Loving Jesus means “hating family?”

I have often heard it said that Luke 14:26-27, about needing to “hate” your family if you are truly to love Jesus, is tough but clear. And by this they mean: it is clear in that it means what it says. This post argues against that notion, both on the basis of reading the passage more broadly and of relying on some of the major, scholarly commentaries on Luke—by Joel B. Green and Darrell Bock.1

I believe that their presentation / exegesis disproves the common perspective of “clarity” and defeats the common interpretation of this passage. By reading Luke 13 – 15 as a unit and focusing our reading on the principal themes the fullest, best meaning of Luke 14:26-27 becomes clear.

Let’s begin with Chapter 13.

Lk 13:1-5 is the reformulation of right and wrong in terms of certain recent events and the overarching need to repent, 13:6-9 addresses the “second chance” that is now being offered to the Judean people via Jesus (and the consequence of not repenting), 13:10-17 has Jesus revolutionizing the Sabbath (and, by extension, all that is most holy and most “God’s”), 13:18-33 portrays Jesus reconfiguring the current notion of what is “most God’s” according to the notion of the kingdom of God, with accompanying indications of the difficulty (particularly for those listening!) to access it, and the likelihood that listeners will mistake themselves for insiders when they are not. 13:34-35 contains Jesus’ recapitulation of his sadness and frustration that Jerusalem (i.e., Israel) continues to reject God.2

Then, in Lk 14:1, note how we begin with a meal and how in Lk 15:2 we have another meal reference. These two references “book end” the content of Lk 14. Note also how, in Lk 14:2-6 Jesus again heals on the sabbath, again a reference to the re-ordering or revolutionizing of what is “God’s” that he is effecting. The parable of Lk 14:7-11 both stands on its own and acts to prepare for the parable of verses 12-24.

In effect, the first parable’s emphasis on humility in order to avoid disgrace (or better, dishonor, in the sense that 1st century Palestine is an “honour & shame” society) is exploded by the second parable’s indication that those who were invited (v. 17) refused to come for various, flimsy reasons (vv. 18-20). Then the poor and lame of the town are invited (v. 21), and finally those from farther off are brought in (v. 23).

Following Joel B. Green, these three groups represent, in order, 1) the majority of Israel, including the religious elite and those acting in accordance with the law, 2) those failing to uphold the law (sinners) or marginalized by the law (those who are poor, crippled, blind, and lame), and finally 3) those who are foreign to Israel (an oblique reference to Gentiles).

It is only after understanding the above trajectory that I believe that we are in a position to interpret Lk 14:25-27 properly.

Specifically, the crowds represent mostly those in group #1 (or if present, they would be shunning any group #2’s among them). Yet in the context of Jesus’ work to revolutionize and re-order the things of God (as demonstrated by the sabbath healings), being part of the banquet in the second parable means rejecting that which is seemingly most Israelite (i.e., to reject “rejecting”—or to stop ignoring—the prophets and particularly Jesus for the sake of the Judean traditions, as Lk 13:34-35).

In other words, you must even act as to “hate” that which is most yours: rejecting your culture, traditions, and self-identification via such (which is transmitted through and embodied most deeply in one’s family) and to accept the shame / dishonour that will result in order that you may not act as those in group #1 did in the second parable!

Thus in 14:28-32 there is a call to understanding (and so counting) the cost of acting in this way, with the call to “give up all that you possess” in v. 33. Finally, the meal table analogy (where sharing a meal in 1st century Palestine symbolizes “being family” together) is completed with the reference to salt (vv. 34-5): the savoryness of the meal is dependent on the salt being as it should be.

In my view, the implication is that those coming to feast are both invitees and, through the distinctiveness of their commitment and engagement with God, contributors to that meal.3

Finally, I think that the typical misreading of Luke 14:26-27 is at the heart of many situations where people are disregarded, marginalized, and sorely mistreated for the sake of preserving a particular understanding of who God is / what it means to be Christian.

Here are just a few examples of this misunderstanding (and its implications):

http://www.planetwisdom.com/discipleship-relative-hate-on-the-trail/
http://www.meetingwithchrist.com/If%20anyone%20comes%20to%20Me%20and%20does%20not%20hate%20-%20Lk%2014(26).htm
https://immortalityroad.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/christ-you-must-hate-your-family-to-be-my-disciple-counting-the-cost-of-discipleship/

More personally, the claims of Christians who have been rejected, stigmatized, and labelled as “subverter” by people who claim to love them, are staggering. And yet almost always those who reject, stigmatize, and label are characterized by a perfect precis of Luke 14:26-27. As one person mentioned, “It’s not that my parents don’t love me, it’s that they love church more.”

Once this attitude can be debunked as anti-Christian so too can the characterization of churches that accept or promote this attitude be re-characterized as “broken churches,” such that any conclusions (about churches being inherently problematic and thus church attendance being ultimately harmful) can be recast as mischaracterizations / misformulations, based on misinformation.

Daycare or university? II

In my previous post I offered the first part of my response to a letter written by Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Dr. Everett Piper. I am critical of Dr. Piper’s perspective for a number of reasons, particularly as I view it to assume a very reductionistic picture of human beings.

I noted three characteristics of humanness that Dr. Piper’s letter seems to disregard: multiplicity, situatedness and integratedness.

To the above characteristics there is at least one other that should be added, though here I think that Dr. Piper has applied this characteristic with too little consideration, and so has overplayed it. This characteristic is key to both the Christian message and our experience of being human: that we make bad choices. And this is not only in the sense of being under-informed or erroneous, but of purposely choosing in ways that disrespect and even destroy ourselves and others.

This the biblical text calls sinfulness—the propensity to chose and act in ways that destroy what is to be a human being’s primary relationship, between him/herself and God.

I agree with the implication in Dr. Everett Piper’s letter that people are prone to making bad and destructive choices (and more: we typically hide this fact from themselves by claiming that their actions serve some good purpose—a phenomenon called “false consciousness“). Such choices amount to thwarting my relationships with God and, as a consequence, my relationship with myself, my fellows, and my world. This is what I understand “sin” to be.

In my experience sin also involves my “multiplicity,” such that when I am scared, threatened, lonely, etc. I have a greater tendency of making worse choices—of letting those parts of me “call the shots.” Are these choices poor and often wrong? Yes. But they are not without a certain logic and rationale, no matter how broken and ineffective.

By better understanding this (from biblical sources, complimented and enhanced by non-biblical sources) we can better reply to those who make such seemingly outlandish claims as feeling “victimized” by a sermon.  So rather than simply condemning the individual (as the author has) I would remain critical yet curious (What did the student mean by being “victimized”? Victimization is a heavy concept: where else does the speaker typically experience that)? 1

Such questioning may have revealed little but narcissim and self-centredness. But I doubt it.

More likely it would have revealed brokenness that could benefit from some form of intervention (better sleep, exercise, and eating patterns; moving away from a bad living situation; counseling, etc.). The upshot is that, in addition to reducing our credibility with non-Christians (as I argued last post), (mis)understandings and critical responses (borne, seemingly, out of a sense of defensiveness) such as those of Dr. Everett Piper also alienate our fellow Christians.

In the end, I see this loss of credibility and increase in alienation to be caused by a lack of proper integration, on several levels.

First, the bible and real life and inter-related: we understand each rightly in light of the other. Thus we must become not only competent readers of the Bible but “competent readers” of existence and of ourselves.2 Dr. Everett Piper seems at least to under-play (if not essentially ignore) existence in favour of the Bible, likely because this is seen by many Christians as “more honouring” to God. But where God is also creator (and where creation necessarily frames salvation) how can we place the creational at a lower level than the Biblical text / the way for creatures rightly to relate to their creator?

We cannot, at least not without devaluing God as creator in favour of God as saviour. Yet both are indispensable and each is necessary to the other. Dr Everett Piper seems to forget (or ignore) this.

Second, I believe that love and truth are co-equal and, as such, that they should be maintained in a flexible tension whereby each can confirm and / or critique the other (rather than set in a hierarchy where one reigns over the other). A key implication of this for Christians is that our views and interpretations of the Bible (as truth) are to be set in flexible though equal tension with the mandate to love others, which includes valuing their texts / readings of those texts as much as my own.

Dr. Everett Piper seems to believe that valuing the Bible (and the God therein portrayed) requires relegating any emotional response that does not conform with the “proper” standards (contrition in the face of admonishment, self-effacement with regard to the charge of selfishness) to the status of misbehaviour. Anything else would simply be pandering (c.f., “This is not a day care. This is a university.”)

Instead, while I would remain critical of the idea that my emotions are always the best “informer” on a given matter, I certainly would not seek to constrain emotional responses to “proper” and “improper.” Instead, I would recognize that I am not being less truthful by considering another person’s perspective (in this case, their interpretation of / response to a given presentation of 1 Cor 13) but more truthful.

This is not in the sense that 1 Cor 13 somehow can mean “anything” that someone claims it does, but in the sense that loving the other requires that Christians be willing to suspend my response to what appears to be a potential challenge to truth (and particularly, biblical truth) in exchange for offering the other “a hearing.” This is the only way to move beyond the impasse of seeing such claims as “threats” to biblical truth rather than cries for help.

So by valuing love and truth equally (rather than preferencing the Bible and biblical truth above all things) we actually gain more truth, more love.

This is because changed behaviour and renewed understandings always take place best within an environment of acceptance.3 Thus I do not forego critique but I must delay it, rather than leading with critique as Dr. Everett Piper seems inclined to do.

A key implication of Dr. Piper’s letter is that the church (or in this case, Christian university) has fuller knowledge and so has the correct interpretation of the matter (and thus the authority, and indeed responsibility, to act). In other words, the claim that he and his educational institution are correct in “calling out” this student’s behaviour as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” because (by corollary) the exegesis, presentation and subsequent interactions relative to the particular sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 were completely sound and appropriate.

Yet the same charge of sinfulness (whereby this student was “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic”) is equally possible relative to Dr. Piper’s staff, to Dr. Piper himself, and to us all (myself included). This does not eliminate the possibility that one party has a more accurate understanding of a matter than another party, but it does mean that accessing such accuracy and truthfulness are not as tidy, immediate and one-sided as Dr. Piper’s letter seems to imply.

So I am arguing, in this post and the preceding, that the “authority” inherent in Dr. Everett Piper’s claims is based on understandings with which many biblical, experiential, and scientific informers would disagree. And by effectively being “called out” by these witnesses, any Christian body (church, university, etc.) shows itself for what it is: a non-authority relative to these very claims.

Sure, this is just one example.

Yet I continue to see this same inability / unwillingness to integrate the biblical and the experiential, with two main results. In the first instance as I argued last post, based on its dissonance with “real life” and scientific understandings, non-Christians readily conclude that such claims to authority have no real credibility (and so they dismiss the Christianity therein presented as irrelevant).

Equally worryingly, in the second instance Christians who hold this view seem increasingly to find themselves “at odds” with how their beliefs interface with their daily lives4, and Christians who are subjected to this view find that this authority exercises power in a manner that often (or even ultimately?) results in alienation, and so effectively find themselves forced to chose between life and belief.

A sad state of affairs for a belief that seeks to spread the “good news” with the aid of the “Spirit of truth,” and that offers “abundant life” to those that accept it.5

 

Daycare or University… ?

My good friend and podcast partner John Poelstra sent me this link, thinking it would “get my goat.” Well, the goat is still gone.

I both agree and disagree with the author, Dr. Everett Piper.

I agree that we cannot be ruled by our feelings, and that feelings can be misinterpreted or misread.  Our feelings, in other words, cannot “go it alone.”  Yet neither, for that matter, can any other human faculty—reason included.1  So the claim that “feelings” mislead or distract us (because, as Dr. Piper notes, “That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience”) seems both shallow and potentially false.

Further, I find it interesting that this notion of feelings-as-conscience is couched in the language of anti-selfishness and anti-actualization (or actually, of selflessness and “confession”). Here Dr. Piper seems to be expressing the idea that we “give up” ourselves entirely, as though we are monolithic beings rather than integrated beings. This, to my understanding, is really problematic.

In other words, part of what it is to be an adult (and to my mind a Christian, clearly) is that I do forego certain parts of me—certain ways of being or inclinations connected to certain aspects of my personality and makeup. Yet I also embrace others. And I do this not simply because a collection of ancient texts prescribes this or because I am promised great riches in ‘the after life’, but because this other way of living represents better ways of being in the ‘here and now’.

So it seems to me that the author (like many, many evangelicals, I fear) has not understood the way in which real life / human experience is necessarily integrated with biblical teachings on who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate to each other (and consequentially, how human beings are best to relate to themselves, their fellows, and the world around them).

On the one hand, as I’ve argued in my graduate thesis, this lack of understanding often stems from a failure to incorporate other, necessary dialogue partners into the discussion.2 The Protestant rallying cry of sole scriptura is never really possible, then, because we are always reading from our situatedness: viewing the matter from our own perspective. In this way, our interpretations of the world (and our experiences of living in it) are always already at play in terms of our interpretations of texts—biblical or otherwise.

Given that we are unavoidably multiple (the author’s very notion of a “conscience” that may cause me to doubt my own actions or intentions highlights this), situated (while we can sometimes imagine matters from a different perspective we cannot, unlike God, see things from any / all perspectives) and integrated (our interpretations of existence effect our interpretations of texts, just as our understandings of texts impacts our lived choices), Dr. Everett Piper’s orientation is not simply incomplete or one-sided: it is impossibly reductionistic.

I see two problems stemming from this reductionism.

First, such reductionistic messages are at odds with the complex portrait of human beings in the biblical text (and as such, these messages misportray the Christian God and vastly “under sell” what it is to be Christian).3 Second, our life experiences of “living better” also inform us on such matters with the result that a messages such as this one, by Dr. Piper, leave themselves open to easy dismissal by the very non-Christians to whom we Christians seek to present evidence—a witness—of the reality of the Christian God and the veracity that human life is, above all things, best lived when we live in right relationship with this God.

Allow me to expand on the implications of ignoring the necessary integration between “real life” and the Bible in terms of my second point, for non-Christians.

On the one hand, everyone—not simply Christians—can come to understand the importance of truth and love (and so the essential nature of such virtues as forgiveness, patience, honesty, etc. even where we fail to practice them, or practice them well).4 So humans are able to understand that these virtues are essential to right living, and that these virtues not only apply to me but also stem from me.

Yes, we pretty much all have the experience, no matter how meagre or fleeting, of making right and good choices.5  And whether these are choices that I make for myself or that others make in my regard, or whether they are choices I make with regard to others, the making of such choices deeply impacts me.

On the other hand, where Dr. Everett Piper’s message effectively misportrays the Christian God/Christianity by mis-presenting the Bible’s complex portrait of human beings, it also does so by broadly ignoring the vast body of learning and study undertaken in other areas related areas related to human nature and development, such as psychology, sociology, biology and anthropology, to name a few.

So by failing to understand that such notions as “self-actualization” (which Dr. Piper seems to reject as unbiblical) includes the self-understanding and self-valuing that the Bible itself presents as being essential in order for human beings rightly to engage their most fundamental orientation (as being in a love relationship with God), the author loses credibility not only with those who know these things through their experience of living in the world, but also with those who understand the workings of human nature / development through study and examination.

Allow me to sum this up:

It appears to me that the author is presenting a picture of appropriate / ideal human being that is neither biblically, experientially, or scientifically viable. No wonder so many non-Christians hear such a message and simply disregard it, as irrelevant.

Syria and Paris: symptoms rather than problems

Over the past days I have watched the American responses to the terrorist attacks in Paris with growing apprehension, responses marked by misinformation, faulty logic, and a notable absence of compassion.

But I have to admit something that may seem strange: I’m not upset with everyone who responded this way.

True, I don’t agree with the 30 + U.S. Governors, or the electorates that they represent, who advocate barring Syrian refugees from the United States (and from their respective states in particular).1 I don’t agree with the Republican presidential candidates who advocate admitting only Christian immigrants (Ted Cruz, Jed Bush) or even with candidate Donald Trump, who proposes maintaining a database and surveillance on all Syrian refugees (and maybe even sending all of the Syrians “back home”).2

Indeed, the very fact that the majority of people who oppose the immigration of Syrian refugees (or at least, all of the reports I have read concerning the opinions of such folks) claim to do so because of the possibility of admitting terrorist agents / radicalized Muslims is itself telling. It shows that they misunderstand the nature of the threat and the solutions currently in place, and so offer an incorrect response.

Specifically, the level of scrutiny, the uncertainty of selection, the long wait, and the advantages of other methods make immigration the least likely means of “infiltrating” the United States or Canada. For example, both countries require that Syrian refugees must pass three distinct review processes. Next both countries preference families, single mothers, orphans and the elderly. Further, the review process is lengthy and is generally proceeded by several years in a refugee camp—a long time to have potential fighters “out of action.” Finally, tourist visas are far easier to obtain and tourist access is far freer and more immediate.3

As if to confirm this, only 3 of 784,000 refugees accepted to the United States since 2001 have been indicted for attempted terrorism, and none of the attempts were against Americans or on American soil.4 So why would a potential terrorist try to immigrate when there are easier ways to perpetrate terrorism?

They wouldn’t.

Instead, I believe that the facts support a different view of the matter—and so a different response—which I will consider below. Yet while I disagree with them, I’m not surprised to encounter them.

I’m not surprised because the world is filled with people who believe that the “right way” to live is to prioritize yourself, your family, and your culture / way of life at all times. Whether we call this “looking out for number one,” failing to care for others or just being “ethnocentric,” these responses are prevalent. Sad I think, but not surprising.

I respond to such thinking along four lines: pragmatic, philosophical, general and personal.

Pragmatically, the very ability to prioritize oneself, one’s goals and “way of life” necessitates living in an environment that is sufficiently compatible with / conducive to these goals.

For example, the practice of giving foreign aid (for both development and relief) is not only altruistic but also self-serving. In the short term it abates despair, and therefore renders foreign populations far less vulnerable to embracing radical viewpoints, which reduces global threats. In the long term, insofar as it helps to re-establish stability and normalcy foreign aid helps not only helps reduces foreign threats but creates trading partners, and trade is the vehicle that allows us to fulfill many of our self-interests.

Philosophically, I would argue that militantly promoting my good (or preemptively ‘preserving’ it, as an indiscriminate “better safe than sorry” campaign) is precisely what extremists are hoping for.

For example, where radical organizations seek to polarize respondents (either to fully embrace their distorted rhetoric or by their militant rejection to become the “enemy” that these organizations depict all “others” to be), responding purely with fear and exclusion is exactly the response that they are looking for!5

Generally, the distance between terrorist acts and the acts of mentally unbalanced people is remarkably small, maybe even indistinguishable.

For example, in the US we can think about the Oklahoma bomber or the man in 2010 who flew his plane into an IRS office, or the recent abortion clinic shootings in Colorado Springs.6 Committed by foreigners we would likely call these people “terrorists.” Committed by Americans these people are typically called “mentally disturbed” or “unwell.”7 Such events are very similar, but our responses to them are very different.8

Personally, I would argue that seeking my own good often results in me deprioritizing myself / some of my desires and also risking myself / my well-being.

For example, in a relationship where I have been hurt or mistreated I am faced with the need, if the relationship is to continue, to privilege trust and forgiveness over suspicion and resentment. Similarly, as author Brenée Brown notes, human mental and emotional health requires (perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively) that we continue to embrace our own vulnerability.9 In all cases, I need to be open to the idea that “protecting” and insulating myself may actually be self-destructive.

Yet while I disagree with them, my beef is not necessarily with those presidential candidates, those American Governors, or their electorates.

Regardless of whether their motivation is personal, familial, or cultural (or a blend of them) these are not the people with whom I most disagree. Instead, my beef is with Christians—evangelical Christians—who hold these views. More to the point, my beef is with much of evangelical Christianity itself.

In other words, I believe that there is something deeply wrong at the core of typical evangelicalism.

 

Next post I specify “Why evangelicalism?” and explain “What exactly is wrong?”

Love and truth (and Syria)

I have been very pleased that my church has chosen to engage ‘head on’ with raising support for the Syrian refugee crisis, and I have been glad to take a role in researching and promoting relief efforts in Syria, as well as researching the causes and complexities of the struggle that has cost so many people their homes (and sometimes their lives).

As I have been engaging in various discussion within our FaceBook group it was revealing for me to realize that I do not support sponsorship of Syrian immigrants to Canada “carte blanche.”

Instead, I find myself concerned about the potential threat of increasing ideological extremism in Canada via immigration from the Middle East, but not because I think that Canadian immigration screening is not thorough or effective. Instead, I recognize both that there are no “guarantees” in life and that there is much in Canada that I want to protect (including my own family).

Further, throughout the discussions about Syria many have advocated the need to love the Syrian people and to recognize that they are “like us” in essential ways. Yet when I consider my own experiences with different ‘versions’ of Christianity I recognize that these views enable people to “love” others in very different ways, some of which seem to me so very, very unloving.

And if this occurs for Christians, why not Muslims?

Yet I do, in fact, support sponsorship of Syrian refugess in Canada. And this is because I think that I have enough evidence to believe that our immigration process is sound and that the need is great. And while I suspect that many ‘versions’ of Islam are deeply problematic and even destructive I do trust that, when removed from environments that are narrow and repressive, better ways of thinking and living can be emerge.

Yet my point is this: love alone cannot be my guide here. This is not because I devalue it but because I think that love alone is insufficient. Nor do I want to be oriented primarily toward trust, for the same reasons. So what are the options? If I think that it’s true that there’s much to protect in Canada or that I suspect that Islam can be destructive, then can truth or suspicion be my guide?

I don’t think so: truth alone will not suffice either, nor does suspicion offers enough to orient me rightly.

Instead it is my belief that love and truth / truth and love are co-equal and co-central both to healthy human existence—to living life “abundantly”—and to the character of the Christian God, as revealed in the Biblical text and as I have experienced it in my own life.

In short, both my experience and how I read the biblical text leads me to the strong belief that love and truth need to be placed in tension with each other such that they both compliment and, where necessary, can correct each other. Likewise, I find human life to be filled with tensions—between suspicion and trust, skepticism and belief, confidence and humility—and rather than being destructive I believe that these tensions are actually productive.

As such I find that I live life best, and as a Christian relate to God best, not by collapsing these tensions into principles (and so creating hierarchies where love is privileged over truth, or vice verse) but by maintaining the dialogue—the sometimes ‘rough and uncomfortable harmony’—that they create.

For love without truth is sentimentalism that risks naively welcoming “the other” at the risk of denigrating (and even destroying) the self: by being finite and fallen we are sometimes as apt to welcome devils as well as angels, unawares. Yet truth without love is inhumane and risks mercilessly denigrating (and even destroying) “the other:” by being finite and fallen we are sometimes apt to deceive ourselves that we are better beings than those whose faults we discover.

But to my mind “better” is not found in denouncing faults that we do not share but in forgiving them, even as we recognize (and are wounded by) them.

 

I became a family mediator, in part, because I believe that conflict always has a positive component: it indicates passionate involvement, and passions are connected to our beliefs about truth. So conflict is one way that we promote, protect, and pursue what we think is true. If this is so, then while falsehood may be the opposite of truth, it is not its greatest enemy: that enemy is apathy.

I think that apathy with regard to Syria—or helping others in need, generally—is simply not getting involved: having “too much to do,” not seeing the importance of the issues, or having too many “good things” to do at home to look further afield. This can be prompted by a range of factors, from selfishness and fear to not cultivating curiosity and courage.

But for my money the answer to apathy, whether it concerns how we engage with our family, with Syrian refugees, or with the God of the Bible comes down to two things.

First, being dedicated truth-seekers. For Christians I think that this means accepting the daily challenge to formulate and embody the deep connections between the truth of our faith and the truth we understand and experience in our world. Second, fully participating in love: being loved and loving in return. And for Christians, I think that this means allowing ourselves to be transformed—inspired to love God, ourselves and others rightly—by stories and experiences of loving and being loved by God.

In other words I believe that right engagement with ourselves and our world and, for Christians, with God, happens best when we let truth and love, love and truth, have their due: dual top billing.

No “space on the table?”

For some time now I have been using the metaphor of “clearing space at the table” to describe the nature of my discussion on the Untangling Christianity podcast.

Specifically, I have been likening the notion of presenting new approaches and understandings relative to Christianity to the phenomenon of coming to a full table and, before being able to add anything, needing to clear space.

During a recent exchange I was asked to justify my view that there is need for anything more at this table. After all, Christianity has the benefit of centuries of careful work on the part of a host of intelligent and dedicated individuals, people who have not only carefully considered the Christian faith but lived it out with conviction. What more is needed?

Quite a valid question.

Before answering it, however, I think that it’s best to note a few things that I am not doing. First, I am not clearing the entire table. This would be impossible (because I cannot remove or erase this history: it exists and impacts me whether I am aware of it or not) and counter-productive (no one has the resources to “start fresh” with a new construal or presentation of Christianity). Second, I am not trying to assert my perspective but to argue for it: to present not only my views but how I hold them and the reasons why I think these views are preferable to other, existing views.

In fact, I view the very process of “clearing space” as deeply respectful of other views. In other words—and to follow the metaphor—instead of merely piling my contents on top and ignoring whatever is already there, as if my views are the only ones that count, I engage with the existing views even where I believe that they are partial, problematic, or even harmful and erroneous. Hence the beginning of the tagline to our podcast: “Defusing destructive ideas, unsnarling confused ideas . . .

So what makes me think that the table needs something new?

What about its current contents is problematic, and why?

My own experience of Christianity, or what I might call a “constellation” of experiences, is one indicator that something is wrong. John has a sufficiently similar constellation of experiences. And having spent 3 of the past 20 years living and studying at Swiss L’Abri (and over 10 other years in very close contact with the branch’s director) I have met and heard of hundreds of Christians whose patterns of experience seem similar.

But not just this.

The books that John and I began our podcast by evaluating—books read by thousands—were written to address just the sort of thing that would precede the movements away from Christianity that John, myself, and others have taken (John faded away from Christianity, I rejected it outright and utterly, etc.) indicating that many Christians experience their faith not being satisfying, not working out, or just plain “not making sense.”

And as if more proof were needed, there are dozens of cultural barometers gauging the vitality of the evangelical church in the Western world to be at an all-time low, despite a resurgent interest in “spirituality.”  I think the issue is best summed up by an evangelical pastor who was recently invited to a gathering of atheists. When asked what they would see as their major “beef” with Christians, the atheists were incredulous: “We don’t have a problem with Christians. . . Christianity is simply irrelevant!”

Thus the issues that I see are twofold.

First, Christianity has indeed become largely irrelevant insofar as it has lost credibility with those outside for not having thoughtfully and intentionally engaged with the major issues of time.1 Second, Christianity is fragmenting internally precisely because it has substituted personal piety and maintenance of community boundaries for thoughtful, intentional engagement with our world.

And why has this happened?

To my mind it is the result of many factors, but a core reason is that many Christians understand Christianity in an unbalanced or partial manner. In general terms, the evangelical church typically preferences biblical truth over all things, even the idea of loving their neighbour by valuing his or her ideas as much as we value our own. Similarly, the liberal church (and more recently, elements of the evangelical church that are attempting to bridge the “credibility gap” with those outside of Christianity) preferences love over truth, honouring acceptance and listening to the exclusion of critique.

I believe that aspects of both are true, but neither are valid separately. In other words, the Christian church suffers from improperly formulating the relationship between truth and love, and thus incorrectly engaging with and embodying both. Hence the second part of the tagline to our podcast: “considering love and truth in Christianity.”2

There is still much more to be said on these subjects, both by way of defusing destructive ideologies / unsnarling confused ideas and, most valuably, by way of considering how love and truth are best understood within Christianity, then within human existence, and finally what the best interaction may be between the two.

Ravi Zacharias III: Being Christian, being human

I want to pause before continuing with my stated goal of assessing and responding to Mr. Zacharias’s Christian apologetics, and particularly his understanding of Postmodernism, in order to frame my eventual response within a fuller presentation of my own view of how Christians should interact with others, both other Christians and non-Christians.

In other words, I believe that beginning with my own understandings on the matter is the best way to make a potentially contentious discussion productive.

Further, in a context where suspicion reigns for so many people—particularly suspicion about grand, all-encompassing narratives where good things can “really happen” to those that believe and bad things can be overcome—Christians can only engage by first accepting the full truth of this suspicion (and thus being those whose life and practice stands up to its scrutiny) rather than being those whose logic and rhetoric simply try to refute it.1

As such, I believe that Christians will show their Christianity to be credible and relevant by first showing themselves to be real human beings: those who understand “the real world” because they act and suffer within it rather than seeking to escape, ignore, or denigrate reality by virtue of Christian belief.

So what are my expectations of myself and of others, and what are my goals in interacting with them?

First, I want to understand who this other person is and be understood by him or her. This begins by realizing that the other is similar to me yet different, and so honouring that person’s uniqueness begins by listening so as to understand the other on his or her own terms. In other words, this individual is not first a “sinner” or even someone “made in God’s image” but is a person with his/her own views and self-understanding. So while one’s views may not be definitive (i.e., they may not offer the best understanding / fullest identity of that person) nevertheless they are crucial, because one’s self-understanding is one’s starting point.

This type of listening is predicated upon believing that others are just as important as I am, and that her/his beliefs and views have as much innate value as my own. The goal here is respect, which is a form of “loving my neighbour.”2

Second, my intention is not first to teach others but to learn whatever I can from them, while realizing that I also have things of value to offer to others. This perspective is predicated on several understandings. One is that all truth is God’s truth, and so I can expect to find it in many places (and so I need not be afraid of it, wherever I find it). Another understanding is that I know some things without knowing everything, and that non-Christians may have important things to teach me about being human and even about Christianity.3

The goal here is truth-seeking, which is a form of self-love, and is aided by not only living with the tension between confidence and humility but embracing it and other tensions as a productive and necessary reality of being human (that is, being finite, if not also fallen).4

Third, my starting place is not the Bible but is my humanity. In other words, the starting place for all human beings is their existence (being born, growing up in a family, living in the world with other human beings, etc). So while my engagement with the Bible has had a radically transformative impact on my humanity, yet my created humanness is the context for this transformative engagement and remains my undeniable starting point (because no one is born a Christian), and thus the best point at which to connect with everyone.

By implication, I want to understand myself as a human being and be aware of what it takes to live life rightly / best / most fully. The goal here is to live out my understanding that creation frames salvation, salvation transforms creation.5  As such I both begin the process of mutual understanding (#1) where it is most likely to meet with success and situate truth-seeking (#2) within its proper framework: in both cases, beginning with the human and creational.

Fourth, being a Christian means being rightly and fully human, and while this requires dependence upon / trusting God it is not a passive orientation. Thus engagement with others is at least secondary6 to being in right relationship with God, not simply believing certain things about God.

In turn, best relating with God requires orienting oneself toward Christian belief and practice according to the most appropriate characterization of Christianity. To my mind, this is both as a “research project” (a quest for truth born out of wonder, dissatisfaction and / or suffering, requiring both dedication and rigor) and a “dramatic production” (a response to love, voicing joy and leading to inspiration: both my own and that of others).

The goal here is best to engage with Christian belief and practice for myself, in order to embrace the truth and love / love and truth that are both necessary to human flourishing and the result of best connecting and relating with the Christian God.

Fifth, I want to understand my humanity and develop critical self-awareness in order to love myself rightly. The content here is this: I am dependent upon being in right relationship with God for better self-understandings, and by embracing these self-understandings I increasingly come to love who I am becoming by being loved by God (and loving God in return).

In this way, even as rightly relating with God proceeds engagement with others (#4), so too I can only engage with (and love) others in the context of rightly knowing and loving myself. The goal here is to know and relate to myself truly and, in so doing, jubilate in the outcomes of becoming my “best self,” through right relationship with God.

 

These five stages amount to wanting to live out who I am and promote what I deeply believe about myself, God, and the world. I do this primarily by integrating the new understandings and new experiences that I have derived from being in right relationship with God such that I not only exhibit a willingness but an eagerness to consider subjects that would seem to challenge Christian understandings and Christian faith itself (such as evolution, human sexuality, the existence of hell, etc.).

In this way I live a fulfilled and meaningful life, and, by offering sufficient evidence through my own authenticity to overcome the rampant and immediate suspicion that precedes discussions about Christianity and / or its orientations, I am legitimately able to share the sources of that fulfillment and meaning with others.

Ravi Zacharias II

Last post I expressed my hesitations about Christian apologetics and particularly Ravi Zacharias and his apologetics ministry.

I mentioned two main concerns. First, I find Mr. Zacharias’ understanding of Postmodernism is at best partial (and at worst, inaccurate), such that by failing to grasp Postmodernism accurately his responses to it are neither valid nor viable.

Thus in subsequent posts I will detail Mr. Zacharias’ views on Postmodersim and then contrast them with those of some prominent scholars. 1 And while I need not have chosen solely Christian thinkers, arguing on the basis of the work of eminent Christian scholars may be the most effective way of convincing Christians that Mr. Zacharias has indeed misunderstood Postmodernism (and so misportrays Postmoderns and, further, advocates responses that neither respect nor actually love them).

Yet despite the importance of my first concern in this post I want to focus on my second concern, as presenting a positive response best sets the stage for the critical discussion that follows. Specifically, my second concern is that the epistemologically focused, “question and answer” nature of Christian apologetics is actually counterproductive in presenting Christianity to postmoderns.

This is because postmoderns not only live in but have deeply internalized the implications of existing in a post-Holocaust, post Rwanda world. Most pointedly, postmoderns are far too aware that the reality of evil trumps any “grand ideas” (such as the ideal of progress, the virtues of modern science, or Christian ideals such as forgiveness and reconciliation). In a very real sense, these amounts to only “words, words, words.”

So where Mr. Zacharias and other Christian apologists approach postmoderns with rational arguments and emphasize biblical truth claims, postmoderns instead require the proof that would validate those reasons—the truth value that corresponds to such truth claims—while being thoroughly sceptical about such claims to such validation (and suspicious of those who are offering it). Where such is the case, any approach that offers truth claims without providing the appropriate truth values is deemed useless.

So how would I instead suggest that Christians engage with non-Christians?

Well, I engage with others—Christians and non-Christians—quite similarly.

First, I want to understand who this other person is, and be understood by them. This involves listening to others in such a way that I accept and “live out” the truth that their beliefs and views have as much innate value as my own. The goal here is respect as compassion, which is a form of “loving my neighbour.”

Second, my intention is not first to teach others but to learn whatever I can from them, while realizing that I also have things of value to offer to others. The goal here is truth-seeking, which is a form of self-love and is aided by not only tolerating the tension between confidence and humility but embracing it as a productive and necessary reality of being human (and finite).

Third, my starting place with anyone is not the Bible but my humanity. By starting my engagement this way I enter the process of mutual understanding (my first interest, above) where it is most likely to meet with success and situate truth-seeking (my second interest, above) within its proper framework: in both cases, beginning with the human and creational. The goal here is living with others according to my best understanding of how life works: creation frames salvation; salvation transforms creation.

Fourth, I want to engage with others in the process of living a fulfilled and meaningful life. Thus I connect with others as I am “living out” the truth and love, love and truth that I see at the core of human flourishing and as the result of proper connection with the Christian God. The goal here is living rightly, according to my best understanding of being in right relationship with God.

Fifth, I want to advocate to others the joys, benefits, and truths that I have experienced and come to believe about myself and life, in light of rightly relating with God. I do this by integrating my new understandings and experiences, derived from right relationship with God, within the entirety of my person and existence. The goal here is to jubilate in becoming my best self as one who is loved by, in love with, and rightly relating to God.

Thus it is only in the wake of this fivefold approach that I can offer significant, biblical truth claims to others (such as that God loves us, that we can be forgiven and so can forgive ourselves, and that living well and being fully ourselves requires relating rightly with God) in such a way that their meaning is clarified and their potency is maximized.

In other words, I must offer myself as proof of my words—as (at least partial) truth value to justify the truth claims that I purport.

 

Next post I will expand on these five points: defining them as well as explaining why their order and logic matter, both theologically and philosophically.

Ravi Zacharias I

“What do you think of Ravi Zacharias and his ministry of Christian apologetics?”

Given the esteem that Mr. Zacharias generally has in evangelical circles, it is important to note that any answer critical of him or his Christian apologetics offered to evangelicals will need to navigate between two poles, as steering too close to either may appear to discredit the response.

On one hand, by simply voicing critiques about Ravi Zacharias, his ministries, and Christian apologetics in a rather direct but general way I may be seen to be making comments “out of court.” In other words, being perceived to be critical without offering enough substantiation.

On the other hand, however, taking a very research-based approach to the matter may be seen as heavy-handed and unfair. In other words, by marshaling sources and presenting arguments in an academic fashion I may be perceived as approaching the discussion “in the wrong way” (i.e., on terms other than those used by Mr. Zacharias).

My response to this dilemma:

These matters are both complicated and important. As a result of being complicated they require sufficient research to bring as much clarity as possible. As a result of being important (by which I mean, how Christians understand these matters will have profound impact on people’s lives) they require that we be as thorough as possible in order, quite literally, to “love my neighbour as myself” (and to love God in the process).

Given this need for sufficient research and a thorough approach I’ve elected to make this series of posts more academically focused than most.

As such, I ask for your patience in reading this material such that you will be willing, where necessary, to re-read a given post. Further, I ask that you see the abundance of references and citations in these posts in the most charitable way: they are not an attempt to discredit Mr. Zacharias’s perspective (who offers little or no reference / citation) but an attempt a) to demonstrate the reasoned and well-researched approach of Christian scholars on these matters and, by extension, b) to offer you sufficient evidence to persuade you that the view I espouse on this matter is the better one.

In other words, my hope in offering this type of response is to avoid the error that I believe Mr. Zacharias himself has committed: misunderstanding the perspective that he is considering, such that he mischaracterizes those who hold that perspective, and thereby offers a response to the issue / its adherents that is in fact more of a problem than a solution.

That said, I have two main difficulties with Ravi Zacharias’ views and Christian apologetics:

First, from listening to his videos1, reading his articles2, and exposure to him in other sources3, I find that his views, although articulate, do not show sufficient understanding of the matters that he is arguing against. Consequently, by failing to present these matters accurately his responses to them are neither valid nor viable.4

A key example is postmodernism.5

Postmodernism is a key notion for Mr. Zacharias given that his chief goal is to persuade non-Christians of the validity of Christianity and, logically, the effectiveness of any apologetic depends on understanding one’s audience. So as Mr. Zacharias rightly notes, Western non-Christians are decidedly postmodern. Yet from my own research, informed by experts in this field of study, I believe that Mr. Zacharias has not only misunderstood postmodernism but consequently mischaracterized those who are postmodern.

And this leads to my second concern.

Second, Christian apologetics itself (as an epistemologically focused, “question and answer” enterprise is one that) I find questionable to the point of being counterproductive in presenting Christianity well. This is because postmoderns live in a post-Holocaust, post Rwanda world, and so they are far too aware that the reality of evil trumps any “grand ideas” (such as the ideal of progress, the virtues of modern science, or Christian ideals such as forgiveness and reconciliation). In a very real sense, these amounts to only “words, words, words.”

So where Mr. Zacharias and other Christian apologists approach postmoderns with their rational arguments and emphasis on biblical truth claims, postmoderns instead require the proof that would validate those reasons—the truth value that corresponds to those truth claims—while being thoroughly sceptical about such claims to such validation (and suspicious of those who are offering it). Where such is the case, any approach that offers truth claims without providing the appropriate truth values is deemed useless.

What is the nature of Christianity II (aka, “owning” your faith)

In a previous post I examined both the implications and the motivations related to describing Christianity in particular ways. Having discussed implications and motivations, let’s take a step closer to answering the question: “What is the nature of Christianity” and how might one describe this nature?

So, how would one go about describing Christianity?

For many Christians, Christianity simply means following God: obeying God, loving God, and certainly believing in God. Also, Christians typically use Bible verses to describe their belief / Christianity. So they may cite (or paraphrase) verses about loving God and loving their “neighbour” (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 11, etc.), about how much God loves us (John 3, etc.), or about the sinfulness of humanity (Rom 8, etc.).

On the one hand description though citing Bible verses is valuable, as the Bible represents an important (and indeed, essential) informer about the Christian God and the Christian faith. Yet on the other hand, while Christians must always seek to be informed by the biblical texts, I believe that the goal for every Christian is to describe the nature of Christianity—in truth, the nature of their own Christian belief—in their own words.

To my mind, the difference between presenting Christianity via scriptural quotations versus offering one’s own description—in one’s own words—often amounts to the contrast between believing in God / adhering to Christianity versus having come to a place of understanding that belief and having lived out the trust that such understanding implies, over time and in real-life situations. As such, it is the difference between tacit acceptance (of how one was raised or of one’s culture) and active engagement (which includes not only affirmation but also critique).

Again, I am not suggesting that Christians should put the Bible aside, but rather that they should cultivate the integration of their biblical understandings and experiential contexts to the point that their disposition towards their faith germinates into what might be called “ownership.” Ownership implies intimate involvement: caring deeply about the health, development, and outcomes of something. Ownership further implies deep personal investment (and by extension, it requires significant understanding).

Now an impediment to actively engaging with one’s faith is that in many churches (and indeed, in many Christian traditions) an emphasis on ownership does not exist or, where it does, the sort of “creative fidelity” that the notion implies is seen as at least misplaced, if not wayward. In other words, in many Christian environments the faithful yet creative appropriation of Scripture, integrated with one’s own experiences of living out one’s relationship with God (where both are distinct and in productive tension, allowing mutual corroboration and correction) is not seen as necessary to a vibrant and tenable Christian life.

For example, in some Christian traditions adherents are taught that “belief is enough” (or even given the tacit message that understanding is non-essential). And while belief is an essential component, to see relationship with God as being based on belief alone is to sorely misunderstand the situation in 1st century Palestine when Jesus called his fellow Judeans to “belief.” Indeed, these were people for whom the necessary understanding was already in place, but which needed to be re-oriented according to the perspective that Jesus offered on God, himself, and how people were to relate to both of them.

In my view then, emphasizing “belief alone” is in fact a detriment to Christians as it does not encourage them to adopt (and develop skill in using) the tools needed to become “owners” relative to their Christian beliefs. Instead, where Christians actively engage with their belief they are always looking for ways to understand those beliefs better, to explain them more fully, and to engage in their relationship with God (that is at the core of those beliefs) more vibrantly.

Thus the impetus for framing one’s Christian convictions / the nature of Christianity in one’s own words flows from one’s intimate involvement and personal investment, with the advantage that framing our faith our own words affords greater clarity of vision and purpose (for ourselves), as well as explanation (for others).

Finally, as I noted above, this degree of personalization (or ownership) requires “creative fidelity”: the faithful yet creative appropriation of Scripture, integrated with one’s own experiences of living out one’s relationship with God. Here Scripture and experience are distinct and yet situated in a relationship of productive tension, allowing these each component the possibility of corroborating—or correcting—the other.