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

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September 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Consistency in the context of Spiritual formation

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September 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I stand with Asbury Seminary and the Wesleyan Covenant Association

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September 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opportunization of virtue

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September 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our visions for the future and sin

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September 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctification through thinking

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September 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dynamics of shame

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September 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Theology and the dechurched

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September 5, 2018

If you were to look at any type of demographic research on the future trends of the Church in the West, and American more specifically, it wouldn’t take you more than a few moments to discover that people are leaving churches. People are less likely to identify as a Christian and people are less likely to attend church, even if they identify as a Christian. While the sociological factors behind these trends are complex, so be skeptical about anyone who thinks they have garnered solutions that will address the problems (such as changing Christian doctrine to be conducive to others, teaching doctrine more authoritatively, being more hospitable to outsiders, being more mission-minded, etc. etc.) we can make some larger, more general statements as to why people who used to go to church and used to affiliate as Christian are increasingly not doing so.

I would propose an important explanation is a combination of two factors: 1) Christian discourse and behavior is increasingly becoming marginalized in larger society and 2) churches routinely try to solve the problem through changing their discourse. In other words, the very things Christian keep trying to do to address the decline is the very thing that has increasingly led to less influence within our larger, Western society. Christian, and more generally religious, discourse has little influence aside from a smaller subset of the population, of whom many of us are looked down upon for being stereotyped as superstitious, science deniers, judgmental, etc. The end result is that society does not encourage people to be religious, or even more specifically to be Christian, so people are less inclined to do so.

However, there is another way that the tension between the two factors realizes itself in lower church participation and Christian identification. What I gave above is more true about people who are outside or marginally connected to churches, as if the words of society are more powerful than the words of the Church. But when we consider why people who have been more connected to the church, who feel a deep commitment to Christ also have become increasingly detached and dechurched, I would suggest this dynamic between those two factors plays out a little differently. For these people, Christian speech and discourse does at some point had some real credibility; they were willing to go to church, listen to Scriptures and sermons, and sings songs, etc., but along the way they left.

Now, if you were to do wide-ranging research and listen to people’s stories, you would find some combination of at least four answers as to why this is the case: 1) didn’t feel personally connected to the community, 2) didn’t find authentic teaching and living, 3) experience some form of spiritual abuse, whether directly and personally or indirectly through the effect the teachings had on them, and 4) disagree with the teachings of the church(es) they attended. I would suggest, however, behind each of these four realities is the dynamics of the impacts discourses can have or fail to have upon us.

Firstly, in feeling distant from the Christian community, the clash between the discourses of the wider society and Christian discourse play out to be true. Through the triumph of the therapeutic, much of the discourse we hear in the news, in popular books, on the internet, etc. has emphasized the importance of social connections, and for good reason. We are social creatures who need others to function well, but the larger societal discourse has made us value and want social relations even more. Now, many churches recognize this, and some even do something about this, but the solutions many churches have are to put something on their bulletin or signs that says “you are welcome” rather than teaching the nature of hospitality. Churches can even talk about love, but as Jesus even recognizes in the Sermon on the Mount, the rhetoric of love tends to be remembered and followed only for those we are already close to and like rather than to those we are not and do not like. Consequently, many of the dechurched have never broached into the community, and so they experience a deep disconnect between a) the discourse of society and their experience in churches and b) the discourse of the churches and their actual actions as it comes to social connection. The emergence of small group ministries and programs over the past couple of decades serves as evidence that the church has not been doing this well.

Secondly, many of the dechurched have failed to find anything that they would classify as real, authentic Christian faith. Presently, we live in a society that is built around experience, particularly visceral experiences. While traditional Christians might bemoan the moral decay they see in a society that has become increasingly sexualized, increasingly addicted to drugs, increasingly addicted to outrage and anger, etc., etc. undergirding this dynamic is the desire for authentic experience. People want to feel something real, not simply know the right things. So societal discourse has reinforced this through teaching about following your heart and passions, doing what feels good to you regardless of people’s judgment, etc. By contrast, when people go to church, they are often engaged with an increasingly idea-centric discourse, whether the ideas be the exposition of a Biblical text, teaching of doctrine, general moral exhortation, etc. People are encouraged/persuaded/told to think in certain ways, but there doesn’t really seem to be a guidance and apprenticeship into real, authentic Christian experience. The steady increase of more charismatic forms of Christian life and worship that emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit reflect this trend and deficiency.

Thirdly, many people find their experiences of churches to be spiritually, emotionally, and unfortunately even sometimes sexually, abusive. While I can’t even begin to hope to wade into all the complexities of those experiences, discourse does have a role in it. All discourse has embedded within it certain power relations, where certain people have to be looked at, esteemed, listened to, obeyed, etc. and there are certain people to avoid, to mistrust, to reject. Thus, the discourse of our larger society has recognized the nature of this power and how it can be used to emotionally control people, if not even abuse them. However, churches have been slow to recognize the nature of power, particularly in connection to our discourse, but instead tends to justify and legitimate power structures as they are. Insofar as churches are slow to recognize and adapt to this reality, churches a) justify power relationships while b) one of the few institutions with lower barriers of entry for people to obtain this power for personal motives. Christian discourse through theology, ethics, leadership, etc. is thus more readily used to a) provide protection for those with power who then abuse while then b) placing spiritual, psychological, ethical, and moral burdens and suspicions on those who they abuse. While abuse is present throughout society, many churches are unfortunately more inclined to accept the abusive behavior of the powerful and their rationalizations that would be less likely to fly in other institutions, leaving more people harmed and abused by the failures to act. That many denominations, like my own United Methodist denomination, feel the need to institute policies like Safe Sanctuary and clergy sexual ethics training reflects this painful reality.

Fourthly, many people disagree with the teachings of churches, which largely stems from the fact that the theological and ethical discourses of the churches fail to match the content that the larger, societal discourses teach and encourage. Furthermore, that larger society has encouraged a hyper-individualist hermeneutics where we determine teachings and doctrines simply based upon our own ideas, experiences, etc. and not connecting this with our communities means that the theological and ethical teachings of churches and even denominations are constantly being challenged by its churchgoers. But insofar as people who have been authorized to interpret and make decisions for themselves fail to find satisfactory teachings, they tend to disconnect to church. The rise of more free-discussion oriented gatherings in Sunday schools, small groups reflects an attempt to address this discontent.

My purpose in talking about how the conflicts of discourse contribute to the rise of dechurched is not to give some factor that explains absolutely everything, nor can I propose a quick and easy solution to reverse these trends. My point, rather, is to try to persuade you to see how words, language, speech, discourse, etc. can play a significant, contributing role in the increasing numbers of dechurched people.

Put metaphorically, in the war of words, the words of wider society are more persuasive than many of the words of the churches. Many Christians who have been taught to bristle at anything that isn’t explicitly “Christian” may bemoan this, thinking this is simply a problem of people being unwilling to see the truth, perhaps even go so far as to explain all of this to some influence of the devil outside the church. Others see the legitimacy in the wider, social discourse of connection, authentic experience, freedom from abuse, and/or personal autonomy in theological beliefs. Some simply adopt the discourse of wider society wholesale into Christian discourse, without thinking about how the discourse and the ideas we try to bring in function within the context of the Christian tradition.

Then, there are some people, like me, who hear in the wider societal discourse themes, ideas, and feelings that were actually present in the life of the Church when the Scriptures were written, but that many of the churches forgot them and they became rediscovered by the larger society but decontextualized from the Christian tradition. Whether we all have formally recognized this happening to us or not, we have in a sense heard a prophetic-like cry from a society that has lost its original foundations, so it has problematic forms of social connections, it endorses deeply problematic forms of authentic experience, becomes overly cynical in the name of fighting abuse, and overly cherishes the individual to the detriment of more heterogeneous1 communities. So, both churches and the world are in error, but rather than trying to point the finger at the world, we seek to try to rediscover the true vitality of life of the Gospel, so that the part of what the churches have forgotten and that the society has found lacking can be renewed. Perhaps in doing this, we can rediscover a pattern and habitus of thinking that can lead us to address the causes of the decline of the Church in the West.

Because, right now, the main way we are Christians are tempted to do is through simply adjusting the language and concepts we use. However, while discourse is an inevitable part of the church and any form of social cooperation and connection, discourse along is not the foundation of the Church. In fact, when Paul in 1 Corinthians 1-2 expounds a different form of wisdom that is defined by God rather than the words of (Greco-Roman/Stoic) philosophy of that day, Paul is challenging the discursive practices that the Corinthians, and much of Romanized parts of the Roman Empire, were accustomed to. Paul challenges the discourse of the time by 1) having a discourse that contains words that describe Jesus’ crucifixion in narrative form and 2) an appeal to the dynamic, revelatory, and discerning powers of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul obvious recognizes the instrumental role of language to convey God’s wisdom, but he doesn’t simply adopt the discourse of the Roman society but he radically concretizes to the traditions about Jesus’ time on earth. Meanwhile, he recognizes there are powerful events and concepts that are brought forth by the Holy Spirit. In other words, while Paul still recognizes the power of words, a new form of discourse that adequately convey God’s Wisdom is only truly possible by the personal work of the Spirit among and in people.

Put succinctly, albeit perhaps more abstractly, churches can not find its solutions by changing discourse in a logos-centric2 manner. The wisdom of God is realized through a logos-and-pneuma-centric life, where the patterns of language and discourse, and thus also thinking in general, that people are familiar with are radically challenged by the work of the Spirit who fights against the strangleholds of the flesh. The discourse of churches can not simply be retraditioned to the theological language and ideas of past nor simply undiscerningly accommodate to the prevailing discourses of the present, but our discourse must be transformed by the Spirit. Nor can the discourse of the churches simply try to combine the discourses of our theological traditions and of the wider society as some who speak from a more moderate position may propose; there are a limitless number of ways we can try to do that, but how can we truly approach an understanding that is getting closer to the heart of God unless the Spirit who has the thoughts of God helps us to understand God’s heart. No amount of simply trying to change our discourse, and the ideas our language points to, will address the deficiencies of an almost entirely unconscious, logos-centric, overemphasis of discourse. 

It is the Holy Spirit who personally leads us to engage in acts of love towards others beyond those we are naturally connected to; it is the Holy Spirit who brings forth the authentic Christian experience that the New Testaments speaks of happening; it is the Holy Spirit that challenges the centers of power that can be used for destructive purposes; it is the Holy Spirit that can change hearts so that people can see the light of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

And it is this that I would say describes so much of the impact that John Wesley had in the Methodist revival. Wesley was deeply concerned about religious experience, but neither a) in simply saying all experiences expresses something spiritually true about God, nor b) trying to constrict all types of experiences into set, fixed patterns, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the excess of “enthusiasm” nor the cold, constricting lifelessness of doctrinaire versions of Christian faith. Rather, Wesley was deeply concerned that people be lead by the Holy Spirit, and he sought to understand how the experience of the Holy Spirit manifested in human experience. But if you investigate more deeply, Wesley’s deep engagement and concern about the Holy Spirit lead him, I believe, to challenge the meaning of words and discourses. For instance, while Wesley embraced reason, he didn’t embrace the prevailing Lockean empiricist epistemology that reduced all knowledge to the material senses, but saw the role of spiritual senses; his understanding of reason was dramatically different. Furthermore, while he embraced the doctrine of justification by faith, he also understood it in context of the freedom from the power of sin and not simply the guilt of it as it was commonly used to refer to. The meaning of the discourses about reason and justification underwent change with Wesley’s engagement, who was concerned about human experience as lead by the Holy Spirit.

If all this is the case, then the power that Wesley tapped into wasn’t simply avoiding the extremes of enthusiasm and overly-doctrinal expressions of Christian faith, nor was it that he simply embraced a middle ground, nor was it that he went back to the Scriptures, etc. but rather that Wesley was deeply concerned about the Holy Spirit in the life of Christian faith. It was Wesley’s focus on the Holy Spirit, and not simply some experience or idea that emerged from the Holy Spirit, that leads to the radical change of groups of people in revival. Wesley’s theological inclinations prevented him from the excess that can come with being simply pneumatic-centric, so that Wesley was logos-and-pneumatic-centric.

So, I say all this to leave it at this point: I believe that a theology that will allow us to effectively reach the dechurched must transition from being simply logos-centric, where we think the solution is simply to reemphasize or change our discourse, but rather a theology that is logos-and-pneumatic-centric, but it is Christ as the Word of God and the Spirit as the currently manifested power of God that allows us to truly rediscover what has been lost and to effectively puts what we rediscover into discursive practices that can then apprentice others into the worship and experience of God who discloses Himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

And let me finish with this point: for those who seem to struggle to understand what I am saying, I can simply say this. I don’t fully grasp it fully either, but I can only see in my readings of Scriptures and the experience of my own life the role that the Spirit has to generate a type of change in our thinking that is often on the margins of ineffability. So I express this more as a seminal idea about the relationship of the Spirit to language rather than anything fully fleshed out and clearly articulated. Put differently, my understanding lacks the necessary comprehension to be able to find a way to express this in a clear and analytic manner.

The early order of worship

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September 2, 2018

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been recurring attempts to try to rediscover and go back to the way the early church did things. This impulse is commonly connected to renewal movements, suggesting there is a dissatisfaction with how things are being done in the Church in their time. Often explicit, although sometimes latent, is the belief that the reason the Church seems so faithless today is we have strayed so far from our original foundations. So, if we can just recover the way it used to be done, the way the Church used to do things, we will rediscover a new, power vitality and faithfulness will fill our churches.

Unfortunately, this is naive, overly idealizing the realities of the early church. If you read the letters given to Christians by Paul, James, or even from Jesus to the churches in Revelation, you realize something; the early churches can make just as much of a mess of things as anyone else can. Secondly, this reflects a problematic theological assumption: that faithfulness rests primarily in us getting the right pattern down. But if we reflect on the nature of what the new covenant is like that Jeremiah spoke of in chapter 31, faithfulness doesn’t rest simply in how people teach each other, but it is grounded upon the work that God does in the people. True faithfulness does not occur by getting the teachings “right,” but rather in God giving us a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone. (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Nevertheless, there is no indication that the New Testament conceives of this work of God as simply a unilateral monergism that happens in spite of anything and everything we do or don’t do. Rather, there is a role of human activity in the forming of human hearts, but human action is not sufficient. By itself and in and of itself, human action doesn’t lead to anything particularly special or holy; in fact, it can actually make the whole situation a lot worse. But, especially for Paul, when our faith is rightly directed towards God as disclosed through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, there is the possibility of overcoming the flesh and being the people God call us to be. For Paul, therefore, when one is rightly trusting in and worshiping God as He makes Himself known, one finds the power in Christ and the Spirit to be newly formed and fashioned.

So, while the impulse to recreate the original pattern of the early church is fraught with unrealistic and problematic assumptions, trying to reconstruct the nature of early worship can perhaps provide a window towards the rediscovery of God’s power in our lives. If worship is the expression of and the directing of faith in God as disclosed in Christ and the Spirit and it is this faith that plays a roles in the transformation of our hearts and minds, the grasping with the original nature of Christian worship can prove fruitful when other attempts at restoring the original pattern can fall short and misdirect us.

In Acts 2:42, the thousands of people who accept Peter’s preaching and were baptized were said to devote themselves “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.” What is particularly striking about this verse is that there is no conjunction, such as καί, between “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” This suggests that Luke (or whoever the author of Luke-Acts was) wasn’t intended to describe four separate parts or actions of worship which we would to today as preaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Rather, it is more likely in my mind that the two sets are synonymous with each other, with the second set of “to the breaking of bread and prayers” stands in an appositional relationship to the first set of “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship,” describing the generic labels of the first set with concrete actions that are referring to in the second set. In other words, the apostle’s teachings and fellowship were to be characterized as happening in the actions of the breaking of bread and prayers. 

If we look to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians, we can possibly even infer that the teaching of the apostle’s were tightly connected to the breaking of bread. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-9, Paul describes the traditions that he relayed to the Corinthians, which placed the death and resurrection of Christ as the central content. Meanwhile, in describing the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, he describes the action as proclaiming the Lord’s death until returns. There is a similarity of content between the traditions Paul mentions he passes on and the meaning of the tradition about the Lord’s Supper, as if the Lord’s Supper is part of the same body of teaching.

Then go back early in chapter 11 to the discussion of head coverings about women, where he talks about the act of women prayer or prophesying, as these two actions have something in common with them. The acts of prayer and prophesying, along with other acts such as speaking in tongues, etc., were spoken of by Paul in chapters 12-14, where Paul’s purpose is them to act on these gifts with love and thus to do things in an orderly manner. In explaining the nature of this sharing of gifts, Paul highlights how believers are one in Jesus Christ through the Spirit in 11:12-13. What seems to be under-girding Paul’s view about this time of sharing of spiritual gifts is the view that it is a time in the gatherings that we might refer to as worship. In other words, this seems to be a time of fellowship where prayers, among other acts, do occur, much as Acts 2:42.

This isn’t to suggest that Acts 2:42 is intended to present a strict account of worship, where the apostle’s teaching and the breaking of bread were happening in one part of worship and the fellowship and prayers were only happening in the other part. Luke isn’t attempting to be technical in his description, but rather is intending to provide a description of what the meetings of the thousands of believers was characterized by.

But Luke’s account seems to be more than just a description but contains a sense of a general order. When Paul scolds the Corinthians in chapter 11 about their behavior in the Lord’s Supper, he tells them to wait for another before eating. This instruction would only make sense if the Lord’s Supper were happening at the beginning of the weekly meetings, as people would not have had time to arrive at the beginning of worship. Having served a pastor, you notice that people were frequently late at the beginning of worship but almost never did people come late at the middle to end of worship. Would there have been a problem of excluding other people who had not arrived is the Lord’s Supper were to happen later on in the worship?

Then, immediately after giving these instructions about the Lord’s Supper, Paul transitions into the discussion of the role of the Spirit in saying “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is accursed” in 12:1-3. Commonly, translations will say “Now concerning spiritual gifts” in v. 1, as if Paul has now transitioned into the discussion of the spiritual charisms that follows later in the chapter. But the Greek word used there is πνευματικός, which Paul also uses in 2:13 to refer to the type of words that are used to convey God’s Wisdom. It seems more likely to take 12:1 to be referring to spiritual teachings. In that case, it following after the Lord’s Supper may suggest that this was part of the instruction that was to come with the Lord’s Supper, just as the apostle’s instructions and the breaking of bread are connected in Acts 2:42. The significance of these spiritual teachings about Jesus thus stand to describe the type of interpretation and significance attached to Jesus’ death, as one where He is in fact Lord rather than being one who is accursed on the cross; this gets at the substance of Paul’s opening statement about wisdom in chapter 1.

Therefore, if all this is correct, worship starts off with the Lord’s Supper and the significance of Jesus’ death. Put a bit differently, their call to worship was the call to die with the Lord Jesus Christ. With this in mind, then the sharing of the gifts during the time of fellowship and prayer may be framed as a remembering of Pentecost where the Spirit bestowed tongues of fire upon the hearers of Peter’s message. Not only was Peter as an apostle inspired, by the hosts of people were dramatically moved by God’s Spirit such that God was working through the community, not simply a specific teacher or leader. Hence, Paul encourages worship in 12-14 to be structured in such a way that certain people do not domineer the time with their giftedness, making God’s work being manifest throughout the whole Church. Therefore, there seems to be a narrative movement in the worship, moving from the cross (and the resurrection) of Jesus to the present reemergence of Pentecost in the gifts of the Spirit.

Now, if my connections between Acts and 1 Corinthians and my analysis of Corinthians is correct, then it suggest that Paul’s instructions in chapters 11-14 are addressing the nature of worship in a more of less order of sequence in which the acts of worship occurred. Can we extend this to chapter 15, Paul’s exposition on the nature of the general, eschatological resurrection?

I think we can. In that passage, Paul refers to the often mysterious “baptism for the dead” in 15:29. Evidence for what the baptism for the dead is quite limited, as there seems to be no other equivalent expressions. But it seems to be some practice Paul and the Corinthians are aware of and he connects it significance to the resurrection. But if chapter 15 continues Paul’s instructions and interpretations of the various parts of worship, then we may be given an insight into its meaning. If worship started on reflecting in the past in Christ’s death (and resurrection), then moved to the presently re-realized event of Pentecost in the outpouring of the Spirit, then chapter 15 essentially refers to the part of worship that looks towards the future in the general resurrection. Against this backdrop, the “baptism for the dead” could be a symbolic, liturgical act that attempts to represent the general resurrection; some person is baptized, not for their own sake, but as symbolically representing the dead and thus the person then arises out of the water as representing the resurrection.

But if Acts 2:42 provides a general description of two acts of worship, then can we say that 1 Corinthians 15 is evidence that the worship included, and ended, on a note of the future hope of the resurrection? Why the difference, if true? One explanation is that the general resurrection, while obviously held to be as true by even Pharisees based upon Daniel 12, became backgrounded as the event of the resurrection of Jesus had so dramatically altered understanding. The general resurrection only becomes more prominent during Paul’s narratives in Acts. Perhaps, as a former Pharisee, Paul would rehighlight the importance of the general resurrection in the way that the Church and the apostle’s prior to Paul did not. If this is the case, then one can explain a third move of worship towards the future general resurrection in Christ to the influence of Paul.

To bring all these observations and inferences together in a concise summary, I would say the early Church under the Pauline influence had a tripartite order of worship that was structured according to a narrative of prominent events in the past in the cross of Christ, the present in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and in the future resurrection in Christ (and Paul also says in Romans 8:11 the Holy Spirit is involved). I would also add, but don’t have space here to argument, the possibility that the way this worship was structured was so as to bring the emphasis upon God’s disclosure in Jesus and the Spirit rather that some other ideas or beliefs that were then connect to God, but that is an even more entailed argument to make.

So personally, I am curious as to how worship structured by this tri-partite pattern would function in today’s setting. Not that it would provide some magic key to unlock the power of God among God’s People that has been kept under lock and key so long, but could and would worship structured in this manner be more conducive to rightly directing our faith towards God’s as He makes Himself known in Jesus and the Holy Spirit?

Why as a follower of Christ, I am neither conservative nor progressive, nor even moderate.

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September 2, 2018

I was always a different sort of kid growing up, who sought to be a uniter rather than a divider. I hated unfairness, and I wanted everyone to be treated fairly. I also had an instinctiveness aversion to extremes, dreaming up an idea during 7th grade English about the ideas of truth being founded in the middle; I was a philosopher without realizing it at the time. So I was always skeptical about political discussions, thinking that no one really had the truth. I found myself trying to occupy the moderate position, although I always had a leaning towards the conservative background I was raised in. But then, one day, I happened upon a web page that talk about the fallacy of the middle position, where people presumed that the truth can be found by simply splitting the difference between two positions. From that point, I had a deepened sense of awareness that simply being a middle, moderate person would never suffice. So, I always referred to myself as a moderate, but with increasing reservations.

However, in the recent division in the United Methodist Church, I have found myself increasingly rejecting even the moderate identity. I have seen in these “moderate” forces rhetorical appeals that sharply diverge from the actual realities as I understand them that try to maintain unity around maintain the status-quo with only a few alterations. This is not to mention how they advocated for a type of inclusion in such a way that I felt to be clearly counter-productive and against the Christian way of life. Then, at the same time, I also saw how a US government that essentially governed in the center in its actual policies has left a large portion of the population disaffected and angry, leading to the rise of populist presidential candidates that were either naive about their visions, like Bernie Sanders, or narcissistically delusion, like Donald Trump. The middle way was no more honest, in line with the truth, or effective than the “extremes.”

This has lead to somewhat of a challenge for myself in that I have not felt any real identification with any political or theological movement, though I do marginally identify with evangelicals. It seems that nowhere I looked there was truth, honest, and effectiveness. I couldn’t be conservative or progressive; I couldn’t really even consider myself moderate. But, over the past few months as I have been doing my dissertation research on 1 Corinthians and a Trinitarian epistemology, I came upon a sudden realization. If my understanding about Paul’s letter and the Roman context is correct and if I am right in drawing specific connections between the Roman world and my present context, then something dawned on me. If I am follower of Christ, I can not be conservative, progressive, nor even a moderate.

But this is not simply some pious-sounded virtue signaling statement of how I am above the fray and argument or some statement that we should “just love one another” in such a way as to dismiss the arguments and ideas altogether as being inconsequential. Rather, it is a deep criticism of the whole edifice of Western-American politics, and even theology to some extent, that is joining the fray to say it is fundamentally mistaken from the point of view of Christ. Allow me to explain.

Before the time of Jesus and then the Apostle Paul, the transition Rome made from being a Republic to an Empire was joined together with the appeal to philosophy, particuarly Stoic philosophy, by people like Cicero and Cato who help lay intellectual foundations for what the Empire would me. As a Republic, Rome had little desire for philosophy, but afterwards, it became a prominent part of political rule, such that the Emperor Augustus had two Stoic philosophers, Athenodorus of Tarsus and Arius Didymus, who worked for him. Then, the Stoic Seneca the Younger was a senator under the rule of Claudius and became an advisor to Nero after Claudius’ death. Philosophy was not the abstract intellectual discussions that we associated it with today, but it was at the very heart and center of political life in Rome. Beyond that, philosophy during the Roman Empire was deeply concerned about the matter of ethics. In short, the love of wisdom was construed as seeking ideas that wee both about politics and ethics. In other words, wisdom was about people and the social arrangements of power that organized and directed the people.

Similarly today, when we talk about the language of being conservative, progressive, moderate, etc. we are neither talking about politics or ethics, but we talk about both. A progressive will both have political views about the government recognition of marriage and affirming views of non-heterosexual sexual relationships. A (traditional) conservative would emphasize less government spending and emphasize saving in their own personal lives. While certainly, politics and ethical views on a topic could diverge, such as a Christian who support same-sex marriage in the government but espouses heterosexual as the only legitimate practices for Christian, in our daily life, we tend to find that political and ethical views match.

So, what Rome would have called wisdom and philosophy, today we call politics and ethics. But they share many similarities, for instance, that both tend to work from certain abstract concepts and principles and then try to apply these principles across the board in as many ways they can. Libertarians will focus on having the least about of outside interference in people’s personal lives. Moderates will focus on the idea of a wide-ranging inclusion, trying to include as many people and their ideas as possible in the decision-making process and decisions. Progressives will focus on the concept of marginalization, seeking to give power to voices that need to be heard and given greater voice and legitimacy in political life and in personal relationships.

However, there is one notable difference between philosophy during the Roman Empire and today. Whereas politics and ethical views are categorized based upon their basic ideals and principles, Roman philosophy, like Greek philosophy before it, was organized based upon a line of traditions that emanated from specific people. One was Platonic, or Epicurean, or Stoic which people knew refer to the traditions starting from Zeno and Chrysippus, etc. One would organize oneself around a specific tradition, or even a specific teacher, who would have a myriad of ideals and principles that the espoused. There would be an underlying coherency behind the thoughts of individual teachers, although this wasn’t always as clear for the traditions/schools of thought. So a notable difference is that whereas today, we align ourselves to cognitive ideas when it comes to politics and ethics, in the Roman Empire people were much more concrete in their allegiance to specific persons and/or the traditions that spawned from them.

So, when we look at Paul in 1 Corinthians warning against people saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” or “I am of Peter,” he is actually addressing the way people were accustomed to how philosophy worked when it came to political and ethical life during that time period. They were seeking to align themselves with these persons and the ideas they espoused, just like they would with philosophy. Therefore, when we align ourselves with progressive, moderate, conservative, etc., we are actually doing the same thing the Corinthians were doing, by finding something, rather than someone, that we align ourselves with when it comes to our political and ethical views.

Paul’s criticism of the practice of Corinth is to say that we are all the body of Christ, so we shouldn’t divide based upon the teachers. However, this was not merely some pious statement about how people should just forget their differences and be united. Paul is not that shallow, nor manipulative. Rather, for Paul, Christ is the very center of wisdom as in 1 Corinthians 1:30-2:16. The nature of this wisdom is unlike what the wisdom is in surrounding society. Instead of the popular Stoic idea that you grasp God by grasping the whole of the world, instead to come to know God and His Power through two specific things, the story of Jesus Christ and the dramatic actions of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the popular Stoic idea that God and creation are the same so that to know one is to know the other, Paul says that Christians have received a Spirit not of this world. Instead of some really intelligent wise man who through his intellectual capacity is able to grasp some deep truth by his observations of the world and reasoning about it, the wisdom of God comes by a revelation from the Spirit that is embodied in Jesus as the Lord of Glory. Instead of wisdom emerging from a dialectical process of two opposing teachers debating and intellectually duking it out with one being the clear winner, the wisdom of God is garnered by combining the spiritual utterances of different people together like Paul and Apollos. For Paul, the process of obtaining wisdom from God and the shape this wisdom took was radically connected to Jesus Christ and also the Holy Spirit, and thus did not look like the wisdom that was propagated throughout Roman society. So, to remind people about their union of Christ isn’t about dropping our differences, but about people having the right focus on Christ so that the ways of thinking that the world provides can be challenged, reshaped, radically altered, and transformed through knowing about Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul was no virtue signaler through talking about unity, but was making a profound epistemological point about the nature of the unity of the Body of Christ.

So, if our politics and ethics today are analogous to the wisdom and philosophy in the Roman Empire, then when we align ourselves according to the progressive, conservative, or moderate principles we hold onto, we are not simply dividing ourselves in the Body of Christ. Rather, we are hindering our acquisition of God’s Wisdom in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The way we obtain this political and ethical knowledge and what this knowledge looks like constricts our sense of our faith in God, lopping off and stretching different parts of the wisdom of God in Christ to fit onto the Procrustean bed. Whereas the Corinthian’s faith actually rested in human wisdom rather than the in the power of God, when we align ourselves to the principles we see in conservatism, progressivism, or the middle, we are actually placing our faith in human thinking about politics and ethics, rather than in the power of God to transform, make new creation, and raise from the dead.

This isn’t to deny any and all importance of the ideas we see from moderates, conservatives, and progressives. The ideas they have certainly may have value. But ideas are tools, not rules. They are sometimes we discover when they are best used to accomplish what is needed, rather than something we must always use in every conceivable instance. Similarily, as Abraham Mahlerbe notes in Paul and the Popular Philosophers, Paul was well aware of and used many of the philosophical topoi/ideas, but he used them for his own unique purposes; as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “we make every thought captive to obey Jesus Christ.” But what all this does deny is the divine-like status off these ideas, as if they should be given absolute prominence over all other ideas or all people. It is the rejection of ideologies that not only propagate a certain set of ideas, but automatically rule out competing ideas from the get-go.

Instead, one discovers by faith in and the love of God as known in Jesus Christ and the Spirit the will of God. Furthermore, by engaging with people in love, we discover where they are in life. Then, we see how these ideas we are aware of accomplish God’s purposes in specific people’s lives, both as individual persons and as larger groups of communities, societies, etc. While we may use abstract ideas at times in our thinking, the applicability and usefulness of the various ideas are determined by the purposes of God and the effects these ideas have in concrete, specific realities of people’s lives to accomplish the wide range of God’s purposes. This thus entails a never-ending process of learning through the ways we worship and seek God and the ways we love of one another because we never exhaust the full understanding of God nor do we exhaust the totality of people’s lives. But, in the end, if God’s Kingdom is ultimately grounded upon the power of God rather than in myself, any other person, or all of us put together, then our inevitable ignorance does not thwart God’s work nor should it thwart our faithfulness either.

This means you might in one topic look like a progressive and then the next instance, look like a conservative. For instance, I can look like a moderate in that I deeply value unity in the Church, but given that my unity is grounded in the epistemic work of Jesus Christ, I can look like anything but a moderate when I suggest it is better to separate than to continue to fight over the battle lines of progressivism, conservatism, and the middle in the United Methodist Church; by the way we value the ideas in the midst of engaging with the division, we actually pedagogically train ourselves to becoming deaf to God’s Wisdom in Jesus Christ. Or, when it comes to explaining a general theory of how our views of gender and sexuality emerge in people as they develop, I will sound distinctly progressive in many ways; yet, when it comes to the life of the Church, I will look like a moderate-conservative when it comes to how gender operates in the Body of Christ and like a conservative when it comes to sexuality for the Body of Christ. Even outside of specifically Christian contexts, I will look like a moderate-progressive on discussions of white privilege and patriarchy, but then look conservative when I see how these ideas of privilege and patriarchy are used to silence or shame specific white persons or males and attempt to defend these specific persons, because while in the aggregate white persons and males are not as threatened as non-whites and females, there are specific white individuals and specific males who are threatened and harmed based upon the justifications discourses about white privilege and patriarchy may bring.

At the end, what I trust to be knowledge is determined first by my love of God. Then, my love of people fill out my knowledge more fully. Then, after that, the love of ideas, principles, systems, etc. can be used to serve the love of God and the love of neighbor. The usefulness of ideas hangs upon the love of God and the love of neighbor. Therefore, as a follower of Christ I can not be a conservative, progressive, or moderate. The ideas are simply tools, not rules, that I seek to learn how to use in the service of God and for others.