Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Same Sex Marriage in the Image of God?

Yesterday I was asked to participate in a Chapel Conversation on campus. This particular Chapel Conversation is called "Jesus is Crackers" and it takes on controversial topics. The speaker is to address a hot-button topic by presenting both sides of the issue.

There are two microphones, one on each side of the stage. You are to start on one side of the stage and argue one side of the case. You then walk to the other microphone and disagree with yourself. And then the chapel ends on that open-ended note.

My assigned topic was same sex marriage. Specifically, can same sex marriages be considered holy and sanctified? Phrased another way, are same sex marriages reflections of the image of God?

This was my argument for the position that, no, same sex marriages are not reflective of the image of God:
Same sex marriages are not in the image of God because when God created humanity in God's image Genesis 1.27 says "male and female he created them." Thus, the model for marriage is Adam and Eve. The basis of marriage is biological complementarity. This understanding is supported in Romans 1 where Paul describes same sex relations as "unnatural." In light of this, the command God gives to marriage, as a reflection of God's image, is reproduction ("be fruitful and multiply"). Obviously, same sex marriages are not based on biological complementarity and cannot procreate. Thus, same sex marriages cannot reflect the image of God. The theology informing this understanding is creation theology.
This was my argument for the position that, yes, same sex marriages are reflective of the image of God:
Same sex marriages are in the image of God because the model for marriage is Yahweh and Israel rather than Adam and Eve. Thus, the basis of marriage is grace and election, God choosing Israel from among the nations. The primacy of election/grace over biology is supported in Romans 11 where God is found "unnaturally" grafting the Gentiles into the covenant with Israel. In light of this, the command God gives to marriage to reflect God's image is covenant faithfulness. Obviously, same sex marriages display the grace of election and can model covenant faithfulness. Thus, same sex marriages can reflect the image of God. The theology informing this understanding is salvation history.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Guide to Blogging Success

If you read a lot of Christian blogs you'll have seen some conversation in response to Timothy Dalrymple's post about how bloggers increase pageviews. In light of that conversation let me share my secrets about how to achieve blogging success:

1. Blog from a really cool platform like Avoid owning a domain name like Working from signals that you aren't a serious, big time blogger. That you blog with the same platform as grandmothers and high school kids with something important to say.

2. Refuse to join Twitter or Facebook. Completely handicap your ability to tweet your blog posts, post them on Facebook or interact with other bloggers. Make it really, really hard for people to find you and follow you. Make it seem like you don't exist. Play coy. The more obstacles to reaching a new readership the better.

3. Write really, really long and jargon filled posts. More, string these posts together in a ongoing series so that new readers will 1) have to read for twenty hours to catch up or 2) have no freaking idea what you're talking about. People want to surf blog posts quickly. So thwart them. Make them sit down for 30 minutes to read. Force them to consult a dictionary. People enjoy that experience. Tempt all readers--nay, damn well dare them--to write tl;dr in the comments.

4. Share your poetry with them.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 23, Martyrological Identity and Resurrection

Over the last few posts we've reached the following conclusions.

Our slavery to the fear of death is largely implicated in the ways we construct our identity, the ways we pursue meaning and self-esteem. We do this by neurotically borrowing an identity from what the bible calls "the principalities and powers," our cultural worldviews, ideologies, and institutions. In biblical language we engage in idolatry, serving cultural images that are, at root, projections of our fears.

The principalities and powers, along with the self-images they create via idolatry, are aligned with sin and the satanic in that the idols have to be believed absolutely (i.e., appear to us as God or as godlike) if they are to function as anxiety buffers. This causes us to engage in worldview defense, denigrating and demonizing outgroup members who call our worldview into question.

What we see in all this is how we create a fear-based identity which makes us inherently defensive and prone to rivalry and violence. Driven by existential anxiety, identity and self-esteem are "enslaved to the fear of death" and, thus, produce sin and "the works of the devil." Here we have a psychological description that converges upon the biblical witness: "the sting of death is sin." More, we also now understand, at a deep psychological level, why "perfect love" must "cast out fear." The fear of death causes us to create an identity that makes us vulnerable to sin and the satanic. The biblical term for this vulnerability, a weakness rooted in mortality fears, is sarx, variously translated as "flesh" or "the sinful nature." Consequently, to step out of sin, death, and the satanic, to move toward love, we need to escape the "slavery of the fear of death" in how we form our self-concepts.

So how does the bible describe this process of salvation and liberation from sin, death, and the devil?

Perhaps paradoxically, though this series makes this obvious, both Jesus and Paul describe salvation as a sort of death. To be saved is to die and be raised again. Here is Jesus on this point:
Mark 8.34-36
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
According to Jesus we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and lose our life. We must die. Literally? Possibly, but in this text Jesus contrasts "the cross" with "gaining the whole world." And given our psychological analyses we get a sense of what Jesus is talking about. We can construct an identity in one of two ways. On the one hand, we can try to "gain the world." That is, we can pursue self-esteem via idolatry, by serving the principalities and powers. By contrast, we can take up the cross and die to this pursuit. In the language of Paul from the last post we can treat "gaining the whole world" as "rubbish."

Given Jesus's language--taking up our cross--we might say that Jesus is calling us to adopt a martyrological identity. An identity based upon dying to the world. In the language of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Craig Hovey, in his book To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church, describes the martyrological identity this way:
Askesis (from which asceticism is derived) is a term that names the training or discipline of self-denial...In the same way, martyrdom names not an ethic but an effect or outcome of the askesis of one's whole life, one's needs, and the way of life that would meet them...The way of of Jesus requires the unseating of those modes of behavior, ways of life, desires, and thoughts that are conditioned on scales of self-preservation, self-protection, and security for one's life...The virtues necessary to be a martyr are no different from the virtues necessary to be a faithful Christian. This means that martyrdom is not a special calling for a select few but the commitment of every Christian and the responsibility of every church.
A martyrological identity means "the unseating of those modes of behavior, ways of life, desires, and thoughts that are conditioned on the scales of self-preservation, self-protection, and security for one's life." We've discussed in this series a great deal what happens when our identities are based upon "self-preservation, self-protection, and security for one's life." Recall the words of Orthodox theologian John Romanides from earlier in this series:
Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in men gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival. Thus, Satan manipulates man's fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him...Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man's weakness in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent.
But as we've seen, this goes deeper than mere self-preservation. Few of us are scrapping for bits of food. As described in the last few posts, we noted how the quest for self-preservation takes a neurotic turn, how we build our self-esteem to convince ourselves that our lives are meaningful and durable in the face of death. It is true that our need for self-preservation can cause us to become violent in desperate survival situations. But our neurotic quest of self-preservation can also motivate violence and rivalry. And it's my argument in this series that the "slavery to the fear of death" is manifested here at this neurotic level.

The point is, a martyrological identity isn't about physical courage in the face of death. Rather, a martyrological identity involves existential courage in the resistance of idolatry, dying to efforts to win self-esteem by "gaining the world."

But note that there is a relationship between the martyr's existential and physical courage. The latter produces the former. The reason Jesus could go to the cross non-violently was because he wasn't existentially anxious. Had he been Jesus would have resisted death and become violent. It's Jesus's existential courage, his relaxedness in the face of Pilate, that allowed him to remain non-violent, allowed him to love.

When we turn from Jesus to Paul we find a similar analysis. The clearest treatment of this subject in Paul comes from Romans 6:
Romans 6.1-16
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?
Paul's argument parallels Jesus's call to discipleship. Christians, because they have been baptized, are dead to sin as Christ is dead to sin. We have been "buried with Christ" and "baptized into his death." This means that our "old self was crucified with Christ." And this crucifixion sets us "free from sin."

What might this mean? It's clear in this passage that Paul is talking about an ongoing process and struggle. Paul is asking his readers to live up and into to their baptism. In light of their imitation of Jesus's death Paul asks his readers to "count themselves dead to sin." How exactly? Paul is clear on this point: "Do no offer any part of yourself to wickedness." By refusing wickedness we act before God as those "who have been brought from death to life." Paul concludes by bringing in another metaphor: slavery. To be dead to sin is to refuse to be a slave to sin. Paul asks the question of his readers: Are you going to be a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness? This echos Jesus's call: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." We have some choices to make.

I like Craig Hovey's take on this. He notes in To Share in the Body that Christian baptism is "a kind of drowning" that connects us with the death of Jesus.: "The surging waters of the baptismal do not only cleanse, they kill; they do not only wash the body, the destroy it."

But what, exactly, is destroyed and killed? Hovey goes on to describe it as a change of allegiances:
In baptism, a human individual is transferred from the world to the church. The world registers a loss in loyalty; the church registers an advance in loyalty...Because of this shift, baptism marks a definite realignment of power...If the church grows through the initiation of one member at a time, it seemingly shrinks through an equivalent but opposite process. The world attempts to regain its lost members, to secure its former loyalties, and to establish its earlier power. In this way, baptism is an overtly political act. Like the burning of draft cards, baptism declares a switched identity, a refusal to be one thing and a determination to be something else...Transferring citizenship from one kingdom to another is the action performed in baptism, but it also signals entrance into a temptation to trade new citizenship back for the old, to render back to the worldly powers the souls of God's people, the church.
All this fits with the analyses of the last few posts. In baptism we declare ourselves as "dead to the world," counting it all "rubbish" and "loss." We begin the daily struggle to kill off our previous loyalties, the ways we idolatrously pursued self-esteem and meaning. We die to the sinful identity, the "old self" that was enslaved to sin because of the way sarx is pushed and pulled by mortality fears (overtly and neurotically). We do this by no longer pursuing an identity based on ersatz meaning that papers over our neurotic anxieties in the face of death.

That is what the cross represents. We are dead to the world. The allures of the world, which use fear-through-self-esteem to tempt us, hold no attraction for us. That, at least, is the goal. Practically, it means daily taking up your cross as a follower of Jesus and counting the world as loss.

On the other side of this death is the experience of resurrection. As Jesus says, if we lose our life we'll find it. As Paul says, we are alive to God in Christ Jesus. Resurrection, in this instance, is about being set free from the slavery to the fear of death and the life that becomes available to us as a consequence. This is the emancipation and liberation of Christus Victor. As I've argued it, an emancipation that is largely psychological in nature and function. Resurrection is experienced in an identity no longer affected by death. Here is how William Stringfellow describes it:
Resurrection...refers to the transcendence of the power of death and the fear or thrall of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life and, indeed, the fulfillment of life before death.
[Christ's] power over death is effective not just at the terminal point of a person's life but throughout one's life, during this life in this world, right now. This power is effective in the times and places in the daily lives of human beings when they are so gravely and relentlessly assailed by the claims of principalities for an idolatry that, in spite of all disguises, really surrenders to death as the reigning presence in the life of the world. His resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death's works, safe and free from death.
And finally, we come to see in all this why love is the sign of the resurrected life. Fear, we've come to see, is the enemy of love. Fear causes us to construct an idolatrous identity that makes us rivalrous toward ingroup members and violent toward outgroup member. Thus, for love to emerge we have to be set free from the fear of death. So it stands to reason that "perfect love casts out fear." Finally it all becomes very clear, the relationship between resurrection and love.

No one said it better than John:
1 John 3.14
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

There is Only More Darkness

There is little light
in the world.
Too many black corners
of meanness,
And cold loneliness.
So we linger
and warm ourselves
when we find the soft flicker
of kindness
and love--
fragile, precious, tenuous
wisps of flame in the wind.
Rejoice in these.
And bless.
There is only more darkness
in the extinguishment.

Friday, February 24, 2012

I Am a Worm

Matthew 27.45-46
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,lema sabachthani?”

Psalm 22.1,6
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
After my statistics class yesterday one of my students came up to me and wanted to talk about worms.

The worm in question is the worm mentioned in Psalm 22.6: "But I am a worm and not a man."

As we know, Psalm 22 was the psalm Jesus cries out from the cross, "Eli, Eli,lema sabachthani?" ("My God, my God why have you forsaken me?").

Is there a connection between the worm in verse six and Jesus's cry from the cross?

Apparently, the Hebrew word for worm in Psalm 22.6 is towla' which has two meanings, "worm" and "scarlet/crimson."

The connection between the worm and the color red has to do with the fact that this particular worm was the "scarlet worm" (Kermes ilicis or Coccus ilicis). The Kermes worm is where we get the word crimson because this was the worm that was used to create red dye around the ancient Mediterranean. The worm isn't really a worm but a scale insect that attaches itself to trees, generally oaks, to feed off the sap (see picture above). Jesus would have seen the Kermes worm on Palestine Oaks (Quercus calliprino).

While affixed to the tree the female worm would give birth to a brood and then die. Toward the end of this cycle the mother's body would bloat and fill with a red fluid that would stain the tree. The ancients would collect these dead bodies and the eggs to make a crimson dye.

So the worm in Psalm 22.6 is an insect that leaves a crimson stain on a tree.

What is interesting here, theologically, is how the image of the worm, and Jesus's invocation of it, may have less to do with the status of the worm on some hierarchy of beings, with worms being base and lowly, than with the color of blood. And even if this isn't the proper reading it sure is an interesting one.

The worm invokes the red-stained tree of the Crucified One.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Bureaucrat

I'm a bureaucrat.

This is not a role I love, but as a Department Chair at a university I am a bureaucrat. I am a low level administrator who is a functionary within the larger administrative system that manages the university. When people ask me "What does a Department Chair do?" my main response is "Signing stuff." When I became Department Chair I was stunned at the amount of paperwork that moves through the office. All of which needed, as a part of the bureaucratic process, my John Hancock. To cope with the volume I started to shorten my signature. Moving forward, I think I'll just start marking stuff with a big X. That'd be cool.

The second most common question I get is this, "Do you like being a Department Chair?" My answer is complicated, a yes and a no. On the one hand I don't like managing the administrivia of a bureaucracy. I struggle with this part of the job.

Plus, I keep waking up expecting to find that I have dead, soulless eyes.

But on the other hand, as a bureaucrat I have a certain range of powers within the system. And my goal, in light of those powers, is this: humanize the system. This is the part of the job I like.

I've written about this before, about how bureaucratic systems demonically dehumanize people. As a part of that system one of the things I can do is to work against that process.

For example, the other day I had a student at her wits end. She was trying to add money to her copying account so that she could print off her homework and research papers. (The students start with a certain amount of money in this account and each time they print at a library or lab computer they are charged. If they reach their limit they have to add more money or they won't be able to print.) The student went to the office where she thought she could take care of this. She was informed that, no, this was not the right office, that this had to be taken care of at a different office.

So the student walks over to the other office. There she is informed that she's made a mistake. This office tells her that, in fact, the office she just came from is the office that takes care of this.

So she walks back to the first office. There she is informed that the second office was incorrect. And they send her back.

Now all this student wants to do is print her homework for my class. But what she finds herself doing for half a morning is walking back and forth on campus between offices getting nothing done and becoming increasingly frustrated. Why isn't anyone helping her?

So she asks me for advice. "What should I do," she asks "to get money put in my account so I print my homework?" I tell her to go to one of the offices and start screaming. People start to help you if they think you're a little bit crazy.

I'm half-serious in this advice. How many of us have had to throw a fit to crack through some bureaucratic logjam? Throwing a fit, while humiliating, is a way to get some help.

So my goal, again, is to humanize this system. To use my power and time to make the bureaucracy work for the student sitting in my office. Not everything falls within my power, but when it does those are good days. The student comes in tangled in a administrative snarl and I, with my shortened signature, can clear the way.

And at other times, when I don't have the final say so, I can advocate within the system on behalf of the student.

A story in this regard.

One year I got an email from a recently graduated student expressing alarm. Apparently she hadn't graduated at all. She had just received a letter from ACU telling her that, due to an oversight, she was actually lacking one class toward graduation. It was a glitch in how her transfer credits were accounted. Apparently, a history class she took at another university was the same as the history class she took during her final semester at ACU. No one spotted this as the two classes had different titles and the classes themselves were significantly different in content that the student didn't notice (i.e., same era of history but different take, content, and readings). Only when the student's final grade was posted, after graduation and the student leaving town to start her life, did the computer pick up the conflict. And, having taken the same class twice, the student was informed she was one course short of graduation.

Place yourself in the student's shoes. You think you've graduated. You're living in a different town and have started a job. And suddenly you are informed that you are not, in fact, a college graduate and that you have falsified your workplace applications in saying you were an ACU graduate. More, we are telling you that you have to move back to ACU for a semester to take this history class.

How would you feel is this were you?

Now, if the student had made a mistake all this might be a bit different. But ACU didn't catch the problem and, thus, the student was given the formal clearance to graduate. We told her, in her final semester, she was good to go. We only informed her of the error after she had left campus. So as I saw it, this was our mistake. And, given that this was our mistake, I didn't think it right or proper to make this student return to campus to take a history class.

This won't do, I said to myself. So on behalf of the student I filled out the form requesting that she be allowed to graduate with three fewer hours. And technically this wasn't even true. She took the same amount of hours, and paid tuition for them, as everyone else. The issue wasn't the number of hours but the accounting of them.

I figure this is a no-brainer. So I was shocked when I got the letter saying that this request was denied. You're freaking kidding me, I say aloud, ranting to my administrative coordinator. This is just awful. So I ask for a meeting to make my case face to face.

And I do, putting pressure on, respectfully and politely but firmly. I'm told that the powers that be will meet again to reconsider the case. Hearing that, I figure I've won the day.

I was wrong. After a few days I was told that the administration was sticking with their original decision. The student had to come back to campus to take a history class.

This is the stupidest thing I'd ever seen. Broken, I email the student that my efforts have failed. I can't get the system to budge.

Not a good day for the bureaucrat.

So what happened?

Well, a few weeks later the student and her mother appeared in my offices. They were beaming. Why were they so happy? Well, they had came to campus to resolve this situation and, miracle of miracles, they succeeded! The administration finally signed the paper making this problem go away. At long last my student was an ACU graduate!

After telling me how thankful they were to me for my work on their behalf and hugs all around I asked them, How did this happen? How did you get them to change their minds?

The mom smiled.

They pitched a fit and wouldn't leave until something happened.

I smiled back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Litany of Penitence

The Litany of Penitence (adapted from the Book of Common Prayer for a first-person reading):
Most holy and merciful Father:
I confess to you and to others,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that I have sinned by my own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.

I have not loved you with my whole heart, and mind, and strength. I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I have not forgiven others, as I have been forgiven.
Have mercy on me, Lord.

I have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served me. I have not been true to the mind of Christ. I have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on me, Lord.

I confess to you, Lord, all my past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of my life,
I confess to you, Lord.

My self-indulgent appetites and ways, and my exploitation of other people,
I confess to you, Lord.

My anger at my own frustration, and my envy of those more fortunate than myself,
I confess to you, Lord.

My intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and my dishonesty in daily life and work,
I confess to you, Lord.

My negligence in prayer and worship, and my failure to commend the faith that is in me,
I confess to you, Lord.

Accept my repentance, Lord, for the wrongs I have done: for my blindness to human need and suffering, and my indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward my neighbors, and for my prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from me,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

For my waste and pollution of your creation, and my lack of concern for those who come after me,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

Restore me, good Lord, and let your anger depart from me;
Favorably hear me, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in me the work of your salvation,
That I may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring me with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.


For those of you interested in this conservation, particularly those from the Churches of Christ, I wanted to point you to three different online zines about the experiences of being gay on a conservative Christian campus.

Of interest to the Church of Christ folks is that these three zines are from our campuses.
The State of the Gay appeared last year on the Harding University campus.

Paper Clips Press appeared last week on the Freed-Hardeman campus.

Voiceless appeared yesterday on the Abilene Christian University campus.
Last night I was honored, along with other ACU students, alumni, faculty and staff, to be a part of an evening where many of the authors of Voiceless read their stories publicly. The readings were, by turns, poignant, indicting, sad, courageous, and inspiring.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Hate Religion Too, But For Different Reasons

Today in ACU's chapel service I've been asked to share some reflections on Jefferson Bethke's spoken word video "I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." I'm sure you've seen the video as it has gone viral. At the time of this writing the video has received over nineteen million views on Youtube.

So whatever else is said, we can at least say this: Well done Mr. Bethke.

There have been a variety of reactions to "I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus" on the Internet. Some have been approving, others more critical. In light of my chapel response today let me share some of my impressions.

First off, I'm in broad agreement with the sentiment of the video. In fact, I make a very similar point in the most popular post I've ever written (the Bait and Switch post), about how religion comes to replace loving your neighbor. As I noted a week or so ago, this is a significant theme in both the Old and New Testaments:
Amos 5.21-24
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Matthew 9.10-13
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In Unclean I talk about some of the psychology behind this dynamic, how the pursuit of religious/cultic purity before God causes us to ignore the second of the Greatest Commandments: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." In Unclean I call this "the purity collapse."

The point being, when Jefferson Bethke is rapping about this theme in his video I'm grooving right along. Going to church is fine, but we can't ignore the injustices at the gate. God demands mercy more than praise music, prayer, and avoiding Harry Potter books

But something hiccups toward the end of the video. And I haven't seen a whole lot of commentary about this particular issue.

After his long criticism of religion in the video Jefferson Bethke ends with the big take home point. Here are the final words of the video:
Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man
Which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own
Not based on my merits but Jesus's obedience alone
Because he took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, I guess that's why you call it grace
And while being murdered he yelled
"Father forgive them they know not what they do."
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
And he absorbed all of your sin, and buried it in the tomb
Which is why I'm kneeling at the cross, saying come on there's room
So for religion, no I hate it, in fact I literally resent it
Because when Jesus said it is finished, I believe he meant it
What is really weird, theologically speaking, about the conclusion of the video is that Bethke doesn't end up where the prophets and Jesus end up, with a cry for more mercy and justice. No, Bethke ends up with penal substitutionary atonement. Rather than ending with a cry for justice and mercy we end with "...salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own / Not based on my merits but Jesus's obedience alone / Because he took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down his face / He took what we all deserved, I guess that's why you call it grace."

Bethke's argument seems to be this. What makes religion bad is that it's a form of works-based righteousness, churchy things we do to earn our way into heaven. And that's fine, but this isn't the biblical criticism of religion. The prophetic criticism is how religion has become separated from care for our neighbors. It's the point Jesus is making in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And the Parable of the Good Samaritan isn't a parable about works-based righteousness. Far from it. The parable is placing a behavioral demand upon us.

So there is this disjoint sitting at the heart of the video. At the start of the video we think Bethke is going to make a prophetic critique of religion. For example, early on we hear him say this:
I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor
Tells single moms God doesn't love them if they've ever had a divorce
But in the Old Testament, God actually calls religious people whores
This is good stuff. We are hearing criticism about the religious sanctioning of war. About poverty. About compassion for the vulnerable and hurting. The point seems to be that the true follower of Jesus would be non-violent, caring for the poor, and standing beside divorced single mothers. So far so good.

But that's not where Bethke ends up. The poem doesn't end with a clarion call to justice but with the notion that Jesus will "absorb" our sins and for us to remember that Jesus was thinking of us while he was on the cross:
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
And he absorbed all of your sin, and buried it in the tomb
Which is why I'm kneeling at the cross, saying come on there's room
So for religion, no I hate it, in fact I literally resent it
Because when Jesus said it is finished, I believe he meant it
It's not that this is bad in and of itself, but it's not the solution the prophets or Jesus was talking about. The solution to injustice at the gates is, well, stopping injustice at the gates. Not thinking about Jesus "absorbing" my sins. The solution to religious forms of social exclusion is crossing boundaries to eat with tax collectors and sinners. Not remembering that Jesus was thinking of me on the cross.

In short, yes, both Bethke and I hate religion.

I just think we hate it for different reasons.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mehndi & Maayon desi Bridal Collection Album 1

Was Freud Right?

Thanks to the great PR people at ACU for putting together this little promotional clip for The Authenticity of Faith.

Amazon link here.

[Post-Script: In the clip I'm wearing one of those retro ties Jana buys for me at Goodwill as mentioned in my last post.]

Saturday, February 18, 2012

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Friday, February 17, 2012

On Dress, Divinity, and Dumbfounding

I've never been one to dress up. I generally wear jeans just about everywhere. So I'm known for casual attire.

Incidentally, this makes "dressing up" a real pain in the neck, socially speaking. For example, Jana likes to shop at Goodwill stores. Recently she's been picking up a cool tie here and there. Mainly retro ties from the 60s and 70s that you just don't see anymore. So I've started wearing these ties to work once in a while. And when I do all day long it's "Hey! Look who dressed up! Look who is wearing a tie! What's the big occasion?!"

It makes for a very long day.

The point is, if I'm wearing a tie it's a big deal.

When I became the Department Chair seven years ago, selling my soul to the Principalities and Powers, my casual dress became a point of commentary. Mainly the issues had to do with something called "professionalism."

What does professionalism mean when it comes to workplace dress? Why are jeans not "professional" but pants/slacks/trousers are?

To be clear, in this discussion I'm setting aside clothing that is dirty, damaged, or immodest. What I'm talking about is this hierarchy of clothing where the suit and tie sit at the top and jeans sit somewhere at the bottom.

That there is a hierarchy here seems diagnostic to me. In Unclean I talk about Richard Shweder's idea that human moral psychology has three main domains: Community, autonomy, and divinity. A summary of the sorts of moral infractions and values from each domain (quotes from here):
Community: "based on moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy and interdependency, which is designed to help individuals achieve dignity by virtue of their role and position in a society."

Autonomy: "based on moral concepts such as harm, rights and justice, which is designed to protect individuals in pursuit of the gratification of their wants."

Divinity: "based on moral concepts such as natural order, sacred order, sanctity, sin and pollution, which is designed to maintain the integrity of the spiritual side of human nature."
Looking at Shweder's domains it seems to me that questions about professional/appropriate attire are involved with the divinity domain. That is, is our dress commensurate with the "sacredness" or "level" of the situation, either the workplace or church? Here dress is a form of showing respect and meeting expectations of dignity and decorum.

So a lack of "professionalism" is a divinity violation. This is why we call casual attire dressing "down." With extreme forms of casualness we even say we are "slumming it." There is a sacred hierarchy at work here, with goodness and sacredness high on this dimension and the profane, base and vulgar low on the dimension.

That clothing is regulated by a divinity ethic isn't surprising. Clothing itself is a way we elevate ourselves above the animals. Clothing is trying to elevate and lift us up above the bestial. Consequently, feelings of sacred elevation become associated with clothing with various attire choices moving us up or down this dimension. Closer to the angels or toward the animals.

This is why, it seems, clothing can be so contentious in faith communities. Clothing has a sacred aspect to it and, thus, people fight over what is "appropriate" for communal worship.

But here's the problem with all this. As I go on to discuss in Unclean the divinity dimension is a source of what the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "moral dumbfounding." Dumbfounding occurs when normative judgments have an "I know it when I see it" aspect. That is, the judgment is driven by subjective feelings rather than objective, empirical, and publicly available criteria. Thus trouble emerges when sensibilities differ. With only feelings to guide us how are we to adjudicate between different judgments about what is or is not appropriate?

You can't. You're stuck, communally speaking. If people have different sensibilities there's not a whole lot you can do. One group sees X as "inappropriate." Others disagree. And since the differences here are not matters of fact there's nothing available, objectively speaking, to convince the other side.

Which brings me back to the issue of professionalism.

When someone says "Jeans are not professional" what are they saying? At root, they are simply expressing a subjective judgment about what they think is a divinity violation. But as we've just noted, divinity violations are often in the eye of the beholder. To be sure, these judgment don't emerge out of thin air. There is tradition and norms, what people typically wear in any given situation or context. However, these norms drift and change over time. Moreover, not everyone agrees with the majority view. For example, a younger generation with different subjective feelings about what is or is not professional might come into conflict with the feelings of an older generation.

And who is to adjudicate between the two groups? If there is no objective reason why jeans or shorts at church are inappropriate then all we are left with are our feelings.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that professionalism and propriety are subjective rather than objective states of affairs. That these are "eye of the beholder" judgments, I "know it when I see it" judgments. Which means that, at the end of the day, we're just going to have to agree to disagree about what is or is not professional or appropriate dress in either the workplace or at church. It's a dumbfounding issue. People are going to disagree with each other and there is little we can do about that, no consensus in our future. We're just going to have to learn to live with each other.

Vive la différence.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Interview with The Other Journal

Let me point you to an interview I conducted with Chris Keller at The Other Journal as a part of their upcoming issue on evil.

In the interview we discuss the topics in Unclean from a variety of different angles, touching on evil, narcissism, positive psychology, virtue, political discourse, and the Eucharist.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Slavery of Death: Part 22, Worldview Defense, Doubt, Love & the Rubbish of Self-Esteem

In Part 20 of this series--The Devil's Work--we discussed, in light of the work of Ernest Becker, how our cultural worldviews make us violent. Given that our cultural worldviews, what Becker calls a hero system, prop up our self-esteem in the face of death we defend these worldviews from threat and critique. We generally do this by demonizing outgroup members. According to Becker this produces the great tragedy of human existence: That which supports my self-esteem--the cultural worldview--is the source of human evil.

This argument is no mere theory. The dynamics Becker describes have been documented in the laboratory. Researchers have worked Becker's theory into a research paradigm called Terror Management Theory (TMT) that has garnered significant empirical support.

Developed in the mid-1980s by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, TMT has focused on two key questions rooted in the work of Ernest Becker:
1. Why are people so intensely concerned with their self-esteem?

2. Why do people cling so tenaciously to their own cultural beliefs and have such a difficult time coexisting with others different than themselves?
As we know, Ernest Becker gave an answer to the first question in The Denial of Death and an answer to the second in Escape from Evil. TMT follows Becker, suggesting that we are intensely concerned with self-esteem because it guides us through cultural worldviews that give life meaning and significance in the face of death. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski summarize the core axioms of TMT, relating self-esteem to success in upholding cultural worldviews in order to achieve death transcendence:
TMT posits that humans share with all forms of life a biological predisposition to continue existence, or at least to avoid premature termination of life. However, the highly developed intellectual abilities that make humans aware of their vulnerabilities and inevitable death create the potential for paralyzing terror. Cultural worldviews manage the terror associated with this awareness of death primarily through the cultural mechanism of self-esteem, which consists of the belief that one is a valuable contributor to a meaningful universe. Effective terror management thus requires (1) faith in a meaningful conception of reality (the cultural worldview) and (2) belief that one is meeting the standards of value prescribed by the worldview (self-esteem). Because of the protection from the potential for terror that the psychological structures provide, people are motivated to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and satisfy the standards of value associated with their worldviews.
Given the fact that self-esteem is involved in managing existential anxiety, Ernest Becker pointed out in Escape from Evil that the cultural worldviews that support our self-esteem are vulnerable to the critique of Otherness. The mere existence of alternative cultures, worldviews, religions, and value systems threatens the assumption that one’s own values, culture, or beliefs are timeless and eternal sources of meaning. Otherness threatens our self-esteem at the deepest level.

So in the face of this threat we demean, denigrate, or destroy ideological Others. We protect our existential equanimity by lashing out at difference. In the language of TMT we engage in worldview defense. In the words of Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski worldview defense occurs when we display “vigorous agreement with and affection for those who uphold or share our beliefs (or are similar to us) and equally vigorous hostility and disdain for those who challenge or do not share our beliefs (i.e., are different from us).”

We defend our worldview by siding with those who share our values and attacking those who do not, we display increased ingroup favoritism along with an increased tendency to denigrate outgroup members. And by engaging in these largely unconscious defensive processes we secure our cultural hero systems in the face of the existential threat posed by Otherness.

This is the source of human evil.

And empirical research backs up this conclusion. TMT studies have shown that, in the face of a death awareness prime, American participants denigrated non-Americans and Christians denigrated Jewish persons. In the face of death we lash out at these outgroup members to reap the solace found within our worldview, be that worldview based upon a nation or a god. And, more often than not, god and country are the very same things. In biblical language these are "principalities and powers" that keep us enslaved to sin due to our fear of death.

In many ways, you might say that the TMT research on worldview defense--denigrating outgroup members in the face of death--is how psychologists are studying demon possession in the laboratory.

In light of all this, how are we to be set free from the demonic impulse toward worldview defense?

Well, as described in the last post it seems clear that we have to "die" to the worldview and hero system. We have to "die" to the self-esteem project. And for the culturally religious, as described in the last post by Peter Rollins, this death also involves dying to the cultural god and religion.

But "death" here is largely a metaphor. What, exactly, does it look like when we "die" to the cultural worldview?

Let's get a start on an answer by thinking about this quote (a quote I ponder in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith) from Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in their book In Praise of Doubt:
Sincere and consistent doubt is the source of tolerance.
In light of the work of Ernest Becker I think we can see the reasoning at work here. If fundamentalism about our worldviews--a neurotic dogmatism driven by death anxiety--is the source of violence (e.g., worldview defense) then the way toward love, embrace, welcome and hospitality toward others is letting go of certainty. That is, if I doubt and question my worldview, if I hold it lightly, then there is little desire or impulse on my part to defend my worldview or demonize its critics.

Doubt becomes the precondition of love.

This is exactly what Becker concluded in Escape from Evil. Becker was skeptical that we could abandon all hero systems. He believed that we need myths to orient our life projects, values and "greater goods" to narrate our lives. But we need to protect against the evils inherent in these myths, how they dispose us to become violent. The way forward is to treat these hero systems as fallible and open to criticism. In biblical language, hero systems need prophets. Becker's assessment:
Men cannot abandon the heroic. If we say that the irrational or mystical is a part of human groping for transcendence, we do not give it any blanket approval. But groups of men can do what they have always done--argue about heroism, assess the costs of it, show that it is self-defeating, a fantasy, a dangerous illusion and not one that is life-enhancing and ennobling. As Paul Pruyser so well put it, "The great question is: If illusions are needed, how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate into delusions?" If men live in myths and not absolutes, there is nothing we can do or say about that. But we can argue for nondestructive myths...
This is, incidentally, what I think Peter Rollins is doing in Insurrection, arguing for a myth--a way to use religious language--that is less destructive compared to the dominant myth of Christianity. The notion that "God is love and only love" is less self-defeating and dangerous, it is more life-enhancing and ennobling.

In summary, the way toward love is to begin to die to the hero system that brings us into conflict with others. This may involve a "dark night of the soul" but it will generally manifest as a self-criticism, suspicion and doubt about the hero system. Of course, there is an emotional cost to all this. But it is worth the price to find better ethical footing. Dogmatism is comforting--It is existentially cozy to have all the answers--but doubt is the route toward love.

But there is more here than just doubt. Recall again the connection between the cultural worldview and self-esteem. The doubt here isn't abstract. We're doubting the things that give us legitimacy and significance. We're doubting the ground of our identity. So the doubt here is as much psychological as it is philosophical.

What might this doubt about the foundations of self-esteem look like?

I think one of the best descriptions of this comes from Paul in Philippians:
Philippians 3.7-11
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Notice how Paul dies to the hero system. All those things that used to be props for his self-esteem project Paul now considers "loss" and "rubbish." It's also interesting to note how Paul focuses on the word "righteousness." As Ernest Becker points out, "righteousness" is just a religious synonym for self-esteem, it is the way we experience the self-esteem project within a religious hero system.

Paul has rejected all this. Paul rejects everything in his cultural worldview that made his life meaningful, important, significant and righteous.

In a certain sense, Paul no longer has self-esteem. He's left that game behind and the way it is pushed and pulled by a death anxiety that is masked as a quest for significance. Paul no longer has a self-esteem project. He has died to all that to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul no longer lives. Rather, the resurrected Christ lives within him setting him free from the slavery of death and the power of the devil.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Around the Internet you often see people spell God as G-d. I believe this is done as sign of respect based upon the Jewish practice of refusing to speak the name of God.

As most are aware, in the Hebrew Bible God gives his name in Exodus 3.13-14a:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM."
The name given in verse 14 is יהוה‎ in the Hebrew and is rendered in English as YHWH. YHWH is sometimes called the Sacred Tetragrammaton (a tetragrammaton being a word with four letters).

In the Hebrew Bible YHWH is the proper name of God. And as a sign of respect for the name observant Jews will refrain from pronouncing it aloud though, from what I understand, they may write the name.

Which brings me to G-d.

The word God is generally used to translate the Hebrew words El and Elohim. Elohim is not the proper name of God. In its plural form Elohim is translated as "gods" and, thus, is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to both YHWH and to Canaanite deities.

This raises two questions I have about G-d. First, Elohim isn't the proper name of God as is YHWH. So why not spell God in full? Why G-d? Second, as I understand it, the show of reverence for YHWH is not speaking the name aloud. Writing it is permitted. So why say God aloud but not spell God? Seems backward.

But these are quibbles. If someone wants to show respect to God by spelling G-d then kudos to them.

For this post I'd like to push on and talk a bit about another way of spelling God, the difference between God and god.

The general convention is to spell God with a capital G. This signals that we are talking about the God of the Universe. God, capital G, has monotheistic overtones--we are talking about the one, true and only God. Conversely, little g is used--god--to refer to false deities or polytheistic deities. When you spell God as god you are showing that you don't think the god you are writing about is real. This is why Christopher Hitchens chose to use a lower-case g for his book title "god is Not Great." Hitchens was signalling that he didn't think God was God.

Now, in many of my recent posts I've been resorting to the spelling god. I do this, for example, when I'm talking about idolatrous conceptions of God. In my last post interacting Peter Rollin's book Insurrection I talk about his argument that for many Christians god is a deus ex machina. And in that post I extensively used god to indicate that this view of God--god as deus ex machina--isn't really God. I'm using the spelling to make a visual discrimination between true views of God and false views of God. God versus god.

But here's what I'm wondering. Who has a true view of God? No doubt I think my views of God are more truthful than those expressing deus ex machina views of God, but what does "more truthful" mean here? Aren't my views just as false, idolatrous and self-serving?

Here we run up against the difference between positive and negative theology, cataphatic and apophatic theology. Positive theology speaks to what can be properly said about God. This is what we tend to think of when we think about theology. It's the theology of church, this blog, and the seminary. It's a theology of words.

Negative theology is the theology of the mystics, the theology about that which cannot be said of God. It takes its cue from statements such as this from St. Augustine: "If you understand it, it's not God." It's the theology of the ineffible and inexpressible. A theology of silence and the failure of words.

One of the contentions of negative theology is that in a very important sense every spoken claim about God is a lie, a falsehood. To illustrate this, consider the following statements:
God is a father.
God is love.
God exists.
These are examples of positive theology, linguistic attempts to say something truthful about God. But are they true? Well, sort of. There is truth in each statement, but in important ways each sentence is also false.

It's easiest to see this with the first sentence. Is God a father? Well, yes, in a certain sense. Given our understandings of "fatherhood" God is like some of those things. But we also know that this is just a metaphor, that God isn't really a male. For example, we find ample maternal images of God in the Bible as well. So we know God is genderless. God is a father. But God is also a mother. And at the end of the day God isn't really either.

So let's make it more difficult. Is God love? Yes. But then again human love is a dim window on divine love. There are aspects of God's love that we don't understand. Paul speaks to this in his ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13: "Now we see in a glass darkly but then we will see face to face."

Now let's get really abstract. Does God exist? Yes. But then again not the way we understand existence. In our minds things that exist are objects. If unicorns exist this means that we can locate an object in the world somewhere that fits the description of a unicorn. But if we can't find this object then the unicorn doesn't exist.

Okay, if God exists is God an object? Here's a way to get at that question: Are there two things in the cosmos, God and the universe?

Does God + Universe = 2?

No. God isn't an object that can be counted alongside other objects. So in a key sense God doesn't exist. Not in the way we understand existence.

In short, you can't say anything about God--God is father, God is love, God exists--without speaking a falsehood. God foils all attempts at verbal description.

Which is why many consider silence to be more truthful about God. That negative theology is superior to positive theology.

I tend to agree. Which brings me back to god.

According to negative theology every time I speak of God I am really speaking of god. The word God is more false than true. And if that's the case should I not signal that I'm telling a lie? For example, I'm more than willing to use god to describe the deities of others but what makes me think I can use God to describe my understanding? Isn't spelling God in reference to my own deity the utmost in hubris?

What I'm basically saying is this, shouldn't every spelling of God be god? Not to say you aren't trying to point to the one true God, but spelling god is a sign--to yourself and others---that anything you say about God is inherently limited, fallible, contaminated, self-interested and idolatrous.

Shouldn't we all opt for god over God and G-d?

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Deus Ex Machina in Insurrection and The Authenticity of Faith

Continuing with my engagement with Peter Rollins's book Insurrection let me swing back in light of my last post and point to other areas where I'm in significant agreement with Rollins.

In fact, there is a great deal in Insurrection that overlaps with the work in my recent book The Authenticity of Faith (I've linked to the publisher as Amazon is now back-ordered). In many ways, much within The Authenticity of Faith makes the empirical, research case for what Rollins is describing in Insurrection.

You can think of The Authenticity of Faith as Insurrection in the psychological laboratory, statistics and all.

For example, recall that at the start of Insurrection Rollins begins by talking about god as deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is Latin for "god out of the machine" and it refers to an ancient Greek plot device where a god, in the form of a Greek deity, would swoop in to resolve the plot (e.g., rescuing the hero after he/she made a self-sacrificing choice). And by "swoop in" I mean literally swoop in as the deity would be lowered in on ropes (hence the phrase "god out of the machine"). In short, the deus ex machina is a plot contrivance to get us to a happy ending. The god rescues the story from ending on a tragic note.

Rollins contends in Insurrection, rightfully so, that for many Christians god functions in just this manner. God is a fixer, a band aid, a balm, a Santa Claus, a force field, a butler, an answer, an opium. When life gets hard, when our life story tends toward tragedy, god is a deus ex machina that is lowered into our lives to save the day and make us feel happier.

This has been a criticism of religious faith for a very long time. In The Authenticity of Faith my focus is on Freud's influential version of this argument (Rollins also cites Freud in Insurrection), that god is a form of wishful thinking and existential consolation.

One question I try to answer The Authenticity of Faith is if all religious believers use god as a deus ex machina. The problem, obviously, for a researcher like myself is how you go about assessing this among Christians. You can't just describe the deus ex machina version of god and then ask people, "Is that how you feel about god? Is your god a deus ex machina?" Few would admit they are using god in this way.

So, what I've done in my research is to identify a suite of beliefs that are associated with a deus ex machina theological configuration. People are more willing to endorse particular beliefs in comparison to asking them to honestly assess their unconscious motivations regarding belief in god. These beliefs are assessed in an instrument I created called the Defensive Theology Scale:
Deus Ex Machina Beliefs as Assessed by the Defensive Theology Scale

Special Protection: In the face of a hostile universe, the belief that God will especially protect the believer (and loved ones) from misfortune, illness, or death. The universe is existentially tamed.

Special Insight: In the face of difficult life decisions, the belief that God will provide clear guidance and direction. God’s guidance reduces the existential burden of choice.

Special Destiny: In the face of a life where meaning is fragile, the belief that God has created a special purpose for one’s life, a “destiny” that makes life intrinsically meaningful.

Denial of Randomness: In a life full of random, tragic, and seemingly meaningless events, the belief that God’s purpose and plan is at work. No event, however horrific or tragic, is existentially confusing or disconcerting. All is going according to plan.

Divine Solicitousness: The belief that the omnipotent God is constantly available and interested in aiding the believer, even with the mundane and trivial. God is an “eternal servant,” our Cosmic butler.
In my research I use the Defensive Theology Scale to assess the degree to which people have a deus ex machina view of god as described by Rollins (and Freud). I then compare these people who score low on the scale, those who eschew these beliefs.

So when you sort people in this way do they behave differently? More specifically, do they behave in the ways Rollins describes in Insurrection?

Part 3 of The Authenticity of Faith has some answers to those questions based upon a couple of different empirical investigations I've conducted. One of those I'll highlight in my next post in the Slavery of Death series.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Seeing Her

Two weeks ago I was asked by our Psychology Club to share a few thoughts for their Club chapel. The theme for the chapel this semester is to share about characters in the Bible who have affected or inspired your spiritual walk.

I selected the unnamed concubine from Judges 19.

Judges 19 is, perhaps, the most horrific episode in the Bible. I expect this may be the first, last and only time the students hear a message from this text.

I started by reading the whole chapter. When I ended it was pretty quiet in the room.

Looking up I offered these thoughts:

You're likely wondering, I started, why I selected this text and this unnamed woman. Why is she a person in the Bible who has significantly affected my spiritual walk? My answer is this: I selected her because I see her. Just like you see her.

Here's what I want you to notice. When I read that story you couldn't help but read the story from her perspective. And why is that? It's because you are a Christian. You read the story from the victim's perspective naturally and instinctively. And because of that you are rightly horrified and outraged.

We read the story from the victim's perspective because our imaginations have been shaped, through repeated tellings, by the story of Jesus, from the Triumphal Entry to the Crucifixion. We've been trained to read that story from Jesus's perspective, from the victim's perspective. We follow the Innocent One through conspiracy, betrayal, denial. abandonment, perjury, a broken justice system, political posturing, Machiavellian machinations, mob rule, torture, and death. And because we read the story this way we become horrified and outraged. Just like with Judges 19.

The gospels have taught us to read the story from the victim's perspective. This is what defines the Christian imagination. It's how we see the world. How we enter the story.

We see the woman in Judges 19. We read the story from her perspective. Because we have eyes that have been trained by the gospels. As Christians we look for the weakest most voiceless character in the story--and in the world around us--and declare, "We begin here."

After the many outrages in Judges 19 in verse 30 the people say this: "Consider it, take counsel, and speak out." The Hebrew for "consider it" is an idiom for "turn your heart" and this is followed by the phrase "to her." The text asks us to "turn our hearts toward her." Unfortunately, at this point in the story it's much too late. Hearts should have been turned toward her from the very beginning. But they were not.

But our hearts turn.

We see her.

And all the rest.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Insurrection: A Critique

In the most recent post of my Slavery of Death series I used Peter Rollins's book Insurrection to help illustrate some of the important ideas of Ernest Becker from The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.

In the comments of that post some of you wanted me to say a few more things about Insurrection. Given that in my last post I pointed out things I liked about the book I figured I'd write another post about some of the problems I see in Insurrection.

The main criticism I have of Insurrection is this: It's a theological and psychological non sequitur.

What I mean is this. The core of Rollins's argument is that we need to undergo a "death of god" experience to truly experience the resurrection life of love, right here and right now. As Rollins writes:
In this very act of forsaking the religious God, along with all the psychological comfort that comes with it, we can find a way of fully affirming God--not in some belief we affirm but in the material practice of love. So then, as we turn away from the obsessive desire to find fulfillment, meaning, and acceptance, we come into direct contact with them. This is life before death; this is life in all its fullness.
To get to love we have to undergo a "dark night of the soul" where we learn to live without God.

But here's my question, why should that be the case? What's the connection? Why does love follow from the death of god?

Rollins isn't particularly good in answering this question or in connecting those dots.

Reading through Insurrection I've looked for passages where Rollins tries to make the turn from "the death of god" to the practices of love. What, in his mind, connects the two? Logically, theologically, and psychologically?

It seems, and readers here can correct me if I'm wrong, that the critical chapter in making the transition from "crucifixion" (death of god) to "resurrection" (practice of love) occurs in Chapter 6 "We are Destiny." There Rollins discusses the contrast between God as an object of love versus God as love itself. This, it seems, is the critical connection. Rollins here making this case:
[W]e are introduced [here] to a radically different way of understanding God's presence in the Resurrection. Here we no longer approach God as an object that we love. Indeed, the idea of loving God directly becomes problematic. Instead, we learn that God is present in the very act of love itself. We do not find happiness by renouncing the world and pointing our desire toward the divine, but now we discover the divine in our very act of loving the world. God is loved through the work of love itself (Matthew 18:20, 1 John 4:20). It is in love that we find new meaning, joy, and fulfillment ...

When God is treated as an object that we love, then we always experience a distance between ourselves and the ultimate source of happiness and meaning. But when God is found to be love itself, then the very act of loving brings us into immediate relationship with the deepest truth of all. In love, the fragile, broken, temporal individual or cause that draws forth our desire becomes the very site where we find pleasure and peace. God no longer pulls on us as something "out there"; rather, God is a presence that is made manifest in our very midst. Here meaning is not found in turning away from the world but in fully embracing it through the act of love.
As best I can tell (again, correct me if you disagree), this is the critical passage connecting the "death of god" with love. The logic seems to go like this. If God is an object of love "out there" then our love becomes directed away from this world. Love, we might say, becomes "spiritualized," and not in a good way. By contrast, if God is love itself, we are thrust into the world.

This notion should sound familiar to regular readers as Rollins is explicitly following Dietrich Bonhoeffer here. I've worked through Bonhoeffer's notion of living etsi deus non daretur ("as if there were no god") here and how this creates the immanent transcendence of the "religionless Christianity" here. Rollins's analysis in Insurrection is also unpacking these ideas.

Now I agree with all this, both with Rollins and Bonhoeffer. We need to resist the other-worldliness inherent in religious belief and practice. I'm a huge fan of this move.

That said, I'd like to raise three quibbles with Insurrection.

Quibble #1. While Rollins unpacks Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity and etsi deus non daretur he fails to go on to discuss Bonhoeffer's treatment of the "arcane" or "secret" discipline in the Letters and Papers from Prison. What is this discipline and why is it secret? In his letter from April 30, 1944 Bonhoeffer describes the discipline as "worship and prayer." These are religious rituals directed toward God as "object." But why are worship and prayer to be kept secret? Bonhoeffer's worry is that these explicitly religious rituals will prove distancing and off-putting to a religionless "world come of age." Thus, according to Bonhoeffer we should hide these practices, as far as the world is concerned Christians should look "religionless." Christians shouldn't practice worship and prayer in public. "Before God and with God we live without God in the world."

But here's the critical issue and the point where I think Rollins might have run off the rails. Specifically, Bonhoeffer isn't rejecting or denying the role of worship and prayer in sustaining the community of saints. Worship and prayer aren't eliminated. They are just secret. The religious, transcendent dimension isn't collapsed in a "death of god" move. The ritual is simply removed from public view as it is simply incomprehensible to the "world come of age." Worship and prayer are to be "words between friends." The best articulation of all this comes from a 1932 lecture Bonhoeffer gave in Berlin:
Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the "Discipline of the Secret" in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable...

The primary confession of the Christan before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.
This is a very different view of religion than what we find in Insurrection. For Bonhoeffer there is an economy "between God and the community."

This brings me to Quibble #2. Rollins seems to be suggesting that we have to choose between "God as other-worldly object of love" versus "God as the act of love itself." This is framed as an either/or choice. But why? Why not both? Why can't be God be both immanent and transcendent? Can't both be endorsed?

Take, as a real world example, Dorothy Day. Here we have an exemplary Christan when it comes to living out the works of mercy. If anyone is an example of a loving insurrectionist it was Dorothy Day.

But here's the deal. Day was a devout Catholic who believed in God as an object of love. She attended Mass every day, sometimes twice a day. She prayed the Rosary constantly. God as object of love sustained Day's living love as God. Just as Bonhoeffer said the secret discipline would sustain us. And for Day it was "secret." Day didn't make the poor go to Mass with her. She didn't try to convert them. As far as the poor were concerned, Day was "religionless." God wasn't used by Day to create "enemies," injecting religion between herself and the poor. But let's be clear, religion sustained Day, week in and week out.

So how does someone like Dorothy Day fit in the scheme of Insurrection? She's living a life of love, radically so, but with God as an object of love. Does that make sense in light of Insurrection?

In short, why does Rollins insist we have to choose? Can't we, instead, be Christians like Bonhoeffer and Day? True, both Bonhoeffer and Day were extraordinarily concerned with how "religion" is a constant temptation, sucking love out of this world into the black hole of other-worldly spirituality. But that's a far cry from saying that we have to choose one over the other.

Which brings me to Quibble #3. If all Rollins is talking about is other-worldly spirituality, about how "God as object of love" pulls us away from "God as love," then it seems, given what we've just discussed, that his cure is disproportionate to the disease. He's demanding a root canal when a filling would do. He's hunting rabbits with atom bombs.

Recall, again, what Rollins is asking us to do. We are to undergo a death of god experience that shatters us. In the words of Rollins: "In this dark hour, when the very earth beneath us gives way, we experience utter desolation."

What is unclear here is why we have to experience "utter desolation" if Rollins is just asking us to be more loving. Why can't, say, a transcendent worship experience with a great praise band motivate me to be more loving? It happens. Why can't things like worship and prayer, as mentioned by Bonhoeffer, be the route to loving-kindness? This is what I'm talking about in saying there is a non sequitur in the middle of Insurrection. Rollins doesn't explicate the necessary connection between undergoing "utter desolation" and love. Nor does he explain why such a drastic experience is required when less extreme options are available.

True, religious ritual tempts us into other-worldliness. But "utter desolation" tempts us to commit suicide.

It's not like Rollins's route to love is risk free.

So why prefer it?
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