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 example?

Well, in situations involving everyday problems my interest is coming to 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.

So I value “what works,” providing that the solution seems like it would be feasible to carry out and affords good treatment to 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 may be unaccustomed (and so unskilled) at having. Instead it represents subject matter that my church upbringing has trained me not to discuss but to debate.  In other words, where I was previously prepared to dialogue—however awkward—I have instead been prepared to 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.

Experience vs. Description

 

Self-perception and self-care are huge.  And hugely problematic.

So a friend once asked me: “How do I reach someone who is so immersed in their story?  There is so much pain there, so much challenge with self-care.  Always defaulting to what others need: I wish for a key to unlock their potential.”

My first thought?  We are all immersed in our own stories.

The key is becoming consciously aware of that story, being aware of the options, and making the best choices among them.  Not everything in my own story is optional—I am male, of a certain age, from a certain family.  But how I view myself, how I treat myself, how I treat others (and allow them to treat me) are things that I can choose.

Now this is my challenge as well, although I am working with religious beliefs: how do I reach readers, Christian and non-Christian, who are immersed in a particular view of Christianity?

In this pursuit I begin with myself: Why do I want to reach readers?

Well, I am proposing “another Christian option” because my life has been transformed through this option—transformed by my experiences and understandings that stem from encountering God as love and truth—and I have fallen in love both with this God and with the self I am becoming in being loved by God (and loving God in return).

Really then, I write for me, and I do so because I cannot but write: I am filled with wonder, joy, peace, and goodness through this relation.  Yet because this state of being is excessively abundant I also write for others—for love of the love that I have.

So why not just talk about my experiences—why not “spill the beans” and be done?

Three reasons:

First, in order for personal sharing to cultivate life and not alienation there must be authentic relationship between parties.  In other words, openness requires trust.  Second, although my experiences were powerfully transformative they may not apply to everyone.  So by generalizing my experiences I broaden their application.  Third, experience alone was not sufficient for my transformation but was accompanied by new (and better) understandings of myself, my fellows, the earth, and God.

In the first instance, where my goal is to revel in the life that I have received and to propose that life to others, I must show that I actually know some true things about life!  As my mentor puts it, to be credible Christians must first prove that they are real people—that they live in the real world and can offer real solutions to real problems.  Christian platitudes—no matter how theologically accurate—are insufficient (and so untrustworthy).

Trust requires a way that does not alienate (a specialty of the evangelical church, sadly): it requires instigating and promoting dialogue.  Dialogue is essential because it a) not only lets the other be herself but encourages such, and b) understands that transformation is not submission of one’s intellect, will, etc., but embrace.  And this takes time.  Dialogue assumes a dialogue partner who is there for the duration of the discussion.

In the second instance, my orientation is not to prescribe a recipe (“do like me and it will all work out”) but to describe a path: I want to generalize my experience so that it can best be understood and appropriated.  To do so I cannot ask others to “be like me” but instead offer general possibilities and sketch general modes of being that others can embrace for and as themselves which may yet be better options—more true and beautiful—than what they had before.

In the third instance, because these new understandings apply to God and human existence, they find their best expression through a combination of theology and philosophy.  So in addition to understanding the Bible better (through sound interpretation and exegesis) we must examine and interpret life well, which is the domain of philosophical hermeneutics.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 3

 

Recently I have suggested that Christians need first to listen to atheists (before critiquing them) in order to see what we hold in common and to see atheists more as God sees them.  Now I want to take that a step further:

Listening to atheism’s critiques can help Christians better follow Christ.

Come again??

Nope, I mean it.  Literally.

Nor is this some nifty footwork born of Reformed theology.  In other words, I am not suggesting that atheists are some “canonized group” that God has destined to live and die as God’s adversaries, to test and refine the character of us “true believers.”

No.  I firmly believe that God loves all humanity equally and desires that all—all—humans come into right relationship with God.

Instead, the issue is deeper and more complex.  The issue is that the church is not what it should be because it has adopted postures that wrongly collapse tensions necessary to right Christian living into rigidified hierarchies.  Further, because these same hierarchies are presented as articles of faithfulness within the church, the church is effectively blinded to the problem.  In such cases I believe that it takes critically informed outsiders to awaken the church to these unbalances.

So what are these postures?

First, the theological tension between the Holy Spirit’s assistance of believers and the unavoidable effects of sin1 is often collapsed.  The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize the Spirit’s benefits to the point that it all but obscures the fact that we remain finite humans apt to turn our backs on God (often by deceiving ourselves about how–and how much– we embrace the very practices and beliefs that we claim to disavow).

Once this first tension is collapsed into a hierarchy it becomes all too easy similarly to rigidify confidence over humility, such as in situations where Christians engage with non-Christians, particularly hostile non-Christians or atheists.  Typically these Christians preemptively (and to their detriment) disparage the insights of non-Christians regarding Christian practice, belief, and Scripture because they “know more (and better)” than the non-Christians.

Second, the interpretive (or hermeneutical) tension between biblical truth and lived experience in knowing God (and to live the Christian life) is often collapsed.  The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize biblical truth to the point that it obscures how love (as central to God’s character) and Christian living both find their fullest expression in committed engagement, not mere examination.

Once this second tension is collapsed it becomes all too easy again to rigidify (attachment to Biblical) truth over love (of neighbour) in situations where such Christians engage with fellow Christians who read the Bible differently.  Typically these Christians disregard the insights of their fellows, such as Liberation Theologians,2 but in doing so they fail to love they neighbour as themselves by failing to respect his or her ideas and texts as their own.

So what does this all mean?

In both cases it means that the church is no longer what it should be.  On the one hand, setting confidence over humility encourages exclusion of other views such that Christians risk falling “into a situation of interpretive arrogance, . . . thinking our words are God’s word.” (Reading in Communion, 110, italics mine).  On the other hand, setting textual explanation over lived understanding (and valuing [biblical] truth over love [of neighbor]) is reductionistic, with the consequence that Christian communities risk being “at best introspective and at worst sectarian.” (Reading, 110).

So what should be done?  Instead of dispute, we need dialogue.

For Christians, dialogue begins by believing that if all truth is God’s truth then we need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Dialogue also involves loving the other by listening to them—engaging with their perspectives not by “trying to discover the weakness in what is said, but in bringing out its real strength.” (p Truth & Method, 367).

Dialogue as loving one’s neighbour does not imply uncritical acceptance of another’s conclusions, but rather means prioritizing listening to critique by perceiving their appraisals of Christian practice and belief as “gifts” which may allow Christians to see themselves more truthfully.3

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 2

 

Q:  What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?

From the average Christian, stunned silence.  Or questions like: What would be the point of that?

The point, actually, would be learning something.  And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.

More stunned silence, I wager.  But consider this:

Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension.  Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).

Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.

In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen.  And in listening we find some shocking similarities.  For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.

So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage.  Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.

Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5

So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil.  Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.

Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.

Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints.  Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).

This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.

So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them.  Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).

To conclude,

When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted.  In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 1

 

What is atheism?

At base, atheism is a truth-seeking enterprise inquiring into the nature of material reality, human existence, and the divine.  Atheists champion the use of reason and emphasize the role of personal experience and the verifiability (scientific and otherwise) of information.

In their approach to religion, atheists maintain two prominent orientations.  First, evidential atheists—philosopher Bertrand Russell is a good example—disbelieve in God (and religion) because they find insufficient evidence for belief.  Second, atheists of suspicion—Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche are good examples—disbelieve because the practices of its adherents show religion to be something other than what it claims to be.

The first target belief content, the second target the belief’s outworkings.  But of course, this is not how Christians typically consider atheism.

Typically, atheism is identified with its conclusion that the most truthful characterization of the preceding is that no God or Gods exist—that the material world is all that there is and that human existence is the result of natural forces, including chance.

Yet by jumping straight to its conclusion, Christians overlook a lot:

They overlook the common goal that they share with atheists: an ardent pursuit of truth.  They further overlook that both claim to engage seriously with the real world in attaining this truth.  And many again overlook that they too, to a certain extent, are atheistic: most Christians would claim that the White Supremist church (in the early American South or during South African apartheid) is a false church, and that its God is a distortion of the true Christian God, and is not to be worshiped.

Before examining their significance, we must ask: Why do Christians typically overlook these similarities?  Because most have adopted a posture of dispute with those who oppose them.

Why?

My wager is because many of them understand loving God in much the same way that Kyle Idleman describes in his book, not a fan: being “so committed [to Jesus] that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (p. 65).    And what happens when such Christians encounter outsiders to their views?  Let’s see what Kyle did:

He tells a story (pages 110 – 111) of a single dad who started coming to Kyle’s church and “fell in love with Jesus.”  Later the fellow’s mother, herself a churchgoer, wanted to meet Kyle with her son.  During the meeting the mother expressed concern that her son was going too far, becoming immoderate with his beliefs.  Kyle’s response?

“I tried to keep a pleasant smile, but my teeth were clenched, and my breath was short.  I was feeling defensive of my friend. . . . So I did what I always do when I get angry; I started quoting Scripture from Revelation.  I said to this lady who had been in church most of her life:

‘In Revelation 3 Jesus says to the Christians in Laodicea, ‘You are neither hot or cold but because you are lukewarm I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.’  Jesus doesn’t say: ‘everything in moderation”; he says you can’t be my follower if you don’t give up everything.’ “

On the one hand my reply is: Shame on you, Kyle Idleman.

You had an occasion to love you neighbour and instead of offering acceptance in order to foster a relationship and develop understanding, you chastised and excluded her.  Faced with an opportunity to discuss what it means to love (and be loved by) God, you instead chose to shut down dialogue by arguing against her with your righteous indignation?  Poorly done.

On the other hand, sadly, the problem is much larger than Kyle Idleman.  To begin, we need dialogue instead of dispute.

More so, we need church leaders who clearly perceive the deep kinship that exists between Christians and all “outsiders” to the Christian faith.  We need those who, given our common humanity, do not curtail dialogue because either we “don’t have Christ in common” or we do not view Christ (or Christianity) the same way.

And ultimately the Church needs leaders who understand the love of God aright, so that thereby they may model love of neighbour rightly.

Truth-seeking & outsiders

 

I don’t believe Jesus came to save us from our sins.”

In a room full of Evangelicals, you could imagine the reaction!  How could the leader of a Christian study centre possibly say that?  What could his strange words mean?

“Strange” words can indicate that someone is an outsider—a stranger to our way of thinking and viewing the world.  For evangelical Christians, strangers come in two general types: those who have different belief sets (non-Christians) and those who call themselves Christians but who read (and understand) the Bible in very different ways from Evangelicals.

Recently I discussed how, in a small town, belief sets play a key role in defining group membership—they are more about facilitating bonding between people than getting ideas “right.”  By corollary, in these contexts conformity is prized over diversity and intellectual complacency (rather than critical investigation) is the norm.

In such a context divergent beliefs or openness to questioning status quo beliefs—being unwilling to “check your brain at the door”—creates discomfort and suspicion.  To be accepted in such churches one must either share a bounded set of common beliefs or be willing to acquire them.  Otherwise, one is different: an outsider.  And at best, outsiders don’t belong.

The irony, of course, is that welcoming strangers is a Biblical norm, and Jesus self-identifies with the stranger (Matt 25:40).

Now Evangelicals may object: surely they accommodate many who are different.

They accommodate physical differences, for example, by creating special access and seating for wheel chairs.  Likewise they accommodate intellectually differences (e.g., developmental challenges), perhaps by special classes and teaching.

However, for evangelical Christians to “accommodate” those who are ideologically different (non-Christians) or methodologically different (like liberal Christians, who read and understand the Bible differently from Evangelicals) would amount betraying their Christian beliefs, which Christians cannot do.

The error in such thinking is failing to see that accommodating a viewpoint need not mean accepting it.  For if Evangelicals agree with Augustine that “all truth is God’s truth” then they need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Last and most importantly, as those called to love their neighbour “as themselves,” this includes respecting (if not always adopting) her ideas and texts as much as our own.

So how does this work?

Just as Evangelicals have empathy for physical differences and compassion for intellectual differences, so they need openness for ideological or methodological differences.  So “accommodation” for such differences amounts to dialogue which, unlike dispute, does not seek for the weaknesses in what is said, but for its real strength.

True dialogue is thus truth-seeking, and the openness that it requires is self-awareness: understanding that I know in part, but not in full.  Thus dialogue requires both: an openness to listen, a willingness to critique.

If my assessment is accurate it’s easy to see why most Evangelicals have no real interaction with ideologically or methodologically outsiders.

For where churches prize acceptance there is no real dialogue, for dialogue on contentious issues promotes conflict.  The result is that when it comes to ideas the church is not a place of reciprocity and openness, but of receiving and conforming.

Rejecting dialogue causes two misfortunes.

First, it forces newcomers to divest themselves of their identity in order to acquire some supposed, uniform Christian identity (as though being “in Christ” [Gal 3] is about personality as opposed to being about character and relationship).  Second, it serves to reinforce the church’s insularity as a “tribe”—keeping existing tribesmen untainted and unthreatened by anything that from outside.

 

Jesus didn’t come to save us from our sins.”

No, he didn’t.

Matt 3:2 and 4:17, Mk 1:14-15, and Lk 4:43 all prove it.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, which includes me (and my need to be delivered from the harmful patterns and negative consequences of so many of my orientations—my need to be in right relationship with God) but is neither mine nor primarily about me.  The difference is subtle, but the impact is crucial.  Thankfully for those that heard this comment, a healthy dialogue ensued.