a working metaphor

More and more, I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian moral life is the role of active, moral effort.

By this, I’m talking not only about the mental/psychological task of working hard at discerning what is ‘right’ or ‘God’s will’, but particularly the gritty, tiring, laborious work (but not ‘works’ – read on) doing God’s will.  Training yourself to do acts of love and service instead of (at best) nothing at all or (worst of all) of acts of harm and selfishness.

Not surprisingly, if you know me, I’m finding N.T. Wright just brilliant on this.  Video here.  Book I’m currently reading here.  He helpfully navigates the territory of the debate concerning how we develop Christian character, and particularly the question of the role of our own moral effort in this process.  Is it a matter of simply trying hard enough (to make yourself good enough), as comes through in popular portrayals of Christian faith (based no doubt on a lot of actual teaching/instruction)?  Or is it a matter of resting from any trying at all, and simply waiting on God to empower, motivate and enable you, as comes through in not a few reactions to the former?  Wright argues persuasively and thoroughly that it is ‘neither/nor’.  He makes clear the ‘both/and’ view expressed by Paul and the rest of the New Testament.  Both my own moral effort; and God’s enabling presence alongside and underneath me.

As usual, the worldview one is working with is everything.  And here the tension between monistic and dualistic frameworks are evident.  If reality is, at utter rock bottom, essentially one thing, then it’s hard to have any sense of both/and.  And if reality is characterised by not only a relational duality, but a dualism where the two ontological realities are fundamentally opposed to and detached from one another (i.e. the Creator is not involved within creation at all…), then this both/and is just as impossible.  Indeed, much modern naturalism has simply cut the strings of an ‘unnecessary’ deity who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ by 18th century Enlightenment philosophy.  We inherit much of this naturalism today, as we breathe the air of an intellectual (and epistemological) tradition that fails (or refuses) to see any trace of God in the world, and strips it of its title ‘creation’ and calls in ‘Nature’ instead, leaving us with an utterly God-less view of the world.

This general (and powerful) shift in popular imagination (and let’s be honest, at the level of ultimate reality, it’s a matter of imagination, not observation) has fed into the particularly Christian (and biblical) debate about how we should picture this both/and of God’s work and our work in Christian living.

I think metaphors are the best we can do, often.  And perhaps multiple metaphors are needed to capture this.  Wright makes the point that a picture of two humans collaborating on one activity doesn’t quite get it, as though ‘walking by (or in) the Spirit’ was analogous to working alongside another human such that you put in 50% and so does God.  It’s not like that.  Any good metaphor will capture at least three things (and more):
a) the ontological difference between God and humans
b) the utter human dependency of humans upon God
c) the very real human responsibility to act and choose

I can think of no better metaphor than the person of Christ.  But unfortunately, this re-raises the whole question, for (if we affirm Christ’s dual nature as Scripture teaches) how do we conceive of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity.  Is he a human puppet for a divine hand?  Is he basically just human?  Is he mostly divine and just appeared to be human?  Much rich and wonderful theology (since the 1st century as the apostles countered Gnosticism and docetic Jesus) is devoted to clarifying and addressing these questions.

But what other metaphors might we use?

neuroplasticity analogy

Neuroplasticity refers to the changeable-ness of the neurological structure (so-to-speak) of the brain – achieved (among other things) through focused mental activity/experience.

In terms of mind/body discussions – there is a key distinction between the idea of neuroplasticity being the mind changing the brain, or the brain changing itself.  The side question of how the human brain-and-or-mind developed is not the question here.  Rather it’s the question: does ‘mind‘ = brain?

A simple analogy comes to mind (err… comes to brain… or… comes to mind+brain)… Continue reading “neuroplasticity analogy”

embodied souls

soulBody?

…soul?

…or both?

Some hold to the idea that there is no ‘self’ or ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, so to speak, but rather than we are complex biological organisms with complex biological functions; including complex mental processes which have caused some to imagine that we have a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.

At the same time, there are those who hold to the idea that ‘they’ are primarily not their body, but rather their ‘soul‘ or ‘spirit’ or ‘self’. This spiritual entity is said to be the essence of who ‘you’ are, and is often said to be ‘immortal’ or ‘eternal’.

Varying views on this topic are not new. In the ancient world, the two main views we know of were either that humans were endowed with an immortal soul, or that they… well… were not so endowed. Continue reading “embodied souls”

of the spirit

Thoughts and words about the Holy Spirit can go in many different directions. One can try to present their view by way of many different paths, and from many different angles – and I believe many of these paths/angles would be biblical…

To try and promote unity and clarity, I’d like to address a few ideas about spirit/spirituality/the holy spirit/etc., that I think need sharpening… Along the way, I hope the ‘personality’ of the Spirit will become more obvious…

Dualism must die…
Greek philosophers of old, looked at the world and decided that reality was split in two – the ‘unseen’, ‘spiritual’ realm; and the ‘seen’, ‘physical’ realm. The ‘unseen’ realm was perfect, pure and un-changing. The ‘seen’ realm was corrupt, faulty and change-able. The relationship between the spirit and matter, then was – no surprise – a strained one.

The Jewish perspective saw reality differently. God was in ‘heaven’; Humans were on ‘earth’; yet God could still ‘dwell with’ His people and His creation. It wasn’t just that spirit could mix with physical, but more that the two ‘realms’ were always mixing. It wasn’t so much a question of if they mixed, but more how they mixed. In other words, the real question was which spirit was mixing in a given physical place/person?

In the Greek view, you assume a huge gap between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. So, you have to do all kinds of things (the right prayers, sacrifices, rituals) to make it ‘just right’ – right enough for the spirit to mix with the physical. That’s a general picture, but it gives you the idea.

In the Jewish view, the two realms relate easily. In the Scriptures, there are many ‘spirits’ mentioned – some on the ‘good’ side (i.e. a ‘spirit of wisdom’, etc.), some on the ‘evil’ side (i.e. a ‘spirit of jealousy’, etc.). The entire world is ‘bubbling’ with spiritual potential.

The word ‘supernatural’ isn’t very helpful at times…
You may not have thought of it this way before, but our understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is, of course, only as good as our understanding of the word ‘natural.’ It seems odd – to me, at least – to say that God is the one who establishes the ‘laws of nature’ and then breaks them from time to time (and that is precisely how the ‘supernatural’ is defined).

We need to see the world differently, I think. The Scriptures don’t give us a ‘laws of nature’ which God must violate in order to do something ‘supernatural’. Instead, they give us a picture of a God who – as the powerful creator of all things – acts within His creation. It’s not a question of when He is acting, but rather when He is not acting.

In this light, we need not call miracles ‘supernatural’, so to speak. Rather than see them as ‘supernatural’ events that ‘happen‘, I think we should see them as powerful actions of the God who is Lord of Heaven and Earth. Remember, the Scriptures insist that God is always active within His good creation (yes, even after the tragic ‘fall’ in Genesis 3), and sometimes… just sometimes… He is active in miraculous and powerful ways that surprise and shock us.

Me, Myself and… Everyone else
Literally everything in our Western, affluent culture suggests that life is all about you getting what you want/’need’. It’s ALL about the individual. I observe and sense much of the same trends in our all-too-individualistic perspective on spirituality. Much is said about ‘me’ having a great experience; ‘my’ spiritual gift; ‘my’ church; ‘my’ testimony; ‘my’ prayer life; etc. I love this quote:

“Despite what you might think from some excitement in the previous generation about new spiritual experiences, God doesn’t give people the Holy Spirit in order to let them enjoy the spiritual equivalent of a day at Disneyland.” – Tom Wright, ‘Simply Christian’

It’s true. It’s not about you. More specifically, it is about others. In the Scriptures and in my own (dare I use the word) experience, the Spirit moves powerfully in community; not in isolation from others. One of my favourite examples of this is when the Apostles got together to discuss ‘what to do about those gosh darn Gentiles’ in Acts 15 (it’s often called ‘the Jerusalem Council’). They get together; talk things over seriously; share perspectives – and emerge with a unified decision, saying ‘It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit…’

When was the last time you heard any pastor/preacher/speaker talk like that? I wish we would hear much more of it. If the Apostles (who wrote the majority of the New Testament) were helped in their spiritual discernment processes by getting together and discussing things, then surely we will be!

But the point, of course, is not comparing us to the Apostles, but realising that the same Holy Spirit that guided them is the same Holy Spirit that will guide us – and I am suggesting that He (the Holy Spirit) can do so better in community than He can do in isolation. Am I limiting Him to meetings? Of course not! God is certainly personal and is able to do reveal Himself to us individually. But I insist that we all need to surround ourselves with other people to help us discern and decide; people who (with the Apostle Paul) can say, ‘…and I, too, think I have the Holy Spirit…’

Towards a better spiritual ethic…
I think unity and clarity will come when we are able to focus on the main and plain things of the Spirit. We must remember that the Holy Spirit is God. He is not an ‘it’. He is not an impersonal ‘force’. He is not a drug on which to get ‘high’ on. He is the Spirit of Jesus. He is the Spirit of God. His first and foremost task is to remake (and continue remaking) us into the likeness (character) of Jesus. All of us. Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength.

Call me crazy, un-biblical, un-spiritual or a stick in the mud, but I think this kind of spirituality has very little to do with what happens during a church service or in a prayer closet, and has almost everything to do with what happens outside those places. It may ruffle your Christian feathers, but I think God is more excited with lives of mercy and justice than moments of celebration…

Let’s see all of our lives, all of our priorities, all of our choices, all of our time, all of our money, all of our relationships, all of our possessions, all of our everything – as spiritual. May we see the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, self-control…) in all these areas and more.

the spiritual world – 3 options

Do a ‘google-search’ on the word ‘spiritual’ and you’ll find thousands and thousands of results. There seem to be as many views on ‘spirituality’ as there are types of music. All of the endless talking and writing about spirituality seems to stay close to a few types of questions…-What is spirituality?
-How do I practise it?
-What does it ‘look’ like?
-Whose version of it works the best?
-Is there a ‘best version’ at all?
-Am I spiritual enough?
etc.

Well. Of course, I cannot possibly address every idea about spirituality. I haven’t even heard every idea out there – and I seriously doubt anyone has. I can’t even address every idea about spirituality that supposedly comes from the Christian community! The topic is so vast and it contains so many contradictory ideas, it can be quite exhausting even thinking about it for long!

What a tough deal. Huh? I firmly believe that ALL humans are spiritual beings, and I think most people would agree (but again, it depends on your definition of ‘spiritual’). We all seem to have this deep sense of this thing we call ‘sprirituality’, but there are so many views out there (even within Christendom), that trying to find the best (true, correct, right?) one can wear us out quickly.

I want to encourage health in this area. For those seeking a better ‘spiritual health’ that are growing (or have grown) tired of the search, I want to encourage them to not give up. Our lives matter just that much.

Instead of delving into this bottom-less pit of ideas, I thought I would share a ‘set of glasses’ with you. I discovered them from reading a book by N.T. Wright called “Simply Christian”. These ‘glasses’ provide a framework with which to evaluate various ideas about spirituality and the world. My hope is that they will fuel your search with enthusiasm.

Right about now, some readers might be thinking, “But we have the Bible. No search is necessary. Just read what it says,” to which I would respond, “OK. Then how can there be so many different – even contradictory – ideas about spirituality which all claim to be ‘biblical’? While I believe that the Bible does have the answers, I’m nervous about such a simplistic pat-answer to this very important question.

The spheres of ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ are overlapping to say the least. Ask just about anyone what spirituality is, and they will eventually say something about tapping into a ‘greater’ reality, God, god, being, existence, mindset, Mindset or whatever. Using 3 ‘options’, these ‘glasses’ provide a way of viewing the universe we live in and how ‘god’ fits into the picture.

Option 1
The first option is to see the entire universe as being – in it’s very nature or essence – god. This is known as the pantheist view (pan = everything, theos = god). As N.T. Wright points out, the unavoidable difficulty with this view is that it is hard to account for the obvious evil that we see so clearly around us. If everything in itself is divine, and evil is so apparent, then the divine must contain evil, right? This tension is seen in such symbols as the yin-yang, used in Confucianism and Taoism. Unfortunately, we are left with a corrupt deity in this view.

Option 2
This option views god’s realm as being detached and/or dis-interested with our realm. The idea is that because the divine must be pure, and our world is so obviously corrupted, stained and flawed, the divine simply cannot have anything to do with this existence. This god may have created the world, but now must have more important things to do, because our world certainly is being ignored. Perhaps this god may come down and do something scary every once and a while, but for the most part, is distracted by ‘heavenly’ business. Many versions of this view have been articulated, but perhaps the most well known person to do so was Plato. His view has become known as dualism, in which this world is merely a flawed copy of the ideal world. (Though we may not realise it, many so-called Christian ideas and Bible verse interpretations are tainted with this understanding of the universe.) The problem with this view is that while we admit that our world is most certainly flawed, we still behold it’s beauty and majesty. We find mountains, hills, fields, flowers, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, sunsets, full-moons, and ocean waves to be deeply moving. Indeed, the Bible gives repeated testimony to the greatness of God’s good creation.

Option 3
Option 1 cannot solve the question of evil, and leaves us with a deity that is in some way – at least in part – corrupt. Option 2 cannot explain the richness and glory of the universe, and leaves us confused about how to get the attention and favour of it’s distant god. Continuing with N.T. Wrights ‘glasses’, our third option is to see two dimensions – Heaven and Earth – which ‘overlap’ and ‘interlock’ in various ways. The divine interacts with and relates to this world. This highlights the personal nature of this God. This God is somehow able to act in our very own space and time while at the same time remaining sovereign over it. This God is able to promise His people that He will ‘dwell among them’.

Perhaps this is already sparking some thinking and re-thinking about some things. Perhaps you’re wondering about some versions of spirituality. Which option do they fit most comfortably in?

Option 1 spirituality can seem to not have any real substance or meaning. If everything is god, then I don’t need to ‘tap into’ anything, but instead I must try to make the idea work in my brain that the ground, the air, the water, my computer, my car and myself are all god. How does that help me live? I have no idea.

Option 2 spirituality can leave us confused about how to relate to the god. If this god is so distant, I probably have to use the right techniques, prayers, rituals or words to get its attention. If this existence is just a flawed copy of the idea existence, then it certainly can’t matter very much, and what real difference do my actions make? If they matter at all, it must be so I can secure for myself a better after-life, right? Again, many ‘Christian’ ideas are polluted with such thinking.

Option 3 provides us with an existence that is dripping with spirituality. Not a spirituality of self-realisation that seeks to understand our god-ness (option 1), and not a confused grasp in the dark at a face-less ‘something out there’ which I can try to manipulate into working for me (option 2), but rather, an existence that: calls me into relationship with a Creator God who wants me to be His image, reveals the character of the Creator to guide me to a lifestyle of this image, and gives me a role to play in the Creator’s unfolding story of redemption.

We don’t have to live in a mediocre, bland fake-ness that suggests everything is fine and divine (option 1). We don’t have to ‘hold our breath’ between ‘spiritual moments’ as if they only come every once in a while – perhaps miraculously (option 2). We instead are given the task of passing on the gift of Grace which we have received freely from the Creator, using not just the right collection of ‘spiritual experiences’ to do this, but rather, we realise that our whole life is a spiritual experience and journey in which we grow in relationship to the Spirit of the Creator, who ‘dwells with us’ and orients us to new life. A life rich with meaning, direction and purpose. A life that is part of the Creator’s story. A life of strength in weakness. A life of weeping with those who weep. A life modeled after the life of Jesus.