Does God use evil to achieve good?

Romans 8:28 is one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses. In the NRSV it reads: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Recently this verse was used as support by a Christian claiming that God uses evil to achieve good: what is known in philosophy as the “greater good argument.” And worded in this way, the verse seems to support this claim.

But is this really the best translation of the verse?

I think not.

In a 2006 paper New Testament exegete Mark Gignilliat explains four possible interpretations of Romans 8:28 and argues for the one that he believes makes best sense, given the language use and context:
a) God works together with all things,
b) God works all things,
c) All things work together for good,
d) The Spirit works with all things for those who love God.

First he cites another Romans scholar who finds option c) to be “the least probable” option, with which Gignilliat seems to agree. He concludes by offering the following reading—essentially option a)—as the best option: “And we know that in all things God is working together (with the Spirit) for good to those loving God.”

I am persuaded by the reasoning in Mark Gignilliat’s paper this is the best reading of the four. Further, this interpretation also defeats the objection that Romans 8:28 shows that God works with / uses evil (and so it has the additional benefit of harmonizing / making sense alongside of other biblical texts rather than contradicting or being at odds with passages that bear on issue of God and evil).

A slave I am?

An listener posted the following in our FaceBook group:

“I was recently doing a word study on the word “servant” and came across this sermon online that felt not quite right and a bit icky. Thought perhaps it could do with some untangling.”

I would like to offer a response in four parts.

First let’s talk word use in the NT (the whole Bible is important, but let’s focus on the NT for now). The following searches were performed using Accordance v. 6.

So in the NRSV the NT contains 206 occurrences of the words “servant, servants, slave, slaves” and 252 of the words “child, children.” The Greek NT shows 126 occurrences of the word “doulos” or its derivatives, 99 occurrences of the word “teknon” (typically translated as child or son), 52 of the word “paidion” (literally child but often translated as servant), 29 occurrences of the word “diakonos” (translated servant or minister), 24 occurrences of the word “pais” (translated child or slave).

So doulos does mean slave, yes. But what kind of slave?

Second, then, to answer this question it is important to realize that the NT definition of slave is to be understood within its antiquarian context. That is, this is a Greco-Roman notion1.

Specifically, in the Roman world there were a diversity of types of slave—a nearly dizzying diversity of levels of authority, autonomy, influence, and wealth. Slaves owned other slaves. Many slaves were better off than free persons, by virtue of their rank and authority.

So the typical notions of slavery that occur to modern, Western people (and particularly the model of slavery found in the antebellum South of the Unite States) simply do not apply in this context, unless some specific corollary to such a model is indicated in the biblical text. Nor is this a matter of one Greek word designating as a given “type” of slave and another for another type.

What I hope results is the sense that the biblical translators chose not to use the singular word “slave,” with all of the inevitable implications for current readers, because it simply would not capture the nuance of the diverse significations of the word “doulos” in its original context. In other words, this is not a cover-up or a conspiracy theory but a case of good scholarship, despite a lack of unanimity on the matter.

Third, in addition to the cultural implications it is amazing how lightly MacArthur treats the textual modification of notion of doulos, where “friend replaces slave” in the prelude to Jesus’ departure speech in John 15, where followers of Christ are no longer called slaves but are called friends. I don’t think that this so much obliterates the notion of the need / responsibility for Christians to render service but it obviously thoroughly refigures it!

Yet not only does MacArthur skim over the reference but he also seems to allow it to have no impact on his formulations. In other words, he seems to ignore this key reference and the transition in meaning that it clearly indicates (and yes, the Greek word in this passage and all throughout chapter 15—and back to the original reference in John chapter 13—is “doulos”).

Fourth, and most striking of all, MacArthur frames his emphasis on slavery (and the notion that Christians are to be defined primarily if not solely as slaves) against the backdrop the biblical text’s plain and forceful indication that love of God—not service or obedience or anything typically associated with slavery—is to be the Christian’s primary orientation and indeed, command!

In this regard I see two problems with MacArthur’s view. In the first case, the notion of love presented (and required!) in the biblical text is at odds with characterizing Christians solely as “slaves.” For love can neither be bought nor commanded—it is something that, if not freely given, ceases to be itself!2  In the second case, I see no textual warrant for ignoring the characterizations of Christians as children (and God as father / parent) or in subjugating them below other characterizations. So in addition to an understanding of the Christians being, as I have argued, servants to God who is sovereign so too we are children to God who is our true father and parent.

The issue I raise here here is not that MacArthur is fabricating content but that he is over-emphasizing legitimately biblical notions (both by ignoring / underplaying cultural notions and significant textual nuances) with the result that he underplays other, equally legitimate biblical notions.

How do we counter this tendency?

On the one hand, as Christians we must be open to the notion that how the biblical text lays out the nature of God, of humanity, and of their optimal inter-relation may be different from what we have heard in past. In other words, we must constantly be seeking the truth about these things through our best understanding of the biblical text, with all of the tools and advantages that good scholarship, skillful and informed reflection and, as appropriate, a diverse and inter-disciplinary approach can yield.

On the other hand, however, Christians must not only develop the skills necessary to reading the Biblical text correctly but also those relevant to understanding and reading themselves correctly. And this includes becoming savvy interpreters of our own experiences and, particularly, of our experiences of God.

Indeed, there is a necessary reciprocity between understanding God textually and knowing God relationally. This reciprocity can easily (and often seems to) become harmful when we allow questionably interpreted experiences to tell us things about God’s nature and character that sound readings of the Bible impugn, or when we allow questionably interpreted biblical passages to constrain our willingness to interpret our experiences in a manner that circumscribes God’s nature, human nature, or the possible best outcomes of their interrelation in ways that do not reconcile with the reality we live in.

Where is John MacArthur in this regard? I’m not sure. Yet to my mind any discussion such as MacArthur is undertaking in his book—particularly one that claims a cover-up has taken place and that he is offer the one, true understanding of the matter—must offer both a clear and thorough examination of the text and a sense of who the author understands God, themselves, and the interrelation to be (and why).

This is because, from what I have seen, it is all too easy to prioritize either experience or knowledge—ontology or epistemology—rather than properly inter-relating and integrating them, with the accompanying risk of mischaracterizing God, ourselves, and how the two are to relate. And skewed understandings create orientations tinged with (and more often, marked by) dysfunction—a far cry from the “abundant” life that should characterize Christian existence.

F-bombs & grace I

An Untangling Christianity listener posted the following comment in our Facebook group concerning a rather popular internet article, by Preston Sprinkle:

“So this seems to be going around the interwebs. Having a really hard time with the biblical interpretations that this guys is claiming. Thoughts?”

A number of things occured to me after reading the article and considering  some of the comments made about it.  Let me begin with what I value in the article.

I value the author’s emphasis on diversity in terms of how Christians live out their relationship with God.  In this vein, the author’s willingness to see some of these differences in Christian practice as being as much sociological as theological is helpful, as is the author’s view that human brokenness is as much a reality in biblical times as it is now.

Next, I agree with the author where he highlights the disconnect between the typical expectations within evangelical Christian culture(s) and the reality that relationship are, by their nature, complex (and that a relationship with God is even more so).  So I agree that human relationships with God will unfold in different ways for different people, given that each person will have different starting points, challenges, and advantages all playing out in different contexts and over differing amounts of time.

However, there are several points that I believe to be problematic (and which, if left as they stand, would ultimately lead us in unprofitable directions / create difficulty).

First, I think that the author’s view of what he calls ”Christian subcultures” is at least one-sided—if not under-considered—and therefore problematic. Second, I think that the listener’s emphasis on “interpretation” is quite valuable and it seems to me that interpretation has essentially been overlooked by the article’s author.  Third, the article seems to alternate between taking a sociological perspective and a theological perspective while never actually doing the work of integrating the two.  Yet given the matters under discussion, proper integration seems essential for accurate understanding.

I will address these points in order.

Beginning with point one, I’m troubled by the author’s view of Christian subcultures.  He writes, “Christian subcultures are an entertaining phenomenon.”  Some aspects of Christian subcultures are  indeed interesting.  Yet Christian subcultures can also—an d more so—be deeply dysfunctional and so ultimately hurtful for many people.

Specifically, where care is not given to distinguish the cultural from the biblical, Christian subcultures are apt to claim a (often high) degree of divine sanction for their practices and, by corollary, they also necessarily see such practices as attributable to a (often high) degree of divine Authority.

The result is that those who question these cultural practices—and particularly those who resist or criticize them—are typically viewed as troublemakers or even as outsiders,  often with the implication that they must either “get with the program” or are made you feel that this is not the right Church setting for that.

Moving to point two, the author’s argument turns on several key interpretations that are, ironically, absent from the article!  Particularly, the article focuses almost entirely on “grace” and yet the only thing that the author writes about it is: “Grace means that we are all works in progress, and God shaves off our rough edges in His timing.”

By building his entire argument around a term without defining it (or even indicating upon what he bases his sense of the term, such as citing biblical passages) the author essentially puts his readers in a take-it-or-leave-it position that both provokes scepticism and runs contrary to spirit of generosity and openness that he appears to be trying to cultivate.

More problematically still, by applying a simple, uni-dimensional sense to the word “grace” (i.e., grace = “what God does to me”) but using it within a multi-dimensional context (i.e., relationships always have at least two parties!) he appears to be unaware of—or actually ignoring?—the complexities inherent to the topic, such as how we determine what is God’s responsibility and what is my responsibility in a given situation.

Coming to point three, the author writes, “I know we’re programmed to see the 12 apostles as saints with halos and contemplative faces. But actually, they were criminals. These guys were more like prisoners than pastors.”

Once again, my thought is that while the comments have accuracy the approach is actually misleading. In other words, the approach that we should instead be taking is to apply suspicion not only to others and their practices but also to ourselves and our practices.  1

So where the author notes that Peter denies Jesus, I could see myself having done (and doing now,  in various ways) the same.  Where the author writes of Paul using violent means to accomplish his ends I must admit that similar thoughts can occur to me, given the right provocation. In fact, all of the characterisations of the Apostles offered by the author simply depict the ways in which human beings fail to be their best selves.  The fact that we—all of us—do this, regardless of whether we are Christian or not, should come as no surprise to us.

Instead, an actual integration of the sociological phenomenon (as cultural or subcultural practices) with theological phenomenon (as human expressions of human finitude and fallenness) would involve seeing Christian subcultures and Christian practices as both potentially matters of choice / open to personal taste and as acts of engagement—with self, world, and other—that have direct implications for our ability to relate rightly with God (and thus for our identity, ability to relate rightly with others, etc.).

Without this integration we risk, on the one hand, minimizing the dysfunction of our Christian subcultures and the destructive impact of our personal practices or, on the other hand, rejecting our innately human creativity and diversity because we view sin as more primary than love and law as more primary than truth.

In both cases we misunderstand God and ourselves, with the result that we live without flourishing. And flourishing is at the heart of Christian living.

Yogi Bhajan: relationship & distinction II

This post is a continuation of my reply to a quotation by Yogi Bhajan:

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

Given my last post, where does this leave us?

Well, if human action is always purposeful then Yogi Bhajan’s statement is indicating that, when humans interact, a) the primary goal of human behaviour—of their actions—is not the overt, putative goal (of buying something, seeking information, etc.) but is self-expression, and b) that the typical human response to another’s actions is to question one’s own value (i.e., self-evaluation).

In Bhajan’s view, then, the receiver’s focus is (or should be?) more on “how” another’s actions affect us than on “what” their actions are supposedly aimed at achieving—their goals. Yet given the above discussion about human action, attributing primacy to self-expression or self-evaluation implies big problems.

Specifically, where “self-expression” is not someone’s stated goal (of buying something, seeking information, etc.) then there is a detached incompatibility between the person’s actions and their goals (because their actions toward ‘buying something’ or ‘seeking information’ would be at odds with / unable to achieve the goal of self expression). Further, where “self-expression” is the primary goal underlying all human interaction then this goal is incommensurate with the world in which we live (because self-expression cannot alone—or even primarily—satisfy the ultimate human goal: surviving well / thriving)!

Similarly, where “self-evaluation” is primary there is likewise a detachment from the common logic of responding to a) what someone is saying and b) what they are actually referring to (rather than “how” it is being said and “how” this may or may not impact my sense of self-worth).

In other words, if “self-expression” were really to be someone’s primary goal when interacting with others then such a degree of detachment from / incompatibility with the real world would likely constitute a psychosis. Similarly, if self-evaluation were really to be one’s primary response to one’s interactions with others then this would likely constitute a neurosis.

So while I do think that psychotic episodes should be treated somewhat as the Yogi prescribes (don’t take them seriously) and that neuroses should not be allowed to control one’s life, the Yogi’s comments are not directed toward / limited to involvement with psychotic individuals or neurotic responses. They are general comments meant for general living and everyday life.

What I hope to have shown is that both human action and experience run counter to the Yogi’s claims, and so invalidate them. This is in fact a long argument to validate an important tension: that between relationship and distinction.

Let’s apply this tension here.

On the one hand, someone’s interaction with me—how they behave toward me—is both related to me and related to them in certain regards. As human beings living in the real world, we both have real-world concerns and engage with / respond to real-world stimuli. Similarly, my response to someone’s behaviour—how I perceive them to treat me—is likewise both related to me and related to them in certain regards. So certain modes of interaction (raised voices, stern looks, crying, laughing) will prompt a generally similar range of responses among many different people within the same culture.

On the other hand, someone’s interaction with me—how they behave toward me—is likewise distinct from me and distinct from them in certain regards. As different individuals with different histories and potentially different ages, genders, backgrounds, cultures, etc., we can respond to the same events and stimuli differently.

Again, my response to someone’s behaviour—how I perceive them to treat me—is similarly distinct from me and distinct from them in certain regards. So by virtue of having different goals (the clerk’s wants to perform his duties correctly; the home-owner wants something to stop a roof leak) and different stakes (the clerk has other customers to serve; the home-owner needs to stop the leak now) related to the same interaction, human behaviour is never so repetitive or predictable as the Yogi’s statement seems to imply.

The basic point is twofold.

First, human interaction is complex but not impenetrable: it has certain constants and demonstrates certain patterns that, like a text, can be explained and so also it can be interpreted in better (and worse) ways. And helping us interpret this text better involves recognizing that certain tensions are inherent and necessary to human life, such that by understanding their nature and function we will understand human interaction better.

Second, and by corollary, by failing properly to understand the kind and degree of relationships and distinctions within human interactions Yogi Bhajan’s statement appear a) reductionistic in its view of human action, b) one-sided in its categorization of the nature of difficult interactions, such that c) by failing to understand them it actually perpetuates poor interactions rather than identifying their causes (and so properly diagnosing their solutions).

The issue, then, is that Yogi Bhajan’s statement over-emphasizes some relationships and distinctions and under-emphasizes others. For example, Bhajan over-emphasizes the speaker’s relationship to him-herself while under-emphasizing the listener’s relationship with him-herself. Similarly, the Yogi under-emphasizes the breadth of scope within human interactions (i.e., by not acknowledging that more is a stake than the speaker’s relationship with him-herself and the listener’s sense of self-worth) and likewise under-emphasize the distinctiveness of the listener from the speaker.

Thus differences in goals and stakes—for parties within the same interaction—will mean that comments and behaviours will be seen as judgmental, helpful, cutting (or not) based on the context. In this way properly understanding and integrating such tensions as ‘relationship and distinction’ will be a key part of forming proper interpretations of human interaction.

Yogi Bhajan: relationship & distinction I

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

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

My basic response is twofold:

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

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

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

Let’s begin by looking at human action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal experience I

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

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

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

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

That area is “personal experience.”

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

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

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

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

Let’s explore the inconsistency and incoherence mentioned above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth ‘versus’ imagination

Rights?  Really?

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

Here’s the background:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how I see it:

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

And specifically, two key rights in specific:

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

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

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

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

Yet more is involved than just “rights.”

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

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

Here’s how it works:

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

Thus dissenters are not simply erroneous but irrelevant.

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

Perhaps distinguishing between sexual orientation and sexual identity is helpful:

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

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

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

“Surrendering” as Perpetuating the Problem

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

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

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

Here’s an example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point is this:

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

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

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

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

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

Surely it does.

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

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

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

Obedience as love?

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

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

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

Let’s start with obedience.

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

Of course not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now interactions such God can be quite different yet similar.

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

Let’s look at the first and second points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

Loving Jesus means “hating family?”

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

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

Let’s begin with Chapter 13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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