What is Christianity? Part III

After several preparatory posts on this subject the time has come to lay out what, in my view, constitutes the most appropriate characterization of Christianity.

First, two caveats:

Given what I have argued previously about “owning” one’s faith I simply do not believe that a scriptural characterization of Christianity—whether by one verse, a pastiche of verses, or a whole chapter—is valid. Scripture helps people understand Christianity but cannot not represent, or sum up, that understanding.

Given what I have argued previously about the social and moral implications, among co-adherents, of defining a shared belief system I am both suspicious of the absence of a generic, evangelical characterization and, sadly, unsurprised by it.

So what is Christianity like, and how would I best describe it?

To my mind, Christianity is best likened dually to a “research project” and a “dramatic performance,” and this dual orientation reflects the dual “prioritis-in-tension” that I see in love and truth, truth and love. This post focuses on Christianity as a research project.

Why a “research project?”

I characterize Christianity in terms of a “research project” because Christianity is intimately concerned with truth. Primarily it concerns the truth about who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate. Secondarily, it concerns truth about how human beings are best to relate to one another and to the physical world around them.

In other words, the Bible contains certain truth claims with which readers are presented and upon which, as part of the very process of reading, they will necessarily pass judgment.1 So my proposal is that one responds best to these truth claims by seeking to understand them correctly and then adjudicating their respective truth value (rather than simply accepting or rejecting them).

Broadly speaking this involves three steps. First, determining exactly what the biblical truth claims actually are. Second, determining what is necessary / how to assess their truth values. Third, carrying out a process of adjudication in order to decide both a) to what degree these claims are indeed accurate (as truthful) and b) to what degree they are applicable (as real or relevant).2.

So what is a “research project?”

A research project is not simply an investigation, a way of answering a question, or a hobby. It is a sustained and systematic inquiry into and development of a field of knowledge, carried out in the most appropriate manner to both the field studied and the goal desired. In this case the “field of knowledge” would be those domains providing information and tools helpful to understanding better Christianity’s primary and secondary concerns (as noted above).

So this research project will, of necessity, be multi-disciplinary, for it focuses not simply on a text (the Bible) but on all aspects of human beings (humanity as such, the nature of human relationships, the world as the realm of inter-human relations and as an element of relationality with humanity, etc.). Further, philosophy and hermeneutics (as the “art and science of interpretation”) will also necessarily be involved because the relationship and distinctions between the human and divine, insofar as the biblical truth claims are concerned, needs to be formulated.

The desired goal of such a project must be informed not only by the project’s immediate objective (satisfactorily determining the Bible’s truth claims, in order to decide how best their truth value may be assessed, and then to adjudicate their truthfulness and relevance) but also by the project’s scope. Specifically, with respect to Christianity one is not only dealing with claims to truth but also with their putative claimant.

Thus it is impossible to engage with Christianity as a research project without the specific nature of the biblical truth claims coming into play. For instance, on my determination the Bible minimally proposes such claims as “God exists as an entity” and “this God knows human beings more truly than they know themselves and loves human beings more deeply than they love themselves.” If the biblical truth claims are false then these notions are either meaningless or at least removed from reality in a manner that renders them incompatible with the professed views of much of evangelical Christianity (i.e., incompatible with the view that Christianity relates to all of life—that it offers the “really real”).

I recognize, however, that the argument that we should start by orienting ourselves to Christianity as a research project (in order best to understand and assess its truth claims) would be rejected by those who believe that we come to know God and validate truth claims by developing Christian habits and implementing Christian practices. For these folks we learn most (and first) by “doing.”

Now I too value the mutually informing nature of theory and practice, but I submit that this scenario is not an example of such. Instead, I would argue that acting as though “God is real and God loves me” is merely conjuring up feelings about / attitudes toward God in a “fake-it-until-you-make-it” sort of way, and that this is not the way to engage successfully with self-involving truth claims: when we engage with these biblical claims as a research project we are never merely observers, but are always also participants.

Thus I begin by characterizing Christianity as a research project because it is at this level that those contemplating Christianity’s initial meaning and veracity must start. Only once we develop the tools to evaluate (and begin to see some legitimate content within) Christianity’s truth values can one—as a further, natural step of participation—begin embracing Christianity as a dramatic performance.3

What is exegesis?

Exegesis is essentially interpretation of a text, though typically it refers to interpreting difficult or challenging texts.

In the case of text-based religions (particularly Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) exegesis refers to the rule-based process of determining the original meanings of their sacred texts. The difficulties related to such exegesis are due to the differences between older understandings and current expectations.

Thus both ancient texts (such as the Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament) and antiquarian texts (such as the Christian New Testament) were written using conventions and according to standards that are very different from those used in today’s letters or novels. The result is that modern readers easily overlook these conventions or misinterpret these standards, and so misunderstand the text’s original meaning.

Now “original meaning” is crucial. For example, Christians and other religious adherents claim to live their lives in accordance with certain standards—to act and think in certain ways, to certain ends. Yet how do we know what those standards are? Christians rely on sound exegesis in order to apply the Bible’s meaning within its original context to the new and different contexts in which they find themselves.

So the text’s current meaning, or application, must be informed by / related to its original meaning(s).

For this reason also exegesis is “rule-based.” In other words, because ancient and antiquarian texts consistently present certain differences from modern texts, exegetes (people performing exegesis) seek to treat all such texts fairly by treating them similarly.

The core of this uniform treatment originates with the hermeneutical principle of “context.” Hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation and, as such, exegesis is a subset—or form of—hermeneutics.

“Context” comes into play within exegesis in various ways.

For example, properly exegeting the Bible requires reading its various books in context—reading them as ancient / antiquarian texts written according to various literary forms (narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.). It also means reading these texts as documents containing various literary devices (hyperbole, parable, chiasm), composed for a particular audience, to certain ends (to inform, persuade, denounce, etc.).

The text’s historical context is also essential as some familiar notions had quite different meanings in earlier times, as well as having different meanings between ancient and antiquarian time periods, or between Judean and Greco-Roman cultures (the notion of slavery is a prime example).  Readers further need to be aware of the context for authorship and authentication, in that there were different rules for claiming authorship of a text, different standards for what counts as “historical,” and different rules for how stories could blend factual information and literary embellishment.

In terms of linguistic context, the Bible was not written in English and so readers need to understand—or at least be aware of—the nuances of the original languages. Further, as the Bible was a composite texts (that is, the Bible was pieced together by scholars from various ancient scrolls and fragments of texts) readers need to be aware of some of the issues related to this task of re-composition, knows as “text criticism” (which simply means critically assembling a large text from smaller pieces).

Now for a few caveats.

First, exegesis does not imply finding the “one true meaning” to a text, but rather the text’s domain of meaning in light its full, historical context. So this may mean that there are 4 valid meanings to a passage, of which one or two seem best for various reasons.  Second, exegesis does not imply that reason alone is the sole or best method of understanding a text like the Christian Bible. Indeed, the interplay between experience and text is crucial, because the two are meant to mutually informing. Yet to be clear, we are never “simply experiencing” something (such as experiencing love or cold or a vacation) but we are always interpreting our experiences.

This means that while reason cannot “go it alone,” neither can Christians dispense with reason–and with developing a skilled use of reason–when trying to exegete the Bible.

Choosing a biblical commentary

For some time I have been meaning to offer some perspectives on how to select a good commentary and which series / individual commentaries I recommend. Here it is!

Q1: What makes for a good commentary?

There are so many commentaries that it is difficult for the inexperienced to know how to assess what represents a good, mediocre, or even a poor choice. The first point to consider is that commentaries are works of exegesis and so they require the skills of trained exegetes, and preferably exegetes who are specialists in that particular biblical book. As a result I avoid, in descending order:

a) commentaries written by non-exegetes (avoid these altogether),
b) commentary series written entirely by one exegete (likely insufficient for most needs),
c) commentaries written by exegetes not specializing in the biblical book in question (acceptable but not ideal).

Regarding a), my concerns with commentaries by non-exegetes are typically:
i) they have not been properly vetted by a major publishing house (which is staking its reputation on the quality of the commentary rather than the popularity of the author),
ii) they lack critical engagement with / critical input from other experts in the field (at very least from a skilled editorial staff and peer comment, if not peer review. A very basic way to check this is to read the comments on the back cover. Are there any? Who are they made by—other exegetes? What are they saying?).

Q2: What types of commentaries seem best to focus on?

Given the above, I focus on commentaries written by exegetes who are specialists in that particular book of the Bible, and likely who are publishing in a well-edited series by a publishing house with a proven track record in this area (though some excellent works are not part of these series).

This means that I would typically “rate” commentaries in the following order, from best to middling (leaving off any commentaries written by non-exegetes as unacceptable):

1) Academic commentaries written by exegetes who are experts in the given book,
2) Application commentaries written by exegetes who are experts in the given book,
3) Academic / application commentaries written by exegetes who are not experts in the given book (or written by theologians, not exegetes),
4) Non-academic series of commentaries written by a single exegete.

Q3: What is the difference between “academic” and “application” commentaries?

The latter tend to be somewhat more approachable for the lay person, cost somewhat less, offer less argumentation for the viewpoints presented and put more focus on current application. Also, the price of a commentaries tends to align in descending order with its category, as I have indicated below.

Q4: So which series of commentaries would you recommend, in each category?

Before offering my choices in each of the four categories, above, it is important for me to emphasize that my training and specialization is in the areas of hermeneutics (both biblical and philosphical) and philosophical theology (again from hermeneutical perspective). So while my knowledge relates to biblical exegesis I am admittedly not an exegete myself. In other words, I too seek recommendations from other parties, such as my mentor or former professors, who are more exegetically grounded and have more exegetical training than I do.

That noted, here are my recommendations:

1) Preferred academic series $$$$-$$
* The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT—Eerdmans),
* The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC—Eerdmans),
* Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker),
*? Word Biblical Commentary (Zondervan)—this series covers the entire Bible.

The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC—Eerdmans)—less preferred
New Testament Library (Westminster John Knox)—least / not preferred

2) Preferred application-oriented series $$$-$$
* NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan),
* IVP New Testament Commentary (Zondervan).

Tyndale New / Old Testament Commentaries (IVP Academic)—budget option,
Application Commentary (Cross Centred Press)—not recommended.

3) Preferred non-expert exegetes / theologians series $$
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (13 volumes on entire Bible, ed’s Longman & Garland),
Brazos Theological Commentary (Brazos, a division of Eerdmans)—less preferred

4) Preferred non-academic series $
New Testament for Everyone (18 volume set), by N. T. Wright

Q5: What are examples of potentially less reliable commentaries?

Examples of commentaries in category a), by non-exegetes, that I would avoid:
-McArthur New Testament Commentary / MacArthur Bible Studies, by John MacArthur,
-Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, by Charles Swindoll,
-St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, by R. C. Sproul,
-Life Lessons Commentaries / commentaries by Max Lucado,
-Spurgeon Commentary Series / commentaries by Charles Spurgeon,
-Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, by David Platt and various others,
-Jon Courson’s Application Commentary, by Jon Courson.
-John Walvoord Prophecy Commentaries, by John Walvoord and various others,
-The Bible Knowledge Commentary, by John Walvoord and various others,
-Anyone with a commentary on the entire NT, OT, or Bible.1

Coming next: Q6: What specific commentaries would you recommend?

Inclusivity and the Kingdom of God

A friend raised this video and asked for some feedback about it. Here are the words to the song:

“Go in the joy of knowing that you have been included.
Included at the table.
Included at God’s table.
Included in our common life.
Included in the life of God;
In the Life shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Go in the joy of knowing that you have been included in the inner life of the God who is love.
Go, find joy in telling others that they too are included!
Go, find joy in bringing all to God’s table!
Do not be afraid…
for God has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.
You are included.”

My reply to this video centres on my view that God’s orientation toward human beings involves both affirmation and critique.

“Affirmation” in the sense that we are God’s good creation and that God seeks a love relationship, based on truth, with every human being (and yes, this view “cuts back” against some denominational stances that would see God’s interest in relationship limited by anything other than human willingness to be oriented toward truth and love, and thus accept God’s offer of relationship).

“Critique” in the sense that certain aspects of human nature are innate obstacles to entering into right relationship with God (and thus to be able to be rightly oriented to ourselves, to others, and to the created world around us). In other words, human beings have been created to function best when in right relationship with God,

So I appreciate and value the focus on inclusivity (and affirmation) that this video presents. I value this particularly in the simplicity and diversity of the people who attend this meal. I also value the focus on joy, which is part of one’s response to being included. Yet I have some reservations about this video as well. Here are three.

First, the video is oriented toward a context of “the table,” so I get the sense that they are either speaking in relation to the eucharist or are using this table metaphor to be God’s celebration or God’s way of being (to this end they reference being included “in the life shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”).

The eucharist (or “the Lord’s table”) is something that I too believe to be inclusive but it is inclusive to all Christians, not to all people. Similarly, we are included to be part of existence in and with God to the extent that we as human have accepted this invitation—to the extent that we have decided to enter into relationship with God and are trying to live our lives according to this primary orientation.

Second, the video seems to promote joy as both our response to being at the table and our impetus to (and response from) telling others that they too are included. Yet if joy is a result of our relationship with God, it is not the core or the basis for that relationship. Rather, we are to love God entirely—and to love God in and through the context of a relationship where we seek to know more and more about the truth of who / what God is, who / what we are as human beings, and how the two are best to relate.1

In other words, joy is derived from living in a love relationship with God, based on truth. Likewise the video’s comment about “God has chose gladly to give you the kingdom.” This is potentially misleading, almost as though God gives Christians God’s own kingdom as some form gift, rather than God giving us access to God’s kingdom a) as a place for this love relationship with God to develop ongoingly, and b) on the basis of our continued action of prioritizing this love relationship with God above all others, which is the accurate sense (see for example Luke 12:22-40).

Third and most problematically, the video offers nothing about critique. It is as if our entire relationship with God, each other, and the world around us is based on inclusion (and thus affirmation). Yet frankly there are parts of me that God ultimately rejects. Without understanding that I am affirmed yet critiqued I risk wrongly orienting myself to God, to myself, to others, and to the world around me. Stated somewhat differently, grace reigns but sin matters!

In my view, then, this video is beautiful presented but partial: it is very one-sided. And while many Christians may see this video and automatically “fill in” the gap that is this absence of critique, my guess is that many others won’t. Worse, non-Christians seeing this may naturally take this to be full (if concise) presentation of what it means to be in relationship with God. And as far as I can see, it is not.

So I while I value a number of things about this video I would seek to offer, to Christians and non-Christians alike, a presentation whose balanced nature allows both Christians to embrace their relationship with God more truly and to present this relationship to others more fully. And above all, to remind us—and proclaim to others—the true reasons for joy at this prospect: God loves us more deeply than we love ourselves and knows us more truly than we know ourselves.

In other words, out of this deep love and true knowledge we can be the people that we most hope to be—our “best selves” as the best parents, children, friends, etc. that we can (and are meant to) be. So in being loved by God (and loving God in return) we are able to be the sort of selves that can truly love, and who can truly—and rightly—love others.

And in my books, that’s something to be joyful for.

What are ultimate truth claims?

Previously I discussed the difference between truth claims and truth values. This post considers a related matter: What is the difference between a regular truth claim and one that is absolute (or better, ultimate)?

Perhaps we need to start with a more fundamental question: What are the components of a truth claim?  A few that come to mind are:

a) contents (on a scale of importance),
b) scope (on numeric, geographic, and temporal scales),
c) comprehensiveness,
d) likelihood of error / exposure to critique,
e) consequences or import,
f) degree of access,
g) degree of immanence between claim and value,
h) nature of the claimant.

In order to be ultimate truth claims would need to meet these criteria in particular ways.

For instance, they would need necessarily to be true in all regards, for all people, across all circumstance, for all time. Moreover, neither self-evident nor logically necessary claims could be considered as “ultimate.” So the reality that “water is wet” is self-evident and the fact that “mortals die” is logically necessary. Thus while both could be called universal truths, I would consider neither of them to be ultimate.

In addition, I would say that ultimate truth claims must also originate from (or be under-written by) an ultimate source. This is because an ultimate truth claim has or implies complete immanence (i.e., no distance) between the truth claim and its corresponding value, based on the nature and capacities of the claimant. This conjunction of claim and value is equivalent to saying that the claimant causes—or is the source of—the thing claimed.

Further, for this source actually to be “ultimate” it must not only be capable of having a completely immanent relationship between any given truth claim and its corresponding truth values but between all truth claims and all of their (corresponding) truth values. The notion here is that ultimacy begets ultimacy. Stated philosophically, the only claims that may rightly be termed “ultimate” are those claims made by an ultimate being—by one capable of turning the claim into reality, or validating the claim, each and every time.

Moreover, as stated initially such claims must not be contingent to place, time, or recipient but must themselves be ultimate in scope (or where in a given case they are not, this would not reflect or imply a limitation in terms of that being’s capacity to “ultimatize” the scope of any given truth claim). Finally, such ultimate truth claims not only could not be contradicted but would in fact be beyond all contradiction: they are irrefutably true and universally applicable in that they efface all other options.

So my definition of “ultimate truth claims” are universal claims to ultimacy (claims to universal scope and application that are neither self-evident nor logically necessary) by an ultimate source (a source having a completely immanent relationship between the truth claim and its value) that are necessarily beyond refutation. Let’s consider some examples.

For instance, was Jesus promoting ultimate truth while on earth?

Yes and No.

Yes in a “latent,” or restricted sense. So Jesus made many claims (about who /what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate) that reflected—and directly quoted—biblical texts (purportedly) originating from divine inspiration. Yet their “latency” resides in the fact that these claims await a future moment in order to be shown to be truly ultimate. Further, in this case the gap between truth claim and its truth value does not diminish the claims’ ultimacy because the delay is prescribed within the claim).1

Yes in an unrestricted sense. So Jesus sometimes acted to fulfill certain claims made by / about him (Matt 11:1-5, Lk 7:18-23) by doing just what was claimed or expected: by healing, giving sight, bringing justice, etc. In these cases Jesus’ own actions at that time offered the proof necessary to validate the ultimacy of such claims.

No in the sense that Jesus was not acting, and indeed is recorded as expressing no intention, to fulfill all of the biblical claims all the time. So Jesus never claimed or acted as though he was the entirety of God / that he and God the father were identical—he always pointed objectors back to God the father, via himself and the Scriptures (noting that he was “the way, the truth, and the life” and yet he had not come “to abolish the Scriptures but to fulfill them” and that his authority had been “given” him by God the Father).

In this way we could say that Jesus presented himself as the “ultimate interpreter” of Scripture by offering himself as its true hermeneutical key, so that those who believe in Jesus have the possibility to understand the Bible’s claims (to ultimate truth and ultimate reality: to presenting the “really real”) correctly.

Yet while the full truth value of the Bible’s ultimate claims must await a future moment (or must rely on testimony to past events, such Jesus’ acts of power in first century Palestine) there is the possibility and indeed, the necessity, that partial truth values are realized in and through human lives now: individually and corporately. Thus the importance of experience and above all, being a “competent reader” of oneself, is relevant to this discussion.2

My next post builds on this working definition to examine how / whether the Bible is (or is claiming / offering) ultimate truth, and how ultimate truth claims and human truth claims integrate (or not).

Does God use evil to achieve good?

Romans 8:28 is one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses. In the NRSV it reads: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Recently this verse was used as support by a Christian claiming that God uses evil to achieve good: what is known in philosophy as the “greater good argument.” And worded in this way, the verse seems to support this claim.

But is this really the best translation of the verse?

I think not.

In a 2006 paper New Testament exegete Mark Gignilliat explains four possible interpretations of Romans 8:28 and argues for the one that he believes makes best sense, given the language use and context:
a) God works together with all things,
b) God works all things,
c) All things work together for good,
d) The Spirit works with all things for those who love God.

First he cites another Romans scholar who finds option c) to be “the least probable” option, with which Gignilliat seems to agree. He concludes by offering the following reading—essentially option a)—as the best option: “And we know that in all things God is working together (with the Spirit) for good to those loving God.”

I am persuaded by the reasoning in Mark Gignilliat’s paper this is the best reading of the four. Further, this interpretation also defeats the objection that Romans 8:28 shows that God works with / uses evil (and so it has the additional benefit of harmonizing / making sense alongside of other biblical texts rather than contradicting or being at odds with passages that bear on issue of God and evil).

A slave I am?

An untanglingchristianity.com listener posted the following in our FaceBook group:

“I was recently doing a word study on the word “servant” and came across this sermon online that felt not quite right and a bit icky. Thought perhaps it could do with some untangling.”

I would like to offer a response in four parts.

First let’s talk word use in the NT (the whole Bible is important, but let’s focus on the NT for now). The following searches were performed using Accordance v. 6.

So in the NRSV the NT contains 206 occurrences of the words “servant, servants, slave, slaves” and 252 of the words “child, children.” The Greek NT shows 126 occurrences of the word “doulos” or its derivatives, 99 occurrences of the word “teknon” (typically translated as child or son), 52 of the word “paidion” (literally child but often translated as servant), 29 occurrences of the word “diakonos” (translated servant or minister), 24 occurrences of the word “pais” (translated child or slave).

So doulos does mean slave, yes. But what kind of slave?

Second, then, to answer this question it is important to realize that the NT definition of slave is to be understood within its antiquarian context. That is, this is a Greco-Roman notion1.

Specifically, in the Roman world there were a diversity of types of slave—a nearly dizzying diversity of levels of authority, autonomy, influence, and wealth. Slaves owned other slaves. Many slaves were better off than free persons, by virtue of their rank and authority.

So the typical notions of slavery that occur to modern, Western people (and particularly the model of slavery found in the antebellum South of the Unite States) simply do not apply in this context, unless some specific corollary to such a model is indicated in the biblical text. Nor is this a matter of one Greek word designating as a given “type” of slave and another for another type.

What I hope results is the sense that the biblical translators chose not to use the singular word “slave,” with all of the inevitable implications for current readers, because it simply would not capture the nuance of the diverse significations of the word “doulos” in its original context. In other words, this is not a cover-up or a conspiracy theory but a case of good scholarship, despite a lack of unanimity on the matter.

Third, in addition to the cultural implications it is amazing how lightly MacArthur treats the textual modification of notion of doulos, where “friend replaces slave” in the prelude to Jesus’ departure speech in John 15, where followers of Christ are no longer called slaves but are called friends. I don’t think that this so much obliterates the notion of the need / responsibility for Christians to render service but it obviously thoroughly refigures it!

Yet not only does MacArthur skim over the reference but he also seems to allow it to have no impact on his formulations. In other words, he seems to ignore this key reference and the transition in meaning that it clearly indicates (and yes, the Greek word in this passage and all throughout chapter 15—and back to the original reference in John chapter 13—is “doulos”).

Fourth, and most striking of all, MacArthur frames his emphasis on slavery (and the notion that Christians are to be defined primarily if not solely as slaves) against the backdrop the biblical text’s plain and forceful indication that love of God—not service or obedience or anything typically associated with slavery—is to be the Christian’s primary orientation and indeed, command!

In this regard I see two problems with MacArthur’s view. In the first case, the notion of love presented (and required!) in the biblical text is at odds with characterizing Christians solely as “slaves.” For love can neither be bought nor commanded—it is something that, if not freely given, ceases to be itself!2  In the second case, I see no textual warrant for ignoring the characterizations of Christians as children (and God as father / parent) or in subjugating them below other characterizations. So in addition to an understanding of the Christians being, as I have argued, servants to God who is sovereign so too we are children to God who is our true father and parent.

The issue I raise here here is not that MacArthur is fabricating content but that he is over-emphasizing legitimately biblical notions (both by ignoring / underplaying cultural notions and significant textual nuances) with the result that he underplays other, equally legitimate biblical notions.

How do we counter this tendency?

On the one hand, as Christians we must be open to the notion that how the biblical text lays out the nature of God, of humanity, and of their optimal inter-relation may be different from what we have heard in past. In other words, we must constantly be seeking the truth about these things through our best understanding of the biblical text, with all of the tools and advantages that good scholarship, skillful and informed reflection and, as appropriate, a diverse and inter-disciplinary approach can yield.

On the other hand, however, Christians must not only develop the skills necessary to reading the Biblical text correctly but also those relevant to understanding and reading themselves correctly. And this includes becoming savvy interpreters of our own experiences and, particularly, of our experiences of God.

Indeed, there is a necessary reciprocity between understanding God textually and knowing God relationally. This reciprocity can easily (and often seems to) become harmful when we allow questionably interpreted experiences to tell us things about God’s nature and character that sound readings of the Bible impugn, or when we allow questionably interpreted biblical passages to constrain our willingness to interpret our experiences in a manner that circumscribes God’s nature, human nature, or the possible best outcomes of their interrelation in ways that do not reconcile with the reality we live in.

Where is John MacArthur in this regard? I’m not sure. Yet to my mind any discussion such as MacArthur is undertaking in his book—particularly one that claims a cover-up has taken place and that he is offer the one, true understanding of the matter—must offer both a clear and thorough examination of the text and a sense of who the author understands God, themselves, and the interrelation to be (and why).

This is because, from what I have seen, it is all too easy to prioritize either experience or knowledge—ontology or epistemology—rather than properly inter-relating and integrating them, with the accompanying risk of mischaracterizing God, ourselves, and how the two are to relate. And skewed understandings create orientations tinged with (and more often, marked by) dysfunction—a far cry from the “abundant” life that should characterize Christian existence.

F-bombs & grace I

An Untangling Christianity listener posted the following comment in our Facebook group concerning a rather popular internet article, by Preston Sprinkle:

“So this seems to be going around the interwebs. Having a really hard time with the biblical interpretations that this guys is claiming. Thoughts?”

A number of things occured to me after reading the article and considering  some of the comments made about it.  Let me begin with what I value in the article.

I value the author’s emphasis on diversity in terms of how Christians live out their relationship with God.  In this vein, the author’s willingness to see some of these differences in Christian practice as being as much sociological as theological is helpful, as is the author’s view that human brokenness is as much a reality in biblical times as it is now.

Next, I agree with the author where he highlights the disconnect between the typical expectations within evangelical Christian culture(s) and the reality that relationship are, by their nature, complex (and that a relationship with God is even more so).  So I agree that human relationships with God will unfold in different ways for different people, given that each person will have different starting points, challenges, and advantages all playing out in different contexts and over differing amounts of time.

However, there are several points that I believe to be problematic (and which, if left as they stand, would ultimately lead us in unprofitable directions / create difficulty).

First, I think that the author’s view of what he calls ”Christian subcultures” is at least one-sided—if not under-considered—and therefore problematic. Second, I think that the listener’s emphasis on “interpretation” is quite valuable and it seems to me that interpretation has essentially been overlooked by the article’s author.  Third, the article seems to alternate between taking a sociological perspective and a theological perspective while never actually doing the work of integrating the two.  Yet given the matters under discussion, proper integration seems essential for accurate understanding.

I will address these points in order.

Beginning with point one, I’m troubled by the author’s view of Christian subcultures.  He writes, “Christian subcultures are an entertaining phenomenon.”  Some aspects of Christian subcultures are  indeed interesting.  Yet Christian subcultures can also—an d more so—be deeply dysfunctional and so ultimately hurtful for many people.

Specifically, where care is not given to distinguish the cultural from the biblical, Christian subcultures are apt to claim a (often high) degree of divine sanction for their practices and, by corollary, they also necessarily see such practices as attributable to a (often high) degree of divine Authority.

The result is that those who question these cultural practices—and particularly those who resist or criticize them—are typically viewed as troublemakers or even as outsiders,  often with the implication that they must either “get with the program” or are made you feel that this is not the right Church setting for that.

Moving to point two, the author’s argument turns on several key interpretations that are, ironically, absent from the article!  Particularly, the article focuses almost entirely on “grace” and yet the only thing that the author writes about it is: “Grace means that we are all works in progress, and God shaves off our rough edges in His timing.”

By building his entire argument around a term without defining it (or even indicating upon what he bases his sense of the term, such as citing biblical passages) the author essentially puts his readers in a take-it-or-leave-it position that both provokes scepticism and runs contrary to spirit of generosity and openness that he appears to be trying to cultivate.

More problematically still, by applying a simple, uni-dimensional sense to the word “grace” (i.e., grace = “what God does to me”) but using it within a multi-dimensional context (i.e., relationships always have at least two parties!) he appears to be unaware of—or actually ignoring?—the complexities inherent to the topic, such as how we determine what is God’s responsibility and what is my responsibility in a given situation.

Coming to point three, the author writes, “I know we’re programmed to see the 12 apostles as saints with halos and contemplative faces. But actually, they were criminals. These guys were more like prisoners than pastors.”

Once again, my thought is that while the comments have accuracy the approach is actually misleading. In other words, the approach that we should instead be taking is to apply suspicion not only to others and their practices but also to ourselves and our practices.  1

So where the author notes that Peter denies Jesus, I could see myself having done (and doing now,  in various ways) the same.  Where the author writes of Paul using violent means to accomplish his ends I must admit that similar thoughts can occur to me, given the right provocation. In fact, all of the characterisations of the Apostles offered by the author simply depict the ways in which human beings fail to be their best selves.  The fact that we—all of us—do this, regardless of whether we are Christian or not, should come as no surprise to us.

Instead, an actual integration of the sociological phenomenon (as cultural or subcultural practices) with theological phenomenon (as human expressions of human finitude and fallenness) would involve seeing Christian subcultures and Christian practices as both potentially matters of choice / open to personal taste and as acts of engagement—with self, world, and other—that have direct implications for our ability to relate rightly with God (and thus for our identity, ability to relate rightly with others, etc.).

Without this integration we risk, on the one hand, minimizing the dysfunction of our Christian subcultures and the destructive impact of our personal practices or, on the other hand, rejecting our innately human creativity and diversity because we view sin as more primary than love and law as more primary than truth.

In both cases we misunderstand God and ourselves, with the result that we live without flourishing. And flourishing is at the heart of Christian living.

Yogi Bhajan: relationship & distinction II

This post is a continuation of my reply to a quotation by Yogi Bhajan:

“If you are willing to look at another person’s behaviour toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.”

Given my last post, where does this leave us?

Well, if human action is always purposeful then Yogi Bhajan’s statement is indicating that, when humans interact, a) the primary goal of human behaviour—of their actions—is not the overt, putative goal (of buying something, seeking information, etc.) but is self-expression, and b) that the typical human response to another’s actions is to question one’s own value (i.e., self-evaluation).

In Bhajan’s view, then, the receiver’s focus is (or should be?) more on “how” another’s actions affect us than on “what” their actions are supposedly aimed at achieving—their goals. Yet given the above discussion about human action, attributing primacy to self-expression or self-evaluation implies big problems.

Specifically, where “self-expression” is not someone’s stated goal (of buying something, seeking information, etc.) then there is a detached incompatibility between the person’s actions and their goals (because their actions toward ‘buying something’ or ‘seeking information’ would be at odds with / unable to achieve the goal of self expression). Further, where “self-expression” is the primary goal underlying all human interaction then this goal is incommensurate with the world in which we live (because self-expression cannot alone—or even primarily—satisfy the ultimate human goal: surviving well / thriving)!

Similarly, where “self-evaluation” is primary there is likewise a detachment from the common logic of responding to a) what someone is saying and b) what they are actually referring to (rather than “how” it is being said and “how” this may or may not impact my sense of self-worth).

In other words, if “self-expression” were really to be someone’s primary goal when interacting with others then such a degree of detachment from / incompatibility with the real world would likely constitute a psychosis. Similarly, if self-evaluation were really to be one’s primary response to one’s interactions with others then this would likely constitute a neurosis.

So while I do think that psychotic episodes should be treated somewhat as the Yogi prescribes (don’t take them seriously) and that neuroses should not be allowed to control one’s life, the Yogi’s comments are not directed toward / limited to involvement with psychotic individuals or neurotic responses. They are general comments meant for general living and everyday life.

What I hope to have shown is that both human action and experience run counter to the Yogi’s claims, and so invalidate them. This is in fact a long argument to validate an important tension: that between relationship and distinction.

Let’s apply this tension here.

On the one hand, someone’s interaction with me—how they behave toward me—is both related to me and related to them in certain regards. As human beings living in the real world, we both have real-world concerns and engage with / respond to real-world stimuli. Similarly, my response to someone’s behaviour—how I perceive them to treat me—is likewise both related to me and related to them in certain regards. So certain modes of interaction (raised voices, stern looks, crying, laughing) will prompt a generally similar range of responses among many different people within the same culture.

On the other hand, someone’s interaction with me—how they behave toward me—is likewise distinct from me and distinct from them in certain regards. As different individuals with different histories and potentially different ages, genders, backgrounds, cultures, etc., we can respond to the same events and stimuli differently.

Again, my response to someone’s behaviour—how I perceive them to treat me—is similarly distinct from me and distinct from them in certain regards. So by virtue of having different goals (the clerk’s wants to perform his duties correctly; the home-owner wants something to stop a roof leak) and different stakes (the clerk has other customers to serve; the home-owner needs to stop the leak now) related to the same interaction, human behaviour is never so repetitive or predictable as the Yogi’s statement seems to imply.

The basic point is twofold.

First, human interaction is complex but not impenetrable: it has certain constants and demonstrates certain patterns that, like a text, can be explained and so also it can be interpreted in better (and worse) ways. And helping us interpret this text better involves recognizing that certain tensions are inherent and necessary to human life, such that by understanding their nature and function we will understand human interaction better.

Second, and by corollary, by failing properly to understand the kind and degree of relationships and distinctions within human interactions Yogi Bhajan’s statement appear a) reductionistic in its view of human action, b) one-sided in its categorization of the nature of difficult interactions, such that c) by failing to understand them it actually perpetuates poor interactions rather than identifying their causes (and so properly diagnosing their solutions).

The issue, then, is that Yogi Bhajan’s statement over-emphasizes some relationships and distinctions and under-emphasizes others. For example, Bhajan over-emphasizes the speaker’s relationship to him-herself while under-emphasizing the listener’s relationship with him-herself. Similarly, the Yogi under-emphasizes the breadth of scope within human interactions (i.e., by not acknowledging that more is a stake than the speaker’s relationship with him-herself and the listener’s sense of self-worth) and likewise under-emphasize the distinctiveness of the listener from the speaker.

Thus differences in goals and stakes—for parties within the same interaction—will mean that comments and behaviours will be seen as judgmental, helpful, cutting (or not) based on the context. In this way properly understanding and integrating such tensions as ‘relationship and distinction’ will be a key part of forming proper interpretations of human interaction.

Yogi Bhajan: relationship & distinction I

An untanglingchristianity.com listener posed the following quotation in our FaceBook discussion group, by Yogi Bhajan:

“If you are willing to look at another person’s behaviour toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.”

My basic response is twofold:

First, I reject the “either / or” manner of seeing someone’s behaviour toward me as either a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves or as a statement about my value. Second, and more problematically, I reject how this presentation restricts me to viewing another’s actions according to only these particular two possibilities: surely their “relationship” with me (and with others generally) is also at stake and surely anyone’s response to me is always more than a “statement about my value” (and thus also a response to my behaviour, my position at work, my gender, etc.).

In other words, I am first advocating a “both / and” orientation that would see someone’s behaviour as (at least) both a reflection of how they view themselves and as something that bears on my sense of self-worth. More importantly, next I strongly advocate that the above options are not the only (or even the best) ways to construe human interaction: it is complex and many factors are at play.

However, I want to do more than offer the above response. Instead I want to present an argument for this response that will demonstrate why Yogi Bhajan’s statement is at least one-sided, if not actually irrelevant. In so doing I will highlight a particular tension—the tension between relationship and distinction—that I believe will be essential for engaging with similar issues in future.

Let’s begin by looking at human action.

Concerning the Yogi’s point about behaviours, I understand that all human action is purposeful action—action undertaken for a reason—with the aim of achieving a desired goal (and with each goal contributing in some way to the ultimate human goal of surviving in what we consider the best possible way)1. Now if all human action is indeed purposeful action then it should be obvious that issues can occur in one of two ways: either the action or the goal can be problematic.

Now relative to actions “problematic” can indicate two things. On the one hand, problematic can simply mean that an action is unsuccessful due to its insufficiency (in strength, direction, timeliness, or some other quality), another party’s self-determination (someone reneges, is absent or unaware, etc.), or factors beyond one’s control (co-incidence of circumstances, unpredicted obstacles, etc.).

On the other hand, an action can be “problematic” because it is incommensurate with the goal to be achieved, such as trying to water plants with ammonia. In the first sense a potentially valid action (one that under other circumstances could succeed) is ultimately unsuccessful; in the second sense an invalid action (one that under any circumstances could not succeed) is unsuccessful because the action is fundamentally disconnected from the the goal that it is meant to achieve.

In terms of goals, these also can be problematic in two ways.

On the one hand, they can be excessive in some way (i.e., beyond our ability or resources, counter to our ethics, against the laws of physics, etc.). Yet on the other hand our goals can be problematic because they too are incommensurate with the world in which we live: I can act successfully to feed a friend by making her a genuinely nutritious sandwich, but if this is an “invisible friend” them my potentially successful action will always fail, because the goal itself is invalid.

Let’s return to actions. I would distinguish these two sense of “problematic,” in terms of actions, as failure (due to insufficiency, self-determination, or other factors) and incompatibility.

Further, I would distinguish between “incompatibility” of two sorts: a) unawareness of the reality in which we live versus b) detachment from that reality. Unawareness is when, on one’s first attempt to achieve a goal, one adopts out of ignorance an action incompatible with that goal. Detachment is when, after having already failed to achieve a goal because one adopted an action incompatible with that goal, one continues to adopt such an incompatible action to achieve that same goal.

The basic difference is that unawareness benefits from learning; detachment does not.

In essence, then, learning is being able to recognize and assimilate information from external stimuli (literally, to interpret and make sense of myself and the world around me, within the context of acting toward achievement of my goals) such that I am able i) to refine my actions toward better achievement of my goals or ii) to re-orient my goals within a more plausible understanding of achievability.

Based on this groundwork my next post explores the tension between relationship and distinction.