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.

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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.

Hell, Part I

K is currently taking a class on theodicy in seminary (I think it’s called Evil and Suffering or something like that). It’s a subject that fascinates me, so I’ve been very interested to lean over her shoulder and see what she’s reading and discussing in class.

As part of an assignment, she had to watch a documentary called Hellbound?, so we watched it together last night. It inspired me to share some of my own thoughts here.

To be clear, I don’t know the answers to questions about hell and judgment. Unless you are privy to some direct revelation on the subject from God, neither do you. So, let’s get that out of the way: you should feel free to disagree with my thoughts here without the word “heresy” being applicable to either of us. What I present here are, in my belief, the most reasonable interpretive arguments about the subject.

Scriptures are contradictory on the subject of hell. There are certainly passages that can be readily interpreted as positing an eternal hell-like condition for those condemned to such a fate, but there is also much ready support for alternative positions. A quick chart for the “big three” of the traditional schools of thought on hell can be found in this article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2014/11/proof-that-believing-in-hell-is-not-scriptural/.

The chart pictured is also used in the Hellbound? documentary. Please note that, while I probably agree with the surrounding article, I didn’t read it and just pulled the link for reference to the chart. I’ll leave you to delve into the particulars of scriptural confusion about the existence and nature of hell on your own; it’s an interesting investigation.

A quick summary of those popular schools of thought regarding hell above. The most traditional school argues for the existence of a hell made for eternal conscious suffering—fire and brimstone and all that. The second approach, annihilationism, takes the position that those who are not granted salvation simply cease to exist. No conscious suffering, but not being is a pretty terrifying concept as well. The epistles seem to indicate that this was Paul’s position on the subject. Lastly (according to the chart), is universalism—the belief that all people/souls will be saved and restored in the broad sweep of eternity.

Along with scriptural disagreement, we have to be very careful about superimposing popular cultural ideas of hell upon the scriptures. I would argue that most of what people “know” about hell isn’t Biblical at all—it comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

On a more scholarly tack, beliefs that came into Jewish culture during the Intertestemental Period also contributed deeply to popular beliefs about the nature of demons, hell and the struggle of good and evil. These beliefs probably came to Judaism (and then Christianity) from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion with a “good god” (Ahura Mazda) and an “evil god” (Ahriman) locked in eternal battle for the souls of mankind. Sound familiar?

Indeed, much of the references to “places” in the hereafter in both the Old and New Testament rely upon the mythologies and frameworks of other cultures as well. The Old Testament sheol looks very similar to other Mesopotamian afterlife descriptions and the New Testament use of the words hades and tartarus draw upon Greek mytho-religious beliefs. They are neither strictly nor directly Christian. Gehenna was a literal place outside Jerusalem; we must at least consider that Jesus’s mentions of gehenna are warnings about impending consequences in the here-and-now rather than proclamations about the hereafter.

When we view all of these factors together, we see that we must make interpretive choices to take a theological position on the existence, nature and purpose of hell. There is a temptation for me to stop here and let the point of this post be simply to ask readers to realize that these interpretive necessities make room for reasonable disagreement on the subject without a need to call those with other views “heretics” or “non-Christians.” However, I’m going to go further and make my own arguments.

To that end, I’ll use several different approaches to support my conclusions and I’ll point you to some of my previous posts for an expanded look at some of these subtopics. For one argument I’d like to share, I point you to the post “The Beautiful Truth about Evangelism.” In that post, I argue that it is poetically and theologically profound that coercion (like the fear of hell) cannot create true followers of Christ. When we talk about the existence and nature of hell, we have to address the preachers who use the fear of hell as their main strategy to (futilely) attempt to win converts to Christ. There, mentioned and discussed in length elsewhere; let’s move on.

Let’s look at justice. One of the main arguments for the existence of an eternal hell is attempt to raise up and accentuate God’s justice (as we’ll find, most of the arguments about the existence and nature of hell are really about the nature of God).

I’d like to offer some challenges to making our sense of justice prime in our understanding of hell. As a lawyer, I think about justice quite a bit, both in the abstract and in the very particular. I am convinced of this: humans are not capable of true justice. True justice, as both American law and common sense would have it, would be the reversal of the injury, a full restoration of all that was lost because of the injury. Because we cannot fix feelings about what has occurred, bring back the dead, or restore lost intangibles, we substitute, approximating justice by the use of some alternative restitution. In criminal law this typically means punishment of the offender. In civil law it means that the offender must pay money to the offended. Neither of these solutions really do all that much in terms of restoration. Only God could heal in a way that undoes the injustice and restores justice. Even when we deal with God undoing the injustice—as in Job—we remain with questions about suffering and justice that are difficult to understand and impossible to answer.

Job led Calvin to posit a “double justice,” arguing that there are aspects of God’s justice which may be understood in human terms and aspects which are unknowable—but nevertheless just. I certainly agree with the latter; I remain ambivalent about the former.

Our inability to fully understand God’s justice should give us pause at assuming the nature of God’s justice and then using that as an argument on which to build theological positions.

Even under human interpretations of justice, we have issues getting to the idea of an eternal hell as just. In American criminal jurisprudence, we have a long-established belief that punishment for a crime ought to be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime and that we ought to avoid “cruel and unusual” punishments. Can we really say that an infinite punishment for finite offense is proportionate and thus “just?” I highly doubt this.

In Hellbound?, the creative writing instructor Robert McKee argues that hell is necessary in Christian theology because, without the possibility of eternal damnation, there is no meaning to our actions and moral choices. Shame on him; someone so well-versed in the craft of creative writing ought to know better. Nothing in a fictional story actually matters—there are no real consequences. Stories matter because we give them meaning aside from the consequences. That’s what stories at their essence are: attempts to create meaning in world that is ambiguous and difficult to interpret. As I think I’ve quoted on this blog before, I’ll point you to the talented writer Joss Whedon and his opposing view. He was once quoted as saying “If nothing we do in the universe matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Christian morality is meaningless if it is based on a quid pro quo or a fear of damnation; it becomes coerced and not a free choice. A virtue is only a virtue when exercised for its own sake and not for reward or avoidance of punishment. Thus, it would be more meaningful for a Christian to commit to follow Jesus and keep his commandments simply because it is right than out of heavenly aspirations or hellish fears. The truth is exactly the opposite of what Mr. McKee says of meaning and hell. In fact, McKee seems to think that there is only his position and the antinomian heresy—that the natural and logical result of redemption in Christ for all would be the doing of constant evil because “it doesn’t matter.” I’m not sure that you could find a single theologian who would say that sin suddenly doesn’t matter if we remove hell from our analysis—we simply don’t need hell to argue that sin is wrong.

I must admit a ready argument to the above, frequently (and often crudely) retorted by fundamentalist faithful—“God can do whatever God wants and that is necessarily just and good because God gets to define justice and goodness.” I can’t argue with that because I can’t argue with God. It is axiomatic that, in a certain sense, whatever God does is correct because God’s the one who has set the rules for judgment.

But that fact is insufficient on its own—because it is so axiomatic it’s also relatively meaningless. It doesn’t actually tell us anything about God and so it doesn’t actually support the fundamentalist’s view about the way that God is.

Let’s peel that back further. What do we say about a god who establishes a certain justice and then creates us to have a gut feeling that the way that god acts is in fact unjust? Nothing good. We would either have to say that that god is omnipotent but less than fully good or that that god is neither good nor omnipotent because some force external to the god’s self establishes a meaning for justice.

Fortunately, that is not the image of the Christian God. By all available measures our God plays by the rules of justice God has established. That is an important message of Christ and the cross—that God will suffer beside us in anything we are made to suffer. That is omnipotence and goodness combined.

What does that mean for hell? For me, it means quite simply that the image of a God who allows eternal suffering (or annihilation, for that matter) does not comport with what I understand about God through the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. I must admit here that in the Gospels Jesus has many difficult statements that might touch upon an eternally-existing hell for the damned. He doesn’t mention such directly, but he does tells about the “broad” and “narrow” ways, and at least one parable mentions casting people in the “abyss” or “outer darkness.” In all intellectual honesty, I must admit that I resolve this conflict by prioritizing my understanding of Jesus drawn from all of the scriptures as a key to understanding any particular scripture. Given the many problems of interpretation in scripture, this seems to me the only reasonable approach (a stance that, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I share with Barth).

This is not all there is to say about justice and hell. As I alluded to above, I cannot find just proportionality for eternal punishment for finite sins—no matter how extensive. Poetically, isn’t it more just that Hitler dies to find that his efforts at domination, self-worship and annihilation of the Jews have all failed to God’s power and goodness than that he burns in a lake of fire? The former doesn’t just have a sense of justice to it; it also allows for the redemption of even Hitler. As I’ve repeated in many posts, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

This is the choking point for many traditionalist views about hell. Hitler, Pol Pot, killers, rapists and thieves in general. The problem is that the person arguing from the traditional view of hell here falls prey to some idea about subjective “fairness” rather than objective justice. In other words, “how would it be fair for Hitler to go to heaven when I’ve been so much better than him in my own life?” I don’t know the answer to that question, except that the Bible is full of scriptures reminding us that that’s not a question we’re qualified even to ask, much less answer. We ought to be worrying about ourselves in the context of what is objectively good and right, not what other people do.

If Jesus is not clear about hell, he is very clear about forgiveness. To follow Christ, forgiveness is not an option—it is a strict command. When discussing this subject, I sometimes mention the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Before he was killed in prison, Dahmer claimed to have found Jesus, become a Christian and to have repented of his sins. His sincerity is not the point for us to discuss—only God knows the man’s heart. But does our faith have room to believe that even he could be forgiven and saved (let’s avoid for now the discussion of what exactly is required for salvation and assume that he meets the minimum requirements)?

If we cannot fathom forgiveness for the worst in humanity, we cannot say that Christ has conquered sin. We must ignore the command to forgive others their trespasses against us. We must ignore prohibitions on humans attempting to render cosmic judgment on others. In other words, we must rewrite God and Jesus. We become the Pharisees, saying “Thank God I am not a mass murderer; surely I will get into heaven.” There is no place for the “to outrun the bear I just have to outrun someone else” mentality in Christianity.

There is still much to discuss in the debate about hell, so I’ll continue this discussion in one or more subsequent posts. For the time being, let me leave you with this: I think Rob Bell has the most honest approach to this subject. I agree with his hopes and beliefs regarding hell as described in his book Love Wins, but it’s not the nature of his arguments or his conclusions that I mean here. It’s his opening gambit, his disclaimer, his caveat. He says, in (very) loose paraphrase, that we just don’t know the truth about hell, and by all accounts it seems that we can’t know for sure. Let’s be willing to live in that mystery, talking about our thoughts, our interpretations and our hopes tentatively rather insisting that those who do not take our position are evil, demonic, heretical or un-Christian. Then, let’s focus on loving one another as Christ is clear that we must do.

More to follow.

ChristianPunk

As far as I can tell (via the OED), the first usage of the word “punk” was in Early Modern English, to denote a prostitute. Let’s gloss over that historical tidbit…

The modern connotation of the word conjures up a style of music, leather jackets, mohawks, piercings, tattoos and taboo-breaking culture. Based on the experiences of my own youth, I think of the late 90’s remnant of the 70’s culture hanging around Piccadilly Circus in London. That was probably the closest I really got to punk subculture in high school. Being a theatre nerd, I had friends who flirted with punk-ness, but it’s hard to look back and know to what extent they found a genre of music that spoke to them, a fashion to follow, or an ideology to take to heart.

Punk culture was—and perhaps still is—about defying mainstream, consumerist culture. It’s easy to write off punks as troublemaking hooligans, but an ideology really does lie behind the spiked, dyed hair, the chains, the leering faces and the screaming thrash of the music. Or rather, ideologies, as punks are as varied as any other group of people. But in some ways, they’re alike. At its core, as I see it, punk is about a rejection of conformity in favor of diversity in individualism. Punks see a societal structure diseased in its consumerism and obsession with power and control, “us” and “them.” By challenging convention with unconventional appearances and behaviors, punks offer an alternative to tradition and its hegemony.

And yet, there is a community to be found in punk culture—you can recognize a punk when you see one. Punks hold in tension a preference for individuality exercised within the supportive network of an ideologically-based counterculture.

The word “punk” has made its way into literature as well—were I have more confidence in my understanding of its complex meanings. One of my favorite genres—cyberpunk—rose out of the angst of the eighties and nineties. The early authors of cyberpunk wrote about “high tech, low life” anti-heroes navigating a world in which technology had progressed beyond any centralized control and capitalism had evolved to an extreme that gave multinational corporations undisputed power over civil governments. It’s a genre that seems prescient as technology becomes ever more pervasive and our current president ignores traditional safeguards to keep personal and business interests out of direct political influence (ignoring, of course, the storied tradition of lobbying in our country). The cyberpunk characters of Gibson and Stephenson found their freedom in extralegal existences free from the constraints of corrupt legal and societal systems.

Of course, in literature, we now have a plethora of -punk subgenres: steampunk, juxtaposing imperialism and nascent modern corporations with Victorian society, science fiction and the occult; dieselpunk, combining a 40’s and 50’s aesthetic with…I don’t know what, actually. We could spend a good deal of time examining to what extent these subgenres have really embraced the “punk” portion of their titles, but such a digression is unnecessary at present.

What I want to focus on, given the title of this post, is how we ought to bring the punk mindset—at least parts of it—into our practice of Christianity. You see, at its heart, Christianity is countercultural—particularly compared with modern American culture.

Mainstream culture says that success is about money, sex and power; Christianity says that success lies in relationships, humility and love. Culture tells us that we can adapt Jesus to suit our predispositions; Christianity tells us that culture ought to conform to our understanding of Christ. Culture tells us that you can judge a person by his productivity; Christianity tells us that you ought not to judge but to love and support.

Without continuing ad nauseum, suffice to say that Christianity as I understand it rejects consumerist culture; the “us versus them” of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic divides; the struggle for fame, fortune and power. It stands for something instinctually better, as pragmatically more workable as it is ideologically inspiring. It uplifts the individual as a child of God while still emphasizing community, relationships and our inter-reliance.

So why don’t more Christians look like punks? I don’t mean physically, primarily, but there are some examples to be had of this, too. I have one pastor-friend who often wears a bowtie, simply because it starts conversations with others in standing out. I have met another who has a braided and beaded beard that serves as an “alarm system;” he can tell just by how people look at him how open his reception will be, the extent to which he can easily connect with a person. Even John Wesley stood out, as he refused to wear a wig (the fashion of the time) and infrequently cut his hair so that he could save money to give away.

I’m not the type of person who is comfortable visibly standing out all that much, but I know some from experience that when we try to follow our faith in the practical decisions we make in life—where and how to work, what attitude to have toward money, etc.—we will stand out.

Israel was set apart by religious rites, a scriptural law, and guidance for how to live with others. As the covenanters of the New Covenant, we ought to be set apart by our commitment to follow Christ’s teachings, commands and person. Because there are so many places where this might conflict with society at large, we ought to be visible as a group that defies the conventions and traditions of mainstream culture in favor of a more excellent way. We ought to be ChristianPunk.

Legislating Morality

Hold on to your hats, y’all, this post is going to be somewhat scandalous and controversial, I think.

There is a large block of we Christian who believe that our nation would be a better place if our laws forbade the things we think are immoral and punished those who infringed upon our beliefs about proper relationships and right behavior. I strongly disagree that this is a good idea or a worthwhile goal.

Why? Because mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Our focus as Christians in the world is the fixing of problems and the lifting up of people, not on the punishing of others because they act in ways that we don’t like but that are not directly harmful. The song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” (a reference to John 13:35) not “They will know we are Christians by our judgmental and self-righteous attitudes”—though many outside the church might argue that we’re closer to the latter than the former at present.

We need to consider carefully the role of the law in democratic society. Our legal system must balance the preservation of as much freedom as possible with the protection of citizens from wrongdoing and exploitation. The best way to do this—and this is how the legal system often works—is to focus on injury, not morality.

Some acts prohibited by the law (civil or criminal) are very clear in their intent to prevent injury—laws prohibiting theft and violence are designed to prevent actual and quantifiable harm from coming to others.

Still, America has a strong history of legislating morality. Hold on to your hats, because we’re about to get scandalous. Here are three things that are (or have been) affected by legislation largely on grounds of morality rather than prevention of harm: obscenity, drugs and prostitution. Before we proceed further, I do not mean to say that there are not significant moral concerns to be attached to each of these things or that they are good things—only that they are places where the law seems to overstep based on a certain group’s idea of what is right.

And here’s the practical problem—you can’t actually enforce morality with laws. Human beings tend to ignore laws that they don’t believe have a moral basis (or when they disagree with someone else’s morality), resulting in punishments for “crimes” in which no party has actually been injured.

“Obscenity” is an ambiguous, “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it” sort of thing. To help ground the discussion, I’m mostly going to focus on sexual content that falls under the typical definition of obscenity.

We live in an environment far more permissive of pornography than many others—pornography is ubiquitous, easily accessible to anyone with a computer, and often socially treated as “not a big deal.” There are very significant moral concerns to be tied to pornography—both in the way that the production of pornography has a tendency toward exploitation and in how the consumption of pornography insidiously normalizes the objectification and demeaning of sexual partners in general and women in particular.

Still, those concerns are about the potential results of pornography and not necessarily about the thing itself. We could (and often do) pass laws that address the punishment of certain consequential acts—like the provision of pornography to minors or that otherwise involves minors—rather than blanket “obscenity laws.”

In Texas, however, our penal code still contains obscenity laws that prevent store owners from describing sex toys as anything other than “novelties”—if it is hinted at that the object could be used for a sexual purpose, it violates the obscenity law and its sale is criminal. So, it is with some frequency that the owners of or workers at “adult” shops are arrested over nomenclature. This situation, I think, makes clear that the purpose of Texas’s obscenity law is to govern the action of otherwise free and consenting adults because of one group’s moral views.

Let me reiterate, I think that pornography engenders addictive tendencies in its consumers and has the potential to create numerous interpersonal problems for those who view it. But I can’t be sure that pornography is categorically immoral. Even if it is—and it might be—that doesn’t mean that I believe that people should be legally prohibited from certain acts that are immoral so long as there is not a direct injury to someone else.

The ad absurdum of this argument is the criminalization of any activity deemed to be detrimental to a person on behalf of that own person. There’s a good reason that that kind of government interventionism and protectionism is offensive to most Americans.

I think that we can look at drugs in a similar light. While the addictive effects of marijuana seem to be scientifically debatable at present, we can be sure that there are prohibited substances that are highly addictive, ruin lives and lead to destructive behavior. That is why they are criminalized—to prevent harm before it happens. Unfortunately, the attempt at prevention appears to be largely futile.

The problem lies in the fact that we cannot stop drug use by criminalization—the last forty years have proven that the “war on drugs” is a failure with a high cost—both in a system that has given financial incentive to the establishment of dangerous drug cartels and that breaks up families by punishing rather than helping those affected. We will not stop the addicted by making the possession of use of illegal substances punishable by jail time.

Again, it is clear that drugs often lead people to criminal acts out of negligence or desperation—but these are already illegal. Driving under the influence, theft, child endangerment, assault, even murder are unfortunately too common in the world of some of the drug addicted. But since those things are already illegal, why do we need to criminalize the drug user for the use of the drug in the case (rare as it may be) where there are no consequences to others from the use? (I phrase it in terms of consequences because I’m unwilling to call illicit drug use “responsible,” but there are many other legal activities which might be self-injurious and not terribly responsible, too).

Likewise, prostitution has always been with us in civilized history. Some governments have permitted legal prostitution (ancient Rome and some of the modern Northern European states); others have outlawed it (the U.S.). In medieval Europe, the church even supported prostitution as a lesser evil at a time when social tendencies (at least for the wealthy) were for older men (in their thirties, often) to marry younger women (in their late teens or early twenties). This created a situation in which older married men feared the seduction of their wives by unmarried men their spouse’s own age. Prostitution seemed to provide a sort of safeguard against infidelity—for the young men, at least. As far as I know, there were no significant initiatives to help young brides bond with their older husbands.

Prostitution seems morally questionable at best and certainly a hindrance to the promotion of healthier (both psychologically and theologically) romantic and sexual relationships. But the reality is that none of our laws against prostitution have stopped the institution. Our attempts at regulation have only made things worse. By pushing prostitution into the realm of the illicit, we have deprived sex workers of safe and healthy working conditions that might be provided under regulation rather than illegalization, have institutionally supported human trafficking and sex-slavery by making such business profitable, and have deprived those who work in the sex industry of legal productions taken for granted by others.

And that lays bare the common thread for all of these issues—our attempt to criminalize these choices en masse rather than to focus on the injurious effects of such practices has made the situation worse rather than better. Our attempts at judgment have created additional suffering when we are called to mercifully relieve the suffering of others.

You may ask (and I hope you do) what the alternative is. It is rather simple—we persuade others about morality, we inform them about the potential harm that could come from the types of things I’ve described above, but we leave the law to criminalize only those actions that directly and tangibly harm another person. The American constitution is founded on the principle that one is free to believe what one wants but not free to act on those beliefs to the direct injury of another.

We addressed this belief in my constitutional law class in law school. In reviewing First Amendment case law, our professor would often remind us, “Often, the answer is not less speech, but more.”

The fundamental difference between the law and morality is this: the goal of the law is to prevent certain results; the goal of morality is to avoid certain intentions.

So, we ought to be focusing our faithful energies on eradicating the factors that lead toward the immoralities we seek to curtail. Want to curtail the use of pornography and prostitution? Help people focus on healthy human interactions and relationships. Want to limit drug use in our country? Fight generational poverty, the large disparity of wealth and racism to limit the oppressions that drive many to the escape of drugs.

Is it extremely uncomfortable to try to talk to others about moral issues? Yes. Will there be disagreements even among Christians about moral questions? Of course. Isn’t it just easier to legislate morality? Certainly. But is it better than calling people to be better rather than trying to punish them into morality? Absolutely not.

When Jesus tells us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to render unto God what is God’s, I think this idea is somewhere in his intent. The role of government is not the same as the role of our faith (thank God!) and we cannot expect to use the one to achieve the goals of the other. Jesus had no interest in using governmental authority to draw others to his message of striving to “become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” Why are we so interested in doing so? Our efforts would be much better spent on helping people make better choices and showing mercy when they make poor ones by helping to improve situations.

At the end of the day, would we be better off if we stopped focusing law enforcement efforts on criminalizing obscenity and instead spent more time promoting healthy human interaction? I certainly think so.

TL;DR

(1) Attempts by Christians to legislate morality have been a poor witness of Christ because these attempts have increased suffering rather than alleviating suffering.

(2) Criminalizing immorality does not create morality.

(3) Our efforts as politically-active Christians are better spent persuading others to be moral without the coercive force of the state, addressing the social, economic and political conditions that drive people to immoral behavior and helping others who have made poor moral choices to remediate the personal suffering their actions have caused and to alleviate the suffering they have caused for others.

Thinking about Homosexuality in an Unchanging Gospel – An Epistemological Argument

Last night, I attended a potluck dinner and worship service hosted by the Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference (RUMTX) and attended by our new Bishop, Reverend Scott  Jones. The event represents the optimistic opening of a dialogue between proponents of full inclusion and our bishop, who—I’m given to believe—takes a decidedly conservative stance in regards to the United Methodist doctrine regarding sexual orientation. This includes continuing to bring disciplinary action against those pastors who violate the current Book of Discipline by performing gay marriages.

My experience last night has led me to share the following thoughts regarding full inclusion in the United Methodist Church, or within Christianity at large.

In his remarks during the worship service, Bishop Jones stated (I’m paraphrasing) “that the Gospel doesn’t change, but times do.” You could just as easily change out the word “Gospel” for “Jesus,” “the Scriptures,” “God,” or many other words to the same or similar effect, and it’s quite possible a different word was used by the Bishop and I’m misremembering. Regardless, though, the use of any of these words seems to intimate the same idea—a common one proffered by conservatives on the issue of homosexuality’s “compatibility” with Christianity.

The problem is that the statement of the unchanging nature of the divine doesn’t actually tell us anything. If the point is that the meaning and truth of Christianity and all that that entails does not change, that tells us nothing. It does not prove that traditional interpretations of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ are the correct ones, does not in and of itself explain the often-ambiguous meanings of the Scriptural texts, and does not even assert that we have the ability to properly interpret holy words.

As I’ve mentioned, my master’s degree is in English, focusing on medieval and Renaissance literature. My undergraduate degree is in History, again focusing on those periods. In my graduate work, I received training in the literary school of thought called “New Historicism.” The New Historicist’s approach uses a few key philosophical assumptions that are apropos to this conversation. First, New Historicism asserts that we cannot separate ourselves fully from the culture and ideologies of our own time when we interpret a literary or historical text (the Bible is of course both) and that—while we should absolutely be looking at the historical context in which something is written—we cannot fully access the context of the author or the work. This is partially because of our temporal and experiential remove from the author and partially because it is at best difficult for us to definitively discover how and where the author and work fit into the historical context with particularity. The author and her work may be fully or partially “bought-in” to the ideological context of her time, but we cannot determine this with great certitude—particularly since every text may rely on unspoken assumptions not explicit in its words.

What does this mean for us and Scripture? If you follow these assumptions, we can’t fully understand the historical context in which the Scripture is written. For all of our knowledge of Israelite and Greco-Roman culture and language, we have lost the paradigm of the people who lived through the Gospel times through the slow crush of time. We must therefore make guesses about certain meanings of the text, however educated those guesses may be.

At the same time, we cannot divorce ourselves from our own cultural and experiential biases and expectations—we cannot elucidate objectively. This makes a diversity of opinions not just desirable but necessary in our interpretative attempts.

All of this goes to say that we cannot with great confidence state definitively the Gospel message when it comes to highly complex issues such as homosexuality—we get in our own way. We have to do the best we can in interpretation, and I believe that we probably can come close to the truth of things (though logic may only get us so far). At the same time, however, we ought to be very careful about having extreme confidence in the theological positions we take when were are outside of the core doctrinal Christian beliefs (those about which we can be most secure, I think, are those found within the various creeds).

What we’re left with here is a statement without any logical assertion. Instead, it seems to me, the only value is a rhetorical one. This rhetoric taps into the idea that Christianity is under attack by mainstream secular culture—that broader cultural acceptance of homosexuality is undermining “pure” Christian doctrine. It is the same idea that causes some of us to insist that there’s a “war on Christmas,” that a secular world is actively seeking to marginalize (an uncritical and unquestioning view of) Christian truth.

Let’s for the sake of argument accept the possibility of humankind attaining knowledge of absolute divine truth. Even with this acceptance, we must admit the extreme difficulty of doing so. With that admission, we must at least entertain the possibility that Christian interpretation of the Gospel message is a process that moves closer (and occasionally farther) from the truth we seek as we discover new methods of inquiry and experience new cultural paradigms.

This development over time is something we see play out in the story of the Old Testament (and the New, but I’ll focus on the Old for these purposes). Abram is called out by what he believes is one god among many for a special covenant. The early relationship between God and the Israelites is not one of monotheism—it is one of monolatry (devotion to one god without denial of the existence of other gods). How many times do we hear the Hebrews say “Who [i.e. which other god] is like our God?”

The Ten Commandments are monolatrous and not monotheistic—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Compare with the monotheistic Shahada of Islam—“There is no god but God. Muhammad is His Prophet.” The Hebrews undergo a process of better understanding God, starting with the identification of God from the collection of supposed divine beings to a realization of God as the supreme and only divine being.

If ancient Hebrew theology progresses from a more limited to a more accurate understanding of the nature and person of God, why should we suppose that Christian theology was perfect thousands of years ago and that we could not come to a better understanding of the Living God through time and debate?

In the New Testament, we see the apostles understanding of Jesus’ message improve over time—with Jesus often lamenting the things they fail to understand. Are we any different?

If we return to the question of homosexuality in Christianity, here’s where the above points take us:

(1) Traditional interpretations (i.e. those that consider homosexuality to be sinful or “incompatible” with Christianity) should not be categorically prioritized but should—as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral would have us do—be reviewed by considering tradition alongside the Scriptures themselves, logic and reason and human experience (both personal and cultural).

(2) If honest epistemology precludes us from being absolutely sure about our theological position on homosexuality, we must make our best guess.

That best guess requires the weighing of competing theological precepts. These competing precepts are definitions of what it means to “love thy neighbor.” From the conservative position, the argument goes: “It is not loving to allow your neighbor to continue in sin.” The progressive response (to which, admitting my own bias, I subscribe): “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” For me, loving my neighbor does not mean judging them for what I might believe to be sin—I’m no better myself, and sin is, in my mind, far too complex in non-egregious contexts to be categorically defined.

In my own personal understanding of Jesus, I cannot conceive that a loving relationship between two people is right or wrong based on sex or gender. I think to categorize things along such uncompromising lines is too akin to pharisaical legalism for my comfort.

I have said in other posts that I believe that the question of homosexuality in Christianity is really a cover for an underlying argument about epistemology and the methodology, nature and bounds of interpretation of Scripture. I hope that this post adds some clarity to that assertion that I have made, regardless of where you stand on the issue or how you approach Christian epistemology and interpretation.

Like it or not, the real argument over homosexuality in Christianity is over. Today’s youth (at least for the most part) cannot fathom condemnation based on gender and sexuality issues. You might call that cultural indoctrination if you like, but I’d say it’s an example of C.S. Lewis’s natural law. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that, if youth see Christianity as homophobic, they will never open up to the opportunity to actually know Jesus. To me, that’s what’s at stake by continuing to make an issue out of homosexuality in Christianity—the longer that we even prevaricate on anything less than full exclusion, the more we push people away from Jesus.

During his speech last night, Bishop Jones said that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Meaning, of course, Jesus. If my epistemology means that I have to take a guess about which theological position is best, you can bet that I’m going to choose the position that may bring more people to Christ every single time. Is that a compromise? Maybe, but it’s one I’m more than willing to accept.

 

Freedom

(This post was not intended as an ode to the recently-lost-from-us George Michael, but if your mind wanders in that direction given the title, meh.)

On the first of this year–what I had expected to be a sleepy Sunday poorly attended by our congregation (I myself had difficulty in summoning the will to attend, so I cast no aspersions)—our church held a Weslayan Covenant service. Many came to re-commit themselves to following after Christ in discipleship and humility—a pretty good way to start the year, I think.

The covenant service is a Methodist tradition in which members of congregation solemnly affirm (or reaffirm) their commitment to walk with Christ…and beg forgiveness for their past failures to do live up to the covenant. The service carries with it—as one might expect—a strong undercurrent of humility, obedience and service to the Lord no matter the cost. On first hearing the liturgy, one as selfish and concerned with his own will as myself might be tempted to focus on the humbling of oneself and the turning over to God of control. Difficult as it may be for one like me, such an offering is good and righteous, for the Lord’s yoke is light.

Instead of that focus, though, my thoughts ran in a very direction. I thought about what freedom of will really means. We think about freedom of will as the ability to choose—and it is that, but we must have a more specific definition, I think. To be free is to choose because the thing chosen is what the chooser really wants (or perhaps wants to want). The alternative is to be driven to a choice because of what other people will think, or the consequences to self that might follow; that is a choice that is not free.

In a previous post I talked about moving toward a more positive morality, arguing that it would be more in line with Christ’s teachings. To put that in the perspective of free will in this discussion, consider the difference between the law-abiding citizen who chooses to be lawful out of fear of punishment and the citizen who follows the law because he believes that the law correctly describes actions that should morally be required or forbidden. The end result may look similar, but only one of these individuals has freely entered into his determination to abide by the law.

Rather than a sacrifice of the will, I realized that entering into a covenant to be a servant to God regardless of one’s own desires is not simply a single act of will, but a continuous commitment to exercise one’s will in a non-intuitive and unselfish way. The strongest will is tempered with discipline—that will acts only of its own accord and not because of factors external to it.

When we talk about freedom in Christ, this, I think, is one of the things we mean but often lose in the mental construct of our servanthood. Rather than being led around by our sin like some harnessed animal, we choose our own path. We become unfettered so that we may make of ourselves what we wish to be. If we follow Christ’s call to us, we shall one day become that perfect version of ourselves God created us to be. The slave to sin is unfree, but the willing servant of Christ is. Paradoxical perhaps, but as Chesterton likes to tell us, there are many things in Christianity that are.

Freedom and subordination to the will of God is one of those things that Chesterton would put in the category of those “furious opposites” when he states that, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.” As we like to say in Methodist theology: it’s not an “either/or”, it’s a “both/and.”

But using the freedom of will—especially as it is given to us in Christ—is no easy task, and I do not mean to imply any antinomian doctrine. Christ’s blood has redeemed and continuously redeems us, but it does not relieve us from responsibility. One of my best friends once told me that “we are as free as we are willing to accept the consequences of our actions.” That wisdom has stuck with me for years because in that wisdom is the freedom that Christ offers. When we are willing to suffer for what is right—to bear the consequences of being righteous, how could we not be free? What could stop us, for the Lord is truly with us when we choose what is right without counting the cost.

We often misuse our will. More often this is because we allow ourselves to be controlled by circumstances that impose themselves upon our will—emotions run amok, our view of societal expectations, our fears. That is not to say that such things are necessarily bad and to be avoided. Our emotions are good things when we feel them but do not allow them to control us; they give us clues as to what we think, what our motivations are and who we are and want to become.

Likewise, some societal norms are beneficial—they are shortcuts to morality. I used to look distastefully at rules of etiquette, seeing them only as a methodology by which a group may insulate itself from outsiders. K has showed me, however, that certain rules of etiquette—usually what we call rules of hospitality—are actually designed to help outsiders feel comfortable and to ease the tensions of dealing with the unfamiliar. This form of kindness becomes reflexive, and that is why we appreciate other people who are well-mannered. Are their times when the situation calls for bending or breaking even beneficial norms? Yes, but then I’m rarely one to claim to have any sort of knowledge that gives me confidence enough to make a statement of the absolute.

Fear, also, is an ever-present reality, though many of our fears spring from our own creation and/or are not based in reality. Nevertheless, they become part of our psychology and they drive us—sometimes consciously, sometimes not. The daily fears of the average American may be smaller in magnitude than those living in less fortunate places—“will I keep my job?” versus “will I get to eat today?”—but they are also insidious and subtle.

These are only a few of the things we let lead us around and control our will (I feel I need not expand on the role of sin and selfishness on this front). I use them simply as examples of ways we are unfree even in the belief that we are free.

All of this is to say that we Christians ought to seriously think about the meaning of freedom in our theology. To some, submission to Christ appears to be an onerous and limiting undertaking, though this could not be farther from the truth.

We need to stop using shorthand without explanation. I commonly hear phrases like “submission to Christ,” “freedom in Christ,” or “servant-hearted.” These make great catchphrases, but from a semiotic view, I’m not sure what exactly they’re supposed to signify without interposing my own definitions. This, I think, is representative of the fact that we lack a developed theology of freedom and the will outside of its role in salvation. The result is that popular imagination imposes a quite dour and depressing view of human agency in Christianity, a view that I’d describe as “we were given free will to give it up to God.”

As I hope I’ve made somewhat clear above, I don’t think that that’s accurate. I think we need a theology of the will that uplifts and celebrates the existence of human individuality and willfulness while both cautioning against wanton and destructive uses of the will and demonstrating that following Christ is simultaneously an act of willful submission and an experience of greater freedom of the will. Let us be furious in our maintenance of both sides of this paradoxical relationship.