In my previous post I offered the first part of my response to a letter written by Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Dr. Everett Piper. I am critical of Dr. Piper’s perspective for a number of reasons, particularly as I view it to assume a very reductionistic picture of human beings.
I noted three characteristics of humanness that Dr. Piper’s letter seems to disregard: multiplicity, situatedness and integratedness.
To the above characteristics there is at least one other that should be added, though here I think that Dr. Piper has applied this characteristic with too little consideration, and so has overplayed it. This characteristic is key to both the Christian message and our experience of being human: that we make bad choices. And this is not only in the sense of being under-informed or erroneous, but of purposely choosing in ways that disrespect and even destroy ourselves and others.
This the biblical text calls sinfulness—the propensity to chose and act in ways that destroy what is to be a human being’s primary relationship, between him/herself and God.
I agree with the implication in Dr. Everett Piper’s letter that people are prone to making bad and destructive choices (and more: we typically hide this fact from themselves by claiming that their actions serve some good purpose—a phenomenon called “false consciousness“). Such choices amount to thwarting my relationships with God and, as a consequence, my relationship with myself, my fellows, and my world. This is what I understand “sin” to be.
In my experience sin also involves my “multiplicity,” such that when I am scared, threatened, lonely, etc. I have a greater tendency of making worse choices—of letting those parts of me “call the shots.” Are these choices poor and often wrong? Yes. But they are not without a certain logic and rationale, no matter how broken and ineffective.
By better understanding this (from biblical sources, complimented and enhanced by non-biblical sources) we can better reply to those who make such seemingly outlandish claims as feeling “victimized” by a sermon. So rather than simply condemning the individual (as the author has) I would remain critical yet curious (What did the student mean by being “victimized”? Victimization is a heavy concept: where else does the speaker typically experience that)? 1
Such questioning may have revealed little but narcissim and self-centredness. But I doubt it.
More likely it would have revealed brokenness that could benefit from some form of intervention (better sleep, exercise, and eating patterns; moving away from a bad living situation; counseling, etc.). The upshot is that, in addition to reducing our credibility with non-Christians (as I argued last post), (mis)understandings and critical responses (borne, seemingly, out of a sense of defensiveness) such as those of Dr. Everett Piper also alienate our fellow Christians.
In the end, I see this loss of credibility and increase in alienation to be caused by a lack of proper integration, on several levels.
First, the bible and real life and inter-related: we understand each rightly in light of the other. Thus we must become not only competent readers of the Bible but “competent readers” of existence and of ourselves.2 Dr. Everett Piper seems at least to under-play (if not essentially ignore) existence in favour of the Bible, likely because this is seen by many Christians as “more honouring” to God. But where God is also creator (and where creation necessarily frames salvation) how can we place the creational at a lower level than the Biblical text / the way for creatures rightly to relate to their creator?
We cannot, at least not without devaluing God as creator in favour of God as saviour. Yet both are indispensable and each is necessary to the other. Dr Everett Piper seems to forget (or ignore) this.
Second, I believe that love and truth are co-equal and, as such, that they should be maintained in a flexible tension whereby each can confirm and / or critique the other (rather than set in a hierarchy where one reigns over the other). A key implication of this for Christians is that our views and interpretations of the Bible (as truth) are to be set in flexible though equal tension with the mandate to love others, which includes valuing their texts / readings of those texts as much as my own.
Dr. Everett Piper seems to believe that valuing the Bible (and the God therein portrayed) requires relegating any emotional response that does not conform with the “proper” standards (contrition in the face of admonishment, self-effacement with regard to the charge of selfishness) to the status of misbehaviour. Anything else would simply be pandering (c.f., “This is not a day care. This is a university.”)
Instead, while I would remain critical of the idea that my emotions are always the best “informer” on a given matter, I certainly would not seek to constrain emotional responses to “proper” and “improper.” Instead, I would recognize that I am not being less truthful by considering another person’s perspective (in this case, their interpretation of / response to a given presentation of 1 Cor 13) but more truthful.
This is not in the sense that 1 Cor 13 somehow can mean “anything” that someone claims it does, but in the sense that loving the other requires that Christians be willing to suspend my response to what appears to be a potential challenge to truth (and particularly, biblical truth) in exchange for offering the other “a hearing.” This is the only way to move beyond the impasse of seeing such claims as “threats” to biblical truth rather than cries for help.
So by valuing love and truth equally (rather than preferencing the Bible and biblical truth above all things) we actually gain more truth, more love.
This is because changed behaviour and renewed understandings always take place best within an environment of acceptance.3 Thus I do not forego critique but I must delay it, rather than leading with critique as Dr. Everett Piper seems inclined to do.
A key implication of Dr. Piper’s letter is that the church (or in this case, Christian university) has fuller knowledge and so has the correct interpretation of the matter (and thus the authority, and indeed responsibility, to act). In other words, the claim that he and his educational institution are correct in “calling out” this student’s behaviour as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” because (by corollary) the exegesis, presentation and subsequent interactions relative to the particular sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 were completely sound and appropriate.
Yet the same charge of sinfulness (whereby this student was “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic”) is equally possible relative to Dr. Piper’s staff, to Dr. Piper himself, and to us all (myself included). This does not eliminate the possibility that one party has a more accurate understanding of a matter than another party, but it does mean that accessing such accuracy and truthfulness are not as tidy, immediate and one-sided as Dr. Piper’s letter seems to imply.
So I am arguing, in this post and the preceding, that the “authority” inherent in Dr. Everett Piper’s claims is based on understandings with which many biblical, experiential, and scientific informers would disagree. And by effectively being “called out” by these witnesses, any Christian body (church, university, etc.) shows itself for what it is: a non-authority relative to these very claims.
Sure, this is just one example.
Yet I continue to see this same inability / unwillingness to integrate the biblical and the experiential, with two main results. In the first instance as I argued last post, based on its dissonance with “real life” and scientific understandings, non-Christians readily conclude that such claims to authority have no real credibility (and so they dismiss the Christianity therein presented as irrelevant).
Equally worryingly, in the second instance Christians who hold this view seem increasingly to find themselves “at odds” with how their beliefs interface with their daily lives4, and Christians who are subjected to this view find that this authority exercises power in a manner that often (or even ultimately?) results in alienation, and so effectively find themselves forced to chose between life and belief.
A sad state of affairs for a belief that seeks to spread the “good news” with the aid of the “Spirit of truth,” and that offers “abundant life” to those that accept it.5
- To be clear, this is not counseling (although counseling may be helpful in such situations). It is simply good communication: active listening, probing questions, and maintaining curiosity rather defensiveness. ↩
- Helpful texts in this regard include Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith, Anthony Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self. ↩
- Just as in the biblical text affirmation (of our created goodness and God’s continued willingness to engage and re-engage with humanity) always proceeds critique (of humanity, as we act wrongly because we fail to orient ourselves rightly, in right relationship with God). ↩
- As I’ve argued elsewhere, this inability properly to integrate human existence and biblical perspective is rampant and, as such, is the source of numerous books, including Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan, which we have examined in detail on: untanglingchristianity.com ↩
- John 14 through 16 characterizes the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth,” and John 10 recounts Jesus orientation to make human life here and now “abundant” (NRSV). ↩