Why charity is not Christian – Part 2

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December 4, 2018

The rich and the poor. The stereotype in America is that the prominent political parties, Republicans and Democrats, seek out the interests of each of these groups, respectively. While this is a stereotype, there is some truth to the statement as to whose concerns weight heaviest when they are in conflict. While consciousness of these statuses, or very similar ones, are present throughout many societies throughout history, it is due to the influence of Marxist notion of the class struggle that has largely influenced how the West and significant parts of Asia have construed class and wealth.

These distinctions are present in Judea. The epistle from James is littered with references of compassion towards the poor and anger and judgment towards the rich. The church in Jerusalem seems to have been particularly predisposed towards the poor, having been relegated to the margins by much of the Jewish religious leadership. Jesus Himself also uses language showing His consciousness about wealth and status, but I will come back to that in a moment.

There is a difference between the early Christian response to these class distinctions and the injustices that emerged from them and the Marxist response. The early Christian response looks towards the reversal of status where, in the word of Jesus, the first become last and the last become first because God is going to do something earth-shattering. This reflects the language of prophets, where God tears down rulers and raises new leaders. However, the assumption of a same or similar socio-political structure or hope remains: they expect a king as God had given them from David. The change that is looked for in the midst of injustice and impoverishment is a change in who will lead, guide, and direct. However, this king would still be guided by the lead and instruction by God, particularly through the Torah.

Marxism, by contrast, looked towards not a change in leadership, but a change in the very socio-political structures of society. Having lived in shadow of dramatic technology, cultural, and political transformations in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Marx saw the clash of classes culminating in an entire reordering of society such that the way society is ordered will overlap with the interests of all people, getting rid of any distinctions of class and status, any source of inequality, as all share equally. However, what happened in the rise of communism, was a change of political structures that became more totalitarian and more unequal, not less. In effect, the destabilization of society leads to the disruption of the basic norms by which leadership are evaluated, allowing the leadership greater and greater leeway to make their own decisions. Marxism under the ideology of equality granted even greater power and become a greater source of inequality by the way it dramatically disrupted the structure of society and its norms, because the principle of equality motivates us more in closer, more personally significant but becomes less of a motivating factor the further, more distant, and more abstract people are to us.

I make this distinction because there are different ways one can address and relate to the concerns of the poor, needy, marginalized, and disaffected. But, some of these responses lead to greater inequality, as sometimes those who advocate for the poor become the greatest perpetrators of inequality. When it comes to the poor, not all response are of equal effectiveness.

That brings me to Jesus and his language about the rich and poor. The Greek word for poor, πτωχός, occurs 20 times in three synoptic Gospels and 4 times in the Gospel of John. The rich, πλούσιος, are mentioned 16 times the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It does not occur once in John. I mention the Gospel of John because there is no criticism of the rich, and the only one who is mentioned advocating for the poor is was Judas Iscariot.1

Allow me to suggest that the Gospel of John isn’t trying to portray concern about the poor in the negative light, but rather portraying those who use the moral appeal of the poor for manipulative purposes. As I mentioned in the last past, concerns about needy people is a lowest common denominator (LCD) moral principle that is shared by almost all human groups; while some cultures limit the needy to people with whom they share the same social identity (such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc.), concern for the needy is a familiar principle. This is precisely why it concern about the poor, marginalized and needy is so powerful and persuasive to influence people’s think because a) people understanding it and b) because so many people get it, there is a bandwagon effect where the moral principle moves everyone to action. Judas is, in effect, employing the powerful moral motivation because the poor for an ulterior agenda of himself: he would benefit himself by the power he would garner by appearing to be concerned about the poor.

What Judas was doing wasn’t unique to him however. It is a not uncommon tactic of people who have some base of power and status to use their wider spread of influence to extend their power base through morally powerful ideas. That is, to say, the rich and wealthy will often times reach out to the poor, but with ulterior agendas at all; similarily, those with ambitions will also appeal to powerful moral ideas for their own benefit.

Read the wisdom of Sirach 4.1-10:

1My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,
    and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
Do not grieve the hungry,
    or anger one in need.
Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,
    or delay giving to the needy.
Do not reject a suppliant in distress,
    or turn your face away from the poor.
Do not avert your eye from the needy,
    and give no one reason to curse you;
for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you,
    their Creator will hear their prayer.

Endear yourself to the congregation;
    bow your head low to the great.
Give a hearing to the poor,
    and return their greeting politely.
Rescue the oppressed from the oppressor;
    and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
10 Be a father to orphans,
    and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
    and he will love you more than does your mother.2

What is apparent here this: at the core of Sirach is the concern that one’s actions on behalf on the poor has on oneself. Those who refuse the concerns of the needy may be cursed (v. 6) but those who take care of them will be like a father, husband, and son of God, all terms of power in that culture. One’s own power base is extended by charity. While these statues in and of themselves are not bad, Sirach role as a Jewish scribe certainly provides insight into the practice of almsgiving by the “hypocrites” of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus criticizes in 6.2-4. Sirach reflects a consequentialist wisdom about concerns for the poor; to be concerned about the poor provides benefit to oneself. (To be clear, I am not saying Sirach is manipulative in his concerns; I am saying that his instruction has influence on the way concerns for the poor were construed by the Pharisees)

You see a similar concern for the poor in Sirach 13 when he contrasts their unjust treatment with the injustice actions of the rich. Sirach’s distrust of the rich but concern for the poor places him in the line of those who seek to be a hero for the poor. While Sirach does not go here, it can readily go to the point that an advocate for the poor is being a hero on behalf of the poor to cement and expand their own power and status.

This is not the only way Jewish wisdom construed how one exhibits concerns for poor. 4Q Instruction, fragments of wisdom of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran had a different response to the poverty. These fragments make repeated reference to the audience being impoverish, saying “you are poor.” In 4Q416 2 III, you see the following

  • vss. 2-3 – “And remember that you are poor… and what you need you shall not find…”
  • vss. 8-9 – “You are poor, desire nothing except your inheritance. And do not be confused about it lest you move your boundary.”
  • vss. 11-12 – “Praise his name always, for from poverty he has lifted your head and with the nobles he has set you. Over an inheritance of glory he has given you dominion.”
  • vss. 15-16 – “Honor your faith in your poverty and your mother in your lowly state…”3

Rather than the wisdom of an educated and relatively high status scribe of ben Sira, here the wisdom of Qumran reflects the life of people who live in poverty. Rather than a wisdom that calls people to be a hero for the poor, here is a wisdom where people are to life live according to their state of poverty.

It is this mentality that Jesus shows greater affinity towards in his ministry. Compare vss. 11-12 to Matthew 5.3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some influence upon Jesus is plausible, given his relationship to John the Baptist who lived out in the wilderness just as the covenanters at Qumran/the Essenes did. Also, compare vss. 15-16 that call for honoring parents in the midst of a lowly, impoverished state to Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 15.1-9 where they find legal traditions to abscond themselves from such actions.

This isn’t to state Jesus simply reproduces this Qumranic wisdom; there are some notable differences. There are some notable differences. Whereas, it seems vss. 2-3 may be stating that the poor should just accept nothing coming in life, Jesus by contrast advocates for a trust in God to take care of one’s needs as one seeks God’s Kingdom and Righteousness in Matthew 6.25-34. Whereas the Qumran covenantors were essentially living an ascetic lifestyle, whether by life circumstances or by choice, Jesus was not ascetic in lifestyle but he would party and enjoy meals.4 So, Jesus isn’t a facsimile of this type of wisdom.

However, this does put the responses of Jesus and the Pharisees into their historical context: Jesus reflects a response to the poor where one identifies as poor, whereas the Pharisees reflect the actions of those who seek to be heroes for the poor. Put differently but perhaps oversimplified: Jesus is the response of the poor for the poor, whereas the Pharisees is the response of the rich to the poor.

This puts Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61.1-2 as describing his own ministry in Luke 4.16-30 into context. Often used as a sign of a more heroic ministry on behalf of the poor in many Christian contexts, Jesus isn’t saving as a hero liberator from the outside, Jesus himself identifies with the very people he seeks to liberate, experiencing their own struggles and pains but yet overcoming them.

There is thus a difference between the two responses. Charity is an action of heroism. It is not evil in and of itself; charity can be a good thing when one has the resources. But charity is also easily manipulable for other purposes. Identifying with the poor, however, is more a matter of living life in accordance to the realities and possibilities of lacking. It is not simply an action one does, but an attitude that determines all behaviors across various context and circumstances. It is, I believe, reflected in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4.12: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

But, it is tempting in a charity/heroic mindset to read Jesus’ language about riches and poverty in the idea that people who are rich are somehow not doing their duty or are evil. For instance, the rich young ruler of Mark 10.17-27 is construed in the negative fashion of a person who is condemned because he is rich. But let’s note that the character of the ruler would be considered impeccable, if he is speaking the truth of himself: he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t defraud, and he even honors his parents like the poor are more likely to emphasize. If there is a man who you would likely expect to treat the poor well and with justice, it is probably a person like him.

When one hears the words of Jesus: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” it is often tempting to read the failure of the ruler as that he doesn’t give to or care for the poor. But allow me to suggest that it is a LCD morality that leads to the interpretation that charity is the significant point Jesus is driving home. Jesus’ ultimate instruction for the ruler is for Jesus to follow him: he is calling him to identify with the life of poverty by directly alienating himself from his riches to follow him. Jesus is not simply instructing the rich young ruler to give to charity; his spiritual problem isn’t his lack of concern for the poor. It is, rather, the attachment he has to his wealthy status that hinders him from going beyond the moral status of being obedient to the commandments to something more complete in discipleship to Jesus.

Jesus message about storing up riches, how what you surround yourself by influenced who you are, and idolatry to money in Matthew 6.19-24 reflects the rationale behind Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: a person who has in saving everything has hoarded himself in riches has become such a person that he worships money over God. There isn’t in Jesus’ words a criticism of failing to do enough for the poor, of not being charitable and giving. It is something else: one’s heart is possessed what one’s life is surrounded in. Jesus is presented an entire way of life that is defined by being poor in spirit. It isn’t reflective of literal poverty, but a matter of the person whose heart is not deeply attached to the riches of this world.

While both those with a poor in spirit attitude and those with a heroism for the poor similarly can be charitable to the poor, there are different, underlying rationales for the charity. The poor in spirit are not attached to their wealth; consequently, there is little resistance when it comes to giving when the occasion arises. They are motivated by the good that is done by the giving. However, when one is attached to one’s riches and wealth, then charity frequently needs further motivation; there needs to be some quid pro quo, some reciprocation, or some immediate benefit to oneself to give to others. It may be as simple as the reward of feeling morally good superior in your own eyes or it may be as nefarious as trying to build a public persona, but charity without the attitude of poverty in spirit will need some other motivation to get people to overcome their attachment to the money they have.

The attitude of poverty of spirit is a much deeper, much rarer attitude than simply a habit of giving to and advocating on behalf of the poor. The Gospel is not seeking heroes for the poor and needy; that role was filled by those who were actively seeking to develop their own power base. Nor is the Gospel seeking ascetics who reject the idea of any possession within the world; if that is the case, then this quickly became forgotten in the early Church. Rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is calling people to identify with a mindset of impoverishment and forming them into that way of life.

Charity is not Christian, but is a more or less universal value of the LCD morality; poverty of spirit is not universal and it begins to approach what it means to follow Jesus. In the next post, I will push further into what attitude of poverty of spirit is leading towards. 

Why charity isn’t Christian – Part 1

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December 4, 2018

In churches in churches all across the the US and even in Scotland where I am at school, parishioners will be presented with various opportunities to support people who are less fortunate through charity programs such as Operation Christmas Child, Angel Tree, etc. We are reminded of various children, who through poverty or through imprisonment of parents as with Angel Tree, who will not have a Christmas present this year. While these charities, or even other charities, can sometimes cause problems or even hurt in unexpected ways, there is something meaningful about such charities. So, if you read this title and were expecting me to criticize the act of charity, that wasn’t my point. (So, it’s a little click-baity, I know!) Charity can be a good thing.

And certainly, if you are deeply devoted Christian with resources, you will give freely of your money to people and circumstances where there is need. However… Let me repeat… However, charity is not a Christian virtue; it doesn’t make you Christian to give to charity nor does trying to encourage people to give to charity in the name of Christ mean you have really understood what it means to be a Christian. Charity and other forms of giving and advocating for those we see who are in need is what I refer to a lowest common denominator (LCD) morality.

Typically, when you hear LCD and you aren’t in math class, you typically think something as base, crude, or maybe even abhorrent. I don’t mean it that way. Rather, I mean LCD as that sort of moral principles that are rather universal across all people. Altruism is a deeply embedded moral principle that most people have some sense of feeling for. Most of us, Christian or not, are emotionally impacted by people who have had a hard time, have difficult life circumstances, etc. We want to help out, for one reason or another. It isn’t distinctly Christian to be charitable; it is human to be charitable. By LCD morality I am referring to, essentially, universal or near-universal moral principles. Almost all cultures have some sense of moral principles about not killing the innocent, lying to your own people, and a good proportion of them have some sense of helping people in their need. But the (near) universal status of these moral ideas doesn’t a) get practiced in the same way or b), more importantly for this post, are not always the most important moral ideas.

However, let me take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a framework for doing Christian ethics. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.1

Here, Jesus break through the edifice of the Pharisaical application of the Torah commandment about “loving your neighbor” in such a way that one’s obligations ended at concern for your neighbor. So if one had an enemy, one had a permission, if not in some instances an obligation, to hate them and go after them. But, for the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is demonstrating how the Pharisaical use of the Torah and its ethical concerns is missing the entire point: the Torah is to lead people to be complete/perfect, or “mature” as I prefer, as God is complete/perfect/mature. This would have had clear echoes to the Levitical call to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7), where Jesus now defines holiness by an advanced stage of ethical development into the character of God.

What has happened is that the Pharisees, as a party of religious teachers who task it was to guide the people in obeying the Torah, often times seeing to make the seemingly hard to follow commandments, written to a people living in a different context than 1st century Judea, easier to follow. They would teach principles that they derived and developed from the Torah so that people could avoid breaking the commandments, which became known as the tradition of the elder and later the oral Torah in later Rabbinic Judaism. Far from being some legalistic, fuddy duddies, they were actually trying to make the commandments of the Torah accessible and relevant to the day-to-day life of Jews. They really aren’t that far off from many of us seminary-trained clergy, who engaged in the intellectual debates about the meaning of Scripture but then trying to figure out how to preach and teach this in the congregations. And before you see that comparison as a negative; it isn’t necessary: Jesus himself resembled the Pharisees in many many ways, such as having disciples and in the way he would engage in discussions about Torah. However, the critical difference was this: Jesus register criticism against the Pharisees for breaking commandments of the Torah and teaching others to do the same through the tradition of the elders.2 The Pharisees represented a popular brand of Judaism, made easy and relevant for the people.

So, consequently, they could have made sense of the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” only extend to the Jewish people, but not necessarily as an attitude towards people in general. While in the 12 century, read these words from Jewish philosopher Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1:

And when a person believes in all of these principles and his faith in them is clarified, he enters into the category of Israel; and it is [then] a commandment to love him and to have mercy upon him and to act with him according to everything which God, may He be blessed, commanded about the man towards his fellow, regarding love and brotherhood. And even if he does what is in his ability from the sins, because of desire and the overpowering of his base nature, he is punished according to his sins, but he [still] has a share in the world to come, and is [only considered to be] from the sinners of Israel. But if one of these principles becomes compromised for a person, behold, he exits the category of Israel and denies a fundamental [dogma] and is called an apostate, a heretic and ‘someone who cuts the plantings.’ And it is a commandment to hate him and to destroy him, and about him it is stated (Psalm 139:21), “Do I not hate those that You hate, O Lord.”3

It is certainly not hard to imagine that in the 1st century, against the backdrop of a world in which the Roman Emperor was spreading injustice and Roman paganism was defiling the nation of God’s people, many Pharisees would have seen a limit to the commandments of “love your neighbor” to not be extended to one’s social and political enemies, including people deemed traitors to Israel’s cause. Instead, what they could interpret the commandment to mean is in line with LCD morality: love your own people, which is what all people do. This seems to be the thrust of the question by the legal scholar “Who is my neighbor?” in response to Jesus’ recognition that loving God and neighbor are the two most important commandments, which is why Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out this LCD ethic, saying there is nothing praiseworthy in following such a widespread, if not universal, moral principle. The ultimate purpose of Torah that Jesus is completing in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17b) is to love like God does, who shows kindness to the unrighteous along with the righteous. However, the Pharisees have made the observance of the Torah, ultimately, about themselves, as Matthew 6 goes into. This includes their actions of giving alms to the poor. Here is where this segues into charity. In the eyes of Jesus, the Pharisees have essentially read the Torah in line with a LCD morality that practically everyone recognizes to some degree.

Then, they obey they take what would be the most basic, fundamentally good actions of moral people in giving and doing this in order to be seen as good people (Matthew 6:2-4). They extend their public piety even further, making a deal about being involved in public prayers (Matthew 6:5-6) or even fasting in way that others know they are fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). They take a widespread moral principle AND two relatively widespread practices in many religions and they marshall it for its effective persuasive power among all the people. Precisely because they are considered practices of widespread value, they are praised; if it wasn’t of a LCD form of ethic and piety, then it wouldn’t have been effective for their public persona. Punctuated in the midst of this criticism is the prayer taught his disciples, that looks for God’s will and kingdom to come from heaven to earth, seeking a way of life that is by no means common to human societies, even a Jewish one, but rather uncommon. (Matthew 6:9-13) One can thus contrast Jesus prescription of holiness in accordance to advancing towards having a character like God’s, which would be entirely uncommon and thus distinct/holy, with the LCD forms of ethics and religious societies.

Right after Jesus directly critiques LCD morality in terms of love, he describes the Pharisees giving to charity, which as a LCD form of action is popular with others. Nowhere does Jesus criticize the act of almsgiving in and of itself: it is something one should do in secret. But the Pharisees are marshaling this LCD morality for their own personal purposes, which could also include their own social-political-religious goals.

Here is my point: giving to charity doesn’t make one a Christian. While it is an action when done for the right purposes, God will honor and remember, being charitable is no more to follow Christ than it is to love your own family. You aren’t following Christ if you refuse to be charitable or take care of your own family, but doing it doesn’t make you distinctly Christian.

The problem that Western Christianity has faced, however, is similar to what has happened with the Pharisees. In trying to lead people, which is a good and noble cause, it has accommodated more so to the LCD of moral and ethical principles that almost everyone who has a moral conscience or wants to appear to have one would agree to. LCD ethics is good for building large, diverse coalitions of people to live together with a basic sense of peace; this is good for nation-building of large, culturally diverse democracies, but you are not being faithful to follow Christ by advocating simply for the LCD. However, many Christians will make their faith so tightly contingent upon how they advocate for such LCD positions, unaware that they aren’t that far off from what the Pharisees did.

This is particularly prominent among progressive Christians in America. Just as the Pharisees made an emphasis on charity in almsgiving, progressive Christians place a large emphasis on such actions. Just as the Pharisees resisted the Roman Caesar in the ways they could and sought the end of his rule so that God’s will could lead to a new kingdom, progressive Christians seek to resist Trump and his administration and look for political progress to come to the US. And sure, while they don’t do what the Pharisees did in limiting the “love of neighbor” because of the importance they saw in disregard those traitorous to their social causes, they do likewise seek to limit and “contextualize” other instructions of Scripture that they deem a political and social injustice on matters such as sexuality or forgiveness in matters of oppression or harassment. Much of what they do isn’t bad: it is obvious to anyone that takes does not bow as the idol of America and nationalism that Trump has committed evil and has spoken evil. Many people today in the West would agree that the abuse LGBTQ persons is wrong and that people who have been oppressed and harassed should speak out and seek accountability for what has happened to them. But these are all matters that approach the LCD of morality, which only seems high and lofty in comparison to those a) who have desensitized themselves from even the LCD due to political and religious idolatry and rationalizations or b) due to differences of culture, practice the LCD moral principles in a different way that is not immediately recognizable to progressives.

I make that whole point about progressives to connect the same point to charity. Being charitable and advocating for helping the poor is good as progressive are known to do, but it is this part of the LCD of human moral principles. You aren’t being faithful Christians because you make this a central part of your understanding of faith. It should never be neglected, and it is easy to neglect, but following Jesus goes many degrees beyond such a basic, moral principle. So give and give freely to those in need as love compels you to do so, but to follow Christ is something that goes beyond giving excessively and extravagantly to those in need.

In the next post, I will try to shed light on this way of Christ as it relates to matters of wealth and charity in light of various perspectives in Second Temple Jewish wisdom.

The wisdom of Proverbs, Sirach, and eating with sinners

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November 19, 2018

In my research on wisdom on 1 Corinthians, I have taken some time to read through the wisdom of ben Sira in the Old Testament apocrypha. Without going into great detail, I believe that Sirach’s wisdom in one of three different forms of wisdom that stand in the background of 1 Corinthians (the other two being Stoic philosophy and Greco-Roman rhetoric).

But as I am reading, I can not help but but observe something important. On the one hand, Sirach clearly continues in the tradition of wisdom of the canonical Proverbs. However, there is also a particular shift in Sirach’s style. Whereas occasionally, Proverbs will praise the wise person, it more frequently focuses on wisdom as an idea, commonly personified in the form of Lady Wisdom. Sirach, by contrast, tends to spend more time humanizing wisdom, portraying specific persons as wise or its opposite of foolish, evil, etc. To put differently, where Proverbs spends more time idealizing wisdom, Sirach spends more time idealizing wise people.

This difference has a particular effect to it. The whole of Sirach 12 can be summarized as “Don’t spend time with sinners.” Proverbs has its own passages warning against sinners, but it is under the guise of warding off the specific influence they might have on one’s own actions, such as in Proverbs 13:20 and 22:24-25. The concern about proverbs is the effect that sinners can have on your own behavior. This concern about associating with sinners has morphed in Sirach 12, where the concerned is about the danger that sinners might have to harm and betray you. For Sirach, the immoral and foolish are considered enemies, either actual or potential, whereas for Proverbs, they are considered potentially bad influences on one’s own person. For Sirach, they are roadblocks to one’s well-being, whereas for Proverbs, they are roadblocks to one’s wisdom.

In other words, by focusing on the wise person, rather than on the ideal of wisdom itself, Sirach instrumentalizes wisdom for the purpose of the possessor of wisdom. Wisdom is increasingly not regarded something to value that then provides benefits, wisdom is values for its benefits. There always exists the tension between valuing something for its own sake and for its instrumental efficacy, but Sirach as shifted the pole increasingly towards efficacy. Consequently, persons are similarly portrayed in such a manner as their value to one’s own well-being: hence, sinners are seen as a threat.

It is against this background then that we may then consider Jesus’ own practice of eating with sinners and tax collectors. By being lumped with tax collectors, sinners could be considered on the treacherous side, just as tax collectors were deemed Roman-conspiring traitors to their own people. For the Pharisees and scribes, no doubt influenced to some degree by Sirach if his description on the scribe in Sirach 39 is any suggestion, they were questioning Jesus’ judgment more than the commonly modern political romanticization of “Jesus being on the wrong side of things.” It is interesting, then, that Jesus response to this question “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) echoes more mentality of the concerns about social contagion in Proverbs, but in reverse. Rather than the foolishness of the sinners being “contagious,” Jesus can reverse the course for the sinners.

Against this backdrop we can make better sense of Jesus’ actions. Far from being the prophet of inclusion that many want to make him to be, Jesus is doing the opposite of that which motivates those who vouch for inclusion. For Sirach and those who are influenced by Sirach, they are concerned about safety, hence they question Jesus’ judgment. Later, this morphs into them seeing Jesus as a threat to their own interests. But for Jesus, the concern is to bring them to repentance.

But it is important to recognize the nature of Jesus’ own actions with the sinners. Nowhere do we reach the sense of: “Hey. You guys have been too hard on them. They are really good people that you just haven’t recognized.” or “You need to forget all they did and just accept them.” Nor do Jesus’ actions fit into questions access and inclusion that our modern social and political debates are concerned about. Rather, it boils down to a simple question: are sinners worthy of being reached out to or are they lost to the judgment of God? The Torah never directly addresses this question, as those who sin in a defiant, high-handed way are excluded from the community with no hope of atonement. (Numbers 15:30-31) In this ambiguity and gap, the judgment of the sinners as treacherous could very well have left the sinners as unworthy and unsafe of ever being restored. But for Jesus, the answer to this ambiguity is a bit different and isn’t deteremined by the self-preservation of Sirach’s wisdom.

But before getting to that, it should be noted that nothing Jesus says and does suggest that Torah’s principle of exclusion and vulnerability to the guilt of one’s stubborn defiant actions is no longer the case. For instance, Jesus association with sinners does not fit into the modern rhetoric of “grace” and “forgiveness” that allows abusers to keep their status, power, and access as has become the penchant of many who claim Christ and yet exonerate severe breaches of misconduct from political figures. Rather, Jesus’ actions are pointed towards this basic conviction: sinners can be redeemed and given a place at the table of fellowship, not sinners should be given the keys to the kingdom (sinners are included in God’s Kingdom, but it is because God has the keys, not the sinner).

Against this backdrop we can understand the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the father chases after his son upon seeing him making his way back, even after the high-handed defiant actions of his son. Why? Because the father’s love makes him go out and then provide a fatted calf. The son is not “unsafe” but is sought out to be restored by the father’s own actions. And the older son, far from simply whining about moral superiority of his past actions, portrays his younger brother in terms of self-serving and treacherous behavior who has not proven his worth. Paraphrasing Jesus’ words from the parable: “Immediately, as soon as he comes back, you bless him with something precious, even though he went so far as to waste all he took with prostitutes. You don’t seem to recognize who is worthy of trust!” The father’s words suggest that the older son is interpreting this as a matter of trust, saying “Son, you are always with me” as an expression of the recognition of faithfulness. But then the father reframes it to say this is a matter of a celebration of restoration, not a recognition of faithfulness. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is understood as a challenge against a culture that is so rife for distrust of the once fallen.

And it is this reading of the Prodigal Son against the backdrop of high handed sin and the treachery of sinners that Jesus’ action can make sense: God has provided the atoning sacrifice that goes far beyond the atonement of the Old Covenant; God has taken it upon Himself to invite those who have forgotten and rejected Him to come close again. Jesus is personally reaching out the dangerous. He isn’t simply reaching out to the unpopular, the disliked as the modern prophets of inclusion make him out to be. Jesus is going into a den of thieves so to speak.

Thus, recognizing Sirach as a probable influence on the Pharisees and a pattern of mistrust whereas Jesus’ actions fit closer to the mentality of the Proverbs in a pattern of behavioral contagion, it helps us to shed light on what it means to be like Christ eating with sinners. It is neither a story of absolute inclusion nor absolute absolvement, but rather a story with a point that the Torah itself never gave an answer to in the case of high-handed sin: God can and will reach out to and redeem even those who are considered dangerous and unsafe.

Christian ethics as formative consequentialism

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November 17, 2018

Deeply embedding within Christian discourse is it’s ethical views are fundamentally deontological. That is to say that certain actions are right or wrong in virtue of inherent status such actions have. You have a set of laws, commandments, rules, etc. that regulate the Christian life and the moral status of the person is determined by their adherence to the set of deontic regulations. Often times, such a view of Christian ethics stands in contrast to the more consequentialist and utilitarian brands of ethics that judge actions based upon the results that come about from actions, rather than conformity with any specific principle. Such views often times evoke ideas of the horrors of “means justifying the ends” sort of thinking.

However, it is my contention that this deontic view of Christian ethics is an unnecessary hangover from a particular deontological view of the Torah stemming from the Catholic usage of law framing how Torah was understnading. As laws often operate in accordance to deontic princoples, particuarly when they are legitimated through hierarchical pronouncements, through Protestantaism characterization the Torah in legal terms, Protestant ethical thinking, alongside Catholicism, retaining a deontic structure insofar as ethical and moral thinking was still related to Torah. In suggesting this source for deontological ethics in Protestant thinking, my argument is not contingent on how historically accurate this assessment is; only that deonotological ethics 1) primarily characterizing Protestant and even Western Christan thinking about ethics and 2) deontological ethics is not an adequate descriptor of the systems of ethical expressions in the Old or New Testament. Rather, I would content for the hypothesis that Biblical ethics, and New Testament ethics more particuarly, have an ungirding ethical framework that is implicitly a more consequentialist of a peculiar sort. Put differently, Christian ethics is fundamentally grounded upon ethical prescriptions built towards certain formative results as the consequence of actions, but does not fit with the the utilitarian ethics that classified Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and had a large influence on classical liberalism.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rejected the commandments of the Torah as defining people who are genuinely righteous. His discussion of the Torah begins in Matthew 5:17-20 with three pronouncements. Firstly, Jesus states he is completing (πληρόω), not abolishing the Torah, as if the Torah on its own terms is somehow incomplete. From this explains a hierarchy of status of the kingdom of heaven based upon whether one breaks or adheres to Torah and teachers others to do the same. Finally, he puts the Pharisees and scribes, people who certainly held to Torah, as excluded from the kingdom of heaven, stating that one’s righteousness must exceed theirs.

These series of pronouncements can be understood in relation to other statements Jesus makes. For the Pharisees as the target of Jesus disdain in the term “hypocrites” in Matthew 6:1-18. Jesus remarks that their self-serving purposes have already received their “reward.” Right here, we see the connection between action and consequence. This falls right on the heels of Jesus conclusion to his teaching on Torah in Matthew 5:48, where the ultimate goal is to “Be mature (τέλειος) as your heavenly Father is mature.” (5:48) Thus, I would suggest that Jesus intends to contrast the purpose and consequence of their self-serving action with the God-directedness motivating Jesus’ employment of the Torah.

This is strengthened by the notion that Jesus describes following his teaching as making one like a ἀνδρὶ φρονίμῳ. (“prudent/wise man”) The word φρόνιμος recurs repeatedly in the LXX, recurring repeatedly in the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and Sirach with also another occurence in the Wisdom of Solomon. Therefore, it is highly plausible that Jesus is construing his entire Sermon on the Mount as an exercise in wisdom, which characteristically is attuned to the relations of one’s actions to the situations one faces. While the wisdom literature is not, strictly speaking, consequentialist in its ethical scope, it certainly pays attention to the relationship of one’s actions to what follows. This aligns with Jesus consequentialist statement that putting His words into practice will assure their stability in the time of distress.

This wisdom context also explains the usage of the word τέλειος, which was not exclusively used in the wisdom literature, but it does commonly occur in contexts of wisdom, such as Sirach 44:17, recounting the charachter of Noah1 as an exemplar of wisdom. Wisdom of Solomon 9:6 uses the term in the hyperbolic fashion of describing the case of a person who is τέλειος but lacks wisdom.2 In 1 Corinthians 2:6, Paul uses τέλειος in reference to who he teaches wisdom to. In each of these instances, τέλειος refers to a person who has attained a high sense of character, which we might today refer to as maturity. Thus, being τέλειος seems to go hand in hand with wisdom, which only reinforces being like a wise man being the consequence of obeying Jesus’ words.

All this leads to the purpose of the Torah in Jesus eyes. When Jesus employs the formula “you have heard it said,” referencing a statement from the Torah, with “but I say to you,” there is a relationship that remains between the Torah commandment and Jesus further instructions. It is as if Jesus is trying to show people how to see the Torah by breaking the hermeneutical blinders than the Pharisees and scribes as teachers would have laid upon the people through showing that the commandments of Torah should teach us something about how we should live as people. The commandments point towards something more about people than the literal words express. Thus, to have a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees and scribes, one should have a life this broadened sense of awareness in mind, because all of it points towards the status of being full grown/mature (τέλειος). In this way, Jesus didactic purpose of completing (πληρόω) the Torah enables the acquisition of a matured status (τέλειος).

So, Jesus view of the Torah is contrasted with his of the status of the Pharisees and scribes. The hypocrites’ real purpose behind Torah is ultimately consequences that benefit themselves, whereas Jesus’ employment and instruction of Torah is ultimately geared towards the consequences of imitating the matured state of the heavenly Father, which has echoes of the Levitical prescription to be holy as God is holy. Thus, viewed in this manner, the ethical regulations of the Torah are not construed in some deontic sense of “you better do this because God said so,” but rather “If you do these things, for the right purpose, you will move towards possessing the type of character that God has.” Hence, Jesus refers to peacemakers as those who will be called God’s children, which evokes a sense of resemblance, even though peacemaking is not a literal command of the Torah.

In short then, the purpose of God’s instructions via commandments isn’t to define what is good and what is evil in a deontological sense. Rather, they function as pedagogical guides and instructions, which when put in practice for the right purpose, lead to formation of people who resembles God’s character who also are the types that bring peace/shalom through their actions. The problem with Torah throughout the Old Testament, however, is that this formation of Israel never occurs because they never retain this rightly directed purpose of the love of God and pursuit of His holiness, but that God Himself must circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), putting His instruction in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34), giving them a new heart and new spirit in place of a hardened heart of stone. (Ezekiel 36:26) The problem of the Torah can be summarized by this: the Torah is not done for the right purpose.in terms of the setting of one’s relationship to God.

With this in mind: there are a few corollaries this this premise.

  1. What is “good” and “bad” is ultimately defined by the experiences of human life which was created and fashioned by God. However, this need not be an oversimplistic manner of “if it brings pleasure, it is good; if it brings pain, it is bad.” Why? In this view, God’s commandments are not what simplistically define, delimit, and differentiate the “good” and the “bad.” Rather, God’s instruction form us into people who do the “good.” Therefore, we are free not to judge the people of the world simplistically based upon their conformity and deviance from Christian principles. Christian ethics are intended to form people to take upon the character of God; they are not, in and of themselves, the barometers of goodness and badness. For instance as relevant to today’s divisions in the Church as it pertains to sexuality, gay and lesbian persons are not be judged as “bad” because of their sexual activity, which has caused unnecessary degrees of shame and pain on people. However, that does not negate the Biblical call to sex within the confines of a relationship to marital relations between a male and female; rather it clarifies the nature of this call towards the formation is has on those who submit to God’s principles rather than a judgment on the world for failing to adhere to it. The practice of sex in a heterosexual *faithful* marriage3 or celibacy aside from that is about the nature of the impact those two particular type of practices have, not the status of goodness or badness the actions themselves transmit to or signal about the people who do them.
  2. Our understanding of sin as the failure to adhere to God’s instructions would shift from simply being that which disobeys God and His commands, to that which has a negative consequence upon our relationship to God, to others, and the creation God has made. Too long, people have heard the echoes of a harsh judge passing a terrible sentence when they hear the word “sin.” Rather, sin is concerned about the consequences such actions has upon ourselves and the world around us, echoed in Paul’s statement “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) as an expression of the consequences of human actions that God seeks to redeem us from, rather than itself expressing the judgment of God. (Paul expresses the nature of God’s judgment in Romans 2)
  3. Jesus’ formative consequentialism takes one’s seeking of God and His righteousness as the hinge by which adherence to the Torah properly functions for Israelites. As such, formative consequentialism can put Paul’s statement about the faith of Jesus Christ against the works of Torah into context. For Paul, the most essential criteria for righteousness is what God does and our relationship to God’s action in the attitude of faith and trust. Through faith, one’s life set upon a new way of life by God that will come to define one’s life by righteousness, as we are formed in a new pattern in Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Faith is the attitude by which we relate to God’s powerful actions on our behalf, in which also we are guiding towards the purposes that the Spirit leads us towards. Thus, problems of works by the Torah for Paul is that seeking to add adherence to it for Gentiles works against the Spirit who is at work in them, thereby taking them off course from “waiting for the hope of righteousness” “through the Spirit by faith,” as concerns about Torah obedience blinds one from the rightful direction and purpose of “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:5-6) It isn’t that Paul is sayings our actions don’t matter, but rather not losing track of what God is doing by trying to add the Torah. One’s faith as being lead by the Spirit determines the direction and purpose of one’s actions rather than trying to conform to the words of the Torah.4 In other words, the problem of Gentiles trying to add on circumcision and Torah obedience is that it is taking the people off course from God’s purposes working themselves out through the Spirit.
  4. Deontological ethics misses the entire point of God’s guidance of Israel and the guidance of the Church through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Deontological ethics on its own terms is a spiritually dead ethic, done simply for the status of being “right” and “good” instead of “wrong” and “bad.” This leads the heart to find an motivation and purpose for doing “good,” which will commonly in curvatus se lead us to the motivation of “I want to be seen as right and good by others.” While this implicit, unconscious form of this isn’t by itself condemning as it doesn’t rule of the motivation for seeking after God, the more we define Christian ethics in a deontological manner, the more we leave a motivational vacuum that will be filled with our own, more “natural” purposes for doing what is “good” and “bad” rather than seeking God’s righteous character as the purpose of submission to His instruction.

In other words, I would put forth that formative consequentialism enabled by and accomplished through God’s redemptive actions in Christ and the Spirit best defines the ethical trajectory of the Bible, and when taken to is logical conclusions, would dramatically shift our theological, social, and psychological discourse and practices from what is the common practice in Christian circles.

Theological hermeneutics: the relationship of exegesis, theology, and the Triune God

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November 15, 2018

[Note before reading: In what I offer here is a very roughly worked out approach to relating Biblical exegesis and the task of theology. At moments there some thinking that seeks to approach the ideals of analytical rigor, but at other moments it can only be described as inchoate thoughts still seeking for better and clearer expression. I write this for further reflection and analysis down the road for myself, while also allowing opprotunities for any others to mine anything that is useful. Furthermore, the narrative of thought is not perfectly coherent from point to point, but I hope the connections offered provide some grounds for seeing connections, even in the lack of precision. Perhaps, with time, further exploration and analysis will show this to be tenable or that it is incoherent, but for now it rests in this early form.]

I remember early on as I walked the grounds of seminary being ‘troubled’ by a specific question, although it is better articulated now than then: if the Christian life is to be lead by the Holy Spirit, how is it not problematic to make Christian thinking be controlled by Biblical exegesis?

The spirit, or if one wants to press further and say the Spirit, of the Protestant Reformation was that Christian faith and theology was to be infallibly regulated by the Scriptures alone. While strictly speaking, this did not rule out any other sources for thinking, as sola scriptura is about being infallible authority by which all other authorities and sources must be judged, it certainly lead to a certain way of practice: to be the best Christian, to have the right thinking, the most pristine and godly theology, one must know the Scriptures. Leaders such as Luther and Calvin committed themselves to the study of the Scriptures, and particularly Calvin demonstrated a certain exegetical skill through the study of languages. But as the study of the Bible continued in European history, the methods of Biblical criticism took on a greater prominence, eventually morphing into a practice that was commonly threatening to the Christian faith. With this challenge in mind, more and more time and energy were given to the apologetic task of protecting the Christian faith in challenging many of the methods of Biblical criticism. As a consequence, what has continued unabated even into our present age in the West is a smorgasbord of methods and interpretive options for the Scriptures. How then does one make sense of the sometimes cacophony? Either one commits to their tradition and insulates them from others, which is the common response of fundamentalism, or one is tasked to try to engage in a more precise, better grounded exegesis to validate one’s interpretation and theology. In the midst of this is the high value placed upon the role of skilled exegesis.

And in saying this, I am not in anyway criticizing the task of becoming a more skillful exegete. My academic aspirations largely surround developing any possible exegetical acumen that I could have. However, in the midst of the great emphasis that is put upon us as readers to make sense of the text through our exegetical rigor and methods, does that not present a challenge to the role of the Holy Spirit in grappled with the Scriptures? As I walked to halls of Asbury Theological Seminary, I saw this theme play out between the exegetically minded people who wanted to key the meaning of the Scriptures to the specific, historical circumstances whereas others who sought the inspiration of the Spirit argued for more freedom to understand the Scriptures beyond such a confining manner. Even today, in the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, I engage with the question from others that the Church has long grappled with in seeing Christ throughout the Old Testament, which no responsible historically and grammatically grounded exegesis can actually arise at independent of the presupposition of Christ. If I may synthesize these two different experiences, there is a sense that faith and reliance upon Triune God can guide us to an understanding of the Scriptures that no exegetical method can itself arrive at.

In this, I have seen the judgment that can be dispersed from the sides of the aisle. The exegetically inclined cast judgment upon other that would go beyond what amounts to an epistemically justified interpretation of the Scripture is tantamount to mere subjectivism. Meanwhile, those whose faith extends beyond what is derived from exegesis treating exegesis as some lesser practice, that can miss the point. And I suspect if the exegetical and the theological minded were to not be challenged by the other, they would subject the methods of the other task to the purposes and goals of their task. In other words, many Biblical scholars would see theology simply as expression of the Bible; whereas many theological would employ styles of exegesis that would arrive at the conclusions they already have. 

All this leads to the critical question: if there is a Triune God who is testifed to by if not even speaks through the Scriptures, then what role does this have with exegesis? Are exegesis and faith/theology in conflict? Or, should we move towards a way of thinking where one mode is slave to the tasks of the other?

Allow me to suggest a manner of understanding based upon a specific approach to language that suggests that they neither conflict nor is one mode enslaved to the other. Simply put: language and thought are not coterminous. As a speaker language expresses thoughts; as a hearer/reader language can lead us to have certain thoughts. However, thinking is never entirely reducible to the expression of words in a specific context. However, language often times reveals more than what was primarily intended to be expressed.

Consider the phenomenon of Freudian slips/slips of the tongue. A person’s intention in communication is focused on one topic, but as they speak, their words reveal other thoughts. Now, commonly, this slip of language becomes obvious when the words only make sense for the hidden thought but not for the presumed purpose. But, sometimes, the words would be suitable for both the pragmatic purpose at hand and other thoughts. These are not really slips in the classic sense as if there is some error in communication, but rather there is something approaching a functional polysemy. In circumstances like this, the words convey the thoughts of the person both in regards to the pragmatic purpose of their conversation AND their thoughts about other, perhaps related, topics. But, how can the hearer/reader catch these thoughts that span beyond the pragmatic purpose? If the words make sense in the context, then they wouldn’t necessarily be alerted to any further meaning.

By paying attention to the wider context. The normal practice of interpreting, which is generally attuned to the specifics pragmatic circumstances by skilled listeners, will not provide you with this further meaning. Instead, one can only make sense of this meaning by getting to know the person better and beginning to observe the patterns.

However, there is a distinct problem with observing patterns; pattern observation is fraught with subjectivity, especially when it comes patterns that we infer are there but we don’t directly observe. When we try to figure out what another person is thinking, the further we go beyond what they observably say and do, the more we are making inferences about what we do not observe, which entails us filling the gaps in with a combination of our own sense of ourselves (projection) and  with our own experiences of others (transference). Thus, the practice of reading between the lines, of going beyond what is written is only as reliable in so far as a) our own sense of who we are resembles who the other actually is and b) our sense of who that person is matches the past experiences of others we unconsciously compare them to.

But if I do not have direct, independent access to the other person entirely independent of my projections and transferences, how can I ever know that my understanding matches theirs? You can’t. You will never have a good reason for an absolutely confident knowledge that your thoughts and feelings are in perfect match with another. But, there are workarounds. My thoughts about another need not be slaves to projections and transferences, even if they are influenced by them.

Allow me to use romantic relationships, where projections can easily run amok, to demonstrate how subjectivity can be altered: If one person dating another says “I love you,” those words are not a projection, even as the other person may at the same time project their feelings as the feelings of the other. Projection is joined together with an matching expression and behavior of the other. Or, consider a different couple where one breaks up with another saying “I no longer love you.” Even as the one being broken up with has feelings of love for the other, the words of the other alters the preceptions of the jilted lover, assuming they don’t go into denial. Projections are challenged by the dissonant expression and behavior of the other. The point is that the way one challenges one subjectivity is through paying attention to what you can pay direct attention described. Denial that maintains the projections, by contrast, will tend to divert attention away from what can not be directly observed and rationalize through more hidden inference.

Thus, there is the ever constant back and forth between attention to what is observable, which is what exegesis is based upon, and pattern-matching about the otherwise unobservable and inferred, which is what theology focuses on as God is not directly observable to us. But, what is different from pure exegesis is that theology emerges from seeing and making the connections drawn from wide-spread observations. In other words, theology emerges from a range of different observations across the spectrum. Much as the genuine feelings of romantic love do no rest simply on a single pronouncement, such as “I love you” or buying flowers, but on the whole way that person responds, so too does theology not rest on reading too much into a single pericope here or a single text there, but from making sense of the whole. But this sense of the theological whole can not be reducible to the meaning of individual words and actions in their original, pragmatic contexts.

If then Scripture testifies to and expresses the thoughts of God, then by attuning ourselves to the whole of it, we can being to see how the various expressions may express something more than what was intended for the pragmatic purpose of the original context. For instance, when God made a promise for Abraham’s seed, God was in that moment intending something for Abraham regarding having a child of his own with Sarah, but yet this expression of God also gives a glimpse into the mind of God that extends beyond the concrete fulfillment in the person of God. That is what I is what I would contends happens with Paul in Galatians 3:16, whose argument is not reducing the promise to Abraham simply as the promise of Christ, but rather sees in God’s expression one that reveals something about the way God fulfills his promise through a singular line of descent. Paul stills sees Isaac as fulfillment of the promise in Romans 9:6-8, which serves as a principle to show the relationship of God pruposes and genealogical descent. So we either take Paul a) to be ultimately contradicting himself, b) to be making ad hoc comments for different situations, c) a changing of thinking from the earlier Galatians to the later Romans, or d) allow a mode of interpretation that can incorporate both the history of the moment and a theological continuity in the minds of God that transcends the specific historical events. I would argue for D, in that what God made known to Abraham manifest the shape of God’s broader intentions of a Christological redemption, even as it also makes an intention pragmatically known to Abraham.

You don’t get that by simply reading Genesis and say “See! Christ is spoken of right here!” Rather, I would suggest that Paul got there by a) being deeply familiar with the Jewish Scriptures and b) being deeply familiar with Christ and through attention to both, making the connections between God’s various actions, including His speech-acts.

In short, I suggest the relationship between the exegesis of the Christian Scriptures and the reflection of Christian theology operates through the back-and-forth nature being interpretation attuned to the pragmatic, historical circumstance in exegesis combined with the theological reflection on making sense of the whole of what God has said and done. In this, we can see the connections between God’s word in the Old Testament with God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. Yet, neither the methods and practices of theological reflection and Biblical exegesis are reduced to the concerns of the other, but they operate as distinctively different modes of thinking. 

However, there is one roadblock still to overcome. What are the specific connections I should make between the various observations of my exegetically grounded readings? Even as I am consistently challenging my pattern-and-inferential thinking with the analysis-of-observations thinking, there are still many possible patterns we can perceive, even as we reject other possible patterns as untenable. In other words, two people can still have the same Biblical exegesis of various texts and still come to different conclusions. In other words, theology is underdetermined by exegesis. How then do we read to an understanding that is attuned with the will and thoughts of God?

The Spirit. But, by this, I don’t mean to say that we engage with some practice or word that the Spirit gives us that solidifies our interpretation over another. According to my understanding of Paul in 1 Corinthians, particulary chapters 2-3 and 12-14, the Spirit does not provide us with specific, epistemic justifications for our interpretations and theological reflections, strictly speaking. The words of people speaking by the Spirit must still be discerned; appeals to the Spirit is not a justification that one has confident knowledge. Rather, our lives are lived by the direction of the Spirit who leads us to follow Jesus Christ. Through this process, human thinking is transformed by practice itself. When one acts like Christ acts and experiences what Christ experiences, one’s thoughts will come into greater similarity to the minds of Christ. While imitation of action does not assure identical thoughts, it does promote some degrees of similarity. Through this, one feelings and even one’s desires may come to have a similarity to what Christ would have experience, thus fashioning our heart through the experience of action.

The heart transformed through practice would then transforms the types of patterns we observe. At the core, the patterns we observe are determined by what our desires, values, and fears make salient to us, since the focus of our attention is determined what it is we are looking for. This will impact the type of connections we make between our attention to the various expressions of Scripture (and then even our attention to the work of God in our own lives).

In summary then, there is a relationship between Biblical exegesis that is attuned to the historical moment and our theological reflections in which we see to know God as He has disclosed Himself in Jesus Christ because the disclosure of thinking can go beyond the pragmatic meanings of the specific moment. However, Biblical exegesis and theological reflection is mediated by a Spirit-led, Christ-conforming praxis, which influences the type of connections we make between responsible exegesis and the reflections of faith.

Torah as law vs Torah as instruction

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November 13, 2018

If you were almost any English translation of the New Testament, you would find a particular word repeated throughout the pages: law. Once you happen upon Paul’s letters like Romans and Galatians, you will see a high recurrence of the word. There are understandable reasons for this: the Greek word used is νόμος has in many instances a legislative connotation of the pronouncements of a ruling figure. For instance, James 2:8 talks about the “royal law.” However, the Greek lexicons give the primary definition as a matter of “a procedure or practice that has taken hold”1 or “that which is in habitual practice.”2 This is closer to our concept of culture rather than it is legal rules. However, since at least the Latin Vulgate, where νόμος was translated as lēx, which is Latin legislative language for a legislative bill or passed regulation, the words and commandments of God from the mouth of Moses, that is the Torah, has been given a distinctive legislative and legal sense.

This legal language isn’t without merit on the surface of it. After all, God’s commandments were given for the people of Israel to obey and some commandments had prescribed punishments for failure to uphold the Torah. Then perusal of the Mishnaic and Talmudic literature exhibtting many of the characteristics of legal practices, such as extending the application of laws to new and different circumstances, trying to figure out how to address instances where there seems to be a contradiction between commandments, etc. Most likely, this attitude was also true of the religious leadership during Jesus’ time.

But, this legal picture can also be quite misleading. For us, laws are considered something compulsory, something we are bound to apart from our own conscience. You may not like the laws, but you are obliged to obey them or you will be punished. In our experience, laws do not reach into the heart, but bind people’s actions. But this wasn’t the experience of obedience to the Torah. While the practice of understanding and applying Torah took on legal characteristics, the motivation for submission to the Torah was taken to be a matter of love and devotion to this one God, over and against other the pattern of other societies, whether it be the Canaanites in the nascent stages of Israel’s history or the paganism that peppered the landscape under Roman rule. Thus, Torah as a distinctive, holy way of life apart from other people’s ways of life and worship also bound the people together in common life and love.

So Torah wasn’t obeyed as a system of legal principles, but as a way of life as a people before this God who had redeemed their ancestors from Egypt. Your love for God and your love of your own Jewish people was the under-riding motivation for obedience to Torah. This is part of the reason that sinners are often talked about in the same breath as tax-collectors, who as agents of Roman power were considered traitors to their people; sinners who failed to obey Torah were regarded not simply disobeying God but disregarding their own people.

This is where I suggest that the problem of the Pharisees and scribes in the Gospels exists. The standard portrayal of Pharisees and scribes and fuddy duddies about the rules, who then coincidentally happened to exhibit a malicious streak towards Jesus, absolutely does mischaracterize the adherents to the Jewish Torah. The Pharisees and scribes were not legalists in the modern sense of the term where we see obsessive concerns about interpretation and application law that is separated from devotion. The Pharisees and the scribes were deeply devoted in their passions. And it was sort of a devotion and practice that would have even made them popular among their people. If you were a Jew, there is a good chance you would think the Pharisees were quite charming, and that those scribes were awfully smart. You would have like them.

They saw something important, if not even potentially powerful, in Torah obedience. In the Torah they could define Israel over and against the pagan nations with a hope that such obedience would merit God’s faithful protection that would give them victory over their pagan overlords. This sense of God’s protection was certainly the case for the Jews at Qumran and likely they exhibited radicalized versions of this tendency already present in the religious mainline of Israel. But whereas those at Qumran held dreams for a judgment in the present age, the Pharisees looked powerful victory from God that they were seeking would have been that of resurrection, or as Jesus refers to in John 5:39, eternal life. Whereas Qumran had no unequivocal hopes in resurrection, the Pharisees placed great hope in the resurrection, knowing they were powerless to fight Roman power. These were people of faith.

Meanwhile, as teachers of Israel, they were not simply focused on their own self-preservation, but they took on a role of leadership and concern to guide their own people. They would bear upon themselves the task of leading their people.

So, where does it all go wrong? How is it that people who had such noble intentions and tasks can go so wrong? Or, are the Gospels simply an unjust and anti-semitic aspersion?

Allow me to suggest it is begins with the combination of devotion with legal principles. The Pharisees had no mere bureacratic mentality, but they were zealously devoted to their task. And that is where the danger lies. Bureaucrats, who can have their own dangers, are not necessarily out to apply the rules and procedures to every aspect and zone of life: they tend to not want to rock the boat. But being zealous for rules has its own danger of judgment of those who do not share the same zeal and same degree of proficiency that they have. Highly passionate people rarely tolerate apathy, laziness, and ignorance from others.

So, when people fail to adhere to their degree of holiness, they either speak derision masked as informative questions as they did as Jesus disciple’s for not washing their hands before eating, or they go further to the entire disregarding of those who they deemed sinners of breaches of even Torah itself. Furthermore, as highly passionate people can have a certain charisma, they would have gotten immersed into their role of their appearances before the people and the rewards that came from such celebrity and status. Then, when someone like Jesus enters the scene, doesn’t engage in their brand of holiness, and steals some of their thunder, that only stokes the fires of their passion even more. So, they engage in the conflict with Jesus with the one skill they highly esteem, their understanding and obedience to Torah. It is what differentiates themselves from others in their mind and it is how they will try to win against Jesus.

Meanwhile, Jesus doesn’t criticize their adherence to Torah, despite the modern mythical Jesus that has been constructed. There is not a hint of the mentality “we need to just get rid of the rules and live.” He certainly criticizes how they use the tradition of the elders to cast aspersion of his disciples, while they through the traditions fail to uphold the more important concerns of the Torah. Rather, Jesus’ criticism is their very understanding of the Torah. They see in the words of the Torah a source of power that they should adhere to, particularly for their own self-aggrandizement and their resurrection/eternal life. Jesus, instead, sees the Torah more like a light into the heart of people. One’s experience of obedience the Torah and the struggle with such would show one’s heart to oneself. Paul alludes to this in Romans 7, where the commandment to not covet teaches about coveting. In the commandment to not murder, one would not simply want to adhere to the Torah but find what rests within oneself that leads to murder in the form of hostile anger. Not committing adultery would not be enough, but one would want to be averse even intending and planning to do such. The practice of obedience to the Torah sheds light on oneself and all that goes behind the temptation to do what the Torah instructs one not to. However, if the focus is on the application of Torah to all of life, to create a system of righteous behavior, all in a passionate interest for righteousness, you would miss that is within, directing all your attention outward. The end results is that they fail to truly comprehend the Torah in light of the two most important commandments of love, even if they recognized them as important.

For Jesus, and for the Old Testament, the Torah is not so much legislation as it is instruction for the people to obey out of love for God. Certainly, as mentioned, it did regulate the common life of Israel with systems of punishment. And no doubt it was a common experience in Israel to experience the Torah as more a social instrument of regulation than an inner, personal striving. Hence, the story of Israel is the story of a people who do not remain faithful to God and His instructions. Hence, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant where God’s instruction would be in people’s hearts. But, the place where the godly passion for God’s instruction will come from isn’t merely by a self-induced passion or a passion merely stoked by the forces of social modeling and contagion, but a passion granted from God. It rests not within the socio-political and personal forces of passion, but the force and power that comes from God’s Spirit. Meanwhile, the Psalms recognize the role of the Torah as a light that comes from God. But when the emphasis is placed on the power of Torah itself rather than on the power of God who instructs and guides through Torah, then one’s heart is not open to the God who directs but on the human heart to appropriate and extend for oneself. Hence, Jesus says in John 6:45 that those who have heard, learned from and have been taught by God. They were not looking to the Torah itself as the source, but they were looking and attentively seeking God’s will and they used the Torah as an instructive guide.

This mentality informs Jesus understanding of the Torah. When the adulterer was brought before Jesus, he saw no need to condemn her to death. He saw himself as the one without sin and so thus qualified to make a judgement. In this status as being fit to judge, he didn’t see the death of the adultery as a legal precedent that one must follow. He takes the opportunity to use this moment as a pedagogical moment to the adulteress, extending her grace and mercy as he tells her to sin no more. As one without sin, he could see what the purposes and uses of the Torah are for, and in the end, the goal is guidance and instruction of God’s people. Whereas the other people were certainly passionate and zealous for the Torah, their zeal blinded them to the ultimate pedagogical, instructive purpose, so they saw the Torah as regulations that can not and should not be abrogated.

So why do I tell this story? Because we have Godwin’s law-ed the Pharisees in Christian circles, treating them as a vacuous, catch-all derision for anyone who upholds any sort of law or principle. Consequently, we have been (wrongly) immunized from their negative examples. But, the true danger of the Pharisees were not in their love of God or even their seeking obedience to Torah, but to the power they found in Torah for their own virtue signaling to the people and compelling their vision upon the Jewish people as the educated and popular leadership of Israel. This is the danger that exists for all people, particularly when they have a system of justification purported to be from God that they employ for their own side. They have all the trappings of education, charisma, righteous appearances, and moral justifications, none of which are evil, but they lacked one thing: the actual type of heart that would lead them to bear the fruit that resembled the pictures they painted with their words. And this danger is only heightened today in the day of social media, where we must rely even more on the credentials, first impressions of charisma, selective stories of character, social justifications of them due to our personal distance the people we are an audience of. And thus, the Pharisees would have been seen as the heroes of their day as they looked for the day of their preferred future to arise, but time would reveal them to be far from the ideals they sought to progress. For instance, when you see people using positive sounding terms like “ethically sourced” to avoid weightier matters be aware, very aware, of what could stand behind those words and watchful to see what type of fruits are available for harvest.

Love is the culmination, not the starting point

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November 10, 2018

A few days ago, I happened upon a facebook conversation with a friend of mine, James-Michael Smith, about the relationship of Scripture and love. He posted the follow picture as a summation of the wrong attitude some people have about the Bible.

Embedded in this is the cliche that “Jesus taught us to love.” I say cliche because while it is true at one level, what is misunderstood is that Jesus didn’t simply teach people to love, but challenged the very definitions people used when it came to love, both in what it means to love and who is it we are to love.1 But in common discourse, it is assumed that we already got the meaning of love down, but that we simply need to learn to show love to people. We are inclined to assume we know and that our problem is merely an emotional and behavioral problem.

Then, as we join together the love-cliche with an assumption we know what love is, we read the words of Jesus about the two most important commandments and say “See! Jesus says we should love! Let’s do it!” We already understand what it is to love, so lets get on with it. As a consequence, there is a tendency to reduce the meaning of the Scriptures down to the idea of “love,” as the above picture demonstrates.

But allow me to draw a personal analogy that illustrates the fundamental problem in this mindset. At the age of 34 and as the result of trauma in my life, I have never been in a long-term romantic relationship. While I have had feelings at various points in time for women and gone on plenty of dates, nothing has ever materialized. As a conqeuence, I have never experienced what it means to be a committed relationship with someone at that level. However, when I hear words about love in a romantic context, I might be inclined to think “I know what love is.” But in fact, I only have the faintest recognition of what love is, whether it be derived from pop culture, teachings from Church, the scant experiences I have had, my education and training in psychology, etc. but I don’t know what it means to be in a loving, romantic relationship. I recognize the word and I know what it might look like on the surface, but I have no real depth of understanding or comprehension beyond an intellectual level.

So, imagine the folly that would come from me giving dating or marital advice. Now, I could probably give advice on dealing with conflicts or maybe addressing a specific critical event in people’s lives. I could probably even tell you that there are just some bad ideas you shouldn’t try. But, it would be folly for me to presume to give advice as if I some love guru, who has mastered the art. Why? Because I don’t actually understand romantic love, even if I recognize it from a distance.

This very mistaken mentality is what I would suggest undergirds much of the rhetoric that people use regarding Jesus. Jesus says to love, and so the assumption is that we understand all of that so that a) we don’t need the rest of the laws and b) are fit to be able to guide other people in what it means to love. The criticism is rooted in what Jesus warned about judgment in Matthew 7, where people try to take out the specks in other people’s eyes, acting as if they can see while they have a plank blinding them from actually seeing.

I cite as one target of this criticism the progressive political culture in America and the Church, including within progressive Christianity, which while it has noble intentions about love and justice has failed to truly comprehend love and justice, so that through their incompetency they contribute to the very hatred and injustice they seek to fight against. They may recognize love and justice, but I would suggest there is little comprehension. For instance, they recognize the power that Martin Luther King Jr. had to create change for movements towards justice, but they fail to comprehend the nature of the power of MLK’s resistance. Nor is it readily understand that MLK was a deeply flawed person in other areas like plagiarism and accusations of adultery, even while he was exemplary in pursuing justice. And so, people imitate the methods of MLK’s non-violent resistance because they recognize its power, but not comprehending the power stemming from how you use the methods nor the potential downfalls of even this way of trying to achieve a goal, because even MLK did not have perfect comprehension.

My point: recognition without comprehension leads to something branded as “love” and “justice” but is commonly reduced to the lowest common denominator. How then do we move beyond recognition to comprehension? We learn, which to happens entails that we recognize our own ignorance, if not even culpability. We call this repentance.

But then, the next step entails finding and recognizing there is someone we can learn from who can treat our ignorance, our lack of recognition. But this puts us in a particular bind. If we truly don’t know and comprehend, how can we know and recognize those who do know and comprehend? Our ignorance means we don’t have the right criteria in our minds to know who can truly dispel our ignorance.

This is where recognition comes in to play: we can recognize from the whole of someone that they do seem to know and comprehend in a way that we ourselves can not analyze and articulate ourselves. We can call this faith/trust, where we place our hands into someone that we ourselves neither have perfect comprehension of nor control over. So when the crowds see Jesus as teaching with an authority that the Pharisees and scribes did not have, you see this taking place.

Of course, this faith may be shallow or deep, with genuine or duplicitous motives. For instance, the Gospel of John notes that there were people who believed in Jesus that Jesus did not entrust himself to because he saw who they really were (John 2:24-25). So, while faith is certainly a necessary starting point in the journey to move towards the comprehension of love, it isn’t sufficient. Jesus didn’t teach everyone who came to Him, which is a hard truth to accept to our modern ears as our society has made Jesus the patron saint of belonging and inclusion.

Then, in the Gospel of John, we note that in the time before he goes to his death, Jesus brings together his disciples for what might be said to amount to a farewell address. Jesus has taken his disciples as they followed him, teaching them, showing them wonderous things, all while also confusing and confounding them along the way. And it is during this time together he says to them “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) But didn’t the Torah already have the commandments to love one’s neighbor? How is this a new commandment then?

Therein lies the whole point of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples. These were Jews, who knew the Torah to some degree or another, including the commandments to love God and to love neighbor. But this commandment isn’t an old commandment, but a new one that goes beyond the letter of the Torah. The commandment to love one’s neighbor in Levitcus 19:18 was said in the context of speaking truth to one’s neighbor, presumably so that they do not incur severe consequences upon themselves, and not taking vengeance. But to his disciples, Jesus is talking about love for each other that takes on a fresh new understanding: they are to love in the way that Jesus Himself loves. Later, Jesus goes on to describe His commandment to love in John 15:12-13: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This commandment to love extends beyond the old commandment that pertains to speaking truth and not taking vengeance: it extends to sacrificing oneself for one’s friends for their benefit.

So, Jesus teaches his disciples a new commandment, because what the Torah provided didn’t directly spell out to the letter. This mentality undergirds Jesus’ usage of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. There were the commandments of the Torah that many people were trying to fulfill but for ulterior motives and purposes, particuarly for their own self-image. Consequently, they did not truly see what the commandments were really about. But Jesus did, and through a series of hyperbolic statements, brings to the forefront that there is something more important than simply obeying the commandments, but to grasp what the concerns that lay behind the commandments. Rather than just avoiding murder, the commandments should point to understanding the danger of anger that leads to murder. Rather than just avoiding committing adultery, one should be concerned about the intentions to commit adultery. Rather that simply giving a certificate for divorce, as if that was the humane thing to do, one should seek to avoid the evils of divorce itself. Rather than simply obeying one’s vows, one should be a trustworthy and honest person without making any vows. Rather than seeing the lex talonis as a justification for a certain degree of revenge, it is actually a hedge against the human predilection towards vengeance that one should seek to avoid. Rather than seeing “love your neighbor” as an excuse to hate those who are not your neighbor, you should recognize the importance of love in the first place. All of this puts cracks through the legalistic mentality of obedience, opening the door to show that type of love that God has for the righteous and the unrighteousness alike, as as to demonstrate Jesus’ climactic moral proclamation: to be complete as the heavenly Father is complete. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount was a didactic action that reveals people’s ignorance through what they do recognize in Jesus and His words and help them to begin to recognize what the Torah was ultimately all about.

But notice that even here, there is a gap between the meaning of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount regarding love and then Jesus’ own words to his disciples in John 15. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hasn’t fully made everything known. Why? Because the people weren’t ready to receive and comprehend it. This is why immediately after defining the greater form of love is sacrificing one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer servants but friends in John 15:15. Now they have the capacity to comprehend what Jesus is doing, so they can do what Jesus’ commands to love one another as He loved them. Their whole discipleship under the guiding hand of Jesus saw them as learners, who could recognize at times but failed to comprehend. But now, Jesus saw them as friends because he made what he heard from His Father known to them.

In other words, the disciples at the beginning of their journey did not comprehend God’s type of love, even if they were capable of recognizing it. They themselves had to learn what it meant to love as God loves before they themselves would be commanded to love in the way God loves. Their pre-discipleship days of hearing the Torah had not provided them enough instruction for them to comprehend.

Which leads me to one of my two main points here: you have to learn what God’s type of love is before you can tell others what it means to love like Jesus loves. Without this, any attempt to try to reduce the message of Jesus and the Gospel to love is like trying to say all you need to know to understand Shakespeaere’s Romeo and Juliet is that they die for the sake of love. There is a WHOLE lot that goes into their love that is necessary to comprehend to understand that play. Similarily, and more importantly, you need to comprehend the nature of Jesus’ love before you can really show others how to love like Jesus commands.

Which leads me to my second point: you learn to love through discipleship. Discipleship is not, however, simply a matter of information transfer through a linguistic medium such as spoken or written language. It is a matter of life, where people act and put into practice what they have witnessed and seen. Jesus didn’t provide theoretical comprehension that people then put into practice; Jesus’ teachings often confused his disciples. But rather, they saw Jesus and through seeing Jesus they began to imitate what they recognized in Jesus, along with doing the things Jesus would ask them to do. Through this life of action, they were being formed to be people who could then comprehend.

This is where the Torah for the Jews and then all of the Scriptures for us as Christians fits into all of this. While we might tempted to look at them as a set of behavioral and cognitive rules for behaviors and beliefs, we can also look at them as guidance to help us attain comprehension through putting into practice in behavior and exploring through cognitive consideration, meditation and imagination. Through putting them into practice with the rightly directed purpose, they form us to be capable to comprehend. Even as we fail in putting them into practice, our recognition that we failed to fulfill our purpose can further our comprehension. Thus, we came to comprehend God’s type of love in Jesus Christ as we seek to put to action what we recognize of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

So, while we can say to some degree, that the picture above has an element of truth to it, it is also fundamentally mistaken. Yes, the love of God and the love of neighbor is the commandments above all other commandments, which should be honored and followed if there are ever circumstances where another commandment would call for a contradictory action, such as loving one’s neighbor through healing and the commandment to obey the Sabbath. But it is false to say that love is the meaning of the Sabbath commandment, as if you know and show “love” there is no need for the commandment. Rather, it is the reverse: one needs the Sabbath commandment to be put into practice in order to comprehend what it means to love God and to love neighbor: we should set aside time to honor God where nothing else distracts us and we should allow others to also have such a time of rest rather than always binding people to work and activity. While there are times where practicing the Sabbath may contradict the commandment to love God and to love neighbor, the commandment is also a vital instruction when put into practice for the rightly directed purpose helps people to comprehend what is means to love God and love neighbor.

For the Torah and the Old Testament, you don’t grow to comprehend loving God without putting the God’s instruction into practice. And so it is for us as Christians. Even though we don’t follow Torah today in a strict legalistic manner because the New Testament suggests ultimate purpose of the the Torah was to recognize Jesus, rather than provide full comprehension, in a similar manner we recognize that we don’t comprehend Jesus’ type of love until we put into practice what Jesus put into practice, including Jesus’ own pattern of life that was lived in obedience to Torah (so, when we seek to imitate Jesus, we are seeking what will fulfill God’s intentions for the Torah). This starts, however, with the recognition of our own ignorance and culpability that then places our trust in Jesus as one whose guidance and teaching, when put into practice, will lead to comprehension (and then as followers also recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this).

The passage of Scripture that echoes it best is one that one of my favorite professors from seminary who had a huge influence on me, Dr. Joseph Dongell, gave a wonderful sermon at the chapel of Asbury on 2 Peter 1:5-8:

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ

Love is the end result of one’s discipleship, not the starting point. Along similar lines, In Romans 5:1-5, Paul traces the journey through the starting virtue of faith, providing justification, leading to hope through endurance, which in the exercising of hope culminates into the pouring of God’s love into our own hearts through leading of the Holy Spirit. Similarly in 1 Corinthians, Paul establishes that his initial purpose in coming to the Corinthians was for them to have faith in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) but he seeks for them to move beyond even that the greatest virtue of love that always remains. (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13) Love, the type of love that God seeks, is something one must grow into and comprehend; it isn’t some we start off with and understand.

In other words, you call tell other people they need to love, you can use it as a motto in political and religious signs, you can speak the most powerfully moving sermons, homilies, and speeches about love, but if you have yet to comprehend God’s type of love in Jesus Christ, your words are simply noise that do not serve God’s purposes. And without that comprehension, any attempt to try to summarize and confidently reduce the importance of the Bible down to some vague, shadowy concept of “love” misses the whole point and serves as big plank blinding the eyes of the reader of the Scripture. But, if we recognize our own ignorance and culpability and in that trust that God is revealing His type of love in His Son Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit, we may yet grow to comprehend truly what it means to love.

Why you shouldn’t “surrender” to God

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November 9, 2018

“Surrender to God” is a common phrase in the evangelical lexicon of evangelism and discipleship. It is taken almost as an obvious axiom of Christian evangelism: the only way to experience God is to surrender to God. After all, we are all sinners and we have been obstinate to God’s will and purposes in our lives. So, the logic goes, if we have been resisting God, then the solution is to just let go of that resistance.

But allow me to state something: surrendering to God doesn’t make you a Christian. It makes you captive; a captive to a theology and worldview in which submission and obedience is framed in terms of power and control and the lack of it. The Bible doesn’t talk about “surrendering to God.” It talks about trusting God, loving God, having the fear of the Lord, obeying God, submitting to God, humbling oneself before God, following Jesus, walking by the Spirit, etc. But none of those phrases mean “surrender.” Sure, you can interpret some of these phrases in a framework of captivity where there is the all-powerful one who takes other people captive. You obey your captor, you reject your sense of self before the captor, you may even fear them. (but not in the way the Bible means “the fear of the Lord.”) But other of these phrases do not readily fit with surrender, such as trusting God or loving God, unless one wishes to think about love in manner of Stockholm syndrome.

Now, one might say that my characterization of “surrender” is unfair, misconstrual, and missing the point, that people don’t mean that God is taking you captive. Perhaps that is genuinely the case in many individual instances. But when “surrender to God” is an evangelistic meme that is an “obvious” axiom of preaching that is used in substitution of the language of the Bible, then it starts to be decontextualized from the Bible, as it attains it’s own status of authority and rightness that approaches Biblical authority. The way people interpret that language is very prone to misunderstanding, thinking that God is taking control of them and putting them into captivity; even if you as a speaker mean “surrender” in a metaphor to get people to simply allow God to work. You do not have direct control over how people interpret your words; so the more the language and metaphors diverged from the Biblical language that impacts how people interpret, the less likely your own words will convey the testimony of God from the people of the Scriptures. Many people hear a more top-down “God controls” rather than a more bottom-up “God guides.” And you wonder why people are scared of the God you preach about? You do probably have good intentions, but even in that, you fail to see how the metaphor a) conveys languages that is far from the Biblical language and thus, b) unnecessarily evokes feelings of fear.

Furthermore, even as there are many people who use such language with no ill intentions, there is the possibility of those who when they say “surrender to God,” they actually mean “surrender to me/us as God’s agents.” Much like a con artist relies upon getting around people’s defenses by using reasonable and trustworthy sounding language, the more we use the language of “surrender” the more we make it ripe for misuse. While this danger exists for all language, even the language of love which can be marshalled in many exploitive means that has little to do with the love of God as made known in Jesus Christ, at the very least most of the Biblical language doesn’t seek to directly challenge the resistance that protects us from the exploiters. But the language of “surrender” even as it may be used for well-intended directions is also prone to use for other reasons.

But let’s note: Jesus didn’t “surrender” to God’s will. God didn’t corner Jesus and force his hand into going to the cross; God wasn’t nagging Jesus “You need to do this.” Jesus laid it down on His own voluntary accord. He accepted God’s purposes as he simultaneously pleaded to God in the garden for a different way. He does this out of love for his friends. And as he was present to Israel, he didn’t come to take captives for God, but to liberate people so that they could serve God.  The only actions of surrendering he took was to those who would try to steal his life.

The closest we get to the language of “surrender” when it comes to Christian discipleship that I am aware of is Paul’s language in Romans 6:18 when he talks about becoming “slaves of righteousness.” But it bears mentioning that while perhaps rare in the Greco-Roman world, voluntary slavery was a concept in which someone gave themselves as a slave to become a Greek or Roman citizen; it was someone people participated in on their own accord. When Paul talks about liberation from slavery to sin, his warfare language in Romans certainly connotes that slavery to sin was enforced servitude, but his language about slavery to righteousness evokes that of a voluntary servitude. In the prior verse, Paul talks about becoming “obedient to the heart,” whereas the language of surrender often times conveys outward conformity that does not have a matching inward attitude. Furthermore, in v. 19, Paul clarifies this slavery to righteousness as the consequence of a process of controlling one’s (bodily) members that leads to sanctification. It is not a moment where a person says “I surrender” but a person becomes a slave to righteousness because they have been acting on a commitment.

But what does Paul talk about in the Christian journey? The faith of Jesus Christ and in God and putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the leading of the Spirit. Trust and commitment, not surrender. Furthermore, Paul calls people to imitate him as he imitates Jesus, which means he is joining them in very same journey, rather than calling people to submit to his words.

God is not a conqueror, seeking to take captives and then extinguishing everyone else who resists and doesn’t surrender. Rather, God in Jesus Christ is the conquered who overcomes his conquerors through a power that isn’t of human origin, who through his overcoming his captors he provides liberation to the captives.

Now, let me be honest about the concern that undergirds this: fear reaches deep into my bones when I hear someone talking about “surrender” in religious contexts, even as I know most people don’t mean it in its worst possible usage. This is not because I have a crippling fear of God, but a fear of what the person who says I should surrender is expecting and how they view people. If you expect people to “surrender to God” are you the type that is expecting compliance? And then if they are the type that expects compliance, how do you respond when you don’t get the type of compliance you expect? And if they join compliance to a sense of moral obedience to God, do they expect people to just know what you expect of them to comply with, failing to give clear directions to guide, since often obedience to God is treated as if it should be obvious what God wants (or rather other people projecting onto God)? And as they experience people honoring them with their lips and doing what they command and yet at the same time those people resist them in their hearts and where they have the safe space to do so, are they the type that becomes quickly and deeply suspicious of other people’s motives, thinking they can see people’s hearts, overlooking that Jesus did not say you will know that who wear sheep’s clothing by figuring our their intentions or heart, but by their fruits as those things that are tangible and observable? Are they aware that they way manner try to implement compliance, even as they try to label this compliance with sweeter sounding words, is creating the very resistance they want to see end?

So, let me ask: do you think God is more like a conqueror who wants people to surrender, or is God more like a liberator who wants people to be free and to show them how to learn how to live out this freedom? Are we surrendering to God or are we accepting God’s liberation? Are we conquered or are we free? To preach about surrender is certainly much easier and more pragmatic to get people to do what we think good Christians should do as it tries to stifle anything remotely sniffing of resistance in the person, but to preach liberation that gives us an opportunity to learn how to rightly love God and love one another is the only way to go beyond compulsion on the surface to becoming sanctified, slaves of righteousness, obedient to the heart.

The fruits of repentance

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October 9, 2018

Today on Seedbed, J.D. Walt on the Daily Text a devotional entitled “How Sin Continues to Win and How to Beat it.” Describing the struggle we have as Christians against sin, we are often left in a sense of dismal pessimism about the realities of sin; we think sin is just a fact of nature about our life, and so we live as we are defeated, with no power. But, then there is the problem of those who strive for holiness, but find themselves powerless to overcome the sin that has entangled them. So how then does one overcome sin? J.D. writes:

It takes more than me and the Holy Spirit. It requires other people. Until I’m ready to let a couple of other people into the inner sanctum of my soul to help me overcome sin. . . . .

If I may investigate a bit further into this, we in the individualist West have been inclined to construe the realities of sin and righteousness as a primarily an individualist, intrapersonal problem, rather than a relational, interpersonal problem. So the thinking can go by some zealous to pursue righteousness, being Christian is about obeying God, so I need to know God’s law so that can obey God. While certainly, one talks about God in this manner of thinking, there isn’t a deep consciousness of God’s power engaging the person in that pursuit of righteousness; the I is at the center of righteousness and sin. Even more astute theological thinking that recognizes the problem of human depravity and some form of corrupted will may add something about a divine empowerment in Christ, through the Spirit, etc. to obey, but it is commonly construed as a power that I actively access; whatever God has done, is doing, and will do, it is still construed as something I control and access. At the end, even a more robust form of theological thinking envisions my righteousness and my sin being about something that I accomplish. God is construed as an enabler of my righteousness and fight against sin, which doesn’t really relate to God except as an objectified agent of my own purposes.

What has gone wrong here? If I may suggest, it is an overemphasis on individual responsibility. By responsibility, I mean the acceptance of one’s own initiative and ownership of the action’s one takes and the consequences that comes from them. My contention is that the notion of personal responsibility has served to make us overly intrapersonal and individualistic as it pertains to our way of life.

Now, certainly, responsibility is a necessary ingredient when it comes to moral action, because if we never recognize how our behavior stems from our own choices, then we will not seek to direct our choices in a moral manner; we will seek to hide behind some narrative that either a) denies any sense of submission to some ethical principles or b) portray ourselves as helpless victims to whatever impulses were thrown upon us. When we hide from guilt and shame through these narratives, we don’t direct our choices to act in a beneficial, loving, peace-making directions.

However, personal responsibility is not the only ingredient that is necessary for moral action. We need a heart that desires the right things. We need a mind that can comprehend what the right action is. We need the opportunities to take right action. Etc. Etc. While not trying to draw an exhaustive list, my main point is that personal responsibility is an ingredient of holiness, but it isn’t the only ingredient. But what has happened in our Western culture is that we have defaulted to explain moral failures and success to the personal responsibility people took or fail to take, when other circumstances may be bearing to explain people’s failings. But try to explain people’s moral failings to causes other than personal choices and responsibility, it will commonly comes across as being “soft.” So, day-by-day, we hear and reinforce the importance of personal responsbility to the point that its role is dramatically overstated. It is like trying to make a milkshake with more than enough milk but very little ice-cream; you may get something that resembles a milkshake in some superficial manners, but if you were to actually inspect it closely or actually taste it, you would taste milk, not a milk-shake. Likewise, an overemphasis on the personal responsibility narrative may give a surface appearance of moral action, but if you look and investigate deeper, things are not what they appear on the surface.

The personal responsibility narrative leads us to construe human actions based upon our own choices; it rests within ME. God or other people may somehow, someway be involved in my moral choices, but at the end, it rests upon what I choose to do and am capable of. This leads us to construe the Christian life in highly individualistic terms, to see the Spirit being an intrapersonal cause of my own choices rather than also engaging us through other people, etc. Less important is the role of the way I relate to God and relate to others, and the way they relate to me, impacts my own moral actions, because my morality is about my personal choices.

So what happens when we do something wrong? We “repent” but the nature of the repentance is often construed in intrapersonal terms; I feel bad for something I did, I regret what I did, etc. Less prevalent is the recognition that “I disappointed God” or “I hurt them.” Repentance is about me, myself, and I and how I think and feel. God or other people may be agents that enable our awareness of our sin, but repentance at the end is about my taking personal responsibility. Repentance is treated as an interior, intrapersonal attitude about oneself and one’s actions.

What goes missing in the intrapersonal view of repentance and righteousness? The relational aspects of repentance. Put into sentence form, intrapersonal “repentance” is built around the 1st person pronoun, generally an ‘I’ but it can in some circumstances be a ‘we’, and a verb or verbal phrase of moral failure, such as sinned, transgressed, failed, am guilty, etc. But pushed into the background is a direct object or prepositional phrase of who we sinned against, transgressed, failed, etc. The negative impacts of our actions on others gets pushed into the background.

This leads to a further problem. If repentance makes my own state of failure or guilt take center-stage while those who I disappointed or hurt are only on the periphery, then engaging in repentance becomes about myself, about my own standing in the eyes of myself and even the eyes of others, about my own redemption. Even in repentance and expressing being sorry, we can make ourselves the center of the story, and the actual impact of our actions on others or to our relationship to God is not significant.

This is where John the Baptist’s rebuke of the repentance of Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3:7-10 is particularly insightful:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus will later to go on to criticize many of their religious practices in the Sermon on the Mount as having a self-serving attitude behind them. Here, John the Baptist warns that simply “repenting” isn’t sufficient for God’s judgment. Repentance must bear fruit, it needs to lead to a change of action to avoid being like a tree that is cut down for not bearing good fruit. But John the Baptist doesn’t simply exhort them to bear fruit in repentance, but he takes down a rationalization that probably took place. These leaders have repented, and their lives being center-stage in the drama of their own lives, they believe their repentance is all they need to be on the good side of God, because they are children of Abraham. In other words, all they needed to do was to repent because their relationship to Abraham secured their position in God’s eschatological future. What appears to be happening here is that the Pharisees and Sadducees make a show of repentance, but they fail to actually act in accordance to this repentance, but John the Baptist tells them their descendancy from Abraham is no cover for their failure to actually change their actions, even if they acknowledge their sins.

This similar pattern has under-girded intrapersonal Christianity. You need to take personal responsibility for the sins you do, but once you recognize your sins, you are good, because Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is what secures your future. Repent and believe is a formula for getting to heaven, rather than a formula for our lives to be engaged with the transformation that is ushered in with the coming of God’s kingdom. So then, much as the Pharisees (and Sadducees) had a penchant to treat repentance as a formulaic action that buttress themselves as the center of their own lives, so much of intrapersonal Christianity has done the same.

What isn’t important about repentance then is the making of amends for our sins. One doesn’t need to actually act consistent with your own judgment of your actions. You don’t need to try to make amends with that person you hurt. You don’t need to engage God in prayer, seeking His leading. You felt “sorry” and “repented” and that is all you need to do and then you are good.

The clearest demonstration of this pattern within church circles was the story of Andy Savage, who got a cheering ovation from his church after he told the story of sexually assaulting Jules Woodson, which he admitted only after the accusations. While I don’t want to weigh too heavily into the nature of this matter, as there are a lot of complex factors and I am not trying to fault how Savage tried to handle things, I want to highlight the basic problem of how the culture of intrapersonal Christianity treated this: what wasn’t celebrated was the accused actually making amends to the accuser and a process of real redemption; what was celebrated was a public ownership of what happened. One had made a public show of repentance, much as the Pharisees and Sadducees arrived to a public baptism of repentance.

Now, certainly, repentance is celebrated in the Scriptures. In the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son in Luke 15, Jesus talks about the celebration that occurs after what was lost has been found. But these parables of repentance do not describe an individual person who has recognized their own problems; they describe someone who has lost something finding what was rightfully theirs. Those who lost something were rightfully restored. The emphasis on these stories is NOT on the sinner own self-recognition; in fact the first two parables represent people as an animal and object. Jesus portrayal of repentance doesn’t put emphasis on the thoughts and feelings of those who repent, but on the one who has lost something and been aggrieved. Furthermore, these parables recognize the relationship of the shepherd, the woman, and the father to what has been lost and found again; these parables of repentance are parables of restored relationships. However, our narrative of personal responsibility has caused us to read these parables about the restoration of the sinner, particularly the parable the prodigal son, so that repentance is about the one who has done wrong, rather than the restoration of the one who has lost something and repentance being about the restoration of what was lost to them.

What is the point behind all of this? The repentance that Jesus and John the Baptist teaches about is a different type of repentance from what the Pharisees engage in. It isn’t a repentance of personal responsibility of the sinner, but a repentance that is brought about in the sinner by the pursuit of those who have been deprived or lost. The aggrieved, not the sinner, are the center of repentance for Jesus.

What does this mean? New Testament repentance doesn’t have the sinner take center stage, but God and the people who have been hurt. The implication behind this, then, is that the relationship between the aggrieved and aggrievers is restored due to a) the seeking and openness by the aggrieved and b) the responsiveness to this seeking and pursuit by the aggrievers. What is to be celebrated is rightness of relationship being formed as repentance leads to the fruits of rightly directed action towards God and others, not simply that a sinner recognizes their sin.1

And this is part of the reason why we must be in relationship to overcome sin. Certainly, we need people to point out the blind spots of our life, to allow the Spirit to speak to us in our life. But beyond that, recognizing sin entails recognizing the interpersonal dimension of sin and bearing fruits consistent with recognizing this interpersonal rupturing with God or others. But insofar as we make repentance simply about a recognition and public confession of our sin and fail to act upon the interpersonal reality of sin, we short-circuit the processes of behavior change. Behavior change doesn’t come simply by recognition, but by acting in accordance with that recognition to form new habits in the context of the relationship of the one we have aggrieved. For the Apostle Paul, recognition of sin by itself is ineffective.2 Rather, one must be lead by the Spirit who is in relationship to you by dwelling in you.3 Then one must act against the impulses of sin, which Paul refers to as presenting our members to righteousness instead of sin 4and putting to death the deeds of the flesh.5

In other words, because sin is a negative interpersonal action, whether with God, others, or both, one can only overcome sin by being in (an appropriate) relationship and putting into action positive interpersonal actions. What these positive interpersonal behaviors will look like depends on who is it and what has been done, but in terms of thinking, it entails a more interpersonal view of sin and repentance, which means the personal responsibility of the sinner is not all that is needed or the only thing that is important. In fact, an interpersonal view of sin and repentance means that the one who has been aggrieved is more important.6

But here is implication of this alternative, interpersonal narrative about sin, which dovetails into the narrative of grace. To have a plausible hope for the sinner to change, those sinned against must be in (an appropriate) relationship to the sinner. Change doesn’t occur by the sinner simply taking responsibility, but a relationship must take place for personal responsibility to be joined to relationships for new actions to take place. The common human tendency is to ‘exile’ those who do us wrong and then expect them to right the ship and change; while sometimes ‘exile’ may be a necessary step prior to repentance to protect from harm, manage conflicts, and/or make clear the seriousness of one’s actions, and while sometimes this ‘exile’ can lead to a recognition about what happened, exile doesn’t form people to be as they should be; restoration changes people.

So, in support of JD’s point, because sin is a deeply interpersonal reality, we do not overcome sin until we engage interpersonally with those you have sinned against with repentance that bears the fruit of new actions. Seeing this will entail de-emphasizing, while not forgetting, the personal responsibility narrative, that makes the space in our minds and hearts for God and others in the pursuit of righteousness. But insofar as we think overcoming sin is simply about taking responsibility to manage “myself,” we avoid the very causal root of sin, our failure in our relationships with God and one another.

As John Wesley said: “Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” As it is with the Gospel, so it is with sin and repentance. We don’t fully overcome the habits of sin without the help of those we sinned again, which entails the grace and forgiveness of those we sinned against.

Preliminary reflections on language as low-definition virtual reality

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September 26, 2018

One of the pressing themes of analytic philosophy, starting from Gottlob Frege and continuing onwards, is to try to establish the relationship between language and reality.  At the very beginning, Frege attempted to establish a philosophy of language rooted in his mathematical background, where he defines meaning as having a sense, which approximates to our notion of the concept a word refers to, and reference, which relates to the actual thing we are trying to describe in our language. Frege did not want these meanings, particularly reference, to be psychological; otherwise, how can one retain a view of access to an “objectively” true world we can known if all meanings are “subjectively” psychological. This “hyper-objectivity” of later positivism sought to undergird empiricism with philosophical legitimacy, suggesting we do have access to the object world. Bertrand Russell dismissed Frege’s sense, thinking one only needed a reference to do the job of language; through this, Russell represents the attempt to arrive at a formal language that allows for an objective and logical account of reality. Theology, metaphysics, any other usage of language that doesn’t refer directly to empirical reality or access specific, definitions and  logical relations, are to be construed as nonsense.

Then, it was Russell’s student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who intially carried out this project of aversion to metaphysics in his Tractatus, suggesting that philosophy is often times wrangling over the confusion of definitions that commonly amounts to nonsense rather than having any substantive say. But, it was the later Wittgenstein who turn everything on its head and say that language has meaning by the rules of its usage, which is well-known as language games; there is no clear, fixed meaning or definitions of words except how they are used. Furthermore, he rejects the idea that meaning can ever be held by a single person, and thus, therefore, language is a product of socially agreed upon meanings and not a direct representation of reality. Which leads to the fundamental question: isn’t to say the meaning of a word is how it is used to ultimately psychologize language, which undercuts Frege and the concern for objectivity?

So does language access an objective reality? Early on with Frege the answer would entail a yes, but with the later Wittgenstein the answer moves towards no. I am left siding with Wittgenstein in the end, albeit for different reasons that undercuts some of his philosophy.

There has been a common assumption within later, Western philosophy of thought and language; that our thinking is determined by language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism proposed that all human thinking is limited and determined by language. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that the unconscious is structured like a semiological system. We can perhaps see a similar, albeit more muted, version of this assumption started with Frege, that the thinking done in language is structured like a mathematical system, which itself is a specialized language; the thinking of normal language is structured by a higher-tier language of math.

But what if thought is formed by and stuctured through a blend of various different sources of human cognition, including perception of internal and external sensations, memory, language, etc.? When I am talking to a person, my sense of who this person is structured by the language my culture gives me to describe people, such as the language of kindness, and the language she and I used together, such as the lyrics to the songs we enjoy. But it is also influenced by perception of what is happening in this very moment, such as her visible signs of excitement, and my memories of past engagements with her, such as when we played sports together, even if I can not clearly articulate and express in language all the relational dynamics that are at play now and in the past. My thinking is an emergent phenomenon of a blend of different sources, including but not limited to the semantics of words.

In this case, language can be connected to a sense of reality, but by the middle, mediating phenomenon of human thought. As my thinking is formed to my perceptions, my language is used to describe my thinking, including the parts of my thinking formed by my perception. When I use language, I can have the intentions to refer to some intersubjective reality that is shared between my friend and me, such as words in the Bible we both read. But I select the words to talk about because those are the words in my own mind and thinking, perceived through sensation and recalled through memory.

Nowhere does my language ever function to provide a direct access to reality, but all my language is pointing something within my own thoughts. Language is effective only to the degree there is common perceptions, shared memories of the same or similar events, shared attention, and similar pairings of words/signs to semantics/concepts. Only my perception may be said to provide a potential access into what is “objectively” real, but because my thinking is formed by both perceptual sensation and language, I can never truly isolate the boundaries between objective sensation and subjective conceptualizations to say “this is objective” and “this is subjective.” And so, insofar as we are able to use language to describe our thinking, we can never be certain as to what degree we are being objective.

Instead, language functions as a virtual reality, blending together the various semantic structures embedded in our neural networks to imagine something in our minds, whether there is anything in our sensory perception that corresponds to our imagination or not. Insofar as these semantic concepts are formed by direct perceptual experience that we then give language to, we can suggest our language approximates a representation of reality, albeit imperfectly. However, the more we use language to manage our life, to communicate, to cooperate and fight, the more language structures how we think while decreasing the role sensation plays in structuring thought, such that our language makes us increasingly live within what amounts to a low-definition virtual reality; we create new concepts not simply from novel sensory experiences but also from the emergence of meaning from the combinations of words. We increasingly move into a world of Jean Baudrillard’s simulcra.

If all of this is correct, then reality is never accessed by language itself. I do not come to an objective understanding of the world through reading and hearing other people speak. However, by reading and hearing, I may be moved myself to act, think, and pay attention in certain ways that can direct me towards having my thoughts formed by perception more and language less. I can imagine through language how the world might work and then mathematics my attention and action to engage in the world to see if this is true, to experience what I have heard or read. But forming my understanding into greater conformity to reality itself and less into the linguistic imagination only comes when I direct my attention and action to perception, which is formed by my sensation of certain aspects of reality (such as vision, audition, inner physiological states, etc.) I must put what I imagine through language into action for it to become more than simply a virtual reality, but a blend of virtual and actual reality.

And so, I would argue that analytic philosophy can never through an account of language give us confident, direct access to reality. It may be able to directly and indirectly guide us into a way of knowing that puts us in attune with objective reality, but the analytic philosophy of language is itself just a simply extended language game that is often times more about a wrangling of definitions than it is discussing substantively true propositions about reality. Wittgenstein movement away from the earlier, more objective views of language with Frege and Russell emerge in large part due to the virtual reality that language engages us in.

However, there is the possibility of novel meanings and uses of words that occur in what is an initially private meaning; when I perceive something new and try to use language to describe it, my thinking operates as a blend of the semantic concept of the word I use and the perception, leading to novel shades of meanings that are not immediately shared by others. Then, through the sharing of perception, memory, attention, and language those private meanings may eventually become public meanings. Because we are in touch with and think about reality through sensory perception and because thought is a blend of semantic memory and present perception, there is the possibility of private semantic meaning. This at the heart of non-fictional prose, where we describe what we have seen. Furthermore, we can try to describe our experiences through different words than is customarily used, which leads to novel, private meanings; then these novel meanings become public through the sustained attention of others to reconstruct. So much poetry is but the expression of this semantic novelty.

By recognizing that thought mediates the relationship between perception and language by being a blend of perception and language (among other sources), we can simultaneously a) allow that there can be an objective reality that we can study, observe, and think about while b) recognizing that language itself doesn’t convey this reality but only allows us to imagine it. But this relationship between the two makes any attempt to formalize the relationship between language and reality futile, as the degree to which we are focused and engaged with the perceptual and linguistic sources of thinking will determine how much language represents reality.