Idolatry is bipartisan and doesn’t care who you are

I preached Epiphany Sunday about the nature of the Church and her (because the church is a her and not an it) political witness being one with her spiritual witness. Our life together, both towards each other as believers and in our service to anyone outside the church community, is a witness to and proclamation of another kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

There is a danger always latent in life in a fallen world of idolatry of all kinds. For one, we can worship that which is not the true God. For another, we can worship God in the wrong ways which leads to a misunderstanding of who God is. This is especially true in America where the temptation to idolize American politics cuts across all parties. Conservative Christians can make an idol out of America, the military, and making America a Christian nation through worldly political power. Liberal Christians can make an idol out of social activism, individual experience, and making the world a better place. Both, and all in between, can make and have made idols out of human choice, freedom, the free market, democracy, etc. And while Christian life in the Church will sometimes look “liberal” from this angle, or “conservative” from that angle, we are something entirely different, an altogether other worldly, yet in-this-world social order: the Kingdom of God. Indeed, Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world (John 19).

The Kingdom of God has begun in Jesus’ coming, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise to come again. He has given us, His people, the task of living this out. He asked the Father, and the Father has given us the Spirit to be empowered to live as a foretaste to the new creation. The Kingdom first starts, not with getting the right policies into whatever government we Christians happen to be under, nor with focusing purely on an inward grasp of some theological propositions about God and Jesus. Our primary job is not to fix the world; it is to be the church (as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon put it in Resident Aliens). Will the world be better because of us being the church? Yep. But this cannot be our primary concern, as we first must come into the community and be transformed by God’s Spirit, and receive the gift of faith and grace, and learn what life together in the Kingdom looks like. The Church’s primary witness to the world is the Church’s life together (John 13). Intimately related and necessary to that is the Church’s going out and serving others, imitating the example of our Savior. I’m reminded of James’ exhortation to have faith and deeds together (James 2).

But we Christians seriously have to rethink and patiently pray about how Scripture calls us to be in this world as it is passing away while the Kingdom is coming. As Christians in America we have become too zealous for this country, whether to the political right or left. It irritates and saddens me when people are more energized by voting than by their life as a Christ follower with other Christ followers. I think it reveals that forces are shaping us for other kingdoms besides God’s Kingdom. Does that mean we shouldn’t vote? Not necessarily. But can we participate in American life in such a way that it doesn’t swamp us? Have we already been swamped by it? Has it taken over our imagination, leaving no room for the vision of life Jesus calls us to as His followers, the future hope that will come? If it has, let’s just admit it and repent and begin worshiping, as God’s chosen people, the true God who calls us to proclaim and embody His Kingdom coming by the power of the Spirit. Sometimes, that may look irresponsible to the world. That may look weird. That may mean you do less as an American citizen. But then know that what you are doing is being the Church, which is exactly what Christ has called us to be. And that is doing immensely more than you may think.

 

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The weary world rejoices

I just finished reading David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s an extended theological and philosophical reflection on evil, suffering, and theodicy. It was beautiful and substantial and encouraging. However, it is not a theodicy proper, as he offers no “explanation” to justify God’s ways to us. Hart brilliantly draws Christians away from banal and asinine responses to evil and death; we are people of hope, who live in the midst of two Kingdoms. One is passing away and is ruled by the “powers and principalities,” as well as satan. The other has broken in in Christ’s coming, living, dying, rising, ascending, and will fully come upon His return.

We Christians can therefore hate evil “with a perfect hatred,” and eschew insipid responses to evil and destruction. There is no “inevitable progress of history,” but rather the expectation through faith that God will make all things new. Some history, Hart notes, is simply “false and damnable.” Further, evil is not “a part of God’s plan”: it is alien, intrusive, and has been judged in Christ’s coming. The Christian vision of future hope is “not some rational deduction from empirical experience, but is a moral and spiritual aptitude — or, rather, a moral and spiritual labor.” We must be taught to see this hope via God’s Holy Spirit, labor after it as God’s people, and conform ourselves to it. I could go on and on about this book. There’s some technical philosophical theology in it, but it comes together beautifully to spur us onward towards the hope we Christians have as God’s people in Christ.

I was incredibly grateful to have read this on the tail end of Advent and be reminded that Jesus’ coming is not soft and meek; it is an invasion into the broken world to make all things new. We all experience weariness and waining hope. Now One comes, the “one of peace” (Micah 5:5), who begins God’s redemptive plan to create a people to live in this new Kingdom in the midst of the old, living towards the hope to come. “When the incarnate God appears…it is to rescue the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature, but it is also an act of judgment and conquest.” My weary heart rejoices, the weary creation rejoices, our Hope has come.

Education and Formation into Christian Maturity

I’m in a Children’s Literature class right now with a whole bunch of education majors. They’re…intense. But being a Philosophy student has taught me to think about things in certain ways; in the case of this class, education. I was quizzing a fellow student and Ed. major on various aspects of classroom structure (scaffolding for children that facilitates learning) and why there’s such a big push for more autonomy for students (why is this happening? Is it good? Could there be downsides?). It was interesting and illuminating for me, since I don’t know a lot of the nuts-and-bolts of education. But it made me reflect about the fundamental assumptions that go into answering the questions: What is the purpose of education, and what is it exactly?

I find the philosophical training I’ve received immensely helpful in thinking about educating and forming Christians. There are plenty of faithful Christians way smarter and wiser than me writing and thinking about this, so I know I have much to take in and think about and read. However, I’ve noticed some practices within American education that I worry have and will carry over into the Church, practices that I find questionable and I want to interrogate.

  1. Education is about knowledge. Setting aside the important and challenging questions of what knowledge actually is (we all assume this in the background of much of our thinking), this can become Gnostic really quick. Knowledge seems to be treated as an abstracted cluster of sentences that you think about in your head. Never mind what you (singular and plural) do with you body, or community, or your daily habits/practices. Knowledge is not less than mental assent to propositions, but it is (or should be) always more than that, involving the whole person. When it comes to forming faithful disciples, ‘facts’ don’t form us; the Spirit does through Scripture in the Church community. Bible trivia or historical study(“did you know that their historical context was (fill in the blank)?!?!?!”) are necessary, but they don’t magically create mature, fruit-bearing Christ followers. Formation and discipleship are about more than true sentences you memorize. This gets to the general tendency of many people to divide theory and practice, and has infected the Church. I hear people say “God doesn’t care what you believe, just how you act!” The fact those are two separate things to many Christians is a major problem. Theory/Doctrine and Practice are to be seen as one.
  2. Education will solve our problems (societally, politically, theologically, etc.). This makes the dubious assumption that ignorance is the main human problem. While that is very often the case, even if people get ‘educated,’ we’re sinful and distorted; we misuse and abuse what we learn, using it to our advantage or to the detriment of others. And again, assuming ‘education’ simply means learning some ‘facts,’ what do these actually do to us? Are people always won over by facts? Nope. Which leads me to think education is more than just facts, requiring a telos or end goal that directs how we think about education. Within the Church, more Bible facts help to get biblically illiterate Christians reading Scripture and engaging with the Divine Story present there, which is great. However, more is needed. Spiritual disciplines, daily habits, prayer, communal worship, and entry into the Story we claim is true (the Story of God the Father redeeming the world through His Son by the power of the Spirit) are all crucial components of formation.
  3. Education is helping people think for themselves. This one irks me. It seems the general trend in Western culture in particular, reflecting a hyper-individualism and something many Christians have absorbed. American education particularly seems geared to end goal of: “Just make up your mind what you think about this, and that’s what it is for you.” Really? What if they’re wrong? Why do we do this? Why is ‘making up your own mind’ good or the goal or even desirable? Thinking for yourself is interesting, because you never actually make up your own mind that you will think for yourself; someone teaches you. Now, of course individually appropriating and taking in what you learn is very important and necessary. However, maybe it’s gone too far. The communal/societal nature of human development provides you with the structure (i.e. Disney movies basically) that encourages you to think for yourself. But in education, it seems, there is never any defined objective or object towards which you’re moving, just the thinking itself, which is strange to me. Within the Church, the challenge of individualism is immense. The Faith (the truth of God in Christ, the whole Christian Story) is not something we make up for ourselves; it is received. Paul makes this clear to the Corinthians when speaking of the resurrection of Jesus and the truth of the Gospel. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received” (1 Cor. 15:3a). We receive the Faith as passed down to us within the community of God. Of course, what we as individuals do with that is up to us. We can accept or reject it. If we accept it we must each ask the question: How does this truth shape me? We don’t get to adjust it as we see fit, but following Christ into life and maturity does require that we ask how it functions for us. This is a tricky balance and a tension that must always be worked out in the Church with brothers and sisters. Individually appropriating the truth of the Gospel is not the same thing as individualism, and we need it for the upbuilding of the Church so that we’re not all the same person (we obviously are not). There are individual spiritual gifts for a reason (see Rom. 12:1-8, 1 Cor. 12, Gal. 5:22ff). We need to rethink thinking for ourselves and what it means for the life of the Church.
  4. Facts are what we educate people with, not opinions. The distinction between a fact and an opinion is philosophically problematic, contrived, and unhelpful. Sure, the empirical sciences furnish evidence for many true things that help us all see the world more clearly. But it never tells us what to do with that, nor how we should/ought to act, or what should be; It never can. This whole dichotomy needs to be interrogated, and as a philosophy major I try to do that regularly. In the Church, this distinction seems to have leaked in. I’ve met many Christians where, to them, all of the Christian Faith is opinion, or just up to the individual. “Jesus’s teaching on money is just an opinion, and that was long ago, so I (stress, individual) can decide differently.” “Jesus’s teaching on marriage was culturally conditioned and I can choose differently, because it’s just a matter of opinion.” “Jesus is Lord and Savior, but that’s just my personal opinion.” Of course, I think many of us do this because we’re afraid of authoritarian leadership forcing the truth down our throats, or seeming that way to others. But we’ve gone too far. As Christians, we must develop a bigger, broader, more convicted, and humble imagination about Truth: that Christ is Truth, that we are people who submit to that Truth, that it shapes us, not we it. We are people who proclaim the Truth, but it’s understood through Christ. We know the Truth, but it’s because it’s been revealed to us, not because we’re so smart and figured it out. It is what we live out in our life as the Church following our Lord.

 

Those are just some haphazard thoughts for now, I’m sure there’s plenty more I can’t see or think of. Also, I recognize putting the word ‘facts’ in scare quotes may set off alarms for people, given that a certain orange person has encouraged the understanding of ‘alternative facts.’ I am in no way intending to go down that road, but rather to philosophically and theologically analyze ‘facts’ and what constitutes them. A theological understanding of what’s True may not be available/seen by ‘all reasonable human beings,’ but it’s true and what we Christians proclaim and live. We must get beyond the Absolute/Relative dichotomy as well.

Here are great places to start:

http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/09/05/wouldnt-you-love-to-know-towards-a-christian-view-of-reality/

https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2018/04/19/forming-communities-of-practice/

https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2018/02/07/toward-a-new-vision-for-formation/

https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/08/30/what-to-do-with-what-you-know/

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/03/is-ought-and-natures-laws

Evil, Theodicy, and Christian Hope

I am currently working my way through an independent study with one of my professors. It’s construed under the general category of “Theodicy,” that is, how do we justify God’s ways, His goodness, etc. given that there is so much evil in the world. (‘theos’ = God, ‘dike’ = to justify). Logically, the problem is put like this:

  1. God exists and is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good).
  2. Evil exists.

This is the formulation of a philosopher by the name of J.L. Mackie, who posits that there seems to be a tension between the above propositions. Either evil exists and God doesn’t, or God exists and evil doesn’t (find me someone who holds this position and I will give you $100), or God exists alongside evil and is not really good, not really powerful enough to fix it, or doesn’t know about it (and is generally not the God we Christian worship and know).

A lot of the philosophical discussion about evil seems to me to lack theological rigor; there aren’t a lot of theological resources going into it, just generic understandings of “God” and answers to the problem that appeal to the widest audience possible (both a strength and a weakness).

I have been reading through some articles and things to think about how I will tackle my paper and came across this David Bentley Hart piece that I think is excellent. I nearly cried sitting here reading it in my classroom building, because he beautifully captures the truth from the richness of the Christian tradition to remind us that God has entered into the world in Christ to rescue it, and that some parts of history, some things that have happened, are “damnable” and will not be looked at as contributing to some good in the end. He exhorts us to look at sin and death and decay, the absurdity of it all, and “hate these things with a perfect hatred.”

But one line really caught my attention and reminded me that quick responses to the problem of evil and God’s goodness are silly; empty and trite responses won’t do. He compares some Christian’s responses to evil and suffering to the questions put to Christians by non-Christians, and concludes that it isn’t the latter that troubles him, but the former:

“As irksome as Kettle’s [author of an article challenging religious believers after the devastating earthquake/tsunami in 2004] argument is, it is merely insipid; more troubling are the attempts of some Christians to rationalize this catastrophe in ways that, however inadvertently, make that argument all at once seem profound.”

In other words, sometimes Christian responses to evil and suffering can be so ridiculous, so lacking, so flat and anemic, that in comparison the bad arguments of non-believers seem good. That’s a strong charge to us Christians. His article, though, reminds us of the deep hope (not optimism) of the Gospel, that one day even “the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark” will be made new. We must think, pray, read the Scriptures, and plumb the Christian tradition to think deeply on these things so that we can have something of value to offer those around us.

Here is Hart’s article: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/01/tsunami-and-theodicy-haiti

The difference between explaining and understanding.

Right now I’m reading The Word of God for the People of God: an Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture by J. Todd Billings. It is absolutely fantastic and should be required reading in catechism/for any Christian. There is a distinction he makes in the book I found profoundly helpful in explaining my frustration with Christians (also anyone I suppose) and how we read Scripture.

The distinction is between explanation and understanding.

Understanding a text (Billings means a written text, but I think it could apply to any ‘text’ like speech, events, etc) is transformative; it is an encounter that changes us. We certainly bring biases and preconceptions and presuppositions with us when we read. That’s what makes textual understanding possible in the first place! But we are not left as we are. An encounter with the text as ‘other,’ as something not totally under your control, presses back on us and changes us and our conceptions/presuppositions. This is especially so with reading Scripture, because it is the Holy Spirit that is active, piercing our hearts.

Understanding is knowing what Scripture is about (not just knowing about Scripture). Or, rather who it is about: Jesus Christ. Understanding recognizes the continuity inherent in the whole Bible, the large narrative sweep of God acting for our and the world’s salvation. Being open to such things is a vulnerability that submits oneself to being transformed into Christlikeness by the Spirit to the glory of the Father (Trinitarian theology is central in Billing’s account, and should be in any account of reading Scripture). We are not masters over the text, but are rather disciples awaiting instruction to which we can respond, “thy will be done.”

Contrast this with the role of explanation in interpretation. Since “texts do not fall from the sky as catalysts of transformation,” but rather “emerge through a process of creaturely production,” we need tools to enable us to really grapple with the text (p. 38). These tools, or methods, include things like historic and linguistic analysis, and sociohistorical and cultural research; in short, anything that explains “the contextually located features of the text” (p. 38). God, in His wisdom, has decided to work through human agents in communicating with us, ultimately becoming a human in Jesus of Nazareth that we may see the Father in the face of Jesus. Such study is necessary, especially since it should treat with seriousness that God really did become a human in Jesus.

According to Billings, proper interpretation is both understanding and explanation. However, I think explaining trips many of us up precisely because its lucidity and power appears all-encompassing; when we’ve explained the cultural context, we think we’ve “explained” the text and figured it out: now we know and have knowledge. For example, when we read the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7, we could do our historical homework and discover that Isaiah, at the time, assured Ahaz, king of Judah, of God’s presence and victory over enemies (see here). So is that it? Have we now explained and understood Isaiah 7? Hardly. We’ve explained, but not understood that the deep meaning of the text, since Scripture is ultimately God speaking, is God continuing His saving activity to right what has gone so wrong since Genesis 3. There is deeper theological meaning beyond the historical meaning since the Bible is a unity held together by the true Author: God’s Spirit

Since scripture is not like any other book, it cannot be reduced to its cultural features. However, neither can those cultural features be ignored. We need solid historical and critical study, but it must also be theologically oriented. After all, “while explaining contextually located features of the text is important, the Bible ultimately consists of creaturely texts that are produced and sanctified by the Spirit of God to be God’s own transforming word in Christ” (p. 39).

All study of Scripture must be properly theologically informed, both the historical explanation side as well as the understanding side. Too much of one and we cut ourselves off from what the Spirit has said and is saying through the Scriptures about Christ to the glory of the Father. We miss encounters with the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.

A Fine Line

Studying Philosophy as an undergraduate has lead me to a distinction I think is important to make, albeit tricky to see in others or yourself. It is an especially helpful distinction in Theology, particularly around challenging and controversial topics. It can be summed up in a question:

When is a question meant to challenge people’s certainty in their own understanding of something and thereby open them up to fresh thinking, and when is it just being a jerk?

We often question things just to stick it to someone because we get-off on a good ‘mic-drop.’ But this is silly reason to question something (I’ve done it and I’m ashamed of it). Perceptually, I think any challenge posed to ourselves is interpreted immediately in the latter way: we think people are being jerks. Why? We’re prideful, sinful, arrogant, uncomfortable…I’m sure you can think of more reasons.

Today in class I questioned the common-held belief that choice is good simply because having options is better than having none (this was in relation to whether it is better for God to have the option to do evil, but not do it, as opposed to not being able to do evil at all). The dismissive and vehement response was not surprising, but made me think how any discussion on and criticism of such deeply held convictions is possible. Is it possible to accept criticism without thinking the rug has been pulled out from under you? Perhaps one on one, in deep friendship/relationship, it is. Maybe not so much in a class room (at least not in a classroom where people have hardly anything in common).

This is a skill Christians ought to be praying to receive from God through the Spirit: to maturely and calmly engage and discuss. After all, salvation and all involved in it is a necessary thing to talk about (ethics, a vision of Who God is, Scripture, etc.) but must be done charitably and in detail. If that is the case, it takes time and patience. We do not just have those dispositions inherently: they are skills that develop with the help of the Spirit. We ought to pray for opportunities that foster the development of this spiritual skill.

When questioning everything lacks humility

As a philosophy major, and just as a personality trait I possess, I’m skeptical. I have a general disposition to question things. This can be anxiety inducing and spiritually harmful, as constantly questioning without clinging to something real and true leads to spiritual ruin and an unmoored flexibility lacking conviction and solidity. If that’s what people strive for in “being open-minded,” I don’t want it. However, a skeptical disposition can also be used for good and bear life-giving fruit. It can direct us down paths that drive us to discover the many facets of truth we may otherwise fail to see and be captivated by, giving us a firmer grasp along the way of what the truth is, why it is beautiful, and why we should cling to it. And so starting this year with Philosophy of Religion, I’m skeptical.

We’ll get into arguments for God’s existence, the nature of reason and faith, free-will, negative theology (which I get to do a presentation for and am nerding out about), and evil. However, evil is something I try to be careful thinking about and take incredibly seriously. What I’m worried about is the rabbit hole that the Problem of Evil is, one that can trap people indefinitely in lifeless darkness, all while they think themselves enlightened by asking the questions they do.

The Problem of Evil is so massive, so mysterious, so horrible, and so personal. Evil is the very real thing tearing apart God’s creation, tearing individuals apart, tearing families and societies apart. Part of the challenge of reading the book of Revelation is that it unveils the spiritual reality that is at play, that is really real, behind the veil of everyday life. God has, mysteriously yet publicly and openly, overcome evil in the Cross of Jesus. The Cross is God’s ‘no’ to evil. But it’s still here and we suffer patiently as God’s people waiting for the day when we will see “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).

Since the Problem of Evil is so massive, so visceral, so real, I have continually learned to be skeptical of my understanding of it, as well as the subsequent responses I have to it. Even speaking from Christian theology, with biblically sound responses, I am still skeptical of myself that there is so much mystery surrounding Evil. That said, I constantly find myself thinking I can understand it completely and “figure it out” enough to respond to it with certainty, all the while forgetting the immense and horrific negation evil is. I sometimes don’t have a proper respect for what evil truly is.

And so I’m skeptical about my class because more often than not, philosophical discussions around the problem of evil can easily transgress one of the most sacred boundaries Christians hold as fundamentally true: the Creator/creature distinction. I constantly see in such conversations, in others as well as myself, an assumption that whatever we may argue about regarding the Problem of Evil, we can understand not only the problem, but the answers as well. Personally, I think I’ve understood it when I haven’t. I’m skeptical that we, as finite creatures of God, can distinctly understand very much about the Problem of evil, let alone find an “answer” for it. The irony is, of course, that we deal with it every day, and how can we not describe that which we see every day?

The tone of conversations surrounding the Problem of Evil, it seems to me, reek of an intellectual pride that presumes we can comprehensively, exhaustively, and surely understand what is going on in the Problem of Evil. Sure, we can understand much of what we talk about when we discuss it. We can discuss Theodicy (God’s vindication/justification in the face of evil), God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence, and God’s omniscience. The line, however, between serious and sober discourse on evil and presumptuous attempts to flout our limited knowledge can be fuzzy and quickly breached. The more I study Philosophy, Theology, and Scripture, the more I know myself “as I have been fully known”: a finite, limited creature of God; a bent creature given hope and new life in Jesus Christ. I cannot understand evil; and to be honest, no one should: it is, literally, incomprehensible.

But God sees it. He’s seen it since the Garden and it has broken His heart. He’s been committed to rectifying that which has become bent and distorted. In Jesus, there is the defeat of the Devil on the Cross (among other things). Christ is victorious. He has descended to the dead, called out Evil, Sin, and Death for what they are, rose again, and ascended to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. This Triune God is the true God and is good. Evil will not win. All this is deeply mysterious and beyond finite minds, yet it is shown in Scripture and leads to praise of the One who stands triumphantly alive. Jesus, on the Cross, has destroyed Evil. (This is also why I think many people who speak about the Problem of Evil do not take it seriously enough. It is so alien, so massive, so horrid and grotesque and the way we speak about it doesn’t seem to me to have a proper disposition to this hideousness.)

We should be skeptical of our constant desire to “question everything,” while assuming concomitantly that we can understand everything and that things should make sense to us. We cannot and things do not make sense. Evil does not make sense. It is silly to think we can make it make sense to us. To presume so is to pretend we are not finite.

But, I’m sure that doesn’t get you tenure.