2016-12-28

The Four Horsemen of the Post-truth Apocalypse


As I read the posts on social media and the cultural commentary from all sides, it seems to me there are four primary heresies-- Four Horsemen of the Post-truth Apocalypse, to borrow an image from Revelation-- that are destroying authentic Christianity "from the inside out" during these days:

2016-12-27

Christ and the Religions


Recently I did a teaching on three ways of relating the universal Love of God to the particular work of Christ in a pluralistic culture: Exclusivism, Pluralism, and Inclusivism.

For Christians, these three ways of relating Christ to world religions is based on our understanding of what the Incarnation of Christ accomplished, and how we read the Biblical texts that point to this Incarnation event. As we read the Bible, a Key Interpretive Question is this: Which set of texts are given primacy in interpretation? Will we allow texts of limitation to interpret and restrict texts of universal Love and Salvation, or will we allow the universal texts to expand and fulfill the horizon of the texts of exclusion and limitation?

2016-12-22

Right about the Right


This is the best thought piece on the Religious Right, by a member of the Religious Right, that I have read in years (or watched). Russell Moore represents what is best in that tradition, and I found myself nodding in agreement more often than I frowned in disapproval. The whole thing is worth the hour of time invested in it. Yet, despite large swaths of my sympathy, there are three areas where I think he gets it wrong: 

2016-12-19

Modes of Prayer in the Spiritual Life


I am working on a teaching about modes of prayer in the spiritual life. I'm trying to come up with a way to help people find the presence of God in all kinds of activities, not just the verbal prayers we might pray alone or together. So, here is a chart I worked up for teaching, along with six rhyming words which describe six modes of prayer.

2016-12-18

The Legend of SciFi Santa the Time Lord


My second grade son is very into science fiction: Marvel Universe, Aliens, Terminator, DC Legends of Tomorrow, Flash, Godzilla, and many more. Tonight he started asking questions about Santa Claus. So, fusing sacred and secular, history and fiction, I explained how Santa is really a Time Lord who works for Jesus. And my explanation went a little like this:

2016-12-05

How to win at Facebook


The definitive guide to crushing opponents on social media

Are you tired of stupid people clogging up you newsfeed with their inane ideas, stupid memes, and useless tirades? Do you want to destroy their stupidity without getting locked into endless battles of point-counterpoint? Well, if you desire to quickly and decisively win arguments on Facebook, comments sections, and other social media, just follow these five tried-and-true steps:

1. Go on someone else's Facebook wall, select a post you have problems with, and in no uncertain terms BOLDLY condemn it in unequivocal language, preferably while questioning the moral or intellectual ability of the person who posted it*.

2. If the original poster responds back with bluster, anger and offense, but without substantive argument, you have almost won. Keep repeating your assertions*, and questioning their abilities, to anger them until they explode in an ad hominem attack against you. At that point get "offended": Claim moral high ground, become righteously indignant, and use this as an example of how all people who disagree with you are uncivilized and hypocritical. You have just won Facebook.

3. If the original poster responds back with evidence and rational argumentation, DO NOT respond in kind*. Keep repeating your talking points, preferably in ALL CAPS. If the original poster begins to ignore you, you can safely assume you have won Facebook.

4. If the original poster ceases to be rational, and begins to respond with anger, go back to step 2.

5. If the original poster keeps responding with evidence and argumentation, back out of the argument with "Reverse-Offense". This is a tricky maneuver by which you claim that you have offended them, and you will back out of the argument "for their sake", so you don't "offend" them any more. While this is not a Facebook win, it is not a loss either. You may want to delete all evidence of what you said, leaving their comment tree looking like they were arguing with themselves. Which is kind of a win in itself.

*No matter what you do, never never never respond by attempting to use logic or rational argumentation (i.e. argument that proceeds in a linear fashion through interconnected points that imply one another, and do not logically contradict one another). This is a sure fire loosing strategy, as the difficulty level is just too high for most people to construct winning arguments that do not possess significant flaws in evidence or rational consistency. Thus, stick to talking points and assertions that are evidence free (or at least based on cherry picked evidence that only matches your interpretation) and bare no significant causal relationship to each other.

DO NOT:
- Clearly define the terms and ideas used in your argument
- Pay attention to logical consistency between assertions made in your argument
- Double check if your cherry picked evidence fits with larger trends and other relevant evidence
- Admit you are in error, either in possibility or actuality

Above all, do not try to construct, offer, or suggest a solution to the problems you raise. That will cause you to loose, because it will provide a substantive solution for others to criticize. Solutions are like ideological billboards that say "Hey! Spray paint critical graffiti all over me!" Instead, stick with criticism, critique, and destruction of others' solutions. Always tear down and never build up: It is the only way to win at Facebook.

Now, everything said above is, of course, a parody. There is an alternative. And that is to deliberately, and even prayerfully, engage in disagreements in a manner that is intentional, evidence-based, and rational, in an effort to seek the Truth as we can best discern the Truth. We might even trust that God works through debates and arguments to lead us to a fuller knowledge of Truth. For the few and the worthy who make use of this alternative to pursue moral, intellectual and spiritual growth, this guide works in inverse: Just do the exact opposite of each of the steps outlined above.

You can win at Facebook, or you can strive for Truth. But you can't do both at the same time.

2016-12-04

A Short Meditation on Evolution and Original Sin




This summer a friend asked me a great question about how Evolution and Original Sin can relate to each other. To get to my answer, I must first do a little theological back filling to set the stage for the question. First, I accept evolution as the means by which God "creates" life, although I would prefer to say that evolution is the self-expression of infinite Divine potential in space and time. If I were to bet, I would bet that the universe is actually a multiverse, in which every universe exists that can actualize at least one unique good as it evolves. This seems to be the kind of reality that would best actualize God's infinite possibility, although what I'm about to say would work in a singular universe as well.

2016-12-03

A radical idea to end the Holiday Wars




Idea: Let's stop politicizing the Holiday Season and wish people whatever greetings convey hospitality the best in the given circumstance. And if we feel the need to be exceedingly theologically correct, let's wish people "Happy Hanukkah" (since that is what Jesus celebrated this time of year, cf. John 10:22), or "Blessed Advent" (since that is what Jesus' Church has celebrated this time of year for the last 17 centuries), and save "Merry Christmas" for December 25th and 12 days after, since those are the actual days of Christmastide. Or, alternately, just wish people whatever Holiday greeting best conveys "loving your neighbor as yourself" in any particular circumstance. Since, after all, that idea of loving your neighbor was the most important thing to Jesus, and if we want to honor Jesus, perhaps we should do what he asked us to (cf. Matthew 22.35-40). With that in mind, have a blessed and fruitful Advent y'all!

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

2016-11-27

This Advent perhaps we don't have to be rage monsters after all




Nietzsche once wrote "Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster". It seems that in our culture all sides tend to make those we disagree with into enemies. Then we make our enemies into monsters. And then we become monsters while fighting them, filled with constant rage and indignation and anxiety and blame. And soon, if we do not stop it, we will all reap the consequences of the monsters we have created and become.

This Advent perhaps the idea of "perhaps" could help us out of this predicament. Perhaps Jesus has another way out for us. Perhaps when we battle monsters we could become more like Jesus and less like monsters. Perhaps our enemies aren't monsters after all anyway (at least not all of them). And perhaps our enemies are not even our enemies really (at least not all of them). Perhaps they are people who want the same things we do: A full belly, well educated kids, dependable healthcare, meaningful work, a living wage, a loving community. And perhaps they have some different ideas about how to get from where we are to where everyone can have that kind of life. And perhaps in this "common goals through different means" kind of insight, we might even find some common ground. Perhaps.

This is all just crazy talk, I know. But perhaps it isn't. And perhaps the way that we have been doing things is not preparing us for the Advent of the Kingdom of God, in which all of God's children have daily bread, and live full and meaningful lives, as they Love God and Love their neighbors. And perhaps this means we could try another way. A way that looks more like the sacrificial service of Jesus, and less like the Imperial conquest of Caesar. And perhaps if we did this, Christ would pour out his Spirit upon us once again as in the days of the Apostles, and we would see people healed and set free and made whole. And as I say this, I know that this is all probably just a pie in the sky pipe dream that could never come to fruition in the world of realpolitik and billion dollar business deals. But, then again, perhaps it might just work after all. Perhaps.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

2016-11-25

A Meditation on Buddhist ideas of contingency and emptiness in relation to Western Trinitarianism





Today I was doing some reading on Indian philosophy, and in particular on the ideas of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna who argued powerfully that the ultimate source of the empirical world is "emptiness" which cannot be fully identified with, nor fully distinct from, the chain of causality (or dependent origination) which upholds the empirical world. For Nagarjuna this emptiness cannot be identified with either existence or non-existence, because both of these states of (non)being are contingent on a whole host of other causes. And emptiness as such is ontologically distinct from the entire contingent world of dependent origination, and hence the ultimate emptiness which grounds the world cannot be said to exist or not exist in any meaningful sense. Thus it is erroneous to think of ultimate reality as a "being" that (a) exists, or (b) doesn't exist, or (c) exists and doesn't exist, or as (d) neither existing or not existing. In short, no categories apply meaningfully to describe the ultimate reality that grounds the world, and thus this reality is purely "empty".

2016-11-22

On the use of Nazi in public discourse





Just a quick thought: Calling people Nazis does not make them want to stop acting like Nazis. You know who else was called "Nazi" and yet kept acting like Nazis? Actual Nazis.

Calling someone a Nazi-- like calling someone a Libtard, or a Fascist, or any other derogatory name-- identifies that person or group of people as totally encapsulated in a certain negative identity. It no longer treats them as human. It no longer provides any room for them to repent and change. It demeans them and imprisons them in a shameful label, and tells them that "you are just THIS and can never be any other". And most people, when labeled thus, live into the label. At some level, consciously or unconsciously, they say "OK, if you are going to demean me with that label, I will turn it into a badge of honor, and I will be more [insert label] than you can possibly imagine".

In other words, if you want to empower and push people to actually become Nazis, then one of the most effective rhetorical tactics you can use is reinforcing that identity by constantly calling them Nazis.

If, however, you want compassion and mercy and peace to win in this culture, perhaps there is a better strategy than demonizing and labeling a whole swath of the population. I am in no way saying to ignore or passively allow acts of racism and xenophobia and misogyny to happen in this culture. But rather to protest these acts as such: To name the specific acts you are protesting, and why these acts are demeaning to people made in God's image. If we are protesting for Native American rights and against petroleum pipelines, to name it as such, instead of saying we are protesting against Nazis. If we are protesting to protect Muslims against racism and xenophobia, to name it as such, instead of saying we are protesting against Nazis. If we are protesting against xenophobic policies, and people with a history of racism and misogyny being appointed to high office, to name the reasons why, rather than simply writing them off as Nazis.

Instead let us say we are protesting against X, Y, and Z because it is against humanist and theological values; Because similar policies led to horrible atrocities in German history and Turkish history and even in American history with slavery and Native Americans and Japanese internment; Because WE are better than this, and YOU are better than this, and together we can create an American future where nobody gets left behind or excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In combating injustice, I think we must find a way to enunciate our anger and fear and hope in a way that is in accord with our values. Because right now, the divisive Spirit of our age has us completely under its control. And it will destroy us if we let it. It doesn't care if the Left wins or the Right wins or the Poor win or the Rich win. It only cares that is causes hate and discord and destruction in the process. Don't let that Spirit win.

And you may be thinking "Hey Nate! Why aren't you telling the same thing to THEM?!? We will stop hate and labeling if they do first!" First, I am talking to "them" just as much as I am talking to "us", because what I'm saying is for "all". And I have no idea who "them" and "us" is to you. Second, it is a horrible strategy for change to wait for the other before you will start change. Change starts with you. It always has. It always will.

I have kids. I teach kids. I don't want to bequeath to them this country as it is right now. I want to bequeath to them something better, something more hopeful, something that lives into our pledge to live as one Nation "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". I want to bequeath to them a land where E PLURIBUS UNUM is a reality.

It will take a lot of work to get there. But let's work together. And let's begin to be the change we want to see in the world.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.


2016-11-21

On Two Kinds of Bible Readers



Two kinds of Bible readers are invincibly ignorant, and have no idea how to understand what the Bible says, because they cannot see past their own ideology. The first kind are those religious fundamentalists who cherry pick the Bible's commands to justify their own ideology. The second kind are secular fundamentalists who cherry pick the Bible's absurdities to justify their own desire for the Bible to say nothing at all. Only those who sit with the Bible, listening as one might listen to a grandparent telling old family stories of joy and woe, are able to discern the deep currents of God at work in the messiness of history and culture. Religious fundamentalists present nice, clean, sanitary, pre-packaged answers to all of life's questions, while secular fundamentalists present self-satisfied, shallow, privileged satire of cultures and texts they will never comprehend. Beyond the mirror image fundamentalisms of left and right is a deeper way of discerning a trajectory in Scripture which leads to life, love, and justice. What Martin Luther King said about history is true of Scripture as well: The moral arc of history is long (and messy), but it trends toward justice.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

Beyond Sit Down and Shut Up: On the need for debate and explanation in civil discourse





It seems lately that a bunch of folks from all sides want other folks to accept certain ideas and events as "facts" without explanation or debate. Trump folks want everyone to shut up and accept the election without question or protest. Progressives want folks to accept diversity without question as a social fact, and delegitimize anyone who disagrees as either ignorant or prejudiced or both. Scientists want folks to accept evolution and global climate change as fact and ignore young earth creationists and climate change deniers. Inerrantists want folks to accept a certain read of the Bible as the way Reality works without being questioned by secularism or other religions.

The truth is that this attitude is prevalent on all sides, and is both intellectually sloppy and socially lazy. If we hold free speech as a social good*, that means that no "fact" may go without the expectation of questioning, explanation, rational argument, analysis of evidence, and even protest. Not even this post. I personally think it is incredibly immature to tell others to sit down and shut up and accept your position as so superior that it is self evident you are right. If you think you are right, support it with an argument and an explanation to goes beyond simply posting and meme, and even beyond reposting someone else's article or news story. Although both memes and reposting articles may be part of an argument, they are not substitutes for it.

*This, of course, assumes the shared value of free speech. Which in turn assumes that speech-- discourse, dialogue, and debate-- can be used as a means to pursue truth and virtue. Thus, since truth and virtue are not a given and must be sought, the freedom of discussion opens the possibility of seeing truth and virtue from different perspectives. But not everyone holds these values. Some only see speech as a means of power: Social control and manipulation. This in turn seems to imply that either they think they possess the fullness of the Truth (and thus all that is left is to coerce people into accepting it), or that Truth does not exist (and thus, life is meaningless and all that matters is bending people to our will for our pleasure). Thus all the reasons I can think of for not valuing free speech lead to pretty scary social visions. Therefore I think free speech is a key social value for a healthy society, and therefore silencing tactics are antithetical to that value, and thus antithetical to a truly healthy society.

Back to civil discourse: I hold my views because I think they make the best use of the evidence I have been exposed to, and hence are better explanations than other views I disagree with. I'm happy to discuss, explain, and defend any one of these views if and when I have time (while at the same time acknowledging that there are constraints on time and other competing priorities). And I think others should have this attitude too. And it may the the 1000th time you have had to explain it, but it may be the first time someone else has heard it. If there's anything I've learned from preaching and teaching, it is that you must never tire of explaining the basics over and over and over.

I'm not offended when people question me, my views, my politics, or my religion. I expect it and welcome it. And many of the best people I know share the same attitude. I think it is a mark of intellectual adulthood to be able to compassionately and clearly discuss and defend one's ideas and ideals. It is a mark of immaturity to silence and shame others, expecting them to simply accept ideas you find self-evident. And not only that, but from a secular perspective it is a mark of a healthy society to have vigorous debate in the pursuit of free speech (as discussed above). And if one comes from the Christian perspective, this is even a clearly held Biblical virtue. After all, 1Peter 3:15 tells us: "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord [i.e. Don't be afraid to hold firm spiritual and moral commitments that stem from the "Lordship" of Jesus]. Always be prepared to give an answer [Greek "apologia": A rational, evidence based response and explanation] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience [i.e. Pursue free speech in such a way as to treat every human with dignity and respect as beloved by Christ], so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."

Thus, for clear social, moral, political, philosophical, and religious reasons it is paramount to engage in sustained rational discourse and debate as a necessary facet of the value of free speech. There may be occasions when free speech must be paused to pursue a greater good. If your child is stepping out into traffic one must snatch them back first, and wait for later to explain the necessity of looking both ways. And when lives are in immanent danger, one must first stand in protest, or act in compassion, to save them. And only after lives are safe, will we have the leisure to debate the justifications. But in general, free speech and reasoned discourse should be the norm, from which crisis situations are the deviation.

So instead of saying people should shut up and stop protesting, try and explain instead why things are so darn good for them that they shouldn't want to protest. And if you cannot construct an argument that makes sense, perhaps that indicates that your position needs revision.

And instead of saying that you will ignore anyone who holds an opposing view by silencing them or shaming them, try explaining your position in a new way. You just might find that you come to understand your own views in a deeper way, even if they continue to disagree with you.

And if, at long last, you simply cannot come to a common agreement, perhaps the best way to handle it is in the silence of good deeds, as you continue to work for justice, compassion, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness. It takes no words give the thirsty a drink, or feed the hungry a meal, or sit in protest against injustice, or stand between a bully and his victim.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.



2016-11-02

Hamstrings and Excellence, Law and Grace


For those who do not know me, I push myself hard in many areas of life. I generally like doing "hard things" that trigger the desire to perform within me. From preaching, to teaching, to writing long essays, to lifting heavy weights, I generally delight in doing things that many people find difficult or strenuous. And before I go on, let me make it clear that there are plenty of things I am bad at too. I hate administrative things, paying bills, balancing accounts, making beds in the morning, doing dishes, going to bed at a reasonable hour, waking up early, etc. So suffice it to say, I tend to perform in front of people, and get lazy behind the scenes. So, I've got a lot of growing to do.

But, one of my more effective hobbies is lifting weights. I'm good at it, for my age and build. I pick heavy things up. I put them down. Usually in the solitude of my garage with loud music playing. I don't injure myself often, but when I do, it is memorable. One of those occasions was last night.

2016-08-26

EpiPens, Economic Ethics, and the Health of the Body Politic


Recently Bizarro reposted the 2013 cartoon shown above in response to the 2016 kerfuffle over the price hikes in the EpiPen (access to which can be an actual life or death issue for people with severe allergies). In response, a good friend of mine who is a staunch defender of free market libertarianism sent me this National Review article and asked for my response.

So, I wrote the following response which gave me a chance discuss the moral value of economics. This is something I've been meaning to do for a while. I don't write or teach systematically about the intersection of theology and economics, so this gave me the opportunity to organize some preparatory thoughts from my perspective as a professional pastor, and a very amateur economist.

First, a note on Bizarro comic I posted. What I find interesting-- and why I posted it-- is because these Big Pharma stories are so endemic and systemic. They regularly occur. And even the comic itself was written in 2013. So whatever is going on, we keep coming back to it like Groundhog's day.

2016-05-20

Trinity and Humility


A Plea to All Theological Nerds (like myself) for Trinity Sunday:

I think much of the reason why we don't talk about the Trinity more is due to insider backbiting. Clerics and Scholars who think they have a handle on the Trinity have a habit of being snide, backbiting, and, well, bitchy, toward anyone who does not talk about the Trinity using their preferred formulae, metaphor, analogy, or lack of analogy. If you speak in the language of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Westerns gripe. If you speak in Western Augustinian terminology the Easterns gripe. If you use economic language, you get accused of denying the immanent Trinity. If you use immanent or essentialist language, you get accused of hellenizing and philosophizing the Biblical narrative.

If you use a folksy analogy, people from both sides will find a heresy that they think best fits your analogy, even if that is intentionally not what you tried to imply. And God forbid you should try and reframe the Trinity using any philosophical categories birthed in the Enlightenment or after. And if you describe the Trinity in a way that is long enough and nuanced enough to placate (most) of the Theo-haters, then the 98% of people who are non-specialists will (rightly) complain that your explanation is unnecessarily complex and confusing. And yet, if you don't talk about the Trinity and choose something that most people can relate to, you get called a heretic, Arian, or even worse, Joel Olsteen.

So, perhaps in our efforts to describe and explain the Trinity we should exercise the very thing that God is, the very thing that Christ embodied, namely: Love. While I absolutely believe that some descriptions of the Trinity are closer to The Truth than others, all are necessarily limited, incomplete, and flawed. And when we meet God face to face we will all find out how wrong we are, despite our best attempts to be accurate. So perhaps in humility and Love we could cut each other some theological slack, and gently suggest fuller understandings to those who seem to lack important aspects of Trinitarian understanding.
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.