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Christians Can’t Simply Be Conservative

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants, Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on October 4, 2016 at 5:12 pm

Just the other day, I was listening to a pastor casually commenting on social issues, and underlying all his comments was the foundational belief that being Christian goes hand in hand with being conservative.

I have been uncomfortable with this attitude since I was in high school and have been arguing that on some issues, Christians ought to find themselves agreeing with the liberal positions.    I was recently introduced to the work of Dr. Barry Johnson.   I think he has provided me a way of communicating the dangers of believing that to be Christian is to be conservative or, if you want, Republican.

Johnson says that there are two basic kinds of arguments we find ourselves in.

There’s the kind where either you are right or you are wrong.  Let’s call these either/or disagreements.  In these instances, the purpose of the argument is to establish who is right and who is wrong. Theoretically, these arguments are resolved once the truth is established.

Sometimes we get into arguments where there isn’t a right or wrong answer–both/and disagreements.

For instance:

  • Is social media good or is social media bad?
  • Shall we save or shall we spend?
  • Is it better to development or  to preservation?
  • Action or Reflection
  • “You are either with me, or against me!”
  • Ford or Chevy
  • Liberal or Conservative

It is vitally important that people understand which sort of discussion they are in. When you think you are in an either/or argument, but it’s really a both/and disagreement, you are essentially arguing that inhaling is better than exhaling.

If there is no right answer and people are really passionate about their position, how can we possibly navigate through this minefield?

Barry Johnson has come up with a useful tool he calls it Polarity Management.

Let me use the question, Liberal or Conservative? to illustrate how it works.

I know many people will disagree with me here, but this question has no clear right or wrong answer.  It is a both/and discussion that many have made into an either/or argument.  I’ve placed the Christian view of this question, as I see it, into Johnson’s Polarity Management model.

polariz1The questions we want to address with the model is, “Liberal or Conservative? How can Christians best be the salt of the world?”  So in Johnson’s model we put the two neutral terms on the wings.  Christ told us to be salt in the world; he told us that we are to season, preserve and heal the world.  He also said that if we aren’t salt, we would be cast before swine.  Serious stuff.  On the model I have placed where we are headed, the “Higher Purpose” above and at the bottom, the “Deeper Fear,” or what lies in the opposite direction of the higher purpose.  All Christians, both liberal and conservative, have the same higher purpose and the same deeper fear.

The boxes just above the neutral terms describe the positive side of both options respectively.  On the liberal side we have collective responsibility and individual rights.  These are good things.  When Jesus calls us to be salt, he means that we must do what the law and the prophets have always told us to do: take care of the vulnerable.  In Biblical times, this was the stranger, the widow and the orphan.  If you translate this into contemporary terms it means we take care of the immigrant, the refugee, and the poor, for they are the vulnerable in our society.  This is a Biblical injunction, and if we don’t do it we are in danger of being cast before swine.  The reason we take care of the vulnerable is because of the Biblical view of humanity–everyone bears the Image of God.  The poor and the refugee are dear to God.  For the same reason, Christians ought to be very interested in the protection of individual rights.  These liberals principle is, then, biblical; it advocates loving one’s neighbour.  The liberal position also takes into account the Fallenness of humanity; they predict we will naturally be selfish and so use government action to ensure that our neighbours are loved.

Conservative ideals are also aimed toward saltiness.  Biblically, human freedom is almost as foundational as bearing God’s image, as is individual responsibility.  These conservative principles are also based on true understanding of the human condition, we are good, but fallen.

The lower boxes illustrate the “downside” of over-focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other.  If we neglect the good that we find in the conservative position we may end up in a bad place–as conservatives are very willing to point out.  But if we neglect the liberal ideals we, as Christians, will also lose our saltiness and end up in the eternal pig pen.

What we have, both in the culture at large and in the church, are people on both side of the political spectrum treating the argument as an either/or.  Both sides have an equally valid, alternate view of reality.  It is obvious to both that they are right which makes the other side wrong.  Consequently, problems are not being effectively addressed because to accept the natural solution is to suggest some legitimacy in their opponents position.  So they resist.  And their resistance is legitimate and they know it.

Both sides have an equally valid, alternate view of reality.

 

In an either/or argument, clarity is an asset if right is on your side.  In a both/and argument, the clearer you are the more resistant will be your opponent because it will be clearer to them that you are missing what’s right in front of you–their reality–and they are not wrong.

For Christians to be salt and light in the political sphere, they will have to abandon rigid adherence to just one side of the political spectrum.  They will have to see that there are two legitimate–Biblical–realities at play here.  The conservative Christians need to adhere to the positives of the conservatism, but they also need to respond with grace and generousity toward the negatives of the liberal reality, for by doing so, they may gain the benefits of that position.  In possession of the strengths of both sides, the Christian impact on the world is potentially far saltier than we currently are.

“The White Knight”

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on June 29, 2015 at 2:18 am

KnightWhere does evil come from?

We’ve got two choices: It comes either from within or from without.

How one answer this question can hinge on how one understands the relationship between Good and Evil.  If we think they are completely separate, then we will tend to divide the world up into the things that are good and the things that are evil.  We will likely work very hard to align ourselves with the good and avoid, or even do battle with, evil.  We will distance ourselves from people who do things that we deem to be evil, for their words or deeds or views that are contrary to ours–the “good”–will show their alignment with evil.  If, in fact, good and evil are absolutely distinct, living this way is essential because we will be thinking and acting in accordance with reality.

But what if this is not an accurate description of the relationship between good and evil?  Then we will be getting ourselves into a lot of trouble because we are not living in accordance with realty.

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything, and that everything he made was good (Genesis 1:31).  It also tells us that sin affects all people–“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and all things–“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).  All the things that God declared good, are still good, but they have also been distorted by evil.  This truth makes it impossible to find anyone or anything that is purely good, or purely evil (and determines how one reads Philippians 4:8).

In Mark 7:15 Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for isolating themselves for those they deemed morally inferior–“evil”–pointing out that  “it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” not what comes from outside of them.

The allegorical tale of the White Knight beautifully illustrates what happens when we have a too simplistic view of good and evil and, consequently, fail to attend to the evil that resides in our own hearts.

THE WHITE KNIGHT
by Eric Nicol

Once upon a time there was a knight who lived in a little castle on the edge of the forest of Life. One day this knight looked in the mirror and saw that he was a White Knight.

“Lo!” he cried. “I am the White Knight and therefore represent good. I am the champion of virtue and honour and justice, and I must ride into the forest and slay the Black Knight, who is evil.”

So the White knight mounted his snow-white horse and rode into the forest to find the Black Knight and slay him in single combat.

Many miles he rode the first day, without so much as a glimpse of the Black Knight. The second day he rode even farther, still without sighting the ebony armour of mischief. Day after day he rode, deeper and deeper into the forest of Life, searching thicket and gulley and even the tree tops. The black knight was nowhere to be seen.

Yet the White Knight found many signs of the Black Knight’s presence. Again and again he passed a village in which the Black Knight had struck – a baker’s shop robbed, a horse stolen, an innkeepers daughter ravished. But always he just missed catching the doer of these deeds.

At last the White Knight had spent all his gold in the cause of his search. He was tired and hungry. Feeling his stength ebbing, he was forced to steal some buns from a bake shop. His horse whent lame, so that he was forced to replace it, silently and by darkness, with another white horse in somebody’s stable. And when he stumbled, faint and exhausted, into an inn, the innkeeper’s daughter gave him her bed, and because he was the White Knight in shining armour, she gave him her love, and when he was strong enough to leave the inn she cried bitterly because she could not understand why he had to go and find the Black Knight and slay him.

Through many months, under hot sun, over frosty paths, the White Knight pressed on his search, yet all the knights he met in the forest were, like himself, fairly white. They were knights of varying shades of whiteness, depending on how long they, too, had been hunting the Black Knight. Some were sparkling white. These had just started hunting that day and irritated the White Knight by innocently asking directions to the nearest Black Knight.

Others were tattle-tale grey. And still others were so grubby, horse and rider, that the mirror in thier castle would never recognise them. Yet the White Knight was shocked the day a knight of gleaming whiteness confronted him suddenly in the forest and with a wild whoop thundered tawords him with levelled lance. The White Knight barely had time to draw his sword and, ducking under the deadly steel, plunge it into the attacker’s breast.

The White Knight dissmounted and kneeled beside his mortally wounded assailant, whose visor had fallen back to reveal blond curls and a youthful face. He heard the words, whispered in anguish: “Is evil then triumphant?” And holding the dead knight in his arms he saw that beside the bright armour of the youth his own, besmirched by the long quest, looked black in the darkness of the forest.

His heart heavy with horror and grief, the White Knight who was white no more buried the boy, then slowly stripped off his own soiled mail, turned his grimy horse free to the forest, and stood naked and alone in the quiet dusk. Before him lay a path which he slowly took, which lead him to his castle on the edge of the forest. He went into the castle and closed the door behind him. He went to the mirror and saw that it no more gave back the White Knight, but only a middle-aged, naked man, a man who had stolen and ravished and killed in pursuit of evil.

Thereafter when he walked abroad from his castle he wore a coat of simple colour, a cheerful motley, and never looked for more than he could see. And his hair grew slowly white, as did his fine, full beard, and the people all around called him the Good White Knight.

Mom Crashes Son’s Sex Ed Class

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 21, 2015 at 9:11 pm

On my way home from a haircut after work last Friday, I heard a brief interview with a woman who had gone to her son’s grade 9 sex ed class. This was in a public school in Michigan. She got angry enough about the perspective being presented that she hollered obscenities at those leading the class. I agreed with some of her objections, but she does not seem to be aware that her position begins with the same premises as that of the people who made her so angry.

Both believe there is a profound separation between the spirit and the body.

One of the speakers told his story. He had a challenging past involving an alcoholic father and getting a girl pregnant. He ended up dating and then marrying a different woman who had practiced abstinence. According to Dreger, the man concluded his talk telling the boys that they should look to marry a girl who says no. Dreger’s was very angry about presenting these conclusions to young people because it shames those girls who say yes–girls that she describes as those who “enjoy sex.”

I agree that when we talk about sex with young people we must be careful. The message of abstinence must be delivered without shaming those who might be sexually active. It is important to let children know that abstinence is a state to which one can return. I do object to the implication that people who say no to sex, do so because they don’t, or wouldn’t enjoy it–those practicing abstinence have a pretty good idea that sex is pleasurable.

It’s the whole shaming thing that made Dreger lose it. Here too, I agree with Dreger. But she seems to link between advocating abstinence and being ashamed of sex. Of course these can be linked, but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.

As a side note, both the interviewer and Dreger seemed to be under the impression, perhaps they are right, that the main (or only) purpose of sex education is to prevent unwanted pregnancy. This strikes me as a very narrow purpose.

Ironically, Dreger’s view and that of the presenters which so angered her (at least the way she characterized them), both have similar roots going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Both believe there is a profound separation of body and spirit. One view has a negative idea of the spirit and the other has a negative view of the body.

For some, the separation results in the belief that the transcendent is essentially non-existent, thus sex is a solely physical event. It seems as if Dreger fits into this category, and the presenters in her son’s sex ed class (as she characterizes them) fit into the other–where the separation results in the belief that the body is inferior to the spiritual and therefore a corruption of the spirit. Dreger quite correctly objects to the denial of the inherent goodness of sex which comes with this view, but to view sex as simply physical is also, in my opinion, a degradation of sex.

There is a third view avoids this degradation, and celebrates both sex and abstinence, by understanding the integrity of body and spirit. It’s the view of sex found in the Bible, and there it’s described using the term “one flesh.” One flesh is built the understanding that body and soul are one, and it refers to a new entity created by two individuals in the marriage relationship.  Sex is only one piece of the “one flesh” paradigm. It’s much more than a physical–the marriage partners become one in every other way as well. Take relationships for example.   Once married, all relationships change–with mother and father, with friends, and particularly with every member of the opposite sex. There are changes in the good I eat, the movies I watch and how I spend my time. My money, becomes our money. My big TV becomes our big TV. The physical act of sex is representative of this new entity created by marriage.

You can see why many Christians believe in abstinence before marriage, not because sex is something bad, but that it is a part of a much bigger picture. In the Christian mind, you can’t separate the sex from all the rest without degrading the sex. Just as it would be foolish to share all your banking information with someone with whom you have no commitment, it would also be crazy to share a bed with them.

This idea seems strange to our culture. How can my body–the site of the self–not be mine and mine alone? It’s an alien idea because we are so committed to the autonomy of the individual, that we are repulsed by the idea of belonging to another in such a significant way.

If we are nothing more than animals, we might as well enjoy the pleasures of sex when it feels right–it’s only natural. But if are something more than animal, and that everything we do with our body is linked to every other aspect of our being–including a spiritual reality–then we might look at sex a little differently. This is a Biblical view and those who follow it’s truth believe that sex is a wonderful thing that is best enjoyed when it is shared along with one’s whole life. Placing sex in this context elevates it from the level of a shameful act, but it also lifts it way beyond the level of a pleasant, animal act. If you are going to be pro-sex, it seems to me the Biblical approach is the best.

I agree we with Dreger that we should be honest with children about sex. But honesty about sex, looks different from different perspectives. For me this means we tell children how good it is and also that it’s a part of giving one’s whole life to another.

Scripture and Truth

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 14, 2015 at 6:20 pm

Wesleyan QuadDoes scripture have the final say in truth?

I had never heard of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral until it came up in a few sermons. And the way it was applied concerned me a little and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Although, John Wesley never spoke of a quadrilateral, his writings apparently indicate that he drew his theological and doctrinal conclusions from four sources–tradition, experience, reason, and scripture.

I like abstract constructs like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral; it is a useful tool for us to understand that we derive our theological opinions, both individually and collectively, from many sources. We see disagreements in the church where the participants believe that their position is true because it is derived from scripture alone; it is, therefore, the only legitimate position. This allows them to dismiss or even demonize their brothers and sisters in the Lord who hold to a different interpretation.

The problem in these conflicts is we aren’t aware of the other influences that shape our understanding of scripture. This is particularly true of Protestants, for the Catholics already admit, not only the influence but the authority of tradition.

Initially, I struggled with the way the Wesleyan Quadrilateral was applied in the sermons where I first learned of it.  Let me paraphrase what I think was said from the pulpit:

Theological truths are derived from tradition, experience, reason and scripture, but the greatest of these is scripture.

In one sense, this is appropriate because of the four, scripture alone is inspired by God. But my concern is that in claiming scriptural supremacy, one is suggesting that we know what scripture says and that our understanding of what it says has not been influenced by tradition and reason. This is simply not the case; we must be aware that each of the elements is influenced by the other three. It would be nice if scripture stood alone and could be brought in as the final word, but scripture is mediated by the other components. Rationalists incorrectly believe that reason is un-influenced by the others, but they too are mistaken.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a useful tool for us to begin to understand that our theological ideas come from different sources, but this tool must be understood as an over-simplification of very complex issues.

So what then is the proper attitude for arriving at doctrinal or theological truth (or any truth, for that matter)?

Luigi Giussani applies this moral rule:

Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, once could say, “love the truth more than yourself” (31).

The Wesleyan triangle is useful here. By acknowledging that our theological positions come from a complex blend of tradition, experience, reason and scripture we can begin to understand our attachment to  preconceptions and prejudices. We can’t simply pretend these attachments aren’t there, but we can take of a position of detachment relative to them–really, it is a detachment from ourselves before the truth.

Giussani suggests that this imperative is articulated in Matthew 5:3 when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor are those “who have nothing to defend, who are detached from those things that they seem to possess, so that their lives are not dedicated to affirming their own possession” (32).

This ethical imperative places the self under the truth–it comes down to loving the truth more than you love yourself. Before we’ve detached ourselves from our preconceptions, we will use scripture to defend ourselves.  Scripture takes up a position with us, often in opposition to the truth.  But if we have done the very hard work of separating our selves from the truth, scripture takes up a new position, not in the defense of self, but in the articulation of truth.

Faith versus Reason

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on March 17, 2015 at 12:39 am

Faith no parachuteThis was an image on Facebook a while back.  It portrays a popular understanding of faith.  It describes what we might call blind faith. The adjective blind distinguishes this faith from reasonable faith–or simply, faith.

There is a popular, but mistaken, notion that religious people base their conviction of the existence of God on a faith that is opposed to reason. I am mildly frustrated when I read this error in an online rant from some guy trying to prove religious people are idiots because they are so irrational. But what really drives me nuts is when Christians to it. Both the atheist and the theist are mistaken when they think faith is the opposite of reason.

Reason is really important. It is important that Christians are reasonable. Without reason, faith will become nothing more than sentiment. The more sentimental faith becomes, the more it will be pushed around by the values of the dominant culture, or some mutant form of Christianity.

Christians need to understand that reason is not a bad thing–God made it.  It is important that we clarify terms. Luigi Giussani’s in the second chapter The Religious Sense discusses what reason is not.  First, rational is not the same as demonstrable.  This is the empirical approach which says that a thing is true, only if we have evidence. (I will point out that this principle itself is not empirically verifiable, so empiricism is self-refuting as a complete theory of knowledge.) There are many things that are rational, that are not demonstrable. Second, rational is not the same as logical. Logic is all about coherence. It is logical to say, as my son once did, that creatures eat what they like; beavers eat trees; trees taste good. It’s logical, but based on a false premise–not rational. Logic and demonstration are two of the tools in the hands of reason. Reason, as it has been understood for millennia, and as it is lived by every human being who has ever lived, is much bigger than the merely demonstrable or logical.   Giussanii says that rationality is  adherence to reality, and because reality is so very big and deep and wide, rationality is a lot bigger than we often think. There are different procedures for using reason–all depend on the object.

  • It is rational to say that water is H20. My certainty comes from a scientific or analytic procedure.
  • It is rational to say that (a+b)(a-b)=(a² -b²) The procedure here is mathematical.
  • It is rational to say that a woman has the same rights as a man. This claim is based on a philosophical approach: all humans are equal; women are human; women are equal to men.
  • It is rational to say that my mother loves me. This moral or existential certainty is derived from many thousands of encounters with my mother.

Importantly, we can be in error when using any of these methods. But we will always be in error–we will be irrational–if we use the wrong procedure. As I said before, the method one uses is dictated by the object. It would be irrational of me to attempt to use the philosophical procedure to attempt to understand the chemical composition water.   It would be equally irrational to use the scientific procedure to determine a mother’s love for her child. When I sit down to dinner at my mother’s house, I do not need to test the food to know that the food isn’t poisoned. It’s irrational for me to think it is. It would be irrational to have to test each component of the meal in order to ascertain that it was safe for consumption.

We aren’t being rational if we are limiting reason to only two or three categories.

Now for a definition of faith. When we are not talking about blind faith, we are talking about faith in relation to reason. Giussani’s definition of faith is “adhesion to what another affirms.” Faith is unreasonable if there are no adequate reasons for the faith. I have reasons to adhere to what my doctor tells me about exercise.  I have reasons to believe what others tell me about the molecular composition of water. I have reasons to believe in the eyewitness accounts of Christ’s resurrection.  Faith is reasonable if there are reasons to adhere to what another affirms.

Imagine if humanity never practiced this type of reasonable faith. We’d never move forward because each individual would need to start at square one.  I’d have to study the effects of exercise on the cholesterol levels myself.  We’d never get anywhere as a civilization.  So, I accept it as true and act accordingly. It’s rational to do so, because I have good reason to believe it to be true. So even the knowledge made certain by the first three methods require faith.

Perhaps these definitions of faith and reason are still unacceptable to some, but these are the definitions that human beings live by–they are the definitions most attuned to reality of lived experience. If one lives by them, one can be said to have a personal relationship with reality.

Two Kinds of Language

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Uncategorized on June 2, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Rothfuss2I have this theory that English is two languages. Maybe all languages are two languages, but I don’t really know any language but English.  I came across a passage in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel that got me thinking that English can be used in two distinct ways.  If we are reading something that the author wrote in one language as if it were another, we’ve completely missed the author’s intent.

It seems to me that it can be a very precise language so if you want to communicate to your son exactly what you expect from him regarding the cleaning of his room before he goes outside to play, English is more than capable of communicating these clear expectations. Although your son will likely dash out the door before the tasks are completed, it is no fault of English. The precise nature of the language also makes it effective for writing encyclopedias; it is the language of the academic.  In this type of writing, the meaning lies mainly “on the line.”

But the resources of the English language can also be turned toward more poetic purposes.  There are many types of writing which taps into the elegance of the English language. Where meanings lie between the lines, or beyond the lines.   This type of writing is inferential and is able to reach far beyond the sense of the words to transcendent meanings.

I’ve presented a passage from The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss before. I love the intelligence of Rothfuss’ work. This dialogue between Kvothe and his teacher Vashet as they discuss the illusive philosophy of Lethani, illustrates the dual function of language.

 

Vashet leaned forward seriously. “Part of the problem is with your language,” she said. “Aturan is very explicit. It is very precise and direct. Our language is rich with implication, so it is easier for us to accept the existence of things that cannot be explained. The Lethani is the greatest of these.”

“Can you give me an example of one other than the Lethani?” I asked. “And please don’t say ‘blue,’ or I might go absolutely mad right here on this bench.”

She thought for a moment. “Love is such a thing. You have knowledge of what it is, but it defies careful explication.”

“Love is a subtle concept,” I admitted. “It’s elusive, like justice, but it can be defined.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Do so then, my clever student. Tell me of love.”

I thought for a quick moment, then for a long moment.

Vashet grinned. “You see how easy it will be for me to pick holes in any definition you give.”

“Love is the willingness to do anything for someone,” I said. “Even at detriment to yourself.”

“In that case,” she said. “How is love different from duty or loyalty?”

“It is also combined with a physical attraction,” I said.

“Even a mother’s love?” Vashet asked.

“Combined with an extreme fondness then,” I amended.

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘fondness’?” she asked with a maddening calm.

“It is . . .” I trailed off, racking my brain to think how I could describe love without resorting to other, equally abstract terms.

“This is the nature of love.” Vashet said. “To attempt to describe it will drive a woman mad. That is what keeps poets scribbling endlessly away. If one could pin it to the paper all complete, the others would lay down their pens. But it cannot be done.”

She held up a finger. “But only a fool claims there is no such thing as love. When you see two young ones staring at each other with dewy eyes, there it is. So thick you can spread it on your bread and eat it. When you see a mother with her child, you see love. When you feel it roil in your belly, you know what it is. Even if you cannot give voice to it in words.”

Vashet made a triumphant gesture. “Thus also is the Lethani. But as it is greater, it is more difficult to point toward. That is the purpose of the questions. Asking them is like asking a young girl about the boy she fancies. Her answers may not use the word, but they reveal love or the lack of it within her heart.”

“How can my answers reveal a knowledge of the Lethani when I don’t truly know what it is?” I asked.

“You obviously understand the Lethani,” she said. “It is rooted deep inside you. Too deep for you to see. Sometimes it is the same with love.”

Vashet reached out and tapped me on the forehead. “As for this Spinning Leaf. I have heard of similar things practiced by other paths. There is no Aturan word for it that I know. It is like a Ketan for your mind. A motion you make with your thoughts, to train them.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Either way, it is not cheating. It is a way of revealing that which is hidden in the deep waters of your mind. The fact that you found it on your own is quite remarkable.”

I nodded to her. “I bow to your wisdom, Vashet.”

“You bow to the fact that I am unarguably correct.”

She clapped her hands together. “Now, I have much to teach you. However, as you are still welted and flinching, let us forbear the Ketan. Show me your Ademic instead. I want to hear you wound my lovely language with your rough barbarian tongue.” 822-824

“Just a Story”?

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm

BibleSome Bible detractors will say that this or that part of the Bible is “just a story.”  In the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the same phrase in their defense of the historic Adam saying that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to caution Christians from adopting the idea behind the phrase “just a story.”

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just.”  It could not have been used to precede the words “a story,” after the Enlightenment–when we severely limited our understanding of truth and story.

Our post-Enlightenment worldview equates truth with information, and we believe that the best way to transmit information is in simple and exact language and that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” is makes sense.

But the writers of the Bible had a very different view of truth and story. They were more interested in relationships than information. And they communicate relational truths in narratives and poetic language full of metaphor and other figures of speech.   Truth was something that we experienced through story. Until 500 years ago, the truth in story transcended mere information.

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world.  The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representative, the priest-king/pharaoh. The Adam story told it’s original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God.  In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible presents the radical idea that both Man and Woman bore the image of  the creator.  Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that male and female are of equal value.  Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths.

The Adam story tells the original audience that the material world matters to the One God and that he created it for humanity.  Consistent with the value attributed to human beings by the creator God, Adam and his offspring are given the task of being stewards of this newly created world.  In a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis.  We learn that God wants a relationship with the people He created.  We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices.  We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived.  How, deep down, we want to live it.  We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be accomplished, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat death and evil.

To summarize:

  • All human life is valuable.
  • Male and female are of equal value.
  • Human beings have been honoured with very important tasks.
  • The Natural world is very important.
  • We have moral choices and are responsible for them.
  • We usually choose evil.
  • This isn’t the way the world was supposed to be.
  • The Creator of the vast Cosmos loves us and wants a relationship with us.
  • It is only by the actions of this God that our relationships with Him, each other and the natural world will be restored.
  • This restoration will be by the actions of another human being.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve.  These are the truths that it’s shocked original audience would have heard.  The author of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners simply know this information;  his intention was that they experience these truths at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives.  I don’t think this purpose changes now that that 21st century Christians are reading the stories.

Whatever it is we do find in the first chapters of the Bible, we do not find “just” a story.

Christian or Humanist? — Yes!

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 13, 2014 at 4:45 am

Science versus HumanitiesLast week, I stuck a link on Facebook to a short blog post I wrote for Abbotsford Christian Schools blog, InsideOut called,” My Coffee Cup and Genesis 1.” I received some heat for this post; I was called “yet another science bashing Christian.”

This appellation, I believe, is misapplied.

Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, so separate out my “Christianness” from anything I do or say, I think that it might be just as appropriate to call me “yet another humanist insisting that science has limits,” (humanist in the sense that I think like a humanities person).

What science does, it does well, but it’s not very useful for what it doesn’t do. This idea ought not offend anyone, unless they believe that science can do everything. Many scientists and nearly all philosophers would have no problem with the limitations I suggest. Science looks at the material world, it cannot tell us about everything, unless everything is material. There are some, many of them scientists, who suggest this is the case.

But as soon as anyone suggests this, they are no longer in the realm of science, but of philosophy. Scientism, philosophic materialism are among the names for this philosophy. Once in the realm of philosophy one must play by the rules of philosophy.

Philosophy is one of the humanities–there’s a lot of critical thinking in philosophy. Like science, it seeks objective knowledge, but it is not limited to the physical reality–one of the branches of philosophy is metaphysics. Other branches include logic, epistemology and ethics. Although philosophical materialism can be argued, it’s not easy because there are pretty good arguments from each of these philosophical disciplines that challenge the fundamental tenets of Scientism.

History is another of the humanities. History helps contextualize the current age with those that have gone before. Without history we might think that, just because we are progressing technologically, we are progressing in other ways as well. One well supported reading of history suggests that humanity is not, essentially, progressing as Scientism often assumes.

Literature, my favourite branch of the humanities, explores ideas with imagination–it asks, “What if?”  From Frankenstein to The Wise Man’s Fear literature warns of science stepping beyond its natural limitations.

Humanities and science complement each other. We are all the weaker without both being strong.  One of the many tasks that those of us in the humanities have is to maintain this complementary relationship.  My Facebook critic is not alone in thinking that arguments promoting the humanities are a defense of a bronze-age mentality.

I believe that science (mathematics, physics, biology), philosophy, history and literature–freed, within their natural boundaries, to do what they each do best–will lead to the truth. As a Christian, I believe this Truth to be Jesus Christ.

The Difference between Truth and Fact

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 28, 2014 at 12:29 am

I’ve been listening to conversations about “what the Bible says” and have been having a hard time articulating why I’m disturbed by the position taken by some Bible defenders.  I agree with them that the Bible is true, but I get the sense that they are using the term differently than I am.  Their “true” is much more concrete than mine.

Rothfuss2I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two). It’s a fantasy series that occupies a region between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Rothfuss writes intelligent fantasy.

Below is a passage from the book that, I think, gets at how truth is more relational than informational. And that it has to be communicated in stories full of poetic language and metaphor that transcend explanation.

“TODAY,” ELODIN SAID BRIGHTLY, “we will talk about things that cannot be talked about. Specifically, we will discuss why some things cannot be discussed.”

I sighed and set down my pencil. Every day I hoped this class would be the one where Elodin actually taught us something. Every day I brought a hardback and one of my few precious pieces of paper, ready to take advantage of the moment of clarity. Every day some part of me expected Elodin to laugh and admit he’d just been testing our resolve with his endless nonsense.

And every day I was disappointed.

“The majority of important things cannot be said outright,” Elodin said. “They cannot be made explicit. They can only be implied.” He looked out at his handful of students in the otherwise empty lecture hall. “Name something that cannot be explained.” He pointed at Uresh. “Go.”

Uresh considered for a moment. “Humor. If you explain a joke, it isn’t a joke.”

Elodin nodded, then pointed at Fenton.

“Naming?” Fenton asked.

“That is a cheap answer, Re’lar,” Elodin said with a hint of reproach. “But you correctly anticipate the theme of my lecture, so we will let it slide.” He pointed at me.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be explained,” I said firmly. “If something can be understood, it can be explained. A person might not be able to do a good job of explaining it. But that just means it’s hard, not that it’s impossible.”

Elodin held up a finger. “Not hard or impossible. Merely pointless. Some things can only be inferred.” He gave me an infuriating smile. “By the way, your answer should have been ‘music.’”

“Music explains itself,” I said. “It is the road, and it is the map that shows the road. It is both together.”

“But can you explain how music works?” Elodin asked.

“Of course,” I said. Though I wasn’t sure of any such thing.

“Can you explain how music works without using music?”

That brought me up short. While I was trying to think of a response, Elodin turned to Fela.

“Love?” she asked.

Elodin raised an eyebrow as if mildly scandalized by this, then nodded approvingly.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. “We’re not done. I don’t know if I could explain music without using it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not explanation, it’s translation.”

Elodin’s face lit up. “That’s it exactly!” he said. “Translation. All explicit knowledge is translated knowledge, and all translation is imperfect.”

“So all explicit knowledge is imperfect?” I asked. “Tell Master Brandeur geometry is subjective. I’d love to watch that discussion.”

“Not all knowledge,” Elodin admitted. “But most.”

“Prove it,” I said.

“You can’t prove nonexistence,” Uresh interjected in a matter-of-fact way. He sounded exasperated. “Flawed logic.”

I ground my teeth at that. It was flawed logic. I never would have made that mistake if I’d been better rested. “Demonstrate it then,” I said.

“Fine, fine.” Elodin walked over to where Fela sat. “We’ll use Fela’s example.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, motioning me to follow.

I came reluctantly to my feet as well and Elodin arranged the two of us so we stood facing each other in profile to the class. “Here we have two lovely young people,” he said. “Their eyes meet across the room.”

Elodin pushed my shoulder and I stumbled forward half a step. “He says hello. She says hello. She smiles. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot.” I stopped doing just that and there was a faint murmur of laughter from the others.

“There is something ephemeral in the air,” Elodin said, moving to stand behind Fela. He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning close to her ear. “She loves the lines of him,” he said softly. “She is curious about the shape of his mouth. She wonders if this could be the one, if she could unclasp the secret pieces of her heart to him.” Fela looked down, her cheeks flushing a bright scarlet.

Elodin stalked around to stand behind me. “Kvothe looks at her, and for the first time he understands the impulse that first drove men to paint. To sculpt. To sing.”

He circled us again, eventually standing between us like a priest about to perform a wedding. “There exists between them something tenuous and delicate. They can both feel it. Like static in the air. Faint as frost.”

He looked me full in the face. His dark eyes serious. “Now. What do you do?”

I looked back at him, utterly lost. If there was one thing I knew less about than naming, it was courting women.

“There are three paths here,” Elodin said to the class. He held up one finger. “First. Our young lovers can try to express what they feel. They can try to play the half-heard song their hearts are singing.”

Elodin paused for effect. “This is the path of the honest fool, and it will go badly. This thing between you is too tremulous for talk. It is a spark so faint that even the most careful breath might snuff it out.”

Master Namer shook his head. “Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths might speak the same language, your hearts do not.” He looked at me intently. “This is an issue of translation.”

Elodin held up two fingers. “The second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you can speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so there is understanding on both sides.”

Elodin made a sweeping gesture toward me. “Then there is the third path. The path of Kvothe.” He strode to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, facing Fela. “You sense something between you. Something wonderful and delicate.”

He gave a romantic, lovelorn sigh. “And, because you desire certainty in all things, you decide to force the issue. You take the shortest route. Simplest is best, you think.” Elodin extended his own hands and made wild grasping motions in Fela’s direction. “So you reach out and you grab this young woman’s breasts.”

There was a burst of startled laughter from everyone except Fela and myself. I scowled. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and her flush spread down her neck until it was hidden by her shirt.

Elodin turned his back to her and looked me in the eye.

“Re’lar Kvothe,” he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my ****” (253-255).

Can a school discipline a student for behaviour outside of school?

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on March 28, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Home and schoolApparently not.

Riley Stratton from Minnesota won her lawsuit against her school claiming that they violated her constitutional rights of free speech and privacy.

She was forced to reveal her Facebook password to her school.

When she was 12 she typed some things on Facebook expressing her dislike/hatred for a hall monitor named Kathy.  A few days later the school received a complaint that she was talking about sex with a boy.  Consequently, she was asked by the school for her password, which she surrendered because she feared a detention.  Apparently the school officials searched her Facebook account.  Importantly, she did not use a school computer.  I think it is also important that her parents weren’t consulted.

She sued the school and won a $70,000 settlement.

It boils down to the question: Does the school have any right to discipline a student for something they do outside of school?

On the one hand, students ought to enjoy freedom of speech and privacy that we enjoy as adults.

My concern here is that, although we talk about various aspects of students, schools must deal with and educate whole persons.

  • Some schools have breakfast programs because students can’t learn when they are hungry.
  • Schools have counselors to help students deal with a wide variety of issues.  Everything from the loss of a loved one the death of a family pet, from relationships with friends to bullying.
  • Schools are very concerned, not just with a student bringing drugs to school, but in using drugs at all.
  • Some schools exist just because they recognize the importance of spirituality in the life of all people.
  • Family income, cultural or religious heritage, level of parents education, etc. are all part of who the student is as a whole person.

Although it is possible to make a distinction between life-at-school and life-not-at-school, it isn’t realistic.  The school has to nurture, educate, stimulate, and, yes, discipline, whole persons.  Parents, school, church (if applicable), community, etc. are all interested in the flourishing of each individual student.  Each deals with the individual as a whole entity, albeit with different aspects.

Therefore, it is conceivable that the school would, for her sake, be interested in the ways that Riley is using her Facebook account.  The integrated whole, that is Riley, might have been best served by being forced her to surrender her password and helped, with the involvement of her parents, to understand her responsibilities to others and appropriate boundaries regarding talking with boys about sex online.

Riley says she no longer trusts adults.

I’m sure she no longer trusts them not to invade her privacy, but this is not the same thing as not trusting them to look out for her best interests?

Riley has learned a lot through this experience, I am sure, but I worry that with this precedent students will learn a lot more about their personal rights and freedoms, and very little about their responsibility for how they treat others and how they use the powerful tools of social media.

It’s not a simple issue.  What do you think?