Yogi Bhajan: relationship & distinction I

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

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

My basic response is twofold:

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

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

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

Let’s begin by looking at human action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal experience I

Do you think there is a problem when the way we talk about how we relate to God and how God relates to us doesn’t fit how most people relate to each other?”

One of our listeners at untanglingchristianity.com wrote the above in response to the lyrics of the song “Fierce,” by the group Jesus Culture: “like a hurricane, that I can’t escape, tearing through the atmosphere, your love is fierce”

The listener went on: “I can understand that God’s ways are much higher and he is greater than I could ever imagine, but if I can’t relate and apply his characteristics in the way these songs say, then are the lyrics just something to evoke an emotional response…?

I think that these questions are very helpful because they point to an area of Christian life and thought that I think is at best underdeveloped, if not simply ignored.

That area is “personal experience.”

Yet I would argue that the risks of inattention to personal experience are massive. So the consequences of underdeveloping our view of personal experience is inconsistency (in how Christians live, engage with the Bible, communicate their beliefs, etc.). Further, the consequences of ignoring our view of personal experience is incoherence: Christians risk presenting themselves as intellectually bankrupt (and thus representing Christianity as irrelevant to “real life”).

And these are consequences that Christians should not be prepared to accept.

The solution, I wager, is becoming more attentive to personal experience in the manner of a “participant observer.” In terms of observing, Christians can do this by adopting an approach that is both more rigorous and more generous: rigorous in terms of how we investigate the phenomenon of experience, more generous in terms of being willing to allow other, non-overtly Christian information sources to inform our understandings.

In terms of participating, Christians first need to focus on their own experiences (those in which they participate) and thereby to become more self-aware: applying rigor and other dialogue partners to ourselves (as understanding our identities via examining our personal and family history, through counselling, and by identifying what we consider as “fundamental truths” of existence).1

Let’s explore the inconsistency and incoherence mentioned above.

I find that most evangelical Christians are at least inconsistent in their approach to personal experience. For example, if during a church service evangelicals experience strong, positive emotions or feel “convicted” of some failing then they typically conclude that they are experiencing the Holy Spirit. In this case, experience is valuable.

Yet where a sceptic or atheist during the very same church service has the experience that people are:
a) manipulating the mood with particular music,
b) guilt-tripping the audience into overly negative self-perception with a one-sided view of human action and value, and
c) making claims about God’s actions that are not substantiated by the facts that they present,
then s/he is simply being mislead. In this case, experience is harmful.

The inconsistency arises from failing to interpret each situation individually and according to its full context (and instead uniformly applying overly-simplistic, pre-packaged understandings) and results in the risk of overlooking the facts: the Christian may well be wrong and the atheist may well be right!

An even worse state-of-affairs arises when evangelical Christians approach personal experience in a manner that is incoherent. By making grandiose claims about divine action (i.e., “This is a miracle”) or extreme claims about God’s nature (“God’s love is like a hurricane / tidal wave”)—claims that both lack substantiation and seem divorced from real world experiences—Christians paint themselves as senseless, and so portray their beliefs as irrelevant.

To avoid both inconsistency and incoherence Christians must develop the skills and stamina required to become competent observers and engaged participants. The upshot of such a combination, I would argue, is that we become more human and more humane.

More human in the sense of being more fully integrated, such that our various faculties and aspects are sufficiently developed and appropriately empowered to allow each one to inform us and to corroborate / critique the others. More humane in the sense of being more truthful and yet also more loving (of ourselves and our communities, but also of others: when we cultivate these skills we are more able to detect the falseness in our speech and practices and to detect the truthfulness in the speech and practices of others—even those who refute our beliefs).

So is needed in order for Christians better to understand personal experience and integrate it within their faith?

To begin, Christians must recognize that the very nature and claims of Christianity show that this is not an optional investigation or point of inquiry. Indeed, where biblical truth claims indicate that Christianity is related to / informs “all of life,” then explaining (and showing!) how this is so in a consistent, coherent way is crucial to allowing non-Christians to see the truth value in these truth claims.

In other words fulfilling the “great commission” depends, in part, upon this!

Looking ahead, then, I believe that a major step toward consistency and coherence will occur when Christians are able to understand everyday experiences better (through dialogue with psychology, biology, sociology, etc.) and then to be able to formulate the relationships with these—and distinctions from them—and uncommon experience: putative experiences of God.

Truth ‘versus’ imagination

Rights?  Really?

Recently I’ve become concerned—of all things—about my personal rights, and specifically my right to express “my view of the world as I most competently see it.”

Here’s the background:

In my community there are two people who are ostensibly one gender but are claiming to be the other. For example one person has a body that, from the waist down, bears the unmistakable characteristics of femaleness: wider hips, rounder buttocks, more feminine thighs and calves and a softening of the shape of the knee. Yet this person is claiming to be a man. There is a similar situation with a person having a body bearing the unmistakable characteristics of maleness and yet claiming to be female.

In addition to writing blog posts to explain my views I’m planning on connecting with each of the trans-gender people in my community.

Why?

Above all, to be upfront and honest that, after some time trying to contort myself around their wishes, I am simply no longer willing to allow their preferences and /or imagination (that either of them are the gender that is opposite to the one discernible by their outward appearances) to overrule and subjugate my view of the world as I most competently see it (that is, both honestly and compassionately).

But why?  How does this impact you? This is their choice, isn’t it?

Yes and no, I think. For instance, when I am referring to either of these people in conversation and it comes to using third person singular personal pronouns I refuse to use the pronoun “he” to refer to a person who bears the unmistakable characteristics of femaleness (i.e., according to at least visual traits, though perhaps also according to personality / patterns of action or engagement) and similarly to use the pronoun “she” to refer to a person who likewise bears the unmistakable characteristics of maleness.

The “pain point” here, as I experience it, is this:

I have dedicated much of my life to developing and maintaining both my understanding of reality and my attachment to it, and my sense of the relationship and distinction between “the real” and “the possible.”

In other words, I have taken pains to develop my attachment to truth and cultivate the modes of being-in-the-world most conducive to recognizing, interpreting, and appropriating truth, wherever / whenever / however I find it. Not only this, but I have taken similar pains and attention to connect myself with love, in terms of being loved / receiving love and loving / giving love and in terms of cultivating the openness to do so reciprocally: to love myself and accept self-love.

In the face of this long pursuit and cultivation of love and truth, truth and love, I am unwilling to allow my rights to be connected with reality (in pursuit of truth and oriented toward love) to be subordinated to / denied by someone who tells me that I must call black “white,” sweet “sour,” or male “female.”

Here’s how I see it:

I view these types of gender identity claims as—at best—the claims of an imaginative understanding of the individual taken to extreme excess, whereby the imagination (in the service of an individual’s preferences and feelings relative to his/her gender identification) effectively trumps my individual rights to see the world as I most competently see it. This amounts to the rights of another (to the expression of his or her imagination) being treated as superior to / championed above my rights.

And specifically, two key rights in specific:

First, my right to truth as i) the due prerogative to engage with reality as I best understand it, ii) the logical necessity of seeing the world from my own perspective and iii) the unalienable privilege of honestly expressing such.

The preceding does not foreclose on the need a) both to relate and distinguish reality and possibility well, b) to engage my personal perspective with the perspectives of others empathetically, in a subjectively objective manner, and c) to remain open to dialogue with others and ensure that my views remain situated within a tension between confidence and humility.

Second, to my right to love as i) the due prerogative to maintain a “diacritical” hermeneutic that places my own value in tension with that of others, such that both must be upheld and neither, of necessity, can be abased, ii) the logical necessity that I can only offer to others what I am capable and willing to offer to myself, and iii) the unalienable privilege of compassionately engaging with the world.

Similarly, the preceding does not foreclose on the need a) to be open to the critique that I may be unbalanced in my treatment / failing to respond differently to different circumstances, b) to cultivate the skills necessary to read myself: to develop sufficient self-awareness / self-understanding, and c) to locate love and truth, truth and love within a flexible and variable tension such that each can corroborate and / or critique the other.

Yet more is involved than just “rights.”

A certain “lore,” or discourse, has developed concerning matters of gender identity, which I find to be both authoritarian and metanarratival.1   In this regard I both maintain vital suspicions about the motivations behind the authoritarian nature of gender identity discourse in our society and I utterly reject the metanarratival nature of this discourse, which does not simply deny / undermine my position but invalidates my person as an eligible participant in this discourse.

Stated differently, gender discourse in current Western society has become authoritarian in that it “shoots first” (by being unilaterally ‘pro’ about the disjunction between gender identification and biological sexuality) and metanarratival in that, by making its story the story and denying that dissenters are even sufficiently human to merit engagement, it “fails to ask the questioner” because it “shoots to kill” (and then essentially “buries” the questioner in an unmarked grave).

Here’s how it works:

Authoritarianism manifest itself when those who question the status quo of gender discourse are immediately seen as “objectors” (and labelled as “enemies”). Metanarrativity manifests itself when those who “object” are not simply “wrong” people (as those possessed of wrong thinking, wrong morals, and wrong virtues / vices) but are actually non-people: they are literally seen as invalid people (because they are unenlightened, unethical, and uncaring) and so the “proper” response is not to berate them but to ignore them.

Thus dissenters are not simply erroneous but irrelevant.

This, of course, is the function of a metanarrative: to explain reality according to a story that acts to substantiate the position and power of the teller while systematically eliminating not only the perspectives but the very status, as persons, of those who challenge or call the story into question.

Perhaps distinguishing between sexual orientation and sexual identity is helpful:

For someone to makes claims of attraction to those not of one’s gender or of one’s gender is a claim internal to that individual and so adjudicating its factuality rests with the claimant. Such a claim is effectively beyond reasonable dispute, even if the claim may invite or prompt other forms of engagement.2

For someone to make claims to be something that—based on all the normal criteria used to adjudicate such matters—one is not (one who is ostensibly male claiming to be a woman, a cat, or a dragon) is at least an over-extension of imagination, if not a ­category mistake: the claim that personal preferences / senses of identity should not only be included among the criteria used to identify gender but that they should supersede all others.

This is both untrue (to my experience of living in the world) and unloving (of myself, as a being entitled to pursue truth as that which is an essential component of human flourishing). As such I will not be a party to it.

“Surrendering” as Perpetuating the Problem

Several years ago I wrote a post entitled “Stress, pain and surrendering all to God” where I argued that stewardship—not surrender—offers the best model for Christians when facing difficulties.

This post also addresses “surrendering” but from a different angle.

Specifically, I want to address what I will call “surrendering as perpetuating the problem,” such as where I fail to understand that I am the source of my own problems. In such cases “surrendering” these problems to God means relinquishing the associated anxiety, doubt and pain—the very emotions that should compel me to toward self-investigation. Surrendering thus obfuscates the issue and so, because I cannot take responsibility / ownership of something I “give over” to someone else, surrendering this type of problem actually perpetuates it.

Here’s an example:

Suppose that, as a Christian, I frequently find myself stressed and anxious relative to my ministry commitments. I hold down a job and have a family, yet my love for God motivates me to help other Christians know God better and introduce non-Christians to Jesus. How to balance all this?

It’s easy to imagine that I often ask God to “help me be less anxious about my ministry by helping me know what to say (and how best to respond to people) in order to be loving and yet effective.” I might also ask for “help to know how to balance the needs of job and work at the times when my ministry obviously is the priority.”

Given my packed schedule my unreliable car is a big problem.

So I ask for prayer a lot for my car, because without it I would have to drop some key ministries. Yet my car problems continue and my mechanic seems sketchy, but I’m too stressed (and I don’t have time) to find another mechanic. So maybe I conclude that God is teaching me that “people will treat my poorly for Christ’s sake” and so I just need to trust God all the more.

And then I try to “surrender” my stress and anxiety to God.

Yet in reality, the issue is that I’m actually a workaholic who packs his schedule so full of activities for God because I’m trying to win God’s approval. This is because I was starved of approval by my parents, broken people who were openly disapproving of everything that I did.

My car causes me stress because I don’t take the time a normal person would take to find a new car, a new mechanic, or both. And to losing her confidence when I prioritize my ministries to my family and my work, my wife who “is a constant support in my ministry” is actually so desperately lonely and overloaded without me that I’m in jeopardy of losing my marriage, if only I could see it.

The point is this:

Rather than focusing on doing “this” or “that” better—such as dealing with a problematic car or an untrustworthy mechanic—it is more a matter of knowing myself more truly: developing the self-awareness needed to identify and deal with the actual source of the problems. Especially if that source is me!

Thus my need is not to surrender my anxiety but to understand it, and so to determine if it is actually a symptom of (and thus a pointer toward) the real problem: my perfectionism, or low sense of self worth, or workaholism, etc.

Next, I need to recognize that what I took to be faith issues are actually psychological issues, and so seek to address them through psychological means rather than misinterpreting them as failing rightly to live the Christian life (with the related risk of improperly addressing my anxiety by eliminating it, because I have erroneously applied a theological solution to a psychological issue).

In such cases it is not “surrender to God” but engagement with relevant professionals (psychologists, counsellors, etc.) that will resolve the issue.

Does this involve my effort by way of openness, commitment, and honest reflection? Certainly. Does this involve God’s effort by way of (amongst other things) facilitating the process, empowering my choice-making in the face of fear, offering possibilities for changed behaviour and application of new self-understandings, etc.?

Surely it does.

Yet in such cases “surrendering all” of my anxiety, doubt and fear to God simply occludes (and so ultimately exacerbates) the very problem to which symptoms such as anxiety, doubt and fear are meant to alert me!

So in addition to my previous post arguing for stewardship in preference to surrendering, the logical conclusion here is that situations that prompt negative emotions (such as anxiety, doubt, and fear) are actually a call to increased self-awareness. Taking this post and the previous post into consideration, I argue that Christians refigure surrender as “stewardship of oneself as openness toward God for the possibility of better (self-)understanding, through a variety of information sources.”1

Such sources would include—in a variety of orders, depending on the situation and its context—science, experience, the Bible, Christian scholarship, rationality, one’s community, imagination, human senses, historical data, vision, etc.

Obedience as love?

In a podcast episode and follow-up I made comments about the difference between loving God and obeying or being grateful to God, and a podcast listener posted the following reply:

How can you divorce obedience from love of God? Jesus Himself said that “if you love Me you will keep My commands,” and John covers that topic as well in his first letter. The motive and heart behind the obedience influence whether it is an act of love or just a response to truth or fear. I obey the speed limit because I fear getting a speeding ticket, but I do what my husband asks as an act of love.
Similarly, gratitude is often, if not always, a response of love. When my daughters express true gratitude for something I have done for them, they are loving me and I am experiencing that love. Both obedience and gratitude are facets of love, but neither completely encompasses love.”

I’m glad for this comment and it’s particularly helpful when folks express their viewpoints with enough substance for me to formulate a reply. Due to the importance of the question and the length of my response a blog post seemed the best format for a reply.

Let’s start with obedience.

I see the matter rather differently. The issue is not about “divorcing” love and obedience but about properly distinguishing and relating them. For instance, in my view many evangelicals have nearly completely related them, to the extent that some make such silly claims as “obedience is God’s love language.”

Of course not!

If we take the gospel writers seriously (and believe that they got the “greatest commandment” right) then a Christian’s primary focus is to love God entirely. Not first to obey or be grateful, but primarily to love. Love is God’s love language!

As I see it, obedience is actually a response to truth and an expression of self-love, not love of others.

So obedience is dependent upon truth, such that obedience is only a virtue (and not a vice such as sloth or credulity—believing / acting upon whatever I am told with taking responsibility for assessing its truthfulness) when obeying a particular request or edict is the right thing to do. In other words, obedience is only merited where that which is requested or demanded is just and based on a truthful understanding and construal of the matters at hand. In such cases obeying is “doing the right thing.”

Yet obedience is ultimately a choice I make for myself. In other words, once I have realized the truth of a certain claim then acceding to that demand or request is much more a matter of whether I choose to “do right” by own self versus doing right by others. Once we understand this then we have the full picture on what it means to obey: loving ourselves by willingly engaging / disengaging in certain activities, orientations, etc. So conceptualized obedience can now become “doing the right thing for the right reason.”

To further debunk the notion that obedience is based in loving others, depending on circumstances I could just as well disobey someone I love as obey them!

So if my father tells me to abandon my engagement with my fiancée because he does not think well of her (or later, to divorce my wife because we are having difficulties), I will both love my father and disobey my father’s wishes unless I believe that there are solid, truthful grounds for acting in accord with them.

Indeed, I have taught my own children first to consider my requests rather than simply obeying them (such as when I allot tasks for cleaning the home). So when I ask one daughter to do something that she thinks offers her an unequal share of the work, or something that falls to my first daughter under another agreement, I am pleased that they do not simply obey me but instead engage with me so as to seek what is most fair (i.e., most truthful).

Now interactions such God can be quite different yet similar.

First, where God is both the source of love and truth we can be assured that God’s requirements of us are true and right. Yet then the issue becomes assuring ourselves that we have properly interpreted these requirements or commands! Second, Christians are not to love God by way of obeying nor even to obey in response to love, but rather all of our interactions with God are to be based on / infused with one primary orientation: loving God entirely! Third, however, obeying God is indeed a manner of self-love.  I will return to this third point in another post.

Let’s look at the first and second points.

So first there is the question of what we are to obey. In other words, how should Christians go about understanding the biblical text such that they have a better understanding of what God seeks of them? My answer involves, minimally, two things: obtaining interpretive skills and cultivating vision born of experience / practical wisdom. I will expand on these in future posts.

Second, there is also the question of how we obey. So where the commentor wrote about the “motive and heart behind obedience.” What does this mean? As I have argued above, if this means—as I think that it does for many Christians—that “I obey because I love” then this is a very questionable orientation. With regard to human beings this would flat out wrong.  With regard to God this would at best amount to “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.” In other words, I would argue that love actually countermands simple obedience!

For example, obeying God as loving God risks not only i) failing to understand God’s requirements, and so acting wrongly (as above, through mis- / lack of interpretation) but ii) failing to understand the relationship between belief and life, and so misconstruing how and why Christians believe at all (by circumventing the crucial step of evaluating biblical truth claims and adjudicating their truth values).

In other words, the Gospels advocate human beings coming to belief in the Christian God not because they are commanded to believe but because they find the biblical truth claims about God, humanity, and the recommended relationship between the two to be sound and trustworthy. In other words, people believe these biblical truth claims because they find them to have sufficient truth value, value that can be discerned and adjudicated through our understanding, senses, imagination, and our personal experiences (and via testimony, the experiences of others).

So Christians should not “obey because they love / obey as loving” but instead should:

a) obey as being convinced of the biblical truth claims;
b) obey as becoming good interpreters of who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two should best relate;
c) obey as cultivating a proper vision of what God is seeking to do in and through this right relationship with human beings.

And all of this—all of it—should be done as a result and expression of a Christian’s primary orientation: to love God entirely and seek that this love should proliferate through all areas of one’s life and infuse all aspects of one’s personhood (reason, will, imagination, etc.).

More to come.

Loving Jesus means “hating family?”

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

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

Let’s begin with Chapter 13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daycare or university? II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure, this is just one example.

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

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

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

 

Daycare or University… ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see two problems stemming from this reductionism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allow me to sum this up:

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

Syria and Paris: symptoms rather than problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

They wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Love and truth (and Syria)

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

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

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

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

And if this occurs for Christians, why not Muslims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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