Category Archives: society

The most durable power

Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Good words for all of us in our various struggles. A few paragraphs after this he writes:

“I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”

From a sermon preached in 1956. One more:

“He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”

Posted in quotes, society | 1 Comment

election advice

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and I advised them: 1) To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2) To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3) To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.”

~John Wesley, October 6, 1774.

Posted in politics, society, speaking, spirituality | Leave a comment

Different Jims (in which I argue against myself)

In an earlier post, I made a big deal about how Wheaton was wrong about putting Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave.  I still think they were wrong. But, it’s not a simple issue.

“It is!” you might be saying to yourself.  “You’re just an academic who makes a simple issue not simple.”  Which might be true, but not in this case.  I started studying theology because people told me simple issues were simple and a lot of issues weren’t simple at all.

Some issues are simple.  Did Jesus rise from the dead? 

It’s a yes or no question that some theologians have made more difficult because they want their no to still be a yes.  If you say no to that question, you’re not a Christian, not in any meaningful, historical sense of the word. Paul sets this out in 1 Corinthians 15.

Some issues are complex, and we reject attempts to make them simple. Why is there suffering in this world? Why does a 8 year old get leukemia? Why did that city get destroyed by a hurricane. Why did this man get Parkinsons?

Because of their sin? Because God is vindictive?

Some issues are not very simple, but are made to sound simple and then just cause arguments.

When should we baptize someone who is born into a Christian family?

The Bible gives us examples of people baptized when they are adults.

Clearly adult baptism is right!  The Bible also gives us examples of whole households being baptized when the patriarch becomes a Christian. Clearly babies were baptized!

jim_carreyThen bring in the issue of original sin, and what happens at baptism, and there’s a few more considerations.

Making a complex issues simple led to major divisions in the church about what God wanted.  If it’s simple, then the person who disagrees is not “one of us.”

So the problem at Wheaton.  Which goes beyond Wheaton in highlighting how theology and faith are dealt with in our society. 

For the next little while, I’m going to add some more thoughts and maybe conversations on this topic, because it’s not as easy as some think and I think it’s a key moment in learning how to listen to each other. 

Especially when the anger and disagreement comes out of how a word is being used.

Same.

That’s the trouble word.  Same is one of those words that means something and nothing. Same is same, but not always exactly the same.  How much difference can same absorb?

Back in September, this issue came up in a blog I occasionally follow.  I responded with a few posts arguing Islam and Christianity are talking about different gods.  Which makes my recent response even more curious given that I’ve yet to change my mind and still affirm what I said in both places.  Same opinion, different arguments.  Lest I fall into more confusion, here’s that earlier exchange:

A commenter wrote: “Like Christianity, Islam is based on Judaism, and it is all the same God; just different names in different languages…. How on earth do you share the same story elements, but not have the same God?”

Here’s what I wrote in response (compiling a few different comment posts): jimhenson

“How on earth do you share the same story elements…”

Jim was born in a small town in Iowa. Parents were Ed and Mabel, has two sisters. His best friend was Jimmy. Jim likes Golden Retrievers, ever since his childhood dog saved him from drowning. Family lost their farm due to some unsavory but not quite illegal actions by the local bank. He worked his way through college, then law school, worked as a law clerk, then became a judge, rising to the Supreme Court.

or

Jim was born in a small town in Iowa. Parents were Ed and Mabel, has two sisters. His best friend was Jimmy. Likes Golden Retrievers ever since his childhood dog saved him from drowning. Family lost their farm due to some unsavory but not quite illegal actions by the local bank. He worked his way through college, then law school, decided he hated the legal system and organized a militia which sought the overthrow of the government.

Same initial story elements, different Jims.

jimGaffigan_It’s an understandable argument, that Islam and Christianity have the same God, but at what point do similar starting points and general claims diverge into different subjects?

Christians say Jesus is God. There’s no room for that in either Judaism or Islam.

So, there’s a fundamental identity issue. Did this God choose Isaac or Ishmael? That’s a huge distinction in action and subsequent history that reflects in a very different pattern of salvation, life, worship. At a certain point, it seems there’s different content behind the title “God.”

I don’t think we should say Tash is Aslan and Aslan is Tash.

“What is so difficult to understand about that Mohammed said the Jew’s God was his God?”

What’s so difficult to understand that the Jews disagreed with this? And to see Mohammed co-opted and changed the narrative. I get that people say there’s a similar title going on, but the key is that the title is being attached to very different sorts of characters.

If I started saying that Jim is a neighbor of mine and has promised me $5000 a month for the rest of my life, but the Jim you know doesn’t have that much money and doesn’t really know me, you’d say I must be talking about a different Jim, or that I’m simply wrong about who Jim is.

Clearly I should ask Jim.  Do you have his phone number? I could use the money.

Posted in God, society, theology, Wheaton | 3 Comments

politicizing tragedy

The trouble with politicizing is not that issues should go unaddressed. Rather, the trouble with politicizing is that the issues usually addressed are 1) not the core issue really at hand 2)tends to both confirm the speakers pre-established ideas and seek more authoritarian power for the people they support.

Politicizing is de-humanizing, because it makes a real person with real problems in a real tragedy that caused real pain to many into yet more political theater.

The guy was emotionally damaged, angry, alone, stewing in his frustrations. The media attention on every other shooting provided him some hope for identity. People care about his name because of the violence. Herostratus in contemporary expression.

Are there issues to address? Yes. What about the breakdown in his family life that left him isolated? What about the absence of community in his life? What about the rhetoric about the evils of religion (Christianity especially), which became the target of his rage? What about the divisive rhetoric that played into his increasing isolation, radicalizing him and suffocating him at the same time so that he embraced death as his only path to meaning?

Those are a lot more complex issues and less easily legislated and also don’t give power to people who don’t care about real loss or real suffering but just want to maximize their own sense of moral superiority on a narrow set of issues they feel self-righteous about.

Posted in politics, society | 1 Comment

Theologian as Prophet

As my PhD in theology is still somewhat fresh, and my career is in what might be best called a nebulous phase, I think a lot about what it means now to be a “theologian.” I’m a professional at that, after all, so I should really know what that profession is about. I’m still wary, honestly, about using that term as it seems so, well, grandiose. But, what else would I say?

That’s what my professional education and training is in. Evagrios of Pontus would suggest that a theologian is someone who prays truly and someone who prays truly is a theologian. I’d like to think that I fit that, or at least I fit that better as I go along in this life. Is that it then?

Jeremiah

I like Evagrios’s comment but I mig ht make a suggestion, one that incorporates that and extends it into a profession. Dare I say calling? Is there a charism fittingly labeled as “theologian” in our era?

I tentatively think so. I’ve been considering this for a while and my musings got a spark in the sermon notes printed in the church bulletin this past Sunday. (For the sermon, here’s a video)

There’s four sections in the notes, and so I’m going to do a post per section, adding my musings to the comments by Scott Daniels. I think the role of theologian can (though certainly not must) fill the role of prophet, and as such this gives theologians both a calling and an orientation in the church, something both theologians and the church have often ignored.

From the notes:
The Work of the Prophet: Deconstruction and Reconstruction

  • The prophets fulfilled a very important–if dangerous–role in the nation of Israel. Generally speaking, there are three key leadership roles in the OT: prophet, priest, and king. The problem with kingship (and the prosperity it represents) is that it seems inevitably to erode the radical uniqueness of God’s people in the world.

Who serves the role of “king” in a Christian sense? Jesus, of course. As savior and lord, Jesus is the head of the church, he is king of kings and lord of lords. There can’t be two heads and while we may certainly have power structures in churches and society, there’s only one in charge of the mission. It’s a messianic mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Messiah and Spirit and Father. The king in the OT was a cultural accommodation, meant to provide a visible headship, an immanent analogy. Of course, a king hates being limited to analogy so often took on airs of absolute power. Nowadays, there’s none that can or should serve that role.

We have immediate access to God through the Son in the Spirit, and any hierarchy is more parliamentary than royal in function. That being said, kings represent the temporal order of things, the political and legal systems in this world. We do have those systems and wherever else our allegiance might be, we participate in these systems. Who is our king? Who defines our status and participation, who is included and excluded. That’s a big question, but moving away from the present one. Let’s move on…

  • Priests take care of the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people and administer the worship taking place in the temple. Priests, however, tend to be status-quo kinds of leaders. They are no less prone to corruption than are kings. Too often the priesthood becomes a religious prop for the reigning monarch–whether they are good or bad.

Priests are the key players in the religious system, a system that involves making connections between the transcendent and immanent, between the ethereal and earthly. It also involves navigating perceived paradoxes in life, giving meaning to our role in the universe. The trouble is that in this system, there is the expectations of the system. People expect the system to function in a predictable way. Priests (or pastors) are conditioned to performing their duties in a predictable way. The establishment of a rhythm is itself part of the system. But in times of corruption or issues of life or faith that are outside the orientation of the system, a person can find emptiness, desolation, exclusion.Prophet-Elias-Grk-ikon

I encountered this in junior high and early high school, during a season of extreme financial stress in our family, coupled with major health issues, there was no resonance in the churches or youth groups. They were oriented towards middle and upper middle class religious system.

Meanwhile, my family was struggling to eat and pay rent and struggled with knowing where God was in the midst of a crisis in which almost all our family and friends were Christians but we were left to struggle alone. For the most part–I had very close friends during this time that were sustaining influences, true community, even though I didn’t know then how to express my hurt or need. It was just life as it was and it had nothing to do with church.

The religion system just didn’t reach into our lives, and the religious system is also susceptible to corruption. Arbiters of heaven and hell, transcendence and coherence, can use this power for their own benefits, financially, socially, psychologically.

This is a big reason why I struggle with the emphasis of church as the kingdom of God. It leaves no room for critique. It also prioritizes the religious system as the whole experience of life. If you’re finding value or success in that system (as does, for instance, people Stanley Hauerwas) it makes sense to commend it. If you’re on the outside, then you’re told to get on the inside, because that’s where you’ll be filled. jesus_scrollThis isn’t to reject the religious system, but rather to suggest there needs to be a critical voice, one that calls the church (and its leaders) towards deepening, towards refocusing, away from tendencies that are not values of Christ’s mission or the Spirit’s work.

The Church, after all, may always be pointing towards a kingdom, but it’s not always the kingdom of God. Sermons, for instance, can be very powerful messages of God’s word. They also, however, can embed distortions and symbolize unfortunate power structures and disoriented theology (by prioritizing one person and one medium as the expression of the Spirit in a church setting). The pastor, for better or worse, is part of the religious system that is the church so reflects the values and priorities of this system, sometimes more than the people who are present, who are the people Christ values and the Spirit is working through.

The sermon notes continue:

The prophets, on the other hand, come from outside the political system (they are usually weird and antisocial in some way) and speak the word of the LORD to the king and to the priests. This is why they often are persecuted because they speak from outside the system, to the system. The word of the LORD from the prophet is therefore often hard for the people to hear. When the people finally are able to hear the deconstructing word of discipline from the prophet they are then able to hear the reconstructing words of hope from that also flow through the prophets.

To the system, but not of the system. That seems a great description of the role theologians can play. The idea that the prophetic must somehow be anti-intellectual or unlearned is a great mistake. Often it is the people who spend the most time with the texts who are able to discern the trends, the “signs of the times,” the message of God for a moment or generation. The Holy Spirit works in spontaneous ways but also in deeper gifts, charisms of learning and teaching and discernment.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians may give their allegiance to other systems. The education industrial complex system, for instance, which creates structures of power, meaning, identity, success that often orients a person’s passion into patterns that buttress the system rather than lead to truth or transformation. So, the idea of a theologian as prophet might be both a call and a challenge, for both the church and those who have made it their life to study and teach the ways of God.

There are more notes to muse on, so there’s more to come.

Posted in academia, musings, religion, society, theology | 1 Comment

Summarizing contemporary politics and “ethics”

Just finished reading Niklas Luhmann’s Introduction to Systems Theory.  First, I’ll say this might be the most difficult book I’ve read.  Partly because I don’t have a background in sociology, mostly because Luhmann is a very dense and meandering writer.  But, I think there’s something in what he writes that is worth considering, and that really describes the state of society as well as any other.  The trouble is that the state of society should not itself be a model for Christians or the church. Yet, far too often Christians attach religious justification for acting just like the people around them are acting.  Both sides do it, and that embeds conflict within what should be a unified voice in Christ.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a system within the world, but too often the language of the Kingdom is used in ways to perpetuate the systems of the world. Neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a later, supernatural reality. It is the expression of the Lordship of God in and through our whole lives, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven put into practice in daily and particular situations.

This has been part of my frustration with a lot of Christian ethics over the last many years and always pops up again when there is some kind of national news that highlights the conflict.  Those in the Church do not offer a unique voice (like Jesus did) but far too often position themselves among the established sides.  Jesus never dodged questions but he did reinterpret the underlying reality that should be addressed. Far too often, we (and I’ll include myself) take the contemporary systems at face value, adopting their forms of truth and priorities and values, then become more aligned to others within that system than with those who share the same supposed confession in Christ.

Anyway, this came to mind because of something Luhmann wrote near the end of his text:

The key statement for this purpose is my claim that conflicts themselves are systems. Conflicts are systems because one creates a situation that limits the bandwidth of variation concerning the other, if one treats him as an opponent and acts in a correspondingly aggressive, defensive, or protective way in his presence. He can no longer proceed at will. Of course he can (if he really can) walk away, shrug his shoulders, and say that all this is of no interest to him.

In typical social situations, however, when one does not have the option of leaving, the notion that there is in fact a conflict, or even a mere insistent “no’ as an answer to repeated interpretive offers, is a motive that produces a system, which is to say, a motive that organizes connectivity.

For instance, it may lead to the creation of coalitions, to the search for resources, and to the idea that everything that is to the other’s disadvantage is to my advantage. A friend/enemy relation is formed, which is an extreme simplification of the real situation…

Here, the organizing power of conflicts can be seen in social coalitions as well as in their themes. If someone contradicts a partiuclar point I have made, I generalize his opposition and suspect that he will also contradict me on other issues. From this viewpoint, moral perspsectivs serve to generalize conflicts. After all, if someone has shown himself to be ignominious, he is so in every respect and not just hte one that I happned to notice.

Whenever I argue morally, I have the tendency to generalize conflicts! The formula is that conflicts are an excellent principle of system formation…

The question is whether such a formed system can be justified in light of Christ’s work.  Even when pacifism finds empowerment in this system of conflict, there is a self-contradiction at work that suggests a less than thoroughly Kingdom oriented ethic.  Or, when supposed Christians insist on establishing the inerrancy of the Bible through the embrace of this conflict established system, they too are self-contradicting the supposed example we see in the New Testament Gospels and letters.

When we embrace the system of conflict in the cause of Christ, we are taking the name of the Lord in vain, taking up God’s cause but rejecting his method, his model, his Kingdom that is not the peace of Rome but the peace of Christ.

Posted in musings, politics, religion, society, theology, writing | Leave a comment

Marriage, Singleness, and Sin part 4

Okay, I know. Way, way too academicy recently. So, here’s where I take all that preparatory stuff and finally–finally–get to the point.

Singleness is not a higher calling than marriage. That’s not really a dramatic thing to say anymore. There’s very few people who celebrate that supposed “gift of singleness” after all.

At the same time, and what needs to be said a whole lot more, is that marriage is not a higher calling than singleness.

Neither is better. However, both can be worse. They’re equal callings but they’re different callings. Callings is a terribly religious/Christianese sort of word, isn’t it? I’m not going to use that anymore.

Marriage and singleness each offer their own expression of identity. They are about who we are as individuals and who we are among others and who we are before and with God.

Both suffer if we make either way all about us. If I make marriage all about satisfying my own interests and needs, I’m in trouble with God first of all. If I make singleness all about satisfying my own needs and interests, I’m in trouble with God first of all. We’re not allowed to be selfish either in marriage or in singleness.

This is where these states of calling are the same.

Here’s where they are different:

If you’re married, your identity with God is bound up in your contribution to the life of your spouse, and your family.

If you’re single, your identity with God is bound up in your contribution to others.

This is a tricky bit. Because I’m not saying your identity comes from your spouse, or that your identity comes from others. Rather, our identity can only be grounded in God. But, our identity with God includes contributing to the lives of others. Love God, love your neighbor, thems the rules.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that married people shouldn’t pay attention to others. I am saying, however, that if they pay attention to others more than or in exclusion to their spouse and family, they’re sinning. They’re not right with God.

That’s what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 7.

If you feel your calling is to serve others more broadly, don’t get married. If you can’t focus on others, and spend all your life trying to get married, just get married. Because if you’re single and you’re spending your energy and efforts to find a spouse, and pouring yourself wholly or most fully into the life of a single other person, then you’re not right with God.

So, if you want to be married, great! There’s a way of life God has for us in this path. Your primary contribution is to the emotional and spiritual well-being of this other person. This doesn’t mean you’re to be co-dependent, finding your identity in this other. It means that you’re to help this other person most fully find their identity in and with God, and that person is to help you most fully find your identity in and with God.

If you are single, great! That means you can devote yourself to contributing to the lives of others, free from having to pay attention to the needs of one particular other. Your time is your own, and you are free to go and do all sorts of tasks in all sorts of places. Like Paul did. And because that was his calling (to evangelize and serve others) he saw his state of singleness as a gift. The gift, after all, isn’t being alone, it’s being able to contribute in all kinds of ways to all sorts of people. A single person hsa the gift of time and space, able to use their time for others, and able to spend their time in other places.

Unfortunately for so much of the Protestant churches, and especially in Evangelicalism, these two paths got mixed up. And all sorts of hell, literally, breaks loose.

More on that in the next post, including examples of people who have done each right and examples of people who have done it wrong.

Posted in emerging theology, holiness, ministry, missional, psychology, Scripture, society, spirituality, theology | 1 Comment

Marriage, Singleness, and Sin part III

Here’s a summary of what I’ve tried to say so far, and if I didn’t say it, here’s what is at the root of what I am planning to say:

  • Sin is about identity, not about the law or rules.

  • Christian conversations about singleness and marriage have tended to emphasize the role and place of sex, with a longtime assumption that the body is lesser or even evil defining what theology has said about these topics.

  • Singleness was seen as a higher calling, when the body is seen as lesser or evil. Because a single person is not, presumably, caving into their physical weaknesses and is pursuing a supposedly higher calling.

  • With the Protestant reformation, all things Catholic were opposed, and this included monasticism. So, marriage was seen as a higher calling, almost from the very beginning, because it contrasted with the Catholic position. This did not necessarily, however, bring with it any new or profound reflections on the role of marriage. Being married was enough of a statement it seems.

  • This means that while Protestants certainly emphasize the place of marriage, they keep up the tradition of not having a lot of depth to what it means to Christian spirituality to be married.

  • Having rejected the spiritual priority of singleness in the Catholic Church, Protestants have, as far as I can tell, absolutely no theology about the role of singleness. It’s not quite a sin, but to be single is, in essence, to be lesser. Something singles know even if they’re not explicitly told this. That’s why the goal of so many singles, and singles groups, is to find someone to marry.

  • The role of theology is to reflect on the practices and on the received teachings in order to find a more coherent understanding of God’s call in our life and to learn how to integrate this call into our lives.

  • In my mind, on the topic of singleness and marriage, theology has almost entirely failed at the above task. There is, really, no coherent theology about marriage and singleness, that I feel reflects what we are supposed to think about this topic. It’s not coherent.

  • Because it’s not coherent, when we try to apply fixes to perceived problems of marriage, singleness, or sex, we run into a huge problem. We only see the symptoms of the deeper problem, but have nothing to really address the underlying issues. When we only see the symptoms, we almost always revert to a very law based position. Marry because its right and God’s plan. Singleness is a curse, a social barrenness which is silently judged. Sex is only allowed in marriage. Thems are the rules.

  • The trouble with the law is that the law has limitations. It either runs out of things to say when new challenges arise. Or, it tries to say too much when new challenges arise. The best, Biblical, example is in the Gospels, where Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because he healed someone. They built a hedge around the Law, and made all sorts of added rules about what is and what is not specifically allowed within the stated Law. Jesus disputed them. He told them that they didn’t get the underlying goal of the Law, they just cared about the rules. Jesus was right.

  • Marriage was discounted by the Catholic Church, and not allowed to clergy, because it was seen as a lesser state, essentially if not explicitly. The emphasis here is on the sin of the body, the weakness that the flesh demands, something that truly spiritual people are able to overcome. This is wrong.

  • Singleness is discounted in the Protestant Church because it is understood as a lesser state of life–following society’s embrace of status as an indicator of reality. This attitude of prioritizing marriage is, in essence, at the root of consumerism in the church. Don’t let anyone fool you. There’s all kinds of signs that are assumed to be indicators that God loves you more and that having more, doing more, of these things, means you’re more in tune with God. Being married is high on this list. Single people are also suspect because it is assumed they are much more susceptible to sinning–especially sexual sins. The temptations of the flesh are once again a defining part of the theology on marriage.

  • Sin isn’t about the law. That’s missing the point. Marriage and singleness are not issues of sin or holiness. That’s also missing the point. Instead, the Biblical teachings on singleness in the passage from Paul I quoted below, makes singleness and marriage an issue of calling and priorities.

  • In other words, it’s all about identity. It’s finding our identity in ways and thoughts and perspectives that are not grounded in God’s call for our lives. Sin is that which is not God. Sin is an expression of finding meaning in that which is not God. Sin is, in other words, misplaced identity.

  • What is our identity in God? That’s a huge question, but one that does have a distinction when it comes to marriage and singleness.

  • What are the other ways we can establish our identity? We can seek to establish our identity through violence, trying to dominate others forcefully. We can try to establish our identity sexually, by absorbing the identity of others into ourselves or by giving ourselves over to the identity of others. We can find our identity through possessions, money being a tool to give us meaning.

    We can try to establish our identity through food, or drink, or accomplishments, or even through depression or lack. If we use any of these to give us meaning and identity, we fall into sin. Married or not, rich or poor, whatever we are, if these things serve as the basis of our identity, we’re outside the calling of God.

So, what should Christian theology think about marriage or singleness and all the other associated issues? What could serve as the basis of a coherent theology of sexuality, singleness, marriage? I think 1 Corinthians 7 is a good place to start, so I’ll be talking more about that in the next post, and finally–finally!–getting to what I’ve been hoping to say all along.

Posted in church, emerging theology, Jesus, ministry, missional, religion, Scripture, sketch, society, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Marriage, Singleness, and Sin part II

While we were waiting for the fireworks to start, a friend asked me, “Are you an intellectual?” Which, if you think about it, is a funny sort of question. I’m a PhD student, after all. Most people, I imagine, assume I’m an intellectual who likes to intellectualize. Indeed, I’m pretty used to people, upon hearing I’m a PhD student, saying, “Oh you must be so smart” or introducing with “He’s much smarter than me.” Which rarely is true, but I’ve stopped trying to push back against it. They’re being nice, after all, and being told one is smart, or smarter, is a complement, so I just take it for what it is and know in my heart it’s not really true. There are smart people in PhD programs, but PhD work is mostly about, well, work rather than smarts. The sorts of people who like other people to think they’re smart by insisting on being called “Dr.” or putting those variously capitalized letters after their name want you to assume that having, or working on, a doctorate means you’re very smart and know what you’re talking about (even on issues not related to your study). People have believed these sorts of people and correlate having a PhD with being a really bright person.

That’s why it was a funny question. It’s the sort of question people don’t ask, because they assume an answer. Only in this case, the answer is not what they would expect. No, I don’t consider myself an intellectual. I’m not in a PhD program (in theology of all things!) because I like to intellectualize. If I had to categorize myself (and I don’t know why I would have to), I’d call myself a contemplative.

I contemplate. I don’t intellectualize.

Since I promised sex and violence in this post, you’re probably quite disappointed so far, and probably have no idea why I brought up my 4th of July conversation. It all fits together. Hold on and we’ll get to the sex and violence soon.

I’m in a theology program because I realized in my own personal faith and in the faiths I saw expressed in and by the church, there’s a lot of difficulties that aren’t quite worked out. The more I pushed and asked and contemplated, the more I saw these difficulties weren’t just surface level problems, as if we can boil down issues of unbelief by blaming consumerism, or power hungry pastors, or lack of commitment, or feeling hurt by someone’s inadvertent slight and blaming God.

What I saw, and what I experienced, was more like an onion. Peel away a layer, and there’s a layer underneath. Theology, for me, is how I’m getting to the heart of the matters.

When it comes to issues of marriage and singleness, the issue isn’t finding ten steps to a more fulfilling marriage, or starting a good singles group in a church, thus facilitating getting singles to meet each other, date, and then become real Christians in a explicable and comfortable relationship.

The issues in the passage I quoted below are much, much deeper, bringing us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a person. Like I said below, it’s an issue of identity.

Not what we identify as, which box we get to check when we’re filling out a survey. Rather, it’s about what gives us identity. Where we find our meaning and what we see as our defining reality.

This is where theology comes in, for me at least. Theology as an intellectual endeavor tries to build an increasingly complex system of facts and figures and definitions and rules. That’s what most people think when they hear the phrase ‘systematic theology’. That’s not my interest. Theology as a contemplative endeavor tries to make sense out of seemingly contradictory themes, trying to discover how apparent paradoxes can be integrated together, looking at the whole context of Scripture, history, philosophy, and personal experience in order to determine how what seems to be revealed relates to the overall topic, and more importantly, how it relates to my life and the lives of those around me.

I contemplate. I try to fit things together because if we’re honest our lives don’t exactly fit together all that well. I ponder on the mysteries because these mysteries which have been revealed don’t come in a neat little package. These mysteries come to us in people, in events, in parables that actually took place and parables which did not happen but do illustrate deeper truths.

In my contemplatizing, I’ve realized that the issues of marriage and singleness are at the core of our understanding of identity, who we think ourselves to be, how we define ourselves to others, how we choose to build ourselves as individuals and as a community. And at the core of the issue of identity is the issue of sin. Indeed, I’d say that the issue of sin is the issue of identity.

For far too many, for far too long, the topic of sin as been a topic of the law. Sin is that which is illegal, to God even if not to our society. This gets it all mixed up, because then when society approves or rejects something, the perception of sin changes in theology. There’s a bigger problem. Sometimes sins are still understood as sin but for all the wrong reasons, reasons of law rather than identity.

Yeah… that sure sounds intellectual. So, let me bring it back to contemplation.

Take sex, for instance. Sexual sin was, for a long time, considered sin because of an assumption that flesh was evil, that which was physical was animal, with only the soul/spirit being the residence of our higher self. This assumption started pretty early on in the church, with very important theologians combating their own temptations by intellectualizing their issues, and introducing alternative philosophies into the Christian church. The idea that the body, the flesh, is evil is not a Christian concept.

The incarnation of Christ is definitive proof. He who is God, could take on Flesh, suggesting these are not only capable of integration but indeed celebrate the integration. The body of Jesus tosses out any notion of flesh or physical as inherently tainted.

We all know this now, but it’s pretty new stuff all things considered. Which is why there’s so much interest and excitement about celebrating the joys of sex in sermons and books and such. Ah, but the law still creeps in. Not all sex, we know, is equally celebratory. You have to be married. You have to be married to the right sort of person. There are rules and boundaries and lists to be checked off.

So married people get to have this lovely experience they celebrate as being altogether wonderful, and tell everyone else they don’t get to experience this. Which sounds entirely unfair to everyone else, especially when these rules and rules about other topics seem almost entirely arbitrary.

But, this post too is getting too long, so I’m going to save the rest of my thoughts for another time. I know, I know, I did get a little bit to the sex in this post, but there’s no violence at all. I promise the next one will have both sex and violence, and maybe lucrative stock tips.

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