Sunday, April 7, 2013

Epistemology 101

What does it mean to know?

 This is the question that epistemology seeks to answer. What is knowledge? How does one come to know something? Under what conditions might one be considered to possess knowledge?

These are important questions because they deal with certainty. When you “know” something, that implies a certain amount of certainty on which you can then proceed with actions or further thoughts in a logical structure. The less certain you are, the less stable your logical foundations, and the more hesitant your actions become. Knowledge, and our relative certainty about knowledge, defines how we approach every action we take. So then, it becomes important to reflect on knowledge itself; this discipline is called epistemology.

Let’s use a simple logical formula to simplify the task. Adam (A) knows some thing (X); where X represents any single idea that can be known.

So, under what conditions might it be said that A knows X?

The first condition should be that A believes X.[1] There are no circumstances under which you might know that X is true without believing X is true; so belief is a key component of knowledge. But, of course belief is not enough to secure knowledge because it is very possible for me to believe something that is not true; and we wouldn’t want to say that Cardinal Bellarmine knew that the sun revolved around the earth, or that Galileo knew[2] that ocean tides were caused by the earth’s movement around the sun because both of these ideas are factually incorrect.[3]

So, knowledge implies belief, but also a factual accuracy. Our formula, now becomes:

A knows X when
                                A believes X, and
                                X is in fact true.

But what if A does not have adequate grounds to believe X? For instance, what if Alan believes that the earth is round because the arches in our feet can only be compatible with a round globe? Should we say that he knows? Many would say no, that he simply has an uneducated opinion that happens to be correct, but that this does not constitute knowledge.[4]

So, A knows X when
                A believes X, and
                X is in fact true, and
                A has adequate logical grounds for believing X.

This is an extremely basic and, in many ways, overly simplified introductory word on epistemology; but it should suffice to help catch the reader up to speed on the initial phase of the epistemological conversation. The next step will be to ask “What constitutes logical grounds?”

[1] Donald Palmer “Does The Center Hold?: An Introduction to Western Philosophy” Third Edition, 41; Louis P Pojman “Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom” 5th edition, 141. There are some that would argue that it is possible to know something is true without realizing that you know it, or believing it at a conscious level. I agree, but think that this is more a matter of semantics than an actual disagreement. I would say that at whatever level an idea is known, it is also believed at that same level of consciousness.
[2] You could say that they “knew” but only in a rhetorical sense as a proof of the strength of their belief, not in the technical sense that they possessed knowledge.
[3] Pojman “Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom” 138.
[4] ibid 142.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is there a difference between being saved and being a Christian?

I’ve had these thoughts for awhile now, and I’ve struggled with how to put them into words. The reason for the struggle is because I don’t think I’m right. I think I’m close, but I don’t think I’m there yet. The reason why I’m going to go ahead and write this anyway is because of the conversations I’m in right now; and because I hope that in the process of writing them down, maybe I’ll be better able to think them through. I would also hope that anyone out there who reads this would maybe help me out too, give me some advice on which direction my thoughts should go.

It seems to me that the words “saved” and “Christian” are used synonymously; but I don’t think that they are. What first got me thinking in this direction was when I was struggling with whether or not knowledge of a person’s salvation should influence how we interact with them. I discussed that here. My conclusion was that it really doesn’t make that much of a difference, and really isn’t any of our business; instead we should put our efforts into being a sign post pointing toward God, without worrying ourselves about the place or direction of those who see us.

From there I started thinking about salvation in more general terms. It seems to me, as I read the Bible, that the bar for salvation is, at times, held very, very low; while at other times, it is held relatively high. In one instance Jesus says that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; in another, John says that anyone who sins does not know God and is not born of Him.

My attempt at reconciling these two seemingly contradictory ideas is to ask if there might be a difference between being saved and being a Christian.

In seminary, I was made aware of the idea that God saved all of humanity through the cross, at the cross; that in that moment, it could be truthfully said that we are all saved. To me, that means that all humans have been given salvation, almost by default, as it were, and must reject it if they don’t want it. Through life, God is present to us all in the Person of the Spirit, He is always and everywhere around us, and is making Himself known to us in big and in little ways. It is my currently held belief that this relationship with God enables us to recognize Him for who He is when we come to the final judgment. So, throughout life, we are walking through a process of, mostly subconsciously, becoming aware of who He is, and deciding where we stand with Him, whether we want to be with Him or not. For some, the presence of God becomes like a fragrant perfume, while for others it becomes the stench of death; largely because of who these individuals choose to be. We are all saved, but some of us, for reasons that I may superficially understand, but will probably never fathom, reject God and salvation of their own volition, knowing full well what they are doing. So, the bar for salvation is set very low: essentially, if you want it, and accept it, it’s yours.

The bar for being a Christian, however, is set much higher. Taking the name of Christ, in my opinion, should be a conscious decision to join Christ’s team, so to speak. We are laying down our goals and dreams and ambitions to take up the goals of the Kingdom of God. His goals are the freedom of the oppressed, sight for the blind, and good news for the poor. We are tasked with doing our best to make this world look more and more like God’s shalom, and less and less like Hell. Some have interpreted this as a call to enforce rules. I could not disagree more. The Kingdom of God is not, has never been, and will never be about rules. God’s Kingdom exists where His love is embodied; it is about loving one another, and about bringing peace into relationships. Now, the rules have been useful in giving us a guide as to what that Kingdom will ultimately look like, e.g. it is a place where people do not hurt one another, do not break trust, and sacrifice themselves for the love of their brother etc. But simply following the rules does not bring about shalom. It is a transformation of character through the grace and love of God that brings shalom, and we Christians are tasked with being the face, voice, hands and feet of that grace and of that love.

Of course, what this also means is that Christians deliberately and consciously commit to forego those behaviors that do not embody God’s grace and love. So, Christians do not murder, hate, lie, steal, commit adultery, profane what is sacred, etc. because you cannot claim to be a member of God’s team if you are consciously and willfully pursuing what is contrary to God’s will. This is where excommunication comes in. Surrounded by a culture that embraces harmful behavior and character; and seeing God’s purposes only dimly, it is easy for a Christian to indulge in actions that work against God’s shalom out of lust or ignorance. It becomes important, then, for Christians to help one another, and to hold one another accountable for our actions and our character. How can we claim to be the hands of God, if we are laced through and through with deceit, selfishness and hatred?

In a way, yes, it is unavoidable. We are fallible humans, used to living sinful lives; it’s not realistic to assume that we can just flip a switch and suddenly be shiningly sinless (at least not without the intervention of God). This, however, does not give us an excuse to just give up. The Catholic churches of Chile and Argentina learned this lesson the hard way when they allowed sin to penetrate into the highest ranks, allowing kidnapping, torture, and murder to go unchecked within its ranks. If this was the face of God to Argentinians, could anyone wonder if Argentinians were to decide that God was not love? What about priests, ministers, Sunday School teachers, and youth sponsers who have abused children? How are those children to look upon God after one who claimed to be the hands and feet of Christ abused them in such a manner? The word Christian means, literally, “little Christs,”if we are going to claim that name, then we cannot allow sin to go unchecked in ourselves or in other Christians. If you aren’t prepared to be held to that standard, then don’t call yourself a Christian. Say that you are a God-fearer, or a follower of Christ’s teachings, but don’t take His name unless you are prepared to walk the path He walked.

So, I think that there are some holes in this; and that not everything works together; and I’m not sure how this fits into my theology of the church, which I’ve talked about elsewhere. Even if everything did work together, though, I hesitate to say that there is a difference between being saved and being a Christian; and I hesitate to tell people not to call themselves Christians. I get this feeling in my gut that it is unfinished, and not quite accurate. What do you think? Where should we go with this?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Please God, be there.

So I’ve been in conversation recently with several people lately with different theological views than I have. It’s always challenging to do so; it’s like intellectual and spiritual exercise. Always good to do, but way harder than talking with people who already agree with you. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that this is a somewhat new development. I don’t know a whole lot of people in my everyday life who don’t fit in the traditional evangelical Nazarene mold, and its only recently that I’ve discovered how easily one might get sucked into online discussions.

I come away from them feeling hopeless. It seems that theology, maybe reality would be a better word, is so hopelessly tangled and out of our reach of understanding that there’s just no way we’re ever going to make heads or tails of it. There are so many people and so many different views; so many arguments, and so many conflicting arguments that all seem to make sense. There are so many intelligent people that seem to think that their ideas are self-evident; so many people who I respect that disagree with each other. It feels like trying to swim through a stormy ocean.

This is why I need God to be there. It feels like we’re lost without Him. If He’s not there, we’re never going to find our way on our own; we’re just going to swim in circles until the sharks come. If He’s not leading us, away from our ignorance and confusion, away from our weakness, then we will fall prey to our own failings. If He doesn’t lead us out of the darkness of our hatred; then we’re going to tear each other apart out of fear and ignorance.

Please God, be there.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Communion and the Church

So, the last couple weeks I’ve gotten into ecclesiology: the study and theology of the church. I’ve talked about what the church isn’t, what the church could be, and what makes the church the church. Today I want to talk a little about one of the most important rituals of the church, which is communion, or the eucharist.

Communion has become a point of debate in the last few decades as we continue to react to our past. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that in the ritual of the Eucharist, the bread and wine’s substance objectively changes in the hands of the priest into the actual body and real blood of Christ, so that even though it still feels, looks, and tastes just like bread and wine, the grace of God has changed it into flesh and blood. This, along with the belief that you could not be saved without regularly taking part in this ritual, gave the priests and the church an incredible amount of power in the eyes of the people.

As a reaction against what seemed like the overly mystical nature of transubstantiation and the abuse of the power which these doctrines gave the priests, parts of the church swung completely to the other extreme (as humans are notoriously good at doing). There is absolutely nothing mystical about communion, they say, that there is neither salvific nor any other kind of power in it. Communion is merely a symbol and, therefore, it really doesn’t matter if or how we observe the ritual at all.

 I would like to challenge that based on my posts from the previous few weeks. I will not attempt to prove that there is anything mystical about the ritual, but I do want to challenge us to think more carefully about when and how we participate in communion.

The first reason why we must observe the ritual of communion is simply because Christ told us to. He and his followers enjoined the early church to take part in the Lord’s Supper often, and to observe it in certain ways. As followers of Christ, we must follow His instructions.

Further than that, though, the ritual does have power to constitute the church, even without any mystical add-ons. Paul spoke of communion in I Corinthians 10:17 saying that we [the members of the church] are one because we share in the one loaf of the body of Christ. We humans are social creatures, and there is a special place in our social makeup for rituals. Every group has rituals that seal its members to each other. Tailgating before a football game would be one example, ritualized greetings (Hey, how’s it going?), traditions like Cinco de Mayo and the 4th of July are all secular examples of rituals that help instill group identity. When members of a group all do the same thing at the same time it sets them apart from the rest of humanity and says “We stand together.”

Communion works just the same way in the church. It isn’t and wasn’t ever supposed to be a ritual of personal devotion, but one of corporate identity and constitution. We are one because we all share in this one loaf and this one cup.

Not only does it help form our corporate Christian identity, it is also a public and concrete rehearsal or testimony of the way Christ knits us together. In my last post I argued that the church’s internal structure is perichoretic and Christocentric. If I live in Christ and Christ lives in you, then I necessarily live in you; and if you live in Christ and Christ live in me, then you must also live in me. Our mutual participation in Christ necessarily links us into one another. Communion is a graphic representation of this. As I eat of the bread, and you eat of the same bread, and as we both drink from the same cup, we are joined to Christ and thus to each other, forming the Church.

Of course, if God has endued communion  with more mystical powers to affect its participants, which is certainly within His power to do, then the ritual becomes all the more important; but even without that, communion is one of the most important rituals of the church and deserves much careful thought and discernment in how we observe it.

There are too many implications of this theology to go into here, but there are two specific things that I’d like to point out. First, communion reminds us that our sin is not simply personal. As I come to the table, I’m bringing all that I have with me into the church, including my unresolved sin. As I join myself to Christ, He accepts all of me, just as I am; and any sin I have clinging to my spirit goes into the church as well. My personal issues are not simply my personal issues when I go to commune at the table. In communion, they become an issue for the church I join myself to.

Second, the way we celebrate communion affects how we relate to each other in the church. In South Africa, the way that the church celebrated communion was a precursor to apartheid. Some of the white Christians were hesitant to put their lips to the same cup which the poorer black Christians drank from; they were worried about germs and diseases. So the church responded by setting up separate tables for whites and blacks; separate loaves, separate cups. It wasn’t long before there were two separate churches, and subsequently full blown apartheid. The way we celebrate communion affects the way we relate to one another, and vice-versa.

So as you participate and/or officiate over communion, think about the importance of what you’re doing and be careful. An individualized communion betrays the very heart of what communion is supposed to be. Communion is a form of communication, and we must be careful what messages we sow into the nature of the church through this ritual. What we do at the table, and how we come to the table matters; communion forms the church.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What is the Church?

What is the church? What defines it; and what constitutes it?

The word “church” can be defined in several different ways. It can mean the building in which Christian worship services take place; this is the etymological origin of the word (from German kirika, from Greek kyriakon meaning house (oika) of the Lord (kurios)[1])

The word has also been used to translate the Greek word ekklesia which means “those who are called out” from the Greek ek (out) and kaleo (to call). This word was used in Greek to refer to public assemblies of people, possibly in the sense of calling them out of their houses and into the public forum to discuss civic or religious affairs and business. Thus, the word church can mean the assembly of Christians called together for worship.

 This sense can also be spiritualized to mean not only the physical and local assembly of believers, but all those around the world who participate in those assemblies, wherever they might be, or some subsection thereof e.g. the Global Church, the Church of North America, the Church of Kansas City, the Nazarene Church, the Baptist Church etc. The Church Invisible consists of all those who belong to the Global Church, both on earth and in heaven, from all of history.

This sense can was further spiritualized in the Late Middle Ages as people started to realize that there was more to being a Christian than simply attending Mass. Being Christian, they began to articulate, is less about outward actions and more about an inner attitude and spirit (dare I say Spirit) which then results in those outward actions. Thus they began to speak of the “True Church” as the body of those believers who are not only Christian in name, but also in spirit.

All of these definitions have their legitimate place in English conversation, but to me, the one that is most helpful to discuss, and which is the least obvious in its constitution, is that last sense. When I use the word “church,” in my everyday conversation, that is normally the sense in which I use it.

This usage, unfortunately, is the least definite or concrete of any of the definitions of “church.” It’s easy to point to two buildings and say “That one is a church, that one is a roller rink.” It’s easy to see people who have gathered on a Sunday and say “all who are here are part of the Church, all who are not are not.” What is more difficult is to speak in any meaningful way about a body of people who are defined by their own inner convictions, motivations, desires, and failures. How do you know who is a Christian and who isn’t? How do you know who is a part of the “True Church” and who isn’t.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to derive an objective measure for a subjective reality.[2] We can’t know who is or is not a part of the “True Church.” There is no test or measure by which we can say “You’re in, you’re out.” We can have tests and measures and qualifications for membership in the local, and thus global, physical assembly; but we can’t define or objectively discern who meets subjective criteria, and thus is or is not a part of the “True Church.”

Ok, so why even talk about the “True Church” if we can’t take action on it? Well, I didn’t say that we couldn’t take action on it, I said that we couldn’t objectively tell who is or is not part of it. We need to talk and think about what it means to be a part of the True Church so that we can look at ourselves, each individually and think about our own participation in that Church.

So, then, what defines the “True Church.” It’s not defined by actions, sinful or righteous; it’s not defined by attendance or participation, that’s what defines the physical assembly. Participation in the True Church is defined solely by The Spirit.

When I define the True Church, I rely on the doctrine of the Trinity, and especially a sub-section of that doctrine which deals with the doctrine of the Perichoresis. Simply stated, perichoresis means mutual interpenetration.[3] That is to say, it refers to a relationship in which two entities contain each other, or live within one another.

As pertains to the Trinity, Perichoresis means that the Father, Spirit, and Son contain and live within one another. John testifies to this when he records Jesus words “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:10-11). This perichoretic relationship is then echoed down through the reality which the Perichoretic God created, even to the church. John 15:9 and 12 record a simple formula which Jesus relays to His disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you;” and “love one another as I have loved you.” The community of Christians is to relate to one another in the same (or a similar) way in which God relates to Himself. This paradigm is reflected in John 17:20-21 “"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and has echoes in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Garden of Eden, and elsewhere in Scripture.

Here’s the theological nutshell: God established a relational paradigm for Creation; this paradigm is called Shalom, or The Kingdom of God, and is modeled by God Himself in the Perichoretic Trinity. God’s act of Creation was an opening up of that Trinity to include us in that perfect and perichoretic relationship of love and unity in which God perpetually exists (“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you”); this reality is called Heaven. The Church, the True Church, consists of all those who accept the paradigm of Shalom and attempt to live in the world from the basis of God’s reality of relational wholeness (“Love one another as I have loved you.”). This is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer; the church consists of those who earnestly desire and sincerely pray “Thy will be done and Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” The objective and measurable external actions, called righteousness, are the fruit of this desire for, as I have said before, you can’t sincerely pray for God’s Kingdom if your hands are willingly seeking out and creating Hell; but they are not a measure of actual participation in God’s Kingdom (and therefore the church) as sanctification is a process, and even Christians may sin ( I John 2:1 “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”)

So the church, the True Church is a result of God’s perichoretic movement; the church is the physical manifestation of an opening up of the Trinity to include creation, and specifically humans, into the heart of God. A Christian is an individual human who has accepted God’s invitation to be united with Him in perichoretic love; a Christian is one who allows God to live in him or her, and who accepts God’s invitation to live in Him. The church is, in some ways, a by-product of this movement (though God always intended the church to exist); for if I live in God, and God lives in you, then I live in you; and if, reciprocally, you live in God, and God lives in me, then you live in me. That is the structure of the church; how it’s built. The church is the extension of the Trinity into human reality through individual participation in the heart of God through the action of the Spirit, the grace of the Father, and the facilitating atoning act of Christ.

There are many more implications of this definition of the church than I can possibly go into in the short space afforded by a blog; but by reflecting on who we are in Christ, and therefore on who we are to each other, we can see the fruit of God’s Spirit begin to form in our communities. Know what the church is; know what makes us the church; know how you fit into the church; and consciously go and live out of that reality and into the world.

[2] This seems to be a common problem, at least in our society: confusing and mixing the objective and the subjective; and trying to derive the one from the other. It’s not possible to derive the objective from the subjective, or vice-versa, without interpretation

[3] Sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ecclesiology and Capitalism

I’ve struggled with how exactly I wanted to put these ideas into words this week; but here goes nothing. The church is not a business. Here's why that is important.

Throughout the church’s history, Christians have gotten very attached to various organizational models, to the point of believing that one or another is divinely mandated, to the point of going to war over opposing models. Now, in the U.S. we don’t tend to get dogmatic about church government; but we can get vehemently pragmatic about it. We can assume that the model we’re used to, the one we’ve seen all around us, is the only one that will work; that we need it. But that’s not true.

I think that it should be unsurprising that a capitalist entrepreneurial society such as America should produce a church that runs itself on the basic template of a business. In the Nazarene church, our council of elders is called a board, and the lead pastor is the chairman. We have accountants (sometimes accounting departments) that keep track of our budgets. We tailor our church’s atmosphere and image to appeal to target demographics. We have advertisements, billboards and commercials to try to sell our religious wares to potential customers. In the medieval church, though, in a society of patriarchy and feudalism, the church operated as a kingdom. In other types of societies the church takes other forms and that’s ok.

I think, though, that this pattern should awaken us to a potential problem. The monarchical pattern that the medieval church followed was a natural fit considering its geo-temporal context; but it also had significant problems. And because its members were surrounded by this monarchical, patriarchal model of social organization throughout their lives, it was difficult for them to see those problems before they became so destructive that they ruptured the church. They forgot that, although the church is a Kingdom, it is not a Kingdom of this world, but a Kingdom breaking into this world. I believe that we are in danger of swallowing the capitalistic business model of social organization because it is what we see all around us; we assume that it is necessary, but we aren’t sufficiently removed from ourselves to readily see its weaknesses. We forget that, although the church may benefit from business like practices, the church is not a business.

Two really aspects of the business world that can be abhorrently destructive in the church are competition and profit. In business, competition is healthy because it restricts market prices and ensures the quality of goods and services. In the church, however, competition between churches can lead to ugly, ugly relationships between congregations. I have actually seen advertisements in which a particular congregation was actively trying to lure Christians away from other churches, touting their own strengths and disparaging the weaknesses of other congregations. The church is not a business; it is a body; and while it is healthy to ruthlessly compete in the world of business, it is not at all healthy for a body to war upon itself.

In business, you must have capital to survive. Businesses exist to make money, and they cannot operate without a healthy flow of cash, both incoming and outgoing, to keep the economic gears whirring. The church, however, is not a business. It does not exist to make money, it does not produce a saleable product, and it does not, therefore, need any kind of steady income to keep its spiritual gears working. The church needs the Spirit of Christ. We must have compassion, generosity, commitment, holiness, faith, hope, and above all, love. These don’t cost a dime.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t invest in buildings, projectors, lights, heating and a/c, books, pamphlets, media, production etc. Money is a resource, and I believe that God wants us to be good stewards of the resources He gives us; but, we must remember that money is only a resource among others, and if the flow of money suddenly dried up tomorrow, the church would go on. Unlike businesses, churches can thrive in a state of poverty.

We need to remember who we are; and we need to remember what it is that really makes us the church. I think it would even be healthy to investigate new models of church government and organization; models that might serve to uncover the weaknesses of the capitalistic church; models that may be able to coexist with, partner with, and alleviate the weaknesses of the capitalistic church.

Next week, I intend to talk more about what makes the church the church. In the meantime, do you have any ideas for organizational models for the American church? What might be some alternatives to running the church like a business?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Human Trafficking

I went to a . . . something last week. I don’t know what to call it; it wasn’t really a conference, or a symposium, or a seminar. It was more of a gathering, or maybe a screening because most of the time was spent watching a documentary. The night revolved around the issue of human trafficking around the world and in the U.S. The movie was called Nefarious: Merchant of Souls and it bowled me over.

The movie was, essentially, a series of interviews with several professionals and activists who work in this area along with several people who had been victims of sexual slavery or who had participated in human trafficking. It was gut-wrenching. One woman was lured into prostitution by her “boyfriend” and soon found that she had spiraled down into a life she couldn’t escape from; another was lured away from home by the promise of a job as a sales girl in a department store only to find herself in a foreign country where she didn’t know the language and was beaten into submission by her captors. Another woman was molested as a child and grew up under the impression that she was worthless and undeserving of any other life. Another segment told the story of young girls in South-East Asia who are sold into prostitution by their parents. It was person after person after person talking about the reality of what is going on in the world.

When I got home I did some more research and found the story of a young woman in Florida who was befriended by another young lady at school. After a few months this new friend invited her to a sleep-over. Turns out that this new “friend” was really an accomplice (read fellow victim) of a human trafficker. The young woman was drugged, beaten and raped repeatedly over three days. Her story can be found, in detail, here

I’m not bringing this up to be depressing; I’m talking about this because it is real and it is happening right now to millions of women, girls, men and boys around the world. According to ExodusCry, there are an estimated 4.5 million people in sexual slavery around the world; there are 800,000 people trafficked across international borders, 79% of whom are used for commercial sexual exploitation. In the U.S. alone there are an estimated 100,000 children who are victims of sex trafficking each year.

We need to talk about this; we need to do something about this.

There are many organizations around the nation and around the globe that are involved in this fight. I would encourage you to find one. Here are some organizations that I know of that you can get involved with:
Veronica's Voice: a shelter in the KC metro area that helps women who are trying to get out of a life of prostitution. This is not a religious organization.
We Love Children: an organization that focuses on helping young girls at risk of sexual exploitation in Cambodia and Vietnam.
ExodusCry: a movement which works to prevent human trafficking, intervene where it is occuring, and holistically restore victims of human trafficking. It is an explicitly Christian organization.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Relationship and Theology

I have a theory; one that regular followers may very well have guessed but which I will come out and explicitly say now. Relationship is the key to theology. Let me explain.

It starts with God Himself. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, God’s freely chosen Triune nature establishes God, in and of Himself, as a relational being. This must be foundational in our understanding of the universe and how reality works. God, without involving anyone else, just as He is, exists as relationship. Now, if you don’t understand relationship as a theological term, then his Trinitarian nature becomes somewhat confusing and inapplicable; but when you start looking at theology and reality through this lens of relationship, then God’s relationality becomes a really big deal.

Why, well, because it forms the foundation of how God created and how He interacts with that creation. I wrote a whole chapter on this in my thesis, and have uploaded parts of that to the blog (look in the sidebar “Relationship in Genesis 1-5”), so I’ll just hit the highlights here. I think that the way God chose to create is telling. God didn’t just create individual beings, individual, unconnected pieces and then set them off to live individual, unconnected Lone Ranger lives. He created us to live together in this vast interconnected web we call the universe. Everything from stars, to planets, to bacteria, and even pebbles exist as integral parts of the environment in which God has placed them. Every member, every piece of creation can only function well as it relates correctly with the other pieces of its eco-system; and when all members of creation correctly relate to all others, that is called Shalom. God is a relational god and He created us to be relational people.

Further, God has chosen to relate to humans and to humanity. He could have left us on our own to wander through life as best we could, but He didn’t. He chose to commit to us. He chose to make Himself known to us. He chose to walk with us through all the worst consequences of our choices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation and crucifixion of our Lord. In the person of Christ, God descended to live as one of us, to experience all of the hardships of human life, to be tempted, and ultimately to die to heal the breach in relationship between God and humanity.

So we have a relational God, who created relational people, and who has chosen to enter into intimate and committed relationship with those people. Now we can look at other areas of theology and see them through this lens of relationality. Heaven is defined as a state of pure, unhindered, and intimate communion with God. This communion has always been God’s desire. It is why He created us, it is what Sin robbed us of, and it is what Jesus is saving us to. Communion is the Mission of God. Sin is relational entropy, as I’ve claimed here before. Righteousness is the practical means by which communion is formed and sustained. Every area of theology, from eschatology to hamartiology, ecclesiology and all the other -ologies may be seen through this same lens of relationality.

As we pursue this course, however, it seems to me that relationship, or communion (relationship’s more theologically weighted synonym), is the glue that brings together all aspects of theology into one meaningful whole. It is the one idea that can unify the disparate field of theology.

Friday, January 18, 2013


This week, I’d like to talk a bit about sin. We don’t address this topic often enough or seriously enough in the church. I feel that there are several reasons for this. One reason that we don’t talk about it is because it’s simply not a very fun topic to dwell on. We don’t want to think about rules that forbid; and we don’t want to talk about all the ways we don’t measure up. Another reason is because we’re experiencing a backlash from a more legalistic era in church history. At times in the past, we in the church have come down so hard on sin that we made people feel like God didn’t love them, that they could never be good enough for God, and that they were unwanted in the church. We didn’t want to make people feel like that anymore, so we stopped talking about sin. Another reason, really a sub-point to the last one, is that some of those who do feel the importance of this subject feel that, if they bring it up, they will be immediately lambasted as hypocritical and judgmental.

Despite all of this, sin is still an important topic. If we are going to call ourselves Christian; if we’re going to claim to live by the Bible, then we must read the whole Bible, not just the parts that we like. And the Bible is very concerned about the topic of sin. From beginning to end, the Bible is almost constantly outlining good and bad behavior, warning us away from evil, holding up good and bad examples of how to live. Jesus himself talked about sin quite a bit as well; and we can’t just ignore that or sweep it under the rug. We need to take sin seriously.

So, ok, let’s take sin seriously. Let’s think about the nature of sin. What is sin? Classically, sin can be defined in either of two ways. Wesleyans define sin as a willful transgression of a known law of God. Calvinists define sin as any transgression of God’s law. I don’t find either of these definitions satisfactory. I don’t think they go deep enough into the nature of sin. I find myself asking why sin is sinful. Ok, God said that adultery is bad, and as He is the Absolute, He has the right to declare actions to be good or bad as He sees fit; and as the Absolute foundation of existence, His will defines reality. But why did God say that adultery is bad? Why didn’t He say that open marriages and free love is good and monogamy is selfish? Was it arbitrary? Did He roll dice? Pick things out of a hat?

God is Triune; He has chosen to exist as a community, as a relationship. He has created us to be relational people, naturally drawn to socialize with one another. He seeks to commune with us in Heaven, and seeks for us to commune with one another on earth. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus promptly answered “Love God, and love each other.” I think that the Bible paints a clear picture of righteousness as pure, holy, unselfish, vulnerable, and perfect communion with God and with one another. This is what God planned, it is what He saved us for, and it is what He is guiding us to. A second look at Scripture reveals that sin is the opposite of righteousness. Look at the 10 Commandments. Every single act forbidden by God revolves around the idea of broken relationships: idolatry, murder, adultery, deceit, theft. Some are less obvious, like keeping the Sabbath; but even that is grounded in the idea of respect for God. Sin is sin because it chips away at our relationship with God; and it shatters our relationships by using us to break each other down.

God is the Absolute and Supreme Something. God is existence. Therefore, if Evil is the opposite of God, then evil is the Supreme Nothing. Righteousness is that which contributes to the building and preservation of the Universe as God planned it to be, it is that which contributes to Shalom. Sin, then, is that which breaks and tears Shalom apart. Sin is not only relational, sin is, by nature destructive. This brings us to a definition of sin as that which destroys creation and breaks apart relationships.

From this, we can gather a few further insights. First, there is no such thing as personal sin. There is no such thing as a sin that is just between you and God. Every sin you commit, no matter how hidden, no matter how small, affects every person around you. Even an extremely small thing like a lapse in your devotional life affects how you are letting God form you, which affects who you are as a person, which affects who you are as you enter society. Every sin, from murder and adultery, down to ingratitude and spiritual laziness affects those around you. There is no such thing as a victimless sin.

Second, we see that sins are not isolated instances of good or bad behavior. Sin is a part of a systemic and eschatological movement (eschaton is the greek word for the end of time; it means “last things”). Those of us who follow Christ are following Him in pursuit of God’s Kingdom Come on earth as it is in Heaven. Leading a righteous life is integral to that pursuit. You cannot say that you stand with Christ if you aren’t involved in the building of His Kingdom. Likewise, on the negative side, you can’t say that you’re following Christ if you are consistently undermining His mission by engaging in acts which destroy the relationships and people around you. And I feel guilty and convicted even as I type. Sin is important because it is part of what defines us as either those who are seeking or those who are destroying the Kingdom of God. If we love God; and we love His Kingdom; and we love each other; and we are concerned about our society; then we must stand against sin.

Third, and as a natural expression of the first two points, we need to talk about sin. We, as the church, must realize that as important as it is to love the sinner and extend God’s grace to him or her; it is equally important to love the victim of sin; to the point of, where possible, preventing sin from occurring. One way of doing so is by talking about sin, why it is wrong and how it destroys. We need to do this from the pulpit certainly, but we must also undertake this one on one in small groups and in every relationship we have. Sin is a cliff, and we need to talk about sin to help warn people to stay away from the edge.

An example might help, I knew of a teenager at a church I went to when I was younger who got his girlfriend pregnant. As I’ve reflected on this scenario I get more and more convicted of our church’s (not the local church but the national church) complicity in his choices. Who ever warned him that sleeping with his girlfriend was a bad idea? He had been born, to the best of my knowledge, out of wedlock; his sibling(s) had a trail of past lovers; the society he lived in consistently presented extra-marital sex as normal behavior; the culture he lived in produced shows like Glee and Friends; and his church was too afraid of offending people to say out loud “Sex outside of marriage is bad because . . .” Why should I ever have assumed that he knew that sleeping around was wrong? He was actually happy when he told me that she was pregnant.[1]

We need to start talking about sin. We need to speak in love; and we need to speak of grace; but we can’t ignore the destruction that sin is wreaking all around us. We must get beyond ourselves and our(my) guilt to speak truth where it is needed; yes, I am guilty of sin, but I can’t let that guilt define me and my actions. I can’t let my failures stop me from encouraging others’ to success. If we claim the name of Christ, then we must stand for the things which Christ stood for. We must stand for love against betrayal, hatred, and faithlessness; we must stand for truth against deceit and fraud; we must stand for life against murder; we must stand for charity against oppression; we must stand with God against sin.


[1] I’m not trying to say that the child was bad or a curse or a burden; and many teenage parents are able to go to college and/or make a really great life for themselves; but the fact of the matter is that having a child too early in life severely limits one’s options later in life and makes all subsequent life decisions much more difficult. Especially if his girlfriend had decided not to stick around, he just stuck himself with child support for the next 18 + years of his life; and he was only 17. The child was worth smiling about, the work that child represented for this teenager was not.

Friday, January 11, 2013

I'm sorry there will be no post today.  Started a new job.  Helping lead youth worship.  Sleep training a baby.  I won't be posting as regularly in the next few weeks.  Thanks for your indulgence and have a good weekend!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Order and Chaos

                My wife and I recently went to see Les Miserables for our anniversary and it got me to thinking about the dynamic between order and chaos. Now, I know that it’s a popular faux pas to think about the universe in terms of dualisms, but in this case, I think it’s helpful and informative; though I’d prefer to think of it as a spectrum rather than a duality.

                Any society floats back and forth on the spectrum between order and chaos, between law and anarchy. Most of us would associate order with goodness and righteousness, and chaos with evil and badness. I don’t think that’s the case though.

                I read a book called Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey and it attempted to tell the story of Paris’ underbelly, the history of the bums, orphans, prostitutes, and work-a-days (as opposed to the history of kings and wars). It very much painted the history of Paris as a struggle between the aristocratic forces of law and order against the common folk and their quest for freedom. As I read that history I realized that order is not a synonym for good.

                In Les Mis, Javier, the police inspector and the character representing the law, was willing to sentence a child to death in order to see the letter of the law upheld. Further, order doesn’t like change. If the bed is made, order doesn’t want it messed up from sleeping; if a room is clean then order doesn’t want people living in it and spilling tea or leaving dirty socks around. Order doesn’t like the spontaneous or unpredictable. In short, order doesn’t like life. In fact, order can only be complete when there is no life to mess it up. The most ordered place of all is a vacuum, a void with nothing and no one to break the rules.

                Problem is that life needs order to thrive. Pure chaos is like a swamp where every living thing is constantly eating and being eaten by every other living thing so that life doesn’t really get the chance to make the most of itself. Human civilization craves order to be able to progress in science, technology, human rights, etc. So neither order nor chaos is “righteous” or “unrighteous,” we need a mixture of both.

                Another problem, exemplified in Hussey’s writing, is that we tend to group values together by the factions that hold them. So, in the French Revolution, order was lumped in with Christianity, aristocracy, greed, and oppression. The whole lot were thrown out the window in favor of secularism, equality, fraternity, and liberty (also known as anarchy). We forget to make distinctions and realize that just because Bob believes in ideals a and b, doesn’t mean that ideal a has anything to do with ideal b, our distaste for Bob (sorry Bob) predisposes us against both.

                As I think about this, I realize that the order-chaos spectrum coincides with the security-liberty spectrum. Order gives us security and safety, it allows us to live without the risk of the unexpected and undesired. Chaos allows maximum personal liberty because it frees us from the law. The tension between the two exists because I cannot have personal liberty without everyone else also gaining that same liberty. I can’t be free unless everyone else is free too, and that means that everyone else is free to do things that I don’t agree with, that I don’t like, and that may even bring me harm. Liberty means that people will be free to steal, to lie, to defraud, and to kill. So security and liberty, also known as safety and risk, are synonymous with order and chaos. Often this coincides with rich/poor because the rich want to secure their wealth while the poor want maximum liberty to go out and procure wealth, although this isn’t always the case, and we shouldn’t equate the rich/poor spectrum with the other three.

                So what does this mean? It means that we can’t have 100% liberty and 100% safety. It seems almost tautological as I say it, but a successful society must learn to deal with a certain amount of risk and a certain amount of restriction. It seems tautological but we don’t behave, as a society, as if we actually believe it. We need to really understand that every security we obtain is a liberty we lose, while every freedom we gain is a risk we undertake. Until we really get this, we can’t but stumble blindly across the spectrum between order and chaos.

We should understand one last thing about order and chaos. All other factors being equal, order always wins. Order is disciplined, patient and well-planned while chaos is too distracted and disorganized to ultimately put up a real fight. Yes it will win a few battles here and there, and when it does win, it wins spectacularly, but ultimately order always carries the day. Hussey might agree that the history of Paris is instructive here. Paris, for centuries, was synonymous with rebellion, back-alleys, and an earthy, messy lived-in-ness. You could smell the place for miles and the stench clung to travelers for days. But eventually the paving stones used for barricades are paved over with asphalt, indoor plumbing banishes the smell, the back-alleys are constructed into oblivion, the hovels are torn down for art galleries and tourist traps, and that innate lived-in quality is gentrified out of existence. The day-laborers move to the suburbs leaving the city to glow a little less despite the million light bulbs sanitizing the darkness. Order always wins.

So, I think we should pay attention to this spectrum and be purposive in how we, as individuals and societies, interact with and exemplify order and chaos. We need to be mindful because we can’t let order win; for when order finally wins, life dies.