Grace and Mercy, Justice and Accountability

For the past few weeks, I’ve both wanted to make a theological statement about the current state of the U.S. and to absolutely avoid doing that. Well, I’ve decided to go with the former approach.

As with many subjects, I’ve a lot of thoughts on a cluster of related topics, so I’ll try to to organize the thoughts in a reasonable manner.

I first want to say a few things about the role of religion—and Christianity in particular—in American politics. Unfortunately, in taking a firm stand on this topic, I fully expect that some folks will take my words as inflammatory: such is the cost of conviction, I suppose. I can only hope that the full breadth of my statements will demonstrate well-considered positions intended to make reasonable arguments about (what I believe to be) objective truth. You’ll be the judge.

The U.S. as a “Christian Nation”
First, let’s address the assertion often made by conservatives that the U.S. was “founded on Christian principles” (and thus should be run now under a—very particular—view of Christianity). This statement is, at best, a half-truth. Many of the founding fathers would not have considered themselves Christians. Our country (as an independent nation with our current form of government) was formed during the Enlightenment, when hostility to organized religion could be openly demonstrated—see Voltaire and the reactionary, anti-religious elements of the French Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson believed in Jesus as a moral teacher, but not a supernatural person. Even without resorting to C.S. Lewis’s argument that you must see Jesus as liar, madman or God, with no room in between, it’s clear that Jefferson doesn’t hold the core belief of being a Christian. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin likely would have considered himself a deist rather than a Christian, believing in the existence of a God (probably in the sense of the distant “Clockmaker God”) but not in the dogma, doctrine, theology or “mythology” of the Christian faith. These men, as some of the best-known fathers of the nation, are emblematic of the diversity of religious thought—and the acceptance of such diversity—among the framers of the constitution. Yes, the diversity was ultimately limited to Western thought, ignoring for the most part Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism and only incorporating Judaism viewed through the lens of Christianity.

We must also remember that the history of the Americas prior to the founding of the U.S. is one of a search for religious freedom on the one hand and religious conflict on the other. I’ve written a number of articles on piracy, particularly in the context of gaming, but the history of piracy is instructive here as well. Bear in mind that the time when Columbus discovered the Americas was the same time that the (newly combined) Spanish crown concluded the Reconquista and expelled the Jews from Spain. There is evidence that Jews of affluence had a hand in securing the funding of Columbus’s initial expedition to find a safe place for them to live as they relocated. Others fled to the Ottoman Empire, which was generally more tolerant of them. In the following century, the development of Protestant sects of Christianity in the German principalities and in England led to fierce, violent, and prolonged conflict over the “One True Faith”—see the Spanish Armada, the attack on Cadiz, the German Peasant’s Revolt, the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil Wars, the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries, etc. This conflict links directly with the history of piracy—in the Mediterranean, some Jews turned to privateering in service to the Ottomans to exact vengeance on European countries that had persecuted them, while in the Caribbean, the Protestant or Jewish faiths of many privateers and pirates helped justify (to them at least) their aggressions and assaults on the assets of Catholic Spain. Francis Drake’s famous expedition is emblematic of this, but consider also that many famous privateers and pirates who followed were English or Dutch protestants or French Huguenots who saw themselves as paramilitary actors in the same conflicts that were rocking Europe.

On the North American mainland, many of the early settlers were looking for a place to freely practice their faith (usually a form of Christianity, but divergent from other forms holding more political power)—the Puritans of Plymouth and Salem were too prude or fundamentalist for mainstream Anglicanism and Rhode Island was formed by those outcast for religious divergence from other settlements.

The establishment of my own Methodism as separate from the Church of England also demonstrates that religion and politics were a messy dialectic, not the influence of a monolithic Christianity on the development of new political systems. John Wesley considered himself a reformer within the Church of England, not a rebel seeking to establish a separate denomination, but, when the English government began to require clergy to swear oaths of fealty to the English Crown during the American Revolution, those Methodist preachers who refused to swear such oaths were left with few other choices.

Further, the ecclesiastic structure of the United Methodist Church follows the three-branch system of American secular government; an instance of politics influencing religion (something that has become common nowadays not in polity but in theology) rather than religion influencing politics.

If anything, the recent past had demonstrated to the founding fathers of religion and politics being too closely bound together, not the value of creating a Christian nation when so many had died fighting over what Christianity was supposed to be.

Had the intention been to establish a monolithic Christian republic, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would look very different.

Deus Vult
“Deus Vult” is Latin for “God Wills It.” It was a battle cry of the Crusades and has occasionally reared its ugly head in human history ever since.

I have a relatively easy time making the argument that Jesus had nothing to do with the Crusades. Consider the following:

(1) Jesus did not bother with a physical overthrow of the Romans. Why, a millennium later, would he sponsor European outsiders undertaking an equally bloody endeavor to take the Holy Land from Muslims? There is a sweeping argument from the Old Testament to the New moving away from the pagan belief that God is geographically bound–see especially the tearing of the veil in the Temple upon Jesus’ execution. I understand fully the power and inspiration that comes from being where God lived out God’s incarnation on Earth, but placing an overemphasis on the places and material remnants of Jesus’ life misses the greater point Jesus incarnated to make. That Jesus’ body could not be found in the tomb accomplishes more than only providing evidence of Jesus’ divinity.

(2) Ever heard the phrase, “Kill ’em all; God’ll sort ’em out?” It comes from the Albigensian Crusade, a war on heterodox believers in Southern France (in Languedoc, which literally means “the land where they speak lenga d’oc (the Occitan language). The Cathars there where heterodox to the Catholic faith, with a gnostic approach to Christianity, but political and material concerns were motivating factors just as much as religious ones (see below). In 1209, Crusader forces were besieging the city of Beziers, but they encountered a problem. The city contained both Cathars and Catholics in good standing. The Crusaders, let by Simon de Montfort, exhorted the Catholic citizens to leave the city before the Crusaders assaulted it. They refused. Now, I’d like to believe that the Catholics did so in true Christian spirit–to protect others from violence by hopefully making the moral cost of an assault too high for the besiegers. But, I’m also a realist, and it’s equally likely that, knowing what happens when a city is sacked, the Catholics were trying to protect their own homes and property without regard for the Cathars, knowing that the invading Crusaders would make little distinction in their pillaging. Maybe some of column A, some of column B.

Regardless, the Crusaders were forced to make a choice. As the story goes, the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, cut through the conundrum by saying something like “Kill them all; God will know his own.” That’s been rehashed to the, probably more familiar, “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out.” This, I think is indicative of the problem with both the Crusades and the “Deus Vult” mentality applied to anything–even if the cause is good (and, for the Crusades and most of the other times “Deus Vult” language has been employed, the cause isn’t good either), the mindset justifies any atrocity–no matter how un-Christian–committed in pursuit of the goal.

For many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity collided to create a Deus Vult mentality, with a number of the insurrectionists carrying flags that said, literally, “Deus Vult.” In their mind, Trump’s presidency was God-ordained.

On the one hand, they came to this conclusion because Trump supported policies they believed are “Biblical.” that’s a fraught idea, and I’d much prefer to focus on ideas and policies that are “Christian” (in following the person, nature and teachings of Christ) rather than those that are “Biblical”–the Bible says a lot of things, which are contained in different types of literature, are often not intended as examples of righteousness but quite the opposite, are bounded by the human context in which they were written (even if divinely inspired), are sometimes contradictory, and must always be interpreted to be understood.

On the other hand, equally or more problematic, the people who believe that Trump represented the last, best hope of Christianity–while behaving and spearheading policies that are absolutely anti-Christian–are guilty of one of the most damning indictments of American Christianity: that we shape Jesus into our pre-existing understanding of cultural and individual values rather than conforming ourselves to the righteous values taught to us and demonstrated for us by Jesus in his incarnation. This is a fair accusation often leveled against popular American Christian theologies, particularly by Liberation theologians who can personally speak to the injustices that just such an approach has perpetrated.

Think about this: In America, if you go into a “Bible bookstore,” or even if you order online, and you’re looking for a Nativity set, what color is Jesus in the default selection. He’s usually white. Now, there is a longstanding tradition of artistic pieces that portray Jesus looking like the person who made the art (in terms of ethnicity, not specific features), and there is some reasonable theological argument for that as an indication of how Jesus connects with each of us beyond barriers like race, ethnicity or language. But when the portrayal of Jesus as white becomes part of a subtle message of “Jesus is the best, and so is being white, so of course we should should see Jesus as white,” we have a problem.

K and I are currently listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired; she makes a point that the Bible was used as justification by the abolitionists seeking to end slavery, but also by those seeking to maintain slavery. That something is “Biblical” by itself is a term that is worthless without greater context.

I am in agreement with the idea that we Americans have largely perverted the truth of Christianity to justify our baser desires, and I see this more and more in conservative politics in this country. I want to be careful here in not saying that I think one cannot be politically conservative and be a righteous Christian; nor does being liberal and calling yourself Christian make you good or righteous. But, on the whole, I see much more in leftist politics that coincides with the teaching of Jesus and much more bad behavior from conservatives that uses a skewed view of Christianity as cover for un-Christian behavior.

I also want to make a distinction here that I’ll try to develop more below: because I do not have the cognitive or moral capability to know someone else’s heart and soul, it’s important to me that my statements about the “un-Christian” are meant to be about behaviors, beliefs and ideologies, not about people. We are all fallible, we all fall short of doing all the things that would make us righteous, and I do believe in grace even for those who know what is right and fail to do it–we’re all there sometimes. As we’ll discuss below, there is a fine line to walk between grace and forgiveness on the one hand, and accountability, truth and justice on the other.

(3) Strong historical arguments have been made that the Crusades arose as much or more out of the socio-economic environment and psychological fears of the Middle Ages as any theological justification. Primary among these causes were issues of land division and ownership related to population growth. If your region practices primogeniture (all the land is inherited by the firstborn son), what do you do with all of the “noble” children who receive no inheritance but do not lack for ambition? If your region doesn’t practice primogeniture, how do you keep the land from being divided so much between so many children that no one is left owning a useful amount of land? The answer to both questions seemed to be to add more land to the equation, and the argument goes that the idea of Crusade to liberate the Holy Land (and other places in later Crusades) provided reasonable cover for what was ultimately a move to create an economic pressure valve.

Think about the mindset of the time, the fear of hell and the desire for heaven (especially when heaven was the only chance to live a better life than the squalor of a peasant) and then imagine being told that, by undertaking a Crusade, you’ll be cleansed of all sins you’ve ever committed (including those you commit on Crusade), you’ll skip the lines in Purgatory and go straight to St. Peter’s Gates. You’ve been indoctrinated to rely on the Church to tell you, de facto, religious truth and this comes directly from the Pope. How would you feel? Do those feelings, does that psychology, actually make you righteous? Does it actually justify–theologically–the things you’re likely to do–to be asked or told to do–while on Crusade?

All of this is to say two things: (1) we ought to call out those who claim it is their Christianity calling them to do un-Christian things; (2) at the same time, we must be very careful that we are constantly seeking to conform ourselves to true Christianity in our pursuit of justice, lest we start to be the ones saying “Deus Vult” as we seek to destroy that which we perceive as unrighteous, because we have become more convinced of our own righteousness than we are sincere in our desire to humbly follow the commandments God has given us.

How Should Christianity Influence American Politics?
C.S. Lewis wrote some profound–and still applicable–statements about how one’s Christianity ought to influence one’s politics. If you want to hear his comments, or if you’re becoming tired of mine, take a break and go look that up (I believe that topic is found in Mere Christianity, but it might be in God in the Dock).

Some of what I will have to say will parrot Lewis and, like him, I’m going to try to make some comments about how I believe that Christianity should influence a person’s (and particularly the American’s) approach to politics.

(1) Christianity directs the believer to be more concerned with striving for personal righteousness than fixing the immorality of others.

First, let’s acknowledge the pragmatic reality that laws don’t change morality. For example, when abortions are illegal, they become more dangerous, more shadowed, more exploitative, but not necessarily less common. For a less controversial example, see Prohibition. It came out of a well-meaning Temperance Movement intending to fight the definite societal ills caused by drunkenness and alcohol addiction. The end result was to give power to criminal organizations to supply what could not be had through legal channels but remained in high demand.

There are better means than legislation to try to make humans more righteous. Let’s think about the ways we can address systematic issues that push people toward destructive, injurious or “immoral” acts instead of focusing on codifying what is and is not categorically immoral. When Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” is this not a legal intervention? That’s something we should think on when looking at our own motivations for supporting certain kinds of laws.

(2) Christianity is about personal sacrifice for the greater good of others.

Political analysts make most of their predictions based on the ability of logical people to conduct cost/benefit analyses and to choose in favor of their own self-interest. We know that there are plenty of people who are incapable of or unwilling to understand the true costs and benefits of certain decisions, and some decisions will have costs and benefits to wide-ranging to be readily apparent.

But how would politics in our country change if the greater good of others were our focus in voting rather than the preservation of our own powers, rights, and socioeconomic status? What if we were able to step back and say, “Yes, this will cause a minor hardship for me, but it will alleviate a much greater hardship for many more people, so I’ll vote for it?” What if our politics was only about “us” instead of “us and them?”

(3) Christianity weighs the moral costs against the pragmatic benefits.

American politics has, in many senses, become a Crusade–all will be forgiven if you achieve the desired result. This has led to political gamesmanship, underhanded tactics, stonewalling, and all manner of other dishonorable approaches to “winning at any cost” that have undermined the systems that were put in place to protect our freedoms and to support a politics that uses compromise to reach results that benefit the greatest number of people possible. Both parties are guilty of this.

If we’re to be generous, neither party intended for things to go this way, but decades of tit-for-tat and “if they’re playing dirty, we have to, too, to have any chance!” without enough politicians standing up and saying “Enough!” that, by degrees we’ve dug ourselves into a hole from which there seems no escape.

We’ve got to get away from that. And a good Christian ethic can help us to do this (to be fair, the Christian ethics I refer to here are found in the moral systems of most or all all world religions of which I’m aware). We have to support the right way of doing things before we support getting our own way. To be ethical, procedure must be as important as results, or we end up where we are now–no one trusts that the procedures have been fair and so no one trusts the results. The results we speak of may differ between the parties, but the problem is the same.

Grace and Justice
In reflecting on my own personal experiences, my own passions and convictions, and then looking to the state our country is in, I see finding the balance between Grace and Justice to be the hardest line to walk of all. Thank God that ultimately, it is God who is responsible for bringing us to that perfect balance and not me.

You’ve probably seen in this post my own struggles with this issue–to look for the good and reasonable in the beliefs of those with whom I disagree while also trying to stand up for what I deeply believe is right. I am aware of no easy answers. But I also know that the struggle to strike the balance can never be abandoned.

This is at issue with my stance within the United Methodist Church. I deeply believe that the current treatment of, approach to, and status of people within the LGBTQ movement within the theology and polity of the UMC is unjust in the extreme. And yet, I also long for the maintenance of a unity within the believers and grace for a diversity of theological positions and interpretations within our church. It often feels impossible to balance both, and when I am forced to prioritize one over the other, which should I choose? Both rejecting unity and failing to stand up for those who are oppressed seem to be failures. And, in the end, unity isn’t just up to me–if there are some people (and there are many) who will refuse to allow the justice we seek, unity be damned, what can we do then? What must we do to be faithful followers of Christ?

Our country is in the same position. There are those who have peddled lies about election fraud, who have supported racist ideologies, who have voluntarily ignored the existence of injustice, who have placed themselves and their own well-being above all else. Some of those people attacked our very democracy by storming the Capitol on January 6th. And many of the politicians that instigated that behavior are now crying foul because “unity” should be the thing we seek above all else, and holding them accountable for their actions will hurt unity.

Here’s what I have to say about that, and it’s the answer to the issues of the UMC as well: There cannot be unity until there is justice. What those who demand unity without accountability want is for us to prioritize their approval and willingness to work with us over the approval of and unity with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the exploited. This same cry for “unity” is why we have made so little progress in almost two-and-a-half centuries in regards to racial equality, the disparity of wealth and equality of dignity, why we’ve allowed so much social injustice to persist.

I’ve spent a lot of this post (and it’s a doozy, I realize) arguing that our Christianity requires us to be graceful in our approach to politics in this country. But our Christianity also requires us to adhere to truth and demand that others do the same–and here I mean in facts, not in philosophical truth, Our Christianity requires us to seek justice. If we are forced to choose whether to seek unity with the disenfranchised and downtrodden or those who demand that we acknowledge their rights and superiority, I know where Jesus will be, and I will seek him there.

If we do not seek justice, to whom can we show grace? Without requiring accountability for one’s actions, the only grace we have to offer is the “cheap grace” that Bonhoeffer warns us of. Or, worse yet, what we’re giving isn’t grace; it’s appeasement.

So we have to continue to walk the line, as difficult as it is, offering grace but demanding accountability and justice. We must set an example, never resorting to violence in our demands, but always insisting peacefully. It’s not an easy road, but we can walk it together, calling ever more people to walk it with us.


Tragic Christianity and Comic Christianity

A few months back, while only posting chapters from Things Unseen on the blog, I listened to a Great Course called “Take my Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor.” It was a fascinating look at the nature and study of humor (and how much scholars are in debate over such core ideas as what makes something funny? or why do we laugh at some things and not others?) but, as many things do, it got me thinking about theology and religion.

In one of the early lectures, the professor (Dr. Steven Gimbel) describes the differences between “gelastic” and “agelastic” societies. The term “gelastic” comes from the Greek word for laughter: “gelos.” A quick dictionary search didn’t return a hit for “gelastic,” and a search of Wikipedia turned up only “gelastic seizure,” apparently a type of epileptic fit associated with sudden outbursts of energy and, often, laughter.

So I’ll (roughly) paraphrase Dr. Gimbel’s definition of a gelastic society as one that places value in humor.  To the gelastic society, the requirement of “getting” a joke that you change perspectives serves a valuable philosophical function by widening understanding and teaching one to look at an idea in multiple different ways.

By way of example, think about the following joke: “A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, pal, we don’t serve food here.” The double definition of the word “serve” reveals the conflict of perspective and meaning on which the joke turns. Not very well, perhaps.

Likewise the gelastic society values jokes and humor for their ability to speak truth to power, to critique foibles and failures both human and societal, to continually ask for the examination of ourselves and our worlds.

Conversely, the agelastic society sees jokes and humor as dangerous–often for the same reason the gelastic society values them. Agelastic societies tend to have a strict definition of truth that is not to be questioned or assailed. Thus, jokes that question truth, ask “why,” or require different perspectives are seditious and seductive, often undermining the narrow definition of what is “true” and “good” held by the agelastic society.

You probably already see the argument forming, but let’s continue anyhow.

Dr. Gimbel goes further to examine “tragic” heroes and “comic” heroes, how they differ, and what it might mean for a person or society who favors one over the other. For Gimbel–and he makes a strong case–comic heroes triumph through their wits, by finding creative solutions, maneuvering around obstacles, or creating compromise that allows for a happy ending. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, knuckle down and power straight through the resistance, accepting suffering (and often inflicting it) as the cost of doing business.

Shakespeare provides ample examples of the two types. Think of tragic Hamlet, unable to find any solution to his problems other than violence, or Macbeth, whose will to power results in the coming of Birnum Wood and Dunsinane against him, in the form of MacDuff. Think, on the other hand, of Benedick and Beatrice maneuvering against one another, and being brought to confess their love for one another through creative deceit. We can look at modern examples as well. For Gimbel, the action movie is the modern embodiment of the tragic hero. Think of any Schwarzenegger film from the 80’s or 90’s, of recent revenge heroes like the film Peppermint or the TV show Punisher. Tragic heroes use the direct route to achieve their ends–violence. Heroes in comic films continue to use deceit, imagination, and creative maneuvering to win the day; think of Knives Out as a strong example. Both the revenge films and the comic example I’ve given start with a traumatic inciting event, usually a death, but how the protagonists respond to that event determines the course of the film or show.

Ideas about tragic and comic heroes don’t map directly onto ideas about gelastic and agelastic people or societies, but there’s certainly a relationship to be had there.

We can, though, easily speak about gelastic and agelastic theologies within Christianity. I’d been thinking about this idea in terms of restrictive and expansive theologies prior to listening to Dr. Gimbel’s great course, and I think that this correlates with gelastic (expansive) and agelastic (restrictive) quite well.

I’d ask the question this way: Does your theology make the world less joyful, smaller, easier to explain, and focus on what is not permissible, or does your theology make the world bigger, more wondrous, less explicable, and focus on doing rather than avoiding? Restrictive and expansive. Agelastic and gelastic.

The Sunday School class I’ve been participating in recently asked me to teach for a few sessions on humor in the Bible, based in part on my sharing with them my idea about Reading Matthew 18:15-17 as a Joke. I was, admittedly, ill prepared to say more on the matter, so I ordered some books, digested them quickly, and put together some examples and arguments for them.

We laughed together as we read in the Old Testament sex jokes, dark humor, comic deceit, and bathroom humor, the sorts of things we’re taught not to expect from the Bible. In the New Testament, we looked at Jesus’s use of sarcasm and satire as a social tool for liberation, seeing in Jesus not a meek and helpless man but an image of the God who chooses to triumph without inflicting violence on others.

I made arguments about the use of humor in the Bible as a way for God to indicate understanding of the human condition, of being willing to roll around in the mud with us (so to speak), to be close to us in the human experience. I argued that God’s sense of humor is an indication of God’s sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and love for Creation. But perhaps the best takeaway from one of my classmates was the idea that, while reading the Bible, context matters. For instance, if you know that, in the understanding and practice of the Old Testament writers, “feet” are sometimes used as a euphemism for “genitalia,” there are a number of passages that suddenly become a bit more risque and much more comic. Note that this substitution does not apply to the New Testament writers, especially when reading about the washing of feet. That’s just feet.

Therein lies the importance of humor and a gelastic outlook to good theology. In both, context matters. The requirements to change perspectives, to view from different angles, to consider multiple meanings (not always in conflict with one another) are essential to the theological task.

And yet, conservative Christianity takes the agelastic approach. Biblical humor becomes blasphemy, as if God is so vulnerable as to be injured by words. Seriousness is holiness, and a strict and limited definition of holiness, focused more on avoidance of a checklist of no-no’s than the actual pursuit of a better, more just world in line with God’s kingdom. In the conservative branch of the faith, there is but one interpretation–theirs–which may not be questioned, may not be looked at from a different perspective, and most definitely should not be joked about. Conservative Christianity is certainly agelastic; I’d argue that it’s tragic as well.

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, is clearly gelastic. The humility that follows the admission that one’s personal theology is not the only possible theology, that one might be wrong on certain or all points, naturally includes the ability to enjoy humor, sometimes at one’s expense, but more often at the difficulty of the human condition combined with the hope of God’s promises. It is expansive, allowing one to consider multiple valuations of what is “good” and “true” and “righteous,” not in a relativistic way, but in a way that acknowledges that, even when dealing with objective Truth, context matters. Having come from a relatively conservative church background, and returning to the Christian faith with a much more progressive theology has made the world seem brighter, more hopeful, more worth fighting for. And, yes, funnier.

This is a roundabout way to argue in favor of progressive Christianity. A full argument on this tack would require much more space and time than I have here. So, I’ve settled for hitting some high points for your consideration, that you might dig deeper and see whether these ideas have some personal meaning to you in determining your own thought about your faith and theology–Christian or not. I should also say that this is not a logical argument that I’ve made–whether a theology is agelastic or gelastic does not determine whether it is true. On the other hand, “you shall know the tree by its fruit.” And I’ve often argued, and will continue to do so, that not all methods of understanding matters of faith sound in logic and cold reason. Some are matters of intuition, emotion, and experience.

Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Panentheism of the Holy Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, if this is true, then there are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Thoughts on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

My first post about the Protocol seems to have quickly become the most-read post on my blog. It received some “likes” (though they remain ambiguous to me as what they’re supposed to mean) and some clear disdain or passionate argument, both of which I elected (after an ill-advised first decision to engage) to ignore. As such, I think it’s worthwhile to more fully expand on my thoughts on the subject and to take care of a few ancillary issues that have arisen.

First, some may have some questions about who I am. I am an attorney by profession but an aspiring lay theologian and writer of speculative fiction (hence the blog). I am also a foster father with a hope to eventually adopt, which constitutes the “Fatherhood” section of the blog, of course.

It will not take much work to find my name, but I do not overtly advertise it because my wife is a clergyperson in the UMC (in which we were both raised) and my thoughts and opinions are not hers and I prefer that they not be associated with her by default for fairness’ sake.

Like my wife, I was raised in the UMC. Like many young people (but not my wife), I left the Christian church in my late teenage years because I was given an impression by conservative elements in the Church that Christianity was something that it is not: something oppressive, judgmental and that makes the world a darker place, not a better one. I remained personally and professionally (as a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance periods for a time) deeply interested in philosophy and theology.

Thankfully, that interest eventually taught me better than what I’d earlier been led to believe about Christianity. I came to realize that Christianity, as is best known through the living God expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ is in fact the best sort of revelation I could ever hope for, a revelation of a God who deeply loves us despite our flaws and who offers abundant and meaningful living now and forever. An example of what I mean by that might be found here. I even found that Wesleyan theology actually matched up with what I had come to believe through my own reading and reflection and that it was hearing theologies that were expressed as Methodist but which were not that had driven me from the Church. Even so, I (re-)became a Christian intellectually before I had an inexplicable and direct encounter with Jesus Christ while participating in a “Bible in 90 Days” program.

To be clear, while that encounter convinced me personally of the truth of Christianity, it gave me no ability to prove that truth to others, nor any special interpretive theological insight. I have no prophetic gift. I consider my spiritual gift to be teaching but believe that that is a matter of the entirely-natural strengths with which God has endowed me combined with my personality and personal inclinations. I think it’s important that I am clear in stating that, as passionately as I argue for my theological assertions, as convicted of them as I am, I make no claim to special priority or authority in making those assertions and arguments. If they don’t stand on the basis of the arguments made, they certainly don’t stand because I’m the person making them. Also, while I’m making disclaimers, if there’s any uncertainty, I do not speak with any position of authority within or on behalf of the United Methodist Church. I am a lay person within the church who has held some minor leadership roles but the thoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

As an aside, part of the reason I feel that I am called to lay theology is so that my thoughts and arguments can avoid the entanglements of being within the UMC establishment (especially as clergy) where I would have to worry about my career, my next appointment, etc.

Part of the call that I feel as theologian is my belief (from experience) that the misinterpretation and misuse of Christianity has done the most harm to the Gospel–we are, in our words, our thoughts and our actions, often our worst enemies. My passions, preferences and convictions sometimes get in the way of my compassion as well; I am not above human nature.

A summary of my theological approach can be found here. A rough chapter from a theology book that I am working on (off and on again between my other projects) may be found here. My goal is to use all of the logical tools God has given us in our effort to understand Scripture and the divine while arguing that logic and science have their (logical) limits and that the irrational (I’d prefer the term “superrational”) and mystical must necessarily have a place in faith.

I’d also like to make my biases clear to you for your review as you evaluate my thoughts. I am unabashedly progressive in my theological leanings. I reject categorically any argument that the Bible should be read literally in all circumstances. Others have more fully set out the arguments for that position than I (I particularly prefer Karl Barth’s analysis of the difference between Scripture as the word of God and Jesus as the Word of God, which I address somewhat here, here, here and here.) I believe in full inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian faith in general and the UMC in particular; I have laid out some arguments for this in the series here. I believe that those same persons should be allowed to be clergy if they have been called to be so. I vehemently disagree with the invocation of Christianity as an excuse for very un-Christian actions by our hardline conservative politicians (see here, here and here).

I have been a lay delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC for several years now and have reported my thoughts on several annual conferences on the blog. Here are some of my previous thoughts on the current human sexuality issue facing the Church (given mostly to be honest in my biases for all readers):

(1) A split of the UMC by any means other than by detailed agreement between all parties will be devastating to our witness and our missions. See here.
(2) I believe that the Church’s continued mission and relevance is best expressed in progressive theology, but that conservative theology (willing to engage honestly and in good faith with progressive theology) will always be important for accentuating certain aspects of our walk and faith, and that there should be a place for both in the UMC. See here.
(3) I believe that the One Church Plan provided the best avenue for various theologies to remain in productive fellowship with one another. See here.
(4) I believe that the Traditional Plan is, practically speaking, unenforceable and that the insistence upon it represents an unwillingness to compromise by some (not all) traditionalists within the UMC. See here.
(5) I found the actions of the hardline traditionalists at the Called General Conference in 2019 to be devastating, obstinate and infuriating. See here.
(6) I do not think it is right or proper to expel anyone from any Christian church, but especially from the UMC. See here (my first post to the blog, actually).

Okay, that’s a lot of introduction, but I feel that its necessary for me to be open and honest about my positions and thoughts, to hide nothing from readers (whether they agree with or like what I have to say or not) and to allow anyone who spends time reading my thoughts to evaluate them with their own discernment and standing in proper context. In other words, I believe that this information must be provided if I am to comply with the “Catholic Spirit” and the idea of “Holy Conferencing” as described by John Wesley. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’ve spent time investigating the links I’ve provided throughout, I am touched and honored. If you’ve already left, I won’t know the difference.

Now, a continuation of my thoughts on the Protocol as promised. I’ll try not to repeat myself overmuch from my first post. Prepare for some stream of consciousness, people.

I still wish that the UMC would not split. I think that we are honestly better together and that a diversity of theologies and interpretative positions help us come closer and closer to a true understanding of God’s will for us.

I believe, and have said repeatedly, that the human sexuality issue before the UMC is only a proxy war for a much larger conflict between conservative and progressive approaches to Biblical interpretation. That has at once made the issue much more difficult (and is the explanation I give to those who ask why we’re still fighting about human sexuality) and, simultaneously, using this issue to fight about something else is unfair in the extreme to those affected: the LGBTQ+ community.

I think that it is hypocritical of those traditionalists who have taken the stance that their position is a “matter of conscience” for which there may be no compromise or compassion for disagreement while seeking to punish clergy who have violated the UMC’s Book of Discipline (by performing same-sex weddings or being a “practicing homosexual,” for instance) as a matter of their own conscience and theological convictions.

I acknowledge and respect that there are compatibilist (meaning, willing to continue to live in fellowship with progressives and others who disagree with their own theology) traditionalists. I wish that they were louder so that they might be better heard over the hardliners.

I acknowledge that there are hardline progressives who want to push any traditionalist element out of the UMC. I find it easier to sympathize with them than with hardline traditionalists given the injustices suffered by the LGBTQ+ community, but I still heartily disagree with their position and retain my preference for inclusion–including those of conservative/traditionalist theology willing to live compatibly with those who disagree.

Nevertheless, I believe that the hardline traditionalists have left no option but for a split in the UMC–my impression of the GC 2019 was that the progressives and centrists mostly (not entirely, but mostly) plead for a way to live together and the traditionalists stated that anyone who didn’t agree with their narrow hermeneutic had no place in the Church.

I argue that the acceptance of people who are not cisgendered, who are not gender-binary, whose gender is not the same as their biological sex, who have transitioned from one biological sex to another or who love someone who is the same gender or sex as them is not a matter of “rewriting Scripture” or of “culture corrupting Christianity.” I would liken it to C.S. Lewis’ “natural law.” Lewis argued that our conscience trying to guide us one way or another is the action of the Holy Spirit within us, that some aspects of wrong and right are known through the direct and personal revelation of God without a need to reference Mosaic or Levitical law. In that sense, I think societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is the Holy Spirit telling us what is right.

Before the arguments on that front begin, I would also argue that a good interpretation of Scripture supports what society is saying about LGBTQ+ acceptance, not vice versa. I’m not going to lay out those arguments here, there are plenty of excellent places to find them (just Google or search Amazon).

If you aren’t aware, an earlier commission of the General Conference (not the Commission on the Way Forward; this was the Committee to Study Homosexuality) gave its report to the 1992 UMC General Conference and made a similar statement (admittedly expressed in the negative form against condemnation rather than a positive assertion for acceptance). The majority report stated:  “The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.” Dorothy Lowe Williams and the United Methodist Church (U.S.) Committee to Study Homosexuality, The Church Studies Homosexuality: A Study for United Methodist Groups Using the Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1994), 36.

So what do all of these statements and assertions mean with regard to the Protocol?

First, I applaud the ability of some within each of the “factions” within the argument to come together to attempt a compromise. This is an example to us all.

Simultaneously, I think that, as honest Christians, we should lament and own that the best our human nature seems to allow us to do in this situation is to split as amicably as possible. This is choosing the best among terrible scenarios. I think that we can rightly compare this to the standard Methodist outlook on divorce: Divorce is not something that God wants, but our reality in this fallen world is that sometimes divorce is preferable under the circumstances to remaining in a broken and damaging relationship. God will not condemn one who leaves an untenable marriage; neither should we.

At the same time, we need to make clear, as Christians, to the unchurched that this is a result of our inability to fully live into Christ’s example for us, a further reminder that we, too, are in need of God’s grace. That in fact, is why we are Christians, not because of some hubris that allows us to look down our nose at those who are not Christians. I think most Christians agree with that premise but we do a terrible job of owning it and communicating it to others; our perceived arrogance and judgment is a primary source of ridicule and rejection of the Christian faith. That’s not a logical argument, but if we take evangelism seriously, we must admit that sometimes perceptions of us are more important than realities.

To that end, I find myself reluctantly supporting the Protocol. To be honest, I’m growing tired of fighting. I’m seeing less and less value arguing with those who disagree with me, no matter how respectful and genial I can keep myself (which isn’t always very, I admit) and I’m beginning to think that my own efforts are better spent where they will have greater effect, cutting my losses with traditionalists who will never listen to anything that possibly diverges from their established beliefs. Part of me wants to say, “I’ll leave that to God, that’s God’s job, not mine.” But I don’t like quitting, and a church split feels like quitting, even if it is necessary.

I want to point out a few things that I very much appreciate in the Protocol, though. First and foremost, the Protocol seeks to protect the material assets (namely retirement and benefits) of all UMC clergy, regardless of whether they stay or go. I don’t think that it is grace for anyone to test the willingness and ability of another person to follow his or her conscience by increasing the cost of doing so. Removing a choice about whether to keep the benefits one has worked so hard for for so long or to sacrifice all of it for conscience’s sake represents the moral obligations to one another our faith instills within us (or should at least), no matter which “side” you’re on. I sometimes feel drawn to aggressively argue my position against traditionalists, and not always in the kindest of ways, I admit. But I can honestly say that I wish no harm upon those who disagree with me, and the Protocol represents a communal agreement to the same.

Likewise, provisions for allowing local churches to keep their possessions and property will be essential and I very much appreciate the efforts of all parties on that front. If you’ve followed the links above (or the history of the split of any other Christian denomination in the U.S.), you know well how much money and acrimony gets devoted to sorting out property rights, taking resources from the Church’s mission. As an attorney (and a real estate attorney at that), I’m fairly comfortable saying that in much property litigation it’s the attorneys who come out best. This should be avoided at (almost) all costs.

As I mentioned in my first post on the Protocol, I do feel some vindication at the Protocol’s provisions that it is an alternative traditionalist denomination that will be formed. Much of this, I admit, is an emotional (and neither rational nor beneficial) reaction to those at the 2019 GC who seemed to say that the UMC is not my church. It is, and as so many progressives have made clear after the 2019 GC, I will fight for it if forced. But it’s better for everyone if we don’t and I’d much prefer not to be driven to say or do things I might later regret.

Still, I think that the circumstances as a whole make the departure of the traditionalists the more reasonable choice. I understand that neither side wants to leave the UMC; both sides want to claim it for their own. I have some empathy for that; it’s a very human inclination. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is a right answer about who should leave. But my own (again biased) opinion is that, if it is the hardline traditionalists who refuse any compromise that allows us to live together, it seems fair that they be the ones to leave.

As I also mentioned in my first post, the Protocol is not a done deal. I imagine that it, too, like the Traditional and One Church Plans, will come to be hotly contested at the 2020 GC, that some will use Machiavellian maneuvering to attempt to stack the deck in their favor, that hopes will be dashed, that relationships will be broken and that spirits will be disheartened in what is to come. I hope that we can be better than that, we’re called to be as Christians, but experience doesn’t make me want to hold my breath.

Part of me thinks that the hardline traditionalists will never accept the Protocol and that they will attempt instead to do what they did in GC 2019–anything they can to get their way to the exclusion of all else. My greatest fear, if we’re being honest, is that they might succeed.

This fear is born out of my analysis of the flow and procedure of UMC conferences. Having gone through the transcript of the 1972 proceedings that led to the “incompatibility” language in the first place, I think that the condensed time frame and procedural confusion in the body (and leadership) of the Conference had as much to do with the change being passed as anything else. Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of circumstances in the Texas Annual Conference where scheduling and procedure seem to take on a life of their own in determining the course of decisions. Some of that may, of course, be tactical manipulation on the part of very savvy actors. More, though, is simply the difficulty of managing a large group of people, most of whom have no idea how things are supposed to proceed and little understanding of how they’re actually proceeding.

Personally, I think that we should, with great regret and reflection on our corporate failings, push for the approval of the Protocol. If this is a great divorce, then the time has come for us to stop talking about the substance of our disagreements and to start trying to be genial as we handle the administrative tasks necessary to end the relationship. I hate that that’s where I end up, but from my very mortal perception I do not see an alternative. The Spirit could always do something unexpected (though I think that perhaps the Protocol may well be that thing).

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

Even if you’re not a United Methodist, you’ve probably seen on any given major news outlet the announcement that “The United Methodist Church is set to split over gay marriage…” (The Washington Post) or something similar. If you’ve gotten more than the headlines, you may have seen that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” was released today, having been signed on December 17th, 2019.

After you’re done snickering about the irony of the title (I know I did), let’s talk first about what the Protocol is (and isn’t). The Protocol is an agreement in principal between important “players” or “Powers that Be” within the UMC that includes a proposed separation between the more conservative branch of the denomination and the more progressive one. So, this is not binding law, a definitive action, a done deal, or anything final in any respect. The Protocol will need to be turned in to legislation that can be passed at the 2020 General Conference, at which point it can start to take actual effect.

Only sixteen people signed on to the Protocol as those directly involved in the agreement, but they represent much larger groups of likeminded people from large swathes of the Church, some directly, some indirectly. Most importantly, I think that the signatories to the Protocol represent all of the major positions that need to be considered as the Church finds its way forward.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Protocol represents an actual “way forward.” Using a well-respected attorney to mediate between the gathered power blocs within the Church, the Protocol represents a plan of separation that (hopefully) avoids litigation and further dispute.

As I’ve written before, my preference would truly be a means for conservatives and progressives to continue to be in fellowship together. That said, human nature being what it is, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that that does not look feasible any more. The Protocol, then, may be our last best hope at a resolution.

Under the Protocol, a traditionalist alternative denomination will be formed. Monetary resources from the UMC will be used to initially fund the denomination (and those churches wishing to move to it by vote will keep the local church property) and all other claims to UMC resources will be waived. That’s a fair and gracious resolution, I think.

I do think that the traditionalist position contributes to injustice in our world when it comes to certain issues–LGTBQ rights and acceptance as a local example of the consequences of a judgmental and literalist interpretive hermeneutic as the global issue is Exhibit A. But I also believe that, on other issues, traditionalists do alleviate suffering, increase justice and diligently serve the Lord. Because of that, I don’t take issue with providing monetary support for an amicable (as possible) separation.

Realistically, though, as I’ve also written before, I think that the traditionalist faction that is created won’t be of lasting significance. Christianity does not have a relevance problem–ours is a faith as meaningful and far-reaching today as it ever has been. But the archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone “does the right thing” over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not a result of secular culture imposing a new and heretical view of Biblical authority; it’s a result of humanity’s maturity in its understanding of God and theology as expressed through the careful and well-meaning application of all of the tools God has given us to the interpretation of Scripture and the search for greater understanding of the nature of God as expressed in Jesus Christ.

I also (vaingloriously, I admit) feel vindicated by the fact that it is the traditionalists who will leave. In a previous post, I remarked that the Traditional Plan is untenable in the UMC: even if it narrowly passed at the Called General Conference, the resistance within elements of the UMC (I’d like to include myself in that group, though I have admittedly little influence on the actual shape of things) makes enforcement unfeasible. I feel that the Protocol acknowledges that reality. Is that a useful or edifying feeling? Of course not. But it still feels good.

Most important, though, the Protocol represents a good-faith effort by the various factions to come to an agreement as to how to move forward other than one side trying to force its praxis on the other. That is a testament to an attempt by all involved to genuinely live out their faith in Jesus; a message that our world desperately needs in a time of tribes, “us and them” (of which I’m fully guilty, I admit), and demonization of those who disagree with us.

When the Traditional Plan passed at the GC, those of us who felt dejected and rejected by that decision continued to hold out hope that the Spirit might still work something new in the UMC. I’d like to think that the Protocol is just that. It’s maybe not anyone’s first choice (which probably indicates a reasonable compromise), and it’s not exactly what anyone expected, but it may be exactly what we need.

Part of me wants to end on that note of hope, but it’s too early for that. The Protocol still needs to be turned into an actionable collection of legislation and a plan of amicable (and non-litigious) separation that garners the support of the larger UMC (or at least those who get to vote at General Conference this year). There is much work to be done.

I’ve further expanded my thoughts and provided some additional background to my perspective in a follow-up post available here.

Chasing the Spirit

This will be a short post–probably. You all are aware of my proclivity to wax verbose.

Christmastime is my favorite time of the year. Or, that’s what I think every time it rolls around, even though I tend to think that springtime is my favorite time of year every Spring. The combination of nostalgia for past Christmases, the emotional response to the meaning of the season (even if we probably celebrate it in the wrong time of the year and all of that), the chance to see and spend time with family, and the chance to put work aside for a short while and just enjoy being human for a change all hits a sweet spot in my soul. But every year, I seem to complain that I haven’t been able to “get into the Christmas spirit.” At least not fully.

This may simply be the “can’t complain, probably still will,” mentality that tends to grip me in my curmudgeonliness (at least I recognize that, I suppose), but I feel that this year, I’m at least partly to blame. Yes, this has been a busy and hectic time. K is serving her first Christmas as a commissioned pastor in a new position (she put on a wonderful children’s Christmas service yesterday!)–which means, of course, she’s working crazy hours; we’ve got the kiddos to prepare Christmas for, and then there’s all that work to do, which has been busier than usual this December. There just hasn’t been that much time for enjoying Christmas.

But there’s been some, and when there has been, I haven’t availed myself of it unless forced to. I took Hawkwood to yesterday’s children’s service because of my husbandly obligation to attend and my fatherly duty to take my three-year-old. I found the service to be moving and to be one of the most enjoyable Christmas services I’ve attended in a long while, so I was exceedingly glad to have gone. But had I not felt obligated, I probably would’ve skipped it in favor of trying to catch some aseasonal relaxation–video games, writing, working on Frostgrave and RPG projects, watching the rest of the Witcher, etc.

I’m wrestling with that. Honestly, my attendance in church is something I regularly struggle with, and that’s just writ large at Christmastime. I always am glad to have gone to a church service–it helps center me, returns me to a remembrance of what is important, reminds me of how grateful I ought to be for the many blessings I’ve received. But it’s not the place where I feel closest to God. Church music is fine, but it doesn’t fill and inspire me like it does for others. I am fascinated by the ritual and liturgy of a church service, but not particularly moved by it. The sermon is typically the part of a service I enjoy most, but it’s not what I need from church attendance. I spend plenty of time reveling in the intellectualism and mystery of theology–it’s the emotional connection and the existential, mystic experience I don’t get enough of.

There’s the crux of it, I suppose. I’m not putting the effort into really seeking that elusive Christmas feeling, but lamenting not having it all the same. Maybe you feel the same way. If so, you’re in luck–there’s still time and grace for both of us.

An Ad Hominem Homily: Luke 16:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

The Rich and the Poor

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

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

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

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

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

Truth and Seeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’s Self-Referential Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synchronicity and Application

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

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

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

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

Speaking Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I mean by “New Mysticism”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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