What causes a boundary-focus?

Tête bicéphale: French, “having two heads” (or being oriented in two different ways at the same time).

Last post I highlight how, faced with situations where non-Christians question or especially challenge it, the Christian faith does not simply impose additional constraints upon its followers but a new orientation: a new primary goal (truth-telling and truth-preserving) and a new understanding of ethics and feasibility. The tough part is that these run counter to the senses of effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility that would typically govern our actions in everyday situations of disagreement or conflict.

Specifically, effectiveness becomes what preserves or promotes God’s truth, ethics becomes what best respects / serves God, and feasibility becomes what would be most broadly endorsed by their Christian community. The result of being faced with two, contrary orientations toward similar problems—an everyday orientation and an overtly Christian orientation—is experiencing tension.

Yet in such situations the Christian’s role appears clear: tell God’s truth and act to preserve it. So Christians can hope that these non-Christians (outsiders) will see the ‘truth’ of the Christian position and accept it, but they also expect a “hardness of heart” or even a “blindness” that prevents this. In any case, under such circumstances seeking a win-win solution that validates overtly non-Christian perspectives can only be seen as being unfaithful: “selling out” or “being worldly.”

This presents a “boundary-focused” approach in a much different light.  This approach does manage the competing needs of growing the community’s membership while preserving its identity and values, both of which are important for Christian communities. Yet it does so by holding a particular understanding of truth, how it is acquired, and the Christian’s role relative to truth (truth-telling); a particular understanding of “outsiders” and how Christians should be oriented toward them; a particular understanding of love (and loving both neighbours and enemies); a particular understanding of tensions (and how to respond to them).

In my next series of posts I will argue that the preceding understandings are, variously, under-formulated or misformulated, overly narrow or exaggerated, and ultimately needing to be de-contextualized in order to be set in their proper context (and so properly related to one another).  For the remainder of this post I want to examine the origins of a boundary-focused orientation.

So where does it come from?

My guess is that it represents an attempt by Christians to model themselves after the conduct of Jesus. For example, Jesus is accepting of children and open to the poor and downcast. Jesus is compassionate to outsiders who seek him (in granting the Syro-Phonecian woman’s request) and embraces outsiders who recognize him (in praising the centurion’s faith). Yet Jesus is decisive—even merciless—against the religious eliteand the various Judean powers of his day.

Yet even as Christians aim to “do what Jesus would do” we must always consider not only the nature of Jesus’ actions but their context. And this context is at least threefold: Jesus’ knowledge of the truth, Jesus’ power to act on that knowledge, Jesus’ understanding of his own mission (or his self-understanding within that truth). Let’s consider these three more closely.

Jesus’ knowledge was thus divine without being omniscient (or, it was sufficient for him to carry out his mission). Jesus power to act on that knowledge was complete without being boundless (or, it was directed in a specific, limited fashion toward being a clear sign and indicator of his authority without being an overwhelming effect). Jesus understanding of his mission and his role therein was entire without, in itself, guaranteeing the success of his mission in advance.

Thus in the fullness of his knowledge, power, and self-understanding Jesus exemplifies God, and yet he also—and more so—offers a model to humanity by the bounded, incomplete nature of this same knowledge, power, and self-understanding and thus in his reliance on God the father as essential to his identity and the success of his mission.

So what does this mean?

Essentially, while Jesus needed far less from God than we do (for, being God, he had far more to begin with), his dependance and reliance on God are exactly the postures that Christians need to emulate, while being very circumspect and trepidatious about assuming that we can imitate Jesus when it comes to our knowledge of various situations or motives, our power to carry out God’s calling, and our self-understanding / understanding of that calling in a given context. For if we attempt to imitate Jesus in this regard we risk idolatry: declaring equality with Jesus divinity rather than simply finding consonance with those aspects of Jesus that mirror—and are mirrored in—our humanity.

In short, a desire for Christians to model themselves after Jesus is certainly proper and valuable. However, Christians must always be careful not to extend this modelling too far: we are to be Christ-like in character but not cannot be so in nature, for Jesus’ nature was also divine. Further, we must be aware that where the Holy Spirit acts to enable us to become more like Jesus, this spirit does so in the same, character-oriented manner.

Theory over practice? III

Last post I gave the example of a Christian parent who is sorting out a difficulty for her child. The child’s friend is saying that the earth was not created in six days but evolved over 4 billion years. The children have discussed this a few times and looked at some science books. Her child does not appear bullied but is confused and seems upset, and the other parent is willing to talk about it.

I argued that how Christians engage on such matters depends on what their communities have modelled for them in similar situations. So when dealing with perspectives that contradict (or especially seem to threaten) the Christian faith, Christian communities typically respond not with dialogue but with dispute. I further noted that one popular model of engagement is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Expressed positively, being boundary-focused means categorizing neighbours and newcomers to the community as either insiders or outsiders in order best to interact with them and, if necessary, protect the community from them. Being boundary-focused is one way to manage the competing needs of growing your membership while preserving your values and identity.

So how does this apply to our parenting example?

Well, in everyday situations my interest is an effective solution, so long as it appears both ethical and feasible. I will know that the solution is effective if it resolves the issue in a fitting manner (in this example, a mended friendship or curtailed bullying), and if all parties agree to carry it out (it is feasible) and are respected in the process (it is ethical).

But in particularly “Christian” situations—situations bearing on or challenging my faith, whether tacitly or openly—my goal is not longer effectiveness but truth. Also, because Christians will now perceive God to be more directly involved this will reconfigure the ethical considerations (for God must certainly be respected too) and the notion of feasibility (both because “with God all things are possible” and because “the world will hate us for the sake of Christ”).

In other words, when Christians perceive God to be more directly to involved this changes the “rules of engagement.”  As a Christian in such contexts I see myself as responsible for affirming the truth (and so assuring that God is respected) and realizing that doing so has costs (recognizing that non-Christians will likely disagree and may feel hostility toward me because of my views). More pointedly, these new rules of engagement only become intensified where my church upbringing has trained me to confront disagreement or disbelief in Christianity with dispute (rather than dialogue).

So how does this play out?

Well, both my personal experience and my academic research show that, when confronted with a situation where they perceive their faith to be threatened (or sometimes even questioned) Christians experience tension. The tension is caused by two conflicting motivations.

On the one hand, as I noted last post, there is a desire to approach the matter just like other situations: discussing the matter so that both parties understand each other and thereby coming to a solution to which they all agree and by which they all feel respected. On the other hand, there is a sense that one’s Christian duty is to prioritize and protect the truth of Christianity and one’s own Christian identity, and that adopting / enforcing a boundary-focused stance is the best way to do this.

Thus because commitment to God is the primary goal for Christians, so they redefine the elements of a good solution (effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility) accordingly.  “Effectiveness” becomes that which preserves or promotes God’s truth, ethics means prioritizing what best respects / serves God, and feasibility is that which would be most broadly endorsed by their Christian community, with considerations for all other parties being secondary.

The effect?

The other party is marginalized. In a debate, one does not seek to learn from the other side but to defeat them. Where God’s interests are essential (and surely God’s interests must be the most important) then all other interests are at best optional. Where ethics concern preserving or promoting God’s position or Christian views, other views are simply unimportant. And where feasibility is what the church community supports, being swayed by the responses of the other party appears irrational and perhaps even dangerous.

So Christians have switched from engaging in a dialogue that seeks consensus and values people to performing a monologue-like debate that seeks to defeat the other party’s perspective, deprioritizes their worth, and anticipates their unwillingness to participate in our solutions.  And they have done so for the sake of truth, the sake of respecting God, and the sake of preserving the identity and integrity of their communities.

My view on this?

Simply put: too much truth, too little love (for others, oneself, and God).  And all based on a rather questionable understanding of ‘truth’ at that.  Next post draws on our previous discussion of scepticism and suspicion and prepares the way for re-situating theory and practice.

Theory over Practice? Part II

When it comes to dealing with everyday situations—whether seeking or giving advice—my aim is to meet the goals effectively, provided that this is done in a way that seems both ethical and possible.

In other words, I value “what works,” providing that the solution seems like it would attain my goals, be feasible to carry out, and favours the good treatment of all parties. The tricky part is that, for Christians, there are actually two sets of rules, depending on the situation: a) the normal, everyday rules and b) the Christian rules. And further, that these rules have contradictory aims and boundaries.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s pretend that I am a parent who needs to sort out a dispute between my child and another. Let’s also pretend that the other parent is involved and also wants to sort this out. So the four of us sit down to discuss the matter.

In an everyday situation my overall goals will depend on certain criteria. So if the other child is my child’s friend (and I have no immediate concerns with how they treat each other or the sort of activities that they tend to engage in) then I will aim to patch up the friendship. I will broker discussion, assuage the other parent’s potential concerns, and look for options that allow the relationship to be mended and the friendship to resume. Or if it seems like one child has mistreated the other then I will aim to suggest appropriate boundaries and work with the other parent to implement limits to access and behaviour. In any case, a key factor to a successful outcome is all parties sharing roughly the same goals.

Thus where they are effective, solutions to everyday situations tend to have shared goals and be marked by a collaborative approach that values all participants (ethics) and can count on all parties to assure the decided outcome (feasibility).

What happens though, in the same setting, if I am a Christian and the issues at hand have a particular bearing on my Christian beliefs? My experience is that, for many Christians, this changes matters significantly. So let’s take the above situation and instead pretend my child’s friend has been telling him or her that the earth was not created in six days but in 4 billion years. They have had a few discussions about it and have been looking at some science books on the subject. My child is not feeling bullied or mistreated but is confused and has sometimes seemed upset.

This new situation does not simply represent a challenging conversation that, like the last one, I am likely unaccustomed (and so unskilled) at having. Instead it represents subject matter that my church upbringing has not trained me to discuss but to debate.  In other words, where I was previously prepared to have a dialogue—however awkward—I am now oriented toward having a dispute.

And that changes everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that churches train Christians to debate with those who do not share their views. In fact, churches (and even seminaries) typically offer no communication training at all, other than basic apologetics. Instead my point is that based on how they engage with “outsiders,” whether Christian or not, our churches model certain types of interaction.  A popular one is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Boundary-focused engagement has two goals. First, to categorize neighbours and newcomers as either insiders or outsiders, in order to know how best to interact with them. Second to foster and, if necessary, protect the people and values of the community. Being boundary-focused is a way of managing the complexity faced by communities that seeks membership from outsiders while still wishing to preserve their identity.

Managing this complexity means being attentive to who is in the community, who enters or exits the community, and why.  So this approach acts as a manner of “gate-keeping” that is very effective at preserving minimum standards of behaviour and interaction, as well as defending against potential threats. This approach values membership in the Christian community and uses membership information as the basis for how to communicate, what expectations and “rules of engagement” to set (and with whom), and simply how much to trust the various parties in or near the community.  It also implies that mismanaging this membership can be problematic and even dangerous.

Next post I examine how such an orientation might effect our parenting example, above.

Theory over practice? Part I

Clearly, “theory is more important than practice” when it comes to Christianity.

Or at least, during a recent conversation a friend wondered if this was my view. She noted that I focus on theory in my podcast and speculated that perhaps the reason for this is that I am more gifted with theoretical concepts than with practical applications.

I told her that I could not disagree more: all of my theory is born out of experiencing (and needing to make sense of) powerful events in my life, both wonderful and terrible. So why this theoretical focus?

The reason, as I see it, is that discussions about practice are actually just as difficult as discussions about theory, but these difficulties present themselves in subtler ways and so they are actually more difficult to identify and address. Maybe a good place to start is the difference between a theoretical and a practical discussion.

When talking theory we are essentially speaking about generalities—considering the general principles that might guide our everyday actions or judgements. Thus we promote various theories on the basis of their merits, and we identify them as meritorious (and argue for them as such) based on their benefits, as perceived and judged by our intellect, imagination, senses, experience, etc.

When talking practicalities we are essentially speaking of specifics—considering how we would respond to this or that situation based on its particularities of setting, timing, nature, participants, etc. We develop our theories from our experience of similar, practical situations and we understand (and respond to) practical situations better by analyzing the results of our past attempts, out of which we form theories.

On the one hand, practice seems like it must always precede theory. How can I form general understandings without specific experiences to act as raw data, upon which to build such a theory? Yet on the other hand, like much of our understanding we learn through observation. This is much like language use, where humans always receive language before I am able (and in order) to use it. Also, beginning at a very young age we experience emotional responses that guide our actions.

Thus the combination of modelling and disposition represent our “starting point” when it comes to responding to practical situations. In other words, we always already have inputs, whether our own or that of our parents, older siblings, etc. Added to these are our emotional responses that, even when we are unaware of them, have the effect of guiding our actions. Perhaps this is not “theory” in any true sense—certainly these inputs are not the product of any assessment or understanding on our part. Yet the upshot is the same: are responses are guided by certain factors and, as we develop, we begin to adjust future responses based on past successes (and failures).

So far, so good.

So as humans develop they increasingly understand the present in light of the past and so adjust their responses accordingly. In other words, they learn from their mistakes. Why then would I claim that practical discussions have subtle implications that can be more difficult to identify and address than theoretical discussions? What are these subtleties?

Well, let me answer that by first considering the aims of a practical discussion. When it comes to discussing everyday situations, whether as one seeking or giving advice, my aim is effectiveness in meeting my goals within the bounds of the ethical and the possible. In other words, I value “what works” (or seems like it might work) providing that the solution attains my goals, is feasible to carry out, and favours the good treatment of all concerned.

Now here things get tricky. Assessing what works (or might work) is obviously a matter of best-guesswork. Assessing what constitutes good treatment of myself and others may be even less clear. But the issue is not that we may disagree about what works (effectiveness), or about how feasible or ethical a particular approach is. Rather, the tricky part is that Christians actually have two sets of rules, depending on the situation: a) the normal, everyday rules and b) the Christian rules. And further, that these rules have contradictory aims and boundaries.

Next post I offer examples of these two rule sets and how their contradictory aims and boundaries have subtle but important implications for Christians who are making practical decisions.

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 3

My last blog post was the second of a three-part reply to a recent comment, by “Listener.” In this last part I want to address two of Listener’s points. Here is the first:

“Some things must be felt with the heart because the intellect cannot adequately hold the entire mystery of God.” I agree that our emotional responses provide important information, and that some things may be more immediately accessible to the emotions than, say, the intellect. Yet as I wrote last post about the need to become skilled ‘readers of ourselves’, so I would argue that it is not either the intellect or the emotions. It must, to my way of thinking, always be both.  And not just these two.

In other words, human understanding necessarily incorporates the entirety of what and who we are as human beings. What does this entail? At base, it means learning how to invigorate and then interweave our faculties (intellect, emotions, memory, sense perception, imagination, experience) judiciously yet artfully, such that our way of seeing and our way of being are individually and mutually informing (and so able both to corroborate and critique one another). This, in essence, is the meaning (and result) of being a competent ‘reader’ of oneself.

Concerning the “mystery of God,” I think that we must be careful in what we view as “mysterious” about God, and what we do not.  For instance, whether an event represents God expressing love to me in some rather direct way may be mysterious in that we cannot be definitive about such conclusions, but the fact that God loves us is not.  Much more could be said, but I will leave it there for now.

This leads me to Listener’s second point: “What I have found in my spiritual journey is that people often measure my experiences of God against their own, rather than anything else. In other words, if they do not experience God in the same way, then they will dismiss what I have experienced. This seems to driven (at least in part) either by ego or envy. People can become envious that they have not heard from God in the same way. The fact is that God interacts personally and uniquely with each individual according to the grace given them and to their specific purpose.”

I resonate with this situation. Yet I also think that matters are not so straightforward. First, I believe that scepticism and suspicion must be overcome, not avoided, which is actually best achieved by encouraging my listeners to assume these perspectives: encouraging them to be sceptical and suspicious. And I do so not only by appreciating their questions but by having already applied these perspectives to myself: having my own sceptical and suspicious perspectives “ready at hand” concerning the very experiences that I proclaim, as true, to others.

In fact, I feel comforted when my audience is sceptical or suspicious because then I know that they share with me an important goal: truth-seeking. And my audience will likely be reassured when they understand that I, too, have taken a rigorous approach by applying scepticism to any event to which I attach such large claims, and to myself as the claimant.

Thus for the events in my life that I believe represent “exceptional experiences” of God, I hope that people will judge them. I hope that they will do so by applying scepticism and suspicion to how I present these events and to what I have “made of” the situations upon which they are based. For by so doing my audience inevitably spends more time and pays more attention to these events and, should they view me as credible, may develop greater trust in my accounts (or testimony).

So my job is not to try to avoid their scepticism and suspicion, but to encourage it. Further, by having a better understanding both of human being and the Christian God, my job is both to assist listeners to assess my experiences, whether by anticipating objections (and thus including partial responses when presenting my experiences) or by educating listeners towards the most applicable lines of questioning in order, thereby, to validate my experiences as true.

Lastly, what I’m proposing is time consuming. Yet this is not a problem but to be expected, for my goal is not explaining my experience so much as offering possibilities, through presenting my experience, of relationship between my audience and God. And this means two things.

On the one hand, my experience is not incidental to this “furthering” but essential to it, because I am proposing relationship between my audience and this God, the God that I have encountered and am describing to you. On the other hand, then, I believe that this process of presenting my experience and jointly validating it will both take time to unfold and will itself be part of that larger relationship that I am hope will develop.

In this way, as I engage with the other I both “remain myself” and become part of this person’s relationship with God: I become a partial embodiment of what it means for God to be present to another person, to meet that person’s needs, etc.

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 2

This post is the second part of my reply to “Listener’s” recent comment.

Previously I replied to Listener’s view that followers of God will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God. Further, that “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” To this point I raised the importance of employing scepticism and suspicion, both defining them and then explaining the importance of suspicion.

In this post I want to go further, by putting scepticism and suspicion to work on Listener’s next point.  Her next comment was: “When a person receives something beautiful from the Lord, the enemy will move in quickly to cause them to doubt its authenticity (because his whole goal is to kill, steal and destroy) and if he can do this through the voice of other Christians, it is far more effective in shutting down moves of the Spirit than someone who does not claim faith. That is why it is crucially important for each and every one of us to be very, very careful with the hearts of our brothers and sisters.”

I understand the logic and plausibility of this view, and it has some correspondence with the parable of the sower that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 13, Mk 4, Lk 8). Yet here, too, scepticism and suspicion must be at play.

Recall: scepticism addresses the opacity of facts while suspicion addresses the duplicity of persons.

So on the level of the facts, scepticism asks: Who says that something is either “beautiful” or is “from the Lord”? On what basis can these claims be substantiated (or, what is the truth value of such truth claims)? On the level of persons, suspicion asks: What else might be going on here? What does the claimant stand to gain by making this claim (or lose if they don’t)? Such questions become more prominent the more the link between the facts and the claims seems weak or incoherent.

Now part of the difficulty in treading this ground is that Christians have never, to my knowledge, systematized claims about experiencing God in the same way that they have systematized, in their theology, claims to information about God.

In other words, knowing God through relationship and knowing about God through the Bible have received very different treatment over the history of Christianity. Yet, ironically, so many Christians want to claim—and seem to base their Christianity upon—the importance of specific, personal experiences with / from God (in the form of answered prayer, providential acts of divine intervention, etc.).

To be clear, I am not advocating theology instead of experience. Actually, I want to redress the overwhelming disparity between the two: to situate them in their proper relationship, which is theology with experience. I believe that at least three basic steps are required to right the relationship between the Bible and experience, between factual knowledge about God and personal / relational knowledge of God.

First, in addition to providing information about human beings and limited information about the natural world, the Bible points to God and explains who God is, how God acts, and what God seeks. As such, experiencing God is theological where it is the natural outcome of a God who acted, and continues to act, so as to seek ongoing relationship with humanity.

Second, experience is not simply the interpreted events or situations of a single person but, in Christianity, experience is essentially corporate. This is because testimony, as the credible accounts of others, is essential in order for people to come to relationship with God or to strengthen existing relationship with God.

So Christianity depends on others sharing their experiences of God yet, because this experiential content also informs us about God’s character and manner of relating (literally, it further informs us who God is relative to human beings), it is essential that Christians are not deceived in what they accept or deceptive in what they share. To this end, the Bible contains numerous warnings about false teachers, false prophets, and wrong teaching. And make no mistake: when we claim special interaction with God (and especially, when we conclude specific things about God on the basis of this interaction) we are indeed taking the role of teacher and potentially, prophet.

Third, given the necessarily theological character of experience and essential nature of testimony, Christians need to cultivate personal ‘exegesis’ on the same level as textual exegesis: Christians need to become equally skilled at ‘reading themselves’ as they do at reading the Bible. This is not to put the two on the same level but to affirm that both are complimentary, as requisites toward attaining the same goal.

Next post I aim to wrap up this examination by considering Listener’s final point: what to do with Christians who seem to respond to our experiential claims with envy or disdain, and to consider our reasons for sharing our “exceptional” experiences.

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 1

I began to reply to the comment that respondent “Listener” left on my last blog post and realized that my reply was itself the size of a full post (larger, in fact). Listener raised some important points so I’ve reprinted the first part of my response here, with the others to follow.

I want to pick up on several points in the comment because I think some important things were mentioned.  First, to clarify, the links that I added to my previous post (regarding interpretation) are actually focused on moving away from the idea of “certainty.” Indeed, I argue that certainty is an illusion (because humans cannot attain certain knowledge) and in Christian terms, an affront to God (because it is idolatrous: to claim certainty is to claim to be like God).

Second, Listener’s comment notes that God’s followers will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God.  Further, “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” True enough, the Bible discloses numerous things about the Christian God.  But the biblical text is just as full, if not more so, of examples of how human beings are apt to deceive themselves.  Further, such self-deception includes not simply committing errors in the epistemological sense or lying in the moral sense, but having entrenched attachments to acting in our own best interest, while both claiming not to be doing so and indeed, being unaware of either our self-interested actions or how we are concealing the whole process (from others and ourselves).

In episode #77 of Untangling Christianity John Poelstra and I explore the notion of scepticism more fully.  In this blog post I will introduce the idea that it is not only (or sometimes, primarily) skepticism that is at play, but suspicion. Now both scepticism and suspicion are essential tools for all human beings: essential modes of interaction with our world and ourselves.  Importantly, however, neither scepticism nor suspicion are isolated orientations but are situated in tension with necessary counterparts. So scepticism is in tension with belief, suspicion is in tension with faith.

To my mind, the importance of understanding (and so situating) scepticism and suspicion as “in tension” with necessary counterparts should not be underestimated.  But let’s begin with some definitions.

Skepticism is doubt about the evidence: where it came from, how it has been compiled, or what conclusions are based upon it.  Suspicion is misgiving about the person: what his motives are, what he stands to gain or lose here (and how that might impact his decisions). Suspicion is the glance that looks ‘before’, ‘below’, and ‘after’ the supposed facts of the matter to seek to reveal a deeper–and truer–relationship between the person and the evidence.

So where Listener wrote that Christians discounted her claims to have experienced God due to envy or pride, suspicion is the tool that allows us to conclude that someone is really acting out of envy or pride, whereas the person alleges to be simply acting on the “facts” (for instance, in claiming that my approach is unbiblical, my attitude is unchristian, or my claims to have experienced God are bogus).

Suspicion uncovers what we might call “false consciousness.”

It looks under what the person claims (and indeed, honestly believes) to be their real orientation, their legitimate beliefs.  It sees these claims as a mask, under which darker motives at work.  So we may be simply mistaken in thinking that something comes from God when it does not.  Or we may be practicing self-deception through such claims, really being far less sure than we claim to be but asserting the claims adamantly in order to validate our need to feel important, to control others, to fit in, etc.

Now false consciousness is not only symptomatic of non-Christians or “wayward” Christians, or to the sort of Christians that Listener describes as being driven by either ego or envy. Or better stated, the Bible persistently indicates that all human beings are driven by ego and envy, and that the path to living in a manner not governed by these drivers is to adopt the manner of Jesus (in being a servant to all) while living as truth-seekers who identify themselves as beloved by God and who therefore dedicate themselves to loving God entirely, loving themselves rightly, and loving their fellows likewise.

More to come.

Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).

Not a Fan; Misunderstood God

Along with my podcast partner, John Poelstra, I have finished reading and then producing a number of podcasts assessing Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan and Darin Hufford’s Misunderstood God.  During these podcasts I was generally unimpressed with these books because I perceived a number of issues with both of them, and one problem in particular.

One way of expressing the problem is that these books both make broad claims yet are actually too narrow.  So where they ‘broadly’ aim at presenting the most important aspect(s) of the Christian faith I think that they fail because they lack correct understandings about (and so, as a result, fail correctly to formulate) who God is, what human beings are, and what the relationship between the two is / should be.

Stated differently, their understandings and formulations are skewed because they are derived too narrowly, and it seems to me that this is in three regards.

First, they offer an insufficient reading of the biblical text.  In this regard my podcast partner John Poelstra qualified Idleman’s use of Scripture as “amateur,” which I think is entirely accurate.  Hufford, by contrast, actually makes no use of Scripture at all: beyond applying the general framework of 1 Cor. 13 to his chapter layout he makes not a single biblical reference.

In other words, to the degree that I have formed my opinions of Christianity from a fairly attentive and rigorous focus on Scripture I necessarily need (and should expect!) Christian authors writing on Christianity to buttress their points with a similarly attentive and rigorous approach to Scripture.  To put it another way, I’m looking for more truth than I currently have, not less!  So when we’re making truth claims based on the Bible I want to be more assured (not less!) that those claims are legitimate, particularly if what’s at stake is me changing my mind about some aspect of the Christian faith.

Second, the points and arguments of each author lack sufficient integration with other, valid information sources (my mentor likes to call these other “informers”).  The basic point here is twofold.

On the one hand, while the biblical text may be rightly interpreted as containing truth claims about God, humanity, and the natural world, such claims are presented as being sufficient but not comprehensive regarding such matters (even regarding God, who is both greater than the text and who is best / most fully imaged in Jesus the Christ, who is the logos—the living word!).

On the other hand, incorporation of other, valid information sources mirrors the basic orientation that must, in my opinion, characterize Christian interaction (both with the Bible, other Christians, and non-Christians): dialogue.  Too often Christians take the position of dispute—defensively presenting their perspective as both comprehensive and ultimate.  Instead we need to assume a posture of openness that allows us to incorporate more truth into our understandings (because if all truth is God’s truth we need not fear it, no matter where we find it) AND fosters productive interaction with outsiders by demonstrating a willingness to listen while maintaining the possibility of critique.

So Idleman’s emphasis on “following”—and particularly, why Christians don’t follow Jesus well—would have appeared much more credible if his viewpoint was informed by thinkers like Neil Fiore or Merold Westphal, whereas Hufford’s emphasis on love would been better grounded (and so seemed more convincing) if he had integrated the thought and research of someone like Brené Brown.

Third, these authors propose an impoverished view of human beings insofar as they target only one aspect of humanness.  By “humanness” I’m referring to the various components that make up human beings (such as our individuation, relationality, situatedness, rationality, emotions, imagination, will, experiences, knowledge claims, situatedness, etc.).  So in these two cases Idleman emphasizes ‘the will’ above all else, whereas for Hufford it is ‘the heart’ or the emotions.

Yet a full and robust presentation of the relation between God and human beings must likewise address (and incorporate) the entirety of the human being!  In other words, both reason and the emotions / feelings, the will and the imagination, as well experiences and knowledge claims—the entirety of what it means to be human must both be considered and incorporated into any presentation of what is most crucial to the Christian faith.

So from my perspective, from both my studies and my experience, that which is most essential to the Christian God and human beings may best be summarized under the flexible co-centrality of love and truth, truth and love.  Yet my belief is that these ‘top level’ characteristics / orientations do not suppress or deny the scope of our humanness but rather situate it properly, by most accurately representing that context within which the full scope of our humanness can meet the richest and most biblical portrayal of who God is, a harmony that is also borne out by my personal experience of / with God.

And this, I wager, is what Christians both want and would expect to see: a view of God and self that accurately reflects the biblical claims; understandings and experiences of self and God / self with God that both confirm and enliven those same claims.

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.