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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Solus Jesus Proposes a Way Forward in an Increasingly Post-Evangelical World

Having finished Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance I found myself feeling massively encouraged about the future of post-Evangelical Christianity in the United States. Ken Wilson​ and Emily Swan​ have written a book which focuses far more on how to move forward than it does on what was wrong with the way "we used to thing about things". Not that there isn't anything wrong with doing the latter (critique—prophetic or otherwise—is important), but it is just as important to start actually going somewhere once we decide to leave behind what we have found to be broken.

For many ex-Evangelicals, the process of breaking ties with American White Evangelicalism is two-fold: there is the breaking away from and also the clinging to. The "breaking away from" part is pretty straight forward and much discussed these days. White Evangelicalism in the United States has (despite the heroic efforts of many outstanding Christians) aligned itself with forces of authoritarianism, racism, and exclusion, forces that (to borrow from this book's observations) align more often with oppression rather than with the oppressed. All this is well documented and properly discussed. But it is never enough to know that you are not part of a thing, and many of us who have left Evangelicalism remain deeply committed to Jesus and his Way. The first great joy of Solus Jesus for me is that it proposes a vision of what next might look like for us—more than being a book which calls us to leave or fix the broken thing, it is a vision for what is (and I will say always was) better.

This is a book I have been looking forward to since I first heard that Ken Wilson and Emily Swan, the co-pastors of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, were working on it. I have already done some writing on how the concept of Solus Jesus has been of significant benefit to my theology and life as a whole, so it should not be surprising to hear that I was thrilled to hear that Swan and Wilson were working on a full book on the subject. There is a LOT going on in this book. It certainly did not disappoint, but it did surprise me—in a remarkably encouraging way.

When I sat down to read Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, I was expecting an extended explanation and defense of what Blue Ocean Faith people mean when talk about the concept. As someone who has been hanging around the fringes of the Blue Ocean Faith community (and cheering it on) for a while now, I was already familiar with the idea in broad terms. Essentially Solus Jesus is a riff on, and reaction to, the reformation credo "Sola Scriptura". Inspired by Phyllis Tickle's suggestion that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, will begin to work in a fresh paradigm every five hundred years or so, Solus Jesus recommends a decentering of the Bible as a source of certainty and instead placing our confidence in the person of Jesus Christ. Ken Wilson and Emily Swan are both post-Evangelicals who were put through the ringer by the Evangelical "machine" over the issue of  full LGBTQ+ inclusion (Ken Wilson tells the story of this in his previous book A Letter to My Congregation). It was probably for that reason, as well as the general timeliness of the subject, that I expected this book to be that defense and explanation.

It turns out that the vision Swan and Wilson had for their book was much bigger than mine. While there is some defense of the concept (I found Chapter 4: In Defense of Experience—Wilson and Chapter 5: The age of the Spirit—Swan particularly helpful here) the greater portion of the book is devoted to a theological and practical working out of what Solus Jesus can look like in the contemporary world. In essence, the authors delivered to my expectation in Part 1 (Solus Jesus) of the book, and then went well beyond, bringing the titular concept into conversation with Girardian scapegoat theory to recommend a more developed and ambitious theology in Part 2 (A Theology of Resistance), and then working though some of what an application of this theology might look like if implemented by the contemporary Church in Part 3 (A New Way Forward). While all three cohere nicely and the chapters all build effectively on one another, each part really could have been its own work. In fact, the only critique I can think of for this book is that I would have really enjoyed a bit more of each section, so maybe a trilogy would have worked well.

Both Swan and Wilson have engaging and complementary writing styles and they are both up-front with their backgrounds and perspectives. As a result, Solus Jesus is both accessible on a popular level and "challenging and thought provoking" as a book of theology. The co-authorship takes the form of independently written chapters with Wilson and Swan each writing from their respective strengths.

In terms of the actual ideas presented, Solus Jesus represents a serious candidate for a Girardian post-evangelical (and possibly renewed mainline Protestant) theology. Taking the title to represent the two major themes of the book in conversation: First Solus Jesus as a re-centering of Jesus and de-centering of the Bible-as-source-of-certainty in the life of the Christain, then A Theology of Resistance built on the foundation of Solus Jesus and complimented by Girardian mimetic and scapegoat theory. In both cases, Swan and Wilson come across far more as offering, than as arguing, their ideas.

The Solus Jesus thesis is grounded, not in a rejection of the Bible as such, but in a rejection of the Bible as a source of certainty, first, because certainty isn't turning out to be a realistic demand, and second because the Bible itself points more to Jesus of Nazareth than to its self as a source for confidence. While the book does lay out a case for this, it strikes me that Wilson and Swan are writing this book at a time when the evangelical (and post-evangelical) case against rigid understandings of Biblical authority and infallibility have already been made (Pete Enns' The Sin of Certianty is both referenced and relevant here). Swan and Wilson are, I suspect, largely done with attempting to justify their Christianity to the Evangelical machine and have moved on to offer their insights to those who are already searching for something more.

So, too, with their Theology of Resistance. Swan and Wilson waste almost no time attacking or critiquing existing Evangelical theologies of ethics, politics, and atonement beyond sharing a few of their own helpful stories of times and ways in which those theologies came up short for them in the past. Instead, the authors work to interpret much of the (particularly Western) Church's crisis of being and failure through the lens of Girardian mimetic and scapegoat mechanics. While I don't find Girard to provide any sort of perfect, comprehensive model for human behavior or a theology of the atonement (nor do Swan and Wilson claim that he does), I was impressed with how well the model fit both the atonement and as an explanation for the repeated failure of the Church to take the side of justice as it has interacted with an unjust society throughout history. In line with the aphorism "all models are wrong, but some are useful", Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance demonstrates clearly that Girard's is a useful model in understanding God's actions in the world and through the church.

Ultimately I found Solus Jeusus: A Theology of Resistance both satisfying and challenging in all of the best ways, and I sincerely hope that it will have a place in determining the direction that post-evangelicalism will take at this juncture in history—it certainly deserves to.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"God and Hamilton" is a sign that Progressive Christianity is Maturing as a Movement.

The two easiest sorts of book to review are those which are very bad and those which are very good. God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes from the Life of Alexander Hamilton & the Broadway Musical he Inspired by Kevin Cloud doesn't really fall into either of those two categories. While I don't have any significant substantive critique to basic content of the book (I pretty much agree with 95% or more of what Cloud has to say) I also don't have a great deal to praise in the "This new idea really blew me away—I am going to be chewing on it for months" sort of vein. Instead, what really stood out to me about this book is what I think it indicates about the development and place of "Progressive American Christianity"*; if I am correct then this little book may well be the harbinger of a new phase in U.S. Christianity.

What will strike any long time Christian reader of God and Hamilton is the familiar ordinariness of the book. Cloud takes twelve major themes of Christian spirituality (grace, shame, faith, initiative, the outsider, sinner-and-sainthood, equality, forgiveness, despair, surrender, death, and redemption) and, in one chapter each, discusses how those themes are treated in Lin Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton as well as the real eponymous historical figure as represented by Ron Chernow in the biography which inspired it. Each chapter follows a straightforward and effective formula: first a discussion of the theme in the life of Alexander Hamilton and/or Miranda's musical, then an exploration of the same theme in the tradition of Christian spirituality (most often grounded in passages from Psalms and the New Testament, anecdotes from Cloud's own life experience, and citations from a variety of theologians and contemporary spiritual writers) and finally a conclusion, bringing the two together. The formula is effective and Cloud largely succeeds in demonstrating and briefly discussing the importance and meaning of the themes he has selected. In essence God and Hamilton effectively recapitulates the "God and ________" formula which sold so very well in Christian book stores throughout the 90's and early 2000's.

Where Cloud's work differs from this sub-genre of gen-X American pop-Christianity, isn't his methodology or his subject matter; it is in his sensibility. While the formula may well be the same, the actual form of Christianity—particularly the understanding of "God"—I found in God and Hamilton is almost entirely updated (for lack of a better term). As a committed Christian and Anabaptist post-Evangelical (you can read all about my own theology and spirituality HERE if that background will help to contextualize this review), reading God and Hamilton was an almost surreal experience in that it brought together the emotionally discordant experience of the pop-Culture evangelical formula of my youth, with the ex-Evangelical theology of my present—a bit like eating a new food with a good taste but an off-putting texture. Cloud has filled the books with quotes and citations from the recent "college" of thinkers and writers most referenced in "progressive Christian" circles: Wright, Bueggemann, Buechner, Voscamp, and Vanier all make appearances in the text. Further, Cloud doesn't shy away from discussing on anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, gender inequality, or U.S. historical and structural racism (as well as the ways in which the Church in complicit in the history and present manifestation of all of these sins).

Ultimately God and Hamilton is a strange book. It doesn't argue for the religious sensibilities of contemporary progressive Christianity, it simply assumes them while making the argument that those Christian spiritual themes can be profitably discovered and explored in Miranda's musical and Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. For this reason it strikes me as a second generation work. If the first generation of a movement's writings are concerned with defining and defending the movement, the second generation will be marked by writings which are concerned more with exploring and applying the tenets of the movement (without yet having read it, I wonder whether Rachel Held-Evans' Inspired might not be another example of this development). As a result, God and Hamilton will likely hold little interest for those who are still exploring and justifying progressive or post-Evangelical theology. Rather I suspect that this book will find its greatest appreciation among those are fans of the Musical and are curious to think a little more about a more generous Christian spirituality than what they find among American White Evangelicals and among those progressive type Christian who are looking for a way to explore the application of their theology and would find it helpful to have a pop-culture reference point in doing so.

*I am using Progressive American Christianity for lack of a better term. If you have a better one for the thing that has happened in Western Christianity predominantly among post-Evangelicals following on the heels of the Emergent Christian movement, feel free to substitute it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Why I am not a Postmodernist (I Think)

Photo credit: Evan Dennis at Unsplash
More and more people seem to be under the impression that I am a postmodernist* or, at least, that I take a postmodern approach to understanding reality. Further, the expectation of my postmodernism comes from very different ideological positions. I have had theological and political conservatives worry that I have "bought into postmodernism" and I have proudly self-identified postmodern friends who are convinced that my analysis of social, theological, and political subjects is postmodern. Usually these are friends who are well informed and have an informed understanding of what postmodernism entails (and for the record, here is a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry on Postmodernism). And yet I do not think that I am a postmodernist and have resisted that label for as long as people have wanted to apply it to me.

Before I go any farther please allow me the grace of a big caveat: I am not writing under the impression that I have anything particularly original to say on this subject; the post is meant to be read as a reflection and not as a wild new attempt at either debunking or validating postmodernism. I am not really even trying to persuade anyone with this piece, nor am I ready to assert that I have understood the central terms with total accuracy; I am merely hoping to explain why I understand myself not to be a postmodernist. If you are convinced that my reasoning is based on a flawed understanding of postmodernism then that is definitely a conversation I would love to have with you in comments.

I think that the reason I am often confused for a postmodernist is that I essentially accept the postmodern critique of modernism. Because of this, insofar as postmodernism consists in nothing more than a critique of modernism, I could be categorized as a postmodernist (he typed anticipating some early reactions to this post). The problem with that line of reasoning will, I hope, become clear in what follows.

The analysis of the relationship between modernism, premodernism, and postmodernism which I find most persuasive is one which focuses on the relative importance of epistemology (the study of knowing, what it means to know, and how/whether knowing takes place). Throughout the history of Western philosophy* epistemology has always been relevant to the greater philosophical project**. It comes up a lot. However I would describe the shift from premodern to modern philosophy in terms of a paradigm shift in which (thanks to Bacon, Descartes, and a few medieval philosophers) the epistemological question "how can we know anything?" became the primary question of philosophy. By "primary" I mean that "how can we know anything?" became a question which "had" to be answered before any further philosophy could really be done. It became the first question, and because of the way the shift occurred, it had to be addressed in a certain way.

Before that shift (and the reasons for it are fascinating enough to merit multiple books) thinkers certainly asked questions about epistemology—they still wanted to know how we know things—but epistemology wasn't necessarily the starting point. Some began with ethics (the study of morality), some began with ontology (the study of being and existence) and some began with theology (the study of the Divine). You could really sort of start where you wanted to and work your way into other parts of the the philosophical project from there.

I pin the actual shift to modernism on Renee Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. In Meditations Descartes manages to single out the most rigorous definition of "known truth" which humanity has managed to produce so far as I am aware: indubitability or un-doubt-able-ness. Descartes refuses to claim that he knows a thing as true unless he is unable to doubt it. His method is to pair away all of the truth-claims he has provisionally held as true up to that point until he finds some core indubitable truth, and then he rebuilds his entire understanding of reality (including the legitimacy of reason and of observation) on that truth. He is essentially trying to take the scientific method and apply it to the whole project of human knowing. It is an elegant and initially persuasive approach to the philosophical project. After all, how can we make any claims about anything until we first determine that knowing is even possible, what it means to know, and what criteria can be justifiably used to test a claim?

The postmodern project has done a remarkably effective job of critiquing the modernist approach. The postmodernists have taken on modernism and demonstrated that indubitability is an impossible bar, and that treating empirical data and Aristotelian derived logic as the lone methods for determining truth value necessarily leads to contradiction and to oppression. Essentially the postmodernists have shown that Decartes' methods for determining truth are at best seriously lacking and at worst entirely ineffective. I very much agree with and will cheerfully cite the postmodern critique of modernism and I suspect that that is why people tend to think that I am postmodernist myself.

See, the thing is, there is more to having a philosophical position that concurring in a critique of a particular school of thought. I also have critiques of postmodernism, at least as it is frequently understood and manifested. First, I fault postmodernism for not going far enough—postmodernism critiques the modernist belief that the scientific method (empirical observation + Aristotelian derived logic) is sufficient for understanding reality but tends to tacitly accept the fundamental modernist premise that epistemology is the first question. Second, I am not a reductionist—I do not believe that the full meaning of a given thing is finally reducible to its constituent components (physical or otherwise). Finally I am not a postmodernist because, when it comes to postmodernism, I don't really think that there is any there there—I take postmodernism to be a critique of modernism and not a distinct school of thought in and of itself.

On reflection, I think my first reason for not identifying as a postmodernist is contained within the next two. If you were to imagine the human philosophical project as a number of people exploring the world seeking to find Truth, then I would locate Descartes as a specific fork in the road of western philosophy. Most western thinkers took the modernism fork and, after overcoming some obstacles and wandering down a variety of side trails and dead ends, our society has found itself in the cul-de-sac at the end of Modernism. Postmodernism is little more than an exploration of the cul-de-sac itself and a rigorous, thorough determination that "this road doesn't go anywhere else". While many modernists insist on denying the post modern critique and want to pretend that the road goes on in some direction, some modern and postmodern thinkers have, instead, declared themselves to be perfectly alright with that conclusion. They seem to want to be saying that the entire project of philosophy has hit a final dead end and that we need to just sit here in the cul-de-sac, insisting both that truth can only consist in indubitable knowledge derived from observation + logic and simultaneously insisting that it is finally impossible to derive indubitable knowledge (and therefore truth) from that source. They tell us that we were correct to take the modernist fork and that as a result of our exploration we may now safely conclude that there is nowhere to go and no Truth to find.

And I don't accept that. I am grateful to the postmodernists for showing us the failings of modernism and I very much appreciate the gains in human knowledge and (frankly) power which modernism's particular approach to exploring the physical world has allowed—it is, after all, modernism which led us to the great technological breakthroughs of the last four hundred years. But I think the conclusion we need to draw from postmodernism's discovery that modernism is a dead-end, is that we ought to go back and explore other paths. My own philosophical approach is to back track to late premodernism and take the other side of the fork. I do not mean by this that I want to forget all that we learned exploring modernism; there is a very real sense in which it is impossible to "go backward" and even if it were possible, it would certainly not be advisable. I want to move froward from the point of departure with the full history and benefits of modernism traced on my philosophical map. Truth still beckons, the project of philosophy remains and the road goes ever on.

What that more radical break with modernism means to me is, primarily, a decentralization of epistemology. I am not at all convinced that we are obliged to start with epistemology and I am fairly convinced that starting from epistemology leads only to a dead end. It is entirely possible to start by asking what things are and what things mean, before we worry overmuch about whether knowing the thing is possible. So far I have been calling my approach neo-premodernism to distinguish it from premodernism (which operates without recognizing the developments of modernism and post modernism). But I really hate the term so I am open to suggestions. How would you describe my approach to Philosophy?

In case anyone in interested in what this looks like in practice, I would say that THIS post on the myth of America and THIS one on art are still broadly representative of my thinking.


*I am mostly focused on Western philosophy throughout this piece since I believe that both modernism and postmodernism are essentially phenomena of Western philosophy.
** I am inclined to define the philosophical project as an attempt to wonder about reality.

Monday, May 21, 2018

What Happened to My Deconstruction?

In my last post I started with the observation that, while much of my personal "faith journey" maps well onto a common faith deconstruction narrative, I haven't actually experienced a deconstruction—at least not it the way that experience is usually discussed. I offered (got sidetracked by) a short analysis of the difference between a modernist and a premodern approach to understanding reality and indicated that my tendency towards premodernism might account for my lack of a typical deconstruction experience.

In this post I want to pick up that thread and give a few more reflections on how my tendency towards a premodern understanding of reality let to my having a different experience with regard to deconstruction. The really short version is that I never had a deconstruction because I am always deconstructing and always reconstructing. But explaining what I mean by that might take a few more paragraphs.

I have mentioned that I was raised in a fairly typically conservative US Evangelical household. My parents helped to found a non-denominational Protestant church, I spent time both being home-schooled (using a really conservative curriculum) and at a private Christian school. But there is one, really important way in which my experience growing up was non-typical for conservative US Evangelicalism of the late 20th century and it has everything to do with my parents.

My parents are politically heterogeneous as people. Where my Dad has a generally conservative approach to life; my Mom is has a pretty liberal* approach. Further, I would say that both of them are bad fits for those terms. My Dad's conservatism is nuanced by deep wells of reflection and a phenomenal appreciation for the stories of other people. Where the typically conservative response to unfamiliar stories is one of fear, anger, or rejection, Dad has always responded to new stories and data with interest, excitement and attempts to generate new models and theories about the world. In a parallel way, my Mom's liberalism is nuanced by razor sharp critical thinking and a strong empathy for those who found beauty and security in tradition and the past. At least—and this is what determined my experience—that is how I thought about them growing up. I should note that while these general tendencies did map onto their respective politics and theology to a significant degree I am speaking more here of their approaches to life in general than to any particular policies or beliefs they espoused.

I don't think, though, that simple constitutional heterogeneity accounts for everything that I ascribe to the way I was raised. My parents didn't only have different approaches to life, politics, and theology, they were cheerfully open about them. My home was one where finding the right answers was important but so was thinking about the question. Until I was in Bible College, I assumed that every church going family spent time after church discussing the sermon—disagreeing with some parts and agreeing with others. I always knew that my parents had different politics; and while I was somewhat more inclined towards my Dad's, I understood that these things were debatable and that there was value in having the debate.

On top of this, I grew up as a third-culture kid. My family moved to Turkey when I was seven and I stayed there through the end of high school. Due to the many cultural differences between Turkey and
Turkey photo by Samuel Giacomelli at Unsplash
the US, and thanks to my parents' and Grandmother's deep enjoyment of cultural diversity and exploration, I ended up with a pretty well developed understanding of the fact that the world is a complicated place, that lots of people have strengths and some weaknesses in the way they do things and the way they go about understanding the reality of their world, and that it is unlikely that anybody has things "just right". The conservative part of my makeup had (and still has) me convinced that it is almost always worth supporting the model of truth I found most compelling at a given point, while the liberal part of my makeup (one which was the weakest in me while I was in high school) reminded me that that I still had plenty to explore and learn.

The net effect of all of this was that when I went off to Bible college seeking to find all of the final answers to all of my questions, I went with a really robust understanding of what that would entail and a still (somewhat) flexible understanding of what reality might turn out to consist in. That said, I went to Bible college with the full expectation that I would find proofs and demonstrations which would allow me to concretize a final model of the world. I genuinely believed that the answers (and logically unassailable proofs of those answers) to all my questions were going to be found during my time in undergrad. And it seems likely to me that, were I going to have a deconstruction experience, mine would have started there. What I realized slowly over four years as an undergraduate was that, we still don't have final answers to "life the universe and everything"—we are still building our models of reality even while we are living in the world.

There were other factors too. I have been a fan of fantasy, fairy tales, and mythology since I have been reading and, in many ways, those genre are themselves an immersion into a pre-modern approach to the world. I also discovered philosophy during my last year of high school and focused heavily on that subject in college as a part of my attempt to finally "get the True answers". Most vitally I had a series of experiences which began to center my experience of Christianity more on a relationship with the person of Jesus and less on the lists of things people believe about Jesus. (I have written about that aspect of my thinking HERE)

None of that is to say that I "abandoned my faith" or even made a particularly significant change in the tenets of my belief structures while I was in college—I didn't. What I do think happened though is a sort of final shift in my overall approach to understanding reality. The experience of finding more questions than answers in college shifted me, or maybe just finally determined my psychological development, away from a modernist approach to a pre-modern approach to understanding reality. On a strictly historical level, it was over the ten or so years most directly after Bible college that my theological shift from functionally conservative white Evangelical to functionally progressive Christianity took place. But I am pretty convinced that it was the experiences which I have outlined hear which allowed that theological transition to happen in the way that it did—that is to say, that prevented me from experiencing a deconstruction in the way that it seems to typically occur.

By the time I really began taking out and examining or questioning those tenets of my faith and of reality itself, my understanding of reality had shifted from the strong-yet-brittle modernist "wall" to the more complex, less easily defined, and less thoroughly interdependent pre-modern symphony or dance. If a piece (a tenet) was discarded (as my original beliefs in gender complimentarity, LGBTQ+ exclusion, young earth creationism, Biblical literalism and others were) the total edifice did not shatter. It was affected, certainly. Each piece I removed had played a role in constructing the whole, each piece resonated with many other pieces. The whole, therefore went through a process of "re-tuning and re-orientation" each time something was removed. The ideas, beliefs, facts, convictions, and tenets I replaced them then necessitate further re-tuning—both of the idea itself, and of the edifice as a whole. But far from experiencing this as a crisis, I find great fun and even joy in it. When I discover that I now think a new thing to be true, I am thereby promised the opportunity to work through the rest of my beliefs, ideas, opinions, etc... and to find out how they are influenced by this new idea, and how they influence it in turn. Sometimes I will try ideas out, just to see what impact they will have on the edifice and what impact it will have on them.

I wish that I could end this with a recommendation for how one could choose to experience deconstruction in a modernist or premodern way—I suspect that mine has been slower than the modern one but that it has also been far gentler—but I don't have any certain prescription for how that might be accomplished. Modernist Christianity has gone to great lengths to wall out the whole philosophical tradition (postmodernism) which was built as a critique of modernism and as a result, most Evangelicals will probably experience a softening towards postmodern critiques of modernism as a de facto deconstruction in any case. There may be a back-door if an Evangelical were to start reading as much as they can of the Christian mystics, of the Inklings (try Lewis' essays, Tolkiens Silmarilion and On Fairy StoriesBarfield's Poetic Diction, Sayers' Mind of the Maker, Willaim's The Descent of the Dove) Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, and MacDonalds At the Back of the North Wind and other premodern thinkers with an open mind and without merely trying to mine them form apologetics or for aids in evangelism, but I am not entirely sure whether that will work. The simultaneous strength and brittleness of Modernism require both great power and great gentleness to undo it without shattering it. I suspect that in most cases the shattering may well be inevitable. And maybe that is another reason that community is needed. We need to be there to help pick up one another's pieces—maybe even to keep a few safe for a time while our friends are rebuilding their world. If it is a good piece they will find a place for it in due time.


*I use the terms liberal and conservative throughout this piece in a horrendously oversimplified way but I haven't worked out a way to get around that in a blog post. Maybe someday I can write a book and luxuriate in the nuance and complexity that medium affords. In the meantime, by liberal here I am using the loose political definition of "an outlook which tends to welcome change and improvement" whereas conservative "indicates an appreciation for tradition and stability with an attendant skepticism towards change".

Friday, May 18, 2018

Deconstructing as a Legacy of Modernism

As a heads up this is a particularly in-the-weeds post about my relationship with exEvangelicalism and some of the minutia of Christian theology in the United States.

Stories of deconstruction are a pretty solid way to get a blog post to go viral on the Christian internet these days. The haters (mostly conservative white Evangelicals) get to hate and break down your story into a million little warnings about the danger of doubt, Progressive Christians cheer you on and leap to your defense (sometimes after a little checking to make sure that you aren't harboring any problematically oppressive views which you haven't quite managed to deconstruct away just yet) and and since nothing drives site hits so much as controversy, your blog stats spike nicely. If you are really lucky you might even get invited to do a podcast with one of the more influential progressive Christian conversation leaders. 

All of that probably sounds cynical so let me follow with this: aside from the vitriol which tends to work its way into these things, I think this is a really good thing and a natural outgrowth of the desperate need so many Christian and Christian-adjacent people in the US have to know that they are not alone, aren't insane, and aren't going to hell because of their doubts, thoughts, and concerns. I do not think it would be accurate to classify white Evangelicalism as a cult, but I do think that it has in common with cults, the need for those who are trying to leave it to find a way to deprogram ourselves from ideas and thinking patterns which are so ingrained that they still shape our lives and reactions even though we no longer accept them on a cognitive level. "My Deconstruction" stories can be really helpful towards that end—which is probably also why Conservative Evangelical leaders make such a point of attacking them and the people who pen them. 

All of that said, I don't have a deconstruction story. Or at least, if I do, I certainly didn't experience my own story in a way that felt particularly like deconstruction to me. It mostly felt like growth. And yet, I get asked about my deconstruction and the people whose theology and life/faith experiences I identify most closely with are people who speak fairly regularly about their deconstructions. I was raised in solidly conservative white US Evangelicalism. There were a few quirks (and, as I will point out later, they were pretty important) but on the whole I can tell an honest and accurate version of my childhood which fits the deconstruction narrative really well.

I have attended Evangelical churches my entire life*. I was home schooled in elementary, at least in part to protect me from the "New Age agenda" (look it up); I attended a Christian private school; my parents were part of a church start-up/planting team; I attended a conservative southern Bible College, I have—on more than one occasion—thrown away collections of "secular" media; I debated classmates and teachers as a staunch young-earth creationist; there is a picture of my still floating around the internet wearing a "straight pride" t-shirt while attending a Christian music festival (LGBTQ+ friends, I am so sorry for that); the list could go on and on. Now I could probably be accurately described as a Progressive Christian (I am a Charismatic Anabaptist and my politics are unorthodox but that term probably fits better than any other) so how did I transition from the one to the other without a deconstruction?

I think the answer lies in the way I understand the project of understanding reality—I have tended towards a more pre-modern than enlightenment modernist approach to understanding the world. I could be very wrong here and I would love to get feedback from people who have gone through a deconstruction (and maybe their own reconstruction process?) to let me know whether I have understood y'all's experience accurately, but my impression is that—for a lot of folks—deconstruction is a bit like messing with a house of cards. Over time, they start to worry more and more that some aspect or tenet of their faith may not be all that accurate. This leads to a period (short or long) wherein they are internally wrestling with whether or not it is "safe" to examine that bit of their faith structure. The worry frequently seems to be based on a conviction that all the parts of their faith need all the other parts of their faith. This often seems to be related to their understanding of the Bible and its relationship to the truth value of much or all of their understanding of reality as a whole. White US Evangelicalism deeply inculcates its adherents with the conviction that the Bible accurately describes reality. If a proposition contradicts "the Bible" then it is necessarily wrong and the job of good intellectual Christians becomes finding a way to demonstrate that wrongness. Of course there are many, many problems with this approach to understanding realty (the Bible is a text which needs to be interpreted, there is no structure for determining an "absolute" interpretation of the Bible, the Bible doesn't actually speak about every aspect of reality etc...) but that hasn't deterred its near-total integration into the very meaning of Evangelical. 

Back to the house of cards. 

Eventually, the person in question will either repress their concerns, avoid a deconstruction, and go back to being a good (if somewhat defensive) Evangelical or they will bite the bullet and take a good hard look at the tenet which was giving them all the trouble. In my experience—and this is part of what makes being in a supportive relationship with doubting Evangelicals so tense—they almost always find that they can't really support a continued adherence to the tenet they are examining. Whether it is young earth creationism, LGBTQ+ exclusion, gender complimentarity, a particular reading of the "texts of terror", the historicity of the exodus, the authorship of Isaiah, or something else entirely, a doubt which had to be so painfully resisted almost always turns out to be a pretty legitimate doubt. This then seems to usually presage entry into "full deconstruction". It doesn't always, some folks (and I suspect that this has a lot to do with the specifics of the denomination and the tenet in question) manage to maintain themselves as slightly unorthodox Evangelicals but it seems that often the removal of the this tenet starts a cascade of other tenets the total removal and examination of which amounts to what Progressive Christians seem to be talking about when they talk about their deconstruction: a semi-systematic examination of much of their worldview with a subsequent rejection of many aspects of it. 

Or, at least, that is how it is often described. In fact (and I want to say that I think that this is inevitable given basic human psychology) it often seems to mean the systematic examination of a number of tenets of Evangelical faith followed by a reidentification on the part of the deconstructor as an ex-evangelical (or possibly as an agnostic or atheist) once a critical mass of tenets is reached. For some folks I know that critical mass has been a single tenet (young earth creationism), for others it took more that ten to reach the critical mass. However it goes though, the effect is that the person who is "going through the deconstruction" eventually rejects much of the structure and content of their previous faith. Depending on what is left afterwards (and this varies significantly but that is probably a subject for another post) the person may or may not follow this by a period of reconstruction in which they carefully build a new structure incorporating what survived the deconstruction. 

As best as I have been able to observe, all of that describes a fairly "typical" deconstruction process**. The thing is, it doesn't really describe the process by which I moved from there to here and after years of wondering about it, I finally have a theory. I think it has a lot to do with how we think about reality. I will take it as a matter of agreement that humans like certainty. We like to know and be confident about how things are. I am sure that psychologists have a lot of explanations for why—I am partial to the view that feeling certain about how things are gives us a sense of control and security—but at the end of the day it seems clear that we do. We also tend to cluster in ideologically homogeneous communities. As a result I suspect (and my conversations with many of my friends who go through deconstruction have borne this out) that we tend to build ideological structures which are both extremely strong, and extremely brittle. They are strong insofar as they are really resistant to change once they "set" and they are brittle insofar as the removal of any one part of them tends to represent a threat to the entire structure. 

That approach, the strength and the brittleness are, I think, representative of the great strength and
brittleness of western enlightenment modernism as a whole. Before the enlightenment, Western society tended to understand reality in terms of a great, intricate, complex, yet fluid structure (imagine a chandelier or a symphony). Premodern society tended to understand reality in terms of stories, music, and logic. When some new proposition was presented to a pre-modern thinker and accepted as true, the thinker would then cheerfully insert that proposition into the edifice which was their model of reality and then get to work tweaking assumptions, re-telling stories, and re-tuning harmonies, until the whole thing came back into some sort of resonance. When presented with evidence or argument that a previously accepted proposition was actually false, that proposition would be removed and the removal would necessitate years of discussion, argumentation, and re-interpretation in order to be re-tuned back to a resonant state. 

In contrast to that, the enlightenment model worked far more carefully to examine each proposition for it's truth value before incorporating it into the model as seamlessly as possible (imagine building a stone wall). The goal for any proposition was indubitability, (un-doubt-able-ness) arguably the highest bar for confidence we, as a species, have managed to devise. In fact, indubitability turns out to be an impossible bar—though many Enlightenment thinkers managed to stay in denial about that for several hundred year—but it has remained as the sort of "gold standard" or aspiration for people who build their understanding of reality under the influence of enlightenment modernism. For Evangelical Christians, the Bible worked dangerously well as a source of indubitable "knowledge". The only catch was that the Bible is not indubitable in and of itself—billions of people manage to doubt it every day—so it can only serve as an indubitable truth-source by an act of trust or a white-knuckled act of the will. As children who were raised in churches, we trusted the adults who just told us that the "Bible is true" and, for a time, that enabled us to treat it as a source of indubitablity. But as we grew we eventually faced the challenge of working out for ourselves just what it was that made the Bible indubitable. In my experience the answer comes down, not to an explanation but to the command to "not doubt". We are told that doubting the Bible is a sin and we might (or might not) be pointed towards some thinker or other who has scraped together an apologetic defense of the doctrine of inspiration (which can temporarily alleviate the tension but doesn't actually solve the problem in the long run). This amounts to the "white-knuckled act of the will" approach which cannot last. 


*With the exception that I am currently attending (and a member of) a wonderful open and affirming Mennonite church.
**I want to clarify that nearly every person I know who has been through this process would not want to use the term "typical" to describe their experience. It is a journey which requires significant personal and intellectual courage and I have great respect for those friends of mine who have been able to manage it regardless of where they "ended up". 

When it comes to facing the importance of doubt I would recommend. Pete Enns' The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So as well as Greg Boyd's Benefit of the Doubt.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

March for our Lives: Poets, Prophets, and Silence; some disorganized thoughts

Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
Mark 4:13-20 


I got to attend the March for our Lives in DC yesterday. To say that it was a powerful time would be an understatement. There are many wise and insightful reflections on the march which have already been published. I would like to particularly highlight this piece by Megan Garber at the Atlantic and this photo reflection by my friend Benjamin. My thoughts this weekend have been circling around the ideas of poetry, prophecy, and silence.

Today is Palm Sunday and that seems, to me, relevant. On Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus' triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. It is, in Christian tradition, one of the more mysterious of our celebrations. The celebration comes just days before Good Friday, when Jesus is killed by sinful humanity acting through a violent colonial empire. The celebration itself is understood to have been indelibly marked by plans to murder the very king it celebrated. The religious establishment and the secular government shook with fear and fury as children celebrated the Prince of Peace, the God-man who chose to ride to his final confrontation on the back of a mule rather than on a war horse. On Palm Sunday, Christians celebrate the one who defeated death by embracing his own pain and death.

I hope that the parallels are obvious.

Children, students, should never have had to lead the movement against gun violence. Children should never have had to lead the celebration of the one who delivers humanity from death. Children should never have had to, but children did have to. They had to because of the silence of those to whom the task was given. Two thousand years ago, in the face of adult silence, children sang. Yesterday, in the face of adult silence, children sang.

I don't know all of the reasons for our silence, and I don't know all of the reasons for their song. Some of us have been silent because we have given up hope—their hope is not exhausted and they share it with us. Some of us believe that the message of peace is too good to be true, we have chosen to accept the inevitability of violence—they still believe that peace is stronger. Some of us do not want peace, some of us have never wanted peace, our power comes from violence—they have chosen peace. Some of us want a King who will kill our enemies for us—they have embraced peace. Some of us were just too tired—they could not keep silent.
Alex King and D'Angelo McDade photo The Star

They could not keep silent.

They could not keep silent.

They could not keep silent.

But neither were they afraid of our silence. Christians believe that, in dying, Jesus overcame death—that Jesus turned the agent of his destruction and of ours against itself. In the words of John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so...
Death, thou shalt die. 
Yesterday I saw the students who, a month ago, looked at death, at a man whose ability to kill had been preserved by our silence, and turned silence against itself. Yes, they called out our silence about gun violence; they called out a nation's weary quiet—the deadly stillness that invariably returned weeks, months, or years after Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, and Pulse. But more than calling out our silence, they used silence against itself. I saw it in two ways yesterday.

Yesterday, teenagers were given the attention of a nation. They took that attention, they waited till we were all listening to them, and they told us to listen to someone else. Their own pain had driven them to hear the voices of communities of color, the voices that we have ignored, and they reminded us that those voices have been shouting the whole time. They stood back and silenced themselves so that we would be forced to hear from D.C. and Chicago ("see, the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone"). One of the most powerful voices of the day was the voice of eleven year old Naomi Wadler who condemned us with:
I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news, I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.

 They gave time on the stage to students from Newtown and they reminded us of Columbine.

And then there was Emma González. She has become, with good reason, a particular celebrity among the Parkland students who are speaking out on this subject. Her speech just days after the shooting was powerful and impassioned. One politician has already had to drop out of his race after he attacked her on twitter. When he went after her he was running unopposed, within days he had an opponent, and shortly thereafter he suspended his campaign. She owns her identity as a bisexual Cuban-American woman with pride and grace and has already learned the strength of what others might call her vulnerabilities. Yesterday, we all wanted to hear Emma González speak. We all wanted to hear the sort of impassioned power which has been so central to all that is happening. We showed marched yesterday because we care, we marched because this matters, we marched because we are learning to listen again, but I know that a part of me marched yesterday because I wanted a show. I wanted to see what would happen, I wanted all of these students and especially this student to perform for my encouragement and I know that I was not alone. The world was watching and asking her for a show.

González rebuked us with a poem and with silence. 

The woman everyone wanted to hear, read a poem about others and then stood in silence—weeping, defiant, and powerful—and forced us to listen to the silence of 17 graves. 

And if the task of prophecy is to empower people to engage in history, then it means evoking cries that expect answers, learning to address them where they will be taken seriously, and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire that never intended to answer in the first place.
-Walter Brueggemann: The Prophetic Imagination

Monday, March 12, 2018

Do We Need to Pretend it's a Game?

I have been reading and enjoying Dan Heck's According to Folly (here is my review) a Socratic exploration of contemporary American approaches to Christianity, recently (really enjoying it and I plan to review it as soon as I am done). In the book, the narrator witnesses a series of conversations between a Socratic interlocutor (the titular "fool") and three different "types" of contemporary Western folk. In the book, the Socratic fool identifies the different conversations he has with each of the types as a "game". Now I realize that this isn't original to Heck, but running into it the context of our current culture and the national moment has me reflecting on our methods of discourse in a particular way.

A few months back I put together a list of ten guidelines for arguing about theology on the internet. One of those guidelines has been haunting me so let me quote it at length here:

Remember that humans are complex

Everything I have been talking about has assumed the culture of debate and philosophy which was built by and for educated white men (and also some Greeks and North African men, and a lot of scholars who predate the whole concept of whiteness but whose work formed the foundation on which the men who came to think of themselves as white ultimately built their own power structures - some women also contributed but fewer than we should wish thanks to millennia of patriarchy). As such, while I (a white man) do think that theses guidelines really will be helpful in having productive and healthy arguments about theology, I would be utterly remiss if I neglected to recognize that the list is built on a presumption of the luxury of "doing" theology in relative security. Yes, white men have been martyred for their theology but the vast majority of western white, male theologians have been able to operate from a place of relative security. I don't think that I have heard this explained more powerfully than by Broderick Greer 
I descend from enslaved people. From lynched people. From racialized people. From people who took the Jesus their white enslavers introduced them to - a white Jesus happy to watch them suffer in order to maintain the proper social and economic order - and understood him not as enslaver, but as emancipator. I descend from people who created liturgical music not in grand cathedrals or impressive basilicas but on labor camps from Texas to Virginia. 
Folk who cried out, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen // Nobody knows but Jesus” and “Tell old Pharaoh // Let my people go”. Folk who sang, “ And before I’d be a slave // I’ll be buried in my grave”. Folk who did not dream of a pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die, who awaited a heavenly home free from the troubles of this life. No. They expected their God to act decisively, in history, to free them from the ravages of white domestic terror. 
These were people for whom theology was more than an intellectual exercise. They did not have the comfort of ivory towers or lengthy sabbaticals. They just had each other: families and communities forged during the evil institution of African enslavement. And that’s what “powerless” people have to do: theology on the go, without books, seminary, theology on the streets, in the face of people wearing white sheets. Theology after we’ve been kicked to the corner for a perfectly holy and wholesome sexual orientation and gender expression, from the text of our very lives.Excerpt from Theology as Survival 

It would be (and far too often is) catastrophic to mistake a person who is doing theology as survival—for their basic dignity, for their inclusion in sacred communities, for their ability to exercise the gifts and calling God has given them—for a person who is doing theology for simple (yet still valuable) edification. To demand that someone doing theology of survival operate in the mode of someone doing theology "from the ivory tower"—or keyboard, would be like asking someone on fire to not to speak too loudly; "too loudly" has a very different definition when you are on fire than it does when you are arguing around the kitchen table in the bloom of health.
It is, therefore, critical to remember (if you are a straight, white, male) that when you have a theological argument, you have the privilege of having it in a space designed to your optimal specifications. It is like the old joke:
Q: "Who would win in a fight, Kevin from Home Alone or Superman?"
A: "How much time does Kevin have to prepare?"When you are engaging on terrain that was built on the assumption that your culture, educational history, and gender are the definition of "normal" you should not expect people whose experience has been a different terrain with it's own "rules" and expectations to engage in the way you are accustomed to.
What I find myself wondering today is all to do with the power, risk, and essential value of discourse. I am a massive fan of Socratic dialectic as a way of discovering truth. The greatest educational experience of my life was my time at St. John's College where the teach the great books program and classes take place as discussions of texts around a table. The so called "great conversation" my abiding passion. In short, I am deeply committed to the proposition that rich, meaningful, robust, rigorous, and honest conversation is at the heart of human progress and understanding.

But here is the thing: In order to work, Socratic dialectic requires the conceit that all participants may engage freely without fear of existential threat or coercion. This is, technically, not a logical requirement but I am convinced that it is an almost entirely unyielding psychological requirement. I am not trying to say that the conceit is inaccessible to any particular class of persons, I am trying to point out instead that the conceit is a) often false, and b) easier for some people in some situations than for other people in other situations. When a straight Christian debates the meaning of the Bible on LGBTQ+ issues with a queer Christian, the consequences of the debate are significantly and unavoidably different for the two of them; this needs to be recognized by anyone who values dialectic as a tool for discovering the truth—it shapes the meaning, import, and weight of the arguments advanced by the two interlocutors.

It might be tempting to conclude from this that the less interested party, the party to who the conceit comes more easily, is more trustworthy in a spectators analysis of a given conversation. It might be tempting  but it would also be wrong. The more interested party is often more invested in the outcome of the conversation precisely because she is better, and more holistically acquainted with the total truth of the matter. Yes, she does have a clear psychological investment in the outcome (provided she is arguing for the conclusion which would benefit her) but that does not preclude the possibility of her being correct. It was C.S. Lewis who identified the Bulverism, a combination of the ad hominem and genetic fallacies, demonstrating that a person's interest in the outcome of an argument does not ipso facto invalidate that argument.

The idea (itself a conceit) that disinterest strengthens the validity of an argument is quintessentially modernist in that it emerges from the attempt to reduce all knowledge to scientific and mathematical rubrics of knowing. While it would be a mere re appropriation of the bulverism to suggest that the conceit of disinterest as strength in an argument is wrong only because it serves the interests of those whose power is already well established (relatively wealthy cis, straight, white men) and that it was first forwarded by that same class of people; the genesis of the idea is certainly relevant to the discussion. So, again, I am not claiming that the conceit of disinterest as strength in an argument is wrong merely because it was developed and preserved by those people best situated to benefit from it. I am arguing instead that this may explain some of the idea's longevity—it is useful to those with power and that is generally a solid predictor of a things longevity in society. I think the idea is wrong because it fails to allow for the fact that knowledge can be acquired in ways that are not "scientific" and because it fails to allow for the simple fact that those most impacted by a proposition are often ipso facto those who are best acquainted with the strengths, weaknesses, and consequences of the idea.

That dude who thinks he can mansplain feminism because "he doesn't need it"

It was, again, Lewis in his essay Meditation in a Toolshed who clarified the difference between looking at something (that is to privilege what can be described in a disinterested manner) , and looking along it (that is to know a thing from the "inside").
When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. The mathematician sits thinking, and to him it seems that he is contemplating timeless and spaceless truths about quantity. But the cerebral physiologist, if he could look inside the mathematician's head, would find nothing timeless and spaceless there—only tiny movements in the grey matter. ... The girl cries over her broken doll and feels that she has lost a real friend; the psychologist says that her nascent maternal instinct has been temporarily lavished on a bit of shaped and coloured wax.
As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction. it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. which is the "true" or "valid" experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people but to anthropologists; that if you what the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some "ideology" (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a "gentleman"), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.
The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or "debunks" the account given from inside. 
I want to retain Socratic dialogue, healthy argumentation, and rigorous debate. But I think we need to learn to do it in a more fully formed way. We need to understand that the arguments of those who do theology, philosophy, politics, or ethics "for survival" may well be doing a better, or at least a differently informed and equally valid job of it than those engage in a more superficially disinterested way. Certainly we need to begin calling out the false claims of those who flippantly boast that they are "just interested in the truth" and "don't have a horse in this race". I still believe that the game is a useful—even a vital—one, but its rules are far more complex than we often want to admit.