Monday, March 29, 2010

an age-old debate among Christians...

I posted this recently as a comment on my friend Phil's blog (see the link to the right), but I thought I'd post a revised version of it here, too, because I like what I had to say. And I'm humble. :-)

The following is an attempt to break down the disagreement between traditional Reformed theology and so-called Arminian theology. Here are my basic points:

1. Either God has given everyone common grace (i.e. God gives us all certain basic gifts/blessings) or God hasn't. It seems very difficult to argue, Scripturally or otherwise, that God hasn’t done this.

2. But if God has already given everyone common grace, then it is not entirely unreasonable to think that God may also choose to give everyone salvation grace. Of course, this would be universalism, which generally goes against Scripture and established Christian doctrine.

3. So, if all persons are given common grace, and not all are given salvation grace, on what basis is the distinction made? In Protestant Christianity there have been two traditionally developed responses: Reformed Christians believe God alone decides who gets what, and Arminian Christians believe we assist God with the decision in some way.

4. This basic division seems to be a false duality. I would suggest many Arminians actually come down on the side of Reformed theology, i.e. God alone decides. But this seems to beg the question, which the Arminians then ask: On what basis does God decide?

5. Reformed folks then say, more or less: there is no way to know, simply trust in God's sovereignty, justice, and love. Arminians say, fair enough, but certainly God doesn't just expect us to assume we're saved, right? Surely there must be some response involved? There needs to be some sort of fruit? (Here's where that pesky book of James shows up!)

6. Yes, say the Reformed folks, but it's a response that is brought about by the Holy Spirit, it's nothing that you would do otherwise on your own. The Arminians respond: But that would make any ability to distinguish truly Christian action from non-Christian action impossible, because someone could 'do' all the right things, and still not be saved.

7. Yes, say the Reformed folks, that's exactly right. There's no way to know, so simply trust God and the obedience will be the fruit of that. This creates a logical circle, wherein your fruit is a result of your salvation, but your salvation is evidenced by your fruit, and no person can be certain of the validity of either.

8. It's right here that we enter a paradoxical reality that falls apart logically. Essentially we've established a tautology, which is: "You are saved by God because God saves you." But even to state this tautology means that I have to agree with the statement, which throws the whole thing back up in the air, because the point is that I (a mere human) can never give assent to what God alone can claim. If we hold that God does it all, then even my agreement that God does it all becomes an impossible thing for me to affirm!

9. This is why faith is such an absurd mystery, but one that we have to cling to nevertheless; faith presupposes a subject that cannot logically be presupposed, if God truly always has priority, and yet we are asked to do that by faith.

All of this makes me sympathetic to the Arminian position, not because it is necessarily more theologically sound, but because it appears to push the ramifications of the paradox a bit further, and that opens up a lot of interesting space that it sometimes appears Reformed theologians are hesitant to pursue because of the 'danger' that they will fall into some sort of Pelagianism. My sense is that both sides can be valuable when held in tension with each other and used as a reminder of the paradoxical mystery of faith, rather than trying to establish a systematic articulation of faith.

Additionally, if God always retains the priority (ontologically, epistemologically, and soteriologically) then God will continue to have that priority in spite of our forays into strange theological territory. So, I guess what I'm saying is, I support the Reformed view, but the Arminian questions tend to be a lot more interesting!

Friday, March 26, 2010

the dilemma of freedom...

Sometimes I wonder whether human beings are really free or not. But, then, sometimes, I think that if we are free, freedom isn't that great of a thing. I mean, everyone loves freedom, right? Until we're faced with a difficult choice, and then most of us - at least in our heads - wish that someone else was around to make the choice for us. That way, if things don't work out, we have someone else to blame. :-) Besides, making difficult choices is a stressful business.

Some people seem to thrive in that environment, but I have a suspicion they aren't always as thrilled as they appear to be. I mean, look at pictures of any president, before and after. They always look much more tired while they're president, and then, a few years later, they always seem more mellow. I know, that's not an objective assessment, but I think anyone, even the most ambitious person, wishes at times they didn't have to make decisions.

Anyway, my point with all this: Jesus said essentially, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36) And Paul echoes, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." (Galatians 5:1) So apparently Jesus has set us free, so that we might have freedom. This is merely a tautology, unless we understand what freedom actually IS.

So what is freedom? Certainly the typical response will be that we have been freed from sin and death, freed from God's righteous judgment. And that must be true in some sense if Christianity is true. But I think freedom has an even broader meaning. We are free from the need to worry about making choices. Jesus tells us not to worry, and as difficult as that is for me, I think he may have actually meant it!

This doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt to make responsible decisions. We have to be accountable for our actions. But the freedom given to us in Christ is a freedom that essentially says, paraphrasing Luther's famous quote: Love God, and live as you see fit! This, I am starting to learn, means that we need not fear the dilemma of freedom. If we fail, God still loves us. If we succeed, we should give God all the glory anyway. We may not have a clue about what to do sometimes, but if we trust God, use whatever wisdom God has given us (and others - don't be afraid to ask for help!), and consider the cost... then we just need to DO something! Act!

This is a challenge sometimes for overly analytic types like myself. But thankfully, I can take comfort in the realization that Christ has set me free - free to live, free to fail, free to love, free to hope - and that freedom is not a "freedom of choice," it is a freedom beyond choice. It's the freedom that comes with knowing that no matter what choice you make, you have a solid foundation to which you can always return. So the dilemma doesn't have to be. I am trying to learn how to live this way. Actually, I think I'm being forced to... I guess I have no choice. ;-)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bonhoeffer on church growth...

"It must be considered a backward step when the house-churches [I wonder: and independent community churches?] increase in number at the expense of the local parish churches. This indicates a lack of creativity by the church-community, and a flight from the gravity of the historical situation. The growth of both forms ought to go hand in hand. Attempts at church renewal, such as the Pietist community movement, ought to increase rather than sap the lifeblood from the institutional church."

In one fell swoop, Bonhoeffer appears to have put his finger on, and critiqued, the essence of both the 'emergent' and the 'mega-church' models, and well beyond. But how to deal with this apparent "lack of creativity," as Bonhoeffer calls it? Any ideas/responses?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bonhoeffer on Christian community and love...

from Sanctorum Communio:

"Christians can and ought to act like Christ; they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor... It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way Christ was afflicted by our sins... Christ died for the church-community so that it may live one life, with each other and for each other.

Love demands that we give up our own advantage. This may even include our community with God itself. Here we see the love that voluntarily seeks to submit itself to God's wrath on behalf of the other members of the community, which wishes God's wrath for itself in order that they may have community with God, which takes their place, as Christ took our place."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Latour on religious speaking as "love-talk"...

Provocative thoughts from an essay by the self-proclaimed "not particularly pious" French philosopher/sociologist Bruno Latour:

"Transport of information without deformation is not, no it is not, one of religious talk's conditions of felicity. When the Virgin hears the angel Gabriel's salutation, she is so utterly transformed, says the venerable story, that she becomes pregnant with the Savior, rendered through her agency present again to the world... On the other hand, asking Who was Mary?, checking whether or not she was 'really' a virgin, imagining some pathway to impregnate her with spermatic rays, deciding whether Gabriel is male or female, these are 'double-click questions.' They want you to abandon the present time and to direct your attention away from the meaning of the venerable story.

These questions are not impious, nor even irrational, they are simply a category mistake. They are so irrelevant that no one has even to bother answering them. Not because they lead to unfathomable mysteries, but because their idiocy makes them generate uninteresting and utterly useless mysteries. They should be broken, interrupted, voided, ridiculed — and I will show later how this interruption has been systematically attempted in one of the Western Christian iconographic traditions.

The only way to understand stories such as that of the Annunciation is to repeat them, that is to utter again a Word which produces into the listener the same effect, which impregnates you, because it is you I am saluting, I am hailing tonight, with the same gift, the same present of renewed presence. Tonight, I am your Gabriel! Or else you don't understand a word of what I am saying — and I am a fraud.

Not an easy task — I will fail, I know, I am bound to fail, I speak against all odds — but my point is different because it is a little more analytical: I want you to realize through which sort of category mistake 'belief in belief' is being generated. Either I repeat the first story because I retell it in the same efficient mode in which it was first told, or I hook up a stupid referential question to a messenger-transfer one, and I do more than a crass stupidity: I make the venerable story lie because I have distorted it beyond recognition.

Paradoxically, by formatting questions in the procrustean bed of information transfer so as to get at 'exactly' what it meant, I would have deformed it, transmogrified it into an absurd belief, the sort of belief that weighs religion down and lets it slide toward the refuse heap of past obscurantism. The truth-value of those stories depends on us tonight, exactly as the whole history of two lovers depends on their ability to re-enact the injunction to love again in the minute they are reaching for one another in the darker moment of their estrangement: if they fail (present tense), it was in vain (past tense), that they have lived so long together."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Theology matters!

Ok, so what would you expect a budding theologian to say? ;-) But, I think it's important to point out a few basic theological principles, which can be found in any introductory theology text, or heard in any theology 101 course -- and that's not the same as a religion 101 course, by the way.

The reason I feel the need to state these principles again is primarily due to some of the feedback I've received (not comments on this blog) regarding my recent skewering of Glenn Beck's comments (admonishing people to leave churches that speak using the language of "social justice"). Admittedly, my comments have been a bit provocative, but I think Beck himself would probably be OK with that. After all, he's built a media empire on making provocative statements! :-)

Anyway, some of the feedback from supporters of Beck takes the following form: Essentially, I am taking Beck's statements out of context, over-exaggerating his claims, and haven't understood the theological basis for his views. To this sort of claim, I can only respond: No. Beck is wrong to make the above statements. And here's why.

1. Theology is not a democratic process. As Christians, we don't simply get to interpret God's revelation in the way that we happen to prefer. I realize sometimes that happens, but it's not what Christ ever intended. Christianity is not utilitarian. Scripture isn't meant to be interpreted according to whatever political/religious/sociological/psychological paradigm seems to be working best for us right now. We have to compare our views with the response to revelation offered by the Church, which ideally is a proper reflection of Christ himself.

2. Does this mean that Church leaders, or ivory-tower theologians, get to tell Christians everywhere what to believe? Of course not. It simply means that, in every instance, what Christianity means - and how we live as Christians - must be held up in the light of Scripture itself, and then interpreted through the Church (with a capital C). There are various approaches taken in order to accomplish this goal, and often there is disagreement, but everyone who takes Christianity seriously has some set of guidelines by which they determine their faith - and "whatever seems right to me" is NOT one of those guidelines.

3. Unfortunately, too often, many of us, even without realizing it, opt for autonomy in matters of theological discussion. We have good reasons for this - we've heard about the terrible crimes done in the name of Christianity, we are suspicious of corrupt preachers, there are so many competing views it makes it hard to decide, etc. But, none of this makes it appropriate to adopt my own agenda when it comes to Christian theology. My own agenda may have some value, but it also must be submitted to Scripture, and to the Church, if I am going to remain a committed member of a Christian community. I don't get to do whatever I want.

4. So, what do we do in the midst of all the confusion regarding what Christians believe and how Christians should live? We must - all of us, not just theologians - seek out good theology! Theology matters - and good theology all the more!

5. How do we do this? We begin by examining the paradigm through which we are currently viewing our faith, and see whether it needs adjustment. This is a constant process, and there are several things that have typically been emphasized by Christians throughout the centuries as ways to provide adjustment:

Scripture: What does the Bible actually say about X? Not just a few cherry-picked verses, but the Bible as a whole... what does it really say? This is a more complex process than any of us would like it to be, and it required serious study, which is something - I hate to say - many of us have neglected as Christians.

Tradition: Where there is a lack of clarity regarding Scripture, we can ask, what have other Christians throughout history said about X? Is there a consensus or have views changed? If so, why? It's not like there aren't a plethora of sources here - read the early Church fathers and mothers. Read Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas. Eastern Church leaders like Nicholas of Cusa and Maximus the Confessor. Thomas a Kempis, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley. If you want more modern works, there's Schleiermacher, Barth, Moltmann, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Pannenberg, Rahner, and John Paul II. And that's just scratching the surface. Find out what all these respected people had to say. Or just get an overview of their thoughts.

Reason: Are there good reasons for, or against, X? Have those reasons been taken into account? This can become complicated, as reasons given often beget more questions. But it is vital that we approach issues with as much objectivity as possible when we are debating an issue. Otherwise, it becomes a matter of opinion, and you know what they say about opinions. :-P

Experience: It would be wrong to say that experience doesn't matter in theology. In fact, it matters a great deal. But experience must always be examined in the light of the other guidelines mentioned above. The experience of a certain church may be a genuine move of the Spirit of God. Or it may be a mistake, created by a false spirit or simple human "mob mentality." But, in our desire to develop autonomous theology, too many of us give priority to experience, and this creates all sorts of bad theology, because - as I already stated - my opinion or agenda does not equal Christianity. And just because I can get a group of several hundred people to agree with me for a few years, doesn't mean I have found truth.


What does all this have to do with Beck? Simply this. I believe Beck is wrong for the following reasons:

First, he misuses Scripture. He provides no solid Scriptural backing for his statements. This alone should make Christians suspicious of his statements. Second, he is not even considered a part of the Christian Church as traditionally defined. Since Beck is a Mormon, his statements can have no authority for Christian theology. So even if he did quote Scripture in its proper context, his statements should not be taken seriously. Third, given that Beck has no authority, Scripturally or otherwise, it is reasonable to assume that he may not know what he's talking about when it comes to Christianity. In fact, this is the case: he repeats the common false assertion that Christianity is about "you." He is simply falling into the trap of autonomous theology.

So when Beck tells Christians to leave their churches, he is really stepping into a discussion wherein he has no business. If churches are abusing the concept of social justice - a concept that has a rich history throughout Christianity - that is something churches need to discuss. Beck is certainly welcome to his opinion, but his opinion should carry no weight within the Christian community. It is an "in-house" discussion, so to speak. And while getting input from outside voices may be helpful by providing a perspective we hadn't considered, when those outside voices tell you to leave home, they are simply wrong, and to listen to them is bad theology.

Thus ends my diatribe. If you've made it this far, I appreciate your attention.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Glenn Beck is an anti-Christ...

Notice, I said "an", not "the"... :-) But seriously, this guy is a jerk and does not deserve to be taken seriously by Christians, with comments like this:

It's fine to have an opinion about what constitutes "true" Christianity, but to use a media outlet as a pulpit in this way is no different than using it to beg for money or some other - let's be honest here - sinful, corrupt agenda.

Telling people to leave churches on national television, especially when he is not a Christian minister, or even a Christian believer (he's actually a Mormon), is wrong, and deserving of the title "anti-Christ" as far as I'm concerned.

Oh, and don't even get me started on his terribly misguided, inarticulate theology -- though, since he isn't a Christian, I guess that's a moot point with regard to this post.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bonhoeffer on intercessory prayer...

"A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner...

How does this happen? Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in him that repels us falls away... To make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On secular and religious reasoning - what's the difference?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Stanley Fish asks, by way of a book review (Steven Smith's "The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse"), whether there are 'secular reasons' that can stand on their own, independently of any ungrounded presupposition. He writes:

"[T]here are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another...

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it...

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle)... there is no way... to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like 'What are we supposed to do?' and 'At the behest of who or what are we to do it?'

This is the cul-de-sac Enlightenment philosophy traps itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the 'pure' investigation of 'observable facts.' It must somehow bootstrap or engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources that would enable it do so."

Quoting Smith, Fish describes the process of 'smuggling' by which secular reasoning establishes its principles:

"...the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway — but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to."

Fish (and Smith) claim that secular concepts like freedom or justice are, in fact, 'empty abstractions' that mean nothing until we ask to what they are referring. And, the values that guide our notions of equality, freedom, etc. will always be contested. So, it is finally a matter of establishing one guiding set of presuppositions over another, while recognizing that neither set is purely objective or free from bias.

Now, this is not a new argument, and supporters of secularism - often atheists and naturalists - quickly point out that it is a straw man argument: secularists (often synonymous with 'scientists') never claim to be completely objective when it comes to making decisions about how people ought to live. But what they do claim is that scientific research provides the best source of clearly repeatable evidence, and that evidence should be the primary guide for determining our decisions, since it's the best source of common sense we have.

In other words, secular values are supposed to be based on as straightforward a presupposition as possible, and scientific evidence provides a pretty straightforward answer. For example, we know that human beings are sentient and have emotions. Common sense would say that treating other human beings with dignity is a moral good, since it provides for a more stable coexistence between humans, and the possibility of a more productive shared future.

This all seems fairly clear and correct, as far as it goes. And most religious values actually cohere fairly well to secular values, as long as we stay within the realm of shared dignity. (For example, it is a well-known fact that all the major religions include some variation on the teaching, "Treat others as you would like to be treated.")

But now we get to the tricky question: Why do we assume that what is best for the survival of the human species is actually the highest good? To a secularist, such a question would probably sound ludicrous - after all, all we can do is make decisions as human beings, and all beings want to survive, so doing what is best for our species will ensure our continued survival. Pretty simple, right?

But, religion asks the question anyway: Why should we accept the secular presupposition? Why assume that the pragmatic decisions we make as human beings, on behalf of the species, using scientific evidence, are the best way to determine values? Of course, this opens up a Pandora's box of value possibilities that secularists are wont to shred with Occam's razor. But that only seems to beg the question. Does the simplest explanation really work when it comes to decision making? The correct answer would seem to be: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

This much is clear... If man is not the measure of all things, we have to look for another way to measure. And that is - to say the least - a very contested topic. And this, I suggest, is the true source of all the contention between the secular and the religious, between 'reason/science' and 'faith/belief.' The secularist wants to limit the realm of action to that which is testable and objectively true across the human spectrum. The religious wants to limit the realm of action to that which results from their particular value system. Clearly, this will always result in conflict.

Perhaps the best way to resolve this impasse is to move beyond the limitations found in any attempt to systematize values based upon presuppositions, and simply restrict ourselves to the realm of shared dignity. But this undoubtedly would feel dishonest to many believers. There is one other option: each person or group might start to take their values seriously, and then let the clash begin. Would all-out battle lead to an outcome more conducive to all parties? Or would one view simply be killed off by another? Which would be more valuable to our species, in the long run?

Addendum: For Christians, who believe that the highest value is self-sacrificial love, does it matter? Aren't we supposed to 'lose our lives,' regardless? Perhaps part of the problem is that we have forgotten what our faith is really about, or we don't really believe it. I think most of us don't fully believe what we claim. After all, in a clash of values, Christians will always be the 'losers', since we are supposed to love our enemies. And that means they will probably gain the upper hand, humanly speaking. But the fact that Christianity is so dead-set against ceding any ground in the 'culture wars' shows that we are far less concerned with loving our enemies than with protecting our status and comfort.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti...

A very thought-provoking article from Christianity Today on rebuilding Haiti, and the responsibility of Christian involvement: