2013-03-30

On Soul as Emergent and Eternal



Once I had a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches science and who is agnostic. We were talking about whether or not the soul was an emergent property that arises from our biology, or an eternal "substance" implanted in us by God. I tried to explicate that the soul was both-and, a sort of di-polar entity, in which both the Transcendent and the Empirical were necessary and sufficient causes.  The conversation about souls got me thinking about what exactly I meant. and didn't mean, by calling the "soul" an "emergent property" of complex systems. So, if you will indulge me, I would like to explain.

On Christ's Descent to Hell



A friend asked me over Christmas break in 2012 about the meaning of "Christ's descent to hell" alluded to in 1Peter 3.18-20. It is only appropriate that I should post this today, on Holy Saturday, which yearly commemorates Jesus' "harrowing of hell". The text in question is one of the many Scriptures that is used to assert that Jesus "descended to the dead" or "descended to hell" during the time of his death, to release those in bondage in the realm of the dead.

On "The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry"



The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry is actually a pretty huge topic, and I don't have all night to write on it! I think that this book is a great step in the right direction. Kids who are actually still coming to Church in our culture are doing so because they want to find something different than the prevailing culture of consumerism. That something different may be genuine agape-based relationships with caring peers and adult mentors. But often along with that (or because of that) there comes a hunger for WHY Christian life is (or should be) so different from the prevailing culture. This WHY question is precisely theology: Helping people think in a God-centered way that is well-ordered and rational (i.e. theo-logical).

This is what we used to call Christian formation or even discipleship (at least the cognitive, worldview portion of it). But it's tricky. And there are at least 4 reasons why theological formation with youth is tricky:

1. There is a general lack of Biblical literacy among Americans in general and youth in particular. Since theologizing, for Christians, takes place upon the basis of the Grand Narrative found in the narratives of Scripture, it is essential to teach these stories. But...

2. The Churches that are often strongest on teaching the Bible are also often the most legalistic, fundamentalist, and least inclusive and justice oriented. They tell the story, but they tell it with a slant toward individualism and exclusivism. So we must develop a way of teaching the Bible just as strongly, except emphasizing the inclusion and social justice found in Scripture. Which means...

3. We need to develop a lexicon of basic concepts and strategies to get these stories across in a way that avoids the fundamentalist extreme, while staying faithful to Scripture and the best of the Christian tradition. The genius of fundamentalism is that is hones in on a few basic, easily remembered concepts and just hammers them into people. We need to find a way to present the message and theology of Scripture in a way that is equally winsome and easily remembered. However...

4. The massive failure of fundamentalism, other than it's appalling lack of Christlike Love for "The Other", is that its concepts have such narrow boundaries that they crack when challenged by science and rational learning. Thus, kids raised in fundamentalist environments often "loose faith" in college when their legalistic, foundationalist faith gets destroyed. Thus, when we theologically form people, we must do so in a way that the concepts we teach them can grow with them as they grow intellectually.

To give a negative and positive example: Negatively, when kids are taught some form of creationism (often literal, 6-day versions) as an attempt to help them believe in God as "Creator", they often go to college and find this shattered by the facts of evolutionary science. Then they loose faith in God's creative role altogether. Better to teach them a version of creation that welcomes evolution as one mode of God's creativity unfolding across history. This type of concept can grow with them, where as "Six Day Creationism" cannot.

Or, another example: Fundamentalists are rightly taught the centrality of Jesus and his saving work, but they learn it in an exclusivistic way that most postmoderns find unbelievable. When confronted with their virtuous Hindu, Muslim, and Agnostic friends at school, they find it hard to believe that Jesus would send them to hell for eternity, while the (often asshole) Evangelicals get to live forever. Thus, they jettison Christ altogether.

Better to teach them that yes, Jesus is the Incarnation of God, and yes, Jesus is the Way of Salvation, BUT that Jesus fulfills instead of rejects all that is good, true, and beautiful in other religions and cultures. When we meet God face to face, we will see the face of Jesus, and he will fulfill and confirm all that is right in our lives, while also judging and healing all that is wrong in our lives. So that the virtuous Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Agnostic will find that all they have done good has been done in Christ, especially when they reached out to "the least of these" not knowing it was Christ himself that they were ministering to (cf. Mat. 25.31-46).

That is probably more than you wanted to know. But that is a brief outline of the challenge as I see it.

On Ritual and Relationship


Recently, I taught in chapel on the Story of Mary and Martha, in which Jesus ends by helping Martha to re-focus her perspective to see the necessity of BOTH action AND contemplation in her journey with Jesus:

Luke 10.38–42 [38] Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. [39] She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. [40] But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” [41] But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; [42] there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Based on this teaching, one of my students wrote and asked me:

"Martha gets upset that Mary will not participate in the activities of preparing food/ cleaning up yet Jesus tells Martha that she is missing the point. My question is: couldn't the same be said about us in chapel? We go through the actions of repeating, rehearsing, sitting, and standing, but if you don't do those things, you're looked upon as Mary in the story."

And so I answered:

Great question and one that I have pondered for years. I wish I could give you a simple answer, but your question hits on a wide-ranging topic of how we worship as Christians. So please allow me to give a bit of background to the answer:

I think what you have hit upon is the constant tension of what we do FOR Jesus versus being present WITH Jesus. When used rightly, most rituals and activities can be used as a tool to become more aware of Jesus and present with Jesus. The catch is that most people- myself included- are not very good at being mindful of Jesus while doing activities.

Regarding specifically religious rituals, I have been a Christian in several different Christian traditions before I came to the Episcopal tradition. I have spent a great deal of time in Evangelical/ Bible Church/ Non-Denominational Churches, as well as Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. I've also been a part of services in a wide variety of other Christian traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, etc.

So I will say that every Christian tradition has its own pattern of worship with expected rituals and patterns for prayers. For instance, think of the "sinner's prayer" used when someone gets saved in an Evangelical Church. It has a standard pattern: Confession of sin, need for Jesus, acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, giving praise to Jesus.

Or the typical pattern in a non-denominational worship service or youth worship service: Typically you have a welcome, then gathering prayer, then upbeat worship songs, then a Bible reading, a message, a call to conversion, often ending in slower, more emotional worship songs while people come forward to receive Christ, and then finally a dismissal by the pastor.

Or if you go to a healing service in a charismatic or Pentecostal Church, there is a pattern for when to raise your hands in praise, how you offer healing prayers, or when (and how) it is proper to speak in tongues, and even when it is proper to faint (or be "slain in the spirit").

So, that's all to say that whether you are at Community Bible Church, First Pentecostal, Oak Hills, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, chapel at TMI or chapel at SACS, you are going to find regular repeated pattern of certain kinds of rituals and certain kinds of prayers. In fact you find references to patterns of ritual in the Bible in places like Leviticus, Psalms, and even the patterns of worship we find with Jesus and the early disciples (cf. 1Co 10-11).

I think that any of these rituals can be good, if they are done with Jesus while being mindful of Jesus. And I think any of these rituals can be bad or useless if they are done for their own sake, or to impress others, or just out of habit. So the trick is to use rituals mindfully to connect with Jesus.

So, if raising my hands is a meaningful act of worship to me that draws me near to Christ, I should do that. If crossing yourself and kneeling is a meaningful way of drawing near to Christ for you, you should do that. However, I should not compel you to raise your hands if that is not helpful for you. And likewise, you should not compel me to cross myself.

But, it is even more complex than that. Because of we are going to practice the type of hospitality that Christ calls us to, by which we become "all things to all people" (in St. Paul's words) then we should be willing to try and use spiritual practices that are meaningful to thousands or millions of other brothers and sisters in Christ. So, while I should not be compelled to cross myself (or raise my hands, or bow) as an act of worship, I should probably be willing to practice it voluntarily if I am around many other Christians who do find it meaningful. If I do, I might also come to find it has meaning for me as well.

Whew. I know this is a long and complex set of arguments, but you find somewhat similar discussions of how to worship, and what to eat, or do, or not do, to please Christ in places like Romans ch. 14-15 and 1Co ch. 10-14.

Anyway, as for which "pattern" of ritual you use, that will depend on the context you are in. If you are in a Catholic context and you use Pentecostal practices (such as speaking in tongues) you are going to make people uncomfortable and they will not understand you. Likewise, if you are at the non-denominational Bible Church and use Catholic rituals (such as bowing and crossing yourself) people probably wouldn't receive you too well.

And anytime you have a group of several hundred people who gather on a regular basis (such as chapel) then most of the time you need to have a predictable pattern that everyone can use to worship. Granted, some people will mentally check out or be distracted or just ignore what is going on. That happens at Catholic masses and Pentecostal tent revivals and Episcopal Schools. But for those who choose to use the ritual framework to connect with Jesus, it allows for that capacity on a daily basis.

One thing that I miss sometimes are the things you can do in a smaller setting (such as summer camp or a youth retreat) that you can't do with several hundred people on a daily basis. For instance, times of silence, singing around a camp fire, and really intimate personal times of prayer. These rituals and practices work great with a small group of people. But when transposed into a huge group, what you wind up with is a lot of people who get really freaked out and uncomfortable, and a very few insiders who really like it. You can actually see this happen sometimes when guitar based songs are played in chapel. The students who have been to happening or sing these songs in their youth group like it. And many others- students and faculty- either don't get it or are uncomfortable with it. In fact, for every person I have ask me to do something in chapel (such as sing camp songs), I usually have at least one other person (if not more) who will complain that we did it. No kidding!

So, most of the time I use prayers and rituals that have been meaningful to most Christians through most of Christian history. That means a lot of prayers and rituals that have Catholic and Anglican roots. It's not everyone's cup of tea. But then again no style of worship is everyone's cup of tea. But it is a pattern that has been shown to shape and develop the spiritual lives of Christians through most of Christian history. And Jesus will use it, if you let him, to remind you of his presence and help you hear his Word.

And that leads me to the bottom line answer: It's all in how you use it.

Every relationship has rituals. My relationship with my wife has many rituals that involve speaking, listening, special names we use, sitting, standing, working and resting. Likewise, my relationship with Jesus has many rituals that involve speaking, listening, special names, sitting, standing, working and resting. I can use these rituals to connect with Jesus (or my wife). Or I can use the same rituals to ignore either of them and check out mentally. It's all in how I use them.

Martha's problem was that she was using her work instead of being present with Christ, and perhaps at the wrong time when Jesus may have been calling her to do something else. My hope is that we learn to use our work and rest, ritual and spontaneity, in the right way at the right time to draw us all closer to Christ.

I know that's a complex answer. But I think life with Jesus is complex, multifaceted and beautiful. It is easy to say "Love Jesus!"  But it takes a lifetime- and beyond- to explore how to love Jesus in the manifold contexts we find ourselves in.

2013-03-26

Why Biblical Christians need Biological Evolution


Over the last few years in educational ministry, I have continually had questions asked about, discussions over, and even debates because of the topic evolution and faith. Can one believe in the Bible AND in evolution? Is it possible for a faithful Christian to have an evolutionary worldview? And even if it is possible, is it permissible within the limits of classic Christian orthodoxy? And after all of this, I think it is finally time to move beyond asking whether it is merely permissible for faithful, Biblical, Christ-loving Christians to have an evolutionary view of how God is at work in creation.

Biblical Christians need to think in evolutionary terms to be faithful to Christ.

2013-03-24

On teaching evolution in a world of creationism



A friend of mine who teaches science recently expressed, once again, his legitimate exasperation at people who want to grant creationism equal time with evolution in science classrooms. His frustration has all to do with the differences between repeatable, empirical claims of science, versus the moral, existential claims of ideology. He believes creationism is an ideology, not a science. And, actually, I have to agree with him. Ideology, philosophy and theology are real academic subjects (along with history, literature, art, etc.). And there is a place in the world to discuss and debate ideology, but that is not in a science classroom.

In the Bible belt, I think our cultural uneasiness with evolutionary thought ultimately has to do with emotions and existential angst and a feeling of seasickness while being set adrift in a universe of flux and change.

At a base emotional level, I think we under-estimate how scary evolutionary thought in general is, without reference to any particular version or theory of evolution (whether biological evolution, evolution of ideas, evolution of social systems, etc.).

I know the objective, empirical view of the matter is that evolution is "just the facts, ma'am". And it is. Whether one studies the change and development of DNA, or the change and development of civic architecture, or the change and development of our ideas of Ultimate Reality, it is clear and objective that evolution happens in all spheres of human existence. But the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand. (Hat tip: Pascal).

The objective and empirical does not correspond to the subjective and existential. Both are dimensions of truth about the human condition that cannot be reduced to one another (I know that is a huge philosophical debate in itself, but I hold that consciousness is not fully reduced to an epiphenomenon of the physical brain, although the brain is one of the necessary preconditions for human consciousness).

Anyway, if we posit that the objective/empirical and subjective/existential are distinct but overlapping dimensions of human reality, then I think that we can see how those who deny evolution are taking their subjective/existential fears and angst, and projecting it on to objective/physical reality, in order to impose order, and control, and a feeling of safety, upon the world around them.

And I don't think current scientific education is very good at dealing with the emotional side of what it means to discover, grow, and evolve. This stuff brings up visceral and predictable emotional reactions. There are two valid emotional reactions to Evolutionary thought:

First evolution can be seen as opening the door to freedom and creativity that is unknown in other systems of thought. If the world is growing and developing, then no ultimate limits can be set to the human condition. We are free to create new worlds, new modes of being, without being un-necessarily constrained by the limits of the past. It is understandably beautiful.

But also, evolution can be seen as the "destroyer of worlds", because to bring about this new, un-predictable world, it means the destruction of the old world. If everything is in flux, then nothing is dependable. Nothing is predictable. We cannot count on the fact that what we currently understand will hold true in the future. The things and people we love will die, and possibly be transformed into new things. It is understandably scary.

I meet many "pro-science" folks who have no idea how evolution could ever be scary to anyone. They look at those who are scared as retrograde simpletons who merely want to live in the past, instead of trying to understand how these facts can shatter emotional security.

I meet even more "pro-Bible" (and "pro-Quran" and "pro-Vedas") folks who use literalist religion as the bulwark to stave off the corrosive effect of this "destroyer of worlds". They have no idea how evolution could ever be beautiful to anyone. And they look upon those who find evolution as beautiful as either tools or slaves of evil.

And here is how the emotional logic seems to work for evolution-deniers:
1. They are deeply and viscerally afraid of the instability of the evolutionary worldview.
2. They read these fears into texts written long ago that never were intended to deal with these issues (or the fears they cause).
3. They produce a worldview (or theology) which ensures stability, thereby mollifying fears, at the cost of denying evidence of evolution.
4. They demonize evolutionary thought and those who support it.
5. They create a societal movement to take back culture from the "world destroying" forces of evolution.

I have advice for those who teach evolution in science classrooms (and those cultural critics like myself who encourage a fruitful and creative religious engagement with evolution). My advice is this:

- We need to be more emotionally winsome to those we teach, especially when what we teach can elicit legitimate fears. We need to do a good job of walking them through the fears that these ideas cause, and then gently leading them into the beauty these ideas hold.

- We need to gently and politely refute the false ideas and ways of evaluating and weighing evidence. We need to remember that satire and snark can also be effective, but only after trust has been established with those we teach. Otherwise, we just come off as arrogant and condescending.

- Above all, we must establish trust with our students. We must show them that we are reliable people who have their best interest at heart, and who are willing to sacrifice our time and effort to help them. Unless there is trust there, they will not be willing to make the emotional investment to be open to the new ideas we bring to them.

In the end, teaching evolution can be a bit like helping someone leave an adulterous spouse. No body wants to think that their beloved spouse is cheating on them. And in order for them to piece together the facts about a cheating spouse, they have to come to an emotional realization of (a) how harmful it is to be with someone who is unfaithful; and (b) a vision that life can actually be better when not attached to someone who is unfaithful. Unless they reach this emotional realization, they may always deny or re-interpret the facts they find about their spouse's betrayal.

In a similar way, the "static" view of the universe (which underlies literal creationism and Biblical fundamentalism) is an adulterous spouse of the mind. We have to help people emotionally envision that (a) it is harmful to hold a view of reality that is not in line with the actual facts of reality; and (b) life can be freer, more creative, and more beautiful within the framework of evolutionary thought. Only then will they be able to move past the legitimate fears that an evolutionary view brings with it.

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.