Ravi Zacharias I

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

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

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

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

My response to this dilemma:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A key example is postmodernism.5

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

And this leads to my second concern.

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

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

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

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

So, how would one go about describing Christianity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projects, faculties, and personal narrative

What is the relationship between our faculties and our projects?

In my view they are reciprocal.  So my faculties, skill sets, and / or virtues contribute to my “success”—or not—in a given project, while undertaking certain projects allows me to enhance those faculties, skill sets, and / or virtues required for the success such projects (and not others faculties, virtues, etc.).

Yet can there also be conflict between my projects and my faculties?

I think so. Here’s an example:

Suppose that you meet someone special, and this is the most important relationship in your life to date. You come to know and love this person, and decide to marry him/her. We could call this a “project”: something in which one is involved and wishes to carry out to a good end. Other projects revolve around / feed into this project (such as finishing college or university, moving into a larger apartment, and developing relationships with this person’s friends and family), and this project itself feeds into larger projects (such as having a good marriage and, ultimately, “living a happy life”).

Now suppose that you find out some uncomfortable information about this person: a story about this person’s past relationship, with another person. Let’s play this out in several different ways.

First, let’s say that the story that you heard was rather vague and comes from a source that doesn’t seem overly credible. How do you respond? In other words, how do you use your faculties (your senses reason, memory, experience, imagination, etc.) to assess matters related to a given project?

Second, what if you begin hearing stories like this—concerning this person’s past—more frequently? And what if the information sources appear more credible? Third, what if you then begin to hear things about this person’s present activities: relationships with other people, now?

In other words, we choose to integrate new information—or not—based on a number of factors.

On the one hand, we often like to think that these factors relate solely (or mainly) to the relevance of the information and the credibility of the sources. Doubtless such considerations often play a big role. However, our decision to integrate new information is also related to the degree to which it is important to my identity that this project should succeed.

Further gut instinct and commitment impact how, when, or whether we integrate new information. If this were not so, then parents would be foolish to believe their young child is innocent based simply on the child’s say-so, and Christians would simply be deluded when they continue to believe in God despite contradictory information.

This is where “conflict” between our faculties and our projects, as I mentioned previously, can arise.

Now obviously much but depends upon the particulars of the matter. So perhaps this ends by me finding my fiancée to be profoundly deceitful: not being who I thought she was, I will not marry her; not being the judge of character I thought I was, I am less certain about future life choices.

On the other hand, however, there is an important connection between one’s projects and faculties and one’s story, or “narrative.” This is because, in my view, human identity is narrative identity. So in terms of my projects, I not only act in order to carry them out successfully, I also constantly try to attain the “narrator’s position” (both in terms of individual projects and in terms of my life in general).

Now none of us is capable of “writing” our own stories—life is always bigger than we are.

Yet we all attempt to tell our stories in a way that both makes sense of them (to ourselves and others) and that shows how and why the obstacles that we faced were overcome, integrated into the project such that we nevertheless completed it successfully, or we chose to change / abandon the project for the sake of a greater goal—a particular, overarching “good.”

Thus sometimes I narrate my story—and its projects—against the events. This is so because I perceive (and so narrate) events according to certain “vision” of the world, a vision that flows from and makes possible my desire to achieve a particular “good” (which is part and parcel of seeking to become a particular self). So this vision of the world, which aims at this “good,” directs how one narrates one’s larger story.

In other words, the narrator—not the events—recounts the story, such that narrating is structuring and including events so as to further the plot of one’s own story. So while the unexpected arises, sometimes I “emplot” events so as to resist major changes to my story, perhaps delaying incorporation of more dissonant themes or accommodating my story to less dissonant ones.

So what is the practical impact of all this?

In my case, the vision by which I seek to orients my story is love and the “good” to which I aspire (and seek after) is truth / truthfulness.  Hence one of my guiding assumptions / understandings is that love and truth, truth and love are co-central to human existence and divine character.

Much, much more could be said here, particularly about one’s narrative not simply as a story but as a “work of art.” Yet hopefully this sheds some light on our projects and faculties being “in conflict,” why / when this conflict is negative, and why / when this conflict may be positive (with this caveat: my wager is that whether such conflict can be positive depends upon what vision one embraces and to what “good” one is committed).

What is the nature of Christianity, and how would you describe it?

I would like to approach the question of the nature of Christianity (and how we best describe it) in two steps.

Step one: before offering my answer, I’d like to explain why I think that whatever answer we give to this question is important. Specifically, I believe that the answer indicates not only how we present Christianity to others, but how we think about God and about ourselves. And I would argue how we think about God and ourselves have ramifications for the full scope of human existence.

And so? My guess is that many people see Christianity as a belief system, and describe it as a series of propositions that people accept, and which have a governing influence on what they understand and how they live. Others might see it more generally as a worldview, and describe it as a particular orientation from which to understand (and live out) key notions about existence. Not the nature or description I would offer, but fair enough.

Yet in terms of the importance of the answer that one gives to this question, I want to frame this by considering two ideas. First, what is the effect of describing something? Second, what is the function of such a description?

At its most basic, describing the nature of a thing means focusing on its characteristics, their workings and interrelations and, by consequence, excluding all other characteristics, etc. Thus we narrow our sights in order to view the matter at hand more accurately. Next, the function of such a description is to orient us—to keep us “on track” in terms of how we engage or interact with that subject or entity, and to differentiate this subject or entity from others.

So descriptions have the effect of both freeing us and constraining us, and they function to maintain a sort of equilibrium—to regulate engagement and maintain distinctions. Straightforward enough.

Yet the point that I want to underscore is that describing the nature of something like Christianity is much more than just engaging our faculties: using our analysis, our creativity, and referencing past experiences. Instead, it actually has social implications, because how we describe something like Christianity may actually impact who we can (and cannot) be friends with!

This means that how we describe something can both open up new relationships and, perhaps more importantly, threaten existing relationships. For example, what affect would it have on your Christian friends if you endorsed a rather different description of Christianity than they do? How might they react (and what implications could you have for your relationships with them)?

My hunch is that many Christians would answer such questions negatively. Perhaps very negatively. More so, my hunch is also that for most of us the assumption that we would receive negative responses (or even be ostracized) is not something about which we are completely conscious. Yet I believe that the pre-conscious fear of negative responses can actually change how we describe something, without us even knowing it!1

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that if we fear, at whatever level, that our Christian peers will respond to us negatively then this “may” effect how we see and describe Christianity. I am arguing that it will effect it. The only questions are how, and how much.

Now I think that it’s worth offering an explanation of these potentially negative responses. I explain them in terms of the type of relationship that one has with truth (and the type of orientation one has toward truth-seeking), but also toward such things as the value of imagination, speculative thinking, discussion (versus debate), etc.

So returning to my earlier comment, above, not only does describing the nature of Christianity have social implications, but I believe that to varying degrees it is actually socially driven—our descriptions are socially motivated—depending on the nature of one’s existing relationships and how such things as truth, imagination, etc. are valued (or not) in a given community.

Being aware not only of the implications but also of our motivations, my next post will turn to Step two: the question of the nature of Christianity and how one might best describe it.

Should faith be “blind” / we act by “faith alone”?

A recent discussion raised the idea of following God blindly / in ways that we don’t understand. I’m taking this opportunity to examine that notion and offer some of my thoughts about it.

I think it’s true that God engages people / we find ourselves in contexts with God in ways that are uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because we lack the information to assess a task, situation, or relationship as we would normally do. In other words, we can’t take the steps toward understanding something—what is involved, by whom, when, for what purpose, etc.—in order to determine if and how we will act: whether we “buy in” or not.

Now I believe that the above represents not only a normal process but a healthy and even essential one. True, we assess information to understand—and then act—all the time in daily life (and so it typically goes unnoticed), but also in ways that are essential to our well being and even survival. So in my view, assessment toward understanding, in preparation for action, is a fundamentally human way of engaging with the world. I recognize that we could nuance this a lot, but let’s leave that for later.

So what is God doing by (seemingly) circumventing this?

Well, in my view God is seeking to engage us within God’s greatest project: bringing about God’s kingdom. Further, I believe that God engages us toward this end in a manner that seeks to create trust in our relationship of committed attachment with God (there are preceding steps here, such as cultivating belief and developing understanding, but let’s focus on this step). Yet in my experience, and according to my Bible reading, I don’t think that God seeks to create this trust in a manner that is divorced from / contrary to how we engage with engage—or not—with issues in other areas of our lives.

In other words, I see symmetry between how we relate to the created, natural order and how we relate to God as the creator. So there are times and situations when certain human competencies / virtues will take the fore (relying more on my senses and reason) and other times / situations when other human competencies / virtues will predominate (relying more on my creativity and imagination). And this symmetry is in fact necessary, particularly for developing our trust in God, to the furtherance of our relationship of committed attachment to God. This is a topic in itself, and again I’ll have to leave it for later.

My main point is that I do not believe that God ever calls us (or indeed, ever called anyone in the biblical texts) to act “blindly,” to act on faith alone or even to come to Christianity through faith alone. Nor is this a matter of simply knowing God—being reliant on what I understand of God’s character and nothing more.

Let’s take a few examples. What about Abram (Abraham), Matthew, or Peter?

So what was Abram’s understanding, when he answered God’s request to go to Canaan? It seems that he understood something of who God was, the general destination, and that the request held a certain importance. Yet Genesis 11 also indicates that Abram had, once before, set out for Canaan (with his Father, Terah) but had stopped short. So it seems he also understood something of Canaan itself, that influenced him to go there. Thus I see Abram’s action both as guided (or semi-informed) purpose combined with faith.

What about Matthew’s understanding? Well, by the time that Jesus tells Matthew to “Follow me,” in chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, the stories and news about Jesus would have been widespread. His acts of healing and his willingness to associate with “sinners” would have become our equivalent of urban legends. Thus Matthew would have understood enough to know that Jesus represented a “second chance” for him. So to my mind he risked an act of faith based on what he understood generally (and so hoped for himself, personally).

But let’s take a harder case. What about Simon and Andrew? They meet Jesus only in chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel. Yet even here, if we follow the flow of the Matthew’s narrative, we see that the Judean people of that period had been prepared for Jesus, such that a degree of general understanding had been developed through John’s activity (chapter 3) and specific understanding by Jesus’s own, direct action (described in Mt 4:17).

Notice also that Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to something: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Mt 4:19) Now recall: Hebrew narrative is by nature terse, so details are never superfluous but purposeful and necessary for the reader’s understanding.1 We are not told why Jesus made this comment, nor why it would have been important for Simon and Andrew. Yet it clearly gave them a far greater sense of purpose, and likely they would have understood the tie between that purpose and Jesus’ own purpose.

So What would they have all likely understood?

At very least, that something was afoot—something was happening, and in each case this seems to have been tied to a prior desire (to go to Canaan), hope (to be given another chance), or sense of purpose (to change people’s lives).2

I am emphasizing the role of human “understanding” in order to push back against the reformation principles of acting / engaging with God “by faith alone,” and that coming to belief in God amounts to “faith seeking understanding.” These are substantial notions that I cannot fully explain here. Yet I raise them not only because some may object to my perspective on these bases, but also because this thinking has had a strong, indirect influence on Christian thought in a number of ways.

Particularly, they have influenced a representation of faith as the most important element in relating to God, to the point that faith is “all we need” or that it can “go it alone.”  From my perspective this orientation is responsible, in good part, for the widespread loss of credibility that the church in the western world experiences, to the point that Christianity may be seen as “faith without understanding.”

The idea that faith is primary to human existence has often been supported by the claim that all human beings “start” from faith, as newborns. Yet biology clearly contradicts this.  Instead, it proves that humans start with what we might call “inchoate” (or tacit) knowledge.

Thus in my graduate research I explained how neonatal biology and neurology have approached consensus concerning the occurrence of what they call “prenatal olfactory learning.”3 So against viewing the earliest human disposition as “faith” or “trust,” newborns already ‘know’ (or perhaps, pre-understand) the mother’s scent and are attracted to it. This occurs as a result of the infant’s lived experience, by being (indirectly) in relationship with the mother through the infant’s environment (i.e., the uterus).4

To conclude, my concern is that when Christians promote the idea of “just having faith” or “blind faith” they are actually advocating something unnatural and unbiblical. And my experience is that this not only negatively impacts Christians (via a distorted picture of who God is and how God acts), but also acts as a negative apologetic for non-Christians, for whom this idea—like “faith without understanding”—amounts to intellectual suicide.5

Love & “working” definitions

What can we really say about love?

As I re-focus on my principal assumption—the co-centrality of truth and love / love and truth—I have been arguing for the importance of working definitions.  I don’t think that we can define love, not comprehensively. And certainly not to consensus.

Yet I also think that when it comes to love, even if comprehensive definitions were possible, they would be undesirable. My point, as in my post on biblical love, is that working definitions have the advantages of being less daunting (and so allowing us to get the discussion started) and less austere (and so keeping us from being unduly suspicious when others use words like “love” without comprehensively defining them).

Yet working definitions also avoid what may be the biggest pitfall when it comes to love: assuming completeness.

What I mean is that most of us, most of the time, presume that love is something that we will engage in entirely. So even though we live with constant reminders of our limited and finite nature (we all get tired and need sleep, and get hungry and need food) we so often assume that we can love someone—and be loved by them—completely, with our whole selves and our whole lives.

And in certain ways and at particular moments, we can (and do).

My hunch is that this happens because the human posture in love—giving and receiving it—is, more than any other, as close as we may come to being “complete.” So we are able to focus on the other nearly exclusively, prioritizing him / her to ourselves, such that their pleasure is our pleasure and their gains are our gains.

Yet even taken at its most positive (and setting aside concerns that we sometimes we engage in love harmfully, with too little self-love) this is not what we naturally are. Permanence and comprehensiveness are foreign to human existence, which is much more about change, transition, and development in the course of sameness.1  But when we speak of change, transition, and development in relation to love we typically mean that love is “breaking,” or fading, or simply no longer being love.

In contrast to this temptation toward completeness, working definitions allow us to engage in this discussion (and orient us toward love as a state-of-being) in the right way. By that I mean a way that is limited yet committed. So in the first way, a working definition reflects the inherent commitment that humans already have toward love. In other words, no one approaches love neutrally but, regardless of definition, we all seek it (even if only despite ourselves).

Yet in the second way, a working definition also reflects the scope and capacity with which humans must approach (and engage in) love: being finite, and so limited. As such we are unable to maintain the intensity of our desire or remain in the the place of wonder that love engenders.

Likewise, working definitions reflect this committed stance by requiring something of us, just as love does. In other words, they require that we state what we want or desire. And when we do so, we not only demonstrate what we know or how we think but show “who we are.” Similarly, working definitions mirror our limited capacity by requiring us constantly to be aware of our limitations—by engaging us as both those who “know something” and yet also as those who are still learning; as those who are capable and yet who are unable to sustain that very capacity.

Further again, working definitions are by nature both “in use” (as that which does the work) and “in transition” (as that which is incomplete or unsatisfactory). And here again these aspects well reflect both human nature and love’s character. 2

Thus the very process of committing oneself to creating or engaging with a working definition of love—the process of committing to a conversation about love, even as part of engaging in love—is making a commitment to a process of both acting and observing. It involves reflecting on one’s experiences and participating in one’s reflections. It involves considering one’s desires and one’s knowledge, as well as their sources (and so too, their reliability).

In this way, by “creating or engaging with a working definition of love” I am no so much proposing that we embark on a task but, more accurately, embrace a lifestyle. It is a way of being that involves both investigation and participation; both rigor resulting in knowledge (and peace) and vision resulting in delight (and inspiration); both faithfulness and creativity.

One confirmation that “creating or engaging with a working definition of love” is indeed a lifestyle rather than simply a task is the connection that I mentioned previously: love’s definition is inextricably tied to personal story or narrative. Thus the process of engaging in a working definition of love is always ongoing, both because the definition is connected with personal narratives (mine and others) that continue through time, but also because human identity is essentially narrative identity: we know ourselves through the stories that we enact, narrate, and hear ourselves recounting (and hear recounted by others about us).3

I would highlight two important conclusions from the preceding.

First, Christians are necessarily to adopt this lifestyle of engaging in a working definition of love, because their primary “task” is to be in love relationship with God. Yet second, because the Christian God is complete in this regard (because this God is love) Christians are able to be at ease in engaging in this lifestyle, and so are able to rest in their own incompleteness. In this sense, “loving God” is a burden that is “light” and a yoke that is “easy.”

Why go to church?

A recent discussion centred on the question: “Why go to church?”

To begin, I think that we need to consider what sense of ‘why’ we’re meaning.  For instance, I believe that ‘why’ can be broken down into at least two categories: the ‘why’ of motivation’ and the ‘why’ of purpose (or goal). So I am motivated to eat because I’m hungry (or I have a particular hunger: Thai food!).  Yet my purpose in eating is to experience delightful tastes, be healthy and, ultimately, stay alive.

When people respond to the question “Why go to church?” using Bible verses I think that this mostly represents the ‘why’ of purpose. Now I think that this is valuable, but I think that we often omit the ‘why’ of motivation even though we all have certain motives for such actions, whether we are aware of them or not.

So keeping that distinction in mind we may say that going to church in to learn more about God and further one’s relationship with God represents motivation. On the other hand, in the sense that going to church is a means of loving God, making disciples, etc, this I see to represent purpose. Now what about the notion that are to go to church simply in order to be obedient, because the Bible indicates that we should? Take, for instance, Hebrews 10:24-25.

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, and encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

I have come to believe that God is real and is trustworthy, and so I value what is written in the Bible (stated differently, as a Christian I believe that the Bible is authoritative in the matters at which its texts aim). Yet I often find myself at odds with other Christians who would take these verses more or less as a “command” to attend church—about purpose rather than motivation (or both). To help clarify matters, what follows is my take on this part of Hebrews.

What I take from Hebrews 10:24-5 is that something about coming together is beneficial or, normatively, should be beneficial (more on this later). But the comment about gathering is completely embedded in a lengthy argument about Jesus having achieved completion of the priestly role. In essence, the author’s larger picture seems the fact that the ongoing performance of the Hebrew high priest’s duties is now obsolete, thanks to the superlative achievement of Jesus.

Reading from 8:1 (which is the beginning of this section of the letter) I am struck by the detailed argument wherein the author equates Jesus with the new and ultimate high priest, citing the OT’s most powerful description of the “new” covenant (Jer 31:31-4). The author goes on to highlight the high priest’s role relative to the physical structure of the temple, noting that Jesus effectively entered the Holy of Holies (to which only the high priest had access) with “his own blood,” such that the high priestly role is forever disbanded because it is complete!

The power (and meaning) that I see in this argument is that none of the letter’s recipients should fail to understand that the old ways of doing things are both fulfilled and surpassed in the life and death of Jesus. Note too: the awesome (and dreadful) privilege of the high priest was also that which separated this one man from all other people—no one else could be that close to God. No longer so! Indeed, all people now have the possibility to come directly before God with both confidence and gladness.

In the flow of this argument 8:25 represents a minor note, albeit an important one that cannot be overlooked.

My hunch (having not yet done enough research to be entirely satisfied on the point) is that here the author is pushing back against the sort of “ultimate freedom” that some Christians were wont to assume as the result of Jesus exceeding / fulfilling the law and covenant (the Corinthian church offers good examples). In other words, because we have this freedom we may dispense with the old ways and understandings, including gathering together. Not so, as the epistle’s author points out. But notice also how quick the author is to pass back to the main points of the argument, in 8:26, regarding sin.

Here and following the “sin” in which we are not to persist concerns profaning the very “blood of the covenant,” where profane means taking Jesus’ life and death unholy to be commonplace and have no particular religious significance. In other words, to be aware of this surpassingly wonderful “new” covenant and yet to disregard its impact / forgo it in favour of the old covenant amounts to a “sin” of disbelief: of refusing to accept what, for the letter’s readers, would have been the irrefutable argument that the new covenant has been achieved (and must be observed).

So what is the upshot of this? What do I think that Christians should do, as a result?

I think it means that freedom in Christ (and the ‘newness’ of the new covenant) does not change everything! In fact, Christians (just as the Hebrew recipients of this letter) should be delighted to gather together to worship because we can. In other words, there are now no limitations on the possibility of accessing God! Christians should thus understand that worship of God no longer takes place on the periphery or in the common places (as it would have been in the temple) but as being in the most intimate presence of God.

This indeed is worthy motivation for gathering together, just as prompting each other to love and good deeds (and indeed, understanding God better) is a worthy purpose!

Next though, I think that the larger question of how (and how much) church gathering actually moves us closer to our main goal—whether any particular gathering of Christians actually is beneficial—should always remain at issue. What is that main goal? To my mind, the biblical text is clear in spelling out one orientation that reigns over all others. Love God entirely. Then love yourself rightly, in order that you might love your fellows likewise.

As I understand it then, the Christian’s main goal is to be in a love relationship with God, based on truth, which then transforms how I view and understand myself (I love myself rightly) and thereby how I relate to all other people (I love them in the way and degree that I love myself). This, from my perspective, offers the best vantage point from which to discuss the matter of Christian gathering (and so to assess how—and even whether—participating in any particular Christian gathering meets this goal).

What is “biblical” love (and can we even talk about it)?

Truth and love / love and truth are co-central to Christianity and to human flourishing.

This is one of my fundamental assumptions and a focus of much of my research, here and elsewhere. Last post I examined the notion of “biblical” truth as relational truth. But what about love: is there such a thing as “biblical” love?

Before addressing this question I want to pause and note two concerns about discussing truth or, particularly, love.

First, some would argue that in order productively to discuss such notions we first need to define them comprehensively. The argument runs thus: truth and love are not only complex but also overused and misused notions, notions that most of us (most of the time) discuss without sufficient clarity. So without comprehensive definitions we end up talking around each other because we can’t be sure that we’re actually talking about the same thing.

Doubtless this can be a problem. But I don’t think that comprehensive definitions are the solution.

Instead, my view is that we need working definitions: definitions that are “good enough” to start the discussion, even if they are not sufficient to avoid confusion or to preclude outlying understandings (of truth or love) from improperly taking centre stage. I hold this view for two reasons.

On the one hand, I hold it because we are—all of us, and all the time—already living our lives so as to seek, evaluate, and exchange love and truth. We do not simply discuss or dispute them as notions, but make experiential claims about them (even if only about not experiencing them!). Now the problem here is that what one person calls love another may not, and while it may be less slippery the same may be said about truth. This amounts to an issue of interpretation: understanding what something is and, thereby, being able to interpret (or distinguish) instances of such a thing in various different forms and contexts.

I agree with the need to understand something in order to distinguish it from other things (or to identify better and worse examples of it).

Yet I also believe that conversations about such subjects can be productive with only provisional (or working) definitions. This is provided, however, that we acknowledge that our own positions and understandings are, almost always, also provisional. In other words, we need to acknowledge that most of us hold the belief (generally without ever stating it) that our intuitive or normative understandings about truth and love are, generally speaking, correct. So working with provisional definitions requires also accepting that our understandings may be less credible than we think they are.

On the other hand, discussing complex notions is likely to stall (or not start in the first place) if we are first obliged to define these notions comprehensively. So while honestly acknowledging their complexity is essential, in my experience communities that require comprehensive definitions ultimately adopt an unwarranted suspicion of anyone using these words. This tends to polarize responses: people either use these words without any care for definitions or they refuse to use them at all. In either cases the result is the same: no headway is made at better explaining them (and so better understanding ourselves, as a result).

Second, people typically engage with truth and love from one of two perspectives. Either we represent them experientially, through personal accounts, or we present them intellectually, through research and analysis. Both are necessary, yet starting with either one is problematic.

For example, starting with intellectual analysis is inaccurate: human beings experience—and so understand—love, as the need for attachment and the attempt to attach, upon exiting the womb. Yet starting with lived experience is impossible: we cannot coherently access our earliest experiences nor can we engage with later experiences except through language and conceptual understandings.

So what do we do: How can we possibly start?

Counter intuitively, I believe that we “start” on love by starting with personal narrative and self-identity.

In one sense, this is because love is dependent upon (relational) truth—we hold as the greatest requirement of love that it be true. Yet this truth involves not only understanding human nature and functioning but also investigating ourselves, by assessing our self-awareness and our competence at reading and interpreting our own experiences well.

In another sense, in order for truth to be properly human (i.e., that truth which is most essential to human flourishing) it must be relational, and the fullest aspiration of such truth is the existential process of engaging in attached commitment: love. Yet just as this attached commitment represents a larger and better sphere of habitation than any other—people long to be “in” love—so it also calls forth a fuller and richer description (of self, other, and their shared reality).

The result?

We understand love within the process of living, and do so by telling and being told the full stories—the personal narratives—wherein each has had the opportunity both for these experiences of relational truth to form us (demonstrating our character) and for us to “give form” to them through how we have interpreted them (demonstrating our self-awareness and skill at self-interpretation).

Thus we define love by weighing up and participating in the self-identities that arise from and give shape to their stories, and by submitting ourselves and our stories to this same process. And my wager is that we weigh up these stories according to three main criteria: coherence, artistry, and function. More on this shortly.

“Relational truth” explained

What is “relational” truth?

Several posts ago I argued that the Bible is mainly concerned with relational truth (as opposed to mathematical, physical, or logical truth). Today I want to expand on the notion of relational truth and connect it with the need for Christians to understand in order to believe, rather than “simply believing.”

Relational truth comprises both factual and relational knowledge of entities. On the one hand, it is information about someone as understood more objectively: knowledge of past deeds, situations, and other facts that can be itemized or listed. On the other hand, it is the intimate knowledge that one only gains through ongoing relationship with that individual. This type of information is always personal (though it need not be individual).

On this last point, relations knowledge is information derived from personal involvement and that reveals not just what someone did, who that person is. Yet this information could come via someone else, who has had close involvement with the person in question—someone who “testifies” about this person on the basis of their personal experiences.

So relational truth is comprised of factual and relational knowledge. Yet because the words used here are so similar I tend to use the French verbs, savoir and connaître, in place of “factual knowledge” and “relational knowledge.” Savoir refers to information about someone (date of birth, passport number, employment record, etc.) and connaître refers to knowing someone through relationship (understanding personality, character, preferences, etc.).

Savoir is knowing details about someone’s life; connaître is actually being a part of that life.

An important characteristic when evaluating savoir and connaître knowledge is what I will call “relational symmetry.” Relational symmetry exists where the the outward characteristics and markings (the factual, savoir knowledge about the individual) are mirrored by the inner qualities that one perceives through the connaître experience of relating with the individual—where the external and visible is consistent and consonant with the inner and private.

Examining the notion more deeply, relational truth must necessarily be attuned to the nature of the parties involved in the relationship: those to whom this truth pertains. In the case of Christianity, we are first dealing with relationship between humans and God. As a result, relational truth is also related to / comprised of anthropological truth (or human-related truth) and theological truth (or God-related truth).

Now one of the reasons that Christians are meant to understand in order to believe (rather than “simply believing”) is that the very nature of Christian faith, as a relationship between human beings and God, requires assessment that is both related to and distinct from how we might assess a human-to-human relationship. In other words, understanding the Bible’s truth claims (and validating them, by determining their truth value) is a process similar to everyday human activities and yet different.

A couple things bear mentioning here.

On the one hand, this tension between what is similar and what is different is normal and good. More specifically, human beings make use of this sort of tension all the time: we learn how to do new things on the basis of having done other, similar things in the past. And most times the dissimilarities are small or easily accommodated, so on most occasions humans integrate the differences without need to attend to them overly (or even without paying conscious attention to them).

On the other hand, when people “simply believe” Christian truth claims without validating them, this has a negative effect both on them and on those with whom they interact. For if I “simply believe” that Jesus is God then my belief has neither the complexity and internal structure to stand up to evil and despair, nor have I developed the intellectual and emotional acumen to engage well with those who experience such. Further, because I have not investigated it fully I will not have understood it properly, and so my presentation of it will typically be flimsy and uncompelling.

Thus Christians both short-change themselves and others by not engaging fully with the need fully to engage with the process of understanding themselves, God, and the relationship between the two, both through the biblical portrayals and through other, valid, information sources.

How we validate the Bible’s truth claims in terms of relational truth must await my next post. Instead I will finish by summarizing two key points.

First, relational truth in comprised of factual and relational knowledge (or what I have called savoir and connaître) and requires a good understanding of both parties within the relationship both (including anthropology, as the study of humanity, and theology as the study of God).

Second, a key component to relational truth is the alignment of savoir and connaître: relational symmetry. This is crucial to Christianity, both because the biblical text claims that God is good and is involved with humanity for their good / flourishing, and because human beings require consistency within relationships in order to maximize their ability to flourish.

When believing hinders belief

Last posted I highlighted the importance of truth-seeking and distinguished various types of truth, with the claim that the Bible focuses on relational truth. Yet before continuing the discussion I need to address what is likely the biggest obstacle to Christians succeeding at truth-seeking:

Belief.

Excuse me?

To most Christians this probably sounds like madness: how can belief be a problem? Isn’t belief at the heart of what it means to be a Christian? My answer is: Yes and No. For that depends on what belief is—what sense of belief we are meaning.

Let’s first examine the sense of “belief” that is indeed essential for Christians to cultivate. This is belief as a result. In other words, the end-product of my engagement with the Bible and Christianity should be my belief that:

a) humans are a certain sort of being, beings who need to embrace and cultivate their faculties (imagination, rationality, will, memory, emotional response), certain self-understandings (trust and suspicion, confidence and humility, subjective objectivity) and certain relational “goods” (love, truth, patience, forgiveness) in order to thrive,

b) the God of the Bible seeks just the sort of relationship with humans wherein our faculties are most engaged, our self-understandings are best cultivated and our relational goods are maximized,

c) this God began such relationship with human being on a small-scale, with a nation called Israel, with the intention of then expanding these relationships on a global scale, potentially to include all people,

d) God’s relationship with Israel was formalized into a covenant: an agreement of how God and Israel would regard and act toward the other (and of how Israel was to govern itself and interact with others). Yet the intention for global-scale relationship was stalled when the people of Israel wholesale reneged on the agreement,

e) this intention was realized when Jesus of Nazareth, who is both human and divine, acted as Israel and both lived the life required to fulfil Israel’s side of the covenant and died a death that bore Israel’s penalties for having reneged on the covenant,

f) the Bible is a sufficiently trustworthy source of information on this matter, as understood through humans engaging their natural faculties in partnership with God’s guidance (the Holy Spirit).

In other words, the Bible is making certain truth claims about human nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between them, and frames these claims primarily through a series of unique historical events. To be a Christian is to validate these claims and their source—to attest to the positive, truth value of these claims and to the trustworthiness of the Biblical text concerning key aspects of human nature, God’s nature, and their interrelation. 1

So in what way should Christians not cultivate “belief”?

To answer that let’s redefine belief in its positive sense. In this first sense, used above, believing means affirming certain matters as “being the case” or simply being “true.” Several clarifications about belief are important here.

On the one hand, we refer to believing rather than knowing Christianity for two reasons. First, because Christianity deals with unique entities and events rather than with manipulable objects or repeatable phenomenon. So because it cannot be demonstrated through repetition, it cannot be proven scientifically. Second, because humans are the sorts of beings that know in limited ways: our knowledge is dependent on many factors and we possess a limited, or subjective, form of objectivity. Thus we cannot know “beyond doubt.” As such, belief is not just the only method of accepting Christianity, it is the best method.

On the other hand, belief in this sense is a result. It is an orientation that comes about through having cultivated our faculties and developed certain crucial self-understandings, while aiming at key, relational goods. In summary, belief follows the development and application of certain competencies, rightly aimed.

So if belief is the result of certain actions, it is clearly not the means by which that same result is achieved! In other words, holding particular beliefs (about who / what human beings are, God is, and what the relationship between the two should be) is a matter of deeming certain things to be true. And we do this by understanding the claims, assessing their basis and implications, and so becoming convinced that they accurately and fittingly represent the matters to which they pertain.

As such, Christians should never “simply believe” something.

This confuses a claim to truth with its proof, or to confuse truth claims and truth value. Thus I do not believe someone is innocent simply because they claim it, but because the weight of the evidence, rightly interpreted, offers good reason to believe it.

Believing in this second, negative sense amounts to credulity: simply believing what I have been told (and doing so, likely, because I have been taught to do so). In my experience, many evangelical Christians have been raised this way. They have been taught not simply what to believe, but that “belief” is the vehicle by which they acquire their identity, rather than being what holds that identity together.

Let me be blunt: whatever it may be, this is not Christian.

Instead, my view is that truly Christian belief results from participatory understanding and observational engagement.

So such belief is the result of the engagement of my whole person with the twin tasks of understanding / pursuing full humanness and committing oneself to truth in all its manifestations. It is a process requiring rigour 2, attention, and commitment to one’s own life.

And it can result in peace and joy. Peace through the satisfaction of adopting a lifestyle where one is rightly oriented toward truth, a dedication to honesty with oneself. Joy through the increased possibilities of loving myself and other more rightly as I rightly relate to God, who knows be best and loves me most.