Theory of Action, Biblical interpretation, and theology

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June 27, 2018

For Pauline scholars, Paul’s understanding of works takes central stage. What does it mean to say that we are not justified by works (of the Torah)? The traditional Protestant answer has been to suggest works are something people considered meritorious; good works get rewarded and evil works get punished. However, this understanding wasn’t just a Protestant view of works, it was a Catholic view of works, which we can see taking place in Western Christianity by the time of Anselm’s satisfaction atonement theory had been developed. This is the political view of works in the sense that one’s actions are judged by the polis (in the ancient Greek sense of the term) and rewarded or punished as necessary. At the end, this theory of action is meritorious action.

However, this is not the only understanding of action we can take. We can also understand action in terms of it’s impact rather than its socio-political significance. Is what I am doing having an impact? As a pastor, an important consideration in helping others was to consider what impact my actions might have on another and try to work towards God-desired peace, even amidst conflicts. Sometimes it would entail accommodating to other people’s thoughts, sometimes it would entail putting my foot down. But here, action is evaluated in regards to the purpose sought to be achieved and the effectiveness to bring it about. We can refer to this as effectual action.

In between meritorious action and effectual action is a third understanding of action: virtuous action. This hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle’s views on virtue, where justice about actions that brings about happiness. Each person has a certain role to play that if they fulfill by the right action, they will be rewarded with happiness when they do what most fits with who they are. This can be also related to a covenantal understanding of relationship, where a covenant outlines the role we are to have including between God and His People.

While one could outline many various different theories of action, I highlight meritorious action, effectual action, and virtuous action as a useful place to start in understanding the Pauline understanding about works. Whatever understanding of action is most salient will influence how you read Paul. Are works about merit? Then Paul is saying we don’t earn our way, but God earns it for us. Are works about effective impact? Then Paul is saying that getting the result of justification isn’t about what you do to get there but what God does to get you there. Are works about virtue? Then Paul is saying that it isn’t about your faithfulness outlined by Torah but about God’s faithfulness.

But the theory of action wouldn’t influence just reading Paul, but also broader theological considerations, such as the theory of the atonement. Meritorious action has Christ as the meritorious sacrifice, allowing others in based upon his merit. Substitution and satisfaction views of the atonement incline towards this view. Effectual action has Christ as an effectual sacrifice, created a change due to his action. Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor would fit in understand Christ’s action as effective. Virtuous action would highlight the virtuous nature of Jesus’ death, such as moral influence theory.

Furthermore, these different theories of action are not necessarily mutually exclusive, because life is complex and action multifunctional. An action can simultaneously be effective or ineffective, meriting or demeriting, virtuous or unvirtuous, all at the same time. Our theory(ies) of action are different abstracted frames that pick out select features of the reality that surrounds behavior. So, in understanding Paul, atonement, etc. our interpretation and theology may be influenced by multiple theories of action. Personally, I think the best understanding of Paul is a combination of effectual and virtuous action, where it is God’s faithfulness to His covenant in Jesus Christ that has an effectual impact on the world in new creation. I don’t think merit is a significant role when it comes to Paul’s view of works, except in isolated instances such as Romans 2:13. Similarly, when it comes to my view of the atonement, I understand the death of Christ as revealing of God’s type of faithfulness as a virtuous action that then begins to define us through the power of the Holy Spirit, where Christ’s action becomes effectual within us. I don’t present my views to argue for them being better than other options, but only to make the point as to how multiple theories of action might work in hermeneutics and theology.

But I will leave this pondering with one final musing: the theory(ies) of action that influence our interpretation and theology are going to be influenced by what we pay attention to in the action of ourselves and others. Are we focused on praise and blame? We will be more inclined to a merit view of action. Are we concerned with doing well and having a specific impact? Then we will be inclined to think in terms of effectual action. Is consistency with who we a salient consideration for you? Then you might be inclined to think about action as virtuous. Similarly, our theology and Biblical interpretation can engender these views of action in our own personal lives in the reverse direction. In other words, our Biblical interpretation and theology flows from our view of action, where what is true about our heart gets brought into our faith, and our view of action flows from our Biblical interpretation and theology, which can form our view of action by bringing in other information about the Bible and theology in order to form our theory of action, and through that, also the heart behind our actions.

Pursuing the good when the resources aren’t available

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June 26, 2018

One of the hardest lessons that I have learned about life is that you can try to genuinely be as noble, caring, and loving as possible and yet your efforts may not always find a way to be expressed as they should. There always seems to be a scarcity when it comes to doing what is good for others who are in need. This is reflected in the modern political discussions online where people will say we don’t have enough money to help immigrants. Sometimes the resources aren’t available because people object to making the resources available to anyone except me and my own.

Having been a pastor and worked with budgets, I am also aware of how plenty of good ideas can be available but there really isn’t just enough to go around. Similarly, I remember a time when I was the volunteer volleyball commissioner at school (it wasn’t as glorious as the title implies) and I had requested a school official to see if there would be money to throw a party at the end of the season for all the people who gave their time. It was met with a positive response, saying they would see if they could find the money for it. Sometimes good ideas can’t get funded because resources are diverted to other causes.

The reality of the ministry of the Church in this capitalist world is that money sometimes feels like a necessary resource to do the good things we wish we could. But as with all resources, there are other people and causes wanting a piece of the pie. Sometimes there are good reasons, and sometimes there are bad reasons. But as Christians, our first call is to faithfulness before it is a call to productivity, surplus, or success. Spiritual formation occurs when our hearts are dedicated towards the truly life giving and peace forming desires that God has made known in Jesus Christ and helps us to realize by the leading of the Spirit. The things we long to see for may not be able to come to fruition when we want them to, but God forms our hearts in our willing what He wills, even when the ability is lacking. Then, maybe one day, we will be formed in our hearts such that when the opportunity and the resources come, we will be able to take it. In fact, there is something deeply formative about longing for what is pure but what you are unable to have; if you accept the limitations with patience, it can form you to be the type of person to receive what it is you have dreamed of, without being majorly tempted to diverted by turning instruments of doing good into idols.

Trauma and Christian hope

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June 26, 2018

If you know me personally or one of the few that are familiar with my blogging, you know that I suffer from post-traumatic stress. It accumulated over the years to the point that I so much of the person that I used to be faded away. The events that occurred and the stress I deal with has made it difficult for me t really engage in many life activities that I used to would have enjoyed. I am overseas in Scotland and I routinely talk about going out and seeing some of the country while I am here, but yet I never have the desire to do so in the present moment. I deal with a depth of loneliness that I know is partially self-inflicted by my tendency to minimize my availability in social situations; I think about and occasionally make an effort to go out with people, to ask a woman out to coffee, to try to go to a new function to meet people, but I fail to ever really have a stick-to-it-tiveness to it. This is not to mention how my very condition can make people uninclined to want to invite my problems into their personal lives. I am in school trying to work on a second Masters with a hope of finally pursuing a PhD and trying to engage in academia, but I hesitate to truly get involved in all of it because if I ever stand out, I fear to be the target yet again of manipulative and abusive people who wish to possess me or who have an evil envy of anything I might do. I am self-aware of my own struggles to know that I deal with sense of a foreshortened future, and as I recognize every sign of it and wish to hope for something more, I am always left vacillating between the feelings of despair and some weakly held hope for the future, even as I know in my head this is a side effect of the trauma. And even as I make progress and I begin to move forward, things from the past will wrongfully intrude into my life without my consent, causing everything I have tried to rebuild to fall back to the ground, only to have to figure out once again how to put the pieces of my shattered life and dreams back together again.

Life dealing with trauma can be a struggle to retain hope and dreams when I know the truth about the cold and callous parts of life. I was once naively optimistic about the future, but now I am left trying to retain that sense of hope in a world where all the positive cliches ring out as lies from those better off to absolve themselves in their mind of any responsibility or concern. After all, if the problem is all in your head, then all you need is to snap out of it, many are tempted to think, not realizing that people’s minds and hearts learn from their experience, not from mindless and trite aphorisms. Of course, mercy should be shown to them in their ignorance because if life has worked out well for you, then just reframing how you see things would be sufficient for you to snap out of bad feelings. In the world and experience of many of those who speak with positive cliches and aphorisms, reframing how they think is all that they need to get past the minor struggles that weigh them down.

And yet, even in this deep cynicism, which I make known to make a point, there is still a sense of the Christian hope that resides within me. But the Christian hope I am referring to is not simply taking the Bible as an inspiration for the positive cliches and aphorisms. It isn’t the hope that was reminiscent of the college days where people believed that God would bring them their dream job, the perfect spouse, a great group of friends, etc. Rather it is the hope that comes with a deep groaning, that there is a God who has seen the cries of his people and groans with them. But this hope isn’t some merely imagined sort of empathy to trick my mind to feel some sort of social connection to substitute for my loneliness. It is a hope that God is the one who groans and will respond.

However, on the surface of it, I might not appear to fit the prototype of a Christian. While I endeavor to embody the virtues for a life of peace, I don’t engage in the sweet sounding cliches that we associate with a (therapeutic version of) faith. If I find someone to be a person who intrudes upon boundaries, while I hope to have my speech be salted with grace, it will be salting the truth that sometimes has an initial bitter taste. I do this because I believe that God can use my words and my actions to bring about a newness in life, through a life that seeks to break the mirages and illusions that so easily seduce us and cloak our eyes. Paradoxically, if there is indeed something to fear so as to avoid, it would be the fear of being the target of grudges of people who do not wish to see or hear of their own brokenness and sin; narcissistic illusions bring a lot of rage when shattered and the grudges that inspire the stealing of people’s lives begin to build. But in a way that I can not quite explain, I am left willing to endure that sort of struggle that I am not so ready to take on in other ways. In the end, my Christian hope is not built on the triteness of politeness and excessive positivity, but on the firm conviction that God ushers in new creation and that He uses the words and actions of his broken people, just as He used the broken body of the Word made flesh to get the long-awaited project off the ground. That the way towards the Jewish and later Christian dream of peace isn’t through positive sounding cliches and superficial compliments that puts a mask over conflicts and call those masks “peace,” but that one must endure the brokenness that comes with a word of truth that sometimes tear down what was built on false foundations to allow God to rebuild a peace on a surer foundation.

Theological doctrine as a hearing aid

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June 26, 2018

In my previous post, I posited that all conscious thinking are acts of cognitive dissonance, which can motivate resolution through various means. I highlighting the distinction between resolution between listening and rationalization and suggesting that religion has a marked tendency to have theological and ethical systems that rationalize its beliefs to buffer it from counter new information that would challenge those beliefs. On the surface of it, it might sound like I was arguing against the importance of doctrine. That is, after all, a common response to the all-too-common reality that surrounds theological discussions; doctrine isn’t about anything important, so we should just all forget all that stuff and get along and compromise. This isn’t just the response of the doctrine-skeptical spirit of much of modern liberal and progressive Christian theology. It was the response of Emperor Constantine to the Christological controversy between Alexander and Arius, who did not understand the significance of the discussion and thought it was a meaningless discussion that was dividing people.1

However, I would put forward that while religious doctrine readily and frequently devolves into an act of rationalization, this is not the universal reality of all religious doctrine. In fact, doctrine can act as a mental hearing aid, to aid us in the act of listening. As an analogy, consider how communication operates in healthy relationships. A person may tell their parent, spouse, friend, etc. that they are having a rough day; assuming the other person is open to empathy and is not preoccupied by something else in that moment, this communication will not simply be knowledge the person files away in their brain. Rather, it can grab the attention of the other, dropping whatever else is on their mind, and begin to focus their attention on the loved one. Communication aids the other to pay attention to their loved one; unless they were already very perceptive of the person’s feelings through non-verbal cues, they would not have changed their focus and attention at that moment to listen. Similarly, doctrine can act as a mental hearing aid to perceive and understand God’s action and will in the world.

The Gospel of John highlights this view of teaching. In John 5:19-47, Jesus rebukes the religious leadership2 who were criticizing him because he was healing on the Sabbath and that he claimed he was working with the authority of God as a Son. He pins down their rejection of his authority due to the fact that they do not actually know God; quite a strong claim coming towards those who have studied Israel’s Scriptures. But Jesus explains this in vs. 39 to the fact that while they read the Scriptures, they have their own agenda in reading it: they seek to find eternal life. However, Jesus says they serve as a witness to Him and His authority. In other words, if the Scriptures were read rightly, they would help people know who Jesus is, but when read wrongly and with a particular agenda, people fail to know the God who inspired the Scriptures. Similarly, in John 6:43-51, coming to Jesus is predicated on being drawn and taught by the Father, presumably with the Torah as the instrument of the Father’s instruction. Therefore, proper learning is not about gaining some knowledge one can control for oneself, but rather as a tool for listening and understanding.

Therein lies one critical difference theological rationalization and theological listening. Theological rationalization has a specific, immediate goal one wishes to acquire. On the other hand, theological listening does not have a specific, immediate goal or plan to inaugurate. Theological rationalization is rooted in the instrumentalization of knowledge for control. If one masters these ideas, if one puts these ethic principles into action, if one knows the right things to say, then one can be an esteemed teacher, a leader in the (church) community, a good Christian, a respectable politician, a prophetic voice against injustice, etc. etc. Theological rationalization as goals and desires one is attached to, and so will conform one’s reading and understanding to fit within those immediate goals and desires. One might say this is bias, but this is more than simply bias; one can listen carefully and still be biased. But in rationalization, one’s bias if inflexible, rooted in maintaining specific goals and desires at all costs, which motivates resisting new information that would challenge the goodness or attainability of those goals and desires. Thus, theological rationalization draws on desire as the power that allows the preservation of theological and ethical ideas against all counters.

By contrast, theological listening is the instrumentalization of knowledge for the purpose of rigthly understanding. Theological listening entails being able to pay attention so as to identify who God is sending, what God is doing, and what God desires. Theological listening is not simply a passive, only hear and never do anything mindset, but it recognizes one’s own goals and desires may need to be jettisoned for a time period or permanently if new information comes in. Theological listening is sensitive to new information while using what is know to aid in the understanding of this new information; the coming of Jesus as the Son of God was not clearly and unambiguously outlined in the Torah, but it was a rightly understood teaching from the Torah that was an aid in identifying Jesus as God’s Son. Then, once one has adequately understood, then one can pursue specific desires and goals, which have been formed by attuned knowledge rather than forming unattuned knowledge.

However, this act of theological listening extends beyond simply Christological questions. It addresses ethical issues, such as the one I brought up in my previous post about eating meat and idols from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul counters the rationalizing approach of those who eat meat freely because they have “knowledge” about what we would term as monotheism; Paul’s counter isn’t simply some “You need to drop that doctrine and learn to love people” as is common in modern, anti-doctrinal Christianity. Rather, Paul’s counter is to provide a different doctrinal starting point, Christ’s death on behalf of people, and use that doctrinal point to guide people to pay attention to the impact their actions are having on their fellow Christians. By appealing to the love of Christ as a fundamental doctrinal point, Paul makes it an aid in listening to and considering the very people that Christ loves.

The specific challenge then is to be able to identify what sort of theological discussion are forms of theological rationalization and what are forms of theological listening. The answer is never clear from the outset because on the surface, both can look very similar. Both can have their forms of intellectual erudtion and epistemic sources of justification, particularly Scripture. Both can have appearances of Christian virtue on the surface. Both can have persuasive power over others. Both can display forms of bias. Both can lead to error. But the fundamental difference rests on the flexibility or inflexibility of one’s bias in the face of new information that challenges one’s belief.

However, if I may suggest, even from an inward, introspective stance, one can never really know in the moment if one is being flexible or inflexible. We can rationalize how reasonable we are being, perhaps because we have been reasonable in the past, therefore, we must be being reasonable now, although one may not be flexible in this specific instance. Or we may be aware of our mind being aware of multiple options, but unaware that our awareness of multiple options doesn’t mean our hearts are truly open to the multiple options. Our self-perceptions can never be fully and entirely trusted as to our openness and flexibility.

If you can not be aware from an inward introspection, just as you can not be aware from an outward look at the surface, then 1) how can one confidently come to engage in a theological listening rather than a theological rationalizer? and 2) how can we identify theological listening from theological rationalizing? That is something I have been pondering on recently, and what I offer here is not intended as a complete but starting points: To #1 seems to be repentance; this is not some “I am sorry” type of “repentance” that immediately tries to fix things or a groveling, spiritually self-flagellating “repentance,” but rather a repentance where one actually has a change of attitude about what they have thought and done. Repentance can begin the process of excising our rationalizations, theological, ethical, or other forms, by allowing ourselves to experience the feeling of knowing one has been on the wrong side of things, thereby opening our hearts to receive God and His Word rightly. An answer to #2 I find may come from Jesus’ words about false teachers, and how they are known by their fruit. Theological rationalization, even if it contains true propositions, will be used in a false way, leading to bad fruit over the course of time because the rationalization is a cover for over motives and goals that are inconsistent and incoherent with the theological truth. Recognition of a bad batch of fruit doesn’t prove the theology wrong, but does bring it up for examination in either a) its propositional true value or b) the way that knowledge was used and applied.

Rationalization in religion

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June 25, 2018

Before beginning, I would like to proffer an intuition about the act of thinking. All conscious thought, everything we ruminate on, analyze, try to comprehend, etc. is an act of cognitive dissonance, where we have two or more cognitions in tension with each other. Sometimes this is about contradictions between our actions and our values, where we seek to justify how our actions were right even though they might have been what we said we thought was wrong, and so we form new moral beliefs and values that we didn’t use to hold to justify our actions. Sometimes this entails having contradictory ideas that we seek to smooth out. For instance, if I believe God is real and someone makes an argument that God can not exist, then my act of actually thinking about the argument will lead me to argue why that person’s argument isn’t true. The same is also true in reverse. However, the cognitive dissonance may not be between competing perceptions about myself or contradictions in ideas that I see to resolve. The tension can be between our sense of what we believe to be true and what we want to be true, and so we either analyze our sense of what is true to be amenable to what we want or we rationalize what we want to be true cannot be true. In a variety of ways, all human thinking is cognitive dissonance at some level.

This doesn’t mean what you come to believe due to cognitive dissonance is automatically false, because I would suggest cognitive dissonance can be an actual tool for getting at the truth: if you believe all swans are white and then you come upon a black swan, then your cognitive dissonance may motivate you to recognize that either a) your definition of swans is wrong so that the black “swan” is not, in fact, a swan or b) to reject the belief that all swans are white. Cognitive dissonance can motivate you to resolve the difference by taking in more information and considering whether color is an essential feature of swan-ness or not (it really depends on what purposes you have in talking about “swans” whether color is an essential or non-essential feature). Cognitive dissonance can lead you to the truth and what is good IF if motivates you to analyze your beliefs or goals in a mindset that is appropriately attuned to the truth or goodness one is seeking.1 For instance, if someone has made a report about some bad events that took place, you do not believe them, and then they present evidence that what they said took place is true, the contradiction with your beliefs can motivate you to listen to the person in order to assess what happened is true or not.2

I make that point to make this point about religion: all theological and ethical systems of religion are acts of cognitive dissonance. What distinguishes the theological and ethical systems of religion is this pivotal question is: how do religious people seek to resolve this cognitive dissonance? Are they aligning their resolution of dissonance based upon the appropriate attunement to the source(s) of truth and goodness? Or are they presupposing certain concepts must be true and/or good and therefore that all critiques are false or bad?

The sad truth of the matter is that as humans, whether religious or not, we tend to be pretty stubborn about what we believe, being inclined to instinctively deny taking in new information that might challenge our beliefs without giving an actual listen to what the new information is and the various things it could possibly mean. Hence, we are prone to rationalize when it comes to cognitive dissonance, providing reasons why the new information is invalid or false without actually taking the time to listen to the new information. However, when it comes to religion, this human process can be ramped up a notch. It is harder to rationalize something is false when it is clearly right in front of you. The belief that all swans are white is pretty hard to maintain if a creature that looks like a swan in every way except being black is staring you in the face; it is hard to rationalize away why all swans are white and truly believe it. However, because much of religion, at least in the West, talks about what is unseen, particularly God, there is a stark diffference: it is easy to rationalize away when the evidence isn’t staring you right in the face. It is easy to construct all sort of explanations about God, God’s will, spiritual forces, etc. that will allow you to maintain your belief in the face of new, disconfirming information. Then, this only gets further complicated when two or more persons, groups, etc. are arguing about religious beliefs, each providing arguments that disconfirm the other, with each rationalizing away why the other’s arguments are false. Herein lies the sources of many a religious conflict.

Now, for many in the modern Western world, they would assume from this all too common of experience of religion that either a) you can’t know anything about God or b) that God just doesn’t exist. But there is a third option: God and His will can be known by those who do not assume they know God and His will and therefore are more concerned about paying attention and listening. Karl Barth suggests something similar about religion:

We need to see that in view of God all our activity is in vain even in the best life; i.e., that of ourselves we are not in a position to apprehend the truth, to let God be God and our Lord. We need to renounce all attempts even to try to apprehend this truth. We need to be ready and resolved simply to let the truth be told us and therefore to be apprehended by it. But that is the very thing for which we are not resolved and ready. The man to whom the truth has really come will concede that he was not at all ready and resolved to let it speak to him. The genuine believer will not say that he came to faith from faith, but—from unbelief, even though the attitude and activity with which he met revelation, and still meets it, is religion. For in faith, man’s religion as such is shown by revelation to be resistance to it. From the standpoint of revelation religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture.3

While I would not make the absolute stark separations that Barth so commonly does and I have multiple problems with Barth’s metaphysics of revelation, those problems aside, Barth makes the point that religion often times functions as a form of resistance to God’s revelation. Religion often times resists what God is making known, rationalizing it away. We Christians who believe the New Testament witnesses believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh, and yet the religious elite with their ability to read the Torah and know about God’s commandments, such as the Pharisees and Scribes along with the Sadducees and the chief priests, did not understand Him as God-in-the-flesh despite all He did and resisted Him; violently so. Or, consider how those of us Protestants who passionately hold to “justification by faith alone” can go through major gymnastics to explain away how James 2:14-26, or even Romans 2:13, does not suggest there is more to “justification” than faith, rather than either a) allowing a more complex view of justification or b) allowing that justification means different things at different times. My point in these examples are not to pin the problem with any group of people; these processes of cognitive dissonance can happen to literally anyone. My point is only to show the very human reality of religion can so easily and readily resolve cognitive dissonance by acts of rationalization.

The solution begins in humility, as Barth begins to suggest.4 In humility, one is more apt to judge to reject one’s own beliefs and desires and therefore resolve cognitive dissonance by listening, rather than rationalizing. As a consequence, rationalizing religion will tend to have a ever-burgeoning growth of doctrines and concepts, because listening entails a recognition of one’s own ignorance while rationalizing frequently adds multiple doctrines to keep one’s knowledge base from collapsing under new information.

This dynamic is expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul criticizes people who have knowledge that no idols really exist and thus freely eat meat that is sacrificed at pagan temples. Paul’s response is two-fold: firstly it is to challenge to knowledge that no other god’s exist. Instead, Paul directs people to pay attention to the God we worship rather than pay attention to the ontological ideas about other gods; the question of the existence of other gods is immaterial when it comes to the worship of the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, having argued that questions of a divine ontology beyond the creative power of God, he proceeds to tell the Corinthians that no everyone has the same knowledge base. As a consequence, when people eat meat as commonly offered at the pagan temples, while they rationalize their own behavior they are causing harm to another person who does not share this knowledge. Paul’s response is to critique their ontological speculations and their rationalizations, and instead direct them to pay attention to the impact their actions are having on other people. Why? Because these people are under the influence of Christ’s death. Therefore, instead of paying attention to theological and metaphysical rationalizations that would justify eating at the temple, Paul encourages a religious knowledge that comes by paying attention to Christ and the significance of what He did, which thereby entails paying attention to the very people Christ considered significant.

In analyzing the situation, the Corinthians were tempted to add further wisdom and knowledge to wisdom and knowledge. But for Paul, the problem is that they are not properly putting their faith in God but rather in the ideas of human teachers,5 and one of the consequences is that people are rationalizing their behavior away by their knowledge, oblivious to the harm they are causing. Here, there are the goals that the people want to be true, so they rationalize away about ontological reality so that they can justify what they want to do. Thus, religion in the ontological and perceptual vacuum that it exists within can easily find rationalizations; this is what Paul decisively warns against.

But to be clear, the problem isn’t having beliefs. The problem is having knowledge one treats as certain, and therefore is insensitive to hearing or listening to anything different, particuarly when it comes to testimony of what has happened as matters of fact. It is a belief system that not only anticipates what God is doing, as Barth talks about, but goes further assumes what God must do and what must happen as a consequence. When new information comes in that things are not working according to one’s assumptions, people who think they have confident, surefire theological knowledge will be inclined to explain away the new information and rationalize the certainty of one’s belief. Instead of resolving cognitive dissonance by listening, cognitive dissonance is resolved by analyzing why every single mildly significant thing one believes must be true, being unwilling to risk even an inch to the voices crying out in the wilderness. It is possible to anticipate but be open to your expectations being wrong and thus keeping oneself moving towards the what is true and good, despiste mistakes, but when religious anticipations are assumptions, then one is engaging in form of religion that deals with the cognitive dissonance of thinking by rationalizing.

Religion can be a good thing, if it teaches us to deal with cognitive dissonance by seeking to listen to God and also seeking to listen to those whom God values when our anticipations and expectations fail us, but religion can indeed become a resistance to the will of God when it seeks to rationalize its beliefs about God and the world of people that God loves and died, invulenrable to new information that might have said they missed something important.

Purity and traditional Christian sexual ethics

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June 24, 2018

Having grown up in the Bible Belt in the United States, I was deluged with a lot of very conservative views about sex during my middle school and high school years. Here I am male having gone through puberty, working through the feelings that our God-ordained biology has all people to work through, and I am inundated with two very different messages. On the one hand, was the purity sexual ethic in events like “True Love Waits” (although I never attended anything like that) that was focused on prevented kids from having premarital sex. On the other hand were the sexual exploits of many of my fellow classmates being openly discussed. Being the rather traditional, “good Christian” I obviously thought what they were doing was wrong. And to this day, I share the same opinion that what I was hearing was not a good and healthy thing for teenagers to do, but my whole rationale over the years has radically changed.

Sex is a powerful thing. It can make emperors totally lose themselves and their focus, such as Julius Caesar’ seduction by Cleopatra. It can unite two people together in a strong, intimate union. It is something people can try to enjoy for recreation. It is something that people can fear. It can make people buy products based on advertisements. And, unfortunately, it is something that people will harm others for. And we, in the West, have witnessed the outpouring and opening up of this great power within our society over the past century. As the Victorian-style sexual ethics have given away to a powerful sexual liberation movement, traditional Christianity has found its increasingly on the margins. To be sure, there was never a pristine society where sexual behavior was principally and only enjoyed in the confines of marriage, but at the very least, such a traditional sexual ethic has public, social power, even if sexual desire was more powerful than it and people’s private lives. And therein lies the origins of the problem of the traditional sexual ethic of Anglophone world; it was primarily premised on social power rather than personal motivation. And the moral base that the traditional sexual worked from? The concept of cleanliness and purity.

According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, purity is one of at least six moral foundations that inform our sense of ethical judgments. At the core of purity is the emotion of disgust. Mick Power defines disgust in Cognition and Emotion as follows:

1 There is an object or event which may be external, as in the reaction to particular foodstuffs or to faeces, or internal, as in the reaction to particular thoughts or images.

2 The object or event is interpreted to be noxious in either a literal sense or a symbolic sense.

3 The interpretation leads to an appraisal that the object or event should be eliminated or excluded from the organism, because it violates a goal of maintaining a state of non-contamination.

4 The appraisal leads to a propensity for action to distance oneself, either literally or symbolically, from the object or event.

5 Characteristic physiological reactions include a feeling of nausea together with a characteristic facial expression that is universally recognisable (Ekman et al., 1987).

6 There is a characteristic conscious feeling of “revulsion” together with an awareness of other reactions.

7 The reaction of disgust may be accompanied by characteristic behavioural reactions such as removing oneself from the object of disgust.1

So, when the emotion of disgust gets directed towards sex, hearkening back to Augustine’s view of sexual desire as degrading, it leads to some very painful social outcomes, such as elimination and exclusion of sexual deviants, distancing from those people, etc. This can be very painful to people, who can be judged either based on exterior behavior or interior desires. These behaviors and desires are impure and unclean, and thus motivate strong emotional reactions of disgust towards others or even oneself. As a result, many emotional disorders have disgust at their root.2 Furthermore, since disgust at its core is a survival emotion, keeping us away from risky and offensive things or people, it forms a sense of vigilance the more disgust becomes part of a person’s emotional habit. Such vigilance can lead people to forming false-positive judgments about others, where they are suspicious of behavior where there is in fact none. Furthermore, evaluations of disgust tend to linger long-term; it is harder for a person who has become disgusted with someone or something to reverse the judgments they make than it is to change judgments they make based upon simple anger.

At one level, the emotion of disgust is unavoidable, precisely because it is a universal and power moral emotion. Disgust is not a monopoly of sexual purity focused traditional Christians. Any perusal of social media on a wide range of issues will reveal a whole lot of disgust, and the very power disgust can have in shaming and ostracizing others, which often amounts to social mobbing/bullying. However, where a purity-center traditional sexual ethic has made a mess of things is how they pit two very powerful forces against each other, sexual desire and disgust.

The tension between the power of sexual desire and moral disgust creates an emotional condition known as ambivalence, where people either feel two opposing feelings at the same time, if they do not experience such feelings with intensity, or they rapidly switch back and forth between both poles if the two feelings are rather intense. While mild cases of ambivalence can be a source of insight and useful creativity, cases of rapid switching has a tendency to destructiveness and harm of self or others. But in the cases where purity and sexual ethics have come from a social power, where people are judged repeatedly by many people, the feelings of disgust, and the corresponding feelings of shame when one is the recipient of disgust, becomes particuarly pronounced and intense. The way the traditional sexual ethic has been pedagogically taught and enforced through purity in what is often referred to as the “purity culture” has had the effect of essentially making people extremely ambivalent about sex.

Beyond the harm that this does on a psychological level, it is also deeply problematic on a theological level. In Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus engages in a sharp rebuke of the way of the purity code of the Pharisees and scribes. While the moral topoi is about dietary customs on the surface, Jesus addresses the deeper issue of how purity is to be understood. Jesus criticizes the way the concerns of purity by the Pharisees and scribes have made them overlook God’s word and set their hearts far from the true worship of God. Jesus’ rebuke of the purity system starts at the heart. Then, in taking a teaching moment to the crowds and his disciples, Jesus goes on to define purity based upon what resides in the heart. Far from just simply opening up all food for eating, as the Markan version of this story states, Jesus hits right at the heart of purity, pun intended, in a way that is distinctly discontinuous with the way the Torah handle purity.

For the Torah, purity was principally a matter of biological function, consumption, and physical contact, whether it be certain bodily secretions, eating the wrong food, or engaging in the wrong type of sexual behavior. However, as the prophet Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 31, there would come a day where God’s Instruction/Torah would reside in the people’s hearts. Then Jesus arrives on the scene and everything shifts. In Mark 1:40-45, Jesus physically touches a leper. For the Torah, uncleanliness was contagious, therefore Jesus should have been the unclean one. However, instead, with Jesus’ touch the leper becomes cleansed; in Christ, cleanliness was contagious. So Jesus own action along with is teachings on purity throws the very reality of purity, upside down on its head. Jesus defines purity as an inward reality of the heart because, in the end, we might say that the power of Christ overpowers the impurities that operate in the world. Now, this doesn’t mean overturning every part of the Torah that was connected to notions of purity, particularly sexuality. The rationale for the sexual regulations in Leviticus 18 and 20 extend beyond some imposition of some code of purity. However, what it does mean is that the moral foundations of sexual behavior for the followers of Christ is not to be grounded upon some sense of behavioral purity. It is grounded upon an internal purity.

However, even that internal purity needs to be clarified carefully. When Jesus speaks of what comes from the heart, he does not talk about emotions and desires. This wouldn’t even have made too much sense in the context of dietary customs because while diet can activate deeply held views, it is rarely an issue of emotional desire except when it comes to survival.3 Rather, Jesus uses principally behavior language; the only psychological language Jesus used is the cognitive language of διαλογισμοὶ πονηροί, which probably refers to evil rationalizations that justify wrong behavior, as Jesus had just criticized the Pharisees and scribes for in rationalizing away the commandment to honor one’s parents. In suggesting certain behavioral and cognitive language as being impurities of the heart, Jesus is saying behavioral intentions and the rationalizations for those behaviors as impure.

Now, certainly impurity relates to the emotions and desires, but the concern for Jesus is how one’s heart leads one to rationalize actions that are against the will of God. The experience of emotions and desires may motivate such a process, but nowhere do we see Jesus engaging in an ethical judgment of emotional experience; his criticism his sharply directed towards the way the Torah, its regulations, and the traditions stemming from it were used in a way far from God’s will and heart. Similarly, when the Apostle Paul makes his most explicit statements about impurity as it pertains to sexual behavior in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul places a sharp emphasis on receiving God’s instruction as coming from the Holy Spirit. Without going into a thorough exegesis, Paul resembles Jesus’ own statements about purity: it is about an acceptance of God’s will rather that corresponds to acting in a particular fashion. Impurity resides in a heart that actively resists God’s will by justifying one’s actions; impurity is not about desire but reasoning out our intentions.

Therefore, what we should be disgusted when it comes to sexuality isn’t the wrong type of sexual behavior. While the New Testament clearly rules out much of what the recent trend of sexual liberation has celebrated, it doesn’t typically view such behavior and desires with disgust.4 Rather, what is more the target of disgust for Jesus is how people rationalize their behaviors, including sexual behaviors, in ways that actively resist the will of God they claim to hold to (thus, this disgust is not directed towards people who never claimed to follow Christ) and rationalize and cloak harm that they do to others. A rightly direct concern about purity as it pertains impure and evil rationalizations wouldn’t leave people traumatized by the judgment that come from their own sexual desires, nor discarding people for actual or merely suspected sexual deviance, but rather targetting those who actively harm and then justify that harm. Furthermore, while such a rightly directed focus will not automatically solve all the gaps and conflicts that exists between the Church that affirms the traditional sexuality of the Scriptures with people who order their sexuality differently, it will go a long way towards bringing peace and healing that has been caused by a damaging form of purity that takes sexual behavior and desire as the focus of disgust and so harming countless people.

What Romans 13 is really about

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June 15, 2018

Yesterday, The Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from people illegally entering into the country. While many have rightly spoken against this as a misappropriation of Scripture, the main emphasis has been on how Romans 13 doesn’t justify such unnecessary actions as separating children from their parents. However, what has gone less under the radar is the actual meaning of Romans 13 in context of the rest of the letter and the larger socio-political context.

Most of Paul’s letter to Romans is addressed towards Jews, not Gentiles, who were familiar with the Torah of the Old Testament. This is significant because the historian Suetonius records an expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome by the emperor Claudius; Acts 18:2 probably refers to the same event. Why? Suetonius records it is because of a conflict surrounding a person named “Chrestus,” which may be a mispronunciation of the title of Christ/”Christos”/χριστος. If this is the case, then Jews were forced to leave their homes in Rome because of religious conflict that happened over the person of Jesus Christ. Regardless of whether that is actually what had happened or not, such an expulsion would have stoked a lot of feelings of antagonism towards the Rome Empire amongst Jews, many of whom would feel a great unease in a society that worshipped many gods and had a very different set of ethical practices.

At some point, many of the Jews returned back to Rome, but the memory of such an injustice would not have been forgotten. As a result, there would have most assuredly been a growing militaristic zeal, wishing to overthrow the Roman Empire, which we know did become fully realized in 66 AD in a rebellion. The story of Maccabees as part of Israel’s history would have been a source of inspiration, where they overthrew the oppressive rule of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire. The last words of Mattathias in 1 Maccabees 2:49-68 are particularly important as a speech recounting Israel’s history from Abraham down throughout the history of Israel to motivate vengeance against the Seleucids. The Apostle Paul shows familiarity with this speech throughout his epistle to the Romans. For instance, in Romans 4:1 he is alluding to way Mattathias references the story of Abraham in 1 Maccabees 2:52, but suggesting the idea has a mistaken premise. Then, in the context of Romans 13, he uses similar language of vengeance (ἐκδίκησις) and repayment (ἀποδίδωμι) as 1 Maccabees 2:67-68 (ἐκδίκησις; ἀνταποδίδωμι), but in a different way. Paul encourages his audience to let God get vengeance in Romans 12:19 rather than taking vengeance for oneself as Mattathias encourages; Paul tells people to not repay evil in Romans 12:17 but to give to the government what is due in Romans 13:7, rather than imitate the reciprocation of evil that Mattathias dreams of.

Thus, Romans 13 is a statement to a people who feel oppressed. But, it isn’t a statement of “you need to submit to the oppressive rule of the Romans.” Rather, Paul’s statement is much more subtle. Paul tells the Roman Christians to submit to ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις, which is commonly translated along the lines of “surpassing authority.” ὑπερεχούσαις can be interpreted to mean two things in this context. It can be taken to be a reference to the person who is highest in the political hierarchy, that is the Roman Emperor Caesar. If a Roman official were to find this letter, he might read Paul’s statement as an unqualified statement of accommodation to the political powers. However, the alternative interpretation could be a statement about moral exemplary authorities. In that context, Paul would be saying submit to those rulers who judging in a righteous manner, which by implication would mean do not submit and obey injustice. To an audience that is grieved by the injustice of the Roman rule, they could have heard this moral qualification.

This moral exemplary interpretation then sets the context for what Paul immediately writes after that: οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ θεοῦ (literally, “authority is not except from God.”) While one could read this to mean all authority comes from God, an alternative interpretation would suggest that Paul is speaking elliptically, intentionally not ὑπερεχούσαις (“surpassing”) in this clause; the attentive reader would have to fill that in. If that is the case, Paul is saying that authority by nature is not morally exemplary, except when God makes it so. Far from actually given a blank check of political authority to political powers, Paul is subtly speaking of a very qualified, limited legitimation of political powers. Political powers are by nature offensive to God’s justice except when God makes them just. For these Jewish Christians then, Paul is encouraging them to allow for the righteous usage of political power, while by no means simply telling them to submit to any and all political decisions, no matter how unjust.

Thus, Paul’s view of political power is stated in a subtle manner so as to evade suspicion from avid supporters and officials of the Roman Empire. Christians were to not seek to take vengeance against them, but instead trust that God will take vengeance for any injustice. Instead, Christians should seek to obey the righteous power that the Roman Empire does wield, even as much of it may be unjust, and to pay the taxes, customs, fear, and honor that should be reciprocated for when political power does serve God’s justice. Why? Because the way to be victorious over the world as Christians is to suffer with Christ,1 not by seeking a military and political victory over the world.

While many people today might not agree with this stance of addressing unjust political regimes, my point is not to offer an apologetic here for this non-aggressive resistance of political injustice. Rather, my main point is to point out that Romans 13 is not a blank check for governmental power to enforce their laws. It was a carefully worded statement to an oppressed people, giving them instructions on how to respond to the grievous suffering and oppression they saw and felt: do not take vengeance for evil done, but seek good and let God arrange for vengeance. Submit to the righteous usage of authority, and support it as far as it serves God’s purposes. But what Paul did not intend is the legitimation of any and all political and legal power for whatever purpose they think it should be used for, but it can be read that why who seek to justify their power as immune from criticism, and their interpretions reveals the actual leadings of their heart.

Why it is better to be an atheist than to be “born again.”

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June 15, 2018

Amongst Christians circles, it is “common sense” that atheists stand as the greatest threat to faith. They are “godless” and they reject everything we stand for. Besides, doesn’t Psalm 14:1 tell us that a fool says “There is no God.” Instead, didn’t Jesus say that you must be “born again” to enter into the kingdom of God in John 3? Isn’t it obvious that the born again are better off than atheists?

But hold up. Is that really what is said? Psalm 14:1, and the equivalent passages in Psalm 10:4 and 53:1, literally says in Hebrew “no God.” In our modern world where the debate is between the existence of God and not makes that topic very salient, we will be inclined to here the negation of “no” here as a rejection of God’s existence. But in a time where there are multiple gods and goddesses to worship, the salient concern is about what god or goddess is in power and whether that god or goddess cares. Therefore, to say “no God” wouldn’t be a rejection of the existence on a single, monotheistic God. Rather, it would be closer to stating “God is not here” as if God is unconcerned about what happens or is incapable of doing anything. The implication within all of these psalms is that the person who thinks to themselves that God isn’t concerned about what they are doing are people are someone who engages in evil, unjust acts. Far from saying “God does not exist,” the fool in these psalms speak of persons who think God is not paying attention to what they do, thus legitimating their evil deeds.

Meanwhile, in John 3:1-9, Jesus is engaging in a discussion with Nicodemus. Jesus begins by saying “no one can see the kingdom of God unless one is born ἄνωθεν.” ἄνωθεν has two different meanings. It can mean to start afresh, which is where we get the common translation of “again.” It can also mean from above. The Gospel of John is notorious for using words that have double meanings, where people interpret the words one way when in fact the word is used in a different manner.1 That is what happens here. Nicodemus interprets Jesus as talking about a second birth in vs. 4, thinking Jesus is talking about being born again.

Jesus then offers a clarification by describing it as a birth from the water and the Spirit. Now various interpretations have been offered as to what born of water refers to. Does it refer to baptism? Does it refer to the first type of birth? While I think the baptismal explanation is closer than an explanation of a first birth, the joining of water and Spirit, which also means wind” is an echo of creation, where the world has been un-formed and at that moment there is a wind/Spirit of God hovering over the waters. Jesus is speaking of a creative act of God, who resides “above” in the “heavens.” Then, Jesus clarifies the original statement about being born from above by a reference to the metaphor of wind, which is invisible and yet people hear it. To be born above is a mystery that you see happen but it is not something you ever understand or grasp. In the end, to be born from above entails God’s creative action, entailing a looking forward to God rather.

Thus, the difference between being “born again” and being “born from above” is about where our attention is. Is our attention within ourselves, in some experience we have, that we have some fixed status within ourselves that sets us apart? Or, is our attention to what God is doing, looking for God’s power to make something real instead of attention on something we possess ourselves within ourselves? Being “born again” is about my experience and about my state. Being “born from above” is about God’s action. In the case of being “born again” we are the center and God is the legitimation of my experience of change, forgiveness, etc.; frequently this is joined together in many evangelical, “conversionists” circles with a sense of absolute certain ourselves as individuals. In the case of being “born from above” God is at the center and we are left in a state of mystery and ambiguity as to how this is all supposed to happen; there is a hopeful trust in God but not a lot of clear knowledge about how it is all supposed to go down.

Which leads me to my point: it is better to be an atheist than to be born again. Why? Because being born again means God becomes defined by my experience, which means I will make a lot of statements about God that are veiled statements that serve the interest of my own self-esteem, interests, status, power, etc. I am the center of what God is about. However, the whole trajectory of the prophetic tradition starting in Moses and came to expression in the prophetic literature is that God is a holy God, who is not to be fashioned into an idol, whose kindness and mercy is not some automatic possession of the people, no matter what they do. The prophetic tradition would say so much of what is said about God is self-serving; even as the people appealed to the traditions and practices that God had given to them, the prophets point out how the very meaning and intentions of those practices were forgotten and distorted for other purposes.

If we were to take the prophetic tradition seriously today, we might say 95% of what is said about God today in religious circles or by religious persons is either outright false or deeply mistaken; appealing to Scripture does not justify them. Guess what? Atheists would say 100% of what is said about God is outright false. The difference between taking the prophetic tradition serious in this manner and atheists is only on about 5% of things. While we would disagree with atheists on propositions pertaining to God’s existence, we would agree that so much of what is done in the name of religion is false and frequently self-serving. Furthermore, so much of what is said by Christians, or people of other religions, is said in such a way to justify ourselves, to suggest that God is on our side. Hence, we can be tempted to say something similar to Psalm 14:1 – “God is not concerned about me and what I do” because we have made ourselves, our desires, our dreams the center of God’s intentions. And so, in a self-cloaking in darkness, those who are “born again” can be tempted to think what they do is justified and that God will not enact justice against them for their actions. Atheists do not work with such an egocentric idea of God.

What if in the secularizing West, atheists, agnostics, and people who have serious doubts about God are closer to the kingdom of God than many of us Christians who think we are on the right side? What if the problem of the Pharisees is the self-serving, self-justifying nature of their religion that was used to indemnify them from their own ethical responsibilities and to mask their own injustice? What if the reason Jesus chose sinners to eat with was that they, despite their sin, were not caught in a web of religious self-justification that blinded them from seeing what was truly good, appreciating it, and receiving it? So, what if atheists, agnostics, and those who have serious doubts about God are closer to God’s kingdom than many Christians because atheists, agnostics, and those who doubt are actually closer to the truth and thus more open to receiving it? Would that throw your whole world upside down?

To be clear, the problem isn’t the existence of some theological or ethical error among us Christians. The problem is that when we believe something to be true, but the deeper, more subconscious reason we believe it is true is that it somehow serves our own interests, and then we resist letting those beliefs go because it would threaten us. Theological self-justification of our own interests creates a resistance to true, godly repentance because we have already place our property stake in the ground about what we think about God and we want to keep the property lines where they are. Theological self-justification can absolute erode any sense of humility is ourselves, making ourselves the center rather than in humility allowing God to be the center. Meanwhile, those who have reservations about God may have their reasons for why they do believe in a God or trust in God, but they do not justify their lives and interests based upon their lack of belief in God. And while there are the militant atheists such as the New Atheists for whom much of what is said would not be applicable, most people who question God and His existence are not caught in such a vitriolic state; they simply fail to be convinced or they have been deeply hurt by religious people.

To be “born from above” entails a posture where our hearts are wide open as we stand in a mystery, not presuming we know enough to legitimate ourselves and our dreams, but where we look towards the power and action of God to bring about new creation of His Kingdom and us as His people. Atheists are closer to this status because they do not use God to legitimate themselves, rather than many Christians whose lives are defined by the inward posture of being “born again” where God legitimates them. That is why it is better to be an atheist than to be “born again.”

The tragedy of suicide and it’s antidote

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June 13, 2018

“Suicide” is a painful word for me. For many people, it is a word that evokes feels of sadness and compassion, wishing that there was something they could have done to help. For others, it is a damnable sin, the epitome of selfishness. However, for me, it is a story of pain. It is a word that haunted the hallways of that corner of mind that I avoided for many years of my life.

My brother took his own life when he was approaching the apogee of his life; he was absolutely brilliant, scoring 35 on the ACT and would have graduated second in his high school class. He had many things going hm. But he did it for reasons I never truly understood, although I have my intuitions and I knew he was a victim of persistent teasing, if not even bullying. I remember the moment that I saw his body; I was the reason we ended up finding him. From that day, my life began to be defined by the pain that caused my brother Evan to take his life.

Prior to this, I myself was the repeated target of teasing during the middle school years, where children can be cruel to each other. Then, in the aftermath, I was treated differently, as if I had a stigma of being Evan’s brother. There was certainly compassion and the cruel words stopped, but I was left in a world where I never knew who cared and who didn’t. Then, late in my high school years, I began to seriously consider it myself, as I was so deeply alone, feeling so distant from everyone. However, life changed as I moved to college and began to start in a new direction of life; I had avoided recapitulating my brother’s narrative. But I could still hear that ghost still howling in the abandoned hallways of my mind, even as I was moving forward. Then, I was the victim of a never-ending, objectifying, isolating, humiliating harassment that pushed me to my emotional and mental limits and forced me to walk into that hallway I never wanted to go down again. I again gave it serious consideration. But, I had parents I loved and while my life had been absolutely shattered into pieces and I was in the throes of the deepest emotional pain I had ever experienced in my life, I moved forward. I was forced to fight that ghost to hope for it to be exorcised from my mind and heart.

I tell you this story to say, I know the reality of suicide, both as one who lost a loved one and the impact it had and as one who contemplated it. As I hear the voices of compassion and judgment in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s and Kate Spade’s suicides. I know the throes of the pain that can cause one to contemplate it and the throes of the pain it causes to one’s family and friends. I can only say this: it is simultaneously an act of selfishness in throwing pain onto others and an act of helplessness where one has little left to manage with. It can be perceived as an act of betrayal and it can be perceived as an act of selflessness.

At the core of the act of suicide is this: feeling the inability to bear the burdens of life anymore. But for the vast, vast majority of people, the burdens of life is not simply about the mere biological life of existence, but a socially embedded reality. While in some occasions, suicide is the result of some deep biological struggle, such as some forms of medical conditions that take its mental toll on a person, more often than not it is the response to one’s social relations. Perhaps one is the victim of bullying; perhaps one has done something they believe to be terrible that other people will reject you for; perhaps one is so self-absorbed that the mere inability to handle disapproval drives one to extreme conclusions. There are a variety of scenarios and circumstances that can lead to it, but for the vast majority, it stems from an actual or perceived separation from any or all significant relationships. And so, the antidote begins to suggest itself from this.

It is tempting to think it is to show people that you care. Many people have reminded us on social media about the importance of reaching out to others. But, a well-intended and truly caring as these attempts are, it doesn’t solve the problem but only delays the problem. The conditions that make suicide a serious consideration is not simply the result of one or two painful events. It is the years of accumulation; there may be salient events that trigger the decision such as a divorce, rape, a foolish decision, etc., but the consideration of suicide in those events stems from the person who has been formed by the events prior to those traumas. It is the years of being ignored or being bullied or setting up unreasonable expectations about oneself and one’s relationship to others and so on that set the scene. So, your kindness in a moment can impact a person’s decisions; never let me diminish the impact something like that can have. But this treatment of the condition rather than prevention.

Suicide is a response to the absence of the giving of grace and truth. It is the absence of grace that colors every interaction with people, that signals they are not that important, that they are hopelessly lost, that they are of little importance. It the absence of truth that sets up unrealistic expectations about oneself and one’s life that leads to the despair when the dreams fall apart. Each interaction of a person’s life impacts a person’s future, and when the interactions are largely devoid of grace and truth, it sets up the conditions for suicide to occur. But the problem is that we are so often oblivious to these subtle relational realities and how they build up over the course of life. It is a culture that overemphasizes the imagination of one’s future in setting up unrealistic dreams, that leads to the diminishment of value of people who will not help you to fulfill those dreams. It is a culture that in response to this social diminishment from others, encourages us to dream even more to compensate, thus tempting us yet again to diminish the real values of others. Since we don’t directly perceive the relationship between the unrelenting pursuit of our dreams and how it impacts who and what we value, we miss the connection between unrelenting ambition and unrelenting graceless and falsehood. To be clear, this isn’t about dreaming about one’s future. It is about how our Western culture through the media dramatically (mal)forms our sense of selves and our relationships to others, that fails to temper enthusiasm with humility and love.

The antidote is becoming people of grace and truth. It is a culture that shifts how we see and value people such that we don’t have to rescue people from their pain, but rather the very way people are encultured prevents its occurrence. But the painful reality of this is that it entails repentance, a repentance that many are unwilling to acquiesce to.

Meanwhile, if you are reading this, and you feel such a deep pain that you would consider taking your life, feel absolutely free to contact me to talk. Even if I barely know you or you are an entire stranger, I want to hear your pain and struggle. On top of having served as a pastor for multiple years, I have been there myself.

Predestination and the preexistence of Christ

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June 13, 2018

The word “predestination” is enough to send shivers down many Christians of my own Wesleyan-Arminian heritage. Hearing the word conveys images of an angry God arbitrarily damning people to hell for entirely arbitrary reasons while letting others get a free pass. While this is certainly a stereotype of Calvinist theology, certainly the word “predestination” carries a lot of baggage as a result.

The primary response by my theological tradition has been to offer an alternative ordo salutis to the Reformed tradition that adds some condition of faith to the decision of predestination, such as appealing to God’s foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 to explain predestination. The problem with this response is that it treats the Bible, particularly the Gospels and Paul’s Letters as a how-to guide of salvation. This is not to mention the problem of treating salvation as something close to a regularized, assembly line process where there is a specific order that occurs each time. Put quite simply, the authors of the New Testament are not concerned about developed an extended metaphysics of salvation; rather their concern is phenomenological, only occasionally foraying into what we might term metaphysics, and even then, the main metaphysics pertains to the action and power of God. While one can trace a certain chronological pattern of Christian phenomenological experience throughout the letters of Paul, it is a mistake to try to trace out a correspond metaphysical chronology of salvation.

However, another option comes from Karl Barth. Barth reinterprets the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. He suggests that the election of God occurs in one person, Jesus Christ,1 with whom we may then be joined together. There is a substantial problem with this from a Biblical perspective, however. While Christ is called elect in some passages such as Luke 9:35, nowhere is a direct analogy drawn between Christ’s election and the election that other people are a part of. Furthermore, this would assume that election is used in equivalent senses when it comes to both Christ and other people. The idea of choice implicitly entails the purpose for which one is chosen, and so the election of Christ and the election of other people may be for two distinct goals or purposes; there is no necessary semantic equivalence between the language of election. So while Barth’s idea is certainly creative, would explain some concept such as being “elect in Christ” in Ephesians 1:4, and would undercut some of the problems with Calvinist predestination, it’s creativity is it’s downfall; it just doesn’t match the way the New Testament speaks about Christ and other people.

However, while Barth’s doctrine of election goes too far in order to make sense of the Biblical narrative, there is something important undergirding the concept: election, and thus also predestination, is deeply connected to the person of Jesus Christ. It is commonly assumed that what people are predestined to is eternal life and destruction; John Calvin writes: “To many this seems a perplexing subject, because they deem it most incongruous that of the great body of mankind some should be predestinated to salvation, and others to destruction.” 2 The goal of predestination for Calvinism is one’s final state of existence. However, for Paul in Romans 8:29, predestination isn’t about eternal life, but rather to be like Christ in some capacity.

Furthermore, the language of predestination isn’t employed in a universalist fashion for all people. Rather, Paul’s subject is about the people who are “foreknown.” Romans 11:1 shows this to be the language used to refer to Abraham and his descendants, and thus foreknowledge that is about the people of Israel.3 It is Abraham’s descendants who are predestined to be conformed to Christ. This makes sense of Romans 8:29-30 coming after a long discussion on Torah in Romans 7:1-8:8. Paul is concerned about connecting Israel’s story to the story of Christ.

We see this in play in reading Romans 4. In talking about the nature of Abraham’s faith, Paul defines the content of Abraham’s faith as pertaining to God “who gives life to the dead.”4 Christ was raised from the dead, but Paul would say Abraham’s trust in God for descendants given his advanced age is essentially trust in God’s resurrection power. The content of Abraham’s faith is understood as it relates to what happens in Christ’s resurrection. Then, Paul continues to expound upon Abraham’s faith as one where he will be the father of many nations.5. Similarly, Jesus, a descendant of Abraham by human lineage, is the firstborn of a larger family in Romans 8:29. If we join these observations together, it is that Paul’s understanding of Abraham was from the very beginning echoing faith in the power of God in Christ and pointing towards the fulfillment of the promises in Christ. As Wesley Hill puts it, “Paul identifies the God of Abraham by means of what he knows of that God through the Christ-event.” 6 In this light, Paul is meaning this in Romans 8:29: God has predestined Abraham and his lineage to be formed into the pattern of Christ. Instead of a statement of individual soteriology, Romans 8:29 is a statement about salvation history. The story of Israel was Christ-shaped from the beginning before even the descendants of Abraham were called into existence.7

This explains the reference to Christ as “firstborn.” In terms of human history, Jesus is clearly not the firstborn. However, as Colossians 1:15 suggests, the concept of Christ as the firstborn may come from a Wisdom Christology based upon Proverbs 8:22-31. Thus, in order for Abraham and his descendants to be conformed to Christ with Christ as the firstborn, then this would entail a) the divine plan for Christ to be born as a descendant of Abraham in the future and b) the pre-existence of Christ that would make him before all other descendants of Abraham. In other words, for Paul, predestination was God’s predetermined plan in history to point Israel’s story to the coming of God’s Christ into the world, thereby opening up the invitation to the whole world to be descendants of Abraham and thus making Abraham a father of a large family of many nations. Christ as the firstborn is His pre-existence life who comes to define the direction of Israel.

If correct, this brings up a few potential observations:

1) The relationship between Israel’s narrative in the OT Scriptures and Christ is that of an unseen trajectory. As a consequence, one does not strictly speaking see Christ in the OT texts, but sees how the OT narrative points towards Christ, both in His pre-existent influence and the shape of His incarnated life. So, the OT is not sufficient on its own grounds to say “Jesus is how God must have had to work.” but the life, death, resurrection, and Lordship of Christ is coherent with the OT historical narrative.

2) Paul’s style of exegesis of Israel’s narrative is forward-looking.  Abraham wasn’t merely expressing a faith in future progeny, but given his age and looming mortality, it was pointing towards the power of God in the face of death in Christ. Paul was no stranger to the standard hermeneutical practices of his time that focused on the interpretations of the words of the Torah. He could on occasions engage in that form of exegesis. However, he found Israel’s story was only to be made full, coherent sense of as it pointed forward to Christ.

3) For Paul, the pre-existent Christ is actively involved in the direction of Israel’s story. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 suggests Paul interpreted Israel’s history and life, but not necessarily the letter of the Torah, as being formed by Christ. This is because Christ is involved in the whole of creation, including Israel’s story, as God’s instrumental agent of creation as in 1 Corinthians 8:6.

4) As a consequence of these views on the OT and Christ, Paul does not read the OT as the epistemic grounds of faith, but it is a witness to that faith. One believes Jesus is Lord because God raised Jesus from the dead, and it is to this nature of God’s power that the OT points to. Another way to say it is that the OT provides a plausibility structure to make sense of Jesus’ resurrection and Lordship, but it is the resurrection and not the OT that is the criteria of faith.

5) Abraham’s descendants and recipients of God’s promises are predestined in the sense that their life is brought into conformity to Christ, whether prior to or after Christ’s incarnation. As such, predestination is not an act of selecting who is one what side of the boundary marker that divides believers from unbelievers but rather God’s purposeful plans to direct those who He knows as Abraham’s descendants by faith to be formed to the pattern of Christ. In other words, predestination isn’t about who has a continued existence into eternity but about the enacted purpose to transform human anthropology through Christ, who puts an end to the powers of sin an death in human anthropology/flesh that limits existence.