Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Scripture and the bounds of certainty

Mark over at Pseudo-Polymath has a question for Sola Scriptura adherents. He names a variety of doctrines and asks how does a Sola Scriptura adherent decide what is in bounds and what is out of bounds.

Generally, I expect to find that someone who trusts the New Testament accounts will believe a thing if Scripture teaches it, disbelieve it if Scripture teaches against it, and is open to discussion and even varying opinions if Scripture is silent or is not explicit. In those "gray area" cases, if an early and unanimous opinion exists among the early church fathers I would expect to give that opinion the benefit of the doubt without quite holding it with the same certainty as Scripture. That's why we (Lutherans) hold to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Scripture teaches it) but not to transubstantiation, and why most of us do not hold to Mary's perpetual virginity though some do.

I don't think this next was your main question, but I think the quote from Pelikan had an interesting salvo. He implied that the usual explanation for the Scripture "The Father is greater than I" amounted to "manipulation of the Scriptures". I have to agree on this much: the usual explanation of that is disappointing at least and may even cross the line to manipulation of Scripture. That particular text is often explained away as meaning that when Christ acknowledges the Father as greater he does so "according to his human nature"; yet when else is he said to speak according to human nature alone? I have always believed this interpretation to be an unnecessary and possibly misleading move. To speak in Trinitarian language, the Father is the only member of the Trinity who has no other origin but is self-existing; the Word and the Spirit both derive from the Father. "The Father is greater than I" seems a natural thing to say even for a Trinitarian: that the Word, Christ, has his origin in the Father but the Father alone is self-existing. As the self-existing source of the Son, the Father is greater than the Son. Now I will also speak bluntly: I think that such a questionable exegetical move was mainly made to defend the Trinitarian formula. I consider some parts of the Trinitarian formula to be an intellectual syncretism between the revelation of God and Greek philosophy. I know "intellectual syncretism" may be seen by some as fighting words, so let me explain what I mean. The relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit is not cleanly understood or expressed with complete clarity in the common formulas used for the Trinity. Granted that nobody has yet done better expressing the nature of God using the categories of Greek philosophy, and the standard Trinitarian formula may well be the cleanest fit possible between the nature of God and Greek philosophy. Still, certain things we know about God seem to have been squeezed a little bit to fit into those categories, and it has created a tension in Christian theology ever since. I expect the day will come when we Christians rethink the Trinity in terms more native to Scripture and that, when complete, we will still have the Trinity but not one so determined to see things through the lenses of ancient Greek thought categories. At the time the Trinity was formulated, much of the Christian world was still deeply enamored of Greek philosophy, and may have overestimated Greek philosophy's capabilities towards expressing the realities of God. Until such a day as we retool our understanding of the Trinity to go beyond that kind of intellectual syncretism, certain passages of Scripture will show their tension with how God has been fit into those pre-existing schools of thought.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Roman and Protestant models of apostolic authority

Continuing the conversation with Japhy on the papal bull Unam Sanctam in which the Roman Catholic church made the official claim that it is "absolutely necessary for salvation ... to be subject to the Roman Pontiff".

This one took me a few days to post because I had to edit out as much as I could of the frustration at exactly how over-the-top I find this particular claim of Rome. I hope I have got it in a better tone; I have reworded it a number of times. The difficulty comes when I re-read one particular part in which I genuinely believe the pope was abusing his power. Japhy, I'm sure you disagree with that, but I just wanted you to know that I struggle with anger when I see someone handle Scripture the way this particular papal bull does. I'll explain why as we go through. But my main hope is that you (Jeff) will know, that first of all that I hope I've got the frustration edited out, and second of all that if any of it's left it's not intended for you but is coming from the way Scripture is being used.

The support which the pope made for the claim is not of the quality I would expect from a Christian who is knowledgeable of the Bible (more on this shortly), and I also have to wonder whether a spiritual person might be aware of the possibility that the sinful nature was involved in making a claim which so plainly and openly advocates their own power and status.

Allegorical Arguments
Japhy posts more of the pope's decree here. The decree contains Scriptural interpretations such as arguing from the spouse in Song of Songs, or from the flood and the ark to the necessity of subjection to Peter and his successor as if to Noah. From the outside looking in, the reasoning on those points is a chain of loose and fanciful interpretation and presumption of key points. I know that Song of Songs is often interpreted allegorically as love betweeen God and his people. Still, that is a long way from identifying God's one and only beloved with Rome to the exclusion of all others. There is a certain presumption on Rome's part that God does not see us as one on the basis of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" but only on the basis of submission to Peter's successor. Or again, where does Scripture compare the Ark to the church? Where does Scripture make a point of Noah being the captain? Where does Scripture compare Peter to Noah? Allegorical interpretations are not in the mind of the original author but in the mind of the interpreter. Fanciful and allegorical interpretations of Scripture could easily have been interpreted otherwise; all it would take is for someone else's fancy to envision the allegory that suited them.

Feeding the Sheep
Again the papal bull reviews Jesus' conversation with Peter, "feed my sheep", and interprets that as if an appointment to office, as if Peter alone was given charge to feed the sheep, as if the care of the whole church were given to Peter alone by that. It is difficult to imagine that Jesus did not intend for all the disciples to feed his sheep, as the Great Commission entrusted all of them with that; the question is whether special status was intended for Peter. During Peter's life, there is no sign that Peter or any of the rest of the church took it that way. In the first church council as recorded in Acts 15, Peter is not in charge and submits his case to James, with Peter answering to James as if to his superior. Neither is there any record that the others who had studied under Christ felt the need to run their teachings past Peter, having themselves been taught by Christ. When Paul submitted to review of his teachings, he spoke with Peter, James, and John -- and makes no mention of any special status adhering to Peter alone. If Christ had meant to confer unique headship on Peter on behalf of the church, there is no sign that Peter or the rest of the church while he was alive had understood that. That alone makes a powerful case against Peter's unique status: Peter didn't seem to know he had it, and neither did those who knew him.

Whatsoever you bind on earth ...
This next part of the decree is the most difficult for me to read without becoming outright angry because of the way Scripture is handled:
This authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven" etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [cf. Rom 13:2], unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth [cf. Gen 1:1]. Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Take careful note of what is quoted here from Matthew as the Scriptural support for Peter's uniqueness. Jesus was speaking directly to Peter on the occasion of his confession that Jesus was in fact the Christ: "Whatsoever you (singular, i.e. Peter) shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). The biggest problem I have with that argument is that it completely ignores that Jesus quickly thereafter grants the same thing to the other apostles. Jesus soon after says to all the apostles together, "Whatsoever you (plural, i.e. all of them) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). What the pope quoted here as having been said to Peter -- and the pope cites it as proof of Peter's uniqueness -- is exactly what Jesus also said soon after to all of the apostles. In context, the second passage granting the same authority to all the apostles is immediately followed by the need for agreement and fellowship among them: "if two of you shall agree on earth ... if two or three are gathered in my name". Peter cannot stand alone; no disciple is placed above the other, and the greatest is to be servant of all. The pope's decree has a pointedly partial reading of Scripture, quoting the one passage as proving Peter is unique without even acknowledging the existence the other passage where the same authority is given to all the apostles. Here is why it makes me so angry: when someone makes such a one-sided case, ignores contrary evidence, and does this to his own advantage and about his own authority, it can hardly help coming across badly. In light of the selective reading of Scripture, the pope's later quote which equates disagreement about his interpretation with "resisting the ordinance of God" comes across as heavy-handed rhetoric deflecting an open discussion about the merits of the argument.

Apostolic Authority: the Roman model and the Protestant model
Japhy talking now:
If you reject the ones Jesus sent, you reject Jesus. This is why the Church is so darn stubborn about Apostolic succession. If some random preacher shows up tomorrow, how can I be sure following his teachings about Jesus will lead to my salvation?

What church rejects those who Jesus sent? He sent the apostles, and I am not aware of any church today rejecting any of them. So on to the next question: how can you be sure that someone's teachings are true? You can be sure by comparing those teachings with what Christ and the apostles taught. There was a time in church history when the main guarantee of hearing what the apostles taught was belonging to a church where the bishop was taught by the apostles. But the time came when the churches that traced back to the apostles started teaching things that the apostles had never taught. At that time there became two varieties of "apostolic authority": the Roman variety, where tracing your leadership back to the apostles was seen as a guarantee of true teaching, and the Protestant variety, where tracing the contents of your teachings back to the apostles was seen as a guarantee of true teaching. That's why Protestants are so darn stubborn about what Scripture says: those are the teachings that we are sure trace to the apostles. If I had to choose between a church that can trace its leadership to successors of the apostles but cannot trace its teachings to the apostles on the one hand, and a church that can trace its teachings to the apostles but not its leadership to successors of the apostles, I am glad to stick with the teachings I know trace back to the apostles. Of course, more than that I wish it were not an either/or kind of decision.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What is doctrine for?

Continuing a conversation with Japhy, a Roman Catholic blog neighbor. This is a spin-off conversation about the nature of the church, in which Japhy is basically pursuing an angle about the nature of doctrine and its relation to salvation.
Is adherence to Lutheran doctrine necessary for salvation? If so, by whose authority? Luther's (or his successors')? And if Lutheran doctrine is not necessary for salvation, what is its purpose? I do not mean to sound inflammatory, but I am curious what Lutheranism holds as true that may or may not be necessary for salvation. And which Lutheran denomination retains the proper doctrine...?

Jeff, you'd have to get a whole lot more riled than that before you came across as inflammatory. Inflammatory is just not your habit. Besides, you're well within the area of "questions you're bound to ask".

Starting with the least theologically important question first:
Q. Which Lutheran denomination retains the proper doctrine?
A. The one(s) still holding to the original Tradition of the church, that handed down by Christ through the apostles.

Q. What is necessary for salvation?
A. Christ is necessary for salvation. Doctrine, in its best sense, is a full life-giving knowledge of God and his kingdom. Unfortunately, "doctrine" often becomes a set of propositions to be memorized whose content (in theory) could convey some knowledge of God and his kingdom if only people weren't so busy mistaking doctrine for salvation. It would be like mistaking the nutrition label on the can for a nourishing meal. (See, it says right there, "100% iron, 100% calcium ... and I already read the label so I'm set! I read it twice, so I'm more nourished than you!") What Christ said about Scriptures could easily be said about doctrine: You eagerly search them because you think that by them you have eternal life. These are they that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me and have life.

There are all kinds of things that are true (Lutheran doctrines, Roman Catholic doctrines, doctrines of all kinds of other groups too numerous to name) that are not "necessary for salvation". There are things that are true about God, but knowing them is not "necessary for salvation". If doctrine isn't necessary for salvation, then what is the purpose of doctrine? To bless us through knowledge of the Holy One. I have often asked myself, "Is there really any other blessing besides God?" To know God is to have peace and patience and perseverance. To know God is to have the fullness of love. To know God is to have complete freedom from fear. To know God is to have all wisdom. To know God is to be joyful. What good thing is outside of him? That is what doctrine is about: there is no higher blessing than God.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Rome, Having Christ, and Meriting Eternal Life

Continuing a conversation with Japhy, a kind Roman Catholic blog neighbor, about why the Protestants have been Protesting. This current is a response to "part 3".
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I'm going to break out this conversation into two sections: What does it mean to have Christ, and what merits eternal life.

What does it mean to have Christ?
As we had discussed before, to have Christ is to have eternal life; not to have Christ is not to have eternal life.

Japhy writes
What does it mean to "have Christ" (that is, to fill the need for Christ)? Does it mean...
  • saying the sinner's prayer?
  • being baptized?
  • going to church on a regular basis?
  • loving your neighbor and your enemy?
  • doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
  • reading the Bible often?
  • evangelizing?

I could ask 50 different Christian communities and get 50 different sets of answers! Some might say that a person who professes to believe in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior (that is, to "have Christ") yet who does not do some of the things I have mentioned doesn't really have Christ (or is in danger of losing Christ).
I think we might even disagree at square one on this one. There's the part where you say "to 'have Christ' (that is, to fill the need for Christ)", that sets off red flags in my head. The only way to fill the need for Christ is to have Christ; I'd question whether "having Christ" needs to be interpreted at all. I think that "having Christ" ought to be seen as self-explanatory. Let me use an analogy; since you're a newlywed I'll use marriage as an example. What does it mean to have a wife? Does it mean wearing a ring (what happens if you take it off to do the dishes)? Does it mean showing kindness to someone you love (what happens if you're a grump for a day)? Does it mean sharing a bed (what if you're on a business trip or in the doghouse for a couple of days)? Or maybe "having a wife" just means having a wife, and all those things are pretty darn likely to follow but shouldn't be mistaken for having a wife. Maybe 50 different answers about what it means to "have a wife" are all legitimate if you're making a list of what follows, but are all an exercise in missing the point if they're mistaken for the thing itself. Having a wife (for you) means that a kind-hearted and friendly girl named Kristin is forever part of who you are: having Kristin means having Kristin; the rest follows. Back to "having Christ". Having Christ means having Christ; if we ask "what it really means" we have to be careful. Are we asking what follows? Then there are lots things that follow, none of which should be mistaken for the thing itself. Are we asking if "having Christ" really means something else and we can look somewhere besides Christ (maybe a Bible study regime or participation in charity or attendance at church) for whether we really "have Christ"? Then we've missed the point very badly. I've known people who wear rings and are not married; I've known people who attend church and do charity work and do Bible studies and write theology, and nothing is further from their minds than Christ. So on this one, I want to go back and underline where we started: having Christ means having Christ, just as (in your case) marriage is not primarily about rings but about Kristin.

What merits eternal life?
Japhy, I believe you're quoting from the Council of Trent here when you say:
Christ ... continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life. (Emphasis Japhy's)
There it is; that's what we're protesting. Let's see if I can explain to you exactly what the objection is. I have no objection, by the way, to the fact that you mention the parable of the talents and point out that there is a legitimate reward given to those who willingly serve God. The question comes when we get to whether believers have "fully satisfied the divine law" by such works, whether believers have "truly merited eternal life" by such works. It's difficult to explain to you just how wild I think those assertions are, made by the Council of Trent, that our human efforts could "fully satisfy the divine law". Where is the acknowledgment that we still sin daily in thought, word, action, and omission, and primarily in lack of love? How could anyone possibly imagine that, just because by the grace of God we sometimes do the good works he lays before us, we have somehow "fully satisfied the divine law"? "Be holy" and "be perfect" are divine law. Not to hate is divine law. Not to lust in our hearts is divine law. If the one without sin were to throw the first stone, even in a church today or a convention of supposed saints, the wrongdoer would still walk away without a scratch. Nobody "fully satisfies the divine law". Nobody gets through without forgiveness and mercy, neither before nor after the gifts by which we slowly learn to love God's will. May I never imagine that whatever good works I have "truly merited eternal life". Not only did it begin as a gift, but it also ended as a gift. I never merited it. It was not merely a gift at first until God could make me good enough to earn it; it was a gift all along. Let's look at a parable: the workers in the vineyard. The people who are workers in the vineyard from the earliest morning may have merited their pay at the end of the day. But the vast majority of people who were paid at the end of the day, according to that parable, never merited what they got: not at the beginning, not in the middle, not at the end. There alone Trent's blanket statement about believers meriting eternal life flies in the face of what Christ taught. Now, if you could find someone who had been working at the kingdom's work without running out once their whole life, maybe you've found someone who merited eternal life. But I know already that you don't know any such person: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace.

There is no objection to the idea of God working in us to will and to work good things. There is no objection to the idea that our good works done in Christ may be recognized. The objection is when someone starts imagining that we have therefore satisfied the law, that we have therefore merited eternal life. We all sin daily. We all need mercy daily. And not one of us merits eternal life. It is a gift.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Does Rome "Add to Jesus"?

My blog-neighbor Japhy, a very gracious Roman Catholic fellow, has been discussing the view that Protestants typically have of his group, that they add to Jesus. He says
I disagree. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, it therefore follows that there are works, and sacraments, and a visible leadership (the Pope), and role models (like Paul and Mary).
I'm hoping to explain to him the point of the Protest, but we're definitely not there yet. Down in the comments, he asks whether having a liturgy is adding to Jesus, whether belief in consubstantiation is adding to Jesus, and so forth.

The phrase "adding to Jesus" was one Japhy chose to frame his post, but I'd have to say that it doesn't really sum up the Protest very accurately. Having a liturgy isn't "adding to Jesus" in the sense of the Protest any more than singing Amazing Grace is "adding to Jesus" or studying the Bible is "adding to Jesus". The "Christ Alone" of the Protest was not a call to forget the Trinity or stop having role models or have only the Jesus Prayer. It was a reminder that Christ alone is our savior, and that nothing else is needed for salvation except Christ alone.

In this much Rome and all branches of Protestants agree: that, with Christ in us, works necessarily follow. But Rome goes further and states that such works merit the attainment of eternal life (Council of Trent). That is cause for protest; something has been added where Christ alone belongs. Granted that, with Christ in me, I find myself drawn to works of compassion: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and so forth. Any idea how often I fail at those? Plenty. If anyone thinks that on count of such feeble works God owes us eternal life, I beg to differ. Between us and eternal life are always our sins and shortcomings. It is through Christ that we have eternal life, not through our merits.

Or again, in the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam, the church of Rome states
Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Now I know Roman Catholics are honor-bound to say that's right, but from the outside looking in, that statement looks like proof that Rome has lost the plot about what is really necessary for salvation. It looks like Rome has forgotten what Christ said about the greatest of the apostles: He shall be servant of all, and "The lords of the gentiles lord it over them, but not so with you." Even for someone who grants in principle that Rome had a place of honor among the ancient sees of the united church (pre-Chalcedon), this papal bull demonstrates "lording it over", the opposite of what Christ taught would be the hallmark of Christian leadership. "Absolutely necessary for salvation" to be subject to the Roman Pontiff? That is why the Protest looks at Rome and sees "Jesus plus something else" in a place where it should be Christ alone.

In a way, I sympathize with Rome for some of the insulting and uninformed attacks they receive -- for Jack Chick tracts and that kind of thing. A certain number of the objections to Rome are mean-spirited; others are just misinformed. I think the original point of the Protest would stand a better chance of being heard and considered if some of the throwaway objections against Rome could be discarded once and for all. As it is, the misguided protests only serve to reinforce the Roman idea that there are no valid protests, that there could never be a valid protest.

I once saw a post where a convert (revert?) to Rome had worked through his estimate of the probability that Rome was the true church. I couldn't find it tonight but will gladly trade this sentence for a link if anyone knows where it is. At any rate, if memory serves, the fellow had come up with an estimate that it was in the upper 80%'s probable that Rome was the true church factoring in pro's such as apostolic succession and con's such as the Inquisition. (I'm going to use 87% on the hopes that I'm remembering correctly or close to it. If the original article turns up I'll set the percentages straight.) But I remember reading that post and thinking, if I granted those numbers I would come to a much different conclusion: not that there's an 87% chance that Rome is the true church, but that Rome is 87% of what the true church should be. The point of the protest is that we can do better than a B. There's an 87% chance that Rome gets 100%? How about there's a 100% chance that Rome gets an 87%. And the only way to state your disagreement with Rome is to not be a member. The only way to help the church be what it should be is from without, because Protest on that level is not allowed from within.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Security, Apostasy, and Knowing Christ

These are the things which drive Lutherans to distraction, and I have to admit that I am writing this post with a head full of steam, something I usually avoid. But when I see perfectly reasonable people whom I respect wrestling with questions like, "Are believers eternally secure or can they fall away?", it does light a fire under me. The Bible gives a resounding "yes" to both, with the difference lying in the focus of the question. I have seen debates rage over the 'net time and again over these two "contradictory" views. It may be we're due for another round. Dr. Platypus succinctly sums up the two views in this way:
  1. Christians possess the freedom to turn away from God, thus "losing" their salvation.
  2. Christians possess "eternal security" and need not worry about "losing" their salvation.
He does a good job of summing up the debate as it's currently framed. I also think the debate as it's currently framed is exactly what gives rise to confusion. I'd phrase these two statements slightly differently so that the apparent contradiction is no longer hiding in the cracks in the definitions and the phantom assumptions behind them.
  1. Christians have Christ and need not worry about losing Christ because Christ is faithful.
  2. Christians can turn away from Christ, thus forfeiting Christ, because humans are not always faithful.
The main changes are that "salvation" is recognized as Christ, "eternal security" is recognized as Christ, and it becomes clear that "salvation" isn't a thing that is gained or lost independently of Christ, but that having Christ is having salvation, and that not having Christ is not having salvation.

"Security and apostasy" is just another way of saying "God is faithful and humans are not." It's another way of saying "Trust in the LORD and not in yourself." It is another way of saying "Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith," and "take care lest you should fall." Again as it says "Nothing can snatch his sheep from his hand" but "all we like sheep have gone astray." Look up all the passages on security and see whether they do not all point out God's faithfulness. Look up all the passages on apostasy and see whether they do not all point out human waywardness. These are both true and both need to be preached and taught and known and believed. The idea that they contradict each other only comes in when someone tries to detach these things from Christ and tries to turn the question into, "Do I have salvation?" But there is that deadly and wrong-headed separation embedded right in the question, to take Christ out of the question of salvation, to imagine that it's possible to only imply him or assume him here instead of bringing him to the forefront as the entire point of the question and the entire answer as well. If the question "Do I have salvation" does not mention Christ, then where is the understanding that Christ *is* our salvation? Where is the understanding that the grace of God is not by works or by efforts or by our will but through Christ? When people find this question perplexing, it is often because Christ is not mentioned in the question and not remembered in the answer.

Steps back off soapbox ...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Link-spotting: Bible reading plan

Now that I'm having a little more time for blogging again, I wanted to catch up on a tiny bit of link-spotting. I haven't had enough time to link-spot properly lately but if you're looking for a manageable and balanced Bible-reading plan, check out the one at Dr. Pursiful's. He's put a lot of thought into it, and it's definitely among the most workable and well-rounded I've seen.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Psychology or Spiritual Direction? Part 2

Spiritual direction is a Christian discipline which shares some things in common with traditional counseling, but opens up more specifically Christian approaches and goals. While counseling is typically problem-oriented, spiritual direction is geared towards spiritual growth for anyone seeking a deeper or more active devotion and service to God.

Have you ever thought about the relationship between the counselor and the client in typical counseling? Let's say you start with a client who is basically struggling to relate to people in a normal and healthy way. Then you approach the problem by adding a key relationship -- that with the psychologist -- that is not in any sense a typical relationship. It is one-sided: the client has the problems and comes for help, the counselor keeps a professional distance. The client reveals secrets and gets vulnerable, the counselor hides behind a professional mask. Whatever that counselor/client relationship may be, it is not a friendship. It does not give the other person experience relating to people in a normal way; it does not build ties of friendship or fellowship. Because of that, it may not actually be what that person needs the most. It may even be a co-dependent sort of relationship. The client can alleviate his need for someone to trust and someone to talk to; the counselor meanwhile can be needed and can be an important part of someone else's life without the risk or the vulnerability of showing his or her own faults. There is a risk that counseling may deepen the habit of imbalanced, one-sided or needy relationships for the person seeking help.

In reading some of the literature on spiritual direction, I have kept an eye in particular on the types of relationships involved. I think it is a fair question whether "counselor/client" is a relationship on a Christian model. I am not saying that Christians can't make good use of a counselor/client relationship; I am saying that a traditional counselor/client relationship is less than it could be if counseling were approached from a thoroughly Christian model. On a Christian model, "one-sided relationship" is a contradiction in terms. I think there's a possibility for spiritual direction to be more along the lines discipleship, mentorship or even spiritual friendship. While counseling could be a help to some other area of life from which counseling and the counselor are safely removed, discipleship or spiritual friendship could itself be a part of that better life which it was helping to build.

If the goal of counseling is often to resolve certain problems, the goal of spiritual direction would be to build a Christian life. The relationship with the psychologist is meant to be outgrown when the client gains a certain level of health. There is a risk that counseling is at best a throw-away relationship, and at worst an embarrassed secret or a stigmatized relationship that in the long run could weaken a person's self-confidence. The relationship with a spiritual director might change from mentor to friend, but would deepen rather than being abandoned as each person grows in maturity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Psychology or Spiritual Direction? Part 1

I majored in psychology at school, but did not give it serious thought as a career. Psychology as a field was never quite what I wanted it to be. It left too many important areas of life untouched, not as beyond its reach, but as beneath its dignity.

The first broad mistake that bothered me in psychology is the tendency to take a human being and turn him or her into an object for scientific study. The way in which the literature draws parallels between human beings and lab rats tells its own story. Yes, I'm aware that you can take studies about lab rats and leverage that to learn something about human beings, and I think that leveraging this knowledge usefully is a good thing. The objection comes when a researcher looks at another human being and sees only statistics to be measured and responses to be manipulated, and in that way does not see any fundamental difference between a human and a rat.

Yes, I'm aware that there are psychologists and psychiatrists who understand about people being people, and that they are probably in the majority; that's not my point. My point is that there are those in the field who simply don't understand it, that there is no requirement in order to be a member of the field that you must see human beings as human beings. And again, I do not object to studying people -- it's a worthwhile pursuit. But there is a type of study that has only an incidental interest in the humanity of the people being studied; this kind of study is dehumanizing. And it seemed to me that if psychology were to pay off the dividends that it promises for humanity, the least it could do is to make the world more human, not less. While a great many people in the field understand that, there is not exactly a Hippocratic Oath required for people in the field: first of all in the humanities, remember you are dealing with humans.

To be continued ...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Now celebrating ...


The announcement has gone out at work that our mandatory overtime season is now over. Since March I have been on a schedule where overtime was part of the required work week, and have sunk roughly an extra day a week into my job. That left precious little time for the rest of life, and blogging was one of the first things that felt the cutback in free time. My apologies for the light fare around here the last few months, and cheers to a better schedule.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Why "love your enemies" is not an optional teaching

Loving our enemies is hard. But I have sometimes heard talk as if loving our enemies was something that could safely wait for another day. It is easy to let ourselves think that loving our enemies is for "advanced" Christians, and hadn't we better just start with something easier?

But the problem is that everyone, sooner or later, is at risk of becoming our enemy. The age of strife in this world finds that often "A man's enemies shall be the members of his own household." Those who are closest to us have a hundred times more opportunities -- or risks -- of offending us than our mere acquaintances. And the people who are closest to us are at the greatest risk from our own flaws.

It might be easy to love someone who is perfect. But we're not called to love the perfect; we're called to love our families and our neighbors. That means, at times, loving our enemies. It means knowing how to move someone from the "enemies" column to the "friends" column. It means knowing how to reconcile. It means knowing how to forgive. Because if we can't reconcile, if we can't forgive, then everyone we love is just one bad day away from being our enemy, just one character flaw away from being abandoned by us.

What can help us when we're struggling with forgiveness? One help is honest scales. With the measure we use for others, it will be measured back to us. Could we withstand being one character flaw away from our friends abandoning us, one bad day away from being despised? If people walked away from us only when we really deserved it, would any of us have any friends left?

Another help is shared weakness. For our enemies, their weakness (or ours) is what separates us. For friends, our weakness is part of what unites us. When our enemies show their faults, we smirk and think to ourselves, "Would you look at that! How low!" When our friends show their faults, we chuckle at ourselves and say to ourselves, "Just like me."

The biggest help of all is remembering God's love. God's forgiveness does not fail, his mercy does not fade. His kindness does not reach an ending; his love is steadfast. He seeks us at the only time we need seeking: when we're lost. He forgives us at the only time we need forgiving: when we're in the wrong. His love endures forever.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The irony of "self-control"

I've often heard people talk about self-control -- whether having self-control, needing self-control, gaining self-control, admiring someone's self-control ...

Who, exactly, do we suppose is in control when "self-control" is not being exercised? Biology? Passion? Habit? The default spirit of the age? I think it's worth considering, if we are not exercising "self-control", exactly what's in the driver's seat. There's a case to be made for regaining ground from each of those, reclaiming some of our lives under the area of "self-control".

Spiritually, the Bible refers to us as slaves to our desires. If a person could force you do something, you are that person's slave; by the same token if your desires force you to do something, you are their slave. It is easy to see people who are slaves to alcohol, to work, to appetite, to proving themselves the best, to financial security, to finding fault, to pride, to jealousy, to bitterness, and all kinds of other things. It can be a little uncomfortable to look at what, exactly, is in the driver's seat in our lives.

There is one aspect of being redeemed by Christ that bears remembering here: his promise to set us free, particularly to set us free from this type of slavery. False religion and false hopes come to steal and kill and destroy, to take our lives or leave them in ruins. Christ comes to give us our lives back: that we may have life, and have it more abundantly.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reconciliation Carnival #7 Is Up

Christian Reconciliation Carnival #7 is up at Connected Christianity, where Dr. Pursiful uses the theme of a feast to organize the Carnival. He's got a host of great links; give them a read.

Many thanks to Dr. Pursiful!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Mind v. Heart

This is a post in which I'm bound to offend nearly everybody. Sorry from the outset ...

Spock v. McCoy. Hermione v. Ron. Cold intellect v. warm humanity. One of the pervasive conflicts of our day is the conflict of mind and heart. And in the Christian community, it often manifests itself as the conflict of Theologians v. Charismatics.

The split between heart and mind adds depth to the schisms of the church. In a fully developed Christian community, heart, mind, soul, and strength are in concert. In a fully developed Christian soul, likewise all of these come into play.

The people who focus on Heart have some criticisms of those in the Mind camp. Are the people drawn towards theology anti-emotional? How about rigid and cold? Some types of intellectual theologians are likely to preach on the two most important commandments, "Love the Lord, love your neighbor" by saying "Love is not an emotion". They're wrong about that and if they were really that smart, they should know it. "Love is not an emotion" is such a wild assertion that it should not get past the b.s. detector, but for the intellectual types it sometimes does.

I've met some people on the charismatic side of the fence who suggest that anti-emotionalism comes from the innate coldness of the people involved. That may sometimes be true, but even a legitimate criticism may be dismissed depending on the source or the spirit in which it is offered.

Highly intellectual groups are, in practice, often anti-emotional, which does not gain them any support from those who know that our hearts and souls are a vital part of knowing and loving God in more than theory. Certain intellectual camps are arrogant, which is a reflection of a worldly intellectualism instead of a godly wisdom.

Why doesn't the intellectual camp see this? The intellectual camp often deepens its distrust of the emotions by looking at the other side of the fence ...

Are emotional types intellectually under-developed? How about imprecise? Uneducated? When the theological camp looks at the openly emotional camp, they see an emotional display that often strikes them as showy but shallow. They also see undisguised disdain of other Christians. The Heart camp openly sneers at the "frozen chosen", which shows plainly enough that the "emotionally savvy" have not always harnessed their hearts to God's love. Where is the warmheartedness towards the brothers whose hearts need thawing? How far has a heart grown in the ways of God if it's acceptable to make fun of the emotionally challenged?

Faking emotions, giddiness, and lack of self-control are other symptoms that the emotions are not deeply and firmly rooted in the heart of God. Such false emotionalism does its part in keeping the intellectual camps distrustful of the heart. Of course there's more to the "heart" side of the camp than the showy and shallow; but with such a deep divide, the outsiders may never have gotten past the showy and shallow to see anything more.

The intellectuals have never understood that the anti-intellectualism of some camps is a rejection of the pseudo-intellectualism and misguided intellectualism of those who love theories more than God. Some bright people are kept from the theological camp not by a lack of education or intelligence, but by the contents of theologies that are misguided at the core. The theological camp's notorious self-righteousness, impatience, and ruthlessness are just symptoms that the thoughts are not deeply and firmly rooted in the mind of God. Such pseudo-intellectualism and misguided thought keeps the Heart camp distrustful of theology.

My point, I hope, is obvious: that we each take the log out of our own eyes before looking at the specs in each others' eyes. As a whole Christian community, the different camps need each other. The mind cannot say to the heart, "I do not need you"; neither can the heart say it to the mind. The intellectualism of the theologians goes badly wrong and easily becomes ungodly without the warmth, depth, and humanity of the heart; the emotionalism of the charismatics likewise easily becomes ungodly without the common sense and sound judgment of the mind. This particular schism does not run down denominational lines only, but even down the middle of each soul. Part of the healing of the Christian community will involve that heart and mind once again come together.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Why not pray to saints?

In the interest of stirring up a good conversation across Christian dividing lines, Mark asked in last month's Christian Reconciliation Carnival: "Why not pray to saints?" I'm working on the assumption that the type of prayer to the saint is simply asking for that saint to pray for us rather than anything more objectionable.

There are two kinds of "Why not's" that I see from time to time. "Why not love your neighbor?" has a certain kind of "why not", as does "Why not love your enemy?" The same kind of strong "Why not" is found in "Why not pray for those who persecute you?" and "Why not bless those who curse you?" In all these questions, "Why not" carries the idea that if someone is neglecting these things, that person would be in the wrong for such an oversight. These are things we have been taught to do, things which are part of the original tradition of the church: the teachings handed down from Christ and his apostles. These are teachings we have by both command and by example. "Why not?" carries a lot of weight in circumstances like that.

There is another kind of why not. "Why not put up a Christmas tree?" "Why not light candles on an advent wreath?" "Why not use a guitar in church?" This kind of "why not" says, "This is harmless; what reason could there possibly be for not doing it? Isn't wanting to do the thing enough reason for doing it since it's harmless?"

I think that, at best, "Why not pray to saints" could fall into the second category of "Why not?" When it comes to praying to the saints, we were not taught by Christ or is apostles to pray to saints who have left this world; it is not part of the original tradition which we have by the authority of Christ. It is a later human addition, perhaps more like Christmas trees or advent wreaths.

The usual reason given for praying to the saints is something like this: "Don't you ask other Christians to pray for you?", on the assumption that asking for (say) Mary's prayers is roughly the same as asking for the prayers of the person next to me in the pew. On those occasions when I ask someone to pray for me, I usually want the certainty of knowing that the other person did in fact hear . I also usually seek out someone that I know personally. I don't have some reason why it is a horrible thing to ask for the prayers of one of the faithful departed and hope that they may in fact hear you and pray for you; I would only say that the practice leans on speculation and supposition rather than the solid basis of those things we have been taught by Christ and his apostles. It is difficult to see how something that is not grounded in Christ and his apostles could ever be more than optional. Without raising any fuss against those who ask for prayers from saints who have left this world, I don't have any desire to do so. Speaking for myself, I'll pass.