Rooted

This seems a great follow-up to my last post.

In Chicago, from August 11-13th, the Rooted conference was held. Rooted was a conference for trans and gender-noncomforming Christians. That’s right, despite popular belief and common misconception, there is room for all people within Christianity–our God is everyone’s God.

More of a testament, I think, is the fact that there are enough people of non-binary gender or who are transgendered who manage to reach out to God despite what “mainstream” and (too-)conservative demagogues tell them Christianity is. They have a faith that speaks to the foremost issue currently confronting the Church–our getting in God’s way when we should be making the path to God easier. That they can overcome such obstacles gives me hope that perhaps others will, too–those we refer to as the “unchurched” who by upbringing or by bad experiences in churches have rejected Christianity because it is easier to see fallen people describing our faith than it is to see Jesus who creates our faith.

As I’ve argued in the past, I don’t believe that secularism is simply the result of the evolution of science and technology. Science and technology show us that there are gaps in our understanding and methods of human inquiry that can only be filled by faith, whether it’s faith in God’s provenance or in cold materialism. Thus, the next obvious answer for the push to increased secularism is that the faith isn’t living up to its calling. As a student of theology, I find that there are sound and well-argued philosophies about Christianity that incorporate science and critical methodologies into them; secularism is not the failing of our theology (though it might be a failing of those theologies which remain most popular). Instead, it is the failing of us as the Church to project Christ rather than to hide him.

My soapboxy tangent aside, I’m especially proud that Rooted was coordinated by the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church, an unofficial group of likeminded Methodists in support of full inclusion. I am a member of Reconciling Ministries through my participation in Reconciling United Methodist Texas Conference (formerly “Breaking the Silence.”) At the same time, I’m slightly dismayed by the fact that I only found out about Rooted almost a month after it happened.

I am not one to blow inherent media biases out of proportion (they’re there, but most mainstream journalists–at least in “neutral” outlets–have the integrity to mitigate and minimize them whenever possible) or to give much credence to the “fake news” outcry of the alt-right (boy, is that crying “wolf” if ever I’ve seen it), but I am curious as to why something like the Nashville Statement gets so much press and the only place that I’ve seen Rooted reported on is within the United Methodist News.

Maybe its that the internecine conflict over sexual and gender identity issues within Christian congregations is old hat now–the Episcopals have done it, the Presbyterians have done it, and we Methodists are still in the thick of it. On the other hand, though, I wonder if it’s that the Nashville Statement plays into the popular conception of Christianity, but that Rooted does not. Those of us convicted that full inclusion and the celebration of sexual and gender diversity rather than calling it “sinful” represents the truer understanding of Christianity ought to be looking for more ways to be more vocal about our theologies.

As I’ve also argued in the past, it’s unfortunate that–within Methodism at least– issues of sexuality and gender have become the battleground for a proxy war over hermenuetics and the theology of interpreting scripture. Hence the common buzzwords in issues of sexual and gender theology: “scriptural authority.” That’s not fair to people of faith with non-cisgendered identities or non-heterosexual desires.

Nevertheless, the Rooted conference is evidence of hope, that most necessary of spiritual gifts in any dark time. I am so proud of my siblings in Christ who attended and declared that they know and feel the love of our God despite what the world–and our own denomination–may throw at them.

 

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A Response to the Nashville Statement

Having read the “Nashville Statement” issued by the (self-proclaimed) “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (viewable here), my gut response is to respond with vim and vitriol, fire and brimstone—I am infuriated that people may engage in such hatred, fear and bigotry and yet have the nerve to call it Christianity.

However, the properly sarcastic response has already been made, so I would simply direct you to John Pavlovitz’s “Plain English” translation of the statement.

My intent here is to do two things: (1) provide a careful response to the language of the statement and (2) invite you to flood social media with response bearing the #againstnashvillestatement hashtag.

My response:

Scriptural Reference

I understand that the intro reference to Psalm 100:3 is an attempt to latch onto that conservative slogan “Biblical authority,” but the irony here is that in releasing a “manifesto” in the Nashville Statement presumably aimed at those outside their club, the CBMW has used a statement that could just as easily be construed against them—the member of the LGBTQI community responds by saying, “Yes! God made me this way, so who are you to tell me I’m bad/wrong?”

Preamble

The preamble opens with a lament that we live in a “post-Christian” society and that the “spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life.” I do not disagree with the fact that we live in a post-Christian society, but I see this as a failing of the Church as a whole to accurately be the disciples and ambassadors of Christ to the world, not as a moral failing of those who disagree with my own faith.

And in this supposition, more than the microcosmic debate about human sexuality, is where the CBMW commits theological crime. The Nashville Statement is a thinly veiled argument for a dying theology, one that I believe is dying because of its utter failure to focus on the most important aspects of Christianity and to accurately portray the nature of God.

Like many ultra-conservative Christian groups, the CBMW’s first error is to insist upon the Bible as the literal word of God; this despite the fact that the Bible never claims to be an inerrant and literal message from the divine and points elsewhere for the source of the authority of the Word of God—to the person of Jesus Christ. The fatal error here is substituting a dead book for the Living God. Vehicle of divine truth though the scriptures are, there is no way to justify making an idol of them that usurps the place of Jesus in our theology.

From a logical standpoint, the CBMW, like most fundamentalists, refuse to acknowledge that what they purport to offer is an interpretation of the Bible and that such a massive and sometimes idiosyncratic document does not have meaning uncolored by the interpretative preferences of the reader. To accomplish this, the CBMW and those likeminded must ignore both logic and the by now well-developed field of literary criticism. They must plead ignorance to maintain their position.

But the problem goes well beyond the denial of intellectualism—to maintain its position, the CBMW must deny any competing spiritual authority: it must deny the movement of the Holy Spirit through both personal revelation and life experience, Christ’s example of loving your nature without caveat or command to “fix” their sinfulness, it must deny the validity of persons whose sexuality conflicts with their interpretation—telling them that despite their feelings to the contrary, they fall into the LGBTQI community by choice.

“It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences,” the Statement reads. This is logical garbage of the basest sort. First, this statement uses the flimsiest of strawmen: the argument of the faithful in the LGBTQI community is not that God gave them the right to self-determine their sexuality, but that God created them the way that they are and thus God’s “design for human life” must include a spectrum of sexuality rather than a binary. The statement ignores the argument altogether. As an aside, I ask how often our Triune God has made existence complicated versus how often our God has made existence simple and binary—simply playing the odds of likelihoods militates against the statement above.

Even if the argument were that God’s design gave us the right to self-determine our sexuality, is that an indefensible position? Of course not; we spend most of our waking hours creating our selves: pretending not to be the things we are ashamed of, struggling to become more like the ideals we’ve set for ourselves and, for the faithful at least, endeavoring to become more like Jesus Christ. If God’s commandments to us are to love God and love our neighbor, there are nearly limitless methodologies for both maintaining individuality and complying with our marching orders. The choice of sexuality itself, then, seems to at best be morally neutral—it doesn’t prevent a person from loving God and neighbor. Still, that’s exactly what CBMW wants to argue, as we’ll see. And, to reiterate, all available evidence of which I’m aware—most important the self-reporting of the LGBTQI community—indicates that human sexuality is rarely, if ever, a choice.

To follow, in pseudo-cryptic expression, the CBMW attempts to maintain the position that non-binary sexualities necessarily “ruin human life and dishonor God.” No support is given for this statement and none is available. Further, the sentence indicates a very fragile image of God if God’s glory may be diminished by human action.

If the CBMW wants to condemn promiscuity, sexual assault, adultery and other aspects of human sexuality that are destructive to self and others, that’s just fine. But these items are all entirely separate from the identities of the people involved in them. This comports with the Bible, probably to the chagrin of the CBMW—all but two of the references to homosexuality in the Bible (those being Leviticus 20:13 and Paul’s reference to the same in 1 Corinthian 6:9) include some universally-agreed upon sexual offense—slavery, pederasty, rape, etc. Therefore, those scriptures that denounce the acts as immoral never reach the question of homosexuality because of the other act also described—the homosexuality may well be irrelevant to the condemnation.

By my judgment, aside from societal influences, a homosexual relationship really isn’t different from a heterosexual one, because people are people and the genitalia with which they are equipped actually means little in relational dynamics. Societally-constructed gender expectations seem to be far more influential, though it must be emphasized that genders are thought constructs not necessarily based in any objective reality.

The Statement continues: “This secular spirit of our age presents a great challenge to the Christian church.” Before I logically destroy this sentence, let me first point out the position that it comes from—a view of Christianity as embattled, a Christianity that imperialistically needs to suborn all others to it. That’s not the Christianity of Christ.

Logically, the causation is backwards. The Church is not where it is today because of outside forces secularizing in a vacuum—the Church is where it is today because vocal aspects of it (like the CBMW) cling to antiquated and ultimately indefensible interpretations of the nature of existence.

Again, the statement must deny competing sources of authority whole cloth to stand. C.S. Lewis described the conscience as a sort of “natural law,” the Spirit moving within us to usher us toward truth even when we are consciously ignorant of it.

In our age, conscience demands a cessation to the creation of “others” of any category, morality requires respect and value for all humans in equality. When these mandates conflict with the teachings of the Church, which will win? Natural law, every time. I’d argue that this is God triumphing in the human spirit in spite of God’s Church rather than because of it.

From this perspective, it is the failure of Church to provide a true image of our God focused upon the person of Jesus Christ that has pushed others away from Christianity. The rejection of an interpretation of Christianity that increasingly focuses on judgment, identity and supremacy and decreasingly focuses on humility, diversity and sacrificial love lacks the power to resonate in the human spirit—but the Truth of the Gospel is not victim to these things and, when experienced, does not fail. The problem, then, is that fundamentalist sectors of the Christian faith offend the conscience so completely as to cause people to become unwilling to open themselves up to the experience of the Word of God in Jesus Christ. The attitude of Biblical literalism—with its single agreed-upon interpretation of God and God’s design—seeks to replace the ineffably true experience of God with the puerile and emasculated dogma of man.

I’m a big fan of cyberpunk novels, and one of the most memorable lessons from one came from my reading of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. In the world of relativity in social constructs and morality, one of Stephenson’s characters explains that hypocrisy becomes the only means of judging another group—you can’t judge their ideology, but you can sure as hell judge them if they don’t act in accordance with their espoused ideals. To many, this is what the Christian church has become. Whose fault is that, really?

The preamble now asks, “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age?” In America, fundamentalist Christianity has been a prime force in the “spirit of the age,” not in a positive way. More important, why doesn’t the statement read: “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ become an instrument of social justice and equality, an agent of healing in turbulent times and a hand of mercy to the oppressed and downtrodden?” Priorities, people.

Ironically, the CBMW then attempts to set itself up as counter-cultural. Christianity is, in fact, counter-cultural in that it asserts that the things that have meaning in existence are not the same as the things that mainstream society tells us have importance. But the Nashville Statement is about clinging desperately to the cultural-Christianity of the past, where we made statements like, “You can trust him; he’s a good Christian man,” that served as cultural shorthand and an affirmation of the dominance of white culture over all others while having nothing to do with the declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the dying mainstream culture of an old empire, not the living water of the life-affirming counter-culturalism of love found in Christ.

The language of the third and fourth paragraphs in the Preamble is telling. It tells us that each person “owes” to God “glad-hearted thanksgiving, heart-felt praise, and total allegiance.” It is good and righteous to give our praise and thanks to the Lord, and as a matter of logic all things that are ultimately derive from God. But the insistence of a feudal paradigm of the relationship between God and man is not what Christ taught, nor how Christ related to us. Not much farther down the page, it is explained that the purpose of God’s design for creation is to bring God glory.

A God who needs anything to complete God’s glory is not complete in and of God’s self and thus does not meet with our traditional Christian understanding of the nature of God. A god who creates purely for self-aggrandizement is not the kind of god I am interested in worshipping. Fortunately, the One True God as revealed through Jesus Christ is as far from that as can be—our God is not about glory, but love and relationship. Why else go to the cross?

At this point, it’s not even worth going through the declarations of the Articles—these kinds of statements have been discussed and dissected ad nauseum. To me, the poor theology expressed by the Preamble says everything one needs to know about the Nashville Statement—that it is not reflective of the intent of our God and doesn’t even reflect a strong understanding of the scripture it asserts is paramount.

The ultimately irony, of course, is how self-destructive this text is. It serves only to cause people to believe that the ignorant authors of this drivel stand for true Christianity, to reaffirm the preconceived and inaccurate understandings of the Christian faith and the Creator God at is heart—to make our culture more secular rather than more faithful by portraying faith as backwards, judgmental, bigoted and fearful.

As such, I invite you to share your own thoughts about the Nashville Statement on social media under the hashtag #againstnashvillestatement. Yep, it’s a long hashtag and it really cuts into the characters you have to use on Twitter, but consider that an additional challenge (and try to show some mercy for the fact that I usually treat hashtags with as curmudgeonly an attitude as is humanly possible, so I am unfortunately ignorant in their best usage).

As a final thought, the Nashville Statement does affirm one thing for me—why I am passionate about communicating the theology I have developed over the past few years and continue to develop through the writing of this blog. It is my sincere belief (and hope) that the theology I offer here is cogent, logical, well-supported by both scripture and the person of Jesus Christ and that offers an uplifting view of both God and man in line with God’s intent for us. I hope that this strongly contrasts with the oppressive theologies espoused by groups like the CBMW.

The Storm

I live in Southwest Houston (Sugar Land to be exact); the past few days have been a trip to say the least. Yesterday morning, K and I quickly threw our most precious belongings and our beloved dog into our cars and drove to K’s parents’ house after a mandatory evacuation order was given for our neighborhood. Today we find ourselves effectively corraled into that home by high water, but we otherwise remain high and dry and–according to neighbors who stayed behind, our home does, too.

Last night it looked like that would not be the case. The rains were heavy all day, and by 11:00 a.m. The street we had used to travel here (clear at the time) had become impassable. We watched and waited as the waters crept closer to the house, moving furniture and valuables upstairs and mentally bracing ourselves for being flooded and without power.

This morning the rain is a light drizzle at best. Nearby rivers and creeks have not yet reached their high points, so we’re not out of the woods yet, but things are looking more optimistic than they did under cloak of darkness.

And thus it’s hard not to feel a sense of grace and protection as I drink my coffee and type this post this morning. But I must reject that assumption, because it is based on a tacit implication that somehow I (or the family members with whom I’m sheltering) merit such protection more than others who have lost everything in the storm and flooding. That simply is not true, and I do not believe in a God that plays favorites like that. 

I do not believe that we should be looking for God in the rising tide or the pouring rains–this is not a punishment for a city’s wickedness. It is a natural event, something born of natural forces created by God in time immemorial but which is not directed purposefully as an instrument of divine wrath or favor.

Where we do see God moving in this catastrophe is in the good works of people truly loving their neighbors. The news is replete with daring water rescues (and one of our church’s pastors and his family were rescued from their roof in a brave mission undertaken by another of the pastors and our youth director). The outporing of aid in the form of material support, chuches opening as shelters of convenience or necessity, and the massive effort led by the “Cajun Navy” all indicate people following Christ, whether they do so consciously or not.

And that leads me to where I hope that God will move through all of this tragedy–our God makes a habit of pulling beautiful things out of tragedies, after all. In the context of this storm, I have seen people put aside all of the divisive issues engulfing our nation–race, immigration, economic disparity–to love one another. To be sure, those issues will not just go away; hoping that we do not have to confront them in the interests of justice and healing is both naive and counterproductive. But, if we can hang on to the sense of unity born from this strife, we may be able to make serious progress in addressing the ills that plague our nation–most particularly the lack of civil discourse that grips us.

To be sure, the road to recovery for us will be a long on. Even not having lost material possessions, I currently don’t know when I’ll be getting back to work and how long I’ll be feeling the inevitable economic slump. Others still have it far worse than I.

Nevertheless, it’s my hope that the storm’s legacy will be longer-lasting than the devastation–that the unity we’ve found here in Texas will pave a way forward for us and for our nation.

Brief Outline of My Theology

Since this blog is, in part, about my theological ideas, I figured it’s only fair to provide some background into my approach and the broad-strokes theory of my approach to Christian theology. I have been working on a book laying out the core tenants of this approach (an early chapter draft of which was posted on the blog), but I don’t expect to be returning to moving forward on the book until after finishing at least the first draft of one of the two novels I’m currently working on.

Let us begin with the brief statement that I take as true the statements of the Apostles’ Creed—to keep this a “brief” outline, I’m going to need to take a few shortcuts.

We begin with an existential approach. I mean a few things by this. First, I start with human perception and experience to develop philosophy and theology—there simply is no other good place to start. Second, I acknowledge the difference between essence and existence—what things are and what they seem are not always the same. We may sometimes approximate the objective truth—which I maintain does exist as the true creation and will of God—but our own failings in understanding and perception mean that we must be constantly be guarded about our confidence in our own understanding. Hence, I adopt a position of epistemological skepticism regarding human knowledge with the caveats that I believe that direct revelation from God is possible to reveal objective truth to individuals (but because of the existential divide between individuals objective truth must be experienced directly and cannot be argued or explained to others with true efficacy) and that I believe that limited human understanding is sufficient to approach absolute truth, though we may never understand the absolute in its glorious infinitude of complexity. Human understanding is at best asymptotic—we may veer ever closer to the Truth, but it yet remains out of our full grasp.

As a minor aside, this approach acknowledges the value of human logic and rationality for building arguments to draw our understanding closer to absolute Truth while admitting the limitation of logic to fully do so—we are to be critical thinkers and to weigh evidence (thus relying on science were appropriate) while acknowledging that not all Truth is to be derived from logic—some may only be derived from ineffably experience.

The existence of God and God’s will underlying creation means that I must break with non-religious existentialist philosophers. I do not believe that the result of the existentialist approach is meaninglessness in the universe. Rather, the divide between objective truth and meaning as established by God and our own limited existential understandings creates a slippage that is best referred to, I think, as ambiguity. I’ve written several posts about ambiguity and the results of such a state on the blog, but they’re probably worth summarizing here.

Ambiguity creates a space of freedom for mankind. To paraphrase Joss Whedon: “If nothing we do in the universe matters, the only thing that matters in the universe is what we do.” In other words, ambiguity allows us to create meaning—God has called us to be agents of co-creation through this existential quandary. With God’s absolute meaning not readily available to us, we are forced to participate in creation in defining what has meaning and what meaning should be assigned to all aspects of existence. There is, I think, of necessity some amount of suffering that must be attached to such a state of being, though I acknowledge that this assertion fails to provide anything approaching a complete theodicy (though human inability to fully resolve the problem of evil seems to reinforce my arguments about epistemological skepticism and our ability only to approach the approximation of Truth). Thus, the existential approach to Christian theology (at least as I argue it) sees a great goodness in ambiguity, despite the existential angst it may sometimes cause us. Ambiguity allows for freedom of will, relationship and participation in Creation—an active role for humanity. In particular, I follow Paul Tillich’s ideas about humans as creators of meaning—primarily as storytellers. There is neither room nor will at present to address other aspects of his own existential theology.

Humans create meaning through relationship—Thing A is more like Thing B than Thing C. Only by comparison can we create meanings; unlike God we do not create ex nihilo but only from the building blocks with which we have been provided. We determine what is hard by opposing it to what is soft, what is pleasant to what is unpleasant, what is good to what is evil. Again, it is important to understand the careful distinction here between God and man. God may know good without evil, because God creates and understands the absolute. We do not. This is not relativism, where meaning itself is flexible. Our meaning may be measured against the absolute meaning of God, though not by us.

It is no coincidence that we create meaning by relationship—our purpose is relational. We are told that our God is love and love, of course, is about relationship. I believe there is good reason to believe that we were created for relationship—with God and each other.

If one accepts that we created meaning through vast webs of cognitive relationships, categories and comparisons, then we find a ready definition of both sin and holiness through the comparison of the meanings we create for ourselves with the meanings God intends in the creation and maintenance of the absolute. Sin is a state of being—one caused by ascribing to improper meanings (and thus improper relationships to the detriment of both sides). “Greed is good,” a definitional meaning clearly rejected by God in the person of Jesus Christ provides a ready example. One who accepts that meaning will be pushed out of positive, righteous relationships—with money and material things, with others, with justice, with self, with God.

On the other hand, we are told in the Sermon on the Mount to make ourselves “perfect as [our] Father in Heaven is perfect.” We define this as holiness; it is the natural consequence of adopting meanings and relationships between things more and more in line with the absolute meanings established by God. Often, we call this process of re-evaluation and re-definition of meaning “sanctification.”

Therein lies the power of Christianity—by the will of the Father, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are able to desire to redefine our world as God would have us do. The start of this journey is, I believe, the heart being “strangely warmed” as Wesley would recall or, in another sense, being “born again.”

Why all of this? Because God desires relationship with us, but relationship itself only has meaning when freely entered into. Thus, God created humans to have free will, that we may create meaning and relationship for ourselves, but also gave us grace, that we might learn to choose what is good and to reject what is not. God wants us to be both free and good, for that is where relationship with God lies. I invite you to ponder the complexity of that combination—it is no surprise that faith is full of mystery, theology full of frustration.

In a previous blog post, I’ve stated that I call this theology “New Mysticism.” This is a matter of the acknowledgment of the non-logical (perhaps I should say “extra-logical”); that any knowledge we have of absolute Truth comes from God’s revelation. The most powerful form of this revelation is the Word of God—as Barth would define the term—the person of Jesus Christ. This must be separated from our understanding of the Bible as the “Word of God.” The Bible contains divine revelation for us, undoubtedly, but the true power of the Bible is its propensity for drawing us into a personal experience of the person of Jesus, not simply its usefulness as a tool to scour with our logic for glimpses of the absolute. In other words, the person of Jesus Christ is the divine manifestation of absolute meaning and Truth, our “north star” as it were. Jesus is not simply the teacher of the Truth (although he is that); Jesus is Truth itself. This understanding supersedes logic because Truth is the very nature of the universe itself, to which logic is subservient.

This approach allows us to appreciate other religions—these are full of people who are actively seeking after divine Truth and meaning, and perhaps finding some modicum of it here and there—while maintaining the assertion that Christianity is “the more excellent way,” because the center of Christianity—the Triune God—is Truth itself knowable only through direct experience of relationship with the Truth.

Please understand that such short space does a poor job of laying out the theology I have been (and still am) developing according to my own understanding and experience. It absolutely fails here to explore the many ramifications and consequences of such a theology. I have at best only touched upon some the expected points of a systematic theology—Christology, pneumatology, etc.

Nevertheless, I hope that this brief outline piques your interest—these ideas pervade all of my theological posts on the blog and you will be able to explore it more fully by reading through my various posts. One day, soon if God is willing, I will present it in greater length in book format, stepping through these points and more chapter by chapter.

In the meantime, I look forward to your comments, criticisms and questions as I continue to develop this theology into something truly systematic and—as much as any theology can be (which is to say “not really”)—complete.

Is liberal theology the future of Christianity? Should it be?

If you read my blog, you know that I stand firmly on the side of liberal/progressive theology. I have a deep conviction that a liberal interpretation of faith and scripture gets us closer to properly understanding Christ than available alternatives—and I believe that it leads to not only a stronger, more resilient faith but also a better world. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

But I also try to maintain some humility and avoid the arrogance of assuming that the interpretations that I favor are automatically superior to others with which I am confronted. At the very least, we ought to be aware of and to understand differing interpretations as a check to our own. We ought also to understand alternative theologies to better understand and live with the people who hold them. As important, though, we need to be constantly challenged in our theology to refine and affirm it—this cannot be done only with echo-chambers of like-minded individuals.

And so, in a microcosm of this tension I try to maintain, this combined confidence and skepticism, I write this post on some of my thoughts about the future of Christianity.

Watching the struggles of my own denomination (the United Methodist Church) with conflicts between liberal and conservative theologies, I wonder whether the Christian Church—as a whole—can sustain itself on conservative theology. I have written, sometimes admittedly harshly, in other posts about the ways in which I believe conservative (to be fair, ultra-conservative) theology hurts the witness of the Gospel.

Recent events within the UMC—the election of Rev. Karen Oliveto to Bishop of the Western Conference, for instance, make it seem increasingly likely that there will be a split between the conservative and liberal elements of the UMC. The actions of the Wesleyan Covenant Association seem to underline the preparation for this split and its inevitability.

I believe that one of the greatest testaments to the love of Jesus Christ would be for the United Methodist Church to remain unified, living and worshipping together despite differences in what should be considered ancillary theological matters (I detect no differences in doctrine on the creedal values and statements). However, I am increasingly convinced that a split is coming.

There is a cynical part of me that believes that this is a good thing, which leads us to the crux of this post: I wonder if a conservative daughter organization of the UMC, and really any church adamant about conservative theology, can survive. I have a growing suspicion that conservative churches will wither and die.

I would like to say that this would prove that liberal theology is a superior interpretation of our faith than conservative, but this does not logically follow. The reason that I believe that conservative churches will continue to see their numbers fall in the coming years until they become unsustainable is that liberal theology has a much better chance of converting the ever-increasing population of unchurched young people. Conservative theology butts heads with many of the social values of younger generations, and I believe that this is ultimately irreconcilable.

But, to reiterate, that liberal theology might be more attractive to future generations (to the extent that any theology is, and that’s a significant question) does not make it correct theology. The Crusades were popular among Christians but certainly un-Christian.

So, here’s the dilemma I have—I really want to say that this perceived (and, mind you, totally unscientific) belief that liberal theology has higher chances of bringing new people into the Church is emblematic of C.S. Lewis’ “natural law,” that it is a subtle but God-breathed recognition of the conscience for the better morality. Wanting does not make it so, and there’s a grave danger of arrogance and the same dismissal of the other side of the argument that I often point out in conservative’s use of the phrase “authority of Scripture.” Hypocrisy is not a look anyone can pull off, myself included.

I think that all sides of the conservative/liberal theological split would agree that theology should never be adapted to become more attractive to potential converts. It should only be adapted when the newer theology seems to be correct for its own sake, without reference to the opinions of others. Unfortunately, I doubt whether we humans can separate those things from one another, and—even if I ultimately deny the claim—it is a question that ought to be considered, wrestled with and fully addressed when conservatives accuse liberals of altering theology to suit what makes them happy. Then again, the liberals might fairly accuse the conservatives of altering theology to suit what makes them feel safe. Ultimately, this just means that humans ought to carefully consider their own motives when reaching theological conclusions.

Despite my skepticism, which I believe should be maintained for a healthy theology (and a healthily low level of arrogance), I do believe that liberal theology is right and that it is a good thing—I refuse to speculate about the movement of the Spirit in matters such as this, for that would be to presume far too much—that what I believe is the better theology resonates more with younger generations. For me, this means a hope that the dwindling of avowed Christians may be reversed and, in the process, create a Church that is more faithful to Christ.

At the same time, it would be problematic at the least for conservative interpretations to die out. This is not a fair comparison, so please do not take it as such, but consider Arianism. The early church had to actually wrestle with and confront this heterodoxy; now we take its inaccuracy for granted. Conservative interpretation is infinitely more supportable than any established heterodoxy (though I find it ultimately insupportable). If we lose faithful, good-hearted people of conservative theology—of whom I’m sure there are many—we lose a “loyal opposition” that forces us to carefully evaluate and defend our own theology. No theology should be taken for granted.

Neither should we seek to maintain conservative theologians as strawmen or zoological exhibits—we must remember that, at least on some issues, their interpretations may be right. Most important, we must remember that our faith has many mysteries that may be unable to resolve, and thus we ought to be willing and ready to live in harmony with those Christians with whom we disagree on certain theological matters.

Because of my convictions, I sincerely hope that liberal Christian theologies will prevail over conservative ones, and that this will cause a revival and re-expansion of our faith. At the same time, I hope that we maintain a diversity of theologies that can challenge us and further refine our understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ.

As a final caveat, I have to admit that I cannot be sure that the conservative factions within Christianity will die off—many seem to be doing quite well, and some very conservative factions, such as the Mennonites, have endured for quite some time in the face of competing theologies (albeit in small pockets).

Texas Annual Conference 2017

Last week, I attended the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church as a lay delegate. K was also a delegate; more eager than I, she referred to the several days of the conference as our “Meetings Vacation.” She’s not wrong.

I had started to write a review of my experiences from the conference closer to the event, but I decided to let matters stew for a little while before committing thoughts to (digital) paper. I’m not sure time has helped much, so take these thoughts as what they are—observations that may not accurately reflect realities.

Here’re my comments:

Bishop Scott Jones, A Good Guy

When it was first announced that Bishop Jones would be the new bishop of the Texas Annual Conference, I braced for impact. You may remember a previous post about my first time to hear him speak as bishop. Conference provided greater opportunity to get to know the man and I must say that my opinion of him is favorably changed.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that Bishop Jones and I have quite different theological positions. In his opening address, he (being a scholar of Weslayan and church history), referred to Kenneth Wyatt’s painting “Offer Them Christ,” depicting Wesley sending Thomas Coke to America (with the painting’s title referring to Wesley’s supposed charge to Coke). Bishop Jones pointed out that the scene depicted by Wyatt never actually occurred, but that it nevertheless carries some power and truth with it. As a writer of fiction, I very much agree.

I am led to believe (and this admittedly could be wrong because it comes from my own surmising and third-hand commentary) that Bishop Jones leans toward a more conservative and literalist interpretation of scripture. If this is true, I wonder how our bishop can apply a non-literalist hermeneutic to the painting but not to the interpretation of scripture.

At the end of the day, however, this criticism doesn’t matter, even if it is correct. What I saw in Bishop Jones was a man of deep faith, strong leadership skills, a commitment to the Gospel, a true desire to do good in the world and a sense of reasonableness and compassion. I am led to question my suppositions about him because his comments (both in the opening address and at the Under-35 dinner at which he briefly spoke) lead me to believe that his past actions regarding disciplinary actions against clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies were not governed by his theology but by a rigorous commitment to the discipline of the church as represented in the Book of Discipline. Again, I may disagree with his approach to the church discipline, but I do admire that his commitment carries a certain fairness and predictability with it that may not be found in my own thoughts about the importance of the Book of Discipline.

I think that Bishop Jones will be able to accomplish many great things in our conference and I admire his expressed desire to seek greater diversity in the church (even if it is not as extensive as the diversity I’d argue for). He seems like someone with whom it would be great to spend some time and from whom much can be learned. What the United Methodist Church needs more than anything else to prevent a split is people who can be in fellowship and communion with those Christians with whom they do not theologically agree (on matters other than the Creedal core, of course). Bishop Jones seems just such a person. Given his adherence to church order, I really believe that, if General Conference changed to Book of Discipline to favor full inclusion regardless of gender (there is much work toward gender equality between men and women, but not nearly enough for those who are transgendered, genderfluid or elsewhere on the spectrum) and sexual preference, Bishop Jones would support the modified discipline whether he agreed with it or not because of his commitment to the polity.

Overall, I was forced to reconsider my expectations of the man and to realize that in more ways than not he is a great asset to our conference and to Christianity itself. I wish it did not take me so long to realize something that—according to my own values and beliefs—I should have been open to from the very beginning.

The Resistance (to Progress)

This was the feeling I got most from the laity at conference this year. This does not apply across the board, and I hope that my conclusions were caused by a small number of vocal individuals or congregations rather than a true representation of the conference as a whole.

Our theme, as I’ve alluded to, was diversity and the need for the church to grow more diverse in ways that are authentic. What surprised me was the resistance to diversity that was voiced among laity.

The laity session of the conference involved a panel of clergy and experts in diversity and the diversification of congregations. The core question posed was, “If your congregation doesn’t look something like your community in terms of demographics, is your church failing to advance its missional purpose in some way?” The panel members were clear that the answer is not automatically “Yes”—there are commuter churches and a number of other types of situations that may cause a church not to match demographic percentages in the community. In fact, the panel members were also clear that seeking diversity just to make numbers match up isn’t very realistic and is usually not the right reason to pursue diversity. When it comes down to it, it’s about ministering to the people around you, not about looking good on pie charts.

Nevertheless, there should be a call to congregations to step outside their comfort zones and to seek congregants of cultures other than the dominant one in that church. We should not be neglecting people because of a different skin color or culture—we ought to be learning how to respectfully navigate (navigation being something more achievable than true understanding) those cultures to reach the people of them.

The questions to the panel seemed to seek assurance for the asker that there were good ways or reasons to avoid the call to diversity. The first question asked about which ethnicity statistically tithes the most—the clear subtext being: “Well, the white people bring the most money to the church, so shouldn’t we be focusing on them?” I don’t know whether that’s statistically true (and I really don’t want to know the answer), and I could write a whole post (or more!) on the theological problems with such an approach. Fortunately, the audience itself responded in resistance to the approach suggested by the asker. Unfortunately, this did not stop other individuals from asking questions that revealed equal amounts of intolerance or resistance to diversity.

If you’re not aware, the 2016 General Conference passed some changes to the church’s constitution. According to the legislative procedures established by the Book of Discipline, constitutional changes passed by the General Conference must then be passed by a majority of the delegates across the Annual Conferences to be enacted.

One of the constitutional changes (summarized here) involved changes to use gender non-specific language to talk about God as a whole, partially for theological reasons but most assuredly to make an effort to combat complementarianism and theologies that assign a lesser place to women because of their femininity (K and I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale lately, which has reinforced my support for this amendment).

As one young clergyperson paraphrased after the discussion and voting on that and the other four amendments: “Five people got up to speak about how God has a penis.”

The arguments went like this:

(1) Jesus was a man. Because God incarnated as a man, it’s true that God is masculine (or for the softer argument: “it’s confusing to talk about God as non-gendered”).

(2) God created men and women separate from one another; a man cannot be a woman no matter how hard he tries (and vice versa).

(3) This change is an attempt allow changing societal ideologies to creep into theology.

Number 2 ignores modern science, the experiences of non-gender-conforming persons (also created by God) and, most important, the point and focus of this amendment. Number 3 is just another way of saying “there’s no interpretation to be done in Scripture (there’s only the truth of the literalist way I read it).”

Number 1, however, moved me to go to the microphone to speak in favor of the amendment and to respond. If you have nothing else to do, you can go watch the video of the conference online (Business Session 2, I think) and see my extemporaneous argument. It goes like this: according to orthodox doctrine, Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human. It is therefore foolish to try to extrapolate information about the divine aspect of Jesus by reference to the human aspect—our intellects simply cannot resolve this; it is a mystery of faith. Besides, reference to Jesus (or the Father, for that matter) as an argument for the gender of God comes dangerously close to the heresy of modalism—specifically, “sometimes God manifests as man, but sometimes God could manifest as a woman.” Such a response creates problems in trinitarian doctrine that make my head spin. The short answer, though, is that the trinitarian God is complete and therefore must in some way that we cannot truly parse out contain the entire spectrum of gender.

As important, it is incumbent upon us as the faithful to ensure that the interpretation of Scripture is not twisted to promote violence against or a lesser status for women (or anyone else for that matter). I think that many of us American Methodists forget that our denomination is worldwide and that there are places Methodism where gender inequality is still very much an issue (not to mention that we tend to brush under the rug those places it persists within our own minds and institutions).

The Good Apart from the Bad and Ugly

I’ve spent most of this post complaining about the conference, so I do want to point out a few wonderful things about my experience of it:

(1) Getting to spend time with young clergy was uplifting and inspiring.

(2) We heard some great presentations. At the Reconciling Ministries lunch we heard Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth speak about being a gay, black man in the Methodist Church. His description of times when his blackness prevented getting to issues of sexuality and his gayness prevented getting to issues of race opened my eyes. The presentation on cultural intelligence by Rev. Dr. Maria A. Dixon Hall (Senior Advisor to the Provost at SMU) is nothing short of amazing. You can watch it on YouTube starting at around the 1:30:00 mark here.

(3) One of the panelists in the laity session stated that he believes that house churches will be a big part of the future of Christianity. I’ve been thinking this for a while myself, and validation from an expert is always good for the ego.

(4) Our conference appears to be innovative and vibrant and there are many laypersons and clergy who are proclaiming the Gospel in new and powerful ways.

(5) I got to see K in her element (the intersection of church and meetings) and hit the realization that she’ll be commissioned as a deacon at Conference next year. Time flies! I also got to meet several of her classmates from Perkins seminary.

(6) The affirmation of the social justice values of Christianity (and particularly the Methodist interpretation thereof) is comforting in times where politicians want to use hate and fear to hold power, leaving the world less fair and just all around.

(7) I made new friends in the Conference that I hope to have deep relationships with—it’s always fun to meet young clergy who are nerds like me!

I could go on, but seven being the metaphorical number of completion, that seems like a good stopping point.

Protecting the Religious Right (to Discriminate)

Yesterday, the Texas Senate passed a bill that allows religious-based organizations involved in foster care to discriminate in the provision of services based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” It previously passed the House and there is no reason to suspect that Governor Abbott will not sign House Bill 3859 into law.

As an attorney, (but not a constitutional law attorney, mind you), I have a strong suspicion that this bill violates the Constitution’s protections of religion, right to privacy and, as only recently affirmed by SCOTUS, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. We shall see.

But this is not a post about the law. This is a post about my views on the matter as a Christian and a foster parent. I’m appalled, but unfortunately not surprised.

There has been a growing movement among conservative Christians–especially in Texas, I think, though my lens is distorted since that’s where I am–to protect the right to refuse people services based on religious belief. This is both theologically untenable and ridiculously counterproductive from the standpoint of evangelism and discipleship.

House Bill 3859 allows faith-based organizations to refuse to: (1) place children with certain families because of the family’s differing religious views; (2) place children with persons or families whose homosexuality–as the Methodist Church would put it–is incompatible with Christian teaching; and (3) provide certain services (abortions or vaccines, for instance) to children in their care. There is no question that this legislation is motivated by conservative Christian lobby groups.

I hear about this bill and what the Christian churches involved in lobbying for the bill say through the legislation is: “My right to force my values on other people is more important than helping children without homes. I want to help children without homes, but only if I can do it my way without any risk of repercussions.”

That is not a witness to the Christ who tells us, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Nota bene that the statement does not read, “whatever you do for the least of these who believe in me just like you do….”

The Texas foster care system has been judged by a court to be illegally deficient in the protection and services provided to foster children. There is a shortage of foster parents and a surplus of children who need homes.  Is this really the time to move for the right to exclude foster parents who are otherwise qualified and vetted to take in and care for children from “the system?”

As you’ve likely guessed, I’m pretty passionate about my own interpretations of the Christian faith. But I’m also not so egotistical and prideful as to have surety of my religious understanding so as to completely discredit, disregard and disrespect those of other beliefs–Christian or otherwise. Nevertheless, there comes a point where I feel that the hypocrisy is so blatant that I cannot help but take offense and I am filled with a righteous-seeming anger that the actions of other people acting under the banner of Christianity are besmirching my faith and sabotaging my own ability to evangelize and disciple to the world. It’s an uphill battle when you have to start a conversation about your faith with, “No, that’s not really what Christianity is about. I promise.”

Just last night I was in a church meeting where the perennial question, “How do we get more millennials to come to church?” came up. The best answer: stop doing stuff like this! Stop putting self-affirmation in front of helping people and making the world a better place? Millennials smell hypocrisy like a bloodhound tracking a scent, not that they need to be able to when judgment is thrown before mercy in such blatant manner! People are leaving the church (or never giving it a thought in the first place) not because of outdated furniture, color schemes or worship styles but because some make of it an instrument of oppression and transgression rather than one of confession and profession.

As a foster parent, how dare the government spend time trying to exclude some of my willing helpmates rather than actually fixing a deplorably broken system for the benefit of the children? It makes my life tougher even as I’m trying to help. That’s not good for an already-overburdened system.

There. That’s enough said about being appalled. Why am I not surprised? Because this is just one more milestone on the current trajectory of many Christians. We see this in the demand for people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and talk about the “war on Christmas” or the “war on Christians.” A little secret: no one needs to make war on Christianity for the relevance and the effectiveness of the church to dwindle into nothing–we’re doing a great job of that ourselves.

More broadly, it’s an indication of current trends in American culture–let’s blame others so that we can discriminate against them rather than truly trying to solve the suffering of the world.

When our priorities are correct, the revelation of our faith in Jesus comes naturally and is inevitable. When we make our goal protectionism over all else, I’m afraid that Jesus turns away from us in shame. Can you blame him?

Demonology

I’ve been doing some research into demonologies lately for some of my fiction writing, and, naturally, it’s got me thinking about demons and devils from a theological standpoint.

Most of Christian demonology (and the demonology of Judaism and Islam, for that matter) is based on folk belief run amok.

The Book of Job features “the Satan” (“Ha-Satan”), not so much a formal name as a title of office: “the adversary.” In Job, the Satan’s position is just that, the skeptic who doubts Job’s sincerity and requests God’s permission to test Job’s faith. Here, the Satan’s intent is not to corrupt Job but to uncover the truth of his piety. We should also read the Satan in this text as highly metaphorical; through the story the author is leading us through an investigation of the problems of evil and suffering. The ultimate answer given at the end of Job is that we humans cannot fully understand evil and suffering and must trust in God as the only satisfactory resolution. The Satan, then, represents a force or condition personified for mythopoeic effect more than a literal being.

The word “satan” appears in the Old Testament about 18 times outside of Job. The King James Version (already saturated with folk demonology–James VI & I himself wrote Daemonologie in 1597) sometimes translates the word as a proper noun when it more correctly should have been translated as “an adversary.”

There is one notable exception: Revelation 12:7-9, which reads: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” We’ll return to this below.

The word translated by the King James as “Lucifer” appears in Isaiah 14 and should properly be translated as “morning star” rather than a proper name.

So where do our ideas about Satan and Lucifer, fallen angels and great demons come from? As I mentioned above, a borrowed and greatly embellished folk tradition that somehow became enmeshed within Christianity.

The early Mesopotamian cultures had extensive legends about demons, much of which we have come to know from apotropaic amulets and inscriptions. There are Alu and Agag, the edimmu and the Lilu, just to name a few. Mesopotamian ideas naturally influenced Jewish ideas (remember that Abram is called by God to leave the Mesopotamian cities in Genesis) and through Jewish thought came to Christian thought. The Exodus and the Babylonian Captivity provided additional opportunities for pagan demonologies to influence demonological thought among Rabbis and Jewish scholars.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide some insight. We know that Qumran, the community of the (probably) Essenes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was probably founded between the 130’s and 100’s B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in 68 A.D. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, both of which make reference to the episode in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God”–interpreted in these texts as angels–rebel by taking human wives, giving birth to the Nephilim. Because of this, we know that a well-developed and codified set of demonological ideas exists at about the time of Christ. To what extent these ideas were widely accepted is, I think, unknown.

The likeliest influence for a chief demon in the popular concept of Satan is Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion, in which the good God Ahura Mazda battles the evil god Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) for control of the world. This idea of a powerful evil being in opposition to the supreme being (and in the early Old Testament the Hebrews appear to be henotheistic long before they are truly monotheistic) must have been an attractive one for the explanation of evil and suffering in the world.

This jibes well with the story of Satan’s rebellion against God, a war in heaven that ends with Satan and his followers being cast out or cast into Hell. In a truly monotheistic mindset, it doesn’t make sense to think that one–angel or not–could overthrow the sovereign creator of all things and take God’s place as lord of creation. If this popular “Satan’s rebellion” story is true, I question the danger of an adversary who can’t do a basic benefit to risk assessment; it’s the smart criminals you have to watch out for.

Now we return to the passage in Revelation. But we ought to be careful: while the core nugget of Satan rebelling against God and a war in heaven is there, the nature of the text and the narration make it unclear whether we’re looking backwards in time or forwards. Based on the surrounding context (that the seven seals have been broken and trumpets are blowing) this appears to be a depiction of a future time–not a spiritual history.

The Revelation of John was probably written somewhere in the 70’s to 90’s A.D.–not long after or perhaps even concurrently with the Book of Mark. Plenty of time for popular demonological beliefs to take hold–and well before the canonization of the New Testament texts. We know that 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees existed before the Book of Revelation was likely written, so we know that there were demonological ideas that to draw upon at the time, even if most of these ideas would not make it into canon.

There is much information to be had on ancient demonologies and their potential influences on one another. For my purpose here, I mean only to point out in broad strokes that most of our ideas about “the devil” and Satan are based on conjecture and elaboration–some of it fanciful–rather than Scripture.

Most of our understanding of the “war in heaven” narrative–in the popular mind–comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is from that work, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and long-standing oral traditions that our concept of the devil comes about.

Why does this matter? Because the way we think about evil matters. Is there evil in the world? I don’t think there’s any question about that. Is there a personified, capital “E” Evil at work in the world? I don’t know–I don’t think that Scriptures are entirely clear on this matter and we can cause more suffering than we alleviate if we focus overmuch on a the “spiritual warfare” against a personified Other in our efforts to seek justice and peace in our world.

To be clear, the Scriptures do indicate a confidence in the existence of supernatural entities that can affect the world, some of them evil or unclean. The Witch of Endor (surprisingly not related to Star Wars) summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel at Saul’s command; Jesus is shown driving spirits out of the afflicted as well. I’m unwilling to deny this; nor can I categorically prove or disprove the existence of a Satan. But, we don’t know the extent to which Jesus’s exorcisms were really the contemporary cultural understanding of the miraculous healing of mental illness and to what extent actual predatory beings were involved. Maybe I’m hedging my bets, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s some of both. Still, we’re not Jesus and therefore not blessed with absolute knowledge of which is which, We ought to take a very careful approach, then.

What are the dangers of a focus on Satan as a strong influence on our lives? The most obvious, I think, coincides with the previous paragraph: the employment of exorcism as a tool when the situation really calls for mental health treatment. Much research shows how mental conditioning can create a situation where a person can be made to believe that they need an exorcism and to play the role of the afflicted even when they would not have said that they were possessed before entering the preparation for exorcism. The extreme measures used in some exorcisms have led to deaths–this isn’t really helpful to anyone. Again, I’m not saying that an exorcism can never be an appropriate course of action (I’m skeptical but I don’t have any way of knowing for sure) and I have no problem with ritual abjuration and exorcism, such as performed by the Eastern Orthodox Church prior to baptism. More often than not, however, I think exorcism is the creation of problems that do not exist, obstructing the addressing of those problems that do.

In the wider spiritual sense, however, it’s not exorcisms that most concern me. What concerns me is the functions a Satan figure fulfills in practice. On the one hand, Satan makes a convenient scapegoat for personal responsibility–the classic “the Devil made me do it.” There’s a definite psychological advantage to saying “I did that thing I feel guilty about because I was weak in the face of the Devil’s temptation” over saying “I made a bad choice that was my doing entirely.” While psychologically advantageous, this practice is not spiritually advantageous–to repent for sins we must accept responsibility for them.

The most dangerous, as I’ve seen firsthand: saying that someone is under the influence of Satan is the ultimate act of creating Otherness. Once done, the namer typically treats the name as a force of Evil against which the only righteous course of action is vehement opposition. The named can never have a good point, raise an issue that ought to be considered, or be approaching a conflict from a place of reason. The voice of the named may be entirely disregarded. I have seen this in intrachurch conflict; it is painful to watch, frustrating to deal with, and Sisyphean to resolve.

As a further example of this, take a look into the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980’s and early 90’s. This is the closest we’ve come to a witch-hunt in modern times, I think, and most if not all of the accused were innocent. If there is a Satan, he was well served by those events.

Here’s the ultimate irony, I think: Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. If there is a Satan, as an archnemesis of humanity, ought we not to try to love even him? Yes, we must reject evil, but rejecting evil is a matter of standing against particular actions and outcomes, not against people themselves. What does opposition to a Satan in a way that shows mercy to the extent possible look like? Personified evil can only lose its power in the face of love.

A focus on Satan as a force of evil blinds us to looking at institutional evil, the ways in which our society–which includes us and our own complicity–perpetuates oppression, injustice and inequality. When we look to a personified evil acting in the world for us to oppose, we neglect the evil we do, especially when we can say “my evil is far less than that of the Devil.”

As an aside, I think it’s interesting (and perhaps important as well) to note that most self-avowed Satanists do not belief in a literal Satan. They instead believe in the Nietzschean pursuit of selfish power at the expense of all else (an idea that remains nevertheless anathema to the Christian), but they do not per se believe in a Devil or even necessarily in evil for evil’s sake (although the line quickly blurs when exercising power for power’s sake). If even those who explicitly make Satan the focus of their philosophical ideology (and there are, unfortunately, some Christians who do the same, albeit from a more oppositional  perpesctive) view Satan as a figurative symbol for selfish living and rebellion for its own sake, we ought to consider the figurative meaning of a Satan in our own theology at least as much as a literal meaning.

The thoughts of Satanists do not make the existence of Satan true or untrue. My own thoughts here bear the same powerlessness, and I’ll explicitly state once again that I believe in the possibility of the existence of evil supernatural entities–personified evil or not. There are far more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. At the same time, we are far better served striving against the evil within us and within our collective way of living before looking for some external evil to combat–even spiritual warfare has a tendency to bring out the darker side of human nature, I think.

A close inspection at the Biblical sources for Satan, especially when viewed alongside the historical development of popular ideas about a personified evil in the form of some archnemesis spirit, leaves some doubt about the literal existence of a demonic force. A belief in Satan as the ultimate adversary is not a key component of Christianity (although I think that it’s fair to say that belief in the existence of evil as a condition or description of conditions is). I fully understand that there are those convicted that they know that Satan does exist. I must respect their position as much as possible because I cannot confirm or deny the truth of their experience–not that there is no absolute truth about their position, just that I don’t have access to it. In light of such uncertainty, we are better served looking to humanity and the ways in which we sin and bring evil to fruition before we blame Satan or some other supernatural force for the decisions we make and the conditions we allow to persist.

 

The Meanings of Life

I fail to understand why people talk about “the meaning of life” as if there is a simple answer, monolithic and one-size-fits-all to such questions.

My own theological conclusions lead me to propose that we seek to regard the question “What is the meaning of life?” with a two-fold or perhaps even multi-part answer, because I believe that there are really (at least) two interrelated but separate answers to the question.

On the one hand, the example and teachings of Jesus Christ present us with an objective meaning of life—fulfillment through relationship. We are told to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

I think that we ought to treat this statement not simply as a command but as a revelation of the way existence works. Christ is telling us that, in seeking right relationships, we will find joy and fulfillment because God has created all things in such a way that relationships naturally and inexorably create joy and meaning while isolation and selfishness create unhappiness and pain as a matter of cause and effect. In other words, this is not just good advice, and Jesus is not simply preaching morality—he is telling us about the fabric of existence itself. This, I think, makes good sense—an omnipotent God does not need to resort to meting out hyper-specific rewards and punishments when God controls causality itself. Which is not to say that God could not hand out consequences to mortals specifically and directly, but my own experience leads me to believe that God is subtler and more elegant than that.

This understanding is necessary, but not sufficient, to fully answer questions about what meaning is to be found in life. Unfortunately, I think that we Christians often miss—or at least fail to communicate—the rest of the message. Worse, we sometimes suppose that the meaning of life is about us worshipping God—and nothing more. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and will likely continue to do), that explanation reflects poorly on our beliefs about God’s character and purposes and saps meaning away from human existence. Worship is good and right, but it is not the sum total of Creation. Relationship fills the universe with eternal meaning, but our loving God doesn’t stop there.

Look at the diversity of existence—of people, of things, of situations, of feelings, of thoughts, of interests, of possibilities—and one cannot help but find that our God is not reductive. So why do we treat the meaning of life in such a way?

That second part of the equation for the meaning of life is much tougher and is, more often than not, what people really mean when they ask about the meaning of life. What they’re asking is, “What does my life mean?” or “What is the personal meaning of my life?”

Those questions are not to be disregarded; God purposefully made us as individuals. The scriptures are full of passages reminding us of the importance of our individuality, our “selfhood.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul expounds on the goodness of differences between us and how, through both diversity and unity, we create something beautiful. This idea is important enough to Paul that it bears repeating—he first discusses differences in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and follows with the analogy of the parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

But Paul is far from being the first in the scriptures to describe the gift and wonder of individuality. The psalmist in Psalm 139 praises God, saying, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Here also is the reason that marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the believer (or Christ and the church). In marriage, two individuals become something greater together, at once maintaining their individuality and yet also creating a unity with a meaning and wonder all its own, the frustrating and inspiring “both/and” we so often find in Christian theology.

If you have read much of my other theological musings, you know that I take a distinctly existentialist approach to theology, borrowing much in my own thought from Paul Tillich. Tillich, and particularly some of his students, emphasize that humans are storytellers, that that is how we rationalize and assign meaning to our existence. While not denying the existence of absolute truth established by God (I would rather vehemently affirm it), I am convinced that most of our understanding of any topos is formed by relating that thing to all other things—by organizing categories and understandings in relationship to one another and thereby creating (or, perhaps, inferring) meaning based upon observation of those arrangements.

This state of being results in the situation I described in my recent post “The World and the World.” The idea plays into our discussion of the grand meaning(s) of life like this:

I have two major meanings in life—the meaning of my relationship with God (and by extension all of Nature, Creation and other Creatures) and the meaning of my own individuality. A macrocosmic and microcosmic meaning in close relation to one another.

There are some things that we ought to consider in our approach to the meanings of our individual lives.

We ought to consider the importance of free will. God gave us free will to use it. He gave us a macrocosmic meaning of life so that we might simultaneously enjoy free will and use it well. We ought also to consider the great space and freedom God has given us for personal definition within that larger and divine meaning of existence.

Considering these things, I believe that it becomes evident that the individual meaning of life is a conversation, not a question and answer. Within the bounds of the greater meaning of life to which God calls all of us is near-infinite space for positive and beneficial expression of self. While God has certainly created us with certain personality traits, preferences and dispositions, we also have a thorough hand in creating and defining ourselves through the use of our free will.

As a student of early modern literature, I frequently encountered the Renaissance idea of “self-fashioning,” what we would call “fake it ‘till you make it.” Even modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are more plastic than previously thought and that it is not just functional brain states that influence the mind but that the activity of the mind can, over time, “rewire” the brain.

This is why the personal meaning of life is a conversation—it’s a back and forth (as I’ve argued all free will is) between the ways God is calling you and the places God wants you to become yourself, whoever that specific self may be (provided that it is within the bounds of what is good and true).

The space here (and may own ability, I’m afraid) is woefully insufficient to even scratch the surface of these ideas with much depth. For now, I’ll content myself with the following proposals:

Our theology ought to revel in our relationship with God, the profound diversity of Creation, and the wonder of our call to be active, participatory and individual within Creation. We need a “theology of self” that uplifts humanity and inspires while still acknowledging the (matter of fact) reality of God’s ultimate sovereignty. We ought to continuously praise God for such amazing gifts bestowed freely upon us—and the redemption God has given us for when we (inevitably) misuse those gifts.

We ought not to look outward to the lives of others to find meaning in life. We ought to look upward to God and inward to the core of ourselves to participate in the eternal creation of meaning in the Kingdom of God—both the present reality and the promise to come.

The World and the World

[What follows is a rough cut from a theology book I’ve been working on off and on with the expected title of Children of God: Finding our Place in Creation. This chapter is obviously incomplete (you’ll see that I’ve not yet added all of my citations) and will undoubtedly go through several iterations more before it ends in a state I’m satisfied with. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share this nascent version here for your thoughts and comments, which are very much appreciated.]

Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, humanity is closely tied with the world, with the physical space God has created. This relationship, however, is nuanced and complicated by the entry of sin into our existence. Interestingly, the very words chosen to describe the world in the Bible communicate subtle but important theological messages about the nature of our relationship with the world at large.

In the beginning, both of created existence and the Book of Genesis, the Hebrew word translated to mean “earth” or “the world” before the Fall is ץרא (erets, Strong’s 776). After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the garden, the word used for the same idea becomes הםדא (adamah, Strong’s 0127), from the same Hebrew root as Adam. Once Adam and Eve have sinned, their sin immediately affects Creation, infecting it with their own fallenness.[1] Of course, we need not rely on subtle linguistic change to understand this; God says as much when He tells Adam, “‘Cursed is the ground because of you…”[2]

In spite of man’s sin, or perhaps moreso because of man’s contamination of the world with sin, humanity finds itself inextricably bound to the world. As we have been created from the dust of the world, we are fated to return to the dust of that world, eternally bound to the fallenness we have created. Or so we might read Adam’s story in isolation.

After Christ’s salvific act, that is not the whole story. While our bodies may return to dust, we are possessed of an immortal spirit that transcends the world. Christ promises us a new creation, free from the taint of sinfulness and redeemed as the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is both a future promise and a present reality. How, then, are we to relate to the world in which we currently find ourselves?

The New Testament has much to tell us about the relationship of the Christian with “the world.” We are told that Christ is and His followers are to be the “light of the world,” and that Christ was sent not to condemn the world but to save it.[3] Here, the world is something God desires to preserve and redeem.

God’s desire to redeem the world makes sense to us, for there is beauty in the world, pleasure in nature, joy in physical and fleshly existence. Even if we could not easily perceive this in the world around us (and there are surely situations that totally obscure such beauty and wonder), God is clear about the value of Creation as He creates it. Those things He created were good.[4]

At the same time, we are shown an image of the world as something to be turned away from and rejected. The gospels seem to agree that Christ said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self [or soul].”[5] In Christ’s teachings, a tension builds between the world and the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven).

We are told not to store up earthly treasures, but heavenly ones, for our heart shall follow after our treasures, and we cannot serve both worldly gain and heavenly glory.[6] But the Gospel according to John makes the division between God and world painfully explicit. Christ tells us both that He is not of the world and that the world hates Him because He is not of it and He declares its evil.[7] The world cannot accept the Holy Spirit because it neither sees nor knows him.[8] Christ does not give as the world gives; only He has the gift of peace to offer.[9] There is a “prince of the world” who is coming to trouble Christians but who Christ will drive out.[10] Christ warns us that the world will hate His followers as it hates Him, because Christ and His followers do not belong to the world.[11]

What does it mean to belong to the world? And what is so wrong about the world that we should reject it? The answers to these questions is the same; that answer is sin. But if we are to renounce the world because it is sinful, what are we to do with the Creation that God deemed good? We are confronted with the appearance of two separate worlds, one to be rejected, one full of the splendor of God’s creative work. The world and the world.[12]

And, as we did with Hebrew in Genesis, we find a fascinating nuance of Koine Greek. Several words in the Greek New Testament are commonly translated as the English word “world.” These are: κόσμος (kosmos, “world, earth, world system…in other contexts (especially in John), the world is a system opposed to God,” Strong’s 2889), οίκουμένη (oikoumene, “the [inhabited] world, (Roman) world,” Strong’s 3625), γή (, “earth, world Strong’s 1093), κτίσις (ktisis, “creation,” Strong’s 2937), and αιών (aion, “eternity, age, universe, or current world system,” Strong’s 165).[13] Of these words, kosmos is far and away the most commonly-used, appearing 187 times in the New Testament, translated as “world” 185 of those times. Kosmos is the only world translated to “world” in the Gospel according to John. As Strong’s itself notes, in John the word kosmos often indicates a worldly system opposed to God. One should note that, despite the availability of other Koine words for “world,” John only uses kosmos.

According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, the word kosmos also carries with it the idea of something that is constructed or built, both in the sense of God’s creation of the universe and in the sense of man psychologically, mythopoeically, and philosophically constructing the world he mentally inhabits. Post-modern as it is, I meet any “system” of thought or human reality with skepticism, for any finite system created by man shall always pale in the infinite glory of the One who gave us the raw materials from which such systems are crafted. But that post-modern remark provides the crux of this chapter and the reason for the distinction that we see between the world and the world.

The first world is that of God’s Creation: the beauty and splendor of nature; the impressive wonder of the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry; the amazing diversity of animal life; the awesome expanse of galaxies and stars outside of our Milky Way. The Fall of Adam and Eve did not touch the essential nature of these things, any fallenness that taints these things is the result only of human influence upon and use of them. Here we have preserved for us the goodness that God declared for the created and natural world.

The second world is one of human creation, perhaps aided by demonic influence, perhaps not. Regardless, it is the system of manufactured “laws of nature” we pretend to have no dominance over. These laws are not natural, but social and ideological. The idea that success means wealth and power. That the products produced by a person say more about that person than what is within him. That wisdom is the ability to take advantage of others while avoiding being taken advantage of. That strength is the ability to force others to your will. That peace is merely a lack of conflict. That love is merely the use of manners. That hope is merely gallows humor. That faith is merely the repetition of dead words.

This world system, the second world, is the sum total of human error and sin. It is of necessity opposed to the Kingdom of God because it distorts Creation, relating Creation to itself in a way that perverts God’s intended purposes and essential meanings. When the word “world” is used in this way, it should not be confused with the concrete, physical world in which we reside, though the abstract “world” as the sinful system of ideas, the collective paradigm of humanity sometimes intersects with it.

This idea in many ways parallels certain schools of thought within metaphysical philosophy.

Study of these various philosophies is a worthwhile—though sometimes laborious and tedious—pursuit. I will try to remove semantic arguments from this discussion so that they cloud the issues as little as possible. While I may make some reference to philosophical ideas for sake of brevity, I will try to define the main ideas and thoughts independently of philosophical lingo for the sake of accessibility.

To a great extent, it might be wise to avoid the mental constructs of philosophy altogether and to start from a clean slate, but the foundational ideas we must address are well explored in extant philosophy and we have neither time nor space to reinvent the wheel. All the subsequent thoughts in this book stem from a certain concept of reality, and without explicitly illustrating that paradigm, much that follows would be confused and garbled.

Metaphysics and theology overlap at a minimum, and often occupy the same space, as they are both concerned with the truth that underlies perceived reality. For our purposes, we will oversimplify our metaphysics to three broad categories. The first of these says that only the material world as it can be perceived exists, that thought, cognition, and consciousness are only by-products of material processes or structures. This category would, obviously, include materialism, and also probably positivism. On the other end of the spectrum we have the idea that only the spirit exists, and that all perceived objects are either illusory or simply manifestations or perceptions of spirit. Into this category falls idealism, particularly the mystic idealism of George Berkeley, but also the ideas of Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Leibniz, Jakob Boehme, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Rudolf Steiner. Given the presence of men like George Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Meister Eckhart in that list, we can see that philosophical idealism has had a profound influence on Christianity, or at least certain forms of it. Somewhere between the two extremes lies that both mind or spirit and the material exist in some dualistic combination; this is often called “realism.”

That middle ground between idealism and materialism will be our starting place, though we will lean more heavily toward idealism than we do toward materialism. With the existence of God, materialism cannot stand; one simply cannot be both a materialist and a Christian. Matthew 6 stresses twice that God is “unseen.”[14] In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds us that what we see is temporary, but what we cannot see is eternal.[15] Christ’s condescension to man has as part of its purpose to reveal God to man, for He is typically unseen. If we are to have faith in a God we cannot perceive with our five senses, we must have faith also that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[16]

While reference to established philosophical paradigms serves as a shortcut to discuss certain ideas in the context of two overlapping and competing worlds or modes of existence, we must be careful not to put our faith (even moreso our God) into a box. The desire to simplify and categorize is endemic to human nature, but let’s resist that urge for a more complex and beautiful understanding.

When we look to scripture, we find a view of the world that does not easily fit into a materialist, or idealist, or realist view. In fact, aside from the inadequacy of materialism to explain the universe as understood by the Christian, a Biblical understanding of reality could align with an idealist view (as a number of prominent Christian thinkers and philosophers have adopted) or with a realist view.

If we focus solely on Paul’s words that what is true is unseen, and what is seen is false, this might lead us to a purely idealist view—the everyday, mundane experience of life, especially the material particulars of life, are but illusions concealing the greater truth of existence as expressed to us (and perhaps only accessible by us, at least at first) through God’s revelation. This idea would find ready corollaries in Buddhism or Hinduism.

But Paul also tells us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”[17] The word for “world” used by Paul here is kosmos. If we are to follow the difference between the world (as good creation) and the world (as kosmos, man’s constructed paradigm of reality), this statement adds great depth to our inquiry. First, to continue the current line of thought, this statement tells us that there are good things in the physical world that God wants to redeem; this should cause us to approach a purely idealist paradigm with some caution, perhaps preferring a more complex and nuanced realist philosophy as part of our theology. This statement requires us to view the word kosmos as meaning the physical, created world rather than constructed experience of reality. There is no doubt that this meaning is also intended by the use of the word in certain passages of scripture, or perhaps that the double meaning purposefully exists like nesting dolls constructed around one another.

Second, when we read the word kosmos in Paul’s statement to mean man’s self-invented paradigm of existence, we are told that God’s desire is to reconcile our understanding of reality with His. This idea will prove to be integral to the chapters that follow. For now, we return briefly to the ideas of idealism and realism.

Ultimately, we are faced with two seeming opposites to resolve. First, the existence of a temporal, material world. Second, the existence of a transcendent world of spirit. Christianity has a unique approach to many questions of opposites. As G.K. Chesteron writes:

Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.[18]

Perhaps the answer is not in the opposites themselves, but in their combination. There is a third way. If the material and the spiritual are situated on top of one another, so interwoven that they are simultaneously individual and yet a unity, we are presented with a “solution” that comports with the thematic underpinnings of the entire discussion of this book, and with Christianity as a whole. This “solution”, I think defies easy classification as idealist or realist. Quite possibly it dexterously sidesteps that conversation altogether.

This chapter began with a discussion of the two competing worlds within the New Testament, Creation and the Kosmos. For there to exist this opposition, the one must be independent from the other. That is to say, God’s intentions and original Creation must be separate from Himself for it to be susceptible to corruption and sin. This in itself only proves that man is separate from God, as we shall soon discuss, but if man is separate from God, why should the rest of Creation not be?

In his letters, Paul says:

For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.[19]

The word used by Paul here is σάρζ (sarx, Strong’s 4561).[20] This word literally means “the soft tissue of a creature,” though Paul uses it to contrast that which is sinful with that which is holy, the Spirit.[21] Born in Tarsus, a Greek city known for its intellectual prowess, Paul’s childhood included instruction in Greek philosophy.[22] Scholars have clearly established Paul’s familiarity with Stoic philosophy.[23] During Paul’s time, the tradition of Platonism also included significant aspects of Stoic thought, making it difficult to determine exactly how familiar Paul would have been with the idealism of Middle Platonism.[24] However, given the culture of learning into which Paul was born and the similarity between Paul’s established opposition between flesh and spirit and Platonic opposition between matter and soul, the connection seems an easy one.[25]

Still, we should not be too ready to see in Paul’s writings more than a metaphorical (rather than metaphysical) divide between sarx and the spirit, although this statement, too, must be carefully defined. As N.T. Wright argues in his book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective, we would do well to—when we discuss the connections between Greek philosophy and Paul’s theology—remember also the ways in which Paul’s theology is utterly incompatible with systems of Greek thought, whether the pantheism of Stoicism or the “ontological gap between the divine and the world” that explains the existence of evil in Epicurean thought.[26]

We will conclude here that, without much greater examination (which I will leave to others). We cannot say that Paul held a readily dualistic view of the world of flesh and the world of spirit. Instead, these two worlds, which are arguably the same as the world of creation and the kosmos world, are intimately connected, just as God is intimately interested in and connected to mankind. As we continue this line of exploration, let us keep in mind that, while to some extent useful for framing a discussion or approach to theological investigation, it is rarely helpful to place theology in a philosophical box, to say that an orthodox understanding of our faith fits within this school of thought or that. Existence is too big, too minutely ordered, and too complex for such an easy distinction.

From sources other than Paul, the early church fathers—Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and Origen—incorporated Platonic thought into Christian theology.[27] That any of these men, Paul included, held (or possibly held) Platonic ideas does not of itself make those ideas true. But Christ Himself makes a distinction that closely aligns with the arguments of both Paul and Platonism. Upon Christ’s appearance to Thomas after the Resurrection, Christ tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[28] Christ’s repeated distinction between seen and unseen—by proxy worldly and spiritual—strongly suggests a realist approach that gives dominance to the ideal, to the matters of the mind and spirit while not going so far as to say that the material does not exist.

My own personal experience drives this home. For almost half of my life, I’ve had—I hesitate to say “suffered” because I’m doing just fine, thank you very much (but I have suffered at times)—from clinical depression. For me, this is simply an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in my brain, serotonin and probably also norepinephrine. When properly addressed with medication, I feel and think as myself, as the closest thing I know to my “essential” self. When those chemicals run rampant, however, my thoughts are not my own, and the chemicals in my brain cause me to think thoughts that, consciously, I know are not the thoughts I truly have about a given thing and to feel feelings that I consciously know not to be my true feelings. My mind or spirit and my body are out of joint and in conflict with one another, and though I know my identity is being oppressed and suppressed by malfunctioning neurotransmitters, that does not make it easy to cognitively recover myself. Though many scientists would disagree with my assessment, and I cannot concretely communicate the truth of it to anyone outside of myself, my experiences with depression have made it clear to me that my mind and my body are not the same. At the same time, though, it shows me that body and mind influence one another in profound and direct ways; while this dialectic influence does not rise to the level of determinism, it does show us that there is both a divide and a unity between the material and the spiritual, a divide and a unity that resonates in our relationship with God (individually or corporately), or participation in the Body of Christ, and the microcosmic example of marriage.

Again, we need not label or categorize this position within extant schools of philosophical thought; we will find it sufficient to say that we find support in the Bible, the world around us, the tradition of the church in the early church fathers, and the reason of philosophy for the premise that there are both a spiritual/unseen aspect and a material/perceptible aspect within existence and that they influence one another, though the spirit is ultimately the stronger. Along with this, we assert that the created has an existence apart from God, both in its material and spiritual aspects.

And this brings us to another philosophical school of thought that finds great purchase within this book: existentialism.

Popularly, we think of existentialism as a secular, humanist school of thought—the names Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche come to mind. And we’ll start with secularist existentialism, but that’s only the first half of the puzzle, because existentialism originated in Christian thought.

An existentialist would tell us that “existence precedes essence,” that is, that our philosophical discussion must begin from the premise that things are, not what things are. Our focus starts with the individual, not with what attributes make the individual who he is, but the simple fact that he is an individual in his existence. There’s a lot to be said for the artistic and philosophic value of existentialist thought, but existentialism takes us down a dark path if followed blindly into the forest of consequential ideas. Tread it with me a while and we’ll find that, because the existentialist concern begins with ourselves and our experience rather than the supposition of there being an essential, necessary nature to every thing, we come to believe that there is no meaning. From this argument, existentialists then become psychologists, focusing their philosophy on the psychic trauma we popularly call existential angst, the horror of our realization of a lack of meaning in the universe.

Again we are reminded of Chesterton’s “sacred paradox,” the combination of furious opposites that remain furiously opposed and yet bound together. Secular existentialism gives us half of the paradox if taken to its logical conclusion. For that conclusion, we turn not to the philosophers we discussed above but to a storyteller, and one of my favorites. If you’ve been plugged into to popular culture even in the most tenuous of senses, you’ve heard of Joss Whedon, he created the TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse; most of his recent work has been in the comic book field, particularly with the recent Avengers movies. Whedon has referred to himself as “a very hard-lined, angry atheist,” and close examination of some of his works reveals a definite secular humanist existentialist tone, though arguably an agnostic tone over an atheistic one. For an example of this in The Avengers, search the internet for an article by Nathaniel Darnell of the Atlanta Art Cinema Examiner entitled, “Fun Movie but is Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ Theistic or Agnostic?”[29]

Why does our conversation take a sudden left turn into the territory of such an unlikely candidate? Because Joss Whedon is a smart man, and though secular existentialism gives us only half of the paradox, Whedon gives it its clearest expression. He is oft quoted as having said, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Whedon’s words are simply the existentialist’s phrasing of what we’ve been discussing in meaning and ambiguity—humans make meaning; the meaning that they make is powerful. If you believe that nothing has any inherent meaning, then of necessity the meaning we assign to it bears that thing’s power. Going back to Adam’s naming of the animals, we are told in Scripture both that there is an absolute essence to objects that is not preceded by existence but also that we are called to make meaning in the world. The meaning we make may be relational rather than essential, but it nevertheless carries great power. How we define the world determines how we interact with it.

To be clear, the half of the sacred paradox that existentialists get right is that humans make meaning and that the meaning we make carries power. The other half, though, is that God also makes meaning, absolute essential meaning. In Christian thought, these two “furious opposites” co-exist. Ambiguity is the space between, where God’s withdrawal from us of absolute knowledge of absolute meaning has given us the power to create our own meaning.

Christian existentialist thought provides us with the mechanism by which God creates ambiguity. As I said before, existentialism started with Christian thought—most would point to Søren Kierkegaard as the first (modern) existentialist thinker. He proposed that God, the hope and love that He provides, is the only remedy from the existential angst of a recognition of meaninglessness. I won’t address Kierkegaard’s arguments except to say that it seems clear to me that God has made a meaningful world that only sometimes seems meaningless, but that that seeming meaninglessness serves a high purpose in God’s plan for Creation.

From Kierkegaard, Christian existentialist thought passes down to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, to the German theologian Paul Tillich, and a number of other influential theologians we will not discuss here. Paul Tillich, though, is the one who provides us with a formulation of the mechanism God uses to create ambiguity. It is, of course, existential in nature. Tillich says, “…life is ambiguous because it unites essential and existential elements.”[30]

This is exactly what we’ve been discussing—that ambiguity results from the interplay between God’s absolute (essential) meaning and man’s relational (existential) meaning. For Tillich, this interplay can also be viewed as the tension between the infinite possibility of God and the finite reality of man. He says, “So my life oscillates between the possible and the real and requires the surrender of the one for the other—the sacrificial character of all life.”[31]

Tillich means that, upon choosing meaning, man necessarily rejects other possibilities of meaning, “sacrificing” them back to God. Here, we have another sacred paradox of Christianity because, in man, the finite of “reality” and the infinite of God’s possibility are united and synthesized.

In our everyday lives, we assign meaning to everything around us. Meaning is the “end, purpose, or significance of a thing.” If meaning itself is ambiguous—and that’s one of the things that makes this discussion so difficult—think of adjectives. When we decide that something is good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, simple or complex, beneficial or detrimental, we’re giving some meaning to the thing, whether an object, a person, a place, or an idea. I have to make clear here that there is a distinction to be made between meaning and truth. Meaning is about the significance an object, idea or person has, which can only be understood relative to other objects, ideas, and people. Truth is about what an object, idea, or person is. They are not the same, though truth influences meaning. I’m not sure if we can say the same for the reverse. To borrow philosophical terms, we will call Truth, that absolute meaning of a created thing bestowed by God, essential meaning (that is, related to the essence of a thing) and the meaning created by man existential meaning (the meaning given to a thing by the way we position it in relation to all other things).

To understand how things accrue meaning, let us look to Hamlet. In Act II, Scene 2, lines 250-251, Hamlet says, “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The very nature of thought arranges ideas relative to one another; in the same way, by orienting things relative to one another, we give them meaning, even if we can only understand this meaning by referring to other objects.

How do we know that God intends for us to interject meaning into the world? We have only to look to Genesis 2:19:

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

To appreciate this, we need to think of what God has just done. He’s spoken the entirety of Creation, including Adam and Eve, into being, and now He shares His power with Adam. He willingly hands over the power to name the animals to His created man, accepting the meaning that Adam instills in the animals. To be clear, God and Adam both create meaning in the animals. The core, fundamental meaning God creates by giving the animals their various phenomena and essential aspects. Relational meaning is given to the animals by Adam—their names separate them from other animals but also provide a vehicle for thinking about each animal relative to the rest of Creation.

Let us not be led astray into the thought that this process is relativism of truth. What a thing is and what a thing means are different. The essential nature of a thing, what it is, is absolute and comes from God. What a thing means is relational, and is supplied by the thought of man. As finite and imperfect creatures, we are often unable to ascertain the truth of a thing’s essence. Along with this inability to accurately determine the absolute, our varied experience and identity causes us to relate objects and ideas to one another in almost infinite ways, creating a divergence of meanings.

This space is the divergence between essential meaning and existential meaning explored previously. Often, we call this divergence “ambiguity.” The literal definition of “ambiguity” is “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”[32] As often as we are confronted with meaning, we are confronted with ambiguity. On a high level, this is clear when you try to answer questions like: What is freedom? Is it better to be happy or to know the truth? Is intelligence the same as wisdom?

Without ambiguity, without variance in meaning, the will is not free, because, as we’ll discuss, the primary mechanism by which the will is asserted is in the creation of meaning. To put this in Christian terms, ambiguity is a result of the difference of the finite and the infinite—without God’s withdrawal of His infinite self from us (perhaps better put as the separation of God’s infinite self from us, for we know that God is with us and the withdrawal only partial), we would dominated by the absolutism of the infinite, unable to be individual.

On the more practical level, we experience ambiguity every day when we attempt to understand what a co-worker meant by what she said, to understand the meaning of the loss of a loved one (though we should more likely be set upon understanding the meaning of the life lived), or the hidden motivations of our own actions. Because ambiguity causes tension and difficulty for us, we tend to think of it as a negative thing. If we (perhaps ironically) assign this sort of meaning to ambiguity, are we missing the point? I think so.

Nevertheless, our personal experiences with the difficulty of grappling with ambiguity reveals to us the finitude of ourselves, our limited understanding of self, God, Creation, and others. “For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am known.”[33]

The Bible makes clear to us that ambiguity has a purpose. Though there are many examples that I could point to to prove this point, I’ll resign myself to two. First, look to Genesis 22. This is the telling of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac. As you read that scripture, I want you to ask yourself, “How old is Isaac?” Now, let’s look at Luke 18:18, the parable of the rich young ruler:

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.

“No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Having read this passage, what does the rich young ruler do at the end? We assume that he becomes sad because he’s unwilling to part with his wealth, but could it be that he is sad to part with his material wealth because he’s going to follow what Jesus asked of him? We don’t get a definite answer here.

Returning to Isaac, how old is he? If you’re truthful with yourself, your answer is, “I don’t know.” Now, there are plenty of traditions about Isaac’s age, like the medieval one that Isaac was thirty-three at the time of his almost-sacrifice (because medieval theologians also supposed Christ to have been thirty-three when he submitted to the crucifixion), but we don’t have a definite answer.[34]

But ambiguity in the Bible goes much deeper than that, it’s written into the very literary style of the scripture.

Back in the 1930’s before the start of World War II, a Jewish German philologist and scholar of comparative literature named Erich Auerbach had been exiled from his professorial position at the University of Marburg. He fled to Istanbul, where he worked—mostly from memory—on his best-known treatise of comparative literature, what would become the book called Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in the Western World.[35] In that work, Auerbach argues that there are two main literary styles that influenced the early Western world, the Biblical style and the Homeric style. The Homeric style, named of course for Homer, the author of the Iliad, focuses on evoking in the reader a sense of awe and wonder; it accomplishes this by lavishing us with sensory detail after sensory detail. We learn what the feast smelled and looked and tasted like, what the adornment’s of the hero’s horse felt and sounded like. Contrast this with the Biblical style, which gives us (to quote Dragnet) “just the facts, ma’am,” the narrative outline of the story without much detail to draw us away from unfolding events. Indeed, the example of Abraham and Isaac I have borrowed from Auerbach as an example of details we might consider important that nevertheless do not find their way into the Biblical text.

If we buy into Auerbach’s argument (and his book is worth the read), we must ask ourselves, “Why does the Bible, a religious text, choose its simple style, fraught with ambiguity, over the style that seeks to fill us with a sense of the awesome and wonderful?” Auerbach provides us with this answer as well—to him, the power of the Biblical style comes from its tendency to draw the reader in. As you read the Bible, you must fill in the details that it lacks; your mind’s eye pictures Isaac, perhaps as a toddler, perhaps as a teenager, perhaps as a thirty-three year-old man. The ambiguity of the narrative style causes you to engage the narrative of the text, to wrestle with it, and to participate with it. Homer wants his words to wash over you; God wants you to grapple with His. If this is true of the Biblical text, why not of the world? Ambiguity forces man to be an active participant in the world, to willfully and directly engage it rather than passively allowing it to work its will upon you. Later in this book, we’ll call this “co-creation.”

Our fear of ambiguity is a result of our sinfulness, for we could approach ambiguity with fear and trembling or with reverence and gladness at the opportunity to meaningfully participate in Creation. In American culture, we have established a meme that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the Chinese characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”[36] The fallacy of this etymology is irrelevant, for the concept itself, not its origin, is what concerns us. This aphorism concisely depicts our potential understandings of ambiguity. Because ambiguity necessarily implies uncertainty, we perceive danger in it, for we have seen many ambiguities in our world resolved in sinful and malicious ways. Simultaneously, ambiguity embodies potentiality, raw possibility not shaped into concrete meaning. Opportunity. Were the fullness of the Kingdom present on the Earth as we desire it to be, perhaps only the latter aspect of ambiguity would exist. But we occupy a fallen world, and both danger and opportunity co-exist in our connection to ambiguity.

Thus, like many gifts from God corrupted by our fallen nature, our approach to the resolution of ambiguity carries with it both a sense of wonder and a possibility of joy alongside a heavy responsibility. How we resolve ambiguity is how we create meaning. How we create meaning either brings us into a right relationship with our Triune God, with Creation, and with each other or abandons this connectedness for selfishness. The meanings we create for ourselves either pull us closer to God’s meaning, or reject it. So here we are, caught between the world and the world.

[1] Refs to Strong’s, translations, etc. Thanks to my friend DVH for pointing out to me this linguistic nuance.

[2] Genesis 3:17b.

[3] John 8:12, Matthew 5:14, John 3:17, 12:47.

[4] Genesis 1:4,10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, 25b, 31. It is worth noting that, once God has created man and woman, He deems Creation not just “good,” but “very good.”

[5] Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25.

[6] Matthew 6:19-24.

[7] John 8:23, 7:7,

[8] John 14:17.

[9] John 14:27.

[10] John 14:30-31, 12:31, 16:8-11. This “prince of the world” is traditionally assumed to be Satan, which comports with Satan’s temptation of Christ with the offer of worldly power found within Matthew 4:1-11.

[11] John 15:18-25.

[12] I must, of course, acknowledge China Miéville’s The City and the City for the title of this chapter, and probably the hermeneutic that led to its writing. In that novel, two fictional European cities lie “grosstopically” (geographically) within one another, but nevertheless separated by belief that transcends physical reality. The analogy is too good to avoid.

[13] All information taken from the Greek Dictionary-Index in Strong, James, ed. John R. Kohlenberger and James A. Swanson, The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI 2001).

[14] Matthew 6: 6, 18. This is further stressed in John 1:18, in which Christ says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God…”

[15] 2 Corinthians 4:18, and, of course, 2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

[16] Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, Lines 167-68.

[17] 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[18] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 141-42. Chesterton’s discussion of united opposites in Christianity is far more eloquent than I could devise, so I defer to him for a fuller discussion of this idea as it applies to Christianity as a whole. I note only that I am in complete agreement with him here.

[19] Romans 7:5.

[20] The Strongest Strong’s.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Citation.

[23] Citation.

[24] Citation.

[25] Citation.

[26] Wright, N.T., Paul: In Fresh Perspective, p. 87. To be fair, Wright is concerned more with the problem of evil than with ontological or existential metaphysics in this part of his book, so his discussion and ours do not align perfectly. The point stands, nevertheless, that Paul’s understanding of creation does not readily fit into modern philosophical categories.

[27] Citation.

[28] John 20:29.

[29] Citation to web address.

[30] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p. 29.

[31] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III. P. 42.

[32] Citation to dictionary.

[33] 1 Corinthians 13:12. Some translations say, “through a glass, darkly,” the inspiration for Phillip K. Dick’s Through a Scanner, Darkly. This passage has been frequently cited as evidence of the influence of Platonic thought upon Paul’s own understanding of Christ. If this is so, Paul writes with some formulation of the difference between the essential (represented by the Good or the perfect forms) and the existential (represented by those imitations of the Forms that we perceive as reality).

[34] Citations.

[35] Full reference here.

[36] References.