Morality and God’s Choice, Part I: Divine Command Theory

(This is the 7th of 17 posts in my self-imposed “200 for 200” challenge. Send your friends my way!)

In thinking about the conflict over sexuality in the United Methodist Church–and the impending General Conference later this month, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about morality in general. This is in great part because many conservatives within the Church have made the sexuality issue one of morality in that they say that they cannot be in fellowship with those who support the “immoral” practice of homosexuality.

With that background, I’m not actually interested in discussing (in this post, at least), the sexuality issues before the UMC–there’s plenty of discussion to be had on that topic, which I’ve written on in the past and will continue to do. Here, though, I’d like to talk more generally about morality.

The Source–and What Does That Mean?

Most Christians will tell you that God is the source of all morality. I would agree; if God is the Creator of all that is, then it necessarily follows that morality in any absolute sense flows from God and God’s creation. For many, though, that’s the end of the analysis–or rather, the analysis goes like this: all morality comes from God, the Bible is God’s word, therefore the Bible contains the black-and-white guidelines to all moral questions.

If only things were so simple! I’ll be talking about the interpretive issues in such an approach in much greater detail next week in a special post. For now, let’s combine a  logical/philosophical approach with Scripture and see where that leads us.

I’ve written elsewhere a little about Divine Command Theory, the theory that underlies what I’ll call the “Simple Approach” to Christian morality. For convenience, the short definition of the Divine Command Theory is the idea that something is morally good if God commands it because God commanded it.

This is not really a statement of morality, though. It relies on the premise that the created has no right to question the Creator. That may be true, but it is a statement of power and authority one over the other, not one of morality.

Here is probably a good place for a quick break to talk about terminology. I’m going to have to use my own definitions to avoid the sort of circular logic I see in dictionary definitions of the terms that I’ll use. When speaking of “morality,” I mean those thoughts and actions that are “right” or “good”: for now let’s say that this means those thoughts and actions that are beneficial to others and not injurious (we’ll look at a more Biblical definition later). When speaking of “justice,” I’m going to use a common-sense definition of “equity and fairness.”

With this terminology, I’m going to ask a series of related questions:
(1) If morality comes from God, can God be moral?
(2) If the answer to (1) is “yes,” is God moral?
(3) If God is the source of morality, has morality become independent enough of God that humans could evaluate the morality of God’s action?
(4) If the answer to (3) is “yes,” what should our evaluation be?
(5) In light of the answers to the above, how do we determine what God has determined is moral and what is not moral?

Moral action requires free will–without the ability to choose one’s actions, there can be no praise or condemnation for actions taken, because the actor could not have done differently. With this in mind, going to offer two possibilities that comport with Divine Command Theory:

Divine Command Theory, Option 1 – Morality is Mandatory
In this possibility, we accept that Divine Command Theory is an existential truth, a law of reality that simply is, whether God wills it or not.

This approach is on its face unacceptable, for two reasons. The first is the logical necessity of will and causation in moral culpability. In this formulation, God’s action by necessity is moral; there is no possibility of immoral action. This removes any meaning of the word “morality” from God’s action–the terms simply stops making logical sense because there is no alternative and therefore there can be no distinction between moral and immoral.

The second is that such a statement undermines God’s sovereignty (the whole point of the Divine Command Theory in the first place). If God cannot act in a way that is immoral, than God is not impassible and some external force has a power over God, which seriously injures the commonly-accepted idea that the definition of God in the monotheistic sense implies that there is no higher power. Certainly, in the usual Christian understanding, such an admission is extremely problematic.

To be fair, though, I don’t think that the above is the intent of anyone making an argument for Divine Command Theory, so let’s dismiss this out of hand.

Divine Command Theory, Option 2 – Essential Nature
We might be able to salvage the argument made in Option 1 if, instead of saying that Divine Command Theory is a truth of reality that stands above God, we argue that Divine Command Theory is true because morality is simply part of the essential nature of God, therefore it follows that everything that God does is moral and the Theory holds.

Ultimately, though, we are faced with the same dilemma. If God is unable to self-determine whether or not God is moral, we have problem with God’s sovereignty. This is a distinction without a difference from Option 1–we’ve simply moved the mandatory nature of Divine Command Theory from the external to the internal. But, in either place, the claim that Divine Command Theory is inherently true raises the same challenge to God’s sovereignty by placing some restriction on the free and unfettered will of God to determine reality, internal or external.

Divine Command Theory, Option 3 – God is in Control
Under this formulation, Divine Command Theory is a result of God’s choice to create in such a way that Divine Command Theory is a fact of reality. This preserves God’s sovereignty in that it is the will of God that determines the existential fact of Divine Command Theory.

On its face, this option is logically consistent; it allows Divine Command Theory to be true while maintaining God’s sovereignty and God’s place as the arbiter of morality. For these reasons, if we rely solely upon our philosophical approach, we must admit the possibility that Divine Command Theory is true under this statement of it.

But there are consequences (as always). If this statement of Divine Command Theory is true, what does it say about the character and nature of God? Under this formulation, God has chosen amorality for God’s self. God would be amoral because it would be logically inconsistent to say that God acted or commanded immorally if it is necessarily true that God’s action or command is moral. Without a choice between the moral and the immoral, there cannot be a determination of morality because there are is no meaningful difference or alternative. As we stated above, it is the use of the will to choose between alternatives that makes moral responsibility possible.

The only choice between alternatives that God could be said to have made under this ideology is that God chose arbitrarily to be counted as moral. This choice is not so much a choice about moral action but a choice to be unaccountable to anyone (or anything) for moral judgment. God would stand above any concept of morality.

Again, there is no logical problem with such a reality, but there are some practical and Scriptural problems.

In general, the Christian understanding of God includes an acknowledgment that God is good. It is tempting here to use John 3:16 as a Scriptural support for this idea. For now, though, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and temper that understanding by reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:44-46, Jesus calls for his followers to love not just those who love them (which even the tax collectors do!) but to love their enemies. For Jesus, love alone is not the factor that determines morality–the choice to love those who may be difficult to love is a sign of morality.

That passage in Matthew in and of itself provides some basis for a Biblical definition of morality. In the last sentence of Chapter 5, Jesus tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sidestepping any trinitarian dilemmas there, is that a meaningful statement if we are to understand that God has chosen to be above any human concept of morality?

Likewise, what do we do with Jesus’ statement in Luke 18:19 that “No one is good–except God alone.” Admittedly, that statement could be true under the Divine Command Theory, because God could have decided that God is “moral” and no created thing is (because, of course, no created thing is God) in establishing DCT as a fact of reality. But think about what it says about the nature of God if that’s the way we read the statement. It becomes a reminder only of God’s sovereignty, empty of the hope that lies in a knowledge of God’s goodness.

To take a broader approach, can Divine Command Theory co-exist with most (perhaps all) of our theories of atonement in Christ? If as we trinitarians believe, Jesus Christ is God, and if God is necessarily moral and unable to be questioned on a moral basis by humans, do Jesus’ deeds really count for much as a poultice for the many misdeeds of humanity? If Jesus was incapable of immorality (whether by necessity or by will exercised at the time of Creation), could Jesus be the resolution of Adam’s Fall?

If God so ordered all Creation such that God could never be immoral, would God be just? From a standpoint of pure power, the answer is “yes,” because no created being has the power to question God.  But, from a human perspective (insufficient for a real determination of reality as that is) would God’s judgment of the created be just when God refuses to allow judgment of God’s action by the created?

I have referenced elsewhere the following quotation from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, but it bears repeating here. The character Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw says:

“For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour–you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. ”

Finkle-McGraw goes on to state that that’s not a terribly fair approach to apply to humans, who might earnestly believe the values they espouse but prove through human frailty to fail to meet their own values in their actions. For God, though, there is no such caveat. Regardless of the question of God’s morality, if God were to issue a moral command to humanity that God refused to follow God’s self, there would be an argument against God’s justice there. And we return to the point here, I think: if God chooses to be morally unquestionable by the created, then God has prioritized power and authority over goodness. God would be entitled to do such a thing (how could we resist it?), but is that the God of the Gospels? That’s a question we’ll try to answer in this series.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at Job and God’s response to just this situation–being questioned by the created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

For the previous post in the series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

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

For the previous post in the series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part III: Epistemological and Existential Problems

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The Epistemological Problem–Determination of Intent 
Unlike God, we do not see into the hearts and minds of others. The best that we can do is to make educated guesses about the state of another being’s heart and mind by reference to the person’s statements and actions. This requires interpretation and, given the unreliability in both our perception and our logic, means that we are never guaranteed to be correct about the intentions, beliefs, and will of another person. We can never dispel all doubt about the conclusion at which we arrive.

If, as I have argued elsewhere, the morality of a particular action is highly dependent upon both intent and context, misunderstanding either causes us to misjudge the morality of the action altogether. The likelihood for this is, in some cases, so high, that we are better off not judging at all–and this is what Jesus warns us of.

K argues that there are some cases in which a person’s actions and statements are such clear indications of malicious intent and sinful desire that it is unreasonable to disregard that information to refrain from assessing the sinfulness of the action. This is, in some cases, a very strong argument. As with all arguments based on epistemological skepticism, there comes a point at which, to meaningfully interact with existence, we must accept and overlook some philosophical uncertainty of our knowledge.

There are a few points at which I must push back against this argument however. The first is what I will call narrative privilege.

By narrative privilege, I mean the limited omniscience we enjoy when we create a hypothetical moral question for examination of morality. If I am the creator of the hypothetical, then for all intents and purposes I control the reality of the hypothetical. My determinations of the actor in question’s intent and knowledge are de facto, true. There is nothing wrong with this for the examination of moral principles to approach objective standards which we might strive to achieve or determine need refinement.

But a tendency exists to transfer this artificial omniscience to the examination of actual people and events. This mistake ignores the epistemological problem altogether, to our detriment.

The second point I raise is, in determining how to treat others, whether it actually does make sense to ignore uncertainty in our knowledge when it reaches a certain threshold that we might call de minimis. This certainly is the case with scientific inquiry, where we are stymied in any progress if we don’t accept some philosophical/epistemological uncertainty. But when it comes to determining our own moral behavior (i.e., what it means to love someone as Christ commands us to love), perhaps we ought to err on showing mercy and grace over judgment.

Third, the resolution of the epistemological problem of intent, if it is reasonable to resolve it, is insufficient (though necessary) to resolve the greater interpretative issue of what it means to “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Existential Problem–Sinfulness and Sins
I follow the epistemological problem with an existential problem, because it is partly epistemological as well. Existential thought is grounded in epistemological skepticism you see, becuase it accepts as true what all experiences indicates–that our perception of what exists and what actually exists are not always the same. To make matters worse, sometimes they are the same, or at least might be, but then how are we to recognize that moment of transcendent clarity for what it is?

In my post, Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?, I argue that there are both existential (state of being) aspects of sin and discrete actions that might be described as “sinful” but that categorical designation of actions as sinful outside of context is fraught with problems both philosophical and practical (some of which are also enumerated above). That being the case, how are we to separate the one from the other?

In other words, if we talk about hating “sin” how do we differentiate from the existential sin in which we are all mired and specific sinful courses of behavior? If the ultimate nature of our sinfulness is in our flawed ways of looking at the world, how can we separate that from a person’s character? Yes, we can trust that God is working within that person to change them, that that person may well be participating in that change and that one day, through God’s grace, they may be perfected. But until then, if we are hating something that is, like it or not, a part of us, how do we properly compartmentalize those things? How do we separate the love from the hate and keep them in proper balance? I’m not sure that such a thing actually exists.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the Psychological Problem and the Example of Homosexuality (as this statement is often applied to it).

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part II: Scriptural Problems

For the first post in this series, click here.

The Scriptural Problem – The Origin of the Saying
The saying “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” is not based in Scripture–not directly, anyway. The closest Biblical parallel is from Jude 1:22-23: “Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear–hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”

There are two points here that might allow for an interpretation that ends up at the saying with which we’re concerned: “save others by snatching them from the fire” and “hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”

Before I address those statements directly, I’d like to point out the problematic nature of the Book of Jude. The book was one of the more highly-disputed entries into the Canon, in part becuase of its reference to works that were rejected from Canon (the Book of Enoch in particular–if you want some B-movie fanfic of the Bible, go read the Book of Enoch). Jude’s reference to the other Epistles make a strong argument that the book (traditionally attributed to Jude, servant of Jesus and brother of James the Just) is pseudopigraphical. This alone does not mean its content is necessarily theologically unsound (this would be an ad hominem attack, after all) but it does caution some extra care in interpretation. While there is some consensus that 2 Peter and Jude are related, there is debate about which came first and exactly how they are related. But, again, none of this background information is determinative on how we should interpret Jude.

So, let’s look at the text. The phrase, “…save others by snatching them from the fire” certainly does allow the interpretation that the author of Jude is recommending calling other people out on their sin. But the intent, I think, is not clear.

The larger context of the passage is warning the believer to show mercy to others while guarding himself from sin. This interpretation fits well with the second statement–“hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” In other words, “don’t wear the effects of other people’s sin.” This is an inward-focused warning, not an outward-focused recommendation for action.

The inward focus of the warning comports with the preceding verses (Jude 1:17-21): “But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foreold. They said to you, ‘in the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.’ These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to enternal life.”

This warning, to guard oneself against outside corruption, to check oneself for sin that may be purged, is an oft-repeated warning in the Bible. It is a command of a very different kind than trying to “fix” your neighbors. One that, in light of epistemological skepticism and existential doubt (discussed below and addressed by the Bible as we’ll see), makes much more sense than the imposition of our own judgments on others.

The Scriptural Problem – Jesus’s Words
Jesus tells the parable of the “Mote and the Beam.”

It goes like this (Matthew 7:1-5; also in Luke 6:37-42): “‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The commandment here, is clear that our focus regarding the conviction of sin is inward, not outward–we must see to the removal of our own sinfulness before we can ever righteously address someone else’s sin. Given the absolute commandment not to judge that precedes the statements about wood and eyeballs, the parable strongly implies that we are not in this life ever going to be capable of properly viewing sin in others. I’ll address the epistemological and existential arguments that support this approach in a section below.

For the time being, I’ll assert that the parable above sits in contrast and opposition to the mindset espoused by the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” proscription because it may be impossible for us–either at the theological/philosophical level or the practical level–to hold both the folk platitude and Jesus’s words in sustainable tension. If that is the case–even if we view Jude as support for the customary statement–we must prioritize Christ’s teachings over competing views.

The Scriptural Problem – Jesus’s Actions
One of the arguments I frequently hear in support of the saying we’re concerned with today is in Jesus’s treatment of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). As a note, this section does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of John available to us.

In particular, they point to Jesus’s statement to the woman at the end of the encounter to “Go now and leave your life of sin” (as the NIV interprets it) as evidence that we might make the same admonition to others. But such an interpretation both ignores the rest of the passage and the special position of Jesus in making such a statement.

To the Pharisees who would stone the woman, Jesus says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” For us, as with the parable of the Mote and the Beam, our own sinfulness makes our condemnation of others problematic and likely impossible.

And let us not forget that Jesus is God–the One who has the power to judge and convict of sin. In God’s omnipotence God knows a person’s heart absolutely as it actually is. God is therefore positioned to tell a person about their sin in a way that we are not.

In the next post, we’ll discuss Epistemological and Existential Problems.

That Phrase You Keep Using–I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means… Part I: Introduction; Linguistic/Semiotic Problem; Emotional Problem

“Love the sinner; hate the sin.” It’s a common-enough adage, employed most frequently (as I hear it, at least) to endorse “convicting” other people of their sin on matters over which there exists reasonable dispute about whether the thing in question actually is sin. For me, as I’ll argue herein, the saying is problematic at best, and often nonsensical in its use.

As a note before I begin, I had an excellent conversation with K last night on this topic, and she provided some strong counterpoints to some of my ideas. I’ll try to point those out and properly attribute them as I proceed. For clarity’s sake, though, I’d also like to point out that, for purposes of this discussion, K’s points should be taken as her providing a loyal sparring partner with whom I can reliably test my ideas and not necessarily as indications of her own positions or belief. If you know her and want to know her views, please take that up with her and do not let me put words in her mouth that seem to commit her to a position that might not reliably represent her actual belief.

The Linguistic/Semiotic Problem
The overarching problem that will plague us throughout this discussion is one of meaning and usage of the words “love” and “hate.” This is because, Biblically-speaking, we have multiple meanings for both words (even without getting into issues of translation). On the one hand, we can attribute a moral statement to the words “love” and “hate,” where we mean “act morally with regard to others” by the former and “oppose all that is not good” by the latter. At the same time, we more frequently use the words to represent emotions towards others (people or things).

I have never seen a person use the “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” platitude and define what they mean by the words “love” and “hate.” Additionally, because this statement does not come from the Bible, we cannot do a word study on the intent of the Biblical author in selecting those words. There is no clarity.

This allows four possibilities: (1) both words are meant in the emotional sense, (2) both words are meant in the moral sense, or (3 & 4) one word is intended morally and the other emotionally.

I think that only (2) above is a defensible usage. The emotional use has no bearing on morality and therefore cannot be employed as a recommendation for (or justification of) righteous action. Both (3) and (4) are too logically confused to be sensible. As I’ll spend most of this post arguing, even (2) remains too problematic to be useful for us.

A sidenote of thanks to K for convincing me of the possibility of (2) being proper–though I ultimately believe that it is not. As smart as I am, it helps to have an equally-smart person remind me where I could be wrong!

The Emotional Problem
As said perhaps more succintly above, the emotional use of “Love this sinner; hate the sin.” is not helpful as a moral aphorism.

Our emotions certainly often do interact with our moral choices. At the best of times, our emotions are indicators of morality–this would be in line with what C.S. Lewis calls “natural law.”

But just as often, emotions push us away from moral action–how we feel about a particular person influences the likelihood of us taking moral action with regard to that person.

Action is moral or immoral based upon objective standards, not the subjective pull of emotion. The practical difficulty of separating emotion from moral choice does not change the fact that morality is not based on emotion at all.

See Part II for the Scriptural Problem(s).

 

Interim Report From Texas Annual Conference 2018

It’s 7:40 a.m. before the start of the 8:30 a.m. business session of the TAC on the second full day of the 2018 conference. I’ll be speaking in favor of one of the petitions before the conference. I figure, what better way to prepare myself than to write?

As it often is for me, the conference is a whirlwind of emotions and activities. I’ve gotten to reconnect with friends I do not see nearly often enough–including fellow travelers in Israel earlier this year. I’ve been inspired by sermons, reports and updates from the conference as well as the words of those friends. But it’s also a time of frustration and palpable tension.

I’ve described the Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishop’s recommended plan for the UMC–the One Church Plan–here. Yesterday morning, I attended a breakfast (attended by nearly 500 people) to respectfully discuss the plans with the Texas delegates to the General Conference in small groups. I understand that–especially as a lay person–I’m something of a nerd when it comes to the workings and polity of the UMC, but I was surprised about how little some of my fellow attendees knew about what was going on. This is especially unfortunate as certain interest groups and factions within the UMC attempt to manipulate outcomes and go largely unnoticed in such efforts. Some of the members of our conference are extremely gifted in the fields of rhetoric and diplomacy. Unfortunately, those gifts are not always employed in a way that is direct about the desired outcome. I’m used to political machinations being something I read about in fiction, set up as the backdrop for my own writing or roleplaying games, or that I am otherwise somewhat insulated from. TAC is the exception to that rule, and my involvement this year has given me access to more information about–and even participation in–those political gambits and struggles. But, the heart of our denomination is at stake here, so I feel obligated.

The highlight so far has been hearing Rev. Vicki Flippin, the Pastor of Social Justice, Exploring Faith, and Intergenerational Ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Village (in New York City) speak at the Reconciling United Methodists, Texas Conference dinner last night. If you are not familiar with her, look her up. Listen to some of her sermons. I certainly will be.

She started her inspirational exhortation by drawing upon science fiction–so of course I was sold (and K might have been sizing her up) from the get-go. She spoke about hope (finding and maintaining), conscientious resistance when our Book of Discipline doesn’t match the Gospel, and how narrative carries the power of change. Given my feelings about Paul Tillich’s theology and my own aspirations of professional authorship, these topics carried great weight with me.

This is tempered somewhat by what I hear about the conservative activity at this conference. For those of us who are progressive Christians, much of our goal this year is simply to let our brethren and sistren in the UMC know that Texas is not a monolithic bastion of religious conservativism. From what I hear from reliable sources, some (though I would caution about overgeneralization of this statement) within the conservative groups have labeled we, the progressives, as the Enemy. To my mind, that alone speaks volumes about the mindsets of the two sides (again unfairly generalized) and which interpretation is the closer walk with Jesus (when considered in toto).

Last weekend, after K’s graduation from seminary (I’m so proud of her!), I had a very good, honest conversation with my brother-in-law on my position regarding human sexuality within the Methodist Church. That discussion drew me to make a difficult confession, one that it is only right that I share with you, my readers.

I have chosen to prioritize the unity of the church over the immediate achievement of victory in regards to the justice issue that confronts the UMC. I am willing to compromise with conservatives to accept the One Church Plan because, despite how thoroughly I may oppose their theology, I wish to remain in fellowship with my conservative counterparts in our denomination. I believe that our ability to disagree and yet love and respect one another is a fundamental aspect of the witness we are called to in Jesus Christ.

But this compromise does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. The truest justice for those whose gender identities or sexual orientations do not match with mainstream social expectations is full inclusion and acknowledgment that they are children of God in the fullest sense of the phrase, without caveat or reservation, and that who they are and who they love is not a matter of sin, but a part of the uniqueness in which they were created; something that should be celebrated.

My stance asks the LGBTQ community to wait a bit longer for that true justice and acceptance–something they’ve been waiting for for far too long already. As the Supreme Court says, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Of that, I must confess guilt.

Yes, the One Church Plan will give us permission to do what is already right–to bless marriages born out of Christian love regardless of the sex or gender identities of the participants and to ordain those called to serve God in this Church without reference to their sexuality. But it does not give believers in those positions the full respect and acceptance they deserve, and it will explicitly allow the continuance of discriminatory and un-Christian practices by those who claim that “conscience” prevents them from treating the LGBTQ community as anything other than “less than.”

It is a hard path to walk; my heart aches every time think about how I’ve been forced to prioritize these conflicting convictions. For that, I ask for your prayers and your forgiveness.

Christian Marriage, Part 2: (Broken) Marriage as Metaphor for Resistible Grace

For the first post in this series, click here.

I’ve decided that it’s best to examine marriage as spiritual and metaphysical metaphor by breaking it down into several different “sub-metaphors.” In this article, I’ll talk about the image of the marriage–particularly the faithful husband and unfaithful wife–as a metaphor for the idea of resistible grace, with apologies to my female readers that I cannot write the above simply as “faithful spouse and unfaithful spouse.” The writers of the Bible were entirely (as far as I know) men, and the men of the Biblical era apparently had a lot of angst about what their wives were doing when they weren’t around. Maybe if they’d treated their wives as equals they wouldn’t have had to have been so worried, but I digress.

Resistible and irresistible grace. The Arminian view and the Calvinist view. In a nutshell, the question is whether man has the ability to resist God’s salvific grace. Under the Arminian view, grace is a gift freely offered by God, but it must be accepted by man, who has the option to refuse it if he will. Under the Calvinist view, God’s grace cannot be resisted; those whom God wills to save are saved and those who God decides not to save are damned, regardless of human action.

Arminianism runs the risk of becoming Pelagianism, a heresy in which salvation is worked out by the sinner himself rather than being received as a gift from God; but Calvinism envisions an arbitrary God whose sovereignty is not matched by God’s love, who is sometimes indifferent to God’s creation, who has left little of meaning in the lives and choices of man.

I think that the Calvinist view sets up an incorrect view of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, assuming that they are a zero-sum game. A God who is sovereign over all things may choose to forbear God’s sovereignty to allow free will to man–even in the matter of accepting grace.

There is a greater justice in this than in predestined salvation–the consequences for a particular person are based on the choice that person has made. This seems in line with what I’ll describe elsewhere as “natural justice.” More important, for a God whose desire is to be in relationship with the beings God has created, those creatures must be fully independent of God–without this, there can be no meaningful relationship. We’ll discuss that more fully in Part 3 of this series.

To take things a step further, I’ll admit that I believe that God never revokes the opportunity to accept grace from any person–before or after death. Once, I would have called myself a soteriological universalist (believing that all people will ultimately be saved). Without denying that possibility (and actively hoping for it), my time reading Barth has lead me to become an inclusivist–I believe that God’s love for us means that grace is offered to all, but that no one is forced to accept it, and perhaps some never will. I do not pretend to understand the details or mechanics of this–that is well beyond the scope of human knowledge. But I believe this firmly based upon my understanding of the nature and person of God through Jesus Christ. Let those who disagree say what they will–I’ve heard it all before.

Now, with all of this lead-in, let’s look at the ways the Scriptures appear to point to the existence of resistible grace in the relationship with God. In the Old Testament, we’ll look to the Book of Hosea; in the New, we’ll look to the marriage-feast parables of Jesus Christ.

It is potentially unfair to call the connection between human marriage and the relationship of man to God a metaphor in the Book of Hosea; it’s more of an analogy, really, given that the comparison is set up so intentionally and explicitly.

Here, God explicitly commands Hosea to marry the promiscuous and unfaithful woman Gomer as a symbol of the faithlessness of Israel to God. This may seem a surprising command, but in the context of the Old Testament prophets, we commonly specific action intentionally taken as a symbol of either what is currently happening or what is to come. Jeremiah is ordered to purchase a new linen garment, bury it under a rock and then go back and uncover it to show that it has been ruined as a symbol of impending ruin upon Judah and Israel. Jeremiah 13. Jeremiah also wears an ox-yoke as a similar symbol. Ezekiel eats a scroll and lays on his side for three-hundred, ninety days as a symbol for the years Israel has defied God. Isaiah walks barefoot and naked as a symbol of impending Assyrian captivity.

But Hosea’s prophetic action in some ways seems especially harsh–particularly if we look to the names he gives his poor children by Gomer: Jezreel (after the breaking of the Kingdom of Israel in the Jezreel Valley), Lo-Ruhamah (“unloved” to show that God will not show love to Israel) and Lo-Ammi (“not my people,” to signify a rejection of Israel by God). Nevertheless, God promises restoration and blessing on the Israelites in Hosea 1:10-11 and commands Hosea to go after Gomer and to accept her back into his home in spite of her faithlessness.

If we are to follow Barth (and more recently, Bejamin Corey, who advocates the same interpretive hermaneutic in his book Unafraid), and use Jesus as the lens through which we interpret the action in Hosea, I think the result is that we see the condemnation of Israel by God as the human side of working through the story–an attempt at theodicy to explain why bad things (like the Assyrian destruction of the nation of Isreal and the Babylonian captivity from Judah) have happened to God’s favored people (this in Hosea 2>9-13). Allowing them to portray these events as punishment for their faithlessness allows them to call these events righteous and just retribution from God without demeaning God’s character (at least, so the argument goes).

But when we read God’s words about restoring Israel (as God has commanded Hosea to restore Gomer), we see part of the text that conforms closely with the understanding of Christ advocated through the Gospels. In Hosea 2:14-20, God says,

“‘Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. In that day,’ declares the LORD, ‘you will call me “my husband”; you will no longer call me “my master.” I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will there names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with beasts of the field, the birds in teh sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.'”

Such density of meaning and metaphor in this passage! First, some linguistics: the word for “master” in this passage is “baali” or “ba’ally.” As we noted in the first post in this series, the word Baal (strictly defined as “lord”) is sometimes translated as “husband” in the Old Testament. The more common word for husband is used in the above passage for the word that is translated as “husband.” This linguistic playfulness accentuates the metaphor in Hosea–God by using “baali” refers simultaneously to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites in turning away from God toward pagan deities (or, perhaps more importantly, misunderstanding the nature of God and the nature of the relationship God wants with creation) and also addressing the divine marriage relationship in contract to the traditional social concept of marriage of the Israelites–God’s statement seems to indicate love and mutuality rather than patriarchy and mere obedience.

Second, some geography (and more linguisitcs): “Achor” means trouble. The Valley of Achor is where the Israelites (led by Joshua) stone Achan son of Zerah for violating the command of God and keeping spoils from the conquering of the Canaanites. Joshua 7. So there, too, we see the reconciliation of God’s people to God despite their past transgressions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but God then commands (in Hosea 3) Hosea to go back to Gomer and “Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

Which leads us to the argument that this image provides support for resistible grace. Note how God says that God will woo back Isreal–not with force, not with fear, not with majestic display. With tenderness and kindness. With gifts freely offered. By showing Israel the splendor of right relationship with God, but not forcing it upon them. We Christians often talk of God continuing to pursue us when we flee from God into selfishness, and we have good cause to do so. We would also do well to remember here that God is calling us back to a relationship that uplifts us, not one that denigrates us into mindless obedience. (To be clear, an obedience to what is true and good is somethign God wants from us, and, I think the natural consequence of falling in love with and seekign relationship with God, but this kind of loving obedience is different from the obligatory and feudal obedience preached by many Christians).

Now, let’s turn to some of the words of Jesus (and a few about Jesus). John the Baptist describes himself as the friend of the bridegroom who makes the way for the bridegroom, who is of course Jesus. John 3:39. In this statement, we see the marriage metaphor clearly conveyed from the Old Testament to the New. Jesus Himself does this when He tells the disciples: “‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.'” Matthew 9:15, c.f. Luke 5:34-5.

Jesus’s words above use the continuing adaptation of the marriage metaphor employed by the Savior throughout the Gospels: we are here described as the guests to the wedding rather than the bride.

I’ll treat two of Jesus’s parables here. The first is the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 24:36-51). This parable appropriately follows the statement that none but the Father knows the day or hour of Judgment. The virgins are a greeting party for the coming bridegroom (but none seems to be the bride, mind you). We are told that five virgins are wise and five are foolish. The wise take extra oil with their lamps as they wait for the bridegroom, but the foolish do not. All fall asleep while waiting. Upon waiting the foolish find that they have run out of lamp oil and must go to get more–during which time (of course) the bridegroom arrives and they miss it, ultimately finding themselves locked out of the wedding banquet! The wise, the parable reminds us, keep seeking for the coming bridegroom and make sure that they are not distracted in the search.

The common thread between this parable and the next is the concern over who makes it into the wedding feast and who does not. Here, those who have–not out of malicious intent but out of lack of discipline and preparation–fail to be ready at the appointed time are left outside the festivities (which seems a ready metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven). If this seems a harsh warning, I agree. But it is perhaps softened both by the fact that it is related to the preceeding passage (where the warning is to always prepare oneself for the end rather than planning on an expected timing) and by the message in the next parable.

That parable is the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which appears in Matthew 22:1-14 (in the same [artificial] Chapter as Jesus’s saying that we looked at in Part 1 of this series). The same parable appears in Luke 14:16-24.

In Matthew’s version, Jesus begins by saying explicitly that, “‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” Then we are told that those the king invites to the banquet refuse to come, in Luke’s version giving excuses about their worldly concerns that prevent them from attending.  In Matthew, those invited even go so far as to kill the king’s servants (for which their city is burnt and the murderers destroyed!).

Then the king (or owner of the house in Luke) sends servants to collect any they can to come. In Luke, the house owner tells the servants to “compel” those in the streets and alleys (and then further afield) to attend, whereas in Matthew they are merely invited. Matthew further tells us that the servants “gathered all…they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Matthew contains the additional (and odd) part of the story where a man not wearing wedding clothes is thrown out of the banquet and “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” and ends with the phrase statement, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

There is some difficulty in interpreting this parable because the two accounts of it vary in some important respects. Luke presents an overall “softer” version of the parable–there is no punishment for those who refuse to come (and neither do they do violence to the servants), there is no guest who is cast out, and we are told at the conclusion not that few are chosen, but that those who were invited (I think it’s safe to read this as “originally invited”) will get a taste of the banquet. Which version are we to believe is the more accurate to Jesus’s words?

At first blush, especially considering Jesus’s closing in Matthew, this parable appears to support election, not resistible grace. Not so with Luke’s version, which seems to favor an Armenian interpretation. I would argue that both, ultimately, require a belief that humans have choice in responding to or refusing God’s gifts (including the salvific gift).

Putting the passage in Luke in context, we find that it follows Jesus’s dining with a Pharisee and thus should probably be read as a condemnation of those who believe that they are holy and righteous but who do not actually respond to God when invited.

The passage in Matthew comes between the Parable of the Tenants and the question about paying the tax to Caesar. The former is likewise a condemnation of the Pharisees and the latter an (intellectual) attack on Jesus by the Pharisees.

And here, we see the common core of the passages–a dire warning to those of us who believe that we are righteous through our upholding of God’s ordinances but who refuse to follow the spirit and intent of God’s commands–loving one another. Put another way, taking this metaphor to its logical conclusion, those who do not love have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. This, I think, requires an understanding of free choice in responding to Grace for there to be any justice in condemning such people.

Thus, we see resistible grace as a foundational aspect of the marriage metaphor in both the Old and New Testaments. We’ll carry this understanding into Part 3 as we look to the metaphysical meanings found in the marriage metaphor for the relationship between believer and God.

For the next post in this series, click here.

 

Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.