We Both Got Toes

Here’s a fact: there’s a plurality of opinion about what the Bible says.

It wasn’t so long ago that you could reasonably ignore (or at least downplay) this fact. It’s a lot easier when there’s two churches in your town: the one you go to, and the apostate one.

You don’t have that luxury anymore. You are a simple search engine away from every conceivable reading of the Bible, from the comfortingly familiar to the bracingly bizarre.

So which one is the right one? It’s a good question. Or at least, it was a good question. Good enough that actuals wars were fought over it. People died over their reading of the same book.

Again, easy to have wars when there’s two sides. Our blessed protestant homeland vs their superstitious catholic wastes.

We (okay, maybe it’s just me) tend to approach our approach like lovestruck teenagers. They’re the one for me. This person, who just so happens to live in my city, and go to my church, and participate in my youth group, completes me. (And if you know me, you know I’m speaking from some real experience, right?)

Importantly, this is a real feeling. It’s even an important feeling. And since feelings are thought, let’s not try to pretend that we shouldn’t feel this way. At least for a time. But when you grow up, if you want to start thinking about these sorts of things, you realise there are a few billion potential mates for you in this world, and the chances that yours just happens to live on the next block are astronomically small. So either you believe in some sort of providential whatever, or you sort of abandon this idea of “the one”. (And so what if providence smells a lot like proximity; that’s not the point.)

If you abandon your teenage brain when it comes to romance, why not doctrine? What’s the difference? So yeah, it’s a bit more of a shocking question, or at least it feels that way, but why not?

If you’ve stuck around the church past adolescence you probably attend some variation on the same church you went to then. What are the chances? And if you’ve changed your mind a bit (let’s say you went from a Reformed church to a Baptist church), what’s to say you shouldn’t change your mind even more?

I don’t have a great answer to this question. But maybe that’s the point. This entire post is perhaps a reflection on something I like to call epistemic humility.

It hasn’t been long (geologically, at least) since I was very, very firmly in the a camp called epistemic realism, or objectivism (and please for love of all things holy, don’t confuse this with whatever garbage Ayn Rand shat out and gave the same name).

I’m not some epistemic idealist now, but I will say this: For folks of a certain temperament, and I count myself among them, it’s really tempting to chuck as much stuff as possible into the “stuff we can all know 100% for sure” bucket and call it a day. This is the easy route. For those seeking to hew as close as possible to what they call realism (and I sure hope there aren’t that many folks who really, passionately care about that sort of thing), the impulse is to use your Big Brain and Know Things.

And to be fair, I think there’s a lot of stuff that can go in that bucket. This is a whole other post, but most ideologies and systems of belief are having a really hard time right now dealing with actual facts. So when science says this, but I believe that, what do I do?

Still, there’s lots of other stuff that we either can’t know or can’t know precisely. Maybe most stuff. Acknowledging this is epistemic humility. My willingness to admit that what I think I know might not be as knowable as I thought.

This humility is a sort of freedom. It allows a graceful interaction with a plurality of viewpoints without abandoning my own. It allows others to inform where I might be wrong, or might be approaching from a place of unknown privilege.

It at the very least allows me to find the points of commonality I have with my fellow humans, whether that be at the Table or on streetcorners.

It’s also super uncomfortable. I don’t like being wrong. I don’t like having my biases and for-granteds and privileges exposed. I want to have it all together.

But hey, you wash my feet, I’ll wash yours, we both got toes, maybe it doesn’t matter what shoes you’re wearing.

The Christian Worldview

I keep having to remind myself that a Christian Worldview isn’t something we find in the Bible.

You can kind of extract it from the pages if you try hard enough, but it’s not there in so many words. It’s one of those things we made up and then didn’t think too much about why we made it up.

It makes sense, because different people look at different things in different ways, and if we’re going to be followers of Christ then we should probably get our Christovision goggles on, right?

I suppose. It’s kind of elementary that if you’re a Christian you experience the world in Christian terms.

But that’s a whole lot different from what a lot of people mean when the say “Christian Worldview”. It means lots of different things to different people. All the way from the idea that non-Christians are unable to interact fully with the fundamental reality of the world, to voting for conservative politicians and holding the line on gay marriage.

The Christian Worldview has become a kind of shorthand. We take it for granted. It insists upon itself. So much so that we don’t even take time to think about its validity as an idea or about any negative effects believing in it might have.

I’ve thought about it for a while today. I’m not sure what I think about this whole worldview thing yet. But I can see where it goes wrong. I can see some ways in which an unquestioning belief in a Christian Worldview can have a set of deleterious effects.

Let me start off by saying that I used to be a big fan of presuppositional apologetics. I feel like this was self-serving of me, giving myself a pat on the back for being able to fully comprehend the fabric of reality. (I know, as a Calvinist I shouldn’t have felt that way, but I did.) It’s a seductive philosophy. It allows for the worst sort of us/them dynamic, where “they” are so benighted that they can’t even think rationally! But “we”… ah, “we” have been redeemed, not only from sin and death, but also from bad logic.

The presuppositionalist thing ended when I realised that it begged just about every question that could be begged. And it wasn’t really a convincing apologetic, or even really an apologetic at all. And it removed any chance for meaningful dialogue. But that’s another thing for another time.

This Christian Worldview thing get us really mixed up, I think, because we conflate “thinking like a Christian” with the biblical idea of being in but not of the world.

So we get all these ideas about what it means to be in and not of. We bundle them together and call them a Christian Worldview, and march forward as Christian soldiers to fight the good fight. This means that we’re supposed to look at the world a certain way, and that certain way just so happens to align with a political interest — but we seem, culturally, to be blind to that.

It seems like our Christian Worldview doesn’t function like we think. It’s not a pair of X-Ray spectacles. It doesn’t reveal to us the true fabric of reality. Instead, it just blinds us to a different set of things.

If our morality has been co-opted and misdirected to serve the interests of the world (after all, what can be more worldly than politics?), and if we get to that morality by way of our Christian Worldview, perhaps we need to stop and think a bit. Maybe the Christian Worldview is another of those ways that we worship in vain, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

Perhaps our Christian Worldview is nothing more than a tradition. The sort of tradition where God commanded “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy”, but we say “trickle down economics”. Or where God has said “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation”, but we say nothing when our megachurch leaders build mansions. Or where God commands “Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it”, but we seek preemptive strikes and build a war machine.

Or whatever. Maybe for you it’s something else. For me it is. For me it’s an inability to do business with science I don’t like, or uncomfortable facts I don’t want to have to think about. My Christian Worldview keeps me from looking critically at certain parts of my own Christian life.

I’m not sure what to replace it with. If anything. We all live our lives at the intersection of history, the Spirit, the church, scripture, and so many other things. Maybe the answer isn’t as easy as “Christian Worldview”.

The third rail

I’ve always though of predestination as the doctrinal third rail of Christianity. Touch on it, and you’ll be shocked at the response.

After touching on it in public, a good friend of mine had this to say on the matter:

The Bible consistently affirms BOTH free will AND God’s election. This is a bit of a paradox, but there is a difference between The Doctrine of Election (where we do have free will) and the philosophical position known as Determinism (where we DO NOT have free will).

That seems to me like a bit of a dodge. I’m not one for calling things paradoxes. Paradox is the Mysterious Third Door where we throw all the junk we can’t make make sense. I mean, if you apply the straightjacket of systematic theology to scripture and there are a bunch of extra limbs sticking out, you get the cognitive dissonance whether you call it a paradox or a mystery or whatever.

In any case. You can resolve these apparent contradictions…

Let’s say you consider scripture to be authoritative and truthful and accurate in the way it describes God’s interaction with humanity. Scripture talks about this interaction in a variety of different ways which can (roughly) be summarized as “free will” vs “predestination”.

Both these views have problems.

Free will means God isn’t very powerful. And it turns the biblical idea of foreknowledge into a bit of heavenly smoke and mirrors.

Predestination means God has both created automatons and that he’s responsible for a lot of really bad stuff that’s happened in the world.

There is a way out of this contradiction, of course. But you won’t like it. I don’t like it. All you have to do is change how you look at the Bible. It’s either that, or try accepting two mutually opposing propositions.

Love Is The Evidence

The key apologetic for Christianity—far more important than knowing the right answers to hard questions—is love. Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive and are themselves evidence (not proof) of the truth of the gospel.

This quote, and other good stuff, can be found here.

I can’t get this out of head: Cruciform works of love are attractive.

We’ve spend a lot of time recently trying to figure this thing out. The whole church has, Catholics and Protestants alike. How do we make Christianity attractive? How do we stay relevant?

Maybe the real answer to that question isn’t about sound systems, bands, lighting, atmosphere, easy rock tunes, running MMA clubs out of the church basement, or having a Ferris wheel installed in the sanctuary.

Maybe the real answer is a lot harder than that. Maybe the real answer is that nobody likes a bunch of well-dressed jerks. No matter how cool their t-shirts are.

A few words about desire

Desire is neutral in the abstract, but not in the real world. Its good or evil is determined not simply by its object but also by the desirers motivations. Desire is mimetic. It’s harder to live in densely populated areas for this reason. This also explains why our happiness is predicated to highly on our success relative to our neighbours. In a densely populated area your neighbours are both more numerous and more varied.

You could say that these thoughts about desire explain the root of almost all rivalry and therefore violence. In fact, I find very little to disagree with here:

Girard describes this as a process of triangulation. We see somebody desiring an object. Due to imitation I begin to desire the same object. And with both of us desiring the same object a rivalry forms between us. This–mimetic rivalry–is the root cause of violence.

Church as counterculture

The church has always been a counterculture of sorts. It serves a very useful function when it goes against the grain, when it challenges the assumptions of the culture. The church is strongly periodic in this respect. It sort of gravitates to the countercultural pole and then moves away for a while.

Regardless, the church needs to present a challenge to the culture. Just as a Christian understanding of metaphysics presents a challenge to Plato and other dualistic systems, just as a Christian understanding of morality presents a challenge to a world that doesn’t want to see anything as evil, just as a Christian understanding of mortality and the afterlife presents a challenge to the existing paradigm of temporality and meaninglessness, the church also presents a challenge to the culture’s view of sexuality.

Jesus challenges a rich young man with the prospect of losing his identity, of giving away all his money. The young man can’t do this, because he is defined in the first instance defined by his desire for wealth. If you can’t submit your money to the will of Christ, you can’t enter the kingdom. If you can’t part with who you are and what you want to do, you can’t enter the kingdom.

Jesus also challenges a culture that believes you are defined in the first instance by your sexuality. If you can’t submit your sexuality to the will of Christ, you can’t enter the kingdom. As Jesus says, “Go and sin no more”.

No ideology but Christ

Having no ideology is hard, maybe impossible. Having no ideology but Christ is harder still.

Jesus does not filter his blessings through the mesh of conservatism, Keynesian fiscal policy, a particular political party, trickle-down economics, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, or any of the political baggage you may have picked up from your parents, your region, or your county.

Jesus does not change the world through politics. He doesn’t change it through earthly power. He makes the world new by washing of regeneration. He changes hearts and minds with his blood. He doesn’t require the right political climate or ideological persuasion to do it. He makes the world new regardless.

Conflation of blessing with conservatism is sin. Conflation of blessing with anything other than Christ is sin. It is idolatry.

This is something that the church around the world needs to repent of. We need to repent of setting up false gods, false Christs, and seeking our blessings through them. Time and time again these false saviors fail to provide the ample blessings they promised. Time and time again we raise up new idols to replace the fallen.

It’s high time we learned that there is no true blessing and no true salvation outside of Christ, and started thinking about how to have no ideology but him.

Church community

Christianity is Trinitarian. This fact informs everything we think about and all that we do. I know we probably don’t spend enough time contemplating this (I certainly don’t), but there it is. We trace our orthodoxy back to the Trinity all the time, like finding the source of a great river. But we must also trace our orthopraxy there as well. The well-head is, as always, the three-in-one.

One aspect of this is the Trinity dwelling in community. The persons commune with each other constantly. Perhaps “community” is a bit of a weak word to describe this, but it’s the best we have.

It turns out that we humans dwell in community as well. The most important being the church, not simply communing with the saints of the past through study and tradition, but community on a more local and visceral level.

This is one of those basic things we tend to forget. Because it’s so basic. We figure it just happens. And for the most part it does, except when it doesn’t.

If you don’t try to build community, your church is going to be transient. It’s going to be like an inn, with people stopping by only in passing. It won’t seem real and organic. It will seem fake, glossy, and superficial.

People, after all, make the difference.

Real, organic, deeply-rooted community survives all kinds of things. Changes in leadership, bad preaching, what have you.

You don’t define your church as a place. It might be rooted to a building or a particular school gym or someone’s house, but it’s not a place. It’s a group of people. The direction the church takes determines the kind of people that will show up. It determines the sort of community that will be built or will build itself.

This is such a fundamental thing that you won’t notice it when it’s there. But you will when it’s not. We are made to fellowship, to exist in community. This is part of us bearing the image of God, that we see to do what he does. We seek his level, imperfectly, a corrupted, broken attempt, but we try nonetheless.

Doing justice to the text

One thing I struggle with–a thing I think I’ll always struggle with–is how to do justice to scripture. More to the point, how am I getting in the way? Am I imposing my own biases on it? Is my worldview filtering something out that should be left in or vice versa?

This is where the sort of casual interpretation of scripture I see so much of can do real damage, real violence to what the text is trying to convey. There’s a reason a lot of deep study goes into reading and (one hopes) preaching. A plain-text reading of scripture, asking “what does it mean?” by looking at the words and gleaning from that, isn’t enough.

On the other hand, there’s a violence that can be done to the text by over-interpretation. I understand that scripture interprets scripture, as any hermeneutics student worth his or her salt can tell you, but there’s a great danger in reducing the revealed word of God to a bunch of propositional statements (especially the ones you’re already inclined to agree with) and then filtering the text through those statements. Anyone who’s ever even casually glanced at systematics should notice this: Both Calvinist and Arminian scholars do exactly the same thing with different verses. You minimise when necessary to the detriment of a holistic understanding. It’s not enough to, for instance, elevate passages that speak of predestination and use them as proof texts to filter out passages that speak (clearly and plainly) of free will and choice.

Usually around this point someone starts talking about balance. I’m going to leave that alone for now, but I hate talking about balance and moderation and pendulums and ditches one can fall into. Casual interpretation and systematics aren’t points on a spectrum. A person can’t place himself squarely in the middle of those two concepts and drift off to sleep.

In fact, I think the most pressing interpretive question is not simply “what does the text say” or “what does the text mean” but instead “what did the author intend” and “how would his listeners have taken that”.

As you can see, we’re going to need to become students of history and not just students of scripture as scripture in some Platonic, isolated, hermetically sealed sort of way. The Bible was written in a certain place at a certain time by people with a certain worldview.

And we think very differently from them. Even in something as foundational as cosmology, a first-century Jew (for instance) would have a very different concept of what the universe looks like from us today with computers and telescopes. Where we accept (with the notable exception of a few very loud crackpots on the internet) that the earth is round, that it goes around the sun, and that the universe is a very, very large place, a first-century Jew might have said that the sky was curved like a dome that rests on the pillars of the earth, all of which kept out the great seas upon which the world floated. Something like that.

When we ask modern questions about the science of a Great Flood, such as “where did all that water come from?”, we’re asking a question that brings into very fine resolution the differences between us and them. For the writer of Genesis, this is obvious. The water came from the great deep. The oceans beneath the world. For us, it’s an unsettling question as there’s simply not that much water on the earth. How we view the Great Flood and how Old Testament Jews might view it are two separate things. Where we might very easily conclude that the Great Flood is an event with little historical basis, they would have viewed is as a quite literal event.

Consider even directionality. The idea that heaven is up and hell is down is for the most part figurative speech for us today. We don’t actually think heaven is up in the sky, and we don’t think that hell is in the centre of the earth. When we talk about direction we’re using distinctly Jewish language without realising it but omitting the Jewish literal meaning. When the Hebrews talked about heaven being up and hell being down, they meant it literally. Heaven was in the sky, hell was in the depths of the earth.

This is the curse of language in the Bible: We use scriptural language, attach our own meaning to it, and forget what the original authors might have meant.

Worldview is like that. Sometimes I think that worldview is like looking through a stained glass window. It’s very easy to see the picture you’ve become accustomed to seeing instead of the real world beyond the glass.

Take for instance the now-infamous Love passage in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul sets up a bunch of ridiculous situations (no-one has ever spoken with the tongues of men and angels) and uses the hyperbole to make a point.

What we tend to see in that passage is Paul asking us to find a balance between love and other things, much like one might want to find a balance between work and life. Except of course that nowhere in the passage does Paul, the writer, ask us to find balance. He just says, “Have love”. Any reading, any exposition that tries to read balance into the passage does great violence to the text. It simple doesn’t say that. Our brains, steeped in Platonic concepts of the spiritual vs the physical, read that concept into the text.

In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a chapter, verse, or book in the Bible that asks for balance. I’m pretty sure a bunch of religious leaders thought Jesus was a little off-balance with his teachings. He doesn’t seem like a guy caught up with the idea of finding an acceptable ratio of riches to kingdom seeking, if you know what I mean.

There are so many things that we do this to. Faith and works becomes faith vs works. Truth and love becomes truth vs love. We flatten the scripture out. We make the Bible two-dimensional. We read a pendulum swing into the text. But of course we can’t do that. You can’t position yourself directly between love and faith (wherever that might be) and figure you’ll be okay. You can’t speak a little bit of truth and a little bit of love and think you’ve done a good job. Truth must be infused with love, and love must be informed by truth. Faith and works don’t get separated. You have both or you have neither. The difference between saying both-and and either-or is quite a big one, and an important one.

It’s the difference between saying “I have a soul and I have a body”, which is really just a statement of account, or a schematic, and saying “I am a soul and a body”, which is a statement of identity and really a lot closer to the truth. You don’t get to separate your soul from your body. Even at the end of times, there will be a resurrection. God’s design always include physicality. Wherever Jesus is now, in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, you can feel his scars because he has a body. It’s a glorified body, but it’s a body. This is a radically different picture of heaven from our harps-and-wings version. And it’s an important difference. Ignoring the difference or talking about heaven as a place we go to when we die does, again, a great deal of violence to heaven as reality, earth as reality, and their eventual coming together as the culmination of Jesus’ work on the Cross and our work of kingdom building here on earth.

I don’t think I can say it better than CS Lewis did, though. When Eustace says that stars in our world are great balls of gas and fire, Ramandu tells him that yes, that’s what they’re made of, but that’s not what they are. You do violence to a star by considering it as the sum of its components, reading your own scientific-based worldview onto the existence of stars. They are, after all, more than you can see just by looking.

The same, I think, can be said of the scriptures. It’s why, after all these years, it’s such a fascinating book.

Sanctity

ht to Hubbsy for the prompt to write.

I’d like to pick on the church for a while, if that’s alright. Specifically the church in our age. Every church in every age has its problems, mostly sharing them with the culture it’s in, and ours is no exception. So I’ll go right ahead and say it:

I don’t want to be entertained in church.

Really. I don’t. It’s probably the least appropriate space for entertainment. I can live with politics as entertainment, with news as entertainment, with public debate entertainment, but I can’t live with church as entertainment. I can shut off the TV, I can vote a certain way, and I can withdraw from the public square, but I can’t stop going to church.

It’s essential, right? “You can’t have God as your father without the church as your mother” and all that. It’s the point we constantly try to make, that what we’re doing is important. We’re getting in touch with the God who is there.

So what does it say about God if we act as if people might get bored and leave all the time?

I am already entertained everywhere else. By Sunday, I am sick to death of being amused and pandered to. Everywhere I go, someone is competing for my attention. They are clever, witty, funny, insightful, and to-the-point.

You don’t have to compete for my attention in church. I’m already there. You don’t have to lure me back. I’ll come back every Sunday as long as you’re creating a space for interaction with Heaven. I’ll be there as long as it’s real, as long as it’s about something important, as long as you’re telling me the truth.

That’s a nerve not many people can touch these days.

Church can do that.

I think we’ve lost a lot of the beauty of sanctity and holiness. There’s a mystery about Roman Catholic cathedrals that suggests you are stepping into a place steeped in something other. That you could have an encounter there. That the skin between the world of us and the world of God is fraying terribly and wonderfully thin.

There’s no place for entertainment there. If you don’t go, it’s not because you’re bored, but because you know deep in that part of your brain that knows these things that if you see God you will die.

The cathedral is a reflection of that Old Testament idea that God is really big and important and awesome.

Our current church vision is that God is a bit drab and humdrum and needs some special effects to get people interested.

But we don’t need cathedrals to bring that idea across. We don’t need to throw out our screens and our guitars. We don’t even need to have a complicated liturgy. What we really need is to turn down the lights, turn down the volume, and just knock off the antics. We need to act like what we’re doing is important, because it is.

If we love God, we love the church. And we don’t come glibly before God. We don’t try to dress him up. Instead we try to strip ourselves down, get rid of the junk that’s getting in the way, and meet with him.

One last thing: Churches generally suck at entertainment. Don’t try it. It’s embarrassing and awkward.