Theology and the dechurched

September 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The early order of worship

September 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synergism and Barth: Can the two be reconciled?

August 28, 2018

If I were to describe my theological framework that I work from, I would describe myself as a blend of John Wesley and Karl Barth. From Karl Barth, I derive a deep appreciation of the concrete, specific, particular action of God to make Himself in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, from John Wesley, I am finding myself to be increasingly congenial to aspects of his Spirit-based epistemology while maintaining the importance of the synergistic union of God’s grace and human response. While certainly, the epistemic emphases of Christ in Barth and Holy Spirit in Wesley are congenial to each other, Barth’s Reformed background makes his construal of the event of God’s Word in a unilateral way, conflicting with the more synergistic account of Wesley.

Barth’s argument in CD I.1.6.3 supposes that synergistic theories where God’s determination and human determination both play a contributing role are out of bounds. He says: “No determination man can give himself is as such determination by God’s Word. Nor is there any place here for the view that this experience is a kind of co-operation between divine determining and human self-determining.”1 He expresses the inability to attribute the experience of God’s Word to ourselves if we have a role in its receiving:

If man lets himself be told by the Word of God that he has a Lord, that he is the creature of this Lord, that he is a lost sinner blessed by Him, that he awaits eternal redemption and is thus a stranger in this sphere of time, this specific content of the Word experienced by him will flatly prohibit him from ascribing the possibility of this experience to himself either wholly or in part or from dialectically equating the divine possibility actualised in this experience with a possibility of his own.2

In other words, God’s revelation will come in such a clear way that one can and must distinguish it from ourselves. Barth presupposes that God’s self-disclosure will always result in a clear communication that this comes from outside of ourselves. Divine self-disclosure doesn’t just effect the person, but it provides a clear hermeneutical capacity to recognize where this power emanates and comes from. Therefore, human determination, in so far as it exists, is wholly determined by the content of God’s disclosure as an independent entity that comes from outside oneself. While Barth doesn’t exclude human response in the event of revelation, it is simply a function of God’s self-disclosure.

Meanwhile, he rejects the synergistic theories as essentially distant abstractions of an onlooker who assumes these two existing determinations are in competition with each other, overlooking the co-existence of God and human determination in the experience of God’s Word.3

In summary, if I am reading him correctly, Barth’s argument for a more monergistic account rests upon the 1) the determined hermeneutic recognition of the origins of God’s revelation and 2) the distant abstraction that synergism entails. However, I would suggest both of these accounts fail when we take into account Paul’s account of faith.

In Galatians 3:1-5, Paul attempts to try to determine the origination of God’s work among the people when their faith started. He essentially makes an hermeneutic argument, asking them to interpret when God’s provision o the Spirit and power was and is demonstrated among them. Paul’s argument is this: God worked powerfully when you heard with faith. Paul does not ask “when and how do you determine that it is God speaking to you?” but rather, “when do you determine God started working in your midst?” For Paul, the human response to God is conceived as happening in a separate sphere from the work of God; human hearing and faith is not reducible or determined to God’s works, but rather human heart and faith is the context in which God’s pouring of the Spirit and working miraculously occurs. For Paul, the hermeneutical argument concerns  connecting God’s work and human response.

However, this is not Paul’s account of how conversion happen, per se, but rather a call for a post-hoc reflection on the event of their inclusion by the Spirit. So, one could perhaps argue this is not an account of what happens in the event of God’s self-disclosure. But then in Galatians 4:6, Paul recounts how people come to recognize they are children of God, which he describes as occurring because “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts.” So, here we are getting a description of the event or receiving the Spirit that Paul asked them to reflect on in 3:1-5. Here, the language of who is crying “Abba! Father!” on the surface seems ambiguous. Is it the Spirit that cries or our hearts that cry? Grammatically, the verb for cry (κρᾶζον) is singular, suggesting it is God’s Spirit. However, the logic of the discourse dictates that it is people, not the Spirit, that are called children of God, so it is the people that cries. This grammatical and logical tension can be explained that is it the singular Spirit that gives the plural people a united recognition of their spiritual family. As a consequence, Paul is suggesting this experience of the Spirit emerges as part of the experience of the community. This recognition of Spirit and human hearts is not some distant, abstraction about God and a singular human, but a recalling of the initial formation of this specific community of Christians in Galatia. The recognition of two agents in the cry emerges from the concrete, lived experience, and not some distant, abstract notion.

Furthermore, the integral relation between the Spirit and the inner nature of the human person in the recognition of one’s spiritual family is exhibited more clearly in Romans 8:15b-16: “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (NRSV) There is a clear division of God’s Spirit and the human spirit in the cry such that the recognition and determination is recognized as happening from two different sources. God’s Spirit is clearly primary, being the the subject of the verb for “bearing witness,” whereas the human spirit is in the dative case, backgrounding the role of the human spirit in the witness. Nevertheless, the two spirits are conceived as a) separate while b) being in unison in recognition of one’s spiritual family.

Also, the fact that what the Spirit testifies with our spirit is not the origin of the divine disclosure, but rather one’s relationship to God. The human is enabled to hermeneutically identify their relationship to God, not the ontological origins of their knowledge as Barth suggests. Keep in mind that this is what Paul derives from the Galatians intial come to faith in Galatians 3:1-5, although Paul does not anyone say this hermeneutical recognition is a formula for the initial reception of the Spirit.4 So, the reception of God’s Spirit does not entail an ontological recognition of the origins of God’s Word such that we recognize nothing comes from within ourselves; there is simply the concrete emergence within human experience of God’s Spirit with human hearts/spirits of the adoption by God.

In other words, for Paul, human recognition of one’s inclusion in God’s People is experienced and understood1) as a bilateral work between God’s Spirit and ourselves that 2) emerges from a generalization made from the concrete experiences of Christian communities and not from some abstract, distant observation. Rather, I would suggest Barth’s attribution of an abstract distance to synergistic accounts is not fair,5 but that one can derive from the bottom-up an account of two distinct, independent determinations from within human experience that does not logically entail a hermeneutical recognition of the ontological status of God’s Word except that the Spirit is doing something separate from ourselves.

Furthermore, I would like to emphasize the correct hermeneutical recognition is not even the initial condition of inclusion in the community of God. In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul expresses a concern that the Corinthians faith be grounded in the power of God, rather than in the wisdom of men. This implies that Paul does think that the Corinthians have a misdirected faith, not actually and fully recognizing the nature of God’s power. But nothing in Paul’s correspondance to Corinth suggest that Paul does not think they have genuinely encountered God; indeed, they have many of the marks of being redeemed by God and have the giftings of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, their faith, while including them within God’s community, is misdirected. They don’t truly comprehend God’s power, which comes from outside of the word, but they still construe their faith according the standard expectations of wisdom in this world, which would have been influenced by a Stoic pantheism that obliterates almost any distinction between God and the self. Despite this, Paul considers them as in Christ, but they are largely ignorant of what the nature of God’s power is or how it works in dramatic fashions that does not operate according to the wisdom of the world. In other words, the Corinthians are an example of Christians who have been impacted by God’s self-disclosure through the preaching of the word the cross of Christ and the powerful demonstrations of the Spirit, and yet they do not amount to anything that suggests they have a clear, ontological recognition that what God has disclosed is entirely outside of themselves. Instead, this is something that with maturity, people can and would come to recognize as in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.

Thus, what is essentially Barth’s rejection of any serious synergism in my mind fails on grounds to adequately explain the Pauline witnesses. Nevertheless, there is something legitimate to Barth. When we are maturing, growing in wisdom in Christ, putting to death the deeds of the flesh and living by the Spirit, we do come to the recognition that what we are being transformed into is fundamentally coming from God’s Word and Spirit, rather than truly from within ourselves, even as our selves, body and mind, are including in this work. Or, rather, more precisely, God is forming us with the result that we will recognize that God’s power that is working to leading us to glory does not originate from anything of this world or ourselves. Thus, I would shift Barth’s ontological hermeneutics of the source of revelation to an apocalyptic-eschatological hermeneutics where the telos of human history towards the glory of Christ in the resurrection originates from outside of the world, not within it. But in Corinth, this would firstly entail a rightly directed faith towards the power of God, rather than the discourse of human wisdom, which then enables the recognition the in-breaking of God into the world and ourselves from the outside. Put in reverse, I would suggest, though I don’t know, what is the nature of wisdom about the apocalyptic-eschatological in Paul, Barth treats as an ontological paradigm of all revelation and self-disclosure that he labels as God’s Word.

So, Barth’s insights can be appropriated and appreciated, insofar as we demythologize Barth’s ontology of revelation and recontextualize it to the apocalyptic eschatology of Paul. Barth and Second Temple apocalyptic are not equivalent, even if there share some common features about the distinctiveness of God from the world, as Barth seems to have the role of time in God’s self-disclosure in the background, wanting to put the full force of revelation within the singular event. But for the apocalyptic, time is also an essential factor for God’s work and purposes. So, in other words, if we recontexutalize Barth’s ontology of God’s disclosure into the context of time, both time for maturation of the Christian and time for the outworking of God’s power in Christ and Spirit in the world, Barth’s theology can bear much fruit and can be brought into line with a Wesleyan-Arminian synergism.

Personal redemption and community

August 27, 2018

Faith is a personal journal but it is not a solitary one. The understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ and a part of the Body of Christ is formed in the tension between the individually committed and the deeply networked person.  As a consequence, sometimes understandings of faith swing to the extremes, sometimes going to the one side of defining faith as simply a solitary journey that one can do without the other. On the other hand, the other extreme can present that community is where God is experienced.

The present trajectory of devout Christians in today’s world, at least those who I am aware of via personal connections, social media, etc. is to emphasize the communal aspects of faith. It is largely obvious that solitary Christian is a fundamentally mistaken notion that almost becomes a oxymoron, if not outright being entirely self-contradictory. Compensating for this deficient understanding of faith and the spiritual life, fighting the trajectories of Western individualism, there is the emphasis on the other pole, the communal aspect of faith. And if you read the Bible, or even more specifically the New Testament, you would be right; the corporate, communal nature of life is very important.

But why is it important? The answer is important because not only does the theological answer serve to legitimate the pursuit of relationships and community in a religious, spiritual context, but it will direct the way we understand the purpose of community, which will direct our attention attention in our relational and communal engagement, formed our expectations of what to expect in relationships and community, and from our attention and expectations, direct in what ways we will act. The answer we provide, I would suggest, can amount to the difference between engaging in the authentic community of Christ and engaging in a community that is formed and controlled out of self-interests, the difference between the community of the redeemed and the cult of the controlling.

There are two important theological “data points” to briefly make. I won’t go into a thorough exegetical and theological rationale for them here, as it will distract from the ultimate point.

Firstly, God created us as people-in-relationship in order to accomplish the purpose of being in God’s image. Let me unpack this a bit. When humanity is said to be formed in the image of God in Genesis 1, there is often times the implicit assumption that this is some ontological statement about who we are as persons. We are in the image of God, so we have some special, divinely attuned capacities because of this. But I don’t think this is the right understanding. Rather, being in the image of God is God’s purpose for us in the created order; it is a designation of the function and role we are to place in this world. We are not ourselves images of God, but rather we are made in the image of God, which is a metaphor used to describe our relationship to creation. We represent the rule of God in the world, acting in accordance to that authority.

Consequently, we are given specific capacities that will enable us to fulfill this role. Three capacity that I think that are implied in Genesis narrative 1) love for each other, 2) capacity for creating (largely but not exclusively through reproduction), and 3) the capacity for language. It is each of these three things that become disrupted by the fall, such as the murder of Abel by Cain, the disruption of sexual order by the “sons of Gods” with the “daughters of men” before the flood, and the finally the God-caused disruption of language at the Tower of Babel. These capacities are not themselves the image of God, but they enable this Divine purpose when they are rightly directly. But with sin, these capacities become wrongly directed, to the point that God frustrates even further in disrupting language lest even greater damage occur.

In other words, the God-given purpose of humanity to be in the image of God entails our relational capacity in love, creating, and language but these can be wrongly directed for other purposes. So, if humanity is to be restored to that purposes, these capacities must be rightly directed again, including how our relatedness is an expression of these capacities.

Secondly, redemption in Christ through the Spirit comes through practice and experience, not in the absence of it. When Paul describes in Romans 5:2-5 how hope springs forth in our hearts, he doesn’t suggest the Spirit inserts hope into our lives as we are in silence and solitude, separated from the struggles of life. Spiritual maturity is not a sophisticated form of avoidance. Rather, it happens through the tribulations that try people. Later in Romans 8, Paul calls people to take on the thoughts of the Spirit, which are life and peace, while they put to death the deeds of the body. This entails thinking that occurs in the midst of practice and struggle, not aside from it. This reflects the Stoic influence on the Apostle Paul, who were deeply concerned about practical thinking rather than theoretical thinking; while in many ways Paul shows clear signs of rejecting, subverting, and reversing Stoic patterns of thinking because Paul is no Stoic, nothing seems to suggest he rejects the practical nature of thinking that the Stoics emphasized.

However, what is redemptive isn’t the experiences we have themselves, but the way the God who brings something new and unlike the present patterns through Christ and the Holy Spirit. God from the outside (and commonly, though not exclusively, from human agents) plants within us the seeds of this redemption that brings something new. 

So in other words, the redemption that comes from Christ and the Spirit occurs through our practice and experience, not in isolation from it. An implication we can draw from this then is as follows: What we avoid, will remain unredeemed.

So bringing these two points together is this. In order for us to fulfill our purposes of being in the image of God, we as humans must exercise our capacity for love, creativity, and language in a rightly direct manner as known in and coming from Christ and the Spirit to fulfill this purpose. When we don’t exercise, we are influenced by the reality of sin in the world away from our Divinely-given purpose, and maybe even ourselves engaging in actions that actively resists this purpose. Therefore, for us to be redeemed by what God is doing in us personally, we must work it out in the various capacities that we are given to fulfill this overarching purpose.

Therefore, to fulfill our purpose of being in the image of God entails the corporate, communal, relational capacities that we have to be rightly directed. This redemption comes through engaging our relational capacities, both through what is happening in ourselves but also what is happening in others that can impact us. The latter role Hebrews recognizes in that other people can help breaked the hardening that sin can cause. But if we do not seek to engage our social capacities, neither will we a) experience the redemption and transformation of these capacities nor b) will we rightly direct these capacities to fulfill our purpose. God’s work in creation and redemption is resisted when we neglect or refuse to engage our faith in relation to others.

But this is different from a similar form of theological reasoning: that we experience God in community. Certainly, this is true insofar as it goes, because we believe that God is at work in the entire cosmos. But it is potentially misleading because it suggests that God is working in a special way in the community that He does not do elsewhere. This presents the risk of deification of the Church, where it becomes assigned a status not merely as a redemptive work but its specific communities and networks of these communities (such as in larger denomination and theological traditions) as itself the necessary and/or sufficient means of redemption. This happens in the Roman Catholic Church in history that understood there is no salvation outside the Church to mean one must be part of the RCC to be saved. This routinely happens in smaller, religious movements that border of cults, suggesting their communal gatherings have a special power and presence of God. This can even happen more subtly within denominations without such dramatic and grandiose pretensions, which feel their current arrangement and existence as a network is necessary for God’s work.

However, when we understand God’s redemption occurring through a) universal history through the sending of His Son and b) the personal engagement through the sending of His Spirit as we put this into practice, the corporate, universal nature of redemption and the personal nature of redemption are met together in the communities and networks of Christian faith. The community of God’s People is what emerges from God’s redemption, as we seek to direct our relational capacities for our purpose of being in the image of God. But this community is never deified. Paul doesn’t say the believers/community is “the image of God,” but we are said to be “IN the image of God” recognizing there is a difference of being God and operated with the agency and purposes of God. The community is not itself the person of Christ, but is said to be merely the body of Christ, recognizing that Christ is still independent from ourselves individually and corporately.

Therefore, redemption happens as part of the community of faith because it is in relationship to others that we can realize God’s redemption to exercise our God-given capacities in the way to fulfill our God-given purpose to be in the image of God. The community should never be deified as the presence of God, but rather recognized as the outworking of God’s power that points us to the presence of God in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the outpouring Holy Spirit. Community as the exercise of redemption allows us to place God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit at the center of our relationships through worship, prayer, practice, and reflection; community as the presence of God risks making our communities authoritarian and/or cultish. The rationale for our communities is important for how our communities are formed, so let us select the exercise of God’s redemptive work as the reason we meet together.

Ministry is not a calling

August 27, 2018

In writing this blog post, I am going to be perhaps stepping on the toes of many of my clergy colleagues. In the United Methodist, we will talk about our “Call to Ministry.” The idea expressed by the word “called” is that God has made a specific choice or invitation for a person to participate, whether it be called to life in Jesus Christ or as Paul says about his own calling to be an apostle. Callings convey a sense of Divine legitimation to the direct one’s life is taking. But if we pay attention to the way calling is used in the New Testament, it is not directed towards the work of ministry within the church. People are not “called” to ministry.

Rather, firstly, they are gifted for ministry. Ephesians 4:7-13 uses this language of gifting to then describe the work of apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers. 1 Corinthians 12 describes things similarly, with different gifts being given to different people.

Secondly, people are formed and prepared for ministry. While Paul talks about the Spiritual giftings the people of Corinth, he also rebukes them for how they fail to understand the right uses of these gifts. Underneath their heart is competitve, status-oriented atmosphere that has not learn to use gifts for the purpose of the higher way of love. They must be formed to use their gifts with the appropriate purposes. Then, when we look at the requirements for positions like elders and deacons in the Pauline Pastorals, we see a set of moral qualifications that are suggestive that the person has been rightly formed.

However, thirdly, it should be noted that there isn’t the commonly implicit notion that we have that we are bestowed a position that we then use our gifts in. Rather, it seems to me that the reverse is true, we employ and use our gifts in a rightly directed fashion and that can lead us to coming into specific positions.

Put simply, you are equipped and formed for ministry as you put your gifts into practice. While God makes provisions for the work we do, nowhere do we see the New Testament making a general pronouncement that the positions within the church are gated only for those who have a “calling to ministry.” The closest thing we see to this is Paul’s own expression of his calling to be an apostle. But most likely, this isn’t Paul saying that being an apostle is determined by a specific calling of a person’s life, but rather is a description of how God specifically and specially brought Paul in to be an apostle through his Damascus Road experience, even though he didn’t have the otherwise necessary prerequisites, such as being a disciple of the Lord during His time on the earth and seeing Him resurrected. God’s calling on Paul’s life was a special one in that it broke the apostolic mold and one that still was to be recognized by the other apostles, so God’s specific purposes for the individual person Paul would entail dramatic action by God to make such a purpose realized. But the general role of apostleship wasn’t necessarily a “calling.” So, we don’t need to generalize from Paul’s own calling to a general theory of calling for ministry.

Now, this isn’t to deny the experiences of many people who have felt lead towards the ministry, which they may refer to as a “calling.” People have seen the threads in their life weave together to lead them to work in some area of ministry. People have these strong urgings and inclinations towards more formal work within the Church. These are very real, and I believe to be a result of the work of God in our lives, but I would not call these “callings.” Even though I am not always a good Wesleyan, I do believe that emergence of God’s work in our lives is a result of the synergy of God’s gracious action and our own response, including the responses of our hearts, to God’s grace. These strands and urges can very well be the result of God’s work in our lives. But, I would suggest this is part of God’s equipping and forming of us as we seek to put these gifts into practice in our imagination and in action. The direction towards ministry emerges from this Divine-personal dance of grace and love.

But this isn’t a “calling.” Callings are purposes that are unilaterally defined, such as when God makes a clear command to “Go!” or offers a decisive invitation “Will you go?” This also not simply a feeling laid upon a person’s heart, but God makes it dramatically clear, such as with Samuel, Isaiah, Paul, etc. While a person can say yes or no to God’s calling, the purpose one is directed towards is not chosen by the person; it is determined by God and bestowed to the person. This is also what happens when we are called in Jesus Christ; the life of following Christ isn’t a result of negotiation between God and us, but it emerges from God’s specific call and purpose for us. But, in so far as there are callings to specific people that are not given to other people, Samuel, Isaiah, and Paul are example of God’s calling, where God unilaterally sets out a purpose for their lives. It does not emerge from the Divine-person dance of grace and love.

Sometimes, there are people who have specific callings on their life. But before you become jealous, wish you were called, and/or implicitly think “callings” should be more democratic, if you take careful note, when God calls specific people to specific purposes, it can come at a great cost of personal loss, pain, difficulty, and suffering. God’s calling isn’t a position of privilege, but God’s calling is a specific purpose in one’s life that one must be specifically set and formed for. When you have some freedom to select the path in your life in service to God, all your hang ups, struggle, difficulties, neuroses, or whatever you want to call the rough edges in your life don’t have to be addressed as you can select the areas that those problems won’t contribute to. When you have some freedom to select the path in your life in service to God, you can choose to adjust course from the difficult and thorny patches that may be a difficulty for you. To be faithful to a specific calling does not afford such a freedom, however. For those calling to specific purposes, they may be subjected to the spiritual grinder so that can be transformed from their own problems and be prepared to face the problems they will have to deal with. Let’s be honest: while you can take on a specific call upon your life for love of God, you don’t want a specific call on your life.

So, having tried to elucidate the different between a leading to ministry and a specific calling, there are a few reasons why we should not speak about callings to ministry, as it relates to ourselves as ministers, the positions we take, and the nature of the Church as a whole.

The language of calling forms perceptions that ministry is gated off from the laity – Every time we talk about a “calling to ministry,” we are implicitly and subtly reinforcing a basic notion: you must have had a specific story or a specific feeling that we label a “calling” to be involved in ministry. This only reinforces the difference between the clergy and laity, creating a special class of the “called” and “the rest of us.” But if the pursuit of ministry emerges from the Divine-personal dance of grace and love, then it isn’t that specific people have had a calling, but that certain people have sought to follow Jesus so deeply that the work of God’s grace has lead them in a direction of a more formal, vocational ministry. Their deep love and attentiveness to God’s will has contributed to the emergence of this direction in their life. In other words, the work of ministry, whether matched with a vocational role and formal position or not emerges from the equipping and formation of God met with our response of love to God. Thus, ministry is the work of the whole Church that God corporately equips that emerges from our collective and corporate love for God.

Saying we are “called” can mask our own feelings – Let’s be honest here. There are many reasons people can want to be in a vocational position of pastor or other forms of ministry, and they are not always rooted in the love of God. Perhaps we saw the power a pastor have over the people and we wish we had that power for ourselves. Perhaps we have some deep desire to address some problem of injustice and seek to take on the ministerial role to address this injustice. There are a variety of motivations of different moral values that can guide us into the formal positions of ministry, but they don’t necessarily have the love of God as the center. But when we say we are “called” without offering a clear, dramatic calling experience, we have a tendency to overlook our own reasons for the passion of ministry, but we may be projecting our own desire onto God that we then say that He legitimates in the notion of a “calling.” But when we can’t argue that God unilaterally legitimates our position but rather that we must be equipped and formed for the position, we are challenged to deal with the truth of our own motivations both from within ourselves and those who evaluate us.

Saying we are “called” implies that we have a right to a position – Let me state something bluntly and honestly. You do not have a right or entitlement to any position in the Church of God. Even if you have had a specific and clear calling in your life, you are not entitled to a position. You are either directed and/or called to a purpose, and you seek to learn how to live that purpose in the opportunities and other positions than may be available. But that doesn’t exempt you from being people who should be equipped and formed for ministry. You may be a gifted teacher, or you may be a wonderful empathizer and counselor, and you should seek to utilize those gifts, but positions span beyond narrow purposes and specific gifts. If you are gifted but unformed, you shouldn’t have a formal position, let me blunt. Or, if you are formed but you aren’t gifted for the positions, you should haven’t a formal position that would entail those gifts. But when we talk about “calling,” it is often time said with an implicit presumption that others should and are obligated to recognize this “calling” and give us what we expect, or the problems rests within them. The language of “calling” conceals a certain sense of prideful expectations, which can circumvent the pursuing of giftedness and using of these gifts along with being formed for the usage of them.

In other words, when we are not careful for how we use the language of “calling,” it can breed elitist attitudes by the clergy and divisions within the Church, while the clergy are distracted from their own motivations, and feelings of entitlement that circumvents the process of seeking giftedness and use them and being formed.

But in the end, remember this: even if you are genuinely called, you are not called to a position, you are called to a purpose. And if you are genuinely called, God will put you through the spiritual grinder. So, my words of hopeful wisdom born in experience is to say this: don’t seek or desire to be “called” to anything other than the life that is within Jesus Christ; answer the call to be part of God’s Kingdom. Do recognize the giftings and desires for ministry that God places and forms upon you and seek to put them into practice, but don’t overstate your claim or feel entitled to anything. Be faithful to the purposes of the leading, or even the calling if God has given you a specific calling, that God places upon you.

Healing in the context of the Trinity

August 26, 2018

Life is about struggles. Sometimes, these struggles are outwards. Struggles between peoples, as people, groups, or even entire nations can fight for what they believe and even rationalize that they deserve. Social life is a struggle for the recognition of various status or persons that will the either legitimate or delegitimate their interests.

Sometimes, these struggles are inwards. As Freud observed, the neuroses of people are often times the conflict of different drives; while Freud didn’t accurately identify the nature of these drives, the struggle between them, along with the nature of the unconscious, were his seminal contributions to our psychological understanding. Life doesn’t provide us what we want. Sometimes what we deeply want doesn’t come, so we experience the conflicts between our experiences and our desires and dreams. Sometimes, we are ambivalent, simultaneously wanting opposites, neither satisfied with one or the other. At the core, there is the conflict between our own interests.

Nevertheless, whether we are talking about outward or inward conflicts, there remains the fundamental problem of struggle in human life. The story of Adam and Eve recollects this reality due to sin. Because of sin, God tells Eve she will have a desire to control her husband but he will control her. Because of sin, God tells Adam that his toil will not produce a harvest but rather thorns. Because of sin, the world is inhabited by those like Cain who murder their brother Abel. Fundamental to the problem of sin is the struggles and conflicts it places within human existence, but interpersonal conflicts and intrapersonal conflicts.

Now, throughout the Bible, the interpersonal conflicts are primarily highlighted. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the inner struggles such as in the lament Psalms where the psalmist is torn between the complaints about the person life and seeking and trustingly hoping in God’s future faithfulness. But it really isn’t until the New Testament where we begin to get more than just glimpses of the inward conflicts. The temptations of Christ are a presumptive story of Christ’s own inward conflicts, not just with the devil but his devotion to God while being famished. Then, as he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he feels the inner conflict of what he knows God is calling of him to go to the cross and the inner desire to not be subjected to this. Meanwhile, right before this, he sees his disciples have dozed off and he speaks of the experience of the struggle he himself has gone through and is going through, saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” This inner struggle gets taken up by the Apostle Paul in his explanation about the powerless of the Torah in Romans 7, recognizing that knowledge of what we should do doesn’t stop us from doing it but can actually make the struggle more acute and worse, giving greater power to the forbidden impulses.

Nevertheless, the New Testament does not speak of a world of a hyper self-consciousness that we have experienced in the modern, therapeuticized world. Whereas the New Testament is aware of inner worlds but places the focus on what God is doing in Christ and through the Spirit for the solution of human sin, our modern therapeuticized world is not only aware of the inner worlds but tries to solve the problems and tensions from within. We must find the resources from within ourselves to sort the conflicts out; we need to find contentment and acceptance, or we need to assert ourselves and change the world for our own sense of peace. Whatever the proposal is, the solution is to always look to something within the person to be the source of healing. But at the end of the day, much of what this therapy is doing is resolving the dissonance and conflicts by giving precedence to one sets of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over another. Sometimes, all people need to do to overcome the inner conflicts is to just pick one side of the inner conflict and go with it, and then they will find their inner conflicts subsiding as they put this into practice.

Now, in making this observation, I am not condemning this practice. Indeed, sometimes we need to pick one side of the inner conflict over the other and learn to live with what comes from that way of life. Healing from within is in many instances a perfectly legitimate option much of the time. However, inner healing from within is not the nature of transformation in the Gospel. For the Apostle Paul, the work that is happening in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit is something that we do not see, have not heard of, nor can even imagine on our own capacity; instead, it is something that Paul can only call a new creation. While this transformative work includes our inner nature and being, the transformative work does not come from within but from without.

For Paul, transformation is the work of the Father through His two chosen instruments, His Son and His Holy Spirit. On the one, there is the story of Jesus Christ in his life, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification/ascension. On the other hand, there is the powerful work of the Spirit who demonstrates power just as it was demonstrated in the cross, who provides revelation and discernment of wisdom that is embodied in Jesus as the Lord of Glory. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit working in unison, with one providing a specific image of who God is and what His will looks like when embodied and the other providing further exemplification and understanding of what has happened in the other. In Christ we see the face of God’s glory, through the Spirit we come to understand what this glory is about. Jesus gives us a picture of holiness, and the Spirit gives us the right thoughts about this picture. Perception through narrative imagination and hermeneutical interpretation through inspiration. The transformative work of the Trinity is caused by the Father’s sending and directing, encompassing the entirety of human thought in being passive perceivers and active interpreters to cease to be conformed to this world by the renewal of our minds.

This sort of works comes from without, coming from outside of ourselves. It doesn’t come by selecting one side of our conflict or the other, forming us into the image of the side of the inner tension we select. Rather, the whole of ourselves are formed, all sides of the inner tensions we face become brought comprehensively in line with the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through the transformation of the Spirit. Apart from worship, prayer, study,  attentive reflection upon, and faithfulness of the heart to God which directs us and attunes us to the one who does what does not come from within, there is no place we go within ourselves to find this healing or make it our own. We do not seek this type of healing for its own sake as that misdirects our attention away from God; we don’t find some power within us that we then put into action as this redirects our formation into the images that direct our own actions. Rather, we behold and come to comprehend God through the sending of His Son into the world and His Spirit into our hearts.

While there are times to pursue inner healing from within, sometimes the act of navel-gazing can only heighten the conflicts and leave us deeper in the problem, especially when the reality of life in is joys and heartbreaks, its peace and conflicts, its loves and hates resist finding any sort of peace and contentment from within. Picking one side only leads to the other side to fight harder, especially so far as our inner conflicts are connected to our outer conflicts where people refuse to align their interests to ours but can be threatened by our own efforts and resist. Navel-gazing in these contexts can only solidify us, harden us into our patterns, making us less flexible, less open, less receptive to the whole of life or others, causing the conflicts and tensions to heighten. Hence, healing must come from without, come from one who can do what we can’t see, hear, or imagine.

Prophecy makes poor theology

August 26, 2018

I am going to make a very general division between traditional and progressive Christians, which is no doubt painting with broad brushes but I do think there some truth to the designation. Traditional Christianity tends to be a more theological Christianity, with emphasis on doctrine, whereas Progressive Christianity tends to be a more prophetic Christian, with an emphasis on calling out moral injustices. This distinction isn’t absolute, as there was many, many progressives who have a love for theology and I am aware of traditional Christians who have a flair for the prophetic. Nevertheless, I would suggest the broad religious trends of traditional and progressive Christianity are related to how central they take the theological and the prophetic tasks.

I would suggest it is important to make a distinction between theology and prophecy. They are very different forms of discourse, with different purposes and tasks. Theology, on the one hand, is about the dissemination of a certain way of thinking and reasoning. Doctrines such as the Holy Trinity, atonement, etc. are propagated so that people can develop a certain way of thinking and acting, and sometimes even feeling. Hence, theology tends to be general and abstract in terms of communicative content. On the other hand, prophecy is about the targeted challenge to action within a specific social context and circumstances. Prophecy calls down the injustices of powers against the helpless and calls people forward to a new destination. Given the circumstantial nature of prophecy, the content of its communication is more specific and particular.

As a consequence of the different purposes and types of content theological and prophetic discourse have, they are not immediately “translatable” to each other. Biblical prophecy isn’t about handing down some knowledge about God but more so about pointing the directions one should or should not go; the discourse is largely contextualized to the circumstances in which prophecy is uttered. By contrast, Biblical doctrine speaks more about what is true in more a universal or general sense, such as the universal reality that Jesus is Lord of all creation or the general reality that the Spirit convicts and guides people. Prophetic and theological discourse at their core are making very different types of truth claims.

For instance, compare the prophetic utterance of Micah 6:8 with the Apostle’s Paul theological emphasis on faith. Do we come to God in faith as Paul suggests or do we come to God with our moral/ethical way of life? Micah 6:8 is a popular verse used to encourage people to a certain moral/ethical way of life that is popular in more prophetic/progressive expressions, whereas the Pauline justification by faith is routinely emphasized in more traditional Protestant expressions. There seems to be a tension between these two discourses.

However, I would suggest the tension is more a problem of how the prophetic discourse gets translated into a universal or general claim. Micah’s statement is said in the context of Israel that had a) largely forgotten the justice that was to given to the people but b) maintained the religious traditions including the sacrificial system with the presumption of God’s continued favor. In this context, Micah 6:6-8 is spoken as a way of calling people to, essentially, get their priorities straight, paying attention to how they lived among each other with and in their own attitudes in relation to God in humilty rather then presumption, rather than their focusing on the sacrificial system. Micah was speaking something that was targeted to the specific realities of the southern kingdom of Judah. While there may be other situations that such a type of discourse may be suitable, Micah is speaking in a targeted, specific fashion. He is not propounded a general theological, or even ethical theory, but he is provided a specific Divinely inspired called to action for this specific nation.

Is there much to learn from this? Yup. However, can we do theology from Micah? Only carefully, with a theological system already in place to integrate the insights. The prophets did not speak from a vacuum, but they addressed the religious practices that had their own theological traditions. The prophetic utterance was not so much a new teaching that was previously unknown, but a call to renewal what is claimed to be God’s original purposes and plans. This is why Micah says: “He had told you, O mortal, what is good.” This was the knowledge that the kingdom of Judah had already had, but they overlooked and lost it along the way. This knowledge was put into the context of its larger theological traditions.

My point is this: prophecy, on its own, makes poor theology. It is this that stands at the heart of much of my criticism of progressive theology. Much of what they say is needed to be heard to heed the people that have been forgotten and that teachings that have been overlooked and rationalized away. But Biblical prophecy doesn’t reject its traditions but renews and revitalizes them, calling to memory and bringing more attention to what is there and then to call others to act accordingly. Prophecy serves and renews theology rather than establishes it. When the prophetic becomes disengaged from the theological traditions, it becomes a ship without an anchor or rudder that gets pushed around by whatever societal wave and wind, but not necessarily the Divine wind of the Spirit.

I would not turn the statement around though. Theology doesn’t necessarily make poor prophecy. Certainly, true prophetic inspiration is from God, so in a sense, theological doctrine does not itself directly create such inspiration. But firstly, the prophetic inspiration uses the theological resources at hand; take a look at Revelation and its innumerable allusions to the Old Testament Scriptures and the religious theological traditions of 1st-century Jewish apocalypticism. Secondly, good theology finds a place prophetic discourse, such as the Apostle Paul engaging in a prophetic discourse against rampant, hypocritical judgmentalism in Romans 1:18-2:16 that sets ups his theological discourse on the nature of redemption in Christ and through the Spirit.

What can happen, however, is that theology loses its place for the prophetic, that it treats the only legitimate truth claims as being in the general, theological mold and due its generality, becomes distracted from all the specifics of the theological traditions and how they are to be rightly employed. But this isn’t the problem of theology, per se, but of the ever-present human tendencies to habituation that distracts our attention and focus on the legitimation of what is, blinding us to see the flaws with how things are. We might say the human reality of the flesh leads us to de-propheticize, or even more severely de-Spiritualize, our theology, but that is not the problem of theological discourse and knowledge itself. But the same theological traditions can be revitalized and made new.

The same is not true of prophetic discourse. Prophetic discourse is not itself to be revitalized. It may be recalled as an example, much as Martin Luther King Jr. found inspiration from the Biblical prophets for his own fight for racial justice. But the prophetic utterances themselves are not capable of providing a real, theological foundation; they are calls back to the foundations instead. The prophetic utterances without the theological foundations will be re-contexutalized to whatever concerns are in the present circumstance. Without careful awareness and consciousness of this, this process of recontextualization may overlook the premise that what God would speak to this different circumstances may be dramatically different from the previous circumstances. Even if things on the surface look similar in the presence of idolatry and/or injustice, the hearts of people in different circumstances may be dramatically different, even if they share in common some very broad sense of idolatry and injustice. God who sees the hearts of people will speak as He will for the purposes He has for those people, and this may be dramatically different for what may seem to be similar situations on the surface. Prophetic discourse is thus not something we as humans should readily generalize in an authoritative, overarching manner; nor does it provide a direct legitimation for our own prophetic action. Rather, it is something that can instruct us as it is integrated within a larger theological framework and tradition.

Prophetic discourse is deeply specific to the circumstances that present a need for a challenge and call. This is important, but for this very reason, prophecy makes poor theology. Similarily, this is why I would say much of the spirit the motivates, inspires, and directs progressive Christianity runs into deep problems: strident calls for justice and progress are needed, but they do not really provide a clear, coherent, reliable foundations for what should be; when they try to provide such theological framework, it ends up looking very different from the historic Christian faith, leading me to ask the question “Was the Church basically treading on the edge of apostasy the whole time due to their great ignorance about the truth of God? Or is it those who would act in a prophetic manner that have forgotten their role and purpose?”

Meme-ified hermeneutics and the Great Commandment

August 25, 2018

Jesus taught us to love. Most everyone in the Christianized West ‘knows’ this. This is seemingly so obvious that it has approached the level of a cliche. The nature of cliches are such that what is understood by cliches are so trite and minimal that we can use the cliche in variety of ways to get it to say whatever we want to. Offhand, I can think of a few ways Jesus’s “call to love” is used: to justify specific social and/or political arrangements, to shield people from judgment, to baptize romantic and sexual relationships and leave them with a shiny veneer of spirituality, as a moral exhortation people to overlook dividing issues so we can all just get along, as a reductive ethical outlook that eschews any rules and can best be expressed by the lyrics of “All You Need is Love” in the Beatles’ popular song. Really, “Jesus calls us to love” was a meme where we can insert anything into it before the meme culture of the internet existed. As with all memes and cliches, everyone knows them but they increasingly lose their original meaning. Memes and cliches are used to mean whatever you want them to mean.

As a consequence, when we approach the passages in the Synoptic Gospels that talk about the most important commandment, such as Matthew 22:35-40, we tend to overlook the specifics of the words. We glaze over the words, as if we really know what is truly being said. But let’s note a few observations about that passage that challenges our meme-hermeneutical practice.

The love of God and the love of neighbor are different – Jesus didn’t say “love everyone, God and people.” He quoted two Torah passages and connected them by saying the second commandment was like the first. There is a similarity between the two commandments, but Jesus didn’t summarize the two commandments as “love” as if you can simply insert God or people after the word “love” Rather, he connected these two commandments, with their specifics together, which leads me to my next point.

The nature of these two loves are specified – Jesus didn’t say “love,” but this quotations from the Torah expressed the specific shape and nature of these loves. The love of God was something that was all-encompassing of the person, impacting the various zone of their life. The love of neighbor is said to be “as yourself,” which in its original context in Leviticus 19:17-18 isn’t about “love yourself so that you can love others” or even “treat them as would treat yourself”1 but rather in recognizing that we are connected to our neighbor, so we should reprove neighbors for wrongs done, giving them a chance to address problems, rather than hate them and act with vengeance; what happens to them also impacts us. In other words, the love of God is rooted in being all-encompassing of our life and the love of neighbor was rooted in recognizing and maintaining our connectedness.
So, if your love for God is a mild appreciation that leads you into occasional forays of spiritual or religious practices that are easy and convenient for you and your lifestyle, you aren’t following the first commandment. If your love for another is selective that instead of speaking truth to them you would seek to hurt them, you are failing that commandment, so a culture that fears being “judgmental” and thus never speaks up for fear of unsettling other people’s feelings are not actually following the Torah commandment to love that Jesus references.
I don’t express these two potential ways of failure to be condemning and shaming if what I said is true of you, but only to point out that you have yet to really reach the type of loves that Jesus calls for.

Love is not all you need – Jesus was not answering the question “What do we need to to be a moral person?” Jesus was answering the question “Which commandment in the Torah is the greatest?” The question is not about setting out the boundaries and limits of all ethics. Nor is the question about defining exhaustive ethical and moral knowledge. It is specific to what, of the many commandments of the Torah has the highest place and prominence. The question assumes all the commandments should be followed, not just the most important ones, and Jesus doesn’t reject this assumption but his statement “On these two commandments hang all the Torah and the prophets” presumes the rest of the commandments should also be following, but that they derive their force and application from the two greatest commandments.

Love is not about ethics – The topic was about commandments. While we in the West with the diffusion of governmental power and regulation into our personal lives and the increasing awareness of our obligations to society, we are inclined to see prescriptive pronouncements as being about right and wrong in some moral or ethical framework. But that isn’t what is happening here. The commandments were personal. God gave Israel specific things to do not because He was pronouncing an ethical theory, but because they were His people. Thus, the commandments impact the nature of the relationship of God to the people of Israel, and more broadly even of all people. Hence, the most important commandment is the love of God, because all the other commandments, even the love of neighbor, derive their raison d’etre from this central relationship. So, there is no ethical theory being proposed here, but a prescriptive framework for a relationship with God and then with other people.

Now, there is no reason to expect the average reader, or event an expert reader, of the Bible to pick up all of these various nuances and particularities. When I first read these passages, I didn’t pick up on all them. In fact, a couple of these observations I made myself as I was studying and reflecting in writing this blog post. These are not things you will just automatically know.

But, the problem is how our reading of the Bible is meme-ified. This tendency has only been amplified in our modern, internet culture, but it has been a trajectory long in the making. When preachers preach on Biblical passages to give people some basic moral or idea, we were reinforcing meme hermeneutics for a long time before memes as we know them now became a thing.

At the core of the problem is this deep, underlying assumption: the Scriptures are meant to convey specific ideas to me that come from decoding the passages rightly. Therefore, once we get the right ideas, the Scriptures function more like a rule-book that we used to justify and legitimate these ideas against oppositional claims, but it is the knowledge and ideas that we derive that are actually the most important thing. Then, having obtaining mastery of the ideas, the actually words of the Scriptures becomes a husk. Let’s call this a spiritual gnosticism.

This pattern even effects those of us who do try to dig deeper. Whenever we dig deeper and we discover new ideas and meaning that we had not previously unearthed, we can be inclined to say “The Bible is always teaching us and giving us more and more.” This is often said with a hint of Spirituality behind it, as if the Holy Spirit has locked all these different ideas and meanings into the text for us to then discover. But, what is happening here isn’t that all these different ideas are encoded into the text for us to extrapolate, but rather that our reading hasn’t been as entailed and specific. It is more analogous to how we overlook where we put our keys when we are ready to go because we weren’t paying attention in the first place.

Overlooking the nuances of Biblical passages is going to happen to all of us, because we do not have the capacity to pay attention to everything all the time. Our minds make conscious and unconscious decisions about what words and meanings we will pay attention to in our readings, so we will overlook the significance of other words and meanings. But when we think the significance of the Bible is as a vehicle to convey abstracted ideas and meanings, we only deepen this tendency because we are subconsciously primed to think “aha, here is a new idea. I have understood” and therefore short-circuit further attention because we have gotten what we needed.

Furthermore, the way we direct our attention in our reading will be directed towards the ideas and meanings we already find significant and important. Angry about some form of political injustice? Well, you can read Jesus’ words about love as a justification for your political proposals. Tired of feeling looked down upon for how you treat others? Go to Jesus words about not judging others. Frustrated that people don’t think like you do on some important topic? Find that passage that you use to support your doctrinal view. But we won’t necessarily try to read deeper to see if these passages really are addressing the ideas and meanings we have, but we assume that they are vehicles of these specific ideas.

To get philosophical for a minute, this isn’t an issue of saying there is no meaning in the text in the first place. While I am influenced by post-modernity in the sense that I don’t think texts in and of themselves have meanings but that we assign meanings, I do think texts are products of causal-forces (including the witnessing of specific events and the inspiration of God when it comes to the Scriptures) which we should seek to reconstruct ourselves through interpretation so that we can understand those causal-forces for ourselves. But when I derive some meaning, it doesn’t mean I have exhausted the text, but that I am on the way towards reconstruction. And, if I believe the Scriptures are, in some manner, inspired by God and if I seek to love God with all that I am, I should seek to go deeper and with greater specificity so that through my interpretation, I am coming to a deeper understanding that can align my heart and mind to God more and more. While specific meanings and ideas are useful ways that my thinking, feelings, and actions are formed and directed by this act of reconstructive interpretation, the Scriptures are for me sought as a way to attune myself to the heart and will of God in a deeper fashion through various, multitudinous ways. If we think a specific set of abstract ideas and meanings we derive from reading is all we need, if we simply employ these abstract ideas and meanings for the concerns that we have, we short-circuit the process of deepening, more pervasive understanding that impacts the whole of who we are.

So, I would make an appeal from the greatest commandment to our hermeneutical style: if you want to love God with your whole person and being, don’t read the Bible simply to get useful ideas, meanings, doctrines, laws, etc. Those may emerge, but don’t stop there; and challenge what ideas, meanings, doctrines, and laws you derive in your mind by going deeper into those specific passages and wider by looking deeply at other passages to see if they are truly warranted. Otherwise, a meme-ified hermeneutic will short-circuit the work that a deeper reading will have in an all-encompassing love of God. Stop being spiritual gnostics and instead move towards having a deepening faith, hope, and love directed towards the God who makes Himself known through Jesus and His Holy Spirit.

How did the American Church get so narcissistic?

August 23, 2018

Chuck DeGroat wrote an incredibly insightful post a couple weeks about the nature of the American Church and the structures of narcissism and its narcissistic leaders. Prayerfully and hopefully, he longs for a dying-and-rising of the American Church, as do I and a host of other people. In trying to find hope for the future, he provided a set of suggestions for doing some soul-searching and discovering the problems within individual churches and organizations. His 5 suggestions can be categorized under two umbrellas: 1) pay attention to yourself and your church and 2) seek out specific resources and knowledge. These suggestions are very important, and I believe they would be of great value for rectifying the symptoms and illness that has infiltrating the way of life of churches.

But, I would suggest the American Church as a whole needs go even further, to do a deeper analysis of the deeper powers that pervade and contributed to the formation of colonies of spiritual narcissism in the Church in America. While the gates of hell shall never prevail against the Body of Christ, that doesn’t mean we are invulnerable to illness that must be treated. It would have been better off if the Church had the wisdom and insight to avoid the dark direction things took, but because we didn’t, prophetic judgment had to be leveled against us so that God could remove what was ailing the Church. But knowing now that things weren’t healthy, knowing that the Church in America had habits that furthered the spiritual darkness rather than reflecting the light of Christ, it will be fruitful for the future for theological and spiritual reflection to grapple with the more subtle and pervasive forces, currents, and trajectories that infected the Church.

It can be tempting to blame narcissistic people, to blame narcissistic leaders, to blame narcissistic governing structures and think the solution is had by getting rid of this enemy of “narcissism.” While those persons whose narcissism contributed to the injustice and harm should be brought to accountability, if all we do is simply punish individual people and try to remove them, we are essentially scape-goating, leaving ourselves vulnerable for the problem to reemerge, because evil can be cunning and shrewd and rear its ugly head in new ways that would evade detection based upon the past patterns. In the ned, I would suggest that the problem didn’t occur because narcissistic people had the intentions to abuse the Church, but rather the Church has participated in the forces, currents, and trajectories that formed narcissism within us, while also making us vulnerable to it. The problem runs deeper. As the Apostle Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12; NRSV)

However, the way this truth of a spiritual war manifests itself in Paul’s letters isn’t some analysis of the devil and their wily ways; Paul is not a demon hunter, although certainly, Paul believes in demonic powers. But if we take Paul’s letter to the Romans as a containing a veiled form of criticism of the culture of the Roman Empire by emphasizing the cosmological and anthropological causes of sins that emanates from the flesh and leads to the dominion of sin and death (Romans 5:21) rather than directly expressing a criticism of the culture and political powers itself, wisdom will comes from recognizing 1) the universal reality of our flesh and how it contributes to sin and death and 2) how this universal reality gets particularized within specific cultural and political values and desires. But, to be clear, this isn’t a systemic analysis that simply tries to figure out how bad results occur that is common within a leftist critique of Western society with concepts such as white privilege or patriarchy; as much as these analyses may bear some truth in the end that we need to hear, these forms of analysis largely amounts to a sophisticated analysis of actions that looks at the behavioral aggregate but fails to truly take into account deeper human nature from which these injustices emerge. Rather, what I suggest that Paul engages in is closer to a meta-systemic analysis of the human heart and how hearts are molded by the practices and customs of the cultural and political worlds in which we inhabit. Our practices form what we love, determining what we become. As James K.A. Smith says in Desiring the Kingdom:

We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends. So we are not primarily homo rationale or homo faber or homo economicus; we are not even generically homo religiosis. We are more concretely homo liturgicus; humans are those animals that are religious animals not because we are primarily believing animals but because we are liturgical animals—embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.1

To put this all a bit more concretely, as I spoke above from a much more analytic and intellectual perspective to provide warrant for my conclusions, we need to learn to see clearly how it is that the people and practices have changed us as persons in the Church, often times for the worse, so as to avoid letting these loves of self, which is at the core of narcissism, and other types of loves that take primacy in the the Church so that it blocks our hearts from coming to and rightly knowing God as He is making Himself known in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the question: “How did the American Church get so narcissistic?” But I will provide a few considerations I have from my own experiences and studies that can be weighed for their suitability as potentially insightful explanations. But one word of caution: sounding plausible does not mean it is true. This answers we accept should not come from things that sound plausible upon a first hearing, but as the Church in the apostolic era had to weigh and discern the prophetic utterances for their validity and true meaning, we should not just accept explanations at face value.

  1. America has been trending towards narcissism – Firstly, it is important to take stock that the problem of narcissism is not simply a problem in the Church of America. This should be obvious, but it needs to be clearly stated as the secular, post-Christendom society will be inclined to treat the narcissism in the Church has of an entirely different problem than the narcissism in the wider society. America has a strong predilection towards narcissism, but the reason for this isn’t that we teach people to be narcissistic: there have been many efforts to try to get people to be nice to each other. But at the core of the narcissism isn’t a direct pedagogy, but a subtle one: we have trained people to have huge expectations about themselves and their futures.

    At the core of narcissism is self-grandiosity, believing that one’s future should be wonderful and amazing. Insofar as we have encouraged people day-after-day to dream and dream big, and do this repeatedly again and again and again, the more we are encouraging a self-absorption of big, huge expectations. It isn’t that imagination is the problem, but it is an undisciplined imagination that can not bear the truths of reality that stands at the heart of narcissism. As our larger expectations are not matched by reality, we are forced into a stark experience of cognitive dissonance that challenges us. In these instances of strong emotional alarm from such stark, painful dissonance, it is rare for our expectations and dreams to shift to something more realistic: instead, we are prone to either to let go of our dreams entirely and go into a deep, dark phase of depression and anxiety or we are left to rationalize why we can and/or should have what we dreamed and expected. The more we go down the route of rationalization, the more we move down the route of narcissism.

    One contributing factor to engaging in such rationalization is the cult of self-esteem, that tries to get people to feel better about themselves when life doesn’t go as they wish. While trying to treat the self-esteem of the abused is a good thing as they need to resist the lies and distortions that have brought them down, when self-esteem is used to treat simply the pain of broken expectations and dreams, it doesn’t fight the lies but it encourages the rationalization that encourages narcissism.

    So, the more the Church engages in the larger societal practices of undisciplined imagining of one’s future and indiscriminate boosting of self-esteem, we, like the rest of society, can encourage the creation of cocoons of rationalization that fertilize the seeds of narcissism (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

    However, we should not blame everything on the wider society, as if the Church has simply been hapless victims of the larger societal trends. Firstly, we have been rather undiscriminating about the practices of society, focusing on getting good, immediate results to get people to do things for Jesus through our methods rather than taking the long-road of building the spiritual infrastructure for holiness. Secondly, there are some aspects of the Christian way of life which, when blended with the cultural narcissism, can have an effect of amplifying narcissism. The Church has its own unique problems with narcissism. However, as we see the causes narcissism that are more unique to our practices, we do need to remember to heed the call of Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (NRSC)

  2. Church decline in America has lead losing trust in God and a panic that has us looking for heroes – The Church in America has been in decline in the past few decades. However, to be clear, the decline isn’t simply a numerical decline of attendance. Rather, the decline is the increasing marginalization of Christian discourse in public that means people are less inclined to attend and are less inclined to give credibility to Christian speech. Going to church has ceased to be a practice of status, which has led to denominations and churches, such as my own United Methodist Church, to struggle with diminishing attendance and membership numbers along with declining financial situations. In addition, the looming fear of the lack of governmental protections for Christian speech and life has also contributed to a fear, which isn’t entirely out of line as various social and political groups do have an antagonism towards the Church (the reasons behind this are complex and should not be stereotyped). Such a spiritual and religious reality has sparked anxieties about the future of the Church, causing believing that the Church may no longer exist in the future, which betrays a lack of faith in the power, love, and purposes of God. Trust in God declines, failing to see how the current social reality may be a refining, exiling judgment of the Church to cast out the dross so that we can rediscover the faith and glory of Jesus Christ.

    In this gap of faith, we are increasingly prone to look towards leaders who we believe can provide us the readily implementable solutions that will fix our decline. We look for supposed experts on Church growth, systems, and leaders. Consequently, some people stumble upon something that has worked in some situations, and then praise and resources are heaped upon them by others, providing these views of themselves with views of themselves that can become increasingly grandiose, even as they didn’t start there. Then, some people bluff their way through smoke and mirrors to obtain the prestige and status that comes with being considered a leader and hero. Whether it starts off genuinely or manipulatively, the spiritual and religious anxiety of Christians in America creates the practices of glorifying cultural heroes and making us vulnerable to sophisticated charlatans, and leaders with every combination of this two principles, causing narcissism to litter the landscape of our leadership.

  3. Narcissism can look like spiritual discernment when there is a lack of appreciation of rules – As the Church has increasingly believed in the insufficiency of laws and rules to regulate Church life and leadership, for both good and bad reasons, with both good and bad results, it leaves us more inclined to consider goodness and wisdom to be more circumstantial. Indeed, life can not be fit into nice, easy boxes and it entails wisdom and insight that can shift based upon situations and circumstances. But, the gift of discerning insight and the arbitrariness of narcissistic thinking can look similar on the surface of things. Narcissistic thinking, just as true discernment, can be bound and determined by the immediate circumstances, but with narcissism, the circumstances are consciously and unconsciously assessed in terms of how to benefit and glorify oneself. Consequently, they can spout apparent wisdom that looks like discernment when they may in fact be confabulating and/or manipulating what might sound plausible to other people (and even themselves) for their own benefit. But since we do not have direct access to the minds of the discerning and the narcissistic, they can look remarkably similar on the surface, with both seeming to bear some semblance of remarkable expertise, plausible understanding, and spiritual insight.2

    Therefore, insofar as we in the Church has indiscriminately eschewed thinking in terms of rules, we have made ourselves more susceptible to narcissistic style leadership that manipulates our understanding of situations and circumstances for their own benefit. While rules will not stop narcissism when narcissism is empowered, appreciation of rules, even as we qualify and see the limit of their values, can give us a potential hermeneutical insight to identify narcissistic leadership, as narcissism will seek to undermine the rules that limit them whereas spiritual discernment can recognize and appreciate the rules even while still seeing the sometimes darker reality that they can possess. Without an appreciation for rules and principles, the difference between prophetic discernment and sheep’s clothing can be hard to discern.

I provide these three explanations not to be all-encompassing, but to highlight the potential way our practices rooted in our hearts form who and what we love in such a way that allows narcissism to emerge. To that end, this is more an attempt to provide rudimentary examples of a meta-systemic analysis of the human heart as it pertains the narcissism in the American Church than it is to give final answers.