Loving God or “seeking” God’s kingdom?

In a recent conversation a friend and I considered the difference between “seeking” God’s kingdom and the command to love God. 

Which is more important?

My first concern was for clarification: Can love be commanded?  How are we to understand this ‘command’?  How should we understand love generally?

Many Christians claim that loving God is (or starts with) something one does rather than something what one experiences and emotes.  Instead, I maintain the importance of both one’s emotions about / toward God and one’s actions for / in light of God.  I do so in part because I believe that loving God always begins with a combination of understanding and experience (about / related to God), out of which emotional responses are awakened (and can, later, be dimmed).

But what about this ‘command’?

The command to love God is found in three passages in the synoptic gospels (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10) and each points back to Deuteronomy (noting especially Deut. chapters 6, 7, 10).  Clearly much of Deuteronomy’s content has the sense of a commandment, yet I believe that this must be balanced with the biblical claim / trajectory toward relationality: from God to us, then from us to God.

Particularly, both textually and experientially, I believe that the notion of commanding love’s inception makes no sense: love never starts as as act of the will.  The biblical text corroborates this, as the ‘commands’ to love in Deuteronomy come after the Israelites’ quintessential experience of being delivered (that is, deeply cared for and loved): the Exodus.  Thus God is ‘commanding’ love within the pre-existing context of a long and established history with a people who have good reason to understand clearly how—and how much—God indeed loves them! 

Experientially love begins as a preoccupation, yet a preoccupation that results in action.  However, this is not to suggest that love “matures” from emotion into action.  Instead, I believe that love is an abiding orientation chiefly characterized by excess.  So the lover’s compunction for action corresponds to love’s ‘excessive’ nature which always seeks expression, as both joyful exclamation and as catharsis.  And while this expression may take the form of thoughts and words (letters, poetry, songs) it also become concretized, through our choice-making, into action.  

So while love is not an effort of the will, neither is it pure desire.  Instead love, like other emotions, has its roots in understanding.1  In other words, just as fear arises when certain phenomenon or states of affairs threaten my existence so love begins when I perceive, at a profound level, that in the other I am being offered goods necessary to my existence / flourishing.  And while love is often coupled with perceptions of the beloved’s qualities (beauty, character, etc.) love also distinguishes itself from admiration or infatuation.

So while it involves the will, love is not derived from the will.  And while it expresses desire, love is not solely desire.  This distinction both clarifies that emotions are not subservient to the intellect (but exist in tandem with it, each having its own role) and focuses on the necessarily self-involving nature of love: love involves (and is predicated upon) a deep, ‘gut level’ understanding that the beloved offers goods necessary to my existence and / or flourishing.

This relationship between love and understanding has three implications:

First, as an abiding orientation that is based upon certain ‘understandings’ and elicits desire, it explains why love cannot be commanded.  Thus it addresses certain Christian misunderstandings about how to enter into relationship with God, such as the claim that we must “act” as though we love God or that the command to love is really a call to obedience (because “obedience is God’s love language”).

Willpower can be summoned, but emotions must be evoked: I can no more be commanded to emote a certain emotion than commanded to experience those states of affairs upon which my emotions are based (i.e., understanding the benefits that God offers relative to my wellbeing and very existence).  Dually contextualized by the biblical text and the love’s functioning within human experience, the ‘greatest commandment’ is seen to be a poetic command: the command of love or of love’s significant possibility to the one who already loves (or very likely could / should love): love me!  And let this love relationship reorient you towards all aspects of your exsitence! 

Second, because emotions relate to (and indeed, are based on) understandings, emotions can be evaluated.  On the one hand, emotions arise out of perceptions and understandings that occur at a deep level, which explains why love’s occurrence is often surprising (e.g., we don’t “see it coming”).  Yet as we develop our skills of self-reflection and examination we may become increasingly capable “readers” of ourselves in this regard.

On the other hand, we do not evaluate our emotions in order to minimize or dismiss them, but in order to learn more about ourselves and to decide how to respond to them.  In other words, not every occurrence of the emotion of love needs to merit the same response!  So I may recognize that my disposition toward several people is love, but due to various factors I may respond to them differently.2

Third, the connection between love and what is needed to further my existence and flourishing raises the notion of “emotional responsibility”: the responsibility to be properly invested in one’s own value and worth (i.e., to be fully situated as a self within one’s world) such that I am able to respond appropriately to situations where I am offered goods the benefit my existence and enhance my flourishing.

Without this due and necessary attachment to oneself one cannot rightly understand (and so cannot develop proper emotional responses to) events that crucially support and / or renew my existence.  The content of these experiences—and the relationship between loving God and “seeking” God’s kingdom—will be the focus of several upcoming blog posts.

Grace and Truth or Love and Truth?

I take my sense of the word “grace” mostly from the New Testament (the word “charis” in Greek), though the English word grace is also found in Jeremiah 31, a crucial chapter relative to the “new covenant.”  Now there are some 155 uses of “charis” in the the NT (115 or so being translated as “grace”) and all of them bear examination.  For the sake of space I am focusing here on Romans 4:16.1

I have chosen this example because it offers a terse but ready contextualization for the use of grace (“charis”) in what I believe to be its correct context: in connection with both promise and covenant.

Romans 4:16  “For this reason it [the promise to Abraham] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those that share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all . . .”  Grace in this sense means “a beneficent disposition towards someone” in the sense of “that which one grants to another / the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.”  (From the Bauer-Danke Greek / English lexicon).

Two points appear important:

On the one hand, Romans 4:1-25 is considered to be a logical unit and the use of grace in Rom 4:16 in contextualized by its use in Rom 4:4, where “charis” is translated as “gift.”  Particularly, grace is the mode or manner of the action—the ‘how’, if you like.  So we have the close association between grace and gift: that which is given freely and without being earned.

On the other hand, Rom 4:16 is a wonderful encapsulation of grace within its actual context: the extraordinary reality that a) God committed to a promise before entering into the covenant (in Gen 12) and b) God “made good” on this promise by “making good” on the covenant, through the life and death of Jesus the Christ (see Rom 3:21-26, much of Rom 5, etc.).

In other words, grace (“charis”) is how God both a) began his main dealings with humankind through Israel and b) completed those dealing to the inclusion of all peoples, through Jesus.  But note that if grace is how God acted, it is not why.

Why did God choose to freely give both full relationship (via the covenant) and the means for that relationship to be accomplished (via the life and death of Jesus)?  While I would like to go much deeper with my argument here, the most basic answer is that God acted / chose to act according to God’s character.  And against those who focus on sovereignty to the exclusion of all else, the Bible clearly characterizes God as both sovereign and father / parent.

So with such clear biblical indications as “God is love” (1 John 4) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him should may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3), I attribute the ‘Why’ of God’s action to God’s passionate love (in general and for humanity specifically), such that God enacted God’s love toward us for the purpose of furthering relationship with us and for establishing God’s kingdom with and through us.

God does require certain things of us as our sovereign, but the gift—the grace—of God comes to us as a matter of God’s love and specifically as an expression of God’s fatherly and parental love. In other words, grace is that mode of expression by which God most truly expresses God-self: grace shows God’s love in its truest and fullest light.

In this sense, while I deeply value grace as God’s “mode of engagement” that makes my relationship with God possible (i.e., how the relationship has been made possible) love, along with truth, is the overarching orientation both from God to me and from me to God.

Love is the reason why God offered grace in the first place (and God could legitimately do so because God is truly sovereign and truly father / parent).  Likewise, being loved by God and truly known by God are the reasons why I am nowhere more content and more myself than in my relationship with God (and why I both am passionately in love with God and seek to proclaim God’s existence and character as being truly true).

The Bible or Life: Which comes first?

 

Much religious conversation between Christians and non-Christians is a non-starter: it’s over before it even begins.  Why?  Because before any discussion begins the parties typically have radically opposing views about how to understand human existence.

Here Christians effectively insist: think like me (i.e., accept my beliefs on faith) and then you’ll understand Christianity—and so all of reality—correctly.  Non-Christians, for reasons that I’ve already discussed, find this offensive and effectively insist: think (i.e., get in touch with reality, like the rest of us) and then you’ll understand the world (and Christian belief) correctly.

This antithesis represents the different answers that we hold about starting points: which comes first, Christian belief or life experience?

Most Christians that I know do not even recognize this as being a question.  In other words, most Christians have an implicit ‘answer’ that is short and decisive: the Bible conditions how we understand existence.  Full stop.  Any other view contradicts their beliefs and so must be wrong.  For most non-Christians that I know the question, when given any air time, is less implicit but the response no less short and decisive: existence conditions how we understand the Bible.  Full stop.  Any other view is illogical because it negates experience, and so must be wrong.

Yet both of these views fall prey to reductionism: the claim that we can only understand matters in one way (or else be wrong).  And the result reductionism is polarization: holding an absolute position that precludes dialogue, just as I’ve described above.

Strikingly though, I think that both parties are right and wrong: truth need neither be circumscribed by a certain belief system nor limited to a given groups’ rationality or experience.  In other words, both views require re-formulation because both fail to reflect both the complexity / diversity of human existence and the specificity of the biblical text.

Let’s start with the typical Christian perspective.  When Christians consider (and do not dismiss) the above question, how do they respond?  A Christian professor of mine did so by citing what he called the Christian tetralectic (or “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).  He suggested that in order to arrive at truth Christian thinking draws from four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When asked how to adjudicate between them when they are in conflict, he responded that a Christian should always privilege Scripture.

His model assumes that Christianity is good and the Bible is valuable, which indeed it may be.  Yet it fails to assume that Christianity can also be bad and the Bible problematic.

Here are two examples:

First, a philosopher referred to writing as two-edged sword—a “Pharmikon,” he called it.  In brief, writing is valuable for recording events and can contain, and present things in a manner that speech cannot.  Yet writing is problematic in that it effectively replaces memory and can give the appearance of knowledge without any real understanding.

The role of the Bible as Scripture, a text that is determinative for life and practice, is similar.  Scripture helps Christians to understand who God is and what Christian practice is about, but can be problematic when Christians equate these understandings with God and with practicing the Christian life.

Second, the problem becomes worse—and the solution more inaccessible—when entire Christian contexts are characterized by corruption or dysfunction (as the corrupt church in Nazi Germany / apartheid South Africa, but also the dysfunctional church as characterized by over-confidence and informed by a good portion of current, biblical hermeneutics).

Within such contexts the only endorsed interpretations of Scripture are those that validate (and so perpetuate) this very context.  Yet one can only reject such corruption or dysfunctionality by privileging one’s experience and understanding over such interpretations of Scripture.1

While the discussion is much longer, this highlights the need for a crucial modification to my former professor’ model: where his embraces faith (in Scripture, in reason, in experience, in tradition) we need also suspicion.  And we need not only suspicion of others but also the ability to re-orient it towards ourselves.

The love I have known

 

(I wrote this several years ago in response to an anonymous article in my graduate school newspaper.  The article was written by a young woman struggling with her husband’s addiction to pornography).

 

I want to reply to this anonymous article by recounting two experiences.  The first occurred recently when, here at graduate school, I talked with a group of new classmates about “prayer and fasting.”  Some had tried it, some had not, though no one had anything significant to relate.  As the discussion proceeded I became increasingly uncomfortable: I had tried it and had experienced something, something transformative and healing.

My point is not that God answers prayer or makes things “all better” if we pray (and perhaps fast) hard enough.  No.  My point is that I was embarrassed to speak because the environment precluded the very type of discussion that was sought—how could I be so vulnerable with people I hardly knew, share something so special with a 10 minute time-limit?

The second occurred years earlier when my wife and I grew increasingly anxious as her fourth pregnancy came to term.  Her high blood pressure and other symptoms hinted that we might lose another baby.  Looking for help, I turned to Ina May Gaskin’s classic, Spiritual Midwifery.  Rifling through the book I was completely deflated: where was the help that I needed?  Instead of re-assuring information it was simply filled with stories.

Yet as I read the book something strange started to happen.  I found myself in the presence of women whose experiences of birth and birthing covered the map—wonderful or tragic, complicated or serenely simple.  Yet among them all was the realization that they were involved in something more, something which they did not control, something which they longed for, something supremely real.  Through reading their stories, I came to understand that I was not alone.

These two accounts go together.

On the one hand I not only understand but believe the biblical accounts of God healing people because I have experienced such healing in my life.  Yet sadly it is also the case that our churches—like seminaries and Christian graduate schools—can often be the very places where discussing our best experiences of God (and sometimes our deepest needs for God) is hardest.

On the other hand, my experience is that God’s healing occurs partly as we tell our stories and hear those of others; as we realize that we are not alone nor without hope here and now: our lives and marriages aren’t designed to endure our brokenness until “eschatological” healing occurs.

Having been sexually abused I have some sense of the pain and recalcitrance of sexual brokenness.  To complicate matters, I understand that addictions are but symptoms—surface-level outworkings of deeper hurts and ills.  So more than stopping the symptoms we must know their causes, which means understanding oneself and one’s history.  This process of “reading” ourselves is one of self-discovery, of meeting the alien (and often unpalatable) aspects of our upbringing, life choices, and beliefs.

Despite the mending that is possible, this side of God’s full presence I don’t believe that we get ‘all better’.

But, maybe, that’s the point.

What I mean is that the journey towards wholeness necessarily travels through honesty, with stops at disappointment, defeat, and loneliness.  Yet it finishes via self-forgiveness and self-love.  In other words, my experience is that in healing us God also makes us real.  And this “realness” is not so much the product of being healed but comes through experiencing the core of God’s desire for our wholeness: God’s love.

Greater than my anger, deeper than my shame, nearer than my hurt, was a longing to be loved and to love, to be responded to as Job: where God spoke not of me (and my pain), but to me in my deepest and best personhood—where God was not simply divine or powerful but real, and God really loved me.  “ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.  When [he] loves you . . . REALLY loves you, then you become real.’ ” (The Velveteen Rabbit).

God sees the heart; we are not so lucky.  Yet as I reflect on the pain in the hearts of that couple I’ll wager that they are not alone.  The woman wrote anonymously—without a name.  I suspect this is because much of their emotional currency went into living with this addiction: living on the margins of their Christian community and concealing a secret considered too ugly to share.

I am posting this with my name attached because I know how lonely the margins can be, so I hope that my story helps those who are there feel less alone.  And also I publish this because the fear of our ugliness (and the difficulty our churches have in bearing it) is overcome in the same way—by being made real: “these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Ibid.)

Such is the love I have known.

Not as different as we seem…?

 

Recently I interacted with Christian author Frank Viola,where he blogged about a hypothetical conversation between two Christians (Chris & Bill) who both value the Bible but disagree on how to arrive at its meaning.

Frank focuses on their differing “communication styles.”  The one, Chris, uses what Frank calls the Charismatic Spiritual Conversation style (or CSC) and understands a biblical passage because “God showed me” or “the Spirit revealed to me” what it means.  The other, Bill (no “style” is actually associated with Bill’s approach), understands the Bible exegetically and hermeneutically.

Viola believes that their communication is frustrated because they use different communication styles (CSC vs. not CSC).

I don’t think so.

Specifically, the issue is not different “styles” / approaches but two sides of the same, disjointed ideology: an ideology that I believe fails properly to integrate our humanity with our Christian faith.  Let’s take a closer look.

What Frank refers to as “CSC” I would describe as the belief that we directly access biblical meaning through personal experience of God—knowing the Bible by knowing God.  What Frank refers to as the “exegetical, hermeneutical” style means believing that we reliably access biblical meaning through exegesis—knowing the Bible (and so God) through proper reading method.

The one touts experience, the other touts method.

Yet despite their different starting points both have much in common.  Further, rather than “running to excess,” both actually need to carry their emphases further.  Let me suggest four ways that this is so.

First, both are hermeneutically oriented.  So those who prize experience do actually maintain a hermeneutic (i.e., a lens, through which they read the Bible) that negates the necessity of exegesis because it denies that there is any distance between the text and the reader.  It does so because the Bible’s ultimate ‘author’ is giving readers the “inside scoop” on what it means.

Second, both are experientially oriented.  So those who prize proper reading method do actually emphasize their experience of God, particularly during discussions with non-Christians where they often use it as a ‘response of last resort’ against the claims of atheists / agnostics (“You just need to believe to understand”) or to curtail discussion (“We can only talk so far because we don’t have Christ in common”).

Third, however, rather than less emphasis on personal experience we need more.  Specifically, humans understand experience by drawing conclusions on the existential events that we undergo and testing these conclusions over time.  So reflecting on my experiences in my family of origin, marriage, etc., (i.e., how much and why I esteem them, and the outcome of doing so) can inform—and possibly correct—how much I esteem my experiences of God in understanding the Bible.

Fourth, and by extension, rather than less focus on exegesis we need more.  Specifically, the “greatest commandment” (to love God entirely, in response to God’s deep love for us) is an invitation to a love relationship that is not only core to Christian experience, but the basis of Christian understanding.  As such, being Christian involves not only applying proper method to Bible reading but also to ourselves: becoming skilled readers of our motives, intentions, etc.

These four points show how Chris & Bill’s approaches are not incompatibly different but are complimentary, yet incomplete because they are unintegrated.

In all areas of life, humans rely on explanations of how things work and then put these understandings in motion (such as understanding the Bible in order to know God).  Likewise, we experience things working and then are able to explain—to ourselves and others—how this is so (such as experiencing God and, thereby, understanding the Bible).

And the relationship between these two opposite approaches is reciprocal and productive: sometimes experience generates understanding, sometimes understanding prompts (or recontextualizes) experience.  And new experiences (and new understandings) prompt us to rework our understandings, or reconsider our interpretations of experience.

We need experience; we also need exegesis.  And we do not need to choose between them but properly to understand them, and so, integrate them.

Didacticism and Christianity (or, Why not pornography too?)

 

Pornography substitutes objectification for relationship—someone’s sexuality becomes a means to another’s arousal and pleasure rather than an aspect of selfhood that is mutually shared and fostered.  And as sexuality becomes a consumable this interaction objectifies both the purveyor and the consumer: porn ultimately debases both parties to “it” status.  By using other human beings, we become objects ourselves.

Q: So what is didacticism, and what has it got to do with Christianity (and pornography)?

A: It is an ideology that Christianity should embrace about as readily as it embraces pornography.

Describing something as didactic means that it is about teaching, or that teaching is its ulterior (or less visible) motive.  Further, calling a teaching method “didactic” can imply that the method is overly basic—more instructive than explanatory.

Didacticism, on the other hand, is an ideological position that essentially turns on the following assumptions:

a)      The learner may not be particularly competent and / or trustworthy;
b)      The material in question has very few right answers (or more typically, one right answer) and it is crucial to get that answer right.

Strange assumptions?  Well, some would insist that Christianity teaches that people are sinful and non-Christians won’t make wise choices about God, and also that making the wrong choice about God means going to hell.  So we need didacticism, right?

I disagree, and I think you should too.  Let’s look a little deeper.

Didacticism maintains that acquiring knowledge is not a matter of learning how to think (or even the result of thoughtful investigation) but of being directed to the right answer.  Didacticism puts no faith in the learner and instead relies solely on the instructor, valuing only the learner’s assent to the answer’s validity.

So on the one hand, didacticism is concerned solely with getting the right answer.  Yet on the other hand a didactic ideology functions to inculcate a certain self understanding and way of being: it ensures that people embrace certain beliefs so that they act and think in certain ways (and not others).

Didacticism = control of outcomes at the cost of respecting people and ideas.

In fact, didactic ideology can even be seen in teaching material written by Christians for Christians.  In such cases it seems that even spirit-filled Christians cannot be counted on competently to work through the Bible and understand God well.

But here again, by keeping the learner’s motives or (in)abilities “out of the way” the truth can be more easily presented and accepted, and its implications better lived out, right?  What’s the problem?

The problem is that instead of disdaining human motives or abilities the Bible, while being cautious and even critical of how people use them, urges readers to employ both in order to find out who God is!  Further, we are held responsible for our choices in this regard because God created us with the capacity to know God through these very abilities and motives!

Indeed, didactic ideologies view our journey to know God more like an unfortunate obstacle than a process crucial to the success of the very Christian formation that they seek to guarantee!  Moreover, they ignore the pivotal importance of the skills and virtues developed when, during this journey, we work through for ourselves:

i)                   what the questions are,
ii)                  why they matter,
iii)                 how we should go about considering them,
iv)                 what might represent possible answers,
v)                  why some answers might be better than others,
vi)                 and what we do once we’ve decided how we will best answer the question(s).

Didactic ideologies misunderstand what it is to be human because they disregard both the need for ownership of key decisions in one’s own life and for integration of one’s whole self therein.  Yet Didactic ideologies also misunderstand both Christianity and the Christian God, because they reduce Christianity to a formula to be memorized rather than entities (father, son, and spirit) to be known, loved, and engaged with in right relationship.

Like pornography, didacticism debases relationship and objectifies the parties involved (people, the Bible and, by extension, God).

And like pornography, didacticism has no place in Christianity.

Truths about Truth: being pragmatic, subjective, and relative

 

Christians are quite concerned about truth.

For example, Os Guiness argues that Christian truth is opposed to pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism.  Yet as I discussed last week, we must be careful to distinguish between pragmatism and being pragmatic; between subjectivism and being subjective; between relativism and being relative.

Why?

The issue is that while certain ideologies are destructive their underlying orientations may be helpful (and even necessary).  For example, the ‘ism’ in pragmatism specifies an ideology—it means that a pragmatic orientation is not simply accepted but is one’s “guiding principle.”  So when someone embraces pragmatism ‘functionality‘ becomes more important to that person than anything, even truthfulness.

Now I agree that truthfulness should be a guiding principle for everyone, Christian or not.  But we must be very careful not to confuse destructive ideologies with proper, human orientations, especially when such orientations are necessary to assessing the Bible’s truth claims correctly (orientations such as being pragmatic, subjective, and relative).  Why necessary?

Here’s why: Christianity concerns not simply intellectual assent but relational content.

In other words, Christianity is not only thinking rightly about God but being rightly disposed to God, and these two things are reciprocal.  So to be in right relationship with God I must know some true things about God (that this God alone is God, that the Bible especially reveals this God, that I communicate with God by prayer, etc.).  Yet I can only understand and believe the Bible’s relational claims about God (i.e., that God knows me and loves me) through personal experience.

Further, while right disposition begins with right understanding, their reciprocal relation means that right disposition also creates right belief and understanding!  So Christians generally understand that one cannot rightly relate to God if this God is conceived of (and so is pursued) as Allah, the Hindu Gods, etc.  Yet they often misunderstand that the Bible’s undeniably personal and relational claims (i.e., that God knows me better than I know myself and loves more deeply than I love myself) can only be validated through personal experience.

And validating these relational truth claims—recognizing their truth value—requires being pragmatic, relativistic, and subjective.

This is so because these truth claims are both intellectual and relational, in keeping with a) my human nature as situated and finite and b) God’s nature, who is love, and so seeks to be in relationship with me.  Intellectually, I assess any truth claim from my subjective viewpoint and relative to my finite experience.  Yet relationally I am always seeking my own good (I’m pragmatic because it matters to me how things turn out in my own life), and so claims about being known and loved must turn out to be just that!1

Now having personal experience of God does not necessitate that everyone experiences God in dramatic and undeniable ways.  But my hunch is that it does mean that within current communities of Christians there will be personal experiences of relating with God that validate the truth claim that “God knows and loves us” in deep—and deeply healing and satisfying—ways.

What do I mean?

By “current communities” I mean that it is not enough to read how God delivered Israel, supported David, or even how Jesus healed and fed many.  I believe these accounts.  However, my argument is that the Bible’s claims that God is real and good are validated by experiencing God delivering, restoring and healing now, in the lives of real people.  Literally.2

By “personal experiences” I do not mean that God will appear to everyone similarly or with the same intensity.  Instead, Christianity endorses testimony—understandable accounts from credible people—as a valid way to know and understand God.  Through testimony I understand and am mentored in the relational component of Christian faith.

If you are Christian, what relational experiences of God are important within your Christian community?

If you are not Christian, what relational experiences have been important in your life?

Taunts abut Truth: pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism

 

Why should you believe in the Christian God?

“Whereas the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons.  For instance they believe faith is true ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on.”1

Os Guiness penned this in his Time for Truth.  But if Dr. Guiness believes that Christian truth is contrary to what he calls pragmatism, subjectivism and relativism, what happens if we re-frame his sentence to reflect that?  If we do, it would look like this:

“Countless Christians today believe . . . faith is true ‘because it doesn’t work’, because they ‘do not feel it is true in their experience’, and because they sincerely do not believe it is ‘true for them’.” (Emphasis added).

Does this make Christianity sound truthful?

Or even vaguely appealing?

I hope not.

Instead, this reframing detaches it from human experience and makes it sound completely false and untrue.  So what’s going on?  If it is reasonable (and true!) that Christian truth is unrelated to pragmatism, subjectivism or relativism, then why does it sound so wrong when we plainly express it that way?

Let me suggest two reasons.

First, we need to distinguish between pragmatism and ‘being pragmatic’, where pragmatism indicates an ideology versus a ‘pragmatic’ orientation or interest.  So where being pragmatic means that it’s important that things function as they should, adopting pragmatism means that “functionality” is your guiding principal (over and above, say, truthfulness).

So is being pragmatic (instead of pragmatistic) compatible with believing Christianity to be true?  I think so.  And more than that, it’s the same with being subjective and relative.  Here’s why:

As human beings we should value our own lives (we care how things work out—we are pragmatic).  We are indeed finite (we see things from our limited, subjective viewpoint).  We understand contextually (we make sense of things relative to our background and experiences).

As I’ve argued before, these characteristics are not limitations but are the very basis for knowing and experiencing anything at all.  But valuing our existence, being finite, and understanding contextually (being pragmatic, subjective, and relative) are also the necessary ingredients for developing and maintaining a thriving relationship with God!

Second, Os Guiness also writes that “the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true.”2  Yet considering what we have discussed above I believe that this is incorrect.  Or rather, insufficient.  In other words, not only do people experience that Christianity “works,” I believe that Christianity must work in order for belief to be credible.

I would put it like this:

“Christianity is true because it works (as truth-for-me), and it works because it is true (as absolute Truth).”

Now I maintain that it works (for me or anyone) because it is true (and absolutely so), but in order for me to perceive it as true it must—on some real and tangible level—work for me.  It is the alignment of my fullest / best-reasoned truth (call it ‘truth-for-me’) and the Bible’s truth claims (as absolute Truth) that convinces me of the truth value of these truth claims.

Back to pragmatics, relativity, and subjectivity.

Aligning Truth and truth-for-me is necessary because humans are finite: bereft of absolute access to God’s absolute truth we instead evaluate such truth claims from our subjective, relative position.  Yet valuing my life and how things ‘work out’ for me—being pragmatic—means that it is also necessary to substantiate the claim that this God is good and that God’s love for me is real (and not fictional or abusive).

Thus being subjective, relative, and pragmatic are not obstacles to embracing Christian truth but are our very means of doing so.  Next week I examine how.

Stress, pain, and “surrendering all” to God…

 

What are we to do with the things that burden us?   Often Christians respond that we should “surrender all” to God.

The idea, I think, is giving over my desire to control situations and outcomes, and my negative feelings about them, to God.  This way I can be at peace with the matter (and also with God and with others—even those that have hurt me).  And the sooner I do this, the better.

Great goals.

But I don’t think that immediately “surrendering all” to God will achieve them.  Let me explain:

My experience is that God responds to my pleas for help in a variety of ways, based on: a) who I am and understand myself to be, b) what the situation is / how I understand it, and c) the nature of my relationship with God (and who I conceive God to be).  In other words, God’s response always considers who I am and where I’m at.

And God’s response is always—always—conditioned by God’s greatest desire for me: that I be in right relationship with God (and thereby, in right relationship with myself, others, and the created world).  The core of this “right relationship” is spelled out clearly in the gospels: love God wholly; love yourself rightly (so that you may love your neighbour likewise).

And this God whom I am to love wholly is one who knows me intimately and loves me adoringly.  So, strange as it may sound, my wager is that being in right relationship with this God means not letting go of our issues but embracing them.  More to the point, perhaps God’s response is not so much to take away our burdens but to be clear (and demonstratively so) that God knows us truly and yet loves us deeply even as we are burdened.

Knowing us truly, God distinguishes between hurts that wound us and our own orientations / filters that create worry, stress, or pain out of situations where they should not.  Both require healing, one because we are wounded by them and the other because we wound ourselves (and likely others) by them.

Loving us deeply, God determines how (and how much) I can understand the difference between the two and God is patient—patient enough to allow me to blunder through this the wrong way.  But God’s love always aims at returning me to right relationship with God.

So in this context ‘being in right relationship with God’ might require such things as me releasing my fears, trusting God, experiencing God’s love, etc.  Yet doing so involves going through the fear, anxiety, or worry that impede this releasing, trusting, experiencing.  It involves literally “sitting in them;” living with the tension they evoke.

And while the Christian life is not to be marked by worry, stress, and negative emotions, I wonder if Christians are too eager to “surrender” what is uncomfortable, to their detriment.  My belief is that we are to rely on God by collaboratively “going through the issues,” understanding that resolution involves many stages.  This sometimes requires me doing (or not doing) certain things, sometimes God.  Sometimes both of us, and sometimes neither—just waiting.

So promptly “surrendering all” needs to be replaced with prudent, reliant stewardship.

As Christians we are to exercise prudent stewardship in the context of right relationship with (and so reliance on) God, even stewardship over things we don’t like.  Yes, I will be victimized—I will suffer rejection, mistreatment, and dismissal.  But, in addition to feeling pain, working through such situations has stimulated my intellect, developed my relational abilities, and cultivated my talents and imagination.

Yes, I may take seasons, years, or even decades to forgive.  But I accept the time because it is only through the full process that forgiveness becomes what it is meant to be: an embodied response capable of reconciling despite great betrayals, and fully able to point back to relationship where I am truly known yet most deeply loved.

Christian “food truck”?

My spouse and I had a conversation coming back from church the other day.

They had sung a song about “turning the other cheek” and I mentioned the importance of ‘honour and shame’ in 1st century Palestine, and that we misunderstand “turn the other cheek” if we remove it from this cultural context (it gets altered into something about pacifism cum self-effacement). She wondered if I ever thought that I’m too critical or too anxious to nuance things “just so,” or if I feel a need to distance myself from other Christians, or something.

I explained it differently.

I said that I don’t feel any anxiety or anger (or a particular need to show that I’m not “like them”—it’s different). Rather I compared it to a culinary model. I said that I feel like a chef who is constantly being offered food to sample.  So like a chef relative to other cooks, I have more training than most. I also referenced the non-taster / taster / super-taster model (about how perceptively people taste) and suggested that in this realm I was like a super-taster.

On this analogy Christianity is interested in / about food (as in, “one may not live by bread alone”) and, as I sit in church and listen (or read books like Not A Fan), I am sampling the dishes that I am being served.  And because I am a chef, I have an educated (or to a certain degree, ‘faithful’) understanding of the dishes (I know their ingredients, preparation, and history). And because I am a super-taster (both by virtue of my experiences and of the skills I’ve developed through the long practice of examining those experiences), I have a sense of ‘creative’ flair that I apply to this understanding.

In other words, I have honed a ‘biblical’ skills set marked by creative fidelity.

So I’m sampling the dishes that I’m being given and, at times, tasting that something is missing, or maybe something is too strong, or that one dish is supposedly being presented when in fact the meal is really some other dish.  Or perhaps the way that a cook is combining dishes or presenting them is somehow dissonant, displeasing, or even inedible.

And in addition to sampling the food of others I want, of course, to be preparing and providing healthy, accessible, and yet glorious food myself. Indeed, to my mind (and on this analogy), that is the goal of the Kingdom of God “for” and “towards” me and you.

The Kingdom of God is not mine or “about” me, but it involves me deeply. And it does so in two ways. First, where I am outside of God’s Kingdom and not in relationship with God it presents itself to me as a nourishing meal to one who is famished—it is invites me through its richness and fullness (so “taste and see that God is good”).  Second (and later), as one who has embraced God’s Kingdom, my close relationship with God sustains me as a hearty meal sustains one who “realizes” oneself in dedicating oneself to one’s deepest passion: a deep commitment that is self-sacrificial YET joyous, without contradiction (so Paul “counting it all joy”).

So where and how am I evaluating and serving this food?  I’m not ministering in a church—churches have their own kitchens, their own chefs, their own recipes. But through this blog and my upcoming podcast maybe I could be compared to . . . a food truck.

Food trucks are mobile and intriguing.  Risky: it comes to me instead of me going to it, and I can’t guarantee whether I’ll like it.  But upfront—you see the crew and the chef(s)—and there’s no need to guess what’s on offer.  Small scale versus mass market, food trucks are only viable because they offer (and provide) excellence, and for that, you have to pay a bit more—in this case, invest some time.

But food trucks are almost always worth it.