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.

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.

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

 

A Rebuttal to Materialist Science

Yesterday, I came across an article (“Are you sleepwalking now?”) on the digital magazine Aeon that I could not help but respond to, because it seems to be such a patent example of someone misusing science to “prove” things well beyond science’s ken.

The article is here: https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering. It is well written and certainly thought-provoking, so it’s potentially worth reading on its own. More to the point, it is required reading for this post.

To practice what I preach, here’s my fair disclosure at the beginning, in case this is the first of my posts that you’re reading. I’m a faithful progressive Christian who believes in both science and God. As an existentialist theologian and somewhat of an epistemological pessimist (I’d say “healthy skeptic,” I believe that personal consciousness and experience is the foundational starting place of examining metaphysical questions. Hence why I might take the article so personally, though I think that my arguments stand on their own and I’m explicitly trying to go out of my way (unlike Dr. Metzinger, I think) to admit to what I believe that cannot be proved and what does or does not actually meet with standards of scientific inquiry.

The article was posted on the 22nd of this year by Dr. Thomas Metzinger, a professor at the university of Mainz, where he teaches theoretical philosophy with a focus on the philosophy of the mind (the subject of his article). He has written numerous books, given a TED talk and is undoubtedly a highly-intelligent person well-versed in the subject matter.

Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the assertions he makes in his article.

The article begins with what I can only describe as a masterful metaphor for the movement of “thoughts and ideas” from un- or subconscious to conscious, one that equates them to the motion of dolphins traveling at speed, occasionally breaking the surface of the water and often under it.

From there, Metzinger poses the questions he believes he can answer. He writes, “Philosophers of mind often fall into the trap of assuming that goal-directed, rational thought is the paradigmatic case of conscious cognition. But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them? Is it ever possible to distinguish between mental actions, which we can direct and select, from the more general category of mental events, which simply happen to us? In what sense are we ever genuinely mental agents, capable of acting freely, as opposed to being buffeted by forces beyond our control?” (emphasis Metzinger’s).

This question perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question when it comes to thinking about the mind. Experientially, I think that we can agree that we have thoughts that we would assert we have consciously and willfully called to mind and formed and those thoughts that seem to be generated spontaneously and inexplicably—in other words, the conscious and the subconscious.

The only complaint that I have with Metzinger’s formulation of these questions is the rhetoric that subtly slips in to begin his arguments from the inception of the question. On the other hand, this is easily forgivable as something most, if not all, of us are likely to do even unintentionally.

The next paragraph begins Dr. Metzinger’s tenuous assertions. Relying on the “empirical findings” of neuroscience and experimental psychology in mind-wandering, he asserts that, “Much of the time we like to describe some foundation ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth” (again, emphasis is Dr. Metzinger’s).

Here’s my first complaint: there is no description of these “empirical findings.” Dr. Metzinger does not explain what experiments have been conducted, whether they are peer reviewed, whether they have been replicated, what the specific results are—or, really anything other than that they exist and we should allow him to interpret them for us. This is not evidence; this is the basic rhetorical technique of asking the audience to rely on your authority as evidence enough.

The first sentence of the following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter: “Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naïve, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free-will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosopher’s call ‘personal’ versus ‘subpersonal’ processes (roughly, accounts of cognition that look at the whole person’s reasons and beliefs, versus those based on biological or physiological functions).” What!?! How did we go from “empirical findings” suggesting that there are a lot of subconscious activities going on to positing that we should look to a solely biological basis for consciousness? This is a logical non-sequitur in the extreme.

Nevertheless, the statement is revealing: it’s a 21st Century version of the “bag of chemicals” argument made in the early 20th Century (i.e., that all of our thoughts and actions are really the result of chemical reactions in body and brain without any real volition or self) so readily rebutted by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

Rather than solely referring to Mr. Chesterton (whose arguments should most definitely be read), I’ll point out a few of the specific problems: (1) lack of any evidence for this provided; (2) lack of consideration of the broader findings of neurological research (which I’ll refer to in more detail in a moment); (3) the solipsism and circularity of the argument (how is it that Dr. Metzinger is so special as to realize the falsity of the illusion and then to explain it to others by random chance of his own mental events)?; (4) the complete and willful ignorance of the human experience. We might phrase the last objection in terms of Occam’s Razor: which is more likely, that when we feel we are exercising our will we are or that there are multiplicative, subtler and (so far) inexplicable mental processes going on that cause this illusion?

In the case of neurological research that seems to point to other than a solely materialistic explanation for cognition, I’d point you to Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul in counterargument. In that book, Dr. Beauregard (a neuroscientist rather than a philosopher) explains how in certain experiments regarding addiction relief, it has been shown that the active cognition of the mind can actually alter the material function of the brain over time by creating new neural pathways. The whole topic of “neuroplasticity,” which is showing us that our brains remain more subject to change in adulthood than we previously thought, seems to cut against Dr. Metzinger’s argument.

As a caveat, when Dr. Metzinger says we ought to get rid of “black-and-white distinctions,” I think he’s right in that we need more complex and nuanced ways to think about the topic of free will as some interaction between personal volition and influence (or perhaps deterministic) influences. But this is nothing new in the philosophy of the mind (or theology, for that matter) and I’ve myself argued for such a position in previous posts. But when Dr. Metzinger’s seemingly-suggested resolution is to ignore one half of the equation entirely, we’re stepping backward instead of forward.

The logic further falters as Dr. Metzinger continues, writing: “As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination.” I would remind you that the dolphin story is a metaphor, by itself it cannot logically hint at anything except the to extent that it can be shown that the metaphor validly represents the things it is trying to explain (though this article contains none of that).

There’s a glimmer of reason after this, though, where Dr. Metzinger says, “Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behavior. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”

I’d like to point out in the above that Dr. Metzinger wisely uses the words “seems to be” to indicate that he is speculating here. The problem, though, is that despite these subtle hints about the actual logical foundation of his argument (being very slight), he presents most of his ideas as authoritative through the rest of the article’s language.

For sake of time and space, I’m going to skip a few paragraphs where Dr. Metzinger discusses the positive and negative effects of daydreaming. He continues, “My view is that the mind-wandering and the DMN [what he calls the default-mode network of the active parts of the brain during rest periods) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time” (this time, emphasis is mine).

Again, Dr. Metzinger begins with words of speculation (“My view is…”) but then makes assertions as if they are fact. He’s put the cart before the horse here by assuming that the idea of the self is an illusion rather than a reality. And he’s done that without any evidence whatsoever. It seems here, as I think has become fashionable for some intellectuals investigating the still relatively terra incognita of the mind, to assume a Buddhist sort of worldview and then force the science to fit that mold. But the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion is a religious and philosophical idea, not a scientific one. There is no defensible logic to starting with that assumption and working backwards. That’s simply not how science works.

The truth will out, as they say, and it certainly does in the next paragraph. Dr. Metzinger writes, “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’” (emphasis mine). It’s a little late in the game here to make that confession—honest scholarship starts with a confession of biases that are known to the writer and probably unknown to the reader so that the reader can read critically. I think that this drives home the disingenuity on Metzinger burying the language of speculation with such extensive assertions of truth.

But it’s the assertion itself that is so ironic—who is making the confession if there is no self? The sentence, under Metzinger’s argument, is itself nonsense. And therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the materialist approach to the mind—even the people who maintain that position cannot (and do not seem to try to) live as if it were true. The only way it is possible to interact with the world is through an understanding of self. That understanding may see itself as more or less connected to everything around it, but no one acts or thinks without reference to an “I.” If that “I” is an illusion, then there’s really no “I” to make the discovery that it is an illusion in the first place. Hence the circularity of this kind of logic.

To drive the weakness of Dr. Metzinger’s philosophy home, he then refers to “evolutionary psychology,” that perennial favorite of materialist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Evolutionary psychology is the field of making unfalsifiable assumptions about the development of the brain (and therefore mind) according to subjectively selected “societal needs” and then presenting those assumptions as fact. Dr. Metzinger joins in by arguing about the societal role of the “fiction” of the self, how “[h]umans have evolved to be a bit like method actors,” and asserting that “The self-as-agent is just a useful fiction, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.”

This statement is unfalsifiable by scientific method because consciousness and self are, by their very nature, subjective. And yet, Metzinger presents his assumptions as the inevitable conclusions of science despite the fact that true scientific method (nor basic philosophical logic) would touch such a conclusion with a 10-foot pole. Further, Metzinger delicately (and probably quite deliberately) avoids issues like the “hard problem of consciousness” by simply denying that there is one.

In a further bout of spontaneous honesty, “But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either.”

Metzinger is, for such an esteemed scholar, remarkably willing to conflate belief with fact and then to work backward from there.

I think it is sufficient to stop with a detailed rebuttal of Metzinger’s argument there, as the rest of the (lengthy) article simply repeats the same logical errors, rhetorical slight-of-hand and materialism as religious belief (in that it is the given from which all other inquiry begins) as science.

On the one hand, perhaps it is the arguments of the religious that have generated this kind of reactionary response. When we deny the usefulness of science because of religion (which, as I’ve often argued, we oughtn’t) it seems a natural (though not logical) response to use science to deny religion. And that’s really what these kinds of arguments are ultimately about (otherwise, why explicitly deny the existence of an immortal soul when the very argument makes such a distinction meaningless).

Frankly, I’m tired of it, on both sides. I’m tired of atheist materialists trying to claim philosophical and metaphysical truth through science and I’m tired of fundamentalist Christians denying evolution because the Bible doesn’t mention it.

To be clear, I have no problem with atheists saying that science leads them to believe in a solely materialist explanation for existence—they’re well within their right to draw that conclusion, even if I think it is the wrong one, just as some are led to faith because of their interpretation of metaphysical likelihoods based on science. Reasonable people may disagree, as we lawyers like to say. It’s when they claim that science proves their belief that I become offended as a person of deep faith who nevertheless is willing to make careful distinction between what science shows us (and often defers to science to inform theology) and what must be left to faith and belief.

At the same time, I’m upset both by the closemindedness and bad theology of those who question science based on Scripture that in no way asserts that that’s a proper (or even valid) way to analyze the world and the fact that, knowing I’m a Christian, many people with whom I’d like to have a real (and respectful) conversation about these kinds of topics will not listen logically because they somehow assume I’m that kind of Christian.

As I’ve said many times in the past, science is simply not equipped to answer metaphysical questions, which unfortunately must be relegated to the realm of belief, conviction, uncertainty and doubt. Let’s use science to examine and explore the material world, to learn what we can about all that we can. But let’s also admit when science is of no use and properly categorize those beliefs about the metaphysical as matters of faith, no matter who they come from, believer or not.

A Response to the Nashville Statement

Having read the “Nashville Statement” issued by the (self-proclaimed) “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (viewable here), my gut response is to respond with vim and vitriol, fire and brimstone—I am infuriated that people may engage in such hatred, fear and bigotry and yet have the nerve to call it Christianity.

However, the properly sarcastic response has already been made, so I would simply direct you to John Pavlovitz’s “Plain English” translation of the statement.

My intent here is to do two things: (1) provide a careful response to the language of the statement and (2) invite you to flood social media with response bearing the #againstnashvillestatement hashtag.

My response:

Scriptural Reference

I understand that the intro reference to Psalm 100:3 is an attempt to latch onto that conservative slogan “Biblical authority,” but the irony here is that in releasing a “manifesto” in the Nashville Statement presumably aimed at those outside their club, the CBMW has used a statement that could just as easily be construed against them—the member of the LGBTQI community responds by saying, “Yes! God made me this way, so who are you to tell me I’m bad/wrong?”

Preamble

The preamble opens with a lament that we live in a “post-Christian” society and that the “spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life.” I do not disagree with the fact that we live in a post-Christian society, but I see this as a failing of the Church as a whole to accurately be the disciples and ambassadors of Christ to the world, not as a moral failing of those who disagree with my own faith.

And in this supposition, more than the microcosmic debate about human sexuality, is where the CBMW commits theological crime. The Nashville Statement is a thinly veiled argument for a dying theology, one that I believe is dying because of its utter failure to focus on the most important aspects of Christianity and to accurately portray the nature of God.

Like many ultra-conservative Christian groups, the CBMW’s first error is to insist upon the Bible as the literal word of God; this despite the fact that the Bible never claims to be an inerrant and literal message from the divine and points elsewhere for the source of the authority of the Word of God—to the person of Jesus Christ. The fatal error here is substituting a dead book for the Living God. Vehicle of divine truth though the scriptures are, there is no way to justify making an idol of them that usurps the place of Jesus in our theology.

From a logical standpoint, the CBMW, like most fundamentalists, refuse to acknowledge that what they purport to offer is an interpretation of the Bible and that such a massive and sometimes idiosyncratic document does not have meaning uncolored by the interpretative preferences of the reader. To accomplish this, the CBMW and those likeminded must ignore both logic and the by now well-developed field of literary criticism. They must plead ignorance to maintain their position.

But the problem goes well beyond the denial of intellectualism—to maintain its position, the CBMW must deny any competing spiritual authority: it must deny the movement of the Holy Spirit through both personal revelation and life experience, Christ’s example of loving your nature without caveat or command to “fix” their sinfulness, it must deny the validity of persons whose sexuality conflicts with their interpretation—telling them that despite their feelings to the contrary, they fall into the LGBTQI community by choice.

“It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences,” the Statement reads. This is logical garbage of the basest sort. First, this statement uses the flimsiest of strawmen: the argument of the faithful in the LGBTQI community is not that God gave them the right to self-determine their sexuality, but that God created them the way that they are and thus God’s “design for human life” must include a spectrum of sexuality rather than a binary. The statement ignores the argument altogether. As an aside, I ask how often our Triune God has made existence complicated versus how often our God has made existence simple and binary—simply playing the odds of likelihoods militates against the statement above.

Even if the argument were that God’s design gave us the right to self-determine our sexuality, is that an indefensible position? Of course not; we spend most of our waking hours creating our selves: pretending not to be the things we are ashamed of, struggling to become more like the ideals we’ve set for ourselves and, for the faithful at least, endeavoring to become more like Jesus Christ. If God’s commandments to us are to love God and love our neighbor, there are nearly limitless methodologies for both maintaining individuality and complying with our marching orders. The choice of sexuality itself, then, seems to at best be morally neutral—it doesn’t prevent a person from loving God and neighbor. Still, that’s exactly what CBMW wants to argue, as we’ll see. And, to reiterate, all available evidence of which I’m aware—most important the self-reporting of the LGBTQI community—indicates that human sexuality is rarely, if ever, a choice.

To follow, in pseudo-cryptic expression, the CBMW attempts to maintain the position that non-binary sexualities necessarily “ruin human life and dishonor God.” No support is given for this statement and none is available. Further, the sentence indicates a very fragile image of God if God’s glory may be diminished by human action.

If the CBMW wants to condemn promiscuity, sexual assault, adultery and other aspects of human sexuality that are destructive to self and others, that’s just fine. But these items are all entirely separate from the identities of the people involved in them. This comports with the Bible, probably to the chagrin of the CBMW—all but two of the references to homosexuality in the Bible (those being Leviticus 20:13 and Paul’s reference to the same in 1 Corinthian 6:9) include some universally-agreed upon sexual offense—slavery, pederasty, rape, etc. Therefore, those scriptures that denounce the acts as immoral never reach the question of homosexuality because of the other act also described—the homosexuality may well be irrelevant to the condemnation.

By my judgment, aside from societal influences, a homosexual relationship really isn’t different from a heterosexual one, because people are people and the genitalia with which they are equipped actually means little in relational dynamics. Societally-constructed gender expectations seem to be far more influential, though it must be emphasized that genders are thought constructs not necessarily based in any objective reality.

The Statement continues: “This secular spirit of our age presents a great challenge to the Christian church.” Before I logically destroy this sentence, let me first point out the position that it comes from—a view of Christianity as embattled, a Christianity that imperialistically needs to suborn all others to it. That’s not the Christianity of Christ.

Logically, the causation is backwards. The Church is not where it is today because of outside forces secularizing in a vacuum—the Church is where it is today because vocal aspects of it (like the CBMW) cling to antiquated and ultimately indefensible interpretations of the nature of existence.

Again, the statement must deny competing sources of authority whole cloth to stand. C.S. Lewis described the conscience as a sort of “natural law,” the Spirit moving within us to usher us toward truth even when we are consciously ignorant of it.

In our age, conscience demands a cessation to the creation of “others” of any category, morality requires respect and value for all humans in equality. When these mandates conflict with the teachings of the Church, which will win? Natural law, every time. I’d argue that this is God triumphing in the human spirit in spite of God’s Church rather than because of it.

From this perspective, it is the failure of Church to provide a true image of our God focused upon the person of Jesus Christ that has pushed others away from Christianity. The rejection of an interpretation of Christianity that increasingly focuses on judgment, identity and supremacy and decreasingly focuses on humility, diversity and sacrificial love lacks the power to resonate in the human spirit—but the Truth of the Gospel is not victim to these things and, when experienced, does not fail. The problem, then, is that fundamentalist sectors of the Christian faith offend the conscience so completely as to cause people to become unwilling to open themselves up to the experience of the Word of God in Jesus Christ. The attitude of Biblical literalism—with its single agreed-upon interpretation of God and God’s design—seeks to replace the ineffably true experience of God with the puerile and emasculated dogma of man.

I’m a big fan of cyberpunk novels, and one of the most memorable lessons from one came from my reading of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. In the world of relativity in social constructs and morality, one of Stephenson’s characters explains that hypocrisy becomes the only means of judging another group—you can’t judge their ideology, but you can sure as hell judge them if they don’t act in accordance with their espoused ideals. To many, this is what the Christian church has become. Whose fault is that, really?

The preamble now asks, “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age?” In America, fundamentalist Christianity has been a prime force in the “spirit of the age,” not in a positive way. More important, why doesn’t the statement read: “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ become an instrument of social justice and equality, an agent of healing in turbulent times and a hand of mercy to the oppressed and downtrodden?” Priorities, people.

Ironically, the CBMW then attempts to set itself up as counter-cultural. Christianity is, in fact, counter-cultural in that it asserts that the things that have meaning in existence are not the same as the things that mainstream society tells us have importance. But the Nashville Statement is about clinging desperately to the cultural-Christianity of the past, where we made statements like, “You can trust him; he’s a good Christian man,” that served as cultural shorthand and an affirmation of the dominance of white culture over all others while having nothing to do with the declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the dying mainstream culture of an old empire, not the living water of the life-affirming counter-culturalism of love found in Christ.

The language of the third and fourth paragraphs in the Preamble is telling. It tells us that each person “owes” to God “glad-hearted thanksgiving, heart-felt praise, and total allegiance.” It is good and righteous to give our praise and thanks to the Lord, and as a matter of logic all things that are ultimately derive from God. But the insistence of a feudal paradigm of the relationship between God and man is not what Christ taught, nor how Christ related to us. Not much farther down the page, it is explained that the purpose of God’s design for creation is to bring God glory.

A God who needs anything to complete God’s glory is not complete in and of God’s self and thus does not meet with our traditional Christian understanding of the nature of God. A god who creates purely for self-aggrandizement is not the kind of god I am interested in worshipping. Fortunately, the One True God as revealed through Jesus Christ is as far from that as can be—our God is not about glory, but love and relationship. Why else go to the cross?

At this point, it’s not even worth going through the declarations of the Articles—these kinds of statements have been discussed and dissected ad nauseum. To me, the poor theology expressed by the Preamble says everything one needs to know about the Nashville Statement—that it is not reflective of the intent of our God and doesn’t even reflect a strong understanding of the scripture it asserts is paramount.

The ultimately irony, of course, is how self-destructive this text is. It serves only to cause people to believe that the ignorant authors of this drivel stand for true Christianity, to reaffirm the preconceived and inaccurate understandings of the Christian faith and the Creator God at is heart—to make our culture more secular rather than more faithful by portraying faith as backwards, judgmental, bigoted and fearful.

As such, I invite you to share your own thoughts about the Nashville Statement on social media under the hashtag #againstnashvillestatement. Yep, it’s a long hashtag and it really cuts into the characters you have to use on Twitter, but consider that an additional challenge (and try to show some mercy for the fact that I usually treat hashtags with as curmudgeonly an attitude as is humanly possible, so I am unfortunately ignorant in their best usage).

As a final thought, the Nashville Statement does affirm one thing for me—why I am passionate about communicating the theology I have developed over the past few years and continue to develop through the writing of this blog. It is my sincere belief (and hope) that the theology I offer here is cogent, logical, well-supported by both scripture and the person of Jesus Christ and that offers an uplifting view of both God and man in line with God’s intent for us. I hope that this strongly contrasts with the oppressive theologies espoused by groups like the CBMW.

The Meanings of Life

I fail to understand why people talk about “the meaning of life” as if there is a simple answer, monolithic and one-size-fits-all to such questions.

My own theological conclusions lead me to propose that we seek to regard the question “What is the meaning of life?” with a two-fold or perhaps even multi-part answer, because I believe that there are really (at least) two interrelated but separate answers to the question.

On the one hand, the example and teachings of Jesus Christ present us with an objective meaning of life—fulfillment through relationship. We are told to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

I think that we ought to treat this statement not simply as a command but as a revelation of the way existence works. Christ is telling us that, in seeking right relationships, we will find joy and fulfillment because God has created all things in such a way that relationships naturally and inexorably create joy and meaning while isolation and selfishness create unhappiness and pain as a matter of cause and effect. In other words, this is not just good advice, and Jesus is not simply preaching morality—he is telling us about the fabric of existence itself. This, I think, makes good sense—an omnipotent God does not need to resort to meting out hyper-specific rewards and punishments when God controls causality itself. Which is not to say that God could not hand out consequences to mortals specifically and directly, but my own experience leads me to believe that God is subtler and more elegant than that.

This understanding is necessary, but not sufficient, to fully answer questions about what meaning is to be found in life. Unfortunately, I think that we Christians often miss—or at least fail to communicate—the rest of the message. Worse, we sometimes suppose that the meaning of life is about us worshipping God—and nothing more. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and will likely continue to do), that explanation reflects poorly on our beliefs about God’s character and purposes and saps meaning away from human existence. Worship is good and right, but it is not the sum total of Creation. Relationship fills the universe with eternal meaning, but our loving God doesn’t stop there.

Look at the diversity of existence—of people, of things, of situations, of feelings, of thoughts, of interests, of possibilities—and one cannot help but find that our God is not reductive. So why do we treat the meaning of life in such a way?

That second part of the equation for the meaning of life is much tougher and is, more often than not, what people really mean when they ask about the meaning of life. What they’re asking is, “What does my life mean?” or “What is the personal meaning of my life?”

Those questions are not to be disregarded; God purposefully made us as individuals. The scriptures are full of passages reminding us of the importance of our individuality, our “selfhood.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul expounds on the goodness of differences between us and how, through both diversity and unity, we create something beautiful. This idea is important enough to Paul that it bears repeating—he first discusses differences in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and follows with the analogy of the parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

But Paul is far from being the first in the scriptures to describe the gift and wonder of individuality. The psalmist in Psalm 139 praises God, saying, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Here also is the reason that marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the believer (or Christ and the church). In marriage, two individuals become something greater together, at once maintaining their individuality and yet also creating a unity with a meaning and wonder all its own, the frustrating and inspiring “both/and” we so often find in Christian theology.

If you have read much of my other theological musings, you know that I take a distinctly existentialist approach to theology, borrowing much in my own thought from Paul Tillich. Tillich, and particularly some of his students, emphasize that humans are storytellers, that that is how we rationalize and assign meaning to our existence. While not denying the existence of absolute truth established by God (I would rather vehemently affirm it), I am convinced that most of our understanding of any topos is formed by relating that thing to all other things—by organizing categories and understandings in relationship to one another and thereby creating (or, perhaps, inferring) meaning based upon observation of those arrangements.

This state of being results in the situation I described in my recent post “The World and the World.” The idea plays into our discussion of the grand meaning(s) of life like this:

I have two major meanings in life—the meaning of my relationship with God (and by extension all of Nature, Creation and other Creatures) and the meaning of my own individuality. A macrocosmic and microcosmic meaning in close relation to one another.

There are some things that we ought to consider in our approach to the meanings of our individual lives.

We ought to consider the importance of free will. God gave us free will to use it. He gave us a macrocosmic meaning of life so that we might simultaneously enjoy free will and use it well. We ought also to consider the great space and freedom God has given us for personal definition within that larger and divine meaning of existence.

Considering these things, I believe that it becomes evident that the individual meaning of life is a conversation, not a question and answer. Within the bounds of the greater meaning of life to which God calls all of us is near-infinite space for positive and beneficial expression of self. While God has certainly created us with certain personality traits, preferences and dispositions, we also have a thorough hand in creating and defining ourselves through the use of our free will.

As a student of early modern literature, I frequently encountered the Renaissance idea of “self-fashioning,” what we would call “fake it ‘till you make it.” Even modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are more plastic than previously thought and that it is not just functional brain states that influence the mind but that the activity of the mind can, over time, “rewire” the brain.

This is why the personal meaning of life is a conversation—it’s a back and forth (as I’ve argued all free will is) between the ways God is calling you and the places God wants you to become yourself, whoever that specific self may be (provided that it is within the bounds of what is good and true).

The space here (and may own ability, I’m afraid) is woefully insufficient to even scratch the surface of these ideas with much depth. For now, I’ll content myself with the following proposals:

Our theology ought to revel in our relationship with God, the profound diversity of Creation, and the wonder of our call to be active, participatory and individual within Creation. We need a “theology of self” that uplifts humanity and inspires while still acknowledging the (matter of fact) reality of God’s ultimate sovereignty. We ought to continuously praise God for such amazing gifts bestowed freely upon us—and the redemption God has given us for when we (inevitably) misuse those gifts.

We ought not to look outward to the lives of others to find meaning in life. We ought to look upward to God and inward to the core of ourselves to participate in the eternal creation of meaning in the Kingdom of God—both the present reality and the promise to come.