Reimagining Christian faith: reapplication, revision, or rediscovery

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January 17, 2019

In my previous post, I made a rather dramatic and scathing, to be honest, criticism of my evangelical background. I didn’t write that lightly as there was much from my evangelical background that I do cherish and think is important. It is such that if you were to engage me in many Biblical and theological discussions, you might me saying some things that are similar to what evangelicals have said. However, despite these similarities, I have seen the way the Christian faith has become to be expressed by evangelicals in America is deeply problematic.

I am not the first one. One might even say I am somewhat late to the party. Even though I knew of my problems for a while, I couldn’t entirely disassociate myself from the evangelical identity. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the problems, but I didn’t know the right direction to go. So, I considered myself marginally identified with evangelicals as I engaged what could be described as a personal reimagining of Christian faith. It was only as I knew where I was going that I could finally say it isn’t the evangelical direction.

Of course, many people have talked about reimagining the Christian throughout the past few years, across the theological spectrum from evangelicals to progressives. But, as can clearly be seen, there are very different results in the Christian reimagination as evangelicals and progressive reimaginations have come up with a very different set of practices and theological expressions.

You might classify the evangelical reimagination as reapplication of the Christian message. A common motto is that the message of Christ remains the same but the way you express it changes. The question here pertains to how you can apply the same doctrinal teachings and the same ethical and spiritual principles to a different context. This version would see that the Christian churches of the past have become stale as the times have changed, so one has to figure out how to live in a new era. This form of reimagination has a past orientation, looking to the past for foundations that provide the answers for the future.

Another form of reimagination that can be associated with progressives and many exvangelical Christians is the revision of the Christian message. Here, there is a deep dissatisfication with the way many churches have operated, particuarly of a more traditional/evangelical orientation. To them, the problem isn’t that the message got stale; the problem is that the message was very wrong and was responsible for many evils. Thus, these Christians feel the need to revise what it means to be Christian, either abandoning orthodoxy or picking and choosing what of it the past traditions it finds true for today. This form of reimagination has a future orientation, looking to the idealized future to determine how to appropriate the past.

But, there is something that is held in common with the reapplication and revision forms of reimagination: the new imagination emerges as a result of our thinking, whether it be thinking about the doctrines of the past or about the directions of the future. If we can just figure at the right theological and ethical framework, we can fix all the problems that we see our churches have. Meanwhile, Jesus Christ is taken as important in both forms of reimagination.

However, there is a third way of reimagining Christian faith that is starkly different. It takes neither the past nor the future as the starting point of thinking, nor does it take our own analysis and reasoning as the starting point of reimagining. To rediscover the Christian faith is a praying, trusting, and hoping that God brings forth a new understanding. But we don’t know exactly what it is God will be giving, but we wait until it comes.

Consider the disciples waiting in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus. These are disciples who had heard time and time again the words of the Torah and the message of the prophets. They walked alongside Jesus. But there were told to wait. Meanwhile, they were anxiously wanting to know what the future held in store because Jesus had been raised from the dead: is it now that their political world would be set right? But they were told that wasn’t something they should now. Neither knowing what happened in the past was sufficient to prepare the disciples, nor was a sense of the future given to them to direct them.

But, when the Holy Spirit fell upon them as in the days of Pentecost, they suddenly had words to speak as Peter gave a sermon that connecting this present, in the moment outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the present age being under the rule of Jesus Christ. It was after the Spirit had been poured that they proclaimed the message that made sense of who Jesus is and the significance of His death and resurrection. Through knowing Jesus and through the pouring of the Spirit, the disciples discovered the message of God’s Kingdom, even as they did not know what the future would have in store.

Thus, as we see the Christian faith undergoing many tensions and pressures today in the West, some have tried to reapply the message, some have tried to revise the message. But another option is to rediscover, to linger and wait where we are at for God to show us the way to go.

In rediscovery, we discover what the message applies to before trying to reapply the message. In rediscovery, we discover what the message is pointing towards to before trying to figure out what direction we are to head. Then can past and future can be brought together.

But to get here, it will take a caution about our attempts to reimagine based upon our own analysis from past to the future or future to the past. By starting from our own thinking, we will inevitably pick an Archimedean point to start from that everything new will encircle if we hope to have any sort of coherent message. This is unavoidable. But we have no way we can rationally analyze what Archimedean point we should start from without assuming an Archimedean point. And there are a littany of plausible sounding starting points. Even saying Jesus or the Holy Spirit doesn’t fully define because how is that we do understand Jesus and how do we understand the Holy Spirit?

A coherent message that represents God’s will will take God providing the Archimedean point the centers our thinking. This is where rediscovery comes in: the center of our understanding is somehow reoriented, perhaps in a mystery through the mundane moments, perhaps in a miracle of the stupendous moments. But the critical factor is that we wait in faith, and then when we rediscover, one goes from that point in the light of what God has done.

So if we place too much trust in our own theological and ethical reasoning and analysis, we won’t be satisfied to wait. We won’t be open to receive. We will be ready to go now.

However, at the same time, if we disengage from theological and ethical reasoning and analysis in some sort of apathetic mood, raising our hands up in exhaustion rather than prayer, we won’t be ready to make sense of what we receive. Discovery happens because you can receive what you discover, but if you are unaware you will remain unaware.

Rediscovery doesn’t abandon understanding the past or the future, but it simply says: only by your will God will we understand rightly. Only by the action of God in Christ and through the Spirit will we comprehend.

No longer an evangelical

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January 16, 2019

Today, I respectfully submit my intentions to resign my membership as an “evangelical.” It has been a decision long in the making, but I can no longer in good conscience consider myself a member. It isn’t that I hate evangelicalism. It isn’t that I reject everything that evangelicalism has stood for. I can say that I uphold many of the values that evangelicalism has been purported to hold to. It’s just that I can no longer be a part of the direction evangelicalism is going.

You see, for me, my understanding about being an evangelical was that it was a commitment to live my life according to the will of God made known in Jesus and through the Spirit that is expressed in and through the Scriptures. I hear in God’s Word a call to be distinct from the surrounding culture while embracing a love for the people. In the Gospel, I hear a call to action that consider no person or people my enemy, but that we are engaging in a spiritual battle against the deeper, pervasive powers of a spiritual nature. In so doing, I am a part of a long, nearly two millenia history of a Christians confession that Jesus is Lord.

I had hoped my heart could continue to be joined with you in the continuing mission, but I came to the realization that it can’t. You see, I see evangelical as a term of social conflict now. You fear liberals and progressives, you disdain them as people, you want to keep them out of power. Your enemies are people and earthly powers. That is why you have inaugurated all too earthly man, one whose history exhibits all the characteristics of living by the flesh, as the political hero in support of your movement.

And I can get why. Progressives and liberals have engaged in and celebrated many practices that we would consider inconsistent with what we trust to be God’s will for His people. You were scared as the family-friendly society you were accustomed to was being, or at least that you wanted to live in, has been undone with every election of a Democrat and multiple court cases.

But here is the difference between you and me. People who don’t live like me, who don’t believe as me are not my enemy. Sure, they have ideas that I disagree with that I think would have negative, unintended consequences if they become widespread. But guess what? I share the same sentiments about much of your evangelical politics. I don’t think you really understand. You see, I know you are sincere in believing in Jesus Christ, but I don’t think you have yet to understand what it really means to follow Jesus. You talk about it, but what I see is someone who wants to maintain the way things used to be and you use Scripture to justify that. You aren’t really following Jesus when you do that, but you are following the America of the past. That’s why you support making America great again; that’s why you thought someone a qualified leader because he supposedly had great business sense all while news of sexual trangressions that matched if not exceeded the man you sought to impeach a couple decades back. Your politics weren’t about Jesus; it was about America, an America you wanted to return, an America you wanted to keep, an America you wanted to create.

Allow me to diagnose the problem: you thought you understand and knew what Jesus wanted because you read the Bible and treated it with veneration as the infallible Word of God. But even the devil knew and quoted Scripture as he tempted Jesus to use and seek power for Himself. That wily old serpent was aware of God’s command to not eat of the tree as he mislead Eve. And even Peter talks about how people distort the Scriptures along with the writings of Paul. You see, knowing and using the Scriptures makes you no more a follower of Jesus than Satan himself.

The Pharisees searched the Scriptures, but they were searching for something other than God: they were searching something for themselves, eternal life. They wanted a blessed life because of the threatening Roman power that always loomed on their horizon. That is why that didn’t come to Jesus: they were looking for the wrong thing. And what is it that Jesus later said of these same people? As they insisted they were truly God’s people because they were children of Abraham, Jesus said, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do what your father’s desires.”

Now you might say: “But we have faith in Jesus.” Of course, didn’t James say even the demons believe, and yet shudder? But “God gave His only Son so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Read John 2.23-24: did Jesus open Himself up to everyone who thought they believed in him? Coming to Jesus because you read the Bible seeking eternal life makes you more like the Pharisees than you even know.

You see, that John 3.16 you love to quote isn’t saying “Come to Jesus to find eternal life.” It is about the why of God’s purposes and His sending of Christ, not human motivations. God’s purposes and why God does what He does, so that by coming to Jesus we may enjoy eternal life with Him. But you have made it about your own purposes and thus have treated faith as a condition of your security rather than the means by which God transforms us from our fleshly existence into a life being formed by the Spirit. By faith, God leads us to eternal life, that God and people may be reunited in fellowship and love. But many of you evangelicals have only sought the end product.

You will no doubt quote Paul, saying “we are justified by faith.” Indeed, we are. That is the point. God has brought us on a whole new trajectory of life when we place our trust in Him through Jesus, so what is not true of us will become true. But it is Paul who says “to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life.” But you have made faith the condition of your obtaining eternal life, rather than the means by which God brings you into eternal life as you seek after God. In the end, your faith is about what you can possess as a result of your own actions. No wonder, then, that you think you can possess a nation by your own political actions.

So as a physician occasionally has the unfortunate job of making a diagnosis of terminal illness, I feel I have to do the same. Many who considered themselves as representatives of evangelicalism have misunderstood the Scriptures, have misunderstood Paul, have used the Scriptures for their own purposes. And what is the diagnosis: evangelicalism is acting more like they are the people of the devil rather than the people of God.

But as I said, my enemy is not other people; you are not my enemies evangelicals. In fact, there is still much I can say that I share with you, even if there is much I must say no to. Rather my enemies are the deeper, more pervasive powers that bind people. I beg you, leave this behind because you do not realize what is happening.

Allow me to demonstrate: do you not see that as the serpent deceived and ultimately harmed Eve, many of you have deceived women? Many seek to keep them under the curse of being ruled by the male all the while many of them have cried out to the sexual exploitation and abuse they have undergone including in the churches. You might think yourself “Yeah. It is unfortunate. But it happens everywhere.” Indeed! You would be absolutely correct. How wise you are! So, doesn’t that mean the church is acting more like the rest of society; does that not mean you exemplify the deeds of the devil? It is for this reason that the Son of God was revealed to the world: to destroy the devil’s works. If you truly desire God’s will, such abuse would break your heart. And yet, you celebrate a man as your hero who has been accused of such abuse towards women. Lying about a sexual affair was worthy of your contempt, but sexual abuse doesn’t faze you?

Allow me to demonstrate yet again: do you not see that as the devil tempted Jesus to take power for himself, many of you have tempted the Body of Christ to the same? And as the devil offered to give the kingdoms of the world, have you not tempted the Body of Christ to take the nation back? As you use the Scriptures to honor your political hero, as you have repeatedly sought people to win back the nation so that they will inaugurate a vision of American society in accordance to the words of the Scripture, are you not doing the very same thing the devil did?

Do you see it now? The very Scriptures paint a picture of the devil that looks curiously like what I see.

So, I say this in our break up: It’s not me, it’s you. No doubt, like a jilted lover, you will try to convince yourself that I am really the problem, that I am really the faithless one. You might think I am like any of your former, now ‘exvangelical‘ lovers who jilted you, that there must have been another lover the whole time who turned them against you. But that isn’t it. It is just that you weren’t who I thought you were. I was in love with someone that you really weren’t. I thought as your words matched the feelings of my heart, we were one. While you had me and all the others who later left you, you cheated on us with someone who never cared for you but seduced you as you seduced us. But my heart and faith remains the same, but it is you that I can no longer trust.  Your words have masked what is really there, and I would much rather go find someone who I can genuinely love. So really, it’s not me, it’s you.

You can mail my stuff to my address: Wesleyan orthodoxy. I know that some of you have never trekked to that part of town. I know others who have never been there though you might think you have been. And that there are some who have been there, but you just haven’t realized it. But there are plenty of us who would be glad to point you out in the right direction and remind you where it is if you decide to break your current love-obsession off and try to be friends. I just hope that happens before you get really hurt.

Owen

Paul and natural theology

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January 6, 2019

The most famous theological controversy of the 20th century I affectionately called the episode of ontological rage. Emil Brunner makes a well-known attempt to try to incorporate a sense of natural theology for Christian theology through making a differentiation of the material and formal aspects of God’s image in human persons. Karl Barth’s even louder “Nein!” was the theological shot heard around theological world, having nothing to do with this sort of business. While the writings of the two delve into other focuses such as the right way to understand John Calvin, the discussion hinged on a matter of ontology: is the image of God entirely defaced and thus incapable of understanding God or is there still something within the person that can give them a point of contact?

It is my contention the Apostle Paul had a similar split with his Jewish contemporaries from a reading of Romans, where he shifts the focus from natural theology as mentioned in Romans 1-2 to Jesus Christ and the Spirit in the rest of the letter.

Now, at first blush, this doesn’t seem like a novel proposition. Douglas Campbell in his tome The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul makes a case for a reading of Romans where Paul presents the views of his opposition that he responds to with a different position; Romans 1.20 falls under the views of the oppositional teacher that Paul encodes into Romans. In this case, Paul isn’t portrayed as accepting any natural theology but, by implication, is decisively rejecting it.

The strength of Campbell’s reading is that his close reading of Romans has allowed him to pick up the subtle differences in the argumentation that Paul has in different parts of Romans. However, I would contend the greatest weakness in Campbell’s argument is how he relates these two different theological patterns as pertain to two different people with conflicting views. Campbell has set up Romans as essentially a polemical text where the views of antithetical. In other words, Campbell has set up his reading of Romans as if there are two, mutually exclusive views that are expressed. Such way of framing a contention can be apropos when one is dealing with paradigmatic, systematic, and propositional thinking of a more formal logic: mutual exclusivity is profligate in such a discursive and argumentative context. 1 However, I would suggest the way Paul opens and closes the first major section of Romans, 1.18-32 and 8.31-39, suggests that Paul is not engaging in such systematic thinking but that he is engaging in more narratival thinking.

Jerome Bruner succinctly describes the difference between narratival and paradigmatic thinking as “arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.”2 Whereas paradigmatic discourse “is regulated by requirements of consistency and noncontradiction,” the narrative imagination expresses itself in believable accounts but is not concerned about analytic conceptions of ‘truth.’3 This is not to declare that narrative cannot or do not express truth; it only to suggest that because it does not take the expression of truth as its central task, narrative thinking is more amenable to ambiguity, fuzziness, etc. such that one narrative will be considered mutually exclusive with another narrative. However, one narrative may still end up being much more reliable than another narrative, or to put colloquially, one narrative may be truer than the other.

So, rather than portraying the two different argumentative patterns in Romans in the form of two conflicting teachers and as such being mutually exclusive, I would suggest that Romans 1-8 is an attempt for Paul to direct his audience away from one narrative about human sin and God’s judgment to a more significant narrative about God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. It isn’t that Paul rejects the narrative on Romans 1.18-32 as false; rather, it is not the most important narrative. Instead, Paul takes the beliefs that that narrative represents and then argues in such a way that directs the audience to the alternative narrative of God’s faithfulness.

AS many scholars have observed including even Campbell, there are multiple similarities between Paul’s discourse in Romans 1.18-32 and the Wisdom of Solomon. For the sake of brevity, I won’t rehash this here, but only to suggest that Paul seems to show knowledge of either the WoS or a stream of thought that share many similarities with WoS. What is pertinent to highlight a particular constellation of the themes of Gentiles, νομός, and judgement shared between WoS 6 and Romans 2.

Wisdom of Solomon 6.1-5Romans 2.14-16
Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule over multitudes, and boast of many nations. For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and inquire into your plans. Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly, or keep the law, or walk according to the purpose of God, he will come upon you terribly and swiftly, because severe judgment falls on those in high places.4When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.5

Before analyzing these two passages in light of each other, it is important to note the role the Roman Empire played in both passages. Wisdom of Solomon provides a rebuke against what ultimately amounts to the Roman Empire, who “rule over multitudes” and “boast of many nations.” Meanwhile, Paul does not explicitly mention rulers in this passage. However, he does later in Romans 13 where he suggests the Roman authorities have authority because it has been given to them by God just as the WoS does. Furthermore, Paul even then goes on to use the metaphor of empire and warfare to describe the controlling power of sin and death, as in Romans 5 and 7.

It is also relevant to mention 1.18-32 may be expressing something that could be construed as very veiled swiped at Nero and the imperial court. As Paul’s address of homosexuality in Romans 1.26-27 may have knowledge of Emperor Nero’s homosexual activity in the background, and thus 1.18-32 may be a very veiled swipe of Nero and the imperial court. Furthermore, as Nero was trained under the tutelage of the Stoic Seneca who thought God was known through the observation of the created world, it would be plausible for Nero to have spoken about God through this form of natural theology. If these resemblance warrant this connection, we might also understand the very ambiguous statement of “God gave the up to the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves” as a very veiled reference to rumors of incest between Nero and his mother Agrippina.

However, even if Romans 1.18-32 is not in reference to the Roman emperor, clearly, Paul has the notion of empire in the back of his mind throughout the letter. Thus, this makes the contrast between WoS and his statement very significant. Whereas WoS speaks only of judgment, Paul does not specifically express what outcome there will be, but that people could be accused or excused by their thoughts in the day of judgment. Thus, whereas the WoS expresses a very stark, judgmental, Paul ends us expressing a more open-ended view of judgment. If Paul is consciously alluding to the WoS or a similar stream of thought in Romans, then he is now turning the sails from the certain judgment that concludes at the end of chapter 1 to a more open-ended possibility in chapter 2. If this analysis is correct, Paul is neither embracing a wholesale rejection nor acceptance of the Romans 1.18-32 narrative, but is providing a more complete story that allows the possibility of condemnation and exoneration at the end.6

What is held in common by both of these narratives beyond judgment, however, is the criteria of judgment: law/νόμος. While WoS 6 does not use νόμος to refer to the Torah, this “law” and Torah would have a common source. Whereas the rulers are directed to learn this “law” through attentiveness and to wisdom (WoS 6.9-11), Torah was considered by many Jews to be an expression of God’s Wisdom. Therefore, to learn wisdom about the world is to be educated about the things that the Torah also instructs Jews about. Since this wisdom is in part acquired through observations in nature (WoS 7.15-22), the WoS expresses a natural theology that would be a source of similarity between God’s wisdom as disclosed in Torah and human observation of wisdom from creation.

There is a similar view in Paul. The Gentile can be judged by νόμος, which clearly is in reference to Torah here, even though they do not have the Torah. Notice that Paul refers to the Gentiles doing the law with/by φύσις (Rom. 2.14), which is the same word used when referring to heterosexual activity in Rom. 1.26. While the NRSV and other translations render this as an adverbial dative and translate it as “instinctively” or “by nature” and treat this as a term describing a person’s character or behavior, the role of φύσις is wisdom, both Stoic wisdom and the wisdom prescribed by the Wisdom of Solomon7 suggests Paul may be describing the instrument by which one does the law: observations from nature as was mentioned in 1.19-20. Thus, it may be better to render this into English as “does the Torah by natural knowledge.” In this case, Paul is similarly expressing a view of a Gentile νόμος based upon natural wisdom and theology.

But here is where things get interesting: whereas this law/wisdom is how God will judge people in Wisdom of Solomon, Paul does not take this route. Instead, Paul suggests this law will be a source of a person’s own self-judgment: they will evaluate their own actions in accordance to this law. This is significant. God is not judging people based upon law and wisdom. Rather, Jesus Christ is going to bring out the secret thoughts of people’s hearts, as if to state that Jesus is more a facilitator of this judgment by bringing to light the knowledge of what is right that everybody had.

Therefore, what we are seeing here is that Paul is created a gap between Jesus and Torah. Because the judgment by Torah, and also wisdom, expressed the thoughts of the people that they had internalized, it is not a direct expression of God’s righteous character. Rather, it is Jesus in His death who demonstrates God’s righteousness (Rom. 3.21-26), not wisdom and Torah. This judgment scene in light of Paul’s larger discourse paints a picture of a gap between God’s righteousness revealed in Christ and knowledge of wisdom and Torah

However, this gap is more than simply an epistemic gap as my usage of the language of revelation and knowledge might. While this gap would also be epistemic of nature, it is also motivational gap: neither natural knowledge of God nor the Torah ensured obedience to God. In fact Paul portrays both as having a role in the increasing of sin.9

At stake for Paul is this: this gap is filled God’s justifying act. God’s justification is God’s proleptic word in crucified and risen Christ to form people into the pattern of Jesus Christ through access to the Holy Spirit; it speaks forth the future reality of the people to have a righteous character before it has come to pass temporally. Hence God can justify the ungodly, putting the person on a different trajectory.

If this gap between God and Torah and nature is filled by Christ, what then of Torah and natural theology? Paul takes pains to make clear throughout that he is not rejecting the Torah.10 If the previous similarities between Torah and natural wisdom hold up here, then Paul would think equivalently about natural theology. Paul isn’t proclaiming an outright rejection of natural theology like Barth does. Whereas the instructions about righteousness is made effective in Christ through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8.3-4), so too will God redeems the whole creation. (Romans 8.19-23) It is warranted to suggest then that in Christ, God redeems natural theology rather than discards it. However, one must have a hope set on the unseen (Romans 8.24-25) so that what the Christian understanding is not reducible to observations of nature. Instead, Christian thinking can embraced a redeemed natural theology, where nature is imagined in relationship to the redemptive activity of God in Jesus Christ.

This view doesn’t treat revelation and natural theology as two mutually exclusive sources ala Barth. Rather, as the narrative of 8.31-39 gives epistemic priority of God’s action in Jesus Christ over the painful human experience in creation, Paul implies that there is a priority in God’s disclosure of Himself in Jesus. The problem is that the κόσμος has been corrupted by sin and death11 so that not everything that is experienced and observed in creation is representative of God’s will and purposes. This does not abandon natural theology, but rather provides into question how reliable natural theology is on its own terms: if it both expresses God’s power and divinity while also ‘expressing’ the powers of sin and death, how can one reliably differentiate from nature what is of God and what is not?

The answer: the life, death, and resurrection Christ provides the hermenutical key by which an understanding can be made sense of; people come to understand this through living by the Spirit and putting the deaths the deeds of the flesh so that their lives increasingly become an expression God’s righteousness. Because in Christ and through the Spirit, one’s life and heart reflect God, one has the capacity to then reliably differentiate what of nature is of God and what is not.

Thus, if my presentation is correct, one partial strand of Paul’s argumentive progression from Romans 1-8 is to provide a different perspective of the relationship of the believer’s knowledge in relation to creation. It is tertiary to his primary point of establishing God’s redemption in Jesus Christ and the Spirit and the second premise that the Torah is good but does not ensure faithfulness, but I would suggest it his natural theology lurks in the background.

This contrasts with the Barth-Brunner debate. On the one hand, it sides with Brunner to the extent that one can allow for natural theology. However, natural theology on its own sake does not deliver anything that is necessary for God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. However, Brunner attempts to ground theology in a metaphysics of God’s image and an artificial distinction between the formal and material aspects goes in the wrong direction. Not only is such a definition artificial, it overlooks the role that Paul assigns to cosmology as it pertains to sin and death in Romans. For Paul, the gap between God and nature isn’t found in how the image of God was defaced, but the way creation itself was negatively transformed by human sin.

Being inextricably a part of creation that both reflects God’s wisdom and the enslaving powers of death and sin, even if our minds may glimpse some true knowledge about God through nature our hearts are being tugged away by nature. Only redemption in Christ can allow natural theology to a) reliably proceed in the epistemic task while also b) effectively directing people towards God’s purposes in the new creation. This I would suggest is more faithful to Paul’s view of natural theology, that doesn’t demand a mutual exclusivity of the epistemic sources of revelation and nature, but rather grounds the epistemic effectiveness and reliability of using natural knowledge to understand God only insofar as the redemption of Jesus Christ has been actualized in people through walking by the Spirit.

Faith and fantasy are not the same thing

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January 4, 2019

America’s most popular preacher is a man commonly derided by Christians for being a charlatan, Joel Osteen. Most of the people in the circles I run in think he is a shallow propogater of the prosperity gospel, but one of the biggest circles I operate in is a social network of those educated at seminaries and theological institutions. Outside of these circles, he is much more popular. It is not an uncommon happenstance that I will walk into a Barnes & Noble to indulge my addiction to books that I will happen upon one of Osteen’s books prominently displayed.

What stands at the center of Osteen’s charisma and influence? Titles such as The Power of I AmYour Best Life NowEveryday a Friday, and You Can You Will provide insight into the influence of Osteen’s preaching. Each title contains a condensed narrative that evokes the imagination: personal empowerment and changed life circumstances. Just the titles alone convey micro-narratives that stirs the imagination that seeks for something different and better.

Consider the fact that Osteen’s primary audience tends to be people with less control over their life and less influence due to less wealth and less education, they often live in powerless circumstances. Living in such conditions, there is something within impoverished and powerless people that desires, seeks, and longs for life to take a different course. Osteen’s titles, books, sermons, etc. reaches into and appeals to the wounded core of these people and gives them a reason to hope, to dream, to imagine life afresh and anew.

Nevertheless, understanding the way Osteen does genuinely touch people and my belief that Osteen is sincere, I recognize that his way of reaching down to people in his charismatic manner also leaves many of them trapped in a world of fantasy. By legitimating his message through appeals to Scripture that treat the Bible as if they are to be read as a list of promises to be mined for personal posterity, people who hear his words feel this sense of rightness to Osteen’s messages that inaugurate into a world that does more to comfort than to change, that does more to help people cope with their lives rather than transform their lives. At the core of the power of Osteen and many other similar preachers is coping through fantasy.

It is here, however, that I want to distinguish my usage of the terms imagination and fantasy. By imagination, I am referring to the capacity of the human mind to think up possibilities that are not bound to actual sensation. For instance, I can imagine a horse in my mind without actually seeing a horse. In fact, seeing the word “horse” activates my imagination. On the other hand, fantasy refers to the belief in a world that can not be taken as credible to exist. Strictly speaking, I don’t mean fantasy to mean false but rather closer to unverified; however because unverified believes are routinely unreliable, it will often lead to believing something that is false.

Thus, imagination is a necessary ingredient for fantasy to emerge. By being disconnected from perception, the conditions are possible for imagination to lead to fantasy. Fantasy as unverified beliefs general entail being disconnected from sensation. However, not all imagination is fantasy as there may be other ways to verify the reliability of what I am imagining without direct, sensory perception. For instance, when I am doing historical study, I don’t have direct perception of the events in question but through the practice of multiple attestation in various primary sources, I can attempt to verify a historical belief. To believe that Jesus exist and even that He was raised from the dead engages my imagination, but through historical study I can verify it such that it isn’t fantasy. Verification does not ensure the truth of the proposition I hold to be true, however, but that it gives me good grounds to believe as I do, albeit defeasible if genuinely relevant information comes to light. So, I imagine through the reading of the Scriptures that Jesus was raised from the dead and I verify it through historical study, but I am still left with something I imagine and have no direct, sensory acquaintance with.

Why this distinction between imagination and fantasy? Firstly, I want to highlight the difference to show that what makes us engage in fantasy isn’t simply someone who evokes imagination such as a gifted speaker, but imagination turns to fantasy when we ourselves cease to engage in the process of verifying what has been brought to our minds and hearts. Put in different terms, we are seduced because we play the part in our seduction because of our own feelings of desperation. The relationship between Osteen and his audience is a two-way relationship, where Osteen provides a story they deeply long to hear and people believe it because it comes from a figure they consider having authority.

At the core of moving from imagination to fantasy is treat our imaginations true based upon narratives that 1) have legitimacy based upon a) a seeming plausibility of the narrative and/or b) the appearance of credibility of the messenger and 2) are emotionally satisfying to our desires and emotions. When we are seeking to cope with life’s difficulties, it is easy for us to accept narratives that present a nice resolution for us and only rely upon very superficial premises to think the story is true. The charisma of the speaker, including the appearance of confidence, and a narrative that simply seems possible are all that is needed to transformation narrative imagination into our fantasy, because the narrative that delivers emotional satisfaction needs only a deficient degree of verification, if even that.

Typically, in these circumstances, we would place the blame on the teachers, like Osteen, labeling them as charlatans. But, in a democratic and capitalist world, the balance of power between leader and the people is often decidedly shifted towards the people; their own wants and dreams are considered a moral necessity to address, otherwise you will be deemed irrelevant, callous, etc. and given no voice. While there are charlatans who are good as using imagination turned fantasy to manipulate the masses, more often than not, leaders are entrapped by the necessity of being ’empathetic,’ where they must deeply care across the board. But the reality is that so much of life and the deprivations we feel have no easy solutions or answers. Particularly as pastors, we can feel emotionally compelled to offer hope by using the idea of God and faith to present a hopeful narrative, lest we lose our relevance and influence. What happens here is that faith is turned into fantasy.

Now, faith, or trust, itself is itself a form of imagination. For instance, when a person trusts their spouse is faithful, they do not have the capacity to see how the spouse as acted every moment since they have been married, nor can they see the future. To trust one’s spouse is to imagine something to be true that is not immediately connected to anything they have seen or heard. Or, when we trust a physician we are seeing for the firs time, we will have no observational proof that they are competent and well-manner; we imagine a way things are. Used in reference to God in Scripture, it entails a trust that the God who has been at powerfully and lovingly at work will continue to be so. That isn’t based upon perception, as the Apostle PAul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5.7)

Since both faith and fantasy are forms of imagination, it is easy for the boundaries between the two to get blurred, that religious faith gets used to facilitate fantasy. But there is an important distinction between the two. Faith pertains to our relationship to and expectations of another, but faith does not entail a specific epistemic framework.

In other words, different forms of faith will have different ways of legitimating what one trusts in. Blind faith operates in the face of contrary evidence, such as a person who believes their spouse is faithful even when all the evidence suggests the opposite. Then there is a form of an assumed trust where people believe something to be true, even though they have no real to verify it or doubt it. But, then there is a testable faith, where trust has been shown to be verified, which is to be distinguished by a lack of trust.1 All these three examples suggest that there is no single epistemic manner for trusting.

Consequently, when faith moves to forms of faith that are blind or assumed for the sake of coping with struggles, faith becomes a form of fantasy, where no verification is needed for what one believes to be true and may even be immune to falsification.

However, when faith is a tested faith, one begins to discern the cognitive chaff from the cognitive wheat, between what is unreliable and what is trustworthy. This is a form of faith that avoids fantasy. However, because it is a type of faith that is amenable to verification and even falsification, it can experiences shifts or even become extinguished depending upon how flexible people are, their degrees of patience, and how willing they are to adapt the content of their faith to what occurs. Because this type of faith can blur into the margins of unbelief at time, blind and assumed faith looks on the surface more sure, more resilient, and thus more legitimate. But it is only a tested faith that has endured the fires of trials but has come out verified that can reliably avoid falling into fantasy.

Furthermore, there is a dark side of fantasy: people who live in fantasy typically engage in aggression and avoidance to maintain their sense of fantasy. Any news that would call their fantasies into question is a pretext for fighting or avoiding the “evildoers who would destroy them,” although these are often people who are simply telling them the truth and puncturing holes through their fantasy.

I provide two examples of how faith has turned into this form of fantasy to a toxic degree.

Firstly, in the United Methodist Church, we are dealing with a struggle of division over sharply opposed understandings about sex most prominently but also theology and faithfulness to God. As it is, even though its numbers are dwindling in the United States, the UMC is an institution with many resources and a degree of respectability and influence in some circles. Furthermore, many people across the ethical and theological divide have formed cooperative and friendship bonds with each other. Thus, there are many reasons to desire to keep things together as they are; there are many vested interests from the bishops to the clergy, and even the laity. However, this has lead to rising tensions and hostility in the denomination over the decades that have compelled many people of the evangelical persuasion to say, effectively, “We need to get our act together or we are gone.” On the other side, there is a growing discontent that the church has not been deemed sufficiently inclusive. Two opposing forces with growing emotional intensity have been in direct and indirect conflict with each other for decades.

In the midst of this potential divide of the denomination, there are many who keep on trying to hold on to hope that the denomination will stay together without any sort of exodus. You will see people who continue to hold on to ‘hope’ that some unity will be salvaged, while being hostile to anyone they deemed to be agents of division, most particuarly evangelicals. This despite the fact that the hostility has only grown, not abated, over the decades. But there is sense that God will faithfully preserve the denomination as it is, but God hasn’t answered this prayer in the decades either. While some of the stories of God’s faithfulness can take decades to come to fruition, such as a promise of descendants Abraham, when Abraham tried to take ahold of the promise himself through his own action by having a child through Hagar, he wasn’t trusting God but himself. Similarly, when people continue to invoke God for the purposes of keeping the denomination together through all these years of rising anger and division, their faith in God has formed into a fantasy that is distant from the realities on the ground, the lack of a clear provision and direction from God, and overlooks the role their own power has had in controlling the circumstances. The unity of the United Methodist Church is a fantasy that has power behind it to keep it working just as it is, but the power that is accomplishing it right now is not God’s power but a social, institutional form of power that using God to legitimate itself.

This isn’t to say the denomination is over with and there is no hope at all for the future. But people will not be open to what God is actually doing and leading until they let go of their fantasy.

However, there is a second way that faith turning into fantasy is causing problems of churches: it pertains to the rising scandal of sexual abuse in churches. For over a century, traditional churches associated with orthodoxy have had a penchant for resisting many of the intellectual and scientific developments of the modern age. Consequently, a fundamentalist spirit has developed that in the face of huge challenges to the way it is understood that God works (as in the creation-evolution debate) and the way to interpret the Scriptures (as in the conflict with higher Biblical criticism) that began to turn a blind eye to anything that would create substantial change. This fundamentalist spirit wasn’t simply an attitude of critical appropriate and engagement with modern science and intellectual culture, but it propogated a view of faith that made it resistant to any sort of challenges. Traditional Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have been tempted through the years to abide by this fundamentalist spirit, pushing them to have a form of faith that is more blind. As a consequence, conservative forms of Christianity in seeking to maintain orthodoxy have often been tempted to abide by this fundamentalist spirit to protect orthodoxy from challenges.

Then, the sexual liberation occurred in the 1960s. The response of conservative Christianity was to try to control this rising tide of sexual power through more rules and regulations. Rather than engaging critically with the science that stands behind sexual experiences to understand how sex works, there was this semi-institutionalized fantasy throughout the leadership that if you simply trying to create more rules and regulations that are legitimate by Scriptural texts referring to sexuality, the church will be able to maintain its sexual praxis as is along with its orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the sexual problems were considered to mainly exist outside the church amongst those others who have forgotten God; sure, occasionally bad things happen in churches because the churches are made of sinners, but it was never really of a terrible sort.

Conservative and traditional forms of Christianity had been influenced by the blinder versions of faith that fundamentalists essentially espoused, allowing them to maintain religious fantasy about the nature of the church. But as scandals in the news and twitter have brought to the forefront, this is far from the case. Sexual abuse has been a very real part of the church. It hasn’t necessarily been worse across the board than it has been in other types of organizations and institutions. However, whereas most business and institutions that were accountable had to take some measures to address these problems, the persistent lack of accountability of churches allowed those seduced by the thinking of fundamentalism’s faith-turned-fantasy to become blind to the problems and thus dramatically slower to address this injustice and abuse, if not outright resistant. It is certainly no coincidence that the most egregious offenders that we know of in the new of are the traditional Catholic Church and the fundamentalist Independent Baptist churches.2

All this is to say, Osteen isn’t the only propogater of fantasy amidst Christian circles. We can all readily turn our faith into a form of fantasy, and it can often times have deleterious results. Perhaps it results from leader marshalling the power of imagination, perhaps it is because the people of the church think the truth looks like a fantasy. However, it is only when we are willing to risk our faith to be challenged and formed can we hope to escape the comfortable confines of fantasy as God moves us into a mature faith.

A Word for a New Year: Integrity

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January 2, 2019

Integrity. It is a word that speaks to us a character of a person, someone who does what is right even when all the pressures seem to be to push to do something else. Someone who is honest even when there is much to be gained by dishonesty. If you were to imagine a person of integrity, you would think them as someone you can rely on and trust, someone who will have your back.

However, this picture can be a bit misleading meaning: a person of integrity will be a person who will generally found to be honest, but honesty or trustworthiness themselves do not make a person have integrity. An abusive person may be honest about their thoughts, but they are still an abuser as their distorted accusations cause great harm. You may be able to trust someone because you share common goals, but if their goals were to shift, so would their allegiance. One’s trust is conditioned to the potential outcomes.

Rather, we can see that integrity is more about who someone is rather than simply what they do. A person of integrity is honest in the right way and trustworthy for the right reasons. Integrity exists at a deeper level of a person’s character that determines more than what people do, but how and when they do it. A person of integrity does not readily speak their mind to a person on the emotional edge, but rather speaks judiciously and cautiously so that everything is true but everything is not needlessly revealed; meanwhile they may then excoriate those in power who use it to harm another. A person of integrity is someone who you can trust because they will not waver based upon personal benefit, but they may shift course if they realize there is great harm that will be done by following the present direction. Thus, a person of integrity will speak truth judiciously, which may make them seem like they are masking at times and hostile at others, and may change their course of action, which may make them seem fickle on the surface. Why? Because the difference between people of integrity and those who lack it isn’t in the opinions of other people who only look at the surface, but in the deeper rationale that motivates and directs their actions.

Consequently, people of integrity may be seen as lacking integrity by the people who seek to control them for their own purposes if the motives of the powerful lack integrity themselves. People of true integrity adapt to the circumstances on the ground and do not allow themselves to be puppets for others. If they find deception or faithlessness lurking behind what they honestly committed themselves to faithfully attend to, they will shift course due to their integrity. Thus, to be an integral person may mean being seen as one who lack integrity. This is why a faithful God will be found loyal to the loyal, blameless to the blameless, and pure to the pure, and yet be seen as shrewd to crooked people (Psalm 18.5-26).

Thus, integrity is less about public reputation derived from the perception of a person’s actions but is a more personal, inner characteristic. Consequently, integrity is not manufactured by doing the things people of integrity do; trying to obtain integrity by mimicking behaviors will leave you only playing the puppet to other people’s perceptions. Trying to be a person of integrity by trying to satisfy other people’s expectations will leave you a jumbled mess, as what is considered right and good by one person may be considered wrong by another. In the midst of the conflicting messages one will pick up from others about what it means to be good, one will selectively choose the messages that most appeal to one’s own inner desires. If not careful, this pathway of pursuing integrity may form you into a ‘moral’ narcissist, whose actions are determined by the deemed praiseworthiness they will receive.

The true pathway to integrity is different. This pathway is hinted at by the deeper meaning behind the world: the word integrity conveys a sense of wholeness, of being complete. There is a deeper degree of inner consistency that doesn’t rest on the surface level of behavior.

But all these words of wholeness, completeness, and consistency are to some degrees analogies and metaphors to the personal traits that allow a person to be a person of integrity. Consequently, it is easy to project onto these terms personally or cultured favored definitions.

One such definition of wholeness is emotional wholeness, where we feel like our life is all brought together; this is often associated with therapeutic healing and integration. But, insofar as unfairness and injustice exist in the world and people of integrity face hurt for changing in the face of the awareness of such, people of integrity will not have complete emotional wholeness. Their hearts will be tugged and pulled at from various directions. If all is truly well, the person of integrity will grow to heal and be truly well; in fact, I would suggest a person of integrity heals as they live in a healing environment in a way that people who lack integrity would not. But if not all is well, neither will the person of integrity be so. To be emotionally ‘whole’ will entail sacrificing being faithful to the truth as it is found to be so that we are not alarmed, taken aback, bruised, etc. This is not to say that therapeutic healing and integration has no place the life of a person of integrity, but only to state that becoming a person of integrity is not found in therapeutic healing.

Another definition may be connected with a sense of cognitive consistency. It might be imagined a person of integrity believes what they believe and does change or deviate from it. This seems sensible on the surface, except life is incredibly complex, people are diverse, and circumstances are constantly changing. To always be consistent at a cognitive level will be to sacrifice the truth of what is to maintain the cognitive status-quo: it is to resolve cognitive dissonance by dismissing and minimizing what is perceived in favor of what we imagine and wish to be true. Now, there are many aspects of reality that do not deviate; in which case, a person of integrity will be cognitively consistent about what is unchanging, whereas a person without integrity might vacillate regarding that as it suits their personal interests. Thus, a person of integrity retains cognitive consistency about which is consistently true, but will also be cognitively adaptive and flexible to that which is consistently changing.

A third definition of these cluster of words might be connected to what motivates a person’s behavior so that their behavior will always be consistent. But as mentioned earlier and for similar reasons as to cognitive consistency, people of integrity will not always act the same way on the surface. Take their response to deception: a person of integrity will not treat the deception of the powerless person who has been threatened on the same level as the deception of the powerful person who has been threatening. Consider God’s response to bless the powerless Hebrew midwives who lied to Pharaoh to protect infants (Exodus 1.15-22) in contrast to the exile God allow the privileged Moses to face when he tried to cover up a murder (Exodus 2.11-15). People of integrity may honor one person who lied while punishing the other liar. Or, consider Jesus, who extended a verbal welcome to paradise to one criminal on cross who despite his sentence was able to see the injustice Jesus went through but not to the other criminal who chose to mock Jesus. (Luke 23.39-43) Meanwhile, people seeking to appear consistent to others, who often ignorant of context, will treat each type of action with equal strictness and severity, unless it somehow suits their own interests. Thus, motivating the person of integrity is an extension of mercy where it should be offered and can be received, thereby entailing behavior that might look inconsistent on the surface.

Thus, while integrity is connected to the inner nature of a person, it is not to be found in emotional, cognitive, or behavioral motivations, even if people of integrity will have a different emotional, cognitive, and motivational life than other people will. But if the pathway to integrity isn’t through emotional wholeness, cognitive stability, or behavioral consistency, how then one does become a person of integrity?

The pathway can be boiled down to one basic idea that permeates the Scriptures through words and progress such as “deny yourself and take up the cross” (Matthew 16.24) and “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” (Romans 12.1)

What distinguishes the person of integrity from a different person is the relationship of personal desire. Our desires, our goals, our dreams, our ambitions present a powerful force that determines how we make sense of life and the world. We are constantly evaluating people, objects, circumstances, etc. in terms of how they align and cohere with our present direction and focus. Our desire determines what emotions we experience based upon our desires being matched or not; our desire determines the shape our beliefs about the world take, determining from what perspective we evaluate life from; our desires form the basis for our behavioral motivations, direct the ways we seek to attain our desires.

IF this sounds egocentric, it is. And here is a further bit of information about this: there is no turning this psychological reality off; if you are alive and conscious, you are evaluating everything in your life in terms of how they match your desires and purposes of the moment. Everything you seek is something you yourself personally value. There is no escaping the reality of egocentricity.

What can differ, however, is what specific desires and purposes you allow to give voice in your own heart. Firstly, we can choose between one goal and another, between one desire and another. For instance, when faced with a person who is helpless, I can choose to respond out of an inner desire to show compassion rather than an inner desire to establish my dominance over them. Or, secondly, we can choose to find vicarious joy in another and becoming other-seeking rather than simply seeking to find joy in one’s own life circumstances, being self-seeking. Our own desires are not inherently connected to our own, most immediate and personal experiences. In addition, thirdly, we can choose to let go of personal well-being in the short run for the sake of long run benefits. Differing values, distance from personal experience, and discount yourself in the short run for the sake of the long run all allow us to life in our egocentricity while not being dominated by it.

Consequently, it is the way we deny ourselves by shifting the values that direct our actions, by reducing the importance our own immediate experience has in comparison to other people’s experience, by discounting the immediate present for the sake of the long run that makes the difference for people of true integrity. We can distance ourselves from the most physiologically relevant values and goals of the present moment. Once we learn this, which we can call self-regulation, we begin to internalize a way of seeing life and the world that is not controlled by our strongest desires and our most salient perceptions. As a consequence, we can begin to approach seeing ourselves in the same way that we see others, and as people of integrity, adjust our own behaviors in accordance to the standards and expectations we would hold others to; our own self-perception is not enslaved to the lusts of eye and the heart, causing us to construe everything in a more positive light for ourselves rather than others. It can lead us to recognize even when our integrity was not perfect, where we did something we find to be deeply inconsistent with who we are, and coming to a place of repentance.

However, here is a painful lesson in the midst of this: integrity will never be learned so far as doing what a person of integrity does benefits oneself. For instance, if by valuing compassion over dominance you attain status, then you may not have let dominance go but may be instrumentalizing compassion for the end goal of dominance. If by taking joy in the life of another you immediately receive benefits from that person, you haven’t truly extricated yourself from the other. If by seeking the best in the long run you also routinely receive immediate short-term benefits, you haven’t learned to let the immediate moment go.

Integrity, true integrity can only be learned when one not only denies themselves but endures the cross amidst their self denial so that there is no “having your cake and eating it too.” Only in denying yourself as you endure the cross can you learn to be a person of integrity even when you are seen to be the opposite. Hence, it is why after mentioning the blessed status of peacemakers, Jesus then mentions the blessed status of being persecuted (Matthew 5.9-10); only in persecution will a peacemaker truly discover their place in God’s kingdom, to be agents of salt and light for God’s heavenly descending kingdom and purposes rather than a seeking a kingdom of their own.

I mention this is a word for this new year, and for a reason. We are faced with a social crisis in the life of Western society. Numerous stories of sexual abuse have repeatedly come out since 2017. While it is hard to reductively describe all the causes to one singular factor, it largely stems from the cultural revolution of the 60s that unlocked the Pandora’s box of human sex. And this was a whirlwind of universal devastation, like EF-5 tornado, blasting everything within its zone of influence, impacting even the churches that were reputed to stand against it. If the various twitter hashtags are any indication, sexual harassment and abuse is cultural pandemic, being transmitted to church congregations and leadership.

However, many of the churches themselves have not responded effectively to it. There has been a slow recognition that the way sex was taught to youths in churches in response to the cultural whirlwind did not address the deeper problems, but only tried to maintain behavioral conformity to the ‘pristine’ sexuality of “family values.” In the name of maintaining the pristine reputations of churches and religious organizations as being sexually pure, many of these stories of sexual abuse would be swept under the rug and/or denied as happening. Then, as churches failed alongside the rest of the nation to take seriously the increasing amount of inappropriate and even predatory sexual behaviors, there was a concomitant naivete overlooking one of the best places to hide these behaviors is as one who was reputed to be against them while being free from accountability due to one’s reputed status. Meanwhile, maintaining a patriarchal bias towards men in the church left many female victims statusless to break through the gender stereotypes that protected men and dismissed women. The truth of the matter is, the predominantly evangelical culture of our churches did reinforce many of the problems rather than address them.

Here is why integrity is important in this. Firstly, a person of integrity is a person who retains a respect for other people as sexual creatures. While people of integrity are not necessarily perfect, crossed boundaries are relatively minor and are repented of.

However, the importance of integrity extends beyond just not personally contributing to the problems. The Church needs more than people who will do no sexual harm, but people who also do good as it comes to the harm that has been done. Integrity is essential and necessary to address the throngs of pain and trauma that has been committed under the umbrella of the church, along with respond with the deep anger that is thrown against churches as a consequence. It will take people of integrity who can endure this rising tide of hostility rather than engaged in a defensive dismissal of it out of a desire for self-preservation. If churches in America and the rest of the West are to respond to this social crisis as healing agents that become beacons of light rather covers of darkness, it will take followers of Christ in their integrity wading through the deep pain, seeking to discern how to heal and protect in the future, all the meanwhile not giving in wholesale to the sexual progressivism that uses the realities of abuse as an opportunity to misleadingly treat their cultural values as superior, overlooking the way their brand of sexuality is a large driver of the problem. If there is no integrity that can look at Christian churches without a self-defensive style for self-preservation in the immediate moment, we will only see a battle of culture wars, of embittered people while recognizing the problems in word more so than with our actual deeds. It is through the integrity form by self-denying and bearing our crosses that Christian leaders, ministers, teachers, etc. can wade into the social and sexual chaos and whirlwind that is and be the peacemakers God calls us to be as His children.

So, I offer this word of integrity as a word for this new year. May we who follow Christ grow in our integrity so that we can bring peace and healing where there is pain and mistrust as we courageously face the powers of those who would seek to dominate and dismiss us.

Reflection on Christmas

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December 24, 2018

It has been nearly a year and a half since I gave my last sermon. While I certainly appreciate the time I have taken off from pastoring to pursue further education, I am left at times with a preaching itch that I can’t exactly scratch. So, in lieu of that, here is a reflection I offer based upon what I would probably preach about if I were preaching today or tomorrow:

Matthew 1.18-25 (NRSV):

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

One of my favorite movies is “The Prestige” from 2006. The movie is about two competing magicians in which Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, who originally were part of the same magic show. However, during one magic show, Robert’s wife Julia dies in a tragic drowning accident because Alfred tied her hands in a risky knot, at her request. Robert blames Alfred and Robert bitterness never goes away. Eventually, the two go their separate direct, Robert to success and fame whereas Alfred struggles to get by. However, Alfred has one magic trick that absolutely stuns everyone, as he enters into one door and then a distance way immediately walks out the other door. Robert becomes aware of this trick and in his bitterness, jealously ties to discover the secret of this magic trick. Eventually, he succeeds and performs it to great success to adoring audiences.

I won’t spoil how the movie goes (go see it if you can!), but there are a couple twists along the way as to how the trick works for Alfred and Robert. But what strikes me about this move is that it is one of those movies that has great replayability: you watch it the first time you are in suspense as to the big secret. Then, after completing it the first time, you watch it again and with your knowledge of how it all ends, you begin to catch up on all the hints and signs place along the way to pointed to the ending surprise. Your eyes opened, you see it from a whole new perspective. Not only that, but you begin to appreciate how the events earlier in the movie really do set up for the ending conclusion, as if the true significance of the events that take place won’t be realized until years later in movie time.

This is where we are as Christians, hearing the Christmas story. We know how the story ends, Christmas over the course of over three decades leads to the Cross, so we look back and hear the Gospel stories about Jesus birth and hear them as pregnant with deep meaning and significance. We hear in the words “God with us” not simply a statement of God’s faithfulness and presence, but a radical surprise that God came to us as human person, the Word made flesh. We know this because we know how the story ends, Jesus is raised from the dead and we hear in the words of Thomas “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28), so we can look back on the birth of Jesus and the words spoken over him as having deep significance and meaning; deeper significance than it would have had if you were encountering these events for the first time without knowing where it is all going. We see in the birth narratives, and then in the stories of Jesus ministry, significant themes and events that would have passed up by if it was the very first time to hear this story.

I want to invite you for a moment, however, to put some distance between yourself and your post-Easter knowledge. You don’t know Jesus is God Incarnate; you don’t know that Jesus will die and be raised from the dead. You are draped in a veil of ignorance about what the future holds, and so when you hear stories of angels coming to speak to human people, you can imagine something important is happening but you wouldn’t exactly be sure exactly what it is. A virgin birth would be quite surprising, a sign of the hand of God in this matter, but what to make of this baby and his future? Perhaps a future king, perhaps the one who will restore the throne of King David. But in all of the excitement, who will Jesus grow up to be is not for certain. There is not sign post saying “This is God in the flesh!” There are no angels shouting “By the death and resurrection of Jesus the world will be saved.”

So what happens after the early events surrounding Jesus birth? The Gospel of Luke records a story about pre-teen Jesus trekking out on his own from the oversight of his parents, going to the temple and amazing everyone with his insight and understanding. But other than that, nothing of great significance is recorded about Jesus’ life until he is past the age of 30. All these dramatic events about angels, the Magi, shepherds, and a virgin birth all signaling something marvelous about this young baby and nothing remarkably significant happens for thirty years. Thirty years! Thirty years and nothing has happened resembling the fulfillment of mother Mary’s hopes:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1.46-55)

In fact, the entrance of Jesus didn’t immediately bring blessings to everyone aside from the joy of a family to Mary and Joseph. In fact, it ushered in a widespread massacre of Bethlehemite infants by a jealous and fearful Herod. Rather than dreams being fulfilled, the dreams of many families had been dashed; rather than hope stirring in the air, the fog of despair hovered over Israel, waiting and longing for God to do something, even after God has done something in becoming present as a person.

Now, this might seem depressing on first glance, but there is an important truth here that is hope for the depressed: God’s redemption doesn’t happen in an instant. In a day and age where we look for the technological or medical miracle to immediately fix our problems but are more often than not left disappointed, we have missed the miracles that takes months, years or events decades to fully come to fruition. Missed in the pursuit and desire of the immediate is the miracle of the mundane, where God is working and waiting for the current chapter of time to develop and be ready to set the stage for a new chapter.

Why? Because God is not like some parent who upon seeing a child’s room in disarray, immediately comes in and puts everything in place. He is a God who rather expect others to have their flesh in the game, as if they are a parent who will help their child clean but they expect their child to be a part of the work. This takes time to involve others in this cooperative action. And as Jesus is witnessed by humble shepherds who are right there, the Magi wise men from the east, the awe-inspired onlookers at the pre-teenage Jesus, and then the forerunner John the Baptist, God is setting the table, getting others involved. And yet, just as a child may not be able to clean up all the messes they have made; there may be shelves that they are too short to reach, so too God does something dramatic and powerful that only He was prepared to do, over three decades later. Then, with time and attention, the young child can learn to take clean their room on their own and even do the very things their parent did for them; they may even look back on those times where they cleaned their room and see the significance those early times with their parent had on them: a significance they didn’t understand as a young child, not knowing what they would do themselves. So, we too look back on the significance of the story of Jesus in light of, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story and see the traces of its influence on our own lives.

The story of the birth on Christmas isn’t the story of a miraculous birth. Rather, it is the story of the beginning of a miracle that spans over thirty years, that we can make sense of in retrospect. It is the story of the beginning of a miracle that spans millennia also, that we are still making sense of to this day. It is story of how God is working a miracle amidst the brokenness, despair, and hopelessness. God’s work takes time and we often won’t understand the significance until we take a look back after everything has happened, when the new chapter has written and we can reflect on all that happened in the chapter before.

This miracle that occurs over time is expressed well in the words of our communion liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ risen, Christ will come again.” God’s work of redemption in all our stories and the story of the world is connected by discrete events, all strung together as part of a long-term process that holds them altogether. So too, the significance of the birth of Christ held together and made effect by all that follows.

Institutions, facts, reasons, and the problem of the “purity culture”

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December 23, 2018

Institutions are a part of the fabric of our human cultures. Institutions provide direction and security to our life, making it possible for a larger network of people to be able to coordinate their behaviors in such a way as to minimize confusion and mitigate against harmful behaviors. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, the shape of institutions arise from a “reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors.”1 In other words, as certain behaviors become routine between different persons, these behaviors become classified and become part of the life of an institution. As these behaviors become accepted as a matter of fact and objectively true,2 much as money is automatically treated as useful for exchange even though the paper (or plastic cards) have little intrinsic worth, these become institutional facts as per John Searle.3

The relationship between an institution and institutional facts is not always clear. Sometimes, institutional facts may exist without any formal institution to enforce it, For instance, in stores, it is taken for granted that people line up and are served in the order they arrive: first come, first serve. The main means of enforcement is the idea that other people will be angered by cutting in line and not any recognized authority. This is more than simply a common routine or habit of everyone precisely because any other practices that directly violates the first come, first serve principle. In fact, when governments have tried to reverse the “first come, first serve” principle when it comes to merging traffic, trying to encourage “zipper merging” rather than everyone waiting their turn to get through, many people get angry and resist this sense of unfairness. There is a way that has been done, and it should continue to be done that way. 

There are other times where an institution actively enforces the institutional fact. Much of the time, the institutions educate others as to the accepted practice(s) and the reasons for such. Ethics training offer a way of directing people towards avoiding certain, unethical behaviors and prescribing appropriate ways to engage in one’s business; these training events are often times joined with further explanations as to the importance of one’s ethical conduct. For instances, therapists and counselors are training to minimize contact with their clients after therapy has completed because of the potential problems that can arise when therapist and client attempt to engage in other types of relationships. We might call these institutional reasons. Institutional reasons offer a way of helping people to maintain conformity to the institutional facts.

Sometimes, however, an institution will enforce an institutional fact without offering an institutional reason. Walking through places with high security, such as government buildings, airports, etc., there will be a plethora of doors that are marked “Authorized personnel only.” Delimitation of boundaries represent a clear institutional fact but no attempt to offer an institutional reason is offer. This can occur for two reasons. Firstly, most people intuitively understand the reason for such an institutional fact: for instance, boundaries in an airport represent a way of managing security. Secondly, when people have no particular vested interest in what type of behaviors they engage in, they will be inclined to obey instructions apart from any reason; people in the airport are seeking to travel, so security boundaries do not interfere with people’s personal interests.

It is where institutional facts do seem to interfere with people’s interests where institutional reasons begin to be offered. You may feel inclined to do one thing, but reasons are offered that it is better for you to act differently. Institutional reasons function as regular and/or formal reasons of persuading people in order to maintain institutional facts. Perhaps the reason is as simply as punishment; the government relies upon the prosecution of money counterfeiting to discourage such behavior. Perhaps the reason addresses other forms of interests, such as campaigns against drugs that portray the negative consequences of addictions to these drugs. In the end, there may be many potential institutional reasons that can be offered to enforce certain institutional facts, some being more effective than others.

Sometimes, these institutional reasons will change over the course of time. For instance, the original reason certain behaviors became regularized and then institutionalized may different from later institutional reasons. For instance, the right to bear arms as part of the Second Amendment in the United States was put originally crafted to allow for the operation of militias in case of a need to defend the people from other threats, including the federal government. However, the reason offered for the Second Amendment has morphed into a matter of personal freedoms (with only occasional reference to concerns about national defense).

Such change of reasons can be quite significant. Reasons function to provide a broad base for directing behavior; the can enforce certain institutional facts, but they also direct behavior in other ways. For instance, the reason of personal freedom is used to support the right to bear arms, but can also be used to support other behaviors, such as the freedom to marry who one wishes. When reasons are accepted, they do not remain restricted to simply the original fact or prescription they are used to support, but they become multi-functional, directing other behaviors and thinking.

So, with this analysis on offer, I use it to assess the problems that emerged in the “purity culture” of American evangelical Christianity. As the sexual liberation movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, the institutional fact/regulation of marriage and sex came under serious challenge. More and more people felt free to cast off sexual inhibitions; they thought government and society had no legitimacy to regulate people’s sexual lives.

In walks in the Moral Majority of the 1980s, focused on trying to take American back from what they say as the moral decay, including the evil of sexual debauchery. The institutional facts they had supported were being eroded, both as the level of society but also as the government/institutional level. At stake for conservative-minded Christians was to reinforce the institutional facts of marriage, along with a host of other behaviors. However, as this institutional fact was under challenge in the first place, thus it would require persuasion. Reasons would need to be offered to try to persuade people to live according to the traditional views of marriage and sex. But, there were a couple problems.

Firstly, the Bible was decreasingly taken as authoritative; reference to Scripture would not have the persuasive appeal as it would have had in the past. For some Christians, they recognized this lack of persuasive appeal to others. But many conservative Christians ignored this, however, and continued to operate as if the Bible was a lawbook for society.

Secondly, even for those people where the Bible was authoritative, it isn’t as exactly clear on certain sexual matters such as premarital sex; the Biblical documents certainly imply sex is reserved for married persons, but it is never proscribed in a clear fashion. Thus, in order to continue to enforce the traditional views on sex and marriage, a combination of two tactics were involved: 1) exaggerate the offense of pre-marital sex as if it is to be included in the more egregious sexual sins (resulting in increasing shame and judgment) and 2) coming up with non-Biblical reasons for avoiding pre-marital sex, such as the idea that someone is saving themselves for their spouse.

The net effect of this is that it attempts to ground the traditional view of sex and marriage on very different grounds than the Biblical texts provide. As I mentioned two posts ago, the Biblical basis for regulation of sexual behavior was grounded in avoiding being like the nations in their sexual practices, which commonly lead to exploitative and unjust behavior. One’s sexual behavior was tightly connected to the way one reflected God’s holiness (as in Leviticus 18) and how one regards and treats each other (as in 1 Thessalonians 4).

Instead, the “purity culture” reinforced a heightened sense of physical purity while also directing people to determine their behavior for the sake of their future spouse. The end consequence: 1) one’s relationship to God was regulated by a rule like obedience to abstaining from sex rather than the type of person one becoming and 2) the impacts of sex with another person wasn’t important if they weren’t your spouse. In other words, the evangelical “purity culture” created a legalistic mindset towards God that did not spend much time teaching people how to treat others with respect.

This stems from an attempt to try to rationalize the traditional sexual ethic with reasons that are not apparent within the Scriptural witnesses. However, the more Scriptural rationale for direct sexual behavior isn’t as readily usable for the interests of the Moral Majority and the culture it spawned in evangelical churches. The (hyper)literalist hermeneutics of this brand of Christianity that mined the Scriptures for readily usable theological and ethical rules were not going to pay as much attention to the underlying reasons that the Scriptures do point towards. Secondly, as the Scriptural witnesses have a much broader concern than simply saying “Don’t have sex before marriage,” the more faithful reasons would not be as readily useful for the attempts to try to stop the spread of influence of the sexual liberation culture.

At the end of the day, as the “purity culture” was birthed more out of an attempt to fight and overtake the oppositional culture, it increasingly overlooked and devalued the other (unintended) consequences of its pedagogy. By attempting to preserve and retake the institutions that it felt comfortable and safe with, evangelical Christianity worked against itself in the long run; both through its response to sexual concerns but also other socio-political matters. We are witnessing the fruits of this in the present day as evangelicalism is coming under many, strong challenges rooted in much anger, hurt, and even hatred.

Although, this is not necessarily a harbinger of death for evangelicalism into the future. While the name “evangelical” may forever tainted, the underlying theological and ethical spirit that seeks maintain faithfulness to God as made known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that is authoritatively witnessed to the Scriptures can be preserved. But it will entail recontextualizing our various ways of life, including our more traditional sexuality, on a more literate and responsible understanding of the Scriptures while being willing to listen to the sharp criticism directed towards the past practices of evangelicals. Doing both will entail being thoughtful and engaging in significant conversations pertain to sex and other charged issues, so that we can learn to see the Scriptures afresh through communication and so that we can discern the legitimate substantive of the criticisms directed towards evangelicals and address them without feeling pressured to embrace the modern culture of sex. But this will entail the death of many Christian institutions, institutional facts, and institutional reasons that is followed by a renewal of the people with a rightly direct zeal.

Sexual liberation of the 1960s and “purity culture”

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December 19, 2018

In my last post on explaining the true value of sexual abstinence, I made a connection between the stories of sexual exploitative behavior in churhces we have recently heard and the role of the sexual liberation movement in the 1960s had in contributing to a rapid increase in rape. This prompted a question from one person on facebook discussion: since sexual progressives have advocated against sexual exploitative behaviors, how is it the progressive sexuality that is responsible for the problems in churches within the “purity culture?” On the surface, it certainly seems contradictory. But as it is so often with matters of psychology and culture, the truth is often times not what makes sense to us at first. But before answering the how of this question, we need to establish the dramatic changes regarding sex and relationships that occurred during the 1960s.

During the 1960s, and into the 1970s, there was a movement that was built around the concept of “free love.” It’s original premise wasn’t based upon some idea of being sexually promiscuous but rather around the idea that laws should not regulate relationships. It essentially had a libertarian ethos undergirding it. In addition, it had the symbolic effect of freeing women from the obligations towards men, offering them freedom for their own sexual lives. In effect, “free love” was a rejection of the institutional control of sex, including how men held control over women, and allowing people more autonomy over themselves.

To many people, this might seem like a good idea. In America, we have a strong valuation of liberty from governmental control. Aside from those who have been directly or indirectly influenced by the Moral Majority’s reaction against the “free love” moment, most people don’t like the idea of government controlling sexual relationships.

However, the “free love” movement was not only focused on institutional regulations. It rather established and proposed very different ideas about sex, relationships, and marriage from the Christian perspective. Far from being simply a rebellion against institutional control that also promoted greater equality between men and women, the sexual revolution of the 60s was a cultural shift away from the sexual values influenced by Christian faith. No longer was sex considered normatively reserved between a man and a woman in a marital relationship, it is something that people freely enter into when they want to. The specific context and circumstances in which people had sex became radically different; the way people viewed their relationship to their sexual partners changed dramatically. This is represented in various statistical changes in the 60s.

  1. Divorce rates started to dramatically increase during the 1960s.1 The rate didn’t just simply spike for a short term as women felt free to leave bad marriages; the rate of divorces steadily increased and only started to decrease as people got married less.
  2. The rates of out-of-wedlock birthrates started to increase in the 1960s.2 This change was must more dramatic for black females than white females, but nationwide the percentage of out-of-wedlock births nearly doubled.
  3. There was a greater proliferation of explicitly sexual and pornographic content during the 60s. Playboy subscriptions rose nearly 400% from 1960s to the 1970s.3  The number of “adult movie theatres” from 1960 to 1970 increased by over 3600% (that is NOT a typo!)4
  4. The rates of 19 year old, unmarried women with sexual experience started to dramatically change in the 60s.5 While it was gradually changing in the previous two decades, from the 60s onwards, young women were increasingly engaged in sexual activity prior to marriage.
  5. Rape rates nearly double from the 1960s to the 1970s.6

All of these statistical changes occurred during the 60s. These were not just short-term trends of the decade either. These statistical trajectories continued in the succeeding decades. For instance, while divorce rates and reported rate of rape have decreased since the 90s, they are far from pre-60s rates.

Each of these 5 statistical changes contain a common factor. Far from simply being deviant sexual behavior that conservative Christians might label these behaviors, there is something much more significant that has occurred. The relationship people have with other people when it comes to sex has dramatically changed. Relationships shifted in at least three ways:

  1. Sexual relationships became shorter-term relationships. Increased divorces rates, more out of wedlock births, and higher levels of pre-marital sexual activity all represent this.
  2. Other persons were increasingly evaluated in terms of potential sexual pleasure, that is, objectified. The rise of sexually explicit and pornographic material is the clear statistic in favor of that.
  3. The other person became increasingly less important. Divorce rates represent this in terms of decreasing satisfaction with one’s spouse. However, the rise in rape reflects this pattern even more so.

The effect of the sexual liberation movement went beyond simply freedom from governmental control and greater equality between the sexes. It permanently altered the way people saw their relationships to each other. People became increasingly valued/objectified for matters of sexual pleasure.

There are many ways this cultural change manifested itself in movies, music, news, etc. where people were increasingly evaluated in terms of their sexual suitability. Consequently, as sexual attractiveness became a more pervasive and significant part of our evaluating others, people expressed this in their own identity through their clothing that emphasized the sexual features of the body; even if people dress as they do for themselves and not for other people, their own thoughts about what looked good for them has been influenced by the hyper-sexualized standards that they are progressively encultured into. Then, whether these people wanted to be evaluated in terms of their sexual attractiveness or not, people were consistently exposing themselves to people where the sexual features of their body were more accentuated.

Then, it came to be a common view that late adolescence and more particularly college was a time for sexual experimentation. As sexual activity became a more prominent part of the college lifestyle, concerns about sexual health lead to increase availability to condoms and birth control, only further reinforcing the place of sexual experimentation in college.

Now, before one hears this as simply some “conservative rant” against promiscuous behavior, I am not focused on criticizing birth control, trying to get people to dress “decently,” etc. My point is to paint a picture of the culture that has been formed and the outcomes that result. Both in terms of sexual evaluation of others and in sexual practice, a culture has been created that continues to reinforce the trends of sexual relationships being short-term and the sexual objectification of others. Without there being any clear, authoritative, persistent message that either a) you should treat people as only sexual objects or b) you should consider sexual relationships interchangeable and disposable, the way the culture has molded sexual practices has had this impact.

In other words, the sexual liberation movement has many unintended side effects. By abandoning the traditional sexual values that were passed down over the course of centuries, the sexual liberation movement of the 60s trekked out in a radical direction for one purpose. But it was truly unaware of the powerful, psychological dynamics that sexuality has.

Sexual desire can be a very powerful motivator that dramatically impacts the person’s decision making. Consequently, people undergo serious psychological changes as a result of sexual behavior; many of these changes are not intended or sought after, but simply occur and happen. Furthermore, by nature, we don’t become reflective and thoughtful when it comes to sex; rather, we have to learn how to self-regulate ourselves and train ourselves how to direct our sexual behavior in respectful and healthy ways. If one is not careful, it can very easily be the case that it isn’t us controlling sex, but it is sex that is controlling us. However, the less time, training, and building of a relationship one needs to engage in sexual activity, the less one learns how to self-regulate this drive well.

Thus, this leads to peculiar consequence in how people engage in sexual behavior. The more sexual behavior is encouraged, openly celebrated, and easily and readily engaged in, the less self-regulated people are when it comes to their sexual desire. As a consequence, when people who are less self-regulated are in the throes of sexual desire, they are thinking more about themselves and what they want rather than their potential sexual partner; this is reflective of the naturally egocentric nature of people when they are in states of strong emotion and desire. As a result, the feelings and thoughts of the other person are increasingly less important, except insofar as attention to those feelings and thoughts are relevant to take into account in pursuit of sexual gratification. Rather than as a loving partner/spouse having a longer-term, sustained attention to them, their thoughts, and feelings leading to sexual encounters, people engage more in a form of sexual manipulation of the others that are not as concerned about the long-term of their potential sexual partner.

No one trains people to engage in sexual behavior in this manner. Aside from a few “courses” or books that you may find here or there which may be labeled as training in manliness or in how to get women but ultimately amount to sexual manipulation, there is no concentrated effort to treat sex in such a manipulative manner. No one intends it. It just occurs. It emerges unconsciously and without explicit direction.

Perhaps, then, you can see where this is going: the less important the feelings and thoughts of another person are when it comes to sexual desire and gratification, the less important matters of consent and feeling of security of the other person will be. Given that sex is a social behavior, all sex entail some form of power/influence. The less important the influence of long-lasting love is in sexual relationships, the more people will learn to use other forms of power, including possibly physical coercion, psychological manipulation, and social pressure.

By the sexual liberation movement dramatically changing the nature of relationships in the context of sex, the more they reinforced an ego-centric way of approaching sexual relationships that increased the likelihood of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Certainly, the persons behind the sexual liberation movement didn’t intend this, but by managing to change the sexual culture they ran into the deep, pervasive psychological dynamics of sexual desire and behavior. Thus, this culture has become such a prevalent part of day-to-day life through media, music, social interactions, etc., it has influenced everyone, how we think of sex and the way we see people as sexual beings, even those who are in conscious rejection of the sexual liberation movement including in evangelical/tradition churches.

This is not to deny many of the legitimate criticism of “purity culture” and its role in sexual abuse in churches. “Purity culture” has been decidedly patriarchal at times, maintain the power dynamic in favor of males, thus giving an avenue of power to exploit. “Purity culture” was more concerned about the physical purity of the body than the purity of heart in one’s relationships. These dynamics could be used to reinforce, enable, and mask sexual abuse. Furthermore, by reinforcing a taboo about talking about sex except in a very stilted, proscribed manner, “purity culture” prevented against healthy discussions about sex and replaced it with stereotyped discourse, making people unaware of what they were thinking and feeling.  Nevertheless, despite these specific criticisms, “purity culture” just like sexual liberation movement didn’t consciously train people to sexually exploit others.

But, it isn’t the “purity culture” that had a place of prominence and influence in society. While there were still ideas of the Christian sexual ethic, such as heterosexuality and marriage, a nominal concern for children in the context of marriage, etc. these were more like artifacts of the past that still retaining credence for a while but crumbled as the culture of sexual liberation had more influence in significant areas of public life, such as on media, educational settings, etc.  Thus, it is the way the sexual liberation culture trains people to be sexual beings that has had a dramatic impact on the life of the church. The logical mistake in the analysis of “purity culture” is to assume that everyone that occurs in evangelical churches is solely the result a singular, monolithic culture that was impervious to outside influences; in fact, the “purity culture” only operated and had any staying power in churches because the values of the sexual liberation movement had greatly influenced in society and in churches. The existence of the “purity culture” necessarily entailed the influence of progressive sexuality in churches.

Nevertheless, proponents of sexual liberation and sexual progressiveness are not going to be inclined to see what they support being a major cultural contributor to rape, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, etc. Rather, they will treat “purity culture” as a scapegoat due to other hostilities, such as teachings regarding homosexuality, and thus distract from the most pervasive influence on the sexually degrading and objectifying culture we live in. Since the progressive narrative has more credibility than the evangelical narrative in wider media and because there are legitimate, narrow criticisms of the way evangelical culture taught people about sex, there will be a greater influence towards blaming the “purity culture” for all the problems that exist in churches. This can then contribute to the bandwagon effect through hearing more and more people speaking something as if it is a matter of fact when the real cause of the problems are complex.

There are many things we as Christians need to learn, unlearn, and relearn about how to address concerns about human sexuality. But it can only begin by Christians not giving into the brainwashing of the cult of progressive sexuality. Rather, in recognizing the legitimate complaints and the real harm done in churches, we can begin to identify the way we have talked about sex in ways that has been more about physical purity and aversion to anything sex rather than relational purity and honest conversations.

Secondly, we need to recognize that we in the church, along with American society, are in serious need of redemption from how we view other people as sexual creatures and that won’t come by simply trying to regulate behaviors, such as telling women how to dress, but through repentance, confession, and open discussion. That means some of the taboos we have built around talking about sex need to be torn down; we need to feel the freedom to talk about sex like the Apostle Paul did in 1 Corinthians. It is only in discussing sex openly that we can then begin to identify our own thoughts about sex, which can strengthen our thinking in the face of the cultural brainwashing.

Thirdly, we need to make the distinction between calling people to live out the Gospel through their sexual faithfulness from trying to control people’s sexual lives. The concern about sex for the Bible is centered upon the type of people we become and the way our sexual behavior impacts that and not so much about simply avoiding the wrong type of sexual behavior. This will be helpful for how we develop a sexual pedagogy within the churches but also how we entirely let go of the desire to legislate our sexual values onto a secular society; not only has that battle been lost but it is deeply counterproductive even if a change in the direction the winds of society blows occurs.

However, we don’t need to capitulate to the Trojan horse of the sexual liberation movement. We need to rethink and relearn how we live in an increasing sexually objectifying and exploitative culture, but the solution is to recognize the way we respond to it in the past was ineffectual and even deeply traumatizing in some cases rather than suggest the core values were wrong. While maybe we should give up our “purity rings,” the answer isn’t asking a modern day Aaron of Nadia Bolz-Weber to fashion them into an image that is an ode to sex, just as the golden calf was connected to a sexual orgy7, but to explore and relearn what it means to love God and love one another, including through our sexuality

Why I am not saving myself for marriage

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December 14, 2018

It has become almost a cliche today to criticize the “purity culture” of evangelicalism. Reading some tweets that were critical of the Reflections Summit, which gave voice to survivors of sexual abuse in churches, the “purity culture” takes center stage in many of the tweets. However, this idea of a “purity culture” has morphed into nothing more than a “legitimate” stereotype of traditional Christian sexuality. Or, you can look at Nadia Bolz-Weber burning purity rings and making them into a statue of a vagina; far beyond simply calling people out, there is a form of aggressive iconoclasm exhibited in this culture that is not simply critique and correcting, but finding itself in direct hostility to traditional Christianity. As so often happens in heated social controversies and demagogic pastors, well-thought critique is not the currency of the day.

Nevertheless, there are many legitimate criticisms that can be level against the manner in which American evangelicals have treated people’s sexuality. It is well-documented the hurt and anger that people have felt in the face of the sexual ‘pedagogy’ in the church in the 90s and 2000s; search for responses years down the line to Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Harris’ own humble acknowledgement of the pain it caused for the best example.

I want to acknowledge that at the end of the day, there was a core concern of faithfulness in the “purity culture” of the 90s and the 2000s in trying to reserve sex for marriage. While many criticisms of the “purity culture” is actually a way of targetting such a mindset, which is more revealing of a culture that has an addiction to sex, more helpful criticisms can be leveled at the way this desire to be faithful to God was taught and put into practice.

The one piece of advice I remember from sometime in a church youth group was the rationale that waiting to have sex till marriage would be a wonderful thing for your spouse. You are saving yourself for your future spouse, who you can share this special gift with. While for us guys, this was only mentioned a little bit as our minds weren’t tuned into that type of frequency, I can only imagine the amount of times this trope was presented to the girls as it if would have been expected to be motivation for “the way girls think” about their future spouse.1

At the core is this notion: I am making decisions about my life for someone I haven’t even met. On the surface this might sound good and noble. But there are many problems with this sort of advice.

From a specifically Christian angle, the concern about sexuality is a concern about being a holy person. Paul expressing this connect between sex and holiness in 1 Thessalonians 4.3-8. The most explicit expression about Biblical sexuality comes in Leviticus 18 and 20, where the concern is that Israel not become like the nations who inhabited the land before them. Instead, Israel was to be holy as God is holy as Leviticus repeated multiple times. While one may discern a hint of concern about sexual reproduction in these chapters due to a prohibition of sacrificing children to Molech, the principle concern about such sexual regulations is about being faithful to God.

However, this concern about holiness isn’t related to the idea that having sex morally defiles a person. The concern is about the type of people were to become as God’s People, not that they were somehow “dirty.” Sex has consequences and the consequences in focus is what type of people Israel would become.

Sex is not and has never been a harmless recreational activity, but sexual activity is deeply formative of the type of people we become. There are two emotionally powerful types of learning that occur in sex; in consensual sex, dopamine is released causing powerful changes in neural structure, particularly in memories. This type of learning motivates and directs future behavior in powerful ways that span beyond normal learning that occurs through conscious deliberation. Various aspects of the sexual experience is remembered and sets down a powerful pattern for future behavior. Sex powerful changes the person, establishing the way in the future the way the person will pursue sex and when they will expect it.

However, when fear is part of sex for either partner, the feelings of vulnerability in such a close, physical contact create traumatic memories. In a similar manner, so many aspects of the experience become encoded in memory, leading to deep aversion and anxiety afterward towards anything that resembles the event of sexual contact in the conditions of fear. This can leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. Sex can deeply damage a person.

Israel was thus deeply concerned about the power that sex can have to destroy the community and lead to injustice. The story of the sons of the gods taking the daughters of men in Genesis 6, far from it being a story of fallen angels, was most likely a story of powerful warrior figures of the past enforcing their will and taking women as their reproduction factories, which was an example of how the curse of patriarchal domination in Genesis 3.16b becomes realized, far from the more intimate understanding of sexuality contained in the language of “knowing” (Gen. 4.1) and “becoming one flesh.” (Gen. 2.24) and far from the more egalitarian helper that the woman was originally created to be (Gen. 2.18).

Then, there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is not really a tale of judgment about sex between men, but of a sexually dominating culture that would rape newcomers; the homosexuality Israel was familiar with in this story wasn’t one of intimacy that is talk about today but of domination. Hence, the call to put to death a man who treats another man as he would treat a woman (Leviticus 18.22) expresses a fear of domination that they had heard and would have witnessed elsewhere in the culture. For instance, the dominant Spartan military was paired with homosexual activity. While Israel probably wasn’t familiar with Sparta’s example, they weren’t the only ones who had such a practice. While we today associate homosexuality with being effeminate in Western culture, in ancient culture, it was more associated with patterns of dominance. The closest modern analogy to the ancient concern is the narrative that is told of sexual domination and rape in prisons.

Thus, at the core of Israel’s aversion to various forms of sexual activity is the way it can impact what type of people they would be. They were being called away from these various sexual practices that they saw associated with gross injustice and disregard for the relational bond of a husband and a wife. Sexual activity was dangerous as it had a tremendous impact on the people and culture. Thus to be holy as God is holy in terms of sexuality was to reflect this loving form of sexuality.

In other words, one refrains from sex outside of marriage not because it makes one dirty nor that it breaks some patriarchal norms of a virgin spouse, but because sexual activity can have deep, pervasive impacts. By having sex the way the other nations had sex, Israel would begin to reflect their practices and way of life and the injustice they committed.

Take American history for an example. From the 1960s into the 1990s, violent crime was on a sharp, steady rise according to FBI statistics. The most rapidly increasing form of ‘violent’ crime was robbery, but not all robbery events are actually physically violent towards a person, such as breaking into an empty home. So, of all purely violent crimes, which one rose the most: rape. It was in the 1960s that the sexual liberation began to develop, where people felt freer and freer to engage in sexual activity. Thus, the dopamine pathways of learning were training people more and more to pursue sex and more aggressively. While this is not the only factor in rape and sexual assault, sexual desire and activity can make people more aggressive as they ‘expect’ sex and become more reactive and manipulative when those expectations are not being met.

Thus, the problems with “saving oneself for marriage” is that it misunderstands the important reason for sexual abstinence. It isn’t about giving a gift to one’s future spouse. It isn’t about making your life decisions based upon someone you haven’t met. From the Biblical perspective, it is about not becoming like the ‘nations’ in their sexually exploitive cultures and practices. Hence, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4.3-8 provides a warning against such exploitation in the context of holiness and sexuality; Greco-Roman sexuality could be deeply exploitive also.

The danger therein of ‘sexual liberation’ is of sexual aggressiveness. Sex changes you; if sex isn’t in the confines of a bond of a newly formed, loving family where the other person has deep, personal importance, then the type of dopaminergic learning that occurs is one where sex is self-centered rather than other-centered activity, thereby reinforcing the possibility of sexual self-absorption, aggressiveness, and domination in the future. While most people who have sex without a real, strong, and deep commitment to another will never be exploitive themselves, the increase in self-absorption can make one increasingly aggressive.

This is actually the aggressiveness that is witnessed in many critics of the “purity culture.” While legitimate concerns about the way “purity culture” treated women as second to men and reinforced the domination of men, including sexual abuse, allow me to suggest the problem wasn’t the “purity culture,” per se, but the spread of the sexual aggressiveness of American culture that pervaded the churches and took the male-center leadership and distorted churches into avenues of sexual dominance and abuse. “Purity culture” didn’t create this; it masked and even reinforced the problem but it didn’t train male pastors and ministers to take sexual advantage of women. The real problem is the American sexual culture that fails to recognize just how truly responsible the culture of sexual liberation has been, being incredibly naive and ignorant about the primal psychological dynamics that exists in sex. And much as an addict will point to the problems of others, even as these problems may be legitimate and important address, while they overlook and deny their own problem and complicity, sexual progressiveness is highly and deeply complicit in the problem that they help reinforce and create but distract themselves from by seeing the injustice elsewhere.

So, I am not saving myself for marriage as it has the wrong reason and purpose in mind. I seek to abstain from sex for a different purpose. I commit myself to be different from this sexually exploitative culture and so I seek to abstain from sex so that I won’t be sexually brainwashed to become part of it.

In fact, to “save yourself from marriage” has another deep problem. There is no guarantee anyone will ever get married. Abstaining from sex based upon some hope for sex in the future is foolhardy when someone may not be able to find such a relationship; such a mindset pushes the problem down the road rather than addressing the central concerns. At the age of 34 I have become have found even forming the very beginnings of a potential romantic relationship to be near impossible because of sexual trauma. Others have a similar story. Yet others have no trauma, but due to various circumstances, may never find such a relationship. What happens to people like us? If concerns about sexual abstinence is based upon some future payoff, then there a few distinct possible negative outcomes. By deferring sexual activity by what ultimately amounts to the imagination of future sexual intimacy, one reinforces the cycle of sexual desire and concommitant frustration that can lead to 1) “slips ups” in the passions of the moment with deep regrets and/or lasting consequences, 2) a build-up of resentment towards apparently ‘Christian’ teaching that can later undermind Christian faith, or 3) rushing to marriage without concern about the true goodness and health of the relationship.2 In the meantime, the natural desires related to sex and the associated desire for a family are at risk of being regarded as bad, wrong, weak, evil, etc. 

No. The Christian call to abstinence outside of marriage is rooted in resisting the culture and its aggressive posture, including but not limited to sexual exploitation. This understanding of the call recognizes the goodness of sex and doesn’t seek to “dirty” it; rather, it works with the understanding that the manner in which one has sex impacts the type of person one becomes in the future. The concern is about a way of life purposed towards reflecting God’s just and loving character as a holy way of life, unique from what is more widespread and rampant. The Gospel is about God’s work of new creation and redemption, and so a Christian sexual pedagogy should come to reflect this purpose. Christian teaching isn’t about preparing you for your spouse, but about guiding you to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ. Our sexual pedagogy should reflect this.

The Pauline significance of grace

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December 14, 2018

“We are saved by grace through faith.” A common Christian phrase pulled from Ephesians 2. “Grace” is a common buzzword, used to describe everything by Christians from getting your sins forgiven to being positive and accepting. As the identity of Protestantism was defined around the doctrine of justification by grace, grace became a pervasive part of our forensic and moral vocabulary. For instance, you might have heard someone opine about the difference between grace and mercy where “mercy is not getting what you deserve, whereas grace is getting what you didn’t deserve.” Such understandings of grace are drenched in the notions of merit and relationships.

However, this is not the only way we use the word grace. Sometimes we talk about grace without moral and forensic thoughts in the background, but a sense of beauty, such as describing the graceful movements of a dancer. We may refer to the grace of a public speaker, referring to the charismatic way in which they communicate. Here, we transition from grace in a forensic or moral sense to grace in a more aesthetic and skilled sense: there is some ideal that people exemplify in their actions that elicits a mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, and/or stunning response to their onlookers. Here, grace doesn’t refer to some relational quality but some characteristic that is possessed by a person. Something about them draws your gaze, your attention, or even your dreams. Grace is a characteristic of a person, vaulting them as having a high status in the eyes of others.

These two different aspects are not unrelated. The forgiveness of a person toward someone who has offended them can also exemplify the beauty of the person who forgives. Feeling accepted by someone makes us associate that person with the positive feelings we have when around them; in a sense, we project our own subjective feelings about someone as an objective characteristic of the person. However, in Christian circles, we have had a tendency to define grace by what is received first, then we may talk about the characteristics of a person who has some grace. Whether it be forgiveness, as emphasize in evangelical circles, or acceptance, as emphasized in progressive circles, grace is about what we as people obtain from God and from others. Thus, we primarily defined “grace” by the perspective the recipient and what is received.

In the Greco-Roman world in which the Apostle Paul inhabits, grace is commonly a personal characteristic of a higher status person and defines something about a gift they give to others. For them, there were people who had some high status, some elegance, some sense of charisma or charm, some embodiment of some ideal. This could even be invested some political significance. Then, these people would act towards others with grace by the kindness and favor they showed them; grace characterized the actions of a high-status person to another person, typically of a lower status. In fact, the language of grace was connected to the patron-client system of the Roman milieu, in which higher status and affluent persons would come to the aid to those of lower status and in need; while the language of patron and client had a negative connotation in the early Roman Empire, the language of grace/gratia/χάρις had a much better connotation.1

Hence, the understanding of grace was commonly, but not exclusively, used to describe the relationship between people of unequal status. Thus, when Paul refers to God’s grace, he is referring to the characteristic of God as a person who is of an eminently higher status than human persons coming to the aid of those with lesser status.

The embedded nature of grace into concerns of social class and status in the Roman world contrasts with much of conventions we have about God’s grace. Particularly in Reformed circles, God’s grace is construed in very individualistic terms where it describes something God does rather than someone a person does. As a consequence, one can do nothing to contribute to one’s own salvation because grace is about God’s action with no room for any human response; that is the meaning of boasting in the Reform tradition: to think you did had any effect. But this is an alteration of status in the Roman world; Paul’s concern about not boasting isn’t about saying “Don’t think highly of yourself.” Rather, it is to say: “You didn’t get where you are by who you are; you’re future in God’s kingdom was because of God’s reaching down to you.” Grace is not code-word for a causal metaphysics that allows no role for the human response in event and process of salvation; rather, it refers to something that God grants that other people did not have in their possession.

This is seen in Romans 5.2, describing grace as something that people are given “access” (προσαγωγή) to. People of higher status have access to resources, material or social, that people of lower status would not have, so when a social superior is gracious towards a social inferior, they were providing access to some important resource that the people could not acquire. Commonly, this would occur in a time of need for the social inferior. Thus Paul goes on to say “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5.6) Through the death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, God was providing access to something people could not access at the time of an imperative need (“at the right time.”).

Against this backdrop, Paul’s language of justification can be understood. Rather than a forensic or moral backdrop to Paul’s usage, it was actually about a status that God bestowed on believers. They were regarded by Him as part of the “righteous” and thus given access to the privileges that came with such a status. Furthermore, this beneficient relationship between socially unequal persons would be described by the language of faith/fides/πίστις, particularly for the person of an inferior social status and thus dependent on the person of higher status.2

Hence, the constellation of grace, faith, and status terminology in the form of justification would not be particularly novel for Paul; this would not have been anything resoundingly unfamiliar to his Greek and Roman audiences. They would have understood this in echoes from the Greco-Roman culture. So, when we as Protestants have been trained to take “we are justified by faith” and “we are saved by grace” as the center of Paul’s Gospel, we are unwittingly defining the Christian faith by what Paul’s expression largely shared in common with the Greco-Roman culture.

What was novel for Paul wasn’t the relationship of grace, faith, and a change of status for the socially inferior person. What was novel is what of God was characterized as grace; God’s grace came in Jesus Christ, shamed and put to death on a cross. It is this that would have been rather jarring to the Greco-Roman audience; Christ as the social superior had a socially disreputable death. To be clear, it wasn’t simply that Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice; such could have been drenched in the language of glory for military heros who died, similar to what we hear in the liturgy of honor towards the American troops. Jesus died a socially shameful death on a cross and Jesus died on behalf of the lowest of the low: the ungodly. In other words, Christ died a shameful death and Christ died on behalf for event the most shameful of people. It is this that would have been dramatically novel and jarring to Paul’s audience.

While Luther and the later Protestants heard something important in the doctrine of God’s grace to justify by faith, and indeed was something they needed to hear in their day, they didn’t actually grasp at the center of Gospel that Paul preached. Rather than hearing a needed word for their own time, they also saw it as the defining word of Paul’s message about Jesus Christ. Consequently, it wasn’t until the stranglehold of older Protestant interpretations were unshackled by the New Perspective that a growing awareness has been reached by this; while I feel the various ideas contained in the New Perspective on Paul have numerous problems of their own and can sometimes throw the baby out with the bath-water of the Protestant theology, they opened up our eyes and ears to read Paul and even the Gospels afresh, much as N.T. Wright has wanted to see this occur.

Furthermore, I would suggest that the often lamented deficient pneumatology in modern Christian theology can a to not fully grasping the social significance of grace. As grace, faith, and justification pertains to matters of access, the Holy Spirit is the principal ‘resource’ that God gives to believers. Justification can not be understood apart from the bestowing of the Holy Spirit; a doctrine of justification without a pneumatology would be woefully deficient. However, our standard Protestant understanding of justification about forgiveness through Christ’s propitiating death didn’t have a natural nor logically necessary place to insert the Holy Spirit into the fray; He was someone that got put in somewhere, almost because you had to. But the Holy Spirit isn’t seen as a central role in Paul’s understanding of justification, grace, and faith, but a separate doctrine, perhaps of a more advanced form of Christianity.

No wonder then that so many of the countries influenced by Protestantism have come to have more of a spirit closer to the Roman societies, including the most Protestant country of all, America which has taken on some imperial vestiges.3 By the continued emphasis upon language that was particularly Roman along with a deficient understanding and role of the Spirit in the Christian life, one might suggest that the Protestant Reformation ended up secularizing Christian faith. Hence, grace, even in more evangelical circles, is understood as vague, shadowy notion that we somehow connect to our forgiveness and salvation and thus is readily usable to a whole variety of life circumstances, uniquely Christian or not, rather than saying the grace is what describes God as He makes Himself known in Jesus Christ and as He becomes present to us in His Holy Spirit. However, in Paul’s eyes, grace is not my forgiveness, not my acceptance, not something I take and receive for my own self; rather, grace describes something that is present with us in the form of the Triune God that impacts the directs our lives by what is made accessible to us.