a useful insight into how language can be used but doesn’t really tell us about meaning itself, so too is it the case of post-structuralism. Their theories abstract certain, salient features of language use and then systematize those abstractions

Meanwhile, this more psychological/phenomenological view of language retains an abstract, etic posture like structuralism and post-structuralism, but of a different nature. (Post-)Structuralism is built upon the abstraction that it is possible for there to be different links between sign and signified. While this is helpful for us to understand the diversity of possibilities such as between cultures, people, etc., it tells us little about the actual meaningfulness of language as it is actually used by people and formed into people.

To which I am bringing this to what might seem to be a surprising connection to theology. Insofar as our societies understanding how language and discourse functions has been influenced by (post-)structuralism, it has an inherent bias to codify, if not valorize, diversity over an against the value of meaningful unity. Far from simply being tools to help us to make sense of other people and their language usage, the currency of (post-)structuralism it has been embedded in various intellectual discourses, which then trickle-down to more average discourses has crafted certain expectations about language and discourse that dramatically alter how we understand theology and the church. Far from recognizing that language can be used differently within certain speech communities, it valorizes and legitimates a diversity of meaning within singular speech communities. Semantic variability is the norm, not the exception.

There is an important implication of this. When theological views change and shift, they frequently undergo a shift in meaning. But usually, this change of meaning is unbeknownst to the wider speech community, but it occurs within a smaller, sub-culture. This type of semantic change is commonly exhibited in prophetic discourse, hence its affinities for more poetic usage of language that challenge language conventions, and then in the new community of God developed around crisis events of the crucified and resurrected Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The possibility of linguistic variability and transformation is the basis upon which the people of God experience changes to the powers and ideologies of the present age, including challenges to the linguistic ideologies.

However, because of the valorization and normalization of linguistic variability and diversity WITHIN speech communities (such, as the United Methodist Church), not simply a recognition of it across speech communities or an allowance for the formation of new speech communities, the prophetic and crisis events have become divested of any true meaning and significance. That which looks prophetic on the surface has been divested of any significance, but itself has become part of the ideology it purportedly seeks to undermine. The significance people make of the cross and the Spirit has largely been reduced to diverse experiences of what we wish for it to mean, rather than it being a challenge to the very structures of meaning and calling us into a new community that is defined by accepting this challenge and critique of these structures, including the linguistic structures. Consequently, the communities of God’s people have little shared heritage, little shared ground, by which they can speak with one, or at least a similar voice, to challenge the ideologies of the age, but the cacophony of voices in communities amidst the diversity birthed by (post-)structuralism prevents challenge the ideologies of the age, but simply retaining them.

But, before one hears this as a rejection of diversity outright, as if the goal is the return to some known, singular pattern for churches, society, etc. it isn’t this. The critique isn’t against the diversity of language and others forms itself, but rather against the way that individual instances are themselves ensured protection from challenge and change. Rather than having one singular ideology, there are many smaller ideologies that have been immunized from challenge and change. Empires beget ideologies by the opposition of challenge, and in this modern case, empires beget ideologies by the formalization and protection of discourses from change. There is much value to this when empires have a plurality they must manage and watch over peacefully; there is no inherent reason the Church should fight the premise of diversity within our socio-political world. But for the Church to act prophetically and challenge, and even for the Church itself to recognize a prophetic challenge to itself, it must resist a view of language that empties the prophetic and divests the crisis of anything unique and substantive, but merely as one instance of diversity to be considered as normatively equivalent to any other instance.

Furthermore, this is not an argument for a unique speech community among Christians that only insiders can even begin to comprehend. We can use words in a manner that bears a family resemblance to the way words are used outside of the Church, but as people grow and learn within Christian communities, they themselves learn the nuances of language used within the community. Put differently, our language is “in the world, but it isn’t of the world.”

In summary, (post-)structuralism can describe the possibilities for different discourses and meanings, including even the prophetic and crisis language of Israel and the Church, but its bias towards recognizing diversity and tendency to miss the meangingfulness, if not even the necessity, of actual speech and discourse need not be valorized or accepted by the Christian communities as normative. It is what it is, useful in some manner, but not to be unthinkingly accepted as an ideology that will stifle the Church’s witness. Put more simply, the more descriptiveness of (post-)structuralism need not be transformed into the prescription of the Church. Signs and their meanings are not arbitrary for the Church, even if it is possible that the signs could have been different.

Disclosure and discourse – Fusion vs. intimacy

0
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

0
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?

0
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.