Not a Fan; Misunderstood God

Along with my podcast partner, John Poelstra, I have finished reading and then producing a number of podcasts assessing Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan and Darin Hufford’s Misunderstood God.  During these podcasts I was generally unimpressed with these books because I perceived a number of issues with both of them, and one problem in particular.

One way of expressing the problem is that these books both make broad claims yet are actually too narrow.  So where they ‘broadly’ aim at presenting the most important aspect(s) of the Christian faith I think that they fail because they lack correct understandings about (and so, as a result, fail correctly to formulate) who God is, what human beings are, and what the relationship between the two is / should be.

Stated differently, their understandings and formulations are skewed because they are derived too narrowly, and it seems to me that this is in three regards.

First, they offer an insufficient reading of the biblical text.  In this regard my podcast partner John Poelstra qualified Idleman’s use of Scripture as “amateur,” which I think is entirely accurate.  Hufford, by contrast, actually makes no use of Scripture at all: beyond applying the general framework of 1 Cor. 13 to his chapter layout he makes not a single biblical reference.

In other words, to the degree that I have formed my opinions of Christianity from a fairly attentive and rigorous focus on Scripture I necessarily need (and should expect!) Christian authors writing on Christianity to buttress their points with a similarly attentive and rigorous approach to Scripture.  To put it another way, I’m looking for more truth than I currently have, not less!  So when we’re making truth claims based on the Bible I want to be more assured (not less!) that those claims are legitimate, particularly if what’s at stake is me changing my mind about some aspect of the Christian faith.

Second, the points and arguments of each author lack sufficient integration with other, valid information sources (my mentor likes to call these other “informers”).  The basic point here is twofold.

On the one hand, while the biblical text may be rightly interpreted as containing truth claims about God, humanity, and the natural world, such claims are presented as being sufficient but not comprehensive regarding such matters (even regarding God, who is both greater than the text and who is best / most fully imaged in Jesus the Christ, who is the logos—the living word!).

On the other hand, incorporation of other, valid information sources mirrors the basic orientation that must, in my opinion, characterize Christian interaction (both with the Bible, other Christians, and non-Christians): dialogue.  Too often Christians take the position of dispute—defensively presenting their perspective as both comprehensive and ultimate.  Instead we need to assume a posture of openness that allows us to incorporate more truth into our understandings (because if all truth is God’s truth we need not fear it, no matter where we find it) AND fosters productive interaction with outsiders by demonstrating a willingness to listen while maintaining the possibility of critique.

So Idleman’s emphasis on “following”—and particularly, why Christians don’t follow Jesus well—would have appeared much more credible if his viewpoint was informed by thinkers like Neil Fiore or Merold Westphal, whereas Hufford’s emphasis on love would been better grounded (and so seemed more convincing) if he had integrated the thought and research of someone like Brené Brown.

Third, these authors propose an impoverished view of human beings insofar as they target only one aspect of humanness.  By “humanness” I’m referring to the various components that make up human beings (such as our individuation, relationality, situatedness, rationality, emotions, imagination, will, experiences, knowledge claims, situatedness, etc.).  So in these two cases Idleman emphasizes ‘the will’ above all else, whereas for Hufford it is ‘the heart’ or the emotions.

Yet a full and robust presentation of the relation between God and human beings must likewise address (and incorporate) the entirety of the human being!  In other words, both reason and the emotions / feelings, the will and the imagination, as well experiences and knowledge claims—the entirety of what it means to be human must both be considered and incorporated into any presentation of what is most crucial to the Christian faith.

So from my perspective, from both my studies and my experience, that which is most essential to the Christian God and human beings may best be summarized under the flexible co-centrality of love and truth, truth and love.  Yet my belief is that these ‘top level’ characteristics / orientations do not suppress or deny the scope of our humanness but rather situate it properly, by most accurately representing that context within which the full scope of our humanness can meet the richest and most biblical portrayal of who God is, a harmony that is also borne out by my personal experience of / with God.

And this, I wager, is what Christians both want and would expect to see: a view of God and self that accurately reflects the biblical claims; understandings and experiences of self and God / self with God that both confirm and enliven those same claims.

Taunts abut Truth: pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism

 

Why should you believe in the Christian God?

“Whereas the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons.  For instance they believe faith is true ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on.”1

Os Guiness penned this in his Time for Truth.  But if Dr. Guiness believes that Christian truth is contrary to what he calls pragmatism, subjectivism and relativism, what happens if we re-frame his sentence to reflect that?  If we do, it would look like this:

“Countless Christians today believe . . . faith is true ‘because it doesn’t work’, because they ‘do not feel it is true in their experience’, and because they sincerely do not believe it is ‘true for them’.” (Emphasis added).

Does this make Christianity sound truthful?

Or even vaguely appealing?

I hope not.

Instead, this reframing detaches it from human experience and makes it sound completely false and untrue.  So what’s going on?  If it is reasonable (and true!) that Christian truth is unrelated to pragmatism, subjectivism or relativism, then why does it sound so wrong when we plainly express it that way?

Let me suggest two reasons.

First, we need to distinguish between pragmatism and ‘being pragmatic’, where pragmatism indicates an ideology versus a ‘pragmatic’ orientation or interest.  So where being pragmatic means that it’s important that things function as they should, adopting pragmatism means that “functionality” is your guiding principal (over and above, say, truthfulness).2

So is being pragmatic (instead of embracing pragmatism) compatible with believing Christianity to be true?  I think so.  And more than that, it’s the same with being subjective and relative.  Here’s why:

As human beings we should value our own lives (we naturally care how things “work out”—we are pragmatic).  We are indeed finite (we see things from our limited, subjective viewpoint).  We understand contextually (we make sense of things relative to our background and experiences).

As I’ve argued before, these characteristics are not limitations but are the very basis for knowing and experiencing anything at all.  But valuing our existence, embracing our finitude, and acknowledging that human understanding is contextual (i.e., being pragmatic, subjective, and relative) are also the necessary ingredients for developing and maintaining a thriving relationship with God!

Second, Os Guiness also writes that “the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true.”3  Yet considering what we have discussed above I believe that this is incorrect.  Or rather, insufficient.  In other words, not only do people experience that Christianity “works,” I believe that Christianity must work in order for belief to be credible.

I would put it like this:

“Christianity is true because it works (as truth-for-me), and it works because it is true (as ultimate Truth).”

Now I maintain that it works (for me or anyone) because it is true (and ultimately so), but in order for me to perceive it as true it must—on some real and tangible level—work for me.  It is the alignment of my fullest / best-reasoned truth (call it ‘truth-for-me’) and the Bible’s truth claims (as ultimate Truth) that convinces me of the truth value of these truth claims.

Back to pragmatics, relativity, and subjectivity.

Aligning Truth and truth-for-me is necessary because humans are finite: bereft of unmediated access to God’s ultimate truth we instead evaluate such truth claims from our subjective, relative position.  Yet valuing my life and how things ‘work out’ for me—being pragmatic—means that it is also necessary for me to substantiate the claim that this God is good and that God’s love for me is real (and not fictional or abusive).

Thus being subjective, relative, and pragmatic are not obstacles to embracing Christian truth but are our very means of doing so.  Next week I examine how.

Stress, pain, and “surrendering all” to God…

 

What are we to do with the things that burden us?  Typically Christians respond that we should “surrender all” to God.

The idea, I think, is to give over my desire to control situations and outcomes, as well as my negative feelings about them, to God.  This way I can be at peace with the matter (and also with God and with others—even those who have hurt me).  And the sooner I do this, the better.

Great goals.

But I don’t think that immediately “surrendering all” to God will achieve them.  Let me explain:

My experience is that God responds to my pleas for help in a variety of ways, based on: a) who I am and understand myself to be, b) what the situation is / how I understand it, and c) the nature of my relationship with God (and who I conceive God to be).  In other words, God’s response always considers “who I am” and “where I’m at.”

And God’s response is always—always—conditioned by God’s greatest desire for me: that I be in right relationship with God (and thereby, in right relationship with myself, others, and the created world).  The core of this “right relationship” is spelled out clearly in the gospels: love God entirely, love yourself rightly (so that you may) love your neighbour likewise.

And this God whom I am to love entirely is one who knows me intimately and loves me adoringly.  So, strange as it may sound, my wager is that being in right relationship with this God means not letting go of our issues but embracing them.  More to the point, perhaps God’s response is not so much to take away our burdens but to be clear (and demonstratively so) that God knows us truly and yet loves us deeply even as we are burdened.

Knowing us truly, God distinguishes between hurts that wound us and our own orientations / filters that create worry, stress, or pain out of situations where they should not.  Both require healing, one because we are wounded by them and the other because we wound ourselves (and likely others) by them.

Loving us deeply, God determines how (and how much) I can understand the difference between the two and God is patient—patient enough to allow me to blunder through this the wrong way.  But God’s love always aims at returning me to right relationship with God.

So in this context “being in right relationship with God” might require such things as me releasing my fears, trusting God, experiencing God’s love, etc.  Yet doing so involves going through the fear, anxiety, or worry that impede this releasing, trusting, experiencing.  It involves literally “sitting in them;” living with the tension they evoke.

And while the Christian life is not to be marked by worry, stress, and negative emotions, I wonder if Christians are too eager to “surrender” what is uncomfortable… to their detriment.  My belief is that we are to rely on God by collaboratively “going through the issues,” understanding that resolution involves many stages.  This sometimes requires me doing (or not doing) certain things, sometimes God.  Sometimes both of us, and sometimes neither—just waiting.

So promptly “surrendering all” needs to be replaced with prudent, reliant stewardship.

As Christians we are to exercise prudent stewardship in the context of right relationship with (and so reliance on) God, even stewardship over things we don’t like.  Yes, I will be victimized—I will suffer rejection, mistreatment, and dismissal.  But, in addition to feeling pain, working through such situations has stimulated my intellect, developed my relational abilities, and cultivated my talents and imagination.

Yes, I may take seasons, years, or even decades to forgive.  But I accept the time because it is only through the full process that forgiveness becomes what it is meant to be: an embodied response capable of reconciling despite great betrayals, and fully able to point back to relationship where I am truly known yet most deeply loved.

Love (1)

 

What is love?

Poetically and philosophically, love is a disposition towards the other, and towards the self as other.  Love is not the relationship but is what characterizes the relationship.  Love is not a choice, rather love entails choices.

Scientifically, love manifests a particular bio-chemical reality (i.e., dopamine and endorphin responses / exchanges) that is perceived as certain emotive responses and that combine to create an attitude toward the beloved.

Love’s occurrence is intimately connected with knowledge of the beloved, even at its very beginning.  Take newborn babies:

Neonatal biology and neurology approach consensus concerning their acceptance of prenatal olfactory learning.[1]  Thus against viewing the earliest human disposition as faith or trust, the infant already ‘knows’ (or pre-understands) her mother’s scent, and is preferentially attracted to it, through the infant’s lived experience of being (indirectly) in relationship with the mother through the infant’s environment (i.e., the uterus).[2]

Yet though particular to her, the scent is not the sum total of who the mother is.[3]  Instead, being guided and soothed by the familiar and pre-understood scent, the neonate is welcomed and introduced—through the opening of her senses and the development of her pre-understandings—to the wonder of her nearly totally unknown mother.

So at its origin, love is an experience of overwhelming wonder and newness within a context of remarkable familiarity.  Infants accept this without question.  For adults, already beyond this stage of easy acceptance, love necessarily comes as surprise.

Love is not planned or predictable.  I do not ‘become’ in love but more aptly fall in love.  As such I am caught unawares, out of control, and disorientated in respect of ‘my world’.  I am, in a sense, out of myself as always seeking (toward) my beloved: I do not simply love, but am properly ‘in’ love.  Hence, love is always bigger than me and envelops my life.

Love is creative and life-giving.  So when we “make love” we see the creativity of our love-making gazing back at us in the faces of the children who are gifted to us.  Love, then, is the stuff of life that brings about life, and happens in and through daily living.

Love involves knowledge of the beloved and always seeks to know further but love, equally, defies the rational: love is without the reasonableness of reciprocity.  Thus we do not merely accept nor trade love: love is not measured but lavished.  We revel in it, offering and receiving it as gift.

Finally, when the emotion fades, love still remains.  Love may be re-evoked as a feeling, like when films or stories (our own included) prompt a response of love.  The durable quality of this feeling we may call a “mood,” a prevailing atmosphere like a kitchen—now empty—redolent of certain spices, used and reused.


[1] See J. Winberg and R. H. Porter, “Olfaction and human neonatal behaviour: clinical applications,” in Acta Paediatr 87 (1998): 6-10;  Benoist Schaal, Luc Marlier, Robert Soussignan, “Olfactory function in the human fetus: evidence from selective neonatal responsiveness to the odor of amniotic fluid,” in Behavioral Neuroscience 112, no.6 (1998): 1438-1449;  R. H. Porter, “The biological significance of skin-to-skin contact and maternal odours,” in Acta Paediatr 93 (2004): 1560-1562;  Katsumi Mizuno, Aki Ueda, “Antenatal olfactory learning influences infant feeding,” in Early Human Development 76 (2004): 83-90.

[2] Where earlier studies held the hypothesis that neonatal olfactory preferences “were either unlearned, i.e., genetically determined, or learned prior to birth” (Winberg and Porter, “Olfaction,” 8, emphasis mine), later studies concluded that, “the soothing effect of amniotic odour may reflect the infants’ familiarity with that scent resulting from prenatal exposure and learning.”  Porter, “Skin-to-Skin contact,” 1562.  This perspective is reinforced by broader, more recent findings where “prenatal learning of olfactory (chemosensory) stimuli has been demonstrated in all the major vertebrate groups.” Peter G. Hepper, Deborah L. Wells, “Prenatal Olfactory Learning in the Domestic Dog” in Chemical Senses 31 (2006): 207-212, 207.

[3] Studies do not show whether neonates can differentiate among lactating women, only that they can distinguish between lactacting and non-lactating women.  See Porter, “Biological Significance, 1561.

Christian theology ♥ modernist philosophy: Why do Christians love modernism?

The desire for absolute truth is wrong.

As I’ve sketched it in relation to Christianity, it starts as a wish for absolute access to the Bible’s truth claims, achieved by absolute openness to the Bible through unprejudiced neutrality, with a goal of providing absolute security: certainty about the Bible’s truth values.  But absolute access, absolute openness, and absolute security are all the same:

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As I hope I’ve shown over my last number of posts, they are wrong because they are simply impossible.  And they are even more wrong for Christians because these views presuppose either the claim of being like God (which is idolatry) or a disparagement of creation (which is a key, God-given resource for validating biblical truth values).

But this is more than overblown aspirations, more than finite humans coveting the absolute.  In Christian terms, if this is sin then it is not simply a sin of commission—acting wrongly.  It is a sin of the mind and of association—choosing the wrong friends, for the wrong reasons.

Specifically, it appears that Christians have developed an entrenched affinity for “modernist” philosophy.

Thus as I argued in my last post, the quest for absolute access to truth claims via absolute, unprejudiced openness and arriving at absolute security (through certainty about truth values) is a portrait of Modernism.

Originating in 17th century Europe, modernist philosophy favoured reason over the senses, experience, tradition, etc., as the best—and only—way accurately to assess truth claims and adjudicate their truth values.  Its goal was to help people to decide on matters that concerned them, and to have certainty about the truth of their decisions.

Modernist thinkers like René Descartes, influenced by Plato, viewed knowledge as stronger (and so better) than belief.  But how could he be sure that was basing his decisions on knowledge and not just mere, unfounded belief?

Viewing reason to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, Descartes’ “method” involved doubting our customs and former beliefs until they pass the test of reason (and so can be considered true knowledge) and rejecting our emotions and passions as outrightly deceptive.  In effect, by starting anew from this neutral “view from nowhere” we would be free from false beliefs and reliant upon true knowledge alone.

The similarities with how some Christians approach the Bible could not be plainer.

So is Christianity bankrupt as a result?  Not at all—at least not on this count.  For again, these ideas are not inherently Christian.  The question is, Why have these views been so broadly (and unwittingly) embraced, and what can be done about it?

As to why, I believe that many Christians have embraced Modernism not only as a hedge against relativism but because it is easier than the alternatives.

First, the finite, contingent nature of human existence implies that we live with various tensions (knowing versus not knowing, presence versus absence, present versus past and future, etc.).  Part of our “job” as human beings, then, is to maintain a flexible and variable relationship between the poles of these tensions.  For example, on some matters we know more (and so can be more confident of our views), whereas on others we know less (and so must be more humble).

Modernism is easy because it effectively collapses the tensions into hierarchies—by following its method we avoid struggling with the hard questions of how to balance these tensions, and with the resultant hard work of possibly revising our beliefs when the balance shifts.

Second, however, Christians who embrace Modernism even collapse key tensions in the Bible!

For example, many over-emphasize how much the Holy Spirit aids Christians in understanding the Bible and under-emphasize (or ignore?) the detrimental and universal effects of sin on the same.  As a result, such Christians are often overconfident concerning how well they know the Bible.

As to what can be done, Christians clearly need to move beyond Modernism.  Next post looks at how.

More than April’s fools? (aka, Descartes’ unwitting disciples)

 

Confession time:

I began this blog intending to show how Christianity is viable, and how the co-centrality of love and truth is instrumental therein.  But I have certainly not done so.

Why?

Because much about Christianity is problematic or broken and this must first be identified, cleared away, and better understandings / approaches put in their place.  For example, I cannot hope for the notion of truth-for-me to seem meaningful so long as readers continue to believe in such false ideas as being able to read the Bible without interpreting it, or to access the Bible’s (absolute) truth absolutely.

Thus my last nine posts have aimed to debunk false views about how we relate to the Bible.  Particularly, false views about how (and how well) we can know the Bible’s content.  Among them, the concepts of certainty, neutrality, and historical independence.

So where does our desire for certainty come from?  Why do we think that we should (or even could) be neutral rather than having biases and prejudgements ?  And why do we want to read the Bible “free” from the views of the past?

As I’ve shown in past posts, the Bible stands against human certainty and nowhere espouses neutrality or historical independence.  Further, it is important to note that the above are all questions about knowledge: how reliable it is and how we get it.  And knowledge (or epistemology) is the domain of philosophy.

Strikingly then our fascination with knowing, or accessing things, absolutely finds its origins in the philosophical movement known as “Modernism.”

The poster boy for modernist thinking is René Descartes.  A French mathematician and philosopher, Descartes is famous for the conclusion “I think, therefore I am.”  But the problem that precedes this conclusion—and the method he used to solve it—are what interest us most.

Through his studies and travels Descartes found that people held all manner of contradictory beliefs.  Nor did the number or education of people who believed something guarantee the truth of it.  In contrast, Descartes observed that in mathematics the proper use of reason guarantees certainty about our conclusions, and so decided that reason properly applied could grant certainty in other areas of life.

Now he had already deduced that all humans have the capacity to reason and that each person is equally able to apply this capacity.  So with the right method and enough practice, human beings could not only know things truly but could even master the natural world, living happier (and even longer) lives.

So what was his “method”?

He started with reason, which is not simply thinking but is specifically the ability to determine truth from falsehood.  Next, Descartes held that “properly applying” one’s reason meant only accepting things as true that were accessible to the mind in a clear and distinct fashion—things that could not be doubted.

But in order for something to be undoubtedly true it must be true despite one’s best efforts to doubt it.  And this is just what Descartes did.  He went through a process of doubting everything that he believed up to that point.

Having already observed how people typically establish their views on inherited practices and customs rather than reason, his method rejects all past opinions as false until proven–by reason–to be true.  Sense perceptions (what we see, hear, and experience) are likewise false until proven true.

The only thing that Descartes could not doubt was that he was thinking, and this gave him absolute certainty of his own existence, upon which he founded his entire philosophy: I think, therefore I am.

But is this important?

You bet.

For in showing us where these “problematic and broken” views about the Bible come from (and what they are based on), we are more able to replace them with better, more functional views.  Specifically, it seems Christians need a better philosophical orientation than Descartes’ Modernism if they are to do justice both to the real world  and to the Bible itself.  More next post.

Interpretation or idolatry (aka: What’s wrong with claiming absolute Truth?)

 

Many Christians contend that the Bible offers absolute (or ultimate) truth.  But this contention immediately raises two problems.  First, Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True (with a capital ‘T’) but rather believe them to be.  Second, there are a plethora of understandings of the Bible: what makes a particular Christian’s view better than anyone else’s?

At stake here is the distinction between absolute (or ultimate) truth and absolute (or ultimate) access to this Truth.1

We can clarify matters by using the terms truth claims (i.e., what is being claimed to be true) and truth value (i.e., just how true a given claim is).  So concerning the nature of its truth claims, Christians point to its content (it concerns matters of ultimate importance for human existence) and its origin (it is divinely revealed) in holding that the Bible’s claims are not simply relative, as perhaps truth-for-me, but absolute / ultimate Truth.

Yet with any assessment of a truth claim—both a) properly determining what the claim is and b) accurately adjudicating that claim: determining whether it is indeed true—we are always faced with the question of how (and how well) we can access this truth claim.  In other words, how (and how well) do we know what is being claimed, and how (and how well) do we decide whether/ to what extent it is true?

Essentially the question of access (to truth claims and their values) depends on our relationship to knowledge: to knowing things and entities.  As such, dealing with truth claims and truth values requires first that we know something about knowing.2

Expressed philosophically, human being are “contingent knowers.”  So our knowledge is limited—but also made possible—by our abilities, situation, and circumstances.  For instance, we know things via our senses, our reason, our experiences, etc.  Expressed theologically, God is infinite and complete, whereas humans are finite and limited.

So what does this mean?

Let’s answer that question by taking these philosophical and theological views about our relationship to knowledge and connecting them with my two, introductory problems with absolute / ultimate truth: the issue of believing versus knowing, and of multiple understandings.

On the one hand, emphasizing that Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True, but rather believe them, underscores the need for faith.  But it does so in order to affirm that people (Christians included) are not like God.  God knows things as they truly are; people understand through the grid work of their finite, situated existence.

On the other hand, the upshot of the preceding is that we necessarily have multiple understandings, given our diversity of backgrounds, experiences, etc.  In other words, as limited beings we necessarily interpret.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.  God knows, people interpret.

Some classic examples of wrong-headed thinking are to claim, as I’ve heard some Christians do, that when reading the Bible they do not interpret but simply “Read what’s there.”  Or again to claim, as I’ve heard other Christians do, essentially that they interpret flawlessly: that their interpretations are “right” whereas those of other Christians or non-Christians are “wrong.”

Philosophically speaking, to claim either that we do not interpret or interpret flawlessly is to claim to know (or access) absolute Truth absolutely.  It is to claim certainty, which is beyond human ability.  Theologically speaking, it is to declare ourselves beyond the limited, situated scope within which God created us and to make ourselves equals with God.  It is to break the First Commandment: it is idolatry.

The point, then, is that even if we grant that biblical truth claims may be ultimately True, Christians do not (nor does anyone else) possess absolute access to this absolute / ultimate truth, nor can they offer such to others.

In my next post I examine the positive significance of finitude for our relation to t/Truth: the importance of interpretation and experience.