“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 as 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.

Why second opinions matter III

Every Christian needs a second opinion on their faith.

More to the point, my argument is that in order for their Christianity to be healthy and vibrant Christians need to cultivate the inclination to evaluate and re-evaluate the components of their faith (and potentially, their faith itself) from a variety of perspectives.

In other words, I am arguing that every Christian’s primary objective—just as every human being’s primary objective—is to be a truth seeker. As such, Christians are to make use of every available resource that is suitably adapted toward / fit for the purpose of truth-seeking. In this way we maximize our chances of not only of finding the most truth we can (and also the best, or most truthful truth), but we empower ourselves to become as practised and shrewd as possible when it comes to discerning truthfulness generally.

But why mention this? Surely Christians seek truth all the time!

On one level, yes: Christians do claim to be truth-seekers. Yet as I have demonstrated in nearly a dozen blog posts, the ways in which Christians interact with each other and outsiders when it concerns this truth (and indeed, the very nature and content of this truth—how they construe this truth) can be deeply problematic.

So let’s refocus: perhaps we need a more exact notion of “truth.” For instance, I certainly validate (and value) the necessity of mathematical truths such as 2+2=4, physical truths such as the weight-bearing capacity of a tree branch, and abstract / logical truths such as A and -A forming a totality. But let’s keep in mind the context of our discussion, for these are not primarily the “sorts” of truth that the biblical text is aiming at.

Instead, the Bible is primarily offering truths about who God is (divine nature), who human beings are (human nature), and the relationship between the two. For just as human beings are essentially relational in nature, so is the God of the Bible. Further, while relational beings need a variety of truths to survive, they cannot thrive without relational truth: truth that puts us in right relationship with the beings that matter most to us.

In terms of rightly relating with ourselves and others, being a truth-seeker then means being informed by and oriented toward love, as that which is both the greatest outworking of truth and its key source.

Quite literally then, in my view broad swathes of evangelical Christianity has got “off course” when it comes to loving their neighbours (as my examples with boundary-focused churches). But more so, this has happened because they got off course when it comes to loving themselves. And as both of these stem from / are informed by the Christian’s love relationship with God, I wager that that relationship too is similarly “off course.”

These disjointed / disconnected relationships manifests in the very phenomenon that my recent posts have described. So Christians adopt a generally defensive posture because the Bible “prepares them” to assume it, and so orient themselves more negatively to non-Christians as a result. Thus they find themselves wary of non-Christians and ready to dispute (or perhaps simply disengage) and would even claim to be patterning themselves on Jesus’ example when doing so.

As I have argued, we are not Jesus (and cannot know as he knew or see as he saw), nor does the Holy Spirit make us like Jesus in these ways. Moreover, many Christians have adopted a degree of confidence regarding their beliefs that preclude them from accepting critical feedback from non-Christians (and indeed, sometimes other Christians)! But where such mismatched expectations / over-confidence leads Christians more to dispute (or disengage) than to dialogue, they cannot possibly learn from outsiders.

The result is a strange mix of fear and superiority, insularity and arrogance, which both anticipates and requires opposition. And such orientations (and the negative approaches that foster them and that they perpetuate, such as being boundary-focused) drive a wedge between non-Christians and the validity of the biblical message: they are more an obstacle to healthy and vibrant Christianity than an invitation.

In other words, we disfigure Christianity and then present it to others as a thing of beauty.

Can we blame non-Christians if they are not fooled? 1

My response is that Christian formation—how Christians are taught to live the Christian life—needs to change in order for truth-seeking to be properly aligned to loving God entirely, loving ourselves rightly, and loving others likewise. Yet because Christian practice is rooted in certain understandings—certain theories about God, humanity, and the relationship between the two—these understandings also will need to change in order for the changes I have proposed to be possible.

My next series of posts take up the challenge of living Christianity (and indeed, living as a human being) rightly, in light of the obstacles discussed above and previously.

Second opinions on Christianity II

Do Christians need “second opinions” about their faith?

Last post I raised this question and concluded it by connecting physical / mental healthcare and spiritual healthcare. I noted three parallels. First faith, like health, is ultimately my personal responsibility to maintain and develop. Second faith, like health, is complicated and so requires expertise to understand and interpret. Third faith, like health, is impacted by the environment.

This post I want to reframe the above question to: When do Christians need a “second opinion” about their faith, and then consider How would Christians go about getting one?

To answer these questions I want to assess two preliminary concerns: a) What is a second opinion? and b) How would I know that I need one? On the one hand this seems easy: a second opinion is another viewpoint. But clearly we want more than that. We want not only a different but an insightful viewpoint, and ideally one offered by an expert who attentively engages with the matter at hand.

Yet on the other hand, the very notion of “expertise” when it comes to Christian belief and practice is complicated. How is such expertise determined? Asked differently, what legitimates someone as an “expert” in this area? Is my pastor or minister an expert, or a professor at seminary or maybe a devout, long-term Christian? Are there perhaps degrees or areas of expertise? If so, what are they and how are they acquired? More worryingly, how do I adjudicate when experts disagree?

Let me refocus this using my three earlier points about faith: faith is ultimately my personal responsibility, it is complicated, and it is effected by my environment.

So hopefully I have shown that not only faith but the very notion of expertise is complicated. This means that assessing one’s faith more objectively (i.e., with the help of outside, expert opinions) is as inherently difficult process. As such, beyond any accusation of Christians being insular or close-minded, it is understandable when Christians abdicate some of their personal responsibility for their faith and allow their churches or Christian subcultures (e.g., their environment) to play an overly larger role in informing them.

Yet where churches and Christian subcultures then not only explain what Christianity is but what individual Christians should believe, how they should act and, more generally, how they should think (or even what they should think about), my wager is that most Christians abdicate too much of their personal responsibility and so become our over-reliant on their Christian community. The result is that such Christians will then have built-in opposition to the very process of “seeking a second opinion.” In other words, many Christians are not neutrally but negatively disposed to the notion.

This is very important to recognize from the outset, not least because it has enormous implications for my second concern: b) How would I know if I need a second opinion? The simple answer: most Christians would not know. Through being habituated to relying too heavily on Christian community for their understanding and formation Christians have essentially been trained not to seek second opinions by our most basic orientation / attachment to our communities.

Sound bad? Well, I think it actually gets worse before it gets better.

In other words, where they have abdicated too much personal responsibility and become over-reliant on Christian community, many Christians have developed habits that run counter to seeking the help that they need to fortify and / or rejuvenate their faith. Yet compounding this is the fact that such second opinions are not simply about gathering information but also about embodying formation. And this is key.

In other words the process of seeking, obtaining, and evaluating a second opinion is developing one’s own expertise on such matters by becoming more adept at living the Christian life. This is reflected in that the resources that I value most for second opinions are those that “walk me through” their thinking and the processes by which they adjudicate the matters that I bring to them—they not only inform me but train me.

So given this rather dire picture, how do we answer our preliminary questions:
1) When do Christians need a “second opinion” about their faith?
2) How would they go about getting one?

Let me propose two ways.

First, Christians need second opinions all the time, because “second opinions” are indications that we live in a complex reality but also assurances that truth itself is diverse! On many, many subjects Christians simply are not bound to one single answer but need to become conversant with many truly viable responses in order to distinguish the good from the bad and from there to adjudicate, choose, and embody the best among the good.

Second, if there is even a little accuracy to the picture that I have painted, above, then the process of getting a second opinion is not separable from the rest of our faith but is itself an integral (though missing) part of that very faith. As such, our understanding of Christian being and living must itself be expanded. Put differently, Christians do not so much need to learn how to get second opinions on their faith as to adopt a faith within which this notion is an everyday component.

Does your faith need a second opinion?

The idea that Christians may (and indeed, often will) need a second opinion on their faith is a tricky one.

First, Christians are taught to trust other Christians and particularly Christian leaders and authority figures (such as ministers and pastors), so deliberately seeking a second opinion on my pastor’s view seems distrustful and maybe even disobedient. Second, almost all Christians are habituated to a certain perspective on their faith by virtue of belonging to a denomination. As such, a second opinion in the true sense—one that truly represents a different school of thought on a given matter—would almost necessarily have to come from outside of one’s own denomination. And these are conversations where Christians are at least unpracticed, if not downright fearful.

Third, because Christianity is not seen as something in which one intellectually and imaginatively engages (like the combination of a research project and a dramatic production) but rather something one embraces by faith, it would be nonsensical to suggest the need for a service or body that would offer anything resembling “second opinions” on matters of faith.

As such, acquiring a second opinion requires time, energy, and determination. It requires Christians to broach the boundaries of their denominations (which they are not taught how to do), to engage in conversations with an intention that they are arguably never meant to have (deliberately questioning the trained and / or learned opinion of one’s authority figures), and to assume an orientation to their faith that may seem, frankly, faithless.

Perhaps the best solution, then, is obtaining some personal expertise in such matters. Indeed, without some expertise it is impossible to question (or particularly, to find questionable) the perspectives of others. Yet here’s the snag: without some expertise I cannot know enough to evaluate the information and perspectives that I’m given, but I need such information and perspectives specifically because I am not an expert in this area.

My response to this seeming conundrum is to suggest that “second opinions” are an essential component of Christian faith.

The problem, however is that the practice of seeking a second opinion on matters of Christian faith—when it is done, to whom one would turn, what the process looks like, and how to complete it—essentially does not exist. In other words, a resource very necessary to acquiring, maintaining, and developing Christian faith and practice is largely overlooked by Christians and the church, and I wager to very negative (or even disastrous) effect.

Over the next three blog posts I aim to sketch the contours of such a practice, a) indicating why it is not only necessary but a most truthful, loving, and actually holy practice, b) suggesting how this practice is best to be carried out, and c) offering practical suggestions on how to overcome the conundrum of lacking the expertise necessary to evaluate the expert opinions that you receive.

Let’s start with two questions: a) What is a second opinion? and b) How would I know that I need one?

To answer this I want to draw my analogy for healthcare. With healthcare I typically seek a second opinion when the stakes are high enough: when the cost is high enough, the procedure is sufficiently invasive, or the outcome is risky enough. Now these thresholds will vary from person to person depending upon personal wealth, risk aversion, trust of one’s medical practitioners, and other factors.

What I want to suggest is that there is a very close parallel between the medical situation and a faith situation. So what’s going on here?

I consult a physician because some aspect of my physical or mental health is not doing well, or something seems different or worrisome. So first, I go to the doctor because I value my health and I know that I am do not always have sufficient expertise to diagnose and treat myself. Next, depending upon what the physician diagnoses and then recommends as a remedy I may, or may not, accept either the diagnosis or the recommended treatment, or both.

So what parallels am I drawing here?

First faith, like health, is one’s own. Christian faith involves a community but is ultimately personal—something that each person owns and is responsible for maintaining and developing. Second faith, like health, is complicated. In other words, it requires expertise to understand and the various perspectives on it are open to different interpretations. Third faith, like health, interacts with my environment. It impacts the environment and is impacted by the environment.

Do Christians need opponents?

Q: WWJD?
A: Be “boundary focused”. . . ?

Two posts ago I examined the “boundary-focused” approach that many churches take towards outsiders—neighbours or newcomers—to their community. I argued that one reason they do so is in order best to estimate (and so imitate) what Jesus would have done in a similar situation, as the evangelical catch phrase “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). I then offered a number reasons why I find this approach to be problematic.

This post examines another, rather darker reason for adopting a “boundary-focused” approach.

My explanation begins by noting how a boundary-focused approach is inherently ready to assume a defensive posture. I see two reasons for this. First, because Christianity has something valuable to defend (its identity and values). Second, because Christians have someone to defend their values and identity against.

Now obviously Christians believe that their identity and values—the power of the gospel and the truth of the Bible—are worth defending. But shouldn’t Christians also expect that these things will be attacked? Indeed, the Bible explains that Jesus and his message are a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” to unbelievers (1 Cor 1:22-23, 1 Pet 2:7-8), who are blind to the truth of the gospel (2 Cor 4:4) or even wilfully resist it (John 3:20-21). So Christians must be ready to defend their beliefs (1 Pet 3:15). Further, because unbelievers are enemies of God (Rom 5:10) the Bible also naturally prepares Christians to be hated or reviled on account of Jesus (Mt 5:11, Lk 6:22, Jn 7:7) and to be persecuted for serving God obediently (Mt 10:22-23, Lk 21:12).

The implication: Christians should expect non-Christians to be offended by Christianity and so to oppose God (and consequentially, to oppose them).

No doubt this happens. However, I have two concerns with this orientation. First, in my experience many Christians are so over-prepared for opposition by non-Christians that they often mistake disagreements for challenges and differences of opinion for invitations to debate. In other words, their expectations can distort external reality. Second (and here is the darker notion that I mentioned above), while it is difficult having to defend one’s faith it is even more difficult not needing to do so. In this case, my view is that Christian expectations can actually falsify external reality.

Let me break this down.

The widespread, biblical focus on defending one’s faith / being persecuted for Jesus’ sake naturally results in the understanding that Christian faith is precious and valuable (because it concerns things of ultimate and eternal importance). Thus the greatest affront to such a position is not attack but apathy: the reality that, more and more, outsiders sees Christianity not as something to be defeated or disbelieved but to be disregarded, because it is pointless and irrelevant.

Think of it like this: opposition de facto affirms that the matter at hand is important. In other words, pro-choice and pro-life advocates both agree that abortion has a truth that is worth fighting for, although they disagree on what that truth is. Disregard conveys an very different message. It amounts not to a counter-claim but to a dismissal of any claim because the matter at hand is either already decided or not worth deciding in the first place.

So it denies the claim that Christianity is important enough to defend because it disregards the ideas that it stands for (such as truth), the questions that it answers (such as the nature of human beings), and very understanding of the world that it presupposes. Yet because disregard communicates this by “refusing to engage” it actually deprives Christians of a much needed commodity: opposition. For, as in game theory, opposition partially functions to validate the importance of one’s goals (in this case, the goal of validating Christian identity and values by defending them)!

So excessive expectations of opposition may lead Christians to exaggerate the divergent opinions / disagreement of non-Christians into opposition. However, “disregard” may prompt Christians to do still more (and worse).  For if opposition functions both i) to ratify the value claims that Christians make about their beliefs and ii) to give Christians a outlet to demonstrate their obedience (because obedience both generates opposition and responds to it), then Christians not only expect opposition but they need it.  

So what do Christians do when there is no opposition?

Sometimes . . .  they fabricate it.

A common way that they do so is by viewing non-Christians according to Christian categories.  For example, when Christians say: “Non-Christians are hiding from God,” or re-interpret what non-Christians say and do as either demonstrating or concealing their need for God. Yet how can one be hiding from what one does not believe exists, and how can one need what one thinks is irrelevant?

In one way the difference between my first and second concerns amounts to movement along a continuum of false perception from slight exaggeration to, perhaps, complete fabrication. Yet in another way the detachment from reality required to misperceive personal concern (i.e., my neighbour’s concern for her child or an employee’s concern for his job) as opposition to my faith is vastly different from fabricating someone’s disregard and disengagement from the ideals and presuppositions of my faith (as with sexual monogamy or creation) into “opposition.”

Indeed, such fictionalizing is a practical example of being under the sway of an ideology or false consciousness: a (self-protective) view of the world that dictates perceptions rather than being informed by them—the claim that a reality exists when there is none.

The upshot of failing to take others “at face value” is that Christians likewise fail to grant them the dignity of being their own persons with beliefs, experiences, and understandings different from my own. It amounts to treating them like objects, when the God of the Bible quite clearly sees them (and loves them) as subjects.

Assimilation, accommodation, and phronesis

A friend raised a helpful point by distinguishing between assimilating situations as cases of what I already know or have experienced versus accommodating / making room for the new by expanding our knowledge and re-mapping our categories of experience.

I wondered about the role of several factors in this process. The first one is recognition. So on the one hand, certain new experiences / understandings simply impose themselves upon me. Such was certainly the case when it came to some of the experiences and knowledge about both God and myself that were pivotal to my return to Christianity. In this sense I was not so much faced with a choice of assimilating or accommodating but rather with a choice of how to accommodate, and to what end.

Thus I think that “the new” can overtake us and impose itself upon us. This was certainly the case for me in terms of my experiences at Swiss L’Abri in 1996.

However, on the other hand, perhaps there is something to having cultivated a disposition of enquiry or accepted that I have a degree of dissatisfaction with my existing situation. So in the case of the events and understandings which developed, again at Swiss L’Abri, in 1999 I had already had my experiential categories ripped wide open and was in a state of needing to resolve (or maybe better, reconcile) my understanding with my experience.

Specifically, this was not simply better to understand what I had experienced but to allow for the inherent message of these new experiences, that “the world is far larger and better that I had ever conceived” to be put in motion as a form of research project where the subjects were, quite literally, myself and the “meaning of life.”

So while I do not think that setting the stakes that high will always be necessary I wonder if one must not always be willing to have these stakes at play, sometimes more and sometimes less. Stated differently, I wonder if we must literally be willing to put ourselves “in play” and also the meaning that we attach to life / what would constitute living it rightly. And this leads to the second factor I would consider in this process of assimilation versus accommodation.

Second, I wonder about the necessity of understanding myself (as self-awareness and self-understanding) and understanding what constitutes “the good life” or the purpose of living. Now surely my experiences and understandings can impact, and so alter, these understandings, but I begin with a starting place. Further, this form of understanding is always embodied to varying degrees of completeness as I live out (or shy away from) what I believe.

Thus there is, or should be, a vibrant interaction between participating and observing—between theory and practice. Yet I think that this too, while not a technique that I can learn like how to prepare a meal from a recipe, is nevertheless a form of embodied knowledge that must be acquired. I would tend to use the ancient Greek notion of phronesis, or practical wisdom, to describe this integration of participating and observing, theory and practice.

Phronesis is not a matter of applying particular skills in a memorized sequence but, instead, requires developing one’s ability to perceive the subtleties in a given situation and to develop responses that are both fitting to that situation and, where appropriate and possible, create tension and / or resolution toward a richer integration of action and understanding, or a better understanding of oneself, the other, the situation, or some combination of these three.

Phronesis similarly involves assessing the outcome of engaging these tensions and / or resolutions. So it gauges “success” not according to how well one followed instructions but to what degree the outcome represents a “fit” with and an improvement upon (or perhaps even the least degradation of) the original setting. Nor is the notion of “success” simply my own or attributable to my action but is always potentially a shared reality. For example, the success of understanding life better, knowing oneself / the other more truly, having persevered (or relented) as was necessary, etc. Similarly failure is not necessarily attributable to me or even the other but is always potentially a mutual or general loss.

In this way, phronesis is very much about the importance of becoming sensitive to context, much like becoming a good reader in order to get the most out of a finely crafted and nuanced text. As such the results of phronesis are not often the binary yes / no of “success or failure” but represent outcomes according to a graded spectrum, as “better or worse” (and where the spectrum itself, and how it is graded, require re-interpretation and fine tuning according the situation).

Boundary-focused=WWJD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does it come from?

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean?

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

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

Theory over practice? Part III

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

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

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

So how does this apply to our parenting example?

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

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

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

So how does this play out?

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

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

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

The effect?

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

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

My view on this?

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

Theory over Practice? Part II

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

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

Here’s what I mean:

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

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

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

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

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

And that changes everything.

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

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

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

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