Christianity and Warhammer 40k

(This post is the 3rd of 17 remaining in my “200 for 200” goal. While originally intended to be included in the post reviewing Wrath and Glory, I thought it better to be separated out.)

(This post is related to the “Big Review: Wrath & Glory” post. If this topic interests you, I’d encourage you to read both posts in proximity to one another. Of course, this is not mandatory.)

Fantasy Fiction and Christianity in General

No, I’m not going to diatribe about magic and daemons and the like being anathema to Christians. If you think I was, you have not been paying attention to my writing, or this is your first post of mine to read. If it’s the latter, welcome and thanks for taking the time!

To those who say that Christianity means we can’t (or shouldn’t) enjoy Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Harry Dresden or any other fiction that deals with the supernatural in any form, my response is the following:

“Put on your big-boy or big-girl pants, grow up, and understand that fiction doesn’t necessarily endorse any of those things. Realize that you don’t have to agree with everything in a fictional setting to enjoy it or–as important–be caused to think about some idea in new and different ways. That kind of intellectual challenge is healthy and good. If you are worried about the make-believe and imaginary shattering your faith or diverting you from the “one true path,” I question the composition, sincerity and depth of that faith. I suggest you read Milton’s Areopagitica.”

TL;DR: Being a Christian should not prevent you from playing games in or enjoying the Warhammer 40k Universe. Or other fantasy fiction, for that matter.

Confessions

Okay, that aside, let me confess to you: sometimes, the 40k universe raises within me some issues that make me consider abandoning the setting, despite all the things I love about it. Here’s the crux of it: 40k confronts me with the question of whether I need the settings I enjoy to be compatible with–or at least not entirely counter to–my theological beliefs.

The same question could be given about most roleplaying games that are polytheistic, like default D&D. It’s important to note that the anxiety here is not about a threat to my soul or my salvation–I don’t think that, in the theme of the Cthulhu Mythos or 40k that reading such material is going to turn me to either heresy or insanity. But there is a feeling–and it’s just that, an emotion not linked to any logic or rationale–that sometimes makes me uncomfortable with those settings where the religious beliefs are very different from my own.

I have several potential responses to myself about this feeling:

(1) “Suck it up, buttercup.” Not everything needs to make me happy or comfortable, and the idea of religious ideas different from my own (especially fictional ones) should certainly not be one of those things I get bent out of shape about.

First, I respect real religions that are not my own and honestly believe that there is value to them and that the genuineness of those who seek after what is right and true through pathways other than Christianity are not somehow offensive to God (while maintaining that Jesus Christ represents the clearest manifestation of truth in this world, that his life and death were cosmically significant for all people, and that the full answers–as best humans can understand it–to the existential questions of who and what we are and what we are supposed to be are only found in Christ.) That being the case, why should I feel threatened by a fake religion?

Second, it’s a good thing for my faith and theology to be challenged at times; roleplaying games and reading/writing fiction are probably the safest spaces for these explorations, so that should be welcomed.

I think that, at the end of the day, this may be the best answer.

(2) “Adapt and Overcome.” Usually, with some minor tweaks, a setting can be modified to be at least not contradictory to my broad theological thoughts. Tolkien’s work and my own Avar Narn (inspired by the former, of course), seek to synthesize the greatest universal truths about Christianity with an ability to tap into the mythopoiea and narrative power of polytheistic faiths; to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is especially tempting with Warhammer 40k, partially because of my ideas about the “theology of 40k” (if you’ll permit me to call it that), partially perhaps in the same vein of Arthur Derleth “posthumously collaborating” with Lovecraft to bring the Mythos more in line with his Christianity, and partially because it’s the most comfortable thing to do.

Just like Tolkien did, there are ways to do this without losing too much fidelity to the setting–if there’s some true monotheistic god who lies behind the D&D pantheon and the “gods” are essentially powerful spiritual beings who like to meddle in mortals’ affairs (which makes sense given their pettiness and ability to be killed), what’s the harm in that? Of course, given that D&D encourages homebrew settings, this is perhaps the easiest of RPGs to worry with this in.

Nevertheless, I have several concerns with this. If there’s such a thing as “fiction imperialism,” that seems to cut a bit close to it, n’est pas? Is there something disingenous or unethical about modifying some other writers setting in this way? I honestly don’t know the answer, but the possibility gives me pause.

(3) “Shake it Off.” For most games, large scale issues of religion–except perhaps for conflicts between different faiths that tend to be more about character-building and societal conflict than a real theological argument–simply never arise. There’s just no need to focus on game on meta-discussions of the world’s theology and, to be honest, you’re probably detracting from the story if that’s where you’re spending time. So, it’s probably best understood that this issue is a weird internal idiosyncracy of my own.

But, for the sake of laying some of my thoughts painfully bare and then dissecting them, let’s continue.

There are several reasons, I believe that the Warhammer 40k universe causes me to dwell on these types of thoughts more than any other setting.

First, there’s the over-the-top, nihilistic grimdarkness of the setting as often portrayed. At their core, the thoughts I’ve been describing above are probably indicative of nothing more of than a psychological need to spend time only on settings that have some glimmer of (existential) hope to them.

Second, there’s the inherent conflict between the truth of the Emperor and the religion about him in 40k. According to the backstory (particularly in the Horus Heresy books), the Emperor is patently not a god and, while whole, actively campaigned for atheism (see Graham McNeill’s “The Last Church” short story). In particular, playing characters of the Inquisition, with their fanaticism for a religion that is known to be false (at least in meta), brings about a massive cognitive dissonance for me.

Third, at its best, the ideas of 40k regarding religion (and a number of other things) are meant to get us to question things like “what should we do (or not do) in the name of religion?” What is the difference between faith as sincere believe and religion as social institution? What are the differences (existential and social) between atheism and faith? The setting sometimes begs the question I confound myself with! (Again, see “The Last Church”).

Fourth, some of the ideas (which we’ll look at next) in the 40k universe come so close to touching on core principles of Christianity (as I understand it) before backing away that it’s too tempting for me not to consider them.

The Core (Theological) Irony of Warhammer 40k

If we view the core conflict in the Warhammer 40k as the struggle against Chaos, I cannot but help see the coincidence with Christian theology. To be fair, this conflict within 40k by design is meant to be between Order and Chaos (harkening back to Elric and all) rather than Good and Evil. Nevertheless, follow me here:

The Warp, as the source of Chaos, is responsive to the thoughts, beliefs and collective will of mortal beings. It is explicit that the state of Eldar/Aeldari society brought about the birth of the Chaos god Slaanesh and implicit that the darker impulses of mortals brought about the existence of the other Chaos gods.

If this is the case, the only way Chaos can be truly defeated is through love and compassion–if all mortal beings were to become enlightened enough to be righteous, Chaos would have nothing to feed off of and would starve to death. It is the greatest irony of the setting that (especially for the Imperium of Man) the only methods actually employed to fight Chaos: hatred, violence, rigidity and regressive social thought, are contributing to Chaos in the long run!

The belief that evil must be overcome by love and not violent opposition is a core tenant of Christianity–progressive Christianity, at least.

In this way, in its typical grimdark and sardonic approach, the basis of 40k is ironically Christian.

John Milton’s Shadow

Graham NcNeill and other writers for the Horus Heresy series have explicitly given John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an influence on the writing.

I love Milton’s writings and applaud that influence making its way into Warhammer; it’s been an influence on some of the mythopoiea of Avar Narn as well.

But we must be careful in assuming that this necessarily means a Christian influence on the Horus Heresy writing. I have lamented elsewhere that what most people–Christian or not–think about Christian ideas about the nature of hell or the devil derive not from Biblical sources but mostly from Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy. We have to keep in mind that these are poetic works well-rooted in the culture and ideas of their authors. In modern and sardonic terms, we might think of these as Bible fanfic. Yes, theological arguments are made within them. Yes, Christianity is the most significant influence upon them. But neither makes them indicative of good Christian theology.

Bear in mind that Dante choose with great particularity those people he encounters in hell–they are real figures in the history of Florence and people against whom Dante held very deep grudges. While he used these real people to give examples of what he considered to be mortal sins, his choice in using them was very much to get a dig in.

And Milton was concerned with writing an epic poem in the heroic style of the Greeks but using a more palatable subject–Christianity rather than the pagan gods and heros. (Here perhaps we go full circle to my own confessions above!) In Paradise Lost, Milton paints Satan as a sort of tragic hero–filled with hubris that causes his downfall, but also indicative of a heroic will and admirable qualities.

This directly translates to Horus Lupercal in the Horus Heresy narrative. A fitting influence perhaps, but let’s bear in mind that Milton was creating a sort of Christian mythopoeia and not quite dealing with Biblical narrative or strict theological argument.

Further, as I’ve also argued before, it seems much easier for we humans to characterize evil and damnation than righteousness and the eternal good. Perhaps that’s part of the reason (aside from its innate nihilism) that there’s so much more detail to the machinations of Chaos and so little to any spiritual or supernatural forces that could truly be called good.

The Emperor, you say? Well…

The Emperor’s an Ass

There is, for those not deeply familiar with the lore of 40k, a temptation to link the Emperor with the Christian God or with Jesus as a saviour of humankind. But this really doesn’t work.

As mentioned above, the Emperor isn’t God and is an atheist according to the “Imperial Truth.” If he is ultimately responsible for the creation of the Imperium’s bureaucracy, dogma and general approach to things, he’s neither a good person nor very bright when it comes to dealing with the long-term threat of Chaos.

He’s powerful, to be sure, mostly using that power to protect humanity by pyschically staving off the forces of Chaos, and apparently immortal, but he’s just not good in any moral or theological sense. He is victim to the same mistaken belief that Chaos can be vanquished by violence rather than righteousness. At least, this is what we can say about him as an active character–as a sort of passive force from within the Golden Throne; it might be possible to speculate that he has become morally better than he was in life (but no answers are to be found here).

Let’s also remember the uncomfortable fact that, according to the lore, 10,000 psykers must be sacrificed to the Golden Throne daily to keep it operational. We could perhaps fairly chalk this up to a very misguided plan by the Emperor’s supporters, but according to the Horus Heresy novels, the Emperor is the designer of both the original Golden Throne and the life-support system that it became. We have to face it, the Emperor’s as grimdark as they come.

The Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition

The Ecclesiarchy can most fairly be said to represent the worst about institutionalized Christianity. The Schola Progenia seem to be the worst-case scenario of stereotypical old-school Catholic institutions–schools, Magdalene asylums, etc.–where what we would now call abuse served as “encouragement” to learning and good behavior.

From the pulpits of the Imperium’s temples, priests spew rhetoric of hate, fear and paranoia. Do Christian priests and pastors do this? Of course they do, every day, and especially in mainstream Evangelical Christianity in America. But to those pastors and preachers I must say, “Christianity? I think you’re doing it wrong.”

Many authors have commented and criticized organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” (to quote Marx) or as construct of societal control above all other things (Jorge Luis Borges has at least one short story with this theme). And, in some ways, this is explicitly the purpose of the Ecclesiarchy: to use fear to control the thoughts of manking and therefore (hopefully) keep them from behaving in ways that feed into Chaos. Again, the irony of this is that such coercive force itself plays right into the hand of Chaos.

The Inquisition itself offers both the best and worst in dealing with these issues, I think. Most commonly, the Inquisition is at its worst: a sci-fi reimagining of Matthew Hopkins, Torquemada (for whom one of the inquisitors is named!), the Salem Witch Trials and the early modern witch-scare of Europe. In this mode, the Inquisition is a blunt instrument wielded without analysis, the very epitome of “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out” (a phrase, mind you, purportedly coined by Papal legate and Cistercian abbot Arnauld Amalric at Beziers during the Albigensian Crusade). It is torture and murder and wanton abuse of power in the name of theologically unsound ideas. I hope you’ll pardon me if that doesn’t strike me as a background I’d like to have for a character in an RPG (though I will readily admit that such a background could give rise to a very interesting meta-narrative around these issues in a long-term campaign and a killer story arc as the character is confronted by this past).

At the same, some of the stories of the Inquisition give us the best of mankind in the 40k universe (I’m still hesitant to call them good, because grimdark and all, but they’re arguably closest as it comes). The stories of Gregor Eisenhorn (and probably Gideon Ravenor, though I’m less familiar with those at present) present us with this: a man possessed of deep will and an earnest desire to uphold and protect what is good against Chaos, a man able and willing to show compassion and reluctant to destroy simply for the sake of it, a man tempted by the very evil he seeks to combat. It’s still a bit militaristic of a theology for me to say it has much place in the real world (being skeptical of the “spiritual warfare” often spoken of as anything other than the internal struggle to become more Christlike), but it’s at least in the same vein of other fiction. It’s the value in fantasy that G.K. Chesterton pointed out: to tell us that there are dragons…and that they may be defeated.

What does this mean for running a 40k RPG?

To refer to my confessions above, and to again be explicit: it doesn’t have to mean anything. This is a fictional world and it can be enjoyed for what it is without having to reconcile it with Christian theology. In this sense, it still serves the convenient function of reminding us how fortunate we are that God has acted in the ways known to us through our faith rather than the cosmic pandemonium the 40k universe embodies. In the same vein, it’s okay for a Christian to enjoy the cosmic horror of Lovecraft regardless of whether it is atheistic and/or nihilistic.

If, like I sometimes feel, you’d prefer to bring the 40k universe more into line with something comfortable for you, I think that’s probably okay, too–provided you don’t suddenly argue that you have found the “one true 40k.” Like any existing setting used for a roleplaying game, those playing the game should feel freedom to adapt the setting to be as enjoyable for them as possible–otherwise what’s the point?

40k seems to me to be readily amenable to this, if it’s your preference. It’s very easy to say, “all of the Horus Heresy stuff is legend–nobody’s exactly sure what the Emperor did or didn’t do 10,000 years ago.” From there, one can easily imagine that the Emperor’s actions were morally upright but that it was the failings of his human companions that led to the current status quo. If you take this tack and view the Emperor as some analog for the Christian God, then you’re still left with the question of why the Emperor would allow this sad state of affairs to persist–but this theodical question is the very same we deal with in reality.

More likely, as I mention above, your game isn’t going to brush hard against these issues anyway, so probably nothing at all needs to be done with any of the above. If you approach your games with the kind of nuance and morality that Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell seem to employ in their fiction, then your 40k RPG is going to feel (in regards to this topic, at least) like just about any other RPG in a fantastic setting.

 

Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

Loss

Monday morning, my grandmother passed away. I am thirty-five years old and this is the closest to home I’ve been hit by such a loss; in that regard, I am fortunate.

This is not to say that I have not previously lost people in my life about whom I cared deeply and who were profoundly influential on me: my stepfather’s mother, my wife’s grandmothers, a brilliant and inspiring professor. But, before this point, I have never lost someone such a direct and constant force in who I am.

She was both a lifelong student and educator (with all but a finished dissertation on her PhD, no less!), a person of deep and abiding faith, and a lover (and connoisseur) of art in all its forms. She and my grandfather have been one of the best examples of successful marriage I have ever encountered–at once like giddy school-children at the blossoming of new romance and yet with an implacable and well-settled love deposited by the accumulated sediment of years and decades.

We traded good books to read, fiction and non-fiction and talked about a wide variety of topics. To me, she was both the matriarch of the family and an exemplar of values, but also eminently approachable and a friend with whom I felt free to discuss nearly anything.

Not only was she a role model and great example to me, but also a great encourager, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog, in fact. It is strange, almost incomprehensible, that I will not see her face or hear her voice, enjoy her laughter again in this life. And yet, I will always, for those things are engraved on my heart and inscribed in my mind with what seems to be flawless detail.

So what do I feel now? Guilt, mostly, I suppose. Guilt that I am not distraught to the point that I can do nothing but mourn. Guilt that I have the wherewithal to sit and write this–perhaps not dispassionately, but more at peace than not. Guilt that the emotions I feel do not reach the level of what I think she deserves.

In my more logical mind I realize that that guilt–at least most of it–is not warranted. I am at peace about her passing. I am resolved in my belief that she has passed on to God’s presence and the existential joys that follow this life about which we who are left behind can only dream. I am convicted that she led a life full of meaning, well-lived and focused on what is most important. I am steadfast that her last moments on this Earth were filled with love, surrounded by her children and her husband (with whom she’d been since she was sixteen!). I will miss her, but I will see her again. Given all of this, a part of me asks why mourn at all?

And so I wrestle with this strange conflict of being content and yet feeling that I should be anything but content. Illogical, but natural all the same. In a sense, I am glad to have both, to–as Chesterton might put it, “keep this paradox and keep both ends furious.” There is a beautiful fullness, experiential and existential, to the combination of logic and emotion.

And, I suppose, I am happy to see my faith strong in the face of being tested by that must absurd and unsettling of human experiences–the existence of death. Try as we might, I’m not sure that we’re capable of understanding why we die, what purpose it serves. That is true for both the person of faith and the atheist, for regardless of the answers we try to find, the question is the very same: “why this and not something different?”

As I look back through what I have written, it strikes me just how much paradox I’ve related in these words, from the mundane (educator and student) to the more profound (I will not see her again in this life, and yet I will by memory). Perhaps that’s ultimately what death is to all of us–life’s greatest paradox.

Regardless, it’s cathartic to write these words, and to be explicit that my grandmother has been and will be a great influence on me, and by association, this blog.

 

 

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Cyrus and Trump

There is a disturbing trend among politically-conservative evangelicals to compare President Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great as a move to legitimize the support of Christians for Mr. Trump and his policies.

Here are links to a handful of articles on the subject:
Vox
The Guardian
The New York Times

I’ve written on some related topics, which you can find below:
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

But today, I want to focus directly on this idea that Trump is somehow a “chosen one” akin to Cyrus in the Old Testament. This idea is wrong-headed, theologically problematic on many fronts and, frankly, dangerous.

While I’m strongly tempted to start with argumentation about how the historical understanding of Cyrus and the Biblical writings of Isaiah don’t match up too well, so we ought to read the Bible’s commentary on Cyrus as making arguments and creating narrative about the Israelite people, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the right of returning Jews to land now occupied by the Samaritans, etc., etc. However, I’m going to bypass that argument, for two reasons. First, you can investigate that for yourselves and I don’t need to take lots of space to summarize here. Second, those who espouse this Cyrus/Trump connection dismiss the historical argument out of hand, coming as they do from a position of Biblical literalism. There are so many problems with that position, but for purposes of this argument, I’m going to avoid the historical argument in favor of logical and theological arguments as well as literary criticism.

Let’s begin with the ways in which Trump doesn’t seem to match the Biblical narrative of Cyrus very well.

First, God declares in Isaiah 45:13 that God will “raise up Cyrus in my righteouness: I will make all his ways straight.” So there’s an explicit declaration that God’s selection of Cyrus (again, if we take the text literally) necessarily comes with an instilled righteousness. But the evangelical comparison of Trump with Cyrus is founded on the idea that Trump, while not moral or pious, is still somehow being used for God’s purposes. But that argument puts us more in the realm of Tolkien’s Gollum than the Bible’s Cyrus. There are plenty of Biblical arguments that even the unrighteous can advance God’s plans for the world, but that’s not the argument made here in Isaiah.

Second, let’s look at Cyrus’ function in the Isaiah narrative. Cyrus does two main things: he releases the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and he decrees the rebuilding of the Temple (though that doesn’t actually happen until later). Unless you see the U.S. Embassy as somehow equivalent to the Temple that housed the holy of holies, I’m not sure where you could find a functional comparison here. Trump has not drastically changed the political landscape in Isreal (except for heightening tensions), so we have to look elsewhere for the divinely mandated accomplishments (on behalf of God’s particularly-favored people, because let’s be realistic, this argument blatantly favors the paritcular interests of the evangelicals who make it and not the good of all believers or the good of the world as a whole) of the current president if we’re to make the argument that, like Cyrus, God has personally elected Trump to accomplish God’s ends on the earth.

By my estimate, here are the accomplishments: the creation of environment more permissive to racists and the alt-right; a fear and rejection of innocent immigrants fleeing crisis; benefits to the wealthy and to large corporations at the expense of the little guy; threats of war; the disparagement and disengagement from our political allies; a lack of caring about suffering that happens to other people in other countries; rejection of truth in favor of making things up as one goes and insisting it’s the truth until people stop questioning it; decreased acceptance of people who are different; scapegoating already marginalized people as the cause of the perceived problems of the rich; a preference for political success in conflict rather than the support of democratic institutions and justice for all people.

To be fair, there is an argument that Trump is the reason that the economy is good right now. But it’s just that, an argument–and certainly not one that has much to do with righteousness. While the President often gets the credit or blame for the economy (mostly because that’s the only politician the average person can name), most economists agree that the President (no matter who it is or what party they belong to) has relatively little power when it comes to affecting the economy.

And now we come to the real issue: evangelicals believe that the government should enforce their form of morality, so action that curtails the rights of women to get abortions or be believed when they assert that they have been sexually assaulted, the rights of the LGBTQ community to exist, the rights of immigrants to have a fair go in this country matches with their view of what the country should be in order to follow their definition of Christian righteousness.

You can argue with my characterization of their goals if you’d like, but at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe that Trump will achieve the type of change they want for the country. You only have to look at Trump’s policies, statements and actions to see the truth in what I’ve written.

That creates a problem for the evangelicals. They want what Trump offers them, but they also don’t want Trump, because he is amoral, narcisstic, jingoistic, self-interested and generally problematic.

Enter the Cyrus argument. This allows the evangelicals to avoid the cognitive dissonance between seeing themselves as inherently righteous and moral actors while supporting someone who is so clearly not. “Trump may not be godly, but he’s doing what God put him here to do, so we should support him.” If you’re inclined to ask about the actual morality of the policies favored by the evangelicals in light of the Gospels, don’t bother; that ship sailed a long time ago.

What makes this dangerous–for the nation, as a temptation to Christian believers and as a detriment to the Christian witness to those who do not believe–is that it again resorts to Divine Command Theory to justify what humans believe to be God’s will as absolute and unassailable truth. The “Cyrus Prophecy” argument allows the evangelicals to unquestioningly cling to a very particular interpretation of Scripture, to use an “ends justify the means” approach to their faith, and to reject outright anyone who challenges the assertions that they’ve made. Psychologically very effective. Theologically, not so much.

As I argued in my post about the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, this allows Christians to ignore the effects of the route they take to pursue their so-called righteousness. Just as the Cyrus argument requires us to selectively ignore the claim of Isaiah that God’s selection of Cyrus made him righteous, resorting to Divine Command Theory to justify beliefs and actions requires us to ignore much of Christ’s message as to how we ought to comport ourselves as Christians seeking righteousness.

To be fair, I think that there is a very good analogy in the Old Testament for Trump, it’s just not Cyrus. It’s King Saul, appointed king by God when the Israelites begged God for a king and God said (paraphrasing): “Okay, I’m gonna give you what you’re asking for, but I don’t think it’s going to be what you think it’s going to be…” Because Trump certainly isn’t the president this country needs right now, but he might be the president we collectively deserve until we take a good look at ourselves and figure out what a “great” America actually looks like.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy

The plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much smaller than one might think, flanked on two sides by the monasteries appended to the structure to accommodate some of its caretakers and inhabitants from the six denominations that share in the ownership of the edifice. By modern standards, the entire Old City of Jerusalem is cramped, the narrow streets winding through clusters of centuries-old buildings. The fact that the plaza is nearly always full of people reinforces the sense of compactness and confinement.

That alone can be overwhelming, and it causes many to miss what is perhaps the most important modern symbol attached to the site–an old work ladder (the “immovable ladder”) placed high upon the wall to facilitate repairs made sometime before 1852, when the “Status Quo” agreement established that changes to the building must be agreed to by all custodian parties. To date they have not agreed to move the ladder. This strife is emblematic of the current state of the modern nation of Israel.

On the drive to my office this morning, I heard a piece on NPR about “pilgrims” to the plaque announcing the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (where there was previously a Consulate building). The things I heard instigated this post.

There are many, particularly American fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, who believe that the support of Israel is part of some Biblical prophecy (that I must admit I cannot find in my copies of the Bible) about conditions that must be established to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.

So many problems with this kind of theology; I feel driven to address at least some of them. First, Jesus tells us that no one knows the time of the Second Coming except the Father; this seems to indicate to me that mankind cannot manufacture a set of circumstances to “trigger” such a cosmic event. Second, a focus on bringing about an apocalyptic end time leads us away from what Jesus called us to do. Jesus tells us that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth is about helping those who need help, pursuing mercy, justice, righteousness and–above all else–love. It is not about forcing God’s hand or patiently awaiting for Jesus to unilaterally fix everything. We have been wondrously and blessedly invited by our Creator to participate in the bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth; let us not squander such a gift.

But to get to the heart of the matter, we need to look a little deeper at the foundation of this position. The argument starts with the statement that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them in the Old Testament. This requires a literalist view unnuanced by things like the passage of time, the Incarnation, or the socialio-religious views of the people who participated (under inspiration from God) in the writing of the Old Testament texts.

Let’s break that down into several problems. To take the idea literally that God gave ancient Canaan to the Isrealite people after the Exodus (particularly in the beginning of the Book of Joshua) requires us to also believe that God authorized and endorsed the wholesale slaughter of native Canaanites. This requires reliance on Divine Command Theory.

In short, Divine Command Theory is that, because God is the Creator of all things, what God commands is absolutely and incontrovertibly morally righteous. At its simplest, this seems to be common sense, right? But what happens when we are told that God has commanded an action and there’s something within us that just screams that that’s not right?

While I have argued (and will continue to argue) for an understanding of morality that is contextualized, I have firmly rejected the idea that morality is relative. I affirm that morality is established by God as creator and sustainer of all that is. Perhaps the most functional approach to Divine Command Theory is to determine whether accepting any particular command as from God would contradict our understanding of the nature of God or–more bluntly–make a hypocrite of God. I think that most Christians (hopefully all!) could agree that God is not a hypocrite.

One approach would be to turn to C.S. Lewis’ idea of “natural law.” For Lewis, our conscience is the action of the Holy Spirit within us (what we Wesleyans might call “prevenient grace”). While Lewis uses this as an evidence (but not a “proof”) of God’s existence, if we accept the assertion of “natural law” as true, we might use it instead to determine whether calling something a “divine command” would lead to a contradiction of God by God. In essence, if our conscience, as the action of the Holy Spirit, would conflict with what we are told is a “divine command,” either our conscience or the command is not of God.

Some Christians might recoil at the thought of “contradicting Scripture” with “our feelings;” I imagine some might go so far as to call this Montanism. There are two equally strong responses: (1) we are not “contradicting Scripture,” we are interpreting Scripture, and (2) why don’t we then look to see if we find contradiction of a supposedly-divine command in Scripture.

Paul tells us in 1 John 4:7-21 (ESV), “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, adn whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” We are told in the Ten Commandments that, “Thou shalt not murder [or kill, depending upon interpretation and translation],” and “Thou shalt not steal” (as the land was already in the possession of the Canaanites). In the person of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s way is one of love, peace and self-sacrifice, not one of violent conquest. So Scripture gives us a contradiction to resolve if we are to call God’s command to conquer Canaan just and right because God ordered it. Is that a God of love? And if the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament (which we must surely agree to), why didn’t God send a messiah who would reconquer Judea from the Romans?

We are equipped with not only theological arguments, but also social and historical arguments to help resolve the contradiction. First, we know that the Book of Joshua was not written at the time of Joshua, but most likely after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The Israelites needed a national story that explained why they had the right to the land against both foreign invaders and against the Samaritans who remained (and had in many cases taken possession of land formerly in the hands of the Babylonian captives). We also know that the beginning of Judges contradicts the invasion and conquest narrative of Joshua–in Judges there is a more gradual immigration of the Israelites into Canaan and an assimilation with and then change to the dominant culture. The archeology supports the Judges version over the Joshua version (Jericho for instance was not occupied at the time in which the Joshua story is set).

Elsewhere in the Old Testament we have evidence that part of the writing of the Scriptures represent the evolving understanding of God by the Israelites (and in relation to other cultures at the time) rather than as the verbatim “Word of God.” In Joshua 6:21, we are told that the Isrealites “devoted to the city to the Lord” by killing every living thing inside it. Saul is later “commanded” to do the same thing to the city of Amelek, killing every living animal to devote them to the Lord (1 Samuel 15).

But archeology has shown us that the Israelites were not the only ones to think of dedicating cities to their god by killing all inhabitants. In th Mesha Stele (discovered in Dhiban, Jordan in 1868–once the land of Moab), the Moabite King Mesha has written, “And the men of Gad lived in the land of Atarot from ancient times; and the king of Israel built Atarot for himself. And I fought against the city and captured it. And I killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for Kemosh [Chemosh] and for Moab.” So, it seems likely that killing all of the inhabitants of a captured city as a devotion to the national god was simply a cross-cultural understanding of how things were done, and not a specific and unique command from God.

So all evidence seems to point against utilizing Divine Command Theory to claim that God definitively told the Israelites to conquer Canaan and that Israelites have somehow received eternal title and ownership of the Levant directly from God. This is not to say that God did not place the Isrealites in Canaan or lead them to it–I think it’s fair to say that God did. In my journals of my travel in Israel later this year, I noted just how geographically perfectly placed the Israelites were for God to incarnate there when Jesus came. Disbelieving the command of God to conquer all of Canaan and to slaughter its inhabitants does not mean disbelief in a purpose and design to the Israelites settling that land.

If we view the Old Testament’s claim of the Isrealites’ sole right to the land as just that–a claim of the Israelites and not a command of God–then we cannot blindly say, “God gave Israel to the Jews, they should have it and no one else” and turn a blind eye to Palestinians.

The word “Palestinian” comes from the word “Phillistine” in the Bible. The Phillistines were the Phoenician settlers of the coastal cities in what is now Isreal, like Tyre in the north and Gaza farther south. They also occupied the land in the time of the Old Testament, so without recourse to a divine mandate that only the Jews have possession of Isreal (or dominion over, if you prefer), there is an equally-historic claim to the land by Palestinian inhabitants.

Israel has not been kind to the Palestinians. From a certain perspective, I can understand how the Israelis arrived at their positions and policies–the mindset of being surrounded on all sides by Arab nations that would be all-too-happy to see Israel fail as a nation (or be reincorporated into Arab nations) must be overwhelming. But understanding does not mean that I condone those positions or policies, or that I can support them.

I do not deny that there are security threats to the people and nation of Israel from certain Palestinians. I do not deny that there are bad actors on both sides. Nor do I deny that Jews should have a homeland and that the nation of Israel should exist. But the majority of Palestinians are good people who are being oppressed by Israel through military force, economic isolation and use of a legal system that ultimately equates to Israel exercising whatever law it wants to over Palestinian territory.

The move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem–regardless of whether Jerusalem is the de facto capitol of Israel–exacerbates the plight of the Palestinians. That Christians are supporting this oppression in the name of God is unacceptable. Maybe I’m wrong, but based on everything I’ve learned and studied about Jesus, he would be far more interested in caring for Palestinians than ensuring that Jews had the rights to the land.

There are two factors that further arouse my suspicion and opposition to the stance that “good Christians must support Israel at all costs.” First is the confusion of American-conservative-style patriotism with the Christian faith. The only way that the U.S. could be called a “Christian” nation would be because Christians within the nation have risen to the challenge to love their neighbors as they are commanded to do: opposing racism and sexism, caring for the less fortunate, being tolerant to people of other faiths (and cooperating with them in the government of the nation), welcoming immigrants, pursuing true justice and mercy, standing against deceit and corruption in those who lead the nation, and honestly striving to make the world a better place–not just for Americans, but for everyone. But to claim a divine mandate for America that means that Christian Americans can do no wrong and justifying them no matter what they do is dangerous to true faith and bordering on idolatry.

The second factor is that there is a sizeable population of Palestinian Christians. Yes, most Palestinians are Muslim, but there are many Christian Palestinian suffering the same oppression as their Muslim counterparts. This means that, a position to support Israel unconditionally that is somehow founded on the Christian faith requires us to contribute to the suffering of other Christians. I don’t think that that should matter, there’re are no exceptions or nuances to “love your neighbor” based on their religion–quite the opposite in fact if the Good Samaritan story is taken into account–but there does seem to be some additional hypocrisy added by that fact.

Ideally, I think, Christians should be working to help pave a path that gives dignity and protection to both Isrealis and Palestinians and that allows them to live together in peace and collaboration rather than the military occupation that currently stands. We certainly shouldn’t be treating the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as a pilgrimage site.

 

The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy

When the United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops presented their initial proposals for the upcoming called session of the Church’s General Conference in February, the “Traditional” Plan was not slated to actually go to discussion and vote before the Conference.

Through political maneuvering through the Judicial Council of the Church (the UMC’s version of a supreme court) by certain conservative leaders within the UMC, judgment was rendered that the Traditional Plan must be presented before the GC if a petition for it to be included is made. From the perspectives of jurisprudence and polity within the UMC, that is absolutely the right call. But it ignores the reason that the Commission on a Way Forward and the Bishops did not include it as potential legislation in their report–it isn’t a way forward.

To a certain extent, I understand the conservatives’ frustration with the Commission and the Bishops: the delay claimed for the need to translate the report before making it public–and the delay in even getting that process started–seems to indicate unhelpful politicking on all sides of the issue. Uncollaborative work only hurts the Church as a whole without benefitting either side at this point.

On the other hand, I vehemently disagree with the conservative complaint that the Commission and Bishops didn’t really provide a way forward, they just gave us the same plan that’s been offered and failed many times before. The conclusion of the Commission after deliberation and prayerful investigation is itself a message–the way forward must be one of compromise, and the fact that conservative elements within the Church have remained implacable in their position does not mean that they should get their way. The “same old thing” is the “same old thing” because nothing else has changed–the conservatives’ best offering for a “way forward” is that we do everything the way we’ve always done it, we just spend more time (and congregants’ money) prosecuting those clergy who disobey the Book of Discipline on moral grounds.

The cynical side of me sees the greater strategy here: conservatives have decided that they have two ways to win: (1) get the Traditional Plan passed at the called General Conference or (2) insure that nothing else gets passed. The fight to get the Traditional Plan included at General Conference is really an effort to avoid honestly coming to the table with progressives at all, not really a matter of what is fair and just. As a lawyer, I’m well familiar with the difference between legal and just.

Conservatives understand that, if nothing happens at the called GC, many progressives will give up on the UMC and leave–which is what the conservatives have wanted all along. See Woodlands UMC senior pastor Rob Renfroe’s book, Are We Really Better Together? An Evangelical Perspective on the Division in the UMC, for a clear example of this. If it is the progressives that leave, the case for conservatives to keep the United Methodist Church name–and perhaps the greater part of collective Church assets–will be stronger.

I’ll also note that, in my observation (for what that’s worth), it has been the conservatives who have been most concerned with ensuring in advance that “graceful exit” language is included in any proposed legislation before the GC. I do not believe that this is about the conservatives’ fear that they will have to sacrifice assets and property if things don’t go their way, it’s about trying to make it easier for the progressives to leave. The progressive–and even the majority at the Texas Annual Conference in May–response has been that “we’re not there yet, and that’s not how you start the conversation when you’re trying to keep everyone together.”

Also in my experience, some of the most conservative Methodists I know are also deeply concerned with reaching the unchurched and the younger generations. They should be, as all Christians should be, but I must note some irony when they want to simultaneously be attractive to younger seekers and maintain what those seekers see as at best an unjust position and at worst a hypocrisy.

As I’ve said before, the societal belief about whether homosexuality is morally wrong or not is not determinative of the objective position established by God. On the other hand, there is legitimate theological argument in favor of not viewing homosexuality as sin, and history gives us numerous examples of Christianity being used to support systems and ideas ultimately determined to be immoral (and thus un-Christian). Since neither side can determinatively prove its position, the statement of being unwilling to see that someone else–even another Christian–might be right about something with which you disagree plays right into the hands of stereotypes of Christians that should not be true (but often are). That’s not going to be enticing to seekers of younger generations, who–despite all the talk about their “relative morality”–tend to have a strong sense of right and wrong and a significant allergy to perceived hypocrisy (real or imagined).

So the split within the UMC, even if it leaves the conservatives holding most of the cards, does not mean a resurgence of conservativism among Methodists–it means a slow death lamenting the “way it used to be.” While there will always be conservative Christians and theologians, and there always should be for us to honestly and eagerly explore theological issues, the Methodist Church is not on the more conservative side of most issues (at least not within our Social Principles), making the conservative position on homosexuality stand out more than seem to be in line with the rest of Methodist positions. This regressivism matches a certain political movement in our country largely based in privilege and the fear of sharing with others.

The Judicial Council will decide this month on the constitutionality of all three plans to be sent to the called General Conference in February. With regard to the Traditional Plan, the only real question of constitutionality falls on the modifications proposed to the status quo–enhanced enforcement and prosecution. But the Council’s decision on this doesn’t really matter. Eight UMC Annual Conferences (Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific, Desert Southwest, New England, New York, Northern Illinois and Oregon-Idaho) have already passed resolutions collectively refusing to participate in trials of homosexual clergy or clergy who perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The Virginia Annual Conference voted in favor of full inclusion for LGBTQ members and to allow both LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages, despite the Book of Discipline, the Judicial Council or the General Conference.

In purposefully electing the first openly-gay bishop in the UMC (Bishop Karen Oliveto), the Western Jurisdictional Conference opted to ignore sexual orientation as an appropriate qualification for clergy.

With this intentional civil disobedience, the Traditional Plan could not be enforced across the US UMC jurisdictions. It’s dead on arrival, a guaranteed split in the church.

To be fair, there are plenty on the progressive side of the issue who have done much to make some form of compromise and reconciliation impossible. We, too (at least corporately), are responsible for the conference-stopping protests at recent General Conferences, the demonization of conservatives, and a refusal to make any compromise in place of “total victory” (which, let’s be honest, is not a thing here at all, regardless of result).

The Methodist doctrine expressed in the Book of Discipline prefers that decisions in the governance (of the local church at the committee level, at least) be made through discernment and consensus-building rather than through purely political democratic vote.

And perhaps that’s the real problem here. While the Book of Discipline does allow us to follow a “take a vote, majority wins” approach, it also understands that that approach is not the best way for the church to operate–without some consensus-building and compromise, the only option is winner-take-all politics. Even if you don’t find that ideologically troublesome in the church-context, the history of the question of human sexuality in The United Methodist Church since 1972 is ample evidence that a tyrannical rule of the majority can’t solve this problem.

A vote for the Traditional Plan in February will not end the issue, it will only force the issue by insisting that there is no place for progressive Christians within the UMC. The same is true of the “no result” strategy, as I’ve discussed above. So why aren’t we calling the Traditional Plan what it really is–the “No Compromise Doctrine”? It’s been clearly articulated outside of the “official” channels of the church, so why not be honest about it within the polity?

 

Gnosticism: Ascension without Virtue, Salvation without Sacrifice

Why am I talking about gnosticism, an age-old system of belief? Because there’s something fundamentally enticing about what it offers, something that appeals to the less-impressive aspects of human nature, and it manages to keep popping up in society in unexpected (and frankly fascinating) ways.

What is gnosticism? Well, there are a number of variations, but I’ll give a description of those things that tend to be similar across those differences. If you want to look up specific examples, look to Merkavah mysticism in Judaism, Catharism, Marcion of Sinope, neo-Platonism and some forms of hermetic belief–though take caution, the extent to which any of these systems of belief fall into gnosticism and/or the way in which each influenced the development of the common ideas is subject to scholarly debate.

First, gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” The idea of there being “secret knowledge” that leads to salvation is key here. But that’s perhaps getting ahead of ourselves. In a brief retelling of the gnostic story, there is a supreme God (the Monad, meaning “the one”), the true God, who is only spirit. This God creates lesser spiritual beings often referred to as Aeons. The Monad and the Aeons together constitute the Pleroma, the fullness of God.

In the version of the cosmology known from the Nag Hammadi texts, the lowest Aeon, Sophia (“wisdom”), creates a spiritual being of her own (often referenced as the “Demiurge,” the “son of chaos” and known in the Sethite and Ophite versions of gnosticism as Yaldabaoth/Ialdabaoth ) without the permission of the Monad, and hides him in a cloud that obscures him from all else and all else from him.

Being an emanation of an emanation (despite the lack of photocopiers in the ancient world) and hiddent from all true knowledge, the Demiurge is considered at best to be supremely foolish and at worst to be blatantly evil. The Demiurge believes himself to be the only being in existence (in other words, God) and creates the material world in which we live.

So, for the gnostics, the material world is evil, essentially a prison created by the Demiurge from which our spiritual selves–our souls–cannot escape without attaining the (secret) knowledge of the Monad. Salvation here is not about love, sacrifice, self-improvement, repentence, faith in God or any of the other things that make Christianity such a powerful faith. It is a prison break.

A few notes before we move on. First, I see a similarity here between gnosticism and some forms of fundamentalist Christianity–not in belief but in result. In fundamentalist apocalyptic Christianity, salvation lies in saying “the magic words” about belief in Jesus. Because of the belief that God will destroy the material world anyway, there is no need to take action to reconcile, improve or ameliorate it. In other words, salvation is deeply perosnal and requires little or no concern for others. It would be unfair, of course, to say that all apocalyptic fundamentalists or gnostics have no desire to love or help others, but the system of belief makes that easier, not harder. In both, ritual action takes the place of compassion–see Cathar views on marraige, sex, and food, for instance.

Second, though it may be tempting, I would caution against drawing parallels with Buddhism here. Buddhist thought is remarkably complex, diverse and nuanced, so it is impossible (as in most things) to make a fair generalization with some applicability to all schools of Buddhist thought (I’ve heard that there’s a saying that it would take a lifetime just to read the names of all the schools of Buddhism). Nevertheless, I’ll point out what I think are some differences. Enlightenment in Buddhism does come from “secret knowledge” in a sense, but this “secret knowledge” is existential rather than abstract or categorical–it’s the realization of the connectedness of all things. Additionally, Buddhism doesn’t seem to use the mind/body dualism of gnosticism, instead viewing reality as matters of truth or maya (illusion). Because of these things, the path to enlightenment in Buddhism requires both growing realization of truth and action based on that truth–primarily compassionate action. For more detail and investigation, see Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

With that out of the way, let me make clear why gnosticism is heterodox to true Christian theology. First, Christian gnosticism sees Jesus as a savior-figure because he is the purveyor of gnosis necessary to transcend this world, not because of his demonstration of God’s love for us or the salvific act of his death on the cross. Alongside this, gnosticism views the material world as essentially evil and bad. This contrasts entirely with God’s declaration in Genesis upon creating the material world that “it [is] good.” The Incarnation of Jesus tells us that material embodiment is important to God, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how.

Gnosticism sees the Monad as inherently unknowable. While it’s only logical that finite beings will never be able to fully understand an infinite being, Jesus is proof that God has revealed at least parts of God’s self to us. I note that there’s nothing within gnostic thought that absolutely prevents a similar view, but it does not seem to be a focus.

Gnosticism has little concern with sin under any common Christian conception. In gnosticism, the moral equation is simple–flesh bad, spirit good. The gnostic’s duty toward sin is to escape it, not to rectify it. There is no need for sanctification, for making oneself “good” in a moral sense because that idea just does not compute in gnosticism.

Additionally, gnosticism is individualized.  Is it possible to walk the Christian faith alone? I used to think so, but I am thoroughly convinced that the ultimate goal of Christianity to bring all things into right relationship with all else, and that obviates the possibility of sanctification (though perhaps not faith and certainly not Grace) in solitude.

In other words, gnosticism is what Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace.” It requires very little of the believer other than conviction that he has attained secret knowledge that accurately reflects the truth of existence. And that appeals to human nature–we’re always looking for the path of least resistance, the way to get the most “bang for our buck,” a religion that allows us to be and do what we were always going to be and do without wondering if there’s a better way. It’s easy.

So that being said, where do I see gnosticism in modern society?

There are certainly avowed gnostic believers of various stripes at work in the world today. The different sects and factions of purposeful gnostics are difficult to describe in short, except to say that these groups are diverse and often mixed with other esoteric ideas, particularly magical thought.

There are also perennial attempts by what I can only describe as “New Age” movements to draw upon gnostic-type ideas to appeal to potential adherents. The Secret, modern cults (particularly alien-belief cults, it seems), and other groups claiming to hold the truth of enlightment (and yet in unenlightened hypocrisy being willing to share such knowledge only with a chosen few) all draw something from gnostic tradition in the fabrication of their own systems of thought. I realize it is unfair to bring the great diversity of New Age thought and groups under this single umbrella, so please forgive my gross generalization.

Much science-fiction also draws upon gnostic ideas to set motifs, themes and subplots. Phillip K. Dick (one of my favorite sci-fi authors) often dabbled in–or dove in head first–to gnostic ideas in his works. To what extent he came to embrace some form of gnosticism in his own personal belief is perhaps debatable but ultimately quite likely. Look to see just how many of his works have been turned into films (though most of these are lighter on the side of gnostic thought).

The turn-of-the-millenium trilogy The Matrix also drew upon themes within gnostic Christianity, though the series made possible entire textbooks on the philosophical questions within the films, much to the joy of college professors needing something with which to relate to freshman students.

I have no issue whatsoever with gnostic ideas appearing in fantasy and science fiction–we generally refer to these as speculative fiction for a reason, and the ideas within these works should challenge our beliefs, contemplate alternative cosmologies and provide a space to explore alternative ideas.

The space where I find gnosticism most fascinatingly reborn, however, is in the semi-religion of materialist science. I’ve talked elsewhere about my skepticism regarding mind uploading, but it is not the only culprit here. Many scientifically argued bases for human immortality fall into this mold, as often do the general philosophies of transhumanism or posthumanism, though they do not inherently need to be so closely allied with gnostic thought. It is the imposition of a layer of religious thought that prioritizes the science over the existential effects or consequences of the science that leads to a blind gnostic hope that we can somehow escape all evils (if we’re only smart enough) rather than having to dig in the dirt, confront our demons, and pull out our own evils and destructiveness at the root.

But it is not just gnosticism that runs this risk–perhaps it only provides a convenient scapegoat to the warning I really want to give: to be given any serious consideration, any idea that claims to “improve” the human condition, whether secular philosophy, religion (even, I would say especially, Christianity) or other ideology must seek to do so by the confrontation and alleviation of suffering (almost undoubtedly through some form of personal growth and sacrifice) rather than simply offering some form of easy escape.

 

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part V: Practical Problems and Conclusion

For the previous post in the series, click here.

The Practical Problem–Undue Punishment
I can’t remember off-hand whether it was in Mere Christianity or God in the Dock (though I seem to think it was the latter), but C.S. Lewis made a compelling argument for the usefulness of “an eye for an eye” and against a certain brand (not the category altogether) of “rehabilitative” corrective action.

For Lewis, the purpose of the “eye for an eye” command of the Old Testament is not necessarily to enact harsh punishment but to establish a limit to punishment. “You may go this far but no farther in punishing for this sin.” It is, in effect, a command for mercy. It is counter to what Lewis observed in his own time–those who would inflect excruciating punishments without any limitation so long as one argued that the purpose for inflicting the punishment was “rehabilitation.”

The need for such limitations are etched upon human history, both in the criminal justice and psychiatric fields. An again, if we use homosexuality as an area where the “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” mantra has prevailed, we see that it has led to similar atrocities in the name of “rehabilitating” the “sinner.” The “Pray the Gay Away” movement and its concomitant “rehabilitation” programs for gay Christians (or the gay children of Christians) has inflicted tremendous suffering on those whose only crime is loving someone that someone else has told them it is wrong to love. The sin of such movements far exceeds the “sin” they seek to fight against, even if one does accept homosexuality as sinful.

It would be unfair to attribute such radical and un-Christian behavior in the name of God to any person who might use the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” line. Most Christians, at least as far as the ones I know, who are theologically conservative would find the Christian-based “rehabilitation” programs for people in the LGBTQI+ community as morally repugnant as the rest of us do.

Though an extreme case, the “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” ideology may be used to justify all manner of unloving behavior directed towards those determined to be sinners in some “special” category in more dire need of correction than the rest of us. And while the majority of people who use the statement we’ve been discussing have good intent at heart, I would ask them to seriously look within themselves and see if that reasoning is allowing them to take action towards others that, though far less in degree, doesn’t fully comport with loving them.

The Practical Problem–If it’s not Effective, is it Loving?
How effective is it, really, when you tell someone, “God’s put it on my heart to tell you that you are sinning and God wants you to stop that.”

Not very, I’m afraid. It’s just not an effective way to call others to change. They have to choose that for themselves. We can inspire them to be better, but flat-out telling them they’re wrong and they should change isn’t going to work in most cases. In those cases where it might, the fact that they need to change what they’re doing is wrong before you even begin.

So, if your words are only going to offend and no one is in immediate irreversible danger, is it loving at all to remind someone of their sin (if you really are correct in telling them that the thing you’re convicting them of is sin)?

Conclusion

In response to my arguments, K asked the ultimate question: “Okay, so how are we to stand against sin without convicting other people of it?” That’s an excellent question. I’ve offered some modicum of an answer in the post Toward a Positive Morality.

But the answer as a whole needs more exploration. That’s an excellent topic for the near future…

One final note, though: I am by no means advocating in this post that we should not oppose or stop those who are hurting others in some way. We are, unfortunately, called to prioritize loving some people over others because one are more people are actively and purposefully inflicting great harm. When that is the case, we need to stop the continuing harm or threat of harm (provided it’s serious); we can focus on loving everyone the best we can in the aftermath. The types of situations where that is the case are not typically the situations in which the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” adage is used and they are beyond the scope of this series.

 

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part IV: Psychological Problem and the Example of Homosexuality

For the previous post in the series, click here.

Psychological Problem–Separating Sin and Sinner in our Minds
The Psychological Problem is related to the Existential Problem just as the Existential Problem is related to the Epistemological Problem (I apologize to those of you who just heard a tune following those words).

According to my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of psychology, there are aspects of our conscious and subconscious mind that interact in ways that we cannot often easily detect. The point of psychotherapy, in part, is to uncover the subconcious so that it can be worked upon by the conscious. But how many of us are fully aware of all of the mental (and emotional) activities that go on when we love or hate? None, I think.

The Psychological Problem is an acknowledgment of the intrusion of emotion into our actual practice of morality in the real world. Even if we reduce the terms “love” and “hate” to cold and clinical terms of moral and upright action in supporting people and resisting evil for purposes the purposes of philosophical examination, we cannot separate ourselves from the emotions (both positive and negative) that either help us or hinder us as we determine our own courses of action when confronted with real moral choices.

If we are trying to focus efforts on parsing out people into the parts we can love and the parts we should hate, how do we know that aspects of one part are not bleeding inadvertantly into the other? How do we discover and mitigate inadvertant psychological activity that threatens our wholeheartedly loving our neighbor?

Here, K would caution me that the argument is about the people we can love and their actions that we can hate and argue that we are capable of such division. She provides some cases (addict and addiction, for instance) where such separation seems plausible; she forces me to admit, like in the epistemological argument, that there may be cases where we could decide that the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” adage is maintainable. The problem, though, is that there are also cases where it clearly isn’t–and that’s where I see reference to the statement most often.

An Aside for a Specific Example–Homosexuality
In the present debate over homosexuality in the Methodist Church, I most often see the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” statement pointed to by theological conservatives as some evidence that the Church can potentially stand by the statement that homosexuality is Sin and yet be inviting and loving toward homosexual people. Ask a homosexual person if they think that the Church can do both–the answer is a resounding, “No.”

Now, neither side’s feelings on the matter actually provides evidence for whether or not homosexuality is a sin. But, it does, I think, bring my point about the various problems above into perspective: when there are arguments on both sides of the issue as to whether a particular thing (be it sexuality or something else) is sin, and when the discussion of whether that thing is sin turns on a categorical basis and not a contextual one, the problems for the “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” quickly become insurmountable.

The Scriptural Problems need no further explanation and militate against categorical determinations of sin to begin with.

The Epistemological Problem asserts itself to argue that if we must consider context–the intent of the person in whom and how they love (or the circumstances in which they engage in sexual activity) is not fully knowable by us and we ought to resort to demonstrating grace to be safe–morally speaking.

The Existential Problem reminds us of a distinction often overlooked, I think. For conservatives, homosexuality is neatly divided into the existential and the phenomenal. The conservative says that it’s okay to have homosexual feelings as long as they are not acted upon. This is the current position of the Methodist Church, with its prohibitions on ordination only against “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” Given Jesus’s admonition that a man has committed the sin of adultery if he has looked upon a woman with lust in his heart, I do not think that we can so easily parse between existential and phenomenal aspects of sin. It’s either both or neither.

But there is a more pressing existential concern here even than the attempt to use such artificial dichotomy to maintain such a tenuous position. If you ask a homosexual person, they will tell you that their sexual orientation is not a “choice” or a “behavior” but that it is a part of their very being, their essence–it is who they are. Epistemologically, self-reporting is the best information we have to go on in the determination of the experience of another person, so we are on logical quicksand when we try to decide for homosexuals that, “No, homosexuality is a chosen behavior.”

And, again, this flows into the Psychological Problem. If you believe that homosexuality is sin–and as has been done lately by conservatives–a sin that deserves special priority over other sins, how can you really be sure that you’re going to love the person the same as you would love someone who is heterosexual? In most cases (but certainly not all), the difference is blatant–at least to all but the actor.

In the final post in the series, we’ll discuss The Practical Problems and the Conclusion.