The Divinity of Jesus and the right question

March 7, 2019

In his first chapter in Paul and the Trinity, Wesley Hill reviews the literature of scholars like Dunn, McGrath, Hurtado, and Bauckham and how their attempt to address the question of Paul’s Christology: what relationship did Jesus have with God? For Dunn and McGrath, they regard Paul’s faith as axiomatically grounded in Jewish monotheism that necessitates a low Chrsitology, whereas by contrast that Hurtado and Bauckham allow that monotheism is redefined to include an incorporation into Christ in an high Chrstology. However, Hill wants to shift the conversation from a Christological question these scholars are addressed to a Trinitarian question that scholarship has shied away from. As a consequence of this scholastic distance, the focus was placed on Christology. 

While I am sympathetic with Hill’s task to connect the New Testament with the Trinity by analyzing the relations between the three persons, I would suggest another move to be made: flipping the Christological question on it’s head.

The Christological question is asked with the presumption “What relationship does Jesus have to God?” When we ask this type of question, we engage in a certain type of conceptual relationship between “Jesus” and “God” known as the figure-ground alignment.

In the figure-ground relationship, our perception of the figure is changing whereas as the ground is perceived in static terms.1 For instance, if I say “The book is on the table” our cognitive schema about the book is modified by the relationship we perceive of it to the table. We don’t think “The table is under the book,” even though we might recognize these two sentences as having equivalent truth values. Such a sentence seems might quite odd to us even if it is comprehensible because we become accustomed to consider the relationships between different objects as having a fixed figure-ground relationship.

A similar figure-ground relationship has occurred in New Testament studies, exhibited in the work of Dunn and others. By taking Jewish monotheism as axiomatic, it treats the beliefs about “God” as possessing some fixed stated by which other references are to be understood as the figure. This is not an accident, but it is a pattern that is common with power relations: we are predisposed to consider the thoughts, interests, and values of those in power as having a fixed status by which everyone else must be understood. For instance, whites who study theology do not typically refer to their professed theology as “white theology,” but they refer to other theologies by how they differ from their own such as “black theology” or “liberation theology.” The interest and values of those in power obtain a certain normative status that makes them be treated with a fixed status by which everything is evaluated in terms of. Likewise, monotheism has customarily assigns to God, construed as the all-powerful redeemer of Israel that has no equal,  the ground to the relationship to anyone or anything else, including Jesus.

But, what if what happened in Jesus created a disequilibrium in this figure-ground relationship? Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, demonstrated a great power and authority, which eventually became vindicated by God raising Him from the dead. What has happened is that Jesus has become an authority figure to the disciples but of quite a dramatic fashion. Whereas the talk about God’s authority could seem quite abstract, Jesus’ authority was very real and in their face. What if through this, the question the disciples asked differed. Rather than asking “What is the relationship of Jesus to God?” what if they instead asked “What is the relationship of God to this Jesus we know?”

In this case, God is the figure to the ground of Jesus. Instead of learning about Jesus by comparing Him to God, they learned about God by comparing Him to Jesus. Instead of asking questions about a high or low Christology, they would be asking questions instead about a high or low theology. A high theology renders the relationship of God to Jesus as one of distance, that God is still transcendentally far from the person Jesus. This is the move of Arianism. By contrast, a low theology renders the relationship of God to Jesus as one where God is on the same level as the person of Jesus.

Put differently, in this type of question, God in the explanans and Jesus is an the explanandum. Jesus is the explanation for God, rather than God the explanation for Jesus. However, it is important to clarify why type of explanation is offered. Jesus is not a metaphysical or causal explanation for God. Rather, Jesus is the explanation for God’s character/nature.

Nevertheless, God is still also understood as a metaphysical explanation for Jesus. John 1.1-18 is framed by both the bi-directional explanations: God is the metaphysical explanation of the Logos (v. 1) and the Son provides the epistemic explanation of God (v. 18).

This allows me to make my suggestion about a problem within New Testament scholarship. By treated Jewish faith as axiomatic for understanding Jesus, they have privileged metaphysical explanations over epistemic explanations. Then in so doing, they tried to answer a question about who Jesus is; the epistemic question becomes subjected to the metaphysical question.

For a brief demonstration, notice that in Phil. 2.9-11, the “direction” of the text moves from Jesus to God. There are two moves that occur here. Ther eis the metaphysical explanation of the events of Jesus’ life being God’s exaltation of Him. But then, the recognition of the Lordship leads to what is mentioned in the prepositional phrase: εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός. Good sense of εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός is made if one suggests the relationship is essentially an epistemic one: by recognizing Jesus as Lord, God receives glory because in God is identified in Jesus. There is in Phil. 2.9-11, as in John 1.1-18, a latent bi-directional explanatory relationship between God and Jesus that starts with the metaphysical and concludes with the epistemic.

But if the epistemic question is given priority, something else happens: it provides the place for the Holy Spirit in the discussion about God. The Spirit is a recurrent actor in the Gospels and is repeatedly mentioned alongside Jesus in discussions of human salvation and redemption. Jesus and the Spirit are co-actors in the historical narratives. Consequently, the question of “What is God’s relationship to Jesus?” would also bring up the question “What is God’s relationship to the Spirit?”

In other words, by providing priority to the epistemic question of the NT that identifies God through Jesus, one also easily accommodates the Spirit to the possibility of an early form of Trinitarianism. Since Jesus and the Spirit are co-operative in the Gospel narrative traditions, then to ask how God is related to Jesus is to also ask God’s relationship to the Spirit. In other words, the Trinitarian question that Hill explores through discussion of relations in the NT would emerge from this question of the early Church: What is God’s relationship to Jesus?

What if…

March 5, 2019

What if the doctrine of justification of faith was the right answer to the wrong problem?

The doctrine of justification of faith has often been presented as an evangelical doctrine answer the question: “How is it that I get righteous with God?” This way of framing the problem stems from how Martin Luther tried to obtain a status of righteousness through perfection of the monk lifestyle. This way of framing the problem is witnessed in John Wesley’s struggle with pursuits of holiness but feeling dejected as he thought of God as a wrathful being against sin. For Luther, it was like a seed that had been planted from Romans 1.17 that grew and grew to define a whole branch of Protestantism. For Wesley, it was like an epiphany that shift the course of his life and a second wave of holiness within Protestantism.

Beyond the Scriptural evidence for just an idea, I would suggest the impact that both Luther and Wesley had is evidence that they tapped into something. Depending on your perspective, you can explain this influence variously. But what if the reason for this influence was because it had a deep impact on people’s relationship to God, but that the doctrine is the right answer to the wrong problem.

What if the doctrine of justification by faith does answer the question: “How is it that I get righteous with God?” but rather, “How do I live righteously with God?” The difference is subtle, but yet significant.

For the former question, it leads to this type of evaluation: what is within my power to obtain a specific standing before God? If I do all these works, if I purge myself of all sin, if I commit myself to the deepest extent, God will find me to be on the right side. If I may suggest, this way of framing is rooted to a particular doctrine of sin that suggests God is condemning based upon specific actions we take; the the ultimate criteria of God’s judgment is the rightness or wrongness of what we do or. Sola fide comes in and says it isn’t about what you do, but what you believe about Jesus, that he died for our sins, that we are justified by his blood.

But what if Paul was answering the slightly different, latter question: “How do I live righteously with God?” Here, the focus is not on what one does to obtain a specific status with God, per se, but about what type of person God trusts and discloses Himself to?

Allow me to illustrate via an anaology: It is more like asking the question: “What makes spouses love each other?” If you attempt to try to answer this question simply by giving a set of behaviors, you are on one of the adventures of missing the point. While behaviors are important in relationships, such as not committing adultery, spending time with them, taking care of them when they are sick, etc., trying to boil it down to some formula that can be had through some impersonal rules misses the point. Relationships are formed by the way people listen to and care to each other, not simply what they do for each other.

For instance, marital advice suggests saying healthy relationships have 5 affirming expressions for every 1 negative expression. But say someone hears this and things “it is all about the ratio.” Imagine the difference between saying “I am proud of you” to a person who already feels pride is different from saying it to someone who feels dejected. Those words will be less meaningful and impactful to the prideful (and hence, why relationships with narcissists don’t worth) than it would be to the dejected. A formulaic approach to relationships might suggest the former is just as impactful as the latter. A person who is attentive to how a person feels, however, will recognize it is the latter when a person needs to feel affirmed. And as such relationships are generally experienced as a place for intimacy, care, and honesty, there are more opportunities and times where a spouse is seeking affirmation than there would be in other relationships. Perhaps the 5-to-1 ratio is more about people who are responsive to their spouse than it is about a formula.

So bring this back to the doctrine of justification. What if justification is Paul saying “The way one lives righteously with God is that you trust Him?” To be clear, while the Greek word for faith, πίστις, can have some affective undertones, it is not a term that is reducible to our modern understanding of positive emotional dependency, per se. Rather, it relates more so to the way the relationship of a parent who teaches and trains their children for their well-being. πίστις is a term of (to join two words not often familiar when put together) relational epistemology. The one who has faith is the one who listens in a motivated and meaningful way because they trust that God has their well-being at heart in His instruction.

But it should be made clear that this is not merely a cognitive sense of taking in information. Consider a friend, an enemy, and stranger hear the exact same speech from a person, see the exact same actions, but the friend and enemy will construe the meaning very differently, because their cognition is determined by their motivation: what is it that they want to see about this person? Their thriving? Their demise? Or do they not really care that much either way?

In that case, the Pauline πίστις is a motivated listening that leads to action in accordance to what one learns because one also seeks and desires what is truly good. If God is the Creator of all that is good, then to seek good means one should seek after God to learn what is truly good, including seeking God Himself as good.

If this is correct, then this perhaps sheds light on the contrast between the works of the Torah vs. the faith of Jesus Christ that Paul mentions in Romans and Galatians. Those who seek to be justified by Torah think, essentially, they have all they need to know to please God; they know what God expects, they know what God does, they have become “experts” about God. And they have arranged their lives according to their “expert” knowledge about God through Torah.

By contrast, πίστις is a state in which the person recognizes they must depend upon God’s guidance and leading because the Torah was never the full expression of all that is important to know about God. By faith, one seeks the what is ultimately good, that is, the righteousness of God, by learning from God who has made His goodness known, through the crucified Jesus Christ, whose πίστις defines our πίστις, and the Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead.

Thus, the contrast between the works of Torah and and the faith of Jesus Christ is ultimately epistemic, but in a social or relational manner.

So if justification by faith was the right answer to the wrong question, why then did the doctrine have such an impact Luther and the Protestant Reformation and on Wesley and the Methodist revival? Because in faith, they abandoned false beliefs about sin that constrained them to see righteousness as about how one becomes righteous, even if they didn’t consciously recognize it as a change in their harmatiology. Rather than a God who is quick to anger because of sin, who is quick to find fault, quick to abandon, they discovered that God is not so. They didn’t come to that conclusion because they developed a really robust sense of sin in the Scriptures. They came to that conclusion because their understanding of faith freed them from such ignorance.

To be clear, I am not criticizing the idea that there is sin. By no means! To diminish the idea of sin is to ignore huge portions of the Bible and the very reason Christ died. It is only that the doctrine of sin that people so often learned was a doctrine that was useful for social management, to keep people in line. So it became expedient to keep people in line by images of a wrathful God, overlooking the motivation the control such images can provide to those who get to socially define what sin is and isn’t. It was a doctrine of sin that was from the Scriptures, but a doctrine of sin that was from the hearts of men. Those in power created a tradition about what sin is that then got read into the Scriptures even though many of the ideas taught weren’t there.

For instance, nowhere does the Bible say by one sin, no matter how big or small we think it is, means you are guilty enough for God to send you to hell. This is a lie from the pits of hell, used to get people to “convert.” Nowhere does the Bible say only a select few get to go into eternal life and everyone else is going to burn for their sins. This is a lie from the pits of hell, use to get people to “believe and behave.” To be sure, if we can trust the Scriptures, then it is true sin can condemn a person and God will judge some to everlasting punishment, but any sin is a long ways away from some sin and some people is a long ways away from nearly everyone. There are immense hermeneutical problems supporting such problematic notions, such as thinking “death” in Romans 6.23 is about eternal punishment rather than the death operating in the present world marred by Adam’s sin.

Let me suggest what actually undergirds God’s judgment: the absolute lack of trustworthiness that becomes dangerous. It starts with Adam and Eve, but reading the narrative closely. When Adam and Eve ate the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they didn’t automatically experience a switch in their human nature that made them dirty, filthy, stinking sinners that God wants to see burn. They weren’t immortal by nature beforehand and then suddenly became mortal by their sinful act. Rather, in the narrative, the ultimate fates of Adam and Eve hinge on what is said in Genesis 3.22-24:

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

This narrative reads as is the thought that possibility of humanity simultaneously possessing knowledge of good and evil and having immortality was an unspeakably terrible thing and thus God expels Adam and Eve from the source of life to prevent such a terrible state of affairs. As Paul says, through one man, sin entered into the world and death through sin; I would  suggest the comment “death through sin” refers to the way in which God makes judgment against Adam’s sin: God could no longer trust humanity with their self-sufficient knowledge of what is good and evil and immortality, so God limited their life span by exclusion for God’s provision which ultimately amounted to a distancing from His presence.

God sends away not because they mess up and did wrong; God judges because the state of affairs if God does not act is unimaginably worse.

God’s judgment is about what type of people we are, not what type of things we did. As Paul writes in Romans 2.7-8 (NRSV):

to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”

The criterion Paul mentions is a motivational one with behavioral consequence. Is someone seeking what is good or is something seeking what is for their own ambition? Similarly in Romans 2.15-16 (NRSV):

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 parts1 of all.

Again, Paul states that Jesus judges based upon what rests within the person. In Romans 2, Paul does talk about a judgment of works, but it isn’t a judgment that is from the sum of all a person’s actions as if you can balance out good and bad actions, but a judgment that stems from what lead people to do what it is that they did. Not simply intentions, but the deepest seekings and motivations of the heart.

In this light, then, the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses the problem of the heart: how shall we know the good to pursue and how will we become the type of people who pursue that good? The Gospel is the story of God doing both for us, but it is through a faith like Jesus that we learn from God and then God handles the rest by forming us into the pattern of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We are not saved from a certain everlasting, eternal destruction by faith, but rather we are saved from the possibility of such. We can read Romans 5.9 as a statement of such an assurance from deliverance from that possibility (rather than that certainty) that is then later expressed more resolutely and very beautifully in Romans 8.31-39.

But, allow me to ask: what if the doctrine of justification has lost its power because the way it has been presented has been with the exaggerated narrative people have told about God’s wrath towards sin? That God judges them by the sum of all their behaviors, or rather all the negatives sums of every sin that can never be balanced out by good behaviors, but that then God decided to give a different route through faith in Jesus. What if people can not hear the doctrine of justification by faith because the real source of its impact in Wesley, Luther, and what followed to free people in their relationship to God by in effect working against their false understand about God’s anger has been concealed by a doctrine of sin used to control by getting people to convert and behave?

Allow me to conclude with this way of understanding the Biblical language of righteousness as an implication: there is a difference between rightness of behavior and the righteousness of heart. It is the righteousness of the heart that produces the right of behavior through learning and paying attention; one may fail and fall short at times, but the lack of rightness of action does not automatically invalidate your righteousness of heart. Furthermore, you can not reverse engineer the relationship by learning the right behavior to then have a righteousness of heart; that is what Luther and Wesley were trying to do before they found the righteousness of heart that comes by faith.

Why a United Methodist Church does not exist

March 1, 2019

The United Methodist Church does not exist. Sure, there is a label of a network of clergy, laity, agencies, and churches and their relationships to each other that we label “the United Methodist Church.” But I can point to a fish and call it a “cow,” but that doesn’t mean the fish is what we would otherwise think of when we hear the word “cow.” Same with the phrase “United Methodist Church.” We can use it as a label for something we are familiar with, but if we consider the meaning of the words, there is no such thing that exists that is defined by the meaning of the combination of the words “United,” “Methodist,” and “Church.”

My issue here, however, isn’t with the words “United” and “Methodist.” These are words that were use to label the institution based upon specific historical traditions and events. The label has “United” because we are the union of two Wesleyan denominations in 1968: the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren. If we use “United” to refer to the way the institution was historically form, then this word is true, although, if we use it to refer to the present condition of the denomination, it depends on what the meaning of “unity” you are using.

Meanwhile, labels like “Methodist” and other theological labels are frequently used to describe streams of traditions more so than specific ways of practice. Most of us don’t call people “Christian” because we know people believed exactly as the earliest disciples did; we call people Christian because they identify with something that has come out from this tradition. While the usage of such terms may lose their meaningfulness in telling us much about the people who adhere to these labels, they are still pretty meaningful is connected to people’s identity in the stream of history.

My problem is with calling us a “Church.” That word I feel is entirely unfitting for us a denomination. As I am sure many of you are aware, the Biblical understanding of the Church was not a church building; it wasn’t even per se an institution, although the early Church did have the rudimentary aspects of what we would refer to as institutions. “Church,” or rather ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), is used to refer to the specific type of gatherings of believers in the New Testament. It was a term that in the singular could be used to refer to a gathering of believers in a specific location, such as in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1.2), or could be used to refer to the universal designation of believers in general (see Gal. 1.13).1

The network labeled the United Methodist Church fits in neither label. It is neither the name of a local gathering of believers nor is it in reference to the universal church. 2 But to use it to refer to a specific collection of believers that are neither local nor make up the whole is to use it in a very novel way. This is a problem. Why?

When the NT uses the world ἐκκλησία and we use the word “church” in line with the NT, we are doing more than simply labeling and describing. We are legitimating and proscribing something about the people and our relationships. We are saying “there is a right way to be a church,” we have specific norms for how believers are to relate and be networked, or in connection, with each other, whether this is at the local or universal level. Beyond this, if we theologically recognize the existence of the Church/churches is grounded upon the action of a loving, powerful God who has redeemed as persons in relationship with each other, we are recognizing our gathering is legitimated by God Himself. For the New Testament, to be a part of the universal Church or a local church is to describe the way the love of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit is working itself out in us: through the way we live with each other personally and through the way we relate to other people who share the same confession everywhere. God is actively formed us to be in close relationship with specific believers and to be in relationship to all believers.

If we use the term “church” with this same sense of normativity and legitimation when we use it to describe the United Methodist Church, we are doing something that we might not offhand consciously recognize: we are stating there are divinely given norms and legitimation for our own denomination as it is. We are locating the work and power of God to the institution itself, as if God’s purpose is to teach us how to live together with s specific group of believers that is neither at the local nor the universal level. To do so is to prioritize the survival of the institution and network itself. By why should God care about maintaining the specific connectional/networked status of the United Methodist denomination?

To be clear, I am not saying “denominations” are wrong or evil, as is a common trope you might hear. From the moment the early Church recognized that the apostles were to have their specific zones of influence and that one apostle was not to try to act as an apostle in another zone, but rather there were network of churches that were connected around a specific apostolic figure, like Paul among many of the churches planted among the Gentile world, James in Jerusalem, or possibly Peter in Antioch.3 There have always existed networks of churches in between the local church and the universal church that operate and functioned together.  But nowhere do we see ἐκκλησία used to designate this middle ground. It is local or it is universal. And as the apostles passed away, it was left for the churches to re-network themselves in new ways, which eventually moved towards what we might refer to as catholicity that became increasingly defined by consistency with specific creedal-ized expressions of faith set against other expressions that diverge from established practice and proclamation of the churches.

Thus, the networks that existed in between the local and the universal did exist and were not frowned upon. The arrangements were due to the realities of coordination around key teachers and leaders, which later become substituted with key teachings that should leaders should instruct the people in. However, they were not permanent arrangements intended to exist in perpetuity.

If we as United Methodists allow the New Testament to determine the right theological usage of the term “Church,” then we are not, rightly speaking, a church as a denomination. Never have been, never will be. It was always a wrong way of speaking that has had the consequences of treating our network as a network that must always and necessarily exist, leading to the attempts to try to control this network through the use of institutional processes by the proponents of various theological frameworks.

But the reality is that the present setup no longer coordinates our work around doing the work that God has given to the global Church, but rather we have tried to coordinate between the local churches and the mission the network of churches tries to determine. Consequently, we coordinate our work around maintaining what we label the “church” but was never rightly labeled such. We spend more time than we should try to protect the “connection” and less time than we should employing our connection for the specific purposes God calls us towards. In the end, we don’t even ultimately agree on what those specific purposes are and how to accomplish those purposes. Our denomination is united by language that describes our processes (such as some parts of the Book of Discipline) and rituals and habits that enact these processes within our connection (such as ordination, conferencing, etc), but when the rubber meets the road and we stop focusing on a unity of abstractions and habits to pay attention to the realities in our concrete actions and relations, we massively disagree with what should or should not be permissible.

We are a United Methodist connection, a dysfunctional one at that, but we are not a church or Church, and we have never been a church or a Church. We are a connection and the connection should be judged on the manner in which the connection accomplishes its purposes, not on how it preserves itself. Maybe our connection is salvageable for the purposes we think it should have, maybe it isn’t. But let’s no longer treat the label we have given to it as having any real theological authority or a divine legitimation to the specific shape and form of our connection.

John 13.35 – Not what you think it means

February 28, 2019

I am left in the wake of the fighting at the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church reflecting on this passage: 

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.35)

Many a sermon has been written on this passage. People hear of this and the idealizations start to spark: what if we only loved each other? Imagine how many people will come to Jesus if we only loved? Many a mission for churches and evangelism has been centered around this,

And they are wrong about it. Not only are the wrong about it, the way people are wrong about it missing the whole point of what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples. Allow me to start with a demonstration.

What does this passage NOT say. It doesn’t “people will come to Jesus, if you have love for another.” IT doens’t say “people will know you are a believer, if you have love for another.” It doesn’t say “awesome things will happen, if you have love for one another.” IT doesn’t say “you will be happy, if you have love for another.” It doesn’t say “you will be good Christians, if you have love for one another.” It doesn’t even say “people will know that you are my disciples, if you love the world/all other people.” It says this: everyone will know that you are my DISCIPLES. DISCIPLES. The Greek word for disciple is μαθητής, which is cognate to the verb μανθάνω which means learner. A disciple, a μαθητής is one who has learned from Jesus.

But to clarify, the type of learning they did wasn’t our school room type of learning where you master some set of ideas and then put those ideas into practice in an exam and getting a grade. Rather, it was learning from a person superior to you in something who taught you through question and answer, who you watched and saw do something and you imitated, who corrected you when you got it wrong and praised you when you got it right. It is a type of learning where you were vulnerable and trusting over a period of time.

Secondly, these disciples were not individual disciples who had their own spiritual journey. These were disciples that spent years together with each other, as they spent it with Jesus. They would talk with each other about the things Jesus said, learning from each other as they were learning from Jesus. And they were close to Jesus. There were plenty of other people who knew Jesus and who even was taught by Jesus on one occasion or another. But it was these disciples who Jesus poured His time and attention into.

So this helps us to understand a little bit about what Jesus. The name of Jesus was a big deal in many places. Many people had heard of him, knew of him, etc. But at the same time, he was someone who would have been quite esoteric in his day. Put in modern terms, you probably wouldn’t think he was cool or a great guy personally, but you might think he was a little bit awkward and weird at times. Nevertheless, he was someone who garnered attention by what he was capable of doing and how he taught. But even then, sometimes his teaching would cause more confusion and at times even disgust than it would be clear and enjoyable. So a sense of ambiguity, curiosity, intrigue, and confusion would surround him. This is not to mention the big dramatics that would happen on the cross and then the empty tomb. People would be trying to make sense of him and all that happened, asking “who is that guy?”

So, you want to know what this means for the original disciples. To love each other, and more specifically to love each other the way Jesus loves them, would mean this. That they saw a group of people who resembled Jesus together, that knew each other, that worked with each other. This would distinguish them from all the other people who had heard a thing or two, maybe even try to follow Jesus from time to time for their own motivations (see John 2.24 for people Jesus excluded from getting to know him personally). People would be able to say to these disciples: “You know Him! We are curious. Tell us more about Him!”

Jesus is essentially telling them: your discipleship and credentials to teach about Jesus will be based upon how you love. It is not a plan for the success of the Church; it is not a plan for personal success in evangelism. It is this: how people can determine the real thing from frauds. For instance, Paul has to deal with some people like this in 2 Corinthians, claiming to be apostles, which would have entailed a claim to personal familiarity with the risen Jesus (Paul’s familiarity through a calling on the Road to Damascus made him an exception to the way the disciples were familiar with Jesus); other people were claiming to be able to speak on behalf of Jesus. We also have church traditions suggesting this happened, that people claim they had secret teachings of Jesus that they were taught which contradicted what the disciples taught. Many people were claiming to be affiliated with Jesus and to have authority from Jesus. But not all of them were authenticated to speak on Jesus’ behalf.

So, I am left with one thing to think in line with what happened this week: The United Methodist church as a whole is not authenticated to teach others about Jesus. As a denomination as a whole, we are not disciples of Jesus together. In light of this weekend, it would be helpful to quit pretending and recognize, we are broken when it comes to authentically represent Jesus.

Now, before you get angry at me or celebrate how I “tore down” the United Methodist Church, allow me to clarify, but the details are important. I am not saying the United Methodist Church or the delegates to annual conference aren’t believers. Nor am I say there are not disciples in the United Methodist Church or among the delegates. Beyond that, this is not a code word for saying a big portion are going to hell for apostasy, etc. etc. I am simply saying they, we as a church denomination have not been discipled together. Many of us may be familiar with Jesus, may like and love Jesus, but we haven’t really allowed ourselves to be discipled by Jesus. We may have believed together, but we haven’t learned and grown together as a denomination. We together as a United Methodist denomination are not the real McCoy.

And that is okay, as this is precisely why Paul talks in Ephesians 4.11-13 of God sending people with gifts to teach the body so that it can mature. But, then in 4.14-15, he reminds the Ephesians that there are people who may engage in some trickery, but the pathway forward is to speak the truth in love. There are people who are really disciples among the tribe called United Methodists, of that I am sure, although there are also people outside of our tribe who authentic discipleship could bear fruit for our tribe. 

But if I learned one thing this week it is this: the pathway for faithfulness to God in this denomination does not run through trying to fix, salvage, or unite the United Methodist denominational structure, nor does it entail splitting, breaking it apart, etc. While something along those lines may be necessary for one reason or another, none of those things themselves are going to create the disciples. It takes this: real discipleship. Some will take it and receive it. Some will be content on the sidelines. Some will act like they have been disciples when they haven’t. Some will make disciples in their own image and label them disciples of Jesus. And some will want to be disciples, but Jesus will not disciple them until they come to repent for the motivations for wanting to be disciples as in John 2.24.

Marriage and ordination as a way of life

February 19, 2019

The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is coming up this weekend. It is a time of great hope and anxiety as we wait to see what the decided future of the United Methodist Church will be, if there is any decision that is made. While the legislation, strictly speaking, is primarily about ecclesial structures, the options pertain to what degree of flexibility will be allowed pertaining to the matter of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate lesbian and gay persons.

And while I support the traditional understanding of sex and marriage in the Scriptures, I have long felt that many (but not all of the struggles the United Methodist denomination faces over the matters of sex and marriage stem from a problematic view about marriage and ordination that conservatives, traditionalists, and evangelicals all seem to share. For years, I have felt there was something deeply inconsistent with the logic that emerges the common understandings about sex, marriage, and even ordination, even if their views are to some degree consistent with what the Scripture speaks to these matters. While I for a long time had a hard time trying to clarify what exactly the source of this inconsistency was, something didn’t seem right to me.

But then, something dawned on me. I recall my experience of people who were going through the ordination process with me (I am still not fully ordained due to my own choices). While confidentiality forbids me from sharing specific things that were said by specific people, I can provide the general gist that I have heard, which I have also heard elsewhere: people want to get to the ordained status. There was a feeling that the process were hoops to jump through to obtain a specific status as ordained. Then, you get to do what ordained pastors do. Ordination was a status that bestowed specific privileges.

Let’s take marriage from the idealized, traditional Christian view of marriage. Two people meet and they date, but they abstain from sex until the marriage ceremony. Then, once that has occurred and the minister pronounces them “Husband and Wife,” then the couple has obtained the status of marriage and then they have the privilege of having sex and children.

Want to know why marriage and ordinate are considered statuses with privileges? If I were to tell my bishop of my annual conference that I performed a wedding that I am not authorized to do since I am not fully ordained1, I imagine that I would be seen as transgressing some boundary. But if I were to tell him I had been preaching on occasion somewhere else, that would probably not bother him even though that too is included in the task of an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Some statuses are seen as unequally gating off some activities from others. Other people could perform some of the duties that an ordained elder does, but not other duties. That is privilege and status.

Consider marriage for another example. Imagine an engaged couple told their conservative minister that they were having sex before marriage. While the responses from the ministry may vary from mildly encouraging abstinence to trying to force them to stop having sex through various means, almost every conservative minister would think “you shouldn’t do that.” But imagine instead they told their ministry “we have a shared bank account.” Some might think that is a wise step, some might think it premature and smirk a bit, etc., but there would be little to no sense that they had violated some boundary. Even though married life commonly entails sharing financial resources, a shared bank account would be seen as different from have sex before the wedding. Once again, marriage is seen as a status walling off certain types of activities as for those who have obtained a certain status.

Now, the inconsistency I am pointing out is not, per se, the walling off of certain activities. There are good reasons to wait for sex until one has firmly secured the relationship into the future. There are good reasons to not try to get spiritually involved in a person’s marriage until you yourself are capable of providing healthy spiritual direction. Limitations are not the problem.

Rather, the inconsistency is this: marriage and ordination are routinely seen as a status that bestows special privileges to one group over another. If I get to be ordained, I get to perform marriages. If I get married, I get to have sex. It is okay if you do some of the other stuff that ordained people do, like preach, or that married people do, like share a bank account, but you don’t get to do this until you join the club. And all too readily, people seek marriage and ordination precisely for these purposes.

For me, there is a distinction between behaviors being limited based upon reasoned action and based upon privilege. While it can look same on the surface, there is a world of difference. Sex in a (opposite-sex) marriage entails a whole host of realities that have implications for people’s physical health, the status of their relationship, the possibility of bringing a new life into this world, etc., etc. One should be able to take on the responsibility that comes with engaging in a sexual relationship. Likewise ordination. Getting involved in a person’s marriage can have lifelong relational and spiritual implications; one should be able to take healthily take on the responsibility that comes with performing weddings. Thus, marriage and ordination are seen closer to “credentials” that one can take the responsibility to live life in a specific way. In this case, one is “credentialed” in that one is recognized as being able to do what the way of life of an ordained or married person entails: the responsibility you have to another person. 

This leads me to my point. Rather than seeing marriage and ordination as about some status that conveys privilege, rather, it is about a commitment to a specific way of life one has been recognized that one is ready for.

I mean something specific about “way of life” though. Pierre Hadot describes the “way of life” in books Philosophy as a Way of Life. In referring to the philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman eras as being concerned about a specific way of life based upon a passage in Philo of Alexandria, he describes it as “[the way of life] means that philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life.”2 Philosophers as lovers of wisdom were engaged in a specific way in which they directed their lives in order to accomplish the goal of being wise. What they did in the world around them, moment to moment, was critical for what it means to be in pursuit of wisdom.

If the concept of a “way of life” is applicable outside of the pursuit of wisdom, then I would offer the following: a way of life is a specific way in which one intentionally engages in the events and circumstances of one’s life in order to achieve a specific purpose one has set out for oneself. A “way of life” is not simply a set of habits and routines we have but it is a way of engaging one’s life based upon the purposes one is set out for that would not otherwise be obtainable except the way one is formed through one’s actions. A way of life is an intentional engagement that is necessary in order to live in such a way as to attain specific purposes. Thus, ways of life are defined by three primary characteristics: intentional action, committed purpose, and personal transformation.

What is important in ways of life is that the accomplishment of the purpose is tied to HOW intentional action leads to personal transformation. It isn’t simply a utilitarian type thinking of “if I do X, I accomplish my goal Y.” Rather, it works more along the lines of “if I do X, A, B…, I will be transformed in such a way that I can then accomplish my purpose Y.” There is a goal that mediates one’s actions and the accomplishment of one’s purposes. My actions can not accomplish the purpose itself, but it can form who I am in such a way that I am capable of achieving a purpose. Simply being goal-oriented action isn’t a way of life. Rather, a way of life is goal-oriented towards a specific type of personal change that will then accomplish a wider array of purposes one has committed themselves to.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the way in which our actions change us is not reducible to solely our intention to change. We are changed based upon the entirety of our experience, not just the intentions we have in the moment. As a result, not all intentional actions will accomplish the type of transformation we want to receive, but intentional actions must occur in the necessary contexts. For instance, if I want to be able to be strong enough so as to easily carry something that weighs 300 pounds, my intention to be physically changed through lift 10 pounds dumbbells every day isn’t going to get me there. The existence of a specific intention is not enough, but that what I am doing must impact me in such a way as to create a change. Intention alone does not determine the nature of the change and transformation, but rather intention directs us towards certain experiences, some of which are able to change us in the ways we are seeking to then accomplish our purposes.

This is important because intentional actions are not readily transferable to any context. You can not live a certain way of life in whatever manner you wish to accomplish your purpose. Rather, there are specific things and ways one must participate in life that determine the way you are changed to accomplish your purpose. I can’t be able to bench press 300 pounds if I simply lift weights with my legs. I won’t be a Biblical scholar if I only read philosophy. Having an intention, transformation goal, and purpose is not enough. When, where, and how one’s intentional action is directed is a fourth part of the way of life. It is the one part of the way of life that we have no real control over; we can control to some degree when and how we act, but we don’t control if the time and place we act is going to accomplish the transformational goal.

This provides a basis upon which the traditional view of marriage and ordination can be coherent with the wider sweep of Scriptures without being deeply inconsistent: marriage and ordination are about ways of life in which people intentionally act in specific ways to be transformed in such a way that they accomplish certain purposes that they commit themselves to in their life. While one can choose to commit one’s life to a person of the same sex and have sex with them, it will have not the same impact on the person as it will if it was with a member of the opposite sex. While one can choose to preach, perform weddings, etc., it will have a different impact depending on the type of person you are when you do those things.

At stake here in the idea of the “way of life” isn’t the idea of a restriction from an exclusive privilege. One can choose to act in a different manner from the traditional views on sex and ordination. But that doesn’t mean the impact will be the same. Who you have sex with impacts what type of person you will become. What type of person you are will impact the way in which you will fill in the role of ordained minister. Within a specific community, it may be deemed important that for a person to be considered married or ordained, one must be living a such a way that one will be changed in such a way as to accomplish the specific purposes that marriage and ordination are seen to have.

Biblically speaking, there is such precedent. Regarding marriage: in Genesis 1, the fertility of humanity is connected to the divinely bestow purpose for humanity to manage and tend life. Also, speaking to whether people should get married or not, Paul’s direction can be summarized by what he says in 1 Corinthians 7.17: “let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.” Then soon afterward in 1 Corinthians 7.32-35, Paul highlights the way of life that married people have, suggesting there is a good reason to go unmarried if one can live that sort of life because one can be focused on what God wants. However, he is clear that marriage is not a sin, but rather that it is a way of life that is not as flexible (although, one can surmise that Paul would agree that the focus on the interests of one’s spouse is *part* of what God wants from someone who is married).

Regarding ordination: while there isn’t the concept of ordination as we have it today in the Bible, there are passages that talk about commitment to service to God. One of the salient concepts is the idea of being a servant of God. In 1 Corinthians 4.1, Paul tells the Corinthians to consider him a “servant of Christ.” He then precedes to describe the experiences of his life in vs. 9-13:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.3

Notice specifically that Paul as a servant/apostle speaks about the type of behavior they engage in under certain circumstances. They engage in the behavior that is the opposite of the intentions of their enemies. Enemies seek to tear down, Paul engages in an action to build up. Enemies seek to put an end to Paul, Paul seeks to continue to move onward. Paul’s role as an apostle and a servant of Christ means he engages in a specific way of living. So, he can say in 2 Corinthians 4.8-12:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.4

Here, we see that Paul’s engaged in specific contexts (although, he doesn’t mention his intentional actions in response) of trial has a specific goal: through these struggles, the life of Jesus will be visible in him. This came right after he spoke of the transformation into the image of Jesus Christ that in 3.12-4.6. Having the life of Jesus visible in him is the transformation that Paul’s way of life as a servant of Christ creates. But the transformation isn’t Paul’s purpose as a servant, but rather, it is outlined in 2 Corinthians 5.16-21:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;b even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,c we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,d not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.5

Paul’s purpose as a servant is to serve as an ambassador of God’s reconciliation. The transformation of Paul’s life into the image of Christ, which he speaks of here in “becom[ing] the righteousness of God,” is the basis upon which (“for”) Paul can appeal to the Corinthians to be reconciled. Because the life of Christ has been formed into Paul, Paul’s own speech reflects that of God so that he can adequately speak on God’s behalf as a representative/ambassador.

So, from principally looking at the Pauline literature (with a bit of Genesis), I hope to have shown that as the concept of a “way of life” is suitable for a Christian understanding of both of marriage and of ordination, if understood as a specific type of service to the Lord. Since the “way of life” that Hadot mentions was characteristic of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, it is reasonable to think that Paul construes the Christian life and journey through the understanding of specific ways of life.

Although to be clear, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament do not designate a single way of life. Singleness is considered a legitimate way of life. Paul does not expect everyone to become apostles. But to explore the possibility of plural ways of life and what that looks like is beyond the scope of this post. My hope is that you can see that there is a different way we can look at marriage and ordination that remains true to the Scriptures but does not work according to the standard line of thinking that ultimately sees marriage and ordination as privileged statuses.

But, to be clear, if all you do were to throw the label “way of life” onto marriage and ordination and then leave it at that, your labeling wouldn’t change the reality that we treat them as status with privileges that people would then see excluding specific people from. The way we as Christians seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures need to change how we talk and think about marriage and ordination, in how we instruct others about it, and so on. Taking on a “way of life” view will entail a change of behavior and other forms of speech and instruction in discipleship.

This will means that we have to become very conscious about why we are different from the culture in how we understanding certain matters and to own that difference honestly, but without aggression towards and compulsion upon others. Because, in the end, the Church will effectively witness to the world as we ourselves engage in the way of life such that Jesus is exhibited in us so that we can bring a godly appeal to others. We don’t compel, we don’t force, we don’t cast away; we show by the transformation in Jesus Christ that the Spirit brings in us through our way of life.

Doubt in James 1:6

February 9, 2019

Adversity hits us in life sometimes. Sometimes, adversity comes in the form of a specific, singular event that tries people’s patience and even faith; sometimes, adversity comes in the form of a long, drawn out set of events, tempting someone to succumb to a death by a thousand cuts. Nevertheless, adversity is a real part of life. For those of us who follow Jesus, these adverse events presents us with a specific challenge, to retain a sense of faith in God in the face of such struggles and understanding of how to respond in the midst of such events. James 1:2-8 provides James response to such realities, recognizing that people who go through difficult events will be tested in their faith as they seek for the right way to respond in the midst of the turmoil.

Tucked away in verse 6 is a passage that serves as support to the idea that one should not doubt God. The context of this doubt pertains to the nature of difficult trials, but due to the way James transitions his exhortations, the connections between the different parts are not always immediately apparent. As a consequence, we can be inclined to view the notion of doubt in terms of our more reflective thinking, such as ontological terms (“Does God exist?”), moral terms (“Is God good?”), or in terms of capacity (“Is God all-powerful?”).  But these questions do not hit at exactly what James is addressing.

At stake for James is this question: what is the response of the person to God in the midst of the trials? In vs. 12-16, James expands on dilemma a person may have n the midst the trial that he refers to previously in vs. 2-4. When facing the trial (δόκιμος), it is supposable that might say that God is tempting (πειράζω) them. There is an important difference in these terms. δόκιμος is used in reference to the circumstances one faces, whereas πειράζω is used to refer to the enticement one feels in the midst of such circumstances. What James tries to remind his audience is that when a trial comes, God is not trying to entice the person to fail. This feeling of temptation comes from within, not God.

This begins to provide a sense of the doubt James speaks about in v. 6. The doubt isn’t about ontology of God or God’s moral nature. It is about God’s relationship to the person: to doubt as James is talking about is to think that God is trying to get one to fail by putting them through adversity. When a person feels enticed through adverse circumstances, the might be “tempted” to say “This temptation is from God.” By contrast, James portrays God as generous and not looking down at the person with judgment.

This provides the basis of the double-mindedness of the doubter that James refers to. This person, at the same moment, ask from a God for something that they do not trust God to give. This is not talking about the ebb and flow of doubt throughout time, but doubt in the specific instance of asking, where there is a synchronization of doubt and seeking. It is to doubt God’s good intentions while at the same time to seek from God as if He has good intentions. Such people who have such relationship patterns would often exhibit a distinctive disorganization in the rest of their life.

The most appropriate analogy I could think of is what occurs in unhealthy relationships. For instance, in some marriages, one person may have two contradictory expectations of their partner. On the one hand, they may think “You ought to love me” and expect the partner to give what they expect. On the other hand, they think “You won’t love me” and so act in a manner in which they expect the partner to fail them. Two contradictory expectations operate at the same time: the expectations of obligation and the expectations of mistrust. While plenty of people experience ambivalence regarding their relationships, their expectations within the moment tend to be ‘integrated’ that gets modified according to experience, whereas this double-minded nature is one in which both operate simultaneously.

This is what I think to be the most fitting analogy to the type of doubting of God James is referring to. It is to simultaneously expect of God to provide wisdom to help in one’s time of trial and then at the same time think God is the one responsible for one’s temptations as if God is trying to get one to fail.

What is the origination of this attitude? James doesn’t describe this, but in James 4.7-10 he provides the antidote:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (NRSV)

James solution is repentance that is understood as a reorientation of the whole person, action and heart, towards God. But with our modern predilection toward diagnostic awareness over therapeutic change, we can glean hints as to what the origin of this problem of doubt and double-mindedness was.

If one pays attention to the whole of James, one sees a repetitive problematic pattern that James is addressing, which I would refer to as non-participatory religion. James exhorts people to not be mere hearers, warnings people that faith without works is dead. Meanwhile, he also opposes the attitude of pride and automatic expectations of future success.

These two patterns together are suggestive of a specific type of religion where the practice of one’s religion is about God’s obligations to oneself, but there is no real expectations of any sort of obligation and fulfillment on their own end. One treats the word as God’s obligations, or maybe even other people’s obligations, but there is no sense that one has any sense of reciprocating obligation. It is an attitude where one should receive but it is not necessary to give. In this sense, God’s word is a law of obligation upon God, and even others, to act in a certain way, rather a law of liberty as James refers to 2.12. Such an attitude can lead to the expectation that God is morally obligated to give to one what they expect and ask for.

However, at the same time, such an attitude exhibits a certain attitude under trial and distress. People who have high expectations of others but low expectations of themselves have a predilection to blame their own feelings on other people. Others are making them feel what they feel. So, when this attitude gets direct towards God, there can be the blame towards God for making them feel tempted as they do. “You are making me do this!” can be a thought about God.

The end result is the doubting person James is referring to is thinking “You ought to give me wisdom to help me through this difficult time, God, but you won’t because you are trying to make me fail.”

This type of doubt is different from other forms of doubt, however. This is not the epistemic doubt that is generated by reflective thinking about God and God’s nature. This isn’t even the type of doubt generates from difficult struggles but without questioning God’s character that the lament Psalms express. Rather, James is referring to a relational doubt generated by a person whose pride makes them feel entitled with a low sense of obligation towards those they expect something from. Their religion is a non-participatory religion, as it doesn’t entail them living faithfully to God’s call towards God and others, but is a one-way relationship of God (and others) towards them that leads to doubt about God’s good intentions in times of trials.

Hence, the solution to such a double-minded nature is a repentance that leads them towards a participatory religion where they submit to God. This also includes abstaining from denigrating other people as persons, which immediately follows in James 4.11-12, as the one who uses the law as expectations for others but not themselves uses it like a judge against others rather than a call to direct their own actions. 1 Instead, it is a religion that cares for and takes action on behalf of the widow, the orphan, and the one in need of food and clothing. This type of person who has been purified from personal desire gone selfishly haywire ceases to be the type of person who is quick to speak and anger against others when things do not match their own, high expectations of others, but rather they are contented to listen to others.

In other words, the double-minded doubter that James refers to has a wrong view of God and through that, of others. They see God under obligation and all of religion as obligations to themselves. But, in fact, James’ description of God and religion is not one of obligation, but of generosity.2 James repeatedly emphasizes God’s generosity and speaks of the Torah as characterized by liberty. God does what he does out of generous love to the most humble, rather than a God who is obligated to give those who deem themselves pridefully worthy of this love.3

Reflections on theological language, referencing God, and unity

February 6, 2019

The more I research Paul’s letters in comparison to Greco-Roman wisdom and philosophy, the more I am convinced that much of our talk about God and our devotion is more of a Stoic rather than a distinctly Christian form. There is a reason people thought the Stoic Seneca and Paul knew each other and that were even an apocryphal correspondance between each other: their language about God can resemble each other.

But when you look past some of the common languages, it is amply clear that Paul and Seneca thought about God in different terms. Seneca thought in pantheistic terms and that everyone has access to God inside themselves, whereas Paul believes that God must give His Spirit to understand God’s thoughts. The Stoic Epictetus referred to all humans as children of God, whereas Paul speaks of adoption by God through the bestowal of the Holy Spirit; the Gospel of John makes believing in Jesus necessary in order to become the children of God. These different claims are not treated as incidental speculations about God’s nature, but they take a prominent place in their views about who God is.

Similarily, today we see many who identify as Christians who use a common language, but it is a categorical mistake to think they are talking about the same God simply because they use similar language and expression of devotion to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Why? Because they have very different portrayals of how God acts, what Jesus did, and how the Spirit is at work. These differences are substantive.

This isn’t to say simply because we disagree on God means we are not talking about the same God; the lack of conformity to some preconceived orthodoxy doesn’t mean one is worshipping a different god. Rather, when we treat our own thoughts as necessary and important part of who God is and when someone claims what God does and someone else says God acts in a different manner from our own claims, then one’s own definition of God excludes God being different from what one says. When the highest commitments one’s theology exclude the highest commitments of other theological claims, then one can begin to suggest the God/gods we are talking about are distinctly different.

In other words, when two groups of people are making diametrically opposed claims about God and these differences are deemed significant about God, then one can suggest their theological language is in reference to different gods. This is because the referential usage of language is determined by the conceptual/semantic content. For instance, when I refer to a specific person such as Alex, Laura or John, my cognitive sense of who is that person is will determine what person my language is rightly referencing. But as there are multiple people named Jacob, Laura, or John, it is only the sense in which I use those proper names that determines who I am talking about. So if, for instance, I am talking about the Alex who I went to college with who was an intramural football player and studies in communications and you are talking about an Alex who went to the same college but that person ran track for the university and studied in education, we are talking about different people because the identifying criteria of the two Alex’s are different, even if they share similarities, such as the Alex I know running track in high school and later going to grad school in education. If the other person’s idea of Alex treats his collegiate track career and bachelor’s in education as a necessarily true part of who their Alex is, then we are talking about different Alex’s. The different criteria we take as necessary part of the identity of someone means that same name/word will be used differently in reference to who, even if those different references share similar features.

What is also significant is that we rarely, if ever, express the necessary, identifying criteria in language. When I talk about the Alex I know, I don’t express some clear, identificatory criteria. In fact, I don’t even think about my understanding of Alex in such a matter. Such way of thinking about the actual reference of the proper name Alex occurs when someone else talks about an Alex that might think is the same, but we discover they are different. Nevertheless, our understandings we intuitively use to distinguish between different Alex’s are important about what we think about that person. What is important about identifying different Alex’s is rarely, if ever, expressed directly unless there is some reason to identify between them. Rather, such understanding about Alex will be demonstrated in the way I talk about Alex, but aside from the occasional phrase such as “This is what makes Alex Alex” that is sometimes idiomatic, I don’t point out such essential understandings about Alex.

Likewise with God. Shared language about ‘God’ can mask fundamentally different, substantive claims about deities. What we treat as most critical about who God is determines what type of deity our language is used in reference to.

However, in our modern world influenced by empirical science, we have treated one of the most fundamental, identifying criteria of God in his invisibility. Thus, we are inclined to use this property, along with other proprieties such as number (one God) and power (God is Creator) as the basis to determine that we are all talking about the same God. Everything else we say about God is treated as not that important so as to be distinctive. In a sense, being embedded in a scientific world has changed how it is that we define who God is. Consequently, it is easy for the sake of unity and peace to say all claims about God are in reference to the same God.

However, just as the Roman Empire tried to treat the Roman and the Greek pantheon as equivalents in the name of cultural and imperial unity to reinforce Roman influence and power, so too do cultural and political considerations lead us to try to collapse all claims about God as bearing the same reference. We are not as apt to see this comparison on the surface because the prominence and cultural victory of monotheism in the Western world has caused us to differentiate the Roman religion from modern religion as fundamentally different in terms of polytheism vs. monotheism. But this masks something fundamentally important: the centralization of social and political power tends to try to collapse theological claims as being fundamentally the same. This is the inclusive spirit that exists behind civil religion.

Christian unity under such conditions is not workable because a shared language does not automatically beget shared understanding. The Jewish and Christian understanding of God was made in diametric opposition to the theological spirit of the Greco-Roman world. The Gospel of John and Paul shared a similar religious and theological language with the Stoics on the surface, but there were also critical, substantive differences between the two at the deeper level of how their language was actually used. These differences were significant part of how John and Paul talk about God, Jesus, and the Spirit through the Gospel and Epistles.

So, this leads to a different view of the unity of the Church. Unity is contained in the deeper, often tacit, rarely explicit, confessions of the Church. This unity is not formed, however, simply by some common confession at the level of language or even an institutional praxis, but by what happens at a deeper level of the person. While a common confession can emerge and it can be expressed as in did in the early theological battles to establish the orthodox faith, the expression of this confession does not itself even create this unity, although it might be instrumental in reinforcing such unity. For John and Paul, this unity occurs through a common faith in Jesus and the giving of the Spirit. This unity is not a ‘democratic’ unity where all people are considered members by default, but only through faith in Jesus and by the giving of the Spirit does the content of one’s faith in God have the same God in view.

Limitations of narratives for interpreting the Apostle Paul

January 31, 2019

[Note: What is written here is an attempt to try to put into words my response to NT Wright’s method for making sense of the New Testament and Paul in particular. The concepts being used emerged from the blending of learning from various disciplines, so it will be disjointed in its organization and lacking in analytic clarity.]

Stories are the glue that keeps our social worlds together. When I got together to visit with cousins who I had not seen in a while, we recemented our bonds by telling stories of when we were younger. My cousin Anna1 and I reminisced about the time when we were very young and were eating at local Arby’s. Conjured up in the magical brains of kids was the bright idea, lets see who can drink from our cups with the most straws at the same time. She won. Being three years older to me, this is a story that cemented her (friendly) superiority over me as kids. Or, at least, that is what we thought. But then her husband John, sitting at the table, jokingly quipped that we destroyed the environment. With this new piece of information, I quipped, “So, Anna, you did more to the destroy the environment. So, I actually won!” Nearly three decades later, a story that had playfully meant one thing, that I lost to my cousin, was transformed into a different story: that I had actually won.

Of course, while this story isn’t serious as Anna and I care about each other and do not seriously care about who won or lost, there is something serious about the way stories function. The meaning of stories are not always fixed. What was a story of one’s superiority when it comes to drinking from many straws was turn into a story of environmental waste, where the “better” person was different. But nothing about the story itself really changed. If we were to tell the story again after this, the basic fundamental pieces of the narrative would remain the same. Rather how the story becomes interpreted has changed. Whereas previously the story was evaluated in terms of an idea of competition that was part of the story, another way of interpreting the story was provided from “outside” the narrative. What has changed is that the story of Anna and I playing a silly game was interpreted through the lens of another narrative: that of environmental waste.

While such an analysis of this could ruin the whole fun of what took place yesterday. Narratives do not themselves have meanings for us outside of the way we appropriate those narratives. To use a metaphor from physics, narratives have potential energy stored within them to provide meaning, but narratives only take on kinetic energy to generate meaning when they are used. The way we use narratives determines the meaning generated by stories. Put more simply: narratives have various potential meanings, but it is how they get used that leads to actual meaning in the mind of a person.

I want to explore this notion of potential meanings more fully. What is it that gives narratives the possibility of conveying meaning? Narratives can convey meaning because there is some similarity and correspondence between our cognitive understanding of the narrative and our cognitive understanding of what we apply our narratives to. We use narratives to understand those persons, things, events, etc. that resemble the narrative. The resemblance may be concrete and specific (such as the involvement of the same people at two different points of time) or more abstract (such as the similarity of the idea between the generic narrative of personal enslavement in Greco-Roman times and the story of moral transformation for Paul in Romans 6), but narratives work because of resemblance.

That narratives works because of resemblances means something: narratives are not themselves the basic constituents of human thinking. That a narrative generates meaning only through its resemblance to something else entails that the meaning of narratives are conditioned to consistent elements that are understood to be a part of the narrative. I would suggest that is because narratives are like a big box packed with many smaller presents. Put more analytically, narratives are a system of constituent elements of human cognition. While the narrative as a whole is significant for generating meaning, it is the constituent parts of the narrative that provide potentially places where we can “grip” the narrative to use it. In the story shared between Anna and I, it is the more basic elements of multiple straws, the presence of Anna and I, and the idea of one person being better than another at something. Based upon the idea of conceptual blending as described by Giles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, these basic elements then blended with the idea of environmental waste that turn a story that was playfully about Anna’s victory and my death to a story of Anna’s transgression.

However, it is important to note this. The way we generate meaning is almost always unconscious; occasionally we might gener

In summary, narratives convey meaning only on the basis of other, more constituent elements that determine how narratives are used to create meaning. While the meaning generated from narratives can not be reduced to an analysis of its conistuent parts, the meaning of the narrative is largely determined by what of its constituent parts are significant and have salience for the circumstances that are used to make sense of.

From this comes a specific implication as it pertains to the study of the Apostle Paul: worldview as a collection of narratives presents a useful but limited perspective to understanding Paul. It is here that places a potential tension with NT Wright’s interpretive work on the New Testament in general and Paul in particularly. In New Testament and the PEople of God, Wright describes the central role narrative has:

Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative. Stories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in statements about ‘bare facts’. An equally unsatisfactory alternative is to regard the story as a showcase for a rhetorical saying or set of such sayings. Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview. I shall argue in chapter 5 that all worldviews contain an irreducible narrative element, which stands alongside the other worldview elements (symbol, praxis, and basic questions and answers), none of which can be simply ‘reduced’ to terms of the others. As we shall see, worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims, which function as in principle debatable expressions of the worldviews. The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs.2

While I certainly agree that narrative and worldview analysis provides tremendous benefit to Biblical interpretation, I think it is important to state that stories are not the “basic constituent of human life” and explore the implications of this. They are important, but are not basic.

For instance, how can an infant participate in human life when they have no real sense of narratives? Nevertheless, infants are able to make sense of the world, but it is not until around two years old when the foundation for higher cognitive thinking begins to develop. As these higher cognitive functions develop, it allows the child to make sense of how they were making sense of the world in pre-symbolic, pre-abstraction, pre-narratival terms. However, this isn’t strictly meta-cognition as it isn’t thinking about thinking, where we analyze our mode of thinking through the very same mode. Rather, the awareness of the infant is tacit, whereas the growing awareness of higher cognitive begins to conglomerate the various ways in which we tacitly make sense of the world into an integrated, singular, and conscious through patterns. In other words, narratives as higher cognition are a system of constituent elements from lower-level cognition, although they can come to also include other types of high-cognitive schemas, such as other narratives, symbols, etc.

Why is all this significant for understanding the Apostle Paul? If narratives are not basic to human life but rather make sense of the basic constituents of human life, then we are left with a distinct possibility: if there is a radical disruption in basic constituents of human life, then either a) the way narratives are used to convey meaning will be disrupted or b) narratives themselves will be irrupted and broken to make way new narratives. This is what I would contend happens for Paul on the Road to Damascus. Paul has an encounter with the risen Lord that not only challenges him personally but the way the Jewish narratives were employed in support of his persecution of Christians.

Some people might be inclined to refer to this as a paradigm shift, but I think this language is misleading. Firstly, paradigms are not the same as narratives. More importantly, paradigm shifts as developed by Thomas Kuhn was a shift from one cognitive structure to make sense of a field of science to another cognitive structure. This is a shift from one higher-level cognitive schema to another higher-level cognitive schema. A new paradigm may emerge within a person over a period of time, but it will emerge from our tacit, implicit, unconscious thinking before it becomes formalized into a relatively stable paradigm. But the lack of a clear, persistent paradigm doesn’t entail a lack of comprehension or knowledge. One can still make sense in the absence of a higher-order cognitive schema, but we become closer to infants in our understanding until the emergence of a new schema.

Also paradigms are not as flexible to use in meaning-making as narratives are; paradigms are used in relatively unambiguous, clear ways over a specific set of events and cirumstances that bear strong resemblance to each other, whereas narratives create ambiguity and can may applied to a wider set of events and circumstnaces that may not bear such a strong resemblance. For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity applies to what is considered to the basic constituents of the physical universe, such as light, speed, gravity, etc. The theory of relativity does not readily apply to human relationships, however. By contrast, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection can be applied to matters of life and death, of struggle, of change and transformation, etc. Whereas paradigms are used under relatively clear conditions, narratievs are not.

So, instead of analyzing Paul in terms of a paradigm shift, it is better to suggest that there a) disruption in some narrative usage leading to reconstruction through the same narratives and b) irruption in other narratives leading to a destruction of those narratives for other narratives. 

In the case of disruption, you would see elements of continuity and discontinuity. Continuity would be in continued usage of specific narratives, such as the Abrahamic and Mosaic narratives, but discontinuity would occur in what meaning is drawn from them. For instance, God is still going to be faithful to His promise to Abraham, but rather than the promise coming to all the people of genealogical Israel it comes to all the world through the descendant Jesus Christ. Or, rather than Torah being the means by which God creates a righteous, holy people, the Torah is prepatory for the coming of Christ so that through faith people will become the righteous, holy people of God.

However, there are also narratives that may be irrupted. For instance, in Romans, Paul shows signs of an awareness of a Maccabean-like zeal fomenting among Roman Jews.3 Whereas the Maccabean narrative suggested God’s deliverance come in the midst of military conflict, either through military victory or faithfully facing persecution as a result of it, Paul’s narrative around Jesus suggests God’s deliverance comes through people being themselves conformed to the life of Christ through the power of the life-giving Spirit. Here, there is an narrative irruption, where the Maccabean narrative of deliverance is replaced with a Christ-o-centric narrative of deliverance.

Understanding Paul, then, entails not just knowing the narratives, but how he a) employed these narratives in dramatically different ways and b) rejected other narratives as not being true or useful. Whereas N.T. Wright suggests we understand these new meanings through analysis of the worldview, which contains the narratives,4 this suggests that narratives that make up worldviews are not the basic constituents by which we can make sense of new meanings. Rather, to make sense of this new meaning entails a recognition that there are pre-symbolic cognitive structures that impact what new meaning emerges. Only when ones combines the narratives and worldviews with a recognition of the change of the basic constituents in human life can one adequately make sense of new meanings in Paul.

Giles Fauconnier’s conceptual blending necessitates at least different mental spaces or, in the terms used in this blog, cognitive schemas by which a third mental space/schema emerges. Trying to analyze the emergent schema in terms of only one part of the blend is to stand at the risk of missing a critical element. For Wright, his analysis priorities the narrative continuity, leading to an inclination to retain the harmonious, continuity between the Old Testament narrative(s) and Paul’s Christ-narrative. This form of exegetical analysis works if Paul does not experience any significant disruption or irruption. But the revelation of the risen Lord to Paul has all the hallmarks of being the type of event to create a dramatic disruption in how Paul employs the OT narratives. It would be an overstatement to suggest Paul goes through a conversion experience that leads to a new identity and religion; this would be the case of narrative irruption. Aside from a few select instances like the Maccabean narrative, Paul does not undergo a narrative irruption. However, the best fit to me appears to be that Paul does undergo a narrative disruption, dramatically changing how narratives of God’s relationship to the Patriarchs and to Israel are employed and used in relation to Jesus Christ.

Thus, I would suggest that the best way to make sense of this is to recognize that the basic constituents of Paul’s life and sense-making were disrupted that influences how Paul employs the Jewish narratives around the person of Jesus Christ, even if we can not clearly reconstruct how this all occurs. While narrative and worldview analysis can bear much fruit, there needs to be a recognition that such a method can predispose one towards a greater sense of continuity between the OT and Paul that may not be warranted.

Wesleyan prevenient grace and learning

January 30, 2019

The most distinctive theological tension that is had in Protestant theology is the tension between faith and works. Once Martin Luther propounded the doctrine of justification by faith from the Apostle Paul in contradistinction to the works of the Law that he connected to the Roman Catholic system of penance and absolution of sins, particuarly throough indulgences. Since that point, Protestant theology has had to deal with the tension of relating faith that justifies with the role of works that is routinely spoken of as the criteria of the final judgment throughout the Bible, including the New Testament.

Wesleyan theology developed a distinctive response to this by Wesley’s emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification. Where when coming to faith, the God’s grace justifies the believer, the person has become freed from sin and the work of God leads them to become sanctified. Justifying grace and sanctifying grace are two of the linchpins of Wesleyan soteriology that address the Protestant tension between faith and works.

However, the third part of Wesley’s soteriology including the notion of prevenient grace that comes to a person prior to belief. The primary function prevenient grace has had within Wesleyan soteriology is to define an Arminian that accepted the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity while not leading to the conclusion that God only predestined a limited number of people for salvation. By positing that God was bestowing grace upon non-believers that restored a sense of free will lost as a result of the Fall that enabled them to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, Calvinist predestination was not the logical conclusion of Total Depravity. In essence, prevenient grace within Wesleyan theology allows a response to the tension between the spiritual weakness of humanity and the universal love of God.

However, in light of my own readings of the Gospel of John and Romans (particularly Romans 5), I would suggest that the doctrine of Total Depravity and the Fall is deeply problematic from an exegetical perspective, not to mention theologically suspect. The Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity posits an ontological change in what it means to be human, pulling from Augustine’s own understanding of the Fall; because of sin, humans lost all ability to response to God and are only left in darkness. However, as much as the idea of human nature is of interested in philosophy and later theology influenced by philosophical thinking (such as Platonism for Augustine), to Bible lacks any concept for what we would call “human nature.” The closest we get in the New Testament is the concept of σάρξ/flesh that runs through Paul, but it is more accurate to suggest this refers to people’s embodied nature in relationship to the world and other people due to Stoic influence upon Paul’s vocabulary. Furthermore, the changes that are said to occur in Genesis as the result of the fall aren’t a ontological/genetic change in humans, but rather a) separation from the tree of life and b) a distancing from the presence of God. The Biblical narrative describes the fall more so in environmental/cosmological and relational changes that it does any approaching a “human nature.”

If this reading of the Bible renders the doctrine of Total Depravity as either a) false or b) in need of a reformulation, what place does prevenient grace have in a Wesley theology that is re-situated to this theological interpretation of Scripture? If it no longer necessary as a logical axiom to traverse the gap between human inability to respond to God and God’s universal love wishing all people be saved, what significance would it play?

In his sermon “On Working Out Your Own Salvation,” Wesley describes two modes of grace that precedes the saving, justifying grace that comes with faith: preventing and convincing grace. The former was connected to early notions of a nascent desire to please God and very rudimentary knowledge about God’s will and the sin the non-believer has. The later, convincing grace, Wesley describe as bringing “a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone.” The tradition of Wesleyan theology has collapses these two modes of grace into one mode of grace called prevenient grace, but what is shared in common by both forms is this: grace that provides a specific sense of desire and emotional affect and degree of knowledge. The conjunction of motivaton in desire and emotional and intelligence in knowledge can be brought together in one word: learning.

However, it is important here to distinguish two different overlapping meanings of the word “learning.” Most people’s definition of learning will come from the idea of school, where people are taught on certain subjects to get a certain grade and pass. Given that this education is compulsory in the Western world up to a certain age, most people’s notions of learning are influenced by the setting. I am not referring to a formal teaching setting. I am actually referring to something closer to what happens in post-graduate research degrees, but without any need for professors, deadlines, evaluations, and all the reading. Learning as something we people do when we are a) interested in something and b) are given opportunity to take in knowledge about what we are interesting in. This form of learning happens from infancy, where the curiosity of the child motivates them to observe and learn about the environment around them. This form of learning happens when kids go out exploring places on their own, or playing games with their friends, or, as I did, try to make “inventions.” This form of learning happens when adults going on vacation for a foreign country are interested in learning about the culture. It is a learning where desire, opportunity, and experience/information meet together.

Put in this light, we might tentatively reframe Wesley’s idea of prevenient grace as this: God providing people the desire, opportunity, and experiences/information to learn about Him prior to coming to faith. One of the common criticisms of prevenient grace is that it doesn’t seem to be easy to find in the Scriptures. By connecting it to the concept of enabling a free will to repent and believe, which at best is only minimally referenced in the Scriptures in a rather oblique manner, prevenient grace seem to be exegetically under-determined at best, wild speculation at worst. However, connecting prevenient grace to the concept of learning can be readily seen in the Gospel of John and in the Apostle Paul.

Firstly, John 6.44-45 predicates God’s drawing and teaching of people as occurring prior to them coming to Jesus. Through this, they would come to believe in Jesus who was God’s Logos/very wisdom embodied as a human person,1 allowing people to become children of God.2 Then, through continued observance of Jesus’ teaching, people would be set free from sin.3 Here, we can see learning, faith, and spiritual formation all functioning together.

Then Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 describes his evangelistic “method” as being bare bones, only entailing a narrative testimony about the crucifixion of Jesus and a powerful demonstration of the Spirit so that people would have faith in God.4 However, there was an expectation of maturity by which people could receive and learning wisdom as in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16. However, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, before they could receive that, the Corinthians would have to put into Christian mutual love into practice rather than the Greco-Roman conventions regarding status. Once again, you see learning, faith, and spiritual formation being joined together.

However, there is one notable difference between the Johannine order and the Pauline order. In the Gospel of John, learning from Jesus precedes being set free from sin. However, for Paul, being able to learn wisdom follows a change of behavior. At one hand, we might suggest these are two conflicting models. However, another option would be a suggestion via this metaphor: learning from God is the engine that pulls the train cars of faith and formation. Put in a more analytic matter, learning precedes faith, follows faith and precede formation, and learning follows formation.

However, here is an important place to clarify. We often think of learning as gaining some set of abstract knowledge that we can express verbally. But there are other forms of learning, such as tacit learning, where we may not be able to clearly express what we are learning, but it does nevertheless change how we think, feel, and act. We might refer to this more colloquially as unconscious learning. However, people can become conscious of such tacit learning, although it is routinely of a more shadowy, hazy type of recognition than that which has any sense of clear, analytic or linguistic precision associated with it. For instance, Dru Johnson observes the disciples seemed to come up with a tacit awareness after Jesus’ breaking of bread after their walk to Emmaus when they said. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24.32)5 What is critical, however, is that people’s patterns of thinking, feeling, and action experience sort of change, particularly towards a specific object, person, topic, or focus of attention, such as God.

Furthermore, this form of learning doesn’t convey a form of learning that an analytic philosopher of epistemology would refer to as knowledge. For them, knowledge is a true belief that has obtained some sort of justification for belief. For many philosophers engaging in epistemology, knowledge has some degree of clear reasons for such a belief. However, this is not the type of knowledge being described here. In fact, Paul eschews such a form of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8.1-3, which would have a Stoic epistemology in the background where knowledge was a sure, unshakable belief drawn from a comprehensive understanding. For Paul, it wasn’t important to gain this form of epistemic knowledge as it could actually undermine the mutual love through people considering themselves of a higher status than fellow believers. Rather, for Paul, the concern was to be known by God instead. God is the know-er of us as people as we love him, rather than us becoming a know-er of God.

Rather, this form of learning directs people in how they think, feel, and act, particularly in reference to God. It may in some instances culminate in a more analytic form of knowledge as part of an undergirding motivation for an Anselmian “faith seeking understanding.” However, this is a form of learning that precedes and enables faith as much as it is might strengthen and come to comprehend faith. It provides the underlying concepts by which we come to understand God’s will and character that moves us to trust Jesus to show us the way to God.6 It is the type of learning that determines the type of judgments we make, rather than learning of specific judgments themselves.7 Thus, through this manner in which human judgments are formed, people come to recognize Jesus as coming from God, enabling faith, and coming to recognize God’s will and one’s own behavior in comparison to God’s will, enabling sanctification.

Thus, by connecting Wesley’s notion of prevenient grace to the idea of learning, we provide a rich framework for understanding the normative manner in which God’s ultimate telos of forming humanity into the image of God in Jesus Christ, that is sanctification, occurs. Furthermore, Wesleyan theology is given a much more solid grounding within the Scriptures, as opposed to trying to connect it to some concept of free will that at best is only marginally referred to in an oblique manner in a couple of places.

But as I said before, this is done as part of re-situating Wesleyan theology in a different context from the standard Western account of the Fall. Rather than prevenient grace being an act in which there is a metaphysical change to human nature, such as providing what we know as free will, the change that occurs with prevenient grace is predicated of God’s relation to humanity. God draws near, comes close. John 1.1-18 is the story of how the life found in the Logos, through whom all things were created, is embodied in a human person. The two effects of the Fall in Genesis, the deprivation of life and the distance from God, are remedied when the Logos became flesh. Even the Torah, which the Johannine prologue makes references to, and it’s tabernacle system later constituted within the Temple8 could be considered an early form of God’s nearing presence (but not so close, so clear, so intimate) that teaches and prepares people for faith in Jesus.9 As God draws nears, discloses Himself, and acts, God engages in a Divine pedagogy of human persons, remedying the epistemic absence of God’s distancing from the Fall, hindering any reliable knowing of God. Thus, in the end, prevenient grace isn’t so much about what happens to us as humans in our human nature, but what God does to us to guide us in our learning of Him and His will. Rather than God transforming human nature so that we can know God, learning of God through what only God can do transforms us to know God.

Consequently, this puts the standard Protestant tension between faith and works into the background, placing the emphasis upon the Divine pedagogy of human learning that precedes, enables, and even follows faith and sanctification. There is no faith without God’s disclosure and teaching, nor knowledge of God’s will nor the self-knowledge of one’s own sin that enables sanctification. Learning from God is the engine that drives faith and works.

Christian life and coping

January 29, 2019

It was during my first senior year of college (The realities of being in college five years means that I must clarify my two senior years) that I was enrolled in an experimental psychology class. Even though I got an A in that course I wasn’t a particularly good student at that time, skipping probably 1/3 of the assigned class meetings. But late in the semester, we got design and do our own study, and I developed a questionnaire that assessed the relationship between the time people said they engaged in specific “religious behaviors,” such as reading the Bible, prayer, etc., and their own emotional and mental status, including coping behaviors. My purpose was to see if there was a correlation between religious behaviors and what the psychological literature I surveyed deemed healthy and unhealthy coping behaviors. It wasn’t the best designed survey of all time, but it certainly piqued my interest as there were correlations observed in the type of religious behaviors people reported they engaged in and their own mental health outcomes. While I have forgotten most of the results, behaviors such as Scripture reading and prayer were correlated with better mental health outcomes and coping.

Of course, anyone vaguely familiar will statistics will have this chant seered into their brain: “Correlation does not equal causation.” Maybe it wasn’t that people who read Scripture and prayed were healthier, but people who were healthier prayed and read Scripture more. Then, there are a host of other considerations, such as my sample being only college students attending a campus ministry worship and whether people are really honest in their surveys. So, there would be no real value in trying to see if I can recover the results I found, but there is something deeply valuable principle behind it: not all religious beliefs and behavior are of equal value from a mental health standpoint.

Now, this would have sounded a bit dissonant with the prevailing wisdom in the psychology department at that time: they were busy telling students that religious behavior, no matter what type, was correlated to better health outcomes. And indeed, the statistics do bear this out. But as so often happens with the interpretation of statistics, we often treat certain statistical findings like the average/mean tell us a law about all people, rather than a general, aggregate reality that doesn’t play out as true in all circumstances for all people. My research did bear this out, as some religious behaviors were correlated with negative health outcomes and negative coping styles.

This provoked a question for me as a Christian: in what ways can Christian faith be used in adaptive and mal-adaptive fashions? Are their forms of Christian theology that exemplify and manifest these adaptive and mal-adaptive patterns? But in asking this question, it is important to make a couple quick clarifications in thinking about such a question.

Firstly, consequentialist outcomes do not themselves determine the truth value of various Christian beliefs; simply because a belief leads to an outcome we like or dislike does not mean that believe in true or false in terms of describing reality, or even necessarily our moral norms of right and wrong. For instance, one might point to the crucifixion of Jesus as a negative outcome from one perspective. But for Paul, negatives outcomes considered from one angle may be a source of God’s grace and power from another angle. So, it is important to not immediately jump to conclusions in saying “mal-adaptive religious beliefs are false or wrong.” Certainly, I can imagine this being the case more often than not, but one should not determine truth and rightness solely on the basis of a singular consideration such as mental health outcomes.

Secondly, because the Christian faith places value on the long-run/eternity, it would be fruitful to consider that what produces negative mental health outcomes in the short run may produce positive outcomes in the long run. For instance, if a person has developed a set of beliefs that allow them to feel that they are okay but has caused serious problems or harm to others. They experience some degree of negative self-esteem because of the way people treat them in response, but they maintain a sense of belief in their own satisfaction through judging themselves in a superior position to another, which is at the heart of narcissism. In such a case, the act and attitude of repentance may produce short-term negative outcomes as a person comes to deal with the feeling of grief that comes from repentance means that they no longer feel comfortable in their own skin, so to speak. But, as they change and adapt their way of relating to others in a more pro-social manner, they may experience increased self-esteem and satisfaction from better relations to others while also feeling an increased sense of wellness.

With this in mind, we are able to think through the basic question: what type of faith and religious behavior is conducive to mental health and what types are harmful?

A helpful framework is to consider one way of dividing coping styles: problem-focused coping (PFC) vs. emotion-focused coping (EFC). In PFC, we try to address problems that exist around us. We attempt to create some change. EFC, by contrast, focuses on alleviating our own emotional state. The two styles are not necessarily opposites, as our attempts to change our circumstances may be intertwined with our attempts to manage our own emotions. But, analyzing in terms of themselves, PFC engages our attempts to control the outcomes of the environment we are in, whereas EFC tries to control ourselves and our own experience. Both styles at the extreme can lead to two mal-adaptive styles of coping however: habitual controlling and habitual avoidance.

When in our coping we are always geared towards trying to solve the problems, we are inclined to construe events in terms of how they are significant for us and then engage in actions to enforce this understanding onto others. For instance, one person whenever they feel slighted by someone else’s remarks may immediately jump to an attempt to guilt and shame someone for those remarks to get them to acquiesce to their own views. While there are some instances where a person might accommodate to such control, very often this will lead to offense, resistance, and distancing, thereby making the slighted person feel even more insulted. While there may be times to address a grievance, and there may even be times to exhibit strong action, inflexibly relying on a problem-focused style of coping can lead to negative outcomes.

For instance in Christian settings, a focus on the moral and ethical teachings of the Bible can lead one to take a problem-focused style of coping through trying to address perceived wrongs. A person may commit themselves to a rigorous understanding of right and wrong behaviors as a way to addressed these injustices. While this can be done in a healthy way, inordinate focus on Christian morality and ethics that we use to assess other people’s behaviors can lead to a habit of problem-focused coping mechanism that become manifested in repetitive and/or strong attempts at controlling outcomes. Typically speaking, this style of coping becomes rather suspicious of people, constantly analyzing them to see if they are morally dangerous or not on the basis of slim evidence. Such coping styles to the extreme can lead to stereotyping of other people in terms of being a “problem,” which when expressed only exacerbates the damage they do to others through constant attempts to control.

Examples of this can include prominent religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, who famously thought the purple teletubby was “gay.” Many progressive Christians today can similarly act in such a manner, seeing homophobia and racism around every corner, tainting everything. There may be a reality of the behaviors people fear taking place. Racism has been an unfortunate part of the past of many white American churches. Also, it is not uncommon that people fear problems that exist within themselves and project that blame outwards. Nevertheless, an inordinate emphasis in trying to assess and address moral problems can lead to a high degree of suspicion that can reduce the Christian faith to a moralism. This is best exemplified by the word “preachy” that has a negative connotation: an excessive moralism can push people away, thereby hindering one’s own well-being.

On the other hand, EFC presents its own challenges. EFC commonly entails attempts to soothe one’s own emotional feelings, such as reframe/reinterpreting events, distracting oneself, getting away from stress problems, externalizing problems so they don’t feel so close, immediate, and/or hard to manage, etc. Rather than try to directly control stressors and problems, however, EFC can lead to trying to avoid addressing such stressors and problems. Cognitive avoidance through distraction and fantasy and behavorial avoidance through procrastination and putting things off. The end result of such avoidance leaves such problems unattended to and can lead a person to deny the problems in the first place. Unfortunately, this style of coping when used unthinkingly often stands in a “complementary” relationship to abusive people employing extreme and harmful forms of problem-focused coping; emotional-focused coping that denies the problems leaders to them failing to stop being taken advantaged of and being harmed.

In Christian circles, this style of coping is commonly reinforced by the idea of faith. But it isn’t just any sort of faith, such as a faith that God is working all things towards good, but a sort of faith that imagines the stresses and problems of the immediate moment are either not real, are going to be readily resolved, or are simply of a demonic nature that if one simply resists through relying on God will go away. Faith is often times readily employed as a way to shield us from the problems we observe and experience. This isn’t necessarily bad in the short run, but in the long run, it can leave many of the same problems perpetuating again and again, when some direct action may be what is in store.

However, even though both extreme forms of EFC along extreme forms of PFC look different in terms of action, they share one feature in common: they are built around imagination. Imagining how things are not bad or will be better or imagining how we can make things better or not so bad. Such imagination is not inherently false; in fact, it is through imagination that we often time discover what is true and good. However, when both EFC and PFC styles get to their extremes, they rely more so on imagination than direct perception and open engagement.

Hence, a useful tool in many counseling and therapeutic settings has been reality-testing. To pay attention and test reality to see if things match what one believes (that is, imagines) to be the case. While this doesn’t solve deep, pervasive problems in the short run and can even cause some emotional disturbances in the short run if one comes face to face with their own errors in thinking through disconfirmation, over the course of the long run, it grounds the way we think and imagine that helps to determine when and how we employ PFC and EFC.

Within the Christian setting, reality testing overlaps with one thing that is said to precede faith: perceiving and/or listening. As Christians, we don’t believe that we believe or obey first; rather, we believe that God acts and makes Himself known before we trust and obey. And people who do not believe, they do not must up faith and obedience to a God they do not believe or trust in; something beholds them, whether in the immediate moment or over time, and then they come to faith and hopefully obedience. Furthermore, in the pattern of the Psalms, we don’t deny the problems we experience that we trust that God can deal with, but we speak honestly with God about these problems, opening our hearts and minds to witness God’s faithfulness in action and demonstration.

This goes back to the findings that I do remember from my survey: that Scripture reading and prayer were associated with better health outcomes. Now, to be clear, not all Scripture reading and prayer is going to be engaged in an open reception and an attentive listening; reading and praying can be primarily a practice of seeing and saying what we think. Nevertheless, from what I can remember, the religious behaviors that were associated with better outcomes would be associated with this manner of perceiving and listening.

However, even this style can have one draw back: it can mercilessly tear apart the imagination if it isn’t confirmed. However, not all things that are true are always confirmed when or how we wish them to be confirmed. God is no object of scientific testing, who can be predicted and put under the microscope. The lack of confirmation doesn’t mean one’s imagination is wrong or misguided, nor does it mean God is faithless or does not exist. So even then, an overemphasis on reality testing styles of perceptual and listening aspects can mislead and misguide us also.

While this is more anecdotal and more an exercise of imagination about coping and theology, I hope it sheds light on the complex way in which Christian life and coping styles can intermingle. While I don’t think it is helpful to reduce the Christian life to therapeutic terms, nor to simply treat therapy as a tool for Christian faith and ethics, seeing the complex interactions between then can be a fruitful way for us to read the Scriptures and assess our theological fruitfully and faithfully in relation to therapeutic and mental health concerns.