Knowing persons: Why the division between revelation and natural theology misses the point

May 3, 2018

You’re at dinner at an Italian restaurant with your new potential romantic interest whom you have only known for a few weeks, sharing conservation about your parents and siblings as you share the breadsticks put between you. She has a bright smile that is highlighted by her deep red lipstick and you are dressed in a fine, silk shirt that accents your physical stature. The waitress comes and she chooses the chicken primavera, while you opt for the more pedestrian lasagna. The conversation continues throughout the evening as you begin to finish the fine red wine that accompanied your meal. The whole night has gone well, and then, as you talk about what you are looking for in a relationship, she suddenly looks down as her eyes exhibit a sense of downcast solemnity. “Did I say something wrong?” you think to yourself. Then she looks back up, and slowly says, “You are the first person I have gotten to know since I broke off my engagement with my fiancee who cheated on me. I have a difficult time with relationships.” Suddenly, in that moment, you don’t know what to say. How do you respond? This has been a wonderful evening and now her disclosure has brought up an emotional dissonance to the night. Is she saying she appreciates me? Or is she leading up to saying this isn’t going to work out?

Now, casting aside all judgments as to whether that is the right time to make such a disclosure known, there is something to grasp in this narrative: the whole night, you and your date have been getting to know each other. One’s dress, body language, and general conversation all seem to present a slowly, unconsciously growing sense of understanding about the person. But then, at a particular moment, she makes a disclosure that totally throws everything upside down and into a sense of confusion and uncertainty. Suddenly, one piece of new information breaks through that seems to be of greater weight and more revealing about the person than everything else you have talked about that evening.

Knowledge about people is a lot different than knowing about facts about objects, natural processes, etc. In the prototypical versions of science, all desired observations and measurements are weighed in a more or less equal way. Knowledge comes from taking all the data, processing it, and accomplish some theory or model that accounts for all the information. While eventually, one may come to an understanding that highlights certain observations as the important signal against the rest of the background noise, this only comes about after analysis of all the observations. However, when knowing about people, we don’t proceed is such a methodical manner where restrain judgment until we gather a wide amount of data that we then weight in approximately equal ways. Instead, if we are in tune with other people, we are constantly forming and reforming our sense of people, and in the midst of that, we intuitively understand that there are certain moments where what someone shows or discloses is of greater relevance to knowing them than much of what we have previously learned. If we were to reflect on this to form some sort of epistemology, we could come to understand the way we intuitively understand people and the way we analytically understand objects have some very pronounced differences.

Many problems result when we try to understand subjects via an object epistemology, or objects via subject epistemology. We would call someone cold, calculating, and distant if we treated our dates like scientific observations. A person who treats thinks their plants are talking to them would be taken as a bit eccentric, at least. In fact, we might say that many mental disorders may entail treating subjects and objects or vice versa.

Christian theology exhibits this problem time and time again. Even though we talk about God as if He is a personal being, many dogmatic formulations about the Trinity uses the language of persons, etc. there is a common tendency when addressing epistemic questions to think about God via an object epistemology. This is most evident in the theological debate between natural theology vs. revelation and the fact there exists a distinct split between these two categories. Much of the debate surrounding this is based around decided what sources may or may not be used for knowing about God. But a common, implicit assumption is that once we get the right sources, then all that we get from the justified sources of knowledge are considered of equal weight. For instance, in some cases of those who take revelation as coterminous with Scripture, many will treat all information of equal important: whether there is some contradict in some obscure passages in the Old Testament is of equal importance to the premise of Jesus’ resurrection. Or, let’s say we go a more Barthian direction in suggesting it is revelation of Christ that is of pivotal importance; the moral instructions of the beatitudes may be marshalled as just as important as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ;1 AT the end of the day, our epistemic practices when it comes to theology tend to regard all information from the justified sources of knowledge as bearing more or less equal weight.

However, I would suggest the very reason for the divide between natural theology and revelation is that in trying to translate the way we know about a relating being in God into implicit, object epistemology frameworks, we have great difficulting apprehending how a) simultaneously take in all our knowledge about people as making something known while b) recognizing that certain moments are more “revealing” than other moments. Natural theologies attempt to make arguments about God based upon generalized observation and reasoning derived from the world highlights A, while not giving sufficient attention to B. Meanwhile, the category of “revelation” as generally employed in modern theological discourse attempts to mimic B but without recognizing A. Due to the implicit object epistemologies, a sharp, qualitative distinction between revelation and natural theology is formed when trying to understand the theological epistemology/epistemologies of Scripture. Then, we employ the spatial metaphors of immanence and transcendence to rationalize in a metaphysical structure the nature of theological reality in order to be coherent with these forms of epistemology; immanence accepts a relationship between our theological knowledge and the world we live within whereas transcendence increasingly shuns any connection between our theological knowledge and the world we live within. As a result, the immanent-naturalist and transcendent-revelatory epistemologies take on a self-perpetuating, circular life of their own, where the epistemology and metaphysics reflexively justify each other, leading to a greater and greater tendency to more extreme judgments about the opposing form of theological epistemology. Instead of a general revelational scheme that while treating natural theology as something different, is still useful although not reliable, Barthian schemes avoid any connection to natural theology. Or, as some immanentist thinkers recognize the importance of some Archimedian-like point of knowledge being grounded upon the person of Jesus, more extreme versions will reduce the importance of Christ to merely an expression of human ideals that we derive from our own experiences and lives.

At the end, both immanent-naturalist and transcendent-revelatory epistemologies both find their warrants within the Scriptures, while often tempted to ignore or minimize the warrants within the Scriptures for the opposing framework. This is because a subject epistemology which recognizes all experiences of the world can possibly, although not necessarily reliably on its own, show something about the Creator God, while at the same time highlighting certain disclosures from God that are of much greater important both share some similarities to the two object epistemologies. However, precisely because there is ambiguity, tension, and imprecision in subject epistemologies, whereas object epistemologies have a tendency to systematize, these subtleties are overlooked and lost as greater clarity, precision, lack of ambiguity, and coherence are not simply valued, but treated as implicit justifications for the rightness of one’s views.

For the Biblical world, knowing God is much like getting to know a romantic partner you desire but are just getting to know. There is a lot you might pick up on their sense of style, the occupation, their family, the way they talk, etc. etc. But there come certain critical moments where what is made known is of greater importance. You don’t ignore all the rest, but instead, all the rest orbits around the gravity of the heaviest disclosures. Or, in getting to know someone, you can get a sense that there is more to their story from your time together, but you can not quite pin it down, as if we can see from the “motion” of our experiences that there is a center of gravity everything is orbiting around but we can not precisely triangulate it. While we may be able to analyze so as to describe the basic movements of this Divine subject epistemology, the very nature of it precludes any analytic precision and absolute distinctions between the value and reliability of various sources. We can identify what exists as the center of our knowledge about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, but there exists no clear dividing line between the center and the periphery of theological knowledge for the Biblical world.

Power, control, and our moral discourse about it

May 1, 2018

If there is one feature that I would suggest so defines the biological imperatives of the Western world, that defines the culture, philosophy, technology, etc., it is the notion of power and control. This is not a unique observation, as postmodernists note the power that is latent in much of life, such as Foucault observations that truth claims are often times claims for power. But the observation goes deeper into the very experience of human life of democracy: almost everything is about a negotiation of power and control, whether it be the authority bestowed upon persons or what rules will determine how power and control will be used. Who has what prerogatives is always unsettled and unsure, by necessity, so that one person or group of people never retain unaccountably, unquestioned control so that they may tyrannize, oppress, or abuse their power. Democracy functions precisely because it inculcates a sense of desire for power and control. Likewise, technology inculcates this desire as it is about manipulating the environment and resources so than they can be processes and transformed into materials that are for human consumption on a large scale. Far from accepting what is available at whatever quality it is available, the modern capitalist, technological culture is built on the ability to manipulate resources, or even labor, to accomplish some goal. Modern psychology gives us the ability to manage people more effectively for our own interests, knowing how the mind and heart works, often times resulting in practices of psychological control that can become subtle and often times unseen. As a result, power and control have seeped into our hearts and our blood.

What is novel about this in Western isn’t the existence of power and control. All cultures have power-relations and the attempt to control embedded in their life. Rather, it is the great extent to which many people will go to control outcomes. Rather that power and control being a more circumstantial act that is a possible means to an end, it has become increasingly a necessary means that almost morphs into an end value itself. Precisely because it is such a habitual act if you want to make anything of yourself in the Western world, we do it habitually and instinctually to the point that we don’t think about it in ourselves. However, it is something many of us pay attention to: we notice the people who have power, to whom we are often tempted to either appeal to or oppose in order. It is something we see in society, and many of us celebrate when those who have control are on our side, although we often times do not label it as power and control, or we demonize those who we feel have the control so as to “marshall the troops” to defeat them. This is American politics in a nutshell.

As a result, we often times have distorted views about power and control. We can be tempted to go into an all-or-nothing thinking, where it is either all-good or all-bad depending on who is in control and what their purpose for it is. This is represented in part by the fact that the adjective “controlling” is a negative term; to be a “controlling” person is an automatic moral weakness on the part of that person. So, when we see people trying to take control in a way we don’t like, rather than asking the question, does the person have good reasons for enacting control, we have a tendency to engage in the fundamental attribution error of attributing the act of control to something in their personality rather than their response to the environment and situation. And as with most moral language, it is a term that ironically enough is used to control people. Cults often times seek to force submission of their targets, and they may label resistance as control, regardless of the reasons for such resistance, so as to inculcate a sense of surrender, because in their eyes their control is justified and any resistance to their interests are wrong. After all, if you can make a person think they are “Controlling” you can make them open and submissive to your own intentions. As a result, often times the attribution of a person being “controlling” is often times a projection; I speak from personal experiece as a victim of abuse in a situation where my behavior was labeled as “controlling” without regard to the circumstances I had actually faced, the same people who labeled this behavior engaged in control of me as the most basic boundaries, such as my space and social life, were being violated.

So, there is something of a critical impasse here. On the one hand, power is so embedded into the fabric of our daily social and economic lives that it is something that “controls” most all of us, and yet our moral discourse about power and control is often times used to reinforce the very control we are seeking. Politics is the perfect example of the vicious cycle of the pursuit of power and the moral discourse of power that is supposed to regulate it but actually reinforces it. What happens is that the very people with power who we would hope to regulate power actually reinforce their own.

So what is the solution to this? How can we deal with this cycle?

Firstly, it is to stop committing the fundamental attribution error of attribute attempts to control by people meaning they have a controlling trait. It would entail us considering the situations and circumstances of said control. Rather than saying “you are a controlling person” it would entail highlighting why a person’s control is wrong or unnecessary. So, if you are labeled a controlling person or are tempted to think someone else is a controlling person, rather than going into an all-or-nothing type thing that is so often the characteristic of the fundamental attribution error, challenge yourself or the other to ask questions of specificity such as “In what way?”, “Is it right or wrong to control in this situation?,” and “Are the means of taking control proportional to the situation?” While we can even rationalize and come up with false answers to this question, demanding specificity of yourself and others, will heighten thinking and provide resistance to the attempt to control by labeling others as controlling.

Secondly, as one begins to engage into questions of specificity, it will highlight an understanding about degrees of control. To express my feelings about something to another is an act of control, but it is different from punishing the person who does not share my feelings. Calling for accountability to people and organizations for their actions, is different from tearing down people and organizations down for their failures.

Thirdly, it entails as an analogy, prophetic action to speak against this type of power, which operates not based upon successfully converting people to one’s message nor taking control of the people to force into submission. Often times, the results of prophetic ministry in the Old Testament results in the failure of conversion or control. But prophetic actions brings to light what has been cloaked in darkness and uses the power of word and voice to continue to make this known so far as the problem remains. However, in so doing, prophetic action is inherently self-limiting because prophetic action is not intended for the benefit and power of the prophet. In so doing, people may shout you down and may discourage you from even this type of action, but a prophet has accepted the self-limitations from God and not the limitations that others wish to place upon them,

Fourthly, it entails recognizing the nature of projection and that many times it is those who tell others they are controlling are themselves so. Often in saying other are controlling, there is the desire to obtain control for ourselves that we wish others to abdicate. This is especially true for people who already have power, such as administrators, therapists, pastors, etc., who are accustomed to having control and thus delegitimate anyone who resists, because in their own eyes they have good intentions. However, recognition of the projection in this circumstance is only of help if one first recognizes it in oneself. If I or you are the type that is quick to label other people’s power and control and yet never acknowledge it in ourselves, then it is likely we are controlling, whatever may or may not be true about others.

Fifthly, it entails honesty with ourselves and others when we try to take control. If we move towards intentionally recognizing every time we are trying to accomplish something that wouldn’t otherwise happen, then we can be aware of it in ourselves and engender accountability and trust from others. This includes both overt acts but also more subtle, covert acts where we attempt to mask the appearance of control while seeking to control. However, in so doing, be aware in owning it to others of those who are quick to use that honesty against you. Healthy accountability will make usage of this disclosure but is often patient and listens before speaking, but those who are quick to use your admissions against you are themselves people to be wary of, but do not just jump into trying to control them (if they are someone who must be dealt with, it is often times easier and more effective to give them the rope to hang themselves on).

Sixth, recognize that in conflicts, there is often times a mirroring effect. If we are not careful, we can mirror those we are conflict with, such that we meet their attempts at power with our attempts at power. Then, in our minds, we justify our power because “they” are clearly “wrong,” therefore “I” or “we” are clearly “right.” Then, because of our action, our opponents do the same, which then leads to a vicious cycle. Conflicts have a way of justifying to ourselves our need to take control. Upon recognition of this all too common cyclical pattern, we can begin to avoid the disproportionality of our attempts to control with reflective consideration of the situation and considering other options.

Seventh, for the followers of Christ, it entails a trust in God. This doesn’t mean surrendering all control as can frequently be taught by religious leaders (much of the times this is well-intentioned, but it can be a teaching used to control others), but rather it means repentance than calls into question the reasons and ways we do and do not control. While it is often times said faith in God is about surrender, the Bible does not say this. Rather, faith in God is about trust that God will do what God has said He will do, so in our repentance, we inherently self-limit our attempts at power and control in the places where God will act, in the places where we cannot, and in the places where we should not.

Finally, it entails the recognition that there aren’t “sure things in life.” Sometimes you don’t win. Sometimes your way won’t happen. Sometimes, your dreams will be shattered. Life is not a fairy tale. Sometimes, you will suffer and maybe without any alleviation of that pain. This can be the hardest thing of all in a society such as America that has inculcated the notion of the “American dream.” If you can learn to accept that life may not be fillled with all the happiness, excitement, and meaning you wish for it to have, you will not be so compelled to take part in the unhealthy cycle of power and control.

Resisting the culture of power and culture while not abandoning power and control is a difficult task. It entails a spiritual, ethical, and emotional praxis of attention, intention, specificity, honesty, and trust that becomes honed with time and practice. It entails first looking inward also, lest these principles simply become another set of moral rules we use to control others.

Epistemology is important: Why United Methodism is interlocked in conflict

April 29, 2018

In commenting upon the ever present theological and ethical conflict that United Methodist is embroiled within, Timothy Tennent, the President of Asbury Theology Seminary, makes the following observation in his most recent blog post in discussing why many people are leaving the United Methodist Church, particularly in America.

This observation needs to be heard by United Methodists across our land. We have a spiritual treasure that is in jeopardy. We have lost our connection to our own vibrant heritage. There has never been a movement which so powerfully united evangelical fervor rooted in historic orthodoxy with social engagement and societal witness. What is at stake is not merely a resolution of our struggles over human sexuality, though that has become the presenting issue before us. What is at stake is nothing less than the apostolic witness. What is at stake is our commitment to Scriptural Christianity. What is at stake is our own vibrant heritage of vibrant evangelism, church-planting, travailing prayer, ardent discipleship, and our identity with the poor.

At sake then is that many people are leaving the United Methodist church in search of what the Wesleyan heritage originally stood for. If such a vibrant way of life is absent from the halls of many of the churches, then the dissonance between faith and where one is involved in the practice of this faith will lead people to either shift/abandon their faith to conform to their context or, as in the case of this article, leave their context for something they feel to be more authentic to what they have come to believed and learned. Speaking of one such person who left precisely in that fashion, Tennent says:

He acknowledges, as I do, that there are thousands upon thousands of United Methodist pastors who still stand for all of these things and who faithfully minister the gospel week in and week out. He acknowledges that there are millions of current United Methodists who still stand in hope that this great heritage can be restored. I am among those. But, we should not be naïve. There are powerful forces aligned firmly against our own heritage of Scriptural Christianity. There are powerful forces who are determined to re-shape our heritage into something unrecognizable to the vision of our beloved founders. There are powerful forces who want us to normalize what the New Testament explicitly forbids. We must rise up and say “no” to anything which would trade our sacred history for the latest mess of cultural pottage.

Now, if I were to describe this as an amateur anthropologist, I would suggest that there is a clash of different cultures, whose practices, values, relationship to history, and overall worldviews are in clash and tension. Should United Methodist retain its continuity with its holy past, or must it unshackle the chains of the oppressive past? Is sex to be understood in the context of personal desire and fulfillment, or should it be considered a part of life that intimately affects our relationship with each other and God and brings forth something new? I might even move into a postmodern analysis, suggesting such claims are actually playing for the prominence of oneself and one’s cultures in a  struggle the establish the prominence of one’s own life-world. Tennent’s own appeal recognizes the power that is present in the opposition, although he does not characterize mass of faithful ministers in terms of power.

However, while the psychological, anthropological, and postmodernist perspectives certainly have some truth to their analysis, to stay there would frame the conflict in a relativistic frame where there is no real common/”universal” normative ground to unite the contrasting theological cultures. This does not fit the reality of the United Methodists; there is at one level a “common ground.” While there are certainly exceptions, most progressives and evangelicals do hold in common certain language. We all talk about God, Jesus, the Spirit, grace, forgiveness, love, etc. Almost all of us appeal to the language of the Scriptures, although some appeal more so than others. We can even go beyond language and suggest that amongst the intellectual representations amongst progressives and evangelicals, they even share a common respect for the historical study of Scriptures, the value of studying theological tradition, etc. We share a common store of practices, particularly amongst the clergy, in the process of ordination, the practice of conferencing, etc. With so much in common, how can we be so divided?

The answer: differences in epistemology. For those unfamiliar, epistemology is commonly referred to as the philosophy of knowledge: how is it that we know, what justifies our beliefs so that we can call it knowledge, etc. But I would refer to this as a reflective epistemology, where we have attempted to understand and think through the grounds for gaining knowledge and our confidence in this knowledge. But we all have the sources we trust for gaining knowledge and we all have our own reasons for trusting what we know; we are just not usually aware of this. While sustained reflection can help to form our own epistemic frameworks, it is predominately formed unaware to us by our relationships, practices, liturgies, experiences, etc. It gets ingrained in us in churches, schools, politics, etc. where we imitate the examples provides to us by our clergy, teachers, elected officials and learn it through feedback from our own attempts as learning, whether it be in the form of social feedback in grades, approval/disapproval, etc., or our own experimentation where we discover if our thoughts and actions lead to and predict the results we expected. Our pre-reflective epistemologies become engrained and sustained through this set of events occurring again and again and again over the course of the years, with us rarely being able to look back and see how it happened.

Occasionally, however, if we are open to seeing it, sometimes we discover whole new ways of acquiring knowledge. For instance, all through college, I was a rather analytical person, starting in computer science which entailed clear analytic, algorithmic thinking; even as I switched to psychology, I still thought of people in algorithmic fashions. Even my theology reflected this as I likened God to a big supercomputer, whose actions were always in accordance to a complex set of conditional rules, which we might refer to as God’s nature. I even studied the Bible in this fashion, thinking the words had a clear, specific, unchanging meaning as if they are technical terms, thus it was simply a matter of reading the Bible enough to pin down what every significant word such as forgiveness, salvation, grace, etc. meant. Knowledge was only in the form of clear, unchanging principles/rules that governed everything Then, during my first years in seminary, I happened upon readings that engaged in historical critiques of society. The idea that the practices of a society, both its virtues and its sins, could be connected to historical circumstances of ideology, economics, etc.1 opened my mind to a whole new way of knowing. Knowledge was murkier, and the way to know was to study the context so deeply and fully so that what was true (or at least, what I thought to be true) would emerge from a mind that engages the whole of the situation. Without the reflective awareness that I now have today, I was excited by this new way of learning. It grappled my imagination and made me, as I look back, to think much more like the Continental philosophers do. As a result, my theology and study of the Bible shifted. I began to be open to seeing God more in terms open theistic terms; I even flirted with process theology in the end, although I ended up finding it untenable for Christian faith based upon the Scriptures. God was also a God who related to us like a person who was concerned about my feelings, my circumstances, etc., rather than simply a supercomputer who gave certain outputs based upon certain inputs. My reading of the Bible shifted to try to wrap my head around it in a new way, where it must be connected to the circumstances of history. In addition, the meaning of the words of the Bible was something that emerges from the usage of the words together in its historical context, and thus every pericope, text, genre, part of the canon, should be taken on its own terms. In the midst of this shift, I even considered the idea of “Spiritual exegesis” where we can only truly grasp the meaning of the text by inspiration of the Spirit.

If I may describe these events, it was as if I had an epistemic conversion.2 To be clear, I am not stating this as some salvific conversion, but only as a recognition that our epistemic frameworks that influence our learning can be dramatically changed. However, this change occurs by something unfamiliar to us that grabs out attention and appeals to us in some fashion, evoking our desire and/or fears.

Now what does this have to do with the United Methodist theological conflict? At the core, it is this basic premise: most of us have not gone through an epistemic transformation. Whether it be the method of learning taught to us by our schools and politicians, or if it is what we learned in our churches and other religious settings, most of us have been taught to acquire knowledge through very particular practices. For evangelicals, one gains knowledge through reading and studying the Scriptures. One may also appeal to certain religious authorities, such as pastors, who we trust have read the Scriptures well and are qualified to teach from them. For wider society, one gains knowledge through accumulating observations of a wide sample of objects or persons, and thus this influences much of progressive Methodism, where theological truth is often times determined by the various experiences and perspectives of the persons. Rather, what happened to us is that we simply retained our epistemic frameworks that controlled how we understood and interpreted the Scriptures, the practices and liturgy of the church, our own experiences, etc. We may have a similarity of faith in a vague way, which shares common language, practices, etc.

But if we look at the apostle Paul’s description of his own practice of apostolic ministry amongst the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2, he is specifically concerned not just that the Corinthians have “faith,” but that this faith is rightly directed. Instead of appearing as a knowledgeable philosopher that the Stoic’s lauded in the form of an ideal sage, Paul sought to place the emphasis on two sources of knowledge about God, the testimony of Jesus death and resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. By these sources, one would perceive the nature of God’s power working in the context of weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world. For Paul, it wasn’t simply that one had faith; it was how one has faith through looking to the specific ways God chooses to make himself known and not through Paul as a philosophical authority. In so doing, Paul was challenging the epistemic practices of the Corinthian culture, which would have been influenced by Roman Stoicism. The way of acquiring knowledge that the wider society had, whatever value it had for other forms of knowledge, was not the way one was to learn about God. However, that the Corinthians seems to still look towards the ministers of the Gospel like Peter, Paul, and Apollos, all in this light, the aligned themselves with certain teachers and thus placed their trust in theological authorities; hence they were a church sown with division and conflict as they may have some true beliefs about God, but it was not truly justified knowledge obtained by apprehending the power of God. They were not united in Jesus Christ because their epistemic frameworks made them focus on something else other than the powerful work of God.

However, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and the powerful works of the Spirit would have presented for people an critical point where they could come to learn about God in a way entirely different from what they were accustomed to. To grow into the maturity that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, one must first come to a trust in the power of God. This trust didn’t come by rational argumentation. It didn’t come through Paul saying “the Scriptures so so you should believe” as if the words themselves were evidence themselves.3 While Paul nowhere rejects other epistemic frameworks as bearing no truth value, all other epistemic frameworks mislead and misdirect people, and thus one must come to shift the way one learns to be in accordance to how God chooses to make Himself known.

I would suggest the problems rests in the end with how people came into faith. We have been focused upon the generation of right belief, that is what we might refer to as orthodoxy, although different people and traditions may construe orthodoxy differently. However, there has not been the self-conscious attention that the Apostle Paul had in how is it we come to this right belief. For Paul, it wasn’t simply about orthodoxy, but epistemic orthodoxy: coming to the right belief in the right way, through attention to what God selects and uses to make Himself known. The end result is that while we might accept and common set of ideas, languages, practices, etc., our understanding of them as a whole is dramatically different because we arrive at the common language, belief, and practices in different ways that dramatically diverge in other language, beliefs, and practices. The problem rests then in our evangelism and discipleship, where we focus on transmitting right beliefs and not also transmitting the appropriate way we come to know this right belief; we are either mired in the doctrine of Protestant4 sola scriptura or Enlightenment rationalist and empiricist ways of learning, which all have their uses, and not first and foremost the engagement with the ways God chooses to make Himself known in Scripture and in the course of our lives.

So, at the core, our United Methodist divide is, I would suggest, not at it’s foundation a divide in theology, ethics, culture, etc. It is an epistemic divide that impacts how we understand the aspects of our faith that we might share on the surface. And it is a blame that I would suggest is largely shared by both progressive and evangelicals, although, to avoid the appearance of false impartiality, I do think in general evangelicals are closer to Paul’s and the New Testament’s epistemic understanding of faith.

Why experience is the sole source of theology: How the Wesleyan Quadrilateral gets it wrong

April 2, 2018

Ever since Albert Outler developed and propagated the idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the idea that John Wesley used Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, United Methodist theology has existed in a state of perpetual disagreement in terms of how to value and relate these four sources together. On the more traditionally evangelical end, it is said that Scripture is the highest value and the norming norm that determines how tradition, reason, and experience are understood and appropriated. However, it is often times the case that these four sources are treated on the same level, allowing for more progressive theologies that value human feeling and perspective. In a large part, the source of the divide over sexuality and marriage in the United Methodist church relates to precisely this division: what role do the other sources, particularly experience, play in theology. To that end, I am going to agree more with the sentiment of my more progressive United Methodists; experience is important; really important. In fact, I would suggest all theology is based on experience.

By that notion, I mean this: every act of thinking about God and life is based on our experience; what determines the thoughts I have and hold are the experiences I had. For instance, the very act of reading Scripture is an experience; my thoughts about God and life does not arrive in some way independent of the very experience of reading. Or, if I am reading reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, the very recitation of it influences how it is I think about theology. When I am weighing different proposals for how God can be both one and yet three, the act of reasoning itself impacts the very neural networks of my brain that “store” the metaphysical ideas I hold to. There is no getting around; experience is the only source of theology we have…..

However, not all experiences are of equivalent value. Certainly, all but the most skeptical of us would agree that the knowledge that a physicist gains from the experience of hypothesis, observation, theorizing, collaborating with colleagues, etc. is more reliable than the ideas that a person has in a state of hallucination. Even if one wanting to shy away from the word “truth,” I am sure almost everyone would be much more willing to place more trust in what the scientist says over what the person who is hallucinating is saying. Almost all of us intuitively recognize that certain ideas are more reliable because of the state of mind we attribute to the persons who produced and disseminated those ideas.

However, for some reason, when it comes to religion and theology, we operate as if one person’s experience is of equivalent reliability as another person’s experience. It partly roots in the way Western society has treated God and religion as a personal thing that no one can really know anything about; it is simply a matter of personal opinion and thus all opinions are of equal levels of validity. It is perhaps also rooted in what is a very humane idea, that we should not deny the experience that a person is having. However, a person describing their experience is different from a person making claims about something that goes beyond their own experience. If I am speaking of God as result of my experience, then I am not only talking about myself but I am talking about someone who is different from myself, that is unless I hold to some pan(en)theistic or have some delusion of grandeur about my own self.

But if we questioned the presuppositions that all experiences that lead us to think about God are of equal reliability, which is simply an a priori assumption that is not clearly true but is only believed because culture ridicules any challenge to this methodological agnosticism, then we are left with quite a different view of the relationship of theology and experience: some experiences are more reliable for theology than others. All things being equal,1, we who are more evangelical leaning can say that the experience of reading Scripture is more reliable than the experience of reasoning, for instance. Or, that my experience of working in my tradition is going to be more likely to give me something true and valuable than my own experience of sexual desire. In saying this, there is no denying the reality of my own sexuality and its desires; it is only a recognition that my sexual experience may not be something I can use to say something reliable about God as saying what I may get from the experience of reading Scripture. In other words, this suggests that claims about God that are warranted are determined not be an experience itself, but by what it is that determines the form and shape of my experiences in the first place. Or, to put it in Pauline terms, reliable knowledge about God is derived from experiences that are influenced by the Spirit, whereas faulty ideas about God is derived from my own fleshly experience.

In other words, the experience is only theologically reliable when the causal conditions of that experience are somehow the work or inspiration of God. Many Christians believe Scripture is inspired by God, so one can say that God via the reading of Scripture is a cause of our experience. Or, one could say that the Spirit influenced the formation of the Nicene tradition. However, we need not analyze things simply in terms of direct inspiration; I am not trying to derive a strong theology of revelation that excludes any and all possibilities of theology from below.2 My only point is to demonstrate the proposition that it is the nature of experience that makes it reliable. Thus, theological reflection entails contextualizing our own experiences, recognizing the causes and sources of the experience before determining its reliability and usefulness for the task of theology.

I would suggest at least four different, overlapping factors that impinge upon experience: attentional focus, cognitive patterns of processing, the wider context of experience, and the desires and purpose of the knowledge we derive. The attentional focus is essentially are epistemic sources; what is is we are paying attention. Is it reading a letter of Paul? Is it study of the patristics? Is it a meta-cognitive introspection, sensing my own thoughts, feelings, etc.? Pattern of processing relates to how it is our minds make sense of the sources. Our worldviews, the types of reasoning we have learned to use instinctively, etc. all impact how it is we make understand what is it we are paying attention to. Context relates to all the other things that are impacting and influencing my thoughts and feelings but my attention and focus in not on that. Hearing the Scripture read in the context of a community of believers who I share life with may alter the way I understand God through the text. Then, the desires and purposes of knowledge is, for the lack of a better term, the agendas that determine what type of results I am looking for. Commonly right now, people read the Bible on sexuality because they are trying to get knowledge on what it does or does not say on the topic, but someone reading the same passage who is not focused on that agenda may make sense of what is said differently.

Now certainly, this is not feasible for giving quick and easy instruction on theological method. It has a high level of complexity that could never hope to be exhausted in an easily understandable and digestible form. However, my point is to suggest that instead of labeling “experience” a source of theology, we should instead pay attention to the very nature of the experience and explain the conditions upon which experience provides reliable theological knowledge. In so doing, something important is done: it will unmask the arrogance of theologies that equate one’s own religious experience as somehow telling us something about God. While not exclusive to progressive theology, there are plenty of conservative/traditionalist minded people who think their thoughts exactly resemble God’s, many versions of progressive theology has that veiled arrogance about oneself: that my own experience is sufficient grounds to speak about God in a way that other people must respect and include. This arrogance goes beyond simply accepting what a person experiences, but that one is allowed to teach whatever one feels about anyone or anything else, including God, because of their own experience and it should not be challenged but instead should be allowed the same level credibility as anything else, regardless of the nature of my experiences in the first place. By moving towards recognizing the different types and sources of experience, including prominent Scripture reading, engaging with tradition, reasoning, and introspection, we would be more equipped to call certain experiences that are used for the basis of theology as self-centered navel-gazing, whether it be our own personality, our own culture, our own nation, etc. Beyond simply recognizing the reality of their own experience, culture, and nation, they find their attentional focus is on their own self, on the ideas of their own culture, on the values of their own nation, and it is this we would call the flesh and as having nothing reliable to say about the God who we believe to be revealed in Christ and the Spirit.

Reflection on N.T. Wright’s Gifford Lectures – The Questioned Book: Critical Scholarship and the Gospels

March 29, 2018

My first response is on a more methodological level before I address the specifics of the content. In this second lecture, N.T. Wright shifts his frame for analysis away from principally connecting certain philosophical/metaphysical systems of thought in Epicureanism and Enlightenment to instead analyzing ideas and events within Biblical scholarship based upon their contemporary socio-political circumstances. However, in doing so, he connects the events of Biblical Scholarship facing the socio-political questions and crises to this larger, Epicurean framework. In other words, Wright’s first lecture engaged more in a top-down style of analysis of categorizing/labeling system of ideas, interpreting the Enlightenment as essentially Epicurean due to some substantial similarities. However, in his review of Biblical Studies, he engages in a more bottom-up style history, connecting the conclusions of Biblical Scholarship to issues and questions of their time. My guess is that this in large part due to the fact that N.T. Wright is a Biblical Scholar, a historian of the Second Temple and Early Christian period, and at times at theologian, so his analysis of the history of Biblical Scholarship will be much more bottom-up based upon his knowledge of the relevant issues and practices; but since he is not a scholar of philosophical history, so his knowledge will be much more constrained to more broad and paradigmatic categories and labels, particuarly those labels that he is more familiar with in his studies as Epicureanism would be a part of his study of early Jewish and Christian history. This does not invalidate his comparison to the Enlightenment to Epicureanism but only to contextualize his observations and recognize the need for further nuance and to not to tidily connect the travails of Biblical Scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century with Epicureanism.

In addressing the more substantive content, I highlight Wright’s mention of how the “end of the world” interpretation of apocalyptic was rooted in a false either-or narrative similar to Lessing’s tension between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Reinterpreted in my own language, if you associate the heavenly world with unchanging ideas, much as in Platonism, and the earthly world as defined by change and conditionality, which echoes the Heraclitan flux, we are left with two largely incommensurable ways of understanding these two different domains. As Wright observes, this leads to apocalyptic meaning the end of the world because the two could not conceivably coexist at the same time. However, Wright’s narrative seems to imply, at least to me, that the reason for this division was due to ideological influence in the top down-manner, whereas I would consider attributing it more to a bottom-up explanation of certain epistemological practices as characterized by an object epistemology, as described in my previous post in the series, leads to unchanging ideas becoming “metaphysicalized”, whether the metaphysical domain is the heavens as in Neo-Platonism and much of popular Christianity or reason as in Stoicism and the Enlightenment. Knowledge based upon the object epistemology is based upon control of the object for our desires, and therefore seeks to extrapolate a reliable cognitive schema that 1) is abstract and thus processes away all the “unnecessary” and “irrelevant” properties of the studied object, which 2) we can then use to control the studied object for our purposes. Repeated practice of this style of epistemology will eventually reinforce the stability of the cognitive schema such that it doesn’t simply become reliably, but it becomes a static, unchanging, “truth” that looks nothing like the world of our senses that is complex, with multiple, interacting properties with unpredictable and messy change as a consequence. Thus the cause of the Enlightenment view is not ideological from the start as much as it is rooted in an epistemic praxis, where certain methods construe knowledge as taking on certain patterns that become habituated and inflexible.

I would suggest this observation is relevant for topics in Wright’s lecture in at least two ways. Firstly, this pattern of knowledge would still become spread in a more ideological manner from the esteemed practitioners of philosophy, science, etc. being heralded as shining examples and their work being prescribed for others; then through imitation and enacting of their methods by Biblical Scholarship would be dramatically influenced by it. Thus, I also want to hypothesize (and I can only hypothesize since I am not intimately familiar with the Biblical Scholarship that Wright refers to) that the problem rested in the very methods of gaining knowledge in Biblical scholarship itself as semi-independently recapitulating and thus reinforcing the very ideological views about knowledge, metaphysics, politics, God that influenced them in the first place. Furthermore, the very reason people like Strauss, Bultmann, etc. were popular was that the results of their scholarship resonated with the basic assumptions about the definitions that the larger society and culture they participated in shared. This resonance would be a strong basis for the “assured results of scholarship” as often times our own sense of confidence in our work is based upon its reinforcement in our social environment; the confidence in my work increases because I see similar results in other people and I find people praising my work; the basis of such epistemic confidence becomes more socialized but in a more subconscious, implicit way. Far from simply arrogance, as Wright attributes such overconfidence to, it is the result of insularity that allows such arrogance to grow. As a result, there is little flexibility in how these societies would see the different ideas of knowledge, metaphysics, politics, God, etc.; if one did not share the similar methodology one would be considered lower-status and thus unfit to really marshall much prestige. Alternative conceptualizations and alternative arguments would not be seriously considered but thrown into the waste-bin of ideas of lesser thinkers. So, the confidence in the world-view would allow for no real change to the concepts.

This inflexibility leads to an all-or-nothing sort of view where if one’s ideas of power did not manifest the desired for goals, then one was to abandon the whole endeavor entirely. One could not simply seek to adjust one’s conceptualizations about power, metaphysics, knowledge, and God; one must whole-sale forget it as entirely false. The very definition of history and power is fixed and inflexible and then the only appropriate response is abandonment. For instance, as the very definitions and nature of political power as coming into conformity to a rational order in the world as in Hegel, which is closer to a Stoic view than Epicurean, would often times constrain how political power was conceived in the two options of the more steady progress of right-wing Hegelians or revolutionary events in response to crises as in the left-wing, as Wright mentions. Therefore, once history had failed to accomplish the longed for goals, the prevailing Biblical scholarship would fall short of adequately relating to the whole of the Biblical world and its sources; one’s own socio-political interests now redefined by the entire rejection of history continues down the same line of treating the primary sources as objects from which to mine relevant information and then throw the husk away. Hence, Bultmann’s demythologization. Hence Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology despite its presence in Scripture and the wholesale adherence to a dramatic, vertical revelation; these theological and exegetical patterns were useful to address certain socio-political concerns but in doing so, it engaged in the practice of culturally appropriating the Biblical texts, extracted from them what was useful and discarding the rest as inconsequential or even dangerous, such as Wright’s mention of the negative evaluation of Luke’s Gospel for being too historical. The intellectual insularity of the German thought had left its heritage in people like Bultmann and Barth in the terms of the flexibility of thought, even as they reject the prevailing definitions about God that the German world had produced and propagated. They did not practice the necessary cognitive flexibility so as to consider alternative construals of power, politics, knowledge, God, etc. that would blur the boundaries of the categories as that were constructed in their Protestant and German culture.

However, as a side note, I would suggest that I do think Barth successfully breaks the Enlightenment paradigm, even if his definitions and concepts are still somewhat beholden to Germanic culture. As the Enlightenment philosophy drew its sense of knowledge and metaphysics based upon the practice of object mods of epistemology, it relegated the personal epistemology I mentioned in my previous post to the sidelines. When Barth tries to emphasize the subjective nature of revelation as Christ Himself being conveyed, he begins to hit at the epistemological antithesis of the object epistemology that had formed the Enlightenment worldview and German culture. Barth’s theology is representative of a transition from object epistemologies to an emerging form of personal epistemology as it pertains to God.

To that end, I would contend this bottom-up epistemological analysis might be a single note that is in harmony with the overall symphony Wright is describing. However, I do think the employment of the Epicurean historical analogy, which admittedly is backgrounded in this second lecture, can somewhat blur our what I believe to be the more important historical causes. In short, I would contend that the epistemic praxis of the Enlightenment combined with an insularity from the outside contributes to the way apocalyptic and natural theology is (mis)appropriated; Epicureanism becomes a useful metaphor to tell the narrative because of the resemblances of the two, but it overlooks some possible resemblances to Stoicism and, more pertinent to this second lecture, does not adequately open up the possibility that the Enlightenment and what follows creates its own, rather unique epistemic problems.

United Methodist ecclesiology as the ongoing cause of our divide

March 29, 2018

A couple days ago, Scott Kisker wrote an article that is making the rounds on how the bishops of the United Methodist church are potentially usurping the ecclesiological status of the denomination. In delaying the votes at the 2016 General Conference on matters pertaining to sexuality and discipline, when it looked like there was going to be a clear movement towards the traditional, historic view of sexuality in Christian history to a specially called General Conference in 2019, the idea was justified as a way to work through the issues that divide United Methodists.

And indeed, I celebrated it because while I largely stand with the traditional, historic view, I lamented because the very nature of enforcing church discipline through such legal mechanisms while occasionally necessary, should at all be avoided if possible due to the unnecessary pain it can create. It was my personal hope and prayer that it would be an opportunity to simultaneously provide clear definition to the theology and ethos to the United Methodist church while simultaneously extending meaningful grace to those who stood in on the other side; I didn’t know how exactly that would occur, except that I favored something akin to a Methodist communion. Furthermore, it was my fear that a traditional, evangelical “victory” on sexuality would lead to a potential hardening and oversimplifying on the realities sexuality and gender. But whatever the way to accomplish a hopeful future for United Methodists, that would entail a truly creative spirit that would be open to dramatic changes, as the current system is perfectly designed for the present dysfunction of the United Methodist church. The 2016 GC would not have been able to accomplish such, as mild tweaks weren’t going to be able to break the dysfunction that both affirming truth and grace. However, as indications are coming that the bishops will be recommending a “contextualization” option, where the traditional statement on sexuality will be removed and the practices pertaining to marriage will be, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will not make the needed types of changes. “Contextualization” only tweaks things and in a way that doesn’t really address the root causes of our theological and ethical conflict. While we need to wait and see what formally comes out, if indications are true, then we are facing more than a theological or ethical crisis; we are the midst of an ecclesiological crisis.

That we are in an ecclesiological crisis is witnessed by the fact that the option that the bishops as a whole seem to be preferred is the option that in the end, best suits all their interests. The movement towards affirming the traditional stance on sexuality and enforcing the church discipline would cut against the interests of many bishops with more progressive leanings. Moving towards a “Methodist communion” where we have separate branches that each define themselves but are united at the higher level would also take away much of the power of bishops through the change and restructuring. Contextualization is the “safest” option and one that best preserves the interests of the bishop.

In making this criticism, however, I am not criticizing the bishops as persons nor am I criticizing all of them as individuals (in fact, as far as I know about his leadership, I appreciate the bishop of Mississippi), but rather the power the role has upon anyone to form what their values, interests, and how they relate to them. Therefore, it is a criticism of the very nature of our ecclesiology. Our ecclesiology as United Methodist is essentially a combination of governing principles contained in monarchy and in democracy. Firstly, our Wesleyan roots are rooted in the Anglican form of episcopacy, which derived from Roman Catholicism, treating power as flowing from the top-down from a kingly figure, the pope, and then moving downward. The power of the bishops largely rests on more monarchical principles, although without a singular pope-like figure. On the other hand, as Methodism was so entangled with the spirit of the thriving American democracy, it’s ecclesiology began to adopt democratic principles, particularly in the legislative power given to the Annual and General Conferences. What we have witnessed with GC 2016 and now probably in the Commission on the Way Forward is the battle between these democratic and monarchical principles of church government.

Why is this a problem? I would strongly contend that the early church neither worked under monarchical or democratic principles but existed more as a charismatocracy, where the more general leadership of the church was bestowed upon those who evidenced special giftedness from God via apostolic and prophetic callings. There was no regular order of succession as in idealized versions of monarchy or transitions of power via a majority vote and put into place through bureaucratic-like rules as in more democratic ways of ordering power. The spiritual leadership of the wider church Church was a gift from God given to the church and bestowed various individuals, but it was not a regularized possession of the Church itself. While the Pastoral letters in the New Testament, which I do take to be from Paul, suggest one could aspire to leadership within the context of an individual body of believers, there was no regular set of rules and processes by which people would attain to leadership within the wider Church; apostolic and prophetic leadership was not a matter of ambition but it was bestowed upon people through a special calling. This calling would be confirmed, as the church in Antioch sent out Paul and the other apostle’s recognized him as containing divinely-given authority; it was not to be marshaled by mere claims of such a calling of ambition to pursue. Furthermore, even as apostles had authority, the basis of the authority they had over the churches they oversaw was a further recognition of their spiritual status; it entailed the local churches recognizing the authority of the apostolic or prophetic authorities; Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth, particularly his second epistle, establishes their authority was constantly up for negotiation and that his apostolic authority would have to have evidence of such authority, to which Paul appeals to his likeness to Christ in his suffering. Wider leadership in the Church came from calling of the individual, sending form a local church, confirmed by other apostolic authority, and reestablished in the local churches. There was never a point where the spiriutal leadership has any basis for their authority in the wider church except based upon the on-going recognition of God’s enabling.

You might say as United Methodist’s we have a similar process. People coming for ordination in the United Methodist church are people who feel called, they are recommended at charge conference, which is the meeting of the local church, and they are confirmed as at the district and then ultimately annual conference level. However, the fourth step does not happen, as short of a chargeable offense, clergy will remain in their authority; I remember it crudely being said to by a laity as coming from a pastor who shall be unnamed as “so far as you keep your pants on and keep the finances of the church in check you have a job.” However, while these processes exist, it is really addressing leadership at the local church level as the effective authority of individual clergy is in the individual churches they are appointed to. However, it does not work in such a clear manner in regards to our episcopal authority; they do go through the same process as clergy, since bishops do not form a separate class from clergy, but in matter of actual reality, their movement towards episcopal leadership fails to come under the fourth step of having to routinely establish their authority to the local churches they exhibit authority over. While they are generally limited to 2 different annual conference appointments for 8 years each, a bishop is a bishop for life. As such, they need not continue to “negotiate” and reestablish the divine calling on their present ministry; it is presumed to be their “secure” possession unless they do something egregious to disqualify themselves. So their attention and focus will gradually be shifted in their role towards other interests, including those who try to win and charm the attention of the authority for other purposes; instead, the bishops will need to keep their attention on the churches themselves as much as those people who are closer to them and those situations that are more immediately important to themselves.

Now certainly, in this day and age of a church that has millions of people and in which bishops have oversight over hundreds of churches, you can not expect an individual bishop to constantly validate his ongoing calling from God and persuade every one of them. However, what would be more reasonable and in general alignment with the principle of the ongoing reestablishment of a divine calling is if there was a way that the bishops at both the general and annual conference level (and even jurisdictional?) could be evaluated by the churches over whom they exhibit leadership. If there was some manner in which the leadership of the bishops could be called into question by the churches themselves, and not the bureaucratic process that sometimes does and sometimes does not represent the churches adequately, that the churches as a whole may make a vote of “no confidence” in the leadership, particularly on all the bishops as a unit. In a circumstance like this, it would be in the best interests of the episcopal authority to actually address conflicts and divisions, rather than putting lipstick on the same pig that keeps getting trotted out. They would be accountable for dragging their feet; they would be accountable for how they employed their spiritual authority; they would be accountable for their continued faithfulness to God. The sources of the division must be addressed, rather than subtly stoked by failure to manage. But a mechanism where the churches themselves can hold the bishops accountable might entail having to create many more small annual conference with fewer churches, so this may be some organizational difficulties with such an arrangement on the surface.

Furthermore, and this is a bit more radical, but what if the church was structured that it did not take bishops as an automatic role that the church was to have; rather, the church was less hierarchical in its organization, except that it recognized the possibility that unpredictably on our end persons would be called towards such general authority, but still that this authority has to be strenuously discerned by the individual, by the churches, and by the rest of the authority so that it is never a secure possession to be msrhalled and manipulated by those whom the role falls upon. Maybe that is untenable and maybe the apostolic nature of the early church is not something we should expect today; but I believe that every set of churches that we call a demonation should and that seek to be faithful God and believe the Bible to by inspired Scriptures should constantly wrestle and honestly acknowledge the distinctions between the charismatocracy of the early church and the monarchical and/or democratic principles of modern ecclesial organizations, rather than baptize the modern ecclesiology as true to the work of the Spirit in the early church (maybe because the Spirit is leading in another direction in the present circumstances) and thus automatically assume it represents and fosters the embodiment of God’s will in the church.

However, to summarize, insofar as our power of decision making and granting authority in our church ecclesiology is regularized, we should open our eyes and ears to the possibility that God’s will for the Church can be co-opted by other interests and concerns that have mastered how to control the system of ecclesial ruling principles with effectiveness. The spiritual leadership of the bishops can be coopted and thus I believe it would be wise that we have some way of holding bishops accountable by the churches. Those who lead the larger church are not to be like kings or presidents who have the clear prerogative of authority over others for a lifetime or for a clearly outlined period of time, but in the body of Christ they are to lead insofar as they are capable of being genuine servants, which God’s ongoing empowerment makes possible.

Reflection on N.T. Wright’s Gifford Lectures – The Fallen Shrine: Lisbon 1755 and the Triumph of Epicureanism

March 28, 2018

From mid February to early March, N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, where I am presently doing a Master as part of the Logos Institute, presented a series of 8 lectures as part of the Gifford Lectures as the University Aberdeen, with the focus of addressing topics as it pertains to natural theology. Natural theology has been a particular topic of interest for many of my classmates, particularly those influenced by Karl Barth which includes myself in a qualified sense, so it has been talk of the Logos program the past few weeks. However, despite hearing about it, I never attended nor had I yet to watch any of them, until I watched the first one today. So, my hopeful attempt is to do an eight post blog series with my own personal reflections, responses, and meanderings from Professor Wright’s lectures. For those interested, YouTube links to the entire series may be accessed here, but I will embed the YouTube video for each post.

1) I am not qualified as a historian, therefore to evaluate the historical relationship between Epicureanism and the Enlightenment needs to be qualified only towards what a comparison of ther system of ideas in Epicurean and Enlightment philosophy and not how and to what extend Epicureanism was historically transmitted to 18th century Europe. I certainly can see and understand the similarities between Epicureanism and the world we live in following the Enlightenment. However, my critique rests in the tendency to label an event by one period of history as a recapitulation of another period of history, either in the form of retroactive anachronism or attribution of historical causation and influence leading to the diminishment of novel ideas of later cultures. In their basic epistemological notions, Epicureanism (or should say Democriteanism) and Enlightenment do share many similarities in their metaphysical view of the material world as a combination of smaller parts. As such, understanding is derived from trying the functions of the smaller pieces in order to how they make up the whole. As a result, there is a certain resistance to the idea of external causation, where some entity, particularly God, comes from the “outside” to influence the system; causation is principally limited to internal causation with only qualified allowed of external causes if they were material of origin, such as Darwinian attributing the diversification of the specifies in part to selection pressures of the environment. Thus both Epicureanism and Enlightenment thinking have an epistemology that 1) by default looks towards internal causation and 2) if it must look outward, must attribute it to sensible/material causes.

But with these similarities, there are some important differences between Epicureanism and the (Post-)Enlightenment, both of which pertain to metaphysics. Epicureanism is more methodical than metaphysical, in that the emphasis on knowledge is placed not on materiality, as in the Post-Enlightenment, but on the senses. For Epicurus, all sensation is true. Now certainly, we can certainly derive the Enlightenment definition of the material world as being grounded upon all that can potentially be observed by the classical senses, particularly sight and sound, and then can be extended to include anything can be detected by our instruments and every justifiable theory that we metaphorically derives from the material world (such as the modern ideas of dark matter and energy as metaphors of “regular” matter and energy.) But in deriving this definition, we should note that a subtle difference is that modern sciences are more expressly metaphysical than simply focused on an epistemological method that values sensation as true as in Epicureanism.

Secondly, Epicureanism posited different domains for the world we live in and the gods that were mutually excluded from each other. The importance of this difference was rooted in the management of people’s emotions so as to avoid concern that they might anger the gods. As with much of Hellenistic philosophy, it was much more concern with practical matters about a way of life in avoiding mental discomfort, which Epicurus referred to as ataraxia. In that sense, Epicurean metaphysics was much more in service to how one should live. By contrast, the pronounced trajectory of Enlightenment thinking is towards the metaphysical rejecting of anything not material in materialist reductionism. Even if one does not take such a strong stance, the reason a “rational” person does not really put too much stock into that whole religious thing boils down to the high value of “reason”, however that is to be defined, rather than a sympathetic concern for human existential worry.  To that end, the Enlightenment shares more in common with Stoicism’s value of reason, minus the shearing off of Stoicism’s pan(en)theistic cosmology.

The end result is that the modern world influenced by the Enlightenment has more of a metaphysical basis for its views towards religion than Epicureanism. And as such, it also reflects distinctly different ways of addressing theological questions.

2) However, insofar as the similarities do exist between Epicureanism and the Enlightenment due to historical influence and other shares factors, there is a valid point to bring forth about the basic epistemological framework of Epicureanism and the Enlightenment. When we try to make sense of the world, there are two different modes we employ that lead us to draw inferences in different ways: knowing our focus as an object and knowing our focus as a person.3 This is to recast Martin Buber’s famous distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships with a more expressly psychological/phenomenological understand. In knowing our focus as an object, we are focused principally on how an object we perceive through our sensory data is relevant to our desires, whether they are more basic, physiological desires or less immediately visceral desires such as those stemming from asking questions out of intellectual curiosity.  Our knowledge is reduced to what can be immediately perceived and is analyzed in accordance to their relevance to what it is we desire. By contrast, in knowing our focus as a person, we necessarily must project our own mental life onto the other person since we have no direct means by which we can sense another person’s mind; we necessarily and always fill that gap in with our own experiences, both in the moment but also the experiences embedded in our own memories that we can use to simulate another person’s feelings if even we do not share that same feeling at that moment. In this context, the relationship between desires and projection exists in such a way such that we tend to see our desires occurring in the other person. However, often times our projections are in error, and so our focus may provide feedback that can shed light on when we are in error and adjust our thinking accordingly.

Epicureanism works principally from an object(ive) epistemology; Epicurus’ explicit concern was to facilitate human well-being and happiness so that his focus on knowledge was related to the desire for happiness and avoidance of worry. His focus on sensation is consistent with objectification. Similarly, the Enlightenment employed a similar methodology, although via the claims of the distinterested knower the Enlightenment often times cloaked the way desire controlled the acquisition and formation of knowledge. However, this heritage in the sciences continued such that science has attempted to understand people in a manner that resembles the object(ive) mode more than the personal/subject(ive) mode. In its most blatant form was the psychological field of behaviorism, but it is common in various other social sciences such as sociology measurement of people groups via statistics or cognitive psychology’s metaphor of the mind as an information-processing machine/computer. As a result, modern scientific theory about people falls short in actual practice of relating to persons, and I would even say about God. This practice reflects the more metaphysical nature of the Enlightenment and modern science., whereas Epicurus was much more at home engaging with people as he extolled the virtues of friendship; he did not objectify people, or even the God or the idea of God, as modern Enlightenment/scientific perspectives are apt to do. In this way, the Enlightenment more resembles Epicureanism’s cousin Stoicism, which tended to minimize and eschew the nature of personal attachments.

Thus, when it comes to the question of natural theology, and even theology as a whole including revelation, there are differences in what we will come to believe based upon whether we are attempting to understand God via an object epistemology or a personal epistemology. The different methodologies stemming from these two basic modes, both in implicit forms and when they become more explicit, leads to very different results as they value epistemic sources differently and they will employ differing grounds of justification. However, insofar as natural theology is done via observation, it will be primarily determined by forms of object epistemology. Thus, this will create a natural tension with the idea of God as a personal God and with a marked tendency to “objectify” God as understanding Him only insofar as we try to infer his relationships to our own desires. Additionally, the personal epistemological mode fits into the idea of Wright’s “epistemology of love,” albeit with the recognition that personal epistemology does not necessarily entail knowing a person, or even God, through the lens or emotion of love but can include other emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, etc. Thus, while Wright did not expand upon his “epistemology of love” in this lecture, I can certainly imagine why and how his perspective represents a decisive rejection of the object epistemology of Epicureanism and the Enlightenment but also a more decisive critique against standard modes of natural theology.

The Gospel is not “contextualized” and why we shouldn’t be as United Methodists

March 28, 2018

Context is important. As an aspiring Biblical exegete, I recognize how important context is for interpreting the Bible. Awareness of the customs and cultures of the world the texts were produced within, along with the people who originally created and received them play a big role in helping to correct any erroneous presuppositions I might have from my way of life as a white, male, educated, millennial, American. My desire to understand the Scriptures as I believe they convey something to us about God means that I find paying attention to context an important instrumental process to help me reach my end goal. As someone who studies psychology and highly values the study of interpersonal relationships, understanding the situations and circumstances people are facing is critically important if one wants to facilitate relationships, groups, and environments that are more defined by peace and justice. Being aware of people’s contexts is a vital instrument to accomplish my pro-social intentions. So, context is important. However….

Context is not God. Context is not Jesus Christ. Context is not the Holy Spirit. Context is not the Gospel. Therefore, for us who take the Scriptures as definitive for defining the nature of the Church, since the Church is God’s chosen earthly embodiment of the love and power of Jesus Christ through the giving of the Holy Spirit, defining our ecclesiology by reference to anything that is not known about God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit is deeply problematic. It becomes a form of metaphysical reification, where we take some idea or concept such as “context” and treat it as something inherently right and good and therefore try to form people, institutions, groups, etc. in accordance to this idea. Put more colloquially, “context” becomes an idol.

The idea of context is sort of a modern fad due to the increased influence of hermeneutics in our post-modern world that has thrown skepticism on what we thought we knew; we look to hermeneutics implicitly and explicit as a guide for navigating ambiguous and unclear experiences and symbols. So, as with all fads and buzzwords, they exist sort of like an economic bubble, where people assume the idea is reliable and good to use in more and more situations and because of that, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and uses it because everyone else is using it; then the concept gets used in more and more places. However, in the end, it gets used without actually verifying the idea is actually descriptively true or is accomplishing its assumed purpose and goal; its truthfulness and usefulness is simply assumed. Using the word “context” that is derived from fields focused on hermeneutics and interpretation to define the Church would be much like me studying the Old Testament Torah and trying to force people to act according to some rule or law I find of use in the Old Testament. Why? Because context of something is important. But what is ironically happening is that context is being decontextualized.

So that foray into the abstract analysis of context and theology is to make this point: when the Commission on the Way Forward for the United Methodist Church puts forward a “contextual” resolution to address the difficulties our denomination faces regarding marriage and human sexuality, there is a deep theological and spiritual problem with it. It is defining and organizing the Church by some idea other than what we trustingly know about the Triune God. It’s solution for organizing the church by “contextualizing” the issue of human sexuality to local congregations is to try to embody an idea that we call “context” and that we use because it tries to serve certain power interests of trying to have one’s cake and eat it to in trying to lose no one, and by doing so, potentially lose many while simultaneously not creating the types of change that would challenge the interests of the bishops and leading authorities in the United Methodist Church. While the Church should pay attention to context in how it lives out its mission, the ultimate organizing principle of the Church should not be based upon the idea of context and embodying this idea of contextualization; the Church is God’s chosen earthly embodiment of the power and love of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Instead, we should not employ the idea of context  to define God or the Body of Christ, but rather it should be contextualized back to its hermeneutical roots as a necessary, instrumental step by which we come to understand more reliably and effectively. Otherwise, beside the issue of sexuality itself, we would be committing intellectual idolatry.

What forgiveness is really about…

March 27, 2018

Today over on Seedbed, J.D. Walt posted on their Daily Text a devotion on Ephesians 4:31-32 and the importance of forgiveness. There is much to commend in it; that forgiveness is something I do apart from the action of another is a critical part of what forgiveness is; conflict between others can be a way of derailing the mission of the Church. However, part of how forgiveness is defined presents some problems that I am particularly sensitive to myself. While exegetical and theological precision is not something to expect to be given in a devotion, and as such, it can be easy to misconstrue what is intended, an analysis of forgiveness and Ephesians 4:31-32 is important. At the core of the concern is the idea that forgiveness itself is about management or changing of one’s emotions.

The problem boils down to our translations and how we think about our emotions in the present-day world. Most translations will use emotional terminology in v. 31, particularly in talking about anger. However, Paul’s language is not typically used to refer to a description of a type of inward emotion that we feel towards others. It can give the impression that Paul is saying “All of you should just get along and like each other.” However, the word choices of Paul reflect an emphasis not on the inner world of feelings, but on particular types of conflict behaviors. In a couple instances where Paul refers to thymos or orge which are frequently translated into emotional terms such as wrath and anger. However, these terms themselves are commonly used to refer to certain types of impassioned actions, such as acting in rage or seeking retribution from others. The word often times translated as bitterness, pikria, can also be used to refer to a type of hostile behavior towards based upon some sense of grievance. In our modern world, we are more inclined to translate and interpret psychological terms with an inward sense of what I feel and think, whereas for Paul and that world, emotions were more typically viewed from the perspective of the behaviors one does in the throes of passion. Hence, I would translate verse 31 to say something along the lines of “You should remove all of bitter fighting, displays of rage, seeking for retribution, shouting in arguments, and abusive denigration from yourselves, along with all evil.”

Therefore, when Paul talks about forgiveness in the following verse, his focus is not on inwards feelings. It isn’t about my mental state and my thoughts about another person. Rather, it is focused on the actions that members of the body of Christ direct towards others. Forgiveness is not about getting rid of negative feelings; it is about not acting with vengeance and acting with a level of openness towards the person who has hurt you (although, the nature of this openness can and should be qualified is cases of abuse). When Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21-35, the emphasis is placed upon the servant’s unforgiving actions. When Jesus says one should forgive from the heart in v. 35, it isn’t about changing one’s emotions towards the person as much as it is about acting with the genuine intention to not make a person pay back their (moral) debts.

Why is this important? Because in our modern psychological world, our inclination is to interpret the language of heart and emotion in an inward, psychologizing manner, where what is forbidden are angry thoughts about someone who hurt you. When we then start to expect and tell others to forgive, we begin to create a potentially damaging dynamic where we engage in an act of emotional manipulation and control of other person’s emotions. When we realize someone is angry at us, it can be a quite threatening feeling, and so we as Christians can often time employ “forgiveness” as a moral burden upon the ones we hurt so that we can avoid dealing with the discomfort and difficulty of our own behaviors and place the burden upon the one who feels harmed. Put more simply, when we blend the Biblical language of forgiveness with an interior, psychological focus on emotions rather than being more action and intention specific, forgiveness can easily turn into a form of spiritual gaslighting that is used by people who feel threatened by other people’s negative feelings towards them and refuse to deal with the truth. In the end, treating forgiveness as emotional change is all too frequently not really about grace, but rather as a way to avoid dealing with the truth of consequences of one’s action, even if one is not truly morally culpable for what happened.

Furthermore, for those people who have been victimized in deep, traumatic ways, they have little ways to actual control what they feel. Emotions are a visceral, bodily reality that often times overwhelms us; this becomes even more true in cases of trauma where the activation of memories of what happened actually automatically activate the physiological components of emotions and stress, such as releasing of cortisol in the system. The reality is, we don’t have direct control over our emotions; but we can do have some control over how we intend to act based upon those emotions. But if people are deeply victimized and hurt, they will only experience a sense of failure and weakness if they can not stop feeling angry and hurt by what happened. Thus, trauma victims are put through a double bind where they either feel they have to deny the pain to be faithful to God or deny forgiveness so they can own what happened to them. Even when we operate with the best of intentions, teaching that forgiveness is about emotional management or emotional change rather than about one’s intentions we set up an unhealthy dilemma.

In the end, forgiveness is about withholding all acts of retribution to seek to make people pay for what they did (but this does noy forbid discipline or truth-telling if it is needed for other reasons), allowing for the space for reconciliation and even the potential to show charity towards those who harmed. Thus forgiveness puts a stop to the tit-for-tat, negative reciprocity type of conflicts and instead allows for the real possibility of a better way of engaging one another. That is the type of forgiveness God shows the world; that is the type of forgiveness Jesus shows to his enemies. Often times as a result, a change of emotions occurs as the result of forgiveness: a person acting in a pro-social way may find the intensity of their anger diminishing a bit. Furthermore, by acting in a pro-social way, they in some cases be the recipient of more respecting and honoring behaviors and this will help allay their emotions. But the emotional change and cessation of negative feelings comes about as a result of forgiveness and the response from others; emotional change is not the condition of forgiveness but its hopeful result.

However, the moment we define forgiveness by some pop psychology theory, and often times we select the psychological theory based upon how it validates and comforts us and how it explains our own personal experience and not on its truth, reliability, and validity for all people (we often times project our psychological experiences as other people’s psychological experience), we begin to shift it from the demonstration of God’s forgiveness in His actions through Jesus Christ and into some realm where we can define forgiveness however it best suits our own interests. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a psychological theory.

You Can’t Control Change

March 21, 2018

Change is a part of life. Christian faith puts hope in a radical transformation of a person in Christ. Evolutionary theory places an emphasis on the adaptability of species and even individuals to adjust to their environments. Economics recognizes how consumer behavior will change in accordance to prices. Etc. Etc. To be human is to change. While there are different degrees of change occurring with different frequencies, such as changing apperances, changing behavior in certain circumstances, change in one’s personality, etc. it is a part of life. Even the most pessimistic views of people that see people mired in evil and sin recognize some degree of change, even if it is simply on the surface level without any real substance. However, while being human entails change, that doesn’t mean change is something we can control. As a follower of Christ, I can’t just make my heart conform to any set pattern I want it to. When economic theories that prescribe centralized control of the economy, the government often find themselves incapable of managing and creating what they envisioned. Evolutionary theory radically pushes out the idea of a purposeful intention in change; it is a bottom-up change that occurs in relation to the environmental context and circumstances and not a top-down imposition. In other words, I can make things change but I cannot reliably control what someone or something will change into. If I get angry at someone for hurting me and I then react with that anger, they might change their behavior, their attitude towards me, etc. But more often than not, I will not get the violator to change their mind and admit their violation. At the core of the problem is that I can not fundamentally account for every single factor that impacts a person and makes them as they are; and even if I could account for everything, that doesn’t mean I understand how my actions would successfully lead to the change I want to see.

Despite this reality, there are often times naive dreams often associated with utopian visions of the future where we believe we have the power and know-how to produce the very person and society we wish to create. Often times, there is the presumption that a select group of people have a special power and insight that everyone else does not have and that through their program you will achieve a desired change. In its more innocuous forms, it is witnessed in the set of supposed self-help gurus, or even Chrisitan preachers, selling books and videos on how you can reach some longed for goal, if you only follow this specific formula. These can be dangerous when consumers have unrealistic expectations about them, but this damage tends to be limited to only a few before it comes out that the program is a sham. However, in its more vicious, dangerous forms, it takes the form of governmental authority trying to institute mass change in the populace with tragic results, such as in the USSR and Maoist China. Then, there are various degrees in between voluntary, self-help gurus and coercive, top-down domineering governments. However, at the end of the day, there is the dangerous belief undergirding all of them: that you can control change.

Why is this dangerous? It comes through a combination of judgment against those who “fail” to reach the ends and the power the authorities have other those who fail. The people with credibility and authority may designate the reason for failure as due to something in the person/people: they didn’t try hard enough, they weren’t genuine, they are resisting, they are mentally ill, they are a lost cause, etc. etc. In the end, those with authority in such contexts will come up with rationales that single out certain people; it clearly isn’t their methods, or their ideas in their mind. With that comes the social judgment of the “failures” and with that the power to control a response in those failed persons. In more voluntary contexts, the guilting and shaming will be met with more products they can purchase to finally “breakthrough.” In coercive contexts, the failure is put to death or abandoned. Always, the problem lies in the intentions and abilities of the “failures;” it never rests in the inability and incompetence of the authorities to do what they originally set out to do. To be clear, the problem isn’t the explanations as to why things don’t go according to plan; it is the fact that those with the authority uses the explanations for failure as a justification for self-serving an/dor destructive ends. The implicit belief that we can change people, or even the world, is beset with a fundamental justification of one’s power over who and what one is trying to change, where the failure of change in the person(s) being control then further justifies the power of the authority. All the explanations offered are self-serving in that they reinforce the power of the authority over and against the powerlessness of those they stand over.

Undergirding this implicit belief that we can control the way people change is the idea that people are essentially tabula rasas, blank slates onto which anything can be written. A different variation may not say that people are “tabula rasas” but it treats people as all people fundamentally the same, so that the knowledge of changing that occurs in one person will work with another person. Whenever people advocating for change propose beliefs that people are basically like sheep that will do what you instruct them or that people are all fundamentally the same, be very cautious. At the end, these beliefs all justify the power of the (would-be) authority with the idea that their efforts to act will produce the desired for results because people are something we can easily mold and change. However, as reality doesn’t conform to this view, Inevitably conflicts arise due to the lack of understanding and lack of skill by the authority to accomplish what they set out to do.  So, in the end, there is the false belief that there are people with power to create and control change and that all events that fail to conform to that belief are rationalized as problems with the people being controlled rather than a problem with the ones in control. This isn’t to say that people can not facilitate change in a desired for direction in others. It is simply to recognize that people do not readily and easily conform to our wishes and that it is self-serving and destructive in the long run to think that you can reliably change other people.

For Christians leaders, it is vital that we recognize this. Even God Himself, although He is portrayed as a potter who can mold us as clay, does not exhibit such a unilateral control of people’s choices.1 God’s great power to change creation and the people within it is done not through a top-down, unilateral act to push people into conformity or to “miraculously” change the neural structures of the brain of every person so that all people will do what God wants of them. No. Rather, it was Christ taking on human life and weakness and submitting Himself to human power, which oppresses and destroys. Christ changes the world be His powerlessness becoming the scene where His power is made known. Thus, as in the sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, people are moved not by some fiat of the divine will, but by realization and recognition that they were on the wrong side of those who crucified Jesus, when the resurrection showed that Jesus was on God’s side. God let people realize the consequences of their actions. People repented and were baptized in the name of Christ not due to some top-down imposed program of change, but rather because Christ provided themselves the way to realize and know about themselves, that that they were not who they thought they were. If I may generalize, Christ and His followers change the world through being the sort of people who when heard and seen catalyze changed perceptions in other people; they didn’t impose a program upon others, rather their witness and faithfulness serve as a conduit for people to perceive themselves, others, and even God differently. While Jesus and later the apostles, particularly Paul, would offer explanations why people saw and did not understand what they saw and come to faith, often times attributed to a hardened heart, the missional program of Jesus didn’t take theses explanation as a justification for trying to control the unbelievers more; it simply meant that one should shake the dust from their feet and leave them to do as they do.

Hence, the missional program of the followers of Christ is that of witnesses. The prime action by which God’s will is made known by His people is not described by some success verb, such as influencer, change agent, etc. Rather. the disciples are described as witnesses and also their own lives are also witnessed. The way Christ facilities change through His Church is grounded upon the change of perception that comes from seeing. The mission of the Church is not tasked with some term of success, but simply a term that leads people to speak to truth in a clear, vivid way. Then, only once people perceive the same way as the disciples then do there occur more directed involvement in mentoring communities into spiritual growth and maturity. In other words, one must begin to see and understand the same as others, explained as the event of new birth, before the authorities of the early church would begin to enact spiritual and nurturing authority of then. Thus, one only facilitates change in others when there is already the necessary change occurring in the first place; then the apostolic authority acted as midwives to help facilitate the birth pf what God had conceived within a person.

In short, change is not something we can control. We can sometimes facilitate it and we can catalyze change in others, but we can not reliably control the when, where, how, and who of change. So, it is important to be aware of individuals, governments, religious authorities, socio-political movements of both the right and left, etc. that suggest we can make the who;e world into our idealized imagine; that way lurks control, self-serving manipulation, and oppression. Nor should the church accommodate to the unrealistic optimism that permeates Western, society based upon science and technology which justifies the belief we can reliably change and control things; we do not need to define our mission according to success verbs that place the emphasis on the act of changing people. Rather, being witnesses and being witnessed serves as the central task of the Church, and through that, people who we would never expect and imagine will change in ways that we would never have been able to do and manage.