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.

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.

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

 

Confession time:

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was his “method”?

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

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

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

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

But is this important?

You bet.

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

Experience, creation, and interpretation

God sees things as the truly are; people interpret.

Given this, we should not be surprised to encounter a myriad of different views on the Bible’s content—its truth claims—where neither the most important of which can be stated uncontestedly nor their truth value substantiated indisputably.  For example, we have a variety of views on who the God of the Bible is (i.e., various interpretations of the Bible’s claims about God), and the very notion of God’s existence is itself deeply contested (i.e., different interpretations of the value of such claims).

At its heart, the tension here is between claims that are ultimate in nature yet whose verification is necessarily down to finite individuals endowed with limited faculties, perspectives and experiences.

But in trying to protect ultimate truth from becoming relative truth—in trying to avoid a take-it-or-leave-it model of truth where everything is down to the individual’s preferences and so, seemingly, “anything goes”—have some Christians betrayed their own, dearest beliefs?

I think that they have.

In my last post I equated this betrayal with idolatry.  For in their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth claims, many Christians contend not to need to interpret (“maybe you interpret the Bible, but I just read what’s there”) or to interpret flawlessly (“my interpretations are right; theirs are wrong”).  They profess to access the Bible’s claims and truth value absolutely, or with certainty.  Yet this amounts to seeing and knowing things as only God can.  And professing equality with God is idolatry.

But there’s more.

In their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth values, many Christians are often selectively suspicious of the value of experience.  So where non-Christians might conclude that Christianity is a lie because they do not to experience its claims to be true, Evangelicals often insist that non-Christians must first accept and believe in Christianity in order to understand its truth.

Later we’ll examine this view more closely.  For now I note two, glaring contradictions.

First, if a Muslim insisted that non-Muslims must first embrace Islam in order to understand its truth, would Christians do this?  I doubt it.  Second, many Christians maintain that God is quintessentially personal and that belief in God means experiencing God in and through personal relationship.  So clearly certain experiences are essential to Christianity.

And this is the second betrayal: denigrating experience actually disparages the goodness of creation.  The God of the Bible has pronounced creation “good,” and importantly so.  For our created world is the environment that provides experiences necessary to knowing God, and our own created nature (as our unique personality and viewpoint) are crucial for entering into relationship with a personal God.  Denigrating experience, which is our human perspective on the created order, calls God a liar and disowns the truth of knowing God in and through relationship.

So where does this leave us?

On the one hand, for both Christians and non-Christians, we neither have—nor can have—certainty about the Bible’s claims nor about their validity.  Indeed, I think that “certain knowledge” is a myth born of modernist philosophy.  Instead, while God sees things as they really are and knows truly, human interpret and know with varying degrees of probability and according to particular perspectives.

On the other hand, interpreting implies neither a lack of truth (as though interpretations are mere unfounded opinions) nor a weakness (as though, if we were only smarter or more Godly, when reading the Bible we would just “read what’s there”).

Rather if we who are finite must interpret, we who are finite also may interpret.  In other words, while we do not have God’s absolute / ultimate perspective (and Truth), we are not left without any perspective (and no truth).  Far from being “stuck” in a fog of relativism, the good news is that we can actually better evaluate truth claims / values by becoming more competent interpreters.  How?

I’ll examine how this may be in my next post.  Stay tuned ‘til then.