Assimilation, accommodation, and phronesis

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

I wondered about the role of several factors in this process. The first one is recognition.

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

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

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

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

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

This leads to the second factor I would consider in this process of assimilation versus accommodation.

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

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

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

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

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

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 3

My last blog post was the second of a three-part reply to a recent comment, by “Listener.” In this last part I want to address two of Listener’s points. Here is the first:

“Some things must be felt with the heart because the intellect cannot adequately hold the entire mystery of God.” I agree that our emotional responses provide important information, and that some things may be more immediately accessible to the emotions than, say, the intellect. Yet as I wrote last post about the need to become skilled ‘readers of ourselves’, so I would argue that it is not either the intellect or the emotions. It must, to my way of thinking, always be both.  And not just these two.

In other words, human understanding necessarily incorporates the entirety of what and who we are as human beings. What does this entail? At base, it means learning how to invigorate and then interweave our faculties (intellect, emotions, memory, sense perception, imagination, experience) judiciously yet artfully, such that our way of seeing and our way of being are individually and mutually informing (and so able both to corroborate and critique one another). This, in essence, is the meaning (and result) of being a competent ‘reader’ of oneself.

Concerning the “mystery of God,” I think that we must be careful in what we view as “mysterious” about God, and what we do not.  For instance, whether an event represents God expressing love to me in some rather direct way may be mysterious in that we cannot be definitive about such conclusions, but the fact that God loves us is not.  Much more could be said, but I will leave it there for now.

This leads me to Listener’s second point: “What I have found in my spiritual journey is that people often measure my experiences of God against their own, rather than anything else. In other words, if they do not experience God in the same way, then they will dismiss what I have experienced. This seems to driven (at least in part) either by ego or envy. People can become envious that they have not heard from God in the same way. The fact is that God interacts personally and uniquely with each individual according to the grace given them and to their specific purpose.”

I resonate with this situation. Yet I also think that matters are not so straightforward. First, I believe that scepticism and suspicion must be overcome, not avoided, which is actually best achieved by encouraging my listeners to assume these perspectives: encouraging them to be sceptical and suspicious. And I do so not only by appreciating their questions but by having already applied these perspectives to myself: having my own sceptical and suspicious perspectives “ready at hand” concerning the very experiences that I proclaim, as true, to others.

In fact, I feel comforted when my audience is sceptical or suspicious because then I know that they share with me an important goal: truth-seeking. And my audience will likely be reassured when they understand that I, too, have taken a rigorous approach by applying scepticism to any event to which I attach such large claims, and to myself as the claimant.

Thus for the events in my life that I believe represent “exceptional experiences” of God, I hope that people will judge them. I hope that they will do so by applying scepticism and suspicion to how I present these events and to what I have “made of” the situations upon which they are based. For by so doing my audience inevitably spends more time and pays more attention to these events and, should they view me as credible, may develop greater trust in my accounts (or testimony).

So my job is not to try to avoid their scepticism and suspicion, but to encourage it. Further, by having a better understanding both of human being and the Christian God, my job is both to assist listeners to assess my experiences, whether by anticipating objections (and thus including partial responses when presenting my experiences) or by educating listeners towards the most applicable lines of questioning in order, thereby, to validate my experiences as true.

Lastly, what I’m proposing is time consuming. Yet this is not a problem but to be expected, for my goal is not explaining my experience so much as offering possibilities, through presenting my experience, of relationship between my audience and God. And this means two things.

On the one hand, my experience is not incidental to this “furthering” but essential to it, because I am proposing relationship between my audience and this God, the God that I have encountered and am describing to you. On the other hand, then, I believe that this process of presenting my experience and jointly validating it will both take time to unfold and will itself be part of that larger relationship that I am hope will develop.

In this way, as I engage with the other I both “remain myself” and become part of this person’s relationship with God: I become a partial embodiment of what it means for God to be present to another person, to meet that person’s needs, etc.

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 2

This post is the second part of my reply to “Listener’s” recent comment.

Previously I replied to Listener’s view that followers of God will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God. Further, that “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” To this point I raised the importance of employing scepticism and suspicion, both defining them and then explaining the importance of suspicion.

In this post I want to go further, by putting scepticism and suspicion to work on Listener’s next point.  Her next comment was: “When a person receives something beautiful from the Lord, the enemy will move in quickly to cause them to doubt its authenticity (because his whole goal is to kill, steal and destroy) and if he can do this through the voice of other Christians, it is far more effective in shutting down moves of the Spirit than someone who does not claim faith. That is why it is crucially important for each and every one of us to be very, very careful with the hearts of our brothers and sisters.”

I understand the logic and plausibility of this view, and it has some correspondence with the parable of the sower that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 13, Mk 4, Lk 8). Yet here, too, scepticism and suspicion must be at play.

Recall: scepticism addresses the opacity of facts while suspicion addresses the duplicity of persons.1

So on the level of the facts, scepticism asks: Who says that something is either “beautiful” or is “from the Lord”? On what basis can these claims be substantiated (or, what is the truth value of such truth claims)? On the level of persons, suspicion asks: What else might be going on here? What does the claimant stand to gain by making this claim (or lose if they don’t)? Such questions become more prominent the more the link between the facts and the claims seems weak or incoherent.

Now part of the difficulty in treading this ground is that Christians have never, to my knowledge, systematized claims about experiencing God in the same way that they have systematized, in their theology, claims to information about God.

In other words, knowing God through relationship and knowing about God through the Bible have received very different treatment over the history of Christianity. Yet, ironically, so many Christians want to claim—and seem to base their Christianity upon—the importance of specific, personal experiences with / from God (in the form of answered prayer, providential acts of divine intervention, etc.).

To be clear, I am not advocating theology instead of experience. Actually, I want to redress the overwhelming disparity between the two: to situate them in their proper relationship, which is theology with experience. I believe that at least three basic steps are required to right the relationship between the Bible and experience, between factual knowledge about God and personal / relational knowledge of God.

First, in addition to providing information about human beings and limited information about the natural world, the Bible points to God and explains who God is, how God acts, and what God seeks. As such, experiencing God is theological where it is the natural outcome of a God who acted, and continues to act, so as to seek ongoing relationship with humanity.

Second, experience is not simply the interpreted events or situations of a single person but, in Christianity, experience is essentially corporate. This is because testimony, as the credible accounts of others, is essential in order for people to come to relationship with God or to strengthen existing relationship with God.

So Christianity depends on others sharing their experiences of God yet, because this experiential content also informs us about God’s character and manner of relating (literally, it further informs us who God is relative to human beings), it is essential that Christians are not deceived in what they accept or deceptive in what they share. To this end, the Bible contains numerous warnings about false teachers, false prophets, and wrong teaching. And make no mistake: when we claim special interaction with God (and especially, when we conclude specific things about God on the basis of this interaction) we are indeed taking the role of teacher and potentially, prophet.

Third, given the necessarily theological character of experience and essential nature of testimony, Christians need to cultivate personal ‘exegesis’ on the same level as textual exegesis: Christians need to become equally skilled at ‘reading themselves’ as they do at reading the Bible. This is not to put the two on the same level but to affirm that both are complimentary, as requisites toward attaining the same goal.

Next post I aim to wrap up this examination by considering Listener’s final point: what to do with Christians who seem to respond to our experiential claims with envy or disdain, and to consider our reasons for sharing our “exceptional” experiences.

Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).

Loving God or “seeking” God’s kingdom?

In a recent conversation a friend and I considered the difference between “seeking” God’s kingdom and the command to love God. 

Which is more important?

My first concern was for clarification: Can love be commanded?  How are we to understand this ‘command’?  How should we understand love generally?

Many Christians claim that loving God is (or starts with) something one does rather than something what one experiences and emotes.  Instead, I maintain the importance of both one’s emotions about / toward God and one’s actions for / in light of God.  I do so in part because I believe that loving God always begins with a combination of understanding and experience (about / related to God), out of which emotional responses are awakened (and can, later, be dimmed).

But what about this ‘command’?

The command to love God is found in three passages in the synoptic gospels (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10) and each points back to Deuteronomy (noting especially Deut. chapters 6, 7, 10).  Clearly much of Deuteronomy’s content has the sense of a commandment, yet I believe that this must be balanced with the biblical claim / trajectory toward relationality: from God to us, then from us to God.

Particularly, both textually and experientially, I believe that the notion of commanding love’s inception makes no sense: love never starts as as act of the will.  The biblical text corroborates this, as the ‘commands’ to love in Deuteronomy come after the Israelites’ quintessential experience of being delivered (that is, deeply cared for and loved): the Exodus.  Thus God is ‘commanding’ love within the pre-existing context of a long and established history with a people who have good reason to understand clearly how—and how much—God indeed loves them! 

Experientially love begins as a preoccupation, yet a preoccupation that results in action.  However, this is not to suggest that love “matures” from emotion into action.  Instead, I believe that love is an abiding orientation chiefly characterized by excess.  So the lover’s compunction for action corresponds to love’s ‘excessive’ nature which always seeks expression, as both joyful exclamation and as catharsis.  And while this expression may take the form of thoughts and words (letters, poetry, songs) it also become concretized, through our choice-making, into action.  

So while love is not an effort of the will, neither is it pure desire.  Instead love, like other emotions, has its roots in understanding.1  In other words, just as fear arises when certain phenomenon or states of affairs threaten my existence so love begins when I perceive, at a profound level, that in the other I am being offered goods necessary to my existence / flourishing.  And while love is often coupled with perceptions of the beloved’s qualities (beauty, character, etc.) love also distinguishes itself from admiration or infatuation.

So while it involves the will, love is not derived from the will.  And while it expresses desire, love is not solely desire.  This distinction both clarifies that emotions are not subservient to the intellect (but exist in tandem with it, each having its own role) and focuses on the necessarily self-involving nature of love: love involves (and is predicated upon) a deep, ‘gut level’ understanding that the beloved offers goods necessary to my existence and / or flourishing.

This relationship between love and understanding has three implications:

First, as an abiding orientation that is based upon certain ‘understandings’ and elicits desire, it explains why love cannot be commanded.  Thus it addresses certain Christian misunderstandings about how to enter into relationship with God, such as the claim that we must “act” as though we love God or that the command to love is really a call to obedience (because “obedience is God’s love language”).

Willpower can be summoned, but emotions must be evoked: I can no more be commanded to emote a certain emotion than commanded to experience those states of affairs upon which my emotions are based (i.e., understanding the benefits that God offers relative to my wellbeing and very existence).  Dually contextualized by the biblical text and the love’s functioning within human experience, the ‘greatest commandment’ is seen to be a poetic command: the command of love or of love’s significant possibility to the one who already loves (or very likely could / should love): love me!  And let this love relationship reorient you towards all aspects of your exsitence! 

Second, because emotions relate to (and indeed, are based on) understandings, emotions can be evaluated.  On the one hand, emotions arise out of perceptions and understandings that occur at a deep level, which explains why love’s occurrence is often surprising (e.g., we don’t “see it coming”).  Yet as we develop our skills of self-reflection and examination we may become increasingly capable “readers” of ourselves in this regard.

On the other hand, we do not evaluate our emotions in order to minimize or dismiss them, but in order to learn more about ourselves and to decide how to respond to them.  In other words, not every occurrence of the emotion of love needs to merit the same response!  So I may recognize that my disposition toward several people is love, but due to various factors I may respond to them differently.2

Third, the connection between love and what is needed to further my existence and flourishing raises the notion of “emotional responsibility”: the responsibility to be properly invested in one’s own value and worth (i.e., to be fully situated as a self within one’s world) such that I am able to respond appropriately to situations where I am offered goods the benefit my existence and enhance my flourishing.

Without this due and necessary attachment to oneself one cannot rightly understand (and so cannot develop proper emotional responses to) events that crucially support and / or renew my existence.  The content of these experiences—and the relationship between loving God and “seeking” God’s kingdom—will be the focus of several upcoming blog posts.

The Bible or Life: Which comes first?

Much religious conversation between Christians and non-Christians is a non-starter: it’s over before it even begins.  Why?  Because before any discussion begins the parties typically have radically opposing views about how to understand human existence.

Here Christians effectively insist: think like me (i.e., accept my beliefs on faith) and then you’ll understand Christianity—and so all of reality—correctly.  Non-Christians, for reasons that I’ve already discussed, find this offensive and effectively insist: think (i.e., get in touch with reality, like the rest of us) and then you’ll understand the world (and Christian belief) correctly.

This antithesis represents the different answers that we hold about starting points: which comes first, Christian belief or life experience?

Most Christians that I know do not even recognize this as being a question.  In other words, most Christians have an implicit ‘answer’ that is short and decisive: the Bible conditions how we understand existence.  Full stop.  Any other view contradicts their beliefs and so must be wrong.  For most non-Christians that I know the question, when given any air time, is less implicit but the response no less short and decisive: existence conditions how we understand the Bible.  Full stop.  Any other view is illogical because it negates experience, and so must be wrong.

Yet both of these views fall prey to reductionism: the claim that we can only understand matters in one way (or else be wrong).  And the result of reductionism is polarization: holding an absolute position that precludes dialogue, just as I have described above.

Strikingly though, I think that both parties are right and wrong: truth need neither be circumscribed by a certain belief system nor limited to a given groups’ rationality or experience.  In other words, both views require re-formulation because both fail to reflect both the complexity / diversity of human existence and the specificity of the biblical text.

Let’s start with the typical Christian perspective.  When Christians consider (and do not dismiss) the above question, how do they respond?  A Christian professor of mine did so by citing what he called the Christian tetralectic (or “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).  He suggested that in order to arrive at truth Christian thinking draws from four sources: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When asked how to adjudicate between them when they are in conflict, he responded that a Christian should always privilege Scripture.

His model assumes that Christianity is good and the Bible is valuable, which indeed it may be.  Yet it fails to assume that Christianity can also be bad and the Bible problematic.

Here are two examples:

First, a philosopher referred to writing as two-edged sword—a “Pharmikon,” he called it.  In brief, writing is valuable for recording events and can contain, and present things in a manner that speech cannot.  Yet writing is problematic in that it effectively replaces memory and can give the appearance of knowledge without any real understanding.

The role of the Bible as Scripture, a text that is determinative for life and practice, is similar.  Scripture helps Christians to understand who God is and what Christian practice is about, but can be problematic when Christians equate these understandings with God and with practicing the Christian life.

Second, the problem becomes worse—and the solution more inaccessible—when entire Christian contexts are characterized by corruption or dysfunction (as the corrupt church in Nazi Germany / apartheid South Africa, but also the dysfunctional church as characterized by over-confidence and informed by a good portion of current, biblical hermeneutics).

Within such contexts the only endorsed interpretations of Scripture are those that validate (and so perpetuate) this very context.  Yet one can only reject such corruption or dysfunctionality by privileging one’s experience and understanding over such interpretations of Scripture.1

While the discussion is much longer, this highlights the need for a crucial modification to my former professor’ model: where his embraces faith (in Scripture, in reason, in experience, in tradition) we need also suspicion.  And we need not only suspicion of others but also the ability to re-orient it towards ourselves.

The love I have known

 

(I wrote this several years ago in response to an anonymous article in my graduate school newspaper.  The article was written by a young woman struggling with her husband’s addiction to pornography).

 

I want to reply to this anonymous article by recounting two experiences.  The first occurred recently when, here at graduate school, I talked with a group of new classmates about “prayer and fasting.”  Some had tried it, some had not, though no one had anything significant to relate.  As the discussion proceeded I became increasingly uncomfortable: I had tried it and had experienced something, something transformative and healing.

My point is not that God answers prayer or makes things “all better” if we pray (and perhaps fast) hard enough.  No.  My point is that I was embarrassed to speak because the environment precluded the very type of discussion that was sought—how could I be so vulnerable with people I hardly knew, share something so special with a 10 minute time-limit?

The second occurred years earlier when my wife and I grew increasingly anxious as her fourth pregnancy came to term.  Her high blood pressure and other symptoms hinted that we might lose another baby.  Looking for help, I turned to Ina May Gaskin’s classic, Spiritual Midwifery.  Rifling through the book I was completely deflated: where was the help that I needed?  Instead of re-assuring information it was simply filled with stories.

Yet as I read the book something strange started to happen.  I found myself in the presence of women whose experiences of birth and birthing covered the map—wonderful or tragic, complicated or serenely simple.  Yet among them all was the realization that they were involved in something more, something which they did not control, something which they longed for, something supremely real.  Through reading their stories, I came to understand that I was not alone.

These two accounts go together.

On the one hand I not only understand but believe the biblical accounts of God healing people because I have experienced such healing in my life.  Yet sadly it is also the case that our churches—like seminaries and Christian graduate schools—can often be the very places where discussing our best experiences of God (and sometimes our deepest needs for God) is hardest.

On the other hand, my experience is that God’s healing occurs partly as we tell our stories and hear those of others; as we realize that we are not alone nor without hope here and now: our lives and marriages aren’t designed to endure our brokenness until “eschatological” healing occurs.

Having been sexually abused I have some sense of the pain and recalcitrance of sexual brokenness.  To complicate matters, I understand that addictions are but symptoms—surface-level outworkings of deeper hurts and ills.  So more than stopping the symptoms we must know their causes, which means understanding oneself and one’s history.  This process of “reading” ourselves is one of self-discovery, of meeting the alien (and often unpalatable) aspects of our upbringing, life choices, and beliefs.

Despite the mending that is possible, this side of God’s full presence I don’t believe that we get ‘all better’.

But, maybe, that’s the point.

What I mean is that the journey towards wholeness necessarily travels through honesty, with stops at disappointment, defeat, and loneliness.  Yet it finishes via self-forgiveness and self-love.  In other words, my experience is that in healing us God also makes us real.  And this “realness” is not so much the product of being healed but comes through experiencing the core of God’s desire for our wholeness: God’s love.

Greater than my anger, deeper than my shame, nearer than my hurt, was a longing to be loved and to love, to be responded to as Job: where God spoke not of me (and my pain), but to me in my deepest and best personhood—where God was not simply divine or powerful but real, and God really loved me.  “ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.  When [he] loves you . . . REALLY loves you, then you become real.’ ” (The Velveteen Rabbit).

God sees the heart; we are not so lucky.  Yet as I reflect on the pain in the hearts of that couple I’ll wager that they are not alone.  The woman wrote anonymously—without a name.  I suspect this is because much of their emotional currency went into living with this addiction: living on the margins of their Christian community and concealing a secret considered too ugly to share.

I am posting this with my name attached because I know how lonely the margins can be, so I hope that my story helps those who are there feel less alone.  And also I publish this because the fear of our ugliness (and the difficulty our churches have in bearing it) is overcome in the same way—by being made real: “these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Ibid.)

Such is the love I have known.

Not as different as we seem…?

 

Recently I interacted with Christian author Frank Viola,where he blogged about a hypothetical conversation between two Christians (Chris & Bill) who both value the Bible but disagree on how to arrive at its meaning.

Frank focuses on their differing “communication styles.”  The one, Chris, uses what Frank calls the Charismatic Spiritual Conversation style (or CSC) and understands a biblical passage because “God showed me” or “the Spirit revealed to me” what it means.  The other, Bill (no “style” is actually associated with Bill’s approach), understands the Bible exegetically and hermeneutically.

Viola believes that their communication is frustrated because they use different communication styles (CSC vs. not CSC).

I don’t think so.

Specifically, the issue is not different “styles” / approaches but two sides of the same, disjointed ideology: an ideology that I believe fails properly to integrate our humanity with our Christian faith.  Let’s take a closer look.

What Frank refers to as “CSC” I would describe as the belief that we directly access biblical meaning through personal experience of God—knowing the Bible by knowing God.  What Frank refers to as the “exegetical, hermeneutical” style means believing that we reliably access biblical meaning through exegesis—knowing the Bible (and so God) through proper reading method.

The one touts experience, the other touts method.

Yet despite their different starting points both have much in common.  Further, rather than “running to excess,” both actually need to carry their emphases further.  Let me suggest four ways that this is so.

First, both are hermeneutically oriented.  So those who prize experience do actually maintain a hermeneutic (i.e., a lens, through which they read the Bible) that negates the necessity of exegesis because it denies that there is any distance between the text and the reader.  It does so because the Bible’s ultimate ‘author’ is giving readers the “inside scoop” on what it means.

Second, both are experientially oriented.  So those who prize proper reading method do actually emphasize their experience of God, particularly during discussions with non-Christians where they often use it as a ‘response of last resort’ against the claims of atheists / agnostics (“You just need to believe to understand”) or to curtail discussion (“We can only talk so far because we don’t have Christ in common”).

Third, however, rather than less emphasis on personal experience we need more.  Specifically, humans understand experience by drawing conclusions on the existential events that we undergo and testing these conclusions over time.  So reflecting on my experiences in my family of origin, marriage, etc., (i.e., how much and why I esteem them, and the outcome of doing so) can inform—and possibly correct—how much I esteem my experiences of God in understanding the Bible.

Fourth, and by extension, rather than less focus on exegesis we need more.  Specifically, the “greatest commandment” (to love God entirely, in response to God’s deep love for us) is an invitation to a love relationship that is not only core to Christian experience, but the basis of Christian understanding.  As such, being Christian involves not only applying proper method to Bible reading but also to ourselves: becoming skilled readers of our motives, intentions, etc.

These four points show how Chris & Bill’s approaches are not incompatibly different but are complimentary, yet incomplete because they are unintegrated.

In all areas of life, humans rely on explanations of how things work and then put these understandings in motion (such as understanding the Bible in order to know God).  Likewise, we experience things working and then are able to explain—to ourselves and others—how this is so (such as experiencing God and, thereby, understanding the Bible).

And the relationship between these two opposite approaches is reciprocal and productive: sometimes experience generates understanding, sometimes understanding prompts (or recontextualizes) experience.  And new experiences (and new understandings) prompt us to rework our understandings, or reconsider our interpretations of experience.

We need experience; we also need exegesis.  And we do not need to choose between them but properly to understand them, and so, integrate them.

Truths about Truth: being pragmatic, subjective, and relative

 

Christians are quite concerned about truth.

For example, Os Guiness argues that Christian truth is opposed to pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism.  Yet as I discussed last week, we must be careful to distinguish between pragmatism and being pragmatic; between subjectivism and being subjective; between relativism and being relative.

Why?

The issue is that while certain ideologies are destructive their underlying orientations may be helpful (and even necessary).  For example, the ‘ism’ in pragmatism specifies an ideology—it means that a pragmatic orientation is not simply accepted but is one’s “guiding principle.”  So when someone embraces pragmatism ‘functionality‘ becomes more important to that person than anything, even truthfulness.

Now I agree that truthfulness should be a guiding principle for everyone, Christian or not.1  But we must be very careful not to confuse destructive ideologies with proper, human orientations, especially when such orientations are necessary to assessing the Bible’s truth claims correctly (orientations such as being pragmatic, subjective, and relative).  Why necessary?

Here’s why: Christianity concerns not simply intellectual assent but relational content.

In other words, Christianity is not only thinking rightly about God but being rightly disposed to God, and these two things are reciprocal.  So to be in right relationship with God I must know some true things about God (i.e., that this God alone is God, that the Bible especially reveals this God, that I communicate with God by prayer, etc.).  Yet I can only understand and believe the Bible’s relational claims about God (i.e., that God knows me and loves me) through personal experience.

Further, while right disposition begins with right understanding, their reciprocal relation means that right disposition also creates right belief and understanding!  So Christians generally understand that one cannot rightly relate to God if this God is conceived of (and so is pursued) as Allah, the Hindu Gods, etc.  Yet they often misunderstand that the Bible’s undeniably personal and relational claims (i.e., that God knows me better than I know myself and loves more deeply than I love myself) can only be validated through personal experience.

And validating these relational truth claims—recognizing their truth value—requires being pragmatic, relativistic, and subjective.

This is so because these truth claims are both intellectual and relational, in keeping with a) my human nature as situated and finite and b) God’s nature, who is love, and so seeks to be in relationship with me.  Intellectually, I assess any truth claim from my subjective viewpoint and relative to my finite experience.  Yet relationally I am always seeking my own good (I’m pragmatic because it matters to me how things turn out in my own life), and so claims about being known and loved must turn out to be just that!2

Now having personal experience of God does not necessitate that everyone experiences God in dramatic and undeniable ways.  But my hunch is that it does mean that within current communities of Christians there will be personal experiences of relating with God that validate the truth claim that “God knows and loves us” in deep—and deeply healing and satisfying—ways.

What do I mean?

By “current communities” I mean that it is not enough to read how God delivered Israel, supported David, or even how Jesus healed and fed many.  I believe these accounts.  However, my argument is that the Bible’s claims that God is real and good are validated by experiencing God delivering, restoring and healing now, in the lives of real people.  Literally.3

By “personal experiences” I do not mean that God will appear to everyone similarly or with the same intensity.  Instead, Christianity endorses testimony—understandable accounts from credible people—as a valid way to know and understand God.  Through testimony I understand and am mentored in the relational component of Christian faith.  In this respect I would say that God engages with humanity personally but not individually.

Considering these questions may help:
a) If you are Christian, what relational experiences of God are important within your Christian community?
b) If you are not Christian, what relational experiences have been important in your life?

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.