Saturday, January 30, 2010

Increase our love: lifting ideas from those better than me

In my quest to learn to love better, a note about Jesus' mother Mary opened my eyes to some other things around me.
Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
That's one thing love does: it replays scenes and events over and over in our hearts. It understands that another person as a treasure, and keeps polishing each memory to make sure it stays bright and unfaded. And I understood a few things in a different light.
  • My father used to photograph things to focus his own attention on what he loved, and to keep the memories.
  • A sister in Christ at church is a devoted scrap-booker. Her books are filled with her family. Again, a way to focus her attention, rehearse her love, and treasure memories in a tangible way.
  • I know someone who, not really artistic enough to scrap-book, has little biographies of her children's best moments in a Word document.
  • My grandmother, every time I saw her, would rehearse story after story of all the good in my grandfather. When it came time to write his eulogy, I realized that she had been praising the good in his life every time I heard her, not waiting until he died to praise his life. Much better for his sake, I'd think.
Some people may think these are very basic things to notice, but it's just because I have such a long way to go. I'd be curious if anyone had noticed other ways people rehearse their love and treasure their memories.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Song of Songs and the purpose of creation

In our ladies’ Bible study group, we are working our way through the Song of Songs. It’s a relief to study it with just the ladies since it could be awkward in mixed company. But a couple of the women – those who lean heavily to the serious and even pietistic side – seem frustrated with the book. They really want to understand the doctrinal and ethical implications; that’s what the Bible is about, isn’t it? So a couple of us have launched a plan: next time our group meets, one of us is bringing incense and the other is bringing flowers.

What’s the use of flowers and incense? Well, let’s back up one; do things exist primarily to be used? Isn’t that the assumption when we ask, “What’s the use of it?”

Why bring incense and flowers to a Bible study? Because the Song of Songs is not about doctrine and ethics in the sense we usually mean them. It’s about love. It’s about appreciating what is good. There is incense and perfume and there are flowers. There is an almost Eden-like quality to the nature scenes and the poetry in which they are expressed.

The point of Eden was not keeping the law and understanding doctrine; in fact, the point of the law was to preserve Eden, and the point of doctrine is learning to love and to know God, and each other.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Do we take love seriously: A failure of courage?

Our culture is notoriously shallow. Nothing is sacred; irreverence is fashionable. Taking the sacred seriously is not socially acceptable in many circles. And here Christians have shown a remarkable failure of courage. If the world calls us names, it is our part to stand straight and unapologetically proclaim what is good. I noticed when studying Proverbs that people react to the word “wisdom” with embarrassment. Wisdom is not much of a goal or value in our nation’s culture, but it needs to be so in the Christian culture. Even more so than wisdom, love needs to be something considered worthy of serous consideration.

Consider the serious theologians. How many have written on the nature of God? How many have written systematic theologies, or apologetics addressed to the latest attacks on Christianity, or treatises on the Trinity? Isn’t that what people expect from serious theologian? Now consider, how many have written books on faith? Some, but far fewer. How many have written books on hope? Again some, but fewer still. How many have written books addressing love? If we were to put together a bibliography of works treating these subjects in depth, do you think we would find more theology books about the Trinity or about love?

If the respected theologians do not stand up for what Christ taught about love, then who will take the task of pursuing the knowledge and practice of Christian love with the depth and passion of study that we see for other things? People hesitate to tackle it, for fear we won’t be taken seriously. But if we do not take it seriously, who will?

And I think the first lesson of love is that we need to get over ourselves, and think about what is good, and let us be glad for it, and not ashamed to be glad.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Increase our love?

Many times I have heard the prayer echoed, "Lord, increase our faith!" And faith is one of the three greatest spiritual gifts, along with hope and love. But if the greatest of these is love, then how do I go about increasing it?

I think first I'd like to love my own family more. Don't misunderstand; I love them more than anyone else in this world. Still, when I think back to the first moment I held my son in my arms and my heart broke and I was too awed to speak, I know that I don't always see him -- or anyone else -- as I should. Why do I have that reaction over a sunrise or a sunset every time I see one, but not over my family every time I see them? And that's before I tackle the subject increasing my love for the world at large ...

(To be continued)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Theology: finding the blind spots

Related posts:

Every car I've ever driven has a blind spot. They're just in slightly different places in each car, depending on how the car's frame is built. Every framework has a blind spot because the framework itself creates the blind spot. You can't see through the sides of the support structures; you have to look at what the framework itself hides from view. The side mirrors help. But even the side mirrors don't catch everything. You actually have to turn your head and look.

When I was training my son to drive, we did an exercise: watch a car that's in the next lane that's moving slightly faster. Watch it in your rearview mirror as long as you can. Watch it come closer, and watch it in your side mirror as long as you can. When you can't see it in your side mirror any longer, notice the gap between the time it disappears from your side mirror and the time you can see it out your driver's side window. There really is a blind spot. You know it because there are things that disappear, and places around your car where that happens every time.

So how do you find a blind spot in your theology? We have to ask ourselves, "What kinds of things would be impossible to see in a certain framework?" And, "If we look for them, do those things exist?"

Case study: Lutheran theology

Let me start with a blind spot of Lutheran theology, so I critique my own rather than someone else's theology. I want to make clear from the outset that noticing a blind spot is not attacking the theology. Lutheran theology is good at many things. It's been a notable influence on those outside the Lutheran tradition. John Wesley's famous Aldersgate experience happened "where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans" in Wesley's words; it is "200-proof grace" as the Episcopal theologian R.F. Capon has put it. So I am not bashing Lutheran theology as bad, but showing that even with something known to help, there are still blind spots.

One framework Lutherans find very helpful is known by the shorthand name, "Law and Gospel." Basic background, just a rough sketch: "Law" covers anything God commands us or demands from us, and the destruction of evil that the law promises. "Gospel" is anything that shows the goodness and faithfulness of God, though especially Christ in his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.

For all the help that this gives us understanding things, some things still just don't fit. What if God asked us to do something, not as a demand of the law under threat of condemnation, but as an act of love for his goodness, a joyful participation in his redemption of the world? "Law v. Gospel" doesn't really have a place for what God asks us except under the "Law" side of the equation. Things on the "Law" side are seen as curbing sin, or awakening us to the reality of our sinfulness, or even instructing us in godly living. But an excess of anything in the "Law" category is seen as a type of legalism. Anyone familiar with Christian circles -- or any religious circles -- knows just how easily the zeal for good turns into legalism and one-upmanship.

The problem? There is not an equally recognized place in Lutheran theology for works that do not fall under the law. Maybe that's why our hymnals include St. Francis' prayer: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." We sense that there is an area we haven't really addressed in systematic theology, at least not adequately, but is a legitimate part of following Jesus. Being instruments of God's peace does not fit easily under law or gospel as usually discussed, but it is a reality to which we are called. It is a blind spot of Lutheran theology.

Case study #2

I was going to trace out somebody else's theology, but I'd rather invite you to look at your own.

The point

I have previously spoken of a few tests for blind spots in theological systems. There was the Bible Playoff test: if we split the verses of Scripture into teams and see which group wins, then we have a blind spot where the losing verses got clobbered. There was the Leftover Parts test: if you take apart anything, then put it back together and have extra parts left over, then you probably didn't really know what they were for. You can rest assured that the omitted verses are in a theological blind spot of the system involved.

I think we should start with the recognition that every interpretive framework has blind spots. By definition, if we focus on one thing then we are not focusing on another thing. Unless we are focusing on the big picture we will lose sight of it. I mentioned previously why I think, in Christian theology, the big picture is Christ. If we are focusing on Christ, we have the big picture; if not, beware of blind spots. The biggest blind spot will be losing sight of Christ. Who, then, are we following?

Beyond that, the blind spots change by what kind of framework we have. If a framework insists that we classify things into a certain number of pre-defined categories, then odds are that not everything truly fits and that will become a blind spot. If a framework insists on seeing God with a certain attribute first and foremost at all times, all the times when God does not choose that particular attribute first and foremost will become a blind spot. If a framework is part of a polarized argument between warring camps generally thought of as "us" and "them," it is very likely that there are multiple blind spots. The first casualties of polemics are usually humility and love of neighbor, and in Christian theology in particular that does amount to a blind spot as it means we have in fact lost sight of Christ. It is also likely that there is somewhere a kernel of truth in each camp, and that the other side is trying very hard to ignore it -- which guarantees the creation of a blind spot. If we cannot understand what our opponents' objections are, we probably have a blind spot. I do not mean that each person should think that everyone who takes up an argument against him is right at every point; I mean that if we cannot state our opponents' objections fairly, we don't really understand it. And if we don't really understand it, that is by definition a blind spot.

Who, then, are we following?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti ... and disaster preparedness (seriously)

I know you can't prepare for a 7.0 earthquake hitting Haiti's capital. But as I was looking over the list of items being collected for a 2-container shipment to Haiti, I noticed the list looked familiar.

Bottled water
Canned food with pop tops
Peanut butter
Dry rice
Dry beans
Dishwashing liquid
Bedding (sheets, pillows, etc.)
Shovels and tools for rebuilding
Antibacterial ointment
Band aids
individual packets of disinfectant wipes
Tooth brushes
Tooth paste
First aid ointment
Clean, used clothing in good condition (Must be sorted by type such as women's clothing, children's clothing, etc., and boxed and labeled).

Given that we have disasters fairly regularly, and that we have them often enough that the dry goods won't expire between one disaster and the next, why exactly don't we have care packages -- or a container of them -- ready to roll at all times?

Might be worth a look ...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What do we want from orthodoxy? Does that tell us anything about the true identity of orthodoxy?

We look to our ideas of "orthodoxy" time and again; we have given "orthodoxy" a number of jobs.

We want orthodoxy to keep out falsehood, to keep us from being led down a wrong path. We want orthodoxy to help us understand the Bible, to show us the big picture, to give us the true and deeper meaning. We want orthodoxy to help us evaluate what various people proclaim as being from God. We want orthodoxy to be trustworthy, solidly grounded. So far it is a fence, a shield, a criterion ... but that's not quite enough.

We want orthodoxy to form our virtues, we want it to inform our morals. We want it to teach us right from wrong. It is where we look for knowledge and wisdom. That's still not quite enough.

We want orthodoxy to help us understand God himself. When it shows us that deeper meaning of Scripture, we expect to see the true picture of God. We want our thoughts to approach God in his holiness, to see him as he is. Orthodoxy is where we look for the incomprehensible richness of the mind of God. It is where we look to know the heart of God. And there we expect to find life, and the renewal of all things.

When I started a post on "What do we want from orthodoxy?", I wasn't quite sure where it would end up. But the more I looked at what I wanted from orthodoxy, what I expected from orthodoxy, the more that pointed me towards one end.

Consider this: We want orthodoxy to be the truth. We want it to keep us from being led around by all the people going down different paths. That jarred a memory: "I am the way. I am the truth." We want orthodoxy to help us understand Scripture. And it jogged a memory: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you have life. These are they that testify of me, yet you refuse to come to me and have life." We want orthodoxy to show us God. By now I was no longer surprised that thinking of orthodoxy triggered a memory: "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Those memories are quotes of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John. Here we see Jesus claiming to personally fulfill the roles we assign to orthodoxy. If we want to see God, we should look at Jesus.

Orthodoxy, then, holds fast to Jesus -- the one who walked this world, the one the apostles knew. It follows him wherever he goes, does what he asks, seeks to understand God by listening to him and watching him. If our orthodoxies and systematic theologies hold forth Jesus as the way to know God, as the truth about God, then they are serving their purpose.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stereotyping God

Sam Gosling is a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. To guess by his book Snoop, he seems to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum. He also argues -- somewhat controversially -- for the usefulness of stereotyping. He doesn't mean that he agrees with stereotyping people by race or gender because he has seen these stereotypes used in oppressive ways; but he does argue for stereotypes' general usefulness as a shortcut when accurate knowledge takes a lot of time or work to acquire. He cites research suggesting that some stereotypes are valid (such as people from the U.S. Midwest being outgoing, or from New York being tightly-wound). He portrays stereotypes as basically a rough estimate of personality traits and a legitimate starting point for assessing someone.

While I have reservations about stereotyping other people -- and so does he, as he mentions in his book -- there are two points that I'd like to highlight: 1) most people have some stereotypes in their heads, whether it's of people who listen to rock music or people who drive pick-up trucks, 2) you often can predict one or more personality traits from another factor like that, so that the stereotypes are at least partly valid, even though they are sometimes wrong and misleading.

This is a continuation of the previous post on two kinds of orthodoxy: one that starts with certain givens in the form of narrative or raw data and tries to build understanding based on that, and the other that starts with certain interpretive frameworks and tries to fit things into those frameworks. If a framework is good, in theory it should help our understanding. If a framework is bad, it will distort our understanding. The question is whether we can tell the difference. If we are working with a bad framework will be be able to tell, or will the framework shape how we see things so much that we cannot detect the distortion?

Everyone has interpretive frameworks. We have them because, to some extent, they work. They help us understand -- at least some things. Our theological systems help us understand the Bible -- or at least parts of it. They help us understand God. But they run one grave risk: the risk of stereotyping God so that we never truly come to know him, being unable to get past the mental image that we have fixed in our minds.

This series has become important to me; at this point I'm planning 2 more posts in the series. The next will be on what we want theology or an interpretive framework to do as far as helping us understand, and after that I plan a post on specific things we can look for to alert us to times when we've got a distortion going.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Orthodoxy: the data or the hockey stick?

The recent "Climategate" controversy has been weighing on my mind as an illustration for a completely different situation. (Please keep in mind that "Climategate" is not my point here; I'm not posting to call a winner or take a side on whether the scientific malpractice invalidates all the concern about global warming. I'm just using one particular case of scientific malpractice to highlight something.)

Background (in case you missed the whole thing) or refresher: Certain graphs of global warming take a slight dip then a sharp increase, so that the overall shape of the graph is like a hockey stick. One piece of information that came out of the recent "Climategate" controversy was of special interest to me as a programmer: there was a piece of code for analyzing temperature data that would take any temperature data -- even of level temperatures -- and yield results that would graph as a hockeystick-style sharp increase. How did it do this? Well, by deliberately overlaying a pre-determined "sharp increase" pattern as an "adjustment" or "correction" over the data that it was fed. What's the implications for global warming? I don't know; it will take awhile to sort out what the real data says. My interest in this post is not actually with global warming in the first place. But that particular piece of scientific malpractice -- shown in the link as programming malpractice -- highlights the difference between two kinds of orthodoxy, and my concern about one of them.

There is a kind of "orthodoxy" that follows reality wherever it goes. This defines orthodoxy in terms of faithfulness to the original data. If we were talking about global warming, then the reality-oriented orthodoxy would say "warming" if the data warranted it, "cooling" if the data warranted it, or "don't know" if the data warranted it. Applied to theology, there is a fact-driven orthodoxy in which truth follows things we know with certainty and is shaped by external reality. It is open to new discoveries based on the existing data, if further analysis reveals trends not yet detected.

There is another kind of "orthodoxy" that is ideology-driven; it is so sure that it already knows the overall trend that it reinterprets / adjusts any contrary data to fit that view. In ideology-driven orthodoxy, truth is pre-defined and the data must be changed to fit it. That's what the linked "Climategate" code did. That's what the concerned environmentalists accuse "deniers" of doing. An ideology-based orthodoxy is not open to new discoveries, regardless of what the realities may be. In fact, the ideology-based orthodoxy will warp the data and prevent an accurate understanding of it.

My concern, as you may have guessed, is how this applies to orthodoxy concerning the life and teachings of Jesus. Each Christian group has a distinct approach. Most groups probably believe that they have a reality-driven orthodoxy: that their views of Jesus are based on the earliest and most certain information that we have, the New Testament. But over the centuries, groups tend to pick up a "hockey stick" mentality. My own group, Lutherans, were the original "Sola Scriptura" (back to the original data) movement in Western Christendom. But how often do Lutheran theologians try to cram every text into a "law v. gospel" framework? Sometimes you get insight; sometimes you get a hockey stick. I expect that each group has its own hockey sticks. If I read a website and see the word "sovereign" in the first sentence, I know which team is wielding the hockey stick. It doesn't matter what the data is; the conclusion is pre-determined.

I know there are many groups of Christians, but those examples will do; I do not want to go on a fault-finding spree. Most groups are fairly sure they have no hockey-sticks in their closet. But I suspect that most polarized arguments have generated ideology-driven orthodoxies. And if you ever find yourself in a situation where one text after another gets "adjusted" or "corrected" so that we can understand it in light of our interpretive framework, then you have probably met an ideology-driven orthodoxy.

In an upcoming post, I'll try to sort through tests to help us determine if an interpretive lens is distorting our view or helping it. I'm still pondering different tests and how useful they are, so it may not be quite the next post.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Are fundamentalists dangerous?

Religions start all the wars ... except for the ones that aren't started by religions. After all, lots of wars are just territory-grabs, and neighboring tribes did the same to each other long before even Judaism came on the scene. (I've been tempted to answer that governments start all wars and therefore we should become anarchists, just as a tongue-in-cheek response. Relatively few wars happen without state sponsorship, after all; should all the governments be pressured to disband?) On a more serious note, I think hatred, pride, and greed explain more wars than any other factors. For that reason, whatever encourages love, humility, and generosity will promote peace.

The religious are more violent than the non-religious ... except for all the atheist mass-atrocities of the 20th century. I see a lot of people lining up to criticize their favorite opponents, selectively reading both history and current events to make their side appear to be the good guys and those who disagree appear to be the bad guys. The dissenters are portrayed as not only wrong but also dangerous.

Is it accurate to define firm belief as inherently dangerous? For example, is the belief that you should love your neighbor inherently dangerous? How about the belief that you should kill people who will not convert? If those two beliefs were held equally firmly, would they be equally likely to result in harm to the neighbor? One more belief might be worth mentioning here. If you consider the deaths of people of all religions under the communist regimes of the 20th century, then the belief that "Religion is dangerous" may deserve a place among the destructive beliefs that cause violence when someone holds it too firmly.

As we have seen, it is careless to label all firm belief as "dangerous." If the word "dangerous" has any meaning at all, there must be some risk of harm behind it. Where the content of the belief does not endorse the use of force, and if the larger framework in which the belief is held does not endorse spreading beliefs by force, then there is no risk of danger, no matter how many people hold a belief firmly and unswervingly.

Is fundamentalism inherently dangerous? The most fundamentalist Christian that I know spends her time loving her family and helping her neighbors. That's what you actually get from adhering to Jesus' teachings and example. "Fundamentalism" is a label without a particular content; it basically means there is, somewhere, something on which you aren't willing to compromise. If the thing you won't compromise about is love of neighbor, we could use more fundamentalists.