Monday, July 30, 2012

Dangerous Ideas: Complementarian Marriage

Since when are doctrines judged by when they go wrong, as opposed to when they go right?
There seems to be this really weird idea floating around the egalitarianparts of the internet that complementarians are just one step away (or maybe not even that) from outright abusing their wives. This was exposed by a recent post (now taken down) by Jared Wilson which sparked a truly enormous amount of controversy. Jared apologized for the words he used, which had caused pain to many victims of abuse, and his apology was accepted by many. However, it was also rejected by many as inadequate: these were offended not merely by the words, they say, but also by the (perceived) ideas behind them.
One blogger, in the comments section of Jared’s post, rejects the apology, saying, “The words used just exposed a deeply venomous truth about complementarianism… you are still causing hurt as long as you continue to “conquer” and “colonize” women.” That same commenter goes on to say that she is simply stating “the harm his words and the philosophies behind them do to women.” Look through the comments: there’s a lot more where that came from.  The complaint seems to be this: the belief that wives should submit to their husbands is, at best, a belief that merely allows abuse to happen. At worst, it encourages it.
And here, I really am lost. I mean, I can see where they’re coming from, a little bit. Does complementarianism have potential to be abused? Certainly. Does it open the door to more overt types of abuse than egalitarianism? Probably.
But it’s so much more than that! It’s so much more than what happens when it fails. Egalitarians read, “Wives, submit to your husbands” and assume that whatever complementarians say goes on in their marriage, behind closed doors it must be all forced, impersonal, dominating sex and (if the husband’s not too tired) some emotional and physical abuse of the wife afterwards. But the submission and authority is only half, and not even the most emphatic half, of what we believe to be important in marriage.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25-28). That’s our responsibility. Everything we do in marriage, and I mean everything, is supposed to be motivated by self-sacrificing love. Yes, we will lead our wives, and we will, when necessary, exercise authority, but we will never approve of any instance of authority that is not motivated completely by a self-sacrificing love for the wife.
Of course, we will fail at times. We will make selfish decisions at times. But if we truly are concerned with loving our wives as Christ loved the church, we will never progress to the point that many egalitarians seem to believe is the inevitable result of complementarianism.
So the ultimate result of true complementarianism will be a husband whose guiding principle in marriage is self-sacrificing love. The wife can submit to her husband in the full knowledge that everything he does for her is motivated not by selfishness or arrogance, but by his love for her, just as the Church can submit to Christ with the same assurance. This is what we’re talking about when we defend complementarianism. This is what we think marriage should be like.
Now, I previously mentioned the possibility of abuse. And it’s true: This is a dangerous doctrine. But, then again, as Chesterton reminds us, the Church has always been full of dangerous doctrines, doctrines that have vast potential for abuse. He writes, “Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas: she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”
So do we want to judge a doctrine merely by what happens when it fails, as many egalitarians seem to judge complementarians? Consider the Trinity, which has been the starting point for many heresies and false teachings, tri-theism the most obvious. It’s clearly a dangerous doctrine, with vast potential for abuse and misunderstanding. Shall we do away with it?
How about the divinity and humanity of Christ? That’s an extremely dangerous idea: Get one idea wrong and you have Arianism or Gnosticism, with enormous implications for the Atonement, prayer, and theology of the body. Shall we do away with it, merely because when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong?
Of course not. We cannot judge a doctrine by what happens when it goes wrong, because our entire faith is built on perfectly balanced doctrines that, if ever unbalanced, would shatter the Church into pieces. Every important doctrine is a dangerous doctrine.
This applies equally to marriage. The idea that a marriage relationship should consist of loving submission and respect by the wife and loving authority by the husband is a dangerous idea. Chesterton reminds us that “An inch is everything when you are balancing,” and anyone can see this very clearly in marriage. The respect wains, and the husband loses confidence. The authority wains, and the husband becomes weak. The love fades, and the marriage disintegrates into tyranny. Everything must be perfectly balanced, or all is lost.
So yes, the marriage I believe Paul describes in Ephesians 5 is a very dangerous idea of marriage. If it goes wrong, it can go very wrong. But that cannot be a reason for villainizing it, because the same could be said of every essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Instead, we should judge it by when it goes right. So talk about the necessity for “equality,” if you feel that’s being infringed upon. But stop insisting that every complementarian marriage is just abuse waiting to happen. It’s uncharitable and fundamentally dishonest (not to mention ignorant).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Without Love

“If I have not love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2
Like it says in my bio, I write on anything that strikes my mind long enough to make it onto the computer. It’s usually sparked by something in my life: In this case, it was an episode of Bones.
This particular episode features a child who’s been systematically abused by both her mother and father. As they’re being interrogated, the husband knocks the wife to the ground to stop her from admitting the abuse. Immediately, the interrogating agent yanks him upright, shoves him against a wall and knocks him out with a punch. The anger on his face is, if possible, even more angry than his punch, and as I watched it, I became angry myself. To be honest, I don’t think any person could watch this without getting caught up in it. But why?
After all, I don’t get caught up in it as much with the “regular,” run-of-the-mill murderers in the show. I don’t get as angry at the prospect of someone killing a stranger for his money, or killing their boss out of anger. In theory, beating someone isn’t as bad as outright killing them, so why am I so angry? Why does this infuriate me so much more than the “normal” murders on the show?
I think it’s this: There is something sickening about a man who assumes authority without love. There is something loathsome about a man who uses his authority to harm rather than help.
Paul knew this. He knew that when he told wives to submit to their husbands, that there was potential for men to seize upon this idea of authority and twist it. And so immediately after that,  Paul tells us that the duty of the husband is “to love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her… Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” This is in no way of less priority than the authority and headship Paul speaks of earlier. It is, instead, of greater authority: Paul repeats himself, tying it repeatedly and explicitly to Christ’s love for the church.
And the love Paul speaks of here isn’t a mere passive feeling; it is active. Bound up in this idea of love is protection and service and self-sacrifice. This isn’t the qualification for an “exceptional” marriage: This is what marriage itself is supposed to be. This is not a suggestion, or a helpful tip, or something “extra”. This is the God-given duty of every husband towards his wife, and it’s a duty that the husband is generally specifically suited to fulfill.
So back to Bones. That man was physically stronger than his wife. He was more aggressive, better able to handle physical pain, and highly protective–all traits which were supposed to be selflessly used in her defense.  He was meant to be protective of his wife and wildly aggressive towards anything which would threaten her, using his strength and even his very body, his flesh and bones, to defend her, no matter the pain it brought him. He was meant to be willing even to die in her defense, as Christ did.
So why is my reaction, my anger, so much stronger towards the man who beats his wife and child, instead of the common murderer? Part of it is that the man is using what God gave him for the protection of his family to harm his family. He used his strength to beat his wife and daughter. The only person he cared to protect was himself, and he turned his aggression towards his own family when he was threatened.
He is inhuman. Moreover, he is unmanly. And, to be honest, all sin is inhuman. All sin is a perversion of what we are supposed to be: Misplaced passion, wrong desires, twisting and distorting what should have been good until it becomes evil. But this–this is a complete reversal, an utter and complete betrayal of everything it was supposed to be. There is nothing good left in it, when it could have been and should have been an amazing instance of theology in the flesh, a literal incarnation of the great love Christ has for His Church.
The man who beats his wife is less than a man, and I think almost everyone understands that on some level.  But that’s only a part of it. Because as I think about it, I realize there is something else in the anger. It’s the knowledge that every selfish decision on my part, every time my first instinct is to serve myself instead of my wife, is a step in that direction. It’s the knowledge that a husband could become that,  that it happens, that men who apparently set out to love their wives can devolve into that. It’s the knowledge that I could become that. It’s the knowledge that this is what happens when authority is separated from love.
And it terrifies me.
Yet, I have hope. I have hope in God, and in the love he has shown to us. I have hope that because God loves me, I can love my wife. I have hope that I can remain a man, that I can love her in leading her and serving her.
When marriage goes wrong, it goes very wrong. But when marriage goes right… when marriage really goes right, it is literally a taste of heaven on earth, an earthly manifestation of a heavenly thing, a mystery as profound and marvelous as the Israelites’ Tabernacle, covered in precious metals and sparkling with precious stones.
And that is what I strive for, every day.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why Christians Should Tip Well

I was surfing The Gospel Coalition the other day and I stumbled across a link to this post about tipping. The author argues that there is a perception among servers, supported by his own experience, that Christians are poor tippers and just generally poor diners in general. I’d heard this before, and a little bit of digging turned up several articles referencing a study done by Cornell University. On average, Christians do not, in fact, tip poorly; individually, however, about 13% of Christians leave less than the “average” 15% tip, which is about twice the rate of a non-Christian. This means that Christians stiff their servers about twice as often as non-Christians do (not sure what I mean? This article has a good summary).
Now, the first article I linked to does an excellent job of demonstrating exactly why we, as Christians, should take the utmost care to follow up our words about the grace and generosity of God with graceful and generous actions: in this case, tipping well. So I’m not going to talk about that. Here’s the thing I don’t get: 
Why don’t we tip well?
Now, it’s true that sometimes you will have a genuinely poor experience–bad service, bad food, etc.–but that doesn’t happen to Christians anymore than non-Christians. So why do we tip exceptionally poorly twice as often as non-Christians?
I think it has to do with attitudes. I think it has to do partly with an expectation of excellence, which cuts the server coming and going; if the server is good, he’s merely fulfilling our expectations and therefore undeserving of any particular praise or reward, and God help him if he fails to meet our expectations. After all, we do our job well every day and we don’t expect any special treatment, so why should our server get rewarded extra just for doing his job? (I’ll just say this sounds more like the Pharisees than anything Jesus or Paul ever talked about and leave it at that).
Or if it’s not that, it’s stewardship: I’m supposed to be a good steward, and so I’m not going to tip well. I already paid for my meal, why should I pay for it again? Of course, this line of reasoning eventually forces us to say outright, “God wants me to hold on to these two dollars rather than give them to you,” and if the stewardship of those extra two bucks is really that important, perhaps eating out wasn’t the best decision anyway (by the way, this is coming from a guy a year out of college working and just about breaking even, supporting his wife through grad school).
I really think attitude is key here. Why are you at the restaurant in the first place? It’s not to save money; it’s not to merely sustain yourself; it’s not for any reason of utility or thrift. You are there, quite simply, to eat, drink, and be merry.  You are there to rejoice that God has provided for you, to rejoice in the abundance of creation, to rejoice in the many creative and delicious ways humanity has learned to use God’s gifts!
So act like it! I can’t remember the last time I had an unpleasant experience when dining. I’ve had bad servers. I’ve had bad food. But I haven’t had a bad overall experience since I don’t know when.
So the vast majority of the time? I’m spending quality time with my wife, my friends, my parents, my parents-in-law; I’m eating great food; I’m drinking delicious Cherry Dr. Pepper (or even better, Dr. Pepper with grenadine in it). Why wouldn’t I be generous to the person bringing me all this edible happiness? Why wouldn’t I want to make the person serving us happy as well?
That’s something my wife likes about me. She laughs at how enthusiastically I scour the menu for what I want to eat (probably hot wings, to be honest). She laughs at my excited amazement when the server sets the dish on the table. And at the end of my restaurant experience?
I have eaten. I have drunk. I have been merry. In short, I have feasted,and the feast isn’t quite over. Now, as the cap to the great time God has allowed me, I wish to extend some small token of appreciation, a bit of monetary happiness, to God’s agent in the matter. I wish to be generous, as God and so many people have been generous to me.
Some meals will go poorly. But the vast majority of the time, we should laugh and eat and drink and enjoy not only the fruits of our labor but also the lavish riches of God’s grace. And at the end of that joyful experience, will we dare to be miserly in our tipping?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Twisted Stories

Oversimplification. Exaggeration. Outright fabrication. Where will you find all this? Aside from the obvious answers, I’d like to add a couple more: Church sanctuaries during the Sunday morning sermon. Bible studies. Youth groups. I can’t count the number of times a Bible story has been subtly (or not so subtly) tweaked to better convey a point the speaker wishes to make. I’ll bet you’ve had similar experiences: Maybe it’s David, the master of bare-handed bear and lion wrestling,  portrayed as a tiny weakling (think Tiny Tim without the crutches), or maybe it’sthis dude who’s been crippled his entire life being held up as a world-class example of whiny whiners. A complex individual who really existed is twisted, warped, and reduced to a single characteristic (which may or may not even be true), all for the sake of making a point.
There are a variety of reasons to avoid this sort of scholarship, but here is a big one: it’s dishonest. No sermon or lesson, no matter how good, is ever worth dishonesty, especially from the pulpit or another position of biblical authority.
The point being made is often a good point. It could be that “Man looks at the outside appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Perhaps that complaining doesn’t change anything. It might be anything, any true and excellent life-tip, theological insight, or what have you, except for one thing: a point is no stronger than the premise it’s built on. If it occurs to your listeners that you’ve built your point on false statements, then your entire lesson is weakened, almost to the point of irrelevance. Using a false or exaggerated statement to make a point does not make the point stronger, it merely introduces a crucial weakness into your previously strong lesson.
Let’s go back to David. When people hear that David was out “watching the sheep,” they imagine a little kid playing a harp or something while watching fluffy white sheep bounce around the pasture. Maybe the kid is singing, maybe he’s teaching the sheep to dance, I don’t know. But let’s hear David’s account of his life as a shepherd.
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and killed him. Your servant has struck down lions and bears.” 1 Samuel 17:34
Bears, people! And lions! David killed lions and bears with his bare hands! That means that any attempt to imply that he is weak, or puny, is not just a misleading exaggeration: it’s a blatantly false statement.
And here’s the important bit, the really, really important bit: David was a real person. He really lived. He was really a shepherd, the youngest son of Jesse.  He really did throw down with bears and lions. He is not a parable. He is not an object lesson. He is not a made-up character in a made-up story.
That’s the real problem: we like to think of them as parables. We like to think of David and Peter and Gideon and everyone else in the Bible as characters in stories that are told primarily for our benefit. And so we can easily fall into the trap of telling a story not to get at what’s really there, but to get at something we want to talk about; since the story doesn’t naturally convey what we want to talk about, we have to twist the story a bit, make it fit.
And so we oversimplify, and say that Gideon was too busy throwing himself a pity party  to do what God asked him to do. Or we exaggerate, elevating one characteristic of a biblical character far above its proper place, because it’s easier working with caricatures than people. Or we outright fabricate and paint a picture of David that’s entirely devoid of bare-handed death matches with wild animals.
In doing so, we slowly weaken the relationship the Bible has with reality. After all, we’re apparently not worried about what actually happened in the Bible, so why should our audience be concerned? If David and Peter and everyone else are just fables, characters to be twisted for our benefit, what can we really learn from them? The Bible becomes just another story divorced from reality, not suited for consultation in our day-to-day lives. But if David was a real person who did what God required of him, if Peter and Gideon were real people placed in difficult situations–then we can learn. Then the Bible can give us hope and comfort in times of trouble. Then, and only then, the Bible is alive, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Here We Go Again"

I watched Speed Racer again. If you know me irl, then you've probably heard me say this: Speed Racer is one of the greatest movies of all time. Period. If I wanted to, I could probably make this entire blog just about Speed Racer and the theological insights that can be gained by watching it. I guess what I'm trying to say is this: If you haven't seen Speed Racer, then watch it right now. Find it somewhere, somehow, and watch it.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I want to talk about the Grey Ghost.

The Grey Ghost only has three lines, and he only appears twice, quite briefly, in the entire movie. The first time we see him he is in the lead (not really by skill: More because every other racer is busy fighting with other people). Seeing Speed coming up behind him, he notes with apparent glee, "We've got ourselves a real race here!" Then as he and Speed jockey for position, he screams manically, "Show me what you got! SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT!"

The second, and last, time he appears is in the Grand Prix. Again he is in the lead, with Speed coming up behind it. Seeing him in the rearview mirror, he mutters, "Here we go again." And that's it. Those are his three lines. And then four seconds into his confrontation with Speed, he's out of the race, bouncing along the track in a protective bubble while his flaming, exploding car provides Speed with an exceptionally flashy finish.

He has three lines, and he's so far outclassed by Speed that his bravado and apparent eagerness to face Speed are a little funny, but mostly sad. But those three lines are delivered with such conviction. From the viewer's perspective, he's nothing more than an extremely minor character: But to him, he's a main character. You wonder, watching him deliver his three lines, whether they filmed an entire movie around the Grey Ghost just to give him the illusion of importance. He thinks he's a main character: In his head, there's this epic rivalry between him and Speed. Thinking about it now, he may be legitimately mentally ill. And I laugh so hard at him every time I watch the movie.

And the last time I watched, a thought struck me: I wonder if God and the angels ever laugh at me?

Are we the main characters in the story of human history? Does the camera follow us, only briefly panning away to show the supporting cast? When we pray, is God merely Q from the Bond movies, ensuring that we get everything we need to complete our vitally important missions? Of course not. But how often do we think of it that way? How often do we think of ourselves with a vastly inflated sense of importance? I know that for me, it's entirely too often.

And so I must learn to laugh at myself, as I laugh at the Grey Ghost. All my posturing, all my self-important thoughts, have no effect on the real story at all: Except, perhaps, to make it more amusing. I doubt we will be ultimately destroyed by our false sense of importance: But we will be held back by the false image we carry of ourselves. We will not be as effective, and we will not be as happy, as we would be if we would only accept our small role in God's magnificent story and do it to the best of our ability, assisted by God the entire way.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jesus: Not Progressive Enough?

A friend of mine asked me to start contributing to Evangelical Outpost, a blog currently made up of several Torrey alum and hoping to grow. Check out my debut post here, and then, you know, stick around! There's lots of really great stuff going on there.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Is Progressive Christianity "Progressive?"

In last week's post, I discussed some of the more inconsistent and self-defeating aspects of "Progressive Christianity." Ultimately, it seems apparent that at least half of their label is wildly inaccurate and misleading. They claim to be "Christian," while discarding Christian doctrines as not only unnecessary but actually harmful: This is very similar to Penny's (from "The Big Bang Theory") claim to vegetarianism: "I'm a vegetarian. Except for fish. And the occasional steak. I love steak!" A "vegetarian" who eats steak and fish is no vegetarian. A "Christian" who is "opposed to any exclusive dogma" does not follow the God-man who claimed to be the way, the truth, the life, and the only way to the Father. (I think this is extremely simple: If anyone disagrees, just let me know in the comments and I'll dedicate an entire note to the claim that Progressive Christianity is not Christian).

But now I want to investigate the other half of their label. In their very title, they claim that theirs is a Christianity that progresses. A look at (same link as above) reveals additional info: "We affirm the variety and depth of human experience and the richness of each persons' search for meaning, and we encourage the use of sound scholarship, critical inquiry, and all intellectual powers to understand the presence of God in human life." The way in which they want to progress, then (or at least one of the ways) is in knowledge of God. They wish to use "sound scholarship, critical inquiry, and all intellectual powers" to arrive at more knowledge of God then when they had started. This is a worthy goal: It's why the Bible was written, why the Bible is read: It's the reason for all theology ever written, from Justin Martyr to Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther to The freaking Shack (not all of it good, of course).

So: Knowledge of God. Learning more about God and how He is present in human life. Awesome. Bravo. This goal, as a goal, is beyond reproach. Now, let's see how Progressive Christianity will progress towards this goal.

  1. They "affirm the variety and depth of human experience and the richness of each persons' search for meaning." This, combined with their search for understanding about "the presence of God in human life," suggests they are investigating God in each individual life. 
  2. They strive for "the acceptance of all people, and a respect for other religious traditions." So presumable every person, and every religious tradition, has something to bring to the table as they attempt to progress in their understanding of God.
  3. Finally, they are "opposed to any exclusive dogma that limits the search for truth and free inquiry." So any doctrine or dogma that excludes the experience of a person or religious tradition, that says to any individual or any religion, "Your doctrine is false," is not welcome in Progressive Christianity, because to do so would not be respecting that religious tradition, would not be acknowledging the richness of that person' search for meaning.

Their doctrine accepts everyone and everything: Nothing is to be excluded from this grand tapestry, made up of the entire human experience with God. Every person and every religion is respected, rich with knowledge to offer. Surely the picture to which the entire human race is contributing cannot fail to produce an ever-more-accurate portrait of God... except...

You cannot progress towards positive doctrine without dispensing negative doctrine as well. 

You cannot affirm anything without denying the opposite of your affirmation. Every step is both a step towards one thing and a step away from some other thing. A desire to keep everything, to disregard nothing, will only result in an accumulation of contradictory statements: You will be immobilized by the weight of all the different doctrines that you refuse to throw away.

Here's what I mean: Saying "God became man in Jesus Christ" would be a real progress in our understanding of God. It tells us something about God, about man, and about the relationship between the two. Saying "God did not become man in Jesus Christ" would also be a real progress in our understanding of God, man, and the relationship between the two. Unfortunately for Progressive Christianity, they can't say either: To say that God did become man would be to alienate all those who don't believe in a historical Jesus, or who believe that he was real but that he was just a man. To say that God did not become man in Jesus Christ would be to alienate all those who believe that He did.

Let's broaden the picture: Some people claim to experience God as multiple gods and goddesses. Some claim that there is no personal God, merely an impersonal force. The worshipers of Baal believed that God was best worshiped by infant sacrifice: There are many today who believe that God doesn't need to be expressly worshiped at all. Progressive Christianity must affirm all these people (and I do mean all, unless Progressive Christianity wants to break their cardinal rule and dogmatically exclude any remaining Baal-worshipers). To all these people, Progressive Christianity can say, "That is a wonderful idea. We can learn so much from that perspective." But they cannot say, "You are wrong" to any of them, and because of that, they can never say, "You are right."

And so they remain in exactly the spot they began, forever. Forever affirming any and all who come to them, forever "learning" from every person and every religion, and never progressing one inch closer to understanding God.

But perhaps that's not what they mean: Maybe they just mean that they will carefully investigate each religious claim and then... improve on them. Maybe they hope to take the best out of every tradition, and eventually arrive at a knowledge that merely excludes what is obviously erroneous. That is the only alternative to remaining locked in place forever, crushed under the weight of a thousand doctrines which cannot be proclaimed right or wrong.

But here's the thing: Once Progressive Christianity has arrived there, they will be in the same position that orthodox Christianity is in now. That is how the Church got to where it is today: By investigating each claim, each experience, and comparing it to the Bible (what they considered as the ultimate authority). Once Progressive Christianity actually begins to progress, by means of comparing various doctrines to whatever they decide on as their ultimate authority, they will have become that thing that they hate: Their churches will be full of exclusive dogmas. They will be forced into the deeply intolerant position of telling certain people that they are wrong. That is what it means to "progress" in truth: Learning what is false.

Again, Progressive Christianity finds itself forced to choose between two undesirable outcomes: Does it remain dedicated to its original exclusion of exclusionary dogmas and, in doing so, freeze itself in place forever? Or does it actually progress and, in doing so, exclude incorrect dogmas so as to proclaim correct dogmas? In any case, I feel it is obvious that whatever Progressive Christianity may be, two things are certain: It is not Christian, and it is not progressive.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Does "Progressive" mean "Not Really"?

"'Listen!' said the White Spirit. 'Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now... You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth."
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

The other day I saw the name "" pop up on facebook. I was intrigued, so I checked it out. Unfortunately, I was only able to make it through about half of the "About" section before I was forced to close the window by a growing sense of the poetic "conscious impotence of rage at human folly." (T.S. Eliot ftw! He must have had a vision of the internet.) Among the more rage-inducing elements was its status as a haven for those who "find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, in the questions rather than in the answers," as well as those who are "repelled by claims that Christianity is the 'only way.'" They also "affirm the variety and depth of human experience and the richness of each person's search for meaning," as well as a "respect for all religious traditions."

Yesterday, this made me a little angry (Had I stayed on the site, I imagine my anger would have increased exponentially for each subsequent minute). But now, looking at it today, I just have to laugh. There's just sooo much wrong with this, starting with the fact that they claim the title of "Christianity," despite the fact that they reject "the beliefs and dogmas [associated with] Christianity." One has to ask: Can you, in good conscience, really call it "Christianity" when it's stripped of its specifically Christian doctrines? And much of it really is laughable: For instance, the site assumes the existence of God (so that's one point in their favor, I guess). If God exists, that means he is solid. Real. And if He is solid and real, than that means that certain ideas can accurately be applied to Him (and if you correct me and say "She" or "it" or "He-She", then you are only playing right into my hand). If certain ideas can be applied accurately to God, then other ideas can be applied inaccurately to God. If God is Real, in any sense commonly understood by "Real," then not all ideas about God can be equally valid, because many ideas about God are contradictory.

The absolutely hilarious thing is that "progressive Christianity" explicitly condemns the "rigid, 'explain-all' dogma that overliteralizes and distorts the grand mysteries it seeks to illuminate" that is found in traditional Christianity. So they advocate respect for all religious traditions... except traditional Christianity? Because that doesn't sound very respectful: It sounds downright disrespectful, to me. It seems as though they're saying that traditional Christianity is in some way worse than progressive Christianity... but that can't be right, because they say right there that they're "opposed to any exclusive dogma." But everything on the page seems to say that their own dogma excludes traditional Christianity. Even if I worked at it all day, I couldn't make this any more ridiculous than they make themselves.

But that's really simple stuff. Today, I want to focus on something a bit trickier to look at: The elevation of "searching" above "finding."

I really need to talk some more about this, because this talk of "searching" being more important than "finding" is one of those truly ridiculous claims that can sound really nice when it's said in the correct tone... but if it's ever really thought about, it's revealed to be absolutely indefensible. Let's take this from the top.

There either is meaning to be found, or there is not. Those are the only two choices. There is no middle ground.  

If there is meaning to be found, then that means meaning is a solid thing. That means meaning, presumably, can be found. But it also means that meaning can be missed, can be left undiscovered, can be sailed right past in the dim light of human experience and reason.

So I have a question: Is there any other solid, real thing where searching for it can be said to be more important than finding it?

Let's take the fountain of youth. A lot of explorers looked for it: A few spent their whole lives looking for it. And I'm sure you could craft a cool story out of the search. I'll bet they had a lot of adventures looking for it. But you know how that story ended? They all died because they never found the fountain of youth. The search, ultimately, was worthless, meaningless, because they failed to find what they were looking for.

Or let's take diamonds, or coal, or friendship, or a spouse, or literally anything else that you have to look for. Is the search itself ever more meaningful than finding it? The very suggestion is ridiculous. Searching for something important (and in this case, meaning assumes ultimate importance) and not finding it is not fulfilling: It is hopeless. It is failure. It is meaningless.

But aren't there several instances of people searching for one thing and never finding it, but being fulfilled anyway because they found something else? Yes indeed... but that simply means that they were searching for the wrong thing to begin with. They found what was meaningful, and (and this is the important bit) had they not found it, they would have remained unfulfilled.

There is yet one more refuge for the professional seeker: That seeking, itself, is meaningful. But guess what? If you come to the conclusion that "seeking meaning" is exactly what is meaningful in life, then the search for meaning is over. You have found the answer: You have discovered that meaning is found in looking for it. Congratulations! Or... not, because you've only replaced one fixed meaning (which you claim to hate) with another, equally fixed meaning. If meaning is found in seeking, then once you begin seeking, you have found it. This is just as fixed, just as dogmatic, as anything about Christianity that you claim to be repelled by.

And you cannot escape from this sense of fixity, because if meaning is--if there is such a thing as ultimate meaning (which, in this case, is God and how he interacts with us)--then meaning must be a fixed thing. The Progressive Christian looks down on those who (he thinks) try to find this meaning in "fixed, over-literal dogma": The Progressive Christian tries to find meaning in the ongoing action of searching, and in doing so, he thinks he has escaped fixity. He is wrong. His meaning is just as fixed as anyone else's: Just as gold is always gold, whether it is found panning in a river or digging in a mine.

Now: If there is NOT meaning to be found, then nothing is meaningful: This includes the search. If there is no meaning, then the search for meaning is meaningless. If there is no meaning to be found, then the search for meaning is a horrible, futile, never-ending, hope-destroying thing, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill forever.

So what are you, Progressive Christianity? Are you a wildly inconsistent, all-inclusive-except-for-stuff-we-disagree-with feel-good pseudo religion ... or merely the starting point of an inherently hopeless search for something which doesn't exist? You seem utterly intent on being both at once.

I don't want to be unfair, I don't want to misrepresent anything, and I don't want to replace debate with pointless mocking. I don't feel as though I have done anything of the sort here: But if you do, then please, feel free to comment.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"What have you to with us, O Son of God?"

"You believe that God is one: You do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!" Whatever else this passage reveals about James, the brother of Jesus, it certainly shows a tendency towards biting sarcasm ("You hold the same basic beliefs as demons do! Great job! Have a cookie."). James is making the point that true theological knowledge is not salvific: After all, the demons, including Satan, possess true theological knowledge that is, likely, unequaled among humanity. But James goes even further: The inclusion of the demon's response to this knowledge--shuddering--is incredibly important. The demons' knowledge prompts them to appropriate action: Given their status before God, the only appropriate response to knowledge about the Most High God is shuddering. The other day, as I was thinking about this passage and others, it struck me: In this respect, the demons act more appropriately towards God than we often do.

Reading the Gospels, it's clear that the demons possess clear knowledge of who Jesus is. They just know who he is: And it's not just "that guy Jesus from Nazareth." It's specific knowledge of who he is: In fact, they know more about Jesus is than any other human being at the time (besides Jesus himself). "I know who you are: The Holy One of God!" (Mark 1:25). And it's not even context-based: It's not as though they hear people talking about him and go, "Oh, Jesus. I know who that guy is." No, demons know who he is even when to anyone else, it'd just be some random dude in the middle of nowhere. When Jesus lands in the middle of nowhere, where it's literally just him, the disciples, and the crazy demon-possessed dude, the demon still knows exactly who he is: "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" (Mark 5:7).

This is intensely interesting on it's own: Just the fact that the demons know exactly who he is. But even more interesting is that the recognition does not stand on its own: The recognition is invariably followed by an an intense, often very specific reaction. Sometimes it's spasming and frothing at the mouth at the sight of him, as in Mark 9:20. That's intense, but not as intense as other encounters in Mark. In Mark 5:7, the recognition is immediately followed by, "I adjure you by God, do not torment me." In Mark 1:25, the demon asks, as if expecting an affirmative answer, "Have you come to destroy us?" In all these cases, the recognition of who Jesus is prompts an immediate, strong response: Fear. Trembling. An expectation of torment.

This is because the demons also know who they are. They fully understand that their actions are sinful. They fully understand that they are in a state of constant rebellion against God. More than that, they fully understand the majesty, power, and utter holiness of Christ. And because they fully understand all this, they have the appropriate response of absolute terror. 

So what response do we have when we come to the Holy One of God? I only ask because I know that I myself often have an utterly and completely insufficient view of my own sinfulness. I often write off little sins as no big deal, or fail to notice them at all. When they do enter my mind, I often "recover" from repentance far too quickly: After all, no use crying over spilt milk, right?

And because of this lack of understanding, my understanding of the love and grace of God suffers as well.  I fail to understand just how loving Christ is in descending down to us: I fail to understand how incredibly graceful it is of the Father to love us and send Christ to us while we were still His enemies. I fail to understand just how incredibly holy and awesome and powerful God is in Himself, apart from us. I fail to understand how weak I am, and how powerful prayer is.

And because I fail to understand all these things, I often fail to have the correct response to Christ. "Fear and trembling," at some points (Phil. 2:12). "Unceasing prayer" for those in need (Col. 1:9). Constant thankfulness to God (1 Thess. 1:2). Prayer is something that comes and goes throughout the day--coming fairly sporadically and going fairly quickly. Awe and wonder are often restricted to an academic, abstract shadow of what they should be, impacting the mind but not the actions.

I fail to have the correct response to God and my own sin, because I fail to understand my sin and I fail to understand God. Grace becomes a "get out of jail free" card, allowing us to brush off sins without thinking: This causes both grace and sin to become something unimpressive and commonplace. Instead, we should recognize the severity and horrifying, blasphemous nature of the sin: We should recognize that such a sin is utterly unacceptable in the sight of our Holy God... and then, then we will recognize the wonder of grace and forgiveness. We will recognize the awesome love of God in loving us before we loved him,while we were still sinners. And I think that in this knowledge, we will find it easier to pray without ceasing. I think we will find it easier to thank God for what He has done, and to pray for him to do even more.

As we understand our own natural position before God, we will understand God's utterly unnatural position towards us: And as we do so, I hope that we may come to act more and more appropriately towards God: Utter fear and trembling, followed by unceasing thankfulness, joy, and wonder.