“Relational truth” explained

What is “relational” truth?

Several posts ago I argued that the Bible is mainly concerned with relational truth (as opposed to mathematical, physical, or logical truth). Today I want to expand on the notion of relational truth and connect it with the need for Christians to understand in order to believe, rather than “simply believing.”

Relational truth comprises both factual and relational knowledge of entities. On the one hand, it is information about someone as understood more objectively: knowledge of past deeds, situations, and other facts that can be itemized or listed. On the other hand, it is the intimate knowledge that one only gains through ongoing relationship with that individual. This type of information is always personal (though it need not be individual).

To clarify this last point, relational knowledge is information derived from personal involvement and that reveals not just what someone did, who that person is. Yet this information could come via someone else, who has had close involvement with the person in question—someone who “testifies” about this person on the basis of his or her personal experiences.

So relational truth is comprised of factual and relational knowledge. Yet because these words seem overly similar I tend to use French verbs instead, savoir and connaître, in place of “factual knowledge” and “relational knowledge.” Savoir refers to information about someone (date of birth, passport number, employment record, etc.) and connaître refers to knowing someone through relationship (understanding personality, character, preferences, etc.).1

Savoir is knowing details about someone’s life; connaître is actually being a part of that life.

An important characteristic when evaluating savoir and connaître knowledge is what I will call “relational symmetry.” Relational symmetry exists where the the outward characteristics and markings (the factual, savoir knowledge about the individual) are mirrored by the inner qualities that one perceives through the connaître experience of relating with the individual—where the external and visible is consistent and consonant with the inner and private.

Examining this notion more deeply, relational truth must necessarily be attuned to the nature of the parties involved in the relationship: those to whom this truth pertains. In the case of Christianity, we are first dealing with relationship between humans and God. As a result, relational truth is also related to / comprised of anthropological truth (or human-related truth) and theological truth (or God-related truth).

Now one of the reasons that Christians are meant to understand in order to believe (rather than “simply believing”) is that the very nature of Christian faith, as a relationship between human beings and God, requires assessment that is both related to and distinct from how we might assess a human-to-human relationship. In other words, understanding the Bible’s truth claims (and validating them, by determining their truth value) is a process similar to everyday human activities and yet also different.

A couple things bear mentioning here.

On the one hand, this tension between what is similar and what is different is normal and good. More specifically, human beings make use of this sort of tension all the time: we learn how to do new things on the basis of having done other, similar things in the past. And most times the dissimilarities are small or easily accommodated, so on most occasions humans integrate the differences without need to attend to them overly (or even without paying conscious attention to them).

On the other hand, when people “simply believe” Christian truth claims without validating them this has a negative effect both on them and on those with whom they interact. For example, if I “simply believe” that Jesus is God then my belief lacks the complexity and internal structure needed to stand up to evil and despair, nor have I developed the intellectual and emotional acumen to engage well with people who have experienced such. Further, because I have not understood how Christianity integrates with real life I will actually have understood Christianity, and so my presentation of the Christian God will typically be flimsy and uncompelling.

Thus Christians both short-change themselves and others by not engaging with the process of understanding themselves, God, and the relationship between the two, both through the biblical portrayals and through other, valid, information sources.

How we validate the Bible’s truth claims in terms of relational truth must await my next post. Instead I will finish by summarizing two key points.

First, relational truth in comprised of factual and relational knowledge (or what I have called savoir and connaître) and requires a good understanding of both parties within the relationship both (including anthropology and psychology, as the study of humanity, and theology as the study of God).

Second, a key component to relational truth is the alignment of savoir and connaître: relational symmetry. This is crucial to Christianity, both because the biblical text claims that God is good and is involved with humanity for their good / flourishing, and because human beings require consistency within relationships in order to maximize their ability to flourish.

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.

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.

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.

Experience vs. Description

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

Without Jesus, apparently, we all “Suck”

What?!

But, on second thought, maybe I should not be too surprised:

In Kyle Idleman’s popular not a fan he states “that the reason that we were put on this planet is to answer this one question,” that being, “What if there really is a heaven and a hell, and where I spend eternity comes down to this one question?”  (p. 21, italics his).

For Kyle, Christianity is about reward and punishment.  Either we will accept Jesus and believe (and so receive the reward of heaven) or we reject Jesus and disbelieve (and so suffer the punishment of hell).  Further, throughout the book Kyle is at pains to emphasize how Christianity “costs” a great deal, such as how Christians should hate everyone else by comparison to how much they love God and how, as a Christian, I should “empty myself of me” to make space for the Holy Spirit. (pp 65 & 95).

So where Christianity is about gaining reward and avoiding punishment, and where loving God means (practically) hating others and effacing myself, it’s not surprising to find something like www.withoutjesusisuck.com (WJIS).  Both exemplify a key notion in evangelical Christianity: at best you’re a problem; at worst you’re worthless.

But this should raise a few questions:

Why would God create something that “sucks”?  Why, indeed, would God love something that “sucks”?  And why would God purportedly die for something that “sucks”?

Now many evangelicals would be quick to interject: “No!  God created us as wonderful, and then we messed it up by sinning.  While we sin we can do nothing right.  And the fact that God loves us so much that God gave up his only son to die for us and take away our sin, that is the wonder and mystery of God’s love that we can never comprehend.”

Yet the upshot of an incomprehensible situation, obviously, is that we can’t figure it out.  So we have only two options: either believe or don’t.  In fact, we are right back with Kyle Idleman’s two choices.  And really, if you can actually believe that God is real, then practically there is no choice: no sane or moral person would choose not to be a Christian.  Pretty nifty how that works, huh?

Not really.  I think it’s crap (and I’m not even Scottish).

First, the idea that God’s love for us is incomprehensible is both bogus and unbiblical.  Bogus because if God’s “love” were completely unrelated to human love then it would be impossible to experience it as love—it would not be “love” in any sense that we know it.  Unbiblical because the Bible is totally clear on this point: in order to be in right relationship with God we can and must experience God’s love, we must “taste and see” God’s goodness 1.  And this experience must, at minimum, be comprehensible and “square with” our general understandings of love.

Second, God loves us now, as we are.  For as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, sin is not the problem but its symptom.  The problem?  Not being in right relationship with God, and a major part of the solution (along with having better, truer understandings of who God is, who humans are, and how the two should relate) is that we experience God’s love and understand it as such.

Third, it is clear that I can and do act, think, etc., in ways that are good.  Not “good” in some sort of absolute, modernist way—no one is arguing for that.  No, in the same way that Postmodernism never means “absolutely anything goes” (outside of advertisements for pizza toppings), so “doing right things” is not a claim to absolute goodness that challenges either God’s holiness or the necessity of Jesus dying in fulfillment of the covenant.

So you don’t suck, and neither do I.

God loves you, and God loves me. God loves us now, as we really are, and also as we best could be, as seen through the lens of God’s love and God’s truth.

And that’s the T-shirt we need.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 3

 

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

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

Come again??

Nope, I mean it.  Literally.

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

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

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

So what are these postures?

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

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

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

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

So what does this all mean?

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

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

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

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

When Christianity is WRONG

When should a Christian reject Christianity?

The very fact that I ask that question means, for many, that I cannot be a “real” Christian.  But for those for whom it doesn’t (or who are willing to hear me out), here’s what I’m thinking:

In 1984 Nicholas Wolterstorff penned a book about being a scholar and a Christian (gendered language duly noted).  In it, he writes:

“For the Christian to undertake scholarship is to undertake a course of action that may lead him into the painful process of revising his actual Christian commitment, sorting through his beliefs and discarding some . . . It may, indeed, even lead him to a point where his authentic commitment has undergone change.”  (Reason with the bounds of Religion, pp. 96 & 97).

Earlier he summarized his intention for the current chapter and contextualized the previous quotation:

“So far I have been pressing the point that the Christian in the practice of scholarship ought to let the belief-content of his authentic commitment function as control over his theory-weighing.  My emphasis here is almost the opposite.  Sometimes he should allow scientific developments to induce revisions in what he views as his authentic Christian commitments.”  (p 94, his emphasis).

My focus here is the same as Wolterstorff’s: what one views as one’s authentic Christian commitment.  In other words, what a Christian takes to be (and then presumably makes of) the content of his/her commitment to Christianity.  However, my view is not that Wolterstorff’s idea is excessive, but that it is insufficient.

Specifically, Wolterstorff notes that “scientific developments” can bring revisions to one’s beliefs.  I heartily agree.  In essence he is concerned to ensure that our belief is authentic.  Yet surely it is not only scientific developments but existential developments that prompt revisions to our beliefs?  Are not both informers that we should consider?

My point is that certain existential developments (or a series of such) can not only make one doubt one’s beliefs but, under certain circumstances, should prompt one to revise one’s view of the authenticity of Christian belief.  Murder, child abuse, and the deception and power-mongering by the clergy—or particularly, all of them combined—within one’s personal experience may, depending on one’s circumstances, paint the stark and undeniable picture that evil is more powerful (and more real) than the Christian God.

In general terms, it seems to me that where scientific developments can prompt revision of belief content, existential developments can additionally prompt revision of the very possibility of authenticity of the belief itself.

As such, “revising” may necessarily result in rejecting Christianity.  Stated differently, none of us can hold that Christian belief is ultimately true, for we are contingent and finite.  And if our best and most “authentic” resources point to the contrary, then sticking with Christian belief despite such makes us (at least) fools and liars.

My goal is not to castigate Christianity: I am a Christian.  Nor do I believe that God is anaemic or merely an idea (as opposed to an entity).  Nor, finally, do I believe that anything is more central to God’s character than truth and love.

Rather, I am concerned that in their efforts to encourage their fellow Christians to think through hard questions, these Christians would render their fellows less human.  How so?  Because despite our contingency, for Christians the only “unrevisable” revision is Christian belief itself.  Yet in some cases, failing not only to accept but to encourage the disbelief (and even atheism) of others vis-à-vis their experience of this God or that Jesus–the central issue raised by the biblical prophets, that is, false religion–is tantamount to a betrayal of their very humanity.

In theological terms, denying our most authentic existential resources denigrates both our creatureliness and the biblical affirmation that creation is not only good but is good enough as a resource for all to help us decide how (and how much) God is good, is love, or just is.

Think about it this way:

Insofar as atheism claims to be the pursuit of truth relative to religion, and truth is quintessential to the Christian God, can there be a religious–and indeed, Christian–significance to atheism?

Bad things we do with Bible verses (Part II)

 

Last week I highlighted two ideas from Pastor Kyle Idleman’s recent book, not a fan, and I noted how poor biblical exegesis leads to misunderstanding the Bible.  Yet is that really something “bad” that we do with Bible verses?

Hmmmn.

Maybe not so much.  But let’s see what comes from examining Kyle’s notion that “the only way to be filled with the Spirit is to empty myself of me. . . . The more he fills me, the less room there is for me” (not a fan, 95).  .

Sadly, none of the half dozen verses Kyle uses in this chapter actually support his view.  But let’s help him out—let’s suggest a passage, like Galatians 2:20: “and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me . . .”  This is likely the clearest basis upon which this notion can be based.

But is Kyle’s view of the Holy Spirit actually borne out here—what does this verse mean?

To start, let’s put matters in context by taking (at bare minimum) the whole idea that Paul is expressing: So Gal 2:19-20 reads: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

As author N. T. Wright observes, “there was nothing wrong with wanting to keep Torah, it was merely impossible to do it.” (Climax of the Covenant, 197).  Rather, the point about this section of Galatians “is not, in other words, a small number for whom ‘national righteousness’ avails after all, but those who, like Paul himself, have died and risen with Christ.”  (Climax, 247).

The point is clear: Gal 2:19-21 actually concludes a long argument that the opportunity for right relationship with God has been made possible through the life and death of Jesus.  Christ “living in me” is the state of embracing this opportunity, whereas for all other approaches (even attempting to keep Torah—itself a good gift from God) it is “I who live,” which is insufficient.

But is there is another problem here?

To my mind, the bigger issue with Kyle’s preference for self-effacement (and preference it is, lacking biblical support) is that it ignores, and so undermines, the truth and wonder of human relationality.  In essence, Kyle undermines the very truth of created existence, truth that God has established to point us towards Godself.

How so?

Well, as any parent knows, when a new child enters your life you are not forced to love your spouse, friends, etc. less.  Likewise when a second child comes into a family it does not mean that you must divide in half the love that you give to your first child.  No.  In either case, the result is actually more love: love begets love.

So where it essentially detaches our love relationship with God from healthy human love relationships, Kyle’s view abstracts God from our experience: God no longer informs our existence, and we no longer understand God through our existence.

The upshot: Christians effectively burn bridges with those whom they most wish to communicate because such Christians do not live in (nor can they relate to) the real world!

Compounding matters, such Christians often explain the negative responses non-Christians have to their witnessing on the basis that the gospel is “offensive” or a “stumbling block,” or that “the world hates us.”

I wonder if it has occurred to these Christians that it is only the content of the Gospel (i.e., the truth claim that Jesus is God’s son who has come to reclaim all existence—and so all humanity—for God, as part of God’s kingdom) that should rightly be an obstacle, and not the ignorance, miscomprehensions, and perversions of both real life and the Bible that so many Christians seem so willing both to accept and pass-off to others?

People, not souls / Selves, not objects

In my last posts I explained why I think evangelical Christianity is a worthwhile subject and how I want to navigate it.  My current concern is to clarify that while this project focuses on ideas, my interest is in people.

Please do not misconstrue this point.  As per my last post, my guiding presupposition is the co-centrality of love and truth / truth and love to human existence and Christianity.  As such, I am NOT interested in “souls.”  I do not really know what a soul is.  I have never met a soul.  Rather, if Christianity is real, it is real ‘here and now’ in my present with tangible indicators that I can both relate to and that bear upon my lived reality.  It must be true “for me.”  So this is not about saving souls or converting people—it is about love and truth in our current existence.  Enough said.

Two points contextualize the subject at hand.  First, how we think about and understand a topic has a significant impact on how we situate ourselves relative to that topic.  Further, it is not only the ideas but their formulation that makes the difference.  In much of what follows I take issue with the formulations that have been handed to us.

On the one hand, I dispute the traditional Christian formulations of certain doctrines and perspectives on how Christianity does—and particularly does not—interact with other areas of human existence (i.e., science, popular literature, economics, etc.).  On the other hand, I take issue with various cultural formulations (or more accurately, the absence of any formulation) regarding personhood, relationships, readers and texts, etc.

Second, who we are thinking about, and what motivates them to think as they do, is equally important.  I am not assuming that I can put myself in the “shoes” of all parties.  But through personal and interpersonal analogy I think we can highlight several prominent motivators.  And by better sensitizing ourselves to the poignancy that these ideas hold I believe we may better understand why they have been formulated as they have (and consequently, why evangelical Christianity engenders such polarized responses).

Concerning Christians, what is often at stake is fear: fear of the possibility that one’s beliefs may not be valid (or that one may not be able to express one’s sense of their validity), or intimidation in the face of navigating the many choices that accompany a belief system.

Moreover, it is my contention (to be fleshed out later) that the evangelical church has inadvertently fueled this by woefully under-informing and misdirecting Christians as to how to interact with science, culture, and much of the world around them.

Concerning non-Christians, what is often at stake is feeling profoundly disrespected at being treated like objects—being viewed as a soul to be saved, rather than a self to be known.  Worse, such Christians typically claim while so acting that “we love you,” “we value you” or, worse, that “God loves you,” whatever that may mean.  In essence, one feels thoroughly off-put not only by this ‘loving’ objectification but by the apparent obliviousness of Christians its absurd contradiction.

Understanding such experiences may help Christians realize why their best efforts with non-Christians often create little other than disdain (from feeling objectified) or dismissal (from the incomprehension that comes from wondering how anyone can possibly believe something so utterly ridiculous and then, believing that way, think that their perspective is of any relevance to the world around them).

In both cases, my wager is that understanding each other more—through listening more—will amount to better knowledge of oneself and the other, which in turn allows for more authentic interactions and greater acceptance: more truth, more love.