Truth

Pontius Pilate
In the Gospel of John, the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate (after the Sanhedrin brings Jesus to the Roman) ends with a question, simple, probably rhetorical, but profound. Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

It’s a literary masterstroke, the insertion of this question at just this point in the narrative. Everything over the scope of John’s Gospel, and everything in the immediately-preceding action points to just this question–what is the truth about the identity of Jesus? Coming after Jesus’ teaching but before the Resurrection, the reader is put in the same place as the characters within the narrative. In this way, the structure and content both force the question: what is truth?

Pilate’s utterance of the question perhaps reveals him as the ultimate pragmatist–a believer in the pragmatic view of truth as we’ll discuss below. For him, it seems, the importance of “truth” is what it does, what it accomplishes.

We could argue quite a bit (as has been done) about the nature, intent and meaning of Pilate’s actions. It’s common to view his question about truth as scorn heaped upon Jesus just as that given to him by the Pharisaic Sanhedrin that convicted him before he arrived at Pilate’s palace. But I’m not sure that that’s correct.

You see, after interviewing Jesus, Pilate attempts a different approach with the Sanhedrin than the scornful reading of his question would predict. He tells them the (objective) truth–at least as he believes it to be–“I find no guilt in him,” he says. As Shakespeare’s Benedick would say, “There’s a double meaning in that.” In the one sense, Pilate states that he’s found no legal culpability under which he should be punished by Roman law. On the other, though, we can read Pilate’s statement as one of cosmic import: he literally finds no sin in the man Jesus, which fits, of course, with a theological point of John’s writing.

Pilate’s willingness to tell the truth regardless of the cost (for he knows the discord he’ll sow with the Sanhedrin should he refuse their request) lacks the pragmatic forethought and sense of realpolitik the scornful reading attributes to him.

Though it’s Matthew that gives us the image of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ death, in John he takes affirmative steps to prevent the execution. We are told that, when the Sanhedrin’s members tell Pilate that Jesus must die because he has “made himself the Son of God,” Pilate becomes afraid, but we are not told whether this fear arises from his realization of the extent of the civil unrest Jesus has the potential to cause or because he realizes that Jesus might actually be the Son of God. I believe it’s both/and, that Pilate’s accession to Jesus’ crucifixion results from Pilate’s mistake in prioritizing the temporal world over the spiritual one (and here he provides moral instruction and warning to the reader), not simple cold-hearted political pragmatism.

If all of this is the case, there’s a very different way to read Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” It’s not a mockery, it’s the fatalistic resignation of an astute mind who both recognizes the truth of Jesus and the inevitable execution that the Sanhedrin’s “truth” requires for the sake of peace.

As a third way, we could see Pilate’s question as an exhausted complaint about the ambiguous nature of existential questions when such a cosmically fundamental question of truth lies before him. In other words, could we see him asking, “How am I supposed to know what’s true?”

The reader, in fact all persons who struggle with the question of whether to have faith in the Christian religion (and therefore the nature of Jesus Christ), must confront the same dilemma. What fascinates me in this scripture (as many parts of scripture do) is just how succinctly, how eloquently and efficiently, the Gospel writer manages to stuff all of this into a single verse (or perhaps a passage if you’d like to be a little less generous).

After all, this is a fundamental human question–as are all of the problems inherent to the various readings of Pilate’s question–applicable to all manner of inquiry into the nature of existence itself. The Bible is not afraid–as I’d argue it cannot be if it is to maintain legitimacy–to allow those fundamental questions to inform the question the Gospels ask of the reader.

Consider that Jesus has (previously in the Gospel of John) made the claim that he “[is] the truth.” Confronted with the truth of reality right before him, Pontius Pilate remains ambivalent. Maybe we should cut ourselves a little slack.

Theories of Truth
The upside to these questions about the nature of truth being fundamental to humanity is that they’ve been asked over and over again by thinkers and philosophers in various cultures and contexts. In modern philosophy, there are four main theories of truth. I’m taking the following from a lecture in Professor Steven Gimbal’s Great Course, Take my Course, Please!: The Philosophy of Humor, which has in part inspired both this post and at least one more I’ll be posting soon. You should check it out.

Correspondence Theory
Correspondence Theory is the idea that something is “true” if it accurately describes something in the objective world outside of ourselves. This is the most common understanding of truth, I think, but according to Dr. Gimbal it’s also the most “metaphysical,” because it relies on assertions or assumptions about essential qualities, the existence of abstracts and the nature of existence.

It’s also extremely metaphysical because we must grapple with all the deficiencies humans have in identifying objective reality if it exists. How do we know what we know? Can we know anything? There is a playground for metaphysicians wrapped up in this theory, despite being the one that most of us are readiest to accept.

Coherence Theory
I’d liken Coherence Theory to the idea of “internal consistency” I often speak of in worldbuilding and fiction–it’s the idea that a thing is true if it can be incorporated into the web of beliefs we have about the nature of reality without creating an irresolvable contradiction with one of those other beliefs. There’s something of this in the scientific approach as well (although there’s also something of the Pragmatic Theory below)–if new information contradicts current theories about the nature of the universe, either the new information or the current theories must be wrong, one is necessarily untrue.

I’ve also cited several times in this blog the comment in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer that hypocrisy is the only way to judge someone in a morally relativistic society; Coherence Theory to me seems that idea writ large. In a world in which we have fundamentally-irresolvable epistemological questions, it may well seem that the best answer we have for understanding truth is “No hypocrites!”

Pragmatic View
The Pragmatic View (see C.S. Pierce, William James and others) focuses on the practical effect of an idea as the measure of its truth–a true statement does what it is supposed to do. The pragmatic view falls even more in line with scientific method than coherence theory–under the pragmatic view, a statement about the physical world is true if it allows us to effectively interact with the physical world (by making predictions about the effects of actions, by designing technologies that exploit aspects of the physical world, etc.).

Ironically, I’d argue that, while correspondence theory is what most people would intellectually ascribe to if asked, we tend to live by the pragmatic view. If a “fact” allows us to effectively interact with those things outside ourselves, it’s as “true” as we really need it to be, metaphysics be damned.

Subjective View
Dr. Gimbal rejects the subjective theory of truth out of hand, and I agree. The subjective view states that we afford privileged status to some statements (those that are true “for us”) and not others (those that are not true “for us”). If the subjective view is correct, there can be no meaningful discussion of truth (or much else) because, to quote the great philosopher, the Dude: “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Still, there’s something important about the subjective theory of truth. As a lawyer, I often have to tell clients that they have to treat the beliefs, opinions and attitudes of the person on the other side of a negotiation as true, whether they’re patently false, illogical and irrational, or otherwise unreasonable. If we’re not going to change the mind of the person we have to interact with to get the deal done, we have to find a way to work with or around those counterfactual beliefs (or a-factual ones, in the case of opinions, I suppose) if we’re going to be successful. In this (very limited) sense, there is some truth to the subjective.

There are a number of other philosophical theories of truth (like the constructivist and consensus views), but Gimbal doesn’t discuss them in his lecture and I’m going to omit them as well given my skepticism about their overall usefulness–but they are worth exploring and considering.

Modeling
It’s possible to think about truth in a different way; not as a sentence that asserts something about the nature of existence but as an approximate model of reality, a necessarily simplified analogy that is useful to us in the ways it assists us to interact with our reality. This, really, is how scientific approaches to truth work (though, as mentioned above, we might argue that this is just the result of a synthesis of the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth over a foundation of correspondence theory).

Under the idea of modeling, the more precisely and effectively a particular model of reality allows us to interact with reality, the “truer” it is. When our inquiries discover something out of joint with the model, we conduct further analysis to determine whether the new discovery is likelier than the old model to be in error. If the model is believed to be in error, we adjust the model to account for the new information, giving us an iteratively more accurate understanding of (physical) reality. By constant observation and refinement, we improve our models.

But note, even in this understanding of the nature of truth, it is impossible to say whether a model we create can ever fully capture the truth of things as they are in the universe. I’ve discovered that this makes some otherwise scientifically-minded people uncomfortable to the point that they remain unwilling to accept this point despite its logic. Whether this is a matter reflected in stereotype–that there’s just a fundamental difference in the way more scientifically-minded people and more philosophically-minded people think–or this is where the scientific mindset becomes a matter of faith rather than logic, I cannot say.

Christianity and Truth
Let’s return to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and the question of Christianity. Here, though, I’m not going to talk so much about the nature of truth within Christianity (I think it’s pretty well settled that the Christian ought to use the correspondence theory of truth, even if we might disagree about what that truth is in its most precise forms) as how we think about truth when dealing with those outside of our faith.

Correspondence Theory
This is the point I think most of us want to stand on when attempting evangelism, apologetics, or argumentation with those not of the faith. Here’s the problem: we are not capable of proving the key assertions of Christianity through logic. Therefore, direct and dogmatic argumentation of the tenets of our faith doesn’t come across very well. At its worst, this approach comes across as less-than-sane or as willfully ignorant.

It’s another way of looking at Pilate’s question. Is truth those things that we can hold in our hands, create and destroy, touch and taste, weigh and measure? Or is truth something harder to discern, often hidden from us and accessible only through non-logical means? Detractors might call the latter irrational, but the inability of logic to answer these kinds of questions at all means that they must necessarily be approached with non-rational means–faith, intuition, introspection, mysticism. All rules of logic point in this direction–absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

There is, though, one very good indirect way of appealing to correspondence theory in the demonstration of our faith–the way our scriptures speak to the truth of existence in describing the way things are and in providing understanding of the human condition. Much of the advice Jesus gives us (as I’ve elsewhere argued) is not just suggestions for good behavior–he is laying out the very nature of things and telling us that, because humans work in certain ways, doing X should lead to the expectation of Y, and if we don’t want Y, we shouldn’t do X.

But nothing in faith is ever simple, and coming to an understanding of some of these ideas (my limited understanding of which is the source of most of my theological posts and my “New Mysticism”) relies grappling with all of the interpretive and hermeneutic pitfalls of Biblical exegesis: How do we resolve seeming contradictions? How do we determine the proper context for understanding certain phrases or commands or actions? How can we determine what to read as literal and what to read as metaphorical or allegorical?

In the end, this appeal is certainly a mystic and metaphysical one–it is the assertion that, in reading the Bible, one will have a genuine, if superrational, experience of existential truth by encountering God. It’s hard to argue with that kind of an experience–which brings us back briefly to the subjective theory of truth.

We should, I think, resort to an altered form of subjective truth in talking about our faith. That is not to claim that the truth itself is subjective (God is objectively God, after all), but that our experience of mystical and metaphysical truth is highly subjective in the sense that it may prove something to us in totally-convicting way without giving us any ability to use our experience to prove that same thing to anyone else. Perhaps this is a fine distinction, but in discussing the nature of reality, I’d say that fine distinctions are essential!

Coherence and Pragmatic Theories
I think it’s important that we point out that the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth, at least under certain interpretations, might be seen as methodologies for seeking understanding an objective truth (under the umbrella of a correspondence theory) as much as theories of the nature of truth.

As I mentioned above, it seems to me that the pragmatic theory of truth describes how we functionally and subconsciously think about truth as we go about our lives–world politics these days seems to indicate a solid reliance on coherence theory as well, particularly as an excuse for rejecting objective facts (yes, I realize the linguistic slippage inherent to calling something “objectively true” in this post) that do not mesh well with pre-existing beliefs. But that’s really a description of a psychological fallacy rather than a theory of truth.

Here’s the point: if we’re going to talk about the truth of Christianity to others, we need to think about the ways that they think about truth, and the ways our ignorance of that might be hurting us. Some examples:

(1) If a person’s belief system involves the beliefs that (a) Christianity is not true, and (b) Christians are [take your pick of common views: judgmental, tight-buttoned, repressed, unintellectual, ignorant, offensive, hateful, prejudiced, self-interested, hypocritical, etc.], then, under the coherence theory of truth, challenging (b) may lead to a reevaluation of (a). Two important points here. First, this is not about proving anything to anyone (as I’ve argued in a different post, I believe that it’s a beautiful fact of God’s creation that no one can be bullied, cajoled, conned or otherwise forced into genuine faith); this is about breaking preconceptions to get people to actually consider the arguments of the faith itself rather than judging it by its flawed and human believers. Second, since we’re called to not be anything I listed in (b) above, working this goal is a matter of sanctification anyway. I love it when a plan comes together.

Now, this idea is nothing new, think of the hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” itself derived from John 13:35. But it bears repeating, especially when so many Christian theologies lead to just the opposite.

As for the pragmatic theory of truth, what is our Christianity accomplishing in the world? Our claim is that, by our love of the God revealed to us in Jesus we are called to be better people, to be healers, seekers of justice, givers of mercy, peacemakers. Is Christianity accomplishing that in the world today, or are we sowers of division, too in love with our own ideas of justice and too short on mercy, too afraid to surrender our guns in favor of a more hopeful approach to the future?

This matters, desperately, because people intuitively disbelieve Christianity when it doesn’t do what it says it’s supposed to do. That’s a logical fallacy, with the believers falling short of what they’re called to rather than some flaw in the claims of Christianity itself, but some people will never come to consider correspondent claims of truth if we can’t get past coherent and pragmatic counterarguments to the truth of our faith.

And like I said above, that’s a subjective truth we have to accept as somewhat objective, at the very least a threshold issue to any discussion of the faith itself. If a person strongly holds a particular belief, let’s say that religion is the “opiate of the masses,” we can’t ever address other issues of the truth of our faith until we can address that belief–ignoring it won’t ever move us forward.

Conclusions
Truth is a hard thing–philosopher’s don’t even agree on what the nature of “truth” necessarily is! And that’s where faith comes in–the whole point of faith is that it is a belief in things that seem to be true for reasons that are superrational (that is, provable by means beyond our application of human logic). We need to own that logic fails in the argumentation of the faith; thus, we ought more to talk about our personal existential understandings of our own faith. Don’t tell someone why she should believe (and please, for the love of God, don’t try to convince them to believe simply to avoid some concept of Hell you’ve bought into!); tell them what has driven you to believe, where they might look if they honestly want to seek an answer for themselves. You can’t prove the faith to them, but you can point them in the direction that might give them opportunity for their own mystical experience of that metaphysical truth that transcends human comprehension and argumentation.

At the same time, think about how we humans think about the nature of truth, and all the things that our failings as Christians seem to do to add to perceptions that Christianity is not true.

“What is truth?” For the most important questions, it seems we have to find out through experience.

What Evolution Says about Christianity: Wholeness and Purpose, Not a Lack of Flaws

Oh boy, evolution and Christianity…
Let’s get this out of the way very quickly, since it’s not the point of the post: I believe in both evolution and the Bible. As I’ve argued on this blog, I believe in the Book of Genesis as a metaphorical and mythopoeic exploration of truly-important existential questions and issues, but not as a science textbook or a literal history (I’m happy to accept elements of historicity in the book, but that’s speculation that ultimately doesn’t matter too much to me). To me, both the Book of Genesis and science are true, though that word has a different context in each place. Alright, that aside, let’s get to the heart of the matter.

A Strange Metaphor?
I’ve recently finished a Great Course on earth science (specifically Professor Michael E. Wysession’s How the Earth Works). While I’d selected the course mainly for upping my understanding of planetary science for worldbuilding purposes, Prof. Wysession raised within my mind all manner of ideas and questions–exactly what a “Great Course” should do. I highly recommend it.

Here, I’m going to focus on one of those ideas from a later lecture in the series, one about the possibility of life on other planets. The lecture incorporated some of the great ideas about the exploration for extraterrestrial life in the universe–the Drake equation, the Fermi paradox, the anthropic principle, etc. Where things got really interesting to me, particularly, was Prof. Wysession’s discussion of evolutionary processes in the probabilities of finding life on other planets within our solar system.

As the good doctor puts it, there are three major parts to evolution: (1) heritable traits, (2) mutations and genetic drift, and (3) selective forces like “natural selection.” Without all three of these factors, evolutionary processes cannot work and life (at least as we currently understand it and evolution) won’t develop. It’s possible that this is the (or one of the) Great Filter(s) hypothesized as part of the Fermi paradox.

What’s important here is the relatively narrow band of circumstances in which evolutionary processes may work toward the development of complex lifeforms. Heritability requires proteins that can replicate, like our RNA and DNA. For natural selection to work, there must be diversity of genetic expressions and traits, competition for resources/survival, and a mechanism for new traits to develop–for mutations to occur.

Radiation is a primary motivator of mutation in genetics, but amount is critical. Too much radiation, and life (again, as we understand it) will be destroyed (or never form) altogether. Too little, and there’s not enough impetus for mutation and genetic drift. In turn, this means that, to be a likely candidate for life, a planet must receive a sufficient amount of radiation from a nearby star but also have atmosphere and a magnetic field that allow only the “right” amount of radiation to reach the planet itself. A magnetic field typically requires an active planetary core. Atmosphere is probably also necessary for complex life, both as an additional shield from cosmic radiation (like our ozone layer) and for the various cycles necessary to support life (on Earth, the carbon, water, and oxygen cycles, at least). It’s possible that a layer of ice or liquid could perform a similar function.

But I digress. Though it started to drift in that direction, I’m not interested in engaging (at least here) with the low probabilities of the development of life given the many factors that must be just right (which go far beyond what’s described above). Instead, I want to zero in on that second element of the evolutionary process–mutations and genetic drift.

For evolution to work, genetic transfer cannot be “perfect” in the classic sense. Without changes to genetic material wrought by radiation, copying errors in the replication of the underlying genetic structures, and other circumstances that lead to the replicated material varying from the original material, there is no genetic drift that allows new traits to form to be winnowed out by selective forces until only the most advantageous new traits remain (for that environment, of course). Given the connotations of the word “perfect”–which we often take to mean “without flaw”–we’re better off saying that the process is “complete” or “whole” than that it’s “perfect.”

“Perfection” in Christianity
Which brings us to Christianity. In Matthew 5:48, a verse that has become of extreme significance in the development of my “New Mysticism” theology, Jesus says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

If we use the “classic” definition of the word “perfect,” I think we miss the point. If God is the intelligent creator of the evolutionary process, if that is God’s mechanism for the creation of man (and, if you believe in both science and God, I think you ultimately have to accept that as true), then the evolutionary process may tell us something about God’s thoughts on “perfection” in Creation.

The Biblical linguistics agrees. The word that Jesus uses in Matthew 5:48 is τέλειος (teleios, Strong’s G5046). It comes from the word telos (G5056, from which we get great worlds like “teleological”). The root meaning has to do with setting out for a particular destination, from there flow the denotations of “ending”, “completeness” and “maturity.” Surrounding all of this is the sense of purposefulness, that is, something that is to a particular end or goal. We might summarize in saying that the indicated idea of the word is that a thing fully becomes what it was intended (or created) to be. Which circles us back to the idea of “completeness.”

Okay, so that’s perhaps a bit circumlocutory of a method for arriving at the idea, but there is an end goal (ha! see what I did there?). I’m going to focus on several ways in which I think the reference to the idea of purposefulness or completeness rather than being without flaw is helpful to us–and truer than the idea of flawlessness.

Salvation and Sanctification
First, and most obvious, is that this idea relieves us of some stress–Jesus is not telling us to never make mistakes here. Part New Mysticism is the argument that the story of the Fall is the metaphor that beings with free will must learn to be good if they are to be both good and free. This seems to axiomatically require some mistake-making before it may be achieved. That Jesus has brought us salvation from our sins is an affirmation of forgiveness for the inevitable result of the human condition, just as evolutionary processes affirm the God’s idea of “perfect” doesn’t always mean “flawless.” E. Stanley Jones, in his book, The Christ of the Mount, argues that Matthew 5:48, and not “getting into heaven,” is the epitome of the Christian religion. I’m inclined to agree, at least if we’re forced into such reductiveness.

This draws us to look at the process of sanctification over the process of salvation. Yes, salvation is an essential aspect of Christianity and an essential divine blessing upon the human condition, but this is where God has done all the work for us. After that point, we must truly engage to change ourselves in the ways that we call sanctification, to grow into the people whom God created each of us to uniquely be, to truly participate in the Kingdom of God. As I’ve mentioned before and will more fully develop later, this, I think, is why Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is within us. We must change ourselves to become part of it; it’s not simple some place that we can simply move ourselves to as we are. The idea of “telos” is that our becoming part of the Kingdom of God does not lessen who we are but represents the fullness of our individual identities as simultaneously distinct and yet in inexorable relationship with God and the rest of Creation. After all, that is the analogy of the Trinity, is it not?

Eternal Surprise
How about an earthier takeaway from the idea that Jesus speaks of “wholeness” and not a lack of flaws? Perhaps this is deeply personal, but I suspect not. In my heart, I believe that an eternity where no one ever makes a mistake, where nothing outside of the most optimal result occurs, where there is no random chance of rain for our proverbial parade, is…well…boring.

If this life is at all intended to prepare us for eternal living, then shouldn’t we believe that the abundance and joy of eternal life is not about being absolutely free from all unfortunate events or missteps at all times, but rather a state of peace and contentment and love unshakable even by the worst of calamities?

I don’t know what the life to come is like, whether it is a heaven of pure spirit or a physical world remade for us. I do know that God promises us that we will be free of existential suffering–free from death and disease, free from separation from our loved ones, free from real injustice. But I don’t think that that means we will be free from all uncertainty–the idea of doing something to see what happens is a key joy in human life and a crucial part of repeatable joy. Otherwise, why ever play more than one game of basketball, or soccer, or whatever your favorite sport or game is?

Admittedly, that’s just a variation of “if there isn’t X in heaven, I’m not going.” Nevertheless, I think we can take some of those things with a little bit of seriousness. If part of our abundant life now comes from taking joy in something that can be enjoyed in a way that isn’t harmful (whether directly or indirectly) to ourselves or others, I can think of no reason God would give it to us for a short time only to deprive us of it later. That’s not the God I’ve come to know. At the end of The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis writes, “…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” I can think of no better description for the life to come.

Purpose and Process
I do believe in the statement, “everything happens for a reason”…but I also believe that sometimes that reason is “random chance” (with the caveat that we often assign the phrase “random chance” to mean “having more causational factors than we can track or understand”). Now, I believe that God has reasons for allowing “random chance” to have some sway in existence rather than personally determining the outcome of all events, so that great statement of “everything happening for a reason” remains true for me, at least if you look back far enough.

And that’s another piece of the analogy I want to draw from evolutionary processes. Just like our own lives, it’s sometimes difficult to see the justice or meaning in certain events–and some events may simple lack justice and meaning! But when we look at the overall picture, we see a method and purpose to the process that develops in the whole, where those experiences and misfortunes matter in the greater scheme of things, even if its hard to determine meaning in the immediate.

By necessity, we Christians are long-view types. If we’re going to believe we have been gifted an eternal existence, we ought to live and think like it, right? But, at the same time, our analogy in this post does show us that all of those little intermediary events–whether that random mutation that results in eyes or the choice of how you treat someone else–do matter, even if we won’t see the outcome any time soon. There is purpose and meaning both large and small, cosmic and intimately immediate, and we ought to give attention to both.

Like Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” And we ought to as well, knowing that we’re not required to be perfect, but we’re on a journey to become ever more mature, ever more whole, ever more invested in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth and being as unique and luminous a part of it as we can be!

Things Fall Apart
Every analogy has that point at which it unravels–otherwise it would be something more than analogy. I don’t want to make too much of the relationship between evolutionary processes and our understanding of God, but I do firmly believe that nature and our experiences of existence are pathways to gleaning some understanding of the person and nature of the Triune.

We should be careful to consult scripture, other revelation of truth we may have experienced from God, (first and foremost) our understanding and knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ, and to employ our intellect and logic (to the extent that they may be brought to bear on such issues). But we Christians believe that everything has meaning, even when we cannot see or understand that meaning. If that is true, wrestling with the possibilities cannot be a useless task.

A Final Thought
I do want to take a brief aside to address what might be the elephant in the room for you in Matthew 5:48. You might be asking, if God is “perfect” in the “classical” sense of the word, then what does it say about God is we use the idea of “complete” or “whole” or “purposeful” instead of the word “perfect” in that passage.

The short answer, I think, is “not much.” On the one hand, it is just as accurate to say that God is “whole” and “complete” in God’s self as to say that God is “without flaw,” and to say that God is “complete” is not a negation of God’s perfection, only an acknowledgment that God’s perfection does not equally (perhaps cannot equally) apply to us. We could talk about this in terms of the Trinity or we could talk about it in terms of God’s (im)passibilty.  On the other hand, I also think it’s safe to say that we don’t really know much about what “perfection” actually means when it comes to a description of God, just as all of our human descriptions of the nature and persons of God are limited by our own cognitive boundaries. In that sense, we’re right to focus on what Jesus’s statement means we should be thinking or doing and worrying a bit less about what it says about God. There’s an irony here in that the speaker (Jesus) by his very actions is in the process of revealing God to us even as he uses words to speak about God. How we differentiate between the speech-act and the content of the speech to best understand the nature and being of God is perhaps an irresolvable question.

 

The Panentheism of the Holy Spirit

Let’s start with a definition. Panentheism is a constructed word for philosophical and theological discussion that means, “all in God.” This is intended to be distinct from theism, which see God as separate from everything else, and pantheism, in which asserts that “all is God.” More specifically, pantheism may communicate simply that the ultimate reality of the universe is (an impersonal) God or that everything we encounter (even ourselves) are simply illusory manifestations of that only thing that exists: God. Please allow for the usual linguistic slippage in the use of words to intend such complex ideas, an apology that perhaps all theological and philosophical construct-words require. Panentheism intends to hold some ontological separation between the existence of things that are God and things that are not God while clearly seeing them as in relationship.

There are a number of Christian theologies that involve some degree of panentheism: process theology, Eastern Orthodox theologies, Christian universalist theologies, etc. I point this out to say that, as with most theological issues within Christianity, there are diverse viewpoints and interpretations, the topic is (of course) complex, and a blog post of this length necessarily oversimplifies. The thoughts below do not take their place from any previously-established theology, systematic or not, but may coincide with some of those theologies (read: the thoughts that follow are my own, so: (1) don’t blame anyone else for them; and (2) that does not mean that somebody didn’t think of them well before I did).

Panentheism, in a general sense, is attractive in Christian thought for a number of reasons. First, it tends to accentuate a personal God who interacts–that is, who influences creation and who is influenced by creation–rather than the impersonal creative force of the purely theistic “clockmaker god” who created the principles on which existence runs but who now has little to do with the created. If you’re curious about the “is influenced by” language above, I recommend taking a look at my brief treatment of God’s passibility in my previous post: The Name of God as an Answer to Existential Questions. At the same time, panentheism avoids the implication (and, when intended, the outright assertion) that there is nothing outside of or distinct from God.

Orthodox Christian theology (across denominations and interpretations, for the most part) argues that creation is to some extent separate from but related to Creator, that free will exists (as a requirement for any moral judgment upon mankind), that God is omnipresent and that God is personally and deeply interested in Creation and its ultimate fate. We do not need to resort to process theology (if that is a theology you consider “extreme”) to see a place for panentheism in Christian thought.

Scripture
Nowhere in Scripture is a panentheistic idea stronger than in those passages that describe the Holy Spirit.

Paul is very clear that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer (1 Corinthians 3:16, 16:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Romans 5:5, Ephesians 4:30), and this is taken as axiomatic by most Christians, I think. Indeed, this is the origin of the term “my body is a temple.”

Other Scriptures indicate that the Holy Spirit may act through a human being, but are also careful to remark that, when this occurs, the Holy Spirit and the human are separate, though the former may dwell within the latter. See 2 Peter 1:21; Mark 13:11; Acts 2:3-4.

The very point of the Pentecost story (and much of the Book of Acts, for that matter) is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within a person gives the person power they could not have apart from God gifting it to them. Although, in the great scheme of things, if God created all things, then that’s necessarily true of all power, but we can avoid such tautologies for the present time.

Tradition
At least within the United Methodist Church (and I suspect many other mainstream Protestant churches), our liturgy and understanding of God often attributes the title of “Sustainer” to God–support for this can undoubtedly be found in the Psalms. If we mean that, without God’s continued will for existence to exist, we would not, it’s only a short step from that idea to a panentheistic cosmology–it would be easy to argue that it that part of God that is within us, or that part of us that is within God, that sustains our continued ontology. This makes for an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” though not one I have any intent of analyzing in this post!

A Panentheistic Holy Spirit and the Triune God
It is possible to point to panentheisms in other religions (some understandings of Hinduism, Kabbalistic Judaism, some Sufi and Ismaili forms of Islam). But panentheism of the Holy Spirit in Christianity has what I believe to be a theological advantage over all of those faiths (which statement is not intended to demean the value, meaning or beauty of those religions). That advantage is the doctrine of the Trinity (which proves theologically advantageous, if mysterious and mystical, in many other theological analyses as well). Why?

Because the Trinity does not allow the entirety of Christianity to be reduced to panentheism. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the nature of the Trinity, with its three distinct persons in inseparable eternal relationship, accentuates both the individual and the relationship itself. This underpins the idea that, if we should view the Holy Spirit as panentheistic in nature, we need to be careful not to see that as our whole relationship with God, or as a reality that diminishes the importance of our being unique and separate creations of God gifted with free will and self-determination by God’s forbearance to exercise God’s absolute power over us.

In essence, this is the best of all possibilities, isn’t it? Our individual objective existence and subjective experience have cosmic meaning and truth because we are independent of God. And yet, at the same time, God dwells within is and is always in relationship with us. If we want to view God through the lens of metaphorical parent, this balancing of allowing independence while providing support is what many of us would describe as the perfect parenting style. In our trainings as foster parents, we are told that this is the “authoritative” parenting style, as opposed to “authoritarian,” “permissive,”  or “neglecting” parenting styles (the four styles being arranged on an x-axis of supportive/unsupportive (sometimes representing as high or low “warmth”) and a y-axis of high or low expectations or control).

To put a simpler way, the Trinity reminds us that, although there is a panentheistic component to our relationship with God, we cannot define ourselves, God, or our relationship by reference only to panentheistic theology. To keep the length of this post down, I’ll keep this as a side note, but I think it bears stating: I don’t think that the Trinity should be used to oversimplify the ways in which we ought to think about our relationship with God. There is, potentially, a formulation under which one might argue that we have a theistic relationship with one person of the Trinity, a pantheistic relationship with the second person of the Trinity and a panentheistic relationship with the third, but such a structure is both too convenient a classification scheme and one that does not bear much scrutiny or the application of logic (to the extent that logic can be brought to bear to describe the mystery of the Trinity).

C.S. Lewis’ “Natural Law” as a Panentheistic Argument
I’ve referred to C.S. Lewis’s arguments about “natural law” on several occasions, his assertions that our conscience is often God speaking to us. It’s a short hop to call this the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, and then to link that with the panentheistic arguments above. Rather than reiterating his work here, I’m going to touch upon it lightly (done!) and move on.

Consequences of a Panentheistic View
What I’m really interested in discussing in this post (though I’ve taken my time in getting this point, I admit), are the theological consequences of a panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit.

God is Always with Us
I mean this in a very specific sense–that there is no time before God starts being with us always. Especially if we rely on C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” arguments, then God’s working of good within us is there from our very inception. Methodist theologian Albert Outler once lamented the difficulty–and therefore scarcity–of pneumatology in comparison with other theological inquiries (and particularly in comparison with inquiries into the other two persons of the Trinity), and perhaps this example reiterates his point, because I must admit plenty of mystery remains in harmonizing this view with the idea of Jesus “sending” the Paraclete to us on Pentecost.

On the other hand, I think we can safely say that the Holy Spirit is co-eternal with the Father and the Son in the Trinity and that the above “problem” with harmonization has–to the extent it can be–largely been resolved by arguments over the nature of the Trinity itself. For my part, I’d rather focus on two points here (by reference to previous posts):

(1) The idea that God works within us from our very creation causes some concern for the doctrine of original sin, at least perhaps in its traditional formulation. I find that Biblical support for ideas of original sin only really allow for an understanding of that concept in an existential sense–as beings possessed of a free (and often overly-self-interested will) and limited understanding, we are bound to sin–both willfully and inadvertently–until we are fully sanctified. I’ve written about this idea in regards to the narrative of the Fall in my post, “An Alternative Reading of the Fall,” and about the (partially) existential nature of sin in general in the post “Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?”

(2) This idea also bears upon doctrines of “total depravity.” To be honest, I’d rewritten this particular portion of the post several times in hopes of avoiding having to weigh in on the soteriological aspects of that term in Calvinist or Arminian/Methodist theologies and to focus on the more common sense of the term. But, given some of the conclusions I draw below, I decided that such avoidance was ultimately unworkable, so here we go:

Briefly, the difference between the two: Calvinism posits that, because of the Fall, man can do no good works because everything man does is entirely selfish. As a result, only by God’s predestination (“election”) can man choose to accept God’s salvation and be justified and sanctified thereby–after which point man can actually do good. On the Arminian side, the argument goes that, like Calvinism, man is in a state of total enslavement to sin after the Fall. However, because of God’s prevenient grace, God has freed mankind’s will from sin enough to be able to choose to accept God’s gifts of salvation, justification and sanctification of his own volition.

To be blunt, I find the Calvinist formulation to utter hogwash–this is the equivalent of God playing a game of semantics with God’s self and moving pieces around on a game table. It deprives the relationship between human and God of real meaning, our existence of the kind of meaning that requires our free will to be, and, ultimately–the analogy I want to use here is vulgar and I get blamed for blasphemy often enough as it is, so use your imagination.

The Arminian view is more convincing to me (imagine that, since I’m a Methodist), but ultimately I still think it views the theological issues in play from the wrong angles, unless we are to say that “prevenient grace” is intended to describe an existential feature of the human condition ordained by God rather than a divine remedial action.

The idea of a panentheistic Holy Spirit could certainly be used to bolster the idea of prevenient grace by providing a mechanism through which prevenient grace is enacted by God. However, that view would be exactly what I mean by a “divine remedial action.” I think it better to view the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from a person’s very creation as indicative of the depth of the relationship between created and creator rather than as a methodology for helping us to “be good.”

I’ve discussed at some length ideas of goodness and fallenness contrasted in my post, “The World and the World,” a rough draft of a chapter for the first theology book I intend to finish, refine and publish in the not-too-distant future. For extra credit (or more information about some of my thoughts regarding soteriological theology, see “Salvation and Sanctification.”

For now, let’s turn to the idea that, if the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us from the very get-go, as C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” theory seems to imply, then:

No Cosmological Duality
This is a phrase I’ve been hearing a bit lately in the new (new to me) thing I’ve been attending at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Houston, a thing called “Ordinary Life.” I’m calling it a thing because I know that I’d probably upset people if I called it a “Sunday School Class,” an epithet that it explicitly rejects in order to be a less-constrained, more welcoming approach to spiritual issues. If I understand it correctly (and maybe someone from that group will stumble across this and correct me if I don’t!) the term “cosmological duality” is intended to mean that traditional formulation of Christianity where:

God is Far Removed from Mankind
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|                               Jesus had to die to make God like us again
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V                                                        |
Because humans screwed up and

(I hope you enjoy my makeshift graphic.) Cosmological duality is the idea that somehow God is unable or unwilling to be within us in our sinfulness and fallenness without Jesus “paying the price” for us. Elsewhere, I usually hear this referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement.” Generally, I think it could be more generally applied to views of Christianity that focus on God’s holiness and glory (and in effort to accentuate that holiness and glory posits humanity’s sinfulness and worthlessness), on God’s “entitlements” and not on God’s desire for relationship with us. To me, the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the Christian faith as a whole, is the good news that, although God is entitled to all glory and holiness, God’s not so much interested in that as in love and relationship. That is a hopeful message; much more hopeful than “since you can’t help but break the rules, if you love Jesus hard enough, God will be forced to forgive you and will let you into heaven…perhaps begrudgingly.”

And this is where a panentheistic view of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit really brings things into focus. If we accept that view, and C.S. Lewis’s argument that conscience is one piece of evidence of that view and the existence of the Holy Spirit within us from our very conception (I mean this metaphysically more than physiologically), then we are presented with an image of God always reaching out to us no matter the state we are in, no matter whether we are consciously pursuing an understanding of Jesus and the God revealed in him, no matter whether we are Christian, or religious at all. That’s a God of Love.

Now, if this is true, then there are:

No Magic Words
The evangelical gold-standard of having someone “accept Jesus into his heart” by uttering some prescribed “magic words” really has no place in our theology. There is no switch-flicking moment that instantly transitions us from one existential condition (sinful, fallen, hopeless, unredeemed) to another (justified, sanctified, redeemed). (I want to make clear that I don’t intend to say that being “born again” isn’t a thing–Jesus himself talks about it. I just mean to say that it’s not a thing as fundamentalist evangelicals conceive of it).

It’s more complicated than that. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time studying philosophy, religions and Christian theology, the answer to spiritual matters usually is, “it’s more complicated than that.” We have to start looking at the meaning of our faith, the character and intent of our God, the nature and design of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross, in a more complex, nuanced way. What we get is a set of assertions, arguments and “understandings” that are more ambiguous, less comprehensible, but by far more beautiful than any simplistic understand of God we had before.

For me, as I think my theological posts on this blog make clear, the lens that allows such careful and expansive investigation into all things spiritual or theological is the existential approach, founded on more brilliant minds who’ve come before me: Barth and Tillich are the readiest examples I’ve drawn upon, and developing into the theology I’ve been describing on the blog and calling, “New Mysticism.”

Existential Sanctification
If we look at the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this panentheistic way (which I think is what we intuitively and colloquially tend to do as Christians), then think about what this means for the process of sanctification. I’ve argued in the past that I believe there is very purposeful divine intent in the relative ease (from our perspective at least) of gaining salvation (being freely offered by God and only needing to be accepted by us) compared to the decided difficulty of seeking sanctification (that is, becoming “Christ-like” and “holy.”)

But consider this–under this panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit, God has always been with you and whispering to you about the righteous path. Sanctification, in actuality, then, is starting to listen to those continual revelations direct from God to you, starting to try to put them into practice.

This brings us around to Luke 17:21, in which Jesus says, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” I’m really looking forward to spending some time with that passage in the context of existential Christianity and the idea of sanctification, which I’ll do soon.

An Ad Hominem Homily: Luke 16:19-31

This past Sunday’s text in the Methodist lectionary was Luke 16:19-31.

It’s a difficult passage, the story of that other Lazarus. In this short parable, Jesus tells us of an unnamed rich man and (the other) Lazarus, a disease-afflicted man who lies at the doorstep of the rich man’s home hoping for scraps from the man’s table. Both die, with Lazarus being carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man going to Hades.

The rich man calls out across a great divide to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water, but Abraham tells him that none can cross the chasm. The rich man then begs Abraham to let Lazarus go to the rich man’s living family to warn them about his fate. Abraham objects that his family has Moses and the prophets to guide them. The rich man retorts that they may not heed the message from the prophets, but will certainly listen to someone returned to the dead. Abraham ends the parable by explaining that those who will not believe Moses and the prophets will not even believe one who rises from the dead.

Jesus sometimes has words difficult for us to hear, and even one such as myself whose theology focuses on the love, forgiveness and benevolence of God would be a fool to ignore the warnings in such passages.

The warning hits especially close when, as with K and I’s new church home, one must walk past homeless folks to enter worship.

The Rich and the Poor

I certainly do not want to de-emphasize the message in this parable about how we should treat the poor, the afflicted, those less fortunate than us. This warning is the clearest part of the passage, and perhaps the one that resonates most with Jesus’s other sayings.

But I’m going to make my comments on that aspect of the passage quickly and move on to less-frequently-discussed ideas conveyed by the text.

I’ll point out the purple robe worn by the rich man. Purple dye–at least the best of it–was known as Tyrian purple; it was produced by the Phoenicians in Tyre (and later elsewhere along the Mediterranean), a city north of Israel in modern Lebanon and visited by Jesus according to Mark. Tyrian purple comes from the secretions of sea snails from the Muricidae family. Even before the first century C.E., writers remarked that the dye was worth its weight in silver. The expense of this purple dye caused it to be known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple.” According to Strong’s, the word that we translate rather feebly as “dressed in” (at least in the ESV) has a meaning more like “habitually dressed in.”

Everyone hearing Jesus’s message at the time would have immediately understood his meaning–this was not just a wealthy person; this was a person with the means to squander money on lavish clothing, not for special occasions, but for everyday use. I suppose it’s like saying the man drove a Ferrari or Lamborghini past Lazarus every morning.

This is poised next to the statement that “Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” There are two ways to read this statement, I think. The first is what we instinctually read–that the dogs licking his sores is a further insult and embarrassment to Lazarus. But, through both experience and reading, I know that dogs can smell disease in humans (and Lazarus’s seems to be pretty obvious besides) and will often lick wounds in an effort to comfort and promote healing–this is their instinctual reaction. So, I think that the juxtaposition here is not just about Lazarus’s lowliness; it’s also about the fact that even the beasts who survive off of scraps from the table know to treat Lazarus better than the rich man does.

Truth and Seeing

As I mentioned above, I don’t think that the real point of this passage is simply about behavior and punishment. In fact, I don’t think that we should read the afterlife scene depicted should be taken as a statement of actual reality at all.

One hint of this, I think, is Jesus’s use of the word Hades–he’s making reference to a Greco-Roman cosmology that he surely doesn’t believe in. Now, on the one hand, Jesus is speaking to a culture now firmly entrenched in the ideas of the Greco-Roman world, but he’s also speaking primarily to Pharisees here, and it would seem that, were he wanting to make a statement about what to expect in the afterlife, he might have used the Hebrew word sheol instead.

So, with that argument made, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the ideas of afterlife justice and punishment here–I just don’t think that’s the point and I don’t think that’s where we should be spending our interpretive time and effort with the passage.

Instead, I want to focus on the substance of the exchange between Abraham and the rich man rather, with the setting allegorically informing the conversation rather than being a demonstration of reality. In transparency, this is probably a break with tradition–this parable is frequently depicted in medieval art, probably because of its treatment of the afterlife.

When the rich man is dead and in Hades, he can see that Lazarus is with Abraham–the text tells us this plainly. Based on the text, we are well within our rights, I think, to assume that the rich man is founded in the Hebrew beliefs of the time. It follows, then, that he should immediately understand the situation as it is, with Lazarus being rewarded and him being punished. And yet, he persists in the worldview he had in life, the one that caused him to ignore Lazarus in the first place–that, by virtue of his wealth and status he was necessarily better than Lazarus and deserved to be higher than him and served by him.

Let’s make that clear: in spite of seeing Lazarus being rewarded and in the presence of Abraham, and being himself in a place of torment (and assumedly punishment), the rich man still thinks its fitting to ask Abraham to tell Lazarus to serve him.

For me, this changes the way that I look at Abraham’s response when he says, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

I read this not as a statement about the inability of the dead to move between punishment and grace, but as a statement that the worldly status quo, the dominance of the wealthy and powerful over others, cannot be enforced in the afterlife. Were the rich man not blind to reality, he would have seen this in his situation and would not have made the request in the first place. We see him as foolish in asking for such a thing, and I think that’s entirely the point given what follows.

If you’re like me, you find it strange that the rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus and not him to warn his (the rich man’s) family. This could be because the rich man still refuses to look past the disparity of social rank and privilege he enjoyed in life despite Abraham’s explanation, but it could also be that he believes Lazarus might have the privilege to speak to the living where he does not or that Abraham’s side of the chasm is connected to the land of the living and the rich man’s is not. Here, we have a break with Greco-Roman views of Hades, I think, given the number of stories in both Greek and Roman culture in which a spirit of the dead communicates with the living.

Regardless of the why, it’s the substance of the exchange that follows the request that matters most. Ultimately, Abraham says that those who do not believe Moses and the prophets will not believe even someone returned from the dead.

Abraham’s response to the rich man is an application of logic to the ad hominem fallacy engaged in by the rich man–it’s the truth of the message that matters, not the source of the message. Those who have already rejected the truth upon hearing it will not suddenly believe it because someone else–even one risen from the dead–tells the truth to them again. Those who choose to remain blind to the truth when it is staring them in the face, as the rich man does throughout this passage, will find ways to continue to do so.

Social science seems to back this up–just this week I heard on NPR about a study that seems fortuitously related to this topic. In that study, the political beliefs of participants were assessed before and after they participated in a program of interaction with people of different political beliefs and backgrounds. Our assumption, as is so often the case, is that exposure to different ideas, the building of relationships with people of differing beliefs, will naturally cause us to become more open-minded–or at least empathetic to differing views. But this particular study showed that a significant number of participants with very strongly-held views became more entrenched in their views after participating in interactions with people of differing views, choosing to use those interactions as confirmation of their pre-existing beliefs rather than evidence that it might be reasonable to believe otherwise.

The current state of American politics–particularly as Republican congresspersons and officials engage in impressive mental gymnastics to remain loyal to an embattled president with a history of willful ignorance of the ideals of American government–provides further evidence. But if I’m going to be fair (and I should be, shouldn’t I?), the problem lies on both sides of our political divide, because the biases and extreme positions of some Democrats have given an excuse to make the argument that any action taken against the President is a matter only of political bias. Just this morning on the drive to work I head a Republican congressman not just imply but state that the current Ukraine scandal might not have any merit because the whistleblower involved might be biased against Donald Trump. The ad hominem fallacy again raises its ugly head–it doesn’t matter at all whether the whistleblower was biased in blowing the whistle; it only matters whether the allegations of misconduct and abuse of power are true. But I digress.

As those of you who follow the theological posts on my site well know by now, I take an existentialist approach to my theology. I’ve argued that the process of sanctification (and therefore participation in the present Kingdom of God) is a matter of changing oneself to see reality more clearly. In many ways, that’s the argument of this parable–I’m willing to argue that, had the rich man seen reality the way God created it and communicated truth about it to us through Moses and the prophets, he would have treated Lazarus as he should have and never would have ended up in the situation in which we find him. Righteous action flows from righteous thought, which flows from righteous seeing.

Jesus’s Self-Referential Meaning

I haven’t heard or read anyone discuss the irony in Abraham’s final words in this passage. When Jesus gives this parable, he is going to die and return from the dead with messages for the Disciples and for us at large. So how do we relate this statement to Jesus’s death and resurrection (and its effect–or lack thereof–on believers)?

It’s possible that this is evidence that Jesus’s death and resurrection was never intended as a sign to create belief in God. If we take the message of Luke 16:19-31, that makes sense, right? For those whose contact with Jesus already convinced them that he was the Son of God, his resurrection was simply confirmation of their belief, not the source of new belief. Those who rejected Jesus’s divinity before his death and resurrection had ready arguments for continuing to disbelieve. Someone stole the body. Jesus only swooned on the cross and never actually died. The crucifixion never actually occurred.

This, existentially speaking, is the condition in which we, as human beings in the modern age, find ourselves. We have no way to prove the reality of the resurrection itself, much less to use it prove Jesus’s divinity. We have Moses and the prophets, and the Disciples and letter-writers; if we don’t find truth in them, where will we find it?

I need to carry this further, I think. As I argued in my last theological post (Speaking Creation), Jesus is the reality of our creation and sustenance, with the Bible’s primary value as a gateway to a personal encounter with Jesus that transcends all other human ways of knowing or seeing. Jesus is the right seeing of the universe. The incarnation and crucifixion, then, are revelations of truth, not for the purpose of forcing us to see clearly, but for giving us the possibility of seeing clearly if we are willing to see at all.

For us Methodists, it’s the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit that allows us to be open to seeing before the truth is ever clear to us. But that is a mechanism beyond my understanding except in the most abstract of senses.

This idea, that the crucifixion and resurrection are not about causing belief, naturally requires the question: “What is it about, then?” Jesus answers that question, at least in part, elsewhere, when he tells us that “No greater love have a man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” As Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own loves for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

This knowledge returns us to the chasm between Abraham and the rich man. If that chasm were ever intended to represent a real divide between the forgiven and the unforgiven, it cannot remain after the redemptive act of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Abraham speaks to the rich man in terms of impossibilities, but through Jesus, all things are possible.

Synchronicity and Application

I had the very good fortune to hear J.J. Warren speak this weekend at a Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference event. If you’re not sure who J.J. Warren is, search for him in Google. Start with his speech from the floor of the Called Special Session of the General Conference of the UMC earlier this year and go from there. His first book, Reclaiming Church: A Call to Action for Religious Rejects, is available for pre-order on Amazon.

He spoke/preached on the prophet Amos, whose warning to the Hebrew people was that God found the worship and supplications of the Hebrew people distasteful (to put it mildly) while they refused to engage in the pursuit of the social justice that God had called them to.

The application of this message in the warning that we, as United Methodists, ought to be very carefully scrutinizing whether we’re seeking God’s justice with our actions, not just with regard to LGTBQ+ issues but also in matters of immigration, wealth disparity, inequities of power in our nation, the lack of justice in our judicial system, and many other issues both “secular” and political, resonates deeply with the passage from Luke. After all, that’s the very warning the rich man fails to heed in his ignorance of Lazarus: are you pursuing justice or allowing injustice?

Was Amos at the forefront of Abraham’s mind when he warns the rich man that those who are heedless of the prophets will not heed even one risen from the dead? Something to think on…

Speaking Creation

A picture may be worth a thousand words in terms of raw content, but even a few words can be more precise than a picture. And when words create pictures, an emergent gestalt of the minds of writer and reader, where do we put that in the hierarchy? When our words shape, craft and regulate thoughts, how do we categorize that most fundamental structure of reality?

The idea that language, whether deterministically or only by influence, shapes cognition and perception, is formally known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It’s a far-reaching idea, particularly for both the writer and the theologian. Here, I’ll focus on the latter.

The Book of John tells us, or at least very heavily implies, that Jesus is the Word of God, co-eternal with the Father, that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” I’ve talked about my perceived misapplication of the phrase “Word of God” to the Bible rather than to Jesus in a previous duology of posts.

Indeed, in Genesis, God speaks Creation into being. Both Tolkien and Lewis picked up on this, though they  also incorporated music into the speaking of Creation in their respective worlds. As medievalists, they would have been familiar with the idea of the music of the spheres, and perhaps that influenced their choices in worldbuilding and writing. For both, I think, as for me, the act of writing fiction, of using words to create something new, is both an act of worship and the exercise of the most Godlike of human endowments–creativity itself–in imitation of our source.

Just as God and the created thing are separate and distinct, language (as a medium of creation) and creation itself are separate and distinct. Any scholar of semiotics (or philosophy for that matter) will tell you that the description or word for a thing is not the thing itself. I’ve before referenced Magritte’s The Treachery of Images as emblematic of this idea.

Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of speech in the creative act in the Book of Genesis and the linking of Jesus Christ to both act and medium of creation. But what do we do with that?

We turn to words, of course. Our fiction is full of the idea that speech is the moderator of thought and experience, at least for human beings. In Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak allows the government (to attempt, at least) to control the thoughts, perceptions and self-expressions of the citizens of Oceania. Even more fascinating (to my mind) is China Mieville’s Embassytown, where the evolution of the Language of the Ariekei “Hosts” coincides with changes in their consciousness and perceptions. In my review of Brooks Landon’s Great Course on Building Great Sentences, I spend a fair amount of time on the idea that good sentences are essentially consciousness hacking. Certainly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis supports such an idea.

That is what fascinates me most about the use of speech in the Biblical story of Creation. Even if, as I do, you interpret Genesis as being far more metaphorical than literal, this detail communicates something undeniably true about human existence. Like it or not, language structures experience. When was the last time you thought to yourself purely in terms of abstract images, feelings and ideas? I can’t think of time ever when my own internal monologue was not yapping away.

This is why the study of foreign languages is so mind-expanding–coded within the words and structure of a language are fundamental perceptions and assertions about the nature of existence and reality. This goes far beyond how many words for snow a language has (though that is itself a telling example of a manner of perceiving the world) or that in Latin actor and subject of action sometimes require the reader to make assumptions about how the world is, as in the sentence “Miles puella vincit” (“The soldier conquers the girl,” or, “The girl conquers the soldier” since both nouns are in the nominative declension). There are subtler effects, too subtle to describe here, involved in the availability and specificity of words in any particular language or even words within a language. This isn’t a post about the mechanics of how language shapes thought, but one about the consequences of that fact.

Before we go further, just a little more about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Linguistic research in recent decades has lent support to the “soft” school of the Hypothesis–that language may influence but is not deterministic upon cognition and perception. That matches with “common sense” philosophy and experience, I think–I’ve never encountered, personally or second-hand, a specific instance of language preventing someone from changing his mind about something, an assertion with any plausibility that all speakers of a language share the same ideas on a particular topic, or an event where a language barrier proved insurmountable to compromise between different peoples in any but the most practical of senses. So, the analogy, as all analogies must at some point (if they are actually analogies and not two instances of the exact same thing held up to one another), begins to unravel here. Nevertheless, I proceed.

The assertion that Jesus is the Word of God carries with it the claim that Jesus makes in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it does so in a way that is far more nuanced and complex than the fundamentalist idea that salvation is exclusive to those who profess Jesus as Lord with their mouths.

Instead, the idea tells us that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, not in some categorical sense exclusive to other worldviews, but in the fundamental sense that Jesus is God’s fullest expression to man of the very nature of Creation and reality itself. This being the case, anyone who catches some glimpse of reality is in some sense glimpsing Jesus, regardless of the name they put to it. This comports with the claim in 1 John 4:8 that “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (The congruence of these ideas might provide some argument in support of the idea that the writer of the Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John are one and the same).

If Jesus is the truest language, that is, the truest medium and structure for accurate perception of and cognition about all created things, we must add the action of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to what we’ve seen of Jesus Christ and the Father in Genesis.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the crowds gathered around the apostles so that all clearly understand the divine message spoken by the apostles on that day–each as if hearing in his own tongue. The idea hear is clear–Jesus, as the fundamental structure for understanding all questions existential, is available to all.

This idea allows for some ecumenical respect for other faiths while preserving the primacy of Jesus as a person of the all-sovereign triune God. It allows us to respect the genuine striving for God that members of other faiths seek while asserting that the clearest, most beneficial view of God is in the person of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know a thing about Neal Stephenson’s religious beliefs, but as I’ve mentioned in several other posts, some of his works have inspired particular insights into my own theology, and I would rate him up with Joss Whedon as one of my “unintentional mentors” in that regard. This seems as good a time as any to discuss Snow Crash in brief. Spoilers in the next paragraph (didn’t see that coming in this post, didja?).

One of the plot-critical philosophical thoughts behind the plot of Snow Crash is the idea that the Asherah cult and pagan belief constitutes a sort of meme-virus in Sumerian language and that the separation of languages in the story we know as the Tower of Babel is a counter-virus intended to inoculate against the deleterious effects of the Asheran cult. It’s a brilliant fantastical use of Biblical narrative and, like the other fictional works I’ve mentioned here, more than a little in line with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It carries with it a great warning itself in the person of Reverend Wayne, who seeks to combine the Snow Crash drug with his personal charisma and authority co-opted from Christianity to distribute his own meme-virus. I don’t think I need to do much to tie this example into the ideas above.

Salvation aside, this idea, that Jesus is both the medium and the structure of Creation, should profoundly influence our idea of sanctification. It tells us that seeking the person of Jesus is coming to a clearer paradigm for understanding existence as it actually is. This is an existential understanding of sanctification, as I have elsewhere argued (see the “Brief Outline of My Theology” for a quick and dirty overview). It states that seeking Christ causes change within us–of our way of understanding our relationships to all else in existence rather than some subjugation of our unique personalities–and that this change in understanding is what allows the more abundant living and the participation in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to offer us, through his teaching, yes, but even more profoundly through the direct experience of him. The giver becomes the gift, all one.

What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

Today I was reading an interview between CNN’s Daniel Burke and comedian Pete Holmes, star of HBO’s “Crashing” and author of the new book Comedy, Sex, God.

I want to copy for you here a portion of that interview that really struck me. He says: “But what we’re talking about is symbol systems and labels. And those are good; those are helpful. (But) we’re trying to get our inner reality to respond. So in the book, I’m trying to rescue some Bible verses, I’m trying to rescue some ideas of Christ. I’ll always get a lot juice out of rescuing something that Jesus said. It’s healing to me, psychologically, to do that with words that were used to convince me that I was in danger of going to hell. It might be my favorite thing to do, is to go like, “Oh my God, it was right there.” We just didn’t have eyes to see. We didn’t have ears to hear. We were listening wrong. We were listening with an agenda. We were listening with our egos. We were listening with a deep desire for membership and identity and certainty. We weren’t looking as the mystics are. And when you look at the Bible the way a mystic sees it, it opens like a flower and you’re like, whoa.”

This really resonated with me, as did the general story of Mr. Holmes’ spiritual journey from evangelical Christian upbringing to spiritual voyager. His use of the idea of mysticism also struck a cord.

I have casually remarked in my posts on this blog that I have given the (haphazardly) systematic theology I am slowly developing the name “New Mysticism.” Pete Holmes’ comment above (and perhaps his comments more broadly) seems to provide a good entry point into discussing what I mean by that term.

I am not qualified to be a mystic in the classical sense. I cannot sit still long enough to meditate. I am too busy (over-)thinking to calm my mind. I have too strong a sense of self to be satisfied with the idea of the unio mystica, though I have a deep desire to feel a strong connection with God. I have no supernatural gifts that allow me to see the fabric of reality other than through a glass, darkly. I have no divine message to share, only the thoughts and feelings of a human inescapably drawn to pondering the nature of existence and reality, subject to my all-too-human limitations in finding definitive answers to the many questions I ask. I am no mystic as the term is often intended.

Why “New Mysticism,” then? As I’ve laid out in a Brief Outline of My Theology, my theological approach is both existential and epistemologically skeptical; some amount of mysticism seems an inexorable conclusion from such a starting place.

In existentialist thought, we acknowledge that our understanding of all things is mediated by experience, by imperfect sensory apparatus analyzed by imperfect minds. We must acknowledge some slippage between what we perceive (the existential) and what actually is (the essential).

Skepticism of our ability to know follows closely. I’m not one to take epistemological skepticism to absurdity (if our knowing is flawed, how can we know that we know?), but I do acknowledge that the human mind has its limits.

The philosopher David Hume once made the argument that we cannot definitively know that causation exists. What we observe is a (very) strong correlation of events. To borrow his analogy, we see the cue ball hit one of the other billiard balls and then the second ball begins to move. Through math and science, we can even protect the force and direction of that movement based upon the angle of impact, speed and rotation of the cue ball (and myriad other details, such as the evenness of the pool table). But we have no way to, beyond any doubt, prove that the cue ball is causing the other ball to move rather than that we are only observing a very consistent “coincidence” that is caused by forces and factors we cannot perceive.

We cannot live and function should we focus on that doubt, of course. We must live with the very great probability that this is in fact causation (it hasn’t failed us yet, after all). We cannot meaningfully interact with the world around us, certainly cannot plan such interactions, without taking for granted causation exists and we believe it to.

Do not be misled into thinking that I am making some argument against either knowledge generally or science specifically; experience seems to demonstrate (if not prove) that we can know some things reliably enough and science is in fact the best tool to understand the nature and action of the world around us.

But there are limits to the sorts of questions that the human mind may understand. Science can show us with relative certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. It cannot, no matter the angle at which we hold it nor the manner in which we dissect it, tell us why in any sense behind the mundane and lifeless. The question of, “If the Big Bang caused everything in the universe, what caused it?” stretches to infinite strings of causation or some manner of causation we cannot perceive. Either way, the answer is beyond us. When God tells us that God’s name is “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”, that is a mystical answer to a question that defies logic. There is nothing we can understand about God in any temporal sense; God simply is God. We must either accept or reject that, there is no way to prove it or explain it.

It is here that we find the necessity of mysticism; that is: a belief that some knowledge is not susceptible to human logic, that there are things we may know from experience that we could never prove to anyone else, that there are ways of understanding apart from cold logic. I know of no other way to describe such things other than “mystical.” But it strikes me that that mysticism is not entirely the same as the term has been formerly understood. It may also be a mode of experience, but in my mind it is first a worldview, one without which we are not open to such modes of experience, no matter the labels we place on them.

And so, I find my theology to be firmly rooted in the mystical, the supernal, the sublime. How could it be otherwise? The spaces between cold logic are where faith, hope and joy come alive, where we find (or create) the only meanings that, at the end of the day, really matter to any of us.

This mysticism is different, perhaps, from the mysticism of the past in another way. It does not dismiss, nor reject, nor argue against logic and science, instead recognizing that these are God-given tools to develop understanding to the extent that we can. If there is a God, and God created everything that exists, then every rule of science, every geological fact, every evolutionary development represents in some manner the will of God. Understanding the operation of the natural world may thus give us some understanding of the nature of God. Even if it doesn’t, such understanding proves quite useful, and we’ll need more of it if we are to hope to undo much of the harm we, as a species, have done to the world.

This “new” mystical approach allows science and faith to co-exist by understanding that, just because a story in the Bible is not historical fact does not mean that is not True in the most important, dramatic and essential ways by telling us something meaningful about existence itself. If only we are able to understand, whether by logic or by divine revelation.

“New Mysticism” is intended as a middle road between an unquestioning faith and an equally unquestioning materialism, one that gives fair play to all manner of knowing and seeks to incorporate all of the experiential, the existential, into a meaningful whole.

 

Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message

(This is the 6th of seventeen posts in my 200 for 200 goal. We’re currently at 140 followers, so please continue to send your friends my way!)

(P.P.S. it seems: While I haven’t been as good as I’d like to be about keeping my New Year’s resolution to write for at least an hour every day–life has a habit of intervening–I have been busy at work, though the lack of posts on the blog doesn’t seem to indicate that. Have faith and bear with me–there is much more to come, and soon!)

To be honest, I’ve pulled a little bit of a fast one on the title of the post in a blatant attempt to get your attention. I’m not going to deny that the message of Jesus is sometimes apocalyptic, nor am I going to overturn everything you thought you knew.

The word “apocalyptic” can mean a number of things, particularly the common/colloquial idea of “end times” and/or a style of revelatory writing and narrative (often, but not necessarily coinciding with the subject of the Second Coming or the Day of Judgment).  There are certainly times when Jesus speaks apocalyptically in both senses of the word: much of Matthew 24 and 25 contains apocalyptic speech in the sense that it offers revelatory information in the prophetic mode and that it discusses an end times. My NIV translation of Matthew 24 gives it the heading, “The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times,” and later, before the start of verse 36, “The Day and Hour Unknown.” Matthew 25 contains the Parable of the Ten Virgins–which we can certainly read as about those who wait patiently for the kind of apocalyptic salvation common to first-century belief in ancient Judea–and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, perhaps one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.

As an aside, there is some interesting scholarship about the origins of some of the parables above in relation to the various source theories of the gospel texts. I’ll leave that to those better versed in such things.

So, by the title of this post, I do not mean to intimate that Jesus never spoke apocalyptically (regardless of sense of the word you want to use), that it is not possible to read Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, or to read themes of judgment out of Jesus’ ministry. None of these things would be correct in light of scripture.

However (perhaps in typical Methodist “both/and” fashion), I do want to nuance and complicate things a little and to challenge the proposition of some scholars (particularly Bart Ehrman, I think) that Jesus should be read only (maybe it’s more fair to say “primarily”) as an apocalyptic prophet who is simply repeating cultural ideas of the time.

Thus, we arrive at the title of the post: I want to offer a reading of certain scriptures (and I want to be careful to be clear here that this is not intended as a full synthesis of the Gospels and I am intentionally leaving intact the tension between my offered reading and those of Jesus’ sayings that are staunchly apocalyptic) that turns the standard idea of the apocalyptic on its head. Or, at the very least, points out a different but defensible interpretation.

Given the semiotic flexibility of the word “apocalyptic” (as mentioned above), I think it’s only right that I define specifically what I mean when I say “anti-apocalyptic.” For purposes of this post (title included), I use the term “anti-apocalyptic” to mean “something other than the idea that the world is a lost cause that must be suffered through with patience until some external eucatastrophe restores justice by punishing the oppressors and evildoers and rewarding those who have faithfully suffered.”

Let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 (NIV): “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,” or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” The NIV includes a footnote that “in your midst” might also be translated as “within you.” Other translations also choose “within you”.

I do not claim to be a scholar of Koiné Greek–it’s something that I’d like to pick up some time, but this has not yet come to fruition. However, based on what understanding I do have–and particularly a reliance on Strong’s (the word “entos,” which is the Greek word we’re talking about is G1787)–“inside of you” (“sy entos“) seems to be the better translation.

I have seen it argued that “in your midst” is the better translation, but only to the result that the argument becomes “the Holy Spirit dwells within your soul,” which seems to me to be a distinction without a difference–unless we try to parse out “having” a soul as somehow different from “being a soul,” as if a soul is an attachment to one’s essence. We wouldn’t be the first to go there, of course–Egyptian and Zoroastrian religion (among others) have a complex relationship between different parts of the soul and the existential being of the individual. This, however, seems to become pure metaphysical speculation.

But I digress. As an existential theologian, I’ve argued on this blog (and in my first theology book, when I get around to finishing it and publishing it one way or another; for now, see this post) that the process of sanctification–of participation in the Kingdom of God–is a matter of an internal change of self and perception so that one adopts a “map” of right relationships that approaches the map God would have us see. If this is true, that the process of sanctification is one of gradual inward change and enlightenment spurred on by the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, then it seems almost axiomatic that the Kingdom of God is within us all along–even if that does sound a little afternoon-school-special-y. Don’t worry, this isn’t another digression; this is the beginning of the argument I’m trying to make.

Paul’s language about the Holy Spirit seems to indicate an understanding of sanctification similar to what I have described above, with the Holy Spirit as the believer’s guide on the path to Christ-likeness. Let’s look at Romans 8:

In 8:4, Paul writes “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Here, the Holy Spirit serves as the impetus that drives us toward righteousness, sanctification. In the words that follow, Paul argues that those who “live in the flesh” rather than the Spirit “are hostile to God” (8:7), and that only belongs to Christ if one “has the Spirit of God” living in him or has “the Spirit of Christ” (8:9). For Paul, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian’s life.

Soon thereafter he writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” (8:14-15, abridged). The guidance of the Holy Spirit brings about the right relationship with God as well as righteousness. This corresponds, I think, with the way I’ve described sanctification both here and elsewhere on the blog.

We should also note that Paul holds the same tension between inward sanctification through the Holy Spirit and the apocalyptic. Later in Romans 8, 8:20-21 to be specific, he writes: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and the glory of the children of God.” The rest of the passage focuses on patience in the face of suffering as we “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23b). Romans 8 ends with some comments about predestination that we won’t address here–though my post series “Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will” somewhat addresses the topic. Likewise, I think it’s fair to read some conflict between belief and works righteousness in Paul’s words here, though that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, Paul also explicitly links the Holy Spirit to sanctification in describing the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5. The Fruits are qualities of character of both Christ and the one who has become Christ-like (through sanctification).

Jesus Himself alludes to the Holy Spirit as the driver of sanctification in John 16:13: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” I would argue that the understanding of truth is the understanding of the right relationships with God, self, others and creation, which itself causes the inner change that we call “sanctification.”

Here’s what I see as the fundamental dissonance between the interior view of a sanctification and the exterior or apocalyptic view–the apocalyptic view tends to draw our focus away from what we can do in the here and now to make the world we live in a better place–to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth bit by bit rather than waiting for some supernal (and divinely unilateral) invasion. An eschatological view that only looks for that promised eucatastrophe allows us to ignore present suffering we could do something about. When we see sanctification as a process of change within ourselves that draws us to be more compassionate and Christlike, it is inevitable that we will be drawn to serve the least and the lost and–thereby–to participate in some foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It is true that I’m an idealist; but I’m also enough of a realist to see that our opportunities to enact change in the world are small and localized. We humans, without God, are unable to erase all of the evil and suffering out there (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway). In light of that, we do need to have some idea of an “apocalyptic” intervention in which God sets all things right and fully and finally remedies the fallenness of man. I make no claim to know what that will look like (or be like, for that matter), but in light of the interior idea of sanctification, I have some confidence (though of course, not complete surety) in arguing that it won’t look like a literal fulfillment of the apocalyptic (in the narrative style, I mean here) images in the Book of Revelations.

We Methodists (and I’m sure we’re not alone) like to say that “the Kingdom of Heaven is a future promise and a present reality.” Perhaps this post just brings us full circle on this saying. I think it’s certainly possible to view the “traditionally apocalyptic” sayings of Jesus as indicating the future promise and those passages I have described as “anti-apocalyptic” as indicating the present reality. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, after all.

As this post draws to a close, this is what I mean to say: Although Jesus does sometimes speak of a time when, by God’s intervention, all wrongs will be rectified and Creation will be restored to what it has always been meant to be, that doesn’t mean that all there is for us to do on earth in the meantime is to wait and patiently suffer through the injustice of the world. Jesus also calls us to present participation in the Kingdom of God, both by exploring it within ourselves (through the process of sanctification) and then by pouring out that discovery into the world. Spoiler alert: Jesus also tells us exactly how to do this: clothe the needy, feed the hungry, visit those who are in prison, tend the sick, pursue justice in our society. Our guiding principles are simple in their utterance and infinitely complex in the doing: love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself (and all people are your neighbors) and strive that it might be “on earth as it is in Heaven.”

 

 

Salvation and Sanctification

In common Christian thought, I don’t think we often separate ideas of salvation and sanctification in our theology; though they are strongly related, I think it is far more helpful to consider each separately.

Let me be clear about what I mean with each term. “Salvation” means that we have been saved, of course. But from what? From the cosmic consequences of sin. If sin is a part of (current, at least) human condition, and if the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), then salvation means forgiveness for our sins and the gift of eternal life (see again Romans 6:23).

Because this is not a post focused on soteriology, I’m not going to try to hash out the details of salvation through Jesus Christ here. Volumes and volumes have been published on this mystery, and while I do have some of my own thoughts to add to the conversation, this is not the place.

What I’ll say, instead, is that salvation is not, and was never meant to be, the whole story. If salvation is a gift freely offered by God and freely received, and our free will is sacrosanct to God (as I have argued elsewhere), then it stands to reason that salvation, for all of the metaphysical benefits it bestows, does not act as a singular and final transition into exactly what God has called us to be.

I’ll rely on E. Stanley Jones to put it more eloquently. He lamented, “It is usually taken for granted that the goal is to reach heaven….But squirm as we may, and explain away as we can, it is true nevertheless that a granted heaven and an imposed hell hold the field in the mind of Christendom as the final goal….Heaven is a by-product of perfected being [emphasis mine]. The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life, Chapter 2: The Goal of Human Living.

For Jones–and I agree wholeheartedly–the goal of the Christian is not to engage in mere quid-pro-quo (which I described as a vestige of paganism in this post, but which just as well ought to be considered a matter of human nature) of the allegiance-for-heaven variety is a gross misunderstanding of Jesus Christ and his message. Jones tells us that the Sermon on the Mount gives us the true “goal” of the Christian journey–to “become perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

That, simply put, is sanctification: the long, hard process of seeking to make oneself Christ-like and therefore purified, sanctified, holy.

The first reason that I think it’s important for us to think about salvation and sanctification separately is that this partition shows us the true beauty of God’s plan. You see, it sidesteps the quid-pro-quo dilemma entirely. If salvation precedes sanctification, God has already given you all God’s gifts before you take the first step on that path; the only reasons one could choose the dear cost of sanctification (at least the apparent cost, more on that later) is for love of God and a true desire for relationship with the One who created all things. It is love for love’s sake, and our God constantly demonstrates that there is nothing purer, nothing greater, nothing more powerful or more meaningful than that. And this by God’s own design, for we are told that God is love. To quote a song by my favorite band, “the giver became the gift, all one.” The pursuit of sanctification and the pursuit of relationship with the One who calls us to be sanctified is the same thing, because loving God is loving ourselves and others, and the perfection to which God calls us is that of love. That God has taken away even the possibility of the quid-pro-quo from relationship with God demonstrates the nature of both God and true relationship.

If there is a reward to be had in sanctification, it is the thing itself. By becoming sanctified, we begin to see the world as God intends it to be, we truly begin to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven as a present reality, not simply a future promise. Joy, in the divine sense, is the consequence of sanctification, the realization of the way things ought to be–and how they one day will be. It is a state of being, not a thing that can be grasped. And thus, it lies ever out of the reach of the one who grasps it but crashes like waves over the one whose focus is truth. There is an inherent justice to that, I think.

An understanding of salvation and sanctification that gives value to both aspects of the Christian walk also helps us to address that age-old issue about the conflict between works and faith. Salvation is achieved by faith through the eternal grace of God, but sanctification takes the effort of the believer. I’d like to be careful here to make clear that I do not intend to transfer some Pelagian schema from salvation to sanctification. Though human will may be necessary to sanctification, it is not sufficient. First, it is God’s salvific and justifying grace that frees us from the chains of sin so that we may choose to walk the path of sanctification at all. God’s sanctifying grace follows us with us every day, strengthening us against the trepidations and vicissitudes of a journey that sometimes doubles back on itself, forces us to retrace our steps, gives us the realization that we have lost our way. Sanctification is a difficult thing; it is easy to accept, I think, that without God’s help it would not be possible for humankind.

An understanding that sanctification is an ongoing journey gives us a more realistic view of the faith walk in our lives, a view that relieves us from the guilt we tend to pile upon ourselves when we doubt our faith.

Under this schema I’ve described, we are freed from asking about a person’s salvation based upon their behavior. We might question a person’s seriousness about sanctification (though even that, I think, is forbidden to us in the proscription not to judge), but we cannot act as if someone’s behavior has removed them from God’s grace. Room is made for a sort of human grace here, I suspect–that we may acknowledge that even the best of us sometimes make sinful mistakes, but that we are all by the grace of God given the opportunity to make amends and return to the path of sanctification. And if God has given us such room, who are we to ignore it? In other words, this understanding makes it easier for us to love our neighbors.

It gives us space as well to understand that we do not have all of the answers, that we are all of us on a journey to greater understanding of and relationship with God, ourselves and each other. What the culmination of this journey will be, I do not know. But I do know that it will carry with it a fullness of Heaven that we cannot even imagine.

That salvation precedes sanctification also grants us relief from fearing the (lack of) time in this life we have left in which to become holy. If eternal life is a gift included in salvation, we will have all of eternity in which to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. This metaphysical arrangement is an example of perfect love that drives out fear. I don’t know about you, but I often feel I might need just such an amount of time considering the task.

 

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.

 

 

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

In Matthew 5:28, in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”

That’s a tough statement, especially given the following advice that if a body part is causing us to sin we ought to cut it off.

But let’s take a step back and think about this on a level deeper than the surface–and the shock that goes along with it. I’m a firm believer that many times when Jesus says something that seems very condemning, what he’s doing is simply laying out for us how the world works and what the natural consequences of a thing are. For instance, when Jesus tells us that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” in Matthew 19:24, he’s not saying “God condemns rich people for being rich and no one should be.” Rather, I think, he’s saying, “The money and power that go along with wealth–and the accompanying desire to hold onto that money and power–make it very difficult to focus on what is good and true and righteous, because the love of power is seductive and addictive. Be wary that such things do not make you see the world in the wrong way, but keep focused on the way that I have told you to see the world.”

Likewise, in Matthew 5:28, while Jesus does say something that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, reminds us all of our sins, I think that his purpose is less about shaming us and more about telling us about the very nature of sin.

And that’s why this post is titled, “Is sin phenomonal or existential?” If you’ve read many of my other posts, you already know where I fall on this issue, but I’d like to develop the idea a bit more specifically.

When I ask if sin is phenomenal, what I mean to ask is whether sin is a matter of discrete and observable actions, specific behaviors violative of what is righteous. When I ask if sin is existential, I’m asking if, rather than being a matter of specific and easily-identifiable behaviors, sin is a condition or state of being.

The real answer, of course, is that it’s both of these things at once. What the question(s) really seek to answer is whether it is particular actions that lead to a particular state of sin or whether particular actions are the result of a state of being. Again, the best argument is likely that there’s a dialectic between these two things–bad acts make it easier to choose bad acts in the future, deepening a state of sinfulness, but without some existentially sinful condition, there would never be any sinful action, so the influence of one on the other must be mutually reinforcing. So, what should we focus on as primary when dealing with and discussing sin–actions or a state of being.

In Matthew 5:28, Jesus appears to be arguing against the legalism of the Old Testament law (here making specific allusion to the Ten Commandments) and instead showing us that sinfulness is a matter of mindset, perspective (compared to the objective, I mean to intimate no relativistic thought here), paradigm.

There are two quotations I prefer (and have used on the blog before) to encapsulate this idea, which is central and fundamental to existential thought. Having been a professional student and scholar of the Renaissance and early modern periods, both quotations are derived from that most elevated and rarified literary era.

First, some John Milton, from Book I of Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Second, Shakespeare: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Following existential thought in general, and Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) in particular, we argue that humans, as a matter of course and necessity, make meaning in the world. We do this by relating things to one another in their existential aspects and phenomena, creating those relationships through storytelling. The “secular” existentialists see this as the fundamental cause of “existential angst”–we fail to detect any inherent and objective meaning in the things which we observe and with which we interact. But the Christian existentialist takes this farther, first positing that there is ultimate and objective meaning that comes from God, though we may detect such only through divine revelation; and, second, marvelling at the great opportunity, pleasure, power and responsibility we have been given in co-creating with God by establishing meaning through our own narratives, big and small. This process, as a fundamental aspect of man’s existence, is clear from the beginning of Creation–is not Adam creating meaning and relationships by naming the creatures of the Earth?

Upon recognition of this divinely-granted human power, we must immediately recognize the source of sin–the creation of meanings and relationships that are not in line with God’s plan and intentions. Put bluntly, seeing and thinking about the world in the wrong way.

And this is what Jesus warns about in Matthew 5:28–it’s not sin only when you take action to commit adultery; if you have created a mental concept of existence that sees women merely as objects of your lust, that permits infidelity and betrayal for the most fleeting of passions, you’re doing it wrong and you’re already in a state of sinfulness. It’s not enough to refrain from the comission of the action; you must change the way you think about and see the world and how all the things in it relate to one another.

When we compare this concept to other moral teachings of Jesus, we find great support for it. Jesus usually seems to be less concerned about specific actions and more concerned with the ideologies, social structures, theologies and existential states that lead to those actions: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” When we think about sin existentially, sin becomes about relationships, results and intents, not arbitrary restrictions. This comports perfectly with the Greatest Commandments.

Just as the plain language of Jesus’s words make clear, this is a higher standard of morality than avoiding the consummation of unrighteous intents; it is war on unrighteous intent itself. And it makes perfect sense; if you fall into the trap of lusting after people in your mind, that objectification likely affects more than just the questions of adultery and fidelity. In many ways, such thought is about a reduction of the humanity of a person into a personification of of desire and temptation, an indulgence of the self by the self that only needs the other person as a tool of that self-indulgence. Once we’ve stripped such a person of their humanity, however small a slice we may cut away at a time, we will treat them differently, and not in a better way, though the injury to the person may be so subtle as to go generally unnoticed without deep introspection or close observation.

But to focus on just how fallen the idea that sin is existential and caused by our own ordering of our idea of Creation makes us is to miss the point. The strong implication, as Milton shows us, is that just as unrighteous narrative and mental/idealist/idealogical relationships make us sinful, righteous ones bring us closer to God. Every time we shift our conception of the world closer to God’s intention for those relationships as demonstrated in Jesus, we are both personally participating in the Kingdom of God and, as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, working to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth.

In simpler terms, Jesus is implicating here that we create our own reality. Again, not in some relativistic way, because God’s intention for Creation establishes objective truth, but in the way we personally interact with the world and believe it to be. We have been given an astounding power of sub-creation inherent to our free will, but we are also called to use that power to seek righteousness, to become, as Jesus later calls us to become in the Sermon on the Mount: Perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

The scope of the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of warnings and prohibitions; it is a call to participate in the infinite joy of existence as a child of God by seeking to create the kinds of narratives and mental conceptions that God would have us create.