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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Person at the Center

As I have mentioned periodically on this blog, I am a fan of centered set theology. To go a little further, I am a fan of centered set theology to a degree that quite a few self-proclaimed fans of centered set thinking have told me that I take it too far. I am pretty much cool with that. I have already talked a good bit about what centered set theology is in this post in my Blue Ocean Reflections series, but for those of you who don't want to fall down an internet link-hole, I have posted a summary at the bottom of this piece. Feel free to scroll down and come back.

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Which Jesus?

One of the most common objections I have seen to centered set theology is the question "yes but which Jesus?" Quite a few people have argued that centered set is all well and good, so long as it is bounded (see what I did there) by the correct understanding of Jesus, that is to say, so long as it is the "right" Jesus at the center of the centered set. When this argument is developed it turns out that this idea of the "right Jesus" is often a Trojan horse which can be used to smuggle in nearly any degree of bounded set confessionalism. What "the right Jesus" means, it turns out, is a more or less particular definition of who Jesus is. It is Jesus "as defined my the creeds" or "as presented in the New Testament" etc... In fact, it is Jesus, stripped of his actual existence as a person and reduced to a series of propositions. So long as a real relationship with a real and interacting person forms the heart of centered set theology, the system (while never easy for us) works well and is not really susceptible to the "which Jesus" critique since the answer is clearly and obviously "Jesus".  

This is where I think those who make the "which Jesus" critique have inadvertently tipped their hand. The idea that the Jesus at the center of the centered set needs to be defined in order for the model to hold, presupposes not a living, relational center, but a dead propositional center. It assumes a center who is not known but defined. And once the center is defined it must inevitably collapse into a more or less broadly bounded set instead. 

The whole problem with the critique isn't that it fundamentally undermines centered set theology as such (though it does), but that it reduces the Divine Person to a series of doctrinal propositions—it isn't bad theology, it is idolatry. Of course once they have substituted God-in-Christ for a series of propositions-about-God centered set theology cannot long survive, the living stone has been rejected and nothing can last long built on a shell or a corpse. The "which Jesus" crowd don't fail to understand centered set because of its flaws (though it certainly has them—it is a model of reality not reality itself and as such is imperfect); they fail to understand centered set because they have not yet broken free of that enlightenment modernist way of thinking which must reduce truth to proposition and thinking to machine logic. They fail to recognize the human and relational logic which sees the other as real, knows the reality of relationship, and knows reality through relationship. 

There is, there must be, a knowing of persons (but never of propositions) able to endure the most distorting of factual inaccuracies. Change every particular about a person you love, lose even your love for them as it turns to hate, and it will still be the same person to whom you are relating. Let me be wrong about everything I know about God, and it will still be God about whom I was wrong. 

This is the mystery at the center of centered set thinking: the center is never a what—always a who

Summary of the theory


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Centered set theology exists in apposition to Bounded set theology. The bounded set spiritual model views all people as divided into two camps (sets), in or out; and usually a person’s position in this model is determined by whether or not they have a sort of mental assent to some series of propositions. In usually means that the person will go to heaven some day and out means that they won’t.  The centered set approach denies the in/out distinction in favor of orientation. The important question in this model is whether or not a person is oriented towards the center (in my circles this means oriented towards Jesus). In this model it is not so important to get people to cross lines and form new mental assent lists as it is to get people to notice and love Jesus, to orient their lives towards Him.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

White Evangelical Politics are Less Christian than American Politics

Last night Alabama elected a Democrat to a statewide office for the first time since the 90’s. That is sort of cool in its own right I suppose, but what particularly struck me about it is the demographic breakdown behind Doug  Jones’ victory, specifically the religious breakdown, and most specifically the behavior of self-identified Evangelical Christians. 
Whatever else comes out of the analysis (Here is the original Washington Post Analysis). There are two trends which really strike me today. If we take Moore’s loss as representative of a decline in the strength of Trump-ism over the last year (Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight make that pretty clear) then it seems to me that Trump-ism is on the decline (huzzah) and that despite its overall decline, it is hanging on most stubbornly among white self-identified Evangelicals. Again:
  1. 1. Trump-ism is deteriorating.
  2. 2. Trump-ism is deteriorating more slowly among white self-identified Evangelicals than it is in the general population.
This leads me to conclude that white Evangelicalism as an institution and an ideology is a healthy environment for Trump-sim.
From the Washington Post
Now I have already made the argument that Trump is pretty thoroughly anti-Jesus, so the implication here is that white Evangelicalism is a healthy environment to a determinedly anti-Christian element in the world. But I don’t think it is prudent to let this fact sit in isolation; I also want to point out that white Evangelicalism claims to reflect, and encourage growth in, the Way of Jesus.
So now we have a movement/ideology which specifically claims to follow Jesus and is simultaneously acting as an incubator for anti-christian activity and behavior.
At this point I think the relevant question is not so much “Is Evangelicalism corrupt?” that it is seems obvious. The question is more “How long should good Evangelicals keep fighting for Evangelicalism?” I honestly don’t know what the answer ought to be. I know my answer was to take what was good, the “Egyptian gold”, and leave.

Some final caveats

  1. I don’t think this means that individual white Evangelicals are themselves anti-christian; they have accepted a doctrine or ideology which, if left unchallenged and uncorrected, is going to incline them in that direction but there are many influences in any person’s life — their own will and character not the least — so many can and do resist it.
  2. I am aware that there are many sub-strands of white Evangelicalism and that many white Evangelicals are fighting valiantly to change at least some of the many broken and damaging elements in this ideology. I wish them the very best and if I had not broken with some basic tenets of Evangelicalism a while back I hope that I would be right there with them. Unfortunately I believe that this last year is evidence that they are currently losing that fight.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Trump is Herod Antipater


Obviously they are not identical, since no two people are the same, but the similarities are striking. Consider the following:
He serves his own power and isn’t really loyal to “Rome.” #TrumpisHerod
Herod Antipater was exiled near the end of his life after playing a political game during a Roman succession struggle. Trump has systematically used an appearance of near jingoistic patriotism as a tool to increase his own power. He did this before, during, and after his campaign for president.
He panders to power hungry religious conservatives. #TrumpisHerod
Herod used the Sadducees (a group of theologically conservative power brokers) to establish and bolster his power base among the people he governed despite the fact that he did not follow the moral or religious dictates of their theology. Religious conservatives make up a central part of Trump’s base and he panders to them by offering them power and a cultural prestige they have not recently enjoyed.
He is creepily obsessed with the sexuality of his own female relatives. #TrumpisHerod
Herod married his brother’s wife, who was also his own niece. Trump has made quite a few really disturbing comments about his daughter and her sexuality.
He is terrified that people will think he is weak; also he is weak. #TrumpisHerod
Herod imprisoned John the Baptist for speaking out against his marriage but actually found the prophet rather compelling in general. He was manipulated into beheading John the Baptist when he made a promise to his step-daughter which he then felt compelled to keep for fear that the people around him would think he was weak if he didn’t carry through on her request for the head of John. Trump seems to be almost viscerally motivated by the need to appear strong, but his inability to shrug off criticism and insult belie the fundamental weakness of his character.
His father was a builder, he built some things too. He thinks that makes him special. #TrumpisHerod
Herod’s father (also Herod) initially gained favor with the local conservative religious power brokers by restoring the Temple in Jerusalem. Having seen the public prestige that had granted his father, Herod Antipater also undertook several building projects in order to secure prestige and respect (though he ended up having to scramble and “patch” some of these attempts which his ignorance of the public’s actual religious positions undermined some of his projects). Trump’s basic boast is that he builds big things.
Herod built a wall (at Beth Haran); Trump thinks building a wall will make him great. #TrumpisHerod
One of Herod’s signature building projects was a new defensive wall at Beth Haran. Trump rose to power promising to build a wall across the US’ southern border.
Trump has a problematic relationship with marriage but is given a pass by the religious conservatives of his day (because he gives them power). #TrumpisHerod
Herod’s marriage to his second wife (his niece who had been his brother’s wife) should have been a total scandal to the conservative religious establishment as it was a flagrant violation of their religious law. However thanks to the cozy relationship he had with them they turned a blind eye to it. In the end it was John the Baptist (a religious outsider who made the conservative establishment extremely uncomfortable) who called Herod out.
He has a really problematic relationship with Syria. #TrumpisHerod
Herod’s relationship with the governor of Syria (Vitellius) was complicated and he ended up having to try and force Vitellius to support him by going over his head. Even then Vitellius backed out of the aid as soon as he could manage it.
He is a misogynistic predator who boasts about the sexuality of underage girls. #TrumpisHerod
Herod infamously showed off his step daughter (apocryphally named Salome) by having her perform an erotic dance for the guests he was trying to impress. He was himself so impressed that he ended up promising her anything she asked for, which led to the John the Baptist debacle. Trump has spoken and acted in incredibly misogynistic and predatory ways throughout his career but particularly with regard to Miss Teen USA contestants.
Most of these facts about Herod Antipater are based on either the Biblical record or may be found in the relevant entry in the New World Encyclopedia (which drew largely on Josephus and Philo of Alexandria)

America’s Sadducees

This is a comparison. Specifics will, of course, vary.
The Sadducees were a religious and political sect in the Roman province of Judea during the second temple period (which included the reign of Herod Antipater). Most American Christians know them as one of a two-part collection of bad guys (the Pharisees and the Sadducees) who opposed Jesus at various times, but there was a lot going on with them besides opposing one particular apocalyptic rabbi. Here are several of the ways in which the Sadducees were strikingly similar to Jeffress, Falwell, and Graham (and really any other conservative Evangelical-esque leader who is sold out to Trump including, but not limited to, James Dobson and Pat Robertson).
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell believe government power is necessary to fulfill their religious goals. #AmericanSadducees
The Sadducees were theologically conservative religous leaders who (in contrast to the Pharisees) believed that the best hope for their religious community was to accommodate Roman political culture and power. They established a strong “you scratch our back we will support your governance” relationship with the Roman occupation. As a result, they were critical and fearful of religious movements which publicly or prophetically denounced the Roman occupation and were even known to persecute those of their own religious community whom they deemed to much a threat to continuing Roman Support.
You might compare that with this account of how and why Jonathan Martin was threatened and kicked off of Liberty University’s campus.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell support the wealthy and elite — they like the status quo of power. #AmericanSadducees
The Sadducees were known to be the partisans of the wealthy and elite in Judea. They embraced and celebrated those who achieved wealth and prestige and themselves embraced the “high” Hellenism of their day. Falwell, Jeffress, and Graham have aligned themselves with a version of Republican Conservatism which blames the poor for their poverty and sees the accumulation of wealth and power as an indication of virtue.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell think that their interpretation of scripture is not an interpretation. #AmericanSadducees
The Sadducees were notable in their theological rejection of any historical debate or interpretation of the Pentateuch. They understood themselves to be “purists” who held only to the “written word” and not the “oral word” embracing the false belief that a text can have meaning without being intepreted. Graham, Falwell, and Jeffress hold to a strict and warped understanding of the doctrine of sola scriptura most frequently represented by the phrase “the Bible clearly says…” thereby making themselves into their own final arbiters of the meaning of Scripture.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell ignore the creepy misogyny of the leader who gives them power. #AmericanSadducees
Herod’s second wife was his sister-in-law who was also his niece. This was a flagrant violation of the very moral law the Sadducees boasted about upholding but they did not criticize him for it (that criticism came from a homeless prophet who was ultimately beheaded because Herod was to insecure to admit he had made a mistake in front of his own guests). These religious leaders were functionally blind to the gross sexual immorality of the ruler who favored their faction with power. Trump is Herod. Jeffress, Falwell, and Graham had carried oceans of water for Trump’s creepy misogyny, sexual harassment, and sexual immorality despite the fact that they are otherwise obsessed with denouncing anyone they think is guilty of sexual sin.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell have forgotten the difference between “Rome” and the children of God. #AmericanSadducees
As I mentioned above, the Sadducees were so thoroughly in bed with the idea that the survival of their religious community was dependent on the support of the Roman empire that they were willing to turn members of that community over to Rome in order to preserve their good standing. Jeffress, Graham, and Falwell are more than happy to go after Christians who are critical of Trump/Herod and work hard to convince him that Christians (particularly Evangelical Christians) are his supporters and allies. In return he gives them “Merry Christmas” and a supreme court judge.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell approve of the power of the sword in silencing dissent. #American Sadducees
The Sadducees were more than happy to draw on the power of Rome and the violent power of the mob in order to silence those with whom they disagree. Examples abound but think of Caiaphas turning Jesus over to the Romans as a revolutionary or of the Sadduccees at Lydia who convinced the Gentile mob to stone Paul. Jeffress, Graham, and Falwell celebrate laws which would enforce their religious concerns at the barrel of a gun, they whip up crowds in support of gun ownership and have advocated violence against those of other religions.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell think the Way of God is too weak, they want to augment it with governmental power. #AmericanSadducees
Because the Sadduceed believed that they need the support and violent power of Rome in order to secure themselves and their people they were willing to compromise their own tradition and moral rules. Jeffress in particular has been incredibly clear that he does not believe that the Way of Jesus is a sufficient or workable guide for life (he infamously told one reporter that he absolutely does not want Trump to follow the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount). But all three (and the rest of the American Sadducees) have regularly indicated that they do not trust in the Way of Jesus (total love for neighbor and enemy) as sufficient for modern life.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell value an otherworldly heaven over resurrection and restoration. #AmericanSadducees
Probably the most famous/infamous theological belief of the Sadducees (because it is referenced in the New Testament) is that they did not believe in the resurrection. Now I am confident that the #AmericanSadducees do actually believe in a resurrection in theory. However, in practice Falwell, Graham, and Jeffress preach a twisted version of Christianity which focuses on an otherworldly heaven as the reward for those of their own group, and an otherworldly hell as a punishment for those with whom they disagree and (whatever your theology of heaven and hell) ignores the foundational Christian position that God is in the process of bringing the Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. This bent theology has allowed them to become Machiavellian in their “Christianity” since the overwhelming importance of that otherworldly heaven now justifies (in their minds) any terrible actions they take or miseries they cause on the earth now. They have horrendously misunderstood Jesus question: What good is it for someone to gain the whole earth but lose his soul? When Jesus was offered power over the kingdoms of the earth, he rebuked Satan for it.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell see foreigners as impure. #AmericanSadducees
The Sadducees were particularly concerned with the purity of the temple and particularly with the “purity” of those who performed religious services in the temple. They did not want to see what they understood to be the domain of God “polluted” by foreign influence. Jeffress, Graham, and Falwell (who have somehow come to the conclusion that the United States is a singularly Christian domain) are obsessed with keeping foreigners (particularly non-Christian foreigners) out of the country. Jeffress has even declared that the God who commanded special hospitality and care for widows, orphans, and immigrants is “not an open borders guy”.
Jeffress, Graham, Falwell believe in draconian punishment instead of loving restoration. #AmericanSadducees
The Sadducees were particularly known for supporting harsh and rigorous punishments for people who broke their law. They were fans of the death penalty and of throwing the book at people without mercy. Falwell, Jeffress, and Graham support violent responses to crime, and frequently glorify violence.
Much of my information about the Sadducees came from Jewishencyclopedia.com and from Britannica.

Here are some images you might want to save and use on Twitter or other social media platforms. Have fun with them.





Dancing Back Into Elfland



Imagine a forest. Make it a good forest. Actually imagine a forest you can’t really imagine because the real world is always surprising you; the real world is a source of wonder and of encountering that which is beyond our own selves. It contains danger, and pain, and beauty, and grandeur. So imagine a forest you can’t quite imagine — a forest haunted by wonder.

Now imagine that you are traveling through that forest. How do you want to do it? What is, in your mind, the best possible way to be traveling in a forest? Do you want a man-made highway running through it? Do you want a car to drive on that road? Maybe a hiking path? Or do you even really want to get out of the forest? Maybe you are happy with a trail? Or how about just a guide — someone who really knows this forest and who can make your time here worth while.


Now imagine a life. Make it a good life. Actually imagine a life you can’t really imagine because real life is always a surprise; real life is a source of wonder and of encountering that which is beyond our own selves. It contains danger, and pain, and beauty, and grandeur. So imagine a life you can’t quite imagine — a life haunted by wonder.

Now imagine that you are living that life. How do you want to do it? What is, in your mind, the best possible way of living through a life? Do you want man-made structures cutting though it to make it easier to navigate? Do you want a way to insulate yourself from the extremes of the life? Maybe some rules for how get through it? Or do you even really want to get out of the life? Maybe you are happy with some general guidelines for living it? Or how about just a guide — someone intimately acquainted with suffering and joy, with living itself and can make your time in the life worthwhile.

This comparison begins to get at what I think my favorite poem in the DaoDeJing is getting at. Poem 38 reads in part as follows:
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,And is therefore good.A foolish man tries to be good,And is therefore not good. Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.When goodness is lost, there is kindness.When kindness is lost, there is justice.When justice is lost, there is ritual.Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.Knowledge of the future is only a flowery trapping of the Tao.It is the beginning of folly.
This echoes one of the best quotes from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
…though Christianity seems at the first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.
And the same sentiment appears in the Mystic Muslim Poet Rumi:
Beyond good and bad, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.
Aristotle made similar points when he talked about morality, calling it not at act, but a habit. Of course each of these thinkers had different ideas about how to achieve this state of goodness, but the thing they all seem to agree on — to have discovered — is that the good life, the right life, is an un-reflective sort of thing. That is, they saw that living well is not about a technique. It is wandering in a forest, not getting through the forest. Specifically, for each of these folks, any ethical system is a degradation from the whole point of things. Ethical systems are, at best, a concession to our brokenness.

I find that DaoDeJing breaks it down most clearly, starting with the the first step down from right-being (the Tao/Dao). The poem presents, in roughly narrative form, a brief taxonomy of ethical systems, all of which have had their own moments in history.

Non-Ethics and Flourishing

The Tao

As a Christian, I would characterize being with the Tao/Dao as being with Christ. It is following the suffering King, the Prince of Peace, and Lord of Joyin the dance of life. To follow Jesus is to give up on the notion of where we are going and to focus instead in who we are with. It is a matter of being rather than a matter of getting somewhere. This is existence characterized by relationship and love, it is being in the forest; nobody knows what it leads to, we only know that it is right it is flourishing.

Virtue Ethics

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.

The loss of un-reflective, flourishing existence, is goodness. A preoccupation with becoming like the sort of person who just is un-reflectively good. This is the ethics enunciated by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, it is a system built, not out of an intimate knowledge of the Tao, but of a careful observation of those who do. To characterize this shift in Biblical terms, it is the fall, an attempt to systematize and know what is beyond knowledge. It is a diminution because it is an attempt to squeeze the infinitude of possibilities of being into our finite minds. It is the centipede’s dilemma: we stop dancing in order to work out how we were doing it and find that we cannot start again. So we begin to study other dancers and awkwardly ape their movements.


Kantian Ethics

When goodness is lost, there is kindness.

When that proves unsustainable, when we discover that we do not have the mental or moral fortitude to make ourselves into good persons, we resort and therefore diminish to kindness. Kindness — treating people correctly, as people — is also characteristic of un-reflectively good people but it is not a rule it is something they simply are. This is the ethics of people who know what flourishing looks like and are trying to discipline themselves towards it. Imagine someone who is trying to behave in a kind way, not because kindness is a natural reaction for them but because they know that they ought to be, it feels a little uncomfortable doesn’t it?

Divine Command Theory — the Rules

When kindness is lost, there is justice.

When people trying to be kind to one another fails to hold society together we resort of laws (what Laozi characterizes as justice though I don’t particularly like that definition of the word). We make rules prohibiting harmful behavior and then we institutionalize ways in which to harm the people who break those rules. At this level we get the many ethical systems which insist on rigid set of rules (or the principles from which those rules ought to be derived). This is also the level on which our whole system of human rights operates — it is the level below which we have tried to guarantee we will not go. This is where most religions live and operate in discomfort together with other less religious secular systems and the classically liberal understanding of human rights.

Utilitarianism, Objectivism

When justice is lost, there is ritual.
If we take the concept of ritual out of a classical Chinese context and put it in a contemporary Western one we get something like social norms or manners. When basic allegiance to human rights and laws fails to guarantee social coherence or human flourishing, we resort to being polite to one another. The whole idea here is that we need to just not hurt anybody. Think about the number of calls there have been recently for a return to civility or decorum. The yearning for norms which are enforced by social acceptance rather than institutional violence seems to be the last gasp of a society trying to hold together as a benefit to its own members. When it fails, there isn’t much left; all of our barriers to evil have been broken. We are no longer un-reflectively good, we are not trying to emulate goodness, virtue holds insufficient attraction for us, our laws have become brutal and unjust, and social acceptance has become tyrannical and stifling.

The Narrative

It is worth pointing out that this downward progression can also be characterized as forward movement. Each system is built, in some ways, on a recognition of the failures of the types of system above it. Virtue ethics begins with the recognition that there is flourishing and that we aren’t doing it. Justice ethics recognizes that those who try and fail to be virtuous without structural and institutional constraints tend to end up making things worse for everyone (think about the misogyny of the Roman empire’s ultimate conflation of virtue with masculinity) so, giving up on making people better, we bring in rules backed by the threat of violence in order to establish a sort of lowest common denominator in our relationships with one another (and sometimes, but far to rarely, the rest of the world). But those power structures and systems always seem to end up disenfranchising and ultimately marginalizing and oppressing people so we dismantle them, we deconstruct them, and we narrow the scope of our concern to harm and fairness. At this point we are probably having some trouble enunciating any justification for those to concerns (instead the easy thing to do is to become appalled with anyone who would dare to question them) but we are clinging to them with intense focus. This is also a movement forward, the concerns at each stage were real and serious concerns; with the failure of each previous stage the scope of our moral universe narrowed but also intensified, it is a process of “Maybe we can’t do all of it but we will at least manage this area of greatest concern”. But the thing is doomed, it must eventually fall to pieces as the debates about negative and positive rights emerge, as harm is accepted for the sake of preventing more or different harm to those more worthy of protection.

And then we are back where we started, or at a Looking Glass Land image of where we started. The systems have failed, the destination has evaporated or proved impossibly distant. There is only a lost wandering in the woods. We did not know good and evil, then we learned it, and now we have lost it again. It was always beyond us, the question is what comes next. We were, then we thought we knew but did not know, now we begin to know that we do not know.

Now if only we could stop trying to get somewhere and just be, we might begin to dance again