cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

god’s theology

Theology is literally a ‘word’ (logos) about ‘God’ (Theos).

Some scattered bits of experience, mine and others, over the last few weeks have reminded me that various positions, discussions, debates and statements that would be labelled ‘theological’ can be unhelpful. Yes, truth will divide at times, and so it should, but too often theological battles can separate what God has joined together. They can wrongfully offend, make too much of small things, speak too little of grand things, and so on.

Of course the opposite is also true. Theology done well does just what it was meant to do, enable and equip the people of God to be who they were intended to be in God’s world, through acts of selfless solidarity, breathtaking generosity, persistent service, courageous prophetic witness and so on.

How do we distinguish between good and bad theologies? This is where the uniqueness of the Christian faith comes in.

What makes Christian faith Christian is the person of Christ. All of Christian theology stems directly from the person and work of Christ. Christ is the revelation of God. All ‘God-words’ meet their pass or fail by testing them against the ‘God-Word’ that is Jesus Christ. Christ, after all, is God’s Theology, the Word who was with God and who was God.

I will hold my own theologies lightly, and hold to, and be held by, God’s own Theology. It is not my knowledge of God that matters, but God’s knowledge of me.

narcissism and image

All Humans Are Narcissists

I want to suggest that all humans, like Narcissus, look at their reflection and make too much of it. This is obvious in some behaviour and more discreet in others.

In my own experience, my narcissism is easily spotted when I think, feel, talk and act as though my own thoughts, feelings, words, opinions (blog posts!?), needs and achievements are – even a little bit – more important than others. In a less obvious way, my narcissism can hide behind all the ways in which I down-play myself. Narcissism is being increasingly recognized as lying behind many – of course not all, or even most – forms of depression.

In sum, I’m suggesting here that when humans play themselves up or push themselves down, some form or degree of narcissism – passive or active – is probably at work.

The Middle Way of the Imago Dei

Narcissism constitutes a form of idolatry. The self is made into an idol in an obvious way when we put ourselves on a pedestal. However, arguably, the self is just as much an idol when the self is abased. When we tell ourselves grand stories of how ‘low’ we are, we can still be making a big deal out of ourselves; we can see ourselves as being just as great as our suffering.

Charting the “Middle Way” between the narcissistic extremes of idolatrous self-aggrandising and idolatrous self-abasing, the Judeo-Christian tradition has the provocative notion of the Imago Dei. As scholars of the book of Genesis have contended, the opening chapter of Scripture depicts the Creator God building a temple, three days of forming the tohu (formless) and three days of filling the vohu (empty/void); and rather than finishing it off with a idol, the Creator God made humans (male and female) in God’s image.

The up-shot of this is that when we look at another human being, or more to the point, when we look, like Narcissus did, at our reflection, we should not merely see and fall in love with ourselves as he did, but rather should also see – and also love – the Creator God.

grace at christmas

Christianity is about Grace, and the language of Grace is the language of gifting; giving and receiving. God comes to Mary with a gift – the honoured role of being the Mother of Christ – and she received it. Her reception of this gift was not naive, not unconsidered or free of queries, but in the end her reception of this role was joyful and humble.

The giving and receiving are both necessary for God’s unforceful grace to operate as intended. All sorts of gift giving can be distorted by various forms of forcefulness or rejection: Christmas presents, sex, money, power, etc. Whenever they are not freely given and freely received, the process of Grace is hindered. Gifts are not forced, or they cease to be gifts. A gift must be given freely, without promise of repayment. Likewise, if a gift is not received, the action of giving is hindered. A gift must be received freely, without a sense of needing to balance the score of giving or earn the gift.

May we, may I, like Mary, say “Let it be”, say “yes”, in glad reception of God’s gifts to us. And, as Jesus taught us, may the freedom of our giving to others reflect how freely we have received those gifts.

lament with thanksgiving

Lament and thanksgiving are two entirely valid modes of prayer.

Both are biblical and practical.  Like God’s people in every time and place, it is a healthy practice to offer to God both our ‘why’ and our ‘thanks’.  In my survey of local Baptist worship in Aotearoa New Zealand, I considered the extent to which forms of prayer such as praise and thanksgiving were dominant, and found reason to believe that forms such as confession and lament were more rare.  In this post, I’m interested in reasons why lament in particular seems uncommon, and whether or not there might be a symbiotic relationship between lament and thanksgiving.

I think the main reasons for less (or no) lament in public worship are emotional and theological in nature.  Emotionally, it really is a bit of a drag and doesn’t really (at least on the surface) prepare people to go out in confident mission to the world.  Theologically, some may feel that such prayers reflect a lack of gratitude or trust.

I get it.  It’s not enjoyable, and it can seem to clash with gratitude.  I certainly think it would be inappropriate for a service to have too much lament.  But what if lament and thanksgiving go together more than we realize?

I propose the following: When Christians gather for worship, a mixture of lament and thanksgiving is a healthy middle between two extremes.  At one extreme, when there is too much lament and not enough thanksgiving, the service feels less like worship and more like a grumbling session.  This kind of worship succeeds in justifying our resentment and anger when things don’t go our way, and fails to transform our boredom into joy.  At the other extreme, when there is only thanksgiving, free of lament, the service can feel a bit shallow and inauthentic.  This kind of worship fails to appreciate that every day is full of events which even God laments, and for which lament is the proper response, and succeeds in presenting Christianity as a faith which is out of touch with reality.

So then.  Lament? Yes.  And then give thanks.

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.

on calvinism

Why a Blog about Calvinism?

Today I learned – much after the fact – that Derek Webb no longer identifies as a Christian.  This has some emotional significance for me, as I have been a follower of Caedmon’s Call (in which he played), and of his more recent solo musical projects.

Instead of discussing what it feels like to have a musical hero of yours lose his faith, I instead want to reflect here on Calvinism.  The video in which I learned this discusses – or rather proposes – a relationship between Calvinism and atheism.  Webb seems to be rejecting a thoroughly Calvinistic Christianity, as he understands it.

It is the understanding of Calvinism that I wish to dare to discuss below.  My aim is to avoid academic jargon and to express the gist of what Calvinism is about, and to do so in a way that expresses Calvinism in what I believe to be it’s best form, whilst also hoping to show extremes that can arise along the way.  I will use the long-established, and much-debated acronym T.U.L.I.P. as a framework.

What I hope to show is that, in its best form, Calvinism – like Scripture – aims to showcase the God of Grace as the ultimate agent at work in Salvation.  This aim can be expressed in ways that perhaps do not show the emphasis that Scripture also puts on human participation with God.  Likewise, rebuttals of Calvinism aim to recover a proper sense of human freedom and responsibility within God’s plan.  In so doing, perhaps God’s ultimate sovereignty can be obscured to lesser or greater degrees.  A simple, clear reading of Calvinism may be difficult, so wish me luck!

T – Total Depravity

The total depravity of humanity is about the devastating scope of the damage that Evil and Sin have done in humans.  Few would try to deny that humans have their defects, but the key idea here is seen in the word ‘total’.  Human failure goes all the way down, from head to toe.  This doctrine is a way of resisting the idea that there is a basic, perhaps hidden, part of us that is untouched and good.  And more to the point, that this part of us makes us worthy enough to deserve salvation, because God ‘owes’ it to us.

You can easily see how a doctrine like this can be – and has been! – taken to extremes.  The doctrine itself aims at correcting the extreme of an overly positive view of human nature, and all corrections can become over-corrections.  Scripture often says two things that need to be held in tension, rather than having to choose between them.  On this topic, Scripture portrays human nature in both its positive and negative expressions.  One scholar described this picture of humans as being simultaneously “resplendent with glory and awash in shame”.

In my own experience, this doctrine is helpful to keep me humble.  And I have found that it is unhelpful or even dangerous to split myself too neatly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts of myself.  As I see it, even the parts of myself I thought were ‘good’ are tainted by selfishness, insecurity and pride.  This doesn’t negate positive traits like intelligence, gifting or anything else, it just means that all of me, from head to toe, needs help from outside myself.  The good news of salvation is not about me being smart enough to sort myself out, but about God being loving enough.

U – Unconditional Election

The unconditional election of God’s people is trying to say two things at least: one, that God has ‘elected’ or ‘chosen’ people, and two, that this ‘election’ or ‘choice’ flows entirely from his own graceful, merciful and loving wisdom, rather than a choice that is based on some quality that those people had, or didn’t have.

The very notion of ‘choosing’ or ‘electing’ some people is unpopular as it implies that the rest are not chosen, and thus have no fair chance at becoming one of God’s people.  But the point being made here, and by Scripture as I understand it, is not that being chosen is to be contrasted with being ‘not chosen’, but rather that ‘election’ is to be contrasted with ‘selection’.  God’s choice is free.  It is free of influence from anything other than God’s own just, loving and gracious nature.  Thus ‘election’ is not ‘selection’, as though God’s choice amounts to a choosy selecting of the ‘best ones’.

There are Bible verses that seem to say two things here.  Some seem to show humans as choosing God, others depict God choosing humans.  Again, rather than choose one or the other, I think the point is that both dynamics are at work.  The point that Calvinism is making here – and it does square with Scripture as I understand it – is that God takes the initiative, not us.

L – Limited Atonement

The limited atonement of Christ is, again, focused on God as the active agent of salvation.  The Church here is pictured as a bride which Christ pursued and died for.  It is purposeful and intentional, rather than accidental or random.

Again, this has been taken to imply that God never cared to save people outside the Church, an idea that would not square with all of Scripture.  God’s desire is for all, and Christ’s sacrifice was ‘unlimited’ in the sense of being enough for all.  The language of ‘limited’ has to do with the specificity of those who end up benefiting from that sacrifice.

This is a point of doctrine that I think is best expressed at a very simple level.  Too much word-play seems to over-complicate the simplicity of what is being said here.  God took a people to be God’s very own, and this was ultimately accomplished through the atoning work of Christ.  It was purposeful, and not an accident.  God does not sit, nail-biting in heaven wondering who will partake of the salvation offered in Christ.

I – Irresistible Grace

The irresistible Grace of God is again focused on God as the active agent in salvation.  This doctrine resists the idea that some are good, humble or clever enough to figure out Grace, whilst others aren’t.  Rather, it is God who is seen here as casting a net of Grace, from which no human fish can escape.

Again we see the tension between God’s work and our participation – or in this case the possibility of our rejection of his work.  In its best form, I don’t think Irresistible Grace is about finely tuned philosophical arguments about volition and human agency in conflict with divine initiative and sovereignty.  I don’t think the point is that some people were created as Grace-resisters and others were created as Grace-accept-ers.  The simple picture is of Grace doing precisely what it was given for.

Nothing in this doctrine, as I understand it, should conflict with our experience of human efforts appearing to result in human decisions for Christ, or with human choice appearing to choose against God and his forgiveness in Christ.  It’s about the ultimate effectiveness of Grace.

P – Perseverance of the Saints

The perseverance of the Saints is linked with Irresistible Grace, in that it is picturing God as both the author and finisher of salvation.  The idea being resisted here is of a God who gives us a nudge to get us going, and then abandons us to sort ourselves out the rest of the way.  Rather, God is purposeful and powerful, initiating and completing the work of Salvation.

The problem for many is that we know that some people do – at least apparently – start out in the faith only to drop out – at least apparently – later.  Again we are dealing with invisible realities here.  Only God knows God’s choice, and I would also add that only each individual knows their choice.  For me, this does not negate the reality of what we experience when someone – apparently – turns away from faith.  God is simply and lovingly pictured here as a Shepherd who maintains and keeps the sheep.

Concluding Remarks

There are more than a few minefields to avoid in all this, but I suppose such is the way with any good idea.  T.U.L.I.P. is said to express the ‘doctrines of Grace’, and it is that active Grace of God, from the beginning to the end of Salvation, which these doctrines seek to give ultimate credit to.

Freedom is an essential aspect of God’s nature.  God is not ‘conditioned’ by anything outside of God.  Nothing outside of God makes God the way God is.  All of this is very logical and squares with Scripture.  The mystery of the God of the Bible, however, is that God is also relational, to the point where God takes flesh and unites to human nature in Christ, taking the form of a slave.  God permits us to describe divinity using our little human words.  Somehow, without ceasing to be free, God has eternally chosen to be the kind of God who is ‘both/and’: God is both the sole agent of salvation from start to finish, and yet God will not force salvation on anyone and requires – even at times pleads for – their participation in it.  There is something deeply ‘illogical’ about the Gospel.  The One who is by nature limitless, unconditioned and free, nonetheless chooses freely to operate in relation to humans in all of our weakness, sin, complicity, willfulness, indecision, and sputtering flights of kindness.  God has chosen for salvation to be completed through his divine hand, grasping on to little human hands that think they are grasping on to his.

Humans participate in salvation through believing, obedience, fellowship, worship and mission, but it is God and God alone who is the Saviour.  Without the Saviour, there would be no salvation which we could participate in.

crutches are useful

If you think you are well, then you won’t find much use in a crutch.

But if you have learned to understand your brokenness, then you will appreciate how immensely helpful – even indispensable! – they can be for your healing.

two paths

It is becoming apparent that there are two distinct paths, two very different ways of being in the world.

Sometimes, I can focus on what I do not have or something I feel should change.  I strive for and grasp at what I want or what I want to change.  I perhaps (or often) feel that I deserve the thing or conditions that I want.  I am entitled to them.

If I allow myself to, I can let my emotions devolve.  It can start with boredom, which is based on an assumption that I ought to be experiencing excitement.  It can then morph quickly into frustration, stress, resentment and anger.  The end of this progression is murderous rage, where I am cut off from myself, others and God.  The whole spectrum is that of being continually and increasingly pissed off.

Thank God, other times I focus on what I do have, and surrender the impulse to change that thing, circumstance or person.  This is the path of gratitude.  I see the things that I have as gifts, rather than possessions I’m entitled to.  I don’t expect to have much, and am grateful for having enough.  This is also the path of acceptance.  I don’t have to agree with everything or everyone, but I do need to accept things outside myself.

The emotions associated with this path are very different.  Peace, calmness, serenity, attentiveness, joy, contentment, freedom.  The end of this road is a growing relationship with God, others and self.  I am free to greet life as it is, accept difference, and free to help where I can.

world + flesh + devil

The world, the flesh and the devil.

These three entities have been said to be the three sources of sin and temptation for Christians.  That is to say that when we get it wrong, we can point to the influential lure of culture (the world), the weakness of natural desire (the flesh), and the overarching conspiracy of evil (the devil).

I say ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ because I don’t see these three as mutually exclusive.  When a person does something wrong – let’s say: gossip at work – they can point to a) the culture of gossip at their work or in the ‘world’ generally, b) their own tendencies to want to stay ‘in the know’ about what’s going around the workplace, and c) a trans-historic, trans-cultural, quasi-personal gravity gently and subtly pulling people away from healthy and honest communication.

If we neatly point to just one of these three, we open the door to a) victim-hood (“Poor me, it’s so hard to be good in this world/workplace…”), b) shame (“Why am I such a horrible gossip?”) or c) blame (“It was an outright spiritual attack…”).

Acknowledging all three can help us to appreciate afresh the need to stand apart from culture (Romans 12:1-2), the need to acknowledge our culpability for our actions (1 John 1:9), and to be on guard against the old serpent up to its typical schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).