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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Being a Pacifist and False Moral Equivalence

So I am a pacifist. Let's get that out up front. I am an Anabaptist, and my reasons for being a pacifist can be characterized as religious: I do not believe that violent coercion is commensurate with the Way of Jesus, and I certainly do not believe that killing a person can be part of the Way of Jesus. I believe that violence is wrong.

With that fact in mind, I want to clarify some things about moral equivalence. This last weekend, when a bunch of alt-right, Nazi, White Supremacist, White Nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a confederate monument and to terrorize the town with their hate and in the process murdered Heather Heyer and engaged in many acts of terror, intimidation, and violence, a number of groups met them to engage in counter protest. Among these groups were Black Lives Matter, SURJ, clergy from around the nation, and antifa (anti-facists). Some of these counter protest groups chose to engage in beautiful, courageous, and non-violent means while others fought back violently against those who attacked them.

It took the President three days to call out White Supremacists, White Nationalists, racists, and Nazis as evil. Today he made the case that the racists and the anti-racists are morally equivalent (he avoided that phrase and instead said that both sides "bear responsibility"). As a pacifist I think it is really important to make the following as clear as I can manage:

While I believe that violence is never the right choice, that fact in no way creates a moral equivalence between those who would use violence to spread their hate and to oppress their fellow humans, and those who resort to violence in defense of the innocent and oppressed. Not to understand this represents moral blindness of the highest order.
In the second world war, the Nazis used violence to commit their atrocities and to wage war, the allies chose violence in response. This does not make the allies morally equivalent to the Nazis. The sword is often an option for those who are oppressed; when the oppressed chose to wield the sword they are not becoming the moral equivalent of their oppressors. As a pacifist I lament all violence, I pray that I would have the strength to resist committing violence if it ever seemed like the only option. I am inspired and in awe of those who manage to lay down their lives in defense of others, whether they lose their lives while committing violence or while refusing it—placing themselves between danger and the oppressed—the courage to risk and lose ones own life in defense of others is more courage than I can claim to have and it is, in itself, a great nobility.

There is a basic moral tenet that the morality of an act depends on both its why and its what. It is in recognition of this that manslaughter and murder are different things. It is in recognition of this that a surgeon is not charged with assault. Violence chosen for noble reasons is not the moral equivalent of violence chosen for heinous reasons and not to see that betrays the moral ignorance of the man who cannot tell the difference between a surgeon and a sadist.

If the White Nationalist, White Supremacist Nazis in Charlottesville get to share guilt with people who believe that violence is warranted in resisting them then honoring Dietrich Bonhoeffer is as morally reprehensible as honoring John Wilkes Booth.

And if the President of the United States is so morally blind that he would seek to share responsibility between those who fly the Nazi flag and those who resist it, well that is probably the best evidence I have heard that he is morally incompetent to lead a country.
Clergy standing against Nazi Militia in the US

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of "The Body Keeps the Score"

We are on the verge of becoming a trauma conscious society
This is the opening line to the epilogue of Bessel Ven der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score. I think he is right, and I believe we need to shift from "on the verge" to "are" as quickly as possible. Furthermore, I think that the information in this book is going to be critically important for anyone who wants to work with other people. Teachers, pastors, public servants, councilors, and even simple friends of other humans will benefit from what is in here. This book—which I think was first recommended to me in a "Science" Mike McHargue podcast—resonated with me on so many levels. It is, truly, a must-read.

A little under a year ago I was at a small conference of church people who were and are trying to figure out what it means to be the body of Christ to the world both in and beyond Christendom. As a part of that process we heard from Angie Thurston an "Innovative Fellow" at Harvard Divinity who is doing research into the ways in which Millenials seek out and find spiritual community. During the question and answer time, she was asked (quite naturally I suppose) why Millennials are so rarely interested in Church and what churches might do about it. Her answer confirmed a lot of my own suspicions *pause to acknowledge the grain of salt* that it has a lot to do with the Western church's historic marginalization of people who are already oppressed by society. One of the hosts later summed the problem up neatly as "We need to recognized that we live in a society which has been traumatized by the church". I think he was spot on and speaking as a person who wants to see the church work to undo the harm she has caused, not to mention as a teacher who wants to do everything he can to help his students learn, I suspect that The Body Keeps the Score will be a critical resource in that effort.

As a thinker who is becoming more an more interested in developing a theology and discipline of delight in the physical world, this book spoke to me on a philosophical and theological level as well. In contrast to the common stereotypes of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists as focusing exclusively on the mental world (whether or not that is the mental world as structured in our brains or a mental world understood in less physical terms), Van der Kolk affirms the body as both the subject of, and a potential partner in healing, psychological trauma. He recognizes and affirms the diminished capacity of trauma victims to actually enjoy the exquisite goodness of life a tragedy of trauma and in doing so he makes it clear that the assorted drugs which are often used to treat trauma by "numbing" pain and experience, while sometimes utterly necessary, cannot be understood to provide a solution. Van der Kolk's vision is of a treatment for trauma which brings the traumatized individual back into the full experience of her life.

Van der Kolk organizes the book in a straightforward and accessible fashion. He deals with the causes, effects, and history of treating trauma and then goes on to discuss the various treatments he has used. The language is clear and the writing is compelling; the author mixes anecdote with statistics and research with compelling efficacy. The book does a great job of communicating on a popular level (I never felt beyond my depth while reading it) without seeming to compromise its relevance to professionals. As I am not a mental health professional and have no training in that field beyond a few undergraduate and a single graduate level developmental psychology course, I will not presume to comment on medical/psychological accuracy (here is a link to the professional positive reviews of the book) other than to say that I found his arguments and account compelling.

I would recommend this book to practically anyone, and I sincerely hope that you will read it.

The Liturgists: Spiritual Trauma Podcast
A powerful sermon a friend of mine gave on his own experience of Spiritual Trauma

If you have additional resources to recommend, please leave them in comments and I will take a look.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of "Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected 2nd - 5th Centuries"

Before you pick up Empire Baptized it is important to know that it is really a sequel to Wes Howard-Brook's Come out My People!: God's Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. This does not mean that you will have to read Come out My People in order to understand or appreciate Empire Baptized—Howard-Brook provides a helpful summary of his necessary arguments in the introduction—but it does mean that you will most likely want to read Come out My People! by the time you finish Empire Baptized.

Most important for the purpose of reviewing the book, however, is Howard-Brook's big thesis: that the history of Jesus, Jesus' precursors, and Jesus' followers up through the present day can be modeled as a tension between what the author calls religion of empire and the religion of creation. This book is, effectively, a strong attempt to trace the development of that tension out of the first century and the writing of the Bible, up through the "Constantinian moment" wherein the Church largely found a way to make peace with the religion of empire and learned to serve more often than call out the Empires of the day. And taking that as the core project of the book, I want to say that Howard-Brook succeeds powerfully.

In the text, after meticulously setting up the theological, cultural, and political landscape of the church in the 2nd century the author (his analysis of Philo of Alexandria is particularly good) works though the "whose who" of the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Eusebius, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and finally Augustine)   centering on North Africa and Alexandria, situates them effectively within their own differing historical, cultural, and geographical contexts, and then applies his model to much of their work, identifying the ways in which they (most often) capitulate to the religion of empire or insist on the religion of creation. He does not go at all easily on his subjects so the book rigorously roots out evidences of capitulation to convenience, security, and apparent desire for acclaim in the authors. This is not a book to strengthen your love of the patristics.

If I have a critique of the book it has to do with structure and language. Howard-Brook takes a solidly scholarly approach to his language and argument and does so effectively. At the same time, there are ways in which his treatment of the subject is a little more on the popular than the scholarly level. He has clearly done the relevant research and acknowledges contemporary debates and contentious issues, however he does not usually explain why he finds a particular position compelling which leaves the book open to the charge (I think it would be a false charge) that he has chosen those conclusions which are most conducive to his thesis rather than those which recommend themselves on their merits. Of course the only alternative would have been to produce a scholarly tome which would have had trouble getting any popular readership. I find his project compelling enough that I would very much like to see him follow the model of Greg Boyd or NT Wright, or James K.A. Smith on this, producing a large, scholarly work and a companion popular work.

The book is at its strongest when the author is providing overview (Howard-Brook provides a number of synthetic insights which emerge naturally enough from his religions dialectic but which are far to easily missed without it) and in his analyses of Origen and Augustine. Possibly because those two theologians have been enjoying something of a renaissance in and reexamination respectively in Evangelical and Progressive Christians circles recently, Howard-Brook is able to bring significant nuance to nearly any readers reflex opinion of those writers. Here is a representative sample from his analysis of Augustine:
The consequences of Augustine's erudite eloquence in expressing what was already a widely held view cemented this perspective into longstanding Christian orthodoxy. To this day, even undergraduate students who identify as "atheist" or "agnostic" still largely respond to the question "what is the Christian purpose of life?" with some form of "to go to heaven when you die." It plainly isn't what the Jesus of the Gospels proclaimed, not what Christians in Augustine's time proclaimed when reciting the Lord's Prayer. But "Christianity" had long since stopped looking to the Jesus of the Gospels to determine "the Way"
My suspicion is that the way in which you react to that quote is likely representative of the way in which you will react to the book as a whole. For those who are really committed to an American Evangelical history of the Church and reading of the Bible, Empire Baptized will likely seem saturated with heretical premises and challenging, troubling evidence (like I said Howard-Brook has done his homework). Those who are intrigued or excited by the quote will find the book equally intriguing/exciting. If the quote bores you, you will not likely get much out of the book either.

For myself, while I don't agree with every premise or element of the book, I find Howard-Brook's religion dialectic really helpful and eagerly await future treatments of the great schism and the protestant reformation. I would love to read his thoughts on how much of the religion of empire made it into the Radical (Anabaptist) Reformation, into the Protestant Reformation, and through the Council of Trent. Before that though, I want to read a little more about where he finds the undying persistence of the religion of creation in the early church. This is a book which both satisfies and demands a further exploration of its own thesis.

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.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

5 Good Books Which Will Challenge Your Conservative Evangelicalism

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—"Bibles laid open, millions of surprises," as Herbert says, "fine nets and stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Writing as someone who has traversed the bridge from Solidly Evangelical to, well, not (I identify as a Charismatic Anabaptist) I thought it might be fun annotating a list of books which, once read, are likely to ease a person's transition out of Evangelicalism (of the American and White variety) and into some other form of Christianity. As such, this isn't a list of books by the "New Atheists" but a list of books by authors who operate in and around the edges of Conservative American Evangelicalism and who are all dedicated Christians.

Of course there are millions of Evangelicals (and I am using the term to designate those culturally conservative Christians in America who self-identify as Evangelical and have, in recent history been associated with right-wing politics) who who have read and appreciated these books, they don't have any mysterious power to rip the evangelicalism out of someone. What they do, and do well, is fuzz the (mostly cultural) boundaries which have been set up around American white Evangelicalism. Not challenging any of the basic tenets of the faith (the authors are all robustly Nicene or, as Lewis would have said, "Mere" Christians) allowing alert and critical readers the realization that God is, indeed, moving powerfully out there

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

'Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it's ill talking of such questions.'
'Because they are too terrible, Sir?'
'No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to moral ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. 

Nobody ever really warned me about C.S. Lewis back when I was an Evangelical. In fact, throughout my childhood and through college he remained something of a hero among Evangelicals of my stripe. Mere Christianity (having been instrumental in the conversion of so many Baby Boomers) was, and still is, revered as am Evangelical classic.

I, like many others, first encountered Lewis through The Chronicles of Narnia and later his Space Trilogy and The Screwtape Letters. I started to read his apologetic and theological works in college and moved on to his Literary theory while working on my masters. I remain an enormous fan. There are, to my mind, few authors of the 20th century who possess the lucidity of thought, keenness of intellect, and sheer creativity that Lewis demonstrates in so many of his works—academic or fictional.

Of course Lewis himself was an Anglican, not an Evangelical and his writing doesn't back down from that, so it shouldn't be surprising that reading and agreeing with Lewis will have the tendency of moving someone's "center" away from Evangelicalism and towards something more like "mere" Christianity. All the same, I don't know that there are any of his works which will prove more challenging to the Evangelicalism of a person, than The Great Divorce. The book is a fictional supposal in which Lewis goes on a bus ride to the outskirts of heaven where he encounters a series of individuals being given the opportunity to stay and flourish. The book is a masterwork of theological psychology as Lewis uses it to examine our reasons for resisting a Very Good God, the reasons a person might choose their own misery over infinite joy. Critical to our purposes here however, the conversations the fictional Lewis has with his "Master" George MacDonald, will do much to gently yet firmly undermine a good Evangelical's confidence in doctrines like eternal damnation. It isn't perfect (it contains a little too much of neo-Platonism to my mind) but it is both good and powerful.

The Sin of Certainty by Pete Enns

Correct thinking provides a sense of certainty. Without it, we fear that faith is on life support at best, dead and buried at worst. And who wants a dead or dying faith? So this fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs. How strongly do we hold on to the old ways of thinking? Just recall those history courses where we read about Christians killing other Christians over all sorts of disagreements about doctrines few can even articulate today. Or perhaps just think of a skirmish you’ve had at church over a sermon, Sunday-school lesson, or which candidate to vote into public office. Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem. It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. 
This book is specifically targeted at one of the great fetishes of Evangelicalism: The conviction that certainty = faith and that the basic duty of  a good Christian is to police a particular set of propositions. I think the first attack God mounted on this stronghold in my life was through the Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft who once remarked on how bizarre (and un-biblical) it was to think that one had to pass a theology exam in order to get into heaven. Enns writes in a conversational, confessional style and his own commitment to God and his love of the Bible come through clearly. This book makes the list specifically because it is not the sort of book that an Evangelical who reads it will be able to dismiss as having been written by someone without a deep trust in God. Enns' life and reasoning work together to force the reader to take him seriously. Then, once he is taken seriously, the arguments cut winsomely and incisively right at the heart of the "salvation by correct-thoughts-alone" heresy.

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word or example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar? Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day? Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to? Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected? Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no.
What Lewis does to the Evangelical doctrine of hell, and Enns does to the salvation-by-correct-thoughts-alone doctrine, Boyd does to the civil religion endemic to so much of white Evangelicalism in America today. Like the previous two authors, Boyd is a committed Christian (and a Charismatic to boot). He takes the Bible seriously and Jesus even more so, he is committed to spreading the Gospel, and speaks, fluently, the language of Evangelicalism—he has even written a book of personal apologetics: Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father's Questions about Christianity.

Meanwhile, this book is an axe at the root of the tree of civil religion. In it, Boys works with both narrative and lucid argument to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God, as Jesus and Paul taught about it throughout the New Testament, is utterly different from governments as we understand them. He cuts right thought the false equation of "Good Christianity" with "Patriotism", carefully distinguishing this world's power over approach from Jesus' power under. 

The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.
It is worth stating up front that Noll is an Evangelical Christian with all of the Evangelical bona fides—a Wheaton College graduate, and later professor who has taught at Notre Dame and is currently at Regent—because this book will feel far more challenging to many Evangelicals than several of the previous ones. It doesn't so much challenge a particular belief of pillar of Evangelicalism as it does shake a basic conceit. When I was an Evangelical I held on hard to the belief that people who worked hard to interpret the Bible, so long a they worked at it in good faith, would arrive at the same, correct, conclusion. This book holds an almost painfully revealing mirror up to that conceit by examining the theological crisis among Evangelicals who lived up to and during the American civil war (yes there is some important historical difference between them and the Evangelicals of today). Noll's history is alarmingly reminiscent of the sorts of theological arguments Evangelicals are having today and most troublingly (to the Evangelical mind) it was the thinkers and pastors who were arguing for slavery—either as a necessary evil or as an outright good—who most clearly map onto the Evangelicals of today. They were the one's arguing for the "plain meaning of Scripture" they were the ones who accused their theological opponents of obfuscation-through-nuance. The Evangelical who reads this book will begin to find herself more and more nonplussed and eventually disturbed by the sort of arguments she sees her Evangelical compatriots making when they argue about the "hot button issues" facing the church today.

Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza

We need to say, is Genesis giving us Adam and Eve as the ideal for all times and places? Or are we bringing those assumptions to the text? I think, too, about racial difference. If we're trying to get back to Adam and Eve, we'll lose racial difference. And yet we don't just have Genesis. We have a whole canon that ends with this glorious vision of every tribe and language and nation gathered before the throne and worshiping. We have racial difference, not in Eden, but in the new creation. I think we're trying to ask too much of Genesis 1, 2, and 3 to give us all of God's blueprint for a good creation and anything that doesn't fit there is a result of the fall. I think that's a false reading. I think it's the beginning of the story, but there's so much more that God has done in the scriptures and in creation that we need to consider.
Like Noll, Megan DeFranza checks all of the Evangelical boxes. She grew up in a conservative Evangelical context, managed a couple of masters (Theology and Biblical Languages) at Gordon-Conwell before getting he Ph.D. in Religious studies, and speaks fluent Evangelicalese. She understands her current calling to be bridge-building between conservatives and intersex people. And yet this book smashes headlong into nearly all of the basic Evangelical assumptions about the nature of sex and gender. Sex Difference in Christian Theology meticulously examines the current science on how bodies are formed and what contributes to the ways in which doctors and scientists assign gender and sex labels to individual persons, and in that light critically (using fully approved Evangelical exegetic techniques) examines the witness of the Bible concerning gender and sex. The result for an Evangelical who reads the book with an open, yet still critical, mind is likely to be the crumbling, not of the book, but of his own understanding of what the Bible does and does not actually have to say about the meaning of physical sex and about gender. Having been disarmed by her passion and care for Scripture, the Evangelical will soon be alarmed to discover just how many of his beliefs on this subject were little more than assumptions—and weak assumptions at that.

How about you?

Are there any books you would like to add to the list. Leave them in the comments section together with a brief explanation.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

10 Guidelines for Arguing About Theology on the Internet

As someone who has found himself embroiled in quite a few debates, and as an occasional professor of critical thinking, I thought it might be useful to write up a conversation starter on the topic of online arguments about theology. Many of these guidelines should transfer smoothly to arguments about other topics, but Theology is a particularly tricky subject to argue since the subject matter is so important. When we argue about theology we are arguing about things of ultimate concern and about the Person(s) we love the most; we are arguing with people we know we are most clearly supposed to love—"and this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another"—; we are arguing for outcomes in which we are heavily invested.  As a result every argument about theology has the potential to be as emotionally fraught as the "argument with family" as partisan as  "political argument" and as intense as "arguments about money. Prayer is therefore a good way to begin.

This list is not meant to be definitive—in fact I hope to add to it as people teach me better and better guidelines—and it is generally not meant to be used as some sort of dialectical rule book with which to declare people "out of bounds". Instead I hope you will find these guidelines helpful in thinking about the most profitable ways to engage in the important work of online theology discussion.

1. Attack the ideas and not the person

It was C.S. Lewis who incisively pointed out that persons are eternal whereas all of the structures and conventions we use to model our understanding of the world are temporal, passing. It therefore follows that any attack you have to make,can only be charitably made against a thing.

More pragmatically, you will never convince a person you have just demeaned that they should adopt your own position on something. Humans just don't work like that. Instead, if you insult your interlocutor, you are far more likely to build up in her—by habit of association—a confirmed identification of your conclusion with cruelty or, at best, rudeness. Thus it turns out that Paul was not just giving a moral or spiritual command when he told the Ephesians to "speak the truth in love" he was also giving them sound rhetorical advice.

2. Assume good motives

Begin, and operate for as long as possible, on the assumption that your interlocutor is arguing in good faith. This can be incredibly difficult to do, particularly when your interlocutor seems to be convinced that you are a heretic, that you may well be leading souls into eternal damnation through your teaching and is determined to say so in a public forum. Trust me, I have been told I would better off with a mill stone around my neck, that I am doing the work of the devil, and that I am trampling the blood of Christ, all in public forums and as a response to theological positions I was advocating, I know how it can sting. But, to reference a little more Scriptural wisdom, "A gentle anger turns away wrath" or at least it does if your interlocutor has good motives. Telling her that her words really stung (don't whine and don't be defensive, just state the fact) and reassuring her that you are earnestly seeking the truth along side her through the process of "iron sharpening iron" is far more likely to lead to continued, fruitful discussion. And if your assumption is wrong and your interlocutor's motives really are bad, your gentle answer will be the equivalent of "heap[ing] burning coals on her head" rhetorically at least. I have had more than one irate interlocutor break down in fury after I responded to his over the top denunciation of my twisted-ness with a polite rebuttal of his previous point. 
You might find it helpful to periodically remind yourself that, from their perspective, you may be advocating some great lie, one which they are convinced is a root cause of much of the suffering of this world and/or the spiritually precarious situation our society finds itself in (whether you think so is not the point—your interlocutor thinks it) the fact that you may well think the same thing in reverse is likely only to exacerbate the situation. Fiery denunciations of heretics are all well and good (I suppose) until everyone has been declared a heretic by someone else and nobody will talk at all any more. Always try to keep at the front of your mind the fact that dis-unity among those who claim Jesus as Lord is a scandal of the highest order. Jesus' high priestly prayer for us was "that they may be one". Insofar as you can (and there is a limit here) try to read their bombast and passion as a passion for your own well being. If that doesn't work, then try to read it as fear that something they hold dear is being threatened. In their own eyes they are standing for Jesus on the side of truth and if you seem to be making the stronger case, that can feel like a terrifying place to be.

3. Re-imagine what "winning" looks like

Despite Christians arguing about theology, it is far, far too easy to buy into the worldly conceit that arguments are about winning and losing and that winning means getting your interlocutor to admit that he was wrong. But the temptation must be resisted. If our goal is to get more of Jesus, who is the Way, Truth, and Life, then our goal in an argument is not to win but primarily to Love (for "God is love") and secondarily (though still quite critically) to pursue the truth wherever it may lie—in your argument or in your interlocutor's. Thus a successful argument needs to be imagined first as one in which love flourished—this does not mean that you shouldn't go at it hammer-and-tongs but, per Point #1, it is the argument you are attacking, not your interlocutor himself—and second, as one in which as many parties as possible drew closer to the truth, including you. 
This also highlights an important way in which online arguments are different from in-person, private arguments. Online debates are public (more or less) and indelible. Most online arguments still live in the com-boxes and Facebook threads they were born in for all to see. Many lie dormant, but some are occasionally resurrected. Even when you think an argument is likely to be deleted, anybody might be taking a screenshot. Further though, online arguments nearly always have an audience (which is really a good reminder since even the arguments we think of as "private" have God as their audience), and arguing in front of an audience is something of a different thing from arguing with a single interlocutor. Arguing in front of an audience includes a degree of performance, not that you should be false (quite the opposite, be as genuine and earnest as you can) but that the quality of your argument is being judged, not just by your interlocutor but also by every person who reads the thread of the argument, and they will be far less partial judges of your debate than either you or your interlocutor. If you remain polite, reasonable, and generous throughout the argument—granting points to your interlocutor when he makes them, refraining from any dirty rhetoric and refusing to engage in ad hominem—your audience is far more likely to shift toward the truth you see and have been advocating for. Even when you don't convince your interlocutor (and, let's face it, only a minuscule percentage of online arguments ever end with one party saying "huh, I guess you were right"), and even if you find your own position has shifted, you have "won" the debate since you have all moved closer to love, and probably to truth. C.S. Lewis called this The Law of First and Second Things:
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.
. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.
You will never get at the truth until you put love first.

4. Make sure you understand your interlocutor's claim

In this I am borrowing a technique from scholastic debate. Back in the day, when Theologians or Philosophers engaged in formal debate, they were not permitted to offer a counter argument to their opponent until they had satisfied the opponent that they fully understood the argument the opponent was making by rewording it and repeating it back to him. The critical phrase here is " that what you mean?"

The fact of the matter is that if you think that the person you are arguing with is stupid for thinking the thing you want to refute, you probably don't understand the argument. My first response when someone says something which strikes me as too ridiculous to be believed, is to reword what I  think their claim is, and then ask them if that is really what they meant. I have managed to avoid a number of utterly useless arguments in this way when it turned out that I had simply misunderstood the statement. More often though, I did indeed understand what the person wanted to say and that means it is time for the second check: questioning. It is still really unsafe (not to mention unwise and uncharitable) to assume that your interlocutor is stupid. Instead, start with the assumption that this is an intelligent person who has brilliant reasons for believing what seems ridiculous to you. The only way for you to get at those reasons and grasp the presumably brilliant insight which is just now evading you, is to ask your interlocutor to provide them. I have had some good success with the phrases "Now how does that work exactly? Because it seems to me that X would really undermine that idea", and "Could you support that assertion? I don't see how it holds up at all", or if your interlocutor is of a more belligerent stripe "But what is the justification for that assertion?" or even "You can't just make statements like that without giving an argument for it; how do you defend that?" Notice that you are starting from the assumption that your interlocutor is intelligent enough to have, and to provide, a defense for their claim. This would either be a case of not answering a fool "according to his folly" or (if your interlocutor is really not a fool) managing not to be the fool who is wise in her own mind.

5. The Bible probably isn't clear on this subject

First, if it were (and once we take points 2 and 4 into account) you probably wouldn't be having this theological conversation in the first place. You might be having a comparative religions conversation, or a philosophical conversation, but if your interlocutor is a Christian, it is really likely that the passage which seems so clear to you is not at all clear in that sense to him. Of course there are Christians who cheerfully dismiss portions of the Bible but they are less likely to be arguing with you about the meaning of the passage which is currently tempting you to announce its clarity. It is, of course, possible that you have encountered a troll and that the troll is merely having fun with you by trying to get you to defend the obvious, but even then I have found that the best tactic against trolls is to engage them in good faith; let them demonstrate their troll-dom publicly, then calmly express your disappointment that the conversation is not going anywhere and exit gracefully keeping #3 in mind all the while.

Second the fact of the matter is that you may well be failing to recognize the interpretive lens which causes you to think the passage's meaning is clearly one thing when it is actually another. Remember that it was our Lord who accused religious people of being sinful just because they maintained that they could "see", Jesus seems to prefer humility when it comes to our self-assessment of our own understanding of things, seeming is simply not the same thing as being and it is far to easy to mistake the one for the other. The fact is that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, two-to-more-than-two thousand years ago. Not just language, but culture has shifted significantly since then and it is uncomfortably easy to misread a passage through the lens of our own culture and arrive at a vastly different meaning than would those who read it through the lens of the original culture (for some really good insights on this I recommend Misreading Scripture with Modern Eyes by Richards and O'Brien). Of course you very well may be correct in your interpretation, but then maybe your interlocutor is, or maybe neither of you are. You will just have to have the argument if you want to find out. 
While we are on the subject, here are a few other phrases which are just conversation killers and should be avoided if at all possible:
  • The Serpent asked "But did God really say?" - Sure but that is still a legitimate question, and when you bring this up you are a) forgetting that Jesus said "you have heard it said...but I say to you" and b) indicating that any attempt to critically examine the meaning of a passage is to imitate the devil which would essentially cripple the entire discipline of Theology and of homiletics. Just don't do it.
  • X is really a form of Gnosticism/Manicheaism/other ancient heresy  - This one is a little more tricky because it is actually possible that your interlocutor has fallen into one of these heresies. However, blanket accusing them of heresies which the orthodox church has treated as clearly out of court for the last fifteen hundred years will just kill the conversation. So if you really are concerned about it (and have done enough homework to know what Gnosticism and Manicheaism actually entailed) then I recommend something more along the lines of "That seems to have echoes of given heresy in it, could you explain how your position is different from that of the heretics?"
  • You see, I start from an ethic of love - Yes, and, per #2 so does your interlocutor. Of course if your interlocutor has already said that she starts from a different ethic, this statement may actually be a helpful way of establishing that you have different grounds for your arguments and will likely lead to a (hopefully) fruitful argument about which are the better grounds but otherwise this statement, while likely enough to be true, functions as something of a rhetorical cheap trick forcing your interlocutor to have to supply their "agape bona fides" in order to retain standing. If they are not operating from a place of love, it will show in the argument without anyone having to make the distinction.
  • Just typing out a passage without tying it to your argument - This suggests that your interlocutor was unaware of the passage (maybe they were and maybe they weren't but you shouldn't presume) and is also an implicit version of "the Bible is clear on this" since you are not providing your interpretation of the relevance of the passage in question.
  • That's just your interpretation of the Bible - Well... yes it is, but then the interpretation you are defending is "just yours" as well. Unless it is offered (hopefully in more gracious tones and with more explanation) as a rebuttal to "the Bible is clear", this will often come across as a tautological way to end the conversation in the vein of "these are all really just opinions anyway so we can never actually convince anyone"—which amounts to little more than refusal to engage the substance of your interlocutors argument, without admitting as much. If you want to leave an argument at any time, you always can. But you should be gracious about that as well (more on this subject in #10).
  • You are saying this because.... - You can't know the heart of anyone who is not you (and let's face it, haw familiar are we with our own motives most of the time?). First, this statement constitutes a logical fallacy (what C.S. Lewis called a Bulverism). Second it presumes that you know another person's motives despite the fact that only God "looks at the heart".Third, it violates #2, any charitable assumption will begin from the premise that your interlocutor is arguing for her thesis because she believes it to be true. Fourth, and most relevant here, it ends conversation because the only possible response is to stop arguing about the topic at hand and begin to protest a negative ("I am not at all arguing X only because I want Y).
  • Well that is where faith comes in - This means that you aren't going to have the argument anymore because you are out of good arguments with which to support your thesis. If that is the case, then say so. "I actually don't have a great response, but my experience of God still has me convinced of X" is far more charitable, and does your interlocutor the courtesy of conceding the point while bowing out. 
  • Declaring that you "just won the debate"  - if you have to say it, it isn't true. 

6. Keep your cool

As James reminds us, "everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry". At the end of the day, despite #2, your interlocutor may actually be cruel, advocating damaging practises, or just not that bright. It is not easy to be called names, to have your arguments met with
mulish-seeming assertions rather than counter arguments, and most of all, to see someone advocating a position you are convinced will harm people—possibly even harm their souls. None of this changes the fact, however, that people who "lose it" at their interlocutors, will almost inevitably fail to convince their interlocutor or their audience. If your lucid, deductive analysis of his proposition did nothing to sway him, it is vanishingly unlikely that your calling him "The Devil's two-bit ambulance chaser" is going to awaken him to the flaws in his argument. On the other hand, if you manage to keep your calm and speak in gentleness throughout your exchange—even in the face of his ad hominem attacks—while he is still unlikely to concede defeat (remember #3) he is far more likely to change his mind in the weeks and months following your discussion, and in the mean time you (and for good or ill your argument) will leave a good impression on anyone who reads the exchange. Remember that while it is not wrong to be angry—"be angry but in your anger do not sin"—anger is almost never the emotion out of which we should interact with other people. It is only the very best of us who can master our anger enough to speak from it without betraying scorn, condescension, mockery, and even hate. At least I know that I haven't managed it yet. So put the phone down, get a drink, say a prayer, and formulate an irrationally loving answer (without backing down an iota from what you believe to be true) before your reply.

7. Own your mistakes and celebrate your interlocutor's strengths.

It is a basic exercise in humility and in love (both particular virtues of theological arguers), to own your own mistakes as thoroughly and graciously as you can while simultaneously celebrating your interlocutor's wins, cleverness, and grace as much as possible—this almost cannot be overdone. If you are on Facebook, make a habit of "liking" any point your interlocutor makes with which you can agree. Agreement, good analysis, and wise insight are all intrinsically worth celebrating and it is a matter of simple Christian love to let your interlocutor know when you think they have made a good point. Good analysis benefits everyone regardless of who provides it. 
The equal and opposite is also true. Own your mistakes quickly, fully, and honestly. If you discovered that you weren't clear earlier in the thread say so, apologize and move on. You don't have to concede the argument (remember "winning" isn't a prize) but you do have to own your mistakes. If you realize that, in anger, or obliviousness, you have insulted or hurt your interlocutor, apologize; and don't resort to the coy "I'm sorry you were hurt" take a deep breath and go with the far more sincere "I am sorry that I did/said/implied that, I ought to have been more careful with my words". Of course sometimes (often) the whole thing will be a misunderstanding; you were using a word one way and your interlocutor was reading it in an entirely different (and maybe not very charitable) way. I once found out well into a conversation that my interlocutor had been reading my "gotcha", which I had meant as an indication that I understood the point he was making, as an announcement that I had just successfully ensnared him in a rhetorical trap. I apologized for having used an ambiguous term, granted that his interpretation made sense (it made me out to be a tad ridiculous but it was a coherent interpretation given the context) and have tried ever since to abandon the use of that word in written argumentation. Be careful about jokes as well, they can often fall prey to this sort of ambiguity, particularly if you are the sort of person who excels at dry humor.

8. Keep your integrity

This is a natural implication of #3 but I think it is also worth developing on its own. The goal of an argument about theology is to increase in love and to draw nearer to the truth (as an aside, God is Love and Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so for any Trinitarian there can be no real conflict between Truth and Love, they are both perfect and one in the Godhead). As such, there is absolutely no room whatsoever for purposefully deployed bad arguments. This doesn't mean your argument can't be flawed, only that you have to believe that it is sound. So long as you genuinely believe it to be valid, you should deploy it in good conscience. But to knowingly deploy a flawed argument is to tell the birthright of your integrity for the pottage of a rhetorical point. In the Kingdom of God, there is no place for Machiavellianism. No matter how wrong your interlocutor, no matter how noble your cause, you cannot draw closer to the real goal if you are building your case with rotten materials. It does not matter one iota whether your interlocutor spots the hole, if you are not comfortable with the argument you have no business deploying it. 
  • Here is a link to a helpful overview of logical fallacies in case you want to check any of your standard arguments: Your Logical Fallacy Is

9. 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.

In that vein, I want to take a moment to extend an invitation to anybody who is reading this and is not a straight white man and who has experience with theological arguments online, to message me about putting together a guest post follow-up to this piece describing the best ways to engage in theological arguments with someone like you. What are good guidelines for arguing on your "terrain" and what are your ideas for how to have edifying, beneficial arguments about theology with one another? In the meantime, I will do my best to learn.

10. Know when to walk away

Sometimes the door must be shut
Some arguments need to be abandoned because they have become abusive, either of you or of the audience, and I want to urge you to keep both in mind. It is entirely up to you to decide when you have had enough verbal/rhetorical abuse. You are perfectly justified in leaving the instant your interlocutor resorts to an ad hominem with a simple "sorry, I don't participate in arguments where people are going to be insulting", or my preference is often to stay and allow the public abuse to spool out in the hopes that my interlocutor will recognize what he is saying, I can do that because it really doesn't hurt me that much thanks to my relatively secure situation in life and the accidents of my personality. You are free to point out insults or to ignore them (one of the beautiful things about online arguments is that if you ignore it, some observer is likely to jump in and point it out, thereby validating your concerns there are troll-slayers as well as trolls online). I should mention though that, in being public, online abuse of this nature is significantly different from physical abuse which far more frequently happens in private. Also while I have chosen to use the term "abuse" because I believe the shoe fits, insults and demeaning language within an argument are different in kind from the sort of cyber bullying and online harassment which has become a mental health crisis, particularly for middle and high school students. Do not feel in any way constrained to put up with abuse in a theological argument, you do not have to do so and there is no legitimate reason for anyone to look down on you for choosing to protect your mental, and spiritual health. 

Finally there is the audience to consider. It is not at all impossible that your interlocutor may begin to
verbally abuse those around you. If that happens I recommend walking away and if the abuse occurred in your online space (Your Facebook wall, your blog, etc...) grab a screen shot, delete the abusive comment, and inform your interlocutor that the argument is over and why. It is not impossible that this will elicit an apology (hopefully a public one to the parties who were subjected to the abuse) and if it does not, per #3 it is probably time to shut the argument down. If the argument is not taking place in one of your online spaces, then it is time to walk away with a brief explanation of why.

But all arguments, even the best ones, come to an end eventually. In the best case scenario, you and your interlocutor will realize together that the argument has played out: you have both worked back to premises you are not prepared to challenge or to question; the argument has moved beyond one or both (or all) participants' capacity to speak in love for the time being; or maybe the whole thing has become so muddled that nobody is really sure what you are arguing about anymore. Unfortunately it rarely happens that way and instead one party needs to walk away. This is particularly hard to do because letting your interlocutor (who in all likelihood "feels" more like an "opponent" just then) "win—another reason to keep #3 in mind throughout. Once you realize that the argument has reached this point, it is probably best to let your interlocutor know—politely but firmly—that you have finished arguing. If you have it in you, thank her for the discussion and give her the last word (never end a comment which contains an argument with an announcement that you are done, wait for your interlocutor to make a point and then, without challenging it, announce your departure).

I wish you the very best of arguments, and if you want to argue with any of these guidelines I want to welcome you to respond in comments. You already know my entire "playbook" so this should be fun.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Delight as a Spiritual Discipline

Everyone raised his hand to pick the fruit he best liked the look of, and then everyone paused for a second. This fruit was so beautiful that each felt "It can't be meant for me . . . surely we're not allowed to pluck it."
It's all right," said Peter. "I know what we're all thinking. But I'm sure, quite sure, we needn't. I've a feeling we've got to the country where everything is allowed."
"Here goes, then!" said Eustace. And they all began to eat.
What was the fruit like? Unfortunately no one can describe a taste. All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grapefruit you've ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour. And there were no seeds or stones, and no wasps." 
-C.S. Lewis The Last Battle

I turned thirty five the other day and my family bought me a pair of Enchroma glasses for my birthday. In case you haven't watched one of their videos online yet, Enchroma glasses correct a degree of red-green colorblindness for those who have the condition. I had watched the videos and was really excited when I opened the box. The idea that I would be suddenly gaining access to a world that everyone else experiences all the time was somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying. Now my color blindness is pretty mild. I don't have any trouble with stoplights and I am rarely wrong about any given color (purple is my undoing—I just can't see the red in it so I almost always think it is dark blue). But for my entire life, people have been going on about sunsets and autumn leaves in a way that has convinced me that there really must be something to them even though they generally leave me flat (I experience most sunsets as a fairly drab wash of bleached pastels). Now it was suddenly possible that I would be swept into new beauty—beauty which I could literally not imagine. At the same time, I was aware of the fact that the classes don't work for everyone ("individual results will vary") and the fear of disappointment was almost as keen as the hope for I-knew-not-what-exactly.

Without leaving you in suspense: they worked. At least they make a significant difference in the way I see the world around me. I can't say that with them I see the world as though I weren't colorblind since I don't know what the world looks like through your eyes. But when I wear these glasses purple becomes a whole thing. Also nobody ever told me that green has this much variety to it. I spent the first hours after I got the glasses just wandering around with a stupid grin on my face being distracted by the grass, the spring leaves, and the sky. There is one particular tree just across the street, which I am now particularly taken by. I think the underside of each leaf is a different shade of green from the topside (I hadn't realized it before) so when I look at that tree from all the way across the street, I can still make out each individual leaf, even thought they are all just green. My distance vision is perfectly fine, but I had never seen more than an indistinct blob-with-lines above the trunk before.

I think it must be like hearing harmony for the first time after a life of knowing only the melody. The world is simply more vibrant, more deep, more subtle, more complex, more real than I ever imagined it was.

This experience has left me thinking more and more about the overlapping concepts of delight, longing, and joy. Historically, Christianity has tended to be associated with the idea of asceticism and discipline. The ten commandments are generally thought of as negatives sorts of commands (don't do this, that, and the other), the whole concept of holiness in Christian teaching is popularly understood to be a list of things people are supposed to not do in order to avoid contaminating their moral purity, as well as a few things we are to do (but which are generally viewed as onerous). We are told that we should be able to find delight in this (the psalms seem to get really excited about obeying "the law") but that doesn't actually tend to jibe with our experience of life all that often. Christian-ing just doesn't come across as that much fun.

And while I know that I have just constructed a straw man, that the "fruit of the Spirit" are all actually beautiful and exciting ways of being, there is a genuine sense that "serious" Christians are those who really embrace a dour sense of suffering and sacrifice.

But. But. But.

That actually doesn't describe the people we read about in the bible. It actually doesn't describe the great saints, it actually doesn't describe the very life of Jesus. Those lives are rich and messy. Those lives are balls-to-the-wall vibrant. We find Jesus laughing and yelling and weeping and partying. In order to be considered for canonization, a saint's life has to show evidence of all of the fruits of the Spirit—joy no less than patience; after all Jesus' great prayer for us was that we would have lives lived to the full—abundant lives.

I think Charles Williams, the Anglican mystic poet-scholar can be of great help here. He (following an older tradition) describes two "ways" of Christianity: the way of negation, and the way of affirmation of images (I have written a bit more about them HERE). The first is the way of the ascetic. In the way of negation, the whole deal is to stop being distracted by all the things which are not God and which cause us to think of God in terms of what we see rather than as the transcendent unknowable. The way of negation tends to focus on knowing God directly; the mystical experience, meditation, and spiritual disciplines like fasting and accountability are hallmarks of the way of negation. The latter, the way of the affirmation of images, attempts to see God "though" the images of god's self in the good world that God has made, and it is worth nothing that the mystics have as much of a propensity to wind up here as as they do in the way of negation; think of St. Francis preaching to the animals, or St. Thomas Aquinas' appreciation for the table and attendant unwillingness to impose his weight on a donkey, these are marks of the way of affirmation. Williams is at pains to remind us that each can become disastrous without the other, that people following the one way need to be reminded not to judge those who follow the other—that, in fact, we need the wisdom and input of those following the other—and that each offers insights the other is likely blind to.

That is all well and good, and I am very much persuaded by Williams' account. But I think it can, and should, be taken a bit farther. I want to suggest that the temperament which is drawn to the way of negation also tends towards a dismissal of the physical as such. In the desire to be united to the Spirit of God there seems to be a strong temptation to deny the goodness of the body, a desire to become mere spirit. This is a dangerous thing. We are spirits but we are not mere spirits, we are body-spirits. We are (to borrow once more from C.S. Lewis) amphibious beings of both body and spirit. The impetus to deny the body can easily become a state of discontent, a state of explaining to God that we were not made as the right sort of being.

And lest you think this understanding of the way of affirmation is unique to the high church and somehow excludes the reformation, let me share an utterly "way of affirmation" poem by the 18th century reformed preacher Ralph Erskine:

This Indian weed now wither'd quite,
'Tho' green at noon, cut down at night, 
            Shows thy decay; 
            All flesh is hay. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

The pipe so lily-like and weak, 

Does thus thy mortal state bespeak. 
            Thou art ev'n such, 
            Gone with a touch. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

And when the smoke ascends on high, 
Then thou behold'st the vanity 
            Of worldly stuff, 
            Gone with a puff. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

And when the pipe grows foul within, 
Think on thy soul defil'd with sin; 
            For then the fire, 
            It does require. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

And seest the ashes cast away; 
Then to thyself thou mayest say 
            That to the dust 
            Return thou must. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

Was this small plant for thee cut down? 
So was the plant of great renown; 
            Which mercy sends 
            For nobler ends. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

Doth juice medicinal proceed 
From such a naughty foreign weed? 
            Then what's the pow'r 
            Of Jesse's flow'r? 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

The promise, like the pipe, inlays, 
And by the mouth of faith conveys 
            What virtue flows 
            From Sharon's rose. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

In vain th' unlighted pipe you blow; 
Your pains in inward means are so, 
            'Till heav'nly fire 
            Thy heart inspire. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

The smoke, like burning incense tow'rs 
So should a praying heart of yours, 
            With ardent cries, 
            Surmount the skies. 
      Thus think, and smoke tobacco.

For all my love of C.S. Lewis, I believe that one critical mistake he made throughout his eschatology is an over acceptance of neo-Platonism. In neo-Platonic thinking, the only utterly "real" absolute is God (or "The Good") and everything else is an "emanation" from God, with all things becoming less real the further they have "emanated" from the center. This view has a lot to recommend it (you will see echoes of it in the writings of Augustine as well). It has given rise to the whole understanding of heaven as another land, better (more real) than the state of being we currently inhabit and to which we will one day go. The problem is that, at the end of the day, it is not a fundamentally Christian view. The promise Jesus made to us is not that there is a Kingdom of God which we will one day get to go to, it is that there is a Kingdom of God which is, even now, breaking into our own existence. As such, following the way of Jesus does not mean distancing oneself from the world, but growing into people who can first imagine, then partner with God in bringing a greater real-ness, a fuller goodness, to this world. That the old world is passing away and that a new world is being formed, does not mean that we will be transplanted. That new kingdom is being formed under our feet. It is breaking through now. It has been breaking through for two thousand years and will continue to break through until it is fully here and nothing of the old, drab, evil, sinful, broken world is left (I am going to refrain from commenting on the the question of whether there will be one final great push before the Kingdom of God fully comes or whether the entire process will sneak in gradually).

And this is why I believe that delight is a spiritual discipline, one which is far too much ignored and even despised by the western church. The innocent enjoyment of the good world God has made—we cannot forget that even the drab "old world" is shot through with resonant images of the vibrant Kingdom—is a training course in seeing the Kingdom God has made us partners in effecting. To feast, to love, to celebrate, to gaze at the sky in wonder, are all acts of spiritual insight. They are all disciplines. Good sex is as holy—and for many as necessary—as a rigorous fast and laughter is no less godly than lament. In the latter we are reminded that we live in a broken world; in the former, that the broken world is being healed.

It has been observed recently that we need a theology of lament, of loss, that too often our theology is entirely about propositions or about ethical duties—a theology for computers and enlightenment philosophes—too rarely is it about being. I agree with this critique, we do need a theology of lament and loss. We need a theology rooted in Ecclesiastes, Job and the Good Friday. That would give us one critical part of a theology of they way of affirmation. A theology of lament is critical to our capacity to honestly, richly, greet the very real world of which we are a part. But we also need a theology of delight. We need a theology of dancing till we collapse on a hot summer night; a theology of the third beer; of laughing under a string of lights because tomorrow has no hold on us tonight. We need a theology of thick time in thin spaces, a theology of the presence of divine joy in every street lamp and blade of grass. We need a theology of the tinny speaker and the spontaneous sing-along to an 80's anthem, a theology of bluegrass and crickets, a theology of lighting bugs. As much as we need a theology of lament, we need a theology of the eternal moment and the laughing earth, for human flourishing is thing of both laughter and tears.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Blue Ocean Reflections Part 4: Religious Squabbles and the Third Way

This is the fourth post in a six part series. You can find Part 1, Solus Jesus is HERE, Part 2, Centered Set HERE, and Part 3, Childlike Faith HERE.

The Blue Ocean Reflections series consists of my personal interaction and history with the six "distinctives" of the Blue Ocean Faith movement as laid out in the book of the same name (you can find my review of the book HERE). Throughout the series I intend to talk about my own history and journey of faith and to offer some thoughts on how what I have come to believe impacts my understanding of the world. As such this series is likely to have a heavy focus on theology, philosophy, and politics. But since my formal education has been as broad as I could make it, my reflections are apt to be fairly wide-ranging as well.

"There are people who take the bible seriously, who also believe that it is OK to be gay."
I realize that it probably sounds hopelessly naif, but I honestly did not realize this was true until I heard Dave Schmelzer explain it at a Blue Ocean conference (I had downloaded the talks) in 2010. Writing six years later, I find this almost embarrassing but the fact remains. Now to be clear, Schmelzer did not enunciate the whole Third Way concept at that meeting; the idea as it is now applied to LGBTQ+ folks was developed a little later on by Ken Wilson and popularized when he turned into the book A Letter to my Congregation. But in 2009-2010, if my memories are correct, Schmelzer and the other Blue Ocean folks were in the process of trying to work out what their approach was going to be when it came to the hot button issues of the church. But for me, the real power of taking a Third Way perspective on church controversies became real, the afternoon I listened to that talk for the first time—if was the day I began to understand that being correct is not actually the final goal of faith in Jesus.

This section of Blue Ocean Faith actually contains two of the concepts which I have come to associate with Blue Ocean thinking. Chapter 5, Religious Squabbles Are the Worst (But There's an Antidote!) works out both with the Third Way approach to controversial issues, and also Schmelzer's application of M. Scott Peck's stage theory of spiritual growth (which, I understand, Peck developed in Further Along The Road Less Traveled). This works out pretty well as the stages theory does a good job of explaining why many (particularly religious) people have a hard time with anything like practically applied Third Way thinking, but it also means that I have a lot to reflect on in this post. So please please bear with me.

Stage Theory

Schmelzer's understanding and use of Peck's stage theory works best as a descriptive approach to understanding how a person's approach to and understanding of the project of religion or spirituality develops over time, with the additional observation that many people get "stuck" at one stage or another. It has some resonances with spiral dynamics theory as well. Rather than trying to summarize a summary, let me just quote the descriptive paragraphs from BOF:
Stage 1 you might call "criminal." 
It corresponds with being a toddler. Toddlers don't entirely know where the end and you begin, and so they're prone to being grabby and self-focused...Peck suggests two institutions that interact with this stage: jain and the boardroom (or any other position of power. Jail serves Stage 1 people, because it provides clear boundaries—the bars of the cell if nothing else. High-functioning Stage 1 people can also become the kind of effective narcissists that get power because you and I don't realize that they're criminals doing everything for their own gain. Think Bernie Madoff. Or Stalin.
Stage 2 you might call "rules-based."  
Now we're six or seven and we want to obey Mommy and Daddy's rules. Peck suggests two institutions which serve and promote Stage 2. First is the military, which is famously excellent at transitioning young people out of Stage 1 and into Stage 2, at teaching them discipline and honor and making the productive citizens. Second—of greater interest for our purposes—are churches. Peck argues that churches (and mosques, synagogues and other places of worship) famously teach people right from wrong, good from bad. He's at pains not to judge this, pointing out that Stage 2 creates the backbone of most societies. It creates the good people who volunteer, pay taxes, obey the law and raise great kids. 
Stage 3 you might call "rebellions." This corresponds with being a teenager. Suddenly the Stage 3 person is asking, "Who died and made all those Stage 2 rules the rules?" They become skeptics. If the Stage 3 young person is surrounded by a Stage 2 community, they might feel suffocated. Where's the open questioning? Are all these Stage 2 "truths" just shallow grabs for power? Peck says the institution that best promotes Stage 3 is the university. For one thing, universities are filled with kids in this age range, and often their stated mission is quite Stage 3—to get students to question everything they've been taught.... 
What Stage 3 doesn't realize is that its skepticism might not be the final word, that there might actually be answers to its questions, but answers that look quite different than the answers proposed by Stage 2.   
Stage 4 you might call "mystical." 
Stage 4, in Peck's view, isn't the end of the process. At the earliest, we hit this stage in our early 20s, and then we spend the rest of our lives walking out the implications of this. In Stage 4 we realize that many of the things that we were taught in Stage 2 do, in fact, seem true, but in a more expansive perspective than we'd previously understood... 
One way to think about this is that Stage 2 is dominated by answers. If the key is to be a good person and to get things right, we need to know what is and isn't right. In a Christian world, it might take some work to know what you need ot know about the Bible. You might need to read not just the Bible, but the current favorite Christian thinker of your friends. But, after you've done this, you're good. Maybe you won't know everything, but you'll have the answers you need. 
Stage 4, though, is dominated by questions. You've realized that reality is way bigger than you are, and that the way to navigate its vastness is relational. You are the sheep listening to and following the good shepherd. This will make Stage 4 Christians seem slippery to Stage 2 Christians. They seem to use the same language, but they mean different things with it.
It can be a long road but every step is good.

I have found this tremendously helpful (and, for the record, I tend to see myself as probably somewhere in Stage 3 with Stage 4 aspirations) when it comes to thinking about my own spiritual journey. Stage 3 began to break into my Stage 2 thinking around the time I graduated from Bible College, but the process was fairly gradual for me and I don't think I really gave up on Stage 2—that is, on the bedrock belief that there were answers out there for all of my questions and that all I had to do was learn and understand them—until my mid-late 20s. Fortunately for me (and I credit a lot of center-set dynamics, the Truth seeking/always questioning culture of my grad school, and some wonderful spiritual mentors who were not afraid of my questions) the transition from Stage 2 to Stage 3 did not entail any particular need to walk away from Jesus. I certainly despaired of the institutional church for a while, but Jesus was always "there with me" and was entirely happy to hear my questions, absorb my frustrations, and sit with me in my fears and doubts.

But stage theory helped me to make sense of what was going on with myself and with the Christian world around me. It gave me a grid with which to process things, and it has proved to be pretty robust at that job since I first started using it. The shift, from baseline selfishness to a reliance on rules and answers to structure life and existence to an awareness of the damage caused by those rules and answers and an attendant rejection of rules an answers as such and then beyond into a slowly-unveiling appreciation of the Truth in which at least some of those old rules were grounded but which is bigger than they seem to envision, resonates really well with what I have observed in the world of Christianity.

One of Schmelzer's most on-point observations in this chapter is that much of the contemporary "culture war" in the US, and particularly the conversation and tension between American White Evangelicalism and the Progressive Christian conversation seems to represent a Stage 2 vs Stage 3 conflict which periodically seems to shunt various folks into Stage 4.

As my relationship with Jesus has grown,a sn I have gotten to know him better and better, and as that has led me farther and farther outside the generally accepted bounded set of American Evangelicalism, I have experienced so much of what Schmelzer talks about here. I remember when I was in Bible college, I generally understood the "business of Christian" to be to learn the answers about Jesus, a task well suited to Peck's "Stage 2" and I genuinely believed that there were straightforward answers out there for me to find. To borrow another metaphor Schmelzer uses in the book. I thought that Truth was something I would eventually be able to comprehend, to fit in my own head. As time went on and my Bible College professors, then the books they recommended, the the books the authors of those books recommended, failed to answer my questions—or more accurately, as the answers they provided failed to satisfy my growing questions—I began to worry that the answers just weren't out there.

One wry observation that Schmelzer makes in the book is that, when introduced to the concept, Stage 3 Christians have a bit of a tendency to identify as Stage 4. He is probably right about that but it makes it hard for anyone to say that they actually are in Stage 4. That may be fairly accurate though, one of the hallmarks of the mystical approach to truth and God is an awareness of ones own limitations which would tend to prevent folks in that stage from having any particular sense of having "arrived", I suspect that a lot of mystical stage 4 people think of themselves as somewhere on the border between the rebellious stage 3 and the mystical stage 4. I certainly do and I am happy to leave it up to those who know me to decide whether that is accurate or indicates that I am actually fairly far gone in mysticism (my penchant for getting into internet debates likely counts against me here).

The Stage theory approach works really well for understanding a lot of the Blue Ocean project itself as well. If you think back to the previous sections (Solus Jesus, Centered Set, and Childlike Faith), all of them smack of this mystical/relational approach to God. They rely on the premises that reality is bigger than we can ever really comprehend and that there is a loving relationship available to guide us through it. Reality is both fundamentally wondrous, dangerous, and good. It reminds me a good bit of the classic line about Aslan from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.

This fundamental assumption that we cannot and need not "know all the things", that reality and Truth are just too great for us, and that Jesus is there to walk with us, is what—in my mind—grounds Blue Ocean thinking, it is the thread that holds all six distinctives together. It is also what I think drives a lot of Evangelical Christians (who represent the "rules and truth" stage 2 group with which I most identify) so crazy. Blue Ocean thinking delights in questions and the exploration of God without feeling the burden of needing answers, which can be pleasant and delightful enough when the come around, while a lot of Evangelicalism experiences an almost chronic anxiety in the presence of unanswered questions about reality, and religious cynicism experiences a mirror anxiety in the presence of confident answers. My experience from within both of these latter groups has been almost a deep frustration with the very idea that one could be at peace with questions or with answers. Maybe that is why Blue Ocean Faith feels so much like being able to breath again.

The Third Way (Handling those "Squabbles")

OK, so the Third Way is my jam. The essence of what Blue Oceaners call the "Third Way Approach
to Debatable Matters" is that Paul's advice to the Roman Church about how they ought to navigate their theological disputes over the observance of special "holy" days and the eating of meat which had been sacrificed to idols, can and should be applied to debatable matters in the church (universal and local) today. As I mentioned above, the Third Way was first enunciated and fully developed by the Blue Ocean Ann Arbor pastor Ken Wilson back when he (together with quite a few of the Blue Ocean group's other pastors) was a member of the Vineyard movement. Wilson first presented the idea in paper for at a Society of Vineyard Scholars conference as an approach to arguments over the level of participation the Vineyard ought to allow to LGB individuals. He later developed his ideas into a book A Letter to My Congregation  and it is his more fully developed version which Schmelzer cites as a Blue Ocean Distinctive in his book.

The Third Way approach begins by identifying its own scope. Riffing on the work of Roger E.Olson, the Third Way breaks religious claims into three potential categories: dogma, doctrine, and opinion. Dogma is defined as the basic beliefs of Christian faith, essentially those propositions without which we are talking about something which probably isn't Christianity. Schmelzer identifies the Apostle's and Nicene creeds as good candidate for this category. Doctrine would be those propositions which would seem to necessarily derive from dogma, usually by only one or two steps, most of the theology that people get really heated about online falls into this category. Then opinion is everything left over; it is the category for those propositions which we might hold but don't feel to be at all critical to our overall understanding of the nature of reality. Within this taxonomy, Third Way is an approach to differences over doctrine

The Third Way approach is an approach to what Ken Wilson has called disputable matters. He, and Schmelzer in Blue Ocean Faith define disputable matters as 1) doctrine; 2) bringing two biblical truths into tension; 3) disagreed upon by otherwise faithfully Jesus-following people. 

Once we have decided that we are involved in a debate over doctrine (and keep in mind that debates over the theology of LGB sex have been the experimentum crucis for the theory) the Third Way approach is to look at which "side" in the debate is arguing for greater liberty of conscience and behavior and which is arguing for a greater degree of holiness or constraint. In Romans, Paul identified one "side"—the one which holds to more laws and have a more tender conscience—as the weak and the other—those with more liberty of conscience—as the strong, and within that framework, each group has a responsibility to the other. In Dave's words:
  • By all means hold the belief that you hold and never violate your conscience
  • Shun contempt and judgement and trust God to judge wisely
  • Make clear to yourself and others that you understand that your belief is not dogma and that reasonable, faithful people disagree with you.
  • So not exclude anyone from full participation in the community over disputable matters—so long as they also abide by these four principles.
This has meant that Blue Ocean churches are functionally "open and affirming" in that they will not prevent and LGBTQ+ person from participation in the full life of the church, they perform same-sex weddings and have ordained LGBTQ+ clergy. However, they aren't technically "open and affirming" since, to quote Schmelzer (working from Ken Wilson) again:
...the "affirming" part of "open and affirming" seems to go against Paul's command here not to juege. To "affirm" someone, in this context, often means something like to "grant them moral approval." I have to meet them and ask myself, "As best as I can figure out, do I morally approve or disapprove of this person?" Then I decide, "I approve!" Along with Paul here, Jesus profoundly commands us not to judge anyone. The issue in Third Way is not passing judgment positively or negatively on anyone, it's to include all people who hope to follow Jesus as the disputable matter works itself out.
The upshot of all of this for me has been a long term commitment to, on the one hand, hold and advocate for my beliefs on this and other subjects as strongly as I know how (feel free to check out my defense of LGB relationships HERE and my defense of the gender identities of transgender persons HERE if you are curious) while remaining in relationship and spiritual community with people who disagree with me.

So far as I can tell the Third Way is really the only viable way forward for the Church as a whole, but I want to acknowledge that it isn't easy at all and, frankly, still needs a lot of working out. I still have questions about what it looks like to take a Third Way approach when there are people who have suffered spiritual and emotional abuse at the hands of those who are the weak (it is interesting to note how often the weak have power over the strong).

Some Resources

  • For those who are interested, Ken Wilson and Emily Swan maintain a blog series dedicated to thinking about the Third Way over at The Third Way Newsletter, they have even allowed me to contribute periodically.
  • Anyone with questions about Transgender folk and theology would be really well served to check out Austen Lionheart's YouTube channel Transgender and Christian
Click HERE to check out A Letter to My Congregation on Amazon

Product Details
Click HERE to get Blue Ocean Faith on Amazon