Category Archives: Theology

It is finished

Well. Hello again. This is embarrassing. I mean, it’s just been a while. Anyway, yeah, I finished a Master’s at Duke – finally. Not the one I came in with. That was the Master of Theological Studies. But I finished a shorter degree called the Master of Arts of Christian Studies. Besides joking with people that I have become “divine” on completing Divinity school (and seriously I look more like traditional portrayals of Jesus now than ever before in my life – getting close in age, too…), I have told people my MACS degree means I “study the Christians”. Which may not be so far off, especially since I consider myself at least somewhat apart from that designator, but what I did with my MACS and the tone of the program is much less judgmental and removed than “studying Christians”. Duke Divinity would probably like it better if it was described simply as it is named – a Master’s-level education in the arts of Christian studies – those (academic) pursuits that people tend to be drawn towards due to (their) Christian faith.

I think that’s about all I want to say at this point. I am far less “gung-ho”, for lack of a better term, about my “agnosticism” now. I don’t want to say I’m a Christian, but I don’t want others to say I’m not a Christian, if that makes any kind of sense. And not because I want an “in” so I can bone Christian women, though, that would be a decent reason. But because neither of those are fully accurate. I am different now, but also very much the same as I ever was. Certain beliefs and values have gained vastly more or less importance than was true before, but I don’t feel there has been some entire kind of severance from the old – read, pre-doubting (~2011?) – me.

I’m not in any kind of rush to see where I will go next, or what I will think next, though I would like to return to “the fold” some day. I’m also not in any kind of rush to self-improve, which, meh, kind of bothers me, should probably bother me more. But then, I was burning the “All for Christ” torch of self-mastery for most of my life before all this, and I think I’m just tired. Teaching middle school will make you tired too. Really tired. But more on that for another day. For now- cheers!

And, Duke – meh. You were really not my favorite place. Your students were extremely pretentious, fairly profligate, and riding the environmentally/racially/gender/politically/theologically/socially-conscious train frequently less consciously than they should have. In contrast, your professors were largely brilliant, decent, even kind human beings. But stop trying to be an Ivy-league school. Your education just is not worth the price you put on it. Especially when I know thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of my dollars went unnecessarily to building campaigns and athletic programs.

Chat with a Pastor

So I’m a guy.

I’ve probably done a poor job hiding that through these posts, but that knowledge is going to be essential for what follows, so, let all doubt be removed: I have X and Y chromosomes (or so I’m told).

In former work I’ve been asked to do “hot” (immediate) feedback and then “cold” (24-hours-later) feedback regarding events I had planned. I’m going to do that now; this post being the hot feedback and either a comment or post to follow being cold feedback.

Today I talked about my faith issues with a pastor I had had while an undergraduate. My first reaction after our conversation was “Wow – that’s kind of trippy”. Indulge me to explain.

I told him my faith story, focusing on what has led up to my current place. Then he shared about crises of faith he had had at nearly the same stage of life. This part of his history, these crises, were why I had contacted him in the first place. Sometimes I want to return to faith; sometimes I don’t. I thought the most meritorious thing for me to do in the circumstances was contact someone who had been in similar circumstances himself.

So, towards the end of our conversation, he, as would be expected from a pastor, urges me to get involved in a vibrant church. I have heard this advice before, from other pastor-ish people. As a cynic I would say “Of course, you’re going to “find God” if you surround yourself with people saying they have “found God””. But at the same time, we often fail in our pursuits (whatever they are) when we go them alone, and as he said trying to find God outside of Church would be like “trying to study the stars without a telescope”: if God exists, and God chose a group of people to proclaim God and God’s messages on earth, that group of people might be the only way I can learn of God.

At this point the conversation took a strange turn. Porn. Masturbation. The presence of these things in my life had come up earlier. I had mentioned I had had difficulty reconciling my being a Christian, supposedly having God at work in my life, and these things being a consistent presence. This disconnect was one thing leading up to my agnosticism.

The pastor said something weird to me. He said “You know why men are so obsessed with breasts?” It got weirder. “Because they represent the maternal!” What? He explained that, by his reckoning, men need the maternal, and even more, “the Feminine”, in their lives and this is what drives them to porn. They get some pleasure out of porn itself, but even more what they desire is connection to the Feminine. In his understanding, a healthy desire for the maternal and the Feminine (however these terms relate…) gets twisted into an eroticised obsession with breasts.

I’m pretty sure this all comes from his study of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. I don’t know much of that theology or its strengths and weaknesses. But I want to share a paraphrase from John Paul II he shared with me: “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but too little.” The idea here is that what men are seeking is a fulfilling of their need for the Feminine, but porn only offers the tiniest slice of what true feminine-ness is. And I think that’s right: when I’m reflective I realize the sensuality of porn and masturbation is all well and good, fun, but what I am really looking for is a woman, a wife, someone to share life with. Lewis says something to this effect in Surprised By Joy: that as a young atheist he enjoyed the pleasures of sex but found them to be missing the point; what he was looking for was joy, what he was finding in sex was momentary delight. (To be sure, for Lewis dabbling in sensual pleasures demonstrated desire for a transcendent joy found only in God rather than “a need for the Feminine”.) I imagine this goes both ways: women, too, might go to porn but looking for the Masculine? I have no idea how this works for gays, lesbians, bis or others (and I just read Hays’ chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision today so I won’t even begin to try to work on that).

What does finding a vibrant Church community have to do with this? And where am I going with all this? For this pastor the Church, “Holy Church” as he called it, is the maternal, the Feminine. Thus, what I have been seeking will be found in the Church. Do I buy this? I don’t know. He said this was true in his own life, that as he got more involved in church and received the laying on of hands and prayer he found some healing and relief from his sexual struggles, without even directly confronting them. I don’t think “church” is the answer for me or even an answer book or guide to the answers. I have come to dislike and distrust all notions of “answers” to philosophical, psychological, theological problems. (What a good little post-modern I am!) But to be fair I will have to take him at his word and give his advice a shot. After all, that’s why I went to him: to seek advice. If I don’t take it, why did I ask in the first place?

It gets trippier. Without his knowing, his words mesh with the experiences of my last 18 hours. Last night, I was partying. All I wanted was to make-out with some girl, or kiss some girl. I had someone in mind. Nothing really came of it. Afterwards, going to bed, I was feeling sexually frustrated, sad, alone (as I imagine many do after they party: It’s fun while it’s happening but only serves to underscore your emptiness, singleness, alone-ness when it’s all over).

That night I dreamt of my Grammaw. She died several years ago. I miss her. The dream was her and me riding in a car somewhere, and during the drive I opened up to her about my agnosticism. She took it very calmly. No judgement. In fact, nearly no words. I could tell she still accepted me but she wanted us to be silent and not cheapen the exchange with tawdry words. I could not tell exactly what was coming next. Soon we arrived at a building, a kind of barn or something that may have had other people but if they were there I didn’t really notice. I gather that we were there to build something, a kind of chair, from pieces of burning wood that were lying around inside this barn. I don’t know why they were burning or why we were building the chair or what it was for. We just worked in silence. I would go around collecting pieces of wood and bring them to Grammaw and she would position them until we had our chair. I handled the wood with tongs, but Grammaw used her bare hands. I don’t know why, or how she could bear it. And I had the sense that Grammaw was using even this silent process of chair-building to teach me something, to show me something, but I don’t know what.

I woke up today and talked about this dream with a housemate. I think, like myself, he felt lonely and empty after the night. Possibly we had had similar hopes and desires for the previous evening; possibly not. Anyway, he asked me what the dream meant. “Hell if I know!” I thought. “I don’t know” I told him.

But now I wonder if there is a strange connection underlying the partying, my frustration, the dream of Grammaw and the conversation with my former pastor about doubt, porn, the Feminine, and the Church.

Am I reading too much into these events and today’s conversation? Is this merely a coincidence: everyday sexual desires brought front and center in a discussion of “mother Church”? Does this all predicate on an erroneous theology of sexuality? Has the pastor cleverly spun my words and experiences as “signposts to God”? What more would you point out to me about my dream? Is God speaking?

I really appreciated the pastor’s time and concern. He was also wonderfully frank. I will continue to mull his words but wanted to quickly record my positive reaction to his words and affirmation of both my past Christian experiences and my present agnosticism or doubt, a tension many Christians deal with by either denying the former or negating the latter.

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?

“Theology!” said Mr. Straik with profound contempt. “It’s not theology I’m talking about, young man, but the Lord Jesus. Theology is talk – eyewash – a smokescreen – a game for rich men. It wasn’t in lecture rooms I found the Lord Jesus. It was in the coal pits, and beside the coffin of my daughter. If they think that Theology is a sort of cotton wool which will keep them safe in the great and terrible day, they’ll find their mistake. For, mark my words, this thing is going to happen. The kingdom is going to arrive: in this world: in this country….”
That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis

These are the words of the Reverend Straik in Lewis’ “Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, That Hideous Strength. This novel is set in mid-20th century England (a fictionalized Durham, England actually) and about a husband and wife who find themselves on opposing forces as N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, and a motley crew of Christians strive to win Merlin (yes, the wizard) to their respective sides. Here Straik is talking to Mark, the husband, about his eschatological beliefs and, in a sense, explaining why he is part of N.I.C.E., the force of evil in this novel.

Through these words we see that Straik is right about the coming divine judgment; but hinted in this section and more explicit elsewhere we see he is wrong about how the Judge works and who, in fact, the Judge is. Straik is ergo an antichrist. He knows some of the right words and even preaches them. But his god is not God. His god is one of might and wrath. His god gives signs of power. This is why Straik sides with N.I.C.E. – the being, “the Macrobe”, N.I.C.E. has established contact with performs tricks and seems to transcend our physical dimensions and even death. And this god’s demeanor fits what many of us know of power: he is merciless and bloodthirsty, demanding service and death even from his most ardent servants. But unfortunately for Straik, the being he has pledged to, though appearing all-powerful and the arbiter of justice, is merely a con, a trickster, the devil himself. [SPOILER! – His power pales in comparison to that of the true judge, who destroys N.I.C.E. via its own treacheries towards the novel’s end. In the end, the Macrobe demands a blood sacrifice and Straik, who as a shepherd should have died trying to save others, ends up fighting to save himself and eventually being overcome. – END SPOILER!] In more ways than one Straik shows the ironic truth of his words that merely knowing the truth about Jesus does not serve as a surrogate fleece to save a person on judgment day.

Before entering divinity school, I penned this quote into the cover of my journal. I did this to remind me of my beliefs before entering what my version of Christianity saw as a liberal theological school. Conservative Protestants love to emphasize faith in Jesus over external religious acts: it’s not going to church that saves you, but believing Jesus died for you, repenting and professing him. This quote can serve as a helpful reminder for theology students of any background to keep their focus on Jesus, a focus I have come to decide the New Testament encourages and demonstrates the more I have read the NT.

But I think this quote does something else. It challenges studying theology for the sake of increased theological knowledge by saying that knowing about Jesus is not enough. I am still tempted to think I will come out of seminary with some greater grasp on truth than when I entered, and that I will be “the better” for it, much as I know this is false. I think many of my classmates believe the same. This is worrisome. Not so much because I am currently concerned for our souls. It is worrisome because I fear inactivity, egoism, service of the self, waxing theologic in towers of ivory. Even if I do not return to Christianity or organized religion I want my too-self-centered life to be made of use for others. I want to teach and encourage students and help them feel good about themselves and their abilities. I want them to pursue truth.

This quote challenges me to strive towards a larger goal, one not of merely forming my own beliefs and thought but of using what I learn to better serve and love others.

Questions: A) Is the Western, academic theological pursuit – studying significant historic and contemporary claims about God to earn a living teaching others significant historic and contemporary claims about God – useless or morally bankrupt? B) If so, why and how should the pursuit be changed? If not, how is studying theology beneficial to serving others, spiritually and/or non-spiritually? C) It seems easy to love humanity and simultaneously hate humans. How do we apply our grander magnanimous aspirations to daily interaction with individuals?