Monthly Archives: January 2014

Accepting homosexuality: Millstone? Freedom?

The issue of homosexuality has been a major stumbling block in my faith since coming here.

I’m coming from a background which has not historically accepted any physical-sexual practice outside of marriage between one man and one woman. I believed that tradition’s teaching and was comfortable with it. (Perhaps I believed it because I was comfortable with it?) I’ve entered a place where some of my peers are homosexual and in homosexual relationships and practicing Christians. Anymore I don’t know what I believe although I have to confess I’m not fully comfortable with Christian homosexuals (or non-Christian homosexuals). (But I still want to be friends!) I’m sure it’s part of my upbringing and preferences, just like I was verbally and non-verbally raised to avoid parts of downtown because there were “blacks” there, probably “with guns”. I won’t even completely pass the buck — I continue to entertain thought and affection patterns which reinforce my biases. If only I didn’t!

I am glad that it’s not up to me to solve this issue for everyone. But, it’s an ambiguity I may need to solve for myself before committing to any philosophy.

Jesus has heavy words for both those who would try to lighten his followers’ loads and those who would try to bog his followers down. Check it:

“… whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” –Matt. 18.6

“[The religious leaders] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”  — Matt. 23

Which side is right? Certainly none of us want either option, do we? We don’t want to be condoning something wicked in God’s eyes that could disrupt or jeopardize others’ relationships to God. Nor do we want to force someone to deny themselves in a soul-crushing way. More to the point, we don’t want a millstone tied around our necks and we don’t want the charge of wrongfully morally burdening others.

I hope this post hasn’t been insensitive (though with my luck it probably has). I just want to share one of the hang-ups I have when it comes to faith (or ethics pursued outside of faith). Can anyone relate? What words would you share?

Other questions: To what lengths will we go, and what “biblical/theological” means will we employ, to justify fulfilling our desires or stay in society’s good graces?
It’s been shown, by people like Peter Enns, that Israel’s laws were not particularly unique when compared to those of surrounding Ancient Near East cultures. For example, the Bible speaks to a context in which slavery was accepted; Israelites and early Christians happened to view it as God-ordained. In our world today we reject slavery. Should we also reject “traditional” (heterosexual — etc., etc.) romantic love as the only acceptable kind?

The religion of Naturalism

Every worldview necessarily has presuppositions that can only be accepted by presuppositions canonical to that worldview. Jenny believes God exists because she believes the authority of Scripture and testimony of others; she believes those witnesses are trustworthy because they exalt the name of God. George believes god does not exist because he believes certain philosophers’ words on the matter; he believes those philosophers because they don’t posit anything as ridiculous as a god. These are facile examples but I really think all reasoning and argument is ultimately circular.

Naturalism itself is a kind of religion. It has…

A myth of origin: evolutionary, non-Big-Bang theory science

A definition of the human “problem”: insufficient knowledge, superstition, ignorance

A salvific event: the Enlightenment

A church: the secular academy

Prophets: the philosophes, e.g. Voltaire; other philosophers; Darwin and other scientists

A means of redemption: rejection of theism, superstition, and ignorance

A trajectory: death after life but hopefully progress and prosperity for future generations

As a skeptic, I cannot even accept a system like Naturalism except as another form of religion.

And unfortunately, skepticism has its own problematic presupposition: that nothing can be known for certain, which is self-defeating, because if nothing can be known for certain, then we can’t know for certain that nothing can be known for certain and thus that presupposition is nonsense.

What I must accept is that life is mystery. In fact, no one knows very much. And little to nothing for certain. So I’m no less able to know what the hell is going on than anyone else. And that’s OK. At least, I need to try to be okay with that ambiguity.

I don’t quite know
How to say
How I feel

Those three words
Are said too much
They’re not enough

— Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

How do I feel? Do my feelings really matter?

A friend recently saw through something I have known for a while. My questions and philosophizing about faith are pointless.

Everything hinges on the resurrection. Either it happened (for which there might be decent arguments), or it didn’t (for which there are decent arguments). I have decided I cannot reason my way to God, I can only Jesus my way to God, meaning I can either historically and spiritually accept Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at Christianity or historically and spiritually deny Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at non-Christianity. This seems to fit Jesus’ words on the subject (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — John 14.6). A third option for now would be to continue as an agnostic.

But the point is, all these “intellectual” questions I’m asking are not going to accomplish anything. Philosophers have both “proved” God’s existence and God’s non-existence. As mentioned in my post “Miracle?“, I think Donald Miller is right on about people not converting for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones.

“Emotional reasons” may be too much of a reduction. Our relationships (as I argued last week), bodies, wills, locales, education, hobbies, habits and choices surely factor in as well. How arbitrarily and complexly we are formed!

Henceforth I want to examine these non-rational issues regarding faith and life. I want to look at the intersection(s) of feeling and thought and belief and decision, etc. If mental disorders have taught me anything, it’s that many pieces constitute the whole given whenever someone drops the question “How’s it goin’?”. The same goes for “What are you thinkin’ about?”.

What are you thinkin’ about? Does this make any sense? Should I give “reason” another chance?

“You are who you hang with”. Must I be?

It would be worthwhile to explore the effect community is having on my beliefs even while it is happening.

I mean this:

I came in as a conservative, inerrantist-leaning believer. Then I found Christian pluralism and the silence of God in my life too hard to reconcile with my presuppositions. So I dropped belief and became a skeptic and agnostic.

Skepticism provides no m.o. so I have defaulted to certain patterns. To name them, I would say I am operating under pragmatism, self-interest, and Christian-informed ethics.

My skepticism allows me both to question the point of divinity school in general if there is no god, but also opens me to the idea that, if there is a right way of believing and practicing, Duke — with its mainstream, sola scriptura sed non nuda scriptura (idea I take from Daniel Treier, that Christians best use Scripture as the only divine authority but not divorced from tradition) approach to scripture and tradition, historical-criticism-informed biblical interpretation, and narrative based ethics — might have it. (I should probably drop the idea there is one right way of doing anything…)

If I do not come into contact with communities I can trust and identify with that hold different belief systems, I will probably eventually accept some version of Ducal Christianity. It would be the only option I have; there is nothing else before me.

In fact, I’m calling it now — I am going to become a Christian believer again. Considering my background and environment, the community of friends I most identify with here, I just see it so plainly before me. And that excites me; I’m happy about it: frankly, agnosticism/skepticism, while eradicating much of my guilt, have a metaphysical emptiness resulting in an existential sadness.

But I’m not at that point yet, and I also find this fated “return to the fold” sad, a failure on my part to push the skeptical envelope.

What could I do to avoid merely “becoming who I hang with” (to paraphrase dear old Mum)?

1) Drop out (problems here — I need a job, I want to teach something in university someday, Mum and Dad would not be happy).

2) Study somewhere else for a semester (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), for example – I could be comfortable in that environment if simultaneously frustrated with the foreshortened scholastic inquiry. However, now that I’m in Durham I don’t want to move).

3) Temporarily associate with a church or religion quite foreign to me (I don’t want to do this).

Questions: What other options do I have? Should I reconsider any of the above three?

How can we avoid being conditioned by the ones we most trust into the beliefs we have and hold?

If we can’t, how can we really believe Christianity is truth?

If people’s beliefs are determined by those they most closely associate with and if Christianity is truth, how can people growing up in non-Christian societies be faulted by God, a long-held soteriological position?

How are you in love? Tell me about that. The big Nikki love. Tell me about it, I wanna understand it.

-Tiffany
Silver Linings Playbook, dir. David O. Russell

Look at me. I am Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook. I am hot. I am angry. I have been running after you and I want to know what it is I am missing.

Replace “Nikki” with “God” in the quote.

American Protestants talk a lot about God’s love, as though they feel it. They talk about their relationship with God as if God talks to them.

I used to claim similar things: “Jesus loves you. I know it – because he loves me.” “I think God’s trying to teach me __[humility, trust, patience – insert Christianese term here]__.” Those kinds of claims sound hyperbolic and largely meaningless to me now.

What did I mean by “I know Jesus loves me” or “God’s trying to teach me ___”? At the time I honestly believed in God’s love and instruction. I believed it because of my church’s (and my own) interpretation of the Bible, because I trusted the authority of my spiritual parents and predecessors, because I had certain aesthetic, emotional and/or psychological experiences I interpreted as being ordered somehow by God.

But in the last few years I stopped making these kinds of claims and tried to speak more accurately about my experience of faith. I stopped positing most claims of “Yes, I felt God hug me this morning” or “God made me miss my bus so I could meet an old lady at the bus stop and help her on”. I began to say only what I could derive from the Bible (sometimes tradition). This allowed me to maintain my integrity of proclamation, be true to my experience, say things I thought were true, still engage in Christian conversation, and challenge unfounded notions about the activity of God in our world.

I think many of my friends cause themselves to believe that God is communicating or acting in ways God is not. And I think this is dangerous. There is a reason Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac fills non-Christians with terror while inspiring Christians with hope. The Christians celebrate Abraham’s trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. Non-Christians fear what filicide or other tragedy will happen next by someone claiming they hear the voice of God.

I imagine my friends who say they talk with God and feel His love think those interactions are really happening but are misguided. I do not want to project my former (believed) experience of God on others: I simply may not have had that “touchy-feely” kind of relationship with God. I was what might be called a “wintry Christian”. Because of psychological issues I distrust my emotions and try to separate emotional responses from my beliefs.

Perhaps I am all wrong: perhaps my friends really do hear from or feel God and God just never willed that kind of relationship for me (for which I would be pissed, but that is for another post).

So: “Tell me about it”.

Christians, would you say God communicates to you? How? Do my friends sound too mystic regarding God’s communication? Do they sound too restricted, Bible-based? What quality/quantity of communication indicates a person might not have a relationship with God? What quality/quantity of “communication” indicates a person might be imagining things?

Post-Christians, did you (like me) discard the moniker “Christian” because of the “silence of God” in your life? Were there times you thought God was communicating with you? Do you still think God formerly communicated with you?

Non-Christians, have you ever thought it was possible a transcendent being was trying to communicate with you? Why are so many people convinced a transcendent being communicates with them? What criteria should they examine to determine whether they are right or not?

The problem of Christian pluralism

Coming to Duke was a weird experience.

I was coming from a quite conservative Protestant background and, not to mention thinking practiced homosexuality was sin, thought even ordaining women was problematic. Funny thing for me to end up at Duke then – a place where both acts receive varying amounts of approval (and disapproval, to be sure). I knew this would be the case however, and came because I was tired of the standard conservative discussions of the Bible I was privy to, discussions which I thought read Jesus into every passage and made conclusions based on doctrine rather than what was present in the text at hand.

Duke has been a change from that. I appreciate the close reading and thoughtful discussions encouraged here. However, being here has taught me that my former “opponents”, “the liberals”, actually do care about and read the Bible (much to the chagrin of conservatives who would say they do not).

This presented a problem: if the people here are trying to take the Bible seriously, why do they come to so many different conclusions? Is there not “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, to cite Paul? Why is there the plurality of belief and practice?

There are at least two (perhaps a plurality of) perspectives on this question’s answer. One, God somehow inspired the many voices making up the Bible, and loves and guides the various expressions — of diverse peoples, languages, backgrounds, politics, etc. — of the Church (while graciously allowing some errors, explaining discrepancies in doctrine/praxis). Another perspective, there is no god, only clever people trying to patch together a system of belief, which thus explains the inconsistencies within the Bible and within the religion Christianity.

The second perspective appealed more to me after initial consideration though I am currently undecided.

Christians, the plurality within Christianity seems microcosmic of the plurality of world religions – if true, does this complicate claims about the unique truth of Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life”? How do you reconcile this plurality with the singularity of truth that you claim?

Non-/Post-Christians, there seems to be a surprising unity within the Bible considering its drawn-out time and myriad places of composition. What case can be made for the Bible’s origins being solely human?

Ditching guilt

One of the best outcomes of my move from Christianity so far has been ditching guilt.

As a Christian I was constantly measuring myself up to some Christian superhero I thought I had to be. I was supposed to pray (briefly if necessary, but best on my knees and for a significant amount of time) and read my Bible (spending enough time with it to generate or receive some significant insight) every morning. I had to express my love to God somehow through worship too; this meant me thinking towards God “I love you! You are great!” I had to look at fewer persons lustfully than the day before and avoid touching myself. The list goes on.

I had concluded that feelings of spiritual inadequacy and guilt were feelings I was going to struggle with my whole life, because I indeed was spiritually inadequate. And I was resigned to this: everyone has his own cross to bear. I may continue to struggle with a notion of being inadequate or not good enough through my life, but for now I am so glad to be (relatively) guilt-free!

Some of my Christian friends celebrate with me my drop-kicking guilt to China (well, somewhere else, anyway). I know many good Christian people who want others to live guilt-free. I think it is possible to live mostly guilt-free as a Christian. I do not think I felt guilt because I viewed God as a Judge waiting for me to make a mistake. It is possible the guilt I felt (and may feel again) is more related to psychological issues (e.g. self-loathing).

Whatever the reason, since calling myself an agnostic I have not stressed about the following – praying, reading my Bible, worship, my sexuality, evangelism. And that has been great! It has been so freeing.

Questions: A) Here I have used “guilt-free” as an antonym for “guilt”. What opposite emotions/terms might you posit for guilt and why? B) If I still believe some acts I commit are wrong and believe god might exist, why do I feel so little guilt after my wrong-doing right now? C) Christianity could cause someone to feel more or less guilt than she currently does – how would you persuade a person to convert when she lives fairly guilt-free and has no wish to adopt a system which could add guilt to her life? D) Where do we draw the line between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt in one’s life?

Fear

Fear is part of life. It is an emotion we all know. We fear a hundred disparate things. Fear is a currency; we use it to manipulate others. Our politics -and arguably our media and economy – are driven chiefly by fear. And despite its ubiquity, fear is still a horror: it causes us to sweat and panic during the day and lie awake and curse our existence at night.

Fear is part of Christianity. Christianity needs fear.

Israel trusted the Pharisees to teach them how to please God and avoid Gehenna. (I am weak on first-century Jewish theology; please correct me if you can.) So the Pharisees claimed to have authority to declare who was righteous and worthy and who was not. They were metaphysical brokers who dealt in eternal life and death. In a culture where the layman had little to no access to the agreed-upon revelation of God, the layman had to rely on his religious instructors, like the Pharisees, and do everything he could to please them: he had no other alternative.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for their abuse of power. I think his most damning denouncements are “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and “You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”. Jesus sees the problem: the Pharisees are playing god and making people miserable with their demands. Jesus seems to want to free people from this oppression (23.2-12) but likewise relies on the fear of hell to “make a proselyte”. In Matthew 10.28 he instructs his disciples not to fear, describing God’s love, but adds that rather than fearing those who can kill only the body they fear him – presumably God – who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

I argue that Christianity needs this metaphysical fear, the concept of hell, to persist. If there is no hell, no damnation for the general populace, there is no reason to turn to religion; likewise, there is no reason to evangelize: no one needs to “be saved” from ultimate torment. Christianity is not unique in needing fear for its purposes but neither is it exonerated for this, especially since many of its adherents mistakenly believe fear is absent from their message of creation, fall and redemption. Consciously or not, Christians blithely damn the world to hell unless it follows their particular instructions (varying from group to group).

I do not claim the presence of fear in Christianity operates to obfuscate its falsehood; I claim it makes people miserable and impedes open inquiry to Christianity’s claims. If I doubt, if I do not believe, can I ever know God and be saved? Or must I believe first and try to understand later (fides quarens intellectum)? Best to not doubt, to not ask questions, to not push God’s buttons and ensure the salvation of my soul.

Questions: A) Can fear be avoided: is the structure of the universe such that fear will be a partial motivation in every decision (e.g. fearing poverty, I go to work)? B) I am getting at the interplay of ethos and logos in argumentation in this post (a theme considered in “Miracle?”). Is it possible to divorce the emotional response of fear from the proposition of hell in Christian dialogue? What alternatives do people have – Christians or not – to using fear in argumentation (i.e. manipulation by fear)? C) Do I miss the point – does Jesus’ message somehow transcend and avoid using fear?

Miracle?

Recently a friend asked me how I would respond if I witnessed a miracle, something that could only be explained with supernatural causes, right now.

I said first it would scare the shit out of me.

Then I would question it: I would want to know why god wanted to reveal a miracle to me, what god’s purpose was in doing that; I would want to know all the details – what really happened, and how, etc. I hate ambiguity. I learned this through studying language – I always want to know why there are the slightest exceptions to grammatical rules. This hatred also explains my very direct romantic attempts/approach: if I’m interested in someone I do not beat around the bush about it (usually).

I had to also confess to my friend that I could become completely bogged down in these questions, perhaps much as I am currently in my faith life. Perhaps I ought to let things be, but I cannot find myself able to do so.

Eventually I told him I would emotionally “shut down” to the experience. My friend said this – the emotional reaction – is what he wanted me to tell him about the whole time. I distrust my emotions. I have a history of clinical depression, anxiety (social- and stress-induced), panic attacks, slight-OCD and paranoia: after this deluge of emotion mixed in with my faith life it is hard to let myself trust or give myself over to my emotions ever. Because of this, I think it is possible I would seek a way to explain the miracle away so I did not have to emotionally respond to it at all.

Donald Miller writes in Blue Like Jazz that people do not walk away from Christianity for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones. I think it is important to recognize the role emotion plays in belief. Anyone who denies emotion affects belief – be they deist or Marxist or naturalist or Catholic – is wrong: it is a Modern dream that people believe things solely because they are empirical or rational. We believe things because of reason, we hope, but also because of the community we were raised in, the community and place we are currently in, the preferences we have, the emotions we have, the bodies we have, the wills we have. I think belief is largely a choice but maybe not even wholly a choice. Perhaps Paul was on to something when he said faith was a gift of God.

I hope to engage these ideas – the role of factors other than intellect, especially emotion or place, on our beliefs; why I have walked away from Christianity; etc. – further in future posts. But for now suffice it to say that I may not be open to a miracle even if I saw one. A different friend of mine said as much happened to him – he saw miracles while in Haiti but did not allow them to affect him or his faith at all. Jesus spoke to this: he said that many will see but not perceive or hear but not understand.

If so, what could I do in the event of a miracle? I think I could only respond as my conscience best dictated, trying to open my mind to the real possibility of the miracle but simultaneously relying on my best judgment and Ockham’s razor. I think I would be an uncomfortable incarnation of believer and devil’s advocate. I think I would be much as I am now.

Questions: A) Why do miracles always seem to be unverified by modern, critical methods? Is it because verifying them would somehow miss the point? Or is it because the only miracles that can persist are the unverifiable ones, the hoaxes? B) Why would God want to avoid verification? C) Can people blind themselves to truth? Or, can/does God blind people to God/the truth (i.e., am I Calvinistically-, soteriologically-fucked)?