When believing hinders faith

Last post I highlighted the importance of truth-seeking and distinguished various types of truth, with the claim that the Bible focuses on relational truth. Yet before continuing the discussion I need to address what is likely the biggest obstacle to Christians succeeding at truth-seeking (thus developing a robust Christian faith):

Belief.

Excuse me?

To most Christians this probably sounds like madness: how can belief be a problem? Isn’t belief at the heart of what it means to be a Christian? My answer is: Yes and No. For that depends on what belief is—what sense of belief we are meaning.

Let’s first examine the sense of “belief” that is indeed essential for Christians to cultivate. This is belief as a result. In other words, the end-product of my engagement with the Bible and Christianity should be my belief that:

a) humans are a certain sort of being, beings who need to embrace and cultivate their faculties (imagination, rationality, will, memory, emotional response), certain self-understandings (trust and suspicion, confidence and humility, subjective objectivity) and certain relational “goods” (love, truth, patience, forgiveness) in order to thrive,

b) the God of the Bible seeks just the sort of relationship with humans wherein our faculties are most engaged, our self-understandings are best cultivated and our relational goods are maximized,

c) this God began such relationship with human being on a small-scale, with a nation called Israel, with the intention of then expanding these relationships on a global scale, potentially to include all people,

d) God’s relationship with Israel was formalized into a covenant: an agreement of how God and Israel would regard and act toward the other (and of how Israel was to govern itself and interact with others). Yet the intention for global-scale relationship was stalled when the people of Israel wholesale reneged on the agreement,

e) this intention was realized when Jesus of Nazareth, who is both human and divine, acted as Israel and both lived the life required to fulfil Israel’s side of the covenant and died a death that bore Israel’s penalties for having reneged on the covenant,

f) the Bible is a sufficiently trustworthy source of information on this matter, as understood through humans engaging their natural faculties in partnership with God’s guidance (the Holy Spirit).

In other words, the Bible is making certain truth claims about human nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between them, and frames these claims primarily through a series of unique historical events. To be a Christian is to validate these claims and their source—to attest to the positive, truth value of these claims and to the trustworthiness of the Biblical text concerning key aspects of human nature, God’s nature, and their interrelation. 1

So in what way should Christians not cultivate “belief”?

To answer that let’s redefine belief in its positive sense. In this first sense, used above, believing means affirming certain matters as “being the case” or simply being “true.” Several clarifications about belief are important here.

On the one hand, we refer to believing rather than knowing Christianity for two reasons. First, because Christianity deals with unique entities and events rather than with manipulable objects or repeatable phenomenon. So because it cannot be demonstrated through repetition, it cannot be proven scientifically. Second, because humans are the sorts of beings that know in limited ways: our knowledge is dependent on many factors and we possess a limited, or subjective, form of objectivity. Thus we cannot know “beyond doubt.” As such, belief is not just the only method of accepting Christianity, it is the best method.

On the other hand, belief in this sense is a result. It is an orientation that comes about through having cultivated our faculties and developed certain crucial self-understandings, while aiming at key, relational goods. In summary, belief follows the development and application of certain competencies, rightly aimed.

So if belief is the result of certain actions, it is clearly not the means by which that same result is achieved! In other words, holding particular beliefs (about who / what human beings are, God is, and what the relationship between the two should be) is a matter of deeming certain things to be true. And we do this by understanding the claims, assessing their basis and implications, and so becoming convinced that they accurately and fittingly represent the matters to which they pertain.

As such, Christians should never “simply believe” something.

This confuses a claim to truth with its proof, or to confuse truth claims and truth value. Thus I do not believe someone is innocent simply because they claim it, but because the weight of the evidence, rightly interpreted, offers good reason to believe it.

Believing in this second, negative sense amounts to credulity: simply believing what I have been told (and doing so, likely, because I have been taught to do so). In my experience, many evangelical Christians have been raised this way. They have been taught not simply what to believe, but that “belief” is the vehicle by which they acquire their identity, rather than being what holds that identity together.

Let me be blunt: whatever it may be, credulity is not Christian.

Instead, my view is that truly Christian belief results from participatory understanding and observational engagement.

So such belief is the result of the engagement of my whole person with the twin tasks of understanding / pursuing full humanness and committing oneself to truth in all its manifestations. It is a process requiring rigor2, attention, and commitment to one’s own life.

And it can result in peace and joy. Peace through the satisfaction of adopting a lifestyle where one is rightly oriented toward truth, a dedication to honesty with oneself. Joy through the increased possibilities of loving myself and other more rightly as I rightly relate to God, who knows be best and loves me most.

Theory over practice? Part III

Last post I gave the example of a Christian parent who is sorting out a difficulty for her child. The child’s friend is saying that the earth was not created in six days but evolved over 4 billion years. The children have discussed this a few times and looked at some science books. Her child does not appear bullied but is confused and seems upset, and the other parent is willing to talk about it.

I argued that how Christians engage on such matters depends on what their communities have modelled for them in similar situations. So when dealing with perspectives that contradict (or especially seem to threaten) the Christian faith, Christian communities typically respond not with dialogue but with dispute. I further noted that one popular model of engagement is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Expressed positively, being boundary-focused means categorizing neighbours and newcomers to the community as either insiders or outsiders in order best to interact with them and, if necessary, protect the community from them. Being boundary-focused is one way to manage the competing needs of growing your membership while preserving your values and identity.

So how does this apply to our example?

Well, in situations involving everyday problems my interest is coming to an effective solution, so long as it appears both ethical and feasible. I will know that the solution is effective if it resolves the issue in a fitting manner (in this example, a mended friendship or curtailed bullying), and if all parties agree to carry it out (it is feasible) and are respected in the process (it is ethical).

But in particularly “Christian” situations—situations bearing on or challenging my faith, whether tacitly or openly—my goal is not longer effectiveness but truth. Also, because Christians will now perceive God to be more directly involved this will reconfigure the ethical considerations (for God must certainly be respected too) and the notion of feasibility (both because “with God all things are possible” and because “the world will hate us for the sake of Christ”).

In other words, when Christians perceive God to be more directly to involved this changes the “rules of engagement.”  As a Christian in such contexts I see myself as responsible for affirming the truth (and so assuring that God is respected) and realizing that doing so has costs (recognizing that non-Christians will likely disagree and may feel hostility toward me because of my views). More pointedly, these new rules of engagement only become intensified where my church upbringing has trained me to confront disagreement or disbelief in Christianity with dispute (rather than dialogue).

So how does this play out?

Well, both my personal experience and my academic research show that, when confronted with a situation where they perceive their faith to be threatened (or sometimes even questioned) Christians experience tension. The tension is caused by two conflicting motivations.

On the one hand, as I noted last post, there is a desire to approach the matter just like other situations: discussing the matter so that both parties understand each other and thereby coming to a solution to which they all agree and by which they all feel respected. On the other hand, there is a sense that one’s Christian duty is to prioritize and protect the truth of Christianity and one’s own Christian identity, and that adopting / enforcing a boundary-focused stance is the best way to do this.

Thus because commitment to God is the primary goal for Christians, so they redefine the elements of a good solution (effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility) accordingly.

“Effectiveness” becomes that which preserves or promotes God’s truth, “ethics” means prioritizing what best respects / serves God, and “feasibility” is that which would be most broadly endorsed by their Christian community, with considerations for all other parties being secondary.

The effect?

The other party is marginalized. In a debate, one does not seek to learn from the other side but to defeat them. Where God’s interests are essential (and surely God’s interests must be the most important) then all other interests are at best optional. Where ethics concern preserving or promoting God’s position or Christian views, other views are simply unimportant. And where feasibility is what the church community supports, being swayed by the responses of the other party appears irrational and perhaps even dangerous.

So Christians have switched from engaging in a dialogue that seeks consensus and values people to performing a monologue-like debate that seeks to defeat the other party’s perspective, deprioritizes their worth, and anticipates their unwillingness to participate in our solutions.  And they have done so for the sake of truth, the sake of respecting God, and the sake of preserving the identity and integrity of their communities.

My view on this?

Simply put: too much ‘truth’, too little love (for others, oneself, and God).  And all based on a rather questionable understanding of ‘truth’ at that.  Next post draws on our previous discussion of scepticism and suspicion and prepares the way for re-situating theory and practice.

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.

Grace and Truth or Love and Truth?

I take my sense of the word “grace” mostly from the New Testament (the word “charis” in Greek), though the English word grace is also found in Jeremiah 31, a crucial chapter relative to the “new covenant.”  Now there are some 155 uses of “charis” in the the NT (115 or so being translated as “grace”) and all of them bear examination.  For the sake of space I am focusing here on Romans 4:16.1

I have chosen this example because it offers a terse but ready contextualization for the use of grace (“charis”) in what I believe to be its correct context: in connection with both promise and covenant.

Romans 4:16  “For this reason it [the promise to Abraham] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those that share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of us all . . .”  Grace in this sense means “a beneficent disposition towards someone” in the sense of “that which one grants to another / the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory.”  (From the Bauer-Danke Greek / English lexicon).

Two points appear important:

On the one hand, Romans 4:1-25 is considered to be a logical unit and the use of grace in Rom 4:16 in contextualized by its use in Rom 4:4, where “charis” is translated as “gift.”  Particularly, grace is the mode or manner of the action—the ‘how’, if you like.  So we have the close association between grace and gift: that which is given freely and without being earned.

On the other hand, Rom 4:16 is a wonderful encapsulation of grace within its actual context: the extraordinary reality that a) God committed to a promise before entering into the covenant (in Gen 12) and b) God “made good” on this promise by “making good” on the covenant, through the life and death of Jesus the Christ (see Rom 3:21-26, much of Rom 5, etc.).

In other words, grace (“charis”) is how God both a) began his main dealings with humankind through Israel and b) completed those dealing to the inclusion of all peoples, through Jesus.  But note that if grace is how God acted, it is not why.

Why did God choose to freely give both full relationship (via the covenant) and the means for that relationship to be accomplished (via the life and death of Jesus)?  While I would like to go much deeper with my argument here, the most basic answer is that God acted / chose to act according to God’s character.  And against those who focus on sovereignty to the exclusion of all else, the Bible clearly characterizes God as both sovereign and father / parent.

So with such clear biblical indications as “God is love” (1 John 4) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believed in him should may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3), I attribute the ‘Why’ of God’s action to God’s passionate love (in general and for humanity specifically), such that God enacted God’s love toward us for the purpose of furthering relationship with us and for establishing God’s kingdom with and through us.

God does require certain things of us as our sovereign, but the gift—the grace—of God comes to us as a matter of God’s love and specifically as an expression of God’s fatherly and parental love. In other words, grace is that mode of expression by which God most truly expresses God-self: grace shows God’s love in its truest and fullest light.

In this sense, while I deeply value grace as God’s “mode of engagement” that makes my relationship with God possible (i.e., how the relationship has been made possible) love, along with truth, is the overarching orientation both from God to me and from me to God.

Love is the reason why God offered grace in the first place (and God could legitimately do so because God is truly sovereign and truly father / parent).  Likewise, being loved by God and truly known by God are the reasons why I am nowhere more content and more myself than in my relationship with God (and why I both am passionately in love with God and seek to proclaim God’s existence and character as being truly true).

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.

Christian “food truck”?

My spouse and I had a conversation coming back from church the other day.

They had sung a song about “turning the other cheek” and I mentioned the importance of ‘honour and shame’ in 1st century Palestine, and that we misunderstand “turn the other cheek” if we remove it from this cultural context (it gets altered into something about pacifism cum self-effacement).

She wondered if I ever thought that I’m too critical or too anxious to nuance things “just so,” or if I feel a need to distance myself from other Christians, or something.

I explained it differently.

I said that I don’t feel any anxiety or anger (or a particular need to show that I’m not “like them”)—it’s different than that. I compared it to a culinary model. I said that I feel like a chef who is constantly being offered food to sample.  So like a chef relative to other cooks, I have more training than most. I also referenced the non-taster / taster / super-taster model (about how perceptively people taste) and suggested that in this realm I was like a super-taster.

On this analogy Christianity is interested in / about food (as in, “one may not live by bread alone”) and, as I sit in church and listen (or read books like Not A Fan), I am sampling the dishes that I am being served.  And because I am a chef, I have an educated (or to a certain degree, ‘faithful’) understanding of the dishes (I know their ingredients, preparation, and history). And because I am a super-taster (both by virtue of my experiences and of the skills I’ve developed through the long practice of examining those experiences), I have a sense of ‘creative’ flair that I apply to this understanding.

In other words, I have honed a ‘biblical’ skills set marked by creative fidelity.

So I’m sampling the dishes that I’m being given and, at times, tasting that something is missing, or maybe something is too strong, or that one dish is supposedly being presented when in fact the meal is really some other dish.  Or perhaps the way that a cook is combining dishes or presenting them is somehow dissonant, displeasing, or even inedible.

And in addition to sampling the food of others I want, of course, to be preparing and providing healthy, accessible, and yet glorious food myself. Indeed, to my mind (and on this analogy), that is the goal of the Kingdom of God “for” and “towards” me and you.

The Kingdom of God is not mine or “about” me, but it involves me deeply. And it does so in two ways. First, where I am outside of God’s Kingdom and not in relationship with God it presents itself to me as a nourishing meal to one who is famished—it is invites me through its richness and fullness (so “taste and see that God is good”).  Second (and later), as one who has embraced God’s Kingdom, my close relationship with God sustains me as a hearty meal sustains one who “realizes” oneself in dedicating oneself to one’s deepest passion: a deep commitment that is self-sacrificial YET joyous, without contradiction (so Paul “counting it all joy”).

So where and how am I evaluating and serving this food?  I’m not ministering in a church—churches have their own kitchens, their own chefs, their own recipes. But through this blog and my upcoming podcast maybe I could be compared to . . . a food truck.

Food trucks are mobile and intriguing.  Risky: it comes to me instead of me going to it, and I can’t guarantee whether I’ll like it.  But upfront—you see the crew and the chef(s)—and there’s no need to guess what’s on offer.  Small scale versus mass market, food trucks are only viable because they offer (and provide) excellence, and for that, you have to pay a bit more—in this case, invest some time.

But food trucks are almost always worth it.

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).

Sin, Part Deux

 

Formulate, express, reformulate, clarify.

One of the best things about this writing process is the opportunity to interact with thoughtful people and, from that, to reformulate and clarify my thoughts.

In a recent conversation someone remarked that if Jesus came to take away our sin then isn’t being without sin what it means to be in right relationship with God?

In a nutshell, No.

For sin is not so much “stuff we do wrong against God” as anything that takes out of right relationship with ourselves, others, our world, and particularly God.

Perhaps a comparison will help.  Take Steve Brown’s book, Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You.  For Brown we have “3 free sins” because nothing—nothing—Christians do can separate us from God (and God’s love) because of Christ’s death on the cross.  But I am saying that nothing can separate anyone—anyone, Christian or no—from the love of God because of who God is.

Putting it another way, not acting, thinking, or being of a disposition that distances us from God is not the same thing as being in right relationship with God, just as knowing about God’s love is not the same thing as being in love with God, and having all of one’s orientations informed and directed by one’s love.  Right acting—obedience—is essential for right relationship between humans and the Christian God but is not the relationship itself.

For example, the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) did all the “right things” and yet was not in right relationship with his father, his brother, or even himself.

Why?

Because he lacked love.  He was completely obedient—he had done everything right—yet he was not rightly disposed towards his father, his brother, or himself.  And this was made clear by his response at his brother’s homecoming.

The error here is that there are two categories that are integral to God and essential to Christianity: love and truth.  In my experience, evangelical Christians typically set truth over love while liberal Christians set love over truth.  Neither works (though we’ll put that discussion on hold for now).

So I would say that we have “no free sins,” because every act, disposition, thought, etc. that puts me into improper relationship with myself, my fellows, my world, and with God is moving me further from my goal and not closer to it.  For what is the goal of one who is in love?  It is to be with the beloved, to be close to that one, engaged with that one.

So it is not a question of “what will be held against us” or of God loving us less on account of our wrongdoing.  Rather, it is a question of who we are and where we are versus who and where we long to be as those beloved of (and in love with) God.  In this context sin is not something that counts against us but that which, to whatever degree, keeps the lover from the beloved.

The pivotal point is this:

It is not only that God loves me but that I love God, because the fitting response to love—by one who in truth knows me more truly that I know myself and who, in love, loves me more deeply than I love myself—is love.

So sin is important, but the primary focus is that God loves us, God desires us, and longs to hear our voices.  And when I sin, I cannot love / relate to / be with God as I long to.

In this sense, then, we come full circle in that we fulfill a command (“Love the lord your God”) that is our greatest command and yet which is our greatest joy to fulfill.  And indeed, how much more could the “law be written within my heart” (Jer 31:33) than that it is my greatest joy to fulfill my greatest command? (NRSV)

Is Sin real?

 

Sin is not the problem with humanity.

Whew!  Nice to get that bit of “heresy” out the way!  But of course, sin must be the problem with humanity.  That’s what the Bible tells us: sin is the problem, and Jesus is the answer, right?

Wrong.

Think about it this way: if sin is the wrong way to be, then sin’s opposite would be the right way to be, which is holy.  So if sin is the problem, and Jesus is the answer, then Jesus came and died to make us holy, right?  But while the New Testament speaks of Christ’s death as removing sin, that is not the goal.  If it were, the matter would be left there.

But it’s not.

Rather, the goal is plainly stated: as part of inaugurating the kingdom of God—that is, claiming all of existence for God and as God’s—Jesus came to renew right relationship between God and all things.  Dealing with sin is part of solving the problem, but it is not the problem.  The problem is that all things (foremost among them, perhaps, human beings) are not in right relationship with God.

Or better, that God loves us and longs for us, but our relationship with God is sundered and needs fixing.

If this is so, then God never see us simply as “sinners” in need of grace but as Gregg, John, Sally, and Matt, whom God loves with wild abandon and whom God longs to embrace as God’s own, beautiful and beloved children.  God does not so much seek to make us right as to hold us tight—not so much to right our behaviours as to right our hearts (and to write God’s law within our hearts, as Jer 33:31), and then our behaviours will follow.

Now I am not, for all of that, suggesting that the notion of sin is nonsensical, oppressive or outdated.  Nor am I implying that the rightness of our thoughts, words, and actions are unimportant—both to ourselves and to God.  Perhaps I could say it this way: God’s love (and truth) are focal, but sin matters.

God’s love being focal means that Christianity is not about rules.  It means that as a Christian I never get to the point where I am “a hopeless case,” “unforgivable,” or “worthless.”

In short, for me the deep reality of God’s loves and God’s truth means that when people ask why I am a Christian I give them this reason: because I have been convinced by God’s truth and fallen in love with God, who loves and heals me.  Because I have felt the deep, deep desire of God for me and, like Augustine says, “the satiation of God’s love is insatiable.”

So what about sin: what is it and why is it important?

To my mind, “sin” is things we do or maintain (acts, thoughts, or dispositions commissive or omissive–conscious, pre-conscious, or unconscious), that thwart our proper relationship with ourselves, our fellows, our world, and ultimately God.  Fleshing this out in terms of life’s daily activities is an important task, but it’s beyond the scope of this post.

Instead, I’d like to offer my main reasons for not jettisoning a concrete notion of sin.  First, because evil is real.  Second, because evil is real.  Third—need I go on?

The reality of evil is the reality that people suffer and die.  In that sense, insisting on evil’s reality is  an insistence that people matter.  So against the idea that sin burdens us with unnecessary guilt, maintaining the seriousness of evil and wrongdoing does not straightjacket our freedom but rather deeply affirms our worth.  As such, it is the crucial correlate to the biblical claim that God loves us.

The flipside of evil being real (and wrong) is that justice is necessary.  And this is one of the central claims of Jesus as Messiah: he came to deal with sin and death—with evil in all its various forms.  But the reality is, God’s justice is limited.

What… more heresy…?

I think not.  But you’ll have to wait until next post to decide.