A Christian Theory of Humor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part III: (Re-)Making Ourselves

For the preceding post in this series, click here.

I’m a fan of the cyberpunk genre. I grew up playing the Shadowrun tabletop roleplaying game, which probably is what started my love for the genre–it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started reading the progenitors and great writers of this brand of sci-fi (Stephenson, Gibson and Morgan, for instance).

One of the key aspects of the genre is cyberware (and/or bioware and/or nanotech)–the ability for humans to replace or supplement their physical bodies to achieve superhuman abilities through technology.

Unless you haven’t been paying attention, you know that we’re there in real life–or very close to. Les Baugh, Neil Harbisson and the number of patients with installed brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are proof of this. On the biological side, CRISPR may allow us to undo some of the infelicities of genetic processes, essentially eliminating some genetic disorders or diseases.

So far, these technologies are concerned with restoring lost faculties, but is perfectly conceivable that there will be some willing to lose their meatbody (to use the cyberpunk nomenclature) arm to replace it with one that can perform at a much higher level than the one with which nature provided our subject–and without the constant need to prevent muscle atrophy.

To be clear, these technologies are in their infancy, and we really don’t know yet how far we’ll be able to go in synching man and machine–without sufficient neurological feedback, a cybernetic arm is as much a liability as an asset. Imagine not being able to gauge how hard you’re gripping something when you want to hold that ceramic coffee mug.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the technology described in cyberpunk fiction becomes available. Since we’re in a realm of speculation here, let’s assume that such technology becomes available at a price point that a majority of people can afford it if they want to. Can you imagine the person who treats body modification in the same way he might have treated souping up a street racer or a mudding truck? If the technology is there, it seems rather inevitable to me.

From a Christian perspective, how do we address this potential? How can our theology and desire to follow Christ inform our response?

Well, that depends on the theology, I suppose. The easiest argument, one I expect to be made by many, is that voluntary body modification is an abomination; a rejection of being made “in the image of God” and a rejection of the principle that “our body is a temple.”

But let’s think about those ideas, starting with the latter. Paul’s exhortation that we should view our bodies as the temples of the Lord (in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) is used as an argument for sexual purity. Leaving the specific context aside for a moment, let’s think about the metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement itself. When we incorporate the sweep of the Gospels, Christ’s reference to his own body as the Temple and his death and resurrection in John 2:21-22, and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the major thrust of such a metaphor is that God enters into us through the Holy Spirit. One valid interpretation of this, yes, is to say that we ought to keep God’s new Temple beautiful and pure just as the Jews did for the Temple in Jerusalem. But isn’t it more important that the statement reminds us that God is always with us, always seeking relationship with us, and is not in some distant place to which we must walk though valleys and over broken hills to commune with? At the end of the day, these interpretations should probably be considered “both/and” rather than “either/or,” but this still leaves us with the necessity of determining the details of how our individual temples to God ought to be kept.

That Genesis tells us that we are made “in the image of God” might provide some interpretative assistance, but we must unlock the secret of this enigma as well. How are we in the image of God? First, we must accept that we are in the image of God in some form, but certainly not in degree. With this understanding, it seems foolish to believe that our being in God’s image is somehow related to our physical form–are we saying that the infinite, sovereign God is shaped like us but moreso? Or bigger?

No, we must look to something more existential to properly understand this question. Is it that we are able to think on a higher level than the rest of Creation? That we may philosophize and theologize? Perhaps, but we must approach such a conclusion with some trepidation, for those abilities ultimately remind us of our finitude and God’s infinitude.

As Paul Tilich writes, “Our power of being is limited. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing. This is precisely what is meant when we say that we are finite. It is man in his finitude who asks the question of being. He who is infinite does not ask the question of being for, as infinite, he has the complete power of being. He is identical with it; he is God” Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, pp. 11-12.

So what must it be, then? It is our power to create, I would argue. We, like God, make meaning in Creation, particularly through the creation of narratives that define us and our world. Unlike God, we do not do so ex nihilo, but by recombining the things that are in new and unforeseen ways. That is a difference in degree but not kind.

This minor power of creation, coupled with freedom of the will, forms the basis of the need for God’s action in us through Jesus Christ–so that we might be both free and independent and good. But that is a discussion for another time.

We already spend most of our time creating identify for ourselves: every time you tell a story about something that happened to you, you are using that story to create some idea about who you are for others to absorb. If you don’t believe that, think about the last story you told a friend about something that happened to you and honestly count the number of ways you might have “massaged” the truth a little to get across a certain point.

We already use much of our technology in the quest to find or make meaning and identity. What are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but media for the construction of identity.

“Look at what I had for lunch today, and what that says about me.”

“Look at what I tweet about.”

“Look at what I like.”

“Look at me.”

That being the case, isn’t control over our bodies simply another form of self-creation? How we choose (or choose not) to modify our bodies with the technology we have available to us is not, I think, an issue of categorical morality.

That does not relieve us of moral responsibility. The questions of intent and consequence, common to all moral questions in Christianity, remain to confront us in relation to any particular choice about body modification. Just as there are good and bad reasons to get a tattoo, or to have elective surgery, or to wear makeup, the morality of a choice to augment human capabilities through advanced technology is a highly contextual calculus.

We must walk a fine line here. Jesus came to us as a human, so we must see that embodiment and incarnation constitute important aspects of God’s Creation. At the same time, we must not distort such an idea into the belief that there is only one right way to be an embodied human being–that there is only one type of body that is good.

The theology (at least in very simplified form as argued above) of human enhancement reminds us that morality–that sin–is not composed of easy categories, of boxes into which a particular action does or does not fit. We ought, then, to look at sin as a state of being, of disassociation from the right relationships with our neighbors, with ourselves, with God, with Creation. We enter into sin not because we have crossed some clear demarcation but because we have stopped considering our intentions towards ourselves and all other beings and have avoided concern about the consequences on Creation (and all that is within it) of our actions. Yes, the state of sin leads to hurtful actions and destructive or antisocial behavior, but let’s look past the symptoms to the disease.

Book Review: Unafraid

In this post, I’m reviewing the book, Unafraid. No, not the Adam Hamilton one that came out a few months back, a 2017 book fully titled: Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin L. Corey and Patrick Lawlor.

There’s something I really like about a book on theology (especially one oriented to the general public) when the best summary of the book is a verse of scripture. Here, it’s:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:16b-18.

This book is both an argument and a journey. It is an argument about how fear has distorted Christianity’s message from one of love and hope to one concerned with the avoidance of Hell, preparation for impending apocalypse and a focus on getting people to say “magic words” about their belief in Christ rather than calling people to actually follow Him. It is a journey about the personal crisis of faith that led Ben Corey away from fear-based, conservative evangelical Christianity and toward progressive love-based Christianity.

The quote from scripture above demonstrates the overarching point of both argument and journey: the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s fear. And, as Yoda tells us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Corey’s preaching to the choir here, so I almost put down the book when I felt I’d gotten the gist. I’ve written on this blog fairly extensively about ideas that I believed are shared with Corey: about the blessing that fear-based coercive evangelism can’t produce followers of Jesus (not directly, at least); about the backwardness of the religious right’s obsession with protecting their right to discriminate based on religion; even about the danger of prepper apocalyptic theology (albeit in a review of a video game).

Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck the book out. Not only was it a pleasant read, but I did learn a bit of history I didn’t know and the book gave me much to think about or revisit.

On the history side, Corey traces the modern, conservative strain of American evangelical Christianity and its basis in fear to John Nelson Darby, a lawyer and lay theologian (yes, the similarity here is not lost on me) in the early 19th Century. For Corey (and I think he’s likely right), Darby almost singlehandedly transformed evangelical Christianity from a positive force truly seeking to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth (by campaigning against slavery, for worker’s rights, and other social-justice issues) to a relatively oppressive set of ideas that taught that the world was getting increasingly worse and more sinful, not better, and that hope for salvation from the damnation surely due to the world (particularly through not-very-scriptural ideas like the Rapture) could only be found through (fear-based) belief in Christ and a turning away and condemnation of the rest of the world. This apocalyptic mindset led to the idea that only “saving souls” by getting them to confess belief in Jesus mattered–there’s no need to seek justice, be a good steward to the environment, or otherwise try to make the world a better place when God’s just going to destroy it all anyway.

Though we must of course allow for variation in the beliefs of evangelical Christians as in any group of Christians, and it is not for me to say what people in that category truly have in their hearts and minds about what they believe about God, Corey’s description does tend to hit the nail on the head when I think of most of the the most-vocal evangelical Christian leaders in our day and age.

At the same time, Corey warns us about the categorization of Christianities. For Corey, when we take our identities from being “conservative” or “progressive” Christians (or even as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc.), we create bastions of definition and meaning which we must then police and defend–leading to persecution of those who are not like-minded, especially when they try to claim membership in the same category as us. While categories may provide useful shorthand for understanding some of the core theology a person might have, Corey argues that it should not be used for more than that and that we need to keep our minds and hearts open to diversity of belief and the actual realities of individuals rather than using them to work out our own ideological and theological issues. He’s absolutely right about the danger here, and I myself feel a constant struggle (and failure, to be honest) not to fall into this trap.

Of course, Corey does argue for a progressive theology as a more genuine expression of love-based Christianity than conservative evangelism. As one part of the fallout from the crisis of faith that led Corey to progressive Christianity (from his conservative evangelical upbringing), Corey was fired from his position as pastor at a large church for, as he puts it, “hating guns and loving gays.”

Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the cathartic camaraderie I felt in reading it. My path to progressive Christianity was nowhere near so dramatic as Corey’s, particularly because I walked it much younger in life than he did. But the reminder that I’m not alone in having been raised on conservative Christianity (despite being raised in the Methodist church, I was raised in Houston, one of the most conservative conferences of the UMC in America. Further, those who often taught my Sunday school classes were not deeply theologically trained.

Overall, I remember being taught a version of Christianity that didn’t tolerate well the asking of questions and gave me an overall view of Christianity that nearly led me to leaving the Church permanently. It was only later, as I began to read and study on my own, that I understood that there were other interpretations of Christianity and, to my surprise, that much of Methodist doctrine matched closely with the conclusions I’d come to on my own. Now, even in the Methodist church I’m clearly on the liberal side of things–and proud of that, if I do say so myself.

Nevertheless, it was nice to hear someone else’s journey, to know that there are others with whom I have much in common (though I knew this already).

I think that Corey’s journey, and the arguments he makes along the way, are well worth the read.

Suicide: Fear, Loathing and Hope

This week, both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to take their own lives. I read an article saying that the national suicide rate has climbed 25% since 2000 and is one of the few leading causes of death that is on the rise. In many (perhaps most) places in the U.S., suicide is a much higher percentage of deaths per capita than homicide. Something needs to be done.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts on this site, I’ve had a diagnosis of clinical depression for about half of my life now; I know what the depths of despair that can be reached by the soul are like. But let me give a few more personal details about my own experience so that you can evaluate my biases and understand the limitations with which my experience speaks to the broader experience of depression as a whole.

I have never had suicidal ideation–the fears and despairs that shake me when in the grip of a depressive episode actively drive me away from believing such an action would provide any escape or comfort whatsoever. That being the case, I do not have insight into what Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain thought during their last hours. All of my personal experience seems to indicate that my depression is chemically-based–when in the clutches of depression, I cognitively understand that the thoughts I keep having and the feelings I keep feeling are not who I actually am, not what I actually think about those subjects, and not the way I know I should feel. Since I’m not a doctor, I cannot speak to the potential causes of depression except to say that I imagine that those people whose depression stems more from cognitive issues–that is, cycles of unhealthy thoughts and perspectives–more than chemical issues, have a much harder time of it than I have. I am also fortunate that currently-available medication provides adequate control of my symptoms.

Additionally, my depression has never fully prevented me from being successful in life–even in the long months of my first depressive episode before I was diagnosed and began treatment, I still managed to make all “A’s” in my college classes. Never has a depressive episode prevented me from my studies or from working effectively. So, it is safe to say, I think, that my experience of depression, while not to be discounted, has not had the severity of consequences that accompany the experience for many sufferers.

None of the above is the subject of this post; it is merely information for you to evaluate the applicability and credibility of the thoughts that follow.

We Christians need to be doing something that is affirmative (in all senses of the term) to help- those who suffer from depression–and those who survive and thrive in spite of it. For too long, the Christian approach to depression and suicide has been one of wilful ignorance, fear, and passive condemnation.

It is poor theology that has driven us to this, I think. The easiest aspect of this to grasp from the history of Christianity is the idea that suicide is an “unforgiveable” sin that necessitates hell for the poor soul who chooses to end his or her own life. To begin, the logic on which this is based is flawed: it is fully possible to begin the process of suicide and repent before it has been completed but after the point of no return. In such a case, the intent of the person and the genuineness of repentence are things beyond our ability to ken and thus best left to God’s grace and mercy.

A further logical attack is found in the issue of culpability. The will of a person caught in the maw of depression has been usurped, or at least corrupted. While so ensnared, the will of the person is not fully her own. This is not to say that the person does not choose as any other person, but that the perceptions on which choices are made may be so distorted as to increase the likelihood of choices that would never have been made by the person outside of the influence of a depressive episode. This being the case, we must sincerely question whether a person who commits suicide is sufficiently in control of her will to be held responsible for the action. Without voluntary choice, there can be no sin–to call an involuntary action sin on the part of the actor would be supremely unjust.

The issue of culpability is further confused by the action of martyrdom–is a person who refuses to take action that prevents him from dying committing suicide by an instrument that only happens to be human? I have no answer for this question, but my uncertainty leads me to believe that we ought to take a merciful view of those whose lives end so tragically.

Of course, such a position on suicide is also abiblical: The only sin that the Bible (cryptically) tells us is unforgiveable is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whatever that may be. Matthew 12:31-32. More important, I think, are Paul’s words that nothing can separate us from the love of God as laid out in Romans 8:38-39. Paul specifically mentions “neither death nor life” as things powerless to separate us from God.

The (above-described) old Catholic view that suicides were damned is well-known to us for the use of the idea as a plot device in fiction–the pain and suffering caused when a family member is refused burial in consecrated ground because he took his own life. This is an event based on history, of course, so there are multiple avenues for exposure to the idea such that we can say that an understanding of the meme is commonplace.

But there is a more insidious thought in bad Christian theology that prejudices us from showing the compassion we ought to for those who suffer from depression. Being a faith that grounds itself in the hope of a good God who loves us so much that God would come to us in flesh to be with us, we might easily fall into the trap of seeing despair as a sin against God.

You see, despair is a lack of hope and, as has been done by some religious thinkers, therefore a rebellion against and lack of faith in God and God’s goodness. This leads to the conception of the melacholic person (to use a more medieval phrase) as sinful rather than suffering. Or, to be more pointed about it, suffering precisely for that sinful rejection of hope in God.

My familiarity with this idea comes mostly from Early Modern (i.e. medieval and Renaissance) sources. But even in the Middle Ages there were those who argued for a natural explanation for mental illness–such as those who questioned whether some or all possessions were not really illnesses of the mind. Nowadays, I don’t think many articulate this kind of view–but I wonder about the extent to which it lurks below the surface in the thoughts of the faithful.

We have further stigmatized depression and mental illness in secular culture, seeing it as a weakness of personality rather than an affliction like other illnesses. We are quick to label people who commit attrocities we do not readily understand as mentally ill–some are content to label all criminals as somehow mentally defective. There are many negative consequences to this: first, it skirts the issue of culpability for people who commit crimes against others. Second, it allows us to avoid addressing the underlying social injustice that leads to some (but certainly not all) crimes. In the wake of new waves of school shootings, the very people who are adamant about keeping their guns simultaneously refuse to allocate resources to the assistance of those who need social assistance or mental help. This in spite of the many studies that dollars spent on schools save dollars spent on prisons or the anecdotal evidence that treating people better means that antisocial acts become less likely.

Even outside the issue of criminal behavior, mental illness remains a thoroughly uncomfortable issue for us. There are arguments–like those of Thomas Szasz, outdated and unsupported by evidence though those arguments are, that there really is no such thing as mental illness, only nonconforming behaviors that are easier to label as illness than to otherwise confront. There is the valid (but perhaps overemphasized) concern that mental illness provides governments and societies the excuse to use their coercive force on nonconforming individuals, a point on which Dr. Szasz (and Michel Foucault) provide some warning to us. But we are quick to turn these doubts about the particulars of mental illness into doubt about the existence of the whole thing, and that is unacceptable.

To be fair, the treatment of people with mental illness has greatly improved over the last few centuries. If you’re unaware of the origin of the term “bedlam” in the meaning of “chaos and pandemonium,” the word derives from London’s Bethlehem Royal Hospital, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, tourists could pay to view (and even further torment) the insane. We have (thankfully) stopped performing lobotomies. But we still have issues with medicating those with whom we’d rather not deal with the actual issues of their behavior, with refusing to help the least fortunate who have mental health issues, and with discussing the issue with much depth or compassion.

Where we, as a society, have corporate responsibility is for allowing our culture to create conditions that are conductive to depression. We push the wrong values–money, fame, power, material success, productivity and achievement as worth–that don’t actually make people happy. We actively create conditions that push people away from doing the things that are beneficial to mental health: from taking time to relax, to be mindful and thankful, to create meaning in our lives and to pursue things about which we are passionate, to focus on our faith and our relationships with others. We turn a blind eye to the injustices and oppressions that can, given time, crush both mind and soul.

As Christians, we can, and should, do more. In Methodism, we talk about the Kingdom of Heaven as both “a future promise, and a present reality.” Anyone who prays the Lord’s Prayer, asks that ” Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As I have argued and will argue, the Kingdom of Heaven is ontological, experiential and epistemological as much as it is a promise of exterior change–the Kingdom of Heaven is when all things are in right (and righteous) relationship with one another. That depends on interior life as much as exterior change, for relationships are ultimately bundles of meaning narratively constructed by the mind. When our narratives, our perceptions, our beliefs and understandings match with those God intends for us, we are experiencing some part of the Kingdom of Heaven–hence present reality. That experience necessarily drives us to love others, to work to make the world a better place, and to lift up those who are suffering–our doing so is participation in God’s promise of the future fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We must recognize that mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer, nor is it a wilful disobedience to God, nor is it easily remedied by telling the afflicted either to “pull himself up by his bootstraps” or “to trust God more.” Our role must be to offer succour to the suffering in any way that we can; to advocate for systems, organizations and practices that provide resources for those suffering from mental illness, to dispel the stigma that follows mental health issues and, ultimately, to put people first.


Sci-Fi Christianity, Part II: Mind Uploading and Mind/Body Dualism

For the previous post in this series, click here.

If you’ve read the second post in my sci-fi example of worldbuilding (to which I’ll likely return in the near future) or my highly-critical post of a certain brand of materialist science, you know that I’m highly skeptical of ideas about the “Singularity” and particulary prophecy about the future potential of uploading minds into computers to achieve digital immortality. Yesterday, as I binge-watched the released episodes of the second season of Westworld with some friends, I was reminded of this issue (though, if you’re as interested in both technology and sci-fi as much as I am, it’s an idea that’s never too far from hand). I think also of Altered Carbon (both the book and the Netflix show, but especially the book, to which I’ll return shortly).

For a short recap, here are my condensed criticisms of mind uploading as touted by Ray Kurtzweil and others.

First, we simply do not understand consciousness well enough to make such far-fetched claims with anything but wild speculation. The Kurtzweil paradigm assumes a materialist basis–that the mind is merely an emergent function of its underlying physical parts (i.e. the brain). This approach allows us to assume that replicating the (arguably) underlying material components of consciousness will lead to a replication of the consciouness itself.

To be sure, there are some scientific studies that, taken uncritically, might lead one to such a belief. In particular, Google has been working on “mind-reading” technology, which uses high-resolution brain-mapping to predict what a person is thinking about in more-or-less real time. Google has been experimenting with reading mental images and unvocalized commands. In the realm of images, Google’s development allows a sophisticated system to make guesses with high accuracy about what image a person is holding in his mind by looking at those brain scans. In command inputs, Google’s AlterEgo prototype allows someone to command Alexa or Siri without any physical or verbal component–with 92 percent accuracy (which is far better than the accuracy I get when trying to speak to either).

But when we look closer, these technologies are far more primitive than we might expect. For the image-reading programs to work, they must be extensively trained–by looking at particular pre-selected images. The brain scans of activity when looking at these photos are then used in a sophisticated game of “match” when trying to predict which image(s) the subject is thinking on. With AlterEgo, the system actually reads electric signals to muscles generated when a person mentally (but not physically) says certain words.

When it comes down to it, these devices are using highly-impressive algorithms, artificial intelligences (though not the sci-fi kind) and neural networks to read physical corrolaries to thought to deduce the thoughts themselves. I do not mean to sound like this is not amazing research and development, but it is not true “mind-reading” and it does not require an understanding of the dynamics between brain and mind. Nor does it offer any special insight into that relationship.

And that leads to my second criticism: We just don’t understand enough about the relationship between brain and mind to have any authority whatsoever to predict what is and isn’t possible in regards to mind uploading. It has been definitively established, I think, and cannot be questioned that chemical states in the brain influence experienced consciousness–my own journey with depression is a constant personal reminder of this. But there’s also a number of scientific studies that show that this is a two-way street–the action of the mind also affects the physical brain. Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain presents some evidence of this, as does the entire field of cognitive psychology. There’s nothing wrong with Kurzweil and his fellows speculating, of course, but a line is crossed when such speculation is offered as having been established on an indisputable and fully-understood foundation. Current science simply isn’t equipped to prove or disprove mind uploading theory.

Which conveniently leads to my third–and most important–criticism: we’re dealing with issues of consciousness here. Even without the kink in the hose caused by the thought of consciousness transfer, we already have no means by which to verify consciousness. We can test for the “symptoms” of consciousness–a la the Turing test–but we cannot definitively establish that any person or thing is or is not possessed of independent essence and consciousness. We do–and must, I think–for means of living life well and maintaining some semblance of sanity assume the full consciousness of other human beings (and probably also animals), reject solipsistic ideas and treat questions of what is “real” and what “actually exists” as fodder for creative fiction but not the sort of thing that should actually keep us up at night.

But when it comes to transferring consciousnesses as predicted by projections of mind uploading, we have no means by which to verify that such a transaction has been successful. I’m reminded of China Mieville’s Kraken, where a character and fan of Star Trek is haunted by the ghosts of all the times he’s killed himself using teleportation magic in imitation of the show. The difference is that we would never know if our “mind uploading” is just murder followed by the creation of very good imposters. That alone should be enough to keep us wary.

But this post is not (merely) an opportunity for me to rehash my criticisms of the idea of mind uploading, but to use this idea (in its many forms) to discuss mind/body dualism in Christianity.

Mind/body dualism is the idea that the mind and body are independent of one another but linked together somehow–they are not the same substance or material. In other words, the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the mind. This is in contrast to materialism, which is a form of monism (assertion that there is only one type of substance, material or essence) and the idea that the mind is merely an artifact of the activity of the physical brain.

For a quick example of mind/body dualism, let’s look at the novel version of Altered Carbon. In that novel, the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, previously served as an Envoy, a political/espionage/military operator tasked with handling senstive missions for the UN (which is hinted at being responsible for human government across planets). Note that the TV show alters what an “Envoy” is substantially. Because the fastest way to travel is to have your mind uploaded and sent as pure information before being downloaded into a new “sleeve” (slang for both “natural” and artificial bodies), part of Envoy training includes a number of mental adaptations and cognitive trainings desgined to make the Envoy especially effective no matter what sort of sleeve he is in. Though this does not necessitate belief in mind/body dualism, it certainly suggests such–it goes unquestioned that the uploading and downloading of minds creates an absolute continuity of consciousness and being–even being downloaded from an old backup means only a loss of recent memories, not a loss of self. If you would like to look at this approach in all of its terror and nuance, consider the effect on selfhood of dementia, Alzheimer’s or amnesia. For our purposes, however, Altered Carbon seems to treat the mind and body as separate–the mind can be separated from the body and rejoined to a new body and, because the mind half of the equation is the true self, the download to the new sleeve simple incarnates the mind again.

As a side note, Altered Carbon (both show and book) deals somewhat with Christian views on mind uploading and “resleeving”–though the book really only treats a conservative view that mind uploading (though apparently permitted by God under the laws of the universe) somehow condemns the person uploaded and downloaded to hell (regardless of their own intent or say in the matter).

The idea of dualism between mind and body is deeply entrenched in Christian thought, but I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that it is necessary to the faith. In the Old Testament, the Jews speak of “going down to Sheol”–a very depressive and Mesopotamian-style view of the afterlife as existing as a shadow of the living self that, at least in certain references, may be intended only as metaphor. Elsewhere, there are indications that an afterlife does await at least those who are righteous.

Certainly, in the time of Jesus the Sadducees taught that there was no afterlife, and some Biblical scholars assert that the idea of an afterlife developed mostly in the folk practice of Judaism rather than through the “official” theologies of the faith. I don’t find the Scriptures particularly determinative on this front–again we reference the Sadducees, but Jesus also points to the Scriptures as evidence that they are mistaken in the denial of the afterlife.

On the other hand, Jesus does not talk about heaven in the colloquial sense we tend to think of it in in modern American Christianity–as the place you go to experience the afterlife. Jesus talks about the Resurrection, and many passages seem to indicate that that Resurrection would be bodily and incarnate. At least some of the medieval theologians believed the Resurrection to be bodily on a restored Earth–if you look at the marginal illustrations in certain manuscripts, you’ll see wolves coughing up limbs so that they may be reunited with their owners in the Resurrection. If I am not mistaken, a large part of the Christian practice of burial (aside from being at least partially inherited from Jewish practice) is based on belief in the bodily Resurrection–or at least doubt about the ability to be resurrected if your body had been utterly destroyed.

Much of our dualistic (as in mind/body duality; dualism can mean a number of other very different things in religion) thought comes from the writings of Paul (here, for expedience in argument, I’m using “Paul” to mean the collective writers of the Pauline Epistles). There is much scholarship on Paul’s background in Platonic philosophy (i.e., the philosophies expounded upon by Plato) and the extent to which it influences his theology. I’ll just make a few points about this.

Platonic philosophy is staunchly dualistic; it posits a realm of the “Forms” where the perfect version (or Form) of each thing that exists in the perceivable (embodied) world resides. Everything that we experience around us is an imperfect instantiation (incarnation, we might say) of a perfect Form. The chair you’re sitting in right now; it’s an emanation many times removed from the perfect Chair that exists in the realm of the Forms. Perhaps the most famous explanation of this idea is in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul tells us that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” If this doesn’t line up well with the Allegory of the Cave, I don’t know what does.

Elsewhere, Paul makes much about the difference between flesh (often categorized as weak and sinful) and spirit (desiring to be more righteous but constantly tempted by the desires of the flesh). In Romans 8:1-4, Paul writes, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Paul’s words in Romans mirror at least some statements made by Jesus. In Matthew 26:41, in scolding the disciples for falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemen, Jesus tells them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Of course, the language above in context is not just about the disciples, for Jesus himself immediately goes away again and asks the Father to spare him from the suffering to come–it seems reasonable to assert here that Jesus is struggling with the temptation of his own Incarnation here, as he does before he begins his ministry.

As I said above, my own experiences have given me intuition that there is a divide (but also a dialectic relationship) between mind and body. And we’ve all, I think, had experiences of being young and hormonal–feeling the tug of fleshly desires against our better judgment. At the end of the day, it’s not a difficult argument to make that Christianity assumes mind/body dualism, with its focus on the perceivable world and the unseen God. Of course, there are monist (though not necessarily materialist, though there could be, I suppose) Christians–as a footnote, John Milton was one such. He believed that spirit was a more refined version of the same material substance all around us. To what extent that view is a matter of semantics, I am unsure.

Why does all of this matter? Admittedly, for the most part, much of the monist versus dualist debate regarding mind and body may be fodder for the theologians and not much more. At the same time, though, there are very complex issues surrounding one’s stance on such a matter, and some of these may affect ideas that directly impact how your order yourself on your journey to follow Jesus.

Here’s the rub: I think it’s far easier to make a mind/body dualism argument for Christianity (and existence in general)–this matches with my understanding of scripture, of Jesus, of my own experiences, and of church tradition. The existence of mind/body dualism should tell us that there is some important to that split and that both mind and body are valuable. We must remember, that, even as Jesus talks about the difference between the flesh and the spirit, he himself Incarnated as an embodied spirit in flesh as the crux (forgive the pun, reader and God) of God’s redemptive plan–a combination of flesh and spirit that God viewed as somehow fundamental to God’s plan.

And yet, there is a strong temptation to belittle the flesh and laud only the spirit. When we think of the physical world as a fallen, sinful, irredeemable place and only the spiritual having value, we are forgetting that God created the physical world, too, and called it “good,” that God created first bodies into which God’s spirit was breathed to create humans, that our goal in sanctification is not to mortify or disavow our flesh in embracing spirit, but to bring the spiritual heaven into being as an embodied physical heaven through our following of Christ.

Failing to do so leads to a failure to be proper stewards for the Earth as we’ve been called to, leads us to ignore the different experiences of embodiment humans because of perceived racial divides instead of celebrating that diversity as purposeful and meaningful but in need of greater justice, leads us to take a Gnostic approach that rejects the world instead of trying to heal it.

Yes, sometimes we may need our spirit to overcome our flesh, the mind to be over matter. But the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship between mind and body, spirit and flesh, just as the end goal is a righteous and proper relationship with each other, with God, and with all creation.

Let me attempt to bring this back to mind uploading. To really work in a meaningful way as the singularists seem to argue, mind uploading requires a dualist approach when it comes to mind and body. A monist, materialist, approach dehumanizes saying that destroying you and booting up a program that operates convincingly as you is just as good. The dualist approach, however, would say that the digital uploading and downloading of consciousness (assuming for the sake of argument that we could be sure of consciousness) is the severing of the bond between the mind and one body and the instantiation of the mind in another body, with the continuity of the existence of the mind providing the philosophical bridge that overcomes the third criticism I voiced above.

Even in such a situation, many dangers lie in even a dualistic mind uploading paradigm. We would risk seeing our bodies as fungible, seeing them as useful only for their functionality instead of what they mean as part of who we are. We would risk seeing all physical things as subordinate and relatively unimportant compared to ephemeral data–and this dehumanizes as well. We would forget to see the value of protecting things as they are–of healing what is–rather than simply replacing it. This is a direction modern society already pushes us; mind uploading technology would simple urge us farther down the path.

So, the mind uploading idea–especially in speculative fiction where it is usually accompanied by appropriate dystopic ideas and (often) a cyberpunk aesthetic–reminds us that we need both flesh and spirit, and we need to paradoxically hold the value of each in tension.

The UMC’s One Church Plan: Pragmatic Grace

The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops recently released a report after the progress of the Commission on a Way Forward, detailing three potential plans for the United Methodist Church regarding sexuality issues and recommending that one of those plans be adopted.

If you’re not part of the UMC, you may not be aware of what all this means; I’ll summarize briefly, and you should feel free to skip down some if this is all old hat. The United Methodist Church polity is governed by the Book of Discipline–essentially our canon law. The BoD describes our core theological beliefs, our social principles and devotes a great amount of time and space to the labyrinthine workings of the Church as a whole, from the governance of churches at the local level to the election of bishops to the various conferences and the operation of the Judicial Council for handling complaints agaisnt clergy for violations of the Discipline.

Prior to 1972, the UMC Book of Discipline contained the phrase, “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.” The UMC General Conference of 1972 initiated an unfortunate period of oppression of and prejudice toward the LGBTQ community. (As an aside: I understand that the language about homosexuality in Book of Discipline does not truly address the full spectrum of persons, identities and orientations that are included within the LGBTQ moniker, but for practical purposes, I think that we can treat it as intending to do so). That conference saw the addition of the language, “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching…”

If that condemnation were not bad enough, in the 1976 General Conference, despite an attempt by some delegates to remove the 1972 language, the conference passed three measures to ban the use of church funds to “promote homosexuality,” whatever that means, and added to the Social Principles the statement, “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage.”

In 1980, conservative delegates attempted to add the language “no self-avowed practicing homosexual therefore shall be ordained or appointed in The United Methodist Church.” On a positive note, the language in the Social Principles regarding same-sex marriage was removed, but replaced by a statement that, “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant…between a man and a woman.”

Further insult and injury occurred at the 1984 General Conference, where the delegation passed a change adding language to the BoD that, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” Coincidentally, the 1984 General Conference also added language to show grace to divorced heterosexual persons, recognizing “divorce as regrettable” but also recognizing “the right of divorced persons to remarry.” Strange that there was a movement toward grace on one issue but not the other.

I think that it is more hurtful than helpful that th 1984 language allowed LGBTQ persons called to ministry in the Church to serve, but only if they renounced any chance for meaningful romantic relationship–a sacred gift from God to which all God’s children are entitled.

Since 1984, attempts have been made to remove, soften, or change the Book of Discipline’s statements about homosexuality. The history of the polity shows that, since 1972, there have been advocates for equal standing and treatment for homosexual persons (and the greater LGBTQ community) within the church–but they have remained a significant minority compared to conservatives.

As the Church remained mired in injust and ultimately unjustified traditions of the past, the world changed around us. As a matter of conscience, LGBTQ rights have become increasingly accepted in the world at large. C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” comes to mind here–when our conscience tells us that something is an injustice on a visceral level without the need for an application of logic, we might do well to consider that the movement of the Spirit within us (and for Lewis, this is evidence of God’s existence and active role in Creation).

Other churches (the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church) have already addressed the issue–though it has lead to much difficulty and even a congregational split in the Presbyterian polity.

The Northwest Conference of the (U.S. Jurisdiction of) the United Methodist Church elected an openly-gay Bishop in 2016, Karen Oliveto. Although the UMC Judicial Council ruled that her election was a violation of the Book of Disicpline, it wisely chose to allow her to remain in her episcopal seat.

Young Methodists who are informed of the Church’s official stance see it as backward and wrong, going so far as to wonder why it’s such a big deal in the first place. Many young pastors I know in the UMC are in favor of full inclusion within the Church, but many keep their feelings private either because they are commissioned but not yet fully-ordained or because they fear (perhaps rightly so) that being outspoken on this issue will hurt their future appointments or take away from their ability to minister to all of their congregants.

I also find that many of the conservative laypersons on this issue are generally conservative in their political and theological positions, often such that they would be extremely surprised and frustrated if they took the time to find out what the UMC’s official Social Principles say about things like immigration, the environment, and abortion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this issue has become (at least since I have been active as a delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, but most probably well before that) a proxy war for the larger theological issue of Biblical interpretation, with conservatives on the homosexuality issue generally having conservative theological positions that tout the phrase “authority of Scripture” as a buzzphrase for their more literal interpretation of the Bible while those who are more liberal on the homosexuality issue (myself included) tend to put forward arguments about the primacy of love in counterpoint to the conservative position.

Of course, nothing is so simple. The phrase “authority of Scripture” does not really mean anything without a lot of unpacking, and it’s grossly unfair to say that theological progressives have rejected the authority of Scripture, though their approach to its authority certainly differs from conservatives. Likewise, the question of what it means to “love your neighbor” as Christ commands is also so complex that it’s unfair to claim of conservatives that they do not have loving intentions in their position on homosexuality either (however misguided, ultimately wrong, and actually based in fear I may argue those intentions to be).

With respect to the issue of full inclusion (including the performance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons), the conflation of that argument with broader issues of theological hermeneutics is not helpful, but only further divides us.

We should certainly, I think, see the divisions on this issue as heavily influenced by the at-large divisiveness and demonization of those who disagree that currently grips this nation. As Christians, that’s exactly the sort of thing we should be rising above, but neither side of the debate has accomplished this.

This is the context into which the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced at the General Conference in 2016 that a Commission on a Way Forward would be formed to offer potential solutions to the divide in the UMC.

The amount of time that the Commission and the Council of Bishops have taken in preparing their recommendations, though absolutely justified given the gravity of the situation and the far-reaching consequences of any recommendation to the Church at large, has given the various interest groups time to maneuver without them. The Weslayan Covenant Association and its affiliates have prepared for an exodus from the Church if there is any change to the Book of Discipline except for stronger enforcement against LGBTQ persons and those ordained persons who do not fall into that category but who perform a same-sex marriage. Even since the Council of Bishops has released its summary of the three plans being sent to the special called General Conference in 2019, the WCA has threatened to “pick up its ball and go home” if it does not get its way (the “Traditional Model” included in the three plans).

While pushing all three plans to the delegates of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops has made clear that a majority of them support the One Church Model, even if they really would prefer a more conservative or progressive plan to be put in place.

Under the One Church Model, the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline–including the prohibitions on the performance of marriage for same-sex persons and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” would be removed. In its place, however, would be placed protections on those persons who, “as a matter of conscience” refuse to perform same-sex marriages or to ordain LGBTQ persons.

The idea of this model is to preserve unity wihin the UMC (to the extent possible) by allowing ministry to be conducted “contextually.” More simply put, it allows local congregations and pastors to decide their theological approach to issues of human sexuality and gender identity.

I am disappointed that this approach will–as I see it–allow discrimination to continue in the guise of “conscience.” When the Methodist Church changed the Book of Discipline to integrate people of color into the Church, or to allow for the ordination of women, this was done in the name of social justice and did not give room for certain parties to claim “conscience” and continue to discriminate. I believe that the current issue is more analagous to those than different.

However, I recognize that, at least in a limited sense (without making this a broader issue of proper Biblical interpretation or the practice of love), issues of human sexuality and gender identity are not core aspects of our faith–no particular position on the issue is required to be “a Christian.” That being the case, I would rather remain in communion with those with whom I disagree (where we can continue to share ideas in hopes of better aligining our doctrines and dogmas with God’s desires) than to divide from them. If this compromise is necessary to do that, I’m happy to make that compromise.

I do believe that the progressive side of this issue will win out and that, eventually, there will need be no more arguments about whether Christianity is “compatible” with homosexuality. I also think that this proposal, while not the giant leap I’d really prefer to see, helps to move us in that direction. Most of all, I think that the One Church Model demonstrates the kind of “pragmatic grace” that puts people ahead of ideologies, an approach Jesus Himself employed: we can tell one another to “go and sin no more,” but we’ll love one another regardless.

The other two plans (the Traditional Model and the Connectional-Conference Plan) will lead to a schism in the Church. I don’t believe that that is good for our witness or for our congregations. Only the One Church Plan allows for grace to be shown one side for the other in a way that actually does move us forward. And the world definitely needs more grace right now.



Christian Marriage, Part III: The Great Metaphor

For the previous post in this series, click here.

In the two previous posts in this series, I’ve discussed Jesus’s hard saying in Matthew 22:30 (Part I) and an argument that broken marriages in the Bible often serve as a metaphor for resistible grace (Part II). Now, it’s time to turn to the higher level, more abstract and theological/metaphysical. I’ve been looking forward to this.

The Primacy of Love and Relationship

Here, I’m going to make the argument that the marriage metaphor as applied to God and the believer (or more generally to God and the Church) turns on its head many of the things we’re often raised to believe about God’s nature. At its simplest, the metaphor reminds us that God’s primary concerns–regarding Creation as a whole and each of us individually, is love and relationship.

You might think, then, “How is that different from what I’ve thought about the issue my whole life?” And in truth, maybe it’s not. If so, maybe you’ve already been to where I’m going now. However, for many fellow Christians I meet, there is a core assumption of Christianity that the role of the human is merely to worship and obey. Admittedly, I’m in Texas, where, as one pastor friend puts it, “We’re all closet Baptists in some way.”

The truth is, however, denominational aspersions aside, most Christians are taught that worship and obedience is humankind’s primary place in the universe. I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Benjamin Corey called Unafraid, detailing his journey away from fear-based theology to love-based theology and everything that goes along with that (I’ll review this when I’m finished with it). The focus on worship and obedience is greatly tied up with the image of the angry God, the entirely unworthy human, and the fear of Hell as an eternal punishment for even slight offense.

I am not arguing that we should not worship or obey God. The preface of the Eucharistic Prayer in most Christian denominations includes language similar to, “It is just and right to give praise to the Lord.” Rightly so, for our God is greatly worthy of worship and praise for all that God has done in Creation and for us. Likewise, Jesus tells us that we must keep his commandments (revealed to be “Love each other as I have loved you” a few verses later). John 15:10. We are told in the Sermon on the Mount to strive to “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Also in the Sermon, Jesus tells us to “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16. Both of these things should be important parts of the life of a Christian.

But they are not the prime focus of the Christian. One reason for this is a simple matter of causation–loving God and being in relationship with God necessarily leads to worshipping and obeying God. But worshipping and obeying God does not necessarily lead to loving God.

Additionally, let’s think about the nature of a God who created us simply to worship God. The word, “megalomania” comes to mind, and that clearly is not our God. Paul tells us that “love is not proud.” If God is love, God is not proud.

God is complete in and of God’s self (one of the reasons that God telling Moses to refer to God as “I am” or “I am that I am” is such a telling revelation). Because God is complete, God does not need anything from humans–especially worship. But that does not mean that God cannot desire, and in God’s desire for relationship lies the foundation of all Creation.

We can take a step back and see that relationship is a fundamental concern of God’s by examining God’s own nature (to the extent that such is scrutable to human minds). Here we find the mystery of the Trinity: one God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all consubstantial but distinct from one another. Theologians refer to the relational movement of the persons of the Trinity around one another perichoreia, a Greek word that translates to “to dance around.”

If relationship is fundamental to God, and God created humans to be in relationship with them, then we ought to search for a good understanding of what that relationship should look like. Here enters the power of the marriage metaphor.

Independence as Fundamental to Relationship

To be meaningful, a relationship cannot be coerced but must be freely entered into of one’s own accord. This is true in human marriage, but also in the relationship with God. God is not interested in the mere appearance of relationship (which is what we might have when worship and obedience are focused on above love), but true relationship, which requires love freely given.

I need not repeat the arguments I made in Part II of this series here except to say that the image of dysfunctional marriage in the Bible as a metaphor for voluntarily turning away from God establishes that humans have the ability to do so–they have free will and are not directly controlled or determined by God. This is logically fundamental to the existence of a real relationship between God and God’s created. By contrast, then, the positive image of the marriage relationship requires both the existence of free choice in both partners and love between them freely chosen.

The Trinity exhibits this dynamic even between its Persons. As G.K. Chesteron writes in Orthodoxy:

“It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemene. In a garden Satan tempted man; and in a garden God tempted God.”

In Gethsemene, Jesus prays, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but Yours be done.” Luke 22:42. In this short statement, Jesus asserts both some independence from and yet an obedience to or oneness with the Father. On some level, there is a mystery to this that human minds cannot entangle, but I believe that, without having to delve into Trinitarian conundrums, we can take this as a statement that meaningful relationship requires independence.

Independence and Unity

If good and righteous marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between God and human, what can we glean from the mortal analogue that is helpful? The most successful (and by that word I mean committed, happy, sacrificial and unified) human marriages I have seen hold in careful tension the importance of acknowledging and protecting the individuality of each spouse while operating in the firm belief that, joined together, the spouses are something entirely different and somehow better than either of them alone.

Paul treats with marriage in Ephesians 5:22-30, where he writes:

“Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the chuch, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church–for we are members of his body.”

Admittedly, there are a few issues here. Clearly, Paul had never encountered anyone with anorexia nervosa or body dismorphia. Second, he’s really mixing his metaphors between marriage and body/head (elaborated on further elsewhere). Perhaps most important for our purposes, his view of marriage seems to be well entrenched in the social hangups and cultural constructs of his day. Certainly, K and I purposefully omitted any reference to her obiesence from our wedding vows, as we believed (and still do) that equality between us is fundamental to our marriage.

Nevertheless, I think that there’s a good argument here that Paul is being revolutionary in his description of the marriage relationship for the context within which he’s writing. While he does not seek to abolish female servitude within the marriage relationship, he does make clear that, despite the lack of authoritative equiality wihtin the marriage, there does exist an equality of mutual obligations of one spouse to the other and the primacy of sacrificial love to the relationship.

Even if Paul’s words do not go far enough in dealing with equality in human marriage, they nevertheless work quite well for the metaphor of marriage between God and believer, where there can never be authoritative equality between God and human. Still, according to Paul’s description (taken as metaphor), out of love for us, God condescends to us (in the truest sense of the word) to be in mutuality with us if not purest equality.

We should also note that Paul makes the point that love (and sacrificial love at that) is the focal point and highest foundation of the marriage relationship. In Part I of this series, we discussed the arranged marriage system of Biblical Jewish culture. In arranged marriage systems, ancient and modern, the first concern in arranging  amarriage is the prosperity and socioeconomic well-being of the couple to be married. Surely, the parents want there to be a loving relationship between the spouses, but this seems to take a backseat to the foregoing concern. For Paul, though, love should come first, presumably even in the context of Jewish arranged marriage in the 1st Century CE.


So, if my arguments are correct, what we should glean from the marriage metaphor in the greater sense is the following: (1) that God’s first concern is relationship with the created and that this is especially true for humanity; (2) that such a relationship accentuates and affirms the independence and individuality of humans rather than telling humans to diminish themselves and wholly hide behind Christ to be shielded from judgment (though the injunction to strive to become more Christlike and to pursue santification remains as it always has with the only change that we should expect santification to change the individual into who God created him or her to be rather than pushing us into unoriginal and uninspiring conformity with all humans); (3) that love, as claimed throughout the Gospels, is both the foundation and goal of this relationship; and (4) that we should take from the marriage metaphor that our relationship to God is meant to uplift and celebrate humans just as we uplift and celebrate God.

In some sense, there is nothing whatsoever radical in these points. But at the same time, I think it’s clear that this metaphor calls us away from framing the relationship of the believer to God in terms of monarchy, fealty, obedience and faceless subservience. I would argue that this understanding calls us to a sort of humanist Christianity, by which I mean an envisioning of Christianity that celebrates humans as God’s good creation just as we seek to follow Christ to leave the stain of sin behind and worship and praise the Lord our God for the sacrificial love that God first showed us before we ever understood anything about our existence. In this formulation, God retains God’s rightful place at the center of our lives, as desire and focal point of truth, as the greatest relationship available to us in all existence, while giving us a positive view of ourselves rather than seeking the diminution of the value of humans to accentuate God’s holiness and worthiness above all else.




Ceci n’est pas un dieu.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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