The Purpose of Authority

Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.  That’s what God is in the business of doing.  That is what his authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like ‘authority of scripture’ that is what we ought to be meaning.  It is an authority with this shape and character, this purpose and goal.

N.T. Wright – “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?”

Perhaps a small reason why I’m concerned with orthodoxy and authority is somewhat related to what N.T. Wright is getting at here.

  1. I can understand that it makes people squeamish to talk about “authority.” That runs into all sorts of other questions about power, by whose authority we live, how diversity and pluralism fit within that authority, etc.
  2. I can also understand that questions of orthodoxy and authority together make people concerned, because it can seem immediately like I (or others) are concerned with controlling others’ lives. That’s concerning for plenty of good reasons, not least of which is the abuse of power by ecclesial authorities over the last, well… forever.

But! Surely, there is some way in which Scripture and “proper” theology ought to guide us into deeper understandings of God, God’s character, and the telos of human beings.

In other words, let’s just assume a couple of things: God exists, God has revealed himself via nature, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and in incarnation.

If we assume such things to be true (big claims that need to be examined, I know), then it is reasonable to assume that human beings were created for a purpose. If that is true, then my goal as an individual human being ought to be to figure out how to discern God’s character (Is he capricious? Is he loving? Is he aloof?) and how to discern the purpose for which I am made.

Which brings us back to the original point. If we’re seeking these things, we’re trying to poke and prod at “orthodoxy” (right thinking). We’re trying to get closer and closer to the truth of things, to make sure that our understanding of reality and the world and God and humans is accurate. To my mind, that’s why looking at what the church historic has taught is vital — not because they were always right or always did it right or were not corrupt in all the ways human beings are corrupt. It’s vital because we need to take in the whole of the experience of the (very broken) church, to whom is given the task of carrying on the faith that has been passed down.

While it might make us squeamish to seek orthodoxy, we all already have a set of principles or stories we think give us the right way to view the world. And we tend to try to live accordingly. For my own faith, choosing historic orthodoxy — affirming the creeds and the authority of God via Scripture — is a method for discerning the human condition and how humans can and should be liberated. That’s the purpose of authority.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday

Holy Week culminates in a trifecta of days that encompass the spectrum of human experience.

On Good Friday, we remember the death and anguish of Jesus the Messiah, come to rescue us from sin and sentenced to death by humanity. What does this tell us about ourselves? When God brings his presence with us, we reject what he has to offer. Rather than accepting the benevolence, the kindness, the awful grace, we choose violence and scapegoating and selfish pride instead.

On Holy Saturday, we are offered a chance to reflect. With despair behind us and joy ahead of us, we are left with a messy middle. Can joy be found here? Sometimes. Can grief be found here? Yes. It is ours to decide what to do with it. We are given a life in which we must make decisions without the certainty a good outcome. We are invited, simply put, to trust.

On Easter Sunday, our sobriety gives way to joy. Utter relief. Contentedness with the world as it ought to be. We are asked now to participate. Jesus, on this day, is mistaken as the gardener in John’s Gospel. Why would he use this kind of literary device? If you’re immersed in the Jewish Scriptures, you already know. When was the last time we encountered a garden? It’s right there, on pages 1-2 of your Bible. God hovered over the chaos, and made a garden for us to dwell in. After the fallout of the human decision to choose right and wrong for ourselves, the garden lost its innocence, its essence was depleted of its purpose. But on Easter Sunday, this mysterious rabbi from Nazareth somehow defeats death, and becomes humanity’s new gardener. He makes space again for us to see where it is that heaven and earth touch.

So what’s our vocation now? To go out and cultivate gardens, bearing God’s image (ruling as God would have us rule) in a world that so desperately needs restoration.

Illuminating Christianity

By this phrase “armed neutrality,” especially as I explain it more and more precisely, I think I am able to characterize the position I intend to take and have taken in throwing light on Christianity or what Christianity is or, more accurately, what is involved in being a Christian…. But what I have wanted and want to achieve through my work, what I also regard as the most important, is first of all to make clear what is involved in being a Christian, to present the picture of a Christian in all its ideal, that is, true form, worked out to every true limit, submitting myself even before any other to be judged by this picture…

This is my idea of the judgment which I believe is going to fall upon Christendom; not that I or any single individual shall judge others, but the ideal picture of what it is to be a Christian will judge me and everyone who permits himself to be judged.

Kierkegaard – Armed Neutrality

Many of Kierkegaard’s writings, especially in the “second half” portion of his authorship, can be explained by these words here. He was a man swimming in a sea of Christendom, wherein everyone claimed the label Christian, and yet none (including himself) could truly identify what it meant to be a Christian.

So what was his task? To illuminate Christianity, both for himself and for others. Taking on that task is dangerous because:

  1. To illuminate Christianity to a culture that calls itself “Christian” is to call into question the moral foundation of the entire culture around you. One must look into others’ faces and say: based on this set of beliefs, values, and practices, your (the collective “your”, the crowd, groupthink) beliefs do not align with Christianity as such.
  2. Taking on this task runs the risk of making it seem as if Kierkegaard was some kind of super-Christian, a Christian among Christians, self-righteous, truly pious, etc.

We have these same problems today, but exponentially moreso. At the time of Kierkegaard’s authorship, he was writing to a fairly homogenous culture. The Danish state and the Lutheran church walked hand-in-hand. Every citizen was baptized as an infant, and therefore everyone was a Christian (in their view). He could therefore speak a single theological “language” — albeit through various pseudonyms — to his own culture.

Now, we have competing factions of Christianity across the West, and especially in America. In some cases, we have the problem of white, American, Evangelicalism. While I want to avoid painting too broad of a brush, this version of Christianity often uses Christianity as a means to gain political power and win a moral war, to protect specific freedoms (bearing arms in particular, though there are others), to justify soft versions of racism, and so on.

In other cases, however, we have the version of Christianity more often found in urban/cosmopolitan environments. These versions that I have personally encountered find it easier to be oriented towards social justice but are more unwilling to hold theological boundaries. There is often an openness in these spaces to alternative worldviews and spiritualities, even if those worldviews are logically incompatible with affirming the Apostles’ Creed and the authority of Scripture in determining right practice and belief. This would include political stances, economic stances, and an openness to alternative religions as if they “lead to the same place.” (I will be writing a short blog post on this idea about religions “leading to the same place” soon.)

The swaths of different “Christianities” in America make this particularly challenging, because everyone thinks their version of Christianity is the right one. The one that will lead to more human flourishing, the one that is more open or beautiful or true.

Our challenge — no, my challenge, via Kierkeagaard — is to illuminate Christianity in such a way that the picture of it judges all of us. Not because I am somehow a better Christian than everyone else. But because I have a picture of Christianity that does not align with any of us. Illuminating Christianity means we ought to be aware that, when we do, we will all be judged and found wanting. Thank God for grace.

Holding Tension between Charity and Clarity

Charity is a value I hold dear. In 2020, I spent a large portion of time thinking, writing, and preaching about the virtues of charitable thinking. Take this sermon/interview with Will Richy and Alejandro Perez:

Thinking charitably is a virtue we could all stand to gain a little more of. This is especially true as we come out of a season of heavy vitriol, where we define and label people based on ideology and political stance rather than on their dignity as human beings.

However

I find myself thinking this week of the ways in which this can go wrong. In my mind, charitable thinking is something I often am required to hold in tension with clarified thinking. When I am charitable, I am trying to train myself to think of all the ways I could be wrong and another person could be right. I am looking for places where my foundation differs from another person’s, and I’m searching for legitimate reasons why someone might think differently than me.

The danger here, in theory, is my own thinking becoming muddled and unclear. In other words, if I am thinking charitably, does it also mean that I must relinquish the foundation upon which I stand? Sometimes. But perhaps there ought to be times when I can think charitably or generously while also remaining firm in my own conviction.

This is an uncomfortable spot for me. My own inclination is to fly high, get a birds’-eye view of things, and enjoy the landscape. I want to see where everyone is coming from and remain neutral in the process. This doesn’t require clarity of me — only charity.

But when we come across incompatibilities — morally, theologically, philosophically — these are the times when we may be required to hone in on what it is exactly that we believe, and why. And if we’re very practiced in thinking charitably, clarity can feel uncharitable.

Charity and clarity are in tension.

The New Internet is Forced Cannibalization

The saddest part of the internet right now, to me, is not necessarily its being smothered in algorithms that drive what we pay attention to all day everyday. That is a tragedy and something that we need to deal with or perish (mentally, anyway).

What I am most sad about when I look at the state of the internet is that its identity has fundamentally changed. When I was younger (probably even younger than a teenager) the internet was this wild frontier. Anything went, but you had to know where to find stuff. Links led to other links, and on and on down the rabbit hole.

Was it perfect back in the blogosphere days, or earlier? No. Take Alan Jacobs’s post today.

When Grandpa wrote against the blogosphere, that kind of site is what he had in mind: a constant stream of hot takes, some of which had to be walked back later because they were offered before, and instead of, reflective consideration. You’d therefore have a better sense of what I meant in that much-quoted line if you replaced “blogosphere” with “Twitter.”

blogging and the blogosphere”

Note — the blogosphere, at one point, was not great. It was the equivalent of today’s Twitter, a stream of non-reflective takes everyday. It probably brought on the constant news cycle that we all pretty much hate now.

But! There was also some beauty there, and this is what Alan gets at in the meat of this post. Blogging can be that rabbit-hole, linky version of the internet that many of us grew up with. More from the post:

I post a thought; later, I return to it with an update; someone responds and I incorporate their thoughts into a new post that links to them and to the original – basically, what I am doing right now. Note also that blogging, when done in this fashion and in this spirit, is also seriously dialogical, and I think there is a close connection between a dialogue-friendly medium and a forgiving medium. 

The incorporation, the back-and-forth, the dialogue is what makes blogging beautiful. And it’s what made the non-blog part of the internet before 2008 so fun too. We weren’t being force fed new content all the time from what essentially amounts to non-democratic, institutionalized, whitewashed, walled gardens.

Think about it. Where do you go when you get on the internet? You go to one of, I’m guessing 5-10 websites. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, a news source……. can you even think of anymore?

It reminds me of that scene in Snowpiercer (SPOILER ALERT) where the people on the back of the train are given those gross gel bar things to eat, only to find out that those are made of their own dead. All the infighting and vitriol that happens on barely a handful of websites is essentially forced cannibalization while that handful of corporations makes billions of dollars off of our hatred.

That’s just sad to me. I miss the old internet.

Update: As a coda to this post, I’m gonna do what AJ suggests, and link to the Robin Sloan post he mentions. Here’s Robin:

One is that I want to say again: the High Blogging Era might be behind us, but there is still blogging to be done, and it is so easy and so rewarding to dip a toe in, start to follow a few of these feeds, and experience a different kind of network.

“Many Subtle Channels”

It strikes me, too, that in its purest form, blogging is just a sheer beautiful way to write and engage with the world. I accessed all of these words freely. It cost me nothing (besides a machine and an internet connection) to see these words, to think about them and what they have to say about technology and connection and culture. What a delight the internet was… perhaps what a delight it could still be.

No One Likes Orthodoxy

I’m thinking a lot right now about (small-o) orthodoxy and creedal Christianity. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems a like orthodoxy — real orthodoxy (i.e., affirming the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to the fullest possible extent) — is out of fashion. Not just with the progressive branch of American Christianity either. I mean across the board.

Today I listened to last week’s Holy Post podcast where Skye Jethani interviewed Russell Moore, the president of the ERLC within the Southern Baptist Convention. When asked what he thought posed the biggest threat to the gospel in America right now, without hesitation, he said “useful Christianity.” In other words, means-to-an-end Christianity. Christianity adhered to for political and cultural power.

Without a doubt, he was speaking to his own camp. We just witnessed plenty of this nonsense over the last (at least) four years with the rise of Donald Trump and the consistent support of Trumpism within the Republican party by those who identify as Evangelicals. Moore was speaking to and about his own camp, calling out error in his own theological family.

But the truth is, this is a problem everywhere. It’s the same exact problem on the American theological left, where we cannot imagine a scenario where Christianity might mean more than social justice. Social justice certainly must be an outworking of Christian faith.. But we on the progressive side (I’d consider myself a blue-ish purple if I had to name it) are hesitant to affirm theological truth that butts up against our scientific and progressive and modern sensibilities. We’re also hesitant to affirm the parts of Scripture and tradition that make us squeamish because of the modern moral compass we have been handed.

This is what I mean when I say I’m thinking about orthodoxy. It’s not fun for anyone. No one likes the implications of it. Following Christ is either too hard for our brains, or it’s too hard for our hearts.

Perhaps we need a renewal. Or, dare I say, a REVIVAL — of a new people, ready to believe what it is that the Master Jesus says, and also DO what that might require of us.

That’s awful Pentecostal of me, and a little bit scary for me to write.

Mary Karr on Belief, Doubt, and Prayer

What struck me really wasn’t the grandeur of the Mass. It was the simple faith of the people.

Again, it’s almost what you get what poetry isn’t it? You see people in a state of profound feeling.

Alan Jacobs on Forgiveness

Forgiveness, one may say, is the fundamental core of Christianity. Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and so on are fruits of the Spirit.

But Christianity’s uniqueness comes from its relentless — relentless — insistence on forgiving when it is not deserved. Alan Jacobs puts it better than I can:

If you start talking about grace people will seize it, cheaply; hell, they might not only accept forgiveness but demand it. They will abuse the gift — but that’s because that’s what we sinners do, we abuse gifts. Our God hands them out anyway. Again: Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who were hanging him on a cross. Had they asked for it? Did they even want it? Had they undergone a lengthy process of truth and reconciliation in order to deserve it? Everything about the demand for earned forgiveness makes total human sense. But it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” It’s not an ambiguous statement. 

I think most of our projects of reconciliation, when they exist at all, have it backwards. They want a long penitence at the end of which the offended parties may or may not forgive. I think the Christian account says that forgiveness given and accepted is where reconciliation begins. So if we say we are Christians and want reconciliation but do not put grace, mercy, and forgiveness front and center in our public statements, then we’re operating as the world operates, not as the ekklesia is commanded to. 

It feels impossible, in our current moment, to pursue a Christianity with such blatant, awful forgiveness and grace. It feels wrong. We ought to ask ourselves why.

Christianity is Art

When I was young, Christianity was a science.

A + B = C

My belief + God’s forgiveness = ETERNAL SALVATION

But let’s just say we meet a someone who’s a new believer. Someone who is introduced to a church community for the first time, who becomes interested in the life that these people are sharing. They decide, “Yeah, I’d like to follow this rabbi from the Ancient Near East who said he was literal-God-in-the-literal-flesh.”

They’ve taken the leap. And then… what next?

Well, the logical thing to do is probably to crack open that old Bible. This becoming a Christian thing is often simply explained to people. You’ve heard the big, common image:

God’s over there somewhere. We’re over here, and we don’t really have a way to get to God. But God has done something remarkable. God decided God loved us enough to come and be with us. And God has done so through a person, Jesus of Nazareth.

But that’s just the beginning of the journey. The next step is that big, scary Bible we’ve got in front of us. This huge book that we’ve avoided or read parts of and didn’t understand, or were frustrated by as kids.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that you could just open up to page one, read straight through, get the picture of who God is, what God is doing, and what we should do.

But we don’t. We quickly find that this isn’t A + B = C territory. Instead, we’re inserted into a Tolkien-esque world. The first thing we read is a poem:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth

Now the earth was formless and empty

Darkness was over the surface of the deep

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Hm. Well, that’s not as… simple… as we made it out to be.

Ok, so we read on. And we read all these ancient stories. This mixed bag where sometimes people are awful. Occasionally we get someone who’s a mixed bag that God seems interested in being with.

We keep reading, and half the time the things we hear about God are really just lies from men named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We read about liberation and oppression. We read about a kingdom that fails in its faithfulness. We read poetry and ancient wisdom literature. We read more poetry about downfall and death and coming back to life again.

And finally, we get to the Jesus story! Yes! Maybe now we’ll get some answers. Mark seems to be the shortest and simplest, so let’s start there. The good news — the Gospel — that I have been told about should be straightforward. Let’s see what it says:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

….Interesting. Why is this good news?

Then we read letters written mostly by one guy named Paul who seems kind of upset sometimes, and a little persnickety about a few moral issues, to the point of seeming legalistic and barbaric.

And finally, we get to some really weird writing that sounds a lot like myth and fantasy — again, straight out of some Tolkien-esque world.

We’re given a story. A story that meanders and goes back and forth. A story where God is the protagonist, and generations and generations of humans are trying to figure out what this strange God wants with us.

Christianity isn’t A + B = C, because the book(s) that our faith is based in aren’t science. They are art.

The quicker we invite people into an artful Christianity, the less likely people will be to leave the faith when A + B no longer equals C.

A Secular Age – Introduction

I have long been fascinated by the arguments that I have come across found in Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age. I’ve read very small portions of the book myself in the past (mostly when I was doing some preliminary study for my master’s thesis on Kierkegaard). I also read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular which is meant to be a sort of guide through the larger book. I remember that I found it fascinating at the time.

Since then, I’ve mostly taken a break from properly “academic” works. But I’ve never lost the nagging feeling that I still wanted to tackle Taylor’s work someday. Today’s that day. At the beginning of the year, I set very few resolutions. Mostly because I don’t really trust the efficacy of New Year’s resolutions in creating long-term change. Of the few that I made though, reading and blogging through A Secular Age in 2021 was one of them.

I suspect for most people who read this blog (there are a few of you!), this may be a little bit boring and heady. I get that, and don’t expect much interest. That is fine. This is meant to be a sort of personal journey through Taylor’s work, and I want to make sure I internalize the thesis and argument of the book itself.

In a nutshell, from what I can tell, Taylor wrote this book to get at why our current era in the West is so drastically different in terms of religious devotion than it was, say, 500 years ago. He seems to be aiming to do two things:

  1. Define the term “secular” — how might we define this term to be useful and help us gain insight into the current state of belief in transcendence.
  2. Give an overarching answer for “how we got here” — “here” being a secular age.

Given our current moment: the political and cultural polarization that we are experiencing, the lack of a moral foundation for either the right or the left, the religious/non-religious hodge-podge that we live in — this work of Taylor’s strikes me as extremely important. We need not only an understanding of where we come from, but how we got here, and how that has laid the foundation for where we are going.

So, in this first post (as in all the others), my aim is simply to relay his arguments in a digestible format. The plan is not to evaluate — just to understand. I hope that this will help me gain a better grasp on what I and many others deem to be an interesting problem.

In the introduction, the first thing Taylor does is define the term secular in three different ways. Two of these are already used in the common vernacular:

Secular(1) is when we think about the public or political sphere: “In our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God” (1). The modern Western state, in its current existence, can exist without reference to God or some other transcendent guarantor of rights or a common moral foundation.

Secular(2) is the reference to the decline of religious belief and practice. That is, while a _majority_of people still believe in God or some higher power, there has been a sharp decrease in overall religious belief and practice — going to church, praying, etc.

Secular(3) is closely related to secular(2), but is not quite the same. For Taylor, secular(3) focuses on the “conditions of belief.” In other words: “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged… to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (3). This last bit is key for Taylor’s analysis. One option among many, and not the easiest to embrace. We live in a time where it is more difficult to believe in the existence of God or some transcendent reality than to not at all. And it did not used to be this way. “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives” (3).

One thing that Taylor makes note of next after these definitions is existential realities that humans encounter. Historically, these existential realities have been defined in terms of religious belief. He defines these existential realities on a spectrum:

Fullness/Richness ——- Middle Condition ——- Absence/Exile

It is normal to the human condition that we have moments of fullness or richness. Moments or conditions that make life “fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more what it should be” (5).

On the opposite end of this spectrum is absence/exile. I.e., a feeling or condition where we cannot reach or even, perhaps, remember what the sense of fullness even is, or whether it ever was attainable in the first place.

“In between” these conditions is what he simply calls the “middle condition.” That is, the creation of a routine, a standard way of life that keeps away that sense of exile and absence, while (perhaps) steadily moving towards a sense of fullness.

The challenge, however, is that for many non-believers in transcendence, the middle condition is “all there is.” There is no sense of fullness that can be attained outside of the daily routines of life. Any sense of “fullness” is inherently and only a function of immanent material reality. And this reveals the reason Taylor even describes this spectrum in the first place. Secular can’t simply be defined as “lack of belief” in transcendence or lack of practice in religious rituals. Nor can it be defined solely as the public/political sphere absent reference to God. Secular must refer to a condition of belief. Belief and non-belief are “lived conditions” — not simply theories or beliefs “subscribed to” (8).

Another piece of this puzzle is that a sense of fullness is sought after by believers and non-believers alike. The difference here, however, is that believers see fullness as something that is “received” and the self is is in some ways transcended to reach a fullness separate from the self (thus keeping this true for both Judeo-Christian formulations of transcendence and Buddhist formulations).

Non-believers, however, if they do seek a fullness, must seek that fullness “from within.” There is a self, but it need not be transcended because it cannot be transcended. The nearest thing to fullness (in the West) for non-believers is reason. This allows one to remove personal bias and get at objective truth. There are other forms as well, including a deeper understanding of the place of humanity in ecological terms (understanding our place in nature), and also postmodern formulations that largely place self-sufficient reason in doubt, but have no answer to the “fullness” question, as they are primarily concerned with suspicion regarding meta narratives.

Ultimately however, these are different formulations of a condition that affects everyone in the modern West. The condition is such that, while I may seek fullness/richness through my own construal of what the world is like (“worldview” may be a simple term to use here), the explanation I give for that fullness is always haunted by some amount of doubt or possible objection. Here’s a fuller explanation by Taylor:

“This is typical of the modern condition, and an analogous story could be told by many an unbeliever. We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.” (11).

It is this overall change in the background of belief/non-belief in general that Taylor is trying to get at. Historically, non-belief in God or the transcendent was rare. And this speaks to the tacit, unspoken condition of knowledge and belief than it does to simple changes in culture.

These changes in the conditions of belief (“secular(3)”) have come up alongside “a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. In other words, the Christian good (or other religious forms of “the good”) sees human flourishing as a good insofar as it coincides with loving/serving/glorifying God. Human flourishing is not the highest good. Whereas a nonreligious/non-believing good offers as its end goal human flourishing as the highest possible good (for the most part, radical environmental activism notwithstanding).

So, secularity(3) is a condition in which we all live, believers and non-believers alike, and it is a condition in which, for the first time in Western history, an exclusively non-transcendent humanism is widely available as a legitimate option. Further, naiveté regarding other construals is not an option for nearly anyone.

We are all aware that there are other construals. There are other options. The conditions of belief have changed.

The questions are: why? And how?