2011-12-20

What does Christ have to offer a post-Christian world?

This is a reflection on the Pew research which shows a diminishment of global Christian population share from 35% in 1910 and 32% in 2010. At first, if one looks at raw numbers, it appears as if Christianity is growing like crazy. This is because there were only 612 million Christians in 1910, but there are now 2.18 billion: An apparent increase of 353% in 100 years! However, in that same time world population has increased 383% from 1.8 billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion in 2010.

This is interesting because Christianity is supposed to be a growth religion- a missionary religion- not a maintenence religion. This stat does not seem problematic until one factors this lack of statistical increase compared to actual population growth. It shows that even though more total people are Christians, the message and vitality of Christianity is slipping as a proportion of culture as a whole.

See the Pew Religion research stats here: http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-worlds-christian-population.aspx?src=prc-headline

Even if one juxtaposes the diminution of Christian dominance in Europe and the USA with the rapid growth of Christianity in Asia and Africa, the problem still stands. For on one hand: What culture has not been evangelized more, and in more ways, than the USA? And yet, the "market share" of Christianity here has STILL decreased from well over 90% in 1900 to just under 80% today.

And in many (not all) African and Asian countries where Christianity is growing, it must be noted that Christianity is socially favored and politically expedient in those cultures, in similar ways to how Christianity was culturally favored during the epoch of European "Christendom". In a century or two, when Christianity is no longer a novel or liberating force in those countries, but rather the religion of status quo, will it also cease to grow? As sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins writes in several works- notably "The Lost History of Christianity"- the fate of Christian churches and Christian populations is often tied to being on the "winning" side of political and cultural power. When Christianity ceases to be tied to the powerful, it historically has died out (especially in Asia in from 700-1400 CE).

So, if one looks at the last century of statistics in an admittedly pessimistic way (as I am now), it seems like Christianity as an organized cultural form is on a long spiral downward. This means that the discredited "secularization" hypothesis of the 1960-70's (which said that all advanced societies were heading toward irreligion as spiritual categories were filled by post-enlightenment thought and practice) is not entirely discredited. It may not be that people are leaving the Church in droves to be atheist or agnostic, but it does appear a slow statistical trickle of Christians are leaving for something else.

So, if we live in a world that is slowly becoming post-Christian- at least post-Christian in a communally organized sense- what does Christ have to offer that merits a reversal of this trend? Note I say Christ (the person, and the organic body through which he works today) and not Christianity (that cultural instrument which has allied with political powers and cultural principalities throughout history).

What does Christ have to offer a post-Christian world?

I want to hunch the outline of an answer to this question. And note that this is a hunch, not a well researched hypothesis, and an outline, not a nuanced exposition.

My hunch comes from the following sources: The perpetual discomfort that sensitive people have felt as regards cutthroat consumer capitalism, ranging from the anti-slavery movement of the 1800's to the social gospel movement of the early 1900's to the hippie protests of the 1960's to the Occupy movement today; The constant drive that cultures seem to exhibit toward a recognition of the sacredness of human life, and the rights and responsibilities that entails, from the women's movement of the early 1900's to the civil rights movements of the mid-1900's to the Arab Spring of today; The revolutionary communal movements of the late 1800's-mid 1900's, which led to a brief flourishing of socialist and communist states, but which have collapsed completely (as the Soviet empire) or partially (as in the socialist-tinged capitalism of Europe and China).

What I see in all of these diverse movements is a general drift toward a dual recognition of the sacredness of the individual person, as well as the need for interdependence as a community, in which all work together, all are valued, all are responsible, and none can manipulate, control, use, or abuse "the Other". With this dual personal/communal ethic comes the economic ramifications of distributive justice, in which the just society makes sure no one is left out in the process of rewarding the achievements of the leaders of society. This distributive justice is the social outworking of interpersonal love: A love which values and welcomes "the Other" in whatever forms she or he may present themselves to us.

So human culture seems to have an inherent yet flawed, identifiable yet stuttering, movement toward the following values:
- Personal sanctity
- Communal interdependence
- Distributive justice
- Interpersonal Love

What does Christ have to do with this striving? Put simply: Everything.

I would argue that the gradual realization of these values is what Christ's Holy Spirit is pushing God's people toward throughout the entirety of the Scriptures. I would say that these values are exactly what Jesus lived and taught. And I would go further and say that Jesus' bodily resurrection is a kind of "down payment" or promise that it is precisely these values that win in the end. These values are vindicated by Christ's defeat of death, and thus we can stake our life on these values.

Furthermore, the trajectory of Christ's life and teachings, as well as the later New Testament, as well as the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, point us to a God who is the Source and Wellspring of these values. In fact, these values are a reflection of the mutually self-giving, other-centered, interpenetrating Love which is the eternal nature of the Triune God.

SINCE God is, eternally, three sacred Persons, sharing in an utterly interdependent life together, as they distribute the nature of God equally to all three, by sharing in the same Love, THEN we have an eternal basis for striving after the values of Personal Sanctity, Communal Interdependence, Distributive justice, and interpersonal Love.

I would go on to argue that the reason why the great socialist and communist states of the 20th century failed was, at least in part, because they did not have this metaphysical grounding in God as the source of their communal life. As a result, they had to deify someone or something to take the place of the vacuum of God in the center of their "political ontology" (to borrow from Zizek). Thus they deified the State, or the Party, or the Great Leader, with disastrous consequences which destroyed the sanctity of the person (in mass killings of political dissidents) and interpersonal love (in the paranoia of the police state). These God-absent dreams of a worldly utopia rightfully imploded under the weight of their own inefficiency and injustice.

As a result we have been left to the whims of an equally monstrous consumer capitalism which tries to uphold a charade of personal sanctity (under the mask of greater personal choice and more personal wealth) by destroying all communal interdependence and loyalty to anything bigger than our own selfish desire to consume. The regnant capitalist system uses our God-given desire for freedom and choice, and turns into a system of social control, in which we neatly conform to marketed identities supplied by slave laborers across the ocean, while corporations who are treated like persons exist as parasites sucking out the life of both consumer and producer. All of this while religions of every type are robbed of their prophetic voice by being made into yet another "lifestyle choice" for the individual consumer who goes "church shopping" just like they go shopping for food, clothes, or entertainment.

But, the system is not sustainable, and the cracks are beginning to show. We see financial meltdowns, protests in the streets, debt crises big enough to wipe out national economies, and crises of identity that leave people feeling restless, meaningless, hopeless, and helpless. We see the problems of capitalism, but there seems to be no other solution. The socialist systems have all imploded. And how can we bite the hand that feeds us, or refuse the very tit we suck from?

Yet, just because the socialist movements were often anti-God, we cannot therefore fail to recognize the God-inspired hopes for justice and community embedded within them. Nor can we fail to see why thinkers such as Marx so naively rejected God in the first place: The name of God and the claims of God were so long used to justify oppression and to oppose movement toward justice that it seemed to these thinkers that the only way to get to justice was to jettison God. And in this, at least part of the blame rests squarely on the Church for colluding with the powers and principalities of the world to make God's name a synonym for oppression and abuse. Following Paul, I say: As it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom. 2:24 paraphrasing Isa. 52.5 and Eze. 36.23).

And, as I have shown above, this drive toward God's Love and Justice is still alive today, and still witnessed by mass movements that dream of such Love and Justice. And God's Name is still used as a justification for violence and oppression by Conservative Christian Capitalist politicians in the USA, by Islamic Fascist Terrorists in the Middle East, and by homophobic zealots in Africa.

If we can rescue the Name of God- the Name of God we find in Christ- from cultural slavery to power, oppression, and violence, then the Word of Christ can speak something new to post-Christian culture. I say "If we can rescue" as if we have the power to do it, and we don't. Rather, if we just let Christ be Christ and speak as Christ in Love and judgment upon our culture, then we can hear afresh the Word of God that has been held in cultural oppression.

What Christ has to offer a post-Christian world is precisely a third alternative beyond the traditional "right/left" or "capitalist/socialist" or "conservative/progressive" dichotomies. Christ offers us the very model of servant-leadership which embodies the values which we strive after. But beyond this, embedded in Christ's Life, is the very God who is Love. In Christ's life, death, and resurrection we are offered a window to see into the very life of God. And what we see in God is the Trinity: A God who is the very goal we are striving after when we strive for love, justice, community and individuality.

This Triune God who is a community beckons us, through Christ, by the Spirit, to enter into communion with Godself. This God becomes the Source and Ground for our communal life together, a Source which was denied by Marx and parodied by the great communist states. It is ultimately because they cut themselves off from this Source that they failed in bringing about the values they desired.

And this leads to perhaps the greatest thing that Christ offers a post-Christian world. It is something even beyond the Trinitarian moral and social values outlined above. It is something we badly need, and without it, the cycle of personal guilt and social violence will keep spiraling into destruction. It is forgiveness. We need an ontological, metaphysical grounding for the practice of forgiveness. We need someone who can assure us that forgiveness is really available, really worth it, and really conforms to the nature of reality.

And we find this in Christ. In his resurrection, we see that the Love of the Triune God is stronger than death, violence, or guilt. We see that God can actually heal death, violence, and guilt. And if we are going to "right the wrongs" of culture and re-build something that works, we are going to need tons of forgiveness: For our own mistakes and the injustice of others. Only through this forgiveness, which is only offered through Christ, can we find the strength to reconcile with each other, and begin again to work for justice and love.

Through Christ we can forgive. We can return to the Triune Source. We can find the Divine grounding for our hopes and dreams. And in so doing, we can work together to create the kind of community Jesus taught and lived, a community he called simply "The Kingdom of God".

2011-12-16

Remembering Hitch

RIP Christopher Hitchens. May Christ have mercy on him. He was a good man. Theologically misguided, but fundamentally driven by a sense of justice that is not accounted for by his own worldview. I will miss the challenge his writings brought to me.

http://m.npr.org/story/143595854?url=/2011/12/16/143595854/writer-christopher-hitchens-dies

2011-11-27

On weight lifting when you are older


This article reflects an older version of my training program. For a version of my training program and philosophy that has worked much better for much longer, see this NEWER POST on weight training and fitness.

A friend of mine who recently lost a bunch of weight asked me about working out. He asked me because I used to give advice on how to work out when I was younger. You see, I used to be a college football player and power lifter. And like many who lifted heavy iron when younger, once "real life" set in (including marriage, kids, grad schools, jobs, and "adult" responsibilities), I have fallen out of shape, and fallen into being about 50-70 lbs over-weight.

This summer I made a pretty good start at loosing weight. I lost about 15 lbs and have kept it off for 6 months. But what I did that has helped even more is that I have kept working out on weights and cardio for the last 6 months consistently. It's a personal best since college. I have gained a bunch of strength and muscle tone back (although nowhere near as much as I once had).

But I also had to re-train on how to work out as a late-30-something with less testosterone, and far less free time, than the collegiate version of myself, along with several nagging injuries left over from high school and college sports. In particular, I have a rotator cup that is glitchy, a lower back that is much more prone to injury, and tennis elbow from typing too much (let me get this straight: Powercleans with 200-300 lbs when I was a teen didn't tear up my forearms, but grad school typing did???).

Anyway, my re-immersion into working out on a weekly basis has brought me a tiny bit of wisdom I shared with my friend. And now I guess I will share it with everyone else too…

Here are five principles I try and follow working out:

1. Try and work bigger muscle groups first, and move to smaller muscles (generally, this means starting with Leg/Groin area, then chest and back, then shoulders, then arms and calves, ending with abs).

2. Work harder in less time. I prefer to do 1-2 sets per exercise, but go to absolute failure on each set, rather than doing 3-5 sets and arbitrarily stopping at 10-12 reps. It is the last few reps that go to failure that cause the muscles to grow. I normally try to use a weight that will cause me to go to absolute failure in 12-18 reps, but I don't usually count reps. I just go until I can't push or pull it anymore.

Not counting reps (on most exercises) has been a big help to me. I find that I don't compete with myself at every workout, trying to get just one more rep on every set. Instead, not counting reps lets me focus more on the form of the exercise, rather than clawing to get some arbitrary number. Typically I will only count reps on one set of squats, chest, and back. Then I will base my workout weight for other exercises on what I can use for for 12-18 reps on that. Also, when I was younger the preferred rep range was 6-12 reps. That kind of weight injures me easily these days. Better to keep lighter, with better form.

3. A strong core (abs and lower back) will lead to a strong everything else. Thus, make sure you are doing your lower back and hamstring stretches, as well as crunches and superman exercises for basic core strength. My favorite core exercises are:
- Crunches [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/RectusAbdominis/BWCrunch.html],
- Leg Lifts [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/RectusAbdominis/BWLyingLegHipRaise.html],
- Superman [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/ErectorSpinae/Superman.html],
- Side Bends [http://www.exrx.net/WeightExercises/Obliques/DBSideBend.html]

4. Make use of compound exercises as much as possible. Compound exercises are those that use multiple muscle groups [such as squats or bench press], as opposed to isolation exercises that target only one muscle group [such as leg extensions or dumbbell flyes].

5. Good form trumps high weight. If you are using high weight and doing it with bad form, you are asking for an injury. Drop the weight down to make sure you do the right form, and do it to failure.

And a bonus 6th principle: As long as your knees and lower back are healthy, the SQUAT is the best full body exercise God has given to humanity. Especially the wide-stance, feet-facing-outward, squat-to-90-degrees kind of squat. The distribution of weight down your entire body hits every muscle group, and will cause toning and strength for every muscle group.

I also try to only do exercises I can do at home, or in ANY gym, using bodyweight or dumbbells. For squats I will use barbells because of the sheer weight involved for me. There are several reasons for this. First, there is something psychologically gratifying about lifting one's own body, or a set of weights, and seeing it move from your own effort. I get a lot more psychologically from having free weights in my hands or on my back than seeing a machine move. Second, dumbbells do not really require spotters to be safe. Even with barbell squats, you can just let the weight slip off your back if you get into trouble. However, if you are doing barbell bench or incline press, you can do real damage to yourself if you do not have a spotter. Third, you can literally find free weights anywhere. You don't have to rely on any special equipment only found in a few places. Fourth, free weights allow for you to use the right form for your body. Many machines can be wrong for your body bio-mechanically (especially if you have odd proportions, like my squatty legs and long torso!).

As far as nutrition goes, if you are going to start working out regularly, you need to work on getting protein in. I would suggest finding a WHEY protein powder that mixes easily and that you like the taste of. Then get a shaker or Nalgene bottle, and mix it into 8 oz of cold water or milk. You should be able to get 30-40grams of protein per serving that way, with few calories. If you are working out on a regular basis, you should probably aim at 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight if possible (so, for a 250 lb person, it would be 125-250g protein per day). if you are not working out regularly with weights, you don't need this much protein.

As far as getting ideas for exercises, I will give you my favorite routine in a second. But if you want a great website that offers a directory of exercises, AND how to do them correctly, I recommend:
http://www.exrx.net/Lists/Directory.html

That site also has some really good ideas for exercise routines. I would suggest a one-day, full-body exercise routine. Here are some good suggestions:

http://exrx.net/Workouts/Workout1LPP.html

Here are some other good suggestions from other sites:
http://www.muscleandstrength.com/workouts/dumbbell-only-home-or-gym-fullbody-workout.html
http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/iovate5.htm

And a bit more advanced:
http://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/forget-steroids-5-fullbody-workouts-for-serious-gains.html

And this guy is a little crazy (and a bit flamboyant), but he is an older bodybuilder who works mainly at home, and knows how to deal with lower back pain. He has some really good advice for the older weight lifter:
http://scoobysworkshop.com/

His page on lower back pain is darn-near gospel-truth. Great advice:
http://scoobysworkshop.com/preventing-lower-back-pain/

Finally, how would I put together a full body workout for a beginner? Something like this:

Full Body Workout using Bodyweight and Dumbbells (maybe Barbells too if you want):

A. Legs, Buttocks, Lower Back: Squats [Bodyweight, Dumbbell, or Barbell]: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
B. Pecs, Frontal Deltoids: Incline Press or Bench Press [Dumbbell or Barbell]: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

C. Upper Back, Lats: Pullups [Cheating or Assisted], or Bent Rows [Dumbbell or Barbell]: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
D. Deltoids, Traps: Upright Rows or Deltoid Side Raises: 2-3 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

E. Hamstrings: Stiff-Leg Deadlifts focusing on Hamstring Stretch: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
F. Calves: Calf Raises using Body Weight on Stair [Single leg or Double leg]: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

G. Triceps: Reverse Dips or Narrow Grip Pushups: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
H. Biceps: Dumbbell Curls: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps

I. Abdominals: Crunches and/or Leg Raises: 1-2 sets x failure at 12-18 reps
J. Lower Back: Superman: 1-2 sets x 3 reps x hold for 30-60 seconds per rep.

Notice the following:
- You can alternate or superset each of the paired exercises (A-B, C-D, etc.). They hit separate parts of the body, therefore you can do one set while the muscles of the other set recover. This will make your workout faster AND more aerobic.
- Exercises A-D require 2-3 sets because they are bigger muscles, while Exercises E-J require 1-2 sets because they deal with smaller muscles.
- If you don't have time for the full workout, you can split it into 2 days simply by doing A-D on Day 1 and E-J on Day 2.
- REST: I would rest or do cardio for at least 2 days after you get done with the routine. A teenager with tons of testosterone could probably do only 1 rest day in between workouts. But that ain't us anymore.

The workout I personally do is a variation of the above workout [and can be found at files.me.com/bostianbunch/5kfldq]. It includes a list of calories expended in working out and cardio, as well as a calorie list. I use it for diet as well. My diet was going great over the summer. Not so much during the school year. I also intentionally integrate spirituality and prayer into my workout routine, as is shown on the workout sheet. I often pray between sets (and sometimes during!) and use the workout as a time to meditate and intercede for others.

2011-11-12

Must we become [worldview] Jews to become Christians?


The following is a letter I wrote to Bishop NT Wright about his constant emphasis on the 1st Century Jewish background of the New Testament. I am a big admirer of Wright, and I think he is largely right on in his "New Perspective" on Paul, as well as his strong emphasis on Resurrection as THE Christian Hope. I think his emphasis on the historical and cultural context of the New Testament is also right and necessary. Yet, sadly, it is also inaccessible for most people. If he responds to this email, I will post the reply.
__________________________________________
Dear Bishop Wright,

Greetings from a long time admirer and reader of your works. I have made it through most of your 3 volume opus on Christian origins, and many of your other more popular works, as well as dozens of papers, articles, interviews, and recordings on the internet.

I am also an Episcopal priest who works with teens as a school chaplain and religion teacher (and formerly a college and youth minister). Over the years I have taken many of the ideas I first gained from you and implemented them for a much younger audience.

I finally have obtained a copy of "Justification" and am reading it. From my read this time, I had a question occur to me that has never occurred before. It could be asked of any of your works, really. It just became apparent to me with this book.

The question has to do with your (rightful) emphasis on the 1st century Jewish background of the NT, especially the Pauline material (since Paul, unlike Jesus, addresses much of his work to Gentiles as well as Jews).

It strikes me as very right- self obvious really- to insist on a careful reading of the NT material within the thought-world of First Century Judaism. It seems quite right to refer to extant 1st century Jewish works (cf. 4 Ezra) to make your case for the contextual read of the NT. And it seems "meet and right" for you to question Western, Modern, and Reformed assumptions about the "clear meaning" of Scripture on the basis of such a Jewish read of Scripture.

All well and good.

But the average seminary trained cleric- let alone the average Christian or non-Christian- does not have access to the type of data you are referencing. Furthermore, as you well know, us [post]moderns are coming at the text from a very different worldview. And even for the minority of us that are fluent in NT koine Greek (as I am), our knowledge of the Biblical text is so influenced by modern English translations (cf. NIV, ESV, NRSV) that we tend to automatically import their gloss on the meanings of controversial terms (cf. dikaiosunee, pistis/euo).

So we have a situation where (a) knowledge of 1st century Judaism is almost essential to understanding the NT; (b) the overwhelming majority of clerics and lay persons do not have this knowledge; with the result that (c) Average Christians and their pastors cannot simply read the NT text (even in Greek!) and truly understand it, but must rely on an ancient worldview they do not have access to for the proper interpretive lenses.

It seems that we open up a postmodern, epistemic version of the Acts 15 problem: We are, in effect, requiring 21st century Gentiles to become 1st century Jews (in worldview) to become Christians (or at least, right-thinking Christians).

The obvious alternative is to create some sort of universalized, de-historicized, de-Judaized Gospel that is communicated propositionally in terms acceptable to the philosophy of the current age. And the result of this can be anything from bland liberalism to rabid fundamentalism to Nazi holocaust.

Is there a way out of this dichotomy of scholarly historicism on one side and radical de-historicism on the other? if I must accept this dichotomy, then I side with you on the side of Jewish context.

But is there some sort of easily communicated, easily summarized, easily accessible way out of this epistemic conundrum that is analogous to the Acts 15 settlement over the physical/ritual Judaization of early Gentile converts?

Thank you for your time.

May grace and peace fill your life,
Nate Bostian

2011-10-10

Friend or Frenemy? A Review of Peter Rollins' "Insurrection"


This is an off-the-top-of-my-head review of Peter Rollins newest book "Insurrection", which I read this weekend. The book was incredibly good, in that I deeply enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a great deal to ponder and wrestle with. At the end of the day, I value Rollins' ideas about how to existentially live out our faith in Christ on a daily basis. However, I have serious concerns over Rollins' re-visioning and re-definition of key elements of the Christian tradition. As such, Rollins is a sort of "frenemy" who, on one hand is a very helpful friend in elucidating certain aspects of what it means to follow Jesus in our culture. On the other hand, he is an enemy of certain historic Christian affirmations about God and Christ.

As a "frenemy" of Christ, Rollins maintains a place for God, at the cost of flattening God into just a Name for the structure of human psychological experience. As such, his thought is helpful as a bridge to Christ, in the same way that pantheism, panentheism, psychoanalysis and even Marxism can be bridges to Christ, all of which offer various points of commonality and intersection with Christ while also displaying broad areas of discordance. Here are some of the theological moves that Rollins makes in the book:

His key theological code-words are God, Truth, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. He does not seem to mind if these ideas are given "historic" content as things that happened in space time and which are cognitively affirmed as such. But for Rollins this affirmation is irrelevant, usually distracting, and simply meaningless for the postmodern person. Rather, their true meaning and relevance comes from their identity as descriptions of human experience.

GOD: For Rollins, God is the undeconstructable, unconditional, unselfish Love which elicits our total decision to affirm and support "the other". In this schema, God is not some "Big Other" that can be loved as a person in an "I/Thou" relationship, but rather God is the very act of Loving which allows us to treat other humans as "Thou". God's transcendence is not as an entity outside of our historic existence, but rather is "transcendence-in-immanence" as the ever deepening immanence we find as we explore the un-ending depths of our beloved (whoever that may be). To say it in a way Rollins does not: God is no longer a self-subsistent noun beyond us, but solely an immanent verb which proceeds from us, and binds us together, as an epiphenomenon of our consciousness.

To put it into Jack Caputo's terms (who Rollins draws heavily on): God is that which is undeconstructable and which deconstructs all of our social constructs. Thus God can be seen as the Love which critiques all our personal relationships, or as the Justice which critiques all our social Laws and Institutions. God is therefore a "weak force" which is constantly at work in our conscience, evaluating and interpreting our experience. God is not, and never can be, a "strong force" which exerts coercive power as an entity outside of the human self (because there is no such thing as a personal entity outside of human selves!). Caputo also names this undeconstructable weak force as "The Event". What makes an historic activity or happening into an "Event" is simply the force of human interpretation and evaluation. Before becoming an Event, an historic happening is simply a collision of matter and energy at a specific time. But, in the process of being experienced and interpreted by humans, it is given significance and meaning as an "Event". This meaning-making process, imbued and shot through with undeconstructable Justice and Love, is the weak force of God. God is the process of conflict and evaluation we call "Event".

Although Rollins never mentions his name, I think that Immanuel Kant is sniffing around somewhere at the root of this idea of God as a structure of consciousness. For this God is a sort of absolute demand for absolute Love which operates as a continual weak force in our consciousness of events. This is very close indeed to Kant's concept of the "categorical imperative" which is both absolutely universalizable to all sentient beings, and which treats all sentient beings as ends and never as means (which is a very German, cold, categorical way to express the ethical force of "Love"). I think it would be fair to say that God, for Rollins, is The Categorical Imperative, but not as a cold-blooded mental calculation, rather as a hot-blooded angst-filled passionate embrace of the Other. And following Kant, Rollins is quite allergic to hypothesizing about any metaphysical realities beyond the physical, even to the point of rendering irrelevant certain questions of whether various historical events actually happened. Thus, with Kant, Rollins relegates all of his theologizing to the realm of phenomenal empirical experience, and leaves questions of noumenal realities unasked and unanswered.

Of course, it is easy to see why Rollins (and others) call this "a/theism". It affirms God while also not affirming God. It affirms God without affirming a personal "Big Other" with whom we must deal and to whom we are accountable. Does Rollins' God "judge" us? Yes. But only with the judgment we judge ourselves with, because God is in the end our own judgment. But isn't there something to Rollins' God that is unconditional and undeconstructable? Yes, but only insofar as we allow it to be undeconstructable to us. We can completely, and permanently, ignore the "weak force" of unconditional Love, if we wish. Rollins offers us God without God, in the same way he offers us "religion without religion" (a frequently quoted catch phrase from Derrida).

It is a refinement of 1960's "Death of God" theology using the scaffolding of deconstruction rather than existentialism (and deconstruction, by the way, is a better scaffolding for this view of God). It is not a God of pure immanence or historical process, like the God of Hegel's panentheism or Spinoza's pantheism. Rather, it is God as a re-naming for a universal structure of human consciousness. As such, Rollins' God it is rather akin to a Zen Buddhist rendering of "Nirvana", in which we reach the overcoming and superseding of human experience within the very process of human experience. This supercession is neither a person nor a power nor a place, but a negation of all of these in the very process of a whole hearted affirmation of life. To which the postmodern hipster can shrug and say "Sure, if that's what you mean by God then I can roll with it." This is not God in any realistic sense (in terms of their being real universals or entities outside of empirical experience). But I suppose it is a sort of stepping stone to a realistic affirmation of God for those who are unconvinced.

TRUTH: Once we see how Rollins un/defines God, everything else pretty much falls in line. Following the idea that God is another name for the psychological structure of a hot-blooded categorical imperative, Truth is simply the psychological structure of adapting one's experience to the absolute demands of this categorical imperative. For instance, we come into an encounter with "the other" with a whole series of learned behaviors, values, and assumptions. As "God" exerts the "weak force" of Love upon our consciousness, all of these behaviors, values, and assumptions are over-turned to make room for a deconstructed way of embracing "the Other". Truth is found for Rollins precisely in this process of overturning. Or as Rollins says it "Truth is conflict". Note that Truth is NOT the solution we reach on the other side of conflict (for this is bound to be deconstructed once again as we encounter ever-new "others" to Love). Rather, Truth is the process itself. Truth is conflict itself.

What this means is that Truth is not an entity to discover or uncover. Truth is not a body of facts to construct. Truth is not even the conformity of our inner Reality "in here" to external Reality "out there" (for I doubt Rollins holds that there is an "out there" out there, only our interpretations of "out there"). Truth has nothing objective, absolute or permanent to it. Truth is another name for the psychological process of conflict resolution.

INCARNATION: For Rollins, the Incarnation does not first and foremost refer to an Event in space-time by which a Reality called God enters into human existence as a person named Jesus. This could or could not have happened, and is fairly irrelevant either way. Rather, the records we have of Jesus are a kind of example of what it means to have a human life fully yielded to the psychological process of God. Rollins does not say that we could as easily pick another exemplar to base our discussion of "Incarnation" on, but it is easy to imply this. Yet, Jesus does offer a commonly agreed upon place to step off into the idea of a fully yielded human life, fully open and receptive to the absolute call of this weak force of Love within us all. This is what Incarnation is: The fully yielded life that sacrifices everything for the sake of the God of Love. For Rollins, this is also called the "sacrifice for religion", in which we give up everything FOR God (and remember, God here defined, not as a person, but as a process of Love). This is juxtaposed with the "sacrifice of religion" in which we give up everything INCLUDING God (which we will discuss below). The importance is to note that, once again, a key term in the lexicon of theology (Incarnation) has been all but drained of any particular content, and made into the name of a universal process.

Indeed, in one section of the book, Rollins details the theological idea of kenosis, which is the emptying of Godself to enter into human life as Jesus. Rollins quotes the main text for kenosis, the Pauline Christ hymn of Philippians 2, in which Paul writes that in Christ "God emptied himself and took on the nature of a slave, being found in human likeness…" The problem with this affirmation by Rollins is that, if God is the psychological structure that Rollins claims, there simply was nothing there to empty out in the first place. For if God has no transcendent reality outside of historical process or psychological experience, then there is no transcendence to empty out to become a specific human person. Jesus becomes simply a person who is supremely aware of the psychological structure of God/Love/Justice operative in him. Jesus then is not a non-contingent, eternal, transcendent person who leaves behind glory and power to become finite, temporal and contingent. Thus, the idea of the self-emptying, self-sacrificial Love of God manifest in us, which is one of the most important existential truths of Christianity- one which has supreme value for Rollins- is suddenly undercut. There is no longer an event in "the life of God" which corresponds to this genuine emptying if God is simply the psychological process Rollins claims.

CRUCIFIXION: This is, admittedly, the key stepping off point for the entire book, and the key concept which all the other concepts constantly reference back to. Rollins' concepts of God, Truth, Incarnation, and Resurrection all find their source in the concept of Crucifixion. In particular, this is the concept that is most grounded in the narrative of Jesus' Life, because the passion narrative is where we most clearly see this psychological process illustrated. Rollins' concept of crucifixion could stand on it's own without the Biblical narrative or any reference to Christian teachings (as could all of his key concepts). But he chooses not to. For me, this is the most powerful and persuasive concept in the book.

Rollins keys heavily on Jesus' experience of God-forsakenness in the Garden, Trial, and particularly in the Crucifixion where Jesus cries "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In addition, he adds powerful narrative testimony from Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom had long-lasting experiences of "God forsakenness". Rollins then launches into several chapters exploring how, for Jesus and many of the great saints, genuine spirituality has always included radical doubt, deep anxiety over guilt, death and meaninglessness, and a pervasive sense of longing for God in the absence of God. Rollins makes a case that this is not merely a problem to "get over", but rather an integral part of spirituality itself, not to be ignored, denied, or medicated. He also makes a case that in most of Christianity, this is precisely the function of our liturgies, sermons, and spiritual practices: We use them as a crutch, offering false certainty, quick solutions, and never make space to discover and explore these "dark areas" of spirituality.

This is powerful, and is worth reading the book in itself, despite any other defects. His analysis of the bankruptcy of Christian spirituality in this regard is both breathtaking and remarkably accurate. His analysis of the psychological and social mechanisms we use to avoid this "dark night of the soul" that Jesus experienced in Crucifixion is right on. And to most of the things associated with this theme, I say "Right on! Amen!"

However, again, the emphasis is ultimately not on the crucifixion as a space-time event, and it is certainly not upon God-in-Christ taking upon Godself the consequences for the brokenness of the world. For Rollins, I doubt if such an event is even thinkable, because God is not a Person to whom we can relate, but a process through which we interpret and choose. So, whatever happened to Jesus on the cross, it did not have some sort of universal effect on the world, but is rather a great illustration of a process we all go through: We all have doubt, anxiety, and a sense of divine absence. To explore these experiences fully is our participation in the crucifixion. In the crucifixion, we experience the "sacrifice of religion", in which we loose God Himself (just as Jesus shows us), and die to ourselves and religion. To deny these experiences and somehow hide from them is to deny the crucifixion.

RESURRECTION: Rollins is fond of using Bonhoeffer's phrase to describe resurrection life: It is to live without God while existing before God. It is to encounter the absence of God, radical doubt, and deep anxiety head on, and then, without blinking, to give oneself fully to a whole hearted affirmation of life anyway. For Rollins, there is no difference between an internal "self" which believes certain things and wants certain things, and an external life which never quite actualizes what we really want. Rather, what we do IS what we really believe AND who we really are.

We may tell ourselves stories that we are the type of person who wants to help the homeless, or be devoted to God, or stand for justice. But that is just a mask, just a fictional story we tell ourselves to feel better about ourselves, if we do not actually DO these things. We are what we believe, and if we want to see what we believe, we need to look at our acts in the world, not to the stories we tell ourselves or the beliefs we hold.

Thus, for Rollins, to deny the resurrection IS NOT to deny that a certain event happened in space and time to the dead body of Jesus, making him alive again. This is, again, fairly irrelevant to the true meaning of resurrection. Denying or affirming the resurrection has almost nothing to do with one's beliefs or stories. Rather, to deny the resurrection is to fail to actually live out the unconditional demands of Love and Justice. To affirm the resurrection is to accomplish Love and Justice to the best of our abilities. This new life of Love and Justice, despite all our doubts, anxieties and feelings, is the true definition of "eternal life". Eternal life is not something that happens beyond historical process. Like God, it is not transcendent in that way. Rather, like Rollins' God, eternal life is a "transcendence-in-immanence" that gives our lived experience infinite, eternal depth here and now.

Two problems arise from this concept: First, it does little justice to people who cannot actualize the values and beliefs they really feel. What about the elderly, handicapped, or psychologically damaged? These people do not have the linkage between mind and body that allows them to fully actualize themselves. What about those who have dependents looking to them for food, medical care, and shelter? These people cannot abandon those who need them, in order to pursue a search for an "authentic life". The truth is that Rollins' collapse of the inner and outer person works great if someone is a pretty healthy person of means, who can choose to do whatever they want, to be as authentic as they feel they need to be. But for the vast majority of the population who is not as young, healthy, educated, and un-attached as he is, it is substantially harder to live radically. Another way of saying it is this: Rollins' a/theology is great for unattached young hipsters who have time and leisure to sit around pubs discussing this stuff, but whether it would work for people with families and responsibilities is doubtful.

The other problem is simply that, in the words of Rollins' friend Rob Bell, it does not affirm that "Love Wins" in the end. And it does not affirm that Love Wins in the end, because it does not affirm that in the historic life of Jesus of Nazareth, Love won in his actual resurrection. Rollins claims that if we believe that there is some telos, goal, or purpose at the end of history, it deletes our motivation to create our own destiny right here and now. The argument could run like this: If God is going to make everything come out right in the end, why bother working at it right now? Thus, for Rollins, we have to live as if we have complete uncertainty about whether God's purposes will prevail at the end.

And for Rollins, this is not just an argument about some people going to heaven and others suffering in hell. Even if we assume (as I do) that God will reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to Godself through Christ (cf. Col. 1:15-20), and that NO ONE is ultimately left out of God's Love, it still robs us of motivation to live into the resurrection right now. For Rollins, to live into the resurrection is to create our own destiny as we live into complete uncertainty, and embrace life as it is, doubts and pain and all. To have any inkling of future certainty takes away from authentic life and responsibility now.

I think, in this, he is simply confusing the crucifixion life and the resurrection life. Yes, the crucified life- to which we are all called- is to tread a path of doubt, anxiety, and God-forsakenness with Christ. But the resurrection life is to hope against hopelessness, on the basis of God's victory over death in Christ, that God's Love wins in the end regardless of how dark things look right now. With Rollins, I believe it involves embracing life as it is, warts and all, and creating our own destinies through God's Love. But there is one important difference: I hope with an undying hope that God will take my attempts at living into the resurrection and weave them together with all the saints across time into a beautiful tapestry that will be revealed in the End. In this, God's telos is not some micro-managed, pre-determined blueprint of future affairs (which would in fact rob us of motivation to live authentically now). Rather, God's telos is a promise that however it happens, God will find a way to make sure Love wins in the end, and that all are brought this Love found in Christ. This open-ended telos frees us to embrace life fully, without fear of failure, to become who God made us to be, knowing that God can use both our successes and failures for future glory.

OTHER THEMES: Once we step outside of this train of themes I describe above, Rollins' work is very helpful in many other ways. His constant psychoanalysis and social analysis of the manifold ways we continually pull the wool over our own eyes is brilliant. It is a great adaptation of many of the themes one can find in Marx, Lacan, and Zizek (who combines both Marx and Lacan). In particular, I loved Rollins' use of the recent Batman movies as an illustration of how consumer capitalism masks the ways we are complicit in the misery of much of the world. While Rollins nowhere flies the Marxist flag, it is clear that there is a great deal of neo-marxist economic analysis behind his parables and observations. And this is a very good thing. Because in the Western world, the economic basis of society has shifted so far "right" that we have no real alternative to cutthroat global corporate consumer capitalism, and no real way of conceiving life outside of this God-less system. One of the themes I would have loved for Rollins to explore further is how our economic system functions as a surrogate "god" with all it's talk of the "invisible hand" and "omniscience of the market" and such. If ever there was a social case for divine absence, it is in our economic and marketing system. But I digress. The social and psychological insights of the book are well worth the read, and the challenge.

OF GODS AND MEN: It just so happened that, as I was finishing the book, I was invited to watch and discuss the 2010 French movie "Of Gods and Men". It details a true story about a small monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria, in 1996, during the Algerian civil war. Of the 9 monks that were there, 7 were martyred under mysterious circumstances. The movie explores their trials and discussions as they made the painful decision to stay rather than flee. A decision which cost most of them their lives.

Throughout the movie, these men wrestle with most of the issues raised by Rollins. They struggle with their own complicity in the sickness of the social system. They struggle with radical doubt, unknowing, and a profound sense of divine absence. They struggle with the absolute call to love their enemies, as well as the townspeople who depend on them, as well as themselves. And constantly, their discussions and struggles are rooted in their daily practice of the liturgy, and a careful consideration of what it means to follow the implications of the Incarnation. And not the Incarnation as merely a psychological category, but the Incarnation as an historic person. In addition, the ancient liturgy itself- contrary to Rollins' caricatures- was the site of their most profound wrestlings with doubt and divine absence. It was in the process of chanting the old songs and psalms, hearing the ancient writings, and doing the old rituals, that they found the materials they needed to wrestle deeply with their "dark night".

In this story I found- in accordance with the lives of the great saints and martyrs of the Church- that Rollins' critiques are best answered by a full and robust commitment to God, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection as historic events first and foremost, and only following this historic realism, do they become existential categories for human psychological and social action. And not only that, but a commitment to the ancient liturgical practice of the Church is the site and source for the formation of these truths into Christlikeness in the lives of the people who practice the liturgy. This liturgy is not the consumer-driven drivel that one finds in many American churches, but the rich, deep, boring, predictable, ancient, seasonal liturgies of the traditional churches and monastic orders. The truth is, as illustrated by the martyrdom of these monks, that the ancient beliefs and practices of the Church are the most effective and time-tested way to produce people who fully live into the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

This is, in fact, what one also finds in the lives of the saints that Rollins himself mentions- Teresa and Bonhoeffer- who both engaged in daily liturgy, and treated the story of Jesus Christ as historic, even when they did not FEEL the power of that affirmation for extended periods of time. In distinction to Rollins' ideas about how a "Divine telos" robs us of the motive to live into justice and love now, we find that those saints and martyrs who believed most that God would somehow use their feeble deeds to contribute to the ultimate victory of Love, are the very ones who stood most firmly for justice and love in this life.

In the end, Rollins could be called an expositor of a sort of Zen Buddhist Psychoanalytic Marxism, in which the relevant categories for human psycho-socio-economic experience are keyed to certain Christian terms, which have been reinterpreted and redefined, not as signposts pointing to space-time events with subjective existential impact, but as the very categories of human existence themselves, without referent to any space-time events other than what is immediately accessible to all people at all times. Thus, Rollins' a/theology is a sort of continuation of the modernist theological move to elevate universal form, structure, and method over any particular content. In this, Rollins is yet another heir- albeit a fairly Marxist heir- of the bourgeois theological modernism of Schleirmacher.

in fact, one of the things that bothered me most about reading Rollins is the same feeling I get from reading Schleirmacher or Kant. And that feeling is that, beneath all the beautiful words, I feel like a linguistic slight-of-hand has been pulled. The trick this time is that: "When we talk about God, we are really just talking about ourselves". Rollins represents yet another post/modernist triumph of the universal, therapeutic, psychoanalytic, and performative over the particular, historic, substantive, and real. And for all of his talk about deep love and respect for "The Other", it seems that Rollins is very allergic to allowing God to be a full participant in Otherness. God does not get to act on God's own, nor reveal Godself to humanity in an historic sense. Rather, God is strictly tied to us as an organ of our own experience, which collapses "The Other" into "Just folk like us". Rollins speaks a great deal of his pyro-theology as one of "subtraction" or "burning down". And this is true. For what we get is a deletion of many aspects of God's reality and our own. What we need instead is a theology that embraces all sides of the paradox of human and divine reality- immanence AND transcendence, particularity AND universality, history AND psychology, interpretation AND realism- and holds them in unresolvable creative tension. Rollins, like many others through the ages, simply alleviates certain tensions and paradoxes by cutting off or burning away the parts he feels least comfortable with.

The historic Christian faith, which treats Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection as first and foremost historical, can deliver everything Rollins' merely psychologized faith does. It can explain ongoing feelings of divine absence, how it functioned in Jesus' life, and how it functions today as a path to draw near to God through Christ, even when we do not feel it. It can explain the need to work for Justice and Love. It can give us a reason to live boldly into this life and create our destiny with God in Love. But not only can it do what Rollins' psychologized faith does, it can do more. It can posit an historic epicenter for the actual revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It can posit that God is not just the power of Love flowing through us, but also a Person to whom we can know and relate to, in Love, as "I/Thou". And it can posit a promised hope that, no matter how badly we fail, or how courageously we act, we can be assured that Love will in fact win in the end. To sum it up, the ancient, historic Christian faith offers all of the insights and benefits Rollins does and more, without leaving us bereft of a truly transcendent God who reaches into space and time to become one with us in an historic human life, death, and resurrection.

So here's my recommendation: Buy the book. Rollins is a much better writer than I am. Enjoy it. Wrestle through it. Take his implications on how to live the Christian life seriously. But beware of the underlying metaphysics which reduces theology to merely psychological processes.

2011-09-15

Ockham Rap


This has to be one of the Geekiest things I have ever written. I am co-teaching a class called "The God Debate" about religious belief and unbelief. Several of the thinkers we have examined on both sides of the debate have referred to William of Ockham and his [in]famous "razor". For those who do not know, Ockham was a 14th century Franciscan Friar, a professor at the University of Oxford, one of the founders of the scientific method, and also excommunicated by the Pope for reasons that are partially philosophical and mostly political. Anyway, I thought, "Hey, I should write a rap song to explain Ockham." So, I did. What makes this even stranger is that I am more of a mystical Thomist with a serious affection for postmodern deconstruction. So, it is odd that after an hour and a half of doodling, this came out:

The Ockham Rap
Copyright (c) 2011 by Nathan L. Bostian

His name is William of Ockham
And his philosophy's rockin'
Metaphysical speculations
Are what he's blocking

We rely on too many causes
To explain our problems
Like using angels and demons
To try and solve 'em

When a simple explanation
Based on sense and sight
Would completely describe
Almost anything, right?

This is called Ockham's razor
A speculative saber
Cutting off extra entities
Like they were shot with a phaser

Like when you use three factors
To describe what two factors do:
Why do you use that third factor
Like some kind of fool?

Simply! Says this guy!
On crutches don't rely!
Rid yourself of superstitions
And all excessive replies.

The only things that exist
Are the things themselves.
No need to resort
To abstract universals!

In fact we have no need
For disembodied spiritual forms:
They are all just names
We give to categories and norms

We call this Nominalism
To break you out the the prison
Of confusing individual things
With the Names we give em

For instance: A dog is just a dog
Not an instance of dogness
And fog is water droplets
Not the essence of fogness

So don't think a human person
As part of abstract humanity
And don't use the category "fish"
When you deal with a manatee

Stick to simple, direct,
Particular observations
And never multiply entities
To try and explain them.

This is the Philosophy of Ockham
In a nice little rhyme
And it led to empirical science
In a few centuries time.

2011-09-12

The Moral Argument Against Religion


I am currently reading and teaching from the infamous books by Christopher Hitchens "God is not Great". In pondering Hitchens' arguments against God, I find myself continually underwhelmed (although very entertained). I do not find him persuasive, but rather rhetorically brilliant.

I think that the god Hitchens is arguing against is a god which I would argue against: A kind of "dictator in the sky" who cannot wait to damn the maximum number of people possible. The god he lambasts seems to be an evil elementary school principal writ large, and as such is the common concept of god among grade schoolers and teenagers. And since this is the age when a great many people stop going to Sunday School or challenging their ideas of god, it is also the god of a great many Americans.

So, what happens when a pre-adolescent concept of god is confronted with the complexities of adult life, especially the life of a foreign correspondent who has seen levels of human carnage and suffering beyond what most of us can comprehend? That god gets Hitch-slapped. And rightfully so.

I find Hitchens arguments very compelling against this pre-adolescent concept of god. But the problem is, I don't find that god to be God. God, especially as revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth, is someone completely different. This God is expansive and embracing, the epicenter of the undying Love which humanity craves. This God does not abandon process and the messiness of life, but works through it, always offering healing, never withdrawing the hope of redemption.

This God is almost entirely untouched by Hitchens. In fact, I might even argue that Hitchens cannot grasp or identify this God as a possibility within the religious landscape.

Thus, when it comes down to brass tacks, I find that the most probable solution to the "big problems" of origins, cosmic rationality, the problem of suffering, the source of human religious impulses, and even the inspiration of the Scriptures and the explanation of the "Christ event", always point me toward a Relational, Personal God who allows creaturely freedom in order to make room for shared Love.

But, there is an argument which gnaws at me. And it is an argument against religion, rather than God.

For, while the evidence may point strongly to the high probability that God exists, and even that God became incarnate in a specific human life 2000 years ago, it does not necessarily follow from this that any particular group of people is practicing the remembrance of this in any authentic fashion.

Christian history is full of epistemic claims to try and demonstrate that certain communities practice the most authentic remembrance of God-in-Christ. These theories may focus on tradition, tactile-succession, doctrine, Scripture, continuance of miracles, etc. But the common denominator is that they focus on accurate knowledge, and knowledge maintenance structures, as the key to authenticity.

However, I generally find these theories less than persuasive.

Instead, I find a more pragmatic, moral way of demonstrating authenticity to be the most persuasive. For me, the question is: Which community generates the greatest amount of sanctity among it's members, as measured by the types of criteria specified by Christ and his apostles? Which community consistently produces Christians who bear the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues of Christ? Which community creates saints?

And the sad fact is, insofar as I spy the landscape, none of us does a particularly good job of this. Not even among- or even especially among- the leadership of the various Churches. We are all racked with corruption, selfishness, pride, vanity, and every other vice known across history. No community can, with a straight face, claim that even a strong minority of its members have been "holy", much less its leaders.

And it is not just a Christian phenomenon. No religion consistently creates saints. Not one.

And to frustrate the matter even more, there ARE shining individuals from other religions and philosophies who do actually show signs of "conspicuous sanctity". Individual saints not only come packaged in the Christian wrapper, but also as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, Confucians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Agnostics, and even Atheists. There are Christlike people who may in fact reject, or not even know of, Christ.

This is not to say they produce saints at higher rates than Christian Churches. They don't. And I would imagine that the percentage of individuals who rise "above the bell curve" in any community is about the same across the board.

It is just to say that there seems to be very little correlation between the production of Christlike virtue, and following Christ in any of the existing Christian traditions.

And what is so troubling is that this is precisely the opposite of what Christ and his Apostles predicted. They predicted that one who followed Christ in faith would become Christlike. So, the existing communities of Christianity fail to produce what was promised. There may be isolated incidents of sanctity, but sanctity is not the rule. And it should be.

To look at it empirically, we may even say that the hypothesis of the Christian religion has been tried, and it has largely failed. It predicts one thing, but delivers another. It falsifies itself, based on its own claims.

What shall I make of this?

I could reduce my expectations of sanctity, both for myself and for others who claim Christian faith. This I do on a regular basis, but I know I am pulling the wool over my own eyes when I do it. It does not satisfy.

I could reject the whole project of "Christian Religion" as futile. But I don't think this is the way either. It turns me into a disconnected "autonomous" individual, which I think is part of the problem in the first place. We, as humans, need more of a communal identity, not less.

I could redouble my efforts to find some community that exhibits sanctity on a more consistent basis. But, given my experience such a community must be so small as to be almost cultlike. And if not cultlike, then almost certainly self-righteous and legalistic. Mormons come to mind (and their epistemic claims are unbelievable to boot!).

I could work from within a concrete community, in solidarity with struggling people, to actualize the holiness promised by the Lord, even if that community is flawed in a number of ways. I could believe that the only way to deconstruct and reconstruct "the institutional church" is to in fact be part of the institution of the church. Or put another way: The only way to "stick it to tha man" is to become "tha man".

That's what I do.

Because this type of argument against religion is not one which allows the arguer to stay objectively detached from the argument (not if they are anywhere near honest with themselves).

Because immediately upon charging a group of people with hypocrisy- with failing to live up to their own expectations- the accusation comes full circle:

What about me? Am I any better?

If I am better, why am I not doing something to change things? And if I am doing nothing to change things, yet I know how to change them, then that makes me an even bigger hypocrite.

If instead I am in the same boat as others, how can I cast stones? And if I am actually a worse hypocrite than some people, then it stands that I should join them to learn from them.

Thus, no matter whether I am better, average, or worse in terms of sanctity, the implication is clear: I need to be part of a community greater than myself in order to increase the sanctity of both myself and others. We can only be saints together, if we can be saints at all.

Or, to put it in a more pithy way:

The Church is full of hypocrites. And there is room for one more. So come join us.

2011-07-20

A Politics of Virtue

I have been struggling for quite some time to figure out where I fit politically, and crystalize it into some coherent form I could communicate with others. After reading quite a bit from the Left, some from the Right, and a healthy smattering of Hauerwas, Radical Orthodoxy, and MacIntyre, I have come across a concept called by some "Politics of Virtue" (cf. Philip Blonde). I think this is a pretty good summary of where I am at.

So, before I give my summary statement, I would like to clarify two things: What I mean by "politics" and "virtue".

By politics I mean how people behave toward one another in public, and especially how groups of people behave toward other groups, and the expectations they have of how our common "society" should function. Thus, anytime groups of people are together, politics is necessarily involved, because (as I like to say): Wherever there are people there are politics. Humans are political animals, and with any issue that impacts groups of people, they will inevitably develop ideologies about how to deal with the issue, and form sub-groups to enact their ideologies in public life. Thus, our political life consists of the groups we form (our parties), the solutions we propose (our policies), and the actions we take (our practices). Unless we are hermits, we are political actors on local, regional, national and international levels through our various parties, policies, and practices. Rather than trying to eschew politics or act like we are apolitical, it is best that we are conscious and deliberative about the political life we already are part of.

By virtue, I mean a certain "shape" or "form" of character that brings health and wholeness to persons and communities. Virtue is not a set of actions or list of rules, but a type or pattern of personality that gives rise to choices and actions that bring health to oneself and one's community. Vice is the opposite of virtue, and it refers to diseased, unhealthy and malignant patterns of personality that bring about damage and destruction to oneself and one's community. As followers of Christ, our standard for virtuous life- a life that is abundant in health, healing, harmony, and wholeness- is of course the life of Christ himself. This is not to say that virtue is confined to him alone or to Christianity alone. Certainly virtue is practiced and taught by other people and other traditions. It is merely to say that, for Christians, the fullness of life and completion of virtue is found in the God who became human, Jesus Christ. He is our Source and Exemplar of what it means to be virtuous as individuals and as a community. In various Biblical texts, notably Matthew 7, we are told to evaluate the virtue of a person as a farmer might evaluate the health of a crop by looking at it's "fruit". The "fruit" of a virtuous person consists of specific, namable personality traits which resemble Christ, and spread Christ's health and healing to others. Likewise, on a political level, communities exhibit certain character traits which are either healthy, life-giving, and virtuous, or sick, malignant, and vicious.

Thus, I can summarize my political standpoint as follows:

I stand for a "Politics of Virtue": A Way of public practice and policy that draws those who govern and those who are governed into the health, wholeness, and harmony of Christ-like communities. This pattern of virtuous personal and communal life is called the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23, and it beckons us to asses our common political life based on the Christ-like virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. Thus we must evaluate our political parties, policies, and practices by the following criteria: 1. Does it grow communal love, in which we have unconditional care for our neighbors, and selflessly give of ourselves for the sake of their welfare? 2. Does it grow communal joy, in which we give thanks for our gifts and celebrate the grace found in creation and each another? 3. Does it grow communal peace, in which we practice peacemaking, reconciliation, and forgiveness? 4. Does it grow communal patience, in which we suffer with one another as long as is needed to bring about the common good? 5. Does it grow communal kindness, in which we use our blessings to bless others in acts of undeserved grace and personal sacrifice? 6. Does it grow communal goodness, in which we make our goods available to those in need, so everyone has access to the goods needed to sustain a good life of health and wholeness? 7. Does it grow communal faithfulness, in which we fulfill the vows and promises we make to one another, while protecting the community from those who are unfaithful, untrue, or unjust? 8. Does it grow communal humility, in which we recognize our own limitations and mistakes, as well as our interdependence upon one another and the God-given creation we dwell in? 9. Does it grow communal self-control, in which we practice a simple, satisfied, sustainable lifestyle in harmony with the resources granted to us by God? This "Politics of Virtue" transcends contemporary political systems, whether aristocratic or democratic, conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, by judging all systems with the question: Does this system produce a community of people who exhibit Christ-like character? If the answer is yes, then it is a good political system: That is, it draws people to what is Good. If the answer is that it produces communities at odds with Christ-like virtue then it is a political system that needs to be reformed, rejected or replaced.

Copyright (c) 2011 Nathan L. Bostian. All rights reserved.

2011-06-21

Development and Dimension

Today I encountered a valid critique of my concept of development which I made use of in my essay on dealing with "contradictions" in the Bible. The critique is that I lumped all of the Old Testament into a lower developmental level (that of a child) as compared to the New Testament. In turn, both the OT and NT were lumped into a lower level than current culture.

This brings up the conception that I think the OT is "child's play", and even worse, that we are somehow morally superior to ancient cultures. This is patently untrue, since by any objective calculation the 20th century was the most brutal and violent on record.

My first response is to say that this objection is dealt with by understanding what I mean by "development" in my essay on developmental revelation. It clarifies a few things:

http://natebostian.blogspot.com/2011/02/developmental-revelation-and-divine.html

My point in comparing human society at a "childhood" developmental level to society at a "teen" or "adult" level was not to make a point about the moral progress or goodness of society at any particular time. When we talk of individuals, we all know good kids and bad adults. We also know very spiritual kids and very jaded adults. Age and development is not an indicator of moral or spiritual progress.

Rather, I was speaking of development in terms of capacity to understand, synthesize and act in Reality. In terms of individuals, it is clear that an adult is more developed than a teen who is more developed than a child in terms of physical capabilities and intellectual capabilities. The more developed you are, the more capacity you have to understand and do things.

This development CAN be taken in a positive moral direction (such as finding a cure for cancer), or it CAN be taken in a negative moral direction (such as finding a way to engineer biological weapons). In fact, the more developed you are, the more capacity one has for goodness or badness. A 2 year old throwing a tantrum is a lot less dangerous than a teen throwing a tantrum, who is a lot less dangerous than a tyrannical dictator throwing a tantrum.

Now, when we move from individual development to social development, it is clear that two things happen as well: (a) Over time, as a society develops, there is more capacity to understand, synthesize, and act as a society; (b) That such capacity creates the opportunity for greater goods and worse evils.

So, it is NOT that our society is BETTER than NT society which is BETTER than OT society. It is that our society has a greater development, and more total resources available for understanding and action, than NT society. And NT society in turn has greater development and more resources than OT society.

And this is not to say that the writings of the OT and NT are not intelligent and complex. In our culture, it requires a well-educated adult level of individual development to begin to really understand what is going on in Scripture. This is true even of the earliest parts of Scripture which were written to the least developed culture.

To be sure, the INDIVIDUAL writers (and readers) of the Bible were intelligent by the standard of any society, no matter how developed that society was/is as a whole. Surely, St. Paul was more intelligent than me, and the writer of Ecclesiastes was wiser (and that just scratches the surface!). Likewise, many of the arguments made in Scripture are complex and nuanced. But they are complex and nuanced in a certain cultural context which must be understood within its own level of development.

Thus, when I speak of social development and "developmental revelation", I am talking about:

- Development as a society, NOT development of individuals.

- Development of within the context of the communities who received the Biblical writings, NOT that Biblical writings (and writers) somehow lacked complexity and nuance.

- Development of capabilities, NOT development of morality/holiness, or development of spirituality

- Development of TOTAL resources which contribute to the horizon of a societal world-view.

These total resources would include access to food and water, social stability, uniform laws, the conceptual capabilities imbedded in language, the conceptual options available in surrounding cultures, the taboos and social limitations on thought and communication, and dozens of other factors.

For instance, let's take two rather complex concepts: "The Triune God who is transcendent and immanent" and "The sanctity of human life, leading to universal human rights".

While to you and I these may be fairly simple concepts, and even "self-evident" in some sense, think about the immense web of social resources required to both realize and sustain these concepts. Those concepts rest on three millennia of hard work, not only in Scripture (which provides the trajectory toward these ideas in embryonic and disconnected form) but also in society. It requires both the Hebraic and Greco-Roman thought-worlds to accomplish. And those thought-worlds are in turn based on several sets of interlocking social factors that make them possible.

So, the OT provides some great insights from brilliant and holy people who lived in a certain developmental context. In their immediate context (at the time that they wrote) their ideas had a certain limited field of meaning to the original intended audience. But, when those ideas are brought into a wider developmental context (like ours) dimensions of meaning and applicability are added to the same concepts that the original authors and audiences would not have been fully aware of.

To use CS Lewis' analogy of raising complexity to different dimensions: Someone can draw/paint a very complex picture in two dimensions, and it can be absolute world-class genius. If another takes that same picture and then raises it a dimension into three dimensions as a statue (assuming the artist is as good as the original) it then takes on even more complexity and depth. Then let's say someone in the 22nd century brings the same portrait into a 4th dimension we are barely aware of now. And then later a 5th dimension, etc., etc.

The raised level of dimensionality in no way diminishes the genius of the original piece. In fact, serious art students would ALWAYS study the original, and then the higher-dimension renderings as well. However, it would be untrue to say that the original work was as dimensionally complex as the derivative works based on it.

I think that is what I am trying to say about the development in Scripture, and the further theological development that is derivative upon Scripture. The concepts provided in Scripture are spiritual and moral genius, and they have a high level of complexity by any standard. However, many of these concepts are presented in embryonic form at a lower dimension of social development. They await further application and appreciation as we raise these same concepts into higher dimensions of social development.

A final concrete example:

The command "Love your neighbor" has a certain limited sphere of meaning in an ancient land-based culture of the OT. That same command raises to another dimension when culture moves into the pan-Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire of the NT. It further expands in the pan-European culture of the Middle Ages. It further expands in our age of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic globalism. And, assuming we find sentient life elsewhere in the galaxy (which I think we will), the command will expand dimensionally at that point as well. And, even beyond this, what if we become able to interact with beings in other literal dimensions, or other versions of our world in multiple time-lines? Who knows how the 3000+ year old command to "Love your neighbor" might grow in dimensional complexity?

Copyright 2011 (c) The Rev. Nate Bostian

2011-06-17

Dealing with the "contradictions" in the Bible


Copyright 2011 © Nathan L. Bostian

On a fairly regular basis, one of my students will come to me with questions about whether the Bible contradicts itself. Sometimes their faith is shaken. Sometimes they are trying to find a reason not to believe in the Bible. Whether they are shaken or skeptical, their underlying concern is this: How could a perfect, truthful God give us an imperfect, flawed Book?

This week, I wrote one of my students the following essay on "Bible contradictions". What may surprise you is that I disagree with many Christian attempts to "defend" the Bible almost as much as I disagree with skeptical attempts to debunk it. It seems that most modern skeptics and many modern Christians are guilty of reading the Bible wrongly: In a way that is completely foreign to the purposes and materials found in Scripture itself.

This is particularly true in the American "Bible Belt" where Conservative Christians and angry Atheists get locked in battles over Scripture. Because neither side really understands the nature of what they are reading, they can't help but misunderstanding both the text and each other.

it's like two illiterates arguing over the meaning of Tolstoy's "War and Peace".

I think there are five main factors that come together to create an un-informed view of what the Bible is all about for both Christians and non-Christians in modern culture. Here is my short list:

1. Christians often fail to admit when the Bible does actually have contradictions.

The debate and discussion over the meaning of the Bible simply starts off wrong when Christians are unrealistic about the Bible itself. The Bible not only has parts that are clear, inspiring, rational, and intelligent, but it also has parts that are confusing, paradoxical, messy, and crude. Christians should admit that.

I think most of the difficulties in Scripture can be resolved by knowing how Scripture texts have been copied, the culture they came from, the original language, the historical setting, and a sense of how Scripture's message developed over time. So, most of the Bible's supposed "contradictions" are really caused by the misunderstanding or downright ignorance of the reader.

But, not every problem in Scripture can be explained this way. There are contradictions. There are some contradictions between one part of the Bible and another (internal contradictions). And there are some contradictions between the Bible and the outside world, such as science or history (external contradictions). And while I don't think Scripture has a ton of contradictions, I think it has some. And Christians should be honest and admit this too.

For instance, when Jesus sends out the disciples, we have the following accounts of what Jesus says:

Matthew 10.10 [Jesus said] Take no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

Mark 6.8 [Jesus] ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

Luke 9.3 [Jesus] said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.

So, in Mark Jesus allows them to take a staff, while in Matthew and Luke he did not. Now, we could come up with inventive theories about how this is not a contradiction. Perhaps we could say the text was copied the wrong way. Perhaps we could say they appear to be talking about the same incident, but really they are describing similar but separate incidents. But, at the end of the day, these explanations seem forced and false.

The clearest explanation is that on this one point, the Gospels do not agree.

And you know what, it's OK. The basic message is still the same in all the Gospels: Jesus is sending his disciples out on a preaching and healing mission and he wants them to rely on very few material possessions, and instead depend on the providence of God.

Furthermore, this contradiction does not alter the historicity of the event. We can reliably know that (a) Jesus existed; (b) He had disciples; (c) He sent them out to preach and heal; (d) In so doing, he gave instructions about what to take and not take, including money, clothing, and staffs.

I have read the entire Bible multiple times, and translated nearly all of the New Testament out of Greek. I know of no discrepancy that affects the basic meaning or historicity of the New Testament. And in regards to the Old Testament, there are portions that are not historical in the sense that we think of as history. Yet, the basic trajectory of meaning found there is intact. More on this later.

But long story short, there is no need for Christians to go to absurd lengths to defend the Bible against every claim of contradiction. Nor should Christians have their faith threatened by small discrepancies in Scripture. Our faith does not ultimately rest on the Bible, rather it ultimately rests in the God to whom the Bible points to, and in Jesus who fully reveals God. More on this later too.

2. Many modern readers are abysmally ignorant of ancient cultures, literary styles, and standards of accuracy.

This should be a no-brainer, but it isn't. Modern scientific history, sociology, politics, and science has only existed for around for 200 years in the Western world.

Before that, the world simply did not know these disciplines as we know them now, and thus did not judge literature by their standards. Another way of saying it is this: Neither the Bible writers nor ANY writer up till the Enlightenment tried to hold to a modern scientific standard of accuracy or citation or evidence. Those standards simply did not exist yet.

The Bible writers were not trying to write a science book. The science they knew was extremely crude, and often inaccurate by our standards. When God inspired the various writers to write Scripture, he was not inspiring them to write science. God knew humans would develop that on our own. God was inspiring humans to write about things we could not grasp on our own power, like the nature of God, the reality of sin, the need for salvation, etc.

For instance, Genesis 1 is a poem, not a scientific lab report. And this poem is about the superiority of Yahweh over all other created realities. It is NOT a scientific description of the creation of the world. Likewise, Genesis chapters 2-11 are symbolic, allegorical and legendary. It is given to teach things about God's relationship with humans and the world in a colorful, memorable way. Nothing truly historic starts happening until Genesis 12, and even then it is not history as we think of history. It is more of an imaginative re-telling of the foundational lives of the Hebrew people.

That does not mean it is not true, just that it is not historically accurate. Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" is not historically accurate, even if it tells a lot of great truths about the human condition, and even tells a few accurate things about Roman culture. But it is not a scientifically historic and objective retelling of the events of Julius Caesar's life. The same is true for much of the Old Testament.

When we get to the New Testament, we are dealing with a more historic, factual period in literature. What we read in the Gospels and Acts is a religiously motivated re-telling of events that historically happened. As such, the early Christian writings are more-or-less historical, and we can place more emphasis on the fact that Jesus really lived, died, and was raised from death in space and time.

But even in these writings, the standards of accuracy are not what we would expect of history. In addition, these documents are very selective in the events they discuss and the perspective they discuss them from (for instance, they leave out nearly all of Jesus' childhood and young adulthood). This is very different from a modern historical biography, which tries to give a comprehensive account of a person's entire life and cultural background from multiple perspectives.

Thus, in the New Testament we can gain a pretty accurate account of some events in Jesus' life and the early Christian community, but there will be large areas we are not fully sure about. In short, our information about Jesus and the early Church is based in history, but not the same kind of historical method as say, reading a modern history book about Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War.

3. Many modern readers seem to want the Bible to be like the Quran, and then get upset when it is not.

The Muslim view of the Quran is that it was directly dictated by God through the Angel Gabriel (God spoke Arabic) and recited by Muhammed. In this process, according to Muslims, NONE of Muhammed's human viewpoints or personality was involved in the making of the Quran. To use an over-simplified analogy, Muhammed was a "divine typewriter" that spoke exactly what he received from God.

The Bible, on the other hand, was written by dozens (hundreds?) of authors in around 70 books over the course of 1500 years. Each book bears the stamp of the interests, prejudices and viewpoints of the human authors, cultures and communities involved in writing them. There was no divine typewriter here, but rather a gradual development over time of the Biblical message.

Some Christians and many skeptics want to treat the Bible as if it was some sort of Quran. The act as if the Bible miraculously appeared from heaven, fully formed. These Christians do it to supposedly defend the absolute "inerrancy" of the Bible, and keep firm the "foundation" of faith they believe is the Bible. Skeptics follow the same tactic to set up a straw man argument.

The logic goes something like this:

Major Premise: The Bible is inspired by God.
Minor Premise: Anything inspired by God must be perfectly factual according to modern scientific and historic standards
Conclusion: The Bible is therefore inerrant.

But then the Skeptic says: Wait! The Bible has errors! Therefore the Bible MUST NOT be inspired by God!

To which the [modern, conservative] Christian replies: No! I will go to absurd lengths to prove that the Bible has no flaws, no matter how badly I seem to be grasping at straws!

However, the minor premise is really problematic. It assumes that God comes from modern, western culture (God must be a white European?). It also assumes that God inspired the Bible to be a book of science and history, instead of having another purpose.

Yet, it is pretty clear that the Bible's purpose is to draw us into relationship with God, not to give us a databank of obscure scientific and historical facts. To use a crude metaphor: The Bible is more of a collection of Love letters and family stories, written to help us know and love God, rather than a scientific textbook.

In fact, while the "inerrancy" argument above might work if one were discussing the Quran, it simply does not work with the Bible. The Bible is not under judgment from Western science, because it was never intended to function as that type of document. Since Muslims view the Quran as the direct dictation of God, perhaps they feel the need to prove the Quran's inerrancy (I don't know for sure: Ask a Muslim).

But the inspiration of the Bible was never understood as being authored that way, so Christians should feel absolutely no need to defend the Bible as if it were perfect in the modern sense. And Christians who treat the Bible as some sort of Quran are doing more harm to their faith than they realize, since their faith is ultimately resting on the Bible instead of on the God to whom the Bible points.

4. Many modern readers fail to grasp the concept of development and trajectory across time in Scripture.

This is another no-brainer which few people seem to really grasp. But the Bible is developmental. Its message developed over 1500 years.

Just think of how the American concepts of "democracy", "civil rights" and "science" have developed over just the last 230 odd years since the founding of the United States. And that is less than 1/6 the time that Scripture covers!

When the Bible began being written, it was written to and for a group of semi-nomadic Semitic tribes who lived in a society that was brutal and barbaric beyond imagination. They had no centralized government, a barter economy, sporadic national defense, inter-tribal warfare, and no organized system of transportation, irrigation, taxation, communication, education, commerce, or food distribution.

Imagine how simple and primitive God's messages to those people would have to be.

They had no language for "universal human rights" or "social justice" or even "unconditional love". They had no concept of a society based on law rather than on blood ties. They had no understanding of a universal, eternal, loving God. God had to start at rock bottom to get these concepts through to them.

And when the Bible finished being written, there was more for God to work with in revealing Godself to us, but society was still primitive by our standards. Several Empires rose and fell from the beginning of the Bible to the New Testament era. But Rome had risen victorious. They provided social systems and stability, as well as universal currency and a system of laws. Also, the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers had written by then, so there was a language to talk about God's nature and the nature of human existence.

Yet, even at this time Greco-Roman culture was racked with poverty, illiteracy, war, violence, slavery, patriarchy, hierarchy, aristocracy, and ethnic prejudice and hatred.

My point is that, since God is dealing with humans who grow and change and evolve as individuals and as a culture, God has to adapt in the way God communicates Godself to us. God has to use available resources.

Thus, as culture develops over time, we see a development of how the Bible conceives of God and God's relation to humanity. For instance, from the beginning of Scripture to the end of Scripture, we see the following development:

In terms of Godself: God begins as the highest God among many lesser gods; Then all lesser gods are seen as demons or angels, with God as the only God; Then God is seen as the Ultimate Reality that holds all of Reality together; Then God is seen as a Father who loves humans; Then God is seen as an eternal Father who has an eternal Son and shares an eternal Spirit. Later Christian Theology (after the Bible) saw this as the basis of "The Trinity".

In terms of violence: In the earliest Bible texts, violence is just part of the way things are and God helps various tribes to victory over others; Violence then becomes something punished within society, but still used by Israel to invade and get rid of non-Israelite cultures; Violence is then questioned by the prophets, who foretell of a coming age of Peace when "swords will be beaten into plowshares"; Violence is then rejected by Jesus Christ, who refuses to start a violent uprising, and instead defeats violence by allowing himself to be murdered and then rise again; Violence is finally spurned in the later New Testament is wholly beneath Christlike standards of living, and only the government is given "the sword" to protect society.

I could go on with other examples in terms of slavery, civil rights, women's rights, the concept of justice and love, and dozens of other issues.

But the point is that, across Scripture, we often do not find an exact agreement. In fact we may find Scriptures that are at odds with each other on many issues, such as the use of violence or the treatment of women. Yet, we can discern a trajectory and a development across time. This trajectory goes from barbaric to civilized, from law to love, from prejudice to justice, from tribal to universal.

So we should expect earlier Scriptures to have more simplistic and crude viewpoints on various matters than the later Scriptures. Likewise, we should expect the Church and later Christian thinkers to take the trajectory of Scripture and more fully develop the trajectory found there.

As an analogy, think of how you might answer the same question if a question were asked by a 5 year old or a 50 year old. Your answers to the 50 year old would be considerably more developed and nuanced than you answer to the 5 year old.

How would you answer change if a 5 year old or 50 year old asked "What is God like"?

How would you answer change if a 5 year old or 50 year old asked "What is right and wrong"?

How would you answer change if a 5 year old or 50 year old asked "What happens when we die"?

In a similar way, when you are dealing with the Bible, the earlier portions are the social equivalent of dealing with a 5 year old. In all honesty, I would say the New Testament is the social equivalent of dealing with an early teen. And if you move up to our culture, we are probably the social equivalent of a late teen or early 20-something.

We have a lot to learn. And to do that we need to follow the trajectory of Scripture, even if that trajectory differs from the exact wording of earlier portions of Scripture.

For a more extensive essay on the concept of developmental revelation, see my blog here:
http://natebostian.blogspot.com/2011/02/developmental-revelation-and-divine.html

5. Many modern readers fail to understand that the Word of God is foremost Jesus Christ, and only secondarily the written text.

This is very simple, really. Yet few people seem to get this. The Bible is not "The Word of God". The Bible is "Words about God". The Word of God is described most famously by John:

John 1.1, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word of God is Jesus, who is God embodied in human form. God's ultimate self-communication does not come in a book, but in a Person.

The Bible needs to be accurate enough to get us into relationship with this embodied Word of God. It does not have to be perfect history or flawless science. It does not even have to be great literature (some of it is, but some of it is not).

It just needs to tell us enough to know Jesus and follow him as Lord.

Jesus is the Point of the Bible. He is the target which the trajectory of the Bible ultimately points us to, no matter how many detours the Bible takes along the way.

That is why, when the Bible describes its own purpose, it says this:

2Timothy 3.15–17
[15] The sacred writings… are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [16] All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Notice, verse 17 does NOT say:

"so that everyone may have a flawless record of ancient history"

or

"so that everyone may have a transcript of creation science"

or even

"so that believers may have religious knowledge to make them know they are right and non-believers are wrong"

rather

What Scripture gives us is for action, to help us live a Christ-like life "proficient and equipped for every good work". Scripture is not a repository of data and facts to know, but rather wisdom to live as we follow Jesus.

And the qualities of "inerrant" (without scientific or historical flaw) or "infallible" (without fallacy, ignorance, or error) are really out of place to describe the Bible. First of all, these adjectives describe what the Bible is NOT rather than what it IS. Second, they operate within the rules and worldview of modern Western European categories, which the Bible does not.

Perhaps it is better to speak of the Bible as "reliable". When we follow its trajectory across history, it reliably leads us to the God who became embodied in Jesus. Or maybe we should merely use the word that 2Timothy uses above: Inspired (or in-breathed). The Spirit of God breathed and flowed through the authors and communities that formed the Bible, steadily steering them on a course to Christ. That is a much fuller idea of the Story we find in Scripture: It is fully reliable and thoroughly inspired to accomplish the purpose God gave it to us, which it to point us to The Point who is Jesus.

To treat the Bible any differently, or to read it through modern lenses of history and science (whether for or against it), is an adventure in missing The Point.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.