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).

 

Salvation and Sanctification

In common Christian thought, I don’t think we often separate ideas of salvation and sanctification in our theology; though they are strongly related, I think it is far more helpful to consider each separately.

Let me be clear about what I mean with each term. “Salvation” means that we have been saved, of course. But from what? From the cosmic consequences of sin. If sin is a part of (current, at least) human condition, and if the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), then salvation means forgiveness for our sins and the gift of eternal life (see again Romans 6:23).

Because this is not a post focused on soteriology, I’m not going to try to hash out the details of salvation through Jesus Christ here. Volumes and volumes have been published on this mystery, and while I do have some of my own thoughts to add to the conversation, this is not the place.

What I’ll say, instead, is that salvation is not, and was never meant to be, the whole story. If salvation is a gift freely offered by God and freely received, and our free will is sacrosanct to God (as I have argued elsewhere), then it stands to reason that salvation, for all of the metaphysical benefits it bestows, does not act as a singular and final transition into exactly what God has called us to be.

I’ll rely on E. Stanley Jones to put it more eloquently. He lamented, “It is usually taken for granted that the goal is to reach heaven….But squirm as we may, and explain away as we can, it is true nevertheless that a granted heaven and an imposed hell hold the field in the mind of Christendom as the final goal….Heaven is a by-product of perfected being [emphasis mine]. The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life, Chapter 2: The Goal of Human Living.

For Jones–and I agree wholeheartedly–the goal of the Christian is not to engage in mere quid-pro-quo (which I described as a vestige of paganism in this post, but which just as well ought to be considered a matter of human nature) of the allegiance-for-heaven variety is a gross misunderstanding of Jesus Christ and his message. Jones tells us that the Sermon on the Mount gives us the true “goal” of the Christian journey–to “become perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

That, simply put, is sanctification: the long, hard process of seeking to make oneself Christ-like and therefore purified, sanctified, holy.

The first reason that I think it’s important for us to think about salvation and sanctification separately is that this partition shows us the true beauty of God’s plan. You see, it sidesteps the quid-pro-quo dilemma entirely. If salvation precedes sanctification, God has already given you all God’s gifts before you take the first step on that path; the only reasons one could choose the dear cost of sanctification (at least the apparent cost, more on that later) is for love of God and a true desire for relationship with the One who created all things. It is love for love’s sake, and our God constantly demonstrates that there is nothing purer, nothing greater, nothing more powerful or more meaningful than that. And this by God’s own design, for we are told that God is love. To quote a song by my favorite band, “the giver became the gift, all one.” The pursuit of sanctification and the pursuit of relationship with the One who calls us to be sanctified is the same thing, because loving God is loving ourselves and others, and the perfection to which God calls us is that of love. That God has taken away even the possibility of the quid-pro-quo from relationship with God demonstrates the nature of both God and true relationship.

If there is a reward to be had in sanctification, it is the thing itself. By becoming sanctified, we begin to see the world as God intends it to be, we truly begin to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven as a present reality, not simply a future promise. Joy, in the divine sense, is the consequence of sanctification, the realization of the way things ought to be–and how they one day will be. It is a state of being, not a thing that can be grasped. And thus, it lies ever out of the reach of the one who grasps it but crashes like waves over the one whose focus is truth. There is an inherent justice to that, I think.

An understanding of salvation and sanctification that gives value to both aspects of the Christian walk also helps us to address that age-old issue about the conflict between works and faith. Salvation is achieved by faith through the eternal grace of God, but sanctification takes the effort of the believer. I’d like to be careful here to make clear that I do not intend to transfer some Pelagian schema from salvation to sanctification. Though human will may be necessary to sanctification, it is not sufficient. First, it is God’s salvific and justifying grace that frees us from the chains of sin so that we may choose to walk the path of sanctification at all. God’s sanctifying grace follows us with us every day, strengthening us against the trepidations and vicissitudes of a journey that sometimes doubles back on itself, forces us to retrace our steps, gives us the realization that we have lost our way. Sanctification is a difficult thing; it is easy to accept, I think, that without God’s help it would not be possible for humankind.

An understanding that sanctification is an ongoing journey gives us a more realistic view of the faith walk in our lives, a view that relieves us from the guilt we tend to pile upon ourselves when we doubt our faith.

Under this schema I’ve described, we are freed from asking about a person’s salvation based upon their behavior. We might question a person’s seriousness about sanctification (though even that, I think, is forbidden to us in the proscription not to judge), but we cannot act as if someone’s behavior has removed them from God’s grace. Room is made for a sort of human grace here, I suspect–that we may acknowledge that even the best of us sometimes make sinful mistakes, but that we are all by the grace of God given the opportunity to make amends and return to the path of sanctification. And if God has given us such room, who are we to ignore it? In other words, this understanding makes it easier for us to love our neighbors.

It gives us space as well to understand that we do not have all of the answers, that we are all of us on a journey to greater understanding of and relationship with God, ourselves and each other. What the culmination of this journey will be, I do not know. But I do know that it will carry with it a fullness of Heaven that we cannot even imagine.

That salvation precedes sanctification also grants us relief from fearing the (lack of) time in this life we have left in which to become holy. If eternal life is a gift included in salvation, we will have all of eternity in which to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. This metaphysical arrangement is an example of perfect love that drives out fear. I don’t know about you, but I often feel I might need just such an amount of time considering the task.

 

A Christian Theory of Humor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.