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.

Ceci n’est pas un dieu.

One of my favorite paintings is “The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte, pictured below.

TreacheryofImages

Knowing that I’m an existentialist thinker and theologian, it should be clear why. If you do not read French or are not familiar with this painting, the text translates to, “This is not a pipe.” If your kneejerk response is, “Yes it is!” let it sink in another moment. You cannot smoke tobacco from this picture on a screen (or canvas). You cannot hold it in your hand or put it to your lips. It is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. The two are neither fungible nor synonymous. If you’re working on home repairs and someone asks you for a flathead screwdriver and you give them a picture of one from a catalog, it’s not going to be a good day.

Hence the title of this post (in English: “This is not a god.”). For many fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christians, the Bible is treated as if it is part of God–as if it is God. Or at least as if it should be treated as an absolute on par with God. Nowhere are the Scriptures proclaimed to be a part of the Trinity.

Theologian Karl Barth warned against making an idol of the Bible; this conflation of God and Scripture is exactly what he meant. I’ve often referenced in other posts his argument (with which I vehemently agree) that we ought to interpret all Scripture through the lens of the Living God, who is clearest to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is either a living thing or a dead thing. By way of reference, many legal jurists approach the United States Constitution as a “living document.” That is to say that, when the Supreme Court makes a new ruling of law based upon Constitutional language, it is “discovering” a new way in which an old text manages to relate to modern legal needs and issues. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of our Constitution–that despite its age it continues to apply to legal issues never foreseen by its drafters with relatively little change to its language over time. For instance, the Fourth Amendment continues to be applicable to searches conducted by cellphone intercepts and drone surveillance as it was to physical stops and searches in the 18th century.

So, when I say that the Bible is a living thing or a dead thing, I mean that either: (1) the Bible continues to be applicable to our lives in the present even though culture and society and the nature of human life has changed drastically from Biblical times (and partially because modern life and the long sweep of history have given us new lenses through which to understand the Bible); or, (2) the meaning of the Bible is not susceptible to any interpretation except that intended at the time it was first set to papyrus, vellum, parchment or whatever other medium was used to record the initial text (to the extent that we could ever hope to understand that original intent being so far removed from that time period).

Bear in mind that Jesus (described by John as the Living Word) tells us that “[God] is not the God of the dead but of the living” Matthew 22:32b.

I think, then, that we must view the Bible as a living text which we must interpret through the use of reason, our experiences and the revelation of God (which we would most likely interpret as the person of the Holy Spirit in such a case) acting upon us as we read. Admittedly, this is a patently Methodist approach (at least in terms of dogma), but I am sure that this idea is not restricted to merely one denomination–particularly because it seems to be so self-evidently truthful and there are so many intelligent theologians in other denominations (or perhaps none at all).

To do otherwise than to treat the Bible as a living text that must be interpreted–with the help of the Living Word of God in Jesus and the Spirit–devalues the profundity of the Scriptures and the ways in which disparate texts written over several centuries so often hang together so well (and, when they contradict, force us ultimately to the identity of Jesus for the answer). Thinking of the Bible as a dead, immutable thing, is in some sense a rejection of Paul’s claim that it is “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” 2 Timothy 3:16.

And paradoxically, thinking of the Bible as simple, literal and in need of no interpretation or evaluation inherently puts it on a level with God–the only thing in all Creation that is absolute. Though he rarely does, Jesus speaks plainly when he says that he is, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This is not prescriptive language (as it is often assumed); it is descriptive language–a statement of fact. Because, as the beginning of John tells us, all things that are (that are not God) were created through Jesus as the Logos, Jesus is inherently the truth that stands behind all Creation and its meaning and purpose.

When we say things like, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” (nearly always employed as a conversation-killer after asserting a typically unquestioning and literal interpretation of Scripture), we elevate the Bible to the status of God. Never were the two intended to be equal; we should not equate one with the other. The Bible was co-created by man and by God; God is uncreated. The Bible seeks to bring the reader into relationship with God, but it is not that relationship.

Interestingly, this same argument has been going on in Islam–although overtly and avowedly–since at least the 9th century. Without delving too deeply into the details and nuance (which I’m not qualified to do), the Sunni majority in Islam (to the extent that it’s fair to say that all of Sunni Islam is a monolithic construct–which is to say not very) believes that the Qu’ran is uncreated and co-eternal with God. On the other hand, Shia Islam (subject to the same caveat applicable to Sunni Islam) believes that the Qu’ran is created by God and thus subordinate. As mentioned above, I am sure that there is much nuance here with which I am woefully ignorant, but the allegory with Christian approaches to the Bible should be readily apparent.

To take us full circle in this post, we must remain cognizant that we do not confuse the depiction with the thing it represents or communicates. That is, we must remain aware that the Bible’s value comes primarily from its tendency to draw us into relationship with the Living God rather than its ability to simplify and define existential realities for us. Is there truth in the Bible? Very much. Is it always easy to get to? No; we must have faith in God to bridge the gap.

This is understandably a very uncomfortable thing–such a position necessarily introduces ambiguity and insecurity into our understanding of theological principles. On the one hand, the Bible does seem to be clear about the most important aspect of God: love. It is also clear that by the pursuit of sacrificial love we will come to better understand the Living God. And in that sense, our theological niceties are mere luxuries in the face of following Jesus; at best our doctrines and dogmas are explorations of what it means to love God and our neighbors.

At the same time, such an approach must necessarily create within us a sense of theological humility–an epistemological pessimism that should help us to avoid putting our theological convictions ahead of actually loving one another. When we see the Bible as God, or as equally positioned with God, we may use it to justify some extremely unloving behavior. Again, let us not confuse the appearance of faith, piety and love with the things themselves.

History and Historicity

I wrote in a recent post about some of the difficulties with issues of history and historicity in the Old Testament I’ve had in preparing for my impending journey to Israel. Having had some time to clarify my thoughts, I thought I’d share them.

First, I want to focus on an exemplum of my thoughts and then I’ll speak more generally. Let’s begin with the Bablyonian Captivity. Or, rather, a little bit before that.

In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah confronts Ahab, the monarch of the Kingdom of Israel, on Mount Carmel in a rather memorable set of contests. Really, Elijah is confronting the worship of Baal in the Kingdom of Israel here, but Ahab is culpable for allowing the Israelites to stray from the worship of Yahweh alone.

The four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are asked to pick between two bulls brought to the mountain, to cut it to pieces and to smoke if over a fire; Elijah–as Yahweh’s sole remaining prophet–will do the same with the other. Then they will each call upon their respective gods and see who “shows up.” As the Baalite priests beseech their god, they get no response. With memorable taunts (Maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be awakened? Maybe he’s traveling? Maybe he’s busy defecating?), Elijah insults Baal’s prophets until it comes time for him to beseech Yahweh. When he does, the Israelite God sends his “fire” down to earth to light the prepared wood, burn up the bull carcass and the stones, soil and water prepared around the altar. After this, the priests of Baal are slaughtered by the gathered people.

I’m not actually interested in the historicity of this particular story but in what it tells us about the culture of the time (Ahab’s existence is attested outside of the Bible and he was probably king of Israel around the middle of the 9th Century BCE). As we find in the cultures surrounding Isreal-Palestine at that time, gods were viewed to be local; they were the gods of particular cities or nations. We see this explicit in other places even in the Bible, where the Isrealite God states that “he” is the God of Israel (hence the epithet “Israelite God,” I suppose).

What’s happening between the lines in this passage in Kings is a divine turf war. Baal (which is a title that means “lord” and which is borne by several distinct deity figures and used generally to mean “a god”) is a god of the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre. If you look on a map of Biblical Israel, you’ll see that Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (on an island, actually) just a short journey north from Mount Carmel. The question being answered by Elijah’s story is, roughly put, “If Baal is the god of Tyre, and Yahweh is the god of Israel, and they’re both geographically close to one another, which has dominion in the middle ground?” Clearly the answer is Yahweh.

I mention the above passage because it sets us up for the real point about history and historicity in the Old Testament that I want to make in this post. When in the (very early) 6th Century BCE the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem and deported the Israelites to Bablyon, a crisis of faith occurred. Again, as a brief aside, this event is attested in the historical record outside of the Bible. If the Israelites were to worship the God of (the nation/land) Israel, how could they do that when they’d been transported to Babylon, the land of the Babylonian gods.

And here comes the prophet Ezekiel. In the verses that open the book that bears his name, Ezekiel tells us that he has a vision of God while among the exiled Israelites in Babylon “on the banks of the Kebar River.”

In this vision, as the Biblical historian Cynthia R. Chapman says, “God gets wheels.” Literally; Ezekiel sees God enthroned upon what I can’t help thinking of as a super-high-tech, four-likeness-of-living-creature-powered motorized wheelchair. That strange image aside, the point of the vision is that the God of Israel is mobile, that God is personally and actually present with the Israelites even in their exile. As a side note, my NIV says that Ezekiel is taken back to the “Kebar River near Tel Aviv”–this should be read as Tel Abib (in modern-day Iraq) by the Chebar River.

Hearing about the underlying spiritual-cultural concerns with regards to these (and other) Old Testament passages did much to “resolve” my problem of “historicity” in the OT (for purposes of this post, I have left aside all of the issues of the construction of the Old Testament text–whether discussion of the three hypotheses of its construction or the timing of its creation).

What I find here is something that makes much more sense to me than either extreme of the historicity debate–humans writing stories of their evolving understanding of and relationship with God. These stories are neither entirely myth nor entirely history; they are stories that draw upon historical experience (and the religious issues raised by that experience), mythological content that may or may not be based in fact (I’m not worried about the answer to that), revelation of the nature of God from God (there’s that spirit-breathed bit), and human reactions and struggles in response to that revelation.

I see this especially as the Israelite understanding of the nature of God breaks free from social precedent and evolves from polytheism to henotheism to true monotheism.

In some ways, what we have in the Old Testament is the macrocosm of Jacob’s struggle with God at Penuel–a back and forth between God and man that may defy explanation but results in relationship.

Does that make interpreting the Bible difficult? Absolutely; I don’t have an answer for you on how we best sort God’s intent from the voice of the writers from the historical record from the cultural context, etc. But I’m certainly willing to say that it’s not supposed to be easy. I can’t imagine that God would decide not to directly appear before all people in an unmistakeable way (which, to be clear, God hasn’t) and yet make Biblical interpretation something as simple as looking at words verbatim.

In the near future, I’m going to return to the Babylonian captivity and the Book of Job to talk a bit about theodicy in Christianity.

 

The God Who Chooses Us

It’s Advent, and I’ve been thinking about the Incarnation (no surprise there).  I am less concerned with the “how” of the Incarnation and more concerned with the “why.” My faith in the sovereignty of God means that I believe that God could have invented all manner of possible solutions to the problem of sin (not that we humans have intellect sufficient to speculate very effectively about what those infinite possibilities might be).

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the Incarnation tells us something about the nature, purpose and personality of God. What I find in exploring these issues is one of the most profound aspects of my faith, one I’d like to share with you.

Let’s begin with the question of God’s “passibility.” This is often defined as “the ability of God to suffer,” but this is not entirely correct. The truer definition of passibility is “the ability of God to be affected by some force or influence external to God’s self.” In plainer terms: can something make God be or feel a certain thing or do a certain thing?

The question is important because it presupposes a problem: If God is “passible” there is something in the universe that is more powerful than God because it can overcome God in some way, challenging God’s sovereignty. On the other hand, if God is “impassible” and cannot be affected by any external thing, can God feel sympathy with us? Does God “feel” anything, since feelings are responses caused (at least sometimes) by external forces?

This is perhaps the most fundamental question of theology–can God be both sovereign and good? If the answer is yes, then the basic nature of existence should be one of hope. If not, despair. All aspects of theology are influenced by the answer to this question. In theodicy, the question of evil only exists in such a troublesome state if God is both good and all-powerful. If not, we have an easy explanation for the existence of evil. The meaning of scripture, of the working out of salvation, of the Incarnation, all of these turn on this answer.

Let me propose that there actually is no problem in the question of passibility, though what the solution tells us is nothing short of amazing in its furtherance of the understanding of our God. We affirm that God is sovereign over all things and cannot be unwillingly affected by something external to God’s self. But if God cannot allow God’s self to be affected by some external factor, than God would not be sovereign, for God could not overcome God’s self. The God who cannot self determine is not impassible.

So, it does not follow that the all-powerful God is not good or cannot feel–God has chosen to be good and God has chosen to feel, to be affected by God’s Creation. To be in active and meaningful relationship with all of Creation.

The theologian Thomas Jay Oord has very convincingly argued exactly this–that God is impassible but has affirmatively chosen to suffer with us. For me, though, the realization of this came from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator…But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No; but the Lord the God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden, Satan tempted man; and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manenr through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God….”

The Incarnation and the crucifixion represent God’s choice about so many aspects of existence. Much has been written about its meaning as God’s choice to redeem humanity (I, personally, favor Karl Barth for this investigation and discussion), but I think that far too little has been put to paper (or screen as the case may be) about what the Incarnation says about God’s justice.

In the Incarnation we see God’s choice of (semi-)passibility as one of the few answers to the problem of evil that we humans can actually understand: No matter what suffering God has allowed to befall humanity, no matter why this suffering has been allowed (which we are ultimately incapable of explaining), God is so just as to not allow God’s creation to suffer anything that God will not suffer with us in the most personal and intimate of ways.

In Christ’s birth, we see God’s choice to be with us, not just physically, but existentially. How amazing is it that the God of all Creation willingly suffers with us for us. God is all-powerful; God has chosen to be good to infinite extents we cannot possibly imagine.

I invite you to keep this in your heart as we await the Christ child.

A Response to the Nashville Statement

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

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

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

My response:

Scriptural Reference

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

Preamble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demonology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Meanings of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World and the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his letters, Paul says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Genesis 3:17b.

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

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

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

[6] Matthew 6:19-24.

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

[8] John 14:17.

[9] John 14:27.

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

[11] John 15:18-25.

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

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

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

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

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

[17] 2 Corinthians 5:19.

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

[19] Romans 7:5.

[20] The Strongest Strong’s.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Citation.

[23] Citation.

[24] Citation.

[25] Citation.

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

[27] Citation.

[28] John 20:29.

[29] Citation to web address.

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

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

[32] Citation to dictionary.

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

[34] Citations.

[35] Full reference here.

[36] References.