Category: Theology

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.

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.

The Strangeness of Christmas – A Short Reflection

Our familiarity with Christmas takes away from its strangeness. In what is an absolutely paradoxical move, the great ground of being which created the universe at least 13 billion years ago and continues to sustain its very existence houses its essence in flesh and blood and bones and sweat. Love-with-a-capital-L and Justice-with-a-capital-J inserts itself into finite creaturehood.

This thing with no name and every name, “I will be what I will be”: why does it choose humanity at this time, in this place? In a young girl, engaged to be married. Within an oppressed people eking out an existence like so many other peoples, at so many other times.

Is it because this is how love acts? Love is particular, not general. It requires something of us — sometimes the most difficult thing could possibly be required. And so this infinite sustainer and creator chooses the most difficult, most illogical way forward. That which is eternal obeys the law of love and becomes specific.

Who is this God that acts this way? Who can even know or understand? But across the world, billions of people celebrate this mystery every year.

It’s too beautiful not to.

What Drives Exclusion?

Exclusion seems to me to be a very natural human tendency.

Richard Beck, in his book Unclean gives at least some reasons for this, though it’s not comprehensive. The main issue he sees is that we tend to mix physical disgust (the trait the helps us retain physical boundaries and keep us safe) with how we think of other human beings. The famous example he uses is the Dixie cup/saliva experiment, where subjects were asked to spit in a Dixie cup, and then were asked to ingest the spit. For complex protective reasons, the body immediately becomes disgusted with the thought of reincorporating our own saliva after it has been expelled.

Another great example is the simple question of how much fecal matter would it take to be mixed into a batch of brownies before you wouldn’t eat them. The answer, for nearly everyone, is a whopping “anything more than 0%.” In other words, even the smallest amount of contamination has the potential to “turn on” our disgust mechanism and reject the whole thing.

Both of these are telling experiments for normal human psychological traits. When we expel something inwards, we cannot help but see that thing as “other.” It has crossed the psychological boundary that we’ve created in our minds about what is “in” and what is “out.” Also, we have a tendency to think that even the smallest contaminant has the potential to ruin whatever it comes into contact with.

The danger of these two psychological traits is not that they are inherently bad. These two traits keep us physically safe and healthy. The danger is that we have a tendency to allow these disgust impulses to bleed into our social, emotional, and religious lives. Allowing disgust to dictate how we build communities, maintain relationships, and reflect on God and the divine carries enormous consequences. It can lead us to the dehumanization of those who are different from us, the building of exclusive communities built on distrust of the other, and the propping up of unjust systems that marginalize and disenfranchise groups.

Jesus Decides Who’s Included (and It’s Not Who You Want)

The Gospels (really all Scripture) are filled, over and over again, with stories about who we think belongs or doesn’t belong. We are by nature boundary-forming, exclusionary creatures. A world where I can know who is in and who is out, or who has it right and who doesn’t, is a much neater world. It’s a world where I get to make the rules — or at least where I get to know what the rules are.

These stories and teachings in the Gospels abound, and they often take one of two perspectives. Sometimes, those who are presumed to be “out” or “excluded” are shown to be included against our expectations. Take the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

The poor inherit the kingdom, those in grief gain comfort, the meek and lowly inherit the land. It’s an intentional subversion of our expectations and our instincts. My instinct is that it is not the poor but those who work and gain and live richly are the favored ones. My expectation is that those who are powerful, great orators, or skilled politicians are the most powerful.

In the second perspective, it’s not simply that those who are normally excluded are now included — it’s that those who think they’re in actually aren’t “in.” Often, Jesus uses his harshest language in these stories. Any kind of Gehenna/hell/torment language is when he’s talking about people who thought they were in because they fit certain criteria. Let’s look at Matthew 23, and Jesus’ famous “woe” language:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

I come from evangelicalism and (mostly) non-denominational Pentecostalism, and we often talked quite poorly of Pharisees (naturally, given the fact that they were the “bad guys” in the Gospels and some of the New Testament epistles). But what we often didn’t realize is that many of us were much closer to a Pharisaical idea of religion, right belief, morality, etc. Evangelicalism has a strong streak of holiness ideals within its expectation of what Christian faith looks like. In other words, if you call yourself a Christian, this means that you ought to 1) actively mentally affirm a certain group of religious statements and 2) act (or not act) in certain ways. If you don’t do these certain things, you are not in or you are shamed out.

There are probably tons of psychological reasons for this — reasons I plan to get into later.

But! I think it’s important to make this particular point when we are talking about “inclusion” within Christian communities. We build communities that usually have clear boundaries that help us determine whether certain kinds of people belong or do not belong. Jesus’ actions, teaching, and parables quite often are meant to short-circuit and subvert our natural inclinations towards exclusion.

It’s almost as if, of all the things you could do as a follower of Jesus, including those whom you want to exclude is of the highest priority. When in doubt, include.

Repentance Means We Are Wrong

I’ve been reflecting recently on a simple question:

Is it possible — or perhaps probable — that Christianity can require something of us that *goes against* our personal moral inclinations?

Perhaps this is too simple of a question. On its face, I think most people would say “Yes.” I.e., Christianity requires us to *change* in some way. Beginning to follow Jesus means that I need to change my current course of action in some way. It almost seems like a silly question to ask.

But I want to dig deeper on this, because I don’t think we often appreciate the reality of this question.

From the time we are born, we are inculcated into a way of living. And within that way of living, we are given a moral compass. It’s probable that this moral compass is acquired from multiple, somewhat unknowable sources. But it stands to reason that these sources would include culture and socialization, ancient philosophy and religion, reason, emotion, political and ideological commitments, geography, and baseline biological instincts. There are probably more that I am missing. This is true for nearly all human beings (barring those experiencing mental illness that prevents them from making moral judgments). In other words, we all have a sense of what actions are “right” and “wrong.” Some of us believe killing animals is morally acceptable. Some of us believe responding to violence with defensive violence is morally right. Some of us believe sexual relationships belong to married, heterosexual couples, while others of us disagree.

Therefore, it stands to reason that prior to submitting to faith in Jesus or a decision to follow Jesus, we have a pre-built sense of “right” and “wrong.” In other words, we have a moral compass. And that moral compass, for the most part is strong. If I believe killing another human being is wrong, it’s likely that I have a strong belief that this is so, and that I ought to never do such a thing.

Now, perhaps there are lesser moral inclinations that are harder to follow. For example, maybe I “know” that I should not yell at my children, but I do so anyway (I clearly have no experience with this). I may have given myself some kind of permission in my head to do this, but will probably feel remorse afterward, and (hopefully) attempt to not do so again in the future.

I want to focus in here on the stronger moral inclinations — the things that we have an unshakeable inclination are right or wrong, and are almost impossible to change our views on.

I might argue that Jesus’ primary call (the call that overarches the ethics to which he calls all humans) is the simple line: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Why would he issue such a demand unless he is requiring something of us that goes against our moral inclinations?

Let’s look at it another way:

1. We all have a sense of right and wrong.
2. We have no choice but to (at least attempt to) line up our lives with that moral sense.
3. Therefore, the way we live our lives (usually) lines up with the moral duty we feel (especially for *strong* moral inclinations).

If Jesus requires us to “repent,” doesn’t this mean that he is asking us to deny at least some of the strong moral inclinations that we feel? Repentance means a “turning away” coupled with a “turning towards.” He recognizes that we are living our lives in a certain way, by inherited moral standards, and expects that we will reject those standards in favor of a different standard (informed by what the world would look like if we lived as if God was “king”).

If we make the decision to follow Jesus, and submit to the requirements of living under the purview of the Kingdom of God, we need to grapple with this problem: what moral standards do our culture and upbringing and natural reason give to us that are incompatible with the following of Jesus?

More on Catechesis/Discipleship

I received some good thoughts from a friend in response to my last post.

First, he noted that one of the difficulties of counter-catechesis in American life is that American spheres of formation often have a perceivable endpoint. For politics, we can vote. For capitalism, we can consume. For patriotism, we can support/serve.

Second, he briefly mentioned the difficulty of the Benedict Option — particularly, that it is often seen as a version of escape and the relinquishing of influence in our communities.

American Catechesis

To the first response, I understand and agree, to a point. Old-school systematic catechism also perceived (and perceives?) an endpoint. My first memories of church, before we scooted over to the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions, are from St. Luke-Simpson UMC in Lake Charles, LA. I can specifically recall some of the older children starting to go through catechism, and before we moved to the charismatic church a few miles away, I assumed I’d go through the UMC catechism too (and was excited about that!).

But the whole point of that catechism was for confirmation within the church. After those classes, one becomes a full-fledged member of that local body, and of the United Methodist Church.

There was no such system, as far as I was aware, in any of the following churches we attended. Most of them were charismatic or Pentecostal, but all of them focused on inner, experiential change with a focus on right belief. That focus rarely came with systematic teaching or discipleship. Instead, it was simply assumed that serious members of the church attended Sunday school and services on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Adolescents attended youth group. Children attended “kids’ church” — but to my recollection, there was no systematic basis for teaching the tenets of the faith.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. On one hand, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic mix of traditions I grew up in recognized something essential. That is, spiritual growth is relational and ongoing. Confirmation/catechism can, in some cases, miss this point. The danger is that it can assume completion of catechism and baptism or communion are the “final steps” of the process. Then, spiritual growth (or discipleship, or sanctification, or whatever your tradition calls it) is stunted. This leaves a gap in the formation of character, which can be filled by some of those spheres mentioned above (politics, consumerism, individualism, patriotism, etc.).

So, in one sense, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic traditions get it right. There is little desire for a systematic catechesis because of a fear that it seems like there is no more to do after it’s complete.

On the other hand, my assessment is that the traditions without a systematic catechism have done very little to replace it with a robust alternative. Instead, we have relied on emotional appeals and a heavy emphasis on personal devotion in the form of “quiet time.” (To clarify, I don’t think we ought to divorce spirituality from personal devotion or emotion — those can be important parts of spiritual growth.)

What, then, are we left with? Christians without a deep foundation of theological and creedal understanding. And again, what fills in these theological gaps? The spheres of politics, patriotism, and consumerism. And in some sense, we could argue this is even more dangerous. Because when this happens, those spheres distort the emotions and the personal devotion of the Christian, and it becomes really easy to conflate American ways of life or political commitments with what Jesus seems to ask of his followers.

So maybe what I’m talking about is two-fold. For those churches that already offer a systematic catechism, we need a more robust and continual discipleship which continues to form the character and worldview of its members. For those without a systematic foundation in Christian theology and thought, we ought to start providing a catechesis based on the creeds.

I still think my initial point in the first post is true — we need a strong catechesis, coupled with a continual discipleship.

What I’m not sure about is how many people will actually be willing to give their time to this. It’s much, much easier to continue to adhere to the systems in which we have already been catechized. The pull of American politics, consumerism, individualism, and the like are strong. Maybe that’s why Kierkegaard was so stringent about the fact that the mob is untruth.

The Benedict Option

I was going to respond to my friend’s concerns about the BenOp here, but I’ll leave that for next time. This post already got a little longer than I anticipated.

Theology as Meaning-Making

My last post ended with this line: “It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.”

Obviously, I don’t think theology is pointless. I love it too much to think that. But aside from what I mentioned before — that theology is at its best when it drive us to action – I’d also like to explore the idea of theology as a meaning-maker in our lives.

I’ll be recording the sermon on the Holy Spirit this week. One of the things I’ll be saying is something along the lines of this: Most of us have a sense that this universe isn’t just a bunch of atoms floating around randomly. Instead, many of us have an intuition that this whole thing means something. The biblical account helps us to see just a little bit under the surface of our lived experience. This isn’t all there is. From the Genesis creation stories to the prophetic literature to the Gospels to Paul’s letters, we’re reminded that there’s maybe something else going on.

In my mind, when we try to evaluate human existence, we have to start somewhere. By that, I mean that if you want to actually believe that life has meaning and purpose, you have to decide whether it can have meaning and purpose. For meaning and purpose to objectively exist (that we’re not just “making it up,” so to speak) the universe cannot be a random ball of material floating on infinitely until its eventual expiration.

In other words, if I affirm that there is nothing “under the surface” of the material universe in which we are experiencing consciousness, then I cannot logically affirm that human existence is inherently meaningful or has an ultimate purpose. There is no good or bad. There is no right or wrong. There is no “better” or “worse.” Everything that is just is. And I have no objective reason to act one way or another.

The corollary to this argument is that for human existence to have meaning and purpose, the material universe cannot be all that exists. Somehow, some way, we need a guarantor of meaning. A foundational, divine, supernatural *something* that makes life meaningful and imbues it with purpose.

So, put simply: Objective meaning cannot exist without the supernatural.

This is not a post claiming what kind of supernaturalism or divinity one ought to believe in if one wants to claim that human life has meaning. Only that meaning requires the supernatural.

And this is where theology comes into play.

If we start with evaluating our lives at the “material” level — i.e., what I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch — we can only get so far. I can eat an apple and know that it tastes sweet. I can jump and understand that I won’t fly into the air. But when I start to think about my very existence, I am left with nothing. When I start to ask the question “Why?” — my senses come up short.

Theology is an attempt to answer that why with a foundation in the supernatural. In Christian theology, if the question is “Why am I here?” the answer is somehow related to the fact that God has breathed life into this universe, and has some expectation about what that life should consist of. If the question is “Why am I in pain?” or “Why am I suffering?” the answer should be related to the fact that something in our experience is broken.

Again, my senses can tell me that I am here. They can tell me that I am in pain. They cannot give me some ultimate answer for why these things are the way they are.

If we want to engage in meaning-making (that has an objective foundation) we all have to engage in some form of theology.

Is Theology Pointless? Sometimes.

What exactly is the point of theology?

This question bothers me frequently because (1) I love theology and (2) on the surface, it seems like a relatively useless pursuit. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “He is so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” That isn’t to say that a claim like that is always wrong. It’s true that there are some people who don’t do the hard work of integrating theological work with the concrete, lived experience of the everyday. (NB: this is tangentially related to Kierkegaard’s claims about objectivity/subjectivity – theology is “subjective” in that if we know a theological truth only objectively, we don’t “know” it at all)

Theological reflection certainly has the potential to be useless. Especially the speculative forms of theology that are concerned with claims about God or the divine that have no basis, or no clear “so what” to which they point. Let’s take the claim that God created the world in six days, and that it’s necessary for Christians to affirm this. What’s the point of a claim like this? Presumably, it’s to argue against the prevailing scientific consensus (based on mathematics and physics) that the universe has existed for billions of years, and that the earth was formed over hundreds of millions of years. Probably there is some concern here that a claim like this is inherently atheistic — i.e., it doesn’t require a Creator.

Ultimately, I have little patience for theological claims like this. To clarify, it doesn’t bother me when people believe in six-day creationism. If it brings them comfort or bolsters their faith — that’s fine, I suppose. But requiring this as a marker of true Christian faith is when I lose patience. My reasons are at least twofold:

  1. Because all of the physical evidence we have gathered over hundreds of years have consistently proved this claim to be wrong. (I could certainly provide some sources here, but that’s not the point of this post)
  2. It’s unclear to me what effect this belief is meant to have on the life of the person believing the claim. Is it only because we are committed to some literal reading of the Genesis creation account? And if so, why? What other purpose could requiring this belief serve? Does believing in this claim make you more faithful? More content? More loving, kind, patient?

I found myself thinking of the question of the usefulness of theology this week when I wrote a sermon on the Holy Spirit. Since a part of my spiritual upbringing included Pentecostal/charismatic expressions, my personal feelings about the Holy Spirit are ambivalent at best. In my worst moments, trying to understand the Holy Spirit can feel like another exercise in pointlessness. In other words, who cares who the Holy Spirit is/does?

But as I listened to and read experts on the subject (see The Bible Project’s series on the Holy Spirit), I found myself realizing that good theological reflection on the Holy Spirit can be extremely useful. In my own exploration, as I sharpened my understanding of the Bible’s picture of God’s Spirit, the connections to real life seem simple and prescient. If the Holy Spirit is understood as the life-giving force and energy that created and sustains the universe (a truly beautiful picture by itself), and we affirm that the Holy Spirit has now been poured out on all of humanity — that has many implications:

  1. All humans deserve radical dignity — including our family, friends, neighbors, immigrants, and enemies. I have every reason to love and care for those around me, because they too are sustained by the same Spirit that sustains and gives life to me.
  2. I can trust and be comforted by a truth like this, and know that my life is meaningful and purposeful. Even when that purpose seems unclear.

There are many, many other implications. But this is where theology is useful. It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.