The Ecstasy of Gold

I’ve been struggling for some time to understand how conservative Christians are able to maintain such dogged adherence to the ideas of ultra-capitalism without seeing a conflict with their faith. Ultimately, I think the only way to hold the two beliefs together is by not asking too many questions or examining very closely the assumptions required by the beliefs (either ultra-capitalism or their brand of Christian theology). This is my criticism of most conservative theologies–they start from incorrect assumptions and hold incorrect goals, resulting in theology that is doomed from the start, having never really grasped what God is about in the first place.

Still, I think I have discovered some of the unspoken underpinnings that allow for ultra-capitalism to thrive within the ideologies of (political) conservatives, and that an examination of these ideas compared to theological ones may be instructive.

Ultra-Capitalism

We should start with a definition. By “ultra-capitalism” I mean a modern approach to capitalism that: sees market competition as social Darwinism; this social Darwinism as the natural (and thus best) arbiter of success and social standing; self-interest and the profit motive as the defining characteristics of the human individual (and as moral prerogatives); as a corollary, associates economic poverty with moral weakness; assumes that those who have become rich have proven themselves both intellectually and morally fit to rule; holds personal property rights sacred over all other things; and bears a fear of and revulsion to social programs as allowing weakness to thrive, thus undermining the moral and social fabric of a society–and this in particular at the expense of those who have “rightfully acquired” their wealth through natural and all-encompassing superiority. It is in many ways Nietzschean and nihilistic, eschewing compassion for power. It is, in short, the economic version of “might makes right.”

First and foremost, it is the dogmatic belief in the “profit-motive” as the most defining characteristic of humanity. Thus, all people are seen as acting for selfish reasons to acquire money as best they can, with a division between moral methods of acquisition of wealth based upon ideas of “work” and “dessert,” and those methods of acquiring wealth that do not result from an adequate amount of work as immoral. Thus, the thief acquires money immorally, because he takes something earned by “honest labor” through the employment of “easier” means of acquisition. That the Ten Commandments dictate that “thou shalt not steal” coincides with this moral tenet, we need not look at the analysis that brings God (and us) to this conclusion, even if the rationale is different from the capitalist one. There is, then, the added result that the idea of thievery under the capitalist’s definition then extends to those who are on social welfare programs. Those who need food stamps, or Social Security Disability, or who would benefit from socialized medicine are getting material benefits for less work than is morally required of them to deserve economic gain, making social programs nothing more than government-sanctioned thievery. I imagine that, if you’ve read this far, you already understand that social welfare programs (like socialized medicine, even) is not the same as socialism. As an economic system, socialism means the collective ownership by the workers of the means of production, not the provision by the government of safety nets for all of its people–a method of providing for the “general welfare” that is a core element of the legitimacy of a government under “social contract” theory–though admittedly so is the protection of property rights, so we are left here with a dispute over what exactly the social contract is, how competing priorities under the social contract should be balanced, and, ultimately, who gets to set the contract’s terms.

From this starting place, the sovereignty of the profit-motive goes further. If there are those who leech of the system through providing the least amount of work possible, then my pursuit of self-interest and the selfish accumulation of wealth cannot be blamed, because no one is acting outside of self-interest and I am earning my wealth. This rationale justifies a moral insistence that my property rights are sacrosanct, that taking from me (through taxes, perhaps) for the basic needs of others who will not (cannot is seldom considered) earn for themselves is a fundamental injustice, both a moral failing and an insidious idea that will cause a nation to lose its overarching economic power and thus its place in the world. The belief here is that America is the best nation in the world because of its capitalism. Both the cause and the effect should be questioned.

Let’s look now at some objections typically raised by ultra-capitalists against criticisms:

One of the statements I often hear is: “I believe that the needy should be taken care of, but I believe that that’s the church’s role, not the government’s.”

This statement greatly amuses me as a student of history. Until the Christian reformation, the church did fulfill this function in western European society–but it did so by requiring tithes, indulgences, beneficences, the donation of land to save one’s soul and other forms of coerced re-allocation of property. In other words: taxes. At the time the Reformation occurred, the early modern economy was also developing. Guilds were transitioning into private corporations and “venture companies” designed to share risk between multiple investors (the predecessor of modern business entities), the obligations of traditional feudalism had already been replaced by a system of payments rather than personal service (so-called “bastard feudalism,” which, by the time of the Reformation, was converting even more to a system where wealth and nobility had been divested from one another instead of being tightly bound, because land ownership continually lost footing to new ways of generating wealth), and “middle class” (including the “New Men” of Tudor England) was rising. The modern idea of nations, centralized enough, organized enough to actually provide for the general welfare, was nascent, and though they remained mired at the time in arguments over the divine right of kings, the power was shifting from those with hereditary right to those with wealth earned by the sweat of their brow and the cleverness of their business designs, those who could afford to send their sons to the universities and the courts of law, not to become churchmen, but to become bureaucrats and wielders of political power in the name of those whose only entitlement was the fortune of birth

The misuse by the Catholic Church of its wealth provided an impetus to the Reformation (the extravagant lifestyles of those higher in church hierarchy coupled with a general negligence toward their spiritual duties and the reduction of penance to an economic transaction through the sale of indulgences), it also resulted in a diverse approach to economics by Protestant groups. By the 17th century, you had in England on the one hand the Diggers, who attempted to set up settlements with communal property and a focus on the ecologic interrelationship between humans and the earth; on the other, you had the Puritans: Calvinists (particularly of the Reformed tradition) who largely believed that the demonstration of a good “work ethic” and the accumulation of wealth were signs of status among the Elect, those whom God had predestined for salvation. There is much, I believe, in the Puritan legacy in the United States that resulted in the modern theologies that allow the marriage of ultra-capitalism with Christianity.

While religious organizations would conduct the majority of charitable works for centuries to come, religious ideas of the time intermingled with the rise of new economic realities to create a heritage we largely follow today–even for those who have forgotten the origin of such beliefs in post-Reformation theologies.

To step back into the present, the major problem with the assertion above about the “role of the Church” in social programs is that it really represents a desire of control over one’s wealth: “I don’t want the government to make me help just anyone; I want to get to decide who is worthy of helping.” This idea both maintains the ego-driven idea of comparative dessert while maintaining social power in the hands of those with money.

The second objection is that “no one will ever accomplish anything for society unless rewarded with wealth for doing so.” In other words, the ambition for economic gain is the only instigating factor for innovation, growth or achievement in human society. This idea is flawed for two reasons:

First, the pursuit of wealth in exchange for achievement does not promote the common good. The pharmaceutical and medical research industries (again, particularly in America) are a prime example of this. If we want to look at an egregious case, we need only read the history of OxyContin and Perdue Pharma, where the pursuit of profit led to the opioid epidemic. But there are many more examples to examine, because the very premise of allowing the profit-motive to control pharmaceutical development results in intentional harm to individuals. This is codified through the system of patents that protects new drugs. The argument goes that, if the developing pharmaceutical company is unable to make a profit on a new drug, they’ll never develop it, so we need to protect their discovery by giving them a temporary (but long-lived) monopoly on their discovery so that they can profit from it. This in turn results in life-saving medications that only some can afford, while we let the rest suffer or die. If we adhere to the ideas of social Darwinism and wealth means worth and morality that are endemic to ultra-capitalism, then we should have no moral qualms about this.

Take the Covid vaccines as an example. If those vaccines had been made “open source” so that they could be synthesized by any lab with the ability to do so without having to pay Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson for the privilege of doing so, would more people be vaccinated right now (particularly in places where people are not prey to misinformation about them but, for economic reasons, cannot procure them)? I think so.

The more insidious–but perhaps equally reprehensible–aspect of this system is that research projects are selected only with profit in mind. If there aren’t enough sufferers of a condition to make the development of therapeutic techniques or medications profitable, no research will be conducted into the condition, and doctors remain forced to tell patients, “we just don’t know enough about this disease/disorder to have an effective treatment plan.” While I’m not absolutely sure that the pharmaceutical industry actively pursues the development of treatments of symptoms over ways to cure disease, the aspects of the industry I am sure about make that a likely prospect.

The second problem with this argument is that it reduces human beings to economic units by assuming profit is the only human motivation. We can but look around and see that this is not true–we all know someone who has taken a lower-paying job to work in the non-profit sector because they believe in doing good, and many of us know people who have left one job for another that pays less because it allows them to have a better quality of life. Some of us ourselves have turned down good-paying jobs out of a distaste for the effect the particular company or type of industry has on the world at large. The profit motive is, in fact, a social construct rather than an inherent human quality, pervasive as it may be.

It is a curious thing that Puritan ideas (in general, there was theological diversity even within Puritanical groups) seem to have some coincidence with the ultra-capitalist approach to economics and politics, and not just because of the “Puritan Work Ethic.” The “five essential points” of Calvinism are often summarized with the TULIP acronym (for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints). The idea of Total Depravity pairs well with the idea of the profit-motive being the natural state of man, and the idea that those who achieve their wealth through hard work are likely the Elect (and thus inherently more moral) and those who do not are not. The ideas of justification by faith alone and irresistible grace, in theory and perhaps in an antinomian way, take some responsibility off of the choices of humans, because humans cannot affect their salvation.

I should note that my own United Methodist Church doctrine also espouses the belief in justification by faith alone as a matter of salvation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s my own belief that God has made salvation easy but sanctification difficult and, having heard a sermon by K this morning discussing the role of action in our faith (reconciling the ideas of the Letter of James with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith) I ought to admit in fairness that the belief in justification by faith alone does not, in and of itself, result in antinomianism or a rejection of the need for moral action. There are plenty of people of Calvinist doctrine (as there are of any religious faith or no religious faith at all) who are committed to moral ideals we’d likely all agree upon.

A Note About Happiness

As a quick aside, a few comments about the relationship of money and happiness. There is a study by Nobel Prize winners Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman that is often cited for the precept that “happiness does not increase for people making over $75,000 dollars a year.” That’s not what the study says. Deaton and Kahneman measured two things in their study, neither of which was happiness. They measured “emotional well-being,” referring to day-to-day feelings and experience, and “life evaluation,” whether people thought positively or negatively about their life as a whole. They found that emotional well-being did not increase for people making more than $75,000 a year, but life evaluation did increase with higher incomes. So, increased income resulted in fewer negative (and more positive) feelings day-to-day to a cap of $75,000 a year, but life evaluation continued to increase beyond that. To nuance this, subjective experience related to life and money seems to cap at $75,000, but people continued to more positively rate the achievements in their life if they made more. In a nation where we see income as directly related to achievement and worth, the latter is not at all surprising–but I also wouldn’t equate it with happiness. Emotional well-being, on the other hand, seems to be a more valuable thing (though I’m sure many scholars and psychologists have investigated or are investigating how life evaluation relates to emotional well-being). We should be weary of using this study (or any other single study) to make categorical statements about reality, but I think that, anecdotally, at least, we’d agree that money and happiness don’t necessary corollate directly. Certainly, Scripture tells us that repeatedly.

On the other hand, rankings of the “happiest countries” in the world tend to perennially place Northern European (particularly Scandinavian) countries at the top of the list. These are countries with high taxes, many social programs, and smaller wealth disparities between those with the most and those with the least. To my mind, they are a strong argument that taxation and social support do not result in the degradation of a society. On the other hand, these nations are also strongly secular, so an argument might be made on that front.

At the end of the day, while we should be striving to find emotional stability and contentment, and should be treasuring and seeking out those things that make us happy, the scope of our lives is much larger than that. We must consider what makes us happy and why, and whether that explanation is a moral one. We must also consider the value of our lives apart from our own personal happiness. If we are called to self-sacrifice for the good of others, as Christ beckons us, then we must believe that personal happiness is not the prime metric by which to consider our success in life.

A Note on Privilege

I came from a background of privilege. Less than some, but more than most. My parents were both highly educated, driven and upwardly mobile. We lived in large houses in the suburbs and I wanted for nothing. I attended public schools, but I went to the best public schools available. I was encouraged to be curious and academically curious from a young age, with frequent trips to the library, tons of books at home, and a number of trips abroad when I was young to broaden my experience of the world. There was never a discussion about whether I would go to college; it was a given, and my parents ensured that it cost me nothing to earn my bachelor’s degree. Though I choose a more precarious path out of law school by immediately establishing a practice of my own, I was able to do so with somewhat less fear than I might have had because I knew I had a safety net in my family should I fail. Indeed, the expected disappointment of family if I failed wore heavier on me than any worry about where I would live or how I’d get by if my business failed.

And so, I realize that the achievements I’ve had in my life, whatever they may be, are not simply a result of my own intelligence and personal will. I had parents who paved a way for me through their own hard work, but, perhaps more important, I had the fortune to be born into a family that had enjoyed some amount of wealth and opportunity for generations. It would be foolish of me to consider my success to this point in my life to be only a matter of what I “deserve” or have “earned.”

And so it is with many of those who currently enjoy wealth, power, status and privilege. To endorse ultra-capitalism and asset one’s dessert of property as a matter only of hard work and dedication lacks introspection, a view of the interconnectedness of all things, and short-sightedness. How can one say in a worship service that “all good things are gifts from God,” while secretly believing that every good things one has has been earned by individual effort alone?

Scripture (in Constrast)

Jesus gives us many warnings and hard sayings about money. “Again I tell you, 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” (Matthew 19:24). “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13; see also Matthew 6:24).

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that participation in the “kingdom of God” is an existential matter of sanctification, of coming to understand the way that God sees things, to see the rightful relationships between all things (see, for example, the post “Salvation and Sanctification“). Read this way, Jesus’s statement in Matthew 19:24 is not to be a statement about salvation, but about sanctification–those who love money above all else are that much less likely to bring themselves to adopt the priorities God has created for the world. The second statement is like the first (for another look at material wealth as an obstacle to spiritual freedom, see “Dukkha in Christianity.”) Even so, the warning is dire, and there are more like it.

But the point goes far beyond the effect of wealth on personal spiritual growth. It’s the reason that is that case. Put simply, worrying more about protecting what’s yours than helping others is antithetical to the Christian ethic. The second-greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). To allow the exploitation of others to amass personal wealth, as is the status quo in American business, is not loving others as oneself. To believe in the justice of a system that protects one’s own wealth at the expense of leaving others without access to healthcare, an economic safety net, or other basic aspects of the moral good and human dignity, is foolish at best, but more likely: it’s sin.

We are repeatedly called to protect the poor, the infirm, the widow, the orphan: the least and the lost. The exhortations to do so are not subjected to caveats or exceptions–especially not those that involve cost to those called to provide for them.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with personal property rights, with owning property, or with gaining wealth (though the early church described in Acts did hold everything in common, we’re told). It is the prioritization of one’s own status and wealth at the expense of others that we are most warned against. It is the amassing of wealth through unjust means–which includes exploitative economic systems–that is suspect. As Chaucer’s Pardoner ironically recites from St. Jerome’s Vulgate version of 1 Timothy 6:10: radix malorum cupiditas est.

For the Christian, this should not be a political question. Christ requires us to make sacrifices of our own as we are able to care for those without the resources and privileges that we have. The only argument for Christians to have on the subject is how to best fulfill the obligations to which we are called. Maybe social programs run by the government are not the best way to accomplish this but, if not, we ought to be stepping up to fill in the gaps without judging who is “deserving” of help. First and foremost, we must oppose a society so mired in the ultra-capitalist ideal as to continue to increase wealth disparity and economic injustice in the world.

The Mysticism of Metaphor

It’s been a hot minute, n’est pas? As usual lately, I feel like I have to open with apology for having become so sporadic in posting. I’ll continue to work on that. I promise that writing is going on behind the scenes!

Apologies aside, I want to return to a topic I’ve touched upon before. Consider this a random, “And another thing!” as I walk back into the room.

In my early series, Ambiguity in Scripture, I talked about the usefulness of metaphor in Scripture–that it allows multiple things to be said in fewer words, that it forces you to consider and confront alternatives, that it begs for interpretation rather than rote recitation. I want to drill down deeper on the power of metaphor in Scripture. In particular, I’d like to argue that metaphor is a microcosm of mystic existential experience. This is self-serving, of course, being that my own formulated Christian theology takes a (semi-)mystical and (wholly-)existential approach. That said, I don’t think that fact provides any counter-argument in and of itself.

For clarity’s sake, let’s start with some definitions. A metaphor is a rhetorical device that asks the audience to compare one thing to another by (non-literal) reference. For instance, Shakespeare’s “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet the sun.”

A simile is a subtype of metaphor using “like” or “as” for the means of comparison. Another example from Romeo and Juliet: “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.”

While I’m going to focus on metaphor, it might be worth giving a quick nod to its cousin, analogy. Like metaphor, analogy is a comparison of two things. Unlike metaphor, analogy usually has a more direct and explanatory relationship between the objects compared rather than leaving the comparison open for interpretation.

And now we get into it. Why is metaphor mystical? It is a minor synchronicity, requiring an act of engagement and experience more than intellectual decoding. In apologetics, and in particular in the context of whether a person “knows” Jesus, a statement is often made comparing intellectual knowledge (I can tell you facts about Jesus as presented in the Gospels) and more personal/experiential knowledge (I am familiar with the person of Jesus; I have experienced him). Such comparison is usually followed by pointing to the different words used in Romance languages to differentiate these types of knowledge–saber and conocer in Spanish, savoir and connaitre in French, etc.

This idea is writ both large and small in the use of metaphor. Intellectual knowledge only provides the barest of foundations for understanding a metaphor–for Romeo’s declaration about Juliet, I must know what a sun is for me to be able to understand what he means. But while that intellectual knowledge is necessary, it is vastly insufficient. Instead, I must consider the properties of the sun, its phenomena, if you will, to build a bridge between the ideas being compared. There are several consequences of this:

First, this requires direct engagement. There is no passive reception of meaning in a metaphor until we meet it head on, turn it over in our hands, place it in relationship to everything we understand. The best metaphors will allow different individuals to come to similar associations with regard to meaning, though I’d venture to say that each person’s meaning and insight are slightly (sometimes greatly) different in their focus. Were that not the case, there’d be no point in discussing metaphor as high school classes are forced to do and literature students force others to do. If the edges of the meaning of a metaphor aren’t rough, we’d just state the facts and move on, no need to talk about our feelings.

Which leads to the next point: the differences in the meanings we assign to a metaphor are deeply personal; they are borne out of the sum total of our experience, personality and inner life. They arise out of our very essence. In that way, the precise “feel” of a metaphor, those subtle differences in emotive reaction to them, cannot be fully communicated from one person to another. Language fails in a semiotic mess, because what I mean by the words I use to describe a metaphor likely overlap with but do not occupy the exact same meaning you ascribe to those same words. Metaphor itself, then, is deeply personal.

The very same slippage in words and meaning give metaphor its power. By divorcing our description from language and turning our attention to the direct comparison of objects in relationship to one another, we are freed from the constraints of normal language in finding meaning. It is this ability to reach toward, if not capture, ineffable thought that makes metaphor a truly poetic device.

This, too, is the heart of mysticism. Take for instance this definitions of the word from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary: “2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight); 3b: a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power.”

Every time we use a metaphor, it is a personal, existential engagement of mind and idea. I think it fair to call that mystical, without any need to resort to religious doctrine or belief. But this is a post about religion and theology, after all, so we cannot stop there.

Scripture is filled with the use of metaphor, from the fleshy: “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies,” (Song of Solomon 4:5) to the more profound statements of Jesus. Let’s walk through some examples:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). While often quoted for the assertion that only Christians gain salvation, the metaphor makes things far more complex. How is Jesus the way? What does it mean that Jesus is truth? What does it mean that Jesus is “the life.” The second statement must be interpreted in light of the metaphors in the first. Rather than provide you with my own interpretation, I’ll argue that the introspection forced by the metaphors here is the point. The believer in Jesus does not struggle with the truth of the words–this requires faith not intellect, a point underscored by the circular logic implied by questioning the truthfulness of Jesus’ assertion that he is truth. No, the introspection is one far more difficult–and far more necessary–to the honestly seeking Christian: what does all of this mean for me and how I should conduct myself? The use of metaphor moves us toward internal struggle rather than providing an easy criterion for the judgment of others.

As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s this “poetic truth,” this carefully-constructed but subtle message in the linguistic structures of Scripture, where I find the inspiration (with a capital “I,” if you wish) of the Bible–not in arbitrary authority ascribed to a narrow view of the text. But those are thoughts for another time.

Think of all of some of the other metaphors Jesus uses: “the vine and the branches,” “living water,” “the bread of life.” How about the similes used to speak of the “kingdom of God?” The kingdom of heaven is like: “a mustard seed,” “a man who sowed good seed in his field,” “leaven,” “treasure hidden in a field,” “a dragnet cast into the sea,” “a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old,” etc., etc.

By removing these truths from cold intellectual lectures and placing them within earthy extended metaphors using ideas that would be common to any of his listeners, Jesus provides a certain equality to his message. Rather than restricting understanding to scholars and academics, the use of metaphor makes understanding available to anyone with experience of the world to draw upon. Other than the ability to think abstractly, there is no special training required to glean meaning from a metaphor; the fisherman or subsistence farmer has equal access as the doctor or lawyer. I have on multiple occasions been humbled by the interpretations of Scripture by those I would not consider “intellectual” (for whatever good such a label is) who nevertheless–through the application of their experience and intuitive knowledge of “how things are”–provide understandings of Scriptural meaning far more profound than anything I’d thought up with my fancy tools of “textual” or “comparative” analysis.

There is, of course, a danger in this equality, for it destroys all authority outside of God. If we each have equal access to the truth expressed in metaphor, what right have I to lord over you, or to not start from a place of humility? That is undoubtedly terrifying to those who prefer order to relationship, easy answers to depth of feeling and experience.

But, the statement that the metaphor gives equal access to authority in spiritual understanding is not the same as saying that anything goes ie that we cannot know anything. As I’ve written in other posts, even when we may be unable to fully define the truth and mark out its sharp edges, we have tools to approximate as best we can. We can compare the internal consistency of theological argument, the way that it squares with Scripture, science and other sources of understanding our existence, and our own experience. My Methodist readers will see here Albert Outler’s “Weslayan Quadrilateral,” though the principle is not confined to any one denomination or expression of Christian faith.

Metaphor, both in the general sense and with particular regard to Scripture and theology, begins with experience and then transcends it, bringing forth from experience and creative comparison a liberation from the constraints of language and a passage into the freedom of abstract thought and intuition, where we may seek understandings concealed from us in the use of our more logical and formal thought. That is mysticism. It may not be the ecstatic mysticism of the unio mystica purportedly achieved by a handful of saints, but it is far more available to we less-disciplined souls. It is a mysticism that everyone can practice. Regularly, subtly, and yet not without profundity. And, of course, there’s the symmetry that this method of escaping linguistic thought is derived from analysis of the uses of language and rhetoric.

i invite you to reread Jesus’s parables and revel in their metaphors. See where they lead you in the search for understanding that surpasses mere words. Consider it an alternative form of lectio divina, if you like.

I Want to Believe

[Warning: There are spoilers in this post, particularly for Netflix’s Crime Scene: Disappearance at the Cecil Hotel.]

I’m a big fan of paranormal stuff. I love the X-Files and listening to paranormal podcasts (Astonishing Legends, Lore and the Cryptonaut Podcast being my favorites in the genre).

But I’m also a big skeptic. What draws my interest to the paranormal is not really a belief in the existence of most of the things that are described, but a love of the stories themselves. I’m often listening for the seeds of something to include in worldbuilding or fiction, where the “reality” of an event or phenomenon doesn’t really matter. If you’d like some examples of my skepticism, I’ve placed some of my personal conclusions on popularly-discussed topics below.1

I’m inclined to disbelieve the supernatural (or extraterrestrial/”ultraterrestrial”) nature of such phenomena. I’m fascinated by the propensity of humans to misinterpret, misremember and create narrative out of unrelated details, as well as the ideas and “memes” that gain widespread cultural traction. And, of course, the stories.

A great example: the disappearance and tragic death of Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel (as recently documented on Netflix). I remember seeing the video of Ms. Lam in the elevator on the internet, pitched as evidence of something (never quite defined) that was “supernatural,” and remember it being cited in the description of a “Bloody Mary”-like game played with an elevator (this may have been Astonishing Legends or Cryptonaut, if memory serves). Just some of hundreds of ways that video (which seemed eerier because the police had slowed it down in hopes that that would make it easier to recognize the person in it before they released it to the public) was pointed to as “evidence” of the supernatural. But it wasn’t: it was a recording of someone with very real mental health issues in the throes of a delusional break that tragically led to her death.

But part of me wants to believe: the world would be more interesting if we were being visited by extraterrestrials and dimensional-traveling bigfoots and mothmen, being regularly haunted by the spirits of the deceased and influenced by supernatural forces that interact with us in unseen ways. If I’m mostly Scully, I’m a little Mulder, too.

And, given my general epistemological skepticism, I’m willing to leave the possibilities open. Even as I vehemently disagree with ancient alien theories as based in racism and a lack of understanding that humans 4,000 years ago were just as intelligent as humans today (if lacking the benefit of the additional millennia of experimentation and gathered knowledge we enjoy), I do admit the possibility that Earth has at some time been visited by intelligent life from other planets. At the end of the day, I wasn’t there and I cannot be sure what actually happened. I realize that and admit that; while I defer to skeptical assessments, I’m not so arrogant as to assume my suppositions couldn’t be incorrect.

Alright, what the hell is all of this about, really? In listening to these podcasts and watching these shows, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my religious faith differs (or doesn’t) from the fervent belief of many in the supernatural nature of these phenomena. I’m reminded of a Dan Bern song, “Talkin Alien Abduction Blues,” which includes the lyrics: “But once a week I meet with twelve/Other folks who’ve been abducted too/I tell my story/They tell theirs/I don’t believe them, though.”2

Funny because it’s true, maybe. My faith in Christianity, ultimately, is a belief in the supernatural. Is it different from belief in more “folkloric” topics I’ve described above? The knee-jerk Christian reaction is: “Of course, it is; how dare you!” The knee-jerk atheist reaction is: “Of course it’s not; just one more delusion.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long (or have heard my wife speak about me), you know that “it’s a bit more nuanced then that” would be my motto, if I had one.

But what, if anything, makes them different? I’m going to lay out my own thoughts (perhaps arguments) here, but they are for you to agree with or deny as you will. Go ahead; I won’t know the difference.

How are the subjects alike?

Belief, Lack of Evidence, Personal Experience
The very thing that raises the question at all is the combination that: (1) there are people who believe in either the paranormal or religion, and (2) there is insufficient evidence–and, when it comes down to it, no real methodology–for proving the objective existence of either.2 And yet, there are people whose personal experiences (myself included) have led to a staunch belief in one or the other (or both).

But we know that experiences may be deceiving. Our perceptions sometimes lie, we often see what we want to see, and memories can be problematic (we see this most often in inconsistent bystander accounts of the same event, but a far more dramatic demonstration is the false memories “recovered” from children during the Satanic Panic of the 80’s).

Proof Remains a Possibility
At the same time, the possibility of one day having undeniable proof of the truth of these beliefs remains open. It is possible that, someday, someone will catch a sasquatch, or capture an alien or their craft, that the Ark of the Covenant will be discovered, or that Jesus will come again. This possibility lends a weight to beliefs that leads people to focus on seeking that proof over understanding the meaning of the beliefs. In the case of the paranormal, the former may be the proper focus; in the case of the latter, I’ve argued (and will continue to) that the meaning of the beliefs is more important than proving them.

Reliant on Core Assumptions
Another way that these ideas share a background for comparison is that they both tend to rely on assumptions about the way existence works. In the case of Christianity, there is a foundational belief that there is a spiritual reality and purpose to the world we experience. Without that belief, there is no need to examine whether Christianity might accurately describe reality. Likewise, without a belief that some part of a human being survives death, there’s no need to investigate ghosts or EVPs.

How Might We Separate the Types of Belief?

Objective Reality
If we’re going to believe in the existence of any objective truth to existential realities (which I do), then there is, perhaps, a simple answer: something is true or not regardless of whether I (or anyone else) believe. So, then, it is possible for one thing to be true (“Black-Eyed Kids” for example) and the other (Christ’s resurrection) to be false. As stated above, the issue is not one of the truth, but of our inability to demonstrably demonstrate the truth. We are, at the end of the day, left with choosing to believe in one or the other based on experience, logical thought and what (fragmentary) objective evidence we have.

As an aside on this topic, some aspects of the supernatural may be falsifiable in the local event because they are revealed to have been a hoax. For example, the table rappings and Spiritualist performances of the Fox sisters. But such revealed hoaxes don’t answer questions about the phenomenon as a whole–disproving the Fox sisters doesn’t disprove the ideas of Spiritualism. Of course, as hoaxes mount in a particular field, we are, probably rightfully, more and more inclined not to believe in the claims and assertions of that specific field or idea.

Internal Consistency
Without an ability to test the objective truth of our beliefs, or to truly share those experiences we might have had that convict us of our beliefs, one of the remaining tools to test these sorts of ideas (whether religious or paranormal) is the internal consistency of the details of the idea. The more speculation a narrative requires to answer the questions of “why is this happening” or “why is this happening this way?”, the less believable it is. This is true of both fiction and stories purported to be truthful. Where supposition about the nature of reality is necessary to fill these gaps, faith and belief in the paranormal are similar. Where a lot of gap-filling is necessary to make the story make sense as a cohesive narrative, we have an even greater issue. This happens quite a bit in alien encounters, where the story often involves a lot of “why would they [the aliens] do that, or need to do that”, “why would the aliens be confused by X when they have technology that allows them to safely and [presumably] quickly traverse the cosmos?”, “what’s the point of that encounter at all?”

As a set of disparate individual stories, cobbled together to form some sort of cohesion in the lore of Ufology, there is, naturally, a good deal of confusion and contradiction between the ideas themselves–making for, at least, a lot of passionate and fascinating argument about what “is really going on.”

I’ve argued elsewhere that Christianity, taken as a whole, presents a very coherent argument about the nature and meaning of reality. Yes, there are contradictions in the scriptures. Yes, they were also created in different times and places by different people. But together, we are given a cogent depiction of a creator God who is interested in love, goodness, and relationship over black and white rules, and who is willing to sacrifice and to stand with creation in the pursuit of those things. Even if on a narrative and intuitive level, the thrust of Christianity as a set of beliefs just seems to have much more substance than most paranormal “theories.” To me, this is the result of Christian scriptures being “God-breathed,” not a demand for dogged literalism.

And, yes, there are (myself included!) lots of people arguing about Christianity. The difference from most paranormal arguments, though, is that arguments between believers are less focused on “what is going on”–which is largely a settled matter of the faith–and more on, “what does it mean?”

Meaning and Purpose
Here is where paranormal beliefs and religious ones differ most greatly, and we should, I think, separate paranormal beliefs into two camps here for fair comparison.

In the first camp are those beliefs that seek to tell us something about the world around us, that are attempts at observation and description of immediate reality in a manner loosely approximating “scientific.” Ufology usually falls into this camp (but can blend with the other), as does the search for cryptids. These types of belief can be readily separated from religious ideologies as being fundamentally oriented toward a different goal and subject.

In the second camp are those that seek to describe something about greater or ultimate reality–beliefs in demons, ghosts, malevolent and beneficent spirits, ESP and psychic abilities. These beliefs are closer to being religious in nature–in some cases should rightly be considered religious ideas. Nevertheless, they usually lack guidance for the living of one’s life (save perhaps for warnings against certain kinds of behavior) or the kind of theological depth of explanatory power for the broader meaning of existence.

To be certain, Christianity makes assertions about the (supernatural) nature of ultimate reality. But it is less interested, actually, in describing in detail the cosmic structure of things and more interested in providing a source of meaning and guidance on how to live a meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful life in the here and now. Jesus sometimes speaks of the “world to come,” and of ultimate judgment, and of the eternal life of the person. But he is more focused in his ministry in answering the question, “How, then, should we live?” There is the fundamental difference between paranormal beliefs that attempt mostly to describe some asserted aspect of reality and religious belief, which is more interested in providing both practical and cosmically meaningful guidance on dealing with our existence and lives–both in senses quotidian and ultimate.

Conclusion

Maybe it just comes down to this: similar issues of epistemology, existential and objective truth, and our own desires and emotional needs exist for both belief in the paranormal and in religious faith. I tell my story, and they tell theirs. I don’t believe them, though.


1 (1) The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Based on my understanding of the known facts, I think it is highly likely that the Soviet military was testing aerial mines in the area, causing the injuries and panic that led to the deaths of the skiers. Not as sexy as infrasound or mythical beasts, but much more grounded in the probabilities.
(2) The Ourang Medan: A myth; the ship never existed.
(3) Most places where applicable: The Great Horned Owl. C.f. the Mothman, the Jersey Devil and Kelly Hopkinsville.
(4) “Black-Eyed Kids” and a number of similar phenomena: an urban legend perpetuated by societal anxieties and the popularity of “creepypasta” stories. See the “Zozo” legend, especially.
(5) Shadow people: errors in human perception (with pareidolia and personification) in some cases, night terrors in others.
(6) EVPs: pareidolia combined with (intentionally) low-grade equipment susceptible to electromagnetic interference and picking up stray radio signals.
2 If you take nothing else away from this post, look up Dan Bern. He’s an underappreciated genius of music, having written hundreds of songs in a multitude of styles, all of them witty, thoughtful and highly entertaining. I recommend starting with “Jerusalem”, “Marilyn”, “I’m Not the Guy”, “Eva” and, of course “Talkin’ Alien Abduction Blues.”
3 As I’ve argued elsewhere, science–while it tells us much of value about the world we live in, from evolution to germ theory, tectonics to particle physics–cannot comment on the existence of the supernatural, whether faith-based or based in folklore, because it cannot create falsifiable theories and experiments based upon hypotheses in line with the scientific method. A refusal to accept the limitations of science quickly makes a religion out of science that then falls subject to the same issues we’re discussing. It is my belief that the rational person should both accept what science can tell us about our existence (preferring science to literal readings of scriptures when discussing the physical world) and what it cannot (preferring metaphysics, contemplation, mystic experience and religion or spirituality to tell us about the meaning of it all).

Tragic Christianity and Comic Christianity

A few months back, while only posting chapters from Things Unseen on the blog, I listened to a Great Course called “Take my Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor.” It was a fascinating look at the nature and study of humor (and how much scholars are in debate over such core ideas as what makes something funny? or why do we laugh at some things and not others?) but, as many things do, it got me thinking about theology and religion.

In one of the early lectures, the professor (Dr. Steven Gimbel) describes the differences between “gelastic” and “agelastic” societies. The term “gelastic” comes from the Greek word for laughter: “gelos.” A quick dictionary search didn’t return a hit for “gelastic,” and a search of Wikipedia turned up only “gelastic seizure,” apparently a type of epileptic fit associated with sudden outbursts of energy and, often, laughter.

So I’ll (roughly) paraphrase Dr. Gimbel’s definition of a gelastic society as one that places value in humor.  To the gelastic society, the requirement of “getting” a joke that you change perspectives serves a valuable philosophical function by widening understanding and teaching one to look at an idea in multiple different ways.

By way of example, think about the following joke: “A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, pal, we don’t serve food here.” The double definition of the word “serve” reveals the conflict of perspective and meaning on which the joke turns. Not very well, perhaps.

Likewise the gelastic society values jokes and humor for their ability to speak truth to power, to critique foibles and failures both human and societal, to continually ask for the examination of ourselves and our worlds.

Conversely, the agelastic society sees jokes and humor as dangerous–often for the same reason the gelastic society values them. Agelastic societies tend to have a strict definition of truth that is not to be questioned or assailed. Thus, jokes that question truth, ask “why,” or require different perspectives are seditious and seductive, often undermining the narrow definition of what is “true” and “good” held by the agelastic society.

You probably already see the argument forming, but let’s continue anyhow.

Dr. Gimbel goes further to examine “tragic” heroes and “comic” heroes, how they differ, and what it might mean for a person or society who favors one over the other. For Gimbel–and he makes a strong case–comic heroes triumph through their wits, by finding creative solutions, maneuvering around obstacles, or creating compromise that allows for a happy ending. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, knuckle down and power straight through the resistance, accepting suffering (and often inflicting it) as the cost of doing business.

Shakespeare provides ample examples of the two types. Think of tragic Hamlet, unable to find any solution to his problems other than violence, or Macbeth, whose will to power results in the coming of Birnum Wood and Dunsinane against him, in the form of MacDuff. Think, on the other hand, of Benedick and Beatrice maneuvering against one another, and being brought to confess their love for one another through creative deceit. We can look at modern examples as well. For Gimbel, the action movie is the modern embodiment of the tragic hero. Think of any Schwarzenegger film from the 80’s or 90’s, of recent revenge heroes like the film Peppermint or the TV show Punisher. Tragic heroes use the direct route to achieve their ends–violence. Heroes in comic films continue to use deceit, imagination, and creative maneuvering to win the day; think of Knives Out as a strong example. Both the revenge films and the comic example I’ve given start with a traumatic inciting event, usually a death, but how the protagonists respond to that event determines the course of the film or show.

Ideas about tragic and comic heroes don’t map directly onto ideas about gelastic and agelastic people or societies, but there’s certainly a relationship to be had there.

We can, though, easily speak about gelastic and agelastic theologies within Christianity. I’d been thinking about this idea in terms of restrictive and expansive theologies prior to listening to Dr. Gimbel’s great course, and I think that this correlates with gelastic (expansive) and agelastic (restrictive) quite well.

I’d ask the question this way: Does your theology make the world less joyful, smaller, easier to explain, and focus on what is not permissible, or does your theology make the world bigger, more wondrous, less explicable, and focus on doing rather than avoiding? Restrictive and expansive. Agelastic and gelastic.

The Sunday School class I’ve been participating in recently asked me to teach for a few sessions on humor in the Bible, based in part on my sharing with them my idea about Reading Matthew 18:15-17 as a Joke. I was, admittedly, ill prepared to say more on the matter, so I ordered some books, digested them quickly, and put together some examples and arguments for them.

We laughed together as we read in the Old Testament sex jokes, dark humor, comic deceit, and bathroom humor, the sorts of things we’re taught not to expect from the Bible. In the New Testament, we looked at Jesus’s use of sarcasm and satire as a social tool for liberation, seeing in Jesus not a meek and helpless man but an image of the God who chooses to triumph without inflicting violence on others.

I made arguments about the use of humor in the Bible as a way for God to indicate understanding of the human condition, of being willing to roll around in the mud with us (so to speak), to be close to us in the human experience. I argued that God’s sense of humor is an indication of God’s sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and love for Creation. But perhaps the best takeaway from one of my classmates was the idea that, while reading the Bible, context matters. For instance, if you know that, in the understanding and practice of the Old Testament writers, “feet” are sometimes used as a euphemism for “genitalia,” there are a number of passages that suddenly become a bit more risque and much more comic. Note that this substitution does not apply to the New Testament writers, especially when reading about the washing of feet. That’s just feet.

Therein lies the importance of humor and a gelastic outlook to good theology. In both, context matters. The requirements to change perspectives, to view from different angles, to consider multiple meanings (not always in conflict with one another) are essential to the theological task.

And yet, conservative Christianity takes the agelastic approach. Biblical humor becomes blasphemy, as if God is so vulnerable as to be injured by words. Seriousness is holiness, and a strict and limited definition of holiness, focused more on avoidance of a checklist of no-no’s than the actual pursuit of a better, more just world in line with God’s kingdom. In the conservative branch of the faith, there is but one interpretation–theirs–which may not be questioned, may not be looked at from a different perspective, and most definitely should not be joked about. Conservative Christianity is certainly agelastic; I’d argue that it’s tragic as well.

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, is clearly gelastic. The humility that follows the admission that one’s personal theology is not the only possible theology, that one might be wrong on certain or all points, naturally includes the ability to enjoy humor, sometimes at one’s expense, but more often at the difficulty of the human condition combined with the hope of God’s promises. It is expansive, allowing one to consider multiple valuations of what is “good” and “true” and “righteous,” not in a relativistic way, but in a way that acknowledges that, even when dealing with objective Truth, context matters. Having come from a relatively conservative church background, and returning to the Christian faith with a much more progressive theology has made the world seem brighter, more hopeful, more worth fighting for. And, yes, funnier.

This is a roundabout way to argue in favor of progressive Christianity. A full argument on this tack would require much more space and time than I have here. So, I’ve settled for hitting some high points for your consideration, that you might dig deeper and see whether these ideas have some personal meaning to you in determining your own thought about your faith and theology–Christian or not. I should also say that this is not a logical argument that I’ve made–whether a theology is agelastic or gelastic does not determine whether it is true. On the other hand, “you shall know the tree by its fruit.” And I’ve often argued, and will continue to do so, that not all methods of understanding matters of faith sound in logic and cold reason. Some are matters of intuition, emotion, and experience.

Review: The Sparrow

I know; I’m a little late to the game if I’m reviewing a book that’s twenty-five years old. But I’m excited about it enough that I really don’t care about that.

So, we’re gonna talk about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, an exposition of theodicy wrapped in a sci-fi tale that’s secretly a bildungsroman of sorts. If you’re not a theology nerd, “theodicy” is the word for the study of the problems of evil and suffering. In Christianity, in particular, this problem might be more specifically phrased as “If God is all-powerful and entirely good and loving, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Why do these things happen to seemingly good people?”

Job is my favorite book of the Old Testament, in part because it addresses this very question and gives us the best answer I think can be had for it. When God appears to Job at the end of the poem, God’s answer to Job’s questioning is to tell Job that he cannot understand the answer. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, for the human brain to comprehend in all its depths. The ultimate answer God gives that humans can understand is “Trust me.” Faith, faith that God is sovereign over all things, that God is love and intends ultimate good for God’s creation, hope that everything will one day be clear and suffering and evil will be conquered fully after having served their purposes–as inscrutable to us as those purposes may be–is the answer. It is, admittedly, an answer that I find at once entirely frustrating and comforting. It’s not my job to solve the problem of evil and suffering; it’s my job to respond to evil in suffering in the way that God has instructed me.

Part of the brilliance and beauty of Russell’s book–and only part, mind you–is that she takes the same approach. There is no attempt to answer the question of suffering, only an attempt to hold it in her hands and turn it at all angles for the reader to view, to experience in part, all of its manifest complexity and difficulty. There are no apologies here, no arguments, only an investigation of the issue that is by turns beautiful and terrifying, humbling and infuriating.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I’ve got to at least tell you what the book is about, right? All of that investigation into theodicy is not exposition or diatribe, it is examined through the experiences and humanity of the characters.

The Sparrow tells of the aftermath of a first-contact mission put together in secret by the Society of Jesus to the planet of Rakhat, discovered by the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico in 2019, when the astronomy equipment there picks up radio signals that turn out to be the singing of the indigenous peoples of Rakhat.

Only priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz survives the mission; the handful of clergy and layperson companions that accompany him to Rakhat do not. The time dilation of space travel, the reports of the second, secular mission to Rakhat, and reports from the first missionaries themselves seem to tell the tale of a horrific fall from grace and into depravity on the part of Sandoz. The story jumps back and forth between the Jesuit interviews with the recovered Sandoz (in an attempt to discover the truth of the reports and, hopefully, salvage something of the Jesuit reputation after the reports of the missionary journey have decimated it), the first discovery of Rakhat and the synchronicity that brought Sandoz and his companions into the mission in the first place, and the events that actually unfolded on Rakhat. These separate narratives meet, as it were, at the climax of Sandoz’s telling of his story.

That main thread, and its analysis of theodicy, contrasted with the modern missionaries’ own thoughts about their relationship to the 16th century missions of the Jesuits to the “New World”, form the core of the text, but Russell’s writing of the missionary characters, their backgrounds, their feelings, their developing relationships to one another, their thoughts about their places in Creation as they confront their missionary (or priestly) status, provides just as much literary joy and human insight as the “mystery” that frames all of these subplots.

This is, after all, a sci-fi story (one for which Russell won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1996, the year the book was published), and great detail is paid to the physiology and culture of the peoples of Rakhat, to the methods of space travel (the missionaries convert a mined-out asteroid into their spaceship) and the believable physics of story. At the same time, those elements never get in the way of the narrative; no time is lost on long exposition about the nature of technologies or theories of culture and alien psychology. These run seamlessly throughout the text, woven in with the unfolding plot instead of interrupting it.

The writing itself is beautiful, jealousy-inducing for an aspiring writer such as myself. The blend of familiar, practical tone with clever description and amusing turn-of-phrase reveals the intelligence and imagination of the mind behind this tale in an ever-delightful manner. The pacing and plotting of the story are an example of mastercraft in that aspect of the art, something especially apparent to me as I struggle with revising the plotting and pacing of my own fledgling work.

I must also express a debt of gratitude to my wife for bringing me to read this book. It’s one she first read–and told me about–almost a decade ago. It sounded interesting, but I must not have been paying close enough attention to her explanations, because this a book that fits with my own interests so uncannily perfectly. Only when she announced that she was going to read it again, now that her experiences in ministry and seminary had sharpened her abilities to appreciate the tale, did I agree to read it alongside her. As I must often admit, she was right all along. I should’ve read it the first time she told me to. So should you.

Truth

Pontius Pilate
In the Gospel of John, the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate (after the Sanhedrin brings Jesus to the Roman) ends with a question, simple, probably rhetorical, but profound. Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

It’s a literary masterstroke, the insertion of this question at just this point in the narrative. Everything over the scope of John’s Gospel, and everything in the immediately-preceding action points to just this question–what is the truth about the identity of Jesus? Coming after Jesus’ teaching but before the Resurrection, the reader is put in the same place as the characters within the narrative. In this way, the structure and content both force the question: what is truth?

Pilate’s utterance of the question perhaps reveals him as the ultimate pragmatist–a believer in the pragmatic view of truth as we’ll discuss below. For him, it seems, the importance of “truth” is what it does, what it accomplishes.

We could argue quite a bit (as has been done) about the nature, intent and meaning of Pilate’s actions. It’s common to view his question about truth as scorn heaped upon Jesus just as that given to him by the Pharisaic Sanhedrin that convicted him before he arrived at Pilate’s palace. But I’m not sure that that’s correct.

You see, after interviewing Jesus, Pilate attempts a different approach with the Sanhedrin than the scornful reading of his question would predict. He tells them the (objective) truth–at least as he believes it to be–“I find no guilt in him,” he says. As Shakespeare’s Benedick would say, “There’s a double meaning in that.” In the one sense, Pilate states that he’s found no legal culpability under which he should be punished by Roman law. On the other, though, we can read Pilate’s statement as one of cosmic import: he literally finds no sin in the man Jesus, which fits, of course, with a theological point of John’s writing.

Pilate’s willingness to tell the truth regardless of the cost (for he knows the discord he’ll sow with the Sanhedrin should he refuse their request) lacks the pragmatic forethought and sense of realpolitik the scornful reading attributes to him.

Though it’s Matthew that gives us the image of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ death, in John he takes affirmative steps to prevent the execution. We are told that, when the Sanhedrin’s members tell Pilate that Jesus must die because he has “made himself the Son of God,” Pilate becomes afraid, but we are not told whether this fear arises from his realization of the extent of the civil unrest Jesus has the potential to cause or because he realizes that Jesus might actually be the Son of God. I believe it’s both/and, that Pilate’s accession to Jesus’ crucifixion results from Pilate’s mistake in prioritizing the temporal world over the spiritual one (and here he provides moral instruction and warning to the reader), not simple cold-hearted political pragmatism.

If all of this is the case, there’s a very different way to read Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” It’s not a mockery, it’s the fatalistic resignation of an astute mind who both recognizes the truth of Jesus and the inevitable execution that the Sanhedrin’s “truth” requires for the sake of peace.

As a third way, we could see Pilate’s question as an exhausted complaint about the ambiguous nature of existential questions when such a cosmically fundamental question of truth lies before him. In other words, could we see him asking, “How am I supposed to know what’s true?”

The reader, in fact all persons who struggle with the question of whether to have faith in the Christian religion (and therefore the nature of Jesus Christ), must confront the same dilemma. What fascinates me in this scripture (as many parts of scripture do) is just how succinctly, how eloquently and efficiently, the Gospel writer manages to stuff all of this into a single verse (or perhaps a passage if you’d like to be a little less generous).

After all, this is a fundamental human question–as are all of the problems inherent to the various readings of Pilate’s question–applicable to all manner of inquiry into the nature of existence itself. The Bible is not afraid–as I’d argue it cannot be if it is to maintain legitimacy–to allow those fundamental questions to inform the question the Gospels ask of the reader.

Consider that Jesus has (previously in the Gospel of John) made the claim that he “[is] the truth.” Confronted with the truth of reality right before him, Pontius Pilate remains ambivalent. Maybe we should cut ourselves a little slack.

Theories of Truth
The upside to these questions about the nature of truth being fundamental to humanity is that they’ve been asked over and over again by thinkers and philosophers in various cultures and contexts. In modern philosophy, there are four main theories of truth. I’m taking the following from a lecture in Professor Steven Gimbal’s Great Course, Take my Course, Please!: The Philosophy of Humor, which has in part inspired both this post and at least one more I’ll be posting soon. You should check it out.

Correspondence Theory
Correspondence Theory is the idea that something is “true” if it accurately describes something in the objective world outside of ourselves. This is the most common understanding of truth, I think, but according to Dr. Gimbal it’s also the most “metaphysical,” because it relies on assertions or assumptions about essential qualities, the existence of abstracts and the nature of existence.

It’s also extremely metaphysical because we must grapple with all the deficiencies humans have in identifying objective reality if it exists. How do we know what we know? Can we know anything? There is a playground for metaphysicians wrapped up in this theory, despite being the one that most of us are readiest to accept.

Coherence Theory
I’d liken Coherence Theory to the idea of “internal consistency” I often speak of in worldbuilding and fiction–it’s the idea that a thing is true if it can be incorporated into the web of beliefs we have about the nature of reality without creating an irresolvable contradiction with one of those other beliefs. There’s something of this in the scientific approach as well (although there’s also something of the Pragmatic Theory below)–if new information contradicts current theories about the nature of the universe, either the new information or the current theories must be wrong, one is necessarily untrue.

I’ve also cited several times in this blog the comment in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer that hypocrisy is the only way to judge someone in a morally relativistic society; Coherence Theory to me seems that idea writ large. In a world in which we have fundamentally-irresolvable epistemological questions, it may well seem that the best answer we have for understanding truth is “No hypocrites!”

Pragmatic View
The Pragmatic View (see C.S. Pierce, William James and others) focuses on the practical effect of an idea as the measure of its truth–a true statement does what it is supposed to do. The pragmatic view falls even more in line with scientific method than coherence theory–under the pragmatic view, a statement about the physical world is true if it allows us to effectively interact with the physical world (by making predictions about the effects of actions, by designing technologies that exploit aspects of the physical world, etc.).

Ironically, I’d argue that, while correspondence theory is what most people would intellectually ascribe to if asked, we tend to live by the pragmatic view. If a “fact” allows us to effectively interact with those things outside ourselves, it’s as “true” as we really need it to be, metaphysics be damned.

Subjective View
Dr. Gimbal rejects the subjective theory of truth out of hand, and I agree. The subjective view states that we afford privileged status to some statements (those that are true “for us”) and not others (those that are not true “for us”). If the subjective view is correct, there can be no meaningful discussion of truth (or much else) because, to quote the great philosopher, the Dude: “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Still, there’s something important about the subjective theory of truth. As a lawyer, I often have to tell clients that they have to treat the beliefs, opinions and attitudes of the person on the other side of a negotiation as true, whether they’re patently false, illogical and irrational, or otherwise unreasonable. If we’re not going to change the mind of the person we have to interact with to get the deal done, we have to find a way to work with or around those counterfactual beliefs (or a-factual ones, in the case of opinions, I suppose) if we’re going to be successful. In this (very limited) sense, there is some truth to the subjective.

There are a number of other philosophical theories of truth (like the constructivist and consensus views), but Gimbal doesn’t discuss them in his lecture and I’m going to omit them as well given my skepticism about their overall usefulness–but they are worth exploring and considering.

Modeling
It’s possible to think about truth in a different way; not as a sentence that asserts something about the nature of existence but as an approximate model of reality, a necessarily simplified analogy that is useful to us in the ways it assists us to interact with our reality. This, really, is how scientific approaches to truth work (though, as mentioned above, we might argue that this is just the result of a synthesis of the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth over a foundation of correspondence theory).

Under the idea of modeling, the more precisely and effectively a particular model of reality allows us to interact with reality, the “truer” it is. When our inquiries discover something out of joint with the model, we conduct further analysis to determine whether the new discovery is likelier than the old model to be in error. If the model is believed to be in error, we adjust the model to account for the new information, giving us an iteratively more accurate understanding of (physical) reality. By constant observation and refinement, we improve our models.

But note, even in this understanding of the nature of truth, it is impossible to say whether a model we create can ever fully capture the truth of things as they are in the universe. I’ve discovered that this makes some otherwise scientifically-minded people uncomfortable to the point that they remain unwilling to accept this point despite its logic. Whether this is a matter reflected in stereotype–that there’s just a fundamental difference in the way more scientifically-minded people and more philosophically-minded people think–or this is where the scientific mindset becomes a matter of faith rather than logic, I cannot say.

Christianity and Truth
Let’s return to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and the question of Christianity. Here, though, I’m not going to talk so much about the nature of truth within Christianity (I think it’s pretty well settled that the Christian ought to use the correspondence theory of truth, even if we might disagree about what that truth is in its most precise forms) as how we think about truth when dealing with those outside of our faith.

Correspondence Theory
This is the point I think most of us want to stand on when attempting evangelism, apologetics, or argumentation with those not of the faith. Here’s the problem: we are not capable of proving the key assertions of Christianity through logic. Therefore, direct and dogmatic argumentation of the tenets of our faith doesn’t come across very well. At its worst, this approach comes across as less-than-sane or as willfully ignorant.

It’s another way of looking at Pilate’s question. Is truth those things that we can hold in our hands, create and destroy, touch and taste, weigh and measure? Or is truth something harder to discern, often hidden from us and accessible only through non-logical means? Detractors might call the latter irrational, but the inability of logic to answer these kinds of questions at all means that they must necessarily be approached with non-rational means–faith, intuition, introspection, mysticism. All rules of logic point in this direction–absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

There is, though, one very good indirect way of appealing to correspondence theory in the demonstration of our faith–the way our scriptures speak to the truth of existence in describing the way things are and in providing understanding of the human condition. Much of the advice Jesus gives us (as I’ve elsewhere argued) is not just suggestions for good behavior–he is laying out the very nature of things and telling us that, because humans work in certain ways, doing X should lead to the expectation of Y, and if we don’t want Y, we shouldn’t do X.

But nothing in faith is ever simple, and coming to an understanding of some of these ideas (my limited understanding of which is the source of most of my theological posts and my “New Mysticism”) relies grappling with all of the interpretive and hermeneutic pitfalls of Biblical exegesis: How do we resolve seeming contradictions? How do we determine the proper context for understanding certain phrases or commands or actions? How can we determine what to read as literal and what to read as metaphorical or allegorical?

In the end, this appeal is certainly a mystic and metaphysical one–it is the assertion that, in reading the Bible, one will have a genuine, if superrational, experience of existential truth by encountering God. It’s hard to argue with that kind of an experience–which brings us back briefly to the subjective theory of truth.

We should, I think, resort to an altered form of subjective truth in talking about our faith. That is not to claim that the truth itself is subjective (God is objectively God, after all), but that our experience of mystical and metaphysical truth is highly subjective in the sense that it may prove something to us in totally-convicting way without giving us any ability to use our experience to prove that same thing to anyone else. Perhaps this is a fine distinction, but in discussing the nature of reality, I’d say that fine distinctions are essential!

Coherence and Pragmatic Theories
I think it’s important that we point out that the coherence and pragmatic theories of truth, at least under certain interpretations, might be seen as methodologies for seeking understanding an objective truth (under the umbrella of a correspondence theory) as much as theories of the nature of truth.

As I mentioned above, it seems to me that the pragmatic theory of truth describes how we functionally and subconsciously think about truth as we go about our lives–world politics these days seems to indicate a solid reliance on coherence theory as well, particularly as an excuse for rejecting objective facts (yes, I realize the linguistic slippage inherent to calling something “objectively true” in this post) that do not mesh well with pre-existing beliefs. But that’s really a description of a psychological fallacy rather than a theory of truth.

Here’s the point: if we’re going to talk about the truth of Christianity to others, we need to think about the ways that they think about truth, and the ways our ignorance of that might be hurting us. Some examples:

(1) If a person’s belief system involves the beliefs that (a) Christianity is not true, and (b) Christians are [take your pick of common views: judgmental, tight-buttoned, repressed, unintellectual, ignorant, offensive, hateful, prejudiced, self-interested, hypocritical, etc.], then, under the coherence theory of truth, challenging (b) may lead to a reevaluation of (a). Two important points here. First, this is not about proving anything to anyone (as I’ve argued in a different post, I believe that it’s a beautiful fact of God’s creation that no one can be bullied, cajoled, conned or otherwise forced into genuine faith); this is about breaking preconceptions to get people to actually consider the arguments of the faith itself rather than judging it by its flawed and human believers. Second, since we’re called to not be anything I listed in (b) above, working this goal is a matter of sanctification anyway. I love it when a plan comes together.

Now, this idea is nothing new, think of the hymn “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” itself derived from John 13:35. But it bears repeating, especially when so many Christian theologies lead to just the opposite.

As for the pragmatic theory of truth, what is our Christianity accomplishing in the world? Our claim is that, by our love of the God revealed to us in Jesus we are called to be better people, to be healers, seekers of justice, givers of mercy, peacemakers. Is Christianity accomplishing that in the world today, or are we sowers of division, too in love with our own ideas of justice and too short on mercy, too afraid to surrender our guns in favor of a more hopeful approach to the future?

This matters, desperately, because people intuitively disbelieve Christianity when it doesn’t do what it says it’s supposed to do. That’s a logical fallacy, with the believers falling short of what they’re called to rather than some flaw in the claims of Christianity itself, but some people will never come to consider correspondent claims of truth if we can’t get past coherent and pragmatic counterarguments to the truth of our faith.

And like I said above, that’s a subjective truth we have to accept as somewhat objective, at the very least a threshold issue to any discussion of the faith itself. If a person strongly holds a particular belief, let’s say that religion is the “opiate of the masses,” we can’t ever address other issues of the truth of our faith until we can address that belief–ignoring it won’t ever move us forward.

Conclusions
Truth is a hard thing–philosopher’s don’t even agree on what the nature of “truth” necessarily is! And that’s where faith comes in–the whole point of faith is that it is a belief in things that seem to be true for reasons that are superrational (that is, provable by means beyond our application of human logic). We need to own that logic fails in the argumentation of the faith; thus, we ought more to talk about our personal existential understandings of our own faith. Don’t tell someone why she should believe (and please, for the love of God, don’t try to convince them to believe simply to avoid some concept of Hell you’ve bought into!); tell them what has driven you to believe, where they might look if they honestly want to seek an answer for themselves. You can’t prove the faith to them, but you can point them in the direction that might give them opportunity for their own mystical experience of that metaphysical truth that transcends human comprehension and argumentation.

At the same time, think about how we humans think about the nature of truth, and all the things that our failings as Christians seem to do to add to perceptions that Christianity is not true.

“What is truth?” For the most important questions, it seems we have to find out through experience.

What Evolution Says about Christianity: Wholeness and Purpose, Not a Lack of Flaws

Oh boy, evolution and Christianity…
Let’s get this out of the way very quickly, since it’s not the point of the post: I believe in both evolution and the Bible. As I’ve argued on this blog, I believe in the Book of Genesis as a metaphorical and mythopoeic exploration of truly-important existential questions and issues, but not as a science textbook or a literal history (I’m happy to accept elements of historicity in the book, but that’s speculation that ultimately doesn’t matter too much to me). To me, both the Book of Genesis and science are true, though that word has a different context in each place. Alright, that aside, let’s get to the heart of the matter.

A Strange Metaphor?
I’ve recently finished a Great Course on earth science (specifically Professor Michael E. Wysession’s How the Earth Works). While I’d selected the course mainly for upping my understanding of planetary science for worldbuilding purposes, Prof. Wysession raised within my mind all manner of ideas and questions–exactly what a “Great Course” should do. I highly recommend it.

Here, I’m going to focus on one of those ideas from a later lecture in the series, one about the possibility of life on other planets. The lecture incorporated some of the great ideas about the exploration for extraterrestrial life in the universe–the Drake equation, the Fermi paradox, the anthropic principle, etc. Where things got really interesting to me, particularly, was Prof. Wysession’s discussion of evolutionary processes in the probabilities of finding life on other planets within our solar system.

As the good doctor puts it, there are three major parts to evolution: (1) heritable traits, (2) mutations and genetic drift, and (3) selective forces like “natural selection.” Without all three of these factors, evolutionary processes cannot work and life (at least as we currently understand it and evolution) won’t develop. It’s possible that this is the (or one of the) Great Filter(s) hypothesized as part of the Fermi paradox.

What’s important here is the relatively narrow band of circumstances in which evolutionary processes may work toward the development of complex lifeforms. Heritability requires proteins that can replicate, like our RNA and DNA. For natural selection to work, there must be diversity of genetic expressions and traits, competition for resources/survival, and a mechanism for new traits to develop–for mutations to occur.

Radiation is a primary motivator of mutation in genetics, but amount is critical. Too much radiation, and life (again, as we understand it) will be destroyed (or never form) altogether. Too little, and there’s not enough impetus for mutation and genetic drift. In turn, this means that, to be a likely candidate for life, a planet must receive a sufficient amount of radiation from a nearby star but also have atmosphere and a magnetic field that allow only the “right” amount of radiation to reach the planet itself. A magnetic field typically requires an active planetary core. Atmosphere is probably also necessary for complex life, both as an additional shield from cosmic radiation (like our ozone layer) and for the various cycles necessary to support life (on Earth, the carbon, water, and oxygen cycles, at least). It’s possible that a layer of ice or liquid could perform a similar function.

But I digress. Though it started to drift in that direction, I’m not interested in engaging (at least here) with the low probabilities of the development of life given the many factors that must be just right (which go far beyond what’s described above). Instead, I want to zero in on that second element of the evolutionary process–mutations and genetic drift.

For evolution to work, genetic transfer cannot be “perfect” in the classic sense. Without changes to genetic material wrought by radiation, copying errors in the replication of the underlying genetic structures, and other circumstances that lead to the replicated material varying from the original material, there is no genetic drift that allows new traits to form to be winnowed out by selective forces until only the most advantageous new traits remain (for that environment, of course). Given the connotations of the word “perfect”–which we often take to mean “without flaw”–we’re better off saying that the process is “complete” or “whole” than that it’s “perfect.”

“Perfection” in Christianity
Which brings us to Christianity. In Matthew 5:48, a verse that has become of extreme significance in the development of my “New Mysticism” theology, Jesus says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

If we use the “classic” definition of the word “perfect,” I think we miss the point. If God is the intelligent creator of the evolutionary process, if that is God’s mechanism for the creation of man (and, if you believe in both science and God, I think you ultimately have to accept that as true), then the evolutionary process may tell us something about God’s thoughts on “perfection” in Creation.

The Biblical linguistics agrees. The word that Jesus uses in Matthew 5:48 is τέλειος (teleios, Strong’s G5046). It comes from the word telos (G5056, from which we get great worlds like “teleological”). The root meaning has to do with setting out for a particular destination, from there flow the denotations of “ending”, “completeness” and “maturity.” Surrounding all of this is the sense of purposefulness, that is, something that is to a particular end or goal. We might summarize in saying that the indicated idea of the word is that a thing fully becomes what it was intended (or created) to be. Which circles us back to the idea of “completeness.”

Okay, so that’s perhaps a bit circumlocutory of a method for arriving at the idea, but there is an end goal (ha! see what I did there?). I’m going to focus on several ways in which I think the reference to the idea of purposefulness or completeness rather than being without flaw is helpful to us–and truer than the idea of flawlessness.

Salvation and Sanctification
First, and most obvious, is that this idea relieves us of some stress–Jesus is not telling us to never make mistakes here. Part New Mysticism is the argument that the story of the Fall is the metaphor that beings with free will must learn to be good if they are to be both good and free. This seems to axiomatically require some mistake-making before it may be achieved. That Jesus has brought us salvation from our sins is an affirmation of forgiveness for the inevitable result of the human condition, just as evolutionary processes affirm the God’s idea of “perfect” doesn’t always mean “flawless.” E. Stanley Jones, in his book, The Christ of the Mount, argues that Matthew 5:48, and not “getting into heaven,” is the epitome of the Christian religion. I’m inclined to agree, at least if we’re forced into such reductiveness.

This draws us to look at the process of sanctification over the process of salvation. Yes, salvation is an essential aspect of Christianity and an essential divine blessing upon the human condition, but this is where God has done all the work for us. After that point, we must truly engage to change ourselves in the ways that we call sanctification, to grow into the people whom God created each of us to uniquely be, to truly participate in the Kingdom of God. As I’ve mentioned before and will more fully develop later, this, I think, is why Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is within us. We must change ourselves to become part of it; it’s not simple some place that we can simply move ourselves to as we are. The idea of “telos” is that our becoming part of the Kingdom of God does not lessen who we are but represents the fullness of our individual identities as simultaneously distinct and yet in inexorable relationship with God and the rest of Creation. After all, that is the analogy of the Trinity, is it not?

Eternal Surprise
How about an earthier takeaway from the idea that Jesus speaks of “wholeness” and not a lack of flaws? Perhaps this is deeply personal, but I suspect not. In my heart, I believe that an eternity where no one ever makes a mistake, where nothing outside of the most optimal result occurs, where there is no random chance of rain for our proverbial parade, is…well…boring.

If this life is at all intended to prepare us for eternal living, then shouldn’t we believe that the abundance and joy of eternal life is not about being absolutely free from all unfortunate events or missteps at all times, but rather a state of peace and contentment and love unshakable even by the worst of calamities?

I don’t know what the life to come is like, whether it is a heaven of pure spirit or a physical world remade for us. I do know that God promises us that we will be free of existential suffering–free from death and disease, free from separation from our loved ones, free from real injustice. But I don’t think that that means we will be free from all uncertainty–the idea of doing something to see what happens is a key joy in human life and a crucial part of repeatable joy. Otherwise, why ever play more than one game of basketball, or soccer, or whatever your favorite sport or game is?

Admittedly, that’s just a variation of “if there isn’t X in heaven, I’m not going.” Nevertheless, I think we can take some of those things with a little bit of seriousness. If part of our abundant life now comes from taking joy in something that can be enjoyed in a way that isn’t harmful (whether directly or indirectly) to ourselves or others, I can think of no reason God would give it to us for a short time only to deprive us of it later. That’s not the God I’ve come to know. At the end of The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis writes, “…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” I can think of no better description for the life to come.

Purpose and Process
I do believe in the statement, “everything happens for a reason”…but I also believe that sometimes that reason is “random chance” (with the caveat that we often assign the phrase “random chance” to mean “having more causational factors than we can track or understand”). Now, I believe that God has reasons for allowing “random chance” to have some sway in existence rather than personally determining the outcome of all events, so that great statement of “everything happening for a reason” remains true for me, at least if you look back far enough.

And that’s another piece of the analogy I want to draw from evolutionary processes. Just like our own lives, it’s sometimes difficult to see the justice or meaning in certain events–and some events may simple lack justice and meaning! But when we look at the overall picture, we see a method and purpose to the process that develops in the whole, where those experiences and misfortunes matter in the greater scheme of things, even if its hard to determine meaning in the immediate.

By necessity, we Christians are long-view types. If we’re going to believe we have been gifted an eternal existence, we ought to live and think like it, right? But, at the same time, our analogy in this post does show us that all of those little intermediary events–whether that random mutation that results in eyes or the choice of how you treat someone else–do matter, even if we won’t see the outcome any time soon. There is purpose and meaning both large and small, cosmic and intimately immediate, and we ought to give attention to both.

Like Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” And we ought to as well, knowing that we’re not required to be perfect, but we’re on a journey to become ever more mature, ever more whole, ever more invested in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth and being as unique and luminous a part of it as we can be!

Things Fall Apart
Every analogy has that point at which it unravels–otherwise it would be something more than analogy. I don’t want to make too much of the relationship between evolutionary processes and our understanding of God, but I do firmly believe that nature and our experiences of existence are pathways to gleaning some understanding of the person and nature of the Triune.

We should be careful to consult scripture, other revelation of truth we may have experienced from God, (first and foremost) our understanding and knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ, and to employ our intellect and logic (to the extent that they may be brought to bear on such issues). But we Christians believe that everything has meaning, even when we cannot see or understand that meaning. If that is true, wrestling with the possibilities cannot be a useless task.

A Final Thought
I do want to take a brief aside to address what might be the elephant in the room for you in Matthew 5:48. You might be asking, if God is “perfect” in the “classical” sense of the word, then what does it say about God is we use the idea of “complete” or “whole” or “purposeful” instead of the word “perfect” in that passage.

The short answer, I think, is “not much.” On the one hand, it is just as accurate to say that God is “whole” and “complete” in God’s self as to say that God is “without flaw,” and to say that God is “complete” is not a negation of God’s perfection, only an acknowledgment that God’s perfection does not equally (perhaps cannot equally) apply to us. We could talk about this in terms of the Trinity or we could talk about it in terms of God’s (im)passibilty.  On the other hand, I also think it’s safe to say that we don’t really know much about what “perfection” actually means when it comes to a description of God, just as all of our human descriptions of the nature and persons of God are limited by our own cognitive boundaries. In that sense, we’re right to focus on what Jesus’s statement means we should be thinking or doing and worrying a bit less about what it says about God. There’s an irony here in that the speaker (Jesus) by his very actions is in the process of revealing God to us even as he uses words to speak about God. How we differentiate between the speech-act and the content of the speech to best understand the nature and being of God is perhaps an irresolvable question.

 

The Panentheism of the Holy Spirit

Let’s start with a definition. Panentheism is a constructed word for philosophical and theological discussion that means, “all in God.” This is intended to be distinct from theism, which see God as separate from everything else, and pantheism, in which asserts that “all is God.” More specifically, pantheism may communicate simply that the ultimate reality of the universe is (an impersonal) God or that everything we encounter (even ourselves) are simply illusory manifestations of that only thing that exists: God. Please allow for the usual linguistic slippage in the use of words to intend such complex ideas, an apology that perhaps all theological and philosophical construct-words require. Panentheism intends to hold some ontological separation between the existence of things that are God and things that are not God while clearly seeing them as in relationship.

There are a number of Christian theologies that involve some degree of panentheism: process theology, Eastern Orthodox theologies, Christian universalist theologies, etc. I point this out to say that, as with most theological issues within Christianity, there are diverse viewpoints and interpretations, the topic is (of course) complex, and a blog post of this length necessarily oversimplifies. The thoughts below do not take their place from any previously-established theology, systematic or not, but may coincide with some of those theologies (read: the thoughts that follow are my own, so: (1) don’t blame anyone else for them; and (2) that does not mean that somebody didn’t think of them well before I did).

Panentheism, in a general sense, is attractive in Christian thought for a number of reasons. First, it tends to accentuate a personal God who interacts–that is, who influences creation and who is influenced by creation–rather than the impersonal creative force of the purely theistic “clockmaker god” who created the principles on which existence runs but who now has little to do with the created. If you’re curious about the “is influenced by” language above, I recommend taking a look at my brief treatment of God’s passibility in my previous post: The Name of God as an Answer to Existential Questions. At the same time, panentheism avoids the implication (and, when intended, the outright assertion) that there is nothing outside of or distinct from God.

Orthodox Christian theology (across denominations and interpretations, for the most part) argues that creation is to some extent separate from but related to Creator, that free will exists (as a requirement for any moral judgment upon mankind), that God is omnipresent and that God is personally and deeply interested in Creation and its ultimate fate. We do not need to resort to process theology (if that is a theology you consider “extreme”) to see a place for panentheism in Christian thought.

Scripture
Nowhere in Scripture is a panentheistic idea stronger than in those passages that describe the Holy Spirit.

Paul is very clear that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer (1 Corinthians 3:16, 16:19-20; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Romans 5:5, Ephesians 4:30), and this is taken as axiomatic by most Christians, I think. Indeed, this is the origin of the term “my body is a temple.”

Other Scriptures indicate that the Holy Spirit may act through a human being, but are also careful to remark that, when this occurs, the Holy Spirit and the human are separate, though the former may dwell within the latter. See 2 Peter 1:21; Mark 13:11; Acts 2:3-4.

The very point of the Pentecost story (and much of the Book of Acts, for that matter) is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within a person gives the person power they could not have apart from God gifting it to them. Although, in the great scheme of things, if God created all things, then that’s necessarily true of all power, but we can avoid such tautologies for the present time.

Tradition
At least within the United Methodist Church (and I suspect many other mainstream Protestant churches), our liturgy and understanding of God often attributes the title of “Sustainer” to God–support for this can undoubtedly be found in the Psalms. If we mean that, without God’s continued will for existence to exist, we would not, it’s only a short step from that idea to a panentheistic cosmology–it would be easy to argue that it that part of God that is within us, or that part of us that is within God, that sustains our continued ontology. This makes for an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” though not one I have any intent of analyzing in this post!

A Panentheistic Holy Spirit and the Triune God
It is possible to point to panentheisms in other religions (some understandings of Hinduism, Kabbalistic Judaism, some Sufi and Ismaili forms of Islam). But panentheism of the Holy Spirit in Christianity has what I believe to be a theological advantage over all of those faiths (which statement is not intended to demean the value, meaning or beauty of those religions). That advantage is the doctrine of the Trinity (which proves theologically advantageous, if mysterious and mystical, in many other theological analyses as well). Why?

Because the Trinity does not allow the entirety of Christianity to be reduced to panentheism. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the nature of the Trinity, with its three distinct persons in inseparable eternal relationship, accentuates both the individual and the relationship itself. This underpins the idea that, if we should view the Holy Spirit as panentheistic in nature, we need to be careful not to see that as our whole relationship with God, or as a reality that diminishes the importance of our being unique and separate creations of God gifted with free will and self-determination by God’s forbearance to exercise God’s absolute power over us.

In essence, this is the best of all possibilities, isn’t it? Our individual objective existence and subjective experience have cosmic meaning and truth because we are independent of God. And yet, at the same time, God dwells within is and is always in relationship with us. If we want to view God through the lens of metaphorical parent, this balancing of allowing independence while providing support is what many of us would describe as the perfect parenting style. In our trainings as foster parents, we are told that this is the “authoritative” parenting style, as opposed to “authoritarian,” “permissive,”  or “neglecting” parenting styles (the four styles being arranged on an x-axis of supportive/unsupportive (sometimes representing as high or low “warmth”) and a y-axis of high or low expectations or control).

To put a simpler way, the Trinity reminds us that, although there is a panentheistic component to our relationship with God, we cannot define ourselves, God, or our relationship by reference only to panentheistic theology. To keep the length of this post down, I’ll keep this as a side note, but I think it bears stating: I don’t think that the Trinity should be used to oversimplify the ways in which we ought to think about our relationship with God. There is, potentially, a formulation under which one might argue that we have a theistic relationship with one person of the Trinity, a pantheistic relationship with the second person of the Trinity and a panentheistic relationship with the third, but such a structure is both too convenient a classification scheme and one that does not bear much scrutiny or the application of logic (to the extent that logic can be brought to bear to describe the mystery of the Trinity).

C.S. Lewis’ “Natural Law” as a Panentheistic Argument
I’ve referred to C.S. Lewis’s arguments about “natural law” on several occasions, his assertions that our conscience is often God speaking to us. It’s a short hop to call this the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, and then to link that with the panentheistic arguments above. Rather than reiterating his work here, I’m going to touch upon it lightly (done!) and move on.

Consequences of a Panentheistic View
What I’m really interested in discussing in this post (though I’ve taken my time in getting this point, I admit), are the theological consequences of a panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit.

God is Always with Us
I mean this in a very specific sense–that there is no time before God starts being with us always. Especially if we rely on C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” arguments, then God’s working of good within us is there from our very inception. Methodist theologian Albert Outler once lamented the difficulty–and therefore scarcity–of pneumatology in comparison with other theological inquiries (and particularly in comparison with inquiries into the other two persons of the Trinity), and perhaps this example reiterates his point, because I must admit plenty of mystery remains in harmonizing this view with the idea of Jesus “sending” the Paraclete to us on Pentecost.

On the other hand, I think we can safely say that the Holy Spirit is co-eternal with the Father and the Son in the Trinity and that the above “problem” with harmonization has–to the extent it can be–largely been resolved by arguments over the nature of the Trinity itself. For my part, I’d rather focus on two points here (by reference to previous posts):

(1) The idea that God works within us from our very creation causes some concern for the doctrine of original sin, at least perhaps in its traditional formulation. I find that Biblical support for ideas of original sin only really allow for an understanding of that concept in an existential sense–as beings possessed of a free (and often overly-self-interested will) and limited understanding, we are bound to sin–both willfully and inadvertently–until we are fully sanctified. I’ve written about this idea in regards to the narrative of the Fall in my post, “An Alternative Reading of the Fall,” and about the (partially) existential nature of sin in general in the post “Is Sin Phenomenal or Existential?”

(2) This idea also bears upon doctrines of “total depravity.” To be honest, I’d rewritten this particular portion of the post several times in hopes of avoiding having to weigh in on the soteriological aspects of that term in Calvinist or Arminian/Methodist theologies and to focus on the more common sense of the term. But, given some of the conclusions I draw below, I decided that such avoidance was ultimately unworkable, so here we go:

Briefly, the difference between the two: Calvinism posits that, because of the Fall, man can do no good works because everything man does is entirely selfish. As a result, only by God’s predestination (“election”) can man choose to accept God’s salvation and be justified and sanctified thereby–after which point man can actually do good. On the Arminian side, the argument goes that, like Calvinism, man is in a state of total enslavement to sin after the Fall. However, because of God’s prevenient grace, God has freed mankind’s will from sin enough to be able to choose to accept God’s gifts of salvation, justification and sanctification of his own volition.

To be blunt, I find the Calvinist formulation to utter hogwash–this is the equivalent of God playing a game of semantics with God’s self and moving pieces around on a game table. It deprives the relationship between human and God of real meaning, our existence of the kind of meaning that requires our free will to be, and, ultimately–the analogy I want to use here is vulgar and I get blamed for blasphemy often enough as it is, so use your imagination.

The Arminian view is more convincing to me (imagine that, since I’m a Methodist), but ultimately I still think it views the theological issues in play from the wrong angles, unless we are to say that “prevenient grace” is intended to describe an existential feature of the human condition ordained by God rather than a divine remedial action.

The idea of a panentheistic Holy Spirit could certainly be used to bolster the idea of prevenient grace by providing a mechanism through which prevenient grace is enacted by God. However, that view would be exactly what I mean by a “divine remedial action.” I think it better to view the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from a person’s very creation as indicative of the depth of the relationship between created and creator rather than as a methodology for helping us to “be good.”

I’ve discussed at some length ideas of goodness and fallenness contrasted in my post, “The World and the World,” a rough draft of a chapter for the first theology book I intend to finish, refine and publish in the not-too-distant future. For extra credit (or more information about some of my thoughts regarding soteriological theology, see “Salvation and Sanctification.”

For now, let’s turn to the idea that, if the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us from the very get-go, as C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” theory seems to imply, then:

No Cosmological Duality
This is a phrase I’ve been hearing a bit lately in the new (new to me) thing I’ve been attending at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Houston, a thing called “Ordinary Life.” I’m calling it a thing because I know that I’d probably upset people if I called it a “Sunday School Class,” an epithet that it explicitly rejects in order to be a less-constrained, more welcoming approach to spiritual issues. If I understand it correctly (and maybe someone from that group will stumble across this and correct me if I don’t!) the term “cosmological duality” is intended to mean that traditional formulation of Christianity where:

God is Far Removed from Mankind
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Because humans screwed up and

(I hope you enjoy my makeshift graphic.) Cosmological duality is the idea that somehow God is unable or unwilling to be within us in our sinfulness and fallenness without Jesus “paying the price” for us. Elsewhere, I usually hear this referred to as “penal substitutionary atonement.” Generally, I think it could be more generally applied to views of Christianity that focus on God’s holiness and glory (and in effort to accentuate that holiness and glory posits humanity’s sinfulness and worthlessness), on God’s “entitlements” and not on God’s desire for relationship with us. To me, the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of the Christian faith as a whole, is the good news that, although God is entitled to all glory and holiness, God’s not so much interested in that as in love and relationship. That is a hopeful message; much more hopeful than “since you can’t help but break the rules, if you love Jesus hard enough, God will be forced to forgive you and will let you into heaven…perhaps begrudgingly.”

And this is where a panentheistic view of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit really brings things into focus. If we accept that view, and C.S. Lewis’s argument that conscience is one piece of evidence of that view and the existence of the Holy Spirit within us from our very conception (I mean this metaphysically more than physiologically), then we are presented with an image of God always reaching out to us no matter the state we are in, no matter whether we are consciously pursuing an understanding of Jesus and the God revealed in him, no matter whether we are Christian, or religious at all. That’s a God of Love.

Now, if this is true, then there are:

No Magic Words
The evangelical gold-standard of having someone “accept Jesus into his heart” by uttering some prescribed “magic words” really has no place in our theology. There is no switch-flicking moment that instantly transitions us from one existential condition (sinful, fallen, hopeless, unredeemed) to another (justified, sanctified, redeemed). (I want to make clear that I don’t intend to say that being “born again” isn’t a thing–Jesus himself talks about it. I just mean to say that it’s not a thing as fundamentalist evangelicals conceive of it).

It’s more complicated than that. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time studying philosophy, religions and Christian theology, the answer to spiritual matters usually is, “it’s more complicated than that.” We have to start looking at the meaning of our faith, the character and intent of our God, the nature and design of Christ’s salvific work on the Cross, in a more complex, nuanced way. What we get is a set of assertions, arguments and “understandings” that are more ambiguous, less comprehensible, but by far more beautiful than any simplistic understand of God we had before.

For me, as I think my theological posts on this blog make clear, the lens that allows such careful and expansive investigation into all things spiritual or theological is the existential approach, founded on more brilliant minds who’ve come before me: Barth and Tillich are the readiest examples I’ve drawn upon, and developing into the theology I’ve been describing on the blog and calling, “New Mysticism.”

Existential Sanctification
If we look at the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in this panentheistic way (which I think is what we intuitively and colloquially tend to do as Christians), then think about what this means for the process of sanctification. I’ve argued in the past that I believe there is very purposeful divine intent in the relative ease (from our perspective at least) of gaining salvation (being freely offered by God and only needing to be accepted by us) compared to the decided difficulty of seeking sanctification (that is, becoming “Christ-like” and “holy.”)

But consider this–under this panentheistic view of the Holy Spirit, God has always been with you and whispering to you about the righteous path. Sanctification, in actuality, then, is starting to listen to those continual revelations direct from God to you, starting to try to put them into practice.

This brings us around to Luke 17:21, in which Jesus says, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” I’m really looking forward to spending some time with that passage in the context of existential Christianity and the idea of sanctification, which I’ll do soon.

Further Thoughts on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

My first post about the Protocol seems to have quickly become the most-read post on my blog. It received some “likes” (though they remain ambiguous to me as what they’re supposed to mean) and some clear disdain or passionate argument, both of which I elected (after an ill-advised first decision to engage) to ignore. As such, I think it’s worthwhile to more fully expand on my thoughts on the subject and to take care of a few ancillary issues that have arisen.

First, some may have some questions about who I am. I am an attorney by profession but an aspiring lay theologian and writer of speculative fiction (hence the blog). I am also a foster father with a hope to eventually adopt, which constitutes the “Fatherhood” section of the blog, of course.

It will not take much work to find my name, but I do not overtly advertise it because my wife is a clergyperson in the UMC (in which we were both raised) and my thoughts and opinions are not hers and I prefer that they not be associated with her by default for fairness’ sake.

Like my wife, I was raised in the UMC. Like many young people (but not my wife), I left the Christian church in my late teenage years because I was given an impression by conservative elements in the Church that Christianity was something that it is not: something oppressive, judgmental and that makes the world a darker place, not a better one. I remained personally and professionally (as a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance periods for a time) deeply interested in philosophy and theology.

Thankfully, that interest eventually taught me better than what I’d earlier been led to believe about Christianity. I came to realize that Christianity, as is best known through the living God expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ is in fact the best sort of revelation I could ever hope for, a revelation of a God who deeply loves us despite our flaws and who offers abundant and meaningful living now and forever. An example of what I mean by that might be found here. I even found that Wesleyan theology actually matched up with what I had come to believe through my own reading and reflection and that it was hearing theologies that were expressed as Methodist but which were not that had driven me from the Church. Even so, I (re-)became a Christian intellectually before I had an inexplicable and direct encounter with Jesus Christ while participating in a “Bible in 90 Days” program.

To be clear, while that encounter convinced me personally of the truth of Christianity, it gave me no ability to prove that truth to others, nor any special interpretive theological insight. I have no prophetic gift. I consider my spiritual gift to be teaching but believe that that is a matter of the entirely-natural strengths with which God has endowed me combined with my personality and personal inclinations. I think it’s important that I am clear in stating that, as passionately as I argue for my theological assertions, as convicted of them as I am, I make no claim to special priority or authority in making those assertions and arguments. If they don’t stand on the basis of the arguments made, they certainly don’t stand because I’m the person making them. Also, while I’m making disclaimers, if there’s any uncertainty, I do not speak with any position of authority within or on behalf of the United Methodist Church. I am a lay person within the church who has held some minor leadership roles but the thoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

As an aside, part of the reason I feel that I am called to lay theology is so that my thoughts and arguments can avoid the entanglements of being within the UMC establishment (especially as clergy) where I would have to worry about my career, my next appointment, etc.

Part of the call that I feel as theologian is my belief (from experience) that the misinterpretation and misuse of Christianity has done the most harm to the Gospel–we are, in our words, our thoughts and our actions, often our worst enemies. My passions, preferences and convictions sometimes get in the way of my compassion as well; I am not above human nature.

A summary of my theological approach can be found here. A rough chapter from a theology book that I am working on (off and on again between my other projects) may be found here. My goal is to use all of the logical tools God has given us in our effort to understand Scripture and the divine while arguing that logic and science have their (logical) limits and that the irrational (I’d prefer the term “superrational”) and mystical must necessarily have a place in faith.

I’d also like to make my biases clear to you for your review as you evaluate my thoughts. I am unabashedly progressive in my theological leanings. I reject categorically any argument that the Bible should be read literally in all circumstances. Others have more fully set out the arguments for that position than I (I particularly prefer Karl Barth’s analysis of the difference between Scripture as the word of God and Jesus as the Word of God, which I address somewhat here, here, here and here.) I believe in full inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian faith in general and the UMC in particular; I have laid out some arguments for this in the series here. I believe that those same persons should be allowed to be clergy if they have been called to be so. I vehemently disagree with the invocation of Christianity as an excuse for very un-Christian actions by our hardline conservative politicians (see here, here and here).

I have been a lay delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC for several years now and have reported my thoughts on several annual conferences on the blog. Here are some of my previous thoughts on the current human sexuality issue facing the Church (given mostly to be honest in my biases for all readers):

(1) A split of the UMC by any means other than by detailed agreement between all parties will be devastating to our witness and our missions. See here.
(2) I believe that the Church’s continued mission and relevance is best expressed in progressive theology, but that conservative theology (willing to engage honestly and in good faith with progressive theology) will always be important for accentuating certain aspects of our walk and faith, and that there should be a place for both in the UMC. See here.
(3) I believe that the One Church Plan provided the best avenue for various theologies to remain in productive fellowship with one another. See here.
(4) I believe that the Traditional Plan is, practically speaking, unenforceable and that the insistence upon it represents an unwillingness to compromise by some (not all) traditionalists within the UMC. See here.
(5) I found the actions of the hardline traditionalists at the Called General Conference in 2019 to be devastating, obstinate and infuriating. See here.
(6) I do not think it is right or proper to expel anyone from any Christian church, but especially from the UMC. See here (my first post to the blog, actually).

Okay, that’s a lot of introduction, but I feel that its necessary for me to be open and honest about my positions and thoughts, to hide nothing from readers (whether they agree with or like what I have to say or not) and to allow anyone who spends time reading my thoughts to evaluate them with their own discernment and standing in proper context. In other words, I believe that this information must be provided if I am to comply with the “Catholic Spirit” and the idea of “Holy Conferencing” as described by John Wesley. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’ve spent time investigating the links I’ve provided throughout, I am touched and honored. If you’ve already left, I won’t know the difference.

Now, a continuation of my thoughts on the Protocol as promised. I’ll try not to repeat myself overmuch from my first post. Prepare for some stream of consciousness, people.

I still wish that the UMC would not split. I think that we are honestly better together and that a diversity of theologies and interpretative positions help us come closer and closer to a true understanding of God’s will for us.

I believe, and have said repeatedly, that the human sexuality issue before the UMC is only a proxy war for a much larger conflict between conservative and progressive approaches to Biblical interpretation. That has at once made the issue much more difficult (and is the explanation I give to those who ask why we’re still fighting about human sexuality) and, simultaneously, using this issue to fight about something else is unfair in the extreme to those affected: the LGBTQ+ community.

I think that it is hypocritical of those traditionalists who have taken the stance that their position is a “matter of conscience” for which there may be no compromise or compassion for disagreement while seeking to punish clergy who have violated the UMC’s Book of Discipline (by performing same-sex weddings or being a “practicing homosexual,” for instance) as a matter of their own conscience and theological convictions.

I acknowledge and respect that there are compatibilist (meaning, willing to continue to live in fellowship with progressives and others who disagree with their own theology) traditionalists. I wish that they were louder so that they might be better heard over the hardliners.

I acknowledge that there are hardline progressives who want to push any traditionalist element out of the UMC. I find it easier to sympathize with them than with hardline traditionalists given the injustices suffered by the LGBTQ+ community, but I still heartily disagree with their position and retain my preference for inclusion–including those of conservative/traditionalist theology willing to live compatibly with those who disagree.

Nevertheless, I believe that the hardline traditionalists have left no option but for a split in the UMC–my impression of the GC 2019 was that the progressives and centrists mostly (not entirely, but mostly) plead for a way to live together and the traditionalists stated that anyone who didn’t agree with their narrow hermeneutic had no place in the Church.

I argue that the acceptance of people who are not cisgendered, who are not gender-binary, whose gender is not the same as their biological sex, who have transitioned from one biological sex to another or who love someone who is the same gender or sex as them is not a matter of “rewriting Scripture” or of “culture corrupting Christianity.” I would liken it to C.S. Lewis’ “natural law.” Lewis argued that our conscience trying to guide us one way or another is the action of the Holy Spirit within us, that some aspects of wrong and right are known through the direct and personal revelation of God without a need to reference Mosaic or Levitical law. In that sense, I think societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is the Holy Spirit telling us what is right.

Before the arguments on that front begin, I would also argue that a good interpretation of Scripture supports what society is saying about LGBTQ+ acceptance, not vice versa. I’m not going to lay out those arguments here, there are plenty of excellent places to find them (just Google or search Amazon).

If you aren’t aware, an earlier commission of the General Conference (not the Commission on the Way Forward; this was the Committee to Study Homosexuality) gave its report to the 1992 UMC General Conference and made a similar statement (admittedly expressed in the negative form against condemnation rather than a positive assertion for acceptance). The majority report stated:  “The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.” Dorothy Lowe Williams and the United Methodist Church (U.S.) Committee to Study Homosexuality, The Church Studies Homosexuality: A Study for United Methodist Groups Using the Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1994), 36.

So what do all of these statements and assertions mean with regard to the Protocol?

First, I applaud the ability of some within each of the “factions” within the argument to come together to attempt a compromise. This is an example to us all.

Simultaneously, I think that, as honest Christians, we should lament and own that the best our human nature seems to allow us to do in this situation is to split as amicably as possible. This is choosing the best among terrible scenarios. I think that we can rightly compare this to the standard Methodist outlook on divorce: Divorce is not something that God wants, but our reality in this fallen world is that sometimes divorce is preferable under the circumstances to remaining in a broken and damaging relationship. God will not condemn one who leaves an untenable marriage; neither should we.

At the same time, we need to make clear, as Christians, to the unchurched that this is a result of our inability to fully live into Christ’s example for us, a further reminder that we, too, are in need of God’s grace. That in fact, is why we are Christians, not because of some hubris that allows us to look down our nose at those who are not Christians. I think most Christians agree with that premise but we do a terrible job of owning it and communicating it to others; our perceived arrogance and judgment is a primary source of ridicule and rejection of the Christian faith. That’s not a logical argument, but if we take evangelism seriously, we must admit that sometimes perceptions of us are more important than realities.

To that end, I find myself reluctantly supporting the Protocol. To be honest, I’m growing tired of fighting. I’m seeing less and less value arguing with those who disagree with me, no matter how respectful and genial I can keep myself (which isn’t always very, I admit) and I’m beginning to think that my own efforts are better spent where they will have greater effect, cutting my losses with traditionalists who will never listen to anything that possibly diverges from their established beliefs. Part of me wants to say, “I’ll leave that to God, that’s God’s job, not mine.” But I don’t like quitting, and a church split feels like quitting, even if it is necessary.

I want to point out a few things that I very much appreciate in the Protocol, though. First and foremost, the Protocol seeks to protect the material assets (namely retirement and benefits) of all UMC clergy, regardless of whether they stay or go. I don’t think that it is grace for anyone to test the willingness and ability of another person to follow his or her conscience by increasing the cost of doing so. Removing a choice about whether to keep the benefits one has worked so hard for for so long or to sacrifice all of it for conscience’s sake represents the moral obligations to one another our faith instills within us (or should at least), no matter which “side” you’re on. I sometimes feel drawn to aggressively argue my position against traditionalists, and not always in the kindest of ways, I admit. But I can honestly say that I wish no harm upon those who disagree with me, and the Protocol represents a communal agreement to the same.

Likewise, provisions for allowing local churches to keep their possessions and property will be essential and I very much appreciate the efforts of all parties on that front. If you’ve followed the links above (or the history of the split of any other Christian denomination in the U.S.), you know well how much money and acrimony gets devoted to sorting out property rights, taking resources from the Church’s mission. As an attorney (and a real estate attorney at that), I’m fairly comfortable saying that in much property litigation it’s the attorneys who come out best. This should be avoided at (almost) all costs.

As I mentioned in my first post on the Protocol, I do feel some vindication at the Protocol’s provisions that it is an alternative traditionalist denomination that will be formed. Much of this, I admit, is an emotional (and neither rational nor beneficial) reaction to those at the 2019 GC who seemed to say that the UMC is not my church. It is, and as so many progressives have made clear after the 2019 GC, I will fight for it if forced. But it’s better for everyone if we don’t and I’d much prefer not to be driven to say or do things I might later regret.

Still, I think that the circumstances as a whole make the departure of the traditionalists the more reasonable choice. I understand that neither side wants to leave the UMC; both sides want to claim it for their own. I have some empathy for that; it’s a very human inclination. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is a right answer about who should leave. But my own (again biased) opinion is that, if it is the hardline traditionalists who refuse any compromise that allows us to live together, it seems fair that they be the ones to leave.

As I also mentioned in my first post, the Protocol is not a done deal. I imagine that it, too, like the Traditional and One Church Plans, will come to be hotly contested at the 2020 GC, that some will use Machiavellian maneuvering to attempt to stack the deck in their favor, that hopes will be dashed, that relationships will be broken and that spirits will be disheartened in what is to come. I hope that we can be better than that, we’re called to be as Christians, but experience doesn’t make me want to hold my breath.

Part of me thinks that the hardline traditionalists will never accept the Protocol and that they will attempt instead to do what they did in GC 2019–anything they can to get their way to the exclusion of all else. My greatest fear, if we’re being honest, is that they might succeed.

This fear is born out of my analysis of the flow and procedure of UMC conferences. Having gone through the transcript of the 1972 proceedings that led to the “incompatibility” language in the first place, I think that the condensed time frame and procedural confusion in the body (and leadership) of the Conference had as much to do with the change being passed as anything else. Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of circumstances in the Texas Annual Conference where scheduling and procedure seem to take on a life of their own in determining the course of decisions. Some of that may, of course, be tactical manipulation on the part of very savvy actors. More, though, is simply the difficulty of managing a large group of people, most of whom have no idea how things are supposed to proceed and little understanding of how they’re actually proceeding.

Personally, I think that we should, with great regret and reflection on our corporate failings, push for the approval of the Protocol. If this is a great divorce, then the time has come for us to stop talking about the substance of our disagreements and to start trying to be genial as we handle the administrative tasks necessary to end the relationship. I hate that that’s where I end up, but from my very mortal perception I do not see an alternative. The Spirit could always do something unexpected (though I think that perhaps the Protocol may well be that thing).

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

Even if you’re not a United Methodist, you’ve probably seen on any given major news outlet the announcement that “The United Methodist Church is set to split over gay marriage…” (The Washington Post) or something similar. If you’ve gotten more than the headlines, you may have seen that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” was released today, having been signed on December 17th, 2019.

After you’re done snickering about the irony of the title (I know I did), let’s talk first about what the Protocol is (and isn’t). The Protocol is an agreement in principal between important “players” or “Powers that Be” within the UMC that includes a proposed separation between the more conservative branch of the denomination and the more progressive one. So, this is not binding law, a definitive action, a done deal, or anything final in any respect. The Protocol will need to be turned in to legislation that can be passed at the 2020 General Conference, at which point it can start to take actual effect.

Only sixteen people signed on to the Protocol as those directly involved in the agreement, but they represent much larger groups of likeminded people from large swathes of the Church, some directly, some indirectly. Most importantly, I think that the signatories to the Protocol represent all of the major positions that need to be considered as the Church finds its way forward.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Protocol represents an actual “way forward.” Using a well-respected attorney to mediate between the gathered power blocs within the Church, the Protocol represents a plan of separation that (hopefully) avoids litigation and further dispute.

As I’ve written before, my preference would truly be a means for conservatives and progressives to continue to be in fellowship together. That said, human nature being what it is, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that that does not look feasible any more. The Protocol, then, may be our last best hope at a resolution.

Under the Protocol, a traditionalist alternative denomination will be formed. Monetary resources from the UMC will be used to initially fund the denomination (and those churches wishing to move to it by vote will keep the local church property) and all other claims to UMC resources will be waived. That’s a fair and gracious resolution, I think.

I do think that the traditionalist position contributes to injustice in our world when it comes to certain issues–LGTBQ rights and acceptance as a local example of the consequences of a judgmental and literalist interpretive hermeneutic as the global issue is Exhibit A. But I also believe that, on other issues, traditionalists do alleviate suffering, increase justice and diligently serve the Lord. Because of that, I don’t take issue with providing monetary support for an amicable (as possible) separation.

Realistically, though, as I’ve also written before, I think that the traditionalist faction that is created won’t be of lasting significance. Christianity does not have a relevance problem–ours is a faith as meaningful and far-reaching today as it ever has been. But the archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone “does the right thing” over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not a result of secular culture imposing a new and heretical view of Biblical authority; it’s a result of humanity’s maturity in its understanding of God and theology as expressed through the careful and well-meaning application of all of the tools God has given us to the interpretation of Scripture and the search for greater understanding of the nature of God as expressed in Jesus Christ.

I also (vaingloriously, I admit) feel vindicated by the fact that it is the traditionalists who will leave. In a previous post, I remarked that the Traditional Plan is untenable in the UMC: even if it narrowly passed at the Called General Conference, the resistance within elements of the UMC (I’d like to include myself in that group, though I have admittedly little influence on the actual shape of things) makes enforcement unfeasible. I feel that the Protocol acknowledges that reality. Is that a useful or edifying feeling? Of course not. But it still feels good.

Most important, though, the Protocol represents a good-faith effort by the various factions to come to an agreement as to how to move forward other than one side trying to force its praxis on the other. That is a testament to an attempt by all involved to genuinely live out their faith in Jesus; a message that our world desperately needs in a time of tribes, “us and them” (of which I’m fully guilty, I admit), and demonization of those who disagree with us.

When the Traditional Plan passed at the GC, those of us who felt dejected and rejected by that decision continued to hold out hope that the Spirit might still work something new in the UMC. I’d like to think that the Protocol is just that. It’s maybe not anyone’s first choice (which probably indicates a reasonable compromise), and it’s not exactly what anyone expected, but it may be exactly what we need.

Part of me wants to end on that note of hope, but it’s too early for that. The Protocol still needs to be turned into an actionable collection of legislation and a plan of amicable (and non-litigious) separation that garners the support of the larger UMC (or at least those who get to vote at General Conference this year). There is much work to be done.

I’ve further expanded my thoughts and provided some additional background to my perspective in a follow-up post available here.