Theory over practice? Part I

Clearly, “theory is more important than practice” when it comes to Christianity.

Or at least, during a recent conversation a friend wondered if this was my view. She noted that I focus on theory in my podcast and speculated that perhaps the reason for this is that I am more gifted with theoretical concepts than with practical applications.

I told her that I could not disagree more: all of my theory is born out of experiencing (and needing to make sense of) powerful events in my life, both wonderful and terrible.

So why do I have this “theoretical” focus?

The reason, as I see it, is that discussions about practice are actually just as difficult as discussions about theory, but these difficulties present themselves in subtler ways and so they are actually more difficult to identify and address. Maybe a good place to start is the difference between a theoretical and a practical discussion.

When “talking theory” we are essentially speaking about generalities—considering the general principles that might guide our everyday actions or judgements. Thus we promote various theories on the basis of their merits, and we identify them as meritorious (and argue for them as such) based on their benefits, as perceived and judged by our faculties: intellect, imagination, senses, experience, etc.

When talking practicalities we are essentially speaking of specifics—considering how we would respond to this or that situation based on its particularities of setting, timing, nature, participants, etc. We develop our theories from our experience of similar, practical situations and we understand (and respond to) practical situations better by analyzing the results of our past attempts, out of which we form theories.

On the one hand, practice seems like it must always precede theory. How can I form general understandings without specific experiences to act as raw data, upon which to build such a theory? Yet on the other hand, like much of our understanding we learn through observation. This is much like language use, where humans always receive language before being able (and in order) to use it. Similarly, beginning at a very young age we experience emotional responses that guide our actions.

Thus the combination of modelling and disposition represent our “starting point” when it comes to responding to practical situations.

In other words we always already have inputs, whether our own or that of our parents, older siblings, etc. Added to these are our emotional responses that, even when we are unaware of them, have the effect of guiding our actions. Perhaps this is not “theory” in any true sense—certainly these inputs are not the product of any assessment or understanding on our part. Yet the upshot is the same: are responses are guided by certain factors and, as we develop, we begin to adjust future responses based on past successes (and failures).

So far, so good.

So as humans develop they increasingly understand the present in light of the past and so adjust their responses accordingly. In other words, they learn from their mistakes. Why then would I claim that practical discussions have subtle implications that can be more difficult to identify and address than theoretical discussions? What are these subtleties?

Well, let me answer that by first considering the aims of a practical discussion. When it comes to discussing everyday situations, whether as one seeking or giving advice, my aim is effectiveness in meeting my goals within the bounds of the ethical and the possible. In other words, I value “what works” (or seems reasonably like it might work) providing that the solution attains my goals, is feasible to carry out, and favours the good treatment of all concerned.

Now here things get tricky. Assessing what works (or might work) is obviously a matter of best-guesswork. Assessing what constitutes good treatment of myself and others may be even less clear. But the issue is not that we may disagree about what works (effectiveness), or about how feasible or ethical a particular approach is. Rather, the tricky part is that Christians actually have two sets of rules, depending on the situation: a) the normal, everyday rules and b) the Christian rules. And further, these two rule-sets have contradictory aims and boundaries.

Next post I offer examples of these two rule sets and how their contradictory aims and boundaries have subtle but important implications for Christians who are making practical decisions.

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.

Is Christianity “the one true way”?


I believe that it is.  But what does this mean?

To begin, I do not mean that only in Christianity is there truth.  Nor do I mean that one can only understand truth if one is a Christian.  Rather, I mean that only in Christianity do I find love that is fully true and fully “for me” and truth that knows me, affirms me, critiques me, and yet offers me back to myself as more the self I long to be than any other.

Here’s why:

My imagination, reason, emotions—all of my faculties and what it is for me to be human and “me”—and my experiences with and of God point to love and truth as being at the core of human existence.  In other words, they are the most essential elements for and within the existence of human beings.

Now this is a big claim, I know.  And beyond questions about a) the exact nature of love and truth, and b) my response to those who don’t value truth and love as I do, there is another issue: isn’t personal experience rather too limited a basis for one’s beliefs?

For I have not arrived at this conclusion based on an existential comparison of various religions—I have not been a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, etc. and then compared such with my experience as a Christian.

No, my claim is not that my experience is more real / meaningful than that of others, but that a) love and truth are more essential to right human existence than all else, and b) that love and truth have their origin in the Christian God love and that in relationship with this God we experience the fulfillment of love and truth in our lives.

So my personal experience must be commensurate with who God claims to be.  Only then will there be reciprocity between my truth, as truth-for-me, and God’s ultimate truth, or Truth.

In other words, examining a religion’s truth claims is crucial, because we can only expect from a religion what it claims to offer.  And for me the biblical truth claims are radically different from what I perceive elsewhere:

  1. God created us to be in loving, truthful relationship with us and so that we might be likewise related with God, the earth, our fellows, and ourselves;
  2. We do things that sunder those relationship, which we call ‘sin’;
  3. God chose a people (Israel) and made an arrangement with them (a covenant) for the purpose of dealing with sin and its result, which is separation from God and ultimately death (more on this later).  By Israel keeping the covenant the whole world was to come into right relationship with God;
  4. However, Israel instead viewed the covenant as a matter of national pride (rather than national responsibility) and distorted its laws, which broke the covenant;
  5. Jesus came to fulfill the covenant by living as Israel was to have lived and by accepting the consequences of Israel having broken the covenant (i.e., death) upon his person, so that Israel was not destroyed;
  6. Fulfilling the covenant did not simply result in continuing the old testamental norms but inaugurated the far grander reality of the Kingdom of God, whereby all of existence is able to be reconciled to God through Jesus;
  7. This “new way” meant that the whole world could now be in right  relationship with God, and that God was not simply our sovereign (as with Israel) but our father (as Jesus taught a revolutionary new way to pray: “Our Father who is in heaven . . .”);
  8. So Christians are essentially characterized in two ways, as reflects who God is: as servants who offer obedient service to God the sovereign (i.e., being beholden to God’s t/Truth) and as children who love God, even as God who is our true Father loves us (i.e., being in love with God, who loves us and is love).

The point is this: love and truth are integral to God’s nature (and to the relationship that God desires with us), yet they are likewise quintessentially human (as essential to becoming fully the creatures that we are meant to be, through being in right relationship with God).

Hell is… good?


Eternal damnation is good, because God is good.

For Christians like John Piper, God alone defines goodness, such that something is not good and so God does it.  Rather God does a thing, and so it is good.  Thus integral to questions about Hell is deciding (and how we decide) who God is, and deciding (and how we decide) what constitutes goodness.

Some Christians describe Piper’s perspective as a ‘high view’ of both Scripture and God’s sovereignty.  This high view amounts to prioritizing Scripture as the exclusive informer on this issue and, typically, identifying God exclusively as a sovereign or king.

Interestingly, for many Christians the “exclusivity” here is neither an option nor even a conscious choice, but is simply what is: their culture offers no other options, or excludes other options as (nearly) heretical.

Piper’s position (and the ‘high view’ of scripture that undergirds it) is thus handy because it intellectually “solves” any apparent contradictions with how God acts (or fails to act) and our understanding of God as infinitely good.  For Piper “it’s all good” with God, including Hell.

The problem is that intellectual solutions do not necessarily equate with either personal solutions or actual, real solutions.

More pointedly, Piper and others would insist that we take ourselves ‘out of our skin’ (or else harden our skin to rock) so that we do not feel loss as loss or hurt as hurt, and so do not perceive the notion of eternal punishment for finite actions as sadistic injustice.

The problem is that Piper is playing on one register while ignoring the other, and this in two ways.

On the one hand, he is taking a thoroughly modernist approach in prioritizing reason above the emotions, senses and other faculties.  For our emotions and senses clearly offer valuable information in everyday life (both to supplement and, at times, correct our reason) and are depicted in the Bible as essential to understanding God—humans are called to “taste” and “see” God’s goodness!

Thus true human understanding requires the use all our faculties that, for Christians, are God-given.

On the other hand, the exegetical basis on which Piper stands is remarkably one-sided.  By depicting God as primarily sovereign he ignores great swathes of the Bible that portray God as father and parent.  Re-stating Colin Gunton’s point, Piper is prioritizing the will to love.

Ironically then, by viewing God primarily as sovereign (with the goal, perhaps, of defending God’s ‘full divinity’) Piper denigrates our God-given humanity through falsely reducing us to rational beings who act according to our wills.  Even more ironically, this also strips God of so much of God’s own character, for God is love.  Piper’s position at best ignores this crucial point, at worst it imperils it.

For example, many people have abandoned Christianity because the goodness of God is contradicted by eternal, unending suffering just as it is when God doesn’t “show up” in the face of the hurt, loss, or evil in human existence.

Yet Piper’s view only compounds the issue because, according to his ‘high view’ of Scripture, God doesn’t need to “show up.”  To insist on such would reduce God to a puppet, not a king.  And on the injustice of eternal punishment, Piper and crew would likely side with St. Anselm: humans merit infinite, eternal punishment because they have transgressed an infinite majesty.

No, not so.

What I want is not a God who (purportedly) makes sense as a construct, but who loves me in ways that make sense in (and through) my lived existence—a God before whom I can sing and dance, and that I can adore as my children adore me: with joy.  Because no matter how powerful, clearly understandable, and awe-inspiring this God may be, I won’t bow to a tyrant—I won’t worship a beast.

We need a God who answers not with words, but with God-self; who answers not just our cries (or criteria or critiques) but ourselves.  Nothing less will do.

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.