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general

for we know in part

Western society is increasingly post-Christian.  There will be many ingredients for this turn away from Christianity, but at least one of these is epistemic in nature.  Post-Christian Westerners are skeptical.  Christians are seen as having a kind of easy certainty undergirding the knowledge of religious faith, which is highly offensive for those who feel they have intellectually outgrown faith. 

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Vocal opponents, such as the new atheists, attack the rationality of Christianity, and a host of supporters subsequently defend it.  Some of these defenses directly counter arguments at the rational level, whilst other defenses transcend them by claims to personal revelation or experiences of various kinds.  Meanwhile, another response to this dynamic is the increasing category of those who identify as “spiritual not religious”, which seeks to gain all of the spiritual benefits without having to bother with all of the religious certainty.  Such is the landscape of belief at the popular level.

The purpose of this blog is to propose and give language to a spectrum of belief.  It will have the basic dialectic shape of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, with flanking vices on both sides of a virtue. I will propose that a virtuous Christian epistemology must claim the right amount of knowledge, and thus avoid the epistemic vices on both sides.

Agnosticism

Agnosticism is a reaction to a claim of knowledge.  This is to say that Agnosticism, as negative activity, is in some sense always posterior to the claim of knowledge that it rejects.  Belief in God must be intelligible before that belief can be resisted. 

  Belief  < – – – – – – – – – – – – – Agnosticism

There are a few things we wish to observe concerning Agnosticism.  First, being specifically agnostic about a particular knowledge claim is not a vice.  Jesus stated that the Son was ‘agnostic’, or did not know, of “that day or hour” (Matthew 24:36).  We are all agnostic about many things.  The kind of ‘Agnosticism’ we are calling a vice here is that which is of a more general and ultimate nature – with specific reference to God.

This leads to the second observation about general Agnosticism.  The line between Agnosticism and what is called atheism is often very blurred.  Only the most convinced of atheists would say they know that the universe was not created by a being fitting of the word God.  What atheists and agnostics share is a rejection of positive knowledge claims concerning God’s existence and nature.

The third observation relates to the strongest and most negative forms of Agnosticism and atheism.  Arguably, it takes just as much faith to believe either a) that Nature is self-existent, uncreated and eternal, or b) that something-that-is-not-a-God created Nature, as it does to believe c) that the intricate qualities and properties of Nature reflect the intent and intelligence of a Creator.  It is one thing to critique an explanation, and quite another to argue for an alternative explanation.  Further, although it is not always the case, it is not out of place to suggest that when one doubts an explanation or idea, they tend to have an implicit belief that a different explanation or idea is more feasible.

Fourth, the general Agnosticism of which we speak here tends to trust the facts of physics over the values of metaphysics.  Philosophically, it is within the camp of Phenomenalism, which in many forms, rejects any non-empirical forms of knowledge.  Agnosticism and Scientism go hand in hand.  The argumentation ends up being circular, as the possibility of non-scientific knowledge is rejected on the basis of not being scientific.

Finally, Agnosticism is practically impossible.  Just as facts do not give magical birth to values, nor can a tidy trusted bridge be built from the descriptive domain of ‘is’ to the prescriptive world of ‘ought’.  Yet we simply cannot practically live without values, metaphysics, and such necessary assumptions as dignity, rights and love.  The chasm between the scientific truth of the height of one’s lover and the metaphysical instinct that caring for them is ‘right’ cannot be traversed.  A true agnostic, must confess that their strong preference for ‘love’ (however defined) has utterly no empirical basis, and is no more ‘true’ an ethic than genocidal, “might-is-right” totalitarianism.

Indeed, there is good reason to be sceptical about Agnosticism.

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Gnosticism

At a popular level, the epistemic dialectic is between un-believers and believers.  Agnostics and the Religious.  But logically, as well as linguistically, the opposite of Agnosticism is Gnosticism.

Agnosticism < – – – – – – – – – – – – – > Gnosticism

The first thing to observe is that Gnosticism is an “ism”; meaning (like Agnosticism and Atheism) it reflects a positional stance to general, ultimate realities, including God.  We are not talking about simply having ‘knowledge’ (Greek: gnosis) about something, but a life-orienting claim to a world of knowing that is superior, secret and special.

Second, although we are using the term ‘Gnosticism’ in a very wide sense as the equal opposite to Agnosticism, it is worth observing some more concrete forms of it.  The Gnosticism of early Christians (including Marcion) saw Jesus as superior to the Old Testament God, and the spirit as superior to the flesh.  Gnosticism remains alive and well today.  Modern Christians, like Marcion, continue to play Jesus (as they interpret him) off against the OT God.  Or other times, they discover secret ‘keys’ to interpret the Bible and progress well beyond basic Greek or Hebrew numerology to detect secret ‘codes’ that find the names of modern nation-states or world leaders in the text of prophetic Scriptures.  Outside the church, secular Gnosticism invites seekers to understand the ‘Secret’ to control your own destiny and find financial freedom (from the mundane realities of consequences, hard work and cause-and-effect).

This leads to the main and third observation about how we’re using the term Gnosticism.  Gnosticism is about claiming to know the truth.  Whereas Agnosticism trusts only scientific fact and is sceptical about all truth claims (other than the truth claim that only scientific truths are true!), Gnosticism trusts its truth claim and is sceptical about what others see as ‘real world’ facts.  As indicated above, Christians are not immune from Gnosticism.  Fideism, or ‘faith in faith’ is very real.  Christians can retreat into an impenetrable fortress where every belief is defended by the conversation stopper ‘I just have faith’.  If God made the world, including the world of facts and science, then the world of faith should have no problem engaging with the world of facts.

This leads to the fourth and final observation about Gnosticism.  Like historical Gnosticism, there is a fundamental element of distrust in its modern version.  This links Gnosticism with conspiratorial thinking.  ‘Alternative’ is always more true than the ‘mainstream’.  Alternative theories about 9-11.  Alternative medicine.  Some use the term ‘conspirituality’ to describe the link between those who embrace both fashionable alternative spirituality and conspiratorial alternative news.

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So far, we have made observations about two wildly different approaches to life and meaning and God.  We’ve seen how Agnosticism can be so confident in its rejection of truth that it cannot see its own truth claims, and how it cannot provide a foundation for deeply human values that are essential for living.  We’ve discussed Gnosticism that is so suspicious of structure and reality that it prefers its own alternative reality and cuts itself off from any corrective influence.  As we’ll see in the final section, there is a lot of room in the middle between these extremes.

Living Knowledge

It seems as though there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between Agnosticism and Gnosticism.  Extreme Belief and Extreme Scepticism kind of need one another to exist, and perhaps in that sense they can be mutually corrective.  In between the extremes of meaning-destroying Agnosticism and choose-your-own-reality Gnosticism is a place where we integrate our head and our heart.  We think and we feel.  We know and we live.

Agnosticism < – – – – Living Knowledge – – – – > Gnosticism

Knowing nothing and knowing everything are not only impossible, but they are also both deeply un-Christian.  Pushing back against some super ‘spiritual’ leaders at Corinth, who seemed to be pretty proud of their fancy speech and lofty knowledge, Paul writes that “we know in part and we prophecy in part.”  In Romans, echoing Isaiah 40:13, he asks “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”

The Bible is a big book of course, but it should not be thought of as a philosophical book of technical descriptions of God.  To know what God is like, Christians start with Jesus who said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”  As Michael Ramsey wrote, “God is Christlike, and in him is no unchristlikeness at all.”  From this point, Christians move from the Living Word (Jesus) to the Written Word (Scripture).  This is a never-ending process of discovering the Christlike God.  We read, re-read, read again, pray, worship, question, love our neighbours, lament, read again, love ourselves, give thanks, and continue to love our neighbours with the living knowledge of God we have collected and sharpened thus far.

Here are at least three things that make this ‘living knowledge’ approach fruitful.

First, we Understand enough to Love.  When the Bible talks about knowledge in relation to God, it is less to do with calculated philosophical abstractions and more embodied relational and ethical understanding.  To know God looks less like claiming to fully understand God and more like knowing what God’s will is.  It’s reflected in great summary verses like to “do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) or to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Second, we remain Curious enough to Question.  The moment we know everything is the moment we stop learning.  Theology is a science that continues to develop and grow and expand as we come back again and again to the sources (as Wesley formulated them): Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience.  Curiosity is what makes our knowledge stretch and grow.  As those who have felt their faith fade and return know only too well, when it returns it comes to us stronger and sharper.

Third, we remain Humble enough to Listen.  Instead of endless arguments between those who play Science off against God, or claim a spiritual experience as a trump card, we really are all on the same plane of existence.  We don’t know everything.  And if you’ll pardon the double-negative, we don’t know nothing.  If Christians can embrace that kind of humility and actually put into practice what we think we know, then we are building bridges for conversation rather than stuck in predictable and unfruitful patterns of retreat or attack.


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Categories
general

self-critique

A few one-liners:

God’s people are to judge themselves before they judge the world.

Individual believers are to judge themselves before they judge other believers.

One can believe in self-critique and still be a social justice advocate.

Indeed, the causes of social justice may actually bear more fruit when advanced by individuals and communities that can critique themselves.

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general

watching myself do

Sin, by nature, is deceitful. Whether small and momentary or large and engrained, our sin will seek to avoid being seen for what it really is.

One way this happens is by externalising. Instead of owning the action, we shift the blame onto that person, that circumstance, that situation… Eventually there comes a point of having to surrender and admit it really is us doing it.

That sinful action wasn’t me – until it is.

I’ve heard someone say that in a moment of complete slavery to sin that it felt like they were “watching myself do it”.

It was always someone else, until it was them.

Maybe sin also works in a similar way to keep us from pursuing righteousness?

Maybe sin tries to convince us that being and doing ‘good’ is not really ‘us’. If we do something ‘good’ we were really just faking it.

Maybe pursuing righteousness is faking it until I make it. Pushing through the feeling of “someone else did that good thing – that couldn’t have been me”.

That good person isn’t me – until it is.

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general

liberty and power

In this post, I’m testing out a possible parallel between global society and personal living.

In terms of global history, the control of communism was defeated by the freedom of capitalism.

What we might call ‘social democracy’ (to the extent that it is truly a) socially concerned and b) genuinely representative of the entire demos/people) could be a middle ground between overly restrictive communism (too much control, not enough freedom), and unrestrained capitalism (too much freedom, not enough control).

In terms of personal living, the control of repression has given way to the freedom of self-expression.

What we might call ‘social expression’ (to the extent that it is a) respectful of the needs and feelings of others and b) authentic in its expression of each unique identity) could be a middle ground between societal expectations that suppress individuality and stereotypes (too many rules, not enough individuality) and individual expressions that are indifferent to others.

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general

dying and rising – bit by bit

The death and resurrection of Jesus are everything.

They are not simply a pairing of events that I need to believe ‘really happened’ in order to go to heaven after I die. They are also more than things that happened a long time ago, and that will have a transformative effect on me when I die.

The death and resurrection are about the transformation of old realities into new realities. At the cosmic level, the present ‘heaven and earth’ begin their transformation into the New Heavens and New Earth. At the level of humanity, all ‘in Adam’ die, and all ‘in Christ’ rise to new life.

What about the personal level?

The new life does not arrive entirely immediately, and neither does it wait entirely until until ‘the end’. It arrives progressively. Also, the new life is not automatically imposed upon us by God against our will, and neither is it entirely up to us to raise our own lives out of the tomb. It is a partnership.

What does this progressive Death-and-Resurrection partnership actually look like – in practice?

First. Bit by bit, I have to die.

What ‘bits’ need to die? Just the ‘bad’ bits? No. Even the parts of me that I may identify as ‘good’ are tainted by arrogance, insecurity, fear and pride.

What does it mean for a bit of me to ‘die’? Is it self-hatred, self-mutilation and self loathing? No. Letting a part of yourself ‘die’ is a way of dethroning, decentering, or deflating it. It is to say “This bit of me is not perfect and indeed may be worse than I currently think it is, and so it needs God to transform it; and I offer it to God do shape and remake it as he wants.” It’s a way of saying, one part of myself at a time, “I am not God.”

Second. Bit by bit, I have to rise.

There are at least two aspects of this that are difficult. One is that I have to work. God moves mountains, but I have to bring a shovel. God will breathe life into my insecurity, but I have to practice reminding myself that I am loved and enough in God’s eyes. The wind will blow as God allows it to, but I have to hoist the sail.

The other is that I may not be able to measure my growth. Just as opening the oven door while baking slows down the process, so also too much wondering ‘how am I going?’ can distract us from trusting what God is doing. I just need to trust and obey. Plant and water, and God will give the increase. Trust.

May we participate in the death of Christ as we mark this Good Friday, and may we trust God for new life from within us as we pass another Resurrection Day.

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general

resentment & sin

I love my catch ups with my Alcoholic friend. I continue to learn more about Twelve step spirituality and admire it more deeply.

A recent gem that’s been sticking with me is the relationship between resentment and sin. In 12-step fellowships it may not be ‘sin’ that they call it, but I am appropriating it for reflection in an explicitly Christian framework.

The very structure of the steps suggests that behind the addiction which we must surrender (steps 1-3), is a whole life’s worth of behavioural, emotional and personal baggage which we must face and work through. So there is a connection between our baggage and our problematic behaviour (addiction/’sin’).

The A.A. ‘big book’ suggests that at the root of all of our personal and spiritual issues is resentment. “Resentment is the number one offender… From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” (p. 64) For the alcoholic, an all too common experience is a) feeling angry about a person, principle or institution, and b) escaping by picking up a drink. You don’t have to be a recovery alcoholic to name this as obsession leading to compulsion.

The thing about resentment is that it is not only characterised by outward focused anger, but also by inward focused pity. “That person always snubs me.” is accompanied by “I’m not worth noticing.” “They don’t pay me enough.” is followed by “I’m such a loser.” Et cetera. The addictive/problematic behaviour provides a welcome distraction from this angry self-pity.

My friend had a brilliant – and colourful – summary for these two phases: “poor me” leads to “f**k it”. I’m definitely a fan of brevity and simplicity.

Is there a better summary of angry self pity than “poor me”?
Is there a better summary of an addictive escape than “f**k it”?

(pause and reflect if you need to)

My theory is that the twelve steps and the principles of recovery are useful as life tools, regardless of whether you have identified a particular form of addiction. We all enjoy a bit of anger at ‘that’, ‘they’ or ‘them’. We all enjoy the self-justifying comfort of feeling sorry for ourselves. We all have various ways of changing the emotional channel we are currently feeling stuck on…

Twelve step spirituality is not just about stopping ‘drinking’, but also about our character defects being removed. Or in Christian language, our salvation and discipleship are deeper than our behavour.

The way to address my tendency to give in and hit the ‘f**k it’ button is to face the ‘poor me’ underneath it.

Alcoholics in recovery have found two key tools to use.

  1. They take a spot check inventory. They run a quick step 4, which involves going past the resentment-at-the-other, and seeks to responsibility-I-can-take. Clarity and sanity also come from sharing my feelings with another who shares the same spiritual principles, who can help me to inventory both where I am resentful and where I need to take responsibility.
  2. They do gratitude lists. Gratitude is the ultimate counter to resentment. I cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time. Resentment focuses on what I do not have. Gratitude has eyes to see what I already have.

These are tools we can all use. Thank God.

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general

final revelation

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

2 Peter 3:8-15a – NRSV

This is not a passage that is designed to describe in scientific detail the way in which the present heavens and present earth will be transformed into “new heavens and a new earth” – the ‘how’. Nor is it designed to suggest the timing of this transformation – the ‘when’. The focus is on ethics. How are we to live. Namely, “holiness, and godliness”, “righteousness”, “at peace, without spot or blemish”.

It seems that how-questions and when-questions always have a capacity to distract us.

It seems that some were imagining a slow, gradual coming of the Lord’s Day, and expecting it to be very soon. This is a framework that is somewhat disempowering for the development of our ethical lives. Instead, one focuses on world events, ‘wars and rumors of wars’, natural disasters, disease, political unrest, etc.. Instead of working for the advancement of the kingdom in their own lives and in the world, they worry and wonder about God’s timing. The advice given seems to suggest that we should interpret each day as a gift of time, to continue, advance and develop our ethical living.

The other imagination that some may have had was that the coming of the Lord would mean the going of creation. If we imagine the earth as we would kindling or newspaper, then yes the fire would burn ‘away’ the earth. But the passage instead suggests that the purpose of the fire is not to do ‘away’ with the earth, but to burn away the evil that corrupts the present creation. Indeed after the fire, the melting, the burning, and the dissolving, “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed (found, discovered).” Instead of newspaper that is burned with nothing left to show, it is more like a refining of something more solid and of much more lasting value.

Again, both descriptions of the new, purified creation mix in the ethical language. It is not only the “earth” that is disclosed, but also “everything that is done on it”. LIkewise, the new heavens and new earth are “where righteousness is at home”.

God is not out to destroy us. God wants to purify us. That is a much more empowering framework for working on my ethical life.

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general

towards better help

In this world, Jesus said, you will have trouble.

2020 has seen its’ fair share of it.

Jesus assures us that we can take heart in his act of overcoming the world, but his followers are still enlisted as kingdom-bringers, as much of heaven on earth as possible.

Trouble and problems.

We humans get stuck in the middle of them. And we take on three familiar personas at various times.

Victim.

All of us, in various ways, have been hurt by someone other than ourselves, and it wasn’t our fault at all. We’re all victims.

To complicate our situation, we can easily fall into a “poor me” victim mindset, which hinders us in all kinds of ways, one of which is that we fail to take responsibility for the things we can change.

Victimiser.

All of us, in other ways, have hurt others, and we shouldn’t have, and we must take responsibility for it, sooner or later. We’re all Victimisers.

To complicate our situation, we can easily fall into a “bad me” kind of guilt and shame, which paralyzes us in all kinds of ways, one of which is that we fail to change the things about ourselves, because we believe that part of us (or us as a whole) to be ‘bad’.

Rescuer.

All of us, at various times, have had opportunity or have tried to help when we see someone who has been hurt. We’re all rescuers.

To complicate things, we can easily fall into a “great me” mindset of heroic helpfulness, which can distort and warp the ways in which we try to help, two of which are a) to help in ‘token’ ways that don’t really help, or b) to help in ways that make those we are trying to help dependent on our help.


I’ve been thinking about this ordinary human triangle in relation to the horrible trouble that is dominating our news feeds at present with regard to race, violence, privilege, guilt, power, empathy and change.

The real, painful and horrifically persistent victimhood of African Americans by racism is justifiably and understandably our global focus right now, even if others continue to be victims of other things. It would be easy for the victim mentality to paralyze many African Americans. I admire the strength and resilience of those within African American communities who call one another to draw together their strength and be agents of change – both in relation to their own community and the external threat of racism. Simply inspiring.

Racism is a real, subtle, and powerful form of victimisation. Many people have taken the honest course of admitting their unconscious, subconscious or other layers of racism. Others point to the reality of such things as “white guilt”, as we feel various levels of responsibility for both the existence and persistence of racism. I admire the prophetic and creative ways that we are trying our best to help one another face the racism that we all are likely to have at some level. Difficult. Painstaking. Absolutely essential.

One of the ways we who feel guilt over our participation in racism can respond is by trying to help. We act as rescuers. We want to be seen as those who are on the “right side” of the issue. With the issue flaring up on social media, we share articles, change our profile pictures and express solidarity with the victims of racism. I am inspired and challenged by wise voices that challenge us to take our help far beyond the bandwagon of sudden compassion. Our ethic for protecting human dignity must be consistent and comprehensive.


When I am a victim, Lord protect me from the victim mentality that would hinder me from doing what I can to change my situation.

When I am a victimiser, Lord strengthen my repentance and guard me from the forms of shame that trap me from the transformation I need.

When I try to help, Lord, deepen and sharpen my compassion to go beyond gesture, and lead me to walk alongside people to participate together in change.


Make me strong, humble and helpful.

Categories
culture ethics general

better or worse

As experience and age increases, you can look back on your life and see change. Sometimes, there can be significant difference between the kind of person we are now and the person we used to be.

On the one hand, it may be that we are better, that we have learned from mistakes, that we have made progress. On the other hand, of course, it may be that we are worse, that we have forgotten important principles, that we have regressed.

What we think about our progress or regress may be different from the reality. For example, it is far more comfortable to think of ourselves as having made progress; to look back in triumphal dis-association, saying, “I am glad I’m not that person anymore.” By contrast, it is deeply disturbing to say to oneself, “What kind of person have I become? How did I get here?”

It seems to me that in order for myself to make a more accurate assessment of my progress or regress, I need the input of others. Indeed, if I have other people whom I can increasingly ask for and accept their perception of my well-being, it is a sign of progress. If, however, I increasingly fear or despise the views of more and more people, assuming my own perception to be more true than theirs, I would take that to be a sign of regress.

The following questions emerge from this reflection:

Am I growing closer or further away from people who can help me become a better person?

Am I sensing an increase or decrease in partnership, community and relationship with others in general?

Am I growing in my ability to accept people I disagree with, or is my frustration with them burning hotter and hotter?

What habits can I build into my life to help me grow towards others, rather than away from them?

Categories
bible christianity culture general philosophy science theology

possibility and surrender

I met a friendly man today who, learning of my religiosity, asked me about my views on science and faith.  It was a good chat, not too long, and remained wonderfully amicable.

The man was, by global and local standards, wealthy, educated and articulate.  At least some of the time, such a demographic can tend to view the ‘God’ topic primarily as an interest, a curiosity; certainly not a matter of life and death.

During the conversation, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, the science-and-faith conversation.  Is this still a popular topic for people?  Usually it’s hell or homosexuality.”  I have no idea of his intentions, but very often many Christians feel like such conversations have little if anything to do with someone’s genuine interest in (or pursuit of) faith, and everything to do with some kind of justification of their unbelief.  The theological out-clauses are many: global suffering and evil, hypocrisy in the church, science and/or evolution, hell, homosexuality, ‘the Old Testament’, etc.

This leads me to another thought, which emerged from my reflections.  It is the reality that if an ultimate invisible and limitless being is real, then that kind of opens up literally anything and everything as being possible.  A ‘god’ could be very controlling and hands-on, more distant and deistic, or somewhere in the middle; evil, good, impatient, patient.  If people just start believing in ‘god’ willy nilly, well they might start believing just about anything about that ‘god’.  This ‘god’ might send 99.9999% of humans to hell, gays first of course, and save only the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  Or this ‘god’ might be the mamby pamby, everything-and-everyone-is-great, domesticated, flaccid (and frankly boring) deity… Anything is possible if there is a ‘god’!

The truth behind all this is precisely this: Yes, you and I don’t get to say what God is like.  God may have attributes we don’t find pleasant or popular in our time and culture.

This is where a little notion called surrender comes in.  This is where we stop trying to be more moral than God.  This is where we let go of all our controlling questions and submit to the reality of an Ultimate being, far stronger and higher than us.

The good news, literally, is that in the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to wonder – or fear! – what God might be like.  We have a Creator and Saviour who is radically committed to the creation, humans in particular.  So much so that this God is long-suffering and hell-bent on saving us, despite our almost continual rejection, rebellion, apathy and downright selfishness.

Anything is possible with God; and what a good possibility it is with the God we know through Jesus Christ.