Brief Outline of My Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about Homosexuality in an Unchanging Gospel – An Epistemological Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The End of Violence, Part IV: An Argument

As promised, I’m going to humbly offer here my own views as to the appropriate relationship between the Christian and violence. The best way to begin, I think, is to start with a few statements based upon the previous posts in this series (or from scripture not discussed) and which all readers could (I hope) agree upon. Following these statements are some questions raised by the previous analysis that represent issues that must be resolved.

First: When it has a chance of success, a non-violent approach is morally superior to a violent approach.

Second: Jesus never explicitly commands his followers not to do violence.

Third: Jesus wants us to love even our enemies.

Q: If some violence is acceptable, when and how much?

 Q: Does loving our enemies (or our friends, for that matter) necessarily mean punishing those who commit injustice?

Q: How do we resolve the tension that results when we are called to love both those who would do harm and those they target as victims?

The three statements and three questions give us a good foundation to build upon before we delve into the gray area. Here’s how we begin:

Precept 1: The Christian should, to the extent possible, avoid using violence.

Violence solves problems, yes, but it typically creates more problems than it solves. Thus, Matthew 26:52, “They who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

As a student of Renaissance history, I often think of the Wars of the Roses or the vendettas fought amongst the Italian nobility during the Quattrocento. One act of violence creates a need to “get justice” or “get even” or “punish wrongdoers.” We are left with a century of bloody conflicts, each subsequent engagement arising out of those fought before it. I’m not sure that any other century is different.

Machiavelli, writing about that time, offers the pragmatic advice in The Prince that, when one moves against one’s enemies, one ought to destroy every remnant, every vestige of the enemy and his friends and relations so that none is left to seek reprisal. In the struggle for power, as was the status quo in Machiavelli’s Italy, this is sound advice. But it also reflects the extremity to which violence must be used to prevent further violence.

We ought to realize that violence, even if used for just purposes, is a result of the fallenness of humanity. Were everyone to love his neighbor as himself, there would be no need for violence. Thus, while an individual act of violence may not be a particular sin, the use of violence is always the participation in the corporate sin of humanity. Because of this, it must be used only as a last resort and should be employed only with a since of sorrow that a better outcome could not be achieved.

Precept 2: Violence should only be used to prevent or stop violent injustice against a person, not after the fact. The need for violence must be immediate.

If there’s time to think of alternative solutions, there’s time to seek a non-violent resolution to a problem. On the other hand, if immediate action is required, however, the time for seeking de-escalation of the conflict has been lost. This precept helps us to comply with Precept 1.

Let’s also think of the collateral consequences here. One of the questions posed above was how we can balance loving victims and wrongdoers. When immediate action is not necessary, we can attempt to work on loving solutions for both parties. Yes, this may be punishment for a wrongdoer, but I leave that an open question for another series of posts. When immediate action is necessary to preserve life and limb, it seems just to intervene against the wrongdoer to protect the innocent. Not our first choice given the requirement to love even our enemies, but the choice to do something non-violent has been taken from us when immediate responsive violence becomes necessary.

This also means that we do not use violence to punish wrongdoers when there is no immediate threat. Violent punishment has largely been shown to be ineffective at deterring future offense (look at 18th Century England, where the death penalty was handed out like it was about to be outlawed). More important, punishment is more about the punisher and not the punishee. When we seek violent retribution for wrongs done to us or others, we are willingly participating in the fallenness that perpetuates violence in the world. “Vengeance is mine…sayeth the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19). Violence inflicted as punishment cannot restore to wholeness the party injured by a crime. Because only God is truly just, we ought to leave the meting out of retributive punishment to God. I’m not saying we should never punish wrongdoers; however, violently punishing them is nothing but retribution.

This also means that violence should not be employed to protect property—only people. I’d like to avoid (for now) debates about Jesus’ views on personal property and ownership. Without going into that, I think that we can agree that Jesus’ teachings and life made clear that he valued human life over any property rights he believes in (whatever those may be).

In Texas, where I live, the law explicitly allows justified use of force for the protection of property in specific circumstances. But the law and morality should not be confused—they are separate entities with separate goals and concerns, only sometimes aligned.

Precept 3: Only the necessary amount of violence ought to be used.

To the extent that we can avoid doing more harm than necessary, we should. This is an aspect of loving our enemies. Deadly force ought not to be used if less-than-deadly force could reasonably suffice. The amount of violence we use ought to be scaled to the injustice or violence we seek to prevent. This, perhaps, is what we should take away from Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek—violence is not the answer to offense, even if violent, that does not really threaten life or limb.

I need to hedge and be absolutely clear that, while a solid precept from a philosophical/theological standpoint, strict adherence to this precept is extremely difficult in practice. When we apply force—especially deadly force—against another person, we have little surety in the ultimate results of the force. There’s plenty of second-guessing to be done in the aftermath of a violent engagement (Would fewer shots fired have been sufficient? Could I have done something differently to stop the attacker and injure him less?), but split-second decisions must be made in a fight and survival is on the line, so the objectively best choices may not be made in the moment.

I recently heard someone say, “if the bad guy is worth shooting once, he’s worth shooting five times.” This is tactically correct—while the human body is a frail thing and a single wound from a firearm may kill a person in a relatively short amount of time, the body is also highly resistant over the short term and a single shot from a weapon the likes of which a civilian would be wielding is unlikely to immediately physically stop the attacker (though it might psychologically). Since the goal of morally-applied violence is to stop the attacker as soon as possible, a high amount of force quickly applied may be necessary, making it less likely that the attacker will survive.

As another complicating factor, applying a lesser degree of force is often accompanied by a greater degree of risk of injury to ourselves. Having studied techniques of unarmed combat, I know (technically) how to defend and disarm someone with a knife. But the same training has made clear that, when fighting a person with a knife, you will get cut, and even expert fighters (which I do not claim to be) can be killed in a knife-fight because of bad luck. If knives come out and I have reasonable tactical distance from the threat, I’d rather be behind a gun. I’m not a big guy by any means, and there are plenty of people in this world with whom I’d prefer not to go toe-to-toe unless forced and, if I’ve decided that violence is morally justified, I’m going to fight to win. A disparity in force with my opponent means the stakes of the violence may be raised higher than I would have voluntarily raised them and I must respond in kind.

Where we can, though, we ought to mitigate the results of our violence to the extent possible. After the threat is over, we ought to provide all the medical attention we can to the injured parties—including and perhaps especially any wounded attacker(s). Again, this is a matter of loving our neighbors.

Precept 4: A Christian who is prepared to do violence must make efforts in the world to prevent the necessity of violence.

If, as I do, you stand willing to do violence to other human beings to protect the innocent, you must recognize some responsibility for participation in culture and human nature that permits violence. Recognizing that, you ought to make efforts to proactively prevent the causes of violence where possible.

By this, I mean actively trying to make the world a better place. Of course, the Christian is called to this anyhow; we are called to show mercy and love justice, so we ought to (non-violently) pursue justice for the oppressed where we can, and we ought to focus on giving wrongdoers the chance to atone and reintegrate into society rather than focusing on punishing them.

This means showing kindness and respect to others—especially those with who you disagree, helping the poor to escape poverty, helping to improve unjust systems and institutions, and showing the love of Christ to our neighbors.

The person willing to do violence ought not to be quick of temper and ought to be ready to forgive offenses—otherwise our readiness to do violence turns to definitely destructive and sinful ends. We ought to hope that we never have to do violence to another person, even if we devote time, talent and money to preparing for the possibility. We must recognize that the proper response to violence is not always more violence.

If we are prepared to do violence, we Christians must be more prepared to refrain from doing violence.

Conclusion

I’d like to summarize my argument thus: We ought to view violence itself as an evil, but one that may be occasionally be used to prevent greater evil. While Christ does not explicitly command us not to do violence, it is clear that love ought to prevail wherever it can. Violence should be employed only reluctantly and with sorrow for the alternative resolutions that have been lost, even if they have been lost through the will of someone other than ourselves. Most of all, we ought to do everything that we can to prevent violence, both in our immediate situation and in the world at large.

I think I probably have one more post on this topic to do, to clean up a few loose ends and address a few things that I realize I’ve left out (what about the Ten Commandments!). More to come.

 

 

 

The End of Violence, Part III: Re-examining Jesus and Violence

To be fair, there are several arguments (other than the one about the swords) given for the position that Jesus advocated for non-violence where possible but never took the position that violence was categorically impermissible.

An article on RealClearReligion.com by Jeffrey Mann organizes some of these arguments, so I’m going to make reference to it (from April 30th, 2014, available at: http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/04/30/the_myth_of_a_non-violent_jesus.html).

Mann makes a few good arguments, I think. In the original Greek, the word used in Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek refers to an open-handed strike—an act of humiliation rather than of serious threat. For Mann, the statement does not preclude a permission to defend oneself. Mann also argues that the example of Jesus going to his death without fighting against it should not be viewed as the example for all people in all scenarios.

I want to agree with the second argument, but I have to acknowledge that we get into tricky territory when we start to say “follow Jesus in this, but not in this.” That difficulty, however, is not sufficient to say that the argument itself is incorrect.

Mann also brings up the point that, when we’re talking about the use of violence to protect others, there is a natural tension between loving the person against whom we might use violence and loving those who we seek to protect. I want to acknowledge that, but I want to argue against his statement (drawn from C.S. Lewis) that failing to punish criminals is a failure to love our neighbors. Punishment occurs when there is no immediate threat; that is a very different thing than using violence to stop an immediate danger to life and limb. I’ll talk about my views on justice in the legal system in other posts, but suffice to say for now that I believe that our punishment of criminals is more about us than them, and I stand against the death penalty as a punishment.

Mann asks the question, “Should we simply forgive them [our enemies] when they do awful things? This clearly cannot be what Jesus intended.” And yet, Jesus forgives those who persecute and kill him. I think that Jesus would have us attempt to love both victim and offender—to help restore the victim to wholeness (to the extent that we can) and help the offender to not offend again. We are called, ultimately, not to judgment but to healing. Unfortunately, people do not always give us the option to help them and sometimes wholeheartedly resist our attempts to love them.

There is also the passage in which Jesus takes a whip to the moneylenders in the temple. (John 2:15). It’s hard to call that a non-violent event; it’s even premeditated considering that we’re told that Jesus fashions the whip himself. On the other hand, the other Gospels make no mention of a whip in the same event, the word for “drove” is the same root as when Jesus “drives” demons out of the possessed and, after all, John is the most metaphorical and least literal of the Gospels.

Origen, the only church father to have commented on this passage in the first three centuries of the Church, reads it in purely a spiritual rather than a literal light. And, nowhere is it stated that Jesus even swings the whip at people, much less that he strikes anyone. For a great commentary on John 2:15, see “Jesus, the Whip, and Justifying Violence” by Nathan W. O-Halloran, SJ on The Jesuit Post blog on Patheos.com (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thejesuitpost/2015/03/jesus-the-whip-and-justifying-violence/).

Where I strongly disagree with Mann is in his use of the Old Testament scriptures as an argument for the permissibility of violence. I’m sure, dear Reader, that you have read my posts on Ambiguity in Scripture and therefore already know my thoughts on this matter. I just don’t think that God did authorize the slaughtering of innocents for the benefit of Israel. I have less trouble with the idea of defensive actions fought by the Isrealites, but the question of whether such behavior is acceptable under Jesus’ New Covenant stands.

Before I leave Mr. Mann aside, I do want to accentuate his excellent point about the theological danger of heaping judgment upon professional or volunteer soldiers if one believes that Jesus would never tolerate any violence under any circumstance. Jesus also told us that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Soldiers end up in often horrifying circumstances not of their own choosing, being asked to give all to do things that others won’t do so that those same others don’t have to.

The soldiers I know, especially those who have seen combat, do not want to kill people but are willing to do so to perform their duty and to protect their brothers and sisters in arms. They have a tremendous respect for the enemy who faces them in open combat. They have a conviction of belief that makes them ready to shed blood for what they hold dear. That is a powerful thing, and to be respected.

On a different note, let us also not forget that Jesus also has hard—and sometimes downright terrifying—statements as well. He tells us that he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). His pronouncements about the fate of the wicked often seem to be uncompromising, and he is unafraid to speak of the way that the world will hate those who follow him. Some of this is likely intended to be metaphorical, to be sure, but we cannot simply write off the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus.

Maybe I’m simply not capable of unambiguously dealing with an issue of importance. Or maybe it’s that every issue of importance remains ambiguous to some degree or another. Either way, we again end up with great ambiguity with the question of violence.

In the last (probably) post in this short series, I’ll try to offer a nuanced and workable approach that, I hope, seeks to follow Jesus intentionally and to the fullest extent possible while also accounting for the exigencies and realities of a fallen world.

The End of Violence, Part II: Jesus and Just War

Jesus is pretty clear about violence, it seems. We are to “turn the other cheek” to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” and to “love our neighbors.”

The “sheepdog” community (those tactically-trained civilians who see it as their duty to protect the unarmed masses from threats—we’ll talk more about this later) often likes to refer to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells the disciples, “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one…” as justification for the carrying of weapons and use of defensive force. This, I think, takes the comment out of context. Just two lines later (Luke 22:38), the disciples bring Jesus two swords and he says “that is enough.” Something non-literal, something symbolic is taking place here.

Some theologians point to the passage as Jesus ensuring that a prophecy is fulfilled, without any real intention that the disciples take up arms. Indeed, Jesus has up to this point defied the expectations of those awaiting the Messiah and avoided leading an armed rebellion against Roman overlords.

The authors of the New Bible Commentary: Revised Third Edition go even further, comparing the statement with previous times Jesus has sent the disciples out with nothing—especially not swords—and they had been provided for without fail. The statement “That is enough,” is Jesus ending a conversation the disciples have failed to understand rather than commenting on the number of swords he has been brought.

This jibes well with the events in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting the ear off of one of the men who comes to arrest Jesus, healing the man and warning that “they who take the sword shall perish by the sword”—violence begets violence (Matthew 26:52).

The entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry makes clear that Jesus would have us love, and that his conception of love does not brook violence, right?

I think that we can definitely say that Jesus tells us (and experience bears this out) that violence is never a good solution to a problem. But does that mean that the Christian should never use violence as a last resort?

An example of the other side of the coin can be found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where the main character’s civics teacher, a military veteran himself, retorts to a student who complains that “violence never solves anything” to “tell that to the Carthaginians!” (During the Punic Wars the Romans completely devastated the Carthaginians so that they could never again be a competing world power against the Republic.)

It is true; violence does solve problems. A person you’ve beaten into submission or killed is no longer someone you have to argue with (at least not directly). But that doesn’t mean that violence is ever a good solution. Still, the exchange in Starship Troopers does, I think, lay bare the purpose of violence—to end a conflict that cannot be ended through peace, agreement and reason. Let’s explore whether that end can ever be legitimate in light of Jesus’ example.

I’d like to talk about Just War Theory or Doctrine. Just War Theory (within Christianity) has two primary concerns: when it is just to go to war (or to use violence) and how war must be ethically conducted (how violence may permissibly be used). In essence, this is the same inquiry I’m making in these posts, but I’d like to point out some places where I disagree with the commonly propounded aspects of the doctrine.

Both Augustine and Aquinas believed that war could only be justified by a proper governmental institution. To them, this was a safeguard that the aim of a war complied with the greater good of the people. Unfortunately, I think there is a greater tendency for violence authorized by the state to be unjust than to be just. In many cases, the desire for the highest degree of national security and the desire to act ethically are diametrically opposed. To make the state the arbiter of when war is just or not implies that the actor contributes to the righteousness of the thing at least as much as intention.

I also disagree with doctrines of Just War that assert that the punishment of a guilty party is sufficient cause for war (see below) or that a preventative war might be permissible as just. One of the conclusions that I’ll ultimately arrive at is that violence must be used only to prevent an immediate threat. A peremptory strike may obviate the possibility of attempts at peaceful resolutions.

Regarding the conduct of war, experience shows that no war is just in its conduct. Even in the best of circumstances and the noblest of intents, there is death, suffering, exploitation, humiliation, fear and a whole host of other undesirable ripple effects. These are things that may be necessary, but should never be called just. Can war be conducted ethically? Yes, particularly on the individual level. In the greater scheme of things, I’m not so sure.

On the subject of justice, my reading of history seems to indicate that most wars simply set things up for the reasoning of the next war. Consider the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the first World War and the second, with the Treaty of Versailles placing Germany in such a position as to allow the rise of one like Hitler. Shouldn’t a just war result in lasting peace? I’m not sure that there’s ever been such a thing.

That said, I don’t want to say that wars are never necessary or that they never accomplish some good. Certainly, Hitler and the Third Reich needed to be stopped because greater suffering would have resulted from their victory than from fighting them, steep as the cost was. Even less do I want to say that soldiers are evil, or even necessarily wrong, in the professional practice of violence. I hope that this will become clear as these posts continue.

So, point and counterpoint—Jesus tells us to avoid violence, but World War II gives us a seeming example of when violence proved necessary. And here’s the crux of this whole issue: we Christians want (or at least ought to want) to love as fully and deeply as Jesus did and to avoid violence, but sometimes violence seems like the best of alternatives. How do we resolve that discrepancy?

The End of Violence, Part I: Introduction

This Saturday, I’m going to a combined defensive pistol and defensive carbine class. It’s not my first tactical shooting class, and I’ve in the past been an NRA Pistol Instructor and a Texas Concealed Handgun Instructor. Regardless, the occasion seems a good one on which to share some of my thoughts about violence given my Christian faith.

This is not an easy subject and, while I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying various martial arts—krav maga, karate, sport fencing, historical European martial arts (swordplay, knife/dagger fighting and wrestling, mostly) and shooting—I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a real fight. As such, I simply don’t have access to the experience of either the event itself or the psychological aftermath. I invite those with such experience to comment on this series; I’m going to attempt to restrict myself to the abstract and philosophical side of things.

As a person of staunchly moderate political leanings and progressive theological positions, I’ve had the rare opportunity to be considered both conservative and liberal. Coming from one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. and being a theatre person with friends holding a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities, moving to College Station put me solidly in the liberal minority, at least among the studentry (I nevertheless had no problem finding likeminded people—Texas A&M is a big school, after all). Then, going to Austin for graduate school, I suddenly found myself to be considered a conservative by my peers.

When many of my fellow students of medieval and renaissance literature discovered that I had a license to carry a concealed handgun, they suddenly had this idea that I had fashioned myself a vigilante; that I wanted to live in the Old West and have a shootout at high-noon; that I had naively decided that combat would be fun (or evilly decided that hurting other people could be enjoyable). When I explained myself, however, I often found them surprised.

I told them that I preferred to carry—legally, and not all of the time (campus carry was illegal back then, of course)— a firearm that I had trained seriously with because that way I knew that I would walk away from a violent confrontation (or, I at least had a good chance of doing so) and that I could try every non-violent dispute resolution technique I could think of rather than responding out of fear. Indeed, as a Resident Advisor at Texas A&M I had been trained in conflict de-escalation, and Texas requires similar training as part of the concealed handgun license coursework. I am convinced that there is no more valuable skill that a person may learn—whosoever they may be—than how to communicate peaceably, respectfully, empathetically and constructively with others, even if that results only in an agreement to disagree. In the broader scheme, more training in the world in how to relate and talk to people with competing interests would save more lives than all the firearms training in the world.

That was certainly my experience the only time I ever came even remotely close to drawing my weapon when carrying it. This was, conveniently, in Austin. K and I were living in an apartment on the southwest side in a suburban area well away from campus. Nevertheless, at about 2:30 in the morning one night, some undergrads in the next building over were blaring music, drinking heavily, and throwing beer bottles into the parking lot from their third floor balcony.

Admittedly, I am a very grumpy person when disturbed from my slumber. I got up, put some clothes on, and holstered my pistol in concealed holster just in case. The first move was mine, and I immediately made a mistake: upon getting close to their building I yelled up at them to turn the music down, using no expletives but not in the friendliest of voices. Immediately, three men, all very inebriated, ran down the stairs to confront me. I stood my ground but tried to backtrack, apologizing for yelling and explaining that I wanted to come ask them to turn the music down and stop throwing beer bottles rather than just calling the police.

They responded with threats. I kept my hands up and palms toward them in a non-threatening manner (also because it happened to be a good defensive position, just in case), but I also made clear that I was not intimidated. I repeated my request matter-of-factly, despite their threats at my mention of the police (they were happy to remind me that they outnumbered me, despite the fact that they were all practically falling over on their own and any collaboration between them was certainly out of the question). In the end, it became clear, perhaps as it should have been from the beginning, that I could not reason with them. I cautiously removed myself from the situation, returned to my apartment and called the police. The next day, I reported the confrontation (although not my possession of a firearm, which was immaterial as it was never produced) to the apartment management. The offending tenants were evicted for threatening fellow residents—a clear violation of the Texas Apartment Association form lease.

I’d like to think that, despite my rough start, the confrontation went about as well as I could have hoped for—I walked away unscathed and without the regret and what-ifs what would have attached if I had injured someone else—justifiably or not.

But the point of this post is not to talk about me (although I hope the long introduction has provided some background to my own biases and experience). Let’s talk about weapons, violence and Christianity. We’ll start in the next post.

Skepticism in Faith, Part I: Epistemological Skepticism

I’ve said before, and will likely say many times again, I believe that a skeptical approach is essential to true faith, as it causes us to test ourselves and our beliefs. In this series of indeterminate length, I want to look at a few types of skepticism and why they are helpful to us. We start with epistemological skepticism.

If you haven’t studied formal philosophy (and why would you; you want to have a job, right?), epistemological skepticism is a pretentious way to say doubt (skepticism) about human knowledge (the study of which is called epistemology). I am of the opinion that is highly unlikely (perhaps impossible given the limits of our understanding) that humans have perfect knowledge of any aspect of reality.

Let me borrow an example from eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume. Let’s say you have a billiards table and balls on the table. When you shoot pool, you rely on the expectation that the angle and speed at which the cue ball hits your target ball will determine the direction and speed of that target; this is simply vector physics.

But think about that exchange for a minute. Why do you believe that hitting the target ball with the cue ball—or hitting the cue ball with the pool cue for that matter—will result in the struck object moving? Because every time you have done it before, that’s how it’s worked. In fact, every time you’ve applied force to any object in the physical world, it has reacted in relation to the intensity and direction of that force.

Now ask yourself whether that experience proves the relevant laws of physics. If your answer is “yes,” you’re unfortunately wrong. What you have is a one-hundred percent correlation between the cue ball striking the target ball and the target ball moving in a specific way. Correlation is not causation. You cannot prove that the balls might not do something different the next time they are struck, or that it is steady coincidence that they have moved in the way that they have.

Now, on the one hand, this is an argument ad absurdum.[1] You “know” that that’s how physics works, you’ve relied on that your whole life and regardless of what I say here, you’re going to continue to rely on that. You should; it would impossible to live a reasonable life without relying on that expectation.

On the other hand, it does pose some important questions: how do we know what we know? Do we know what we think we know? In short, the causalities that we rely on are really high levels of correlation that strongly imply but do not prove causality. This is just one example, and epistemological skepticism as a whole is doubt about our ability to accurate understand reality for what actually is.

Epistemological skepticism keeps us humble—it reminds us that we may only have good approximations of answers and not answers themselves. Such a thought requires us always to revisit our ideas to determine if they may be improved, if we may edge just a little closer to actual reality, understanding that we remain ever within a cloud of uncertainty around the actual point of truth.

If we humans through our own efforts can never know exact truth, do we have any access to capital “T” Truth? God’s omniscience understands all things as they actually are and God’s omniscience allows God to reveal that Truth to us according to divine will. Hence scriptures that tell us God’s understanding surpasses human understanding as the stars are far above the earth and that God’s wisdom makes fools of the (human) wise. We have, in modern society, lost much of the mystical and intuitive practice of the Christian faith.

On the flipside of this, skepticism about the quality of our knowledge also helps us discern what might be a revelation from God and what might be us fooling ourselves, or engaging in wish fulfillment, or trying to cover our own desires with God’s permissions.

More important, this kind of skepticism makes manifest the importance of where we put our faith and belief. If there’s little or nothing that we can be absolutely sure of, what statements of truth do you believe so fervently as to call them Truth and live as if they are absolutely true?

Such questions, I hope, make it clear why the Bible warns us not to judge others—can we really be so sure that our judgments are right? If this skepticism leads us to try to live in peace with one another despite our differences, it is priceless.

 


[1] Admittedly, there is a circular logic to the strictest of epistemological skepticisms—if we can’t know anything, how can we know that epistemological skepticism is a valid position? Like most philosophical statements, there is a rabbit-hole to be leapt down here into a wonderland of nuance and complexity. I’ll leave it to you to investigate further if you are so inclined.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part IV

Last time, we talked about how ambiguity in the Bible prevents us from absolute certainty about theological concepts, and how this leaves us all on level ground when it comes to really following after God. I concluded by mentioning that this does not mean that we should not seek to come to what we firmly believe is the closest approximation of God’s Truth of which we are capable.

In this post, I want to talk about the method of weighing competing theological positions when we find potential evidence for both positions within scripture—or when the same passages could be interpreted in different ways. Things will be clearer, I think, if we do this by looking at really tough and large-scale “problems” in scriptural interpretation.

Let’s start by way of example. In Exodus 22:20, God says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Later, in Deuteronomy 2:34, we read, “And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women and children. We left no survivors.” In Deuteronomy 3:6: “And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon.”

In these passages (and many that surround them in the early story of the Israelites and their conquest of Canaan), we’re told that God has commanded the Israelites to murder the women and children—the non-combatant, civilian targets—of their enemies. That in and of itself is not ambiguous, but it becomes very much so when we compare it to the commands of Jesus to love our neighbor and to turn the other cheek.

What does God want from us? Is it simply that the words given to the Israelites were meant for them alone and the words of Jesus are meant for us? In other words, was this behavior okay then but not now? That answer may provide some moral guidance for us, but it leaves unresolved some very troubling questions about the nature of God.

Adam Hamilton does an excellent job of looking at this issue (and a great number of others) in his book Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.

I favor the approach of German theologian Karl Barth. His systematic theology is daunting even to the most educated theologian (which is not me), but I’ll try to summarize the salient points for your use.

For Barth, we should not confuse the Bible and the Word of God. As the Book of John tells us, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, not the text of scripture. Though he takes a while to say it, when Barth uses the term “Word of God,” he means a personal encounter with the Christ. This sometimes occurs through the reading of the Bible (and perhaps the ability to bring one to a personal encounter with God is the greatest power of scripture) but the two are not synonymous. I have to admit that it took me a short while to wrap my brain around that (especially given Barth’s rather circumlocutious writing).

In short, what Barth is saying that its Christianity—our goal is to encounter, know and follow the living Christ, not simply to read about him. Reading scripture helps us open our hearts and minds to Jesus, but the reading is a means to an end more than an end in itself.

I’m reminded of a Magritte painting called (in English) “The Treachery of Images”. It’s a painting of a smoking pipe, under which is written “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”). And it’s not a pipe; it’s a painting of a smoking pipe. You can’t smoke with it. It tells the observer something about pipes, but it’s no substitute for the knowledge gained by the experience of the real thing. Latinate languages capture this distinction well, using separate words to denote the cold intellectual knowledge of something (saber in Spanish, savoir in French) from the more intimate knowledge of familiarity (conocer in Spanish, connaître in French). That, I think, is what Barth is telling us about the Word of God.

With Barth’s conception comes a shrewd warning that we be careful not to make an idol out of the Bible. Shocking and perhaps offensive at first, the point that we worship God and not words about God remains a powerful one.[1]

Our understanding of Jesus, as the incarnation of the living God, ought then to be a lens through which we view the rest of scripture. When we see things like the murdering of innocents in Exodus and Deuteronomy, I think it’s fair to say that that behavior does not comport with the words and life of Jesus Christ. Those passages might better be understood as words put by the writers of those books in God’s mouth that represent their own understanding of the nature and person of God rather than the objective truth.

This brings us around in a complete circle to the kind of poetic truth that speaks to our hearts. Ambiguity in scriptures requires us to lean on Jesus to understand them—to put our faith in our savior to resolve discrepancies and inconsistencies in the text of the Bible. It’s not simply that ambiguity requires us to have faith; ambiguity shows us that faith in God—as we understand God through Jesus—works and moves.

Point Four: Ambiguity in scripture leads us to rely on the person of Jesus to interpret and harmonize differing passages within the Bible and to resolve difficulties.

 

P.S. – Since we’re talking about ambiguity, I’d like to throw just one more wrench into the works. Above, I’ve argued that ambiguity in scripture pushes us to seek the Christ to resolve ambiguity, but there’s another layer to all of this. Revelation and personal relationship with Jesus—understandings which cannot be proved to anyone else—aside, the scriptures themselves provide our best view of Jesus through his words and life. God-breathed though they are, the gospels were written by human hands and likely compiled decades after the events they describe, so we ought to be cautious in thinking about them as providing a prefect picture of Jesus.

There are many resources to investigate what scholars know and believe about the origins of the gospels. Having conducted my own exploration of the issue, I’m pretty comfortable in holding the gospels as generally reliable, but I still see plenty of room for reasonable disagreement in the interpretations of the scriptures about Jesus.

So, there is perhaps this inescapable level of ambiguity that lies below all the other things we’ve discussed, ambiguity that might beg the question, “How well do we know Jesus?” For an incarnation of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and infinite God, our answer can never be “completely.” But we might always try to know him better, and that journey itself bears fruit.

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[1] Interestingly, Islam has had a similar debate for much of its history about the nature of the Quran. Is it revelation about Allah or is it part of Allah? The answer is an important one and a key part of conservative and liberal theologies in Islam. Reza Aslan gives an excellent primer on the subject (and much more about Islam) in his book, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part III

In Part II of this series of posts, we talked about how ambiguity expands the number of things that scripture can say to us in a single passage. This time, let’s talk about how ambiguity makes room for faith, theology and humility.

We have discussed a few examples of ambiguity in scripture, so I’m not going to devote time to trying to prove that scripture is often ambiguous and subject to human interpretation.

If you want more than a literary analysis to reveal Biblical ambiguities, I would suggest reading Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. As you’ll probably see in other posts, I have some significant reservations about Ehrman’s approach to the historical Jesus, but I can guarantee that you will learn something valuable if you listen to or read something he’s done. I don’t remember anything in Misquoting Jesus that my general criticism of his work extends to.

Misquoting Jesus will walk you through the many practical problems with interpreting and understanding the Bible. In the New Testament, for example, Koine Greek was written without punctuation and without spacing between words (writing media were quite expensive, after all). When we read the gospels in English (or anything other than the original Greek), all those interpretive aids of syntax and structure are at best guesses by the scholars who edit translations of the Bible. By way of example about how a mere comma can change meaning entirely, compare, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” to, “Let’s eat Grandma!” With a little research, you can find a number of passages in the New Testament—some of them the words of Jesus—about which the proper punctuation and structure remains hotly debated by Biblical scholars.

Here’s my first new point about how ambiguity in the scriptures really is a good thing: without ambiguity, there can be no faith. Faith, by definition, is a conviction of the truth of something that cannot be proved. Existentially, we could not have faith in God if we could readily prove God’s existence—God’s hiddenness from us creates room for faith. The same is true on a smaller scale within Biblical interpretation—because ambiguity allows for multiple interpretations, none of which can be unassailably shown to be correct—none can claim to have the definitive understanding of Jesus.

On the one hand, as we’ve already touched on, this allows us to see more of an infinite God through competing possible interpretations, some of which may be dismissed when weighed against other passages of the scripture, experience, tradition or reason, some of which remain simultaneously potentially valid.

For purposes of this post, I want to focus on the fact that ambiguity is the great equalizer in terms of our faith in God and our following of Jesus. Were salvation, or even an understanding of Jesus, predicated upon intellect, education or interpretive ability, we would have a de facto form of Calvinist or Augustinian election. But, as Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This includes works of interpretation, I think.

As important, we are told, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 8). If God is love, by the transitive property the converse must also be true: anyone who knows love also knows God.

One cannot know love except by experience and personal encounter with it. One cannot reason one’s way into understanding love by intellect alone. In this way, human experience itself allows (through the experience and practice of love) the ability to follow Jesus and to be sanctified.

In this way, theology ought to be viewed as an exploration of what it means to love, what it means to follow Jesus, but it is not the thing itself. Those who do not grasp complex theological concepts, whether by choice or ability, are not to be excluded from Christ’s reach. I find the egalitarianism of that concept awesome in the classical sense of the word.

As someone who derives a great amount of his identity from being an intellectual, I find this realization amazingly humbling. For all my theologizing (which, obviously, I greatly enjoy), I’m not going to enlighten someone; I’m not going to reveal some truth heretofore unknown. As an amateur theologian, all I really do is help people to find ways to think about what it means to follow God or to live in a world where God exists. I’m at best a glorified moving guy—I can help you unpack, but I can’t get you the stuff in the first place.

There’s also an important point in how we deal with theological disagreements. Because we cannot be absolutely sure of the truth of our own theology (or theologies in the collective), we ought not to be too oppositional when discussing matters of faith with others. Overconfidence in one’s theological position leads to persecution of others, turning away the unchurched and generally working against Christ’s goals for us.

Important caveats here. First, I am not saying that theology is relative. I firmly believe that there is an objective truth to reality in all things, including theological matters and the way we are supposed to think about and relate to God and each other. My thoughts are not borne from a lack of belief in objective truth, but a healthy dose of skepticism about human intellectual capacity to clearly understand that truth.

Direct human knowledge of the capital “T” Truth, I think only comes from direct revelation from God. Every other method of understanding requires approximation. I believe that direct revelation from God has occurred and continues to occur, but this doesn’t really change things for humans as a whole. One person may have a revelation from God and know the truth, but since I cannot occupy that person’s consciousness to verify the reality of claims to know the truth, I cannot rule out the possibilities of self-delusion, misinterpretation of experiences, or outright lying. Someone else’s revelation carries with it the same ambiguity as any other form of indirect revelation—like the scriptures. Unless I’m the one who directly receives the revelation, I cannot be absolutely sure of its truth. To date, I have not received any direct revelation of truth from God—nor do I expect to. Everything I have to say is interpretation and should be treated as such.

Along with this, I don’t mean to imply that the lack of direct access to the Truth makes theology worthless. Quite the contrary. We need continuous theological investigation to evaluate our theology and allow it to progress into what we think is the closest approximation of the Truth. Theology may be an asymptote that comes ever closer to infinity but never touches it.

There is still ground for theological debate, and competing theologies can be weighed against one another by the amount of support we find for them through scripture, the application of logic and conformity with experience.

And, as I’ve mentioned above, I think that there is one thing in scripture (and reality) that is completely unambiguous. We are to love God and one another. For me, that’s the only Truth I need; I can live with the ambiguity of everything that follows.

Point Three: Ambiguity in scripture shows us that we are equal in the eyes of God, regardless of interpretive or intellectual ability.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part II

In the last post in this series, we looked quite generally at ambiguity in scripture and how it draws us in to wrestle with difficult concepts of theology, metaphysics and existence in general. Today, I want to look at one passage in particular.

It’s the passage often referred to as “The Rich Young Ruler.” It appears in both all three synoptic gospels, but I’m taking the text here from Matthew 19:16-22 in the English Standard Version:

16And behold, a man came up to him [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17And he [Jesus] said to him [the rich young ruler], “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

What happens at the end of this passage? Does the young man surrender his possessions and follow Jesus? The traditional answer is, “No,” and the following statement of Jesus about rich people and camels and heaven seems to support this interpretation.

But look closer. We don’t actually know what the rich young ruler does, we only know that he goes away with sorrow. We assume that he goes away sorrowful because he is not willing to give away his wealth, but he could just as easily be going away sorrowful because he has decided to give away his wealth and is suffering the angst and upset that inevitably follows the loss of material things.

Jesus’s statement about getting into heaven being more difficult for a rich man than a camel passing through the eye of the needle doesn’t really tell us anything that gives us logical support for either interpretation. Jesus could be implying that this young man has triumphed where others may not, or that this man, like many others, will be unable to let go of worldly things, or even that we don’t yet know what the young man will do and Jesus is simply describing the difficulty of the choice he has to make.

Which is the correct answer? We don’t know, and—purposefully, I think—we cannot know. Without a definite answer, we have to consider each possibility; we cannot cast any aside.

When we acknowledge the ambiguity in this story instead of glossing it over with the traditional answer, we are given to contemplate: (1) the difficulty of surrendering worldly things to follow Jesus, (2) the inevitable sorrow that would result from choosing to give up worldly things to follow Jesus, and (3) the difficulty of being within that choice, the struggle to decide one way or the other and to be willing to live with the consequences.

One story, three points. If we were definitively told that the rich young ruler goes away because he will not do what Jesus has asked, we lose meaning in this passage rather than gaining meaning.

Ambiguity allows several points to be put forth at the same time, simultaneously multiplying the meaning to be found in a passage while providing syntactic and stylistic efficiency the communication of those multiple meanings. In other words, the Bible says more with less when ambiguity is (under the right circumstances, of course) employed, as it is throughout.

Think about why Jesus speaks in parables. Parables are analogies; analogies have slippage between the two things compared, creating ambiguity. Thus, in parables, Jesus can convey more complex meaning than by making direct and unequivocal statements. This is, in part, why we often hear people say, “Every time I reread the Bible (or a particular passage), I get something new out of it.”

Your state of mind at the time you read a passage will influence how you resolve ambiguities. Therefore, at different times in your life and under different circumstances, the scriptures will speak to you in different ways, with the most applicable ideas from a particular passage always seeming to float to the top.

This is not to say that there is relativism in what Jesus says; on the topics of greatest importance, Jesus speaks clearly—“Love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance. Even in this passage, the meaning that following Jesus is the goal is not equivocated or made ambivalent. The Bible uses ambiguity selectively to force us to consider those things that are not ambiguous. It is clear that we are to love our neighbors, but what does it mean to love them? This is a serious theological question and, in current church issues, at the heart of the debates in various denominations about the approach to the LGBTQ community within the Christian faith.

I’ll talk a little about how I think we should approach resolving difficult ambiguities like the one above in a later post in this series. For now, I want to point something out about the ambiguity of how we love our neighbors. If Jesus meant for us to move away from the legalism of the Old Testament, such an ambiguous command is a perfect way to do it. Without detailed and clear guidance, we cannot easily say to ourselves, “I have done enough; I need do no more for my neighbors.” Instead, we must always ask ourselves, “Am I loving my neighbors? What more can I do, or what can I do differently, to love them better?” The ambiguity of how to carry out the command demands more of us than a black-and-white commandment, elevating, empowering and extending the exhortation itself.

Point 2: Ambiguity allows greater meaning in fewer words through the incorporation of alternative possible resolutions of the ambiguity.